Monday, 26 April 2010

No More Taking The Cup For Granted

Mention of the legendary romance of the FA Cup throws up some interesting memories. Remember when Arsene Wenger stole a longing glance along the touchline, to find Sir Alex Ferguson’s normally angry eyes gazing back at him? And when that customary post-match glass of wine turned into a hot and steamy night, never to be forgotten? Wait, not that kind of romance.

Apologies for that unfortunate mental image I have given you, as in reality the romance of the cup brings to mind the steely determination that sides like this season’s Portsmouth outfit have showcased, against all odds. Their 2-0 victory over Spurs, despite looming relegation, and their financial ruin, is the very definition of ‘cup romance’. While their economic mismanagement certainly merited administration, and the subsequent nine-point deduction, no one can fault the effort of the players this season, or the managers, particularly Avram Grant. As a group of individuals, their lack of Premier League quality is clear, being made up of players few others wanted. However, they have never been embarrassed on the pitch, and the team spirit they have shown in the face of impending doom surely warrants some reward. This is where the FA Cup comes in - to remind us that the winners in football are not always decided by money.

Should this same Portsmouth go on to defeat Chelsea in the approaching final, then it would be the biggest such cup upset since 1988. Not since then would a championship-challenging team have been defeated so close to the trophy by a so comparatively unfancied team. I am of course talking about the self-styled ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon, and their heroic 1-0 win against the league champions of Liverpool. It is the sort of stuff that would have had you laughed out of a publisher’s office if you were asked to write a fairytale. Within 15 years the club had moved grounds, changed names, and dropped down the divisions. Even before this, for Wimbledon to win the Cup was something tremendously unexpected at the time.

There have been other triumphs this year, to show that the Golaith-slaying (sorry for such a tired analogy) spirit of the FA Cup is well and truly alive. In the 3rd round, Leeds’ 1-0 win over Man United, their old rivals, was perhaps an even bigger shock than Pompey’s elimination of Spurs (if not as headline-grabbing), purely for the fact that two leagues still separate the two, and that fortress Old Trafford was breached. If only someone other than Jermaine Beckford (who somehow manages to exhibit all the traits of an overpaid Premier League superstar playing in a League One side) had scored the winner.

So let’s go back to the days before the Premier League, the days we probably all secretly long for. It’s probably fair to say that the whole notion of ‘cup romance’ was a throwback to days of a more even financial playing field. While it is hard to argue that players like Ronaldo, Bergkamp, and Zola have not improved the quality of the English game, the likelihood of the elite being disturbed in league competition is certainly lessened, and so we turn to the Cup for satisfaction of our underdog-rooting tendencies. Sutton vs. Coventry anyone? The Conference side knocked the Old First Division side out at the third round stage in 1989, making a mockery of the 4 leagues that separated them. Over 20 years on, they remain the last non-league side to dump out top-flight opposition.

As a Newcastle fan, you would forgive me for glossing over probably this most obvious example of ‘cup romance’. Somewhere in the offices of the BBC, there is a severely worn down tape containing footage of Hereford’s 2-1 win over the Magpies in 1972. You may not realise this, but Ronnie Radford’s famous 30-yard strike was not a match-winner, merely an equaliser that took the game into extra-time. Ricky George must harbour more than a little resentment that his winner, if not quite as easy on the eye, has been somewhat airbrushed out of history. Who knows, perhaps Portsmouth will beat Chelsea this spring, and finally eliminate the humiliation of Newcastle from every David vs. Goliath (there it is again…) confrontation shown on the BBC. I would certainly not be disappointed.

Avram Grant will tell you the romance of the cup still exists today. His infamously dour exterior betrays a passionate footballing man, whose passions of injustice have been stirred repeatedly since his arrival in English football. As a successor to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, he never stood a chance at building his own legacy. Despite keeping the Blues in a title race while the management structure tore itself apart, and coming one kick away from the holy grail of an elusive Champions League trophy, he was ruthlessly pushed aside. This season, he has railed against the Premier League’s treatment of Portsmouth, and succeeded in creating an effective siege mentality among the squad, with some heartening performances, if not the best results. Despite this, he has a relegation on his CV. How’s that for hard luck.

With victory at Wembley against Chelsea, Grant can strike a satisfying blow - both against his harsh sacking from the Stamford Bridge hotseat, and against the Premier League, who obviously weren’t banking on the still raging romance of the Cup to provide a welcome respite to the twin terrors of administration and relegation. Before you get too caught up in the idealistic image of Pompey lifting the trophy, let me remind you of my opening paragraph. Fergie and Wenger up a tree…

Monday, 15 March 2010

Beckham’s Broken Dream

So it seems that the football gods have finally seen enough of David Beckham. While it would be presumptuous, and wrong, to assume that he will be forced into retirement because of his freak injury, it would be a safe bet that his international career is over.

It is an international career that will be defined by two moments: his foolish kick against Argentina, and his inspired kick against Greece. One arguably ruined his country’s World Cup, and the other salvaged one before it even started. Even so, on the international scene at least, his career has remained somewhat unfulfilled for such a star player. Think of 1958 and you think of Pele. Think of 1986 and you think of Maradona. Think of 1998 and you think of Zidane. Think of 2002 and you think of Ronaldo. Beckham’s World Cup history reads: one sending off, and two campaigns hampered by injury and fitness problems. This time he doesn’t even make it on the plane.

The harsh reality of the situation, is that it really has little impact on England’s chances of winning the World Cup. His main role would have been as an impact substitute, although you cannot underestimate the man’s value when it comes to experience. 115 caps tells you all you need to know in that regard. However, perhaps it is best for the younger members of the squad to stand up and prove their own ability, and forget about Beckham. Shaun Wright-Phillips is 28, and yet he has done very little in an England shirt. James Milner is also at an age where he can really make a mark at international level, and all the signs are there that he will. If Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott can recover their fitness and form, then they have the potential to make a huge impact, not just in South Africa, but in many future tournaments.

Those four players eliminate the need for Beckham at the World Cup, regardless of his unfortunate Achilles injury. They are all in their 20s, and need to sink or swim. There is no guarantee, even without Beckham, that Capello can fit them all into his final squad, but they each offer more mobility and power then their veteran rival. Consistency is obviously an issue with all four, but let’s be realistic, even Beckham at the peak of his powers was never consistent at international level. His golden moments were few and far between, and they were many moons ago.

Perhaps after this summer’s World Cup we will even be discussing the need for Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. South Africa will decide once and for all whether they can play in the same team, as if they are both fit, they will both play. Capello was supposed to be the man who was able to solve that terrible conundrum. So far, against lesser opposition, he has succeeded. But if another summer of disappointment ensues, Capello will surely have to take a stand, and drop one of them. He has already taken such a decision by stripping John Terry of the captaincy. However, one decision he could never seem to make was to drop Beckham. The only dropping that has taken place was a 50 tonne anvil from the sky onto Beckham’s foot.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mad To Knock Mancini

If Roberto Mancini is under pressure at Manchester City, then the world really has gone mad. For him to be thrown into a high pressure job, with expectations of improving the already reasonable performances seen under Mark Hughes, the least he deserves is till the end of next season to prove he can do that.
The amount of paper talk claiming that a defeat away to Stoke in the FA Cup leaves him on borrowed time is scandalous. Stoke are a tough nut to crack, especially at the Britannia Stadium, and Mancini is still getting used to such challenges. He is working with players left to him by Eriksson and Hughes, and while these are unmistakeably very good players, since being assembled they have rarely looked like a team. We have seen moments of individual flair, yes, but very little determination, and very little hard graft. Steven Ireland, Craig Bellamy, and Carlos Tevez should be automatic starters if Man City are to overhaul their top 4 rivals. They combine talent with a work-ethic, in such a way that the likes of Robinho and Adebayor can only dream of.
Roberto Mancini has already shown he understands what sort of players are needed to succeed in this fast-paced Premier League. His ruthless disposal of Robinho, while being an admittedly populist move, similar to Steve McClaren’s treatment of David Beckham as England manager, made perfect sense. At home, Manchester City have few problems. Last season, Robinho lit up Eastlands at times, but few other stadia. This season his enigmatic candle went out altogether, and Mancini realised this immediately.
Mancini can also not be blamed for a defence containing such mishaps as Joleon Lescott. Possibly the most expensive transfer blunder Manchester has seen since Veron, he has made nine appearances in a City shirt, and few of them impressive. Wayne Bridge is also cause for concern, and he has clearly been adversely affected by recent romantic unpleasantness, of which we need no further debate! Again, this situation will not be solved by getting rid of Mancini.
While I have advocated, and still do so, the removal of Benitez, that is a totally different situation. Giving managers time for the sake of stability is clearly not the best idea, but Mancini’s record at Inter proves that he warrants a real chance. If, at the end of next season, his side have still not cracked the top 4, after his summer of squad building, then he will have few complaints. But right now, the supporters and surrounding media are doing him few favours. Let the man do his job, and things will improve.
We’ve all seen the damage of managerial instability at Newcastle, and at Portsmouth. Chelsea are probably the only club in the country that have managed to get away with such trigger-happy running of the club, and that is tantamount to the quality of player that Mourinho attracted during his time at the club. Right now, Man City do not have enough of that type of player. In the summer it will be up to Mancini to put together such a squad, but for him to be under even the slightest pressure before he has had that chance, is enough to make you lose whatever remaining faith you have in the people pulling the strings of English football.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Has Benitez Dodged The Bullet?

The position of Rafael Benitez, as manager of Liverpool, has been the subject of constant speculation almost since that opening-day defeat at White Hart Lane. He must be thanking his lucky stars that he signed a new five-year deal less than twelve months ago!
While Liverpool currently lie in 4th position, in fulfilment of the Champions League promise Benitez made, it cannot disguise the reality of Liverpool’s complete disaster of a season. At the time of writing, Man City hold the same number of points, with two games in hand. I know who my money is on, and they don’t play in red. With Liverpool’s recent improvement in form, it may seem foolish to ask questions of Benitez. He is well within his rights to claim that his side have turned the corner. However, it should never have come to this.
By the time the final whistle blew on Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth in December, Liverpool had lost eight of eighteen league games. They were out of the League Cup, out of the Champions League, and soon to be dumped out of the FA Cup. It was never going to get much worse than that. Even Graeme Souness has managed to steer Liverpool to an FA Cup victory, and as a Newcastle fan, I can testify to his, shall we say, questionable managerial skills!
Any other club would have kicked Benitez out long ago, and while the Reds have steadily climbed the table in recent weeks, the performances have remained, at best, workmanlike. The impressive run of clean sheets has been the foundation for this, with the creatively still somewhat lacking. What was Alberto Aquilani’s £20m arrival supposed to bring? That’s right - creativity. While it is right to allow the Italian time to adapt to the English game, what Benitez needed in the summer was an immediate return on any investment made, particularly with the departure of Alonso. Perhaps wiser choices could have been made.
The defeat to Arsenal summed up the problem Liverpool have right now. While their defence is good enough to withstand many Premier League attacks, the trip to the Emirates was a step too far. Even an Arsenal side nowhere near their best was able to fight off a toothless Liverpool. Even with the solid defensive performances of Carragher & co, the Anfield outfit still did not see fit to attack Arsenal, and finish them off. Instead, pressure was invited, and the points were thrown away.
Such negativity has been the defining characteristic of Liverpool this season, and it will surely cost them their top 4 place. Benitez is a very fortunate man, not only because of the lengthy contract he signed last season, but the financial crisis that has engulfed the English game. The current fiascos surrounding Portsmouth and West Ham have deflected attention away from his ineptitude for now, but we may well see Rafa’s position under the microscope yet again by May.
Should Liverpool fall short of the top 4, his position would be untenable. A very public promise was made, if he cannot deliver this, he would be well advised to resign before the bullet finally finds its target.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Why Murray Needn't Worry

Andy Murray recently suffered the biggest disappointment so far of his short career. While defeat to Roger Federer in a grand slam is nothing new to him, never before has he come so close. Unlike the US Open in 2008, Murray actually gave a performance to be proud of, despite the repetition of the straight sets scoreline. For long periods he stood toe to toe with whom many regard as the world’s greatest ever tennis player, in Roger Federer. At one point in the third set, 5-2 up, it looked like the momentum had swung Murray’s way, and a fightback looked on the cards. Unfortunately however, Roger’s abundance of experience shone through, as he artfully picked the locks of the Scot’s defences.

Murray’s progress through the Australian Open came as a pleasant surprise to his many detractors. Some claimed that he possessed a defensive and reactive style of tennis, which was ill-fitting with his ambition to be up with the very best in the world. One example of such a trait has been his tendency to stay behind the baseline for the majority of points, allowing his opponent to force the initiative at key points in the match. In the 2009 Grand Slams, this weakness was brutally underlined by the game’s power players. Roddick, Cillic, Verdasco, and Gonzalez, all walked away having blown Murray off the court. Granted, on each occasion the victor played out of their skin, but each time, the Scot seemed too passive to really pose many questions of his own. He is yet to beat a big hitter at his own game.

However, so far in 2010, we have seen him come out of his shell somewhat. In reaching the final in Melbourne, some big threats were neutralised. 6 ft 9 John Isner was dispatched in round four, with Murray coping well with his booming serve, followed by the defeat of Rafael Nadal in the last eight. In many ways it was difficult to judge Murray’s progress on this match alone, as the Spaniard’s well-publicised knee injury once again came to the fore, forcing an early retirement. In Murray’s defence though, Nadal appeared to be close to his best in the first two sets, before his injury became apparent, and during this 2 hours of tennis, we saw a new Andy Murray. One that stepped into the net, dealt ferocious groundstrokes, and was not afraid to take on a player who 12 months ago seemed unstoppable. While Nadal is certainly not the same player since his injury last year, for the British number one to ruthlessly expose his shortcomings in such a big tournament was crucial in illustrating his new found confidence. It was perhaps fitting that to reach the final, Murray had to beat the man that halted his 2009 US Open progress, in Marin Cillic. Eventually, Murray prevailed in four sets, showing again how much work on his technique had been put in over the winter break.

And so, came the biggest test of his career; a match-up with a player at the peak of his powers, or anyone else’s powers. A match that would be the true gauge of his world standing. It is perhaps not surprising that Murray retreated into his shell slightly. He must have wished he could just sit back and enjoy the show that Federer put on, but the Scot was braver than that. The opening exchanges were perhaps proof enough that Federer would need to be at his best to lift the trophy. At 2-0 up in the first set, many onlookers in Melbourne probably anticipated a stroll in the park for the Swiss legend. And while the straight-sets scoreline probably suggests that to be the case, it would be an inaccurate assumption. For in response to this opening blow from Federer, Murray immediately hit back with his own break of serve. Possibly the serve was a key weakness in Murray’s game. At best, his first serve throughout the final can be described as hit and miss. This gave Federer cheap points at key moments. Frustratingly, in the rallies, Murray showed his real class, at times moving his opponent expertly around the court. However, his first serve, as proven by the stats, lacked accuracy, and with Federer in such an unforgiving mood, this will always prove to be an important flaw.

While Murray is without a Grand Slam to his name, there will always be doubters of his genuine quality. It is true that he is the only remaining player in the top five without one of these holy grails. However, the moment he faces an opponent other than Federer in a final, mark my words, we will have a British champion. Perhaps even the Fed knows that anything less than his imperious best would have seen Murray walk away victorious in current form. A backhanded compliment maybe, but it is testament to the fact that Andy Murray is on his way to the top. The clay court season may prove too big an obstacle at this stage in his career, but it is a challenge he will be more than happy to take on. If he continues with his more aggressive tactics throughout this year, then either Wimbledon or America will see his promise of success promise come to fruition.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

City Remain Second Best

It has been a popular opinion, among the blue half of Manchester, that Man United were there for the taking last night. They seem to forget that a winning mentality means a lot more than the amount of zeros on a transfer cheque. While many components of this Man United side are coming to the end of the career line (seven first-team regulars are in their 30s), the experience of winning trophies cannot be discounted. All three scorers that knocked out Man City have been a valuable part of their well-oiled trophy-winning machine over recent seasons, and try as they might, the closest thing Man City have to a winning mentality is Carlos Tevez, who conveniently was signed from United.
That’s not to say Man City supporters are supporting mediocre mid-table nobodies. Their midfield is packed with talent, such as Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright Phillips, and Steven Ireland. They are all great players, who are all good enough to grace the Champions League. If we compare these players to the likes of Darren Fletcher, Park Ji-Sung, or even the latter-day Scholes and Giggs, there would be a strong case to say that Man City’s midfield is superior. However, they do not yet have the aura of invincibility that the Red Devils have cultivated over the last 15 years. Gareth Barry has spent his pre-City career viewing Uefa Cup qualification as an achievement at Villa. Shaun Wright-Phillips was mired in mid-table during his previous spell at Eastlands, before playing an extremely limited role in Mourinho’s Chelsea success. Steven Ireland is still in his early 20s, having come up from the youth system. None of these players, apart from arguably Wright-Phillips, really know what it takes to dominate English football in the way that Man United have. That is what made the difference at Old Trafford. Aside from the outrageous piece of skill that Carlos Tevez produced to level the tie, City never looked like they truly believed they could oust their old enemies in their own backyard. Until they do this, and then repeat the feat, they will never be seen as anything other than “noisy neighbours” by the United faithful.
Of course, it is still very early days in the new Manchester City era. Two months ago even predictions of a top five finish looked premature, as the team spent a lot longer gelling than Hughes could afford. However, since Mancini’s arrival, a new purpose is visible. City look the business, and if Liverpool can be fought off, the top 4 will surely beckon in May. That will be the first building block for success, as new players will not only be attracted to the astronomical wages, but the chance to pit their wits against Europe’s finest players. Only by playing these big games, and winning them, will Man City truly become the equals of their red-shirted rivals.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Financial Times

So football’s financial bubble is finally beginning to burst. Liverpool and Man United, England’s two most decorated clubs, are beginning to feel the pinch that was, as recently as two years ago, dubbed “doing a Leeds.” Leeds were forced into administration back in 2007 by a succession of crazy transfer fees, and extortionate wage packets for average talent such as Seth Johnson and Robbie Fowler. They certainly experienced some memorable and ecstatic moments, but paid the ultimate price for this. Now topping League 1, and flexing their giant-killing muscles in the FA Cup, Leeds are slowly rebuilding. Most football fans would welcome their eventual return to the Premier League, and with professional and sensible management, this will surely happen within the next 5 years.

Since Leeds’ financial implosion, English football has seemed determined to replicate such stupidity. Newcastle came the closest, with marquee signings such as Michael Owen and Albert Luque backfiring alarmingly. However, while they can never claim to be completely secure with Mike Ashley in ownership, they appear to be making a swift comeback from relegation. With sensible management this would be a good thing, but far too many clubs in recent months and years have been reckless, chasing success at any cost.

While it would be foolish to suggest that mid-table clubs should not strive for more, it must be combined with patience, and the building of solid foundations. Clubs such as Portsmouth and West Ham, with their multiple takeovers, have been the opposite of solid, with Portsmouth especially, sailing very close to the wind financially. It would not be a shock for many, to see Pompey in administration before the year is out, and perhaps that is needed. Any club that cannot pay the wages of their players or staff, despite the vast sums of TV money they receive, needs a wake-up call.

West Ham fans can breathe slightly easier, as tthis week saw the completion of a takeover by David Sullivan and David Gold. In their opening news conference, they stressed the need for sensible decisions, and stability at the football club. We know they mean it. They possess a track record, having left Birmingham in quite a good position, which they are now capitalising on. We must ask ourselves, should owners serve a lower-league apprenticeship, like many managers do? The list of current questionable Premier League management would include the Glazers at Man United, the Arabians at Man City, Gillett and Hick at Liverpool, and the aforementioned Portsmouth. While some of these owners have sporting backgrounds, none are in football. They have little understanding of what it means to sensibly run a football club.

While Man City appear to have hit the jackpot with their multi-billionaire ownership, they are also walking a tightrope, even as we speak. While they now enjoy some of the world’s finest players, these players are also enjoying some of the world’s finest salaries. If two or three years pass, and the expensively assembled squad has not brought success, we run the risk of the Arabian owners taking their money elsewhere, having grown tired of the stresses of football. What happens then? How does the club sustain the high wage payments and transfer fees?

Thankfully, the Premier League retains some semblance of dignity, in clubs such as Aston Villa and Everton. While they do not possess the short-lived glamour that others have foolishly chased, they are the heart of the Premier League. They boast strong ownership, and they stick by their managers. Any other club would have probably sacked David Moyes several times over. Everton though have been rewarded for their patience, as the year after finishing 17th, they briefly gate-crashed the top 4. Even this season, initially struggling near the bottom, they now are back in the top 10, well placed to make an assault on the European places next season. What they lack in star names, they make up for in team spirit, and if the rest of the Premier League took heed, we would be following a sport with a soul.