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April 2014

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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