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February 2013

Week 28 – Away goals rule OK? (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

27 Feb 2013(Wed)


The inaugural Capital One Cup final was a fitting way to round off what has been a thoroughly entertaining and refreshing League Cup competition this season. Despite the one-sided, 5-0 scoreline in favour of Swansea City – a record – this was a rare instance where the overwhelming inclination was to lower the sceptical eyebrow and just enjoy it. Where the cliché “everyone’s a winner” actually felt appropriate.

By securing their first ever major English honour so emphatically just seven days after losing by the same scoreline away to Liverpool, Swansea not only were vindicated for the raft of changes made by manager Michael Laudrup at Anfield but also offered up a rough remake of his legendary Denmark side, which thrashed Uruguay 6-1 and lost 5-1 to Spain in successive weeks at the 1986 World Cup. Their ruthless attacking quality has made the club’s centenary season one to remember for fans and neutrals alike, and has now been rewarded with both silverware and European football.

But as Laudrup acknowledged in his pre-match press conference, Swansea were the “underdog” against the “under-under-underdog”. Their beaten opponents, Bradford City of League Two, were already one of the stories of the season for having eliminated three Premier League teams en route to becoming the first fourth-tier club ever to contest a League Cup final at Wembley. Even as defeat grew inevitable, their fans in claret and amber – or rhubarb and custard, as per the traditional English dessert – sang on with a pride seldom seen at big club matchups and rivalled only by the Bantams players and staff. Poignant tributes were made to the 56 who perished in the Valley Parade fire of 1985. At full time, Bradford supporters applauded the victorious Swansea team, who rightly returned the gesture. It was an occasion for mutual joy and appreciation.

But having extolled the virtues of the rejuvenated League Cup on these pages before, this time I wish to focus on a small, but significant technical lesson the rest of football can learn from the tournament. Uniquely, in the two-legged semi-finals of the Capital One Cup, the away goals rule only comes into play at the end of 120 minutes. And this little quirk, despite only having to be applied three times in the past decade, is just a bloody good idea.

Last Tuesday, as we wrapped up our recording of Foot! with a 70-second muse on that night’s Champions League schedule, my colleague Akihiko Nishioka expressed the view that – contrary to popular (and UEFA) logic – Arsenal should be glad to face Bayern Munich at home first as the impetus would be on them to attack rather than rely on their flimsy defence. I happen to agree, but for quite different reasons. The threat and fear of conceding an away goal is now so significant that, by playing the second leg at the home of the opposition, there is a genuine advantage in knowing where you stand away goals-wise before your own turn to score some.

The crux of the issue is that, with changing times, the away goals rule has lost its historical relevance and now largely serves to impede what it was originally designed to foster. First introduced by UEFA for the old Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965 and the other continental competitions over the following two seasons, its origins are rooted in a very different Europe to 2013. Clubs and players neither could afford, nor were afforded the same standards of luxury. Journeys were longer, less comfortable, and delayed by visa and immigration procedures that have largely been eliminated today. An Iron Curtain divided Europe, and the nation of Germany, into East and West; crossing was an exercise in propaganda and – in terms of dodgy food, hotels, and even officials – cold war.

In short, away trips were tough, and with little prior knowledge of their opponents anyway, travel-weary visitors were often keen just to return having kept the damage to a minimum. As Ian Hawkey writes in The Blizzard, only 16% of European Cup matches between 1967 and 1972 ended in away victories. It was not uncommon for each contestant of a given tie to comfortably win their home leg; on fully ten occasions before the fall of communism and the tournament’s reinvention as the Champions League, teams managed to overturn three-goal deficits from the first, away leg to secure progression. The away goal rule was thus intended to redress the balance slightly by offering travelling sides a greater incentive to attack.

This still makes sense in geographically vast and diverse regions like Africa and Asia, but 21st-century Europe is a much smaller place. First-class flights to visit familiar opponents whose domestic matches are beamed live across the globe no longer fit the old paradigm of arduous adventures into the unknown.

In each of the last five seasons of Champions and Europa League football, the percentage of away wins has hovered between 30% and 35%. Now, visiting teams no longer require the extra carrot to attack; yet they are still granted it, and the psychological impact twists the other way. Home advantage, and the related desire to hunt goals, are now quelled by the fear of conceding – to the detriment of both spectacle and competition. When the second leg of the semi-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich reached overall parity after just 27 minutes last year, the home side at the Bernabeu were increasingly unable (or unwilling) to capitalise on their superiority knowing that anything conceded on the counter would leave them needing to score twice.

This is not an issue in the Capital One Cup semis, where teams are able to attack or defend as they wish and only have to even think about away goals after two lots of 90 minutes have ended up level. Only in the event that one side is forced to play an extra half hour on enemy territory are they offered a little sweetener. Effectively, the away goal rule is therefore prioritised as a tiebreaker over the penalty shootout but not over extra time, as it is in Europe. The result is more goals and more open football – witness Tottenham Hotspur’s 5-1 rout of Arsenal in 2008, Aston Villa’s mental 6-4 win over Blackburn Rovers in 2010, and the fabulously dramatic Manchester derbies that same year.

While acknowledging the respective levels of the teams involved, it would be nice if the continental elite were stripped of such anachronistic inhibitions to express themselves with similar freedom.

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Week 27 – Coming out (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

20 Feb 2013(Wed)


A couple of mornings ago, while wearily flicking through the football pages on Flipboard before contemplating a rare Saturday without any Premier League, I was quickly awakened by a headline which – for the briefest moment – seemed to promise revolution.

“Robbie Rogers: Ex-Leeds United and USA winger reveals he is gay”, proudly proclaimed the bold typeface from the surface of my smartphone.

But the chain reaction of possibilities and implications this revelation had triggered amid my newly-firing neurons was just as instantly disappointed by the diversion in context delivered by the opening paragraph of this article
on the BBC website. The 25-year-old, who has 18 full caps for his country and was released from Leeds last month after a loan spell at Stevenage, was actually “stepping away from football after announcing he is gay”.

My regret was not directed at Rogers, who has rightly received widespread support and the public backing of former teammates such as
Stuart Holden and Robert Snodgrass for his braveness and honesty in revealing a secret he was afraid “would get in the way of my dreams”. It may well be that football has served its purpose for the Californian as the “escape” that “hid my secret”; no longer a necessary tool for a young man looking forward “to discover[ing] myself away from football”. But the concern lingers – even acknowledging the positive tone with which the open letter on his personal website concludes – that Rogers has decided his sport, and the environment which surrounds it, is not a viable match for his sexual identity.

In 2013, still the only openly homosexual player in English football history is Justin Fashanu – and even his is a story of tragedy rather than pioneering positivity. The son of a Nigerian barrister living in London, Fashanu burst to prominence as a teenager at Norwich City with a spectacular curling effort against Liverpool that earned him the BBC Goal of the Season award in 1980. But after a £1 million transfer to Nottingham Forest the following year, he found that the racial bigotry which confronted black sportsmen in 1980s Britain was compounded by homophobic prejudice within his own place of work.

Famous for his quick and cutting wit, the legendary Forest boss Brian Clough was, alas, also a man of old values born in the interwar period. In his 1995 autobiography, he boasted of how he shunned Fashanu after learning of the latter’s visits to gay bars and nightclubs:

“Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?” I asked him.
“A baker’s, I suppose.”
“Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?”
“A butcher’s.”
“So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?”

Fashanu’s career soon stalled. Cast aside at the City Ground, he moved to neighbours Notts County then 17 other clubs throughout a nomadic career that never lived up to its early promise. He publicly came out as gay in The Sun in October 1990, and was callously disowned by his own brother, England forward John. Following allegations of sexual assault, which Justin denied but saw himself as presumed guilty by others, he was found hanged in May 1998 at the age of 37.

Thankfully, wider society has moved on. Though it may be somewhat premature to proclaim Britain as a model of freedom and equality, the swing-o-meter of unacceptable social taboo has swung inexorably away from homosexuality and towards its polar opposite – homophobia – over the past 30 years. Civil partnerships for same-sex couples have been legal since 2005, and the Conservative-led (!) government is now pushing through reforms to extend this recognition to same-sex marriage. All manner of public figures – from politicians to singers and other celebrities – have announced their homosexuality and, in the most part, been all the more respected for it.

Why, then, has football not seen similar progress? One of the UK’s best-loved comedians and most omnipresent television personalities is the flamboyantly effeminate Alan Carr, whose popularity and self-confidence contrasts with the difficulties he once faced growing up as the gay son of a footballer. Indeed, it was not until doing background research for a recent edition of Foot! TUESDAY that I even realised his father was the respected Newcastle United scout Graham – a tough-tackling, tough-talking half-back to whom the family resemblance is not instantly obvious. (Incidentally, the original script for the show asked me to compare Alan Carr with a similar Japanese celebrity; this was dropped as Japan is yet to reach the same paradigm in terms of openly LGBT figures in the public eye.)

Carr junior’s experiences highlight not only the changing times, but the chasm of tolerance that still exists between the cultural mean and the football field. In
an interview with The Guardian in 2007, he said: “I’d change school and my dad would be manager so they’d make me team captain and they’d go, ‘We've got a celebrity’s son in,’ and I'm like, ‘No no no,’ and I’d be screaming and toe-punting the ball like Goldie Hawn. It would just be awful, the bullying and stuff... I remember kids shouting out, ‘You're gay’ and I didn’t know what gay meant.”

The sense today is that such hostility would stem not from fellow players and Clough-like coaches, but from the stands. A succession of high-profile, heterosexual footballers – from Matt Jarvis of West Ham United (who last month appeared on the cover of the gay magazine Attitude) to Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard and German international Philipp Lahm – have said that their dressing rooms would happily welcome a gay teammate. However, where fierce supporter rivalry is combined with mob mentality, absolutely anything becomes a valid target for masculine terrace ‘banter’ and the lowest common denominator is quickly reached. Former England defenders Sol Campbell and Graeme le Saux have both been the target of persistent homophobic abuse; both are straight and married.

As such, it is easy to see why a footballer who really was gay might prefer not to mention it. On an organisational level, the Football Association in England launched a new six-point plan for greater inclusiveness last year. But unfortunately, for the 21st-century waters to be properly tested, it will take the first gay player to directly confront their watching public with the demand that homophobia, like racism, be kicked out. “Homosexuals are in need of a hero,” said Lindegaard in his blog last November. “They are in need of someone who dares to stand up for their sexuality.”

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, says “We do have players who’ve said that, while they are gay, they don’t feel comfortable enough to come out.” With tens of thousands of professionals active in the major European leagues every weekend, it is a statistical certainty that there must be several others. That the supposed people’s game should continue to force them to conceal their true selves is embarrassing and unacceptable.

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Week 26 – Outfought (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

13 Feb 2013(Wed)


A week ago on these pages, I used examples of Premier League seasons past to illustrate that a title race comeback for Manchester City was still very much on. The actions of the past weekend have spoken far louder than my words in illustrating why the bookmakers – both Paddy Power and Betfred thus far – are safe to pay out early on their neighbours this time. Manchester United worked hard and functioned as a team in a thoroughly professional 2-0 victory over Champions League-chasing Everton to pull out a 12-point advantage after the Citizens had been outplayed in every conceivable aspect by relegation-battling Southampton. While last season was all about the drama and the fightbacks, the keyword that keeps cropping up to describe City’s campaign now is ‘complacency’.

Roberto Mancini remains highly popular with the supporters at Eastlands, who appreciate his achievements in ending their 35- and 44-year wait for silverware and league titles, respectively, and are keen that their club should not mirror the managerial revolving door farce at similarly-moneyed Chelsea. Certainly, he has courted (and earned) their sympathy by repeatedly expressing his frustrations with the board for not acquiring the desired reinforcements last summer. While it is impossible to talk about City as a club without mentioning the cash – not least while Europe’s big guns jostle for position before Financial Fair Play – it is patently ridiculous that they have failed to generate anything like the squad depth to compare with United.

At Old Trafford, as Mancini is painfully aware, dynasties have been built upon an absolute determination to improve, constantly, upon either failure or success. Losing out on Robin van Persie was naturally the headline story of August, but while the Dutchman has quickly become the one player United cannot do without, City – much to their detriment – actually have several. Eden Hazard, Javi Martínez, and Daniele de Rossi were all on the shopping list for a manager who recognised the need to complement his resources with ready-made quality. For whatever reason, none were attracted to join the Etihad project. The last-minute signings, instead, of prospects like Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell have done little to support the here and now.

After their 3-1 dismantling at St. Mary’s (this week’s featured game on Foot! TUESDAY), Mancini was less than coy with his critique: “I think this is the worst game in the last two or three years. We played maybe with two players… Probably we think because we won last year we are top players, but to stay at the top you need to work like we did last year.”

Whether or not he was right to criticise individual members of the team in public is another issue – speaking on Talksport, Andy Gray suggested the Italian’s comments implied he had given up on this season and was already looking to next – the bare gist was hard to disagree with. It was a lazy and listless City, not Southampton, who looked as if they had only been playing in League One a couple of seasons ago.

An overreliance on the availability and performances of four or five star names is compounded by the knowledge for an even higher proportion of the first eleven that there are few reserves waiting to threaten their places no matter how much they underperform. The baffling decision to sell Nigel de Jong a fortnight after his excellent performance in the Community Shield has removed both selection and tactical options to revitalise a midfield compromised by the questionable form of Gareth Barry, Yaya Toure, and Samir Nasri. Mancini had no backup strikers on Saturday, either; even though it had surprised no-one that Mario Balotelli should end up being sent packing mid-season or that
 Carlos Tévez would disappear off for ‘family reasons’ again.

But while the manager may be justified in apportioning blame elsewhere for City’s self-satisfied stagnation, he must equally accept a good third of the responsibility himself. His starting selection at Southampton, for example, smacked of both arrogance and petulance in light of his grievances with the fixture calendar. Midfielder Javi García was chosen to partner Joleon Lescott in central defence despite Vincent Kompany passing a fitness test, with Matija Nastasić and Kolo Toure not considered after their international exertions.

The result was a fatally misbalanced foundation and a raft of glaring errors. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, who toyed with the idea of squad rotation before ultimately fielding a strong side against Everton, Mancini does not have midweek European football to worry about and the fact he didn’t consider it worth risking at least one of his sidelined defenders hinted at an underestimation of Mauricio Pochettino’s energetic front line. While United deployed Phil Jones in midfield to effectively nullify the identified threat of Marouane Fellaini, City lacked an original game plan and the only, belated attempt to overturn an obviously failing situation was a tactical microcosm of their season – a half-hearted, unsuccessful experiment with 3-5-2.

Therein lies the key difference. The reason we so rarely see United go 90 minutes with, as the City boss suggests, nine players performing so badly is that Ferguson simply would not allow it. Hairdryers would be plugged in and bold changes made – even during the first half if necessary. The winning mentality cultivated at Old Trafford stems from a manager who both instils and demands it. Whatever the extenuating circumstances, if Mancini’s squad is not sufficiently motivated then it is his job – and his alone – to rectify that.

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Week 25 – The fightback (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

6 Feb 2013(Wed)


It was never quite supposed to be like this. After all the drama of 12 months ago, most anticipated that the Premier League title would boil down to another two-horse race between the opposing sides of Manchester, but few would have foreseen United – nowadays the less financially-endowed of the pair – pulling out a nine-point advantage with a third of the season to go.

However, as both managers are at pains to point out, the battle is by no means over. Relieved of all European commitments, City will be plotting to close the gap while United deal with Real Madrid et al ahead of another tense final month in which the Red Devils must face both Arsenal and Chelsea.

A tough ask for those at Eastlands, perhaps, but Premier League history is littered with tales of comebacks and springtime upheaval. Below are a quartet of title races that will offer hope to City fans – and neutrals looking forward to more frantic channel-hopping come 19 May.

1995/96 – MANCHESTER UNITED 82pts, Newcastle United 78pts
Britpop, Euro ’96, and what is still the most famous Premier League fightback of all time. 1996 was a good year to be English – albeit somewhat less so to be Geordie.

Since their return to the top flight in 1993, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side had wowed audiences up and down the land with their exciting, attacking brand of football. Now, with the goals of Les Ferdinand complemented by the creative talents of Peter Beardsley and David Ginola, some fans were getting their ‘CHAMPIONS 96’ shirts printed as early as New Year. A 2-1 victory over Bolton Wanderers on 20 January meant the Magpies had won every one of their first dozen home matches and led the rest by as many points.

Manchester United, by contrast, had begun the season with a damning verdict from Alan Hansen –
“You can’t win anything with kids” – ringing in their ears after several departed stars had been replaced by 20-year-olds like Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham. But the return of Eric Cantona to serve as mentor after an eight-month ban for his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan slowly galvanised the young team and fostered a stubborn winning mentality. When the two Uniteds met at St. James’ Park on 4 March, Newcastle absolutely battered their visitors but couldn’t find a way past the inspired Peter Schmeichel. A sole Cantona strike ended their record of invincibility.

It was a sign of things to come. The Frenchman scored crucial goals in each of the next six games – a draw and five single-goal wins – to ease the Red Devils in front over Easter as
Newcastle slowly lost their nerve. In front of the Sky Sports cameras, Keegan exploded in rage at comments from Alex Ferguson, famously yelling “I will love it if we beat them – love it!”. Defeat was effectively conceded there and then.

1997/98 – ARSENAL 78pts, Manchester United 77pts
Intentionally or otherwise, Arsene Wenger was far more successful at riling Ferguson after arriving at Highbury from Nagoya Grampus Eight. In 1996/97, Le Professeur objected to United’s request for extra rest time after their exploits in the Champions League – for the final time, still a competition exclusively for champions – to which the Scot suggested Wenger would be better off keeping his opinions to Japanese football. Despite the retirement of Cantona and a torn cruciate knee ligament for Roy Keane, United remained on top the following season and any concern over Arsenal was forgotten as the Gunners trailed by 13 points (albeit having played a match fewer) at Christmas.

As other pretenders like Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea slipped off the pace, United entered March still 12 ahead of the North Londoners, infamously prompting bookmaker Betfred to pay out early for all those who had backed the Reds for a third straight crown. But by this stage, Arsenal had three games in hand and were on top form; inspired by the striking talents of
Dennis Bergkamp, Nicolas Anelka, and – remember him? – Christopher Wreh.

Without the squad depth to cover an increasingly severe injury crisis, Ferguson was forced to field six defenders for a vital home match against their reinvigorated rivals that was decided by
a solitary Marc Overmars goal on 79 minutes. Unbeaten since the festive period, this was the second of ten successive wins for Arsenal that culminated in a glorious 4-0 thrashing of Everton and the Premier League trophy in May.

2002/03 – MANCHESTER UNITED 83pts, Arsenal 78pts
The United-Arsenal rivalry reached its peak in the early 2000s. As Ferguson sought to retune his side towards greater continental prowess with the signings of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastián Verón, Wenger dealt out the ultimate insult in May 2002 with a
victory at Old Trafford that sealed not only the league title but the double. With Thierry Henry at the peak of his goalscoring powers and Robert Pirès chipping in with 16 himself from midfield, Arsenal stretched out an eight-point lead at the start of March 2003 and appeared set to confirm the shift in hegemony away from Manchester.

But United’s nascent dabblings with a fluid 4-2-3-1 system were beginning to bear fruit – even if this did often mean benching the Real Madrid-bound Beckham in favour of Ole Gunnar Solskjær. After
losing at Middlesbrough on Boxing Day, they went unbeaten for the rest of the season; hammering Liverpool 4-0 and fellow title challengers Newcastle 6-2 before drawing 2-2 at Highbury within 11 memorable days in April. The Gunners only won once all month and surrendered both a 2-0 lead and, decisively, top spot in a painful draw away at Bolton. Their subsequent home loss to relegation-battling Leeds United sent the championship back to the Red Devils – for whom Van Nistelrooy netted an unthinkable (pre-Ronaldo) 44 goals in all competitions.

2011/12 – MANCHESTER CITY 89pts (GD +64), Manchester United 89pts (GD+56)
Of course, Manchester City fans only need look back a year for the best reminder that it really isn’t all over until the fat lady sings. 2-1 down at home to lowly Queens Park Rangers on the final day,
stoppage time goals from Edin Džeko and Sergio Agüero sealed a first championship for 44 years in a climax rivalled only by Liverpool-Arsenal in 1989 for its hypertension-inducing improbability.

Roberto Mancini’s new-look, gung-ho City had stormed out of the traps through late summer and autumn with 12 wins, two draws, and fully 48 goals from their opening 14 matches – including a devastating 6-1 romp at Old Trafford which gave them a five-point lead they retained for most of the remainder of the calendar year. But as United dusted themselves off, the blue side of Manchester suddenly imploded as winter turned to spring. A run of five games yielded only one victory, culminating in a
late Mikel Arteta winner and crazy red card for Mario Balotelli at the Emirates that left Ferguson’s men eight points clear with just six to play.

However, there was another sudden twist as United suffered their first ever
reverse at a resurgent Wigan Athletic, before throwing away 3-1 and 4-2 leads to draw 4-4 at home to Everton. City were thus able to reclaim the initiative in the derby of all derbies on the last Monday of April; Vincent Kompany’s header enough to overhaul a curiously defensive and lacklustre United on goal difference.

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