Friday, 6 November 2015

A good week for English co-efficients

In what was fast becoming a situation of desperate measures for the Premier League's beloved fourth place trophy, ironically the club most accused of treating it as such was the one who did it the most damage this week.

Arsenal's 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich was in many ways a righting of the wrong that occured when the Germans were vanquished a fortnight ago in London. despite having all the territory etc. Any war imagery is unintentional, I swear!

The Gunners' proud record of maximum progression in 15 Champions League group stages is one that is under threat, yet this is one season where Premier League success, or at least the top two, may be within reach. Perhaps skipping their inevitable drawn out hammering by one of Europe's elite will allow their confidence to remain. And hey, there's always the Europa League, a definitely winnable competition.

Man City gave probably the most impressive and polished performance of the week, with a stunning display of speed and savagery on the counter-attack. Brendan Rodgers will have been spitting his well-pruned feathers at the sight of Raheem Sterling's goal and it must be said - could Sterling have been right all along? He certainly seems to have taken to life at the Etihad, like a duck to water you might say. Must stop thinking about ducks...

In all fairness, finishing was always his week point, but to give such a calm and precise conclusion to a thrilling break, and an all-round potent display, is feasibly proof that Liverpool was holding back a talent. It's much easier to initially flourish at anything when you are not immediately looked upon as the main man. Sterling had perhaps one season under the "promising youngster" tag before Suarez was chased out of town and Sturridge self-combusted. At City, Aguero, Bony and De Bruyne, not to mention the likes of Silva, Nasri and Navas, are already top quality attacking options. He is now free to learn, absorb, grow into the top player everyone unfairly assumed he was.

It is also impossible not to wonder whether Sterling would have still been at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp. While it must be said that Rodgers did achieve success that Klopp would be hoping to emulate, his most recent record was worrying. Under Rodgers, Sterling was...stalling, much like the rest of the side. There had been glimmers of the post-Sterling Liverpool sparking into life, most notably in that draw at Arsenal. Yet it was the equivalent of a spluttering engine, soon to burn out completely. The philosophy was tired and, most damningly, muddled.

Klopp, in just a few weeks, has certainly got his ideas across. His ideals of rock and roll football were not a million miles way against Rubin Kazan. As far as 1-0 hammerings go, this was right up there. High pressing, thrilling attacking football - there is a reason why his Dortmund side was so successful.

Man United and Chelsea also did their own bit for the cause, but I am not going to wade into the perpetual Rooney/Van Gaal/Mourinho storms this time. Too early in the morning for that. By all means though, get your fix of superstar soap opera! Don't forget to check out the Facebook page for the Messi vs Ronaldo Great Keyboard Warrior War. I need to get wars and ducks out of my system... This'll do - would you rather face an army of duck-sized horses, or a lone horse-sized duck?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why this season's Premier League is the most refreshing in years

The self-styled best league in the world has had its issues of late. The top four in particular was seen as a closed shop, with only the rich elite having any hope of inhabiting the money positions. Rightly or wrongly, the ever-more financially bloated top league has extended its money share a touch, to the extent that the newly-promoted Bournemouth were able to drop a cool £8 million on Tyrone Mings from Ipswich. Let's not forget the £12 million the still-Championship Fulham spent on Luke McCormack.

While this money bubble will surely burst at some stage, and the likes of Newcastle and Villa in their frugal ways will rise to the top and laugh from their ivory towers, it's made for a thrillingly open season thus far, as more of the mid-ranking have a bit of dough to outspend their European counterparts with. Mahrez at Leicester, Cabaye at Crystal Palace - these are clubs who are in their second and third seasons after promotions respectively. When you add the fact that they both have managers who are delighting in rubbing the noses of their critics, it's an undeniably nice thing to see.

In addition to this, McClaren at Newcastle attempting to rebuild his reputation, and succeeding on the basis of performances, if not yet results, plus Slavan Billic at West Ham finally attempting to prove that he isn't merely an England national side bogeyman eight long years after that wet Wembley night.

Then you have Southampton and Everton - the Saints riding on the back of a tremendous season last time out, and threatening at least a repeat this time, Martinez living up to his so far somewhat inconsistent reign with an extremely mixed bag of results.

Liverpool are one of the standout cases for me of a bit of dare-I-say-it fun returning to the fray. Rodgers did make a valuable contribution to Anfield's recent history, and will surely always be welcomed back by supporters should he ever return to watch his former side, but towards the end of his reign he seemed lost in his own bubble of motivational-schtick, tossing out cliches that even he didn't seem to believe any longer. Jurgen Klopp's claim of his love of rock and roll football seemed alive and well at Stamford Bridge in their 3-1 win. The odd bum note and leftover feedback was definitely audible, but more than made up for by the theatrics of their goals.

Speaking of which, Jose Mourinho is one man in danger of being left behind by this new element of fun. His sides have rarely been thrilling ones to watch, and when they are, it always seems to have been a temporary phase en route to his idealistic vision of a ruthless cyborg of a team. Even his solid-as-a-rock defensive plans have been ripped to pieces by this more adventurous than normal Premier League, and he must surely recognise this, fight fire with fire, and simply allow his most creative players and supposedly deadliest finishers the room to dovetail and combine as they please.

Hazard, Oscar, Costa, Remy, Falcao - that is by no means the only attacking talent he has, yet he refuses to play to their strengths, and his continuing strangulation of their talents cannot last. He claimed to want to help Falcao back to his best, yet the longer he rots away on the bench, supposedly having to dislodge Costa, the more like a vanity project it seems. Solution - play them both up front together. If this reads like an anti-Jose rant, it isn't, merely a suggestion that he should allow him to be swept up in this newly attacking league, him being the supposedly Happy One this time around.

Louis van Gaal can also stand to loosen up on the pitch if he wants to get anywhere near the league this season. Off the field, his attitude formation seems to be a constant 2-3-5, so a bit more cavalier on the pitch would be nice. As long as one of those five strikers isn't Rooney. Seriously, the man needs a rest. The endless bashing he gets will not do him any good. He needs to remind himself why he loves the game, see how he can move forward a stalled career, and he needs a bit of time out to do that.

Manchester City and Arsenal are definitely doing it right. Could this be the first season in living memory where they occupy the top two spots? I need to employ a fact checker to see when that last happened. Hmm...alright, I'll do it. WHOA - OK, this would be the first time it ever happened. Now, that would be refreshing.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

An Unhappy First Visit...

The pressure was always going to prove too much. Five games without victory in the build-up to a match that Newcastle would always be expected to win in any circumstances, yet there was a certain fear in the air, a sense that any win would be scrappy. The only time they had racked up any kind of goal tally was against the toothless lower-league opposition that Northampton had provided in the Capital One Cup.

The warm-ups of the two sides, in hindsight, were quite an interesting window. Watford did some stretching, while Newcastle rehearsed some snappy, yet also strangely subdued one-touch pass-and-move. It was the last time they would demonstrate it that afternoon. All the talk of late is how good the training has been, but with the form of our respective attack and defence, I fail to see how facing that lot in training all week is any kind of gauge of performance come Saturday itself.

Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney were a thorn in the side of the home team all afternoon, showcasing the power and pace that mercilessly exposed the lack of the same in captain Fabricio Coloccini. Not only did the Argentine defender fail to impress in those qualities, but his distribution was often careless to the point of criminal, with countless floated dinks barely making it halfway to the intended target before being easily intercepted by a much more hungry Watford player.

The selection of Steve McClaren was a talking point throughout the week after the equally meek surrender at West Ham. Personally, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to bench Papiss Cisse and throw Ayoze Perez, Siem de Jong and Rolando Aarons into the attack. If you aren't going to go for the jugular at home to a newly-promoted side, even though Watford may yet finish well clear of relegation, then when? Perez was the only one of that power trio to make the grade.

As I was watching live at the ground, it took a minute or two for the formation to be clear in my mind. The hope in my mind was for some kind of Perez-Cisse partnership. In reality, the Spaniard was in a staggeringly defensive left-midfield role. The opening 45 saw Cisse as the only player in the Watford half for long spells. Florian Thauvin and Daryl Janmaat showed some promising link up play down the right, and the Dutch right-back was our main attacking threat throughout the match.

The most damning aspect of the game was, even at 2-0 down, the Toon had 11 men in the penalty box, with no out-ball. No counter attack possible. By the time any forward momentum was gathered, all gates were shut by the visitors.

In all fairness, there was a slight improvement in the second half, with Cisse being jettisoned for de Jong, but the formation changed little. There was still no desire to push up the field, get numbers in the box, and only Janmaat was showing any guile when it came to actually forcing the issue and creating something dynamic.

Another worry was McClaren's delay in making any further changes. Not until the 80th minute did substitute number two arrive, and even then, hoping a straight swap with Aarons for Haidara would make any big difference was a tad misguided. Aarons can have as big an impact as any youngster in the Premier League if he is let off the leash and allowed to really attack teams from a more advanced position than wing-back.

By this stage, even a one-goal deficit seemed insurmountable, and each broken down attack saw a few more people filter out around me. By the time the final whistle blew, a half empty stadium remained, but the booing was substantial enough.

In fact, throughout the game, the surrounding fans in my area certainly were not shy in showing their frustration. It was perhaps a reflection of the inertia affecting the side that barely one player escaped abuse. In general, the new boys escaped harsh judgement, although Thauvin has work to do if he is to escape the second-rate Ben Arfa tag that seems destined to befall any new French winger that arrives to Tyneside.

All in all, a lot of work to do, hopefully starting tonight at home to Sheffield Wednesday, but now I must do my own. Night shift tonight for me. Hopefully many good shifts are put in at St James', and not just from the away side...

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Can Rooney Recapture The Glory Days?

It seems incredible that it was 11 years ago when Wayne Rooney announced his arrival on both Manchester United and European stage with a hat-trick to help swat Fenerbahce aside. At 18 years old, he seemed poised to take on the world, having already threatened to make Euro 2004 his own.

Fast forward to 2015, and as Rooney approaches his 30th birthday, he tonight spearheads his and his club's grand return to European competition. Perhaps as a marker of how both have fallen on the world stage, it is not yet September and this is not a group game. Club Brugge stand in the way of that and Rooney will be looking for a serious spark. Now is the time for another hat-trick, or at least a goal, to silence the growing band of naysayers.

Many previous dry spells have been blamed on injury or fatigue, such as a European Championship or World Cup campaign, but with a relatively bare summer, this season has seen an undeniably ring-rusty Rooney. Ironically, it was his own lack of sharpness that probably caused Kyle Walker to put past his own keeper on the opening day, with Walker throwing himself in front of a shot that never came. Aston Villa are a club that Rooney historically loves - an unlucky 13 have flown past their keepers from his boot. We all know the "lies, damn lies, and statistics" quote, but it is impossible to resist the connection. He was, to put it kindly, below-par at Villa Park on Friday night.

An admittedly key element of recent times in Rooney's career has been the growing frequency with which he has been deployed either on the wing or central midfield. For someone who burst onto the scene with such energy, that should not necessarily pose much problem, but it is true that this may have hampered him. Robin Van Persie and Cristiano Ronaldo have both been his positional scourges over the years, leading to teams that are not built to serve Rooney. Now that that time has belatedly come, could it be that the fire has long since burnt out?

It was a long-levelled accusation towards Sir Alex Ferguson that he had dulled the sharpness of the Rooney blade in favour of a more defensively-minded selfless team player. Rooney being Rooney, he has (mostly) done whatever is asked of him, and would probably have played right-back if Fergie had convinced him so.

Unquestionably, in terms of end-of-season statistics, Rooney is a relentlessly consistent performer, and can surely have Fergie to thank for some of this. Last season, he became the first player in the Premier League era to score 10+ goals in 11 consecutive campaigns. In only two of these did he breach the 30 mark, and in only one further did he pass 20, Probably most galling of all for him, his most productive scoring campaign was followed by Fergie's Van Persie trophy signing, which admittedly won him his swansong campaign. Even last season, Rooney ended as not only United's top scorer but also leading assist-maker.

He now has the chance to further cement his unquestionable legacy. Yet, the one niggling question remains - did he move to Old Trafford too soon? Did his explosive early promise ever really get fulfilled? Yes, he has scored many goals, and many spectacular ones at that, such as THAT overhead against Man City. But remember the way he ran at and terrorized those defences at Euro 2004. Was it coached out of him? Was his body type and tendency to easily put on weight always going to sand those jagged edges away? Or is it all rubbish? Could it be that he has in fact fulfilled whatever potential he had? His could remain a cautionary tale for the likes of Ross Barkley to stay where you are developing, and not to reach for the stars so soon.

Or tonight may yet be the start of Rooney's late career golden era. The scene is set. European midweek floodlights will be on. He will be central striker for that same team he, lest we forget, is the 3rd top scorer ever for. Perhaps his career trajectory is a lesson for football hacks everywhere to avoid comparisons with the absolute greats of the game, and simply appreciate him for what he is, a solid striker who guarantees goals. Only, he doesn't right this moment. Step forward, Wayne.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Dr Mo, and some Saturday-related Ramblings

I don't know about you, but I can't wait for the first Chelsea injury of tomorrow's match. The collective holding of the crowd's breath, the uncertainty of Dr Eva Carneiro's touchline stand-in, before Jose Mourinho himself dons the medic uniform and grabs the ol' magic spray. All of course to distract the wider attention from the 2-0 lead that Manchester City have at the time.

On to the things that actually matter - action! Southampton came massively unstuck against the Toffees of Everton whose performance was pure Werther's Original. I spoke to an Everton fan who said he was used to going to bars in Poole and seeing his beloved Blues get trounced on the south coast year after year. Well, he can go back in next time with bragging rights firmly in his back pocket! It was a really impressive display from Roberto Martinez's men, one at odds with a lot of the accusations of one-dimensional death-by-possession leveled at him last season (and last weekend...).

While one Saints swallow does not make a summer, the ability by his charges to actually construct speedy counter-attacking moves is extremely promising for Everton's seasonal prospects. In his post-match interview, Martinez admitted the need for flexibility in his play, and today resembled the best of the 2013-14 performances. Admittedly, it is when the defenses are packed that Everton have tended to struggle, and the next home game against supposedly middling opposition will be a truer test of progress, but today was a definite step forward. Romelu Lukaku had one of his Superman games, and Ross Barkley reminded us all why he was talked of as the next (sober) Gazza. His lack of consistency last season was alarming, but this opening fortnight will ideally act as a springboard for him, and the side.

Speaking of sobriety, Daryl Jannmat will have needed some Dutch courage before entering the dressing-room at half time to face Schteve McClaren. His senseless sending off was the biggest nail in a coffin that was truly made of nails for Newcastle today against Swansea. Jefferson Montero had a field day against the Toon defence, and another day it could have been four or five. One can only imagine the accusations if John Carver was still in charge, because for Jannmat to indulge in a spot of shirt-tugging in his situation was a bit silly to say the least.

Speaking of indiscipline, new boy Aleksandar Mitrovic is seemingly a throwback to the psychotic days of Duncan Ferguson. The Serb actually showed a couple of nifty touches in his short spell on the Liberty turf. Unfortunately, once more he showed a hotheaded streak that threatens to earn him a reputation. The referee showed him a yellow card for a bit of pushing and shoving - while awarding Newcastle a free-kick, apparently missing a rather nasty high lunge at his Swansea opponent. Had this been spotted, that yellow may well have been red.

Borussia Dortmund and Thomas Tuchel got the post-Klopp era off to the perfect start with an absolute annihilation of Borussia Monchengladbach. 4-0 did not do it justice, with the referee even taking pity on Lucien Favre's men by not even bothering with the stoppage time at the end of the 90. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was in the hottest of form, and the Premier League speculation will no doubt intensify as August reaches its conclusion.

If tomorrow is supposed to be Super Sunday, the Saturday was a more than adequate appetizer!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

More football! Wheyyy

Time to reflect on the opening weekend of Real Football. I may one day change the name of this blog to Mirrorball but if not, in true logical fashion, if I don't have it, no one can!

As a Newcastle fan, one of my favourite weekend titbits was Hatem Ben Arfa's Nice debut, although it didn't turn out so nice for him, I can tell you that! Playing as part of a ten-man patchwork Nice team, in a vaguely right-wing-back role, he let the Monaco left-back, Layvin Kurzawa, ghost into the penalty area and seal a tidy comeback for a 2-1 Monaco win. Cue an immediate substitution of the defence-dodging Ben Arfa! The old classics never go out of style. Enjoy the highlights, complete with atmospheric French commentary.

In more homeward-bound endeavours, Man United got their apparently sewn up title charge underway with a shiver-inducing 1-0 thrashing of Spurs, who were so quaking in their boots that Kyle Walker finished off Wayne Rooney's thought for him. He was so puzzled by Rooney's lack of movement and predator instinct that he shaped to block the shot, only to actually beat his own keeper in the process.

Tottenham were certainly rather disappointing themselves, although Harry Kane was as industrious as ever, while looking a bit ring-rusty. With a bit more intensity, at least a point could have been within their grasp. Mind you, the Spurs pre-season can surely not have helped, resembling a drunken Football Manager fumble at 3am on a Sunday morning. A couple of end-of-season knockabouts, then nothing until the 29th July? Followed by two games in two days in Munich four/five days before an early Saturday kick-off at Old Trafford? Someone was definitely on the absinthe at White Hart Lane this summer.

What wasn't abSENT at Stamford at Bridge was fortune. Both Chelsea goals, in particular the second, had more than a helping hand from the football gods. Not even the sending-off of the alarmingly nervy Thibaut Courtois could steer Swansea to what would have been a thoroughly deserved three points. If you can read anything into this opening week of the season season, it is that Swansea are on the charge. Steve McClaren and co better bring their Dutch courage next weekend...

Arsenal got their campaign off to a typically calamitous start, recalling their 3-1 meltdown at home to Villa a couple of years back. Ironically, both goals were probably down to the one signing that was supposed to finally shore up that pesky defence. Peter Cech gave a quite uncharacteristic display, leading to such online ubiquity as this here link that is highlighted, while Slaven Bilic re-announced himself to English football in a similar party-pooping fashion as his previous London appearance.

Some other things most certainly happened. Liverpool ground their way to a ghost-banishing victory at Stoke via a stunning Coutinho strike, while Yohan Cabaye inspired Crystal Palace to a 3-1 victory at Norwich. Oh, and despite my own desire to see West Brom put up a fight against Man City, that particular team-talk fell absolutely flat - the City boys coasting to a 3-0 win that has seen them crowned Champions of Everything. It was so easy for them that Raheem Sterling even got a chance to further practice his rusty finishing skills in a very Raheem Sterling way.

Oh, and someone needs to (MANY already have done so) tell Channel Five that their Football League Tonight show is terrible. The one positive point was the 9pm start, which gives the lower leagues a much needed jump on their glamorous Premier League competition. But the rest? Endless league-hopping, no mics on their audience participants, no shape or order to the show whatsoever. I did quite enjoy the low-budget league tables, but much work to do ahead of Week 2!

The worst performance of the week has to go to myself, though, hovering around the bottom of both my fantasy league and prediction leagues. I've fined myself a week's wages and sent myself for a run around the block, so I'll be better next week, I promise.

To revisit my opening paragraph - adieu!

Monday, 27 April 2015

Why Kane is the International Example to Follow.

Let's just get this out of the way - I spent far too much time trying to fit a Cain and Abel pun into the headline, before deciding against. But rest assured, it would have been awesome. Any other business?No? Then read on!

The allure of international football has taken some subtle but noticeable blows in recent years. It has become increasingly common, for youngsters breaking into their club side, to sacrifice one of the key stepping stones and experiences in a player's formative career - the under-21 international side.

The Tottenham striker Harry Kane, 21, has made clear his desire to take part in the Euro 2015, according to manager of the seniors Roy Hodgson, despite breaking through to the full side with a brace of appearances last month.

Kane's teammate at Spurs, Christian Eriksen, has backed the newly crowned PFA Young Player of the Year's decision with a heartwarming appraisal of the summer's Czech Republic-hosted tournament. It is a view which sadly has been snuffed out in recent years, with some clubs, managers and even players themselves choosing the cold, hard riches of domestic football and the increased downtime of the summer months. Yes, that has its merits. Obviously, it would be harder for Kane to replicate his stunning form this season next time around if he was to appear for Gareth Southgate's side. But let's not forget, the striker spent long periods of the autumn bench-warming, particularly in Premier League games, with Mauricio Pochettino apparently unconvinced of the youngster's worth.

Should Kane lead England to any kind of glory in the summer, say, an appearance in the final, then imagine the confidence boost. While he would obviously start feeling the physical drawbacks eventually, at which point Spurs should ensure they have forwards capable of filling his space in the team, the emotional and personal satisfaction would surely outweigh that. What is more worth telling the grandchildren - I won the European Under-21 Championships, or I scored a few extra goals for my club the next season after sunning myself on a beach all summer?

Stuart Pearce had many limitations as coach of the under-21s, but I can understand his immense frustration at the events surrounding Euro 2013. His squad was hit by the withdrawl of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones, and while it is questionable whether they would have had a positive impact anyway given the Three Lions lost all three games, the whole affair left a sour taste in the mouths of many followers. 

Look at the facts, Phil Jones turned his back on England. What followed was a disastrous season, with not only his side dipping to seventh in the table, but his own form earning some fierce criticism even from his own supporters. Yes, the whole Moyes era was one of under-performance throughout the squad, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement of Jones' decision to give the national side a miss.

Then when you look at Oxlade-Chamberlain, he only managed 14 Premier League appearances in 2013-14 due to injury, which might suggest, fair enough, he had problems, but he had only made 25 appearances the previous season. Given his age, there was hardly any danger of burnout quite yet. In fact, you could argue that a productive Euro 2013 might even have cemented him further in the minds of both club and international managers. 

The sheer joy of winning trophies is a thing that all players should be looking to achieve, in whatever form. With the Premier League title being a closed shop to many, and the domestic cups subject to the whims of the resource-preserving boardrooms across the land, international football should remain the one untouched outlet for pure personal achievement, particularly for youngsters.

One remaining point, aside from injuries and fatigue, and this applies to the Europa League as well, is that success breeds success. A lot is spoken about winning mentalities, and there is some merit to it. The last three Under-21 tournaments have been shared between Spain and Germany - a similar statistic to the seniors. If you are good enough, you are fit enough. Another four names, this time from the club game - Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid. Each of these sides have tasted many good times at both domestic and European level.

Atletico Madrid were winners of the Europa League twice in three seasons, before reaching the Champions League final and winning La Liga. In contrast, English clubs treat the Europa League with a barely-disguised disdain, preferring instead to chase the top dollar that comes with just existing in the Champions League. Arsenal have attracted plaudits for their metronomic participation, yet until the FA Cup success of last season they had been drifting for many years. It is surely no coincidence that they are on course to finish in the top two for the first time since 2005, which was also the last time they won the FA Cup.

At such elite levels of sport, it is the mental approach to potential success that defines the regularity of actually achieving it. Harry Kane should go off this summer and give it his all. Not that he won't already be planning this, but he should be aiming to drag England to the final, be top scorer, score a hat-trick, score the winning penalty. In essence, be a comic book superhero. Too many are content to drift, and so they do. Football, or indeed any sport, should be about those winning moments. Not, as more and more seem to do, scrape enough points together to increase their league position prize money, so they can afford to buy that sexy-sounding superstar who ends up failing to adjust because the weather is too cold.

Harry Kane should be applauded, and yet at the same time, he shouldn't be, because that's ideally what all footballers should have in their hearts - the sheer will to win, in whatever competition, for whatever team, at whatever time of year.

Monday, 30 March 2015

On The Home Straight (Of the Highway To Hell..)

Okay, highway to hell is probably a bit strong, for a club in no real danger of relegation. But the road Newcastle United have been taking this season is one of those winding country roads which has turned into a dirt-track, with no sign of a street light, road markings, or any visible route back to civilization. At the same time, there appears no direct threat, no wild animals, no cliff edge, no howling winds, no snowstorm - just a slowly dwindling tank of gas, with nothing more than a thin blanket in the back seat to keep warm, and a small supply of water and tinned food.

That is the situation Newcastle, as a going footballing concern, finds itself in. A reported fourth straight year of profit, £19 million to be exact, will see the moderately-priced champagne corks popping in the Mike Ashley boardroom, as the same trotted out lines of investment and ambition are dusted down for another year. The only investment will be of the feeding with one hand while taking with the other. The taking has already happened this season, given the nudging out the back door of Davide Santon and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa on similar deals. The first 11 picks itself, not because they are quality squad members nailing down their place in the side, but because the personnel management has effectively jammed their square pegs into the gaping round hole. In some cases, the pegs are positively hexagonal. The decision to leave two 30-something centre-backs with nothing approaching senior cover has led to the already stretched full-back resources spread even further, leading midfielders to drop into said full-back roles, and what happens when they get injured? Papiss Cisse getting shoved into midfield? The already tiring Ayoze Perez shoved out on the wing?

It is not an exaggeration to say that a starting 11 worth of players is an absolute must this summer. That needn't require top-four levels of scouting, just careful, considered scouting. And not just from France. Newcastle's one-trick pony system of scouting has come somewhat unstuck over the last year or two, in some ways because there is so much reliance on it. Nothing of note has come from the academy of late, bar Paul Dummett, who actually could have a future at centre-half, based on performances this season. But again, injured. Some those farmed out on loan to our some-time stepbrother club, Rangers, could probably have been integrated into the team slightly more. Promise had been shown, but successive managers have chosen to rely on perceived solid pros, despite most of the time being nowhere near any relegation danger. Giving academy youngsters a tryout, such as the loaned-out Remi Streete at centre-half, would at least pique a bit more interest in the results of the club. All there is to play for are the hopefully slim chances of John Carver's glorified caretaker role being made permanent, and each defeat, as a fan myself, feels no different to a win at this point. A severe shaking up is necessary, as sooner or later that cliff edge could come closer and closer, and this time with no safety net.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Magic Of The Cup Being Ignored

One sub-plot to Bradford's tremendous 2-0 victory over Sunderland was the lack of care seemingly given by the TV networks. You would have thought that after a stunning 2-0 defeat-turned 4-2 victory over Chelsea, the destiny of English cup football's most prolific giant-killers would have warranted a bit more interest. Instead, Aston Villa v Leicester, Arsenal v Middlesbrough, and West Brom v West Ham were deemed more worthy of a large audience. Considering none of these provided, or were ever really like to provide, big upsets, why not Bradford v Sunderland?

Bradford's own run to the League Cup final in 2013 was further proof that great things can still be done. Phil Parkinson clearly does something right when approaching these games against supposedly superior opposition. The visit of a misfiring Sunderland outfit would have seen the Bantams licking their lips, and so it proved, as the Black Cats were swept aside by an enthusiastic display of a side who know they can beat the best this country has to offer.

Sometimes a plucky and limited underdog playing with heart can be better to watch than a fatigued superstar, which is what Arsenal talisman Alexis Sanchez has been of late. All too often lately, English football has resembled a vending machine. Pay millions of pounds for that one generally thought of as "world class" player, give the ball to him when at all possible, and then moan when they get injured, bemoaning the fact that you can no longer compete. All managers are guilty of this, even Jose Mourinho last season was constantly belittling his side, with the "little horse" remarks. Yet this season, with unquestionably a stronger squad on paper, his side were still dumped out by Bradford.

What will never die in football is the ability for any one team to beat another on any given day. That is not a quality that is exclusive to the FA cup, or any supposedly superior league. Count how many times the Premier League is hailed as being the one true "competitive" league in Europe. Top-notch marketing, ensuring the TV deals grow larger and larger. Well guess what, Germany has that too. The fact that Dortmund are only now just emerging from the relegation zone, having finished second last season, and champions not long before that, shows that football as a whole will always retain the ability to surprise.

Unfortunately, in today's age of the "star" player, more people are always going to tune in to see the big guns turn in listless displays, than a full-blooded tie featuring a club who won't do the tricks but will get the heart racing. And yes, before you ask, I will be cheering on Preston tonight.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Here Comes The Carvalry

First of all, apologies for the dreadful pun. The alternative was to imagine Newcastle's season as some kind of all you can eat carvery scenario. And that don't fit in no headline, luckily for my ten readers (I know, optimistic..)

Speaking of optimistic, I am fully confident Newcastle will ride the crest of any temporary sort-of Geordie honeymoon period now that Carver's sort-of appointment has been confirmed. The teamtalk however has already come from Steve Bruce, who has claimed the Toon need to be careful they don't slip into relegation danger... like him. All we need is Lee Clark to weigh in with his two cents and the Geordie triangle is complete. They can't get their own teams to win (or in Clark's case, not lose a half 7-0) so maybe it's written in the stars for them and their hometown clubs!

Now that my comedy routine is over, in all likelihood, Ashley's latest gamble will pay off, as long as the appointment of someone of high calibre is genuinely to be attempted. As questionable as Carver's credentials are, anyone with half an ounce of coaching ability can keep this squad in the division, particularly with an eight-point head start. Pardew would have done it and confidence in his reign wasn't exactly brimming. My own prediction is that there will be no comings or goings in the dying strains of the January window.

The problem is, the excuses that have plagued this sorry saga so far can easily come into play in the summer. Unless we have some kind of binding arrangement between ourselves and the preferred candidate, he could quite easily slip through the cracks and be snapped up by one of the numerous other more attractive ownerships to work for. Remi Garde is a likely candidate, Frank de Boer being of a far too proven ilk that would lower themselves to our level. While he would certainly whet any appetite, the danger is that anything other than an attractively-achieved top-half finish will not be enough for a fanbase that grows more and more disenchanted by the day. Even if the safety finishing line is limped over (there is no way it will be pretty, nowhere near the now fanciful top-half target), Ashley is testing already thin patience.

While we're at it, well done to Carver's predecessor, Alan Pardew. He took some well-deserved stick but is now cramming it down throats in a similar vein to when he was boss. Life is always a rollercoaster under him, but I'll wager Palace fans would have taken our ride over their's in recent years. Pardew has his fairytale end. Will Newcastle get one?

Friday, 9 January 2015

City Have Not Been Frank On Lampard Situation

For such a multi-national and slick operation as Manchester City, why has it taken until now for the confusion over Frank Lampard's move to be cleared up? The BBC headline, back in August reads as follows:

"Frank Lampard will join Manchester City on loan from New York City FC until January, the English club's manager Manuel Pellegrini has confirmed."

Surely this wording had not escaped City officials? Maybe they did not envisage the arrangement lasting as long as it has, and therefore not clashing with the MLS season, but in the interest of full transparency, would a simple statement clarifying that Lampard was a free agent not have been the prudent thing to do? Or were they as equally in the dark, given that they too referred to it as a loan deal on their website?

Fans Stateside of the co-owned New York City FC are now left feeling betrayed, and for the joint owners, Manchester City, and the New York Yankees, this can only go down as a damaging PR disaster before a ball has even been kicked. It all comes across as a rather grubby episode, particularly when taking into account the Financial Fair Play penalties that have been imposed on City by UEFA. They may not have breached any rules over this, but a contracted Frank Lampard would certainly not have been a free deal. Even a loan fee for a season, from any other club other than New York City FC, would have been quite substantial, given the tremendous worth he has brought, and will continue to bring, throughout this season. It is no over-estimation to claim that City would be trailing Chelsea on points without the 36-year-old's important performances and goals. For the Etihad giants not to be fully in control of their PR and media operations regarding this arrangement will surely not have gone unnoticed at UEFA and will have raised a chuckle or two.

Speaking of PR gaffes, PFA leader, Gordon Taylor, inexplicably found it appropriate to compare the plight of those involved in the Hillsbrough disaster to the post-conviction troubles of ex-hopeful-footballer Ched Evans. Had I been drinking anything at the time of seeing this news I would have spat it out all over my screen. Someone as experienced as as Taylor should know so much better than to pick such ill-judged lines. Again, this is not to take any specific sides in the debate as to whether Evans should play again, as there is merit to both arguments, but to so carelessly antagonise such a huge section of the sporting world, not to mention those who have suffered terrible hardships in more clear-cut rape cases, is surely a matter to consider resignation over. It is one of many statements from the footballing world in recent times that demonstrates an out-of-touch mindset.

He may have a responsibility to professional footballers seeking work, but Taylor also has a responsibility to guide footballers in the right way. Instead of going to such great lengths to defending Evans, he should have recommended a much quicker apology than the one that emerged after two clubs had also shelved offers of a contract. It would not undo the horrible actions that he committed, but it would show a clear willingness to learn from mistakes and paint himself in a more self-aware manner, one that might be more palatable to the general public, who have stood in the way of his continuing employment in professional football.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Various topical football ramblings!

So Newcastle, after four years of Alan Pardew's glorious leadership, are finally in that no-mans-land of caretaker-ship, with John Carver trying to emulate Garry Monk. In fairness, Monk seamlessly carried on from the good work of both Michael Laudrup and Brendan Rodgers, with Carver doing a pretty good Pardew impression himself so far. All is well!

Back in reality, Remi Garde and Christophe Galtier are among the managers on the Ashley hitlist, with Graham Carr's French fetish seemingly extending to managers. I keep saying managers, my bad - Head Coach. It can at least be applauded, the honesty. After seasons of speculation and Pardew working with tied hands, in a way this is a step forward. Any new incumbent knows exactly what they are in for. I've always thought that a decent coach would have done far better, and this is hopefully the time where that "wisdom" can be backed up.

In other French news, Arsene Wenger has finally buckled and signed a defensive midfielder. What's that you say, he's 17? Not to worry, he'll fit right in. One can only hope that Krystian Bielik is a titan beyond his tender years, as the Gunners sorely need some defensive steel. Or any kind of steel. At 6 ft 2, it's a good start, although the niggling feeling remains that this will be a signing for a future Arsenal manager to benefit from, either via a massive sell-on fee, or the maturing of a hopefully crucial piece of the title-challenging jigsaw.

The tearful Steven Gerrard eulogy is in full swing, with Scousers up and down the land spewing forth gushing words of the time where he walked on water, before turning this water into wine, drinking it, and beating up a man outside a nightclub on CCTV. In that order. It seems conveniently forgotten that, while he has contributed some useful goals this season, most of them were either from the penalty spot or the various free-kick spots (not to knock those spectacular occurances). Gerrard is worth remembering and appreciating, as he enters the Elvis stage of his career in LA, but Brendan Rodgers should see this as an opportunity to finally open up a key spot in a midfield that has been severely lacking in energy at times this season. If he even survives the season and summer.

As Ched Evans continues on his merry way around the various lower division clubs, cap in hand, Oldham are the latest club to tell him, yes, then 80% maybe, then no. Leaving aside the moral quagmire of whether he should be allowed to play football for a living again, surely Oldham in particular should have known what they were getting themselves into. That their board of directors/management thought their fanbase would be any more forgiving than that of Evans' former club was naive, to say the least. It is unforgivable that those board of directors, and one of their daughters, were threatened in quite explicit terms, but it should never have been brought to that stage. A word of advice to any club thinking of signing Evans - do it 100% behind closed doors, announce it, and live by the consequences. To invite public speculation into the matter will see the same sorry saga rumble on and on.