Tag Archives: soccer

Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the perfect long term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic


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.

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.

Super injunctions: Why should I care if the dressing room is full of whores?


This week super injunctions have once again, ironically, been in the news, largely thanks to a confession from the BBC’s Andrew Marr. He believes the balance has strayed too far in favour of gagging the media, despite having his own super injunction to conceal an affair. He supports the call of many to put the rules back in front of MPs for debate. Why should such extreme privacy only be available to mega rich politicians, TV stars or footballers?

 They may be able to keep a lid on certain stories with their fat cheques but they can’t stop us discussing the issue itself. And it’s a difficult and ethically complex problem. On the one hand we can’t have censorship coming before free speech, but to live in a free society privacy is also important. Continually we are told that if a story is in the “public interest” it shouldn’t be hidden away under lock and key. But what does that actually mean? The hypothetical (but all too common) “footballer and a prostitute” scenario, is wheeled out by both sides of the argument again and again.

Those speaking up for the principle of super injunctions argue that what anyone does sexually is their own business, just as their health or bank details are. Footballers are private individuals that just happen to be prominently in the public eye. But the reason they are so closely studied by the media and their fans is not what they do off the field, but on it. Any personal problems they may have, whether it’s the fallout from shagging Imogen Thomas, an addiction to scratch cards or a fear of candyfloss, should be resolved in their own time and space without intrusion.

On the other hand of course the opponents will bellow in outrage that footballers are role models for our children and should behave as such. They may be talented but with such lucratively rewarding contracts they should act responsibly in return, and concentrate on delivering the best performance they can, week in week out in a professional manner, without the distraction of off the field turmoil. Season ticket holders, investors and fans in general may all feel justified in wanting to know whether their star striker is wasting his wages and fitness on whores after training sessions.

I have to say I have more sympathy with the pro-privacy side of the argument, when it comes to footballers and their whores at least. Of course with the ludicrous money they’re earning they should be focusing on giving our clubs’ the best they can offer on the pitch every weekend. But frankly I don’t care about their numerous and identical scandals. It’s an inevitability that young men, their wallets brimming with cash, end up disgracing themselves and living dangerously. If they can play brilliantly and indulge their dirty hobbies in private, then so be it. I don’t watch football to judge morality.

It’s only when the scandals are published that they become disgusting influences on our children, when the role models become corrupted and misery heaped on the club and the player’s personal life. And as for the “public interest” argument, there are minimal grounds for exposure for the genuine good of the population. The public’s interest in rumour and gossip is another matter altogether to their wellbeing and rights.

Ignore what I just said though. I may not be at all interested in hearing of their latest filthy fumbles, but for everyone to turn a blind eye would mean the disrespectful bastards get away with it time after time. Enough of them already escape the consequences by wielding their wealth for a super injunction or a quiet payoff for the mistress. Countless clowning cocks lucky enough to play football for a living probably simply get away with it because they’re not good enough, or famous enough, for anyone to care if they cheat on their wives and the mothers of their children.

There will undoubtedly be cases when it’s best and fairest if privacy is maintained. There will be others with a real and pressing “public interest”, far more vital than a lustful midfielder’s latest lay, that must see the scrutinizing light of publicity. The only sensible way to deal with the issue is on a case by case basis.

When it comes to football though, like it or not, there is a paparazzi culture for finding out the bedroom deeds of the Premiership’s so called “stars”. The players know this is a fact of life as much as we do. If they want their right to privacy preserved the only way forward is for them to start behaving gratefully and respectfully. They should appreciate what they have enough not to jeopardise it. There’s no need for super injunctions without scandal in the first place.

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.

King Kenny: Outdated monarch or timeless leader?


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.

Africa United


Africa United has been dubbed this year’s Slumdog Millionaire and the hype around this feel-good movie set amongst third world scenery was certainly sufficient to cause me some logistical problems at my first ever press screening. A last minute venue change meant that for a while my attendance was touch and go, but given the plot of the movie this was perhaps appropriate.

Essentially a road movie, Africa United follows three Rwandan children, talented footballer Fabrice from a privileged world of exams and plasma screens, his “manager” Dudu and his sister Beatrice, who dreams of becoming a doctor and finding the cure to HIV. So far so generic. The three plucky adventurers gradually acquire friends, forming the “team for the dream” that aims to accompany Fabrice all the way to Soccer City in Johannesburg in time for the World Cup’s opening ceremony, where he was promised a place by a scout back in his village. Inevitably the journey does not run smoothly and the young friends must overcome many hurdles, some specific to the troubled continent of the title and others typical to the human condition. Despite this predictable format Africa United is far from being an ordinary film. Like Slumdog Millionaire it is distributed by Pathe and deserves recognition and success, but for different and in my view more persuasive reasons.

Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was based upon a successful novel, Africa United was built upon far slimmer foundations; a chance remark in January 2009. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which was helmed by the respected Danny Boyle and marked the culmination of that respect with global recognition, Africa United was the directorial debut of Debs Gardner- Patterson, who explained the origins of the story and the difficulties of casting with a few words before my screening of the movie began. I watched a nervous unknown make an uncertain speech but knew 90 minutes or so later that I had been in the presence of at the least an accomplished filmmaker, and at best this country’s next big thing. She has crafted, created and steered a project from the inspiration of just a few words into a must-see movie experience, talked of in the same breath as an Oscar winner. It lacks the epic scope and romantic intrigue of Slumdog and is at its heart a simple tale of friendship, but feels better formed and is much, much funnier throughout than 2008’s Indian set smash-hit.

The key to this humour and indeed the crucial factor elevating Africa United from the good to the excellent is the performance of young Eriya Ndayambaje as lead character Dudu. To use one of the many football metaphors ever present in the film, director Gardner-Patterson is an excellent manager, for acknowledging the importance of playing her star player from the start. The film opens with Dudu charmingly explaining, in almost Blue Peter style, how to construct the perfect football from condoms. It took just seconds for his infectious smile to have the audience giggling and cooing at his cuteness and in the rare moments that his sheer charm wears off, the script by Silent Witness writer Rhidian Brook provides him with killer lines. Often the gags are football based, such as when Dudu and Fabrice discuss which animals their heroes would be, with Dudu correcting Fabrice that Ronaldo is not a lively baboon but an arrogant peacock. But there are also laughs galore for the whole family, football fans or not, certainly too many for me to remember here. Although one of the more obvious, simple messages of the film is that “impossible is nothing” when people come together in teams, it is an inescapable fact that Africa United would lose much of its power without Dudu; he is the authentic magnet at the core of the story, the star striker, or perhaps kingpin playmaker pulling the strings.

That is not to say there are not other important elements to the story and the film’s authenticity. It was shot in real locations in Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa and the scenery is suitably stunning and colourful. There are actions sequences with rolling cars and firing guns as well as gags, innocence and friendship. The entertainment covers a broad range from childish humour to grand themes of dreams and emotion, often all skilfully related linked back the central idea of the power of sport. For example the scene where Dudu chooses to leave his sister at a school so she can get the education she craves is not only incredibly emotional but again links back to the idea of management, as the others praise Dudu’s skills. Africa United also perhaps understandably owes a lot to the continent of the title and paints a refreshingly honest portrait of modern African life; one in which some, like Fabrice’s family, are well off and football shirts, cars and mobile phones are the norm, as much as HIV, AIDS and child soldiers are. By showing African life realistically and making it accessible it is impossible not to root for the likeable main characters and thus Africa United becomes the perfect advert for the continent, far more effective than appeals for aid crammed with images of drought and famine. Who would not want to support this ambitious team for the dream, with ambitions not so unlike yours or mine, but smiles and charm that are a whole lot cuter?

Africa United then will find it hard to escape the same old labels of “feel-good” and “family friendly” in the coming weeks before its release, but through the hype remember that this film has far more to offer beneath the surface and do your best to support it. It has been lovingly nurtured by  British debutants in the film world, shot and edited with a distinctive, fun style, suitably scored and dotted with original, heart warming and amusing African animations that add another notch to its originality. Most of all watch out for Dudu, and Eriya Ndayambaje who plays him, as his performance alone makes Africa United unmissable.

Photos from my day at the Cottage: Fulham vs Everton Saturday the 26th September 2010


My first Premier League game in a while, and my first ever at the Cottage. Also a first for this blog, bloody visual images for your pleasure!

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.

Number 1 in 2012?


Urgghhhh…not England again! Just as we were all getting into the swing of the new Premiership season we’re forced to collectively confront the endless failings of our national side and look to the future again. The next chance of that elusive trophy will come at Euro 2012, a year in which we will at least be able to retreat to the splendour and pride of hosting the Olympic Games, should England fail to perform at the tournament proper, or as last time under Steve McClaren, fail to qualify for the European Championships at all.

The prospect of Capello leading a depressingly familiar looking side out at Wembley against mundane opponents like Bulgaria tomorrow is by no means a tantalising one. Personally I think the public shall struggle to ever fully get behind an England team under the guidance of Capello again, following his exposure at the World Cup as an underprepared, inexperienced international manager as opposed to the strict messiah he grew to become in the optimistic qualifying campaign. The only way Capello can begin to win back the hearts and minds of the fans is with a youthful overhaul of his squad, and his selections since the World Cup have fallen short in terms of ambition and a fresh approach. He has even sent mixed messages over David Beckham’s future, so that he at first retires him and then leaves the door open for a more than ceremonial return. Since the World Cup many commentators have pounced on Capello’s communication failures, calling for if not an English  manager then one with a firm grasp of the language. Players like Paul Robinson backed up these criticisms with evidence, choosing to end their international careers rather than continually endure the confusing limbo of Capello’s squad selections. And then there has been the success of Capello’s omissions from the World Cup squad: Theo Walcott’s pace and promise in the Arsenal side, Paul Scholes’ masterful domination of midfield, and his assertion that Capello simply left it too late and didn’t seem to want his return to the national side enough.

The progressive choices in Capello’s squad appear to be forced upon him as well, so there appears to be no evidence of a genuine effort on his part to rejuvenate the team. Up front there is no place for Newcastle’s hat-trick hero Andy Carroll, despite the media hype and recent good form that Capello previously promised would be rewarded. The strikers are the same bland mixture then of an underachieving Carlton Cole, Darren Bent, an injured Defoe and not scoring Rooney. In midfield too old faces shall probably win out, even with promising performances from young stars like Johnson and Walcott. Might now be the time to shift Walcott back up front alongside Rooney? Such a move probably won’t be followed by Capello and yet he is not seeking the long term target man partner for Rooney in Carroll either. In defence we are about to be offered a glimpse of an uncertain future, with Rio Ferdinand now probably a permanent crock well beyond his prime and Terry too entering his twilight years. The likes of Dawson, Upson and Jagielka do not scream world class defender: none of them ply their trade at a top club and even the promising Gary Cahill would need to improve in leaps and bounds.

Between the sticks though England are looking healthier. Again the retirements of James and Robinson forced the future on Capello rather than him embracing it with a continental kiss, Italian flair and setting it boldly beside the fire to be nurtured. Capello’s indecision when it came to the goalkeeper contributed to Robert Green’s blunder at the World Cup, as the entire nation was left in limbo as to who was number one. Remarkably though circumstances have contrived to purge the position so that by 2012 England shall have hopefully be in the position of having two world class goalkeepers, rather than none.

The fight of course is between Ben Foster and Joe Hart. However this is not to dismiss the other candidates, such as Scott Carson who has rebuilt his career following England failure at West Brom, David Stockdale of Fulham who has impressed stepping in for the mighty Schwarzer in the season openers and young Scott Loach of Watford, who replaces Carson in the squad for Bulgaria’s visit because of a family bereavement. These keepers will all provide beneficial competition but it is Foster or Hart who shall emerge as the next England number one and hopefully both will develop into fine keepers to give the squad depth.

Foster was of course the next Manchester United keeper a year ago. He has in many ways traded fortunes with Hart, who a year ago was going out on loan to Foster’s current club Birmingham. At Birmingham Hart forged a reputation for himself and has returned to Manchester City, despite all the mega money signings, to claim the first team spot ahead of the impressive, reliable and experienced Shay Given, who is wanted by a number of other Premiership teams, including Arsenal, as first choice keeper. This is a remarkable achievement for Hart and he deserves his shot at making the England shirt his own now, along with some patience and time from his manager to do so. Undoubtedly he is in a better position than Foster, playing at a club with the fresh expectation, classy talent and lofty aims of Man City. However there’s a long way to go until 2012 and it would be foolish to rule Foster out. Despite being comprehensively beaten by a cool, well placed Kevin Davies penalty at the weekend he is the sort of goalie you always fancy to stop a spot-kick. Despite some blunders with his feet in big games for Utd last season he is better than most keepers with the ball and is capable of excellent, precise distribution. Despite failing to claim the Utd jersey for himself expectations were placed on him not without reason and I share the view of some that Fergie was premature to get rid of him this summer for the modest sum of £6million, when he still might have proved to be an excellent replacement for Van Der Sar.

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.