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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Week 34 – Off with your head (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

7 Apr 2014(Mon)


The decision by Norwich City to dispense with the services of manager Chris Hughton – plus assistant Colin Calderwood and coach Paul Trollope – has the feel of an all-or-nothing gamble. Interim boss Neil Adams can harness the experience of leading an exciting Canaries U-18 side to the FA Youth Cup last season, but in the short term, even just the superficial galvanising effect a change of boss can have (see Paolo di Canio at the Stadium of Light a year ago) would do the trick. The task is straightforward and immediate – beat Fulham at Craven Cottage next Saturday to pull eight points clear of their opponents and a step closer to survival; Sunderland’s games in hand notwithstanding.

Adams will be sensible to ensure the club’s entire focus this week is on that one fixture. It is when viewed in a wider context that the gravity of their plight becomes stark. Norwich travel to London having failed to collect a single point from their last six away matches; a seventh straight loss on the road would bring the Cottagers back to within two. And then we enter a final four weekends of the calendar which Canaries fans would have circled in red on the calendar, like dreaded exams or deadlines for paying back a dodgy loan shark. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal are the daunting final quartet of hurdles; this is why Norwich really needed to sort out their survival before now.

The club’s statement on Sunday evening praised Hughton for his “excellent” achievement in guiding City to an 11th-place finish last term – their best league position since challenging for the inaugural Premier League title and eventually placing third back in 1992/93. But really, the rot had already begun to set in during that debut season for the former Newcastle United and Birmingham City boss. Norwich may have bettered the 12th place recorded in Paul Lambert’s last season in charge, yet they had three points fewer. The 2011/12 side scored 52 league goals, with Grant Holt netting 15 and Wes Hoolahan a dangerous foil between the opposing lines. A year later, they mustered just 41.

Revitalising the struggling attack was such a priority that Hughton signed fully five strikers in 2013. Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara shone only briefly during a four-month loan spell; Luciano Becchio became the latest in a string of players to join from Leeds United that same January but never once scored and is now reduced to occasional substitute. The transfer activity was even more aggressive ahead of the new season – Johan Elmander came in on loan, Gary Hooper finally joined in a £5 million switch from Celtic, while much of Europe was taken aback when an £8.5 million deal was announced as early as March 2013 for the widely coveted Ricky van Wolfswinkel.

To suit his new, theoretically attacking approach, Hughton began playing more frequently with a front two. To say this has not gone quite as intended would be an understatement. Hooper’s strike rate has fallen to around 25% the potency he enjoyed in Scotland, but at least his five goals compare favourably to the measly one apiece contributed by Elmander and Van Wolfswinkel. The Dutchman joined Norwich on the advice of such illustrious names as Johan Neeskens and Robin van Persie but has endured a miserably barren time since marking his debut with an equaliser against Everton. Both he and Hooper thrived in symbiotic strike partnerships earlier in their careers but not one of the possible combinations this season at Carrow Road has looked right. The goals for column stands at just 26; still ten short of the club record low of 36 for a league season.

Hoolahan may not be the ideal solution anymore at 31 years of age, but even so, he has only started five league games in his favoured central position this term; the 4-4-2 system serving to shoehorn him onto the wing where he is less effective. The Irishman lost patience with the whole setup in January, describing Norwich as “a fucking shithouse club” as he tried to engineer a move to Lambert’s Aston Villa only to have to traverse back over the burnt bridge when it all fell through. Days earlier, Robert Snodgrass had sworn angrily at fans who jeered him against Newcastle United, while John Ruddy had to be pulled away by stewards after remonstrating with the stand behind his goal following Saturday’s miserable loss to West Bromwich Albion.

All has not been as tranquil as the image usually associated with East Anglia. Supporters have been frustrated not only with the results, but the increasing lack of ideas, cohesion, and drive on the pitch. Towards the end of the West Brom game, they sang “We want Hughton out”, and threw the cardboard clappers distributed by a sponsor to help improve atmosphere onto the pitch with play still in progress. The situation had become untenable. In The Guardian, Richard Rae wrote: “One long-standing player, an important and respected figure within the club, has privately let it be known that what they perceived to be Hughton’s constant criticism and emphasis on the negative meant the players were going into games more focused on not making mistakes than on creating opportunities.”

A summer departure for Hughton was expected anyway, but with Norwich still requiring points for survival, the club felt they needed to roll the dice in a desperate last attempt to get out of this rut. Adams is in a no-lose situation as survival makes him the hero while relegation would be blamed on his predecessor, but even the immediate task is not easy. The Canaries have not beaten Fulham in any of their last 15 meetings since March 1986.

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Week 33 – On your head (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

31 Mar 2014(Mon)


Arsenal versus Manchester City might have stolen the prime broadcast slot and most of the headlines, but the biggest game of the Premier League weekend was arguably West Bromwich Albion’s 3-3 thriller against Cardiff City – certainly in terms of the impact success or failure in the battle to avoid relegation will have on either club’s finances. Noise levels at The Hawthorns were certainly befitting of the occasion’s importance. Home fans were suitably spurred by the return of their beloved pre-game anthem, The Liquidator, a reggae instrumental track released in 1969 by the Harry J Allstars. Perhaps more familiar to the international television audience for its use at Stamford Bridge, West Midlands Police had banned the song for the past eight seasons as the Baggies faithful would use its tune to shout obscenities about fierce rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Inevitably, they did so again on Saturday; the galvanising effect was immediate on the pitch too, as West Brom raced into a 2-0 lead through Morgan Amalfitano and Graham Dorrans inside just nine minutes. But even once the excitement surrounding the second goal died down, supporters on all sides of the ground remained on their feet in salute to one of the club’s greatest ever number nines – Jeff Astle, who passed away in 2002. After 3,000 travelling supporters to the previous weekend’s away game with Hull City had spent the ninth minute applauding their old hero, this marked a home debut for the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign.

Signed from his own local club, Notts County, in 1964 for £25,000, Astle netted 174 times in 361 appearances over ten seasons to rank as the fourth highest scorer in Albion history. A classic centre forward, he formed a devastating double threat with his roommate and best friend, the inside forward Tony Brown, who remained at The Hawthorns until 1981 and continues to hold the club’s all-time goal record with 279. During their career together, the Baggies reached four major finals in four years; Astle scoring in the first leg of their League Cup final win over West Ham United in 1966.

the greatest highlight came at Wembley in 1968 against Everton in the FA Cup final. Though more renowned for his heading, Astle hit a right-footed shot which was blocked by the opposing captain, Brian Labone, before rifling home the rebound with his weaker left for the game’s only goal three minutes into extra time. This sealed West Brom’s last major honour to date, and put the striker into a select group of players to have scored in every round of the competition in one season.

Astle was selected for England in the Home Championship against Wales a year later, but a debut goal was cruelly chalked off when his header was stopped on the line by a defender’s hand; he swept home the rebound only for the referee to point to the spot for the original infringement. A terrific 1969/70 season, in which Astle led the Division One scoring charts with 25 goals, then saw him book a place on the plane to Mexico as Alf Ramsey’s men sought to defend their Jules Rimet trophy at the 1970 World Cup. The Albion man missed the opening group game with Romania, but got his big chance five days later in
the legendary clash with Brazil – as a second-half replacement for Bobby Charlton shortly after Jairzinho had put the Seleção in front.

Within three minutes of the substitution, left-back Terry Cooper crossed the ball from deep. His opposite number, Everaldo, miskicked an attempted clearance horribly, and it dropped at the feet of Astle just by the penalty spot. With just a stranded Félix in goal to beat, however, this time the left foot let him down and the shot flew well wide. England lost, and although Astle was picked to start against Czechoslovakia, he again failed to score, was dropped for the quarter-final loss to West Germany, and never appeared for his country again.

The miss against Brazil became the self-deprecating punchline of a risqué joke as the good-humoured Astle toured his own roadshow post-retirement, which he combined with a window cleaning business under the slogan: “Jeff Astle never misses the corners”. This eye for a gag – and willingness to laugh at himself – made him the ideal ex-pro for a regular cameo spot on television. In the mid-1990s, he teamed up with stand-up comics David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – a West Brom fan who had idolised Astle as a child - on the classic football comedy programme, Fantasy Football League, which was ultimately responsible for the Euro ’96 anthem Three Lions.

This brought him new popularity among a generation too young to have seen him play. Astle appeared at the end of each show to sing a karaoke song – off time and out of tune. He was also the butt of a joke
in a skit guest-starring Carlos Alberto Torres, who protested at the presenters’ mocking of on-field blunders by the Brazilian stars of 1970 with reference to that second half chance: “Look, I remember that World Cup very well. There was only one guy who truly deserved the title ‘shite’. Jeff Astle was shite!” Astle himself then appears, pointing out his performances as a vocalist and correcting the legendary right-back: “Oi! Not so much of the ‘was’…”

His death at the age of just 59, marked on Fantasy Football League by a minute’s silence in place of the end-of-show song, shocked the English game – not least because the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘death by industrial injury’. According to the highly respected neuro-pathologist Dr. Keith Robson, it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that Astle’s aerial prowess in an era of heavier, non-waterproof footballs had been the underlying cause of catastrophic, fatal brain damage. The player’s widow, Laraine, told the Mail on Sunday last month: “Every slice of Jeff’s brain had trauma in it. It resembled the brain of a boxer’s as a direct result of heading footballs.” Early-onset dementia meant that, towards the end of his life, Astle could no longer remember his footballing achievements or even the club he had played for.

The Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association announced at the time that a ten-year study would be conducted into the relationship between heading and brain injury, but troublingly, 12 years have passed without any such research receiving a further mention. It has been suggested that the project was abandoned when the footballers selected as case study subjects failed to turn professional. But statistical research in academia, independent from football’s governing bodies, is confirming what many in the game have long suspected. For example, The Guardian reports that investigations at Turin University, looking at the medical records of 7,000 former players from 1970 to 2001, has shown the risk of motor neurone disease is six times higher than normal.

The Astle family never heard anything from the FA again until last week when, in light of media attention surrounding the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign, the chairman Greg Dyke wrote to them with a lengthy apology. In a season where doctors have already been shocked at the sight of players like Romelu Lukaku and Hugo Lloris being cleared to play immediately after suffering head injuries, the new FA regime needs to get serious, and quickly. Chris Bryant MP, the Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, told the Daily Mail: “I spoke with a leading neuro-pathologist who works with the New York Jets this week and she’s amazed that Britain seems to be 15 years behind America on this… My fear is that some of the sports are just putting their head in the sand and there is a point when that just becomes criminal negligence… The truth is they don’t know what headers do to people.”

‘Justice for Jeff’ is not remotely about compensation; it is about awareness. One hopes that the love that football fans continue to hold for their old heroes will inspire appropriate action to make life safer for the Astles of today and tomorrow.

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Week 32 – Who’s really in charge? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

24 Mar 2014(Mon)


There are three types of ‘football manager’. By this, I refer not to the personalities or managerial techniques of the individuals in question, but rather the job descriptions implied by the term. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that there are three types of football club, distinguished by who is really in charge. The positioning of the big cheese, the man most responsible for long-term strategy, has a defining impact on the role and life expectancy of he who sits nominally behind the manager’s door.

The first paradigm is the nouveau riche, the clubs flung suddenly to the forefront regardless of historical status by the massive injection of financial capital. Here, the most important person is the owner (alternatively a representative thereof), whether an actual living person like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, or a corporate person such as the Qatar Investment Authority for Paris Saint-Germain. This model is arguably the newest, carried to extreme orders of magnitude beyond the imagination of earlier entrepreneurs from Blackburn Rovers’ steel magnate Jack Walker to PSG’s prior experience with Canal+.

It also typically sits most uncomfortably with fans and observers, but despite this, is the easiest of the three to understand. Long-term success is the expected product of sustained, nine- or ten-figure investment. The manager is provided with world-class playing resources to deliver trophies immediately; if he fails, he is quickly expendable. Just ask Antoine Kombouaré, Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo, or even José Mourinho. Should Manuel Pellegrini fail to add to his Capital One Cup success this term, vultures will be hovering close by to monitor his early progress next.

The second is the hybrid model, or the ‘continental’ model as we like to refer to it in England – partly in deference to its modernity, and partly to imply due scepticism for anything devised offshore from our islands by one of those flashy Euro types. Here, it is the technical director who calls the shots – ideally overseeing transfer policy and devising a long-term playing strategy which filters down from first team to youth academy. In such a setup, the manager should enjoy a little more job security, though if he does leave – be it down to poor results or a new challenge – the technical director can appoint an appropriate successor without veering from the underlying vision.

I say ‘should’, for rarely has this paradigm been implemented properly or with full conviction in the Premier League. Almost always, this has been because the technical director joins the club second and is thrust upon the undermined, incumbent manager – thus recklessly subverting the whole principle of having the former appoint a gaffer he can work with. The farcical situation at Newcastle United with Dennis Wise in the boardroom led to the resignation of Kevin Keegan, who had managed the former Chelsea captain with England just eight years previously. Harry Redknapp was such an overshadowing presence as director of football at Portsmouth that he actually usurped Graham Rix as manager. But the true master of this field is Avram Grant – such a supportive director was the Israeli at both Chelsea and Pompey that he replaced Mourinho and Paul Hart in the respective dugouts within about two months apiece.

Tottenham Hotspur were at least a little more intelligent in doing things the wrong way around, recruiting Franco Baldini from Roma in part due to the recommendation of then-manager André Villas-Boas. But while AVB reportedly hoped the Gareth Bale cash would be spent on João Moutinho, Hulk, and David Villa, Baldini instead went four better and signed seven entirely different players; it looked like decent business until the Portuguese was sacked in December with none of the new faces having really yet fit in. Tim Sherwood exposed a lack of the unified philosophy supposedly implied by this type of management structure by immediately introducing a different style of play upon his promotion from the academy. Latest gossip is that Spurs want Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman will refuse to answer to Baldini or any other technical director.

Greater success has come through slight overlaps in the Venn diagram. Swansea City have not installed a director of football, but a vision for the club at boardroom level saw them smoothly through four managerial changes from Kenny Jackett to Michael Laudrup with a visibly consistent development in playing philosophy throughout. At Liverpool, nobody has been brought in as director of football since Damien Comolli’s ill-fated stint between 2010 and 2012, but instead there is now a four-man ‘transfer committee’ of which manager Brendan Rodgers is part. The new setup was responsible for the coups of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. However, given the bodged attempts at re-jigging the defensive resources last summer, the former Swansea boss could be forgiven for craving greater autonomy.

For this would take him, and Liverpool, into our third and final paradigm. This is the model most conservative, yet even as it slips out of fashion, it remains undoubtedly the most familiar to British football and still probably the most coveted by senior managers (see Redknapp in the face of QPR’s ownership or, potentially, Van Gaal at Tottenham). It is the style adhered to by Arsenal and Manchester United, and it offers the manager the greatest job security of all. Put simply, not only does this manager oversee the first team, but it is he who exercises supreme control over the club’s entire long-term agenda – essentially encompassing every football-related aspect from recruitment to diet, technology to pitch conditioning. As Sir Alex Ferguson put it: “The most important person in the club is the manager. And that must always be sacrosanct.”

Of course, there will be delegation along the way. But even then, Arsène Wenger is no stranger to the label ‘dictator’, and ultimately, the manager is all powerful. In this model, it is a bigger, more encompassing job than in either of our previous two templates; highest up the echelons of relative command. It is this very job description that allowed Ferguson to remain in charge for 1,500 matches; Wenger for 1,000 and counting. Simultaneously, only this definition of a manager could have afforded the Frenchman almost nine years to further his speciality – as some have cruelly put it – in failure. Only in this paradigm is David Moyes still given the opportunity to lay out his future plans at the end of Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League season for the directors to decide if they remain on board.

For better or for worse, the clubs who follow the classic British model are left with a responsibility to trust in their manager. But all the more, given the breadth of his responsibility, the greater chunk of the club and its overall strategy he therefore represents, it is a far harder decision to remove him.

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Week 30 – Black and white (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

10 Mar 2014(Mon)


However much Tottenham Hotspur manager Tim Sherwood may have lamented the players’ “capitulation” away to Chelsea – while making little comment on his own culpability in the 0-4 scoreline – the fact is that our focus match on this week’s Foot! TUESDAY was effectively ended as a contest on the hour mark. Even if Sandro hadn’t lost his footing to allow in Demba Ba; or if Jan Vertonghen, Hugo Lloris, and Kyle Walker hadn’t contrived to present the Senegalese striker with a quickfire second; or if Sherwood had actually devised a Plan B to restore their slight first half superiority after the interval; there was simply no way back for the visitors once Younès Kaboul saw red for felling Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard dispatched the resulting penalty kick.

The immediate feeling was that the sending off was harsh. Contact had been slight, although not necessarily insignificant enough to call the awarding of the foul into question. A quick turnover had allowed Eto’o the moment he needed to get goal side for Hazard’s cross, which meant the unfortunate Kaboul could only bundle into the back of him. In commentary, the former Spurs striker Clive Allen tried to reason that the Cameroonian would have needed to take a touch before he could have shot, but it was difficult to articulate the sense of injustice – the disappointment at a match ended by Tottenham’s hopeless task with ten – in a manner that could have held up in court. Whether or not he may have wished it so, the only question requiring the judgement of referee Michael Oliver was if Eto’o had been denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Context, discretion, and common sense do not come into it.

This situation is largely the end product of a cyclical clamour for clarification. Over the last 25 years, during which television and internet have overseen a revolution in football coverage, the trend has been to clamp down upon infringements which may cause injury or unfairly influence the result of matches with harsher punishment. This, in itself, is undeniably a good thing. But repeated interrogation of controversial incidents – in part by the media, in part by the ‘wronged’ players and clubs – has intensified demand for consistency, which in turn requires unambiguous, black-and-white definitions. The result is a whopping 77-page appendage to the 48-page ‘Laws of the Game’, designed to offer precise ‘Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees’. Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct – itself only spans four pages but warrants a further 14 to clear things up in the latter document.

Achieving mastery of each nuance in the annually-revised Laws, their interpretations, and guidelines is a challenging task for all match officials – and one routinely neglected by players, coaches, and journalists. But no matter how extensive the textual legislation may be, it could patently never encompass every single scenario that might conceivably unfold on the pitch, while its very existence presents a further, fundamental problem. It forgets that referees are human.

Take, for instance, the case of West Bromwich Albion’s Ben Foster, who was two or three paces outside his 18-yard area when he handled the ball late in the first half against Manchester United on Saturday. The England man was clearly at fault, but through clumsiness rather than cheating – indeed, it was one of two or three occasions during that game on which he misjudged the flight of the ball entirely. Yet given the proximity of Robin van Persie, there could be no uncertainty that when Foster kicked the air, United would have had an obvious goalscoring opportunity had the ball been allowed to continue on its path beyond the goalkeeper’s hand.

Despite the speed of the play, it seems unlikely that referee Jon Moss and his assistant would have missed the incident. But because of all this clarification we have deemed so necessary, the officials were left with two polar opposites for choices – ‘see’ the offence and show a red card, thereby killing the match in question and dealing the Baggies’ survival hopes a further blow with a suspension for their goalkeeper, or ‘not see’ any offence whatsoever. Given the Draconian severity of the former alternative in the context of such a minor error on Foster’s part – it was hardly a handball akin to Luis Suárez against Ghana – the latter outcome felt closer on the scale of things to fair justice, even if the decision itself was not correct.

Short-sightedly, the International Football Association Board rejected a plea from UEFA earlier this month to reconsider the ‘triple jeopardy’ rule through which a single foul can be punished with a penalty, a red card, and a subsequent ban. The Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan, one of four British representatives who comprise the Board alongside a quartet from FIFA, explained, “We don’t want to flip back to where we were before where some goalkeepers knew that if they could not be sent off, they would simply take out the attacker.”

But here again is that obsession with black-and-white clarity. Surely there is no need for a ruling that all fouls of a certain prescribed subset must be punished identically? Why should we either have to send off every single goalkeeper, or not any goalkeeper, in Regan’s example? In the interpretations appendix for Law 12, there is a distinction between ‘careless’, meaning that “the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution”; and ‘reckless’, where “the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent”. This is used to determine whether or not to show a yellow card elsewhere on the pitch, but why not allow a similar distinction to decide between yellow and red for offences that deny a goalscoring opportunity?

The key point is that there will always be shades of grey, but by such insistence upon black or white, referees have been denied the humane discretion to respond accordingly to context. Had Oliver and Moss been allowed to exercise their own reading of the game, and whistle but show yellow or even no card at all to Kaboul and Foster respectively, the matches may have continued to a more satisfying conclusion. Our fixation with consistency has just produced more extreme inconsistency, and as such, it is time to make “in the opinion of the referee” the key sentence of every Law and guideline once again.

* Kaboul's red card was rescinded after this piece was written.

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