Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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Who did Mark Hughes think he was kidding? As a storm of press speculation linked him to the Aston Villa job, as it did ludicrously just days after his appointment at Fulham at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, he announced his decision to resign from the helm at Craven Cottage. He insisted his decision wasn’t influenced by the approach of another club or his desire to apply for any available vacancies. He left a club that had treated him excellently and given him the chance to revive his coaching career following the disappointment of his tenure at Manchester City. And just weeks away from a Europa League qualifier on the 30th June, he left Fulham well and truly in the lurch.
Now though, in a very short space of time, the tables have completely turned. Just as fortunes can shift dramatically in a moment on the pitch, they rise and fall erratically behind the scenes too. Credit must be given to Randy Lerner for turning his nose up in disgust at the way Hughes handled his departure from Fulham. He swiftly turned his attention to other targets, leaving Hughes deservedly in the wilderness.
Credit certainly must not be given to the tabloids that linked Hughes with the Chelsea job though. Roman Abramovich wants to win the Champions League; it is his holy grail. Mark Hughes may have a connection to the club but that will mean nothing to the Russian. He will look at his track record and see he has not even been that successful in the Premiership. His tendency will be to go for impressive foreign coaches anyway, even if, like Scolari, they turn out to be mistakes. Hiddink will go to Stamford Bridge.
Whilst Lerner took a surprisingly honourable and praiseworthy course in steering the search for a replacement for Gerard Houllier away from Mark Hughes, the candidates he began to focus on were far from praiseworthy. The revelation that Villa wanted to initiate talks with Roberto Martinez was a complete shock. The Wigan manager kept the club in the Premiership with a late run of form by the skin of their teeth but their survival was hardly a triumph of his ability to lead. In fact it was his coaching style, aiming for an unrealistically fluid and attacking team, which left them vulnerable to the drop.
Some might say that the decision makers at Villa wanted Martinez to get them playing good football and that their players are more capable of it. In all likelihood though the appointment of Martinez would have signalled a downgrading in ambition from the club, admitting that they couldn’t attract big name coaches or big name players to compete with the likes of Spurs and Man City for European places.
Now the rumours are that next in Villa’s sights is Bolton’s Owen Coyle. Coyle’s track record, both at Bolton and Burnley, suggest he’s a better manager than Martinez, but he’s still hardly an inspirational choice. And in the case of Coyle, it seems daft of Villa to make an approach when the only answer they’re likely to get is “no”. Coyle played for Bolton and has got them scoring goals as well as keeping clean sheets. He has too many reasons not to leave the Reebok. He must believe he could finish above Villa with his Bolton side. There’s still a chance he could say yes but he would be foolish to surely.
Carlo Ancelotti was never going to step down from Chelsea to Villa’s level and Rafael Benitez knows he can wait for a higher profile job if he is patient. Steve McClaren is available, along with the shunned Mark Hughes, but fans reacted viciously to rumours of an interview. This is harsh given the way McClaren has grown as a manager in Europe with FC Twente in particular but inevitable given his England track record. David Moyes is a manager of Martin O’Neil’s calibre but he ruled himself out of the Villa job last summer.
Meanwhile, as Villa struggle to find a decent manager, Fulham appear to have found the perfect one. Of course it’s too early to say for sure but Martin Jol appears to be a spot on fit for the hot seat at Craven Cottage. He is very much in the mould of Roy Hodgson, in that he has extensive experience in Europe and of course the Premiership with Spurs. He knows the Europa League well, which bodes well perhaps for another exciting cup run if they can get through the qualifiers granted them by their place in the Fair Play tables. He can also bring a bit of cutting edge to Fulham’s attack, which has been lacking, with his knowledge of Dutch and German styles. He has already started to release players as he begins to remould the squad, so it can compete on all fronts, probably with the backing of funds from owner Mohammed Al-Fayed.
Perhaps whichever mediocre candidate gets the Aston Villa job will surprise us. But hopefully Randy Lerner will stick to his guns on Mark Hughes, so that someone in the game gets their comeuppance.
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Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?
What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.
Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?
Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.
However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.
Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?
Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.
Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?
Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.
More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.
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