It was a weekend of clichés. The FA Cup was restored to its place at the top of English football and in the hearts of millions of fans. Thousands poured forth from homes not usually filled with the sounds of football chatter to watch David vs. Goliath encounters. Communities came together and embarked on quests to places suddenly rendered exotic wonderlands. Who would have thought Manchester could seem such a distant, unattainable paradise?
There were shocks across the board. Even in an all Premiership tie in London, eye brows were raised as the holders Chelsea were dumped out. But the novelty attractions lay elsewhere in the form of so called minnows taking on the swaggering, mega-bucks big boys. Leyton Orient snatched a replay with Arsenal. And of course there was the tie of the round.
It was the dream draw on everyone’s speculative lips as the balls were swirled and plucked. No one quite expected it to really happen, despite the FA Cup’s notoriety for such things. Non-league Crawley Town, netted a huge financial windfall from the grandest theatre of football in the land, not to mention an unforgettable “day out”.
I say “day out” because it was always going to be more than that. United’s FA Cup jitters have become commonplace in recent years and Crawley were up for the occasion. They’re also a team studded with players that could play at a higher level, bought for sizeable sums in non-league terms. Crawley are now reaping rewards that are not merely financial. Thanks to holding the Premier League leaders and the world’s most famous team to a mere 1-0 win, they have secured a place in the hearts of countless neutrals and established themselves on the football map. Many would say they deserve the plaudits for a fearless second half display in which they dominated a team far above their standing.
I am reluctant to praise Crawley and refuse to join in the enthusiastic congratulations. Yes they played well at Old Trafford and reasserted the reality that the so called stars of football can be little better than a well organised, galvanised lower league team in a one-off match. Yes they gave hope to other small teams hoping for a break and injected life into the dreams of youngsters. Yes they hinted at the FA Cup’s ongoing ability to charm and surprise. But the manner in which they progressed from the previous round tarnished the innocence of their fairytale moment for me.
Until they burst onto the scene courtesy of an FA Cup run, I’d not heard of Crawley, the so called “car park for Gatwick” of the non-league. I don’t follow non-league football so I have no bitterness about their supposed Manchester City like spending to propel themselves towards the football league like an unfeeling big stack bully. But I saw the highlights of their triumph over Torquay.
The behaviour of the Crawley players in that game was nothing short of shameful. There was talk of the squad showing disrespect by warming up in the home side’s goalmouth prior to kick-off and of spats between the managers behind the scenes. On the pitch Crawley displayed evidence of dirty tackling and unsporting tactics alongside promising bouts of impressive football. Worst of all were the school boy tantrums surrounding two missed penalties.
Crawley players literally fought each other in fits of moody rage for control of the ball and the right to have a go from the spot. They tugged at each other’s shirts and unmistakeably swore. They abused the referee and demanded cards for their opponents. It was an ill tempered match and Torquay also had a sending off, but those two petty squabbles over penalties highlighted Crawley’s immaturity, arrogance and disrespect.
There’s been all the usual talk about the “magic” of the FA Cup surrounding Crawley’s tie with Manchester United. But for me if there is such a thing as FA Cup magic a key ingredient of it is the good behaviour and pure innocence behind the lowly sides’ valiant and courageous displays. There’s an assumption these days that it’s the money at the top of the game that breeds the bad side of football. I didn’t believe this to be entirely true. But the arrogance and disgraceful behaviour demonstrated by Crawley against Torquay, that sets such an unsporting example for watching youngsters, seems to suggest that even an injection of cash lower down the leagues can lead to behavioural problems and dissent in the dressing room.
It’s a worrying trend of excessive wealth tainting all corners of the game, given greater weight by Leyton Orient’s chairman Barry Hearn’s plans to fly his squad to Las Vegas as a reward for securing a replay with Arsenal. On the surface this is far more acceptable than Crawley’s shocking antics on the pitch and simply a part of another cup fairytale. But why isn’t a replay with one of the country’s greatest teams reward enough? It seems football in itself isn’t enough anymore. After the ludicrous transfer window the last bastion of pure football, the FA Cup, appears under threat too. Cup glory is becoming a trendy badge, an accessory or piece of bling, rather than something honourable, innocent and valuable all by itself.
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It surely can’t be the same season and yet it is. Chelsea began this campaign steamrolling the opposition and notching up impossible scores. Drogba and Anelka and co were unstoppable. But this weekend Chelsea crashed out of the FA Cup, the one trophy their fans must have been counting on their team to comfortably retain. The coming week is make or break for the blues as they take on Copenhagen in the Champions League. After letting slip the Premiership to a way below par Manchester United side and an Arsenal team still in development, Chelsea’s only hope for silverware this term is in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti started this season as if he could do no wrong after reclaiming the title for the London side after a 3 year stay in Manchester, but it would seem he has to win the trophy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has always coveted and never won to keep his job.
Indeed it feels as if Abramovich’s tenure as Chelsea owner has reached a sort of tipping point. The unspoken fear around Stamford Bridge has always been what if the big Russian tires of his English plaything and leaves the club. It was the one consoling thought for many football fans as they watched Chelsea steadily ascend to the heights of world football; that the situation was unstable and one day Chelsea would crash and burn. It’s been said again since unfathomable amounts of oil money were ploughed into Manchester City. But so far Roman’s defied the expectations and hopes of the doubters, and continually funded his club. He’s proved the role model and catalyst for countless other investors to take the leap into English football. And thanks to Roman’s success and commitment, fans have even started welcoming benefactors in lots of cases.
Since the departure of the Special One however, Abramovich’s record with managers has been poor, with Ancelotti the only real success, besides Hiddink who was a temporary measure. And the chopping and changing of managers has disguised the relentless decline of the club’s squad. Once unbeatable and prized assets like Drogba, Lampard and Terry are ageing and no longer capable of consistent greatness. Once again Roman dipped into his vast wealth to try and resurrect his empire during the transfer window. Fans might have been reassured by this continued investment and the arrival of Torres and Luiz. But the Spaniard from Liverpool is yet to ignite and is not a long term solution. David Luiz displayed commanding defensive ability and sublime passing on his full debut against Fulham, alongside experienced Terry at centre back. It will take a whole clutch of young signings like Luiz to rejuvenate a Chelsea squad that has been neglected and has become predictable.
Ancelotti is coming under considerable fire of late for his tactical decisions. There’s no doubting that he is playing far too narrow through the midfield and into the hands of opponents that no longer see Chelsea’s defence as invincible. He’s certainly trying too hard to accommodate Torres without thinking first of the need for results and team chemistry. But in many ways Ancelotti is limited by his squad, a group of players he had little hand in selecting. There are an abundance of central midfield players in the Chelsea team, all of them quality players, and Ancelotti is trying to play to his strengths.
The danger is that Abramovich will simply sack another top class coach and there will once again be a period of upheaval. There’s an unquestionable need for change and fresh legs at Chelsea, but this will be best managed through continuity as well. It’s a real shame that the pressures of modern football and the heavy egos of club owner’s mean that managers no longer get time to shape a side to their vision. If Roman Abramovich is truly serious about winning the Champions League, and establishing Chelsea as a long term force at the top of football, he’ll keep faith in a manager who’s already proven himself and back him with the resources he needs. Top coaches deliver with time as Alex Ferguson proves. Take a reactionary axe to his management team as well as his squad and Roman might see his football empire crumble into mediocrity.
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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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