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March 2013

Week 32 – Is the Premier League really not what it was? (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

27 Mar 2013(Wed)

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After the failings of Chelsea and Manchester City in the round-robin stage, Manchester United and Arsenal both fell in the last 16 to leave England without a single Champions League quarter-finalist for the first time since 1995/96 – when Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers finished bottom of a group containing Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw, and Rosenborg.

It is a far cry from just five years ago, when Pep Guardiola was still coaching Barcelona B and the best two teams in Europe were indisputably United and Chelsea – separated domestically by just two points and continentally by sudden death penalties at the Luzhniki. For the Red Devils, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 42 goals in all competitions to complete his rapid transition into a devastating marksman, forming one third of a near-unstoppable, fluid forward line with Carlos Tévez and Wayne Rooney. That Chelsea were so nearly able to match them despite the bewildering folly of replacing José Mourinho with Avram Grant mid-season speaks volumes for the qualities of a playing squad at its absolute peak; from John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at the back to Frank Lampard alongside Michael Essien in midfield and Didier Drogba up front.

Often forgotten is the fact that Arsenal, too, only finished four points off the pace in third and actually topped the league table until mid-March, when their campaign unravelled after serious injury to Eduardo da Silva. Fourth-placed Liverpool, meanwhile, augmented a squad that had reached two of the previous three European Cup finals with a fresh-faced Fernando Torres, who scored 24 goals – a Premier League record for a foreigner in his debut season – to prepare the Reds for a serious title shot the following year.

2007/08 was the second of three consecutive seasons in which three of this quartet reached the Champions League semi-finals. At no other point has English football ever had four such powerful sides all at the same time.

Undeniably, standards at the very top of the Premier League are not quite what they were, and coupled with the way in which United have been able to pull out a 15-point advantage over their closest rivals, this has led to a common criticism that the division as a whole is the weakest it has been for some time. But is that really fair? In order to make a proper evaluation, we surely need to look at how teams 5 to 20 have changed over the same period of time as well.

The Champions League contenders
Immediately striking from a glance at the 2007/08 table is just how entrenched the old ‘Big Four’, whose collective representation of England in the Champions League went unbroken for six straight seasons, really was. UEFA Cup qualifiers Everton and Aston Villa ended up 10 and 15 points behind Liverpool, respectively, after their thin squads fell away in the final two months of the season.

But while the top four have declined, and Liverpool have fallen out of it altogether, those below have now risen to the opportunity. As well as oil-moneyed Manchester City, who finished ninth in 2008 under the management of Sven-Göran Eriksson and ownership of Thaksin Shinawatra, Tottenham Hotspur now also have Champions League pedigree after flattering to deceive under Martin Jol and falling to 11th under Juande Ramos. The still-underfunded Everton of 2013, too, are making their best go at season-long consistency under David Moyes since finishing fourth way back in 2004/05. Even Liverpool are starting to look strong again under the long-term vision of Brendan Rodgers.

The Europa League contenders
There is also a clear contrast in perspective between the respective pairs of teams that complete our then-and-now top nines. Five years ago, Blackburn Rovers finished seventh under Mark Hughes, with Roque Santa Cruz top scoring on 19, while Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth came in eighth and won the FA Cup. But Santa Cruz proved to be a one-season wonder, and the loss of his goals plus the departure of Hughes triggered a downward spiral that finally saw Venky’s-style relegation last term after two near misses in the previous three seasons. Meanwhile, it turned out that Pompey couldn’t actually afford any of their impressive-looking squad and the club is now fighting for its very survival at the bottom of League One.

Their replacements, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City, are both highly attractive sides that have been built up in a far more sustainable manner, with sensible recruitment policies ensuring that progress has been maintained and even accelerated despite respected managers being lured away. The Premier League is all the healthier for them.

Mid-table
West Ham United’s problems began after, albeit not long after, finishing tenth in 2007/08, when their Icelandic owners were hit by the banking crisis and the underappreciated Alan Curbishley departed early the following season. But the bottom half of the table contained several clubs that were already in rapid decline after success earlier in the decade. Northeast rivals Newcastle United, to whom Kevin Keegan made a short-lived return, and Middlesbrough, who spent a club record £12 million on Afonso Alves, would go down 12 months later. Bolton Wanderers finished 16th and managed to cling on until 2012, but never would recover from the departure of Sam Allardyce in 2007.

It is impossible to predict the future, of course, but more of the teams in the lower reaches today at least seem to be on comparatively positive trajectories. Newcastle are there again, but only after struggling with their European schedule after a brilliant fifth place last term. Norwich City and Southampton have achieved successive promotions and are capable of troubling the very best. Even Villa, though unrecognisable from the stable years under Martin O’Neill, have a young squad brimming with potential.

The bottom three
2013 simply has nothing to match Derby County, who broke all sorts of records in finishing bottom five years ago with just one win and 11 points. Even if Queens Park Rangers and Reading do go down this year, as has admittedly appeared likely from the outset, they will do so with plenty more entertainment value and almost certainly more points than the dismal Birmingham City and, er, Reading sides that joined Derby in 2008.

Conclusion
Over the 20 years of the Premier League, the presence of a strong Manchester United has come to be taken for granted. This means that when anybody else wins the title, their feat in outstripping Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is naturally lauded, but when United are champions, the achievement is sometimes regarded less warmly due to the assumed lack of worthy opposition.

But while United, and indeed their immediate challengers, may not boast the explosive, all-conquering talents of old, the argument that the entire league has weakened does not hold true. Indeed, in many areas the level of competition has actually strengthened. As such, for United to have won 24 of their 29 matches so far – despite supposedly being in transition – is a remarkable achievement deserving of high praise, not negative value judgements over the rest of English football.

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Week 31 – Sweet San Marino (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

21 Mar 2013(Thu)

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This Friday, when Roy Hodgson and company travel to tiny San Marino for their World Cup qualifier at the Stadio Olympico di Serraville, nostalgic England fans of a certain age will be transported back almost two decades to a night of crushing disappointment. After the great, unexpected high of Italia ’90, our plunging descent toward a new low was crystallised in less time than it takes for Usain Bolt to run 100m. Did we not like that.

The subsequent 89 minutes, 51-and-a-bit seconds are a blur, but I still remember the scene as if it were yesterday. Wednesday 17 November 1993. I was ten years old. My Dad was usually away at work during the week but for some reason was home in Somerset that night – perhaps just back from one of his regular, exotic business trips to Japan – and speaking to a colleague via the home phone in the dining room. I sat in his armchair in the living room, from which I could see both him and the television, under instruction to let him know when it kicked off. Nails already bitten down to the skin, I did as I was told. He hadn’t the time even to hurry his goodbyes before I signalled again. 1-0.

“No, Dad. To San Marino.”

Davide Gualtieri, now a computer salesman, had scored what remains the fastest goal in the competition’s history after just 8.3 seconds. It took England more than 20 minutes to equalise through Paul Ince, his first international goal, at the eerily empty Stadio Renato Dall'Ara across the Italian border in Bologna that the Sammarinese had borrowed for their bigger games. We eventually mustered seven, with Ian Wright getting four of them, but it mattered little. Only with a Poland victory over the Netherlands plus an eight-goal swing could we start to look forward to USA ’94, but second half strikes from Dennis Bergkamp and Ronald de Boer had put the Dutch 3-1 up in Poznań. Even the BBC began to focus more on Wales, who might have qualified but for Paul Bodin’s missed penalty against Romania. For the first time since the seventies, England would not be at a World Cup.

I cried. Above all, I was furious with our soon to be ex-manager, Graham Taylor. I only ever read the sports pages of the newspapers (this hasn’t necessarily changed enormously in the ensuing 20 years) my Mum and Dad had delivered and I had seen all the horrible things they had written about him ever since we went out in the first round at Euro ’92. As a ten-year-old yet to be jaded into cynicism, my faith had remained unshaken throughout this time but I now felt utterly betrayed. That infamous superimposition on the back page of The Sun had been right all along. He was a turnip.

(Retrospectively, Taylor was a touch unfortunate to be burdened with such high expectations despite the absence of stars like Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, and John Barnes who had shone under Sir Bobby Robson. Back then, the group stage at the European Championships was the last eight; while the World Cup qualifiers had no second-chance playoffs and everyone had been caught unawares by a really strong Norway, who thrashed San Marino 10-0 and never looked back to leave England and Holland scrapping for second. But the manager’s unflattering place in history was sealed by An Impossible Job – the fly-on-the-wall documentary that exposed the implosion of his Three Lions and remains a must-watch on YouTube today.)

Perhaps I was spoiled by the fact that 1990 – our glorious run to penalty shootout defeat against West Germany that drew a line in the sand after the hooliganism of the eighties and paved the way for the middle classes to return to football – was the first World Cup Finals I truly followed. By the trough of 1993, I was a fully-fledged football geek and knew everything about the qualifiers; aided admittedly by the brilliant Sensible Soccer game on the Amiga that let you play out every European group but confusingly not the actual Finals. It had even saddened me to learn how that other country I liked, Japan, had suffered even worse disappointment a few weeks before my own. But the thing that stands out from my memories of watching England in the nineties was just how much we all cared.

Of course, the ultimate peak was Euro ’96, a summer that still brings us out in goose pimples and would require several columns over which to properly reminisce. We still stopped everything for the France ’98 qualifiers, and the impossibly tense 0-0 draw in Rome that sealed our place as group winners. The following summer, after finishing secondary school, 25 friends noisily crammed themselves into my living room for the second round match with Argentina and filed out in silence when we lost on penalties. But England’s final match of the millennium saw us qualify for Euro 2000 in the most hollow fashion imaginable, with a dismal 1-0 defeat to Scotland at Wembley (having won the first leg 2-0 at Hampden Park), and somehow, things have never been the same since.

By this point, Manchester United were European champions. A Chelsea team featuring exciting foreign stars like Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola had won the Cup Winners’ Cup a year before; Liverpool claimed the 2001 UEFA Cup after only missed penalties by Davor Šuker and Patrick Vieira had denied Arsenal in 2000. The Premier League had been established with the expressed purpose of strengthening an England national team still viewed as the pinnacle, but instead the newly multinational clubs had soared. Where international football on the BBC had once been our core dose of live football, now Sky were bringing more and more league games to more and more people. When observers asked if United might even beat England back in 1993, it was meant as a huge compliment to Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs – just six years later, it was really no comparison.

It didn’t help that England’s supposed golden generation never went beyond a quarter-final in the 2000s, or that certain players seemed more loyal to the clubs that had inflated their salaries and egos. But those of us watching didn’t need to worry. We were now more deeply immersed than ever in a club game that was suddenly, and clearly, better. We still get excited for the big tournaments every two years, but they don’t hold our long-term attention like the Premier and Champions Leagues.

Every mid-season international week is met with groans at the disturbance to domestic affairs. Even I currently have no idea if San Marino v England is being shown in Japan. Supposing it is, I’ll certainly only record it to watch in the morning anyway.

But you know what? I miss being ten, and most of all, I miss the way it hurt when Gualtieri scored.

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Week 30 - Screwed up (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

13 Mar 2013(Wed)

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With the 12-point lead for Manchester United threatening to turn the Premier League title race into a procession, it is but inevitable that the mind should wander toward other things. Fortunately for fans of English football, the most brilliantly screwed-up club in recent memory has once again stepped up to the plate and guaranteed our entertainment for the remaining two months of the season.

At Queens Park Rangers, the modern ownership history is stuff of legend – preserved forever in a wonderfully eye-opening documentary by Mat Hodgson entitled The Four Year Plan. With QPR on the brink of bankruptcy in August 2007, they were ‘saved’ by a consortium of rich businessmen led by prickly Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore – a man of such scruples that he was later kicked out of motor racing for allegedly having one of his own drivers crash into a wall to manipulate a path to victory for the other. Inviting the cameras inside Loftus Road in the first place was an indication of the unshakeable self-confidence that led the Italian, despite clearly possessing inferior calcio cognisance than his average compatriot, to literally phone in substitutions to the coaching staff midway through matches.

The former owners’ contempt for the footballing side and fans was quickly obvious. Four years in charge of the purse strings brought fully eleven managerial changes; including the sacking of Iain Dowie – referred to as “that fucking hooligan” – two months into their first full season despite holding the highest win percentage of any manager in Rangers history. Confronted by a crowd of angry supporters at his car, Briatore threatened to withdraw all financial investment unless presented with the names of those (thousands!) who had booed him. Club chairman Gianni Paladini, the enforcer charged with conveying his bosses’ demands, was roundly jeered at Loftus Road on the final day of 2010/11 while the players celebrated their Championship title.

The only conclusion that could be drawn was that the four-year plan had succeeded, even if nobody could quite fathom how. The club, and its newfound Premier League status, was sold on at a healthy profit to the Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes – another with F1 connections but whose affable and big-spending nature has earned him favour with the W12 faithful. But even then, QPR’s rampant transfer activity has thrown balance out of the window and replaced it with a ticking time bomb.

The squad taken up by Neil Warnock was augmented to the tune of £20 million after Fernandes’s arrival last season, with most of the expenditure coming after the appointment of Mark Hughes early in the January transfer window. A host of highly-salaried players were brought in on free transfers to complement a similar outlay last summer. When the Welshman was relieved of his duties after amassing just four points from the first 12 games of this campaign, both Fernandes and his latest manager, Harry Redknapp, repeatedly insisted they would not buy their way out of danger. A further £20 million-plus was promptly shelled out to acquire Loïc Rémy, Jermaine Jenas, and – most lavishly – Christopher Samba.

Combined with poor results on the pitch, it was perhaps inevitable that the somewhat discontinuous manner in which the squad was ‘built’ should result in a fractious dressing room. An exposé in the Daily Mirror last week, for which journalist Martin Lipton claimed to have spoken to three unnamed QPR first-teamers, told of a schism between the older English players and the newer arrivals on much higher salaries unthreatened by the otherwise standard wage-drop clauses in case of relegation. One player was quoted as saying, “There’s a feeling from some of us that other players don’t give a s***, that they’re just here for the money… Some are going around saying they can’t wait for the end of the season so they can move.” The piece was headlined by the story of a mid-season training camp in Dubai that had involved just 90 minutes of training per day and a lot more, stag night-style drinking.

But the overwhelming source of interest from the Queens Park Rangers soap opera comes from the fact that, despite all of the above, Redknapp has actually got them winning – transforming, in the process, a relegation scrap that looked like being Rangers, Reading, plus one into a real dogfight that now genuinely involves the entire bottom half of the table.

The Redknapp revolution on the pitch has come in two stages. First of all, the former Tottenham Hotspur boss strengthened a defence that had conceded two goals per game under Hughes by placing his faith in the veteran partnership of Clint Hill (34) and Ryan Nelsen (35). The risk of being overwhelmed by youthful pace and vitality was quashed by stationing another 35-year-old, Shaun Derry, at the base of midfield to support the low defensive line. The result: three draws and a derby win at home to Fulham from Redknapp’s first four games, followed by clean sheets against Chelsea (in a 1-0 away win), Spurs, and Manchester City (both 0-0 draws) in January.

Nelsen’s unusual mid-season departure to become manager of Toronto FC in the American MLS then resulted in the high-stakes arrival of Samba, but with it, greater tactical freedom to attack when desired. No longer needing to protect the back four as much thanks to 28-year-old Samba’s presence, QPR initially switched to 4-4-1-1 before deploying a 4-3-3 to successfully overcome the pressing game of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton. Smelling blood at home to a Sunderland side that were winless in five on Saturday, Redknapp fielded Junior Hoilett and Andros Townsend as inverted wingers in an aggressive 4-4-2 system. A dominant performance produced three goals (for) for the first time this season, all scored by Redknapp signings – Rémy, loanee Townsend, and Jenas.

Redknapp’s denials of the Mirror story were angry, if not entirely convincing, but the 66-year-old has seemingly used the fallout to foster a siege mentality among the members of his squad he trusts. Bobby Zamora earned particular praise on Saturday for playing through so much pain he couldn’t drive home afterwards. His manager’s words were telling: “You know the ones you want in, and the ones you don't want around you because they let you down.”

There is no guarantee that QPR will stay up. Nor even that they can avoid doing a Portsmouth and plummet down the divisions; in light of financial results published last week that showed a doubled wage bill and debts of almost £90 million – not including this season’s transfer outlay. But the entertainment value emanating from Loftus Road through the lower ranks of the Premier League is something for which we can all be thankful.

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Week 29 – Craving disappointment (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

6 Mar 2013(Wed)

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Even after five years of studying this country as a full-time occupation, and nigh on nine years of actually living here, few things have given me a closer and more intriguing insight into the Japanese national psyche than the way in which Shinji Kagawa’s transfer to and nascent career at Manchester United have been followed.

With the possible exception of a certain former England captain currently warming the bench at Stamford Bridge, the United number 26 is easily the most frequent topic of questions and comments I receive from Foot! TUESDAY viewers – either in person or via Twitter. In the early hours of Sunday morning Japanese time, as three expertly-taken finishes against Norwich City made Kagawa the first Asian ever to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, my timeline was awash with delirious celebration and congratulations for the hero of the hour. It was, in the words of several tweeters, “like a dream”.

Most notably, these messages came not only from Manchester United supporters or neutral fans of Japanese football in general, but also from those who professed to follow rival clubs – including the suffocated Canaries, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, and Gamba Osaka (neighbours of Kagawa’s first professional side, Cerezo Osaka).

Although the Team GB athletes and the stories behind their exploits captured the public imagination at last year’s Olympics, it is hard to imagine a similar reaction in my own country, where we tend to be much more stubbornly tribal about the teams we support yet cynical about our individual footballers. As the comedian Bill Bailey once said, “I’m English, and as such I crave disappointment.” This mantra resonates much more easily with a nation that finds comfort in self-deprecating irony and nostalgically reminiscences about those glorious nights on which we got beaten on penalties.

But in terms of our inherently low initial expectations, we two island nations may well have another thing in common. For far beyond the universal joy at treasured Kagawa headlines, the overwhelmingly dominant and most fascinating element of everything I read and hear about the United midfielder is the sheer negativity. Everyone seems to genuinely support the 23-year-old, but nobody actually seems to believe he can possibly succeed. Where the British sceptic may embrace the opportunity to poke fun at one’s own expense, in Japan this appears superimposed with panic; cradling a desire to lament at one’s own folly in daring to dream.

The word yappari doesn’t translate well into English (dictionaries often render it as ‘after all’) but its ability to convey a disappointment we had all secretly expected is surely unsurpassed. Spoken with a sigh and a slouch of the shoulders, it is the starting point for the key questions asked universally, from that timeline on my phone to the offices of the Japanese sports broadcaster at which I work, whenever poor old Shinji gets a 6 out of 10 or fails to make the line-up for a routine away trip to Queens Park Rangers:
Yappari, is Kagawa just not up to it?”
Yappari, is it all over for Kagawa?”

From an outsider’s perspective, the baffling part is that all this comes despite nobody outside of Japan – or outside of Asia, at least – is saying the same thing. The worst fears of the most paranoid Japanese followers have simply not been realised.

Yes, barring the Norwich game Kagawa has yet to become the explosive influence he was at Borussia Dortmund, but England is a harsher environment and United a club at which he must share a wider range of duties with a greater number of quality teammates. Yes, the 23-year-old’s progress was frustratingly halted by that two-month knee injury layoff in autumn, but his performances have earned the confidence of his most critical observer – Sir Alex Ferguson – to the point that, when fit, he starts the biggest matches. And yes, he gets benched occasionally, but so does Wayne Rooney; while their attacking colleague Javier Hernández, for example, is slightly older than the Japanese and into his third season with the club yet has started five fewer league games so far this term despite always being fit.

Sorry to disappoint, but Kagawa has not been a disappointment.

The fact is that this player’s elevation to the highest global stages is the natural product of the astonishing, unprecedented development of Japanese football in the two decades since its professional rebirth. The J. League did not just settle for glitzy mascots and glamorous pixies; it realised the fundamental importance of grass roots and successfully implanted football as an omnipresence within a popular culture and wider society where, by European standards, it may as well not have existed before 1993. Though the rate of progression has been remarkable, it is no coincidence that Kagawa – and his various national team peers in the Bundesliga and elsewhere – represent the first generation to have grown up with football as part of everyday Japanese life since before they started primary school.

United signing Kagawa was undeniably a huge milestone for Japanese football, but from an English perspective, it was a logical next step for a much-coveted player who had proven his potential in Germany. He may or may not grow into a true global star. But in either eventuality, there will be others. Japanese football fans now have the right to expect their heroes to do well.

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