Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Dark and Very Bleak Ages.

Gary Lineker says England's football is going back to the Dark Ages. It's hard not to agree.

During training Wayne Rooney and Phil Jagielka cleaned out the hog's bladder by hand. Ashley Cole stitched it up before it was inflated by some hot air from a Roy Hodgson press conference.

Meanwhile, out in the woods, James Milner and Joe Hart lopped down an entire copse of silver birches and fashioned a set of goalposts from it. Woy led training with a hawkish eye, ensuring that the players didn't at any moment take their eyes of the bear they were bating. And after a hard shift, they all relaxed with a spit-roast stag and a glass of mead.

On the other hand, 1-1 against the Republic of Ireland in a fecking awful game is par for the course. I seem to remember St. Gary bundling in a goal at the start of Italia '90 that had all the precision and elegance of a drunk falling down the stairs. That was a pretty dark game too.

But this 4-4-2 nonsense that dogs England footballers has got to stop. The only thing to be said in its favour is that at least the players understand it. They've been playing it all their lives. From the moment they stepped on to a muddy windswept footy field as a seven-year-old - almost certainly a full-size pitch - they've had some old croak on the touchline bellowing at them about keeping their shape. (Ironically the man in question has very often entirely lost his own shape).

English footballers are treated like privates in a regimented platoon. Everyone has his job. Obey that and you'll be fine. If you're a centre-half don't start doing keepy-uppies. If you're a full-back, we might let you bomb on - but only very rarely.

I'm not sure I've ever seen an England team play in such horrible straight lines. Even Rooney, who does have a footballing brain even if that leaves very little cortex left over to include owt else, couldn't fashion anything like an inspirational moment. But then England have for far too long relied on a bloke who, like the Artist Formerly Known As Prince, needs to be renamed as On The Wane Rooney.

Certainly there is now officially nothing to be optimistic about when it comes to the England team. That is unless you see something hopeful in the fact that Sturridge was 'lively' in the first half. That's the sort of patronising description you hand out to a third tier team when they get a goal at Stamford Bridge in the third round of the FA Cup.

Sturridge won't be off to the Maracana with he rest of the England journeymen. Maybe that stadium will lift the team to new heights. Well I say heights. Just off the floor might be a start. It's hard to imagine anything other than Brazil absolutely ripping apart a team that seems shorn of anything resembling wit or spark.

It's worth saying that England are always shit at this time of the year. The players have been through a long season - although given the Champions League showings not as long as it might have been. Then again, when do the World Cups and Euros happen? At THIS time of year. It can't simply be fatigue. The other factor is... and whisper it because Roy won't admit it and even the FIFA rankings connive in it... England are not very good.

All right so there was no Gerrard or Wilshere but pretty much everyone else picked themselves. OK it was a friendly, and they're always a bit flat. Carrick was England's best player, just about. The holding midfielder. You think about England in recent years and very often the best player on the park is the one who plays there: Owen Hargreaves running his bony little knees off; Scotty Parker flinging himself like a rabid bodyguard in the way of strikes at goal.

These players stand out because, for too much more than half the time, England DON'T HAVE THE BALL. One chump or another has just plonked it back to the opposition. If that opposition is Ireland then don't worry too much, they'll be kicking it back to you very soon. If it's Italy, or Spain, or Brazil, you simply won't see the ball again for a good five minutes.

It doesn't really matter what Hodgson says. In fact the more he opens his mouth the less you believe that he believes what he's saying. Look at Dortmund. The game has moved on. The old English virtues of commitment, passion, physicality - well, everyone does that now, boys - look at Dortmund. And the difference with Dortmund is they include the other vital ingredient of PASSING THE BALL TO EACH OTHER!!!!

They also have flexible versatile footballers who don't worry too much about interchanging positions; who look for space to exploit rather than the place they should be.

Those of us that endure the Revie and post-Revie doldrums, well you should get ready for some more. England will not qualify for the next World Cup. They are simply not good enough. Not by a long, long chalk. Chalk being the writing implement of choice for a Dark Ages football coach.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Baling Out?

I spent the last weekend of Premier League fixtures with my arse firmly on the back of my seat. No squeaky bums. Not even a sweaty crotch. Unless you were part of the North London neighbourhood carve-up then the last day was of no consequence whatsoever.

Spurs and Arsenal managed to maintain their form until the end. The Gooners ground their way to a 1-0 in a manner that would have had George Graham oozing appreciation. Tottenham battered away all afternoon and in the end owed everything to yet another piece of ludicrous brilliance from Gareth Bale.

You can tell how good Bale is - and how confident - from his ridiculous new hairdo. Only a man whose authority is undeniable can sport a parting so severe it looks like it's been put there by a Samurai swordsman.

Wenger's men somehow toppled over the line having been 7 points adrift 10 games ago. Spurs really only have themselves to blame. And now they face the prospect of more Thursday nights out, toiling against all-comers from far-flung corners of Europe.  The Europa League might be good enough for Rafa Benitez, but you only have to look at the group stage team selections to know how seriously English clubs take it.

And the question is, will Gareth Bale want to be part of that? Because if he's on his way then Spurs need to pretty much start from scratch. Without Bale, Tottenham are Fulham. I can't quite remember a season where one man has single-handedly kept a team afloat. By Baling them out time after time.

Maybe Van Persie last year got close with Arsenal. In Ronaldo's glory season he made an enormous difference. But Bale has scored more winning goals from preposterously unlikely sources - many of them have been last ditch howitzers - that it seems unthinkable that Spurs could even make a top eight next season without him.

Across Europe there's not a man more wanted than Bale. Will AVB cash in and bring in the likes of Moutinho and a striker who is (a) less greedy than Defoe and (b) less lazy than Adebayor? (Ade's like some captive lion most days - you draw back the cage door and wait for him to spring and he just lies there licking his balls. More to the point, what sort of a masochist would want to inflict a Europa League campaign on himself when other clubs - including Arsenal - offer the Champions League?

So, Arsene has bought himself more time. Now he needs to buy himself some better players. Koscielny has probably been their best player in the last six weeks. Mertesacker has almost resembled a centre-half. Giroud hasn't looked quite so much of a journeyman. Cazorla, Arteta and a fit Wilshere promise a fine midfield - if he can keep hold of them all. And the gaffer has been promised shedloads for the summer.

Next season there has to be a trophy. So this close season is going to test him to the hilt. A new keeper - Begovic, Mignolet? A centre-back with authority? A new midfielder who can tackle? Another striker so that Gervinho doesn't become your only hope. Whatever he gets he must know by now that his tippy-tappy quotient has been reached. No more Rosicky clones.

As for the rest of the fixtures, well they were notable for a great raft of significant retirements, the most significant of which were Jamie Carragher's and Paul Scholes. Nothing endures in football quite like the respect for a  one-club footballer. Obviously, unless you're Steve Harper, you have to start at a top club in order to want to stay there for your whole career. (I'm joking, my Geordie chums).

When asked to appraise Carragher on Match of the Day, neither Hansen or Shearer mentioned Carragher's footballing skill and elegance. Of course not. It would be like celebrating Kenneth Williams's physical strength. His early days at Liverpool were marked by some traditional English full-back shanks into the crowd. What he's never been short of is nous. A bit of common or garden savvy. Liverpool were better when he played than when he didn't.

Scholesy's already had his valedictories here cos, like his manager, he retired once before. Just chuffed he got that last yellow card to go with al the others. But a wonderful footballer who was stupidly neglected by England managers when he was the best midfielder we had.

And finally there's Steve Harper. Not a bench-warmer in the new school of 'sit tight, play in the League Cup and pick up your massive wedge'. This bloke did understudy like no other. He may have escaped the attention of many but not the Toon Army. He was a bloody good keeper. And a fine and sentimental sole too as we found out in the 37th minute.

So with all these retirees, and with the managerial merry-go-round spinning so fast that most coaches are holding on to their rides by their fingertips, the close season promises a lot of intrigue. Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City - they'll all be unveiling new coaches - or in Chelsea's case, the old one. It's only ten weeks away - or summat like that.

Team of the year? Mignolet: Zabaleta, Ferdinand, Vertonghen, Baines; Mata, Cazorla, Carrick, Bale; Van Persie, Suarez.

Unheralded team of the year? Well this lot'll do for a start...

Mignolet: Martin, Boyce, Jagielka, Lowton; McManaman, Nolan, Coutinho, Mirallas; Michu, Benteke. (Honorable mentions to Lambert and Lukaku). Be good to hear who you think doesn't get the recognition they deserve.

Enjoy your rest, footy fans. In the meantime I'll be banging on about cricket, tennis and all that other stuff that sort of passes for sport. Up the Boro!

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Joy of Becks

I dunno... what's David Beckham going to do with himself now he's retired from football? Poor chap. It's been his life for so long. I mean what's he going to find to distract himself? Apart from appearing in his pants. And, in his strangely charming way, leading another delegation to FIFA and tugging his superstyled forelock in the direction of Blatter and his shifty acolytes. (No. Never again.)

It's a strange fact that for all the utterly mesmerising footballers that have slid effortlessly across out TV screens in recent years: Ronaldo (fat), Zidane, Messi, Ronaldo (thin), Robbie Mustoe... David Beckham has become the most well-known of the lot. You can't put that down to his football.

No, it helps that (1) he's a pretty boy, and (2) he married a famous pop star. The one known as Posh Spice - and if she's posh then I'm related to the Duke of feckin' Westminster. It seems ridiculous to think that she was slightly famous than he when they met. Fate had smiled on Victoria Adams and given her enormous wealth to compensate for her lack of ability.

Beckham's rise to prominence came in a Manchester United team full of 'kids'. He was the best-looking one, made even more so when he walked on to the pitch with Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes at his side. Beckham didn't lack ability. Or, more importantly, a work ethic.

The single most important aspect to the man's career has not been tattoos or sarongs or film premieres, but his application. He worked his right foot into one of the sharpest tools ever used by an Englishman. We've never had a bloke who could deliver a cross like him. Not ever. (If my Dad's reading this can you not start banging on about Tom Finney and Stan Matthews).

Now of course, he lacked pace. He didn't even manage to break clear of Victoria let along the average left-back. Apparently that boot that Fergie 'accidentally' kicked at him would have missed any other player in the squad, but poor old Becks couldn't shift quick enough. Yes he was slow, but he rather made up for it by hitting sixty-yards passes on to the toes of onrushing centre-forwards and, on occasion, covering every blade of grass himself - in his own time.

Indeed there's not a club he represented which doesn't hold the boy dear. And this is simply because he works his bollocks off (metaphorically speaking or that underwear contract would be a lot less lucrative).

We needn't go on about his United career. God protect us from more OTT OT eulogies. I never wanted him to do well at Man U (save for that night in '99 when I confess I wanted them to win). I'd like to concentrate on his performances in an England shirt.

And as Sven might say 'Well...' it was all a bit up and down. I remember in '98 when Glenn Hoddle, What with having Eileen Drewery in one ear and God in the other, failed to select wither Becks or Owen in the opening fixtures and after defeat to Romania we were worried. Beckham netted a glorious free-kick against Colombia and we all wondered why Hoddle had been so conservative.

Cut to Beckham's sending off for the least effective kick out at an opponent ever seen on a football field. But he walked. He walked all the way home to desperate pillorying from all and sundry. It was far more brutal than that served up to Wayne Rooney after he trod on Carvalho's nads. But then Wayne was an ugly stroppy Scouser who never wore skirts and used old hookers. Not a pretty boy gay icon with the world at his feet.

Fast forward to that game against Greece. Greece were shit then, unlike when they won the Euros - no wait a mo, they were shit then, too. But they were beating England 2-1 and we were off to the play-offs. Cue the shaven headed skipper running around the park like an untethered Jack Russell, snapping at the ball as if it were a rolled up squirrel.

His crowning glory, that free-kick that speared past the stationary keeper and rescued England's qualification, was the single finest moment I've seen from an England player since 1990. He was reclaimed as the darling of the nation and from then on the lad couldn't break wind, let alone a metatarsal, without an enormous fuss being made of him.

There have been further lows - missing penalties in abject fashion: the one v France in 2004 which would have put the game beyond the restorative powers of Zizou; the one v Portugal where a mole popped up at the wrong moment and forced him to scoop it over the bar. Horribly.

But he kept turning up, regardless of which numpty had grabbed hold of the brolly. His loyalty wasn't in doubt. His desire to pull on the shirt - and this at a time when many busy professionals looked upon international football, particularly friendlies, as a right bloody chore.

Frankly, we can all take the piss out of Becks. His children have really odd names: Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper - more like a collection of early automobiles than little people. His wedding did look well chavvy.  He's probably not as simple as he's made out to be. He's certainly sincere. The donation of his Paris St Germain wages to charity is just further proof of his good heart. And he's very good at playing poster boy, shaking the right hands, staying smiley and handsome and all that horrible schmaltz that someone, sadly, has to do.

And well, basically, he's a decent lad, with a bit of talent who's got where he is by working hard at the thing that he gets paid for. Forget the modelling and all that nonsense. Well, try to. He will be remembered as a very good footballer who happened to make the most of his pretty face too.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Farewell to Fergie

The rain, the Kremlin-style clapping, the big purple nose, that Govan growl. It is the last time we will see it.

Referees will wake up this morning a little less afraid. They will be able to return their watches to Greenwich Mean Time, as opposed to Fergie Time.
Sir Alex stepped down from management – at home at least – yesterday. There are those who bang on about the emotional rollercoaster of a day. I dunno, but Fergie’s a ‘man’s man’ (as I think Mark Lawrenson put it, ironically in his ‘man’s woman’s’ voice) and the tears didn’t come as far as I could tell. And frankly you want a bit of that on days like these, just to remind you that the bloke has a soul to go with all that fierce determination and repressed fury.
Then again, his speech, ad-libbed, proved where his heart is. His valedictory remark, reminding the fans that he got three and a half years’ grace at OT before he won owt and that therefore they need to get behind the new man, was characteristic of the good, nay great side of Ferguson.

Those of us that have gritted our teeth while he won every other Premier League for the last 26 years could point to his darker side: the intimidation of officials, the concept that still defies particle physicists‘ explanation of Fergie Time, the mind games that worked on everyone save for Mourinho. And the black rants into the faces of timid young millionaires as if he were a drill sergeant in An Officer And A Gentleman (actually most of us quite like him for that last bit).
The flip side is that young managers will tell you he’s always ready with advice if it’s wanted. And Robin van Persie told the world that he was a very nice man. I know, that surprised me too. What’s not in doubt is that he is the greatest manager of my lifetime. And that is simply because he reinvented his team many times over, rebuilt it around the talent available. And he never let anyone, Beckham, Keane, and now were he to stay, Rooney, get bigger than the club.

Not only that but, like them or not, Manchester United teams always had one saving grace under Fergie – they were good to watch.
There is a certain vanity, mixed with good sense, in appointing a successor who is very much in the same mould: another Glaswegian obsessive with a relentless work ethic and a ceaseless drive. David Moyes won nothing at Everton – except love, admiration and enormous loyalty and those three things are way more important than tin-pots and gongs.

The reception Ferguson received was pretty well matched at Goodison. And apart from a shared distaste for Liverpool Football Club you can’t imagine any Toffees welcoming his departure down the M62. Eleven years at a trophyless club is as rare these days as a Tony Hibbert piledriver.
So Moyes moves in on July 1st, and presumably some time before that he will be working out where he’d like Wayne Rooney to just bugger off to. Ferguson has fended off questions about the Toxteth Top-Weave, but hasn’t been slow in mentioning that the bloke’s an asset when he’s on top form… ergo, he’s been a bit crap this season.

If I were Moyes I’d be asking bidders to form a queue. You don’t want to start a new (and enormous) job which an old problem. And Rooney is just that. ‘Blue til I Die?’ Chelsea will be encouraged.

Perhaps Rooney might be able to team up with the sveltest fat man in England, Frank Lampard. This weekend Lampard became Chelsea’s top scorer – although, those that fell to get him the penalties, plus his partner in crime Rick O’Shea should be getting a share of the credit too. Lampard is a model pro mind you. Anyone who wants to insist that the lad got where he is today cos of family connections or good fortune just needs to get their heads checked.
Certainly Lamps might be able to teach Wazza the values of looking after himself, and not going into silly strops when the manager keeps putting you on the bench. (Although you’d have thought Rooney might have learnt that from Giggs – or the mighty Scholes.)

But despite all the celebrations and bon voyages the main shining beacon of light over the weekend was Wigan Athletic. I said in the last blog that romance was dead. It is. Wigan will go down. But they will do so as Cup-holders after utterly outplaying a bunch of self-interested mercenary millionaires. Mancini will walk because quite frankly the team – the best at his disposal on the day – played like they couldn’t give a shit – not for him, not for the fans.

Roberto, still for all the world looking like a photograph from a Mediterranean barbershop window, will be gone before the end of the week. Look, Signor, a man doesn’t put two squillion billion pounds into a club so that they can finish 2nd in the league and 2nd in the Cup. At a time when the bloke across time is stepping down after TWENTY-SIX YEARS, do you really think you’re going to get as many as three? I mean where will that lead?
Indeed if you have untold wealth and fancy a football club as your latest toy you now have two distinct models to follow, potential owners. There’s the Old Trafford one – stick to the same bloke, trust is judgement, build an academy, bring players through, spend big but judicious amounts of money on proven quality players. Or there’s the Stamford Bridge way – make every door a revolving one, give every chair an ejector button, force proven crocks upon the management, appoint caretakers, interims, part-timers, buy anyone who might be any good and when push comes to shove and things aren’t quite working out, fire someone.
Rafa Benitez, I’ve never much cared for you but you deserve a bloody medal for obstinacy this season. He’s after  a new job now – look out Everton…

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

A Helluva Hull-abaloo

Sometimes the Premier League appears to be a rattling can of insanity. Managers last minutes, millions change hands, defenders are cannibalised, but it really is a vicar’s tea party compared to the Championship.

It’s a tawdry and patronising cliché to say that it’s the most difficult league to get out of – Wolves didn’t find it hard to leave, did they? But my God in heaven, there was a snake-pit full of twists and turns on the last day.

First thing to say is if anyone still has doubts about the fairness of the play-off system then please close your dim-witted gob now. The play-offs keep mare teams interested, more fans on the edge of mental breakdowns; they simply make the end of the season better.

I was surprised that Hull got the second promotion place to be honest. All right they had a comfy Cardiff to play (Man U’s performance v Chelsea proved what a lot of edge can be lost if you’ve nowt to prove anymore) but they’d been abject in their last three games. They couldn’t aim without shooting themselves in the foot.

Watford, on the other hand were up against a Leeds team with nothing to play for and they had everyone’s favourite Italian as their manager. He’s such a nice man, Gianfranco. Last day shoot-outs require calm heads on the pitch too. Zola had two who were anything but… the lad who came on as sub keeper… well you just wanted to stick him on a South Sea island for a couple of months so he could forget that the rest of the world exists.

As for Troy Deeney, that sending-off was ridiculous – a Scholesian runaway shopping-trolley of a challenge. It was so bad, even Gianfranco couldn’t be nice to him. Even then Watford could’ve stumbled past Hull who, in an attempt to recreate the impossible drama of Brentford-Doncaster the previous week, contrived to miss a penalty and almost instantaneously conceded one at the other end.

But eventually Hull – and Steve Bruce – fell over the line like an exhausted pensioner finding his seat after having run for a bus. And Watford must go again against Leicester.

If that wasn’t enough, Huddersfield, Barnsley and Peterborough played out a ladies excuse me for the last relegation place. Wolves confirmed their departure in meek fashion – I just don’t know what the hell Steve Morgan and his board are doing there. Saunders has got the bullet this morning. Here’s a manager who took a team down last season getting appointed this year so he could the same.

Colin Wanker must be lined up already. He’ll get them promoted, fuck everyone on the board off, and get told to leave too. It’s a bleeding shambles. If I was a Wolves fan, I’d be livid.

Any road, Peterborough ended up holding the bomb when the music stopped, not least because of a dreadful decision to award Palace a free kick in the last minute that led to the decisive goal. But the fact is the teams fighting for survival all had quite a stack of points. Boro, near enough top on New Year’s Day, have ended up just five points above the drop.

All this after 46 games. It’s bloody exhausting. Them Premier League boys just don’t know how cushy they have it. Attention turns to them again now (if we overlook Brentford’s extraordinary stagger into the Div 1 play-offs – there can’t actually be a Brentford fan in the country who hasn’t gnawed his own arm off.)

We’re all presuming Wigan will beat Swansea aren’t we? It’s what they do. Except their defence has never been this creaky on a run–in. I haven’t seen such poor marking since I spent a day with a privatised examination board.

But if they do then we’re looking at Newcastle and Norwich as the first in line for the Championship slops. However, after using the marvellous BBC Predictor I have – reluctantly you understand – come to the conclusion that Sunderland will be helping Di Canio reacquaint himself with a lower league.

For one, they have no one left who can score a goal unless you imagine John O’Shea’s going to poach a hat-trick at White Hart Lane. For two, I just have a feeling that Southampton will beat them at the Stadium of Plight.

This in turn will save the skins of Norwich and Newcastle who will between them scrape a point at home to West Brom and Arsenal respectively. Wigan will do enough against Villa. All of which leaves Spurs, who will get a point at Chelsea tomorrow, edging out Arsenal for fourth spot and throwing Wenger’s future into fresh relief. That HAS to happen in the close season or footy journos have nowt to write about.

So that’s what will happen,m boys and girls. Unless it doesn’t. The one thing you can guarantee is that Wigan will be still in with a shout on the last day and North-Eastern sphincters will be tightened to the max. Curiously enough, I even think defeat in the FA Cup final will only strengthen the Wigan will when it comes to the league.

And no, they won’t win the FA Cup. The FA Cup final doesn’t do fairy tales. Portsmouth was a blip. So Wigan will have to save their miracles for the League again.

In the meantime I’m pleased that the rest of you lot have had to endure sitting on the razor-wire of end-of-season hell, even if Boro’s season has ended as if the whole club has been on a morphine drip. Onwards and upwards. I’ll be stoking the flames of optimism for next season. Tomorrow.