Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Welcome to the Real World

While many were marking the 50th anniversary of Match of the Day last Friday by trawling through gloopy memories of days when it felt like more than two clubs might win the League, two things stuck out like sore thumbs. Firstly -  and as a man very sure-footed about which way he swings I can say this without fear of innuendo - wasn't that Alan Hansen a dishy-looking fella back in the day? Two, Hansen's equally confident assertion that 'You'll never win anything with kids' rang down the decades.

Well, I've won a few things with my kids: nothing tangible but it's opened the way to a few conversations with idle young Mums in the park that I wouldn't have started otherwise. Since my two have got older I've stopped hanging around them swings - you get the wrong sort of reputation.

But it's seems poignant on the morning after Manchester United were thrashed by MK Dons (a football team and not a middle-range gentleman's outfitters) 4-0 to ask whatever happened to United's production line of junior talent.

This morning Louis Van Gaal must have walked on to the training ground like a farmer who wakes up to find he's left the door to the coop wide open. All them pretty little chickens torn to shreds.

Okay, it was the League Cup, and Van Gaal predictably put out the B team, complete with a few children from the youth squad. The way they played, though, you'd think this was the Z team. Arsene Wenger does the same thing in this competition and never gets so utterly demolished by the lower ranks. (He tends to leave such humiliations for first team away fixtures).

Van Gaal insists this wasn't a shock for him. Presumably when he puts his fingers in a light-bulb socket he feels nothing. I'm sure it was a huge shock to Angel Di Maria. And don't be fooled Man U fans - just cos he called Angel doesn't mean he'll be supplying any divine intervention. Yes Di Maria has a lot of qualities but resurrecting the near-dead isn't one of them.

And actually, even by today's standards I would have thought £60 million for a talented but inconsistent winger seems a helluva lot to me. Adam Johnson would've cost a tenth of that.

There's one person in the country who I'm sure is finding it hard to resist a chipper little whistle as he trots down to the paper shop this morning: David Moyes. Oh yes, when LVG tells the press 'we're in a rebuilding process' I'm sure the Gollum-faced Chosen One nods sagely and mutters 'Good Luck with that one'.

Van Gaal has a track record of starting badly in his management role - Bayern nearly sacked him after three months before he turned it round. But this is altogether different. The Dutchman has not just been charged with turning around a huge oil tanker - he's first got to haul the bloody thing off its side and stop it gurgling gunk all over Old Trafford.

The back three so beloved of the manager is obviously going to take years to bed in. He's forgotten that he's given this new formation to a set of predominantly British centre-backs, who have always formed part of a pair. Indeed Jonny Evans played like a man who couldn't count past two last night. (Although I expect another impressive Arsenal striker on loan might have changed that when he made it 3-0. Arsene has Afobe and Campbell and still Sanogo's first in the queue?).

Of course, Welbeck and Hernandez aren't going to be starting many games ahead of Mata, Rooney, RVP and Di Maria but it makes you wonder what Van Gaal has in mind up front. You could see the 3-5-2 operating like Holland's in the World Cup, with Van Persie in the same mode and Di Maria doing a Robben impression. That would be the longest-faced front two in football history of course.

It would leave Mata prompting a la Sneijder and Rooney, the ever-flexible Rooney, being pushed one way or the other to accommodate these game-changers. It's evident that United's squad is going to be puddle-deep this season but if an understanding can be built between the forward players then they might just bring enough firepower to offset the glaring almost Brazilian sized holes at the back.

(By the way, I should of course have given MK Dons the credit they deserve after a fine performance. But one, the name still sticks in the craw of an old traditionalist like meself - 27000 fans would disagree I'm sure - and two, whether they like it or not, the story is how shit United were.)

But the fact is Van Gaal has not started well - far worse in fact than Moyes - he hasn't so much hit the ground running as hit the ground digging. And he may have a lot more of that to do before he find where to put his foundations. At least Moyes, theoretically at least, had an established first choice back four to pick.

And you know for all the glory of his tenure, I'd still lay much of this at the door of Alex Ferguson. When you hand on a torch to the next man it's best that the torch still burns brightly, rather than it sputtering away cos someone's just pissed on it.

Fergie did of course win the Premier League in his last season. That he did that is more miraculous than Liverpool's almost championship last season, or Sunderland's great escape. The reins he handed to Moyes were slippery as hell. Van Gaal hasn't even found where Moyes left them quite yet.

But, given that Alan Hansen's tenure at Match of the Day coincided with years of relentless and to most of us bloody irritating years of United dominance, this bleak period in Old Trafford's history is very welcome.

Yes, United fans, this is what it is like to be a regular supporter of a football club. You hope to goodness that your young local players might arrive fully-formed into a senior eleven and lift your struggling regulars to heights undreamt of. You hope that you too can win something with kids, that a Beckham and a Scholes, a Giggs and hell even a Neville are lurking in that youth team.

But as Hansen said, it doesn't really happen. Not twice any road.

So (barring spending 131 million quid in two months) Welcome to the Real World, Angel.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Robbo's Crystal Ball

For the first time ever I was unable to catch even a bit of Linekerian smirking on the first day of the Premier League season. I was camping - the tented kind - with the little 'uns and out of reach of all but the merest signal.

Nevertheless the car radio was somehow able to relay the delightful news that as far as Old Trafford is concerned it's Moyesery unconfined. Van Gaal's a great coach but you'd need Jesus Christ himself to turn the Man U piss-water into a decent claret during one pre-season. 

Happily, I've been able to digest this season's opening chapter at the Theatre of Dreams (and that is pretty all they can do right now - dream) and there are holes in that squad that makes a tramp's underpants look well put together.

Van Gaal's face is a landscape all of its own and I have a feeling we're going to get used to his strange Kenneth Clarke in the Hall of Mirrors countenance as he glowers through listless and scruffy performances for much of the next season. The man's not stupid - he's already told his employers that, in so many words, the squad's a bit shit. 

But this no time to gloat... it's time to put my Teesside tonsure on the line with me predictions for this season's Premier League. The first weekend has seen no one embarrassed, especially. The time will is fast approaching when an away point at Old Trafford will feel a little paltry. Indeed both Arsenal and Liverpool were a tad fortunate to scrape wins against plucky sides. But how will it pan out?

Here goes:


Too much of everything. It will depend a little on the fitness of Toure and Kompany, but even without Aguero there's plenty upfront to keep them nudging ahead. Even Dzeko's back-heeling into the path of sprightly midfield tinkers these days. First with more to spare than you'd think.


Mourinho's expected to make the magic work this season but I'm not so sure. Like an average high street, the team's frontage has been ripped out and replaced by a Costa. Fabregas, one-time Gooner wunderkid turned bit-part Barca boy, holds the key to the midfield, but even Jose can't cobble together the champions that quickly.


Look they've won something. On the tube in that London, they're advertising Arsenal stadium tours where you can 'see the FA Cup'! No underplaying the value of that goblet at the Emirates eh, Arsene? Sanchez will help, they're awash with terrific attacking midfielders, natch, but one clobberer wouldn't harm em. Tiote has been mentioned. That's clobbering with knobs on.


No Suarez. Then again, he wasn't always around when he was a Liverpool player. I've heard it suggested that they'll cope. Erm, they won't. Any more than a yacht copes on a motorway. But they'll get 4th.  And when Luis eats an entire arm of Sergio Ramos they'll realise it could have been worse.


Van Gaal's too cute a dictator to allow United to potter blindly into more oblivion, but it's going to be a slow start and they'll pay for that. Van Persie, Mata and Rooney are sure to click at some point but at the other end there's barely anyone you could properly call a defender.


You can't help feeling that an either/or of Soldado (great nose, but not for goals, sadly) and Adebayor (as stroppy a madam as there is in the competition) might just trip 'em up but Pocchetino knows how to coach and that means they'll improve on the erratic, partially successful and patently undermined Tim Sherwood. Not that they'll get higher than 6th. Plus they have Europa League nonsense to thrash around in.


Martinez has done his best to reel in some decent signings but pre-season wasn't all that clever. Be interesting to see which Lukaku shows up - the lumbering clodhopper that Belgium discovered or the bulldozing hitman that he became when on loan. Then there's the Europa League. It's a punishment for finishing 5th I tells ya.

From here on in it's a blinking lottery. You can make a case for all of them going down. Still someone's going to punch above their weight so it may as well be...


Yes, I know they lost at home to Villa but Sparky had em working okay and I'd like to see the ball on the grass attitude rewarded. Look I know it doesn't make sense but neither did Sunderland getting safe last year. It's a funny game is foot..blah blah blah.


Koeman knows what he's doing. Always liked the bloke. We had so much in common. Apart from ability. Southampton looked good at Anfield and if he can keep what remains of the decimated squad he'll get 'em playing well.


If Pardew can keep his head - out of people's faces - then you can see the Geordies getting a bit of stability too. I like the look of the Pepe la Peu looky-likey Riviere and they should have enough up front to just about make the top half.


The crisp-eaters were seriously good last year and I think they'll be bleeding hard to beat this year. There's nowt much to worry about if you're the opposition but then you'd have said the same about Palace last year.


If you are asked to write out a list of Premier League teams form memory, Hull would be the last one you'd think of. And that probably goes for people who live in Hull. They've looked pretty stable under Brucie, mind. The scruffy win at QPR is the type of thing they're getting good at.


Miraculous escape last season, surpassed by that rarest of things, a Lee Cattermole piledriver. Poyet should have a bit of continuity now, and if Rodwell doesn't get a nosebleed playing first team football they'll cope okay.


Encouraging start for the Swans. I'm very surprised no one's popped up for Bony, and how misnamed is that fella? Bony, Bonny, whatever, he's a top striker. I'm somewhat gobsmacked that Spurs let Sigurdsson go and kept Paulinho. Like keeping an ass and selling a stallion. Monk seems a good lad so I hope Swansea will be fine.


I kind of hope I'm wrong here. Big Sam has been urged to play a more diverting brand of football by his paymasters, but it's like encouraging sloths to go jogging. Allardyce has his way. And it works, sort of. So dull as it is, they'll still be around this time next year. Just don't wake me up if he's still there too.


Look, Baggies fans, the idea that midtable obscurity awaits you is preposterous. You're West Brom. Up and down like an adolescent todger. Alan Irvine is an unknown quantity, but not as mysterious as the stripeless kit. What the hell was that? It looks like a shirt that's pretending to be a club shirt, summat you'd buy for your local kiddies team. 16th, but on goal difference. Naturally.


Lambert deserves relegation. He's bought Phillipe Senderos. That's trying to mend a hole in your roof by putting another hole next to it. They sort of somehow stay above the water but I'm mystified by how, If Benteke returns at his unplayable best, well they'll survive comfortably. But I think they'll struggle, especially while behind-the-scenes no one's giving Randy the eye. 

18. QPR

Of course this shouldn't happen, The R's still boast a pretty good squad on paper. But I'm getting the feeling Arry'll tire of 'em being so crap on the pitch. Rio looks a good buy in theory but the lad's getting comfy on the couch these days, and that back could do without comfy sofas. Somehow they'll blunder into the drop zone and stay there. 


If fight and attitude and getting in their faces could win you footy matches, Burnley would already be safe, Dyche is a great motivator but pound for pound they've got the weakest squad and it'd be a triumph for them to get 40 points. I hope they do. But they wont. 


No Pulis, nil points. He was the manager of the year last year, and there is no better organiser of football teams in the country. The performance at the Emirates was hugely encouraging but as Palace have studiously avoided buying anyone of note, you can't see progress being made. A disastrous start to a quietly disappointing season. 

And that my friends is the future. Now if I've predicted good things for you boys get down to the boozer and knock back some serious downbeat single malts. If I've only foreseen trauma, crack open the champagne.

As for the Boro, I haven't got a bloody clue. At times we look fine then we lose at Leeds. Who the hell knows?

Best of luck to the lot of you. Except you and you. You know who you are. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

Gunner Be Good?

The Community Shield. It sounds like something the Americans might sell to Israel, or hand out to a veteran law-enforcer in some dodgy bit of downtown Detroit. It is in fact a meaningless piece of football entertainment which was fine when it was called the 'Charity Shield'. After all, every sort of nonsense can be passed off as entertainment if it's done for charity. Which of course this still is. So the name-change has always been a tad baffling.

Although now it's supported by McDonald's, the world's most famous purveyors of a Healthy Lifestyle.

But I'm being too grouchy about all this aren't I? It's a lovely old traditional curtain-raiser to the season. Or the last game of pre-season if you're Manuel Pellegrini. Nothing to do with the real business of winning trophies but a cheery enough afternoon in the sunshine and a chance for fans of title-winning clubs to come down to London to collectively gloat in public once more.

This Community Shield felt different though, somehow. Maybe it was the aching feeling I had for the resumption of football hostilities following that cracking World Cup. (Although that was more than somewhat sated by Boro's consummate despatch of last season's gallows-dodgers Birmingham City.)

But perhaps it was more that on this occasion one team seemed ever so desperate to win it. Wenger's men played like men whose ship has finally come in; men who have returned to the pawnshop to reclaim the trinkets they left there nine years ago. They were determined, focused and, but for Sanogo, neat and tidy.

Sanogo still looks constantly surprised to find the ball at his feet. And when he does find it, he looks like a man shaking a snarling Jack Russell off the flares of his trousers. He's very un-Arsene.

Still even his clumsy contributions worked out and the Gunners looked good from front to back... Sanchez is a good fit, Cazorla looked relieved to not be playing with that atrocious Spanish team (I mean if they were my national team I'd... I'd be bloody delighted, frankly) and Aaron Ramsey is now a fully-fledged box-to-box, heart-and-soul, midfield maestro of the type these isles very rarely have the pleasure of producing. Indeed you can pretty much chart the best bits of Arsenal's last season according to young Aaron's availability.

Citeh, meanwhile, played like a bunch of holidaymakers assembled for a beachfront kickabout. Pellegrini betrayed almost no interest in the fixture. Hardly any of the first-teamers played. (Well apart from Yaya of course, whose off-season negotiations regarding his next birthday party are in an advanced stage as I understand it.)

Lampard watched from the terraces, in order to get used to his role in domestic fixtures. Fernando looked like another of them half-bit Brazilian holding midfielders that have polluted world football recently - in fact I forgot he wasn't Fernandinho most of the time. Silva, like Santi unburdened by tacky tika-taka, prompted a bit of a revival in the second half but by then the damage was done.

As for Willy Caballero, well far from being the Mexican porn star I had assumed he was, he turned out to be a decent enough keeper who couldn't have down owt to have prevented the goals.

Citeh's central defence looked rather flaky without the comforting presence of Kompany but it was ever thus and maybe this lad Mangala will be an answer given that Demichelis can be a tad creaky and Nastasic still looks raw. Boyata's presence in the squad at all is as deep a mystery as the continuing employment of Phillipe Senderos as a professional footballer.

It was good to see Scott Sinclair and Micah Richards get a run-out but I think that might be it for the season, boys. Quite why your agents aren't hawking you from Torquay to Tallahassee is beyond me. I'm mighty pleased that Jack Rodwell has hauled his sorry ass off the Etihad seating. These two should take his advice and do the same.

But it was hard, even in what is always a redundant fixture, not to be impressed with the Gooners. Wilshere was bright and breezy but please God will the lad stop falling over? Half the time he looks less like a footballer and more like some urchin who can't quite get off a bouncy castle.

Wenger's squad looks deeper, with the Germans still to return. That might make them less prone to getting utterly tonked in the first 45 minutes of games. They might well be eyeing what Liverpool did last season and thinking: 'We too might be able to get ourselves into a winning position and utterly fuck it up at Crystal Palace'.

But can they win the title this year? Really? Well it puts them in the mix, and with Liverpool's pre-season going brilliantly, Chelsea armed with new signings, including a proper centre-forward this year, and United under the stewardship of a dastardly Dutch dictator, it might even be closer than last year.

But remember, it's very silly to draw any conclusions from a Community Shield match. Why this time last year, David Moyes was smiling contentedly at the capture of his first bit of silverware as a manager. Ha! Yes, in a way he did win something. Bless.

I'll save the full list of predictions for next week but suffice to say that regardless of what happens on an August day in the sunshine, the Premier League title will be Man City's to lose for a few years to come.