Tag Archives: FA

Rivals beware – Barcelona’s brilliance has reignited the hunger in Sir Alex


Manchester United were always going to be the underdogs at Wembley. Beating the Catalan giants required the best from every one of the eleven Red Devils. Rooney delivered to give the fans hope, only to fade away amongst chain after chain of world class Spanish passing sequences. United just weren’t in Barcelona’s league.

But no one in the world is right now. United were right to believe in themselves and in the opening ten minutes their positive tempo took the game to their intimidating opponents. Their unity and players like Rooney, Giggs and Hernandez, meant they could hurt even the likes of Messi and co. It was an upbeat pace impossible to maintain however and as soon as Guardiola’s side got a grip on possession, England’s representatives in the clash between Premiership and La Liga were always going to be chasing the game.

Now though, with the battle lost, hardened veteran Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to launch a new war. As crushing as the defeat at Wembley was for United fans, they might be able to take some comfort in the fact that their seemingly immortal manager is to carry on for at least three more years. And not just carrying on with his job as well as he always has done but tackling a challenge so big that it can ignite and excite even the 69 year old Scott: wrestling Champions League dominance from Barcelona.

I’m not saying that Fergie had lost the hunger. He is the type of man who will never lose the desire to keep on winning and this ferocious and clinical lust for triumph is a key ingredient of his monumental success over the years. But there’s no doubt his Achilles heel has always been Europe. He knows this is where the strength of his legacy crumbles, even after a second trophy in 2008. This year he proved that he has mastered the tactics of Europe to reach the end without conceding an away goal. His team proved to him that they were a unit capable of following his instructions to the final. But not to the trophy and not past Barcelona.

The signs of an even greater determination for glory and greatness are already there. The manager knows that the effective blend of youth and immense experience his team has benefited from this campaign, is about to become imbalanced. Even before the Champions League final defeat, Fergie was aware that he’d be losing Edwin Van Der Sar and Gary Neville, and in all likelihood Paul Scholes, to retirement. He knew Ferdinand’s fitness was an increasing concern and that Ryan Giggs will have to be rested more often. These pillars of experience will need replacing.

Current players will be expected to step up with the departure of such Old Trafford greats, with greater importance falling upon the likes of Rooney, Vidic and Fletcher than ever before. Young players from the FA Youth Cup winning side, such as the promising Ravel Morrison, will be encouraged swiftly, but carefully, through the ranks. But after the “hiding” his team received at Wembley, Sir Alex knows quality and efficiency are also issues he must tackle.

I say efficiency because the likes of Nani and Berbatov, despite being pivotal at points, have not been trusted at others because of their inconsistency. Berbatov is undoubtedly a great talent, a genius with the ball, and you feel for his undeserved fall from Premiership top scorer to Champions League final exile. But his future is in real doubt at the club, with serious offers likely to be accepted. His manager prefers the partnership of Hernandez and Rooney and will be even more ruthless in his quest to catch the Spaniards that have humiliated him twice. Nani too, could be tempted by a move. Fergie needs to be able to rely on everyone for every occasion to better the Catalans.

All of this means that this summer will be the busiest in a long while for the red side of Manchester. Sir Alex, by failing to accumulate replacements for his ageing stars in previous years, has left himself with a mammoth shopping list. But he is supposedly backed by funds from the Glazers and he’s given himself three years to catch the world leaders. He’ll need all the time and money he can get.

Who does he want this summer though? Well De Gea looks pretty certain to replace Van Der Sar in goal and Fergie will hope that the Spanish Under-21 keeper is a steady long term replacement, after the trouble he had replacing a certain red nosed Dane between the sticks. Also reportedly in the club’s sights is Villa winger Ashley Young, Everton rising star Jack Rodwell and Lens defender Raphael Varane. Fergie would love Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder to fill the boots of Paul Scholes but a move looks unlikely. With the likes of Obertan, Gibson, Kuszczak, and Brown also all likely to leave, along with possibly Nani and Berbatov as well, the task could yet grow harder still.

With fierce rivals City having plenty of oil money to burn and Arsenal looking to be busier again too, in many ways Sir Alex Ferguson has picked the worst summer to begin a major rebuild in pursuit of an almost impossible goal. But if one name continually defies expectations in football and gets what he sets out to achieve, it’s his.

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Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

Whatever happened to managers?


Gerard Houllier’s appointment as Aston Villa’s new manager on a three-year contract has highlighted the growing complexity and difficulty of selecting a Premier League manager. Choosing a new man to pick the team, train the players and generally steer the club in the right direction is clearly always going to be a big decision, but these days things are complicated further by numerous additional roles. Houllier for example has just left the French Football Federation from the mysterious role of “technical director” to the national team and due to Randy Lerner’s apparent liking of caretaker manager Kevin McDonald’s coaching style there was talk of Houllier taking a similar role at Villa at one time, with McDonald handling the coaching of first-team affairs. Villa fans, whatever their views on Houllier, ought to be counting themselves lucky that they have at least appointed a manager and not adopted an incomprehensible system, inspired by continental clubs, that has produced only failure when tried in the Premiership before.

Personally I think it’s a shame Villa didn’t appoint Alan Curbishley and give an obviously capable and talented English coach a chance with a decent sized club. Curbishley had a torrid time with the board room at West Ham and deserves a more stable environment in which to try and manage a top club. However it remains to be seen whether Villa’s moneymen are content, given the circumstances under which O’Neil left the club and the telling words in the club’s statement which suggest Houllier was a candidate willing to compromise about lack of funds: “Two of the key qualities in our search for the new manager were experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad, and Gérard Houllier comfortably satisfies these criteria.” I certainly find it odd that Villa should turn to Houllier given his exile from the English game since his departure from Liverpool. Articles reporting the appointment emphasize Houllier’s glittering CV, but much of his experience is with French clubs a long time ago. Since Liverpool he has returned to his French comfort zone and can hardly said to have been successful in whatever it was he was asked to do as “technical director”, given the French’s disastrous World Cup. As manager Raymond Domenech got the barrage of blame but Houllier had a role and it was hardly part of a successful set up.  

Indeed whenever I have seen them enacted systems involving a “technical director” or “director of football” do not seem to bring success. Certainly in the English game it would seem from the evidence that clubs who put their faith in a talented coach over a long period of time stay at the top of the game, such as Arsenal and Manchester United. When Chelsea tried a system involving “sporting directors” or something similar, “the special one” clashed with both Frank Arnesen and Avram Grant, with disagreements between Jose and Grant eventually leading to the Portuguese’s departure. Following this Chelsea entered a period of decline, allowing United to reclaim dominance and they have only recovered to wrest back control since trusting two excellent coaches in Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti to run things their own way. “Technical Directors” or their equivalent always appear to be the owner or chairman’s spy, breathing down the neck of the manager and meddling with his transfer budget to create conflict and a climate of paranoia at clubs that does not breed a the unified vision and team spirit necessary to win trophies. Equally though the system has not worked well at clubs at the opposite end of the league, those in need of new impetus to avoid relegation. Dennis Wise was handed a role at Newcastle United by hands-on owner Mike Ashley that did nothing to revert the Toon’s slide to the Championship, but grabbed plenty of dramatic headlines. Portsmouth too experimented during their topsy-turvy period of ownership and poor performances, to no avail.

Like many people at the moment I have succumbed to curiosity and bought Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey. In the first chapter he touches on the opposition he met from the Civil Service for bringing special advisers into the affairs of state, but makes a convincing argument that modern governments need such expertise on hand immediately to deal effectively with situations. I imagine the fascination with “technical directors” stems from a similar realization that the modern game of football requires a variety of top level experts. However Blair’s memoir also makes it clear that he and he only was leader, he felt that individual burden and we’re all aware of the complications between him and Gordon Brown over who should be leader that eventually ended his time in office. Football clubs today still require a leader, someone who has the final say and whose vision should always be behind day to day decisions. “Directors of football” and other such roles may have their place, but particularly when the person appointed to such a role has a high profile they cease to be an adviser and ally to the manager but become an inspector and internal threat to his authority. Too often these positions are merely waiting rooms for the next manager, from which the “technical director” shall opportunistically spring as the pressure rises. Even if the person taking such an advisory position has no ambition to take over as manager, the culture of the game in this country has not changed sufficiently for the manager to be unconcerned by such an appointment. In an age where foreign managers and all the communication problems that come with them are commonplace, it is surely better to at least keep the management structures of a club simple and have the best man at the helm, supported by staff of his own choosing. This man should then be judged on the way he deals with the various pressures of the modern game and whether he gets results; not constantly assessed internally by an observer that adds unnecessary weight to the burden of management.

666: Omen in results a reminder of darkness lurking beneath the surface of the beautiful game


Goals. Goals galore. What a feast of football the new Premier League season has already provided. We’ve had a bit of everything. From the ageing ginger maestro showing the new crop how it ought to be done to the youthful English goalkeepers beginning a battle for the national side’s number one jersey, to all three newly promoted teams notching one good win and one crushing loss. There’s been so much incident and entertainment to remind us that the new kits and faces of club football are so much more satisfying than the repeated disappointment and failure of England. However many papers were quick to latch onto the trio of 6-0 results this weekend and lead with the ominous headline “666”. The results themselves made it clear that immense gulfs in class still exist within our great league, in which teams like Blackpool cannot hope to compete with bigger clubs’ financial might. The headline prompted me to examine the true greatness of our league when such vast inequality exists and generally to think about the morality of the game in this country, especially in the light of the 2018 World Cup Bid gathering pace.

Let’s start with the good. Paul Scholes being interviewed on Football Focus on Saturday after surprisingly stealing the limelight in the opening games of the season with commanding displays showed that it is possible to still be a modest professional and family man in this mega money era. The interviewer refused to let his awkwardness at being questioned drop, either trying to paint Scholes as a saint for shunning the media or a freak for not realistically acknowledging their existence. The chaps in the studio chuckled at Scholes’ schoolboy shyness and simultaneously gushed about his legendary passing ability and awareness. Lee Dixon dismissed Arsene Wenger’s gripes about late tackling, saying that Scholes had had to learn to put his foot in when playing in the middle alongside the likes of Roy Keane. It was generally agreed that Scholes was a great and United’s worrying overreliance on him this early in the campaign was glossed over.

Also largely good was Newcastle’s 6-0 thumping of Aston Villa, showcasing the return and rehab of former bright young things like Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton as well as the emergence of the next big thing in Andy Carroll if you believe the papers, all in front of a loyal, long suffering Geordie faithful at St.James’ that deserved a reward. Let’s not mention that Villa’s shambolic defence and an awful penalty miss enabled the victory, or the ridiculous hyperbole greeting Carroll’s hat-trick in the press. In The Times the match write-up lays the comparisons to Alan Shearer on thick, all the implications suggesting an England call-up and a solution to the long term question of who partners Wayne Rooney. The praise is present throughout the press, as are the criticisms of Carlton Cole, with writers shooting down notions that Liverpool were thinking of paying handsomely for his services a few weeks ago as a lucky escape for Roy Hodgson. The fickleness apparent here after one hat-trick performance against a defence that were laying goals on a plate and a couple of non-effectual performances in an essentially unchanged, poor West Ham side shows a negative of our game. Andy Carroll has gone from unproven Championship striker to England’s next number 9 overnight and Carlton Cole has crashed and burned in a similar period. Whereas the praise heaped on Scholes is backed by medals and many minutes of evidence on the pitch Carroll’s is premature hype. The yo-yo of fortunes in the press makes it easier to see why players like Scholes, content and detached from the media bubble, are a dying breed. When Carroll’s stock falls as Cole’s has done he might well become understandably disillusioned and unloved.

You could certainly not call the Blackpool players unloved. The amazing orange fans of the seasiders were still applauding their team at the final whistle after their demolition by Arsenal at the Emirates in cruise control. I saw Blackpool beat Yeovil Town in the League 1 Play-Off Final at Wembley a few seasons back and their support that day was an eclectic, enthusiastic mass of good natured colour then too. Their rise to the top flight from that moment has been nothing short of a fairytale. In a week in which FIFA inspectors examine the potential cons of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, we can only hope that supporters across the country were as loyal and well mannered as Blackpool ones. An article in The Independent points out the black marks left by the behaviour of fans of teams like Millwall in the past, as well as other weaknesses in our supposedly “unbeatable” bid according to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. We have sold out in this country, the article implies, so that we will be quite comfortable watching teams of foreigners play each other in the 2018 tournament. For a nation that boasts about being the home of football we have neglected the grass roots, our own national side and embraced excess and great waste of wealth. There is also a strong argument that whilst England might be the “easiest” place to host the tournament according to Sepp Blatter, another country would benefit more, invigorated by the investment. Another country not already saturated with football might use the tournament to develop more sustainably, with beautiful stadia and clubs as well as proper training and investment in their own youngsters.

Manchester City of course has come to symbolise all that waste and excess in football that was already lurking beneath the surface. On Monday night City’s gladiators finally clicked, delighting their giving emperor the sheikh who had made the trip to see what his drops of oily magic had achieved. Roberto Mancini spouted after that final whistle that it had been important to him to put on a show for the owner and yet he still only started with the one striker in Carlos Tevez. City’s embarrassment of riches meant a midfield packed with holding players in Barry, De Jong and Toure, forcing out exciting players like David Silva that ought to be gracing the field every week. On the plus side Adam Johnson and James Milner both sparkled, both with English blood coursing through their veins, even if it does seem tainted by their warm, greedy embrace of the millions instead of that English quality of loyalty shining through.

Despite the excess and the greed Man City’s win over Liverpool demonstrated that the fundamentals, the crowd, the goals, the colours of the game, remain what is important. The extravagance may both add and take something away from our beautiful game, but when it comes down to it the pure pleasure remains and that feeling, not the mounds of money, would make sure we hosted a fantastic World Cup.

No need for foreign managers


I could not bring myself to write directly about England’s World Cup exit and this is despite the fact I did not expect our national side to progress. The manner of defeat though was so utterly deflating that all previous hopes of progress and improvement over the qualification campaign were dashed. Rightly questions were immediately asked about Capello’s future as manager in the fierce post-mortem examination of England’s World Cup and wrongly in my view the FA have hastily confirmed his continuation as coach.

This is not to say that I don’t recognise the arguments in favour of Capello or indeed any foreign coach. Personally the most persuasive argument is the lack of high calibre home grown coaches. The English choices touted as potential managers the last time the job was vacant were uninspiring to say the least, with the list headed by Sam Allardyce, a man who missed his big chance with Newcastle and whose primary strengths, for example shrewd transfer dealings, would appear useless away from the everyday grind of club football in the leagues.  Harry Redknapp has similar drawbacks, despite admittedly having a more proven track record and others mentioned all had their own fatal flaws, such as Stuart Pearce’s inexperience. With such limited options the FA’s decision to look abroad for greater pedigree to ensure results can be understood, although in both the cases of Eriksson and Capello it has baffled me that they should opt for managers successful primarily in club football, when England’s problems have always been related to the unique performances required at the tournament itself. Both foreign coaches have fallen at this final hurdle thus far, as English coaches before them always did.

Another argument supporting the utilisation of foreign coaching talent in general is the fact that the English game has a problem when it comes to technical quality. The World Cup finalists this year, Holland and Spain, have shown that technical ability can enable teams to achieve the ultimate prize without playing to their full potential. It has been extremely frustrating for me to watch the Dutch, a team I have publicly backed to do well at each recent tournament besides the South African World Cup, march to the final. However it has been equally infuriating to hear pundits continuously talk of below par Dutch performances, when in every match I have seen them their ball retention has been effortless. They also have several players with a creative cutting edge and a steady, experienced defence, shielded by an immovable Van Bommel in the heart of midfield. The men in orange have rarely played poorly at this World Cup, it is merely a sign of their quality that it is evident they could play so much better to many watching them. The Spanish too, perhaps even more so, have underperformed but still find themselves in the final courtesy of complete mastery of possession.

So if foreign coaches can bring with them a vital essence of technique from their country of origin they might be worthwhile. Capello for example was expected to improve England’s passing ability and defensive strength as an Italian. However against Germany England were undone by a lack of professionalism and a neglect of some of the basics of the game, areas Capello had supposedly sorted with his approach to management. Indeed at times England matched the Germans and there was a moment the momentum seemed to have swung our way, but such hope all too easily disintegrated. I believe England’s exit exposed a fundamental truth about the actual ability of our footballers and the futility of quick fix solutions; technical deficiencies in our players can only be eradicated at a grass roots level and if they are to be dealt with at the top then an English manager could do just as good a job.

The key argument for Capello himself carrying on in the role is harder to dismiss than the broader issue of foreign managers though. Prior to the tournament itself and its immediate build-up, Capello had successfully rebuilt national belief in the team and instilled a winning mentality with an effortless qualifying campaign. He also missed opportunities to experiment and therefore go to South Africa with a stronger hand as I have previously pointed out, but nonetheless he achieved qualification, something his English predecessor did not manage. To axe Capello too swiftly following the defeat to Germany would have broken a continuity that had been hard to re-establish. Decision makers at the FA would have wanted to avoid a knee jerk reaction to events resulting in the wrong appointment and another failed Euro qualification campaign.

However those urging to play it safe and stick with the expensive failure may live to regret their caution. The inaction and delay meant that Roy Hodgson, in many ways the perfect blend of culture, proven management in a tournament environment with limited resources and a truly English view of the game, slipped through the net to Liverpool. The argument for continuity is in my view blown apart by both the age of the squad and the failure necessitating something new; fresh legs and ideas. Ultimately employing a foreign coach for our national side can only be justified by success and there is no doubt that the achievements of Eriksson and Capello cannot be rated as such, even if they better the attempts of recent Englishman. Any top flight English manager is capable of achieving the same tournament finish notched by Capello and would do so with pride and passion representing his country, striving for the absolute best. For all Fabio’s touchline gesticulations he could not feel our national anguish. If the FA do continue to employ foreign coaches they may as well pursue those Premier League players that express a desire to play for England and apply for citizenship, despite having no English family link. They may as well surrender control of the national side to the Premier League and concede it is all about profit and that club football really does exceed international ties in terms of importance. They have missed an opportunity to lay the foundations for long term international success that plays to our strengths and can be proudly boasted of as an English accomplishment, not mocked by our opponents as the brainchild of an icy continental tinkerer.