FOOTBALL.BLUE (4) - Headhunted

24 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.



In 1982, a 20-year-old winger called Paul Canoville became the first black player ever to represent Chelsea. His debut, a Second Division fixture at Selhurst Park, was memorable for the worst possible reasons. As he rose from the substitutes’ bench to begin his warm-up, Canoville was met with cries of “Sit down, you black cunt” from the stands. A gathering of spectators then sang in unison: “We don’t want the nigger, we don’t want the nigger, la la la la”. A banana was thrown.


Perhaps most troublingly of all, these were not the actions of Crystal Palace supporters. The vile, racist profanities had come from the away end – the Chelsea fans supposedly there to cheer on Canoville and his teammates.


Numb with shock, Canoville’s reaction was to supress the trauma. In a climate that liked to pretend there was no issue, this was probably the only way. After one game, he went home and relayed to friends with forced excitement how he had scored the opener. He deliberately left out the part where Chelsea fans had shouted to him that, in their view, the score was still 0-0 – a goal by a black man didn’t count.


After two years of unrelenting humiliation, Herman Ouseley of the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council went to visit the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, and suggested they work together to stamp out this abuse. As Ouseley later recalled to The Guardian, “He (Bates) said they didn’t have a problem, and that the security people will see me off the site. And some big goons in their anoraks saw me off the premises.”


In 1986, a drunken teammate called Canoville a “black cunt” during a fight in preseason. This was not an isolated incident but proved to be the final straw. Rather than supporting their victimised player, who had helped them avoid relegation to the Third Division then win the Second Division championship, the club recommended he accept a £50,000 transfer to Reading.


Out of sight, out of mind. The racism, and its tacit acceptance, was not a story because nobody wanted to talk about it. This was just how things were in English football back then.


In 2015, Canoville is back representing Chelsea again. Sometimes for the Old Boys team, but more significantly as part of the club’s Building Bridges initiative. Now 52, he goes around local schools hosting anti-discrimination workshops where he talks about his experiences and ensures that today’s children know how, and why, racism is totally unacceptable.


Chelsea have actively supported Kick It Out, an organisation formed by the now Lord Ouseley in 1993 to kick racism out of football; as well as Show Racism the Red Card, a charity established in 1996 to spread the message through educational initiatives. With Building Bridges, matches at Stamford Bridge are preceded by videos promoting equality and accompanied by anti-discrimination messages on the stadium’s electronic advertising hoardings. As had been planned for some time beforehand, last Saturday’s home fixture against Burnley was specifically designated as a “Game for Equality”.


Here, the Building Bridges logo was emblazoned upon the Chelsea players’ shirts, while the club’s official website published accompanying features opposing racism, homophobia, sexism and all forms of discrimination under the campaign slogan: “Support Chelsea, Support Equality”. One such article was an interview with star striker Diego Costa on eliminating “discrimination of any kind, not just in football, but in the wider community”. Identifying the Blues’ responsibility as one of England’s leading clubs, the Brazilian-born, Spain international declared, “Chelsea can set an example with regards to equality within the game”.


Chelsea’s activities have been extraordinary, yet not singularly so. Every football club has done its bit to help realise an enormous paradigm shift on our terraces over the past quarter of a century. This is just how things are in English football today.


And this, of course, was why it was all the more appalling to witness the utterly repulsive actions of a small group of so-called Chelsea ‘supporters’ on the Métro ahead of the Champions League visit to Paris Saint-Germain – on the same day that Diego Costa interview was posted. The old excuse offered by many casual purveyors of racial abuse in the 1980s – that they were just going along with the crowd, doing what everybody else did – doesn’t hold anymore (if it even did back then) in a society where we are categorically taught that discrimination is taboo.


There has been an outpouring of sympathy for the victim, condemnation of the perpetrators, and emphasis that the actions of a minority do not speak for Chelsea supporters or English football as a whole. As José Mourinho said ahead of the Burnley game, “I felt ashamed when I found out, but these supporters do not represent the club”. But at the same time there is a profound sadness that these racists, no matter how small a minority they may be, should exist at all in 2015.


Like with hooliganism, racism in football is not a social problem caused by football, but rather symptomatic of problems in deeper society for which football is used as a convenient stage to surface. English society in the 1980s endured a ferocious rich-poor divide under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which battled with labour unions and sneered upon the football-going classes. The manifestation of these tensions was a root cause of the foul discrimination and violence that characterised many football terraces during this most unpleasant era for the sport. The far-right National Front infiltrated many hooligan gangs, including the Chelsea Headhunters, distributing literature and orchestrating the reception that black players like Canoville would receive.


To English football’s great credit, it recognised that the power for social problems to manifest themselves here could be turned on its head; since the 1990s, football has used its influence to play a leading role in quashing racism within society as a whole. Yet, as Stan Collymore warned The Guardian in 2012, we might have been complacent in thinking we had won the battle already. Today’s racists, he says, are not just a small bunch of middle-aged skinheads stuck in the past: “They’re from every age and every background, and a lot think the eastern Europeans have come over and nicked their jobs, just like dad said the blacks and Asians did years ago. And in a recession, we know right-wing ideas and principles tend to come to the fore.”


Certainly, the economic situation draws some parallels with the 1980s. Politically, a profound lack of public confidence in any of the three major parties has catalysed the sudden rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – a coyer far right offering which smiles and says no, no, we’re not racists, we just don’t want any Romanians living next door. But another new factor is social media, where anonymity leads some to air extreme views without fear of reproach (evidently ignorant of the legal action successfully pursued against online abusers of public figures like Collymore in the past). Just as dangerously, the more openly far right Britain First has exploited the propensity of others to retweet before they think in order to propagate its innocent-at-first-glance, populist agenda.


As I wrote at the time, Chelsea arguably missed an important opportunity a couple of years back when it chose to prioritise the reputation of its club captain, John Terry, over the reemphasis of a clear, anti-racism message. The same could be said about Liverpool and Luis Suárez over the Patrice Evra affair. But it is absolutely vital that no such mistake is made this time.

The power of our sport and of social media is already being harnessed for good in identifying the Paris Métro racists to the police. English football must now ensure this affair serves to ensure its endeavours to kick racism out are furthered, not forgotten.

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FOOTBALL.BLUE (3) - On paper

17 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.

To many of us Brits, over on our island, the European Union can be a frustrating thing indeed. For me personally, the frustration derives from how it is patently such a wonderful thing in principle, yet often falls ever so slightly short of what it should be due to its hypocritically meddlesome, idealistically myopic nature. In football parlance, it is a bit like a deep-lying midfielder with the prodigious technical skill to glide past three opponents – who then loses the ball when needlessly trying to nutmeg a fourth, chastises a teammate for not passing to him 30 seconds later, then attempts to dictate his own ideas for tactical reorganisation over the manager’s head.


You see, where Western European nations basically spent two or three millennia at war with each other until the 1940s – and with Eastern Europe until the 1990s – instead we now have open borders, free migration, cultural and economic exchange. Coinciding with the growth of air travel, we now enjoy greater opportunity to understand and appreciate our neighbours than was previously even conceivable.


Yet it doesn’t always work quite so smoothly when immigration is not a perfect synonym for integration and responsibilities for rectification are undefined. Meanwhile, the principles of freedom and openness are challenged by the fact that membership is restricted to countries within the arbitrary geographical boundaries of ‘Europe’ (Morocco was refused membership for this reason in 1987). Countries that have willingly opened their borders to workers and scholars from the rest of the EU thus maintain control of overall immigration through much heavier visa restrictions on those from outside – for example, it is now much harder for skilled professionals from the United States or Japan to work in the United Kingdom, and for the UK to benefit from the qualities they could offer.


The single currency, too, is a brilliant idea on paper. Intra-European trade is fertilised by the absence of tariffs, of risks associated with rate fluctuations, and even of minor losses surrendered to banks during currency conversion. Tourism is enhanced as visitors not only cross national borders freely, but do so in the knowledge that the cash in their pockets will still be useful on the other side. However, the countries embracing this model have also had to surrender jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the European Central Bank – which is forced to attempt one-size-fits-all coverage for a vast variety of different national economies, cultures, and industry structures. When things go wrong, individual governments can no longer make adjustments to suit unique local circumstances.


Of course, the UK cunningly avoids some of this kerfuffle – Schengen, the Euro, etc – by pointing to the Channel Tunnel when it suits us to be part of Europe, and to the sea when it doesn’t. But the impact that the EU has had on our national sport has been deeply profound. In most cases, while preaching liberty and fairness, ‘Brussels’ has unwittingly catalysed the financial chasm which has grown to characterise European football over the past two decades.


The most obvious example is the Bosman ruling. Again, this began with a noble, and entirely correct pursuit of justice. Jean-Marc Bosman, an unremarkable midfielder at RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division, was out of contract and desired a move to French side Dunkerque. However, the latter were unable to meet the transfer fee stipulated by Liège, who thus refused to transfer Bosman’s playing registration and forced him to remain in Belgium on reduced pay. He took the case to the European Court of Justice, who in 1995 found in his favour that the football transfer system – which had allowed clubs like Liège to demand transfer fees or refuse transfers even for players whose contracts had expired – was in violation of EU laws on restraint of trade and free movement of workers.


But what the ruling failed to foresee was the impact on wages and youth development. Players on expiring contracts, like Edgar Davids and Steve McManaman, were able to use the carrot of a zero transfer fee and negotiate personally lucrative deals with new overseas suitors. Clubs today are panicked into offering improved salaries virtually every season to avoid their stars entering the ‘dangerous’ final two years of their existing contracts. Those who cannot afford to do so might receive little or no compensation for a player into whom they had invested years of coaching.


As an addendum to the Bosman ruling, the EU made it illegal for UEFA or national federations to impose the foreigner restrictions (typically three players per team; not unlike the J. League) that had previously been custom. Once more, this was perfectly grounded in European employment laws and there was no reason that sportsmen should not be granted the same freedom to ply their trade in other member states as anybody else. But inevitably English clubs, with their newfound television money, deduced that if they could offer nice salaries to as many grown-up overseas players on Bosman free transfers as they liked, then this might be a lot quicker and cheaper than investing in the training of local youngsters.


Fast forward to February 2015, and this television cash has now risen by 70% for the second straight three-year deal with the announcement last week that Sky Sports and BT Sport will pay a combined £5.136 billion for live domestic coverage of the Barclays Premier League. The EU is highly complicit here too. In declaring that the 15-year monopoly Sky held on live broadcast rights until 2007 was in contravention of European competition law, the EU paved the way for new bidders to enter the UK digital television market and vie for a proportion of matches. This, in turn, triggered an arms race for quadruple play (television, telephone, internet, wireless) packages as BT, essentially the British equivalent of NTT, and Sky used football as a means to expand into each other’s industries.


It all sounds brilliant, of course – loads of money comes flooding in to make English football better, while trading monopoly for competition sounds like a principle designed to bring better value to the consumer. However, the inflated bank balances have largely served to further clubs’ reliance on purchased talent and to inflate the gap between football’s rich and poor – from Premier League to Football League, player to fan, stadium to community. Meanwhile, the competitive viewer experience isn’t really competitive in the slightest. Sky and BT don’t show the same matches; they each offer a separate, exclusive set of games, meaning that fans now have to pay for two subscriptions instead of one in order to see everything on show. And these subscriptions are naturally getting more and more expensive to cover the vast outlay incurred by the two television stations in trying to outbid each other for the best fixtures.


It comes to something when UEFA has to fight the battle of responsible sustainability against the EU, as it has for the past ten years in trying to forge loopholes – such as the homegrown rules – to European law. But even Financial Fair Play can only be defined through percentages of income, rather than in absolute terms, meaning that Premier League clubs will be spending more rampantly than ever when the new television deal kicks in next year.


The latest rights contract represents a crossroads for English football, but also an opportunity. It is vital that the clubs, football authorities, and both national and European governments work together to ensure that finances are reinvested for the wider benefit of our game – and all its stakeholders from top to bottom.

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FOOTBALL.BLUE (2) - Harry's game

10 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.

On Saturday afternoon, in a parallel universe, Harry Redknapp took his seat in the directors’ box at Loftus Road to rapturous applause from the Queens Park Rangers faithful.


He was slightly late, of course. The England manager’s attempts to leave the lunchtime kickoff at White Hart Lane ten minutes from time were foiled by the usual demands for handshakes and autographs from fans of the side he led to the Champions League final in 2013. On course for a sixth straight North London derby win thanks to goals from Gareth Bale and Luka Modrić, Tottenham Hotspur had been left in the healthiest of states when Redknapp finally stepped down after a year combining duties for both club and country. It had been expected that he would retire altogether after the World Cup in Brazil, but that barely credible run to the semis – and another penalty shootout defeat to the Germans – generated an irresistible, nationwide clamour for four more years.


Of course, in reality – or at least in our reality – it was Roy Hodgson who made the journey of a little under 20km between stadiums to observe a second set of candidates for the England national team. Harry the manager did not get his happy ending. Instead, it would seem that his career in the dugout ended at 5.30 in the morning after transfer deadline day with a phone call to QPR chairman Tony Fernandes explaining his 67-year-old knees could no longer handle the job.


However, that particular job always looked a dubious fit for Redknapp after the way things unravelled so suddenly for him at Spurs – no Champions League place despite finishing fourth, no call for the England post vacated by Fabio Capello, and then once he had finally abandoned his Euro 2012 ambitions, no contract waiting for him at the Lane either.


If Redknapp was bruised and vulnerable at this point, it would be quite understandable. But into whose arms should he fall but those of a near neighbour in need of a saviour herself; a struggling Rangers with an ambitious but naïve owner not yet aware that his personal wealth and purchasing power was not actually that remarkable by Premier League standards. Like most lustful, later life liaisons in the aftermath of a true love that has died, this never seemed likely to end in much of a dignified manner.


When, as an FA Cup winner, Redknapp left Portsmouth for Tottenham in October 2008, his new club were bottom of the table with just two points from eight games. Four years and a month later, QPR had only four points from 12 matches before his appointment. But the similarity ended there. Despite the big money arrivals of Loïc Rémy and a patently unfit Christopher Samba in January 2013, the R’s finished the season still in 20th position – their relegation confirmed with three games to spare.


That the malaise grew deeper throughout their subsequent promotion season speaks volumes. Despite accruing 26 points of a possible 30 from the start of 2013/14, the biggest wage bill in the Championship proved only good enough for a distant fourth place. In the playoff final at Wembley, Redknapp sat with a distant, emotionless expression as Bobby Zamora pounced on a mistake by Derby County defender Richard Keogh to score a 90th minute winner with 10-man QPR’s only shot on target all game. Their opponents, dominant throughout, were managed by Steve McClaren – who had temporarily served on the coaching staff at Loftus Road until the previous September and was widely credited for the good results achieved at the time.


Ahead of the current season back in the top flight, Redknapp decided he needed another experienced helper. The man chosen, Glenn Hoddle, had been out of professional football since leaving Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2006 and spent the intervening eight years sitting in television studios explaining how the losing team could solve all their problems by simply adopting the 3-5-2 formation so fashionable when he was England manager at France ’98. Finally, Redknapp’s QPR could be the perfect case study.


Continuing the somewhat retro theme, Rio Ferdinand was recruited to serve as the trusted linchpin of the back three, having made his senior debut under Redknapp at West Ham United in 1996 and his full England debut under Hoddle a year later. It was a plan so guaranteed not to fail that QPR’s entire summer transfer kitty was spent on players designed specifically for their new system. Mauricio Isla, a specialist wing-back, and forward Eduardo Vargas arrived fresh from the Chile team which excited us all at the World Cup in their 3-4-1-2 (all back three styles are basically the same, right?). Leroy Fer, Jordon Mutch, and Harry’s old favourite Niko Kranjčar came in to offer a plethora of options for the attacking central midfield places.


Inevitably, Spurs of all people tore Ferdinand and company to shreds in a 4-0 shellacking on only the second day of the season. Redknapp realised that his new assistant’s philosophies had left their relevance in the 1990s. Rio was dropped, the back four restored in a system with no number ten, and Isla, Fer et al were suddenly now square shapes in round holes.


But the damage was done. Having splashed the cash and failed, Harry could never again escape the ‘wheeler-dealer’ stereotype he has always despised. Even his final day in the job was a transfer negotiation farce as QPR tried to loan Matt Jarvis from West Ham, from whom they had already borrowed Mauro Zárate a few weeks earlier. Premier League regulations prevent simultaneous loans between the same two clubs, and when Rangers therefore tried to send Zárate back to Upton Park, they found that doing so inside the same transfer window was against the rules as well.


One would have thought that Redknapp of all people should have been au fait with such things. But indeed, his final legacy may yet be to cripple QPR upon their likely return to the Football League next season. Financial Fair Play violations related to their spending last term in the Championship could reportedly see the League impose a fine of anywhere between £27 million and £54 million. Refusal – or, given the club’s other debts, inability – to pay may result in the League refusing membership and QPR being demoted to the fifth-tier Conference.


It is sad that Redknapp’s management career should end like this. But his brief affair at Loftus Road was always a match made in hell; a rampant rebound into a culture of irresponsible spending left behind by former owners Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone to be perpetuated further by their Formula One friend Fernandes. As Guardian journalist and QPR season ticket holder Michael Hann puts it: “Could anyone succeed at this cursed club?”

At Tottenham, he had the big club resources with which he could pursue the players he truly desired; as well as a chairman, in Daniel Levy, who was economically astute and strong-minded enough to keep everything in control. This was the ideal marriage for Redknapp, who proved himself to be a more intelligent tactician than even he gives himself credit for (at least publicly). This was the attractive, attacking team which proved for the benefit of all English football that it was possible to break the old Big Four dominance without obscene amounts of oil money. And this was the happier Harry the manager who I shall prefer to remember.

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FOOTBALL.BLUE (1) - The keystone

3 Feb 2015(Tue)

Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.

While preparing to commentate on Manchester United versus Leicester City last Saturday evening, I tried to cast my mind back to the last time the Red Devils had truly excited me. Yes, there has been the odd comfortable win over Hull City or Newcastle United; and of course important victories against Arsenal and Liverpool – rivals both spiritually and for fourth place. But in terms of the thrilling, attacking brilliance one craves of United, the high point of the Louis van Gaal era thus far probably came way back in September when they visited Leicester at the King Power Stadium.


This may seem a strange thing to say, given the way everything ultimately unravelled on what Van Gaal described in his programme notes this weekend as “the worst day I have had in my job as manager of Manchester United”. Rafael’s impetuous habit of conceding penalties at inopportune moments triggered a defensive implosion in the final half hour from which Tyler Blackett is probably still recovering. The Foxes became only the sixth team in Premier League history – and the first straight out of the Championship – to put five past United. In 853 matches since the top division’s rebranding, the Reds had never once previously lost having held a two-goal advantage.


But at least it had been good fun. Still fresh from the late extravagance of the summer transfer window, United began that afternoon in a swashbuckling manner that got everyone off their seats. In the opening quarter-hour, Falcao marked his first start by racing behind Ritchie de Laet and swirling a perfect cross for new strike partner Robin van Persie to open the scoring. Three minutes later, record signing Ángel Di María burst out of his own half, played a 1-2 through a crowd with Wayne Rooney, before improvising a chip over Kasper Schmeichel as delightful as that famous Karel Poborsky effort at Euro ’96. Though Leonardo Ulloa pulled one back, a ravenous restart after half time produced a second goal in two for another recent arrival, Ander Herrera. All the new pieces were clicking into place and, for a moment, it looked a matter of how many.


As 1-3 became 5-3, we were all forced to hurriedly rewrite our conclusions. But at this stage, one thing felt eminently clear: Van Gaal’s United were an exciting guarantee of goals aplenty at both ends. As a Gamba Osaka supporter, this was a comfortingly familiar sensation; as a journalist, it was a standard for narrative. A solid truth upon which expectations could be based, just like the way Mario Balotelli would constantly entertain us at Liverpool with headlines good and bad, or how Chelsea would never be so careless as to suffer a 5-3 scoreline like that.


That things have not panned out this way is both a credit and discredit to Van Gaal. United have only lost twice since that crazy late summer afternoon. Their goals against record is the third best in the Premier League. After narrow defeat in a derby match played with ten men for the entire second half, they went on a six-game winning streak and remained unbeaten for 11. The Dutchman may only have accrued three more points than David Moyes had at the same stage but the comparison is meaningless when paired with the fact that, in a tighter top half this term, United’s current haul is enough for third place not seventh. Moyes and company began to resemble rabbits in headlights last February but there is much greater confidence surrounding the Van Gaal team, who have developed a resilient efficiency to repeatedly grind out one-goal victories despite not playing well.


But this last point, of course, is also the worry. Only Chelsea have scored with a higher percentage of their shots this season, but where might United be without the chance conversion rate of their forwards? How many times have these one-goal wins been protected by the late heroics of David de Gea? To return to my original train of thought, there still have not been many games in which the Old Trafford club have actually bossed proceedings.


In this respect, a straightforward 3-1 victory in the return fixture against Leicester was a relief after the horrendously slow build-up play that had characterised their previous two fixtures against Queens Park Rangers and Cambridge United. Van Gaal switched back, once again, from a three- to a four-man defence midway through the second half at Loftus Road – notably removing Jonny Evans, who had been selected as the central man in the back three for the first time all season. From 3-4-1-2 to the diamond, 4-1-4-1 to 3-3-2-2, new tactical variations have clearly added to the disjointed nature of a new manager at a new club with newly-acquired players.


One is reminded of Van Gaal’s early press conferences back in July, when he arrived in the afterglow of a run to the World Cup semi-finals built upon the last-minute switch to a Feyenoord-inspired 5-3-2. Then, he stated that a back three was the only way of utilising all his attacking players in a top-heavy United squad, but the narrative has changed somewhat as he now claims to prefer the extra centre-back for reasons of defensive balance. Another first-day quote that springs to mind is when he included the Eredivisie in his list of the world’s four strongest leagues due to the tactical intelligence his Holland players had displayed in Brazil. Perhaps he has discovered since that defenders of British stock do not possess the same acumen and flexibility as Ajax kids crafted for interchangeable 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 from the age of seven.


This is, and always was the problem. Teams are built from the back, but United’s defence lacks the central figure around which their new manager can do so. At 27, Evans is the most senior defender but always performed much better alongside the calming presence of Rio Ferdinand than with Nemanja Vidic and is still no real sempai figure. Phil Jones has actually performed reasonably well in a back three but is very much the one to step out of the line and cannot be trusted to hold it. Marcos Rojo was bought for another purpose and remains new to both English league and language. The list of three apparently most trusted to marshal the defence – Michael Carrick (a midfielder), Paddy McNair (a teenager), and Chris Smalling (Chris Smalling) – hardly inspires either awe or peace of mind.

Whether United are lackadaisically passing the ball between defensive three and midfield three, or surrendering late chances to Stoke City and Crystal Palace with a shaky back four, the fundamental issue lies here. Whatever formation Van Gaal deploys, he will not be able to fully exploit his attacking riches until he finds that leader of the rear-guard upon whom he can truly depend.

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Week 40 – A to Z of 2013-14 (Premier League column for Goal Japan)

20 May 2014(Tue)


The current season of Foot! TUESDAY concludes this week with an A-to-Z look back over the highs, lows, and talking points from the Premier League in 2013/14. Below is a more detailed explanation of all 26 items, including several that we did not have time to discuss properly on the show.

A = Ashley (and Alan)


The Mike Ashley era at Newcastle United has already brought one relegation, in 2009, plus a further dalliance with the drop last year. But at least in those seasons, the Magpies had something to fight for. Eschewing investment or the distraction of cup runs for a safe, mid-table finish made for a depressingly turgid campaign for the Toon Army, not least after the departure in late January of Yohan Cabaye. Manager Alan Pardew objected to the manner of the Frenchman’s sale, but compromised his own reputation with an idiotic headbutt on David Meyler of Hull City.

B = Barkley


Ross Barkley spent most of the 2012/13 season on loan at Championship clubs Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. This term, he came to symbolise an exciting new era for his parent club Everton under David Moyes’s successor Roberto Martinez. The Toffees soon developed into a high-quality, attractive outfit under the Spaniard, passing the ball quickly and accurately while making ever more effective use of their dangerous overlapping full backs. 20-year-old Barkley registered 34 league appearances and six goals, including a wonder strike against Manchester City which left no doubt over his World Cup inclusion.

C = Crazy high lines, crazy scorelines


André Villas-Boas does enjoy a high defensive line. Unfortunately, he can be stubborn enough to field one even if the right players are unavailable or haven’t been signed (see L). Manchester City had great fun exploiting all the space behind to hammer Spurs 6-0 at the Etihad, and when Liverpool ran out 5-0 winners at White Hart Lane three weeks later, the Portuguese’s time was up. His lesson was not always heeded, however. Arsenal were humiliated in similar fashion at Anfield (5-1) and at Chelsea (6-0), while in Tottenham’s return match with City under Tim Sherwood, they were once again routed 5-1.

D = Double parked buses


Just how do you stop the rampant attacking speed of Liverpool? Brendan Rodgers complained after his side’s 2-0 home defeat at the end of April that Chelsea had parked two buses, claiming, “I don’t think it's a tactic to have players behind the ball – anyone can do that.” Surely if it was so easy, then everyone would have done the same thing. While the Blues may have been somewhat cynical with time-wasting ploys to deny their opponents rhythm, the truth was that José Mourinho had pulled off an absolute, and quite deliberate masterclass in defensive organisation. Rodgers’s men fell into the trap, attacking relentlessly and leaving themselves exposed to one mistake and counter when a draw would have kept the title initiative at Anfield.

E = Eleven straight wins


Despite the agonising manner in which it all came apart at the end, Liverpool’s rampant resurgence under Rodgers was surely the story of the season. The opening 20 minutes against Arsenal in early February, when Liverpool raced into a 4-0 lead, was the most thrilling exhibition of attacking brilliance witnessed in English football for years. But the Reds kept on going to string out a run of 11 straight wins, during which they scored 38 goals and repeatedly redefined their status – from Champions League hopefuls to Champions League certs, title contenders, and in April, title favourites.

F = Fellaini


12 league starts, no goals, and just one assist. Marouane Fellaini became the poster boy for Manchester United’s many failings under David Moyes. But it was not all about the manager. The resignation of chief executive David Gill left rookie Ed Woodward in charge of transfer activity during pre-season, and to put it generously, the whole experience was an utter embarrassment. United flirted publicly with Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcântara, and Leighton Baines but didn’t get close to a signature for any of them. This left them in a panic to sign Fellaini moments before the August transfer window closed for £27.5 million – fully four million quid more than would have triggered a contractual release clause one month previously.

G = Giggs


Pretty much the only good thing the Stretford End had to cheer about this season was the appointment of club legend Ryan Giggs as interim manager for the final four games of the season. It didn’t solve United’s problems overnight but it did provide a wonderfully sentimental epilogue to the Class of ’92 tale – Giggs even used the opportunity to offer debuts to youth team graduates Tom Lawrence and James Wilson, who scored twice, against Hull City. That game proved to be his 963rd and last in a red shirt; a new era at Old Trafford begins next season with Giggs serving as assistant to new boss Louis van Gaal.

H = Hart


The increasingly erratic form of Joe Hart became a major problem in the latter days of Roberto Mancini’s time at Manchester City, and for a while under Manuel Pellegrini, things didn’t get much better. Errors from England’s number one led directly to goals conceded against Cardiff City, Aston Villa, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea – after which Hart was removed from first team action for a month. This proved to be a genius piece of man management. The goalkeeper rebuilt his confidence on the training ground away from all the pressure, and re-emerged as a calming presence after his gradual reintroduction in December, keeping ten clean sheets in City’s last 22 league games.

I = I’m the happy one


“I’m the happy one” declared José Mourinho upon his much feted return to Stamford Bridge, despite the suspicion that he had rather hoped to be unveiled at Old Trafford instead. The former Real Madrid manager did not have an ideal squad, with his old charges either departed or aging, but tactical triumphs against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool took Chelsea to the brink of an unlikely title double. However, Mourinho’s smile turned more and more into a frown as he publicly lambasted key players such as Eden Hazard, Oscar, and André Schürrle. The Blues picked up a total of just one point from late season games against struggling Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Sunderland, and Norwich City – had they won even two of those four, they would have been champions.

J = Jacko


Former Harrods supremo Mohamed Al-Fayed sold Fulham to Shahid Khan in July, but warned the Pakistani-American billionaire never to remove his infamous statue of Michael Jackson – “It is a lucky thing, you will regret it later; you will pay with blood for that because it was something loved by people.” While most people who came to look at the statue weren’t quite smiling for the same reason as Al-Fayed, perhaps the former owner did have a point. The Cottagers endured a nightmare season under Martin Jol, Rene Meulensteen, and finally Felix Magath which spelled the end of their 13-year stay in England’s top flight.

K = Kieran Gibbs sees red


This column’s choice for save of the season and unluckiest red card of the season would probably both go to the same incident. The sending off of Kieran Gibbs after a quarter of an hour left Arsenal a man and 3-0 down – it eventually became 6-0 – in Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th match in charge away to Chelsea. But as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain desperately protested in vain to official Andre Marriner, “Ref! It was me!” The Ox had been the outfield player on the goal line making the acrobatic dive to spectacularly tip Eden Hazard’s curling effort around the post, but a case of mistaken identity made for one of the most bizarre talking points of the season.

L = Levy


Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy is a famously tough negotiator, and managed to coax football’s first nine-figure fee (in Euros) out of Real Madrid when finally sanctioning the transfer of Gareth Bale last August. The cash was boldly spent on fully seven senior international recruits – an approach that would still have been risky even if Spurs had chosen the players André Villas-Boas actually wanted. Levy dispensed with the Portuguese before the new team had time to take shape, appointed Tim Sherwood as his permanent successor, then undermined the former Blackburn Rovers title-winning captain at every opportunity to make his position untenable by season’s end. A little more consistency of thought in the White Hart Lane boardroom mightn’t go amiss.

M = Moyes


Oh dear. There probably isn’t a great deal left to say about one of the season’s most defining characters, who took the reigning champions – a club that hadn’t finished outside the top three since 1991 – down to seventh. Relatively speaking, David Moyes wasn’t even placed under that much pressure at Manchester United – the board wanted to give him time, the Old Trafford faithful wanted to give him time, and rival fans certainly wanted him to stay in charge for as long as possible. But the Scot looked awestruck from day one and never managed to impose his personality, previously thought of as a strong point, on the team. Every time his supporters – including this column – cited a reason to stick with him, he frustrated us by immediately disproving it. By the end, his sacking had simply become inevitable.

N = Nicola Cortese


In the last 20 years, few men in suits have ever been so revered by players and fans as the former Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese. Having overhauled the Saints’ entire management structure to rectify cash flow and oversee two successive promotions, he refused to agree with ex-manager Nigel Adkins that Premier League survival should be the extent of their ambition. Instead, he scouted Mauricio Pochettino, and the result has been an eighth-place finish – equalling the club record in the Premier League era – for a hugely attractive team built around young English talent. Cortese’s ultimate goal was to win the title; what will happen to Southampton now he has departed remains to be seen.

O = Özil


A, perhaps the major reason that Arsenal were unable to remain in title contention into spring was their failure to add genuine depth last summer, meaning that certain key players were never afforded a rest while injuries mounted around them. One such player was Mesut Özil, but let us not forget the galvanising effect his shock £42.5 million arrival on August deadline day had on the Gunners over the first half of the season. An assist for Olivier Giroud in the 11th minute of his debut against Sunderland was a perfect introduction for the German, and with Aaron Ramsey in particularly sparkling form, Arsène Wenger’s newly confident charges pulled out a five-point lead at the top in early December.

P = Palace and Pulis


Crystal Palace had been relegated in every single one of their previous four Premier League seasons, and looked set to make it five in a row after a summer of panic buying left them with more new arrivals than they could fit in their squad of 25. The stress of it all was too much for Ian Holloway, and when Tony Pulis took over in November, the Eagles were bottom on just seven points from 12 matches. But the former Stoke City boss worked miracles, shoring up the defence and trimming down the playing resources to leave an altogether more functioning unit. With Scott Dann forming a strong partnership alongside Damien Delaney at the back and Mile Jedinak starring in midfield, Palace accumulated 36 points from their first 23 games under Pulis and guaranteed survival with a different kind of five in a row – successive wins.

Q = Qualification


With each of last season’s leading three clubs changing manager, this always looked like it would be a good year for other teams to take a shot at the Champions League places, and so it proved as Liverpool made it in for the first time since 2009. Tottenham Hotspur and particularly Everton gave it a good shot too, but both were forced to settle for the dubious secondary honour of Europa League qualification and Thursday night visits to far-flung locations. Manchester United failed to secure any kind of European football for the first time since 1981 – excluding the five-year period when English clubs were banned after the Heysel disaster – but may enjoy the same benefits of week-long preparations for league games as Liverpool did this term.

R = Rodgers


Tony Pulis was a deserving Manager of the Year, but Brendan Rodgers at least warranted a share of the prize. Liverpool’s malaise had been chronic for over two decades before the Northern Irishman arrived with his four P’s – possession, penetration, pressure, and patience – and gradually evolved his style into a more counter-attacking approach than at Swansea City to take maximum advantage of the pacy attacking players available to him at Anfield. Rodgers showed great intelligence and flexibility this season, adjusting his tactics week by week to exploit the weaknesses of each individual opponent, and struck gold when fielding Steven Gerrard at the base of midfield to allow the likes of Jordan Henderson greater freedom to express themselves further ahead. He will learn from his mistakes against Chelsea and come back stronger next term.

S = Slips


“This does not fucking slip now!” was an unfortunate choice of words given what was to follow. Liverpool were initially annoyed with the television crews who captured Steven Gerrard’s private moment with his teammates after the dramatic 3-2 win over Manchester City, but soon backed down, realising that this scene could go down in history as the most emotive, symbolic moment of a first championship campaign in 24 years. Two weeks later, it was Gerrard who slipped and let Demba Ba in to score for Chelsea, thereby providing an altogether more unfortunate moment to live long in the memory. It was here that the momentum in this season’s title race swung decisively and for the final time.

T = Twenty-somethings


Manchester City did not always attract the attention their play deserved, overshadowed as they were by the resurgence of Arsenal before Christmas and Liverpool’s swashbuckling title charge in the second half of the season. But the sheer figures they have posted under Manuel Pellegrini have been astonishing. City totalled 102 goals in the league alone, one more than Liverpool, while their tally of 156 in all competitions was the highest recorded by any club in English football history. Perhaps the most telling statistic of their all-round attacking brilliance, however, was that as many as four each broke the magic 20-goal barrier – Sergio Agüero top scoring with 28 in all competitions, followed by Edin Džeko on 26, Yaya Touré on 24, and Álvaro Negredo with 23.

U = Uruguayans


Luis Suárez began the season as a pariah, midway through a ten-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanović and trying to force through a late-August move to Arsenal or elsewhere. He finished it with 31 league goals, fully ten more than strike partner Daniel Sturridge (who finished second in the overall rankings) and tying the record for a 38-game Premier League season held by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo. At the other end of the table, his compatriot Gustavo Poyet began the season out of work following an acrimonious departure from Brighton and Hove Albion, and claimed Sunderland needed a “miracle” to survive when defeat to Everton left his new charges seven points adrift of safety with a month of the season remaining. The Uruguayan quickly produced one, however, winning four points from two away matches in Manchester either side of becoming the first manager ever to take all three from José Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.

V = Vincent Tan


The Premier League has had more than its share of intelligent, rich entrepreneurs who were nonetheless stupid enough to expect their business success to translate directly into football trophies. Vincent Tan is the latest in this proud line, although the dark glasses, belt pulled up to the nipples, and dragon-coloured Cardiff City shirt over work shirt combo gives him the best Bond villain look of any unwanted owner to date. The Malaysian sanctioned the arrival of five new first team players in the summer, but appeared startled that this wasn’t enough to blow away all comers so unashamedly set about undermining the manager who had achieved promotion and kept them out of the Premier League bottom three, Malky Mackay. Confusingly, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was then given enough money to bring in seven more new faces, but the mid-season disruption saw Cardiff pick up just 13 points from their last 22 games to finish bottom.

W = We love you


The plaudits for Crystal Palace should not stop at the players and manager. The fans at Selhurst Park were magnificent throughout, singing and dancing loudly and proudly even while their team lost nine of the first ten, before providing a rousing backdrop to the most incredible match of the season. When Damien Delaney’s speculative shot brought Palace back to 1-3 against Liverpool, the Holmesdale Road end erupted into its St. Pauli-inspired “We love you, we love you, we love you” song – instantly upping the ante and virtually sucking the ball back towards Simon Mignolet’s goal. The Reds crumbled to the pressure of their raucous surroundings and a new Premier League classic was born.

X = X-files


Not so much in the supernatural sense of the American television drama, but certainly in terms of vital information mysteriously kept secret by the authorities. An administrative error led Sunderland to field Ji Dong-Won in four league matches without receiving international clearance, for which the usual penalty is for all points gained during the matches in question to be docked regardless of circumstance. But after the club admitted their mistake to the Premier League, all parties agreed to settle with a fine and keep the matter hushed. The Black Cats ultimately survived by a more comfortable margin than the single point they had gained with the Korean forward, rendering any potential appeal from relegated Norwich City moot. But what of Oxford City, who dropped to the seventh tier by two points after having three deducted for a similar offence? Why one rule for the top clubs and another for those lower down the pyramid?

Y = Yaya Touré


Yaya Touré was not always given licence to roam under Roberto Mancini, particularly last season after Nigel de Jong was sold and the Ivorian was asked to sit back with the rest of the team. This season, however, he was unleashed by new manager Manuel Pellegrini, who brought in Fernandinho to perform the lion’s share of defensive duties in midfield so that Touré would have more leeway to get forward. The 31-year-old had never previously bettered six league goals in any league season throughout a career which has taken him to Belgium, Ukraine, Greece, France, and Spain, but more than tripled his previous best with a final tally of 20 – placing him third in the Premier League goal rankings behind the SAS at Liverpool. Piece of cake.

Z = Zanryū


If anything, the Japanese word zanryū is shallower in nuance than the English ‘survival’, but it does carry the major advantage of beginning with a ‘Z’. Norwich City ultimately left themselves with too much left to do ahead of late season matches with Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal – but in the process they saved a number of rivals who had done little of their own accord to really merit another season in the top flight. West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, West Ham United, and even Swansea City must perform a lot better next term if they are to avoid the drop again. Hull City will be proud of their first year back in the Premier League, but it might now be tricky to balance domestic demands with the Europa League.

(All images via original article at Goal Japan)

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Week 39 – I even love saying the word ‘team’(2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

12 May 2014(Mon)


As a club, Manchester City tend not to garner much sympathy with the neutral. They may not have started the age of billionaires, which of course dates back to the Russian revolution at Stamford Bridge, and they certainly haven’t warped the competitive environment of English football to anything like the extent of the Qatari sports investments across the Channel. But at least Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain had a decent, recent pedigree of challenging for honours domestically and internationally before all the money. It was rather more of a shock to the national conscience when Sheikh Mansour rolled up at Eastlands – later relabelled the Etihad – in 2008 with a blank cheque for a mid-table side which had been playing in the third tier just nine years previously and hadn’t so much as challenged for a major trophy since the mid-1970s.

Such was the haste of City’s rise that they arrived in the Champions League two seasons ago without any significant UEFA coefficient to speak of, consigning them – much to their public chagrin – to a succession of groups of death before finally reaching the last 16 this term. They are the only Premier League representatives among the list of nine teams currently facing sanctions under the Financial Fair Play legislation, and unlike the other eight, they run the risk of even tighter penalties after refusing to accept culpability and agree a settlement before last Friday’s deadline. As David Conn of The Observer put it, Mansour’s executives have created “a modern, corporate sports organisation, growing accustomed to getting what it wants”.

This season, on the pitch, City were perhaps not quite cast in the role of villains per se. (If anyone was, it was probably José Mourinho for his steady descent from ‘Happy One’ to grumpy one coupled with all that bus parking – although this writer felt that Chelsea’s tactics and execution at Anfield were magnificent.) But they were emphatically not the heroes of the narrative either. That status fell originally to Arsenal, and then more enduringly to Liverpool – the purveyors of attractive, attacking football who would take on and overcome the giant financial empires without so much as a single oil well. As Brendan Rodgers’s side went on that awesome run of 11 straight wins, with 38 goals scored, the British media and even television commentators on the international match broadcasts spoke of little more than the prospect of a first championship in 24 years for Liverpool; a first ever, at last, for Steven ‘Stevie G’ Gerrard.

But none of this has much to do with the human beings involved on matchday – the actual players, coaches, and managers. Their concern is not with narratives or balance sheets, but with playing and winning. The champion team – not club – is the one that plays the best, wins the most, and demonstrates itself to be the strongest over the course of a full season. And, on this most basic of parameters, Manchester City are indisputably deserving of the title this year.

Manuel Pellegrini inherited a divided dressing room after several key players had fallen out with Roberto Mancini, who seemingly lost faith with the attacking ways that won (but so nearly blew) the 2011/12 Premier League and so tinkered, negatively and seldom successfully, with his tactics. The Chilean, however, kept things simple but effective. A basic 4-4-2, with certain morphological adjustments reflecting the traits of those playing at any time, served as the sufficient template for City to dominate the majority of domestic opponents with their own offensive qualities.

Castrated by more defensive duties in the latter Mancini era after the Italian’s bizarre decision to sell Nigel de Jong, Yaya Toure thrived alongside new arrival Fernandinho in midfield; registering nine assists and 20 goals in the league alone. In the eyes of most observers, the Ivorian’s triumphant return to prominence ranked him as the only true rival to Luis Suárez in the player of the year stakes. Up front, Álvaro Negredo arrived with a similar goal record in Spain to Spurs signing Roberto Soldado but adapted to English football far quicker to form a devastating pairing with Sergio Agüero. By the time the Argentine injured his calf during the 6-3, mid-December shellacking of Arsenal, the sky blue strike duo had already racked up 32 goals between them.

At the back, there was initial uncertainty as injuries – most notably to Vincent Kompany – saw City field seven different centre-back combinations in the first 11 league games. Only four points were collected from six away fixtures during this period, with the general sense of defensive instability categorised by a succession of high-profile mistakes from Joe Hart against Cardiff City, Aston Villa, and Chelsea. But here, Pellegrini demonstrated his calm man-management capabilities, removing his number one goalkeeper from the firing line for a month before gradually reintroducing him over the course of another once confidence and focus had been restored on the training ground.

Hart’s return coincided with a devastating spell of form either side of Christmas during which City won 11 and drew one of a dozen league matches. Building upon the newly solidified foundations behind them, Agüero and company managed to net 40 goals in the process – an awesome rate of prowess that matches the more celebrated springtime form of Suárez, Sturridge, and Sterling.

And it was in the final months of the season that their most champion-like qualities shone through. The much-criticised Martín Demichelis demonstrated terrific organisational focus to see through a 2-0 win at Hull City after Kompany had been sent off inside ten minutes. Experience of past title races was an advantage over Liverpool, and in hindsight, the 3-2 reverse at Anfield masked the manner in which City’s second half comeback had severely tested the mettle of their hosts until Kompany’s late error. It was sad that it should take an infamous slip from Gerrard against Chelsea to absolve the similarly respected Belgian, but Pellegrini’s men still had to seize their opportunity in a difficult away clash with Crystal Palace later that day. Three coolly earned points there, and a week later at Everton, underscored a swing of psychological momentum their way ahead of Liverpool’s own, eventful trip to Selhurst Park.

With Edin Džeko now leading the line with a succession of crucial goals late in the season, City won when it mattered most and ultimately breezed across the line on final day with far greater ease than two years ago. For all their economic advantages, the Citizens have performed remarkably in Pellegrini’s first season in charge to score 102 Premier League goals – one more than even Liverpool – and concede fewer than anyone else bar Chelsea. The Reds and the Blues made it a thrilling battle, but on the pitch, where the football is played, it was the men from Manchester who emerged as most worthy champions.

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Week 38 – We seldom score ten (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

6 May 2014(Tue)


Crystal Palace’s astonishing fightback to draw 3-3 on Monday night spelt weeklong peril for all fingernails and blood pressure levels on Merseyside. Suppose, as most do, that Manchester City avoid defeat in their penultimate home fixture with Aston Villa on Wednesday. The re-usurped former leaders Liverpool will then go into the last Sunday of the Premier League season praying for a miracle, anxiously waiting on results from elsewhere, with radios tuned to events at the Etihad, or whichever other of the endlessly sprouted, final-day clichés you happen to prefer. Even if Manuel Pellegrini’s men were to drop two points in either of their remaining fixtures, the Reds would surely still miss out by the most agonising of margins that is goal difference.

Yet such talk is based on the more inherent assumption that the goal difference difference – currently nine – is unassailable. But is it, really? On last week’s Foot! TUESDAY, when I said it would be brilliant to see what might happen if Liverpool ended up needing a 10-0 victory over Newcastle United to win the league, I wasn’t joking. I was actually being serious. It would be brilliant to watch, because no matter how unlikely, the turnaround is tantalisingly possible.

Of course, nobody has ever hit double figures in a Premier League match. No English top flight team has at all since Boxing Day 1963, when Ipswich Town were the victims of a 10-1 thrashing at Fulham. Since the division was relabelled and relaunched in 1992, the greatest margin of victory remains the Andy Cole-inspired 9-0 win for Manchester United against, ah, poor old Ipswich again in March 1995. Tottenham Hotspur also came within one of a new digit for the scoreboard when routing Wigan Athletic 9-1 in November 2009, while there have been 8-0 scorelines for Newcastle against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1999, Chelsea over Wigan in May 2010, and Chelsea again versus Villa in December 2012. Yet for over half a century now, that magic ‘10’ figure has remained elusive.

However, there is a rather crucial caveat here. No Premier League team has ever scored ten before, but no Premier League team has ever had to score ten before either.

League matches are, in 99% of cases, more about the victory itself than about the margin of victory. When, as for example Liverpool did at home to Arsenal back in February, one team quickly runs up four or five to put the result beyond doubt, they will typically then take their foot off the pedal. Spare the opponents’ embarrassment, perhaps give one or two youngsters or fringe players (like Jordon Ibe and Iago Aspas against the Gunners) a run out off the bench, and rest up ahead of important games ahead. But what if there were no other games ahead? What if there was an actual need to continue attacking even once you have led by five, six, or seven? Just how many could you score if your title aspirations depended upon it?

There are not many case studies to go on. But there was one just this past Saturday, north of the border, which offers an excellent reference point to those at Anfield.

Hamilton Academical went into the final day of the second-tier Scottish Championship season two points behind leaders Dundee, with more goals scored but an inferior goal difference to the tune of eight. A win would give Accies the title if Dundee lost at home to Dumbarton, but would leave the pair level on points if the latter game was drawn. Hamilton decided to leave nothing to chance and tore into their opponents, bottom side Greenock Morton, from the first whistle. They were two up inside eight minutes, 5-1 in front by half time, and kept up the exact same rate of scoring over the final 45 minutes to win the match by a club record score of 10-2.

I say they left nothing to chance – the only trouble was that Dundee held onto a narrow 2-1 win to clinch the trophy and automatic promotion by two points. But the example is still valid. Hamilton knew they had to win by at least eight to be in a position to take advantage of a Dundee draw, and in that knowledge, they were able to do just that. An older, more notorious example was that of Spain in the qualifying matches for Euro 1984, who needed an 11-goal victory over Malta to overhaul the Netherlands and steal their place at the Finals in France. In front of 18,871 people on a chilly December evening in Seville, the Spaniards duly won 12-1.

The prospect of an Anfield goal chase is not something which has occurred to me alone. Ahead of that six-goal thriller at Selhurst Park, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers declared: “If there is any team that can score goals and turn it around it will be us. There is no question. That will be our aim. No question about that. I have seen it before. Chelsea beat Wigan 8-0 in the last game of the season. I am not paying any disrespect to Newcastle at all but if there is a team that has shown it can score goals, it is us. We are not a 1-0 team.”

This approach may ironically have proved their undoing against Palace, but respect or disrespect aside, the Northern Irishman could not have hand-picked a better fixture for the final day than Newcastle at home. Three points against fellow catastrophe club Cardiff City notwithstanding, the Geordies have been the most demotivated, non-entity of a side ever since the unwanted departure of Yohan Cabaye – ambling through the subsequent 14 games with a record of ten losses, 29 goals conceded, and just ten scored. The chastening experience of Manchester City, who lost 8-1 at Middlesbrough under soon-to-be-ex-boss Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2008, shows what can happen when a team enters matchday 38 with nigh on zero morale.

Out of the blocks, Liverpool are the most explosive attacking force in English football. In a do or die scenario, let’s see what they can do when asked to keep up the sprint for 90 minutes. There is no telling what West Ham United might do at the Etihad, but the Reds must do everything possible to maximise their chances of glory. And, unless Villa beat City first, that means goals, goals, goals.

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Week 37 – Class (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

28 Apr 2014(Mon)


In the DVD extras for ‘The Class of ’92’, directors Gabe and Ben Turner speak of their intention that the film, while inevitably nostalgic in subject matter, should also capture the immediacy of six men at the end of one stage in their lives and about to transition to the next. The sight, less than five months after the picture’s release, of four of this sextet occupying the Old Trafford bench again – manager Ryan Giggs, assistant Nicky Butt, coaches Paul Scholes and Phil Neville – made for an astonishing epilogue. For four matches at least, the theatre is dreaming again.

Giggs himself played to the narrative quite perfectly. Appearing a touch busied by the events of the past week, but nonetheless natural and assured, Manchester United’s new interim boss began his maiden press conference on Friday by thanking David Moyes for his first opportunity in coaching, then immediately suggested his primary task was to wipe clean the memory of the Scot’s ten-month era. Attacking football, fast-paced wing play, smiles on faces of players and supporters alike. The new, happy mood at the Carrington training ground – as if they had just won the league again, according to one newspaper – was reflected in Giggs’s humorous remark that he had taken the opportunity as manager to offer himself a new five-year contract as a player. Suit or tracksuit? “You’ll have to wait and see,” he smiled.

24 hours later, having resisted the temptation to name himself within the matchday 18, Giggs strode out of the tunnel in the tailored club suit – black jacket emblazoned with the Manchester coat of arms, red tie with narrow black and white stripes – that has been such a good fit for the Welshman since his mid-teens. He, and his players, meant business.

After just seven minutes of the game against Norwich City, he reminded us of his long apprenticeship under Sir Alex Ferguson, who Giggs tellingly still refers to as ‘the manager’, by stepping into his technical area to offer referee Lee Probert a spot of advice. Despite struggling initially to break down a determined Canaries defence, a 41st-minute penalty for Wayne Rooney provided the platform for United to race away after half time and win 4-0. Giggs made a point of praising a “tremendous… master class” from Juan Mata, whose omission from the starting XI had cost the new gaffer his beauty sleep, and thanked the delighted supporters for making him feel “ten feet tall”.

One has to feel a certain amount of sympathy for the 6’ 1” Moyes, who oversaw 4-1 and 4-0 victories in two of his last three league matches in charge before the Everton defeat which drew the final straw. A change of manager and formation has not turned United into world beaters overnight, as evidenced by their toils amid a flattening atmosphere at 0-0 on Saturday. After all the “hard work, honesty, and integrity” he had put into the role, the former Goodison man deserved better than to have news of his impending demise leaked to northwest-based broadsheet journalists last Monday before he was officially told himself early the following morning.

Yet Moyes never did quite manage to wear that bold black suit, bright red tie combination particularly well during his almost-a-year at the helm. The 51-year-old – his birthday was on Friday – was officially unveiled last summer in a pale grey number with white and grey tie. The wardrobe he took with him to Manchester rarely veered too far from reserved shades of grey and blue; a solitary reddish tie he wore early in the season was offset with equally broad stripes of navy. The conservative look suited him better. Of course, this is just a visual metaphor, but having seemingly ticked the box as the sensible, long-termist alternative to a passionate but fleeting affair with José Mourinho, Moyes quickly displayed warning signs that his was not the right aesthetic for the United hot seat.

On day one, the man determined “the Premier League manager you’d least like to get into a fight with” during a tangential discussion on The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly’ podcast last season appeared awestruck – overcome with gratitude at the opportunity to manage such a big club. This was understandable, but needed to be overcome quickly such that he should be the dominant presence in a dressing room full of medals. Yet as the early on-pitch struggles persisted, Moyes never gave the air of a confident manager in control of the situation and happy with his own position.

Incredible as it now sounds, United were only two points behind current leaders Liverpool as 2013 faded into 2014 after 19 league matches. With an exciting comeback win at Hull City, the impending arrival of Juan Mata, and the manager’s own history of strong second halves to the season, there was reason to expect clearer signs of Moyes’s intentions for his side. What signs emerged were increasingly negative.

Mata must have wondered what on earth he had let himself in for during the game of 81 crosses against Fulham, when the pent-up stress released by his new boss at 2-1 was soon redoubled as Darren Bent equalised. When Liverpool arrived at Old Trafford a month later, Moyes referred to them as “favourites”. Following successive 3-0 home reverses then and against Manchester City, Ferguson’s “noisy neighbours” now represented to his successor “the sort of level we are aspiring to”.

It was this attitude, above even the poor results, that pushed Moyes toward the exit door. There is a perception that following Ferguson made the job a poisoned chalice; as Gary Lineker put it, “the manager’s job to have at Manchester United was the one after the one after Sir Alex”. Yet when Gianluca Vialli remarked to BBC Radio 4 in February that “David Moyes, in Italy, would have been sacked three times now”, it was in praise of the understanding nature of the Old Trafford boardroom. As outlined in this column
five weeks ago, the very nature of the United job meant that the owners and chief executive Ed Woodward were determined to give the new man plenty of time. They did not want to fire him.

Supporters shared this support for ‘The Chosen One’, singing “Every single one of us will stand by David Moyes”. Even when their belief gradually disappeared, they did not allow this to be shown; those who did hire that plane were roundly booed by the Stretford End. The press knew he would not be dismissed quickly and did not demand that United did so. In this sense, the working conditions for Moyes were actually quite favourable and generous in comparison to what he would have experienced with similar results at most other clubs of similar size.

After an 11th uninspiring league defeat of the season, during which United had never looked like mounting the sort of turnaround for which they were once famous after falling behind, Moyes was yet again the only man to remark afterwards on how well he thought his side had played. By now, equally dour training sessions had robbed the players of their daily joie de vivre and, crucially, their majority support. Like Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, there was a sense that Moyes had misread the demands placed upon both style and substance at the biggest clubs. Unlike Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool last season, there was little sense of a team being carefully moulded to a blueprint even while immediate results may have been poor. The United board first discussed the gravity of their concerns after the 2-0 loss at Olympiakos; when a Champions League return became impossible, the inevitable decision was taken.

Truly great clubs must play the game their own way. Moyes allowed a distance to broaden between himself and Giggs, and soon saw his team eviscerated live on television by Scholes. The first task for the next full-time manager at Old Trafford will be to harness the experience, spirit, and uncompromising demand for excellence of the Class of ’92.

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Week 36 – Upset (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

21 Apr 2014(Mon)


Successive shock results for Sunderland away to Manchester City and Chelsea within the space of four days have pushed Liverpool a big step closer to their first ever Premier League crown. Football has changed almost beyond recognition in the 24 years since the Reds took their 18th and last Football League championship, but one constant in the English game has been the ability of sides at the bottom of the table to suddenly stir things up at the top. Below are three such stories, spanning the decades, of title hopes famously destroyed by relegation battlers.

22 April 1992 – West Ham United 1-0 Manchester United

Without a league title in a quarter of a century, Manchester United were the Liverpool of their time in the final season before the new Premier League kicked off. Despite a pre-season loss to Mazda SC, soon to become Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the sudden decline of their fiercest rivals under Graeme Souness had paved the way for Alex Ferguson’s new-look side to signal the dawn of their era. Summer signing Peter Schmeichel offered domineering presence and terrific distribution from the back; while in their first full seasons, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis were a blisteringly quick double threat on the wings. By the end of 1991, they led Leeds United by two points at the top of the table with as many games in hand, having only lost once.

However, United’s pace slowed after Christmas as their small squad – only 16 players appeared in five or more of the 42 First Division matches – struggled to cope with an increasing backlog of fixtures. The Red Devils were one of just four English teams playing in Europe after the Heysel ban, and with the league season ending as early as 2 May to accommodate the European Cup final at Wembley then Euro ’92, a victorious League Cup run suddenly left Ferguson with four fixtures to fulfil within the space of less than a week. A Kanchelskis goal gave them a nervy win over Southampton the Thursday after the final, but they were held away to Luton Town two days later before losing at home, for only the second time all season, to Nottingham Forest on Easter Monday.

Destiny was still just about in their hands on the Wednesday, as they travelled wearily to Upton Park to face a West Ham United side whose relegation had been all but confirmed by a dismal loss on the same, muddy pitch against Crystal Palace 48 hours earlier. 18-year-old Giggs, unusually wearing seven, was the sprightliest member of a lineup where all but four had started every one of this gruelling quartet of fixtures. Having toiled through the first half, the visitors found a bit of energy in the second and came close when Mark Hughes’s overhead kick was saved by Luděk Mikloško. From the resulting corner, however, the Hammers broke upfield. Stuart Slater’s cross was cleared by Gary Pallister straight into the on-running full-back Kenny Brown, who somehow – perhaps not entirely deliberately – diverted it straight back past Schmeichel.

Ferguson called it “the luckiest goal imaginable” and described West Ham’s performance, having been dire all season, as an “obscene effort”. Leeds were quite happy, though, as they took over on top and stayed there to take the crown two seasons after promotion.

26 April 2003 – Bolton Wanderers 2-2 Arsenal

Many would argue – this writer included – that the greatest team assembled by Arsène Wenger was the 1997-99 vintage; with the old guard at the back, Emmanuel Petit still alongside Patrick Vieira, plus devastating penetration to complement Dennis Bergkamp’s brilliance up front in the form of Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka. But undoubtedly the most dominant was his next side; that accented by latter day Highbury legends such as Sol Campbell, Fredrik Ljungberg, Robert Pirès, and of course Thierry Henry. The early 21st century Gunners finally stepped out of Treble-era Manchester United’s shadow with a second Double for Wenger in 2001/02, and were awarded a unique golden Premier League trophy for going the entire 2003/04 season unbeaten.

It could, and perhaps should, have been three league titles in a row. The intervening season started in rampant fashion – after a 4-1 win at Leeds United, Wenger compared his charges to “Ajax in the 70s” and claimed, “We are playing great, Total Football”. A late wonder strike by a 16-year-old Everton forward called Wayne Rooney triggered a brief autumnal malaise, but Arsenal rediscovered their stride around Christmas time to go a dozen league matches unbeaten and stand eight points clear on 2 March. The only trouble was that Ruud van Nistelrooy was suddenly firing Manchester United, who had played a game fewer, into an astonishing run of wins which chipped away at the advantage as the Gunners dropped points in tricky trips to Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa.

Entering the final weekend of April, United had moved three points ahead but Arsenal now had the advantage of a game in hand, plus a better goal difference and an easier run-in. The biggest banana skin of their final four fixtures came immediately, on a Saturday lunchtime away to 17th-place Bolton Wanderers, who were fighting for their lives under Sam Allardyce. After a tense first half, in which the visitors were second best, Henry played a 1-2 with Pirès and burst down the left to leave Sylvain Wiltord a tap-in for the opener on 47 minutes. Pirès soon added a second from 20 yards and it was beginning to look simple once again.

Perhaps too much so. Casual Arsenal marking at a Bolton corner allowed Per Frandsen the space to shoot off the post and Youri Djorkaeff netted the rebound. Suddenly panicked, Arsenal conceded another set piece with six minutes remaining. Martin Keown got his head to Djorkaeff’s in-swinging free kick but could only divert the ball past David Seaman for an own goal. Deflated by the shock 2-2 draw, the Gunners surrendered their crown with defeat at home to Leeds the following weekend.

11 April 2012 – Wigan Athletic 1-0 Manchester United

The astonishing nature of the final day, and indeed the final minute served itself to define Manchester City’s Premier League-winning season as one of the most dramatic ever. But at the same time, it may also have left us prone to forget that 2011/12 offered up a quite brilliant title race over the entire course of the 37 games (and 90-something minutes) that went before as well. Roberto Mancini’s men simply charged out of the blocks, scoring fully 42 goals across their first dozen matches in which they drew one and won the other eleven. Neighbours Manchester United, who had been blown away 6-1 at Old Trafford, did well just to keep the gap to five points.

As was so often the case under Sir Alex Ferguson, however, United rose to the new challenge and were imperious in the New Year, matching City’s earlier run of 34 points from a possible 36 with the only blemish a 3-3 draw mustered from three down at Stamford Bridge. The noisy neighbours appeared to misplace their loudhailers around the same time, picking up just five points from as many games bookmarked by 1-0 defeats at Swansea City on 11 March and Arsenal on 8 April. A nightmare (or dream, depending on your perspective) month left United fully eight points clear with just six to play, albeit incorporating a Manchester derby.

On the face of things, an away trip to Wigan Athletic did not appear the most challenging of starts for United’s run-in. The Red Devils had won all 14 of their meetings since the first ever in December 2005, and registered winning margins of either four or five goals on exactly half of those occasions. The Latics, meanwhile, sat second from bottom of the table on just 28 points from 32 matches. But a closer look revealed that Roberto Martinez was in the process of something of a transformation. Since mid-February, they had discovered both solidity and rhythm; turning losses into draws, draws into wins. The reason behind their upturn? A switch in formation to 3-4-3.

Three at the back had virtually disappeared from English football – certainly, United played as if they had never encountered it in their lives. Wigan bossed the possession in the first half, creating more chances and angry to have had a Victor Moses header ruled out for a supposed foul by Gary Caldwell. The disallowed goal mattered little, however, as Shaun Maloney played a short corner with Jean Beausejour on 50 minutes before running inside to strike a perfect curling shot inside David de Gea’s far post. Their extra centre back then helped the hosts stymie the league leaders to the extent that a traditional Fergie comeback never looked likely.

Wigan ended up taking 27 points from their final 14 games after the mid-season tactical revolution. United lost momentum, the derby, and the title. Though many highlighted a 4-4 draw with David Moyes’s Everton as a decisive turning point, the origins of the late season drama had really laid in the brain of another opposing manager.

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Week 35 – Third party involvement (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

14 Apr 2014(Mon)


There are two Formula One seasons which stand out in my memory for the dramatic manner in which my favourite British driver missed out on the championship at the final race. (You see, my home country’s celebration of glorious failure extends to all sports.) The first was in 1986, when Nigel Mansell fought fiercely all year with Nelson Piquet, also driving the all-conquering Williams-Honda, only for both to be usurped at the last by Alain Prost in the supposedly underpowered McLaren-TAG. More recently, in 2007, Lewis Hamilton spent his debut year warring with Fernando Alonso in McLaren-Mercedes cars which were the undoubted class of the field, but it was Kimi Räikkönen who came from nowhere to steal glory in the red Ferrari.

A common pattern is evident here. In both seasons, there were two obvious frontrunners with significant investment behind them and greater resources at their disposal than the rest of the field could dream of. As such, they attracted the most attention throughout as well; one lead contender would use the press to direct mind games at the other, and even when another entrant began to show strong form midway through the year, everyone kind of assumed they would eventually fade away to let the favoured pair hog the spotlight. But they never did. Indeed, it was this third, unfancied candidate who finished the campaign strongest and swept across the line while the high horsepower rivals struggled to find top gear.

We may now be witnessing a similar paradigm in football as the 2013/14 Premier League season draws to a close. Despite their respective managerial changes, this year should have been all about the two financial behemoths – Manchester City and Chelsea. If Liverpool, who finished 28 points off the pace in seventh last term, can maintain their newly seized position of advantage over the final month, it would go down as the most remarkable title win in almost a quarter of a century since the old Football League championship trophy last visited Anfield.

Throughout this long barren period, Liverpool supporters have frequently been mocked for their unfounded optimism. A few years ago,
a graph went around the internet which charted the ‘Scouse Boom-Bust Cycle’ and the bullishness with which Kopites would proclaim “This is our year” at various points of the calendar. Between May and August, said the graph, a boom would be reached when, with no actual football matches to prove otherwise, Liverpool suddenly had the best players in the world in every position. For a while after the season starts, the scousers continue to believe “It’s on!”, until it slowly dawns on them that their team is nothing like as good as they had thought. Bust is then hit around Christmas as “the dying embers of a Liverpool title challenge flicker away into nothing”, but confidence begins its long ascent back up to boom levels from January with the words, “Wait till next season”.

However, the mood on Merseyside before this campaign was different. There were few predictions of instant glory; overconfidence seemed replaced by a more grounded, long-termist outlook. But this was not to be confused with pessimism or abandonment of hope. Instead, the realistic approach was inspired by genuine grounds for expectation. The gap to the others, in part a relic of those tumultuous times under Hicks and Gillett, was surely too large to be overcome in twelve months. Yet Brendan Rodgers had arrived with a clear blueprint for effective, attractive football which, given the right playing staff and time for embedding, was looking more likely to deliver domestic success eventually than any other Liverpool manager in the Premier League era. Even – whisper it – Rafa Benítez.

The various sagas surrounding Luis Suárez – the bite, the ban, the transfer request and cheeky bid from Arsenal – threatened to derail things for a time, but even with the Uruguayan in tow, there was no talk of titles. Pre-season odds had Liverpool at 33-1. Club insiders, and most of the British media, agreed that the target for May 2014 was to be challenging for place in the top four. Even when the extent of Manchester United’s problems under David Moyes became clear, and Arsenal started to run out of steam having failed to sufficiently augment their squad, there still seemed little reason to back Rodgers’s men higher than third. Nobody had gone from outside the top four one season to champions the next since the Gunners in 1989; in an day where money talks loudest, the larger squads of City and Chelsea would surely push away.

All of this is to illustrate the astonishing nature of what Liverpool have achieved already in finding themselves four wins from glory; the only team with destiny in their own hands. Equally astounding – and all the more thrilling – has been the manner with which they have done it. When even the rapidfire 5-1 demolition of Arsenal back in February failed to convince everybody,
this column included, that they were ready this season, they simply stormed on and won every single match since. Ten victories, at an eye-boggling average of 3.5 goals scored per game. A defence which ships three against the Cities of Swansea and Cardiff should not be champion material, but no foe this term has been perfect, and no strikeforce in English football this deadly, this awesome for a generation. The blueprint evolved, adapted, and matured.

Despite rare blanks from Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool have overcome significant mental hurdles in seeing off the Allardycism of West Ham United and the apparent inevitability of Manchester City’s fightback at Anfield. The final big test of their inexperience will come against Chelsea on 27 April, when Rodgers meets the manager most likely to have a plan to foil him. Possible absences for Sturridge and Jordan Henderson complicate the trajectory further.

Yet the realisation is changing. An emotional Steven Gerrard stressed on Sunday that games are to be taken one at a time, but Liverpool know it is there for them, and that the opportunity will never be greater. Next season they will have a busy European schedule too, Chelsea and City will spend to reflect their managers’ thinking more closely, and United surely can’t be this bad again. This is Liverpool’s year – they just have to make it so.

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