Tag Archives: Championship

Managerial Merry-go-round: Fulham have got it right but Villa look certain to get it wrong


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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The curse of an unbeaten run: Do United need to lose?


In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.

Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.

Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.

What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.

As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?

Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.

By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.

Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.

Pompey must keep football in mind when wielding the financial axe


It was another day of false promises for Portsmouth fans today. Chief Executive Peter Storrie had previously insisted, even last week, that the new new owners would find another set of more permanent new owners willing to embrace the debt and bring stability as Pompey fought for survival against the odds. Several parties are still apparently in talks to become the latest to take ownership of the Fratton Park outfit, but for fans clinging to hopes of Premier League football  such boardroom discussions, despite their far reaching financial implications, will mean little. After all the deeds to the club seem to have changed hands so often this season that even the most loyal supporter would find it hard to keep track and probably doesn’t care who sits in the executive boxes as long as their club is playing at the level it deserves.

The problem for Pompey fans is that after today Premiership football slipped away from them for next season. The almost laughable comings and goings in the distant boardroom has finally had serious, undoable repercussions on the pitch. The nine point penalty imposed following the club’s entry into a painful process of administration almost certainly dooms Pompey to bottom place in the table. The shock at a top flight club with a history such as Portsmouth’s reaching such depths of financial woe is widespread, as the Prime Minister himself commented on events. Rarely do big politicians comment on sporting matters but the added ingredient of fiscal responsibility must have made a sympathetic statement to fans attractive for No.10. Some would find such a statement, with its emphasis on prudent financial practice, ironic given Gordon Brown’s record of presiding over an era of consequence free credit and a ballooning budget deficit as Chancellor and financial collapse, recession and dodgy banking as Prime Minister. However clearly recent trends show that big money owners, often from abroad, can lead to irresponsible and impatient behaviour that threatens the long term stability of our beloved clubs, in favour of glamorous short term goals.

It might be argued that the recession will inevitably lead to tougher times for every area of the economy, football clubs included. Whilst this may be true, the fundamental issue is not one of extreme, temporary financial hardship but one of regulation and responsibility. People will always watch football, just as they will always go to the cinema. During the recession the film industry has actually seen people flocking to the big screens in greater numbers. Of course the cinema is now a cheaper experience than most football matches and film studios still felt the pinch as the global market contracted, but ultimately the demand for football remains strong and consistent.

The real issue that has led to so many cases of turmoil over the course of the season, with Portsmouth being the most high profile example of failure, is the FA and Premier League’s inability to screen candidates for ownership. The initial failure to find an appropriate owner to replace Mr Sasha Gaydamak is the cause of all Pompey’s subsequent woes. Elsewhere too there are worrying signs for football fans. AFC Bournemouth, also of the south coast, face a winding up order despite success on the field this season. In the Premier League an influx of wealthy foreigners looks unsustainable; the miracle at Man City in particular might be a bubble waiting to burst. Long established title contenders like Liverpool and Manchester United find themselves unexpectedly limited by shady Americans who promised extravagance and undying support at first but this quickly gave way to infighting on Merseyside and enormous debts in Salford at the world’s richest club. Arsenal fans hold their breath as a Russian tycoon edges towards control of the shares and sections of the Chelsea faithful must still wonder if Mr Abramovich will suddenly tire of the London club’s failure in Europe and abruptly walk away. It should be noted that British owners are no more reliable, just look at Mike Ashley and Newcastle Utd.

Who then is responsible for handing the world’s richest club to a Glazer family who can’t afford it? How were Pompey allowed to jump from owner to owner, with none yet proving suitable? It is at times like these that one sympathizes with old school purists, who rage in disgust at the ludicrous money in football today and look longingly back to the days when fans were local and footballers local heroes. However in reality such backward thinking nostalgia is impractical and foolish given the tremendous spectacle the game has grown to become. Entertainment and accessibility have increased as well as the enormous liberating potential football clubs have as a vehicle for wealth in the local community. This progression should not be frowned upon and lamented, but there is a need for it to be managed correctly so that the maximum amount of people benefit and the club remains a stable asset of the area for years to come. Such gross mismanagement and incompetence with such large sums of money can only be rivaled by the greed driven mistakes of bankers in recent times. However the bankers were playing a risky game for high rewards. Whilst there is money in football today the sort of men who buy clubs have made their millions elsewhere in much more productive areas; it is generally acknowledged that you will put more money into a club than you will get out as an owner, it’s about extravagance and theatre, a plaything at which wealthy associates might meet, not profit. Why then are such dramatic catastrophes occurring? Clearly in some cases men without sufficient means to buy a club have been allowed to do so and then to make things worse have acted with incompetence. Something must be changed by the authorities to safeguard jobs, money and treasured clubs with vibrant football legacies.

I mentioned both the Prime Minister and Mike Ashley in this article. I end by saying that Portsmouth must learn lessons from both as they enter administration. Mike Ashley, despite scandals and meddling that led to Newcastle’s relegation, has somehow restored the Magpies (perhaps by backing away from team affairs) so that they look like clinching automatic promotion straight back to the Premiership with ease. Portsmouth could dwell on shattered dreams like the floating new stadium in the harbor or past glories like their FA Cup triumph or they could begin rebuilding now in preparation for a competitive Championship campaign. That means finding a sensible owner who understands the club’s importance but also stays out of the limelight and team affairs. Which brings me to the Prime Minister. The forthcoming General Election shall be dominated by the divide on when to begin cutting the deficit and the PM’s view is that cuts shouldn’t start till next year or the tiny recovery, revised up to 0.3% growth as of today, shall be endangered. The administrator taking charge of Pompey promised that deep cuts will be introduced to save the club from complete meltdown. Although fans will want whatever is necessary to save the club they will also not want to replicate the slide of their bitter rivals Southampton down the leagues. A Newcastle-esque immediate return is preferable as each year in the Championship will make promotion harder to acquire. Therefore those in charge at Pompey must follow the Prime Minister in opposing dramatic cuts, i.e. “firesales” of the best players at the team’s core, but making those that are necessary. Pompey’s administration and the recession are both calamities but both provide opportunities for rebuilding from scratch and with wise decisions, stronger foundations will be laid.