Arteta’s Troubles Mount As Arsenal Continue To Slide

Arsenal’s far from perfect start to the season is turning into a nightmare with Mikel Arteta’s side languishing in 15th place with no win in their last seven games. Heading into Christmas, Arsenal find themselves in unfamiliar territory, starring down the barrel of a relegation dog fight rather than a run at the European places. The pressure is mounting on Arteta to find solutions to address the poor results and kick start the Gunners season yet all the signs appear to indicate that it’s an impossible task.

Despite a positive end to last season beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final and a strong showing in this season’s Community Shield, winning over Liverpool thanks to a penalty shoot out, Arsenal have failed to find first gear in the opening quarter of the season. The stats tell half the story – 14 games, 14 points, 12 goals scored, 18 conceded, only 3 clean sheets. But the other half of the story is written across the face of Arteta who stands on the sidelines in disbelief of what he is seeing. Despite his own promise to change the energy and the culture at the club, this recent run shows that neither have been changed which undermines anything that Arteta is looking to achieve.

If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way. And after that, we can talk about other things.”

Mikel Arteta’s first Arsenal press conference as head coach, Dec 2019.

Part of the strategy to change the energy and the culture was to bring in players who aligned to Arteta’s thinking and embraced change whilst jettisoning those in the current squad that didn’t. This summer, Arsenal spent heavily in the market with mixed results. Defenders Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari had their loan moves made permanent, whilst Runar Alex Runarsson arrived as goalkeeper cover following the sale of the impressive Emilio Martinez to Aston Villa. Of the three, only Soares has made an appearance this season and even then that has been limited to a single occasion. Brazilian centre back Gabriel came in from Lille for €26m, as did fellow Brazilian Willian from Chelsea (albeit on a free) and both have played frequently but not to the same levels that attracted Arsenal to them in the first place. Finally the biggest outlay was for midfielder Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for a whopping €50m but injuries have limited his time on the field to a handful of times.

All six are not bad acquisitions, far from it nor should they be judged fully this early on in their time at the club. But they all fail to really inspire the type of change needed at Arsenal to move the club to the next level. Gabriel is a tough defender with superb close control and passing range but his inability to command the defence like a Virgil Van Dijk or bark orders like a Tony Adams of old, is telling. Willian demonstrates skill and mastery which entertains the fans but he doesn’ t lead by grabbing the game by its throat and pushing it Arsenal’s way. Partey may be more of the type of character Arteta needs on the field but he needs to get on it regularly for Arsenal fans to see if he is. The club lacks leaders like a Kevin De Bruyne or a Jordan Henderson who show up each week and make their presence felt, albeit in different ways. Established first team players David Luiz, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka should be driving the team forward yet so far no ones has stepped up this season to do so on a regular basis.

Partey and Gabriel have been good signings but failed to help shift the culture or raise the energy in games.

Added into this, the energy on the field is dramatically lacking with key players often caught walking or not looking to make the lung bursting runs needed to get into goal scoring opportunities. Pepe, who arrived to much hype last season for a mouth watering €80m looks like a passenger in most games, whilst Dani Ceballos who came in from Real Madrid runs without purpose or vision. That lack of energy in the midfield is having a knock on affect upfront with the usually prolific duo of Aubameyang and Lacazette feeding off lose balls and scraps resulting in only 6 goals between them and a 1 goal in every 4 games ratio. The energy in games is not there with only a few players, notably young Kieran Tierney showing desire and drive both in possession and without it.

Building a squad around your own vision takes time, something that Arteta simply hasn’t had enough off having only just celebrated his 1st full year in charge. But the club isn’t helping itself by failing to offload players who are upsetting the apple cart. Both Mezut Ozil and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been excluded from Arteta’s 25 man EPL squad yet remain the club on a combined £442,000 per week. Over the past 14 weeks since the start of the season, that amounts to just under £7m in wages for players that aren’t being used nor moved along. Other problems have been pushed out on loan or resolved by handing them bumper new contracts but yet the culture remains the same. Despite Arteta’s efforts to pull the team together and push it towards a common goal, they remain divided and individualistic. January’s transfer window offers an opportunity to Arteta to once again address the culture at the club and make the changes needed to be successful under his vision. Whether he gets the time to do so, is a different story.

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One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 2)

This is the second part of our in depth discussion with former Scotland boss, Craig Brown. Enjoy!

BOTN: Let’s move on to something that has puzzled me for a while. As a Scot, I have fond memories of various qualification campaigns as well as a few major tournaments including Euro ‘96 and France ’98. But the disappointments also linger in my mind and in particular what seemed to be a worrying trend with Scotland losing late goals in crucial matches that would lead to our failure to progress. Poland’s late equalizer in 2015, Italy’s stoppage time winner in 2008 and of course against Serbia recently which luckily didn’t cost Scotland in the end. Tiredness plays a part, but it comes down to a lack of concentration and an awareness of how to see the game out. As a manager, how much can you work with the players to remain fully focused right up until the final whistle?

CB: There has been the suggestion that the Scotland team over the years has been susceptible to losing late goals. I feel that although it happened against Italy in 2008, Poland in 2015, England in 2017 and Serbia 2020, is an unfair allegation if levelled against my time with the national team. Tiredness, lack of concentration, and poor game management have been suggested as reasons for the perceived late in the game failure. My contention is that, when it occurred it has been primarily coincidental. The recent late goal in Belgrade by Serbia in the Euro ‘20 play-off adds fuel to those who are determined to be critical but to surely two decisive wins at the shoot-out stage should put paid to that assertion.

BOTN: Noting Scotland’s recent accomplishment, qualifying for next summer’s European Championships, how pleased are you to see Scotland qualify again and how do you rate the job that Steve Clarke and his team have done there?

CB: Having been involved in 4 successful qualifications, 2 as Assistant to Andy Roxburgh (Italy ‘90 and Sweden ‘92) and 2 as manager in my own right (England ‘96 and France ‘98), I believe that Steve Clarke’s achievement, because of the prevailing negative perception, was even more meritorious. The recent outpouring of emotion is not something I recall. In my 12-year period (86 – 98) to qualify for a major tournament was expected and greeted with quiet satisfaction in the changing room. Failure was deemed a disgrace.    

Recently, at the start of Steve’s tenure, there continued to be negative vibes and extremely pessimistic attitudes. That made it even more difficult to change the mentality, not only of the players but also of the supporters and the media. This he has done marvellously well and that, among other things, is very much to his credit. The ignominy of failure and the heartache of near misses can now be consigned to history. For ever, I trust!

Steve Clarke has steered Scotland to their first major international tournament in 22 years.

BOTN: Do you think that this is the turning point for Scotland now in terms of qualifying regularly for tournaments? Or is there further work needed in creating a succession line for young talent in Scotland?

CB: Without doubt this is a turning point for Scottish football. I’m a believer in the self-fulfilling prophecy so if we feel we’ll succeed we are even more likely to succeed. We have a proliferation now of young talented players and a tremendous work ethic. The excitement of the achievement in Serbia will live long in the memory of all Scotland fans as it signalled the countdown to return to join the elite of International football. The lure of involvement at this level will provide motivation enough to inspire the players to strive for regular participation in European and World Competition Finals.

BOTN: Scotland will play England during Euro 2020 at Wembley Stadium much like they did during Euro ’96 when you were on the sidelines as manager. That was really an incredible game despite the result, with Paul Gascoigne producing a moment of genius to break Scottish hearts. Watching that game then and now, I still feel that if Gary McAllister’s penalty had gone in, Scotland would have won that game and we would have qualified for the knock-out round. What are your memories of the games against England?

CB: As a Tartan Army supporter, I had been to many matches between the Auld Enemy as the importance of this fixture cannot be overestimated north of the border. However, my first direct experience as a member of staff was on 5th May 1988 at Wembley. One relatively minor incident in this encounter confirmed just how significant the occasion is for everyone, players included. It happened in the 74th minute when the then manager, Andy Roxburgh asked me to get Tommy Burns warmed up to replace Neil Simpson – an attacking midfield player for a sitting, defensive one as we were a goal behind. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the wonderful attitude of the late Tommy Burns as his grateful attitude not only exemplified his exemplary character but reinforced the impact a game against England always has. 

Before exchanging the mandatory handshake with his replaced colleague Tommy went over to the manager, put his two hands on Andy’s shoulder, looked into his eyes, and said, “Thank you Gaffer. You have given me my lifetime ambition – to play for my country against England at Wembley!” Such gratitude is not always the case as often players are more disposed to complain about non selection, but it did confirm, as if I didn’t know it, the importance attached to the England fixture.

The late Tommy Burns sitting on the Wembley turf pre kick off, 1988.

BOTN: Am I right I saying that you managed Scotland against England on a few occasions?

It was my privilege to be in charge of the Scotland team on three more occasions against ‘Them’ as many Scots rather unkindly refer to when meaning England. I’ve already mentioned the ‘Gazza match’ as I call it, in Euro ‘96. The other two games were the play-off matches for Euro 2000, the first being in Glasgow at Hampden. The desire for tickets was incredible for both matches and the hype was incredible. There is an erroneous perception that players and staff get unlimited supplies of free match tickets. To ensure that our players were happy and in no way were made to feel inferior I asked Colin Hendry to speak to his team colleague, Alan Shearer, at Blackburn Rovers to establish the England ticket allocation. When dealing with the squad request for complimentaries and tickets to buy the SFA thoughtfully acceded to my suggestion that we get a more generous allocation than our opponents. Psychologically I felt this dispelled any suggestion of inferiority. 

Unlike Scotland’s 2020 play-off this was a two-legged affair, with the first game at a packed Hampden Park. Had the Scottish Football League agreed to my request to postpone and reschedule the Rangers v Celtic match the week before because so many of our players were involved, the facial, broken jawbone, injury suffered by Paul Lambert in a strong challenge from Jorg Albertz wouldn’t have ruled out one of our best players, the one in fact who would have been designated to mark Paul Scholes, the scorer of both England goals. Because of his Champions League winning experience with Borussia Dortmund and his familiarity with the 3-5-2 system we employed he would have been invaluable had he been fit.

BOTN: I remember that Old firm game but i think it was more the other way. around with Lambert sliding in on Albertz and giving away the penalty. Irregardless perhaps if Lambert was playing, he would have been able to nullify the threat of Scholes like you said.

CB: Adhering to my old adage well known to the players that if you’re fighting the Indians you kill their chief, I asked Paul Ritchie to do ‘a close attention job’ on David Beckham. This he did very well but we were less successful with Scholes!  Unsurprisingly, after a defeat there are calls for the manager’s head. I recall that this was the case when Kevin Keegan resigned between double-header matches. I respect Kevin greatly and know he must have had his own reasons, but the thought of resigning never crossed my mind because I am a fighter and, particularly in adversity, gain strength to do what I think is right.

There was one particularly resourceful, but hurtful, piece of journalism and it came from Sky TV’s Pete Barraclough. Our team was staying overnight in the Marine Hotel, Troon and he asked me if I’d oblige with a one-to-one outside to give a different environment for the interview.  I declined and said that it would create a precedent and that he would have to speak to me during the allotted time in the hotel where I’d be seated in front of the sponsors’ backdrop.     

It was not often that I got the opportunity to see the result of my interviews in the evening but on this occasion, I saw Pete introduce his piece from the street just outside our hotel. He finished by saying, “And if Scotland don’t do much better at Wembley on Wednesday, it will be the end of the road for Craig.” At this juncture the camera left his head and shoulders shot and panned down to reveal that the name of the street was CRAIGEND ROAD. I must say I’m glad I didn’t accept the offer to conduct the interview in the street.

BOTN: You did get some redemption in the return leg though, winning it 1-0 thanks to Don Hutchison’s header.

We flew to London the next day and checked into our hotel on St Albans not far from the Arsenal Training Ground where, courtesy of Arsene Wenger, we were welcomed with open arms for our light training sessions. Manager Kevin, 2 goals up, announced his team in advance, something I never did because I always felt that “knowledge is power” and the least information available to the opponents the better. Kevin Gallacher’s injury and an earlier helpful piece of information from a manager colleague in Scotland prompted me to make a surprise selection up front.

Don Hutchison’s header gave Scotland victory in the second leg. (Goal build up begins at 0.40)

The late, great, Tommy Burns, was that man. I had asked Tommy, then manager of Kilmarnock, to take charge of Scotland ‘B’ team for a friendly game against Wales and afterwards requested advice on any player whom I should consider.  That’s why I played midfielder Don up front and, as he had done earlier in Germany where he scored the winning goal. The youngest player afield, Barry Ferguson, was outstanding in midfield and only a wonderful David Seaman save prevented Christian Dailly’s header taking us to extra time. Nevertheless, I have to admit that to beat both Germany (84m population) in Bremen and England (56m) at Wembley I consider my two best results in 50 unbeaten games of the 70 I was in charge of Scotland (5.5m).

BOTN: You have had spells as both a club manager as well as a national manager. It is often said that managing a national team is harder due to the limited time you have to work with the players in the run up to games. I would also assume that as a club manager you are constantly busy day in day out but as an international manager you will have periods of solitude between international games. Do you agree with this notion?

CB: Few would disagree that to manage one’s country is the pinnacle of any footballing career.  I’m honoured to be the longest serving Scotland manager with the national team and also have taken charge of more U21 matches than anyone else. In addition, I assisted Sir Alex Ferguson at the Mexico ‘86 World Cup and Andy Roxburgh in his 61 matches in charge of the senior national team. My 15-year stint with the Scottish FA also saw me take youth teams on occasion, the highlights being the FIFA World Cup Final in 1989 with the U16 team and the 1/4 Final of the FIFA U20 World Championship in 1987 in Chile and the semi-finals of the European Championship in 1992.

To have managed four excellent senior clubs has also been a great privilege……two league Championships in nine years with Clyde F C, two mid table Championship finishes with Preston North End F C, UEFA play-off round with Motherwell FC and relegation staved off, three cup semi-finals and two 13 game unbeaten runs with Aberdeen FC. In addition, I’ve served Fulham FC as International Representative and Derby County FC as football consultant.

Clyde manager Craig Brown with the Second Division trophy

BOTN: After leaving Scotland, as you just said you had spells at Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen before retiring from management in 2013 and becoming a non-executive Director at Aberdeen. That spell at Motherwell in particular was interesting as it was a return for you having been assistant there in the 70’s. You won back-to-back manager of the month awards and steered Motherwell to a top six finish yet only stayed a year before joining Aberdeen. What happened there and was there extra factors that persuaded you to leave and join Aberdeen?

CB: I have always had a great affection for neighbouring Lanarkshire Clubs, Hamilton and Motherwell but the fact that I was brought up in Hamilton meant that my early allegiance was to the Accies. However twice Motherwell have asked me to work for them in a coaching/ managerial capacity and on each occasion, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. On the first occasion in the mid ‘70s the league structure changed, and Willie McLean was the manager who offered me the job as assistant. From bottom of the 18-team league at Christmas we went on a fine run and got into the new top SPL in tenth position. Thereafter the Steelmen have consistently been a fine top team Club.

It was with considerable reluctance that the first time I left Motherwell where I was Number 2 was to become Manager at Clyde FC. The part-time role was more suitable there with part-time players, but I left the ‘Well with a heavy heart.

There came the surprise, emergency call 32 years later by which time I had finally, I thought, retired after my spell as Football Consultant at Derby County FC. The request to help out temporarily at Fir Park was irresistible and my colleague, Archie Knox, was equally pleased to join the club languishing a little in the lower echelons of the SPL.  We reintroduced some of the deposed senior players and propelled the team into Europe where, the following season, we reached the play-off stage.   

Knox (left) and Brown in the Aberdeen technical area

When we went to Pittodrie and comfortably won 3-0 an Aberdeen Director, Hugh Little, with whom I was friendly, asked in conversation, if I had signed a contract at Motherwell. I said that we had been offered a contract but had declined to commit and, in all honesty, it was absolutely nothing to do with the salary. There was a reference in the arrangement which clearly stated that I was to be in charge of the football operation with the exception of the U20 team, which was the sole responsibility of the youth coach, admittedly a superb exponent, Gordon Young. Anyone in the game would agree that my reluctance to agree to that was fully understandable. No revised document was forthcoming. Had there been one with the desired minor alteration, my loyalty is such that I’d never have considered an Aberdeen approach.

BOTN: What convinced you to make the switch?

My initial, impulsive, response to Aberdeen was to decline their approach but a ‘phone call from Sir Alex and another from Stewart Milne convinced me to meet the Aberdeen representatives, including Willie Miller, Director of Football, whom I knew. Archie Knox, too, extolled the virtues of AFC and my gut feeling, later to be confirmed, was that Stewart Milne was a great Chairman. I hadn’t too much of a decision to make because there was no renewed Motherwell attempt to make the minor alteration which would have made my contract offer suitably acceptable. So, having initially refused the invitation to meet, I soon had all the necessary arrangements made to accept the privilege of joining such a reputable Club with a tremendous support.      

The remit at Pittodrie was to save the Dons from relegation because they were anchored at the bottom of the league with 10 points from 16 games including a 0-9 defeat at Celtic Park and a 0-5 at Tynecastle. This was accomplished and consolidation achieved but in spite of having impressive unbeaten runs and three semi-final appearances further progress proved difficult with the departure of five players to provide much needed income. The sale of Aluko, Maguire, Fyvie, Foster and Fraser and long-term injuries to Considine, Jack and Robertson didn’t help the cause but still in November of my second season we were one point behind league leaders, Celtic. I’m afraid that without income to enhance the playing staff mediocrity ensued, although when Archie and I retired we left a much-improved squad for the excellent incoming management team of Derek McInnes and Tony Docherty.

BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. What game that you were involved in stands out in your mind as a player and as a manager?

CB: The highest profile game in Scotland’s football history was generally acknowledged to be the opening game of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in Paris against the world champions, Brazil. I’ve already confirmed that my involvement as manager then was arguably the highlight of my protracted career. Incidentally, I feel that the eligibility rules for staff should be the same as that for players and that ‘foreigners’ shouldn’t be permitted in a back-room capacity. Having said that I contend that my successor with the Scotland team, Berti Vogts, was an inspired appointment. Any man who has won the World Cup as a player and the European Championship as a manager surely has an impeccable CV. It didn’t quite work out for Berti but the players at his disposal were, in my opinion, less good than their predecessors. Two other games in the memorable category are the victories in Germany and a England which I’ve already described.

Scotland line up to face Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup in France.

As a youth player my standard was very good but at the top level, following a succession of knee injuries, the word indifferent would be appropriate. The season when Dundee FC were champions of Scotland, I had a few ‘not bad’ performances. One of my better ones was in March 1962 at Celtic Park in Bobby Lennox’s first game when Billy McNeill was Celtic FC Man of the Match and I got the same accolade for Dundee FC. In the same game I made the mistake of talking to a fan who was berating me and complaining that it was a terrible game. When I said to him, “You’re the mug. You paid to get in.”  Quick as a flash he retorted, “But you’ll be payin’ next season!” The guy was nearly a prophet!!

BOTN: Which player gave you the most trouble as a manager?

CB: I’m fortunate I never had any serious problems with players. I that regard it’s easier with the international team as if there’s a disciplinary problem you leave the offending player out of the squad. At club level if he’s on contract you have to operate differently. I can’t remember fining a player for other than lateness and the fine income was halved between local charity and the Christmas night out.

Another interesting fact is that the big-name player is easier to control. Over the years people have said to me these millionaires must be hard to handle. My experience is the opposite. The bigger the star, the easier he is to deal with and there is no way you can please everyone so set, and insist on, the standards you want. I always remember the old Chinese proverb ……

If everyone thinks we’ll of you

It surely would be wise

To examine each facet of your life

And weed out compromise!

BOTN: If you could manage any team from the past, which team would it be and why?

CB: Without doubt the team I think any Scotsman would love to have managed is the first British team to win the European Cup. In 1967 Celtic beat Inter Milan in the final in Portugal resulting in the team affectionately being called the Lisbon Lions.  I played in that era, so I knew every one of the winning team – Simpson, Craig & Gemmill; Murdoch, McNeill & Clark; Johnstone, Wallace, Chalmers, Auld Lennox. Four extra players were in the squad – Gallagher, Hughes, McBride & O’Neill.  There was only a goalkeeping substitute permitted so John Fallon was on the bench.

Why the desire to manage that group?  Not only was every individual a player of quality who would have fitted into any ‘game plan’, each of the Lions was a really good person.  A look at the ability of each player would confirm that they could be moulded into any desired tactical formation, indeed into a variety if required within the same game. There were no prima donnas, and everyone knows that the legendary Manager, Jock Stein, wouldn’t have tolerated anyone who was inclined to get above his station.  Each and every one of that illustrious group had an unassuming manner and an inbuilt humility.

The European Cup winning Glasgow Celtic, also known as the Lisbon Lions.

An interesting fact is that all but one of the team, played in a grade of football in Scotland called Junior Football. This was a tough environment containing many men who had been reinstated from the senior level. Indeed, the man who scored the winning goal in the European final, Steve Chalmers, was aged 23 when he was signed by Celtic from Ashfield Juniors.

Another big attraction for me would be the lack of foreign players with their cultural and temperamental nuances. The entire Celtic team then, all on the same wage, incidentally, was from a 30-mile radius of Glasgow thus eliminating any translation issues and ensuring that the local humour was appropriate. Socially the players were friendly, and it’s well known that if that is the case they play better together as a team.  In short, knowing the favourable attitude of the receptive and modest group it would have been a privilege to work with the legendary Lisbon Lions.

BOTN: And which team currently?

CB: At the risk of being accused of contradicting myself I’ll admit that, hypothetically, the current team I’d love to manage is in complete contrast to the Lisbon Lions. It is full of expensive foreign signings. In the past Liverpool’s foreigners were from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Not now! Yes, there is Scotland Captain, Andy Robertson, a throwback to the Steve Nicol era, but almost the entire remainder of the squad comes from out with the UK. I confess, though, that such is the talent available, it would be a dream job to be in the shoes of Herr Jürgen Klopp!

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One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 1)

Thursday 13th November 2020 will be a date fondly remembered by most Scotland fans as it was the day that 22 years of hurt and disappointment came to an abrupt end. Having failed to qualify for any major international tournament since 1998, Scotland managed to beat Serbia in the final of the Nations League to secure their place at the European Championships next summer. The magnitude of this achievement and what it means to Scottish fans is hard to summarize. But if there was ever a man who could explain the significance of it, it would be the man who guided Scotland to its last major tournament, Mr. Craig Brown.

Brown managed Scotland for eight years, guiding them to both Euro 1996 in England and the 1998 World Cup in France where we played in the opening game against then holders Brazil. Those squads he built included Scottish icons like Colin Hendry, Gary McAllister, John Collins, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton, Paul Lambert and Ally McCoist and they sparked belief that not only would we qualify for tournaments but we would be able to compete as well. Under Brown, Scotland were well drilled, difficult to break down (with one of the meanest defences in world football) and fun to watch as a Scotland fan (albeit perhaps not against Morocco). It was a testament to Brown’s abilities as a manager that he continued to improve the side over his long reign as boss (over 70 international fixtures which is still a record today) and motivate them to compete as a unit rather than a collection of individuals with the common goal of qualifying for major tournaments.

Besides Scotland, Craig had a long career as a manager both in Scotland and England with spells at Clyde, Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen. We chatted with Craig recently in what turned out to be one of the most interesting and fascinating interviews that we have ever done, so much so that we have split it into two parts! We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Back Of The Net: Most fans remember you for your time as a manager but as a player starting out back in 1957 you were considered a hot prospect for the future. Unfortunately, a series of knee injuries would hold back your progression as a player. You did however play under some incredible managers like Scot Symon, who guided Rangers to six league titles and two Cup Winners Cup finals and Bob Shankly who took Dundee to the Division One Championship as well as to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1963. What influence did these men have on your career and did they have any impact in you eventually becoming a manager?

Craig Brown: As a youngster brought up in Hamilton, I played most of my football for the school team, Hamilton Academy but I also played for Kilmarnock Amateurs U 18 team. I was doing well and was selected for the Scottish Schoolboys in 1956 with the late, great Billy McNeill (who was at Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell,) in the team. The following year I still was of age, and I captained the team which included Alex Ferguson of Govan High School.  We beat England 3-0 at Celtic Park in my first game but lost 4-3 at Dulwich Hamlet the next year.  

I signed from school for Rangers FC and my ability, or lack of it, meant that I never played in the first team.  I was sent for a season for experience to Coltness United Juniors where I played well enough to be included in the Scotland Junior squad.  When ‘called up’ to Ibrox I had 18 months in the reserves but never threatened the two first team guys in my left-half position, Billy Stevenson, who was transferred to Liverpool, and the unconventional Jim Baxter. My lame excuse for my ineffectual performance at Ibrox was the knee injury I sustained which later required 3 operations, and a full replacement eventually. 

Brown signs for Rangers in July, 1958.

The manager of Rangers was Mr. Scott Symon.  You’ll notice I instinctively called him “Mr.”. That was quite normal sixty years ago whereas now “Boss” or “Gaffer” is the nomenclature used.  He was not a training ground coaching manager, but he was a thorough gentleman who commanded great respect.  The best adjective I’d use to describe him is ‘dignified’ and just a little distant from the younger players.  If he unconsciously influenced my career it would have been to confirm that it is no fault to be courteous and that kindness should never be mistaken for softness. 

BOTN: And what about Bob Shankly? That move to Dundee seemed to work for you as a player.

I went on a loan deal to Dundee at a time when loans were not fashionable and after 6 months was transferred outright to Dens Park where the manager was one of the famous Shankly brothers, the elder one, Bob. I did reasonably well there, well enough to earn a medal in 1962 when Dundee won the Scottish Championship using only 15 players in the process at a time when substitutes weren’t in vogue. Bob Shankly, like is brother, Bill, was a big influence on my career, but to copy his management style would be impossible.  He was inimitable.  He possessed a great football brain and a wonderful Ayrshire turn of phrase.  He never called me Craig. It always exalted me to the dirty by “Christ Craig”! Even after a good game he’d say, “Christ Craig, that wisney too bad today, son!” Describing an opponent, he’d say, “He tossed up with a sparrow for legs.  And the sparrow won.  So, take him from the knee doon, as one from eleven is ten!” I could never really use Bob Shankly as a role model as he was a one off, incomparable, but he had the admirable quality of honesty without which I deduced you cannot survive in the cut-throat world of professional football. These two managers I could never emulate but just hope some of their attributes lingered with me.

Brown jumping with teammate and goalkeeper Pat Liney to stop a Celtic attack at Celtic Park, 1962.

BOTN: You got your first taste of management as assistant manager of Motherwell in 1974 before taking over as manager of Clyde in 1977, albeit on a part time basis whilst still working as a primary school teacher. You had ten successful years with The Bully Wee, guiding them to the Second Division title in your first year in charge. What did you learn about management during those years that would help you as your career progressed?

CB: When my indifferent playing career ended prematurely, I was keen to use my SFA coaching qualification which I had taken while a pro player, latterly at Falkirk F C, where I experienced 3 managers, Alec McCrae, Sammy Kean and a former Scotland boss, John Prentice. Again, I had the opportunity to play under very different styles of leadership and, hopefully, learned a few does and don’ts along the way. Also, the team trainer was a man who did well managing Scotland, the legendary Willie Ormond.

Among those instructing and attending the superb SFA coaching courses were luminaries of Scottish football, men like Jimmy Bonthrone, Dick Campbell, Frank Coulston, Alex Ferguson, John Hagart, Archie Knox, Jim Leishman, Ross Mathie, Andy Roxburgh, Jocky Scott, Alex Smith, Walter Smith, and the three McLean brothers, Willie, Jim and Tommy.    

While working as a Lecturer at Craigie College of Education, I was privileged to be appointed as assistant manager of Motherwell FC by the oldest McLean brother, Willie. What Willie doesn’t know about the game is not worth knowing so that was a wonderful learning curve for me. Motherwell had a fine team in the first year of the new SPL, one good enough to knock Jock Stein’s Celtic, Kenny Dalglish and all, out of the Scottish Cup, having beaten Alex Ferguson’s St Mirren at Fir Park in the round before.  

After spending three years at Motherwell the first of my old pal’s acts found me appointed as manager of Clyde F C. Billy McNeill, a good friend from schools’ football had left his job at Clyde to go to Aberdeen F C and he recommended me to Clyde. The players were part-time, so it was a perfect job for me as I was able to continue my full-time lecturing work. The first of many lucrative sales from Clyde was to Billy at Aberdeen when he ‘stole’ Steve Archibald for £25,000 on New Year’s Day, 1978.  In spite of losing our best player halfway through the season we went on to win the 2nd Division Championship. Many other profitable sales such as Pat Nevin (£95,000), Tommy McQueen (£90,000), Joe Ward (£90,000), Gerry McCabe (60,000), Raymond Deans (£40,000), Brian Ahern (25,000), and Jim Kean (£25,000) augmented the attendance income and kept the Club in a healthy financial position.   

Steve Archibald signing for Aberdeen in 1978, much to the obvious disappointment of Brown.

It became apparent this early that club management involved much more than training and picking a team. The club balance sheet had to be considered and man management of players was important especially as, unlike full-timers, they were not wholly dependent on you for a living.   

BOTN: I’ve heard that a few times that many people believe a manager is just picking the team at the weekend and not much more but there is and always has been so much more to the role. Moving on, In 1986 you became Scotland’s assistant manager working along-side manager Andy Roxburgh and together you guided the country to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Euro 1992 in Sweden. In both tournaments, Scotland finished 3rd, winning once and losing the other two. Regardless, being assistant manager to your countries national team must have been quite the honour. How did that come about?

CB: While still at Clyde I received a phone call at the College where I was employed from Alex Ferguson. He said, “Broon, how would you like the holiday of a lifetime? I’ve been asked (after the tragic death of Jock Stein) to take the Scottish team to the World Cup in Mexico. I’d like Walter Smith, Archie Knox and you to join me as the coaching staff.  We have a minimum of 3 games to play, but we won’t let that interfere with our enjoyment!”. When I said that I had a job during the month of June, Alex (he wasn’t Sir then) suggested I asked for unpaid leave of absence.  Old pal’s act yet again!  Arguably, this was my greatest honour during my career. To be asked, while not working at the top club level, by the best manager on the planet, to join his staff was a tremendous accolade so, having been granted absence at a time when student classes were running down for the summer break, I was on my way to the altitude training camp at Santa Fe in New Mexico.

BOTN: Working for Sir Alex must have been interesting?

Being on the coaching staff under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson was a tremendous experience for me and also dispelled the late “hair dryer” myth as in the entire campaign I never once heard him even raise his voice. He spoke in a conversational manner, but there is no doubt these high-level players listened intently to every word. 

After the three World Cup 1986 games, when Alex was disinclined to continue the Scotland job, preferring to remain at club level with Aberdeen, Andy Roxburgh was an inspired appointment by the SFA. Having had 9 enjoyable years with Clyde, Andy approached me to be his assistant. I accepted and football, not teaching/lecturing, became my life. I was used to being in charge of a team, so I was given sole charge of the Scotland U 21 team while assistant with the national team. It was possible then as the qualification fixtures matched in those days, the U 21s always played the same opposition the night before the full international.

Brown was part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s backroom staff at the 1986 World Cup.

BOTN: Scotland narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro ’88 by two points after starting the group badly but did reach the 1990 World Cup. How did you prepare for that tournament?

Andy did very well continuing the World Cup qualification successes of the past.  He took Scotland to Italy in 1990 where his preparation, as always, was meticulous.  The technical and medical staff received weekly lessons in basic Italian from a teacher who taught at nearby Hollywood Secondary School. We saw the problem of having a full-scale proper practice match with injuries, and fatigue, in Mexico, so we persuaded the SFA to permit us to invite 6 youth international players to supplement the squad. 

The preparatory trip to the USA was excellent and our facilities in Rapallo near Genoa were superb. They were not new to the squad because Andy arranged a visit a couple of months before the World Cup to enable the players to acclimatise. We took the projected group to stay in the team hotel and watch the highly charged local derby between Genoa and Sampdoria. 

Weeks later, via a short spell in nearby Malta and a low-key friendly against Norway, we went back to our Hotel Bristol in Rapallo ready for the opening game against Costa Rica.

We were accused of underestimating our opponents but that was a bit unfair as they had a good qualification record and some fine individual players. Had the normally reliable Maurice Johnston not missed a couple of great chances the famous Tartan Army would have been less disappointed at the one goal defeat. But condemnation it was!     

BOTN: How did you and Andy pick the team up and get them motivated for the Sweden after that defeat to Costa Rica?

I’m not without bias but I believe Andy did a great job lifting morale in the five days before our next match against Sweden at the same venue.  Training was lively, with a good bit of humour, and our video analyst, Brian Hendry, produced amusing material on the screen out with, before and after, official squad meetings. The players, without the prevalence of today’s social media and mobile phones, were a bit isolated from the harsh criticism until, on the way to the stadium there was a huge, harsh banner which read “P45 for ROXBURGH”. The fact that Andy laughed and took it so well undoubtedly helped the atmosphere in the team coach and in the dressing room immediately before the match.  The great team spirit was evident in a fine display with a popular guy, Stuart McCall, scoring the winning goal.

Scotland’s failure to beat Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup was a bitter blow for Scotland’s management team of Roxburgh and Brown.

BOTN: Next up was that difficult match against Brazil right?

Yes, and to lose the final group match against Brazil was not in any way an embarrassment as the game, watched by 62,502, was extremely close against one of the best teams in the world. The only goal was scored by sub, Muller, who came on for Romario, in the 82nd minute as he latched on to a rebound following Jim Leighton’s great save.

BOTN: It must have been disappointing to be knocked out but reaching the Euro’s two years later must have made up for that.

With only eight teams qualifying it was a remarkable achievement by Andy Roxburgh to ensure that Scotland qualified for their first ever European Championship in Sweden in 1992.  

BOTN: When Roxburgh quit a year later in 1993, you were promoted to manager of the national team. Over the next 8 years, Scotland qualified for the Euro ’96 in England and the World Cup ’98 in France which ended up being the last major tournament that Scotland would qualify for up until recently when a 22-year wait was ended with qualification to Euro 2020. There must be a lot of special memories and moments during those 8 years in charge that you look back on.

CB: From 1986 until 1993 when I was surprised to be appointed manager of the national team, I had been working successfully with all Scotland squads. The indefatigable and talented Ross Mathie was in charge of the U18 And U16 teams but when the FIFA U16 World Cup was being played in Scotland I was asked to take charge of the team with Ross as my colleague.  I had known his outstanding capabilities well as he had been with me at Clyde, so it came as no surprise that all the youngsters under his charge were brilliantly coached and schooled in good behaviour and extreme courtesy. Having qualified from a difficult group we beat Germany in the quarter final at Aberdeen, the Carlos Quieroz coached Portugal at a sell-out Tynecastle in the semi-final but lost on penalty kicks after extra-time to Saudi Arabia at Hampden in the Final with a 52,000+ attendance. Second in the world was a creditable achievement as was sixth two years earlier in the FIFA U20 World Championship in Chile when, again, we failed with a retaken penalty against West Germany in the quarter final.

Scotland almost became World Champions in 1989. Despite leading 2-0 with Paul Dickov (above) on the scoresheet, Scotland lost the final to Saudi Arabia on penalties.

Our success was replicated during this period because with Tommy Craig my fine colleague, we reached the semi-final of the UEFA U21 championship in 1992, having beaten Germany at a packed Pittodrie in the quarter final following an away draw in Bochum. The one goal defeat by Sweden over two legs in the semi-final was, again, a praiseworthy accomplishment. So, at youth level in top competition we had been in a quarter final, semi-final and final of prestigious events and, as assistant, had been involved in two qualifications, WC Italy ‘90 and Sweden Euro ‘92, at senior level.

I suspect that my involvement in these successes had quite a bit to do with my unexpected appointment, especially since big names such as Dalglish, Ferguson, Bremner, Miller, McQueen, Jordan, Strachan and Souness were being touted. I was asked to be in interim charge for the final two qualifying games, the first being away from home in the Olympic Stadium, Rome, against Italy who had the incentive of going to the FIFA World Cup Finals in the USA if they were to beat us. Unwittingly I made a controversial selection by playing Dave Bowman in place of Paul McStay. This was because I wanted to eliminate their main man, Roberto Baggio. I watched the Italian warm-up, undertaken in the double penalty box sized area below the main stand and was hugely impressed, but not surprised, at the high tempo of the workout.  The sweat was even pouring down Baggio’s ponytail.  

In spite of my severe warning to our players about early concentration in front of a packed crowd (61,178) we were a goal down in four minutes when Donadoni shot past Bryan Gunn from the edge of our box. I was looking for a hole to jump into in the Olympic track 12 minutes later when Casiraghi angled a shot into our net. 74 minutes left to play, and we were two down against one of the best teams in the world who were eventually only beaten on penalties by Brazil in the WC final months later. Although Kevin Gallacher got a goal back, we lost the game but played admirably.

BOTN: Not a terrible result based on this. That Italian squad was full of quality players.

CB: Indeed. The final match of the campaign was also away from home against Malta a month later. There was a month of speculation about who was to be the next manager with the SFA in no rush to make an appointment and I was one of the least favoured candidates with 8% of the fans’ votes. Kenny Dalglish had the best amount, polling 28%, then Alex Ferguson had 21%, with Gordon Strachan third. The fact that the best manager on the planet had only 21% of the votes helped me when I was questioned because I could say with complete candour that if 79% of the Tartan Army didn’t want Alex Ferguson, I couldn’t give much credence to the poll. 

Anyway, while in Malta the day before the 2-0 victory the then SFA Chief Executive, Mr Jim Farry, invited me to his room where I was met by the Chairman of the International Committee, and Chairman of St Mirren FC, Mr Yule Craig, who offered me the job. I was pleased to accept and the next day before the match SFA President, Mr Bill Dickie of Motherwell FC came to the dressing room and informed the players. It was reassuring to hear that there was spontaneous clapping among the players and staff. I don’t know if all would be clapping months later when harsh squad selection had to be made in an attempt to qualify for Euro 96. My first official Scotland team was: Jim Leighton, Alan McLaren, Colin Hendry, Brian Irvine, Ray McKinnon, Ian Durrant, Gary McAllister, Billy McKinlay, Pat Nevin, Ian Ferguson, Kevin Gallacher, and the subs used were Tom Boyd and Scott Booth.

Craig Brown was selected as Scotland manager in 1993.

I must admit that I was threatened by the man in charge of the SFA at the time, Mr Jim Farry, for whom I had great respect in spite of a few contentious moments such as when I selected an ineligible player, Everton’s Matt Jackson, for the Under 21 team. 

BOTN: How did he threaten you?

The threat? “The Euro ‘96 Championship is next door in England. We must be there! If not, you’ll be sacked!”  

We were there after a successful qualifying campaign when in 10 matches we lost only 3 goals in a group comprising Finland, Faroe Islands, Russia, Greece, and San Marino. Our preparatory trip to the USA was excellent. We were visited by Rod Stewart who invited the entire squad to his concert in the Madison Square Gardens. We joined the 17,000 inside the arena and around 5,000 outside clamouring for tickets. Rod even invited the lads on stage during the show, the second half of which he performed wearing a Scotland team jersey to the great delight of the enthusiastic crowd. The next day he joined us in training and proved he was no mean footballer.

Prior to our return flight to London we were advised that the England team, preparing in Hong Kong, has got a few drinks too many and Gazza was photographed in a dentist’s chair with drink being poured down his throat. There were stories of damage to the aircraft which, if true, would have been exaggerated. Anyway, I warned our guys about our behaviour as I was concerned that some English based press would maybe want to even things up. We went on to the flight dressed immaculately, changed into tracksuits for the journey, then returned to the blazer etc with all ties worn properly. I always recall Ally McCoist saying to me when we landed at Gatwick and the paparazzi were there in numbers, “I can see the headline tomorrow. Scots in sober sensation!”

BOTN: That does sound like McCoist. Euro ’96 was a spectacular tournament to be involved in though.

CB: The Euro ‘96 tournament has been well documented, highlighting our genuine misfortune to miss out so narrowly while giving credit to Gazza for a wonderful goal when we were well on top with 8 corners to England’s 2 and the lion’s share of possession, and sympathy to Gary McAllister for his penalty miss.

BOTN: Let’s talk about France ’98 for a moment. The squad you took to the tournament was incredibly strong yet there was no place for your goal scorer against Switzerland at Euro 96, Ally McCoist. You also lost Andy Goram three weeks before the tournament began after he decided to pull out as he believed he wouldn’t start ahead of Jim Leighton. Both players were in the latter stages of their careers but had impressive seasons in the run up to the tournament. How much did their absence have an effect on how the team performed in France?

CB: Austria, Sweden, Latvia, Belarus and Estonia stood between us and a place in the World Cup Finals in France in the summer of 1998. Once again, our team excelled in the ten qualification matches, again losing only three goals. Significantly, too, the man who missed the penalty against England volunteered confidently to take our next penalty. It turned out to be a crucial one in Minsk to give us a 1-0 win against Belarus at a difficult away venue.  We lost only one match, in Sweden, and were pleased to get to another nearby location, France, for the World Cup.  

The host country, France, who didn’t have to qualify, were seeking friendly fixtures and asked if Scotland would be interested. I agreed, never thinking we were to play the eventual winners, provided we could play at one of the potential World Cup venues. So, in November we went to St Etienne to play a really formidable French side. We were a goal down at half time and I remember just after the interval asking Ally McCoist to warm up as I had it in my mind to replace Gordon Durie. While Ally was preparing himself to a standard such that his pulse count, as checked by physio, Eric Ferguson, would be acceptable to join the fray, Gordon scored one of the best goals I’ve seen from a Scotland player. Now when a player has scored, I always feel he’s on a high and the goal is twice the size, so as the circumstances had altered, I changed my mind and said to Ally that we’d leave it meantime.   Quite spontaneously, the genuinely jocular response was, “Durie, one goal in six years! Prolific, f—-ing prolific!”   And with a smile and no rancour he returned to his seat. We lost 2-1 to Zinedine Zidane and Co and had four other friendlies, against Denmark and Finland, then Colombia and the host country as part of our preparation camp in the USA.

BOTN: Is that when Goram decided to leave?

Squad selection was my next major task, and it was simplified a little when Andy Goram told me in New Jersey that he had to return home for personal reasons. There was suspicion that he had gone because he know that Jim Leighton would be first choice in France. This was totally wrong because the goalkeeper incumbent hadn’t been decided by Alex Miller, Alan Hodgkinson and me. In fact, I’m still in possession of the delightful letter Andy wrote explaining his decision and wishing best wishes to Jim Leighton and the entire squad.

The other contentious issue concerned the fact that I omitted two Euro ‘96 stalwarts from the squad. Before announcing the final group, I met both Stuart McCall and Ally McCoist to explain their omission. Not the most pleasant of tasks I must admit! Let me admit, I don’t think for a minute I got every decision correct regarding selection!

The decision by Brown not to select Ally McCoist or Stuart McCall for the 1998 World Cup was seen by many fans as a mistake.

BOTN: Really? What makes you think that now?

To have to play the world champions, Brazil, in the opening game was, for me and most of Scotland, a mouth-watering prospect. Such was the appeal of the fixture tickets were like gold dust and many personalities, including Tony Blair, Rod Stewart and Sean Connery, were in attendance. Our warmup was indoors because of the opening ceremony and that’s my lame excuse for conceding a goal in four minutes. I was proud of many aspects of our operation that day – our immaculate appearance turning up in the kilt, the respect for the playing strip with every jersey inside the shorts, stockings identical, the response by singing the anthem, and most of all our playing performance nullifying the potent threat of Ronaldo in particular. The 2-1 win I think flattered a very good Brazil team and left us with justifiable optimism for the next two matches.

BOTN: Those two being against Norway and Morocco.

Yes, A fine goal by Craig Burley from a Davie Weir assist, gave us a draw we thoroughly deserved in Bordeaux against Norway setting up the St Etienne decider against the African champions, Morocco, a football mad country with a 36 million population. A fair amount of criticism has been directed in our direction for that 3-0 “humiliation”. I refute that entirely. I’m accused of being a statistics guy, but I maintain that the stats are factual. The official FIFA report has Scotland in front in every respect except goals scored: corners 6 – 1, offside 3 – 4, shots 22 – 14, fouls 13 – 18, possession too………. and this is playing most of the second half without Burley who received a red card.

To be continued.

For part 2, click here

Diego Maradona – The Greatest of All Time

There is an unsettled debate between football fans regarding Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and who should be considered the “G.O.A.T.” or greatest of all time. Both men have had incredible careers and are without doubt the two best players of their generation. But when you talk about being the greatest of all time, neither can hold a candle to Diego Armando Maradona who sadly passed on the 25th November, 2020 aged 60.

Maradona grew up in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires but rose to become a cultural icon and a football god. Over a career that spanned over five decades including time as a player and later as a manager, Diego carved out a special place in the history of football. Despite an often-turbulent life off the pitch, it’s what he did on it that created his legacy. Not only was he an outstanding player but he was a colourful character as well often showing off his immense talents by juggling a golf ball on his thighs, playing keepie uppies with a pair of socks or simply doing things with a football that defied gravity.  His genius with a ball appeared to have no limits. Messi is talented no doubt but Maradona was unique.

The regular comparisons between Messi and Maradona are understandable – both Argentines, both diminutive in stature, both possessing sublime left foots yet the key difference was that Messi is playable in that defenders could get close to him on occasions, rough him up from time to time and if lucky knock him off his stride. Maradona on the other hand was unplayable. There was no way to mark him. You couldn’t assign a marker as a man marker because he would simply turn him to easily and be gone. Playing zonally against him didn’t work either as England found out at the ’86 World Cup. That goal, more than any other showcased how remarkable a player he actually was. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, facing his own goal, he pirouettes beautifully to avoid not one, but two English challenges from Beardsley and Reid and is off running. Gliding over the halfway line, he glances up to see a sea of white England shirts ahead of him and two runners on his backheel. He takes a composing touch to bring the ball close before evading a lunge from Terry Butcher by side stepping inside him. Approaching the 18-yard box, he accelerates past Terry Fenwick and on towards Peter Shilton in goal. With the goalkeeper rushing out to meet him, he feints left before pulling the ball to his right leaving Shilton on the ground embarrassed. Finally, he holds of a last-ditch challenge from the new recovered Terry Butcher to cool slot the ball home and seal the win for Argentina. From start to finish was less than 10 seconds long but it is now one of the most iconic goals of all time.

What is often forgotten about that time was that Maradona was performing on pitches and surfaces less than ideal for a normal game of football, never mind the sublime trickery that he up his sleeve. The pitches during the height of Maradona’s career were not the perfectly groomed and maintained surfaces that Messi and Ronaldo nearly always play on. Quite the contrary. Indeed Gary Lineker, who played against Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarter final described the pitch at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico as “awful” and “like newly relaid turf that hadn’t stitched together yet so would slip away under your feet as you ran”.  So, to be able to play like he did and score that goal is amazing in itself.

Maradona simply infuriated opposition players due to his brilliance and their inability to stop him so much so that the only way to do so was to kick him and kick him hard as we saw in the ’82 World Cup and during his time at Barcelona including that infamous match against Atletico Bilbao in 1983 when Andoni Goikoetxea’s brutal late tackle broke Maradona’s ankle. But despite this rough treatment, Maradona inspired the teams he played for and pushed them towards glory winning countless trophies at the clubs he graced with his brilliance – a Primeria Division title with Boca Juniors in ’81, a cup treble with Barca in ’83 and two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup and a Super Cup with Napoli where he is held in icon status to this day, officially retiring the number 10 jersey after his departure.

But it’s his contributions to the Argentina national team that converted him from a legend to a god back in his homeland with his crowning moment of glory being the 1986 World cup where he single handedly won them the World Cup. Some may argue that this sounds over exaggerated, but the truth is that it’s not. Argentina would not have won that World Cup if it wasn’t for Maradona who produced one of the greatest individual tournament performances in World Cup history. He would have probably repeated the same feat four years later at Italia ‘90 if it wasn’t for a troublesome ankle injury but he still managed to guide Argentina to the final despite this. This, plus the raw passion he showed every time he pulled on that famous blue and white striped shirt sets him apart and placed him on that pedestal in the eyes of the Argentine fans. Messi may be revered but he has yet to deliver like Diego did on the international and until that happens, he will remain below Maradona in their eyes.

Maradona will be remembered for a lot of things including his off-field antics which included drug and alcohol issues and for that infamous “Hand of God” goal which the English press seems unable to get over. But luckily, he will also be remembered for the amazing player that he was and the passion he had for the game. He was the ultimately playmaker and free kick specialist, with immense skill and vision that could turn a game on its head within seconds. He was simply unplayable and will be missed by the world of football.

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One On One with: Shota Arveladze

There are few strikers who can boast a more consistent strike rate than Shota Arveladze. The former Georgian forward had a natural knack for finding the back of the net which was more than apparent for his clubs and for his country – 55 goals in 96 appearances for Ajax, 44 goals in 95 games for Glasgow Rangers, 51 goals in 67 games for Dinamo Tbilisi and 26 goals in 61 caps for Georgia are a few examples. What is really remarkable about this was Shota’s ability to quickly adapt to new surroundings with ease and hit the ground running. Moving from one club to another in the same league is difficult but moving abroad and maintaining that consistency is almost impossible. During his career, Arveladze played in Turkey, Holland, Scotland, Spain and his native Georgia but never seemed to need time to settle in, find his goal scoring touch and then produce. Instead Arveladze was out of the blocks like a greyhound, more often than not scoring in his debut. 

Raised in Tbilisi during the 1970’s when Georgia was still part of the former USSR, Shota had a happy childhood and spent a majority of it playing the game he loved. Playing alongside good friend Georgi Kinkladze (who had successful spells in England with Man City and Derby County), Shota learned his trade early on and his talent would start to shine through. Football runs deep in the Arveladze blood with Shota’s brothers, Archil and Revaz also both full internationalists for Georgia. But neither seemed to have Shota’s consistency when it came to goal scoring, something that has made him a legend back home. 

We caught up with him recently to talk about his playing career, his recent move into management, his goal scoring feats and why he thinks it’s important to love your mamma. Enjoy! 

Back Of The Net: Shota, before we begin you were recently were diagnosed with COVID 19 but have since recovered. How are you feeling now?

Shota Arveladze: I feel great now. I’m in Instanbul with my family. I was quarantined three times because of the virus, i was healthy twice, and once the virus was confirmed. It’s difficult to live in these conditions, but we must take care of each other as much as possible

BOTN: You were born in Tblisi in the 70’s when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. When we interviewed Zurab Khizanishvili he said that growing up in Tblisi during that time was “difficult” due to the desire for Georgia to be independent from the USSR which eventually came to be in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What are your memories of growing up and did you look towards football as a form of escapism?

SA: No no, many people have the wrong idea about it, and we had a very happy childhood in Georgia. As young kids we were not worried about the USSR and all that, we had a normal education in good schools, we were taught languages, like any other school, such as English and Russian. Football was never an issue of survival, we played it simply because we loved it. I played football with my friends and family because I enjoyed it not because it was a survival issue. Then later of course, we got an independent Georgia and our separate identity.

BOTN: You joined your hometown club Dinamo Tblisi‘s youth team in 1987 before breaking into their first team a few years later in 1991. You joined your older brother Revaz and your twin Archil in that squad. What was that like to play in your hometown at aged 19 alongside your brothers?

SA: It was simply a dream come true. Dinamo was the best club I had ever seen back then, and it was a dream to play for them, and that dream came true. As young children we never even dreamt about playing for Barcelona, Real Madrid etc. We saw Dinamo as the dream team. Later I got to play against bigger clubs as well, including Inter Milan and many other European teams. This dream then of course collapsed due to political issues, and in 1993 we left our country to play at an even higher level. My brother went to Germany and I left for Turkey.

Brothers united – Revaz, Shota and Archil during their Dinamo days

BOTN: That was the beginning of a period where Dinamo dominated Georgian football winning 10 titles in a row. Over four seasons there where you won the league and cup double in every season and you scored an incredible 51 goals in 67 appearances. That must have attracted a lot of interest from clubs around Europe. Did any other clubs make moves for you before you ended up joining Trabzonspor?

SA: Well there was not much information about such things at that time. The borders were not that open like today, there was no such globalization and digital platforms, we had just become members of FIFA. So, there was not much information to ask about. I got an offer from Turkey, some got theirs from Germany and England, and we all just went. We were 19 years old, there was not much to think about!

BOTN: You were quite the fan favourite in Turkey as well as later in Scotland with Rangers, despite being a foreign player. Why do you think that was?

SA: First of all you must behave and be respectful of everything like a good human being. I found some places to be very traditional, held conservative values dearly, like in Georgia. Then there were more open civilizations like Holland. You must make sure to behave and respect local traditions, cultures and people at all times. These things are different everywhere. Secondly, good results and performance on the field probably translates to becoming fan favourites like you said. A combination of both of these things is important.

BOTN: Eventually you moved to Ajax which was a dream of yours as a boy. How exciting was it for you to join such a club at that early stage in your career?

SA: The team had star players like Zlatan, Sneijder, Laudrup, I was surrounded by stars. You have to learn to be a good friend and show your quality on the field. I thank God for giving me such chances in life. Later you realize that these guys are not stars, but your friends. I can call up my old teammates from this club, same with Rangers and Ronald de Boer, and ask them for advice or support, like friends do.

Shota with Ronald De Boer and Michael Laudrup at Ajax

BOTN: Back to your playing days and during your tenure at Ajax, you faced your twin brother three times while playing against NAC Breda. You have called this a memorable moment in your career, but did you ever wish for your brother to clinch the victory for the opposing team? Or did you want to outshine him?

SA: It was very memorable because we had always been on the same team and never opponents, whether in club football or Georgia national team. This was the first time I was about to play against him. The first time being on opposite sides, it was historical for us, we changed shirts at the end and our entire family was there. The 2nd and 3rd time was more regular, we played it like a normal match. But we were very competitive and wanted to beat each other the whole time, we had a lot of fun with this!

BOTN: You joined Rangers in 2001. Having signed for Dick Advocaat, he was replaced very quickly with Alex McLeish. How did you feel about the change of manager so early in your time at the club?  Did you notice an obvious difference in the methods of the two managers?

SA: You must look for your own way of playing. Every coach and player are all different, they do different things. Sometimes they also make mistakes. But I have never been against any coach. I believe that to disappoint the coach is to disappoint football itself, which is something I would never want to do. Just try your best and let them decide the rest. Still, almost 80-95% of the time I have always been in favour and on the field, not on the bench. I scored a lot of goals for Rangers, and Rangers is probably the greatest club you can hear about, see around and play in. I loved it.

Shota during his spell in Scotland with Rangers

BOTN: You forged a good friendship with Ronald De Boer first at Ajax then again at Rangers. Do you think that having a good relationship with your teammates is essential to success on the field? Or should you be able to play effectively with your teammates regardless of morale?

SA: Well it always makes things easier. You support them when they need you, and then they support you. It is very important that your social connections are intact, and you have a human sense of being a good friend. Be open and nice to your teammates, show them your culture and it will go a long way.

BOTN: Leaving Rangers, you choose to return to Holland with AZ.  Was it a conscious choice to return to a league you had been successful in previously?

SA: I was almost signed with Ajax, my friend and coaches almost brought me back to Ajax but at the last moment the deal didn’t work. I got an offer from AZ, found it a good opportunity to work with someone like Van Gaal and I took it. I also wanted to show everyone that I could still play at 33!

BOTN: Your time at Levante was unfortunately heavily disrupted by injury.  What contributed to the decision to retire? Did you feel that having missed a large portion of the season; you didn’t have another season in you?

SA: I had 2 operations done in total. First, I had one, then got into a pre-season 2-month long injury, which required another operation which did not go as well as I would have liked. I lost 6 months’ worth of football, the club was already going through financial problems, things were going badly so I decided to end the career there and call for retirement.

BOTN: After you retired, you actually got the chance to work with Louis Van Gaal again when you joined as his assistant at AZ Alkmaar. How did that opportunity come about?

SA: I had a feeling that I had the ability to become a coach. I got an offer from the Georgia national team, and at the same time I got one from AZ. Marcel Brands was in AZ then, a talented young man who is now Sporting Director at Everton, he got Van Gaal connected with me and the deal went through. Thanks to the amazing people there, plus Ronald Koeman and also Dick Advocaat, we had a successful team and a wonderful time. You know how big some of the names from that squad are now, one plays for Man Utd, while some play in France and Spain.

Arveladze and Van Gaal

BOTN: You had a long career as a player and now you recently won the league with Tashkent’s Pakhtakor FC as a manager. How are you able to communicate the things you learned in your playing days, to the young players you now manage?

SA: Like I said, you have to respect the players, people and respect the place. You must show players the respect they deserve, does not matter if they are 22, 23, 18 or 30. Then you just carry out your normal communications. You must also explain to them that every decision you make will not be right in the eyes of half of the team. That is because you have to play only 11, out of a squad of 22 or 23. They have to understand that part, that I cannot be right for everyone. But that does not mean you cannot stop working hard and earning your place in the 11.

BOTN: Do you see yourself managing the Georgian National Team in the coming years? What major changes would you bring, if you were to manage Georgia?

SA: Not really.

BOTN: Can we ask why?

SA: Well it is more difficult to do than club football. You have more responsibility on your shoulders, and if the team doesn’t perform it’s a big big pain for you and the entire nation. You just keep getting hurt.

BOTN: How close do you think Georgia are to qualifying for a major tournament and is there any Georgian players coming through now that you believe are destined to have a bright career?

SA: Very close, they are very close. Of course, players like Kvaratskhelia and rest of the squad, they are set to have a career much better than even mine, I am hopeful.

Georgian National Team

BOTN: You have competed at the highest level for a majority of your career yet suffered from chronic asthma throughout. How challenging has that been to deal with and did it cause you any significant problems when playing in a match?

SA: No no I don’t have asthma! Might be a rumour online!

BOTN: That is strange as its listed on your Wikipedia page. Moving on, we often see strikers who are clinical to their club’s success, struggle to make the same impact when the move to another league in a new country. You have been the highest goal scorer in the top-flight of three different countries; Georgia, Turkey and Holland. How did you manage to adjust to new atmospheres and succeed as a striker in such different environments?

SA: Nothing is easy, you have to concentrate at the task at hand. If you love the thing that you do, you get better, you experience things in different ways, and you get better. I never struggled at this part, thankfully. Family was always around me, my wife, parents and children.

Shota, the manager

BOTN: You have an impressive goalscoring record at every club you played for, to what do you attribute that level of consistency over 15 years?

SA: To be honest, I was never the physical kind of footballer, I think I was smart enough to understand how my team plays and will play. I was a team player. I knew that I have to adapt to how my team plays, as the striker I am the last one who gets the ball. So, you understand how your team plays, as every team is different. Find out how they play, and I think that helped me with my consistency in every team.

BOTN: When choosing a new club, what factors do you consider when weighing up whether or not it feels like the right move for you?

SA: It’s very simple. What is the worst case scenario, if I play and get injured? Then the worst case is that I go back home. For me, that is not the worst case because I have a home to return to and not many people have that, I am grateful. So I did not demand much from the right move always.

BOTN: Your favourite goal?

SA: I always say this, my best goal is my kids. I would have liked a hat trick here… but oh well!

BOTN: Your favourite game? Was it the hat trick against Livingston? Perhaps the win over Celtic?

SA: I would call every debut my favourite game. Dinamo, Trabzonspor, Georgia national team, Ajax, Rangers, Levante, every debut.

BOTN: A young Shota rose up the ranks of a Georgian league and made his name known all over Europe. However, you are one of the very few Georgians to accomplish this despite immense talent in the league. What improvements would you suggest in Georgia’s domestic league structure?

SA: Firstly, the infrastructure should be developed so that every club has its own stadium, and a nice stadium not just any stadium. There should be good training fields for players too. I would also advise clubs to organize themselves, not much but even a little bit. Of course they cannot be expected to have money like Man Utd, but a little organization would be nice. Also, make the game interesting for supporters overall. You see clubs in Germany, Spain, and they have support from people all over the world because they make the game interesting to watch.

Lastly, Georgians must remember; you have to love your own Ma! Whether she is fat, ugly or pretty, you always love your own Ma! You can go love Julia Roberts or I don’t know Cindy Crawford, but you must love your own Ma, for this game to progress!

BOTN: Your former teammate Kakha Kaladze is now heavily involved in politics since his retirement and is the current mayor of Tblisi. He follows in the footsteps of other former footballers like George Weah, Romario and Carlos Valderrama who have used their fame and notoriety to win elections. What are your feelings about footballers using their influence for political gains and would you ever follow in Kaladze’s footsetps?

SA: Look, whenever someone asks, I am genuinely proud of him. The way he does things, the way he acts, he wants to do politics genuinely. He may make mistakes, but when you choose one party, the other party doesn’t like you, if you choose left, the right will hate you, that is how it always is and that’s politics. I don’t know how it was before, but generally people act like football players don’t know how to manage things, because we spend so much time on field running, they act as if we are not smart enough to do it.

Why are doctors, engineers, painters etc told to believe that they can do politics and manage things but footballers can’t do it? We have shown everyone that we can do it if we work on ourselves and try it.  He is behaving, his way of talking, standing, maybe he has good advisors, but he is doing very well. He is actually independent generally, financial independent as well, so he doesn’t like to step back, he likes to go forward like me. Point is, we all fall, but we have to stand back up always.

Interview conducted by Sairam Hussian Miran, Special correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Follow Shota on Twitter and Instagram.

Manchester United – A Shadow of its former self

It has been 7 years since Sir Alex Ferguson won his last English Premier League trophy and gave his farewell speech at Old Trafford. In the years proceeding, Manchester City have won the league three times, Chelsea have done so twice, Liverpool broke their 30-year drought to win it last season and Leicester City had a fairytale run to become champions in 2016. Manchester United however have only come close once which can be deemed as an overstatement considering they finished in second place that season 19 points behind local rivals and eventual Champions Manchester City. In theory they were close but in reality they were so so far from it.

Manchester United have hired four new managers since Ferguson retired and have shelled out over a billion pounds on new signings with nothing really major to show for it. Given the investment, its hard to understand the real reason behind this but what we do know is that the one constant during these years has been the Glazer Family. According to the global market research agency Kantar, Manchester United is the most popular sports club in the world, boasting a worldwide fan and follower base of 1.1billion, an increase of over 400 million since a similar survey was conducted in 2012. It is undoubtedly the clubs rich history of winning that has drawn such a large global following. However it seems somewhat ironic then that the current strategy at Manchester United sees them moving away from the winning identity that put them in the position and has them adopting one which only sees a need to invest in the club when necessary so as to protect the value of the brand or to get Champions League football. Once achieved however the club appears to take that investment away until it struggles again, then it invests and the cycle repeats itself.

This was once a club that had Premier League winning ambitions every season but now appears happy with a top 4 finish so as it suits their current strategy. For outsiders looking in, the amount of money spent over the past seven years shouldn’t be a cause for complain but when put into context, you can see how misleading this outlay of money actually is. Firstly, none of it has come out of the Glazers’ finances. They had cleverly leveraged their debt unto the club during the acquisition using a leverage buyout plan in 2005. A LBP is a means of buying an asset by borrowing money against said future asset. This means that the Glazers have not invested a single dime of their own money into the club. Instead, the money the club has made over the period of time they have been owners has been used while also helping paying off their debt at the same time. If you take a look at the two graphics below from Transfermarket.com, it breaks United’s total spend into 3 sections which show United only being outspent by newly Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea in the eight years before the Glazers bought the club. In the next graphic we can see Man Utd being completely outspent by Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Spurs once the Glazers takeover happened and with Sir Alex Ferguson still at the helm. The final graphic shows the state or play post Ferguson which sees Man Utd being dominated by Man City and Chelsea during these past 7 years.

Pre Glazers
Glazers ownership with Ferguson in charge
Glazers ownership after Ferguson.

In my opinion, Manchester United’s spending has been irresponsible and has been carried out by people unfit for the job as they still lack a Director of Sports at the helm. Breaking it down season by season, it has been a cycle of the same thing over the span of 7 seasons with the club hiring a new manager, backing him enough to gain entry to the Champions League, then pulling back investment and sacking the manager when Champions League is not then achieved.

Going back to the 2013/2014 season post Ferguson, David Moyes signed only Marouane Fellaini in the summer after publicly chasing a host of unattainable targets and added only Juan Mata in January with the team languishing below the Champions League places. With the fans beginning to turn on Moyes due to the boring football Manchester United were playing, he was eventually sacked. Man Utd finished 7th that year and missed out on the Champions League, change was needed and a new coach was hired in the form of Louis Van Gaal to transform its fortunes. The club backed this move with some real investment put in as the pattern will show. The club signed seven players in total, costing close to £176 million outspending everyone with Angel Di Maria being the marquee signing. The season was a success according to this model as Man Utd finished 4th and got back into the Champions League. The following summer saw a large amount of players signed but at the same time there were some players who were questionably sold including Angel Di Maria which was a key signing the season before. It was like taking one step forward and two steps back which ended up having a negative effect on the team. They finished the season as FA Cup winners but the season was deemed to be a disappointment with boring football and a lack of Champions League qualification earning Louis Van Gaal the sack immediately the FA cup final whistle was blown.

Once again a new face needed to be brought in to helm the next phase of this Manchester united evolution and the team went big by signing the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba at a world transfer fee while also bringing in Jose Mourinho as the manager to steer this ship to the right course. And to their credit, this almost worked to a tee. The team had its most successful period to date during this 2016/2017 season as they won the Community Shield, EFL Cup and the Europa League whilst also managing to qualify for the Champions League. This season is the only one where there is a break in the pattern which has been established for the past four years as Mourinho was backed again with acquisitions of Lukaku, Matic, Lindelof and Alexis Sanchez which ultimately led United to their highest finish post Ferguson. But unfortunately they weren’t good enough as they lost out on the league to Manchester City in the league which Mourinho labelled his “Greatest Achievement Ever” and ultimately lost to  Chelsea in the FA cup. It was a good season on a holistic view and the board should have backed the manager once again which could have yielded a very fruitful outcome. Sadly, the club resorted back into their old ways and failed Mourinho in the transfer market with the manager coming out publicly to criticize the lack of investment that following summer. United were the 10th biggest spenders in league which set a toxic atmosphere in the locker room which led to a doomed season under their bitter coach.

Mourinho was eventually sacked and replaced by United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and although he ended up missing out on the top four, hope was once again brought into the Theatre of Dreams, with substantial investment being put in the following season. Ole was able to get United back into the Champions League and getting them to three cup semi finals really made it look like there was a bright future ahead of them. However the recent showings in the transfer market currently does not bode well for the current manager as his top target Jadon Sancho was not signed after being courted all summer. It seems like United have reverted back into their old ways once more and are having to make last minute signings to bolster their squad. The season may end up going better than expected but from their previous history and recent pattern it is more likely United are going to continue to fail to invest when needed. It suits their model to do so and although it might keep them ahead financial wise, the club as a football powerhouse will remain in the desolate wasteland it has come to inhabit over the past seven years. All the fans can do is hope and pray that structurally something changes to ensure their  league drought doesn’t last as long as their greatest rival Liverpool once did.

Post by Ani Chukwuebuka. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram

Newcastle’s Failed Takeover Was Anything But Black And White

Another season, another disappointment for the Toon Army. After 13 years under the bewildering ownership of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle fans began to believe that the end was nigh as a consortium from Saudi Arabia jumped through Ashley’s hoops in order to try to secure the club. All that stood between them and ownership of the North East club was a fit and proper ownership test by the Premier League.

Amanda Staveley led the bid team trying to takeover Newcastle

For a club known for its black and white, this failed takeover was anything but that. Indeed the failure of the takeover has left the fans with more questions that answers – why did it take 17 weeks for the Premier League to respond, why was the World Trade Organization involved and who else played a role in the bids demise? The clouds over Newcastle are a dark grey colour now as these questions lie unanswered. So what happened? Why did the Premier League take so long to respond. And what else can we read into this deal falling through.

First in was Amnesty International who took the unusual step of writing to Premier League Chief Richard Masters urging it to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record before signing off on the takeover of Newcastle United. These are genuine concerns but the question is more about why Amnesty decided that this takeover over all others was the one that they had to weigh in on. In 2017, Amnesty identified human rights violations in 159 countries which included Saudi Arabia. But also in that list was the USA, Russia and China, all of which have had companies that have bought Premier League clubs in the last twenty years. Indeed Sheffield United are owned by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad who won control of the club just last year. Also included was Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who have state owned ownership of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City respectively. The decision by Amnesty to act now and oppose this takeover rather than the others appears to be motivated by factors outside of the common good.

Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad takes over Sheffield United

That was followed by BeIn Sports who challenged the Premier League to block the deal on the grounds that Saudi Arabia had been involved in piracy and should be held accountable for operating a pirate network that was illegally streaming EPL games. The Qatar based company’s staunch opposition to the deal made little sense as the two elements (piracy in Saudi Arabia and ownership of Newcastle) have little in common. It could be argued that like the Amnesty International objective, third parties could have been operating in the background in an effort to derail any deal. Ironically BeIn’s chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also the current president of Paris Saint Germain; a club who would not react well to another English based club gaining the same financial muscle as they currently have.

Shortly after, the World Trade Organization issued a report which found representatives of the Saudi state had facilitated the activity of the pirate network BeoutQ, which illegally broadcast a host of sporting events including Premier League matches. Why this report was produced and released is unknown nor what the WTO, whose mandate is around the regulations of international trade between nations, is doing looking into broadcast rights in the first place is a bigger question. In addition the timing of this release is suspicious given how close the Premier League were to making its decision. The release of the report only added a new layer to navigate and delayed the decision even further.

Finally there was pressure from the UK government to not allow the deal citing the need for Saudi Arabia to reform its justice system and release all political prisoners and the attempt to ‘whitewash’ them with the takeover. Eight MPs in total wrote to Richard Masters led by John Nicolson, SNP spokesperson and a member of the House of Commons on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He stated on Twitter shortly after the deal collapsed that “the Premier League must now revise its Owners and Directors Test to ensure this fiasco isn’t repeated”. He continued “Heads of States with gruesome human rights records should never be allowed to launder their reputations through sport”. Ironically Nicholson had no objection to Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad’s takeover at Sheffield United despite his father being the brother of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

John Nicolson objected to the Newcastle takeover but not other previous takeovers.

Also worth noting that the position of Nicholson was not exactly backed by the Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston who distanced himself from talk of Newcastle United’s takeover saga. Huddleston swung the spotlight firmly on to the Premier League to make the decision. When asked about the government’s stance, Huddleston said: “I’m very uncomfortable with the level of expectation of involvement on government with things that are very clearly decisions for football. There is obviously the fit and proper persons test to go through with any acquisitions of this nature and I think that is absolutely appropriate. It’s something that I’m keeping an eye on but it is a decision for those involved. It would be inappropriate for me to interfere at that kind of level.” Why his understudy felt it important to push the matter without Huddleston’s blessing is unknown yet the same theory could be applied in that he was influenced to do so.

All of this along with the Premier League’s irregular delay in making a decision about whether the prospective owners passed their owners and directors test suggests that the events that led up to the PIF withdrawing its bid in frustration, were not as black and white as we are made to believe. It’s natural to assume that all these events were planned and orchestrated to derail the proceedings. When one failed, the next stepped up sometimes only days later. Amanda Staveley who was fronting the bid spoke shortly after the collapse of the deal and implied that fellow Premier League clubs, Tottenham and Liverpool had made their objections to the deal going through clear to the Premier League but its likely others were involved as well. Several clubs across Europe had a lot to lose of this deal went through primarily as it would put Newcastle at a financial advantage and provide them a better chance of challenging for silverware both at home and abroad. Whatever is the truth, this deal didn’t happen due to due diligence or because of delays at the Premier League. It never stood a chance of succeeding as others orchestrated moves to undermine it and protect their own interests.

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Where next for Messi as he calls time on Barca

After 20 years at Barcelona, the club he joined as a 13 year old, Lionel Messi has decided it’s time to leave. Following an indifferent and difficult season, the Argentine has had enough and informed the club and its new manager Ronald Koeman that he wishes to activate an exit clause in his contract. That in itself is not exactly cut and dried as Barcelona are arguing the the clause needed to be activated by June 10th for Messi to walk for free and would demand a transfer fee if he were to go. Messi and his team are contesting this notion given the season was prolonged due to the pandemic but nevertheless it looks likely that there will be conscious uncoupling of the two sooner rather than later.

There isn’t a single club in the world that wouldn’t take Lionel Messi in a heartbeat. But there are only a few that could actually afford him. Since Messi announced to the world his intention to leave Barcelona, speculation over where he will end up has reached fever pitch. Europe’s elite have been linked with him through various sources all of which report to have insider knowledge that Messi’s agent has had “secret talks” with that specific club. Chelsea, Bayern, Tottenham, Inter and even Real Madrid are “actively interested” or whatever that means. But in truth, due to the players likely wage demands plus potentially a sizable transfer fee if Barca gets its way, only a small handful of clubs stand a chance of signing him. So who are they?

Man City

Its a well known secret that Messi considers Pep Guardiola as his greatest coach. When the now Manchester City boss was in charge at the Nou Camp, Messi was at his ultimate best. Not only was he preforming week in week out, scoring for fun and winning numerous trophies along the way but he was happy too. Guardiola built his team in and around Messi, preferring to play him in the position that Messi felt most comfortable then strategically placing the other pieces around him. It sounds like common sense and really it is. Take your best player, play them in a position that makes them the happiest and sit back and enjoy the show. Reuniting with Guardiola at Manchester City would ensure that Messi gets back to where he feels most comfortable. There are other draws of course to joining City including the opportunity to play in the English Premier League, something Messi has indicated in the past that he would like to do and the added bonus of joining a team that features his good friend and Argentina teammate Sergio Aguero.

Can Pep persuade Messi to join him at Man City?

PSG

You simply cannot rule out Messi moving to the French capital for a variety of factors. The Champions League finalists might still be licking their wounds after losing to Bayern last week but the appetite to go one step beyond their current state would require something extra special. With the league almost a cakewalk, the focus is on winning that Champions League trophy. Massive strides have been made this season, albeit under unusual circumstances but the need that X factor to secure their first major European trophy since the Cup Winners Cup back in 1996. (And no the 2001 Intertoto Cup doesn’t count). That could come in the form of Lionel Messi who would fit nicely into a PSG side brimming with talent. Talent like Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and of course Messi’s former teammate Neymar. The notion of linking up with the Brazilian once more may be enough to sway Messi towards PSG as he was a key driver in the push to bring Neymar back to Barcelona last summer. That move never happened much to the frustration of Messi. But now the pair could reconnect in France and push the club towards lifting that Champions League trophy.

Juventus

If Juventus fans were left drooling when Cristiano Ronaldo came to town, just imagine how they will react if they have Messi join them too. The prospect of linking up two of the greatest players to have ever played the game in the same team is too much to fathom. It’s not certain that Messi would entertain the idea of playing alongside Ronaldo nor if Ronaldo himself would like sharing the spotlight with the Argentine but Juventus have the ability to make it happen. The Old Lady is going through somewhat of a transition herself with a new young manager in the form of Andreas Pirlo ringing in the changes under his vision but given the chance, its hard to see him fighting the board against signing Messi. Would he fit into Pirlo’s envisaged 4-3-3 formation is hard to tell considering Ronaldo will likely want to play as the central figure in that attacking three. But it’s a formation that Messi has played in a lot at Barcelona and seems comfortable adapting his game to fit.

Messi and Ronaldo in the same team?

Man Utd

Not to completely upset the apple cart for Guardiola but his neighbours over the fence could nip in and grab Messi from under his nose. They did it once before, signing Alexis Sanchez when it looked like he was destined for the Etihad. Ok that didn’t quite work as planned but the ability to pay extravagant wages is there so breaking the bank to sign Messi is not off the cards which makes them a real threat to City’s hopes. Manager Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer is building a new look United squad that features a cast of exciting younger players which could be a draw for the experienced Messi. The only real drawback, apart from the language barrier is that the deal would need to be negotiated and signed by Ed Woodward who by all appearances struggles when is comes to transfer dealings. The Executive Vice Chairman has hardly covered himself in glory over the past eight years after missing out on several big name players and paying over the odds for others like Sanchez and the previously mentioned Di Maria (now at PSG).

Newell’s Old Boys

Since leaving the club at the age of 13, Messi has always proclaimed that he would love to return and play for Newell’s before his career comes to an end. Moving back to Argentina certainly has its draws, especially given that Messi and his wife Antonela both grew up in Rosario and have family back there. The club itself would welcome Messi back with loving arms but it’s unlikely the would be able to afford even a fraction of his current wage demands never mind the whole thing. If he did return it would be with the understanding that he would take a significant pay cut and would be effectively signalling his departure from elite football with the Argentine league unable to match the level that he has been playing at. Messi is only 33 and has probably still got another 3-5 years at the top left in him all being well so it seems like the move home might be a bit premature at this stage.

Messi has a decision to make.

Where Messi ends up will be revealed shortly as the new season quickly approaches. Its not 100% certain that he will leave Barcelona despite what he is saying right now. There are politics in play and Messi knows how much he is revered by the fans and how much clout he has in the future of Barcelona football club. His main gripe is really with the President, Josep Maria Bartomeu and the way that he is running the club. If Bartomeu was to succumb to the pressure from the angry fans and resign, it could be enough to see Messi make a dramatic turnaround and stay. His reason for leaving is not about money nor is it really about his desire to try a new league but instead about his happiness. His love and deep connection to the club is undeniable yet something has not been right at Barcelona for a while now and all fingers point upwards. Bartomeu is unlikely to walk himself but it’s hard to see how he can stay in charge if he lets an icon like Messi leave.

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Why Bayern Munich’s Domination is Bad for German Football

A few weeks have passed since Bayern celebrated it’s title victory in the German championship, the Bundesliga. In case you didn’t know, that win makes it eighth time in a row. An outstanding achievement on one hand, but a disaster for German football in general. Only seven years ago, the Bundesliga and the German National Football Team were on a high and seemed unstoppable. Bayern scooped the Champions League trophy in 2012/2013 singling the beginning of their dominance. One year later and it was the national team who were celebrating with Germany winning the 2014 World Cup. Things could not have looked better for German football which was expected to go on to dominate for years to come both from a club and national perspective. But it never happened and instead the level of German football started to decline.

Domination

Bayern as a team is already hated by most football fans. During my studies in Germany, I was amazed how many people even in the Bavaria region stopped supporting the team. As fan of Bayern, I was mostly shocked and disappointed. However, the more you talk to football fans, the more you understand the reason. Other clubs don’t have that amount of fame, the same amount of money and mostly important the same respect as Bayern. indeed the general feeling is that certain individuals at Bayern including the president of Bayern often don’t not show the same level as respect to other teams as afforded to Bayern. Former President Uli Hoeness regularly threw out phrases like “Bayer (Leverkusen) will not get ahead of Bayern after 100 years” which didn’t help the situation.

uli-hoeness-croppedzd03eofjihui1k8wa7fx5bgphjpg

The endless victories of Bayern has led to the reality that the rival clubs have begun to gradually lose interest in competing for the title with the gaps growing every season. even Bayern has stopped talking about what will happen in the Championship instead focusing more on attaining Champions League success. If Josep Guardiola was still trying to make a revolution in Munich in football terms, then Carlo Ancelotti simply exploited what he received. And he still won the league with ease.

What about other clubs

Despite the domination of Bayern, there have been some promising signs that clubs are beginning to believe that things are about to change. In the Bundesliga,  competition from other clubs seems to be higher than before with more teams pushing Bayern in the title race. Nearest rivals Borussia Dortmund are gradually improving and closing the gap season over season whilst also regularly competing in the Champions Leagues. Bayer Leverkusen are also doing very well, improving its domestic form and taking part in more frequently in European cup competitions. Other teams are in the mix as well with RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach offering new threats to Bayerns domestic dominance. Indeed the gap is shrinking with the difference in points between the second club in the Bundesliga and the fifth is only 2 or 3 point on average.

Screen Shot 2020-07-31 at 3.08.26 PM

But the gap is much wider when you look at the Champions League. Bayerns domination of the Bundesliga and ability to buy its best players year over year is perfectly reflected in its regular participation in the Champion League, especially its latter stages. The last German club to win the title was in 2012/2013, and that was Bayern. Dortmund were the runners up in that final and have pushed hard to make the quarter finals on a more frequent basis but in general German clubs don’t feature as much at that stage in the competition as other nations (take English clubs as an example).

German National Team

The real problem however in German football today is that most of the young players breaking into the Bundesliga are foreigners. The training system, which was considered exemplary for almost 10 years has begun to fail. So what broke in the seemingly unstoppable assembly line that trained young players? Firstly, they all understand perfectly well that there is not enough space for everyone in Bayern’s squad. However not everyone wants to go there. Secondly, when the assembly line started working, it encouraged agents to automatically seek better moves for their players either to other leagues or to Bayern.

players-triumph-West-German-trophy-2014-FIFA-October-1990

The outcome

It’s hard to say what the future holds for German football. German football like most is evolving and change is happening if slowly. There are promising signs with the development of younger talented players like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz but they need to play in a competitive Bundesliga or will  be forced to move abroad in order to experience winning trophies. This would be detrimental to the league and the development of the National team. Bayerns dominance might be exciting for Bayerns fans but unless they can be unseated soon, the damage to German football may take years to repair. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch.

Post by Irina Kuzina, Back Of The Net Russia correspondent. Follow her now on Instagram.

What Next For Relegated Trio?

With the final series of matches now played, the 2019/2020 Premier League season has drawn to a close with Liverpool crowned Champions for the first time in 30 years. They beat out Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea for the trophy and join the trio in the Champions League next season whilst Leicester and Tottenham will take part in the Europa league following their respective 5th and 6th place finishes. At the other end of the table, a 1-1 draw with West Ham on the final day of the season gave Aston Villa the point they needed to secure survival but in turn it condemned Bournemouth and Watford to relegation places, joining Norwich City in the drop. In what was a gruelling season for all three clubs for a variety of reasons, we ask what is next for the relegated trio?

All three face similar challenges as they prepare for life in the Championship next season. Priority will be to manage the wage budget and adjust it for life post Premier League. Those players deemed too expensive or luxurious will need to be jettisoned whilst at the same time maintaining a strong core that will provide the stability needed to rebound. Contracts will need to be reviewed in line with this new look wage budget, assessing which players need revised terms to encourage them to stay whilst negotiating adjustments to those who are nearing the end of their careers but yet could still serve a purpose even for a single season in the Championship. Finally reviewing a transfer budget and a list of gaps to fill in order to get your new look squad ready for the trials and tribulations that a 48 game Championship season throws up. 

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The EFL Championship is not an easy division to get out of (Image from Tumblr)

Of the three that did drop, Norwich have had slightly longer to prepare given that relegation for them was confirmed back in early July following a 4-0 hammering by West Ham. In truth, Norwich have probably been mentally preparing for the drop for a few months now having spent the majority of the campaign down near the bottom. With only five wins all season and a sleuth of problems from being unable to come back from a losing position (0 points taken all season), a lack of goal scorers (26 in total in 38 games) and a suspect defence (75 goals shipped all season), its not surprising that they didn’t survive. Manager Daniel Farke’s decision to stick with the young inexperienced squad that won promotion had backfired but credit where it is due that Norwich did push hard to be an attacking team from day one. In the end though, their lack of experienced heads or players with that extra bit of quality was the difference. 

Next season Norwich will look very different as you can expect the current squad to be decimated. The positives from this current season is Norwich managed to showcase several of their talented youth products who all will now have significant sell on values. The club is bracing itself for bids for defenders Max Aarons, with Bayern and several Premier League clubs interested and Jamal Lewis who might have Leicester and Liverpool fighting over him. The talented Todd Cantwell is also likely to be in high demand with Liverpool favourites to sign him. Elsewhere Emi Buendia is expected to leave as could Ben Godfrey who has been one of the shining stars of the Norwich team in a disappointing season. 

Norwich

Norwich were the first to be relegated but through the sale of some of their top youngsters, they should be able to rebuild (Image from Tumblr)

Joining Norwich in the Championship is Watford who have had a season to forget. The headline of Watford sacks manager has sadly been used on too many occasions during this campaign with no less than three managers departing over the course of 38 games. First to go was Javi Garcia who left in September after a dreadful start to the new campaign. His replacement was the returning Quique Sanchez Flores who had himself been sacked by the owners at the end of the 2015/2016 season despite leading the Hornets to a comfortable mid table position and a FA Cup semi final. A glutton for punishment, Flores lasted only 85 days on his second stint before receiving his marching orders and was replaced by Nigel Pearson who installed the fear of death into the squad from day one. It appeared to work as Watford rallied with impressive wins over Manchester United, Wolves and Liverpool just before the COVID pandemic hit. After the restart, Watford failed to show up winning only 2 of the next seven games which lead to Pearson’s sacking with two games left. The true nature of why he left is uncertain with rumours of half time fisticuffs and handbags played down by the players and club alike. Either way, Watford lost both of their remaining games and as a result drop out of the Premier League for the first time in five years. 

The rebuild at Watford will be more severe than at Norwich simply because of the make up of the existing squad. Unbalanced, overly stacked in certain areas and under resourced in others, the Watford squad is like a hoarders house with the real question of where to start. First to go will be the high earners and there are a few. Strikers Andre Gray and captain Troy Deeney will need to go to shift their £3m+ yearly salaries from the wage bill. Similarily the club will look to cash in on Abdoulaye Doucouré and Roberto Pereyra as well as potentially letting Daryl Janmaat, Gerard Deulofeu and Danny Welbeck leave if suitors can be found. The club will look to retain some of their older professionals like Ben Foster, Craig Dawson and Craig Cathcart whilst handing Will Hughes a more pivotal figure, and potentially captain in their new look line up. There may be interest from abroad for Ismaila Sarr who had a good first season at the club but price will play a factor on whether he stays or goes.  

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Troy Deeney (left) and Andre Gray (Right) are high earners at the club and are expected to leave (Image from Tumblr)

Finally, Bournemouth’s relegation was confirmed on the final day despite an impressive win over Everton. Eddie Howe’s men had rallied in the final few weeks of the season but the damaged sustained throughout the rest of the campaign was already too severe to recover from. To be fair, Bournemouth have over achieved in recent years and it’s mainly down to Howe. But this last season was one filled with ebbs and flows with Bournemouth never really finding the rhythm that it had done in previous campaigns. Uncertainty now awaits Bournemouth who drop into the Championship for the first time in five years.

They will do it however without Eddie Howe after both parties mutually agreeing to part ways. It’s a crushing blow for Bournemouth given the significance of the role Howe played at the club, not only as its manager but as an integral component in its machine. Replacing Howe will not be an easy task but that must take priority over any player sales. Several key players will take their leave too including Nathan Ake who has agreed to join Manchester City for £40m and Ryan Fraser who is expected to join Tottenham in the next few weeks. Strikers Callum Wilson and Josh King will surely depart as well with Newcastle and Manchester United likely destinations for the duo. Regardless of the manager, the club will try to retain a core nucleus of players they believe will help them bounce back from relegation. Players like Aaron Ramsdale who has had a great season despite the final outcome. Same can be said about Harry Wilson and Jack Stacey who have both made strides in their developments this season.

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The departure of Eddie Howe from the club will be a blow to Bournemouths recovery plans (image from Tumblr)

The road back to the Premier League is a treacherous one that if you’re not prepared for can send a club spinning out of control and further down the leagues (Sunderland being a prime example). The rebuilding job at all three clubs has already begun and there will be more developments as the days and weeks roll on towards the start of the new season on September 12th. At this stage it is hard to predict if any of the three clubs will bounce straight back up especially given the competitive nature of the championship and the unpredictability that comes with playing in that league. There are no easy games and no easy teams in that division and little to no time to prepare given the late finish of the current season. Planning and strategy will be key along with the right recruitment and the right management but you also need a little bit of luck, something that all three clubs lacked this season. Hopefully thats about to change. 

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One On One with: Simon Grayson

There are few managers in the modern who can show a resume as stellar as Simon Grayson. In the 15 years since retiring as a player, Grayson has managed seven clubs and gained promotion four times. He is a turn around specialist in that he is able to go into a club in trouble, grab it by the scruff of its neck and drag it towards promotion within a season or two. It’s remarkable to think that he has managed all this at only 50 which in management is still relatively young. As an accomplished defender who plied his trade at Blackpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and his beloved Leeds United, it’s not hard to see where he gets his self drive and determination from.

Grayson may be humble about what he has achieved but is hopeful of one day getting a shot at managing in the Premier League, likely through gaining promotion from the Championship but something he certainly deserves. We caught up with him recently in what was a fascinating interview about his playing career, his move into management and of course what it felt like walking out that tunnel as Leeds manager. Enjoy!

Backofthenet: You came through the ranks at a Leeds United side that included the likes of Eric Cantona, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan, David Batty and Gary McAllister. As a young player, what was the biggest thing you learned from those players that helped you as a player?

Simon Grayson: Gordon Strachan had a massive effect on me as a young pro at Leeds. His attitude to training, preparation for games and his desire to win were things I took with me into my own career. He would watch our reserve games and after he would give me praise but also some constructive criticism. His biggest advice was always to try your best, work hard every day and enjoy Football even through tough times as it’s a job so many people would love to swap places with you.

BOTN: You moved to Leicester in March 1992 and established yourself at Filbert Street winning the League Cup and player of the season in 1997. That team was managed by the legendary Martin O’Neill. What did you learn from O’Neill during your time working with him that you have now taken into your own managerial career?

SG: One of Martins’ biggest strengths was his man management skills. Yes, he understood the game tactically, but he knew how to get the best out of each individual and then put this into the team environment. Certain players would need a rollicking and others an arm round them. He created a spirit in the dressing room that we would look after each other on the pitch, work for each other and run through a brick wall for him as he had our backs as well. This is something that I definitely took into my managing career.

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Grayson at Leicester and the League Cup in 1997 (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Successful spells at Aston Villa and Blackburn followed before you spent nearly two seasons out on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, Stockport County, Notts County and Bradford City before finally securing a permanent move to Blackpool where you finished your playing days. That must have been a disappointing spell in your career. What positives did you draw from those loan moves? Did you consider calling it a day as you moved from club to club?

SG: At Blackburn, Graeme Souness was the manager and had his own view on players which I understood but I didn’t agree with how he treated certain players who he didn’t pick. A number of us were forced to train away from the first team. For two years I went out on loan just to play games as I didn’t want to just pick my money up for doing nothing. It was a tough time, but I never thought about packing football in as I loved football and felt I had plenty to give to someone. It certainly made me stronger as a person and made me want to enjoy my last few years as a player. After my contract expired, I went to Blackpool and played over 100 games winning the Football League Trophy with them (in 2003-20004).

BOTN: Your first managerial role was at Blackpool which came about in a fairly unusual way. You were working as the reserve boss and had an offer to move to another club as assistant manager. But when you told Blackpool owner Karl Oyster of your desire to leave, he refused as he was planning on sacking then manager Colin Hendry and appoint you instead. Did that cause any issues with Colin who up until that point had been your manager?  

SG: I don’t think Colin had any problems with me as I’d spoke to him about leaving and I certainly wasn’t doing anything without him knowing. I really didn’t have any real desire to be a manager at that point. When I was given the caretaker role, I was still unsure whether I would be comfortable doing it or be any good at it.

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From Player to Manager – Grayson began at Blackpool (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: How challenging was it to transition from being a player to becoming the boss at the same club?

SG: The advantage of the transition I had from player to caretaker was that I had been doing the reserves and still playing so the players were comfortable with it and used to it. The hardest part was dropping close mates and releasing players in the summer. But I knew I had to be ruthless and make unpopular decisions if I was going to make it as a manager.

BOTN: You led Blackpool to the playoffs and promotion in your first full season as a manager. How did you go about taking a relegation-threatened side and turning them into promotion candidates? How influential was the decision to bring in Tony Parkes from Blackburn as your assistant in that turn around?

SG: Tony was very influential for me and probably the best decision I made. Even though I’d played a lot of games, I felt I needed someone who had some great experience as a coach/manager alongside me to guide and advise me. Together with Steve Thompson, we recruited some good players and we created a good team spirit; something I had learnt from Martin O’Neil. We worked hard in training and had a strong desire to win matches. If as a manager you can get all these things right then you have a good chance of being successful.

BOTN: You left Blackpool to become Leeds United manager in December 2008. As a fan of the club, going back to manage Leeds must have been a surreal moment for you. How did it feel leading the team out in front of those fans for the first time?

SG: Getting the opportunity to manage Leeds United was an unbelievable feeling. Even though they were in League One and Blackpool were in the Championship, I had no hesitation in going. To walk down the tunnel for my first game on Boxing Day vs. Leicester and follow in the footsteps of some of the greats of Leeds like Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson was a moment I will never forget.

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Fulfilling a dream – Grayson as Leeds United manager (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: You must be happy to see Leeds promoted this season to the Premier League after a long absence?

SG: Yes, to see Leeds promoted this season is fantastic and along time in coming. The Club, City and supporters have been through a lot of dark times over the last 20 years but they are now back in the Premier League and hopefully they stay there for a long time.

BOTN: Leeds were promoted to the Championship in 2010 under your leadership and still have the club’s third-best points-per-match record of all-time, only behind Marcelo Bielsa and David O’Leary. What are your best memories of managing the club?

SG: I loved my time at Leeds even when things weren’t going too well. To support, play and manage the club is something I’m so proud of. Getting promoted on the last day of the season in front of 38,000 was the ultimate highlight. Seeing what it meant to the supporters when we were celebrating on the pitch after the final whistle and the manor how we won (going down to 10 men and 1 nil down to then win 2-1) was certainly a rollercoaster ride for everyone and one of relief as well. Winning at Old Trafford as a League One team in the FA Cup is certainly up there with the best moments as well.

BOTN: What about the Leeds fans?

The connection I had with the supporters is another great memory. They enjoyed how we played, the spirit we had and ultimately the pride that we showed playing for them and the club. To get so close to the play offs in our first season in the Championship was a feeling of disappointment really given we really thought we had enough quality in the squad to get the team close to going back to the Premier League

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Leeds fans celebrate being promoted to the Premier League this season (Image from LUFC)

BOTN: A month after leaving Leeds, you joined fellow Yorkshire club Huddersfield Town, and again got them promoted to the Championship. But as a manager, how much of an effect does joining a rival have on your decision over whether to take a job? 

SG: Honestly, I didn’t worry about it. I knew some people might have a problem with it but if you win matches and ultimately get the team promoted then no one should have any complaints about it.

BOTN: You took over at Preston in February 2013 with the club in real danger of being relegated from League One. But in less than three years you had transformed the club and managed to get them promoted to the Championship. Joe Garner played a key role in those squads scoring over 20 goals a season in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 campaigns. How important as a manager is it to find a striker who you can rely on to get 20+ goals per season and what did you do personally with Joe to turn around his time at Preston and make him into a prolific scorer?

SG: Strikers at any level of football are so important as they win matches for you. To have someone you and his teammates can rely on to put away the chances can be the difference between being an average team and a successful one. Joe had been at a few big clubs without making it really work but he was someone who I knew would work hard for the team but also put his head and body in where it hurts to score a goal. Joe had some good teammates who could create the chances for him as well, people like (Paul) Gallagher, (Daniel) Johnson, (Callum) Robinson and others knew what kind of service Joe liked and they had the quality to do this.

Joe Garner was in lethal form for Preston NE under Grayson (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Given your history of turning clubs around and gaining promotion, the challenge of doing the same at Sunderland must have been appealing. But you joined at a very weird time at the club, which was all captured in the recent Netflix documentary called ‘Sunderland Till I Die’. Clearly things weren’t / aren’t right at Sunderland, but just how difficult was it to manage in those circumstances with every move you made captured on film?

SG: The documentary was already in place when I moved to Sunderland. I gave them certain rules where and when they could film but as a documentary they were always wanting more and did not want to miss out on things. I’m sure the players didn’t like the cameras there as I didn’t. I knew going to Sunderland wasn’t going to be an easy job, but I certainly backed myself to do well. It probably wasn’t until I was there a week or so that I realize how much negativity and unrest there was at the club.

BOTN: There is a lot of talk that Sunderland is a club with deep rooted problems with professionalism, and an ingrained drinking culture that a succession of managers have been unable to break. Would you agree with that assertion, and if so, given time and patience how would you go about transforming the club?

SG: As a manager you go to a club with your own ideas and beliefs which you hope you can get the players to buy into but Sunderland seemed to have problems with a group of players who didn’t want to be there or some had lost the drive and desire to turn it around. With Chris Coleman following me and not able to change the attitude and culture around proved that it wasn’t the managers fault but deeper lying problems. The only way of fixing this would be to give the manager time to change it around rather than keep blaming the manager and changing manager every time a result doesn’t go the way the fans wanted it to go. I genuinely believe I would have been successful there if I was given more time but as we know in this day and age time isn’t always something you get now.

Grayson on season 2 of “Sunderland Til I Die”.

BOTN: Moving on, there is a school of thought that says the game is “better” today thanks to advances in sports science, nutrition etc. as well as better quality pitches.  Do you agree with that assertion?

SG: I think that today’s players have the best opportunities to be a success due to the things you have mentioned but I also believe that the modern day footballer also has everything done for them and therefore sometimes doesn’t take responsibility for things like players did in the past. They wait for problems to be solved by the manager rather than trying to solve them themselves. They don’t like criticism as much as past players did and anytime there is a problem, an agent seems to have to get involved.

BOTN: How do you feel you would have fared as a player today?

SG:  I think I would have been fine as I would have taken my time playing in the 90s into the modern way of preparing for games and playing.

BOTN: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing trend towards talented younger players leaving the English game such as Jadon Sancho and more recently Jude Bellingham, in favour of a move to Germany. Why do you think this is so appealing for these youngsters? Is the belief that they are leaving due to lack of playing time correct or is it more to do with the coaching they can get abroad?

SG: I think it may be a bit of both but also when one player goes and is successful then others then think more positively about going and venturing abroad. In the past, only a handful of players left to go abroad with only a few successful which in turn made others think less so of moving but now that has changed, and more may do it in the future.

Jude Bellingham has moved to Germany and Borussia Dortmund (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Before we turn to our fan questions, it’s fair to say that you’ve had a very successful career as a manager with several promotions with different clubs under your belt. That said you are often overlooked for the vacant jobs in the Premier League. Do you think that there is a bias towards appointing foreign coaches in that division? And Is the pathway to becoming a Premier League manager for English coaches therefore restricted to gaining promotion with a club from the Championship?

SG: There are many coaches including myself that believe a lot of English/British coaches are overlooked for jobs in the Premier League and that the only way you get to manage there is by taking teams up. You only have to look at people like Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Chris Wilder who have managed in the Premier League by getting their clubs promoted as opposed to getting approached for jobs while they were managing in the Championship or League One.

BOTN: Finally let’s move on to some fan questions. Of the players you played with or against, who do you think would be most likely to thrive today? 

SG: Most of the players I played with and against while I was at Leicester and Aston Villa in the Premier League would have all thrived today as they all had the basic ingredients the top players have now i.e. hard work , desire, resilience and ultimately quality with and without the ball.

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Grayson with former Leicester teammate and now Celtic boss, Neil Lennon (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Having managed clubs in the ascendancy, gaining promotion with Leeds and Huddersfield, as well as at the other end of the table, fighting in and around the foot of the table with Preston and Sunderland, do you change your approach depending on the circumstances?  And if so, what are the differences between coaching a good team to success, vs. drilling a struggling team?

SG: As a coach you have to be able to be adaptable to where a club is at when you take over or slightly change things when you move up a Division through promotion to deal with playing against bigger clubs and better players. You may also change your philosophies depending on the players you have available to you. For example, at Leeds we had a really attacking team with players like (Jermaine) Beckford, (Robert) Snodgrass, (Max) Gradel, (Luciano) Bechio and (Jonathan) Howson so our intent was to score more goals than the opposition. Where at Preston, when we got promoted to the Championship, we had to be hard to beat and play more on the counterattack.

BOTN: I read that you were in the running to be boss at Bolton. Is there any truth you were interested in that role? And if you are looking to get back into management, what kind of role would most appeal to you?

SG: I’m definitely looking to get back into managing again when the opportunity comes along whether here or abroad. At 50, with nearly 700 games and 4 promotions on my CV, I still feel I have a lot to give and I certainly have the desire to add to the games and promotions. When the day comes that I can no longer get a managers’ job then I would like to stay in the game in some capacity whether as an assistant to a younger manager/coach, or in recruitment /scouting.

BOTN: Thank you Simon and all the best for the future!

You can follow Simon on Instagram.

Interview by Rob Latham, UK correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter.

Interview Contributions by Gordon Skinner.

 

 

 

The Ups And Downs Of Modern Yorkshire Football

Yorkshire football has been through its fair share of hard times for the last half a century. However, Leeds United’s return to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years, last season’s surprise package Sheffield United and successes further down the footballing ladder offer glimpses of hope for the county’s football fans.

Despite being the UK’s largest county, teams from Yorkshire have won 11 league titles in the 121 years of English football. That’s nearly half the 21 titles won by London clubs and well short of the 61 league championships won by rivals from the northwest regions of Lancashire and Liverpool. Furthermore, the county has only produced one league title in the last 50 years and Leeds United are the only Yorkshire side to have been champions of England since 1930.

Leeds United 1992 title winning side (Image from Tumblr)

Leeds United 1992 title winning side (Image from Tumblr)

That said, the county is not without its claims to fame. Huddersfield Town became the first team ever to win three consecutive English titles between 1924 and 1926, an achievement that has only been matched four times by Arsenal (1933 to 1935), Liverpool (1982 to 1984) and Manchester United (1999 to 2001 and 2007 to 2009). While Sheffield Wednesday are the only club ever to have won the league title with different names, having won the first three of their four titles as The Wednesday.

Yorkshire’s Premier League woes

Moving into the modern era, hopes were high with the establishment of the Premier League in 1992. Leeds were reigning champions having just won the last First Division and they were one of four Yorkshire sides in the inaugural Premier League, along with Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. However, Leeds only avoided relegation by two points and Middlesbrough did get relegated, which was a sign of things to come for Yorkshire sides in the Premier League.

Sheffield United were relegated in the second season of the Premier League, returned for one season in 2006/7 before being promoted again last year. Sheffield Wednesday were relegated in 2000 and are still yet to return, while Middlesbrough enjoyed a top-flight stay between 1998 and 2009 with one season back in 2016/17. Other Yorkshire sides have flirted with the big time, including Barnsley in 1997/98 and Huddersfield in 2018/19. Bradford City had two seasons between 1999 and 2001 and Hull City were in the Premier League for five seasons from 2008 to 2019, then 2013 to 2015 and finally 2016/17.

Hull during their Premier League days (Image from Tumblr)

Hull during their Premier League days (Image from Tumblr)

But only Leeds have really had Premier League success to shout about, finishing as high as third in 2000, then fourth and fifth in the following two campaigns. But things quickly fell apart as their finances spiralled out of control and the club was relegated in 2004.

Signs of hope for Yorkshire football

It may seem like a doom and gloom situation for Yorkshire’s football scene, but there are certainly signs of things being on the up. Sheffield United really shook things up in their first season back in the Premier League for 13 seasons. They secured wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, had the fourth-best defence in the league, and even threatened to break into the European qualification places before finishing the campaign in ninth place. And they’ll be joined next season by local rivals Leeds, who won The Championship by 10 points from West Bromwich Albion.

Both sides will be hopeful of strong campaigns in 2020/21, with Sheffield United looking to strengthen and build on last season’s success. While Leeds will be hopeful that manager Marcelo Bielsa will work wonders to make them competitive on their return to the top.

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Leeds United have won promotion to the Premier League where they will join Sheffield United (Image from Tumblr)

However, it’s not all about the Premier League. Rotherham United just got promoted to the Championship at the first time of asking. Harrogate Town finished second in the National League and will compete in the playoff final for a chance to reach the Football League for the first time in their history on Sunday (2 August). A league below them, York City look to be on the up as they were top of the National League North only for non-league football to be declared null and void for the season.

Elsewhere, Doncaster Rovers may consider themselves unlucky as they finished six points shy of the League One playoffs with a game in hand and 12 remaining. Likewise, Bradford City can take positives from finishing four points off the League Two playoffs with nine games remaining.

Bradford City defender Ben Richards-Everton

Bradford City defender Ben Richards-Everton (Image from BCFC website)

Despite these positives, fans of other Yorkshire sides have had their fair share of woes. Hull City suffered a painful relegation from the Championship, finishing bottom of the league just three years after dropping out of the Premier League. Barnsley, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough only narrowly avoided joining them in League One, and the financial situation at Sheffield Wednesday has seen them embroiled in legal issues with the EFL.

Yorkshire football has had plenty of highs down the years but the lows have been all too frequent in the last few decades. A 12th league title won by a Yorkshire side may well be many years away but there are certainly signs of hope for the county’s football fans up and down the footballing pyramid.

Post By Rob Latham (@robilaz)

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The German Machine – A Look at Bayern’s 2019/2020 Season

Bayern Munich are champions of the Bundesliga for the eighth consecutive season and winners of this seasons DFB-Pokal. That lands them another league and cup double which takes them up to 30 league titles and 20 national cups in total in their history making them the most successful German team of all time. The Covid-19 pandemic was a hurdle to overcome as all competitions came to a grinding halt on March 13th but once consultation with the German government took place, the Bundesliga resumed behind closed doors on the 16th May. After the imposed break, Bayern were unstoppable winning all 11 of their remaining league and cup matches clinching the League title in mid June with 2 games to spare. They then added the League cup in early July with a 4-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen. Bayern are also heading into the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 with a healthy 3-0 advantage over Chelsea FC. There is a good case to be made that they can reach the final and possibly end the season as treble winners but the past 12 months have not been as straight forward as their successes may suggest.

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The season started with a 2-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund in the DFL Super Cup and their title defence was shaping up to be a hard fought one too. Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach all started the season well and were looking in dangerous form while Bayern were simply not playing their best football; sometimes only narrowly getting by opponents who they should have beaten easily. The criticism landed heavily on the shoulders of their then coach Niko Kovac, as he had Bayern playing in a more defensive style which goes against the DNA of the club. They looked vulnerable at the back and were overly reliant on moments of individual brilliance from their attackers, most especially Robert Lewandowski who routinely spared their blushes with his ingenuity and lethal finishing. They were looking a shadow of their once dominant selves who routinely swept opponents off the park with their dazzling yet efficient and cohesive football.

Although injuries to certain players contributed to the poor run, Kovac’s tenure was becoming divisive as was demonstrated in his undermining of club legend Thomas Müller by relegating him to the bench in favor of the newly loaned but underperforming Phillip Coutinho. After a 5-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, which was their worst Bundesliga defeat in a decade, it was evident his position was untenable. Following a meeting with the Club President, chairman and sporting director, Kovac’s contract was mutually terminated. As a result of this termination, Kovac’s assistant manager Hans-Dieter Flick was given the role of interim manager. At this point Bayern had won only half of their opening 10 Bundesliga games with 3 draws, 2 losses and were languishing in the 4th position on the table.

Flick and Kovac

“i’ll take it from here” – Flick (left) took over when Kovac (right) departed. (Image from Tumblr)

Flick’s first game was in the Champions League against Greek champions Olympiacos.  He appear to handle the game well with a professional 2-0 win but his true test would come back in the league on matchday 11, a home game against rivals Borussia Dortmund. An emphatic 4-0 mauling of Dortmund followed which moved Bayern above their title rivals. Although back to back defeats against Bayern Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach followed that result,  Flick recorrected course by making a few minor adjustments to the team and never looked back. This earned him the role of permanent manager until the end of the season. What followed was a level of dominance as Flick’s team routinely brushed teams aside with ease. Bayern proceeded to win 25 of their following 26 games, drawing only once and giving Flick a record of 29 wins in 32 matches in all competitions. Bayern scored a record total of 100 goals in the Bundesliga and conceded only 32 goals in their 38 games.

The attacking prowess and defensive solidity shows that of a team that struck a perfect balance between attack and defence. It is no surprise that this coincided with a return to the old guard, both Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller became fixtures in the first team with Boateng marshalling the defence and Muller dovetailing seamlessly with Serge Gnabry and Robert Lewandowski in attack. The trio finished the season in style with Lewandowski leading the league with 34 goals and scoring 54 in total in all competitions. Muller scored 8 and provided a record breaking 21 assists in the league while Gnabry added a further 21 goals and 11 assists to cap off a fine season for Bayern.

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The return of Muller and Boateng coincided with Bayern’s improvements on the field. (image from Tumblr)

This run gave ‘Hansi’ Flick the best start any Bayern boss has ever managed, even better than that of Pep Guardiola’s 2013/2014 team. He also has a point-per-game ratio of 2.71 which surpasses that of Pep’s 2.6 and is slightly ahead of Juup Heynckes’ impressive 2.7 ratio. The manner in which the manager has turned around their fortunes is quite impressive and he is fully deserving of the contract extension given to him which keeps him as head coach until 2023.

A double already won and a treble well within their sights, this team which looked destined to be dethroned has once again found a way to navigate itself back to the summit of German football. All while doing so with a style and efficiency which can only be seen in that of a German Machine.

Post by Ani Chukwuebuka. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram

Karim Benzema – A Misunderstood Genius

Karim Mostafa Benzema is arguably one of the most gifted footballers of his generation, I’d even go as far as to say he’s been a top ten talent of the past decade but it doesn’t go without saying he’s had a few challenges on the way and can be viewed as a divisive figure especially in his home nation of France.

The Lyon born striker made his debut in the 2004-05 season which led to sporadic appearances in his next two seasons as Lyon won 3 major titles within that period of time. It wasn’t until the 2007-08 season in which Benzema got the chance to become a starter, having a breakthrough campaign scoring 30 goals in all competitions and leading Lyon to their seventh straight title. He was awarded the golden boot as the leagues top scorer, named Ligue 1 player of the year and listed in the organization’s team of the year. After one more successful season Real Madrid finally came calling and he made a switch to the Spanish capital on a six year contract worth a transfer fee of over $50 million.

Life in Madrid did not get off to the best start as he had to play second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuain who was preferred to start up front by both Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho respectively. Added to this, there were a lot of questions asked of him such as his discipline issues and his lack of commitment to fitness regimes. It was not until a meeting between Benzema and Mourinho ahead of the 2011-12 season occurred that a mutual respect was formed between both. Jose noted that Benzema worked on his game and physique during the off season which ultimately secured him the nod ahead of Higuain, a move that yielded tremendous results as Benzema scored a total of 32 goals; his most prolific year in a Real Madrid shirt to date.

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Fast forward to the present day and Benzema still commands that first team striker role  for Real Madrid seeing of all his would be challengers. Gonzalo Higuain, Alvaro Morata, Emmanuel Adebayor and Javier Hernandez, as well as several academy prospects have gotten the short end of the stick due to under performances or just being unable to raise their game to a level adequate enough to displace the Frenchman from his number 9 birth. It’s a testament to his immense ability that he was able to keep such talents at bay but what makes it more impressive is the fact that he has done so over a span of five different managers; all whom have had very different philosophies and tactics.

His ability to link up play, drop into a number ten role to drag defenders out leaving space for wide players to run into and the killer instincts of a lethal finisher sets him apart from most strikers in the world as of this moment. This is what made his combination with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale so devastating. The trio literally had defenders quaking in their boots. The famous BBC put teams in the Champions League to the sword on a regular basis and Benzema was frequently the man doing what needed to be done to make this front three tick. All this helped Real Madrid to an amazing fourteen major trophy wins (including four Champions League titles) in five short years.

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Although blessed with all the brilliance and ability, there does seems to be a mischievous side to him as well. Whether it’s making questionable comments in regards to the national team on different occasions or sex related scandals, Benzema seems to be caught out on more than a few occasions. As early as 2006, he drew criticism when he cited the reasons why he selected France was purely sporting and that his true heart lay with his parents native country of Algeria. On top of this, the fact that he never sang the national anthem before any France international matches hardly did anything to win him support especially with the often critical media. Worse still was the 2010 sex scandal involving an underaged prostitute and three other national team players (Franck Ribéry, Sidney Govou and Hatem Ben Arfa). He was questioned by Paris police and indicted on the charge of “solicitation of a minor prostitute”. The case did go to trail with the first hearing held in June 2013, however the charges against him were dropped in January 2014 due to lack of sufficient evidence that he knew the prostitute was underaged.

You would think going through this ordeal would discourage Benzema from being in the headlines for the wrong reasons but no. Unfortunately his next one would subsequently cost him a chance to win a World Cup medal as he was suspended provisionally from the French national team in 2015 due to his alleged involvement in the blackmailing of fellow french international player Mathieu Valbuena. It’s only fair to mention that he was acquitted of all charges and although he’s had a problematic relationship with the national team, it’s a completely different story for Los Blancos. Benzema is a leader both on and off the pitch, also he’s one of only three players who were in the 2010 squad that still remains at the club ten years later.

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Where there’s been drama and scandal with the national team there’s been goals, assists and trophies galore for Benzema and Real Madrid. He’s has had dips in form, particularly a certain 2 year period plagued with injuries which affected his goal scoring resulting in the nickname “Donezema” but he has always been backed fully by both his coach Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. And Benzema has rewarded their faith in kind especially following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo; Benzema has been a man reborn.

Even amidst all the big money transfers Benzema is still the player the team turns to for goals. His resurgence is why the Los Blancos are en route to yet another title, toppling King Leo’s side to the league title. He may be head strong, disappointing at times and reckless, but for all who have seen him play one thing that can never be denied is that Karim Benzema on the field is a true maestro.

Post by Ani Chukwuebuka. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram

Pied Piper of Manchester

“Into the street the Piper stepped,

Smiling first a little smile,

As if he knew what magic slept

In his quiet pipe the while;” – Robert Browning’s v. Pied Piper

The people of Hamelin were in a state of distress, awaiting their knight in shining armour to come rescue them from a plight that had been around for far too long. The Hamelin that once breathed the scent of fresh roses, triumph and prosperity, had succumbed to obscurity, and had failed to make a swift recovery. Years’ worth of trial and error had all been in vain, and the near future did not promise any solution.

Until a man came along with his pipe, and was welcomed by the rather desperate highest council of the city. He was promised riches and fame upon delivery, and he did not fail to deliver. Similar is the current situation down in a city northwest of England, where it seems that all woes have vanished and past sins of the otherwise ignorant city council are forgiven. The city blooms in red, and it is conspicuous who the man with the pipe is: Bruno Fernandes from Portugal

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Prior to Bruno’s arrival, Manchester United was going through a drought of victories, and had not seen any fundamental progress in perhaps longer than the time it took to free Hamelin from rats. In late January, Man United fans booed off their own team after a humiliating defeat at Old Trafford at the hands of then 9th placed Burnley; fans jeering their own players is something any Red Devil would know is unheard of at Old Trafford.

When Solskjaer signed Bruno, he stated, “Most importantly he is a terrific human being with a great personality and his leadership qualities are clear for all to see.” Ole apparently hit the bullseye. The paradigm shift in the club caused by Bruno’s advent has been a sight to witness. Morale on and off the field has taken a sharp turn upwards; the previously problematic Paul Pogba has found his Juliet in central midfield, and the “United mentality” that was missing for so long, is finally instilled once again. “He has brought that winning mentality with him that 99% is not good enough – it has to be 100%.” explained Solskjaer at a recent post-match conference.

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The reformed Manchester United are almost adhering to Marxist collectivism ideology: with every player playing purely to achieve goals of the club as a whole, results are inevitable, and individual brilliance still exists as a side effect. Shattering of egos and a newfound passion for the club has made all the difference for Manchester United.

Inevitably, this change in attitude has had a profound effect on performance. Since Bruno’s arrival, Manchester United have been the top club in the Premier League by a country mile, with the club’s young and fiery front three outshining the Premier League Champions’ experienced attackers. Bruno has been involved in 11 goals in only 9 games, (not counting the 6 times he has scored himself). His form has benefited others with the ever impressive youngster Mason Greenwood taking his total goal tally in all competitions up to 15 for the season, just behind Rashford and Martial in the goalscoring charts.

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Source: BBC – PL Table since Bruno joined Man Utd.

This change in crucial statistics and team position is attributed to the change in style of play. Since Bruno’s arrival, Solskjaer has reshaped his men to play in the only way Manchester United have historically known: with a free-flowing, attacking mindset. A team like United, with fans like the Red Devils are simply not meant to park the bus or to play adhering to strict tactics. One may disagree to this, but it has only been proven true with the test of time.

Today, United are finally playing the way they always have, perhaps with stricter adhering than before; with emphasis on scoring goals, not defending them (excluding the back four, of course). This style was evident in the recent 5-2 victory over Bournemouth, when the men in red conceded two goals due to cheap defensive giveaways, but responded with a goal fest, hence covering the defensive mistakes.

However, this extreme approach is also not feasible if Solskjaer’s side want to contest for the title next season. Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote goes, “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”. Currently, United are only returning to their former attacking self, but still have considerable exploitable weaknesses in defence. United fans are already making comparisons with the 2008 Champions League winning side, but they must be reminded that although the attacking prowess is back like it never left, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are not there anymore with a rock-solid defensive plan to clinch the title.

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To truly get his hands on a Premier League medal next season, Solskjaer needs to make effective use of the summer transfer window to ensure that he can free his side from those troublesome defensive weaknesses. Apart from that, Ole seems to be steering the wheel in the right direction.

However, one must not forget how the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s story progressed. The arrogant high city council officials refused their rescuer what was promised, and all hell broke loose. It would not be wrong to assume that with the people currently in charge of Man United, such an instance is not unlikely to occur. Owing to Bruno’s personality, United will be aware that to keep the Pied Piper playing he needs to be supported both on and off the pitch. If they can do that then Fernandes will continue his dance for years to come. 

“And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice,

If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise.”

Post by Sairam Hussian Miran, Special correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

One On One with: Marcus Gayle

If you did a straw poll of 100 Brentford fans and ask them who they would classify as a club legend, Marcus Gayle’s name would come up more than any other. The former Jamaica striker turned centre half is held in such high regard that he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2015 and is now a club ambassador. But Gayle’s career is more than just his 230 appearances for the bees. He may have started off at Brentford and returned to the club in the latter half of his career but he also had successful spells at Wimbledon, Watford and FC Kups in Finland as well as brief spells at Glasgow Rangers and Aldershot during his 20 year career. We caught up with his recently to find out more about his career including his time at Brentford, why it didn’t work out in Scotland, what it was like working with Joe Kinnear and of course playing at the World Cup with “the Reggae Boyz” aka Jamaica.

Backofthenet: You were born and raised in Hammersmith and got your break into football only ten minutes away at Brentford. Apart from two seasons in Scotland and Finland, you spent your entire career in London. Was that intentional?

Marcus Gayle: For the most part I was fortunate enough to play in and around London apart from those spells in Scotland and Finland. It was nothing intentional on my part.

BOTN: When you signed for Brentford in 1988, they had an impressive mix of players including player manager Steve Perryman, Gary Blissett and Andy Sinton to name a few. How much did you learn as a youth player coming into that squad? How influential was Perryman on those early years of your career?

MG: Under Steve Perryman at Brentford it was a great education about the game but very tough going at times. Colin Lee who was my youth coach gave me the drive to excel, Phil Holder who became the 1st team manger after Steve gave me the opportunity to stay in the 1st team. They were all very influential.

BOTN: You had a loan spell at KUPS. That move to Finland in 1990 was a surprising one but one that you found crucial in your development as a player. How did that loan move come about and what did you take away from your experience there?

MG: The loan spell to FC Kups came about through a contact of Steve Perryman. I didn’t fancy getting out of my comfort zone (by going there) and said nah. I spoke to my mum later that day and she said it could be the making of me. 29 games and 13 goals proved her and my manager right!

Gayle during his loan spell in Finland (Image from Gayle's Instagram)

Gayle during his loan spell in Finland (Image from Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: You returned to Brentford for the 1990-91 season and quickly established yourself under new manager Phil Holder. You were part of a trio of exciting strikers at the club – Dean Holdsworth and Gary Blissett being the other two that guided Brentford to the old Third Division title. That season was later voted by the fans as the best ever season in the club’s history and cemented your place as a legend at the club. What do you remember about that campaign and why did everything fall into place so perfectly?

MG: We had a great squad of players that when everyone was fit we knew more or less what the team was. Squad players and the managers trust in young players to step in helped keep the competition high. All the players got on so well.

BOTN: Eventually you earned a move to Wimbledon where again you played a pivotal role in that team over a seven-year period.  That was of course towards the end of the Crazy Gang era. Was it an enjoyable atmosphere to work in? 

MG: Moving to Wimbledon was great – the whole atmosphere was healthy but challenging; work rest and play mentality. We knew when it was time to be serious.

Gayle scored 37 times in 239 appearances for Wimbledon (Image from Tumblr)

Gayle scored 37 times in 239 appearances for Wimbledon (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Joe Kinnear was your manager for a majority of your time at Wimbledon. What is your opinion of him and the job that he did at Wimbledon during that time? 

MG: Joe done an unbelievable job as manager, had a great eye for a player that fitted straight into the squad. You could have a great laugh with him!.

BOTN: Let’s chat a little about your move to Glasgow. You tended to play regularly for most of your career, but at Rangers were limited to just 4 appearances.  Did you find the lack of game time frustrating? Given you signed a few months after Rangers broke their transfer record to sign Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo, were you mis sold on that move and the amount of opportunities you would get?

MG: I loved my time at Rangers however just the 4 appearances left me embarrassed and very frustrated. I was put in the under 23 team, played 2 and a half games scored 6 goals but was still told that I was not a goal threat. That was the breaking point and i was not given a fair chance.

A lack of an opportunity prevented Gayle from showing what he could do at Rangers  (Image from Gayle's Instagram)

A lack of an opportunity prevented Gayle from showing what he could do at Rangers (Image from Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: After a disappointing spell in Scotland, you joined Watford for £1million, linking up with Gianluca Vialli in his only season at the club. What was it like to work under Vialli and are you surprised that he hasn’t managed since?

MG: Vialli was a workaholic just like in his playing days – He made a lot of signings, me being one of them and most didn’t work out well that season. I’m not too surprised that he hasn’t gone back into management, I think his time at Watford really frustrated him.

BOTN: When Vialli left, Ray Lewington was given the job and he helped you switch from being a striker to a centre back. That change came due to a shortage of defenders in training which resulted in you offering to play in defence. You ended that season as player of the year and as a clear starter in the heart of the Watford defence. Why do you think that switch was so successful?

MG: I felt like a youngster learning the game all over again playing at the back – Ray Lewington showed the confidence in me to give it a good go and that’s what I did. I had good team-mates that made my transition easier.

BOTN: You are not the only player to have made that switch – Chris Sutton, Dion Dublin and Ruud Gullit all successfully transitioned from frontmen to defenders during their careers. It seems to be that strikers convert better as centre backs than say central midfielders do. Is that due to your understanding of how strikers think in and around the box and being able to anticipate those moves in advance?

MG: We all understand what type of ball is coming into the front man and where he wants to take his first touch. Again we all could take a ball under pressure as a frontman so naturally that would be added now as a defender. For me the majority of my career was left wing so dribbling with the ball and picking out team mates out helped a lot. 

Striker to centre half - Gayle made the transition well (Image from Gayle's Instagram)

Striker to centre half – Gayle made the transition well (Image from Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: They say you should never go back but you returned to Brentford in March of 2005 as a free agent. You joined a squad that manager Martin Allen had self-proclaimed to be a “two bob team” due to the nature in which it had been put together under a very tight budget. Yet that team was highly successful under Allen managing to reach consecutive promotional playoffs. What was key to the success of that team? And what role did Allen play in that success?

MG: Re-joining Brentford under Martin Allen was great. I probably learned the most from him than other managers in terms of man management and coaching players. He was a workaholic on the training pitch and empowered especially the young players to become great players. 

BOTN: After Brentford, you joined Aldershot in the Conference League under Terry Brown and started well scoring a few goals before hitting a hat-trick in under ten minutes against Kidderminster, the first of your professional career. The shortly after Christmas you damaged your ACL knee ligaments and cartilage effectively ending your season. How would you categorize that season looking back now and when the injury happened, did you consider that it may be the end of your playing career?

MG: Yes, it took me to the age of 36 to score my first and last hat-trick lol. The injury was a blip in my season but thanks to Suzanne Bowen (club physiotherapist) who got me back playing within 3 months. 

BOTN: You are one of a few players who have played for Wimbledon early on in their careers and then returned again towards the end of it. Warren Barton and Dean Holdsworth are two players who did similarly. What is it about that club that makes players return? Did it feel like the same club you had left all those years ago?

MG: The feeling was mutual between the fans and myself returning to Wimbledon. I’ve always had a strong connection with fans over many many years and play for them again was special. The fans make the club!

BOTN: Let’s talk about Jamaica. You had previously represented England at under 18 level but switched to Jamaica after being called up by René Simões due to your Jamaican parentage. You were called up alongside Frank Sinclair, Leon Burton and Robbie Earle as Simoes looked to build a squad capable of qualifying for the World Cup. Was the ambition of Simoes to make it to France with Jamaica a driving force behind that decision?

MG: The driving force for my decision was to represent the country of my father’s birth – the impact it would have. Oh and the chance of playing in a World Cup. That really was a brilliant time for all involved. Rene Simoes has a dream to take Jamaica to the finals and he certainly did just that. 

Gayle won 18 caps in total for Jamaica scoring twice (Image from Tumblr)

Gayle won 18 caps in total for Jamaica scoring twice (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Playing at the World Cup must be one of the highlights of your career. It started well with a good performance against Croatia, but the result didn’t go your way. In the second game however you were blown away by a rampant Argentina losing 5-0. Going into that third and final game, how was the squad feeling? Were you all desperate to make amends and restore some pride to Jamaica?

MG: There was a last minute decision to change our team shape from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2. It didn’t feel or flow well in those first 2 matches. I wasn’t happy not playing those 2 matches but started the last one and very happy to come away with World Cup win.

BOTN: After your playing career finished, you made the move into management, first with a role at Wimbledon as reserve team manager then later with Staines. As a player you spend 90% of the time focused on your own development and then when you switch to be a manager, that focus shifts to 90% of the time focused on your players development. How difficult is that transition and did you find your spells in management enjoyable?

MG: I loved the transition from playing to management – development of players and giving them the opportunity was important to me. 

BOTN: Now retired, you have been a vocal part of the Kick it Out movement which is helping tackle racism in football. The events of the last month in the USA and the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has brought racial injustices to the forefront and ignited the need for change on a global level. We have seen this before, but the recent protest feels different in a sense that it may drive much needed change. How hopeful are you that changes in behaviours and perceptions towards black people come as a result of these protests and taking it back to football, how much work still has to be done on that front?

MG: The events of the last month have forced more conversations to take place; people and organizations have taken notice. I love my role with Kick it Out as it’s an important one educating players with support. I learn from the players as much as they learn from what we do at Kick it Out. What we need to see now is action instead of words of support and slogans, slogans highlight but ultimately action is the positive change that is needed.

Marcus Gayle is an active Kick it out tutor (Image form Gayle's Instagram)

Marcus Gayle is an active Kick it out tutor (Image form Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: You have mentioned before that you grew up listening to Reggae music and artists like Bob Marley and Gregory Issacs and that music played a key role in creating a positive atmosphere in various dressing rooms that you have been in. Was there any questionable music played in those dressing rooms and who were the main culprits?

MG: Reggae music lifts my spirits when I’m down – we wouldn’t be playing reggae in the changing room of my time. Music is important and you got to cater for everyone without going to personal with your choices.

BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. You broke your leg playing for England U18’S on your debut. Were you worried that it would end your career before it started?

MG: I wasn’t worried, I was 17 so if it was going to happen then that was the time for it to happen.

BOTN: Who is the toughest defender you played against as a striker and the toughest striker you played against as a defender? 

MG: Toughest defenders would be Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Marcel Desailly. As a defender, I would say Jason Roberts when he was a West Brom.

BOTN: Thoughts about Brentford’s new stadium? Did you have a pint in all four pubs around Griffin Park?

MG: The new Brentford Community Stadium looks fantastic and puts the club in a great position on and off the field. It may be a surprise, but I’ve only drank in one of the four pubs around Griffin Park!

Marcus is a club Ambassador for Brentford FC. Follow Marcus on his official Instagram account.

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MLS 20 Transfer Summary

With the Primary Transfer Window now closed, it presents the perfect opportunity for The Transfer List’s first dedicated review of the MLS. A total of 37 ‘significant’ transfers were completed during the window. For the MLS, significant transfers are classed as those in which a fee of £500k or higher was paid.

In total, these transfers totalled £90.18m with an overall positive variance of £0.42m. This reflects an average transfer variance of 0.46% across the MLS, meaning that the League’s dealings in the 2020 Primary Transfer Window are the most accurate that we have ever recorded. The most notable dealings will now be broken down below.

Most efficient player transfer

We start with the players and more specifically, the most efficient transfer of the window, which was calculated to be DC United’s purchase of Edison Flores from Morelia for £4.04m.

Despite the Peruvian’s impressive club form in Mexico, contributing seven goals and four assists in 21 appearances during the first half of the 2019/20 season, it is the player’s international experience that contributes the majority of his valuation. With 51 caps for the national team at just 24 years of age, Flores was a key member of the side reached the final of the Copa America in 2019. As Peru currently sit 21st in the FIFA World Rankings, The Incas are considered to be competing close to the highest level of international football and therefore Flores’ international caps provide a significant contribution to his £19.52m valuation, producing a positive variance of £15.48m for DC.

Most accurate player transfer

The most accurate transfer of the window was found to be Philadelphia Union’s purchase of Jamiro Monteiro.

For the 2019 MLS season, Monteiro was brought to Philadelphia to join the Union on loan where he immediately became a key part of the side that reached the Eastern Conference semi-finals before being knocked out by Atlanta United. Over the season, the midfielder made 29 appearances, scoring four goals and setting up a further eight. This was enough for Philadelphia to make the transfer permanent for the 2020 season.

Due to the low international standing of Cape Verde, little value is provided by Monteiro’s seven appearances for the national side. Therefore, the majority of the player’s valuation is contributed by his 29 MLS appearances last season. This provided a total value of £1.27m, just £0.35m lower than the £1.62m paid by Philadelphia for his services.

Least efficient player transfer

Finally, we assess the least efficient transfer on the window, which was found to be Kemar Lawrence’s departure from the New York Red Bulls.

The Jamaican was a regular throughout his time in New York, making 118 appearances in four seasons for the Club. In Lawrence’s final season with the Club, he made 24 appearances and scored one goal before moving to Europe with Anderlecht.

Similarly for the national team, since making his debut at 21 years of age, Lawrence has continued to be a regular feature for Jamaica. So far, the left-back has made 58 appearances for the Reggae Boyz.   

Thanks to the player’s considerable experience in the MLS and at international level, as well as still being at his peak at 27 years of age, the Jamaican is valued at £11.34m. Despite this valuation, the Red Bulls allowed Lawrence to leave for Anderlecht for just £1.15m. This contributed a negative variance of £10.19m and was identified as the least efficient transfer of the 2020 MLS Primary Transfer Window.

For a more detailed breakdown of the transfers above, as well as our findings on how each individual Club performed throughout the window, take a look at the original article here: http://thetransferlist.co.uk/index.php/home/updates/2020-mls-primary-transfer-window-review

Is Lautaro Martinez Barca Bound?

As everyone knows we’re slowly getting football back and with that comes transfer news and updates. This can be said of 22 year old Inter striker Larturo Martinez. He signed for Inter back in 2018 from Racing Club where he had scored 22 goals in 48 appearances. He might have signed a five year contract for a fee of €22.7 million euros but just a few years later looks likely to leave for a much larger fee. So far at Inter he has done a phenomenal job as one of the clubs top goal scorers this season. So far he has played in 49 matches with 17 goals. He has developed into one of the key pieces Inter desperately needed. As a quick and agile player, he  pairs well with the more physical and direct Romelu Lukaku. But unlike Lukaku, Martinez is a player who is able to show up in big matches whereas Lukaku tends to struggle. Martinez is only two years into his contract with Inter and he is already being linked with an exit from the club.

With the upcoming retirement of one of the  greatest strikers of this era and in my opinion the greatest of all time Lionel Messi; Barcelona are in need of the next big thing. They are looking at replacing him with Martinez who appeared on their radar in their match against Inter in 2019 in their 2-1 loss in the Champions League when he scored their only goal. So they’ve been interested in him for a few months now. Barcelona are willing to pay his buyout clause of €111 million euros. So far Barcelona have offered €50 million euros and two players for him which has been since rejected by Inter sending Barcelona back to the drawing board to create a new offer. But no matter how much it takes, more than likely they will reach a deal and Martinez will be leaving the club which will be a huge problem for Inter as leaves a crucial opening in the attack. When he leaves this will have Inter scrambling to find a replacement.

Inter have a few options; some I agree with, other I don’t. The first name that’s been thrown around is Antoine Griezmann. This wouldn’t be a bad choice in my opinion as he is a solid goal scorer and a threat inside the box.  Olivier Giroud is another name thrown around but he has already signed a contract extension at Chelsea with 49 goals and only seven goals so he is likely now out of the equation unless Interv are willing to pay for him. Moise Kean was another name that was in the pot but he is already close to signing a deal with Roma. At this point Inter have limited options as the names continue to dwindle. The only other player that they can go after and is seeming to be the best solution for now is PSG striker Edison Cavani with midfielder Paul Pogba brought in to supply him with the ammunition. If Inter offload players such as Veccino and Valero, Pogba in the midfield would give them some much needed depth. Whilst Cavani who has played over 200 matches and scored 138 goals for PSG would be seen as a good signing, he is older than the club would prefer (the same can be said about Giroud) so he is a short term solution at short term only.  Either way nothing will replace the amazing job Martinez as done for the club. This will definitely be a loss for sure but if they find the right players to fill in the voids Inter should be just fine.

Post by Danielle Luhrsen, writer for The Galleria of Internazionale Milano.

Follow Danielle on Instagram too.

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One On One with: Jeremie Aliadiere

At 16 years of age, he turned heads at the elite Clairefontaine academy with his technical ability on the ball and his pure number 9 movement off of it. Fortunately for him, among those impressed was Arsene Wenger, the genius French football mind who was currently assembling his dream squad that would go on to become the undisputed ‘Invincibles’ of England. Wenger soon put the young Frenchman- who had trouble getting permission for this from his parents- on a plane to the UK.

What followed was a 6-year long career at Arsenal where he found Wenger to be a father figure, and earned himself a rare ‘Invincibles’ Premier League medal. Jeremie was among the Ruling Masters of England in 2002/3. As his career progressed, Jeremie saw it all. He found himself lifting trophies, as well as fall from glory; but only to get back up stronger and have the season of his life in his beloved France. From debunking transfer speculations in his prime to waiting for the phone to ring on bad days, from struggling around a star studded line up to coping with the trauma that is life after football, Jeremie Aliadiere opens up in an exceptional interview with us at Back Of The Net. Enjoy!

Backofthenet: Let’s start from the very beginning, you trained at the world-renowned INF Clairefontaine Academy, which has produced the likes of Thierry Henry, and more recently, Kylian Mbappe. How important do you think the academy turned out to be in molding you into a professional footballer? Would things have gone differently if you attended another academy?

Jeremie Aliadiere: Clairefontaine Academy was the best pre formation I could have ever had as everything was based on technical abilities. We were training every day for 2 hours which helped me so much to develop as a boy as well. I had to leave home at the age of 13 so I had to grow up very quickly.

Clairefontaine Academy, France

Clairefontaine Academy, France

BOTN: You have said that at the tender age of 16, after signing for Arsenal, you moved in to your own five-bedroom house in Southgate. Things were definitely looking good off the field for you. Do you think that level of independence and luxury at such a young age impacted you positively? What did you learn from those experiences?

JA: I moved from France at 16 to a country where I didn’t speak the language so my parents weren’t gonna let me go to the UK unless my grandparents moved with me. They stayed for 6 months but found it very tough and went back. After that I lived on my own. It has only impacted me in a good way I think as I had to become an adult at a very early age and quickly. Yes I have made mistakes but learned from them and moved on in my life and my career.

BOTN: During your early years at Arsenal, you had three fairly disappointing loan moves including one to Celtic under Gordon Strachan. What happened during that time and why do you believe Strachan never gave you the opportunity you needed?

JA: I wouldn’t say the Wolves move was disappointing as I played every game for 4 months for a great manager and man Glenn Hoddle. As for Celtic unfortunately Strachan had a lot of belief in me until they signed a Polish striker in middle of August (editors note: Maciej Zurawski). From then he said to me I wasn’t going to start games as I was only on loan so I didn’t see the point of staying at a club  where I wasn’t going to get more playing time than i would at Arsenal. So I left before the end of the summer transfer window to West Ham.

BOTN: Only a handful of players in the world can claim the honor of being called an ‘Invincible’. You were part of the Arsenal Invincibles squad of 2003-4. How does it feel to be part of such an elite group? Do you often reminisce about the golden days?

JA: Yes I always think about it as I realize what an achievement it is. At the time I did feel quite frustrated as I wanted to play more but now that I have retired, I realize how amazing it was to be part of that squad of incredible players.

Aliadiere lifts the Premier League trophy as part of the "Invincibles" (Image from Aliadiere's Instagram)

Aliadiere lifts the Premier League trophy as part of the “Invincibles” (Image from Aliadiere’s Instagram)

BOTN: Henry, Bergkamp, Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and Francis Jeffers were already in the squad when you signed as a striker for Arsenal. Competing for the same position as these already established players, did you ever feel intimidated, or unsure about your own abilities?

JA: Yes, from the beginning I always thought it was pretty impossible for me to get ahead of those guys and I did feel intimidated and didn’t believe in my own abilities.

BOTN: In a recent interview, you called Dennis Bergkamp the ‘smartest’ player you have shared the field with. How do you think training with him changed your perspective of the game or impacted your style of play?

JA: Before joining Arsenal I was always focused on scoring goals but after watching Dennis play, I realized you could enjoy yourself by playing for the team and the other players; creating space for your teammates. He was always one step ahead of everyone else, he saw things before everyone else and was a very clever player.

The legendary Dennis Bergkamp (Image from Tumblr)

The legendary Dennis Bergkamp (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Eventually you left Arsenal and moved to Middlesbrough under Gareth Southgate. It was a turbulent time for the club who were very much in transition following some success under Steve McLaren. What do you remember about that time? 

JA: I will always be grateful to Middlesbrough and Southgate as they gave me that opportunity to be part of a starting eleven in a top club in the Premier League. Yes it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t the same football I was used to but I have learned so much and the fans were amazing.

BOTN: Are you surprised to see how well Southgate is doing as England manager?

JA: i’m not surprised at all with the progress and how well Southgate has done. He was so motivated, clever and smart. I knew he was going to make it at the top.

BOTN: You experienced relegation with Middlesbrough in 2009 which resulted in Gareth Southgate getting sacked and Gordon Strachan being appointed. Given what had happened at Celtic previously in your career, what were your emotions when you learned that Strachan had got the job? Did you feel that you had to move clubs?

JA: When Strachan got the job at ‘Boro, I must say I wasn’t over the moon but thought I would wait and see how things were going to go but he was great to me. From the first day he came in, he said to me he was counting on me so I was very happy and did my best even when I had injuries.

Jeremie Aliadiere at Middlesborough (Image from Tumblr)

Jeremie Aliadiere at Middlesborough (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: A return to France followed with a move to Lorient. You had some of your best seasons for Lorient, where you were a leading striker in a competitive top tier team. What do you think was the reason behind this top spell in the French league?

JA: It’s very simple. I was at the lowest of my career, after spent one year without a club and wasn’t sure I was going play football at the top level again so when Lorient call me I had nothing to lose. Gourcuff gave me back the joy of playing football. Lorient is such a family club and that was what I needed. A family club with a great coach who knows my quality and was going to give me the opportunity to enjoy playing football the way I’ve always like to play football.

BOTN: At Arsenal and at Lorient, you played under two magnificent managers in Arsene Wenger and Christian Gourcuff. Both have unique and distinctive styles. What impact did both managers have on your career? Are there specific things that they did to get the best out of you?

JA: They are both very similar in some ways and both want to play football in an attractive way. Wenger was like a dad to me as I was so young when I joined Arsenal and gave me my chance at the highest level. Gourcuff saved my career and I will always be so grateful to him and Lorient. He believed in me when nobody else did and he made me realize that you achieved great things by being disciplined and tactically organized.

Father figure - Jeremie with former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger (image from Aliadiere's instagram)

Father figure – Jeremie with former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger (image from Aliadiere’s instagram)

BOTN: During your career, you have played for a club who have won various titles and for clubs fighting relegation. How would you assess the differences in the dressing room morale in those situations? Are players more determined to win when they are considered underdogs, or as defending champions?

JA: I think it’s much tougher to play against relegation without a doubt. You play with the clubs survival and know that you could impact on so many people lifes. When you play for the title, you go into certain games with so much confidence that you feel that you have won the game before it started.

BOTN: Your career was often troubled with injuries. How did you try to stay positive during the long, aching periods of recovery before you were allowed to play again? How important is it to have a supportive family behind you during these times?

JA: I have had many big injuries in my career but I have always thought I couldn’t give up. What else was I going to do? Football is my life; that’s all have done since I was 6 so whatever happened I was always going to carry on and fight to come back. My family has always been very supportive and behind me. You do realize when times are hard who Is there for you. Not many people are when the phone isn’t ringing but that’s life.

BOTN: During several interviews, you have opened up about life after football and all the struggles that come with it. What advice would you give to young footballers still in their prime years, such that the end to their careers is more fulfilling? Do you think enough is being done to help footballers prepare for life after retirement?

JA: I would tell them to start preparing what they would like to do after their career is over even if they have a lot of money and don’t need to work. The hardest thing is from one day to the other the change a way of life. Football is a way of life with everything that comes with it. When you lived for 25 years like that it’s very hard to change.

Aliadiere tears his cruciate ligament against Man Utd in the Community Shield in Wales (Image from Aliadiere's Instagram)

Aliadiere tears his cruciate ligament against Man Utd in the Community Shield in Wales (Image from Aliadiere’s Instagram)

BOTN: Finally some fans questions if we may. What advice would you give your younger self? Would you like to have played your career in reverse and end it at Arsenal?

JA: I would tell him to believe in himself more and not to care so much about what other people think.

BOTN: You have a tattoo of the Algerian flag and could have played for them at one stage. You were also close to being called up for the French National team at Lorient. Were you reluctant to play for Algeria as you felt that the French call up might happen?

JA: I could have played for Algeria but didn’t feel I was close enough to the country for me to play for them. I do regret it now as it would have been a great experience. As for France, I was going to get called up once but was a bit injured so couldn’t go.

BOTN: How close did you come to signing for Newcastle in the 2013 January transfer window? Why did that deal fall through?

JA: I wasn’t close at all. I never spoke to Newcastle at that time. It was all press speculation.

BOTN: Finally, you have played in Qatar with Umm Salal SC. Do you think that Qatar will be able to host a successful World Cup in 2022?

JA: Yes I do believe it will be a successful World Cup. It’s a great country with amazing people. They will want impress the rest of world and they can do it so trust me they will do everything in their power to make it a very successful event.

Interview by Sairam Hussian Miran, Special correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Follow Jeremie on Instagram.

One On One with: Warren Barton

There is a list on Wikipedia of a group of players who have managed to pick up less than five caps for England. It’s an extensive list that includes such names as Brian Clough, Steve Bould and Tim Sherwood to name a few. But one of the most surprising names on the list, mostly because of his starring role for Wimbledon and Newcastle in the 90’s is Warren Barton. Despite his obvious talents, the former wingback like many others was a victim of bad timing and managerial preferences that ultimately restricted him from representing his country more than the three times that he did. Was it not for Lee Dixon and Gary Neville and a favouritism towards the traditional fullback at international level, Barton would have won many more caps.

When i caught up with Barton recently via an Instagram Live chat, he explained that whilst he is obviously disappointed not to have represented England more, he understood the situation and supported the decision made which is a true testament of the man he is. We talked in length about his career which started with rejection at Leyton Orient to then proving himself at Maidstone and Wimbledon before becoming England’s most expensive defender for a while when he transferred to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle and joined ” The Entertainers”. Now taking all he learned throughout his career and applying it in his coaching role in sunny California, Barton is giving back to the next generation who all dream about following his career which lead him to one of the biggest challenges of them all: the English Premier League. Enjoy!

Warren is now the Technical Director and Coach at Del Mar Carmel Valley Sharks in San Diego, California as well as an analyst for Fox Sports.

Follow Warren on his official Instagram account.

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Russian League Set To Return But Not Without Concerns

With the current COVID-19 situation Russian football has faced a multitude of problems much like other businesses throughout the country. Despite the fact that the amount of people suffering from the disease keeps on growing daily, the Russian government has decided to weaken its security measures. This means that in the nearest future life in Russia will return to its previous course. However, the ban on mass gatherings is going to be active until the end of the summer.

The decision about whether it makes sense to start restart the Russian Premier League or not was made recently by Russian Football Union. They made the decision to start the Russian Premier League with kick off scheduled for the 21st of June. This news has brought up a lot of questions and concerns about the organization of football matches in the country.

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How will they play?

Originally the RFU planned to play all games will be played without spectators which  given the current COVID 19 statistics in Russia, it seemed like the most logical decision. However they have since altered that plan and now will allow a small amount of spectators (10% of stadiums’ seats) to be filled. As for the structure, the remaining eight rounds will be held from June 21 to July 22 and to follow the previous schedule and complete within one month, clubs will have to play every two days. The Russian Cup is also returning on 24th of June.

Is it safe?

Russian Football Union and Russian Premier League jointly worked out a protocol for holding games, which has taken into account all the requirements of state authorities, as well as the achievements of other leagues that have decided to continue their seasons.

“The return of football will be a signal that we are on the path to restoring a familiar lifestyle,” said the RFU president Alexander Dyukov. “Football is needed for teams, coaches, players. In making this decision, we understand that the health of players and employees remains a priority for us. Not a single footballer, not a single employee was infected.”

RFU President Alexander Dyukov (Image from Tumblr)

RFU President Alexander Dyukov (Image from Tumblr)

Despite the decision being made by the RFU and RPL, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the league will restart as normal. The final decision will be made by the government only about a few elements:

1. Allow foreign players to return to Russia.
2. Development of regulations for the matches
3. Restrictions on training and competitions at the regional level

However, RFU president is sure that these small obstacles will be overcome in the nearest future and football will return to us in June.

What about transfers?

Right now, it is hard to say. First of all, many football clubs faced severe financial problems. Secondly, there are still restrictions on entry into Russia with many players still unable to get back to their clubs. In such conditions, it’s very difficult to talk about buying more foreign players. What’s more important not all Russian players got tested, which means that there are still risks of infections.

Post by Irina Kuzina, Back Of The Net Russia correspondent. Follow her now on Instagram.

Serie A Prepares To Restart After Pandemic, But Not Without Concerns

We are living in dark times and on unfamiliar territory. With the current epidemic, COVID 19 has taken away the thing we love most, football. In doing so, it has stopped some really enticing title races throughout Europe from reaching their conclusions especially in Italy.  Before the shutdown, Juventus and Lazio were only separated by only one point having both played 26 times. Juventus haven’t really been the same as maybe previous seasons but the stardom of Paulo Dybala has made the difference for the league champions. Meanwhile against all the odds Lazio have found themselves in title race for the first time in decades.

Dybala has been in incredible form but will he and Juventus get to finish the season? (Image from Tumblr)

Dybala has been in incredible form but will he and Juventus get to finish the season? (Image from Tumblr)

Beyond that title race, the Champions League race is really tight with Inter Milan, Roma, Atalanta and to a degree Napoli fighting for the final two Champions League spots. This has been one of the best years of Italian football in recent memory. The coronavirus has put a stop to all that and we’ve have been waiting months for the league to resume and for the final places to be settled. Who will win the league? Will Lazio manage to dethrone Juventus after seven years on top? Or will the brilliance of Paulo Dybala be enough to earn yet another title for Juventus.  Or will Inter upset everything by clawing their way back into title contention?

We have been sitting on these hypothetical questions for the last two months while the coronavirus has hit hard throughout Europe as well as the United States and beyond. It has left fans waiting for the day matches can resume and we can feel ‘that’ feeling again. That day however appears to be coming it has been announced that Serie A is looking at June 13th as the date to reopen Italian football. It will follow the German Bundesliga which restarted earlier this month much to the delight of its fans. It certainly is the right move but that doesn’t necessarily mean it comes without risk. Even without fans there was going to be a risk that someone can still catch the virus. The risk is obviously something that the Federation needs to take seriously and appears to be. Clubs are obviously conflicted about the league restarting. This decision will benefit some teams and it will deeply upset others. However we must find a way for the league to return it has to come back eventually. If the league is not restarted then the alternative is that its cancelled and will be deemed a lost season. The safety of the players is incredibly important but canceling the league or suspending it until next season just doesn’t sound like a productive way of handling this situation and wont resolve the unknown questions that only come from the league being up and running. This is the tightest title race we’ve seen the last couple years  so throwing away the season will frustrate more than just the fans.

Preparations are being made to make it safe for the league to restart (Image from Tumblr)

Preparations are being made to make it safe for the league to restart (Image from Tumblr)

This year Lazio made a massive step forward after finishing 8th last season. They without doubt have been the biggest story of the season. They didn’t add all that much and still have drastically improved since last year. It’s hard to say what the future will hold for this team because this might be the only chance for Lazio to win the title in the next 20 years. Stripping them of that warranted chance would be a travesty regardless of how much Lazio winning would hurt me they deserve to see how the story ends this season; it would be would be cruel to the sport itself. Equally though the safety to the players has to be taking into consideration and made a priority. If there’s a way that the league can continue this season and conserve their safety they must find a way to make that happen; cancelling the season just isn’t an option.

The matches will probably have to be played without any fans for at least a year. Unfortunately the impact of the coronavirus is going to change sporting events for at least the next two seasons at the very minimum which will be sad because of the value that fans bring in football. They are why we play the game especially; during derbies it hard to fathom them without fans. We will eventually get to go to games again and see our teams score goals and win big matches but in this time we are living in that seems to be far from where we are now. The impact of this virus will take some of the passion and emotion from the game unfortunately but there’s no way around this. All the leagues need to prevent stuff like this happening again; safety has to be the number one priority. Which means for at least a year the Milan Derby, the Roman Derby, the Derby del Mole and others will have to play without fans in attendance setting a heartbreaking precedent. Sadly we’re just going to have to abide by these rules. One day football will be more or less back where it was a few months ago before all this stuff happened but that day unfortunately is not today.

Serie A will play its games with no fans in the stadium likely for the foreseeable future (image from Tumblr)

Serie A will play its games with no fans in the stadium likely for the foreseeable future (image from Tumblr)

The fall out of the virus long term is not only going to impact the fan support but it could impact the seasons of many teams in the league’s top flight.  Essentially when the year kicks off again it will be a fresh start or a new season. Teams like Inter Milan and Roma will greatly benefit from this because both teams have really struggled as of late. Inter seemed to bow out of the title race with a second loss to Juventus that has damaged their bid for a league title. Meanwhile Roma had won two in a row but prior to that lost three on the bounce. Neither have been experiencing their best moments of late. It will allow them to reset and chase down the Champions League spots. Juventus is a team I just feel will always figure it out and maybe in some way they’re going to benefit from the struggles the other teams may endure because of the virus. Juventus may not be the best team but they may end up winning the title despite that. Lazio and Atalanta will be the most affected. Before the break Lazio were unbeaten in their last 21 and Atalanta were in incredible form. They could suffer which will give an opportunity for Inter Milan to reset and find a way to fight back in the title race. The right decision is clearly opening the league up with safety precautions. If there is a way for them to play out the rest of the season they should exercise this option. If safety is at stake for the players and then they have no choice but to cancel it but as long as they can provide safety to the players the team and the league June 13th should go forward the open up the gates to Italian football.

Post by Eliot Ben-Ner, writer for the EverythingRoma blog.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram now.

One To One with: Luke Wilkshire

It’s fair to say that Guus Hiddink knows a thing or two about football. As a manager, Hiddink has achieved more than most and boasts an impressive resume to match. When he took over as Australia manager in 2005, his goal was to qualify for the World Cup the following year, something the Aussies hadn’t managed to do for 32 years. And he did just that. Along the way though, he discovered a gem of a player; someone he would describe as ‘one of the most technically gifted in the squad and a complete and modern player”.

That player was Luke Wilkshire, the no nonsense defensive midfielder whose tough tackling approach and ability to break up the play was viewed as essential to Hiddinks plans. Wilkshires journey from Albion Park, New South Wales to a starting berth at the World Cup is dramatic to say the least. We caught up with him recently to talk about that journey to the World Cup and beyond including his time in Holland which transformed him as a player, his spells in what he calls his second home Russia and the return to Australia and move into management. Enjoy!

Back Of The Net: You began your career at Albion Park, your local club before joining Wollongong Wolves youth team. From there, you moved to the AIS program in Canberra which was responsible for bringing through a lot of Australian talent over the years. What was your reaction when you heard that the Football Federation Australia was closing it down? Do you support Mark Viduka in calling for it to be reinstated?

Luke Wilkshire: I, like Mark and every other player who went through the AIS don’t understand or believe it should have been shut down! It was a massive massive part in preparing me for professional football and definitely should be reinstated.

BOTN: After only a  year at AIS, you moved to England and joined the Middlesbroughs youth team. How did that move come about? Did you have any trepidation about joining?

LW: I had been over before i went to the AIS and Middlesbrough wanted me then however due to visa reasons i couldn’t go until 17 years old. I had no hesitation at all because all i ever wanted was to be a professional footballer and to play in the English Premier League.

Luke-Wilkshire

BOTN: When you joined Middlesbrough, fellow Australians Mark Schwarzer and Brad Jones were at the club, and Tony Vidmar joined the following year. Did it help you to settle in to the club with them there already?

LW: Of course, for sure it helped. Brad and i actually lived together the first year and Mark was like the father figure for us there.

BOTN: With the arrival of Juninho, Geremi and George Boateng, competition for places in the midfield meant it was harder for you to establish yourself. Eventually you moved to Bristol City, dropping down a couple of divisions in doing so. What were your emotions at the time about that move and did you feel that you had not been given the chance at ‘Boro to prove yourself?

LW: It was great having that competition and drove you to improve in order to challenge these guys for places. I had my moments and played a few games. However Steve McLaren i felt wasn’t giving me a fair deal. I wanted to play regularly and that was never going to happen with him always resorting to the established players no matter my performance.

BOTN: Those first two season at Bristol appeared to be full of highs and lows – establishing yourself in the first team but missing out on promotion through the play offs.  You also won your first of 80 full caps for Australia after playing at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. How influential were those years on the future direction of your career?

LW: Those were actually my worst three years in football. However it pushed me mentally to another level which definitely helped me going forward in my career.

 

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BOTN: What happened in your final year at Bristol under Gary Johnson? How delighted were you that made the 2006 World Cup squad despite what was happening at the Gate?

LW: He was unhappy because i wouldn’t sign a new contract and as a result he tried to ruin me by not playing me. He even had me on the bench for the reserve team after being a first team regular. Ultimately hard work paid off and Guus (Hiddink) gave me my break (for Australia).

BOTN: Speaking of Gus Hiddink, he picked you for that squad stating “that he admired your flexibility, quality and technique”. How rewarding was it to hear that from your national manager ahead of the tournament? Did you expect to play a major part in it after hearing this?

LW: Of course it’s nice when one of the best coaches in the world has such words for you. I really didn’t expect anything, i just worked and was ready for whatever would come, determined to take any chance that presented itself.

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BOTN: The game against Italy must be a match that people ask you the most about. You were close to progressing to the quarter finals only for it to be snatched away deep into injury time due to a rather dubious penalty. How hard was that game to process after the final whistle had blow? 

LW: I still can’t believe we lost that game… It just felt like a matter of time before we got our goal. I still haven’t watched it back and i have no wish to. Just move forward

BOTN: Your performances at the World Cup earned you a move to FC Twente in Holland where under the advice of manager Fred Rutten you switched from midfield to become an attacking right back.  Was it an easy transition for you to switch positions? Do you feel that it developed new parts of your overall game?

LW: Fred pulled me aside and said for me to go to the next level he felt i could be a top modern day right back. I enjoyed the position as i still loved to go forward.

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BOTN: The move to Russia in 2008 was unexpected especially as no Australian had ever played in that league before. What was it about that challenge that interested you the most? Was it purely to get out of your own comfort zone?

LW: I love a challenge and everyone was telling me not to go including my mother. I’ve never been one to listen to others. I felt the challenge was exciting and rewarding and was the best decision i ever made.

BOTN: How would you describe the differences between the Russian League and the others that you have played in? More physical?

LW: It’s more like the (English) Premier League than Dutch Eredivisie. Fast and physical but also with a lot of quality. There are many top players playing the the Russian Premier League.

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BOTN: You moved back to Holland to play for Fred Rutten again this time at Feyenoord. The move didn’t quite go as planned with injuries hampering your chances there. When you left the club after only one season, did you consider retirement or did you feel that you still had enough to compete?

LW: I wanted to return to Russia when Fred left Feyenoord and i felt i wouldn’t play. I’m not a player who accepts sitting on the bench. I was dreaming of a return Dynamo and eventually i got just that!

BOTN: A move back to Russia with spells at Terek Grozny and Dynamo Moscow followed then eventually you returned to Australia to sign for Sydney FC. Did you always want to finish your career back in Australia? It ended up being a good move as you picked up silverware as Sydney won the league and cup.

LW: I never wanted to and never thought i would. I was retired after Dynamo and when Arnie (Graham Arnold) called about the opportunity, my initial reaction was no. Then my wife convinced me to play another year.

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BOTN: Since retiring, you have made the transition into management with the club you started out at Wollongong Wolves. What lessons have you taken from your career into management? Have you sought advice from any of your former managers?

LW: I have taken everything i have been through and seen. Naturally i draw on those experiences and try to take that into what i am doing now.

BOTN: What is your take on the current pandemic that has shut down football globally. Do you believe that the A League should I restart and finish the season? 

LW: We need to when safe to be back playing. People live for football. They should finish the season, play midweek games and it can be done within a month.

BOTN: How much does the financial uncertainty around the league sponsorship guide that decision in your eyes?

 

LW: Everyone is aware of the financial stress on the game, that needs to be addressed but ultimately players need to be able to play!

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BOTN: Finally some quick questions. You switched from being a tough tackling holding midfielder that broke up the play to an attacking wing back that set up chances for the forwards. That requires a lot of adjustments – tactically, mentally, visually, technically etc. What was the hardest thing for you to overcome with this switch?

LW: Hard to say, I just wanted to play and be on the pitch so adapted to whatever got me in the team.

BOTN: Do you have aspirations to manage abroad or manage your country in the future? 

LW: I dream about managing my former club Dynamo Moscow one day.

BOTN: Which young Australian players do you rate highly and who will be the next big star?

LW: I like Awer Mabil (plays for FC Midtjylland) and think he has an x factor about him.

BOTN: Lastly, do you have any regrets about your playing career? 

LW: None at all.

BOTN: Thanks Luke, pleasure talking to you. 

Follow Luke on his official Instagram account.

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Conte Under Review – A Look at Conte’s 1st Season Back at Inter.

Inter before Conte was under the leadership of former Roma manager Luciano Spalletti who lead Inter to back to back fourth place finishes along with getting them back in the Champions League for the first time since the 2010 season. He was signed on contract until the 2020 season. But after him finishing in the same position two seasons in a row without improvement, his future with the club was uncertain. After the 2018-19 season ended, Inter decided to part ways with Spalletti and started the search for a new manager.

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Inter drew up a short list of potential candidates for the position that included Conte as well as others such as Zinedine Zidane and Maxi Allegri. After a few short weeks Inter finally choose their man for the future and the only person they thought could take the club to the next level, Antonio Conte. To be fair, Conte has had a very successful career with a variety of clubs so the decision made a lot of sense. His career really took off is when he debuted as manager for Juventus on May 11th 2011. He replaced then manager Luigi Delneri  and was given high expectations to succeed as he has a history of playing for the club as a midfielder and had winning things. In his In his first ten months he made a huge impact, helping them tie Fabio Capello unbeaten run of 28 matches with AC Milan during the 1991-92 season. In 2012, Conte lead them to a Coppa Italia final which was the first time since the 2004 season. In the same year he completed the the league double against Inter and he was awarded the Trofeo Maestrelli which is the highest honor given to the best managers in the league. Capping it all off, he lead them to their 28th league title, despite drawing a lot of their matches that season. 

In the following season he lead them to their next title in remarkable fashion, losing only once to Napoli in the Coppa Italia. Despite winning three back to back league titles, success in Europe eluded him at every turn. Juventus were eliminated from the Champions League but managed to reach the semi finals of the Europa League in the 2013-14 season. In July 2014 Conte thought it was best to part ways with the club despite winning three Panchina d’oros for best Serie A coach of the season. He would then manage the Italy national squad before signing as manager for English club Chelsea in 2016 on a three year contract. He started that season with authority perfecting a new 3-4-3 formation which starting in match week 7 lead to a 13 game unbeaten run, tying Arsenals record set back in 2002. That run came to an end against rivals Tottenham in early January. The remarkable unbeaten run resulted in Conte being named EPL manager of the month three months in a row, which at the time was a league record. In the 2016-17 season he lead them to a League title but lost out on the double to Arsenal a few weeks later in the FA Cup final. After the season he signed a two year contract extension which was to end sometime this year.

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The following season he was able to win the FA Cup beating Manchester United 1-0. But he finished the 2017-18 season in fifth place missing out on the Champions League resulting in the club making the decision to part ways with Conte as his performance with the club was slowly on the decline. Over the past year it was uncertain with what would happen to him as he has been out of work. With Spalletti’s future unclear they parted ways with him, laying to rest the rumours being circulated about a replacement being sought and signed Conte on May 31st 2019 on an unknown length contract.

Conte has several plans and ideas for the future for the club. First and foremost he is trying to make the locker room a drama free zone. This is why he is trying to sell Icardi after his loan with PSG (which maybe happening as Icardi has shown interest at staying in France). This is because Icardi and his wife tended to be the centre of a lot of drama not just with management but with other players as well. This created  an issue due to the friction between players and management which led to poor performance on the pitch. This is a thing Conte is trying to avoid since he wants the club to be at it’s best and players working well together would help the clubs image as well. Another plan of his for the club is to get Inter another Scudetto which they haven’t seen since the 2010 season. He said he is trying to accomplish this goal within the next three seasons which is very attainable. These are all reasonable expectations; he is known for achieving the goals he sets for himself and his team. He also is trying to get Inter a European title as well though despite struggling there in the past.

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Inter so far under his leadership have accomplished quite a few things. Firstly he has achieved his goal of having a drama free club. There hasn’t been any issues of incidents coming from the locker room. The players seem to be getting along well along with the players and management. Relationships and the team have never been stronger. Also no player has been charged with fines in regards to being late for training sessions. This is all down to Conte’s strict training regime. They workout daily and they practice various formations, agility and speed exercises etc. This helps kept them in shape preventing issues of stamina and weight gain. Also the 3-5-2 formation he has implemented has worked well despite having some draw backs. This formation as worked well against lower and mid table teams but against some of the stronger teams it falls flat where the extra defender in the back would come in handy such has a 4-3-3 formation. The problem with some of his tactics is he makes substitutions at the wrong times for example he brings off Argentine striker Lautaro Martinez after seventy minutes into the match when goals are imperative  or he brings a key player off for a player of weaker status. This in my opinion is why Inter have lost points and have seen them drop in the table. One thing to also note is that he is not bringing in fresh starters. He tends to play the same starters week after week which leads to fatigue and player exhausted and is one of the reasons I think they struggle in European competitions.

Overall Conte may not win the Scudetto in his first season out which was to be expected given the changes he needed to make. But to go from title contention to falling to third is a major disappointment. But the positive is they kept the battle for a good chunk of the first part of the campaign which is an accomplishment because during winter they went on to lose or draw seven plus matches in a row so to see the fight until the first few matches of the second half of the season is huge. If I were to give Conte a ranking out of five stars one being bad five being excellent, I would give him three and a half stars. He has made strides getting Inter in a positive area in way of keeping things civil in the locker room and keeping them in shape. But he still has work to do in way of tactics if he can adapt with formations and making smart substitutions Inter have a chance at winning a title in the near future. In conclusion Conte has a bright future with the club and who knows what his future will hold.

Post by Danielle Luhrsen, writer for The Galleria of Internazionale Milano.

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One on One with: Michael Ball

We are back with an all new interview, this time with former Everton, Rangers, Man City and England left back Michael Ball. Bursting onto the scene in the 1996/97 season with Everton, Ball quickly became a mainstay in that side despite his young years. It was a difficult period for the Blues with off field financial issues often dampening the aspirations of the die hard fans. But with the promotion of Ball and others (such as Richard Dunne, Francis Jeffers and Leon Osman) from the 1997 FA Youth Cup win, the club looked set for a bright future. It would be short lived and Ball like many other stars were sold to balance the books.

We caught up with him recently to chat his career including switching from Liverpool to Everton in his youth, his time in Scotland including that Old Firm game, marking the Romford Pele and winning so few caps for England.

Back Of The Net: Who was your idol growing up? What influence did they have on your career?

Michael Ball: Mostly any Everton player on the ’80’s – I used to love being big Neville (Southall) in goal but also try to score diving headers like Andy Gray & shoot like Kevin Sheedy.

BOTN: As a schoolboy you traded the red half of Liverpool for the blue half by joining Everton from Liverpool’s youth system. How did that come about? 

MB: I was lucky enough to have the son of a Liverpool academy coach Hughie McCauley in my local side. He invited me to a training session when I was around seven years old which continued until just before my 14th birthday. McCauley, Dave Shannon & Stevie Heighway were 3 fantastic coaches.

BOTN: Let’s talk about Everton and making your breakthrough at 17 under the legendary Howard Kendall. How did it feel to pull on that jersey for your debut against Spurs?  

MB: It was a fantastic unbelievable feeling and one I’d been dreaming & focusing on doing all my life.

Ball gets the better of Vegard Heggem in the Merseyside derby (Image from Tumblr)

Ball gets the better of Vegard Heggem in the Merseyside derby (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Financial issues at Everton led to a move north of the border to Rangers. It was either Rangers or Middlesborough correct? Looking back now, do you think that was the right move to make at that early stage in your career?  

MB: I was crushed when I wasn’t going to be offered a new deal at Everton. They apparently accepted offers from Liverpool, Middlesborough and Rangers.  I was hoping to stay & prove the manager wrong but after being told I would rot in the reserves a move had to happen sadly.

BOTN: You have played in the Old Firm derby (Glasgow Rangers vs Glasgow Celtic) and the Merseyside one (Liverpool vs Everton). How do they compare? 

MB: Both games are fantastic, obviously being a local blue I know the feeling of winning but also losing these games. The Old Firm was no different just media build up beforehand was a lot more.

BOTN: What happened in your Old firm debut when you were substituted? 

MB: The disagreement (between Ball and Rangers manager Dick Advocaat) was just myself showing frustration in the wrong way to the manager at the time. I reacted because I just wanted to keep playing and gets us back into the game.

 

Rangers beat several offers to land Ball (Image from Tumblr)

Rangers beat several offers to land Ball (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: It was in Scotland that you suffered your first major injury, damaging your medial ligament which would keep you out for the better part of two seasons. Mentally and emotionally that must have been tough. How did you cope with that injury and were there times where you thought you wouldn’t bounce back? 

MB: It was a really difficult time for myself and the club who invested a lot to bring me in. For me, it was an injury I had been carrying for over a season and thought I’d got over it. Unfortunately after a game my patella tendinitis (an overuse injury of the tendon that straightens the knee) came back and an operation was the only way forward. Dr Steadman was in shock at the state of my tendon but also reassured me I’ll be back playing once rehab was complete.

BOTN: Rumour has it your move to PSV Eindhoven came as a result of a recommendation by Ronald Waterreus (former Rangers goalkeeper) to then manager Guus Hiddink. You were all set to sign for Birmingham but instead signed for PSV. What changed your mind? 

MB: That’s true I think. Ronald came from & lived in Eindhoven. As a PSV legend he also went into the training ground when he could. After a successful year including reaching the semi final of the Champions League, they sold their left back Yeong-pyo Lee to Spurs. Ronald said there’s a guy at Rangers worth looking at. Birmingham had been in talks for few weeks offering a three year deal, but then went silent for a long period when I wanted to sign. Birmingham finally came back on deadline day but changed their offer to only one year.  On way to the airport Guss Hiddink called said all the right things & it was only one choice to go, compete in the Champions League & for titles.

BOTN: After PSV, you joined Manchester City as part of their evolution under Sven Goran Eriksson. Was that your most enjoyable time as a player? Was it good to reunited with Sven who gave you your England debut?

MB: It felt great to back to the U.K. & to be coached by Sven. I felt it was the fittest I’d been for a long time and I was hoping success would soon follow with Sven’s ambitions for the club.

 

 

Michael returned to England to sign for Man City following his spell in Holland (Image from Tumblr)

Michael returned to England to sign for Man City following his spell in Holland (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Eriksson signed you later on for Leicester, right? Is he the manager you liked playing for the most? 

MB: Sven tried to sign me while he was manager at Notts Country.  I think he liked my attitude in how approached the game and in training as a lot of his session where defensive focused which I enjoyed a lot.

BOTN: Many people (myself included) are surprised by the fact that you only earned one cap for England during your career but It would appear as though injuries and unfortunate timing in a sense that England had an abundance of options at left back at the time (Ashley Cole, Wayne Bridge etc.) played a role. Would you agree? Is that your biggest regret? 

MB: I had my eye on that role coming through the youth yanks and also being selected a few times before my debut happen but it’s not a regret as I couldn’t do too much about it. The timing of my injury was the biggest let down for my England career as unfortunately for myself Cole and Bridge had established themselves in the squad. I still hoped even though it would be difficult that I could find a way back in.

Its surprising to many that Ball only has one England cap to his name (Image from Tumblr)

It’s surprising to many that Ball only has one England cap to his name (Image from Tumblr)

 

BOTN: Recently we have seen wingers like Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia converted into full backs. What are your thoughts on this? Do you see any positional issues with this?

MB: It seems to be the going trend in modern football. I get it. As most full backs in the game one day probably started as a winger.  My worry is like most they aren’t natural defenders and that art of defending is dying out. They react to situations instead of pre-emptying it.

BOTN: So, what’s next for Michael Ball? Tell us more about two companies you are involved in – Sports Company & Crafted Society? 

MB: Since retired I’ve being struggling into what next –  Coaching / manager etc. That was the obvious choice but the coaching badge courses weren’t for me. My phone kept ringing from ex-teammates, parents and kids who were all asking for my advice & guidance which I’ve now continued doing so with my own sports agency business that keeps me busy and learning. Crafted Society is a fantastic company based in Amsterdam founded by my good friends Mart & Lise, who both have huge experiences in this field and it’s a joy to see them create hand crafted items around the world but also giving back to charities.

BOTN: Finally, a few quick hits please. hardest opponent to mark? 

MB: I played against a lot of world class players like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo etc but when i was coming through at Everton, Ray Parlour (Arsenal midfielder) was difficult to mark.

The Romford Pele - Ray Parlour (Image from Tumblr)

The Romford Pele – Ray Parlour (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Best player played with?

MB: Too hard so many. It would be unfair to name just one.

BOTN: Proudest moment as a player? 

MB: Again, too many. Everton debut, first goal, England appearance, first medals etc. All of it.

BOTN: And how do you think Everton will get on this coming season. 

MB: With Carlo at the club, I’m hoping now Everton will start the journey of success. It will take time but with a winner like Carlo, I am excited to see what the next few seasons as a blue will be.

BOTN: That will indeed be interesting to see. Thank You Michael.

If you are a player, coach or parent who need any guidance from Michael, please reach out to him directly via Twitter or Linkedin.

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Talking Heads – Discussing the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on football

With the world crippled by the COVID 19 pandemic, global football has come to a grinding halt as countries focus on trying to contain the disease. To date, 39,000 people have lost their lives and just over 800,000 have been affected by the virus; with those numbers unfortunately growing by the day. The hope is that with government driven measures being introduced at a country by country level, the spread of the disease can be slowed enough to give the health care workers on the front line enough time to support those who are currently sick and the medical community time to find a viable treatment.

Like most industries, the football world is feeling the effects of the global shutdown. Clubs who have stopped operating for now have had to make drastic cuts to stay afloat with many laying off ground and administrative staff in the process. At some of the larger clubs like Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona, players have accepted temporary pay cuts in an attempt to help the club staff not on the pitch. But for other players who play in the lower divisions and operate on a pay check to pay check basis, its a more worrisome time with a very uncertain future ahead of them.

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Rhys McCabe and Maurice Ross answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

To get a better sense of how the situation is affecting the football world, we spoke to Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe. Caldwell is a former Scotland international defender who is the president of League1 Ontario club Oakville Blue Devils FC, as well as an assistant coach of the Canadian national team. Fellow internationalist Ross is working as first team coach at Motherwell in Scotland whilst former Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland Under 21 midfielder Rhys McCabe currently plays for Brechin City in the Scottish League Two. We spoke to them about the current situation, how it’s affecting football and what the future holds.

BOTN: Let’s go to Rhys first. Tell is about the current situation regarding your existing contract and what the league suspension means for you.

McCabe: My current situation is that my short term contract is meant to finish at the end of May, start of June. But I can’t think about that for now. The (league) suspension I feel is right as 100% of the focus must be on the health and wellbeing of everyone. Until we get this pandemic under control, nothing else matters.

There are a lot of uncertainties at the moment. Are they finishing this season? Will delays mean more games and more into next season? Will there be a new league structure?. There are lots of components which will play a role. Already its been three weeks without sport and people are in a pickle with what to do. Sport is a huge part of our society and without that people feel lost.

BOTN: Maurice, as first team coach at SPL side Motherwell, how are you feeling about the current situation and the suspension of the league?

Ross: Like all football people we like to be outdoors and competing. This of course is not the case due to the virus. I’m so bored. Plenty long walks and lying in bed a bit longer is no substitute for getting up and going to work! I miss that so much! Planning sessions, correcting movements of players and just that feeling of achieving something each day. Sooner this is resolved the better.

BOTN: Is the club concerned about the uncertainty of the suspension and the financial implications?

Ross: The club are doing all the planning possible to forecast what the future looks like depending on when/if we get back to playing. We are lucky we are in a relatively good position financially just now but we know there will be challenges ahead, so we will rely on our fans to help us through joining the Well Society or buying season tickets soon.

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

BOTN: Steven, there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of what will happen to the existing league and cup campaigns in the various different countries. How would you resolve the league situations?

Caldwell: The leagues have to be finished in my opinion. There is no way you can start a new season until the previous one has been concluded. The knock on affect might be a modified 2020/21 season but it’s my belief the previous one has to be brought to a conclusion whenever that may be.

Ross: From our (Motherwell) prospective, we will follow the advice and decisions of government and football authorities. Obviously we are third and in a European position so we would want the season to be played to a completion if there was any way at all possible, but we will accept whatever people say because this is bigger than football – it’s people’s health!

BOTN: What impact do you think this enforced break will have on the players mentally and physically? If the league is to restart at a point in the future, will players be able to pick up from where they left off with ease?

Caldwell: I don’t think they will be able to pick up with ease. There is no doubt it will have an affect. Normally at this time of the season teams are in their peak and rhythm is at its optimal point. I think it may have a pre season feel when it resumes. The players will be affected mentally and physically however I don’t see this being a great problem when the season continues.

McCabe: This pandemic is and will have a huge impact on players as its almost like an off season schedule. To then come back into things fully committed and ready when your body on a normal basis would have a 5 week period to do a pre season and prepare for the demands of a season. The risk of injury will be higher and no matter how much you train and keep fit during this time there is nothing that compares to match sharpness. Nothing in a training format can replicate this . That’s just a fact.

On the mental side, I feel it will have an impact on players but not just players; society as a whole. For over 30+ years there has been a culture of “football Saturday” where people look forward to and live for the weekend of football, wherever that may be home or away or a simple match on the tv. It’s become more social every season with the media and Sky broadcasting live matches.

This all has a knock on effect as people will be lost with nothing to do or look forward to. Trying to fill that void will be very hard but the priority 100% is the health and safety and trying to get this under control.

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Footballer like Lionel Messi and Marcelo have been keeping themselves busy in home isolation by juggling toilet rolls

BOTN: The financial implications of this pandemic will be felt throughout all levels of football with several reports suggesting clubs could go bust as a result. Do you think this will happen or is it up to FIFA or local governing bodies to stop this?

Caldwell: There is an enormous money in the game of football. Now it’s up to those that have to provide that assistance to make sure all forms of the game are protected. I sincerely hope that this happens and this unprecedented crisis creates an understanding of what truly makes this game beautiful.

BOTN: Let’s focus on the players for a moment. There will be a lot of players who are looking towards this summer with much trepidation due to the need to move clubs or indeed find a new one if their contracts run out. Do you anticipate that players will be expected to make personal sacrifices as football gets back on its feet following this pandemic?

Caldwell: Yes I think players will make personal sacrifices. They will have to. The intricacies and knock on effect of this is wide reaching and it will certainly have an impact on those who are becoming a free agent in the summer. It’s hard to tell at this moment however I think it will have a detrimental impact financially for such players.

BOTN: Rhys, your contract is up at the end of the season. How concerned are you about this summer when your contract concludes especially as it’s still unknown when the football season will resume?

McCabe: Concerned may be the word for a lot of people out of contract with Bill’s to pay and no job to do so, but for me it’s more about the love for it and when it will actually commence and what exactly the structure and format is going to be?

ContractLaw

With many players out of contract, the fast approaching summer brings further uncertainty.

BOTN: Has your club (Brechin City) been one touch with you about renewing your contract or given you any reassurances?

McCabe: With what’s going on, it hasn’t been spoken about as I would imagine the list of to dos at the club are through the roof. I’m only contracted until the end of May regardless so I will see what my options are then.

BOTN: Maurice, Are Motherwell making contingency plans for the various different scenarios and what will happen to players and staff out of contract in the summer?

Ross: I can’t comment on the final question as I am not privy to the ins and outs of all contracts. However this football club always behaves in an ethical and professional manner so I’m sure whatever happens Motherwell will act accordingly.

BOTN: There is clearly a lot of unknowns about what will happen and what decisions will come as a result. This leads us to the question around communications. Let’s start with you Rhys. Have you had any communications from the PFA Scotland about what’s happening long term?

McCabe: The PFA Scotland have been updating the players on a regular basis with knowledge, advice, help and updates they hear through the governing body. Again it’s hard at the moment because there is no definite answer on how to treat this and until the government have a plan in place we have to wait. But they have been great with regular updates and support.

BOTN: Finally Steven do you think FIFA and UEFA have been vocal enough during this pandemic or do you think they are leaving the decisions primarily to the local federations?

Caldwell: I think there is so much uncertainty that Uefa and FIFA don’t know what to say at the moment. I think they are concerned about giving definitive details and then having to go back on them. By mid to late April we will have a better understanding of how long this realistically is going to take and that’s when both organizations have to step up and be decisive with their actions.

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Russia’s WADA ban – What you need to know

Russia will not be allowed participate in the World Cup 2022. What else do WADA sanctions lead to?

The decision of the WADA Executive Committee, which for four years removed all Russian sport from the Olympic and world championships, will hit our football as well. Most importantly, Euro 2020 matches will be held in Russia, and the Russian team will perform at the tournament. However, at the World Cup 2022, there will not be Russian team, even if it goes through all qualifying games.

Euro 2020: everything is safe

The World Anti-Doping Agency clarified the issue of the European Championship 2020. This tournament is held under the auspices of UEFA, and this organization is not a signer of either the Compliance Standard or the WADA Code. And the tournament itself is continental, and accordingly does not belong to the concept of major events.

Nothing threatens the holding of Euro 2020 matches in Russia. As well as the participation of the Russian team in this tournament. Russian National team will hold at least three matches next summer in Saint Petersburg and Copenhagen in the form of a national team, the design of which has not yet been finalized. May be more, but here it all depends only on the results.

World Cup 2022: the Russian team only in the selection

In the qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Russian team will also be able to play, as usual. Although this is part of the tournament held under the auspices of FIFA, but part is continental.

But the Russian team will not go to Qatar in any case, even if it breaks through there. This was stated by WADA representatives at a press conference in Lausanne, but the final decision is for FIFA. Although even such a powerful international federation is unlikely to go against WADA.

And what team will go to Qatar instead of Russia if our team gets a ticket there? The team of neutral athletes, each of whom must receive a separate admission to participate. However, it will still be Russian team, even if there is a chance that individual players will not be allowed to the World Cup.

Final Champions League 2021 and European Cups: nothing will change

Club tournaments are not included in the major events category. So, nothing threatens the participation of Russian clubs in European competition. As well as holding the final of the Champions League season 2020/21 in Saint Petersburg.

What about Euro 2024

Judging by the fact that the sanctions are prescribed for four years, then by the European Championship in 2024 they should be lifted. So even if WADA forces UEFA to sign a compliance standard and a code, Russian sport should by then end the ban.

However, it makes no sense to think for such a long time. Russia needs to deal with current punishments. Hopefully, all Russian officials involved in the scandal will also receive their punishment. Russia has already launched a formal appeal.

Post by Irina Kuzina. Follow her now on Instagram.

Top Predictions for 2020

If we all had crystal balls to see what the future holds, then it would be pretty pointless. The unpredictability of the future is what keeps life interesting and what keeps all of us football fans watching week in week out. The twists and turns within the beautiful game keep us on the edges of our seats, wondering what will happen next. But from time to time, the media likes to make predictions for what will happen in the future and the start of a new year always heralds their latest predictions. Not to be left out, here are our top predictions for this year ahead:

Bayern are finally toppled – It’s not been the ideal start for Bayern Munich in their search for their eighth Bundesliga title in a row. The Bavarian club find themselves in unusual waters sitting in third in the table as they headed into the winter break with RB Leipzig on top and Borussia Monchengladbach in second. Bayern have already dispensed with the services of manager Niko Kovac who couldn’t quite manage the inflated egos at Bayern both on and off the pitch. Bayern’s misfortune has been to the benefit of others who look to end their dominance and it looks as though this will be the year it happens. Not since 2011-2012 has another team (in that case Borussia Dortmund) threatened Bayern’s position as top dog but this season is different. RB Leipzig are flying high under the management of Julian Nagelsman whilst Monchengladbach are surprising many with their fast flowing attacking football. With a caretaker in place at Bayern and some further adjustments needed in the boardroom, Bayern are in transition and about to lose their crown.

Will this be the year that RB Leipzig pip Bayern to the title? (Image from Tumblr)

Will this be the year that RB Leipzig pip Bayern to the title? (Image from Tumblr)

Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title – ok so this one is fairly safe to assume it will happen but still it’s worth pointing out that others have been in similar dominant positions before catastrophically collapsing as the season drew to a close (Newcastle had a ten point gap between themselves and Man United at Christmas in the 95/96 season only to throw it away in the new year). The difference is that Liverpool have amassed such a strong squad and are playing with such confidence and conviction that it’s hard to see exactly how they could not win the title. Indeed the Champions League winners are in such tremendous form that it’s hard to see which team will manage to take any points away from them. Man City, who were the early season favours have stuttered through whilst surprise outfit Leicester looked like genuine contenders before they were taught a harsh lesson by Jurgen Klopp’s side in the 4-0 mauling just a few weeks ago. Only a series of bad injuries to key players could derail this run to the finish line for the Anfield club who have waited so very patiently for their day to come.

Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title (Image from Tumblr)

Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title (Image from Tumblr)

Juventus will win the Champions League this season – so often the bridesmaid and never the bride, the Turin side will finally get their time at footballs alter in Istanbul this June and will lift the trophy. The script has been written for it to happen with Cristiano Ronaldo upfront, a stellar cast behind him and the return of club legend Gigi Buffon for one last swan song. It looked like his chance had past when then Real Madrid striker Ronaldo popped up three years ago in Cardiff to score an incredible overhead kick past Buffon and break his heart. He left shortly afterwards for PSG but returned to the old Lady after only a season away. Could he now play a pivotal role in Juventus lifting the trophy?

There are some that could stand in their way. Real Madrid and Barcelona will both favour their chances as will PSG who have little to play for apart from the Champions league given how dominant they are in France. Man City will likely make a strong push but with defensive frailties, they could be exposed as the tournament progresses. And what about defending Champions Liverpool. It would be a fairytale story for them to return to Istanbul after all those years for yet another final but my sense is that Klopp will favour lifting the league title over another European one. Juventus who play Lyon in the round of 16 look like genuine contenders with manager Maurizio Sarri keen to show the world just how good a coach he is and how bad a mistake Chelsea made by letting him go.

One more chance for Buffon in the Champions League (Image from Tumblr)

One more chance for Buffon in the Champions League (Image from Tumblr)

ADO Den Haag will sack Alan Pardew before the end of the season – if you didn’t know that he had been appointed in the first place, it’s understandable. It happened just before Christmas and was a bit of a shock. Not since Steve McLaren’s infamous FC Twente move has the appointment of an Englishman in the Dutch league raised so many eyebrows. Pardew stated that the move was “just what he was looking for in his search for a new challenge” but what he meant was it was a job and finally someone was offering him one. Things haven’t started that well for Pardew at Den Haag who lie second bottom of the Eredivisie. He has had to deal with a senior player attacking one of the coaching staff and have a difficult conversation with the clubs Chinese owners over the lack of transfer funds available (the owners gave the past manager only £1m to spend). Pardew and Den Haag don’t play their first game together until January 19th so plenty of time to perfect his tactics and start learning Dutch. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take lessons from McLaren who have one of the funniest interviews ever recorded during his time in Holland. Regardless of the language issues, Den Haag hardly has a squad capable of getting themselves out of their existing mess so Pardew will need to rely on loan signings and freebies to change things. With a lack of money, a distant owner and major language and squad issues, Pardew’s stay in Holland should be a short one.

Alan Pardew took a gamble in moving to Holland, one that shouldn't pay off (Image from Tumblr)

Alan Pardew took a gamble in moving to Holland, one that shouldn’t pay off (Image from Tumblr)

Rangers pip Celtic to stop 9 in a row – When Steven Gerrard arrived at Ibrox last summer, the club made its intentions clear – they wanted to bridge the gap between themselves and Celtic and challenge again for honours. Behind close doors though, the message was somewhat more precise – stop Celtic from reaching nine titles in a row. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of Scottish football, there have been two dominant teams since the great wars, Celtic and Rangers who collectively are known as The Old Firm. Between the two they have won a majority of the league titles with each having significant periods of domination, Celtic in the mid 60’s and Rangers in the late 80’s/early 90’s. But now Celtic are on top again having capitalized on Rangers recent financial crisis which saw them drop down to the lowest division in Scotland and start again. Without a notable challenger (Aberdeen were the closest to posing a threat), Celtic stretched the gap between themselves and their arch rivals winning title after title up until last season which made it eight in a row. Celtic are still firm favourites to win their ninth yet Rangers under Steven Gerrard have improved enough that perhaps for the first time in a long time, winning the title might not be as straightforward for Celtic as they would hope. Rangers victory in the last Old firm derby narrowed the gap at the top to only two points and with Gerrard’s side very much with the momentum, Rangers could pip Celtic to the title and stop nine in a row.

Rangers under Steven Gerrard have closed the gap on rivals Celtic (Image from Tumblr)

Rangers under Steven Gerrard have closed the gap on rivals Celtic (Image from Tumblr)

VAR has to change in the Premier Leagues or clubs will rebel – the grey lines of football, those narrow calls by a linesman or a referee for offside or obstruction that VAR was supposed to help with are getting less clear by the day. Since its implementation at the start of the season, the VAR system has wreaked havoc on the Premier League with several calls being questioned. When used well the system should provide the officials with confidence to make a tough call accurately but used too well, it ruins the fabric of the game that draws the fans in the first place. Indeed it’s the micro decision calls that are causing the most upset and leading for calls for a change. Using lines and axis to work out if a strikers little toe or pinky are in an offside position is not what was intended for VAR. But sadly that is what is happening. That, plus the 30-60 second delay whilst the referee consults with those in the VAR booth, are ruining football for everyone. UEFA is considering changing the definition of offside to counteract these problems but in fact it should be down to the officials to dial it back and stop this nonsense. VAR should be used only sparingly when the calls fall into that grey space. They shouldn’t be putting the entire game into that grey space which is what they are doing.

Jack Grealish's goal for Villa against Burnley was ruled out due to VAR intervention (Image from Tumblr)

Jack Grealish’s goal for Villa against Burnley was ruled out due to VAR intervention (Image from Tumblr)

And finally, Pep calls time on his stay at Man City – it’s been a difficult start to the season for the reigning English champions with injuries to Sane and Laporte plus poor performances derailing their title defence early on. Their manager Pep Guardiola has all but conceded the title saying that the gap is too big to claw back. He won’t give up trying of course but the realist inside of the Spaniard knows it will take a miracle for City to come out on top by the end of the season. The end of the season will also see Guardiola depart, less because City wants him too but more because Pep has taken them as far as he can. Winning the league title on two occasions plus numerous other trophies should be enough for the Man City hierarchy but the lofty ambition of winning the Champions League is what will drive Pep out. He knows it is hard to deliver this for them and still maintain an active challenge on all other fronts. The money that once flowed like water is now flowing like treacle with the clubs owners pulling back somewhat in recent years. Losing Sane and Laporte and not being able to replace them told Guardiola everything he needed to know. He is a winner through amen through (his average win percentage of 72.7% shows this) but even winners need some help once and a while. City have been lucky to have him and he has delivered as promised by turning them into not only a team to fear in England but also across the continent. Pep however has grown tired of his time in Manchester and will take his leave in the summer, taking a well earned break before deciding where he will go next. Wherever he goes, expect him to win because that is what he does best.

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Second Time Around For Moyes As West Hams Owners Eat Humble Pie

It was only a matter of time before David Moyes found himself back in management. The Scot had been on the substitute bench for a while after leaving West Ham at the end of the 2017-2018 season. He has had several offers from both home and abroad yet Moyes believed strongly that he belonged in the Premier League.

Indeed his old club Everton looked to be lining him up only to eventually go for Carlo Ancelotti. But Moyes didn’t have to wait much longer before West Ham came calling following the sacking of Manuel Pellegrini.

There is a slight sense of irony that West Ham have returned to Moyes after Pellegrini failed. After all Moyes was already in the managers chair when owners David Gold and David Sullivan had a change of heart and decided not to renew his contract in favour of heading down a different direction.

That “direction” was Pellegrini and at first it looked like an inspired move. But now the two David’s are eating a huge slice of humble pie with West Ham after turning back to the man who saved them from relegation the last time.

The problem that faced Pellegrini and ultimately led to his downfall was the heavy expectations. It was expected that West Ham would be a gatecrasher in the top six this season given the amount of money they spent in the summer and the summer before (£170m in total). Indeed the squad bulked up in key areas previously lacking whilst deadweight was shifted on to leave the squad lean but mean. Everything was set for Pellegrini to be successful.

Indeed it looked like he would be at the start of the campaign. Four wins from their opening six games including a stellar winning performance against Man Utd put West Ham exactly on target to upset that top six. But then came the trip to Bournemouth where things started to unravel at an alarming rate. An injury to Lukasz Fabianksi late in the first half rocked what looked to be a fairly comfortable Hammers performance and bizarrely they never seemed to recover. Bournemouth took the lead shortly after and although Cresswell rescued a point late on, it was clear that something was not quite right.

Many fingers were pointed in the direction of back up goalie Roberto who made a series of howlers in the games following the draw with Bournemouth but in truth the wheels were already shaky before he came into the side. Pellegrini failed to inspire the squad he had and live up to the expectations. Now it’s Moyes turn to see what he can do.

He (Moyes) does inherits a squad brimming with talent though. In goal, he has arguably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League last season (Fabianski) that didn’t play for Man City or Liverpool. In front of the Pole, Aaron Cresswell and Ryan Fredericks are accomplished wing backs whilst Zabaleta offers a more stable footing if needed. Declan Rice competes alongside Mark Noble, Jack Wilshire and Pablo Fornals for midfield engine slots whilst Lanzini, Felipe Anderson and Yarmolenko offer the creative supply for target man and record signing Sébastien Haller up front. That’s not even mentioning West Ham mainstays like Robert Snodgrass and Michel Antonio who always tend to end up on the score sheet when least expected.

Moyes can succeed where Pellegrini failed by making some minor tactical and formational changes. For example pushing Felipe Anderson more into a central role rather than on the wing should free him up to shine like he has done in past seasons.

Similarly placing a secondary striker upfront alongside Haller could release the towering Frenchman to find the form that encouraged West Ham to buy him in the first place. Haller played his best football at Frankfurt alongside the more technical Luka Jovic so a similar type of partnership at West Ham with Lanzini or Ajeti could be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Restoring a sense of pride and regaining a higher level of commitment from his squad will also be high on his to do list.

There are fans who will be unhappy with Moyes return, someone jaded by the lack of entertaining football on show the last time. However when you are in a relegation dog fight, entertainment is often overruled in favour of grafting out a performance that nets you the three points. That approach worked the last time as Moyes saved them from the drop so more of the same is likely on the cards for the Hammers faithful whether they like it or not. With a 18 month contract, Moyes will spend the second half of this season papering over the cracks before setting about moulding West Ham into his image in the summer. That is as long as the owners don’t have another change of heart.

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Russian Premier Liga Review – will anyone stop Zenit?

After 19 weeks, it’s a good time to take a look at the situation in the Russian Premier Liga (formerly known as the Russian Premier League). Zenit keeps on taking the lead in the title race and it seems like there is no other club that can stop them. However, the situation among other teams is really getting interesting with four clubs are going nose to nose below them!

A lot can change after the resumption of the championship in early 2020 following the winter break. The capabilities of all the teams participating in the fight for top spot as well as the coveted Champions League places may change. First of all, fortunes could improve if one of the clubs in the fight has a successful winter transfer window. In addition, it’s likely that someone’s schedule will become easier due to the exiting out from a European competition. 

Can anyone stop Zenit from winning the league? (Image from Tumblr)

Theoretically, for the 11 remaining weeks, anything can happen. But in truth it’s unlikely that Zenit’s will lose its advanced position as leaders given their current form. Never in the history of the Russian Premier Liga has a leader lost such a spectacular margin over his pursuers. A gap of +10 points is surely a sign of champions elect.

Although the fact that both Kransnodar and CSKA (who are taking second and third position in the league respectively) are done with Champions League may affect the situation. It has always been a case in the Russian Premier League that international competitions require more strength and endurance, and it usually influences the final positions in the home championship.

Krasnodar started poorly in the Europa League group but have recovered to win their last three games (Image from Tumblr)

Taking a look into upcoming springs games, there are only three potentially dangerous games for Zenit – matches with CSKA, Rostov and Krasnodar. Even if they were to lose all these matches, Zenit should still remain at the top of the table. At the same time, the likelihood of such a failure seems extremely low. Obviously, Zenit exceeds above all the above teams in terms of sheer talent at its disposal, and over the winter transfer window the squad is unlikely to change significantly.

All these factors might sound extremely positive if you’re a Zenit fan, but for the football lovers it looks more like a disaster. For the second year in a row, intrigue is being killed long before the end of the championship. This means that on the grander scale that Russian league became weaker overall.

Post by Irina Kuzina. Follow her now on Instagram.

A Plague Upon Your Houses – London’s Football managers living in fear

In the winter of 1665, the city of London was gripped by a major bubonic plague epidemic later called the Great Plague of London. Over the course of eighteen months, 100,000 residents (mostly poor) or 1/4 of the population of the British capital would lose their lives. The cause of the plague (bites from infected rat fleas) was almost impossible to avoid leading residents to live in fear of what tomorrow brought. They could quite simply find themselves as the Plagues latest victim.

Fast forward to modern day London and another plague is sweeping the city. This time it’s targeting football managers and they are quickly dropping like flies. In just 85 days, seven managers within the M25 corridor that loops around London have been sacked.

It started back in early September just outside of London but inside the M25 with the removal of Javi Garcia as Watford boss. Whilst fans may have been surprised by the quick dismissal of the Spaniard García just four games into the new season, the truth was that he had been in trouble for a while. Despite finishing last season in 11th place and guiding Watford to the FA Cup final, results since the turn of the year had not been up to par and the writing was already etched before Watford managed to pick up only one point in their first four games of the new campaign.

Javi Garcia failed to pick up his side after being humiliated in the FA Cup final by Man City (Image from Tumblr)

In October it was two with the dismissal of Millwall boss Neil Harris then 17 days later two became three when Wally Downes fell on his sword at AFC Wimbledon. Next was Carl Fletcher at Leyton Orient in early November making it four. Then arguably the biggest of them all with the sacking of Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino.

It was harsh on the man who guided Spurs to their first ever Champions League final last season but like Watford, results just haven’t been great. The north London club acted swiftly following a poor start to the season although like García, many believed Pochettino was in a safer position than he actually was. Indeed all the chatter about sackings in North London was focused on rivals Arsenal and their manager, Unai Emery. The three time winning Europa League manager may have only been in the Emirates hot seat for just under two years but had failed to win over the fans with his approach much to the delight of the media clutching their scythes. When Pochettino was dismissed, Emery earned a temporary reprieve as the media swung its gaze back to Spurs. However it wouldn’t be long before they got their wish with Emery sacked only ten days later.

Double Exit – Pochettino and Emery departed north London within ten days of each other (Image from Tumblr)

There was just enough time to sneak in one more sacking with the plague making a return to Watford for Javi Garcia’s replacement Quique Sanchez Flores. was sacked barely three months into his return to the club. The plague was now in full flow with seven managers losing their jobs in three months.

The question is who could be next. Fulham manager Scott Parker and Brentford boss Thomas Frank appear safe with both sides doing well in the Championship as is Gary Rowett at Millwall but the same can’t be said for Queens Park Rangers boss Mark Warburton and Charlton manager Lee Bowyer. Former Glasgow Rangers boss Warburton has only been at Loftus Road for six months but performances have been less than impressive with QPR only managing to win one of their last eight games. Over at Charlton, new owners are about to take over and could be set to make a managerial change of their own in despite just giving Bowyer a vote of confidence. Neither manager will be able to sleep soundly give their situations.

QPR boss Mark Warburton is feeling the pressure after a run of bad results (Image from Tumblr)

Back in the Premier League, Frank Lampard continues to remain untouchable from the sack with the credits he earned as a player still being cashed in. The same cannot be said however for West Ham’s Manuel Pellegrini who must be looking over his shoulder despite a recent win over Lampard’s Chelsea. The availability of David Moyes plus a willingness on the part of Rafa Benitez to return to the Premier League is heaping further pressure in the Chilean. Or perhaps the plague will return to Watford one last time before the end of the season with many wondering if new boss Nigel Pearson is the right man to guide Watford to safety. Time will tell.

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Where Next for Zlatan?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s spell with the LA Galaxy came to an end earlier this month, bringing an end to an electrifying and controversial time in the “City of Angels” fit for a Hollywood movie. The big Swede certainly has plenty of suitors to choose from and he will be able to choose his next move in the January transfer window. 

A move back to Europe seems the most likely choice for the big striker. A move outside of Europe could also be on the cards. But with the Champions League trophy missing from his cabinet, a move to Europe, one who is in the Champions League would surely be the preferable choice for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Realistically there are only a few teams that could afford him. So let’s break down the leading candidates vying for Ibrahimovic’s signature both in Europe and abroad.

Ibrahimovic has confirmed his departure from Los Angeles but where will he go next? (Image from Tumblr)

Ibrahimovic has confirmed his departure from Los Angeles but where will he go next? (Image from Tumblr)

Italy has long been described by Ibrahimovic as his “second home”. And there is no short supply of former teams that could use his goals. The Rossoneri, aka A.C Milan have been lacking goals this season, they currently sit 14th in the league and have only scored 11 goals in 12 games. They could certainly use the Swede’s natural instincts in front of goal. Krzysztof Piatek’s stock has plummeted rapidly after his breakout season in 2018 for Milan but has failed to repeat his stunning first season. But with the club facing Financial Fair Play penalties, they will need to move some serious money to bring him back “home”. 

Cross city rivals Inter Milan could another former club the Swede could join. Conte is in the market for another forward, and although he would bring goals, his arrival would also mean a tactical shift which seems unlikely to happen. On top of that Ibrahimovic wants to win the Champions League. Come January Inter Milan may have already been eliminated as they sit third behind Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. Would Zlatan be content with the Europa League with either Inter Milan or AC Milan?

Will Milan be split further by a war for Zlatan? (Image from Tumblr)

Will Milan be split further by a war for Zlatan? (Image from Tumblr)

Another of his former teams in Italy; Juventus have plenty of strikers at their disposable with Dybala, Mandzukic, Higuain all at Maurizio Sarri’s disposable. Adding Zlatan would be overkill in an already stacked attack. Much like Juventus French side Paris Saint Germain are also stacked upfront. With forwards Mauri Icardi and Edison Cavani, as well as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. 

A return back to England could also be on the cards, Manchester United are in desperate need of goals, and Zlatan can provide that. But Ole Gunner Solskjaer and Woodward are unlikely to make rash transfer decisions come January. Plenty of rumours have been flying around that Zlatan could see a return back to Spain. Barcelona seems like an unlikely choice, considering his past relationship, although it was with Pep Guardiola and not Barcelona itself.

Could Ibrahimovic be heading back to hep out Ole? (Image from Tumblr)

Could Ibrahimovic be heading back to hep out Ole? (Image from Tumblr)

There is also the possibility of Zlatan Ibrahimović going back home to Sweden. The scene of his hometown club- Malmo FF, could be a possibility that he has talked of the possibility of. However, it doesn’t appear that Zlatan is looking to end his career just yet even though it is a trophy that is missing from his cabinet. With the latest news of Ibrahimović buying shares in Malmo’s long-time rivals- Hammarby Fotboll, would the fans be willing to welcome him back with open arms?

Germany could be his next destination, having not “conquered” the Bundesliga yet, and Bayern Munich could use a striker to back up the best striker in the world in Lewandowski. But would Zlatan want to play second fiddle? Borussia Dortmund could be another destination in mind but signing the Swede would mean a change in tactics to fit the team around him and Zlatan doesn’t seem like the player who wants to press all game.

Aside from Barcelona, the other big two could prove problematic in Spain. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid are replenishing their squad, replacing their aging stars, with the likes of Luka Jovic, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio all look set to lead the line for the Galacticos. They would be better off investing in their midfield and defence. Atletico Madrid also has plenty in attack, but they lack the necessary cap space to lure Ibrahimovic to Madrid. Manchester City is an unlikely choice because of his relationship with Guardiola. The only trophy missing in his cabinet is the Champions League trophy and Liverpool seem to be the best team to achieve that. But would Klopp risk the culture and atmosphere he’s worked hard to perfect for the Swedish striker?

ZLATAN-QUOTE-2

Where will Zlatan end up next? Time will tell (Image from Tumblr)

 

If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is looking to expand his horizon, there are other destinations outside of Europe that interest him. Australian side Perth Glory is rumoured to be interested in bringing Zlatan over in a special six-game appearance. Although it will likely not happen, his influence and prestige would certainly bring another level of excitement to a stagnating A-League. Would Zlatan be willing to play at a lower level for a limited amount of games?

The Chinese Super League and the J-League in Japan have become popular destinations for aging stars to retire at but so far, there has been no interest as of yet. Whatever the choice, you can expect it to be unveiled in the grandness we have come to expect from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And the world will be eagerly awaiting his decision.

Post by Kevin Wong. Follow him here on Twitter.

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