One on One with: Mark Bright

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 19 years since Sheffield Wednesday were playing in the Premier League. The Owls have spent the better part of the last two decades attempting to recapture former glories which at one point saw them as one of the most feared teams in the country. In the 1992-1993 season, Sheffield Wednesday recorded one of their best campaigns finishing 7th in the Premier league, reaching both the FA Cup and League Cup finals and the second round of the UEFA Cup. That side had some iconic figures including captain Nigel Pearson, Chris Waddle and Carlton Palmer. But spearheading their attack were the duo of David Hirst and Mark Bright who became a lethal strike partnership scoring 36 goals between them.

Bright himself hit 20 of those in all competitions which should have been enough to earn him an England call up. But in a golden era of English strikers, Bright never got the call up he deserved. Nevertheless his legacy as one of England’s best goal scorers is secure, as is the admiration of the fans who revere him even to this day.

We sat down with Mark recently on the eve of his book launch “My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer”  to talk about the highs and lows he had as a player, what it was like playing with Ian Wright and how his time spent in foster care made him the man he is today. Enjoy!

Back Of The Net: You started in non-league with Leek Town before being picked up by Port Vale. It’s a familiar path that numerous players have followed yet the value of the lower league structure is often understated. How important do you think non-league is to the success of the Football League?

Mark Bright: I still believe that players making the transition from non-league to football league will continue in the future. There are many players who drop down after being released from the football league who find their feet and bounce back. It’s also an important training ground for many young players who go on loan to gain experience from Premier League, Championship, League One and Two.

BOTN: It must have been strange going back to Port Vale after being released by them three years previously when you were only 16-year-old. Did that original rejection come into your consideration about re-signing for them or was the draw of playing in the football league too strong?

MB: I dropped down and played my way back up. I didn’t hesitate once I was asked as I still believed in myself and wanted another chance to play league football. Quite a few team mates at Leek Town said to me don’t go back, but I wanted a chance to show everyone what I could do.

Mark Bright during his early days as a Port Vale player (Image from PVFC)

Mark Bright during his early days as a Port Vale player (Image from PVFC)

BOTN: You spent three seasons at Vale Park, establishing yourself in the final season scoring 10 goals in 31 games as Port Vale struggled to stay in the then Third Division. Now 22 years old, you rejected a contract extension and as a result were sold to Leicester. With that move, did you feel that you were now fully on your way to becoming a full-time professional player? 

MB: I was full time at Port Vale. I signed a one-year deal as a part-time player, then I turned pro the next season. All I was interested in was progressing. Leicester City were in League One (now the Premier League) so it was a no brainer for me.

BOTN: How significant was that move in terms of your career?

MB: The move was a game changer for me in terms of joining a club in the top flight; having the chance to be seen on Match of The Day scoring and establishing myself as a player at the highest level.

Bright and Lineker play for Leicester against Luton Town (image from Tumblr)

Bright and Gary Lineker play for Leicester against Luton Town (image from Tumblr)

BOTN: In your first season at Leicester, you played as a backup for Gary Lineker and Alan Smith and struggled to find the net in 16 appearances. But in your second season you had more of an opportunity to shine after Lineker was sold in the summer to Everton. For a player in your position at that time, was it good to see Gary depart as it gave you more of an opportunity or were you thinking more about how the team would fare without him?

MB: I helped Gary to pack and join Everton! Of course I was sorry to see Gary depart but the manager Gordon Milne said this was the chance I’d been waiting for; he gave me my chance. We actually played Everton on the opening day of the season and we won 3-1. I scored two goals and Gary failed to score although as he reminds me, he did go on to win the Golden boot that year while I managed to only score another four goals the rest of the season!

BOTN: It was at Palace that you arguably had your most successful spell as a player, forging a great partnership with Ian Wright. Steve Coppell, the manager at the time saw something in pairing your power and pace with Wrights enthusiasm and dynamic play. Why do you think that partnership worked so well? How long did it take for you and Ian to “click”?

MB: Pace????? I’m not sure about pace. Ian was fresh from non-league so I understood where he was from my own journey. Steve said he needs your help and we worked at it with the coaches who worked hard with us. Ian Evans was the coach  who used to work on movement with us, we talked and worked it out and got better each season. They were great times as we were maturing as individuals and as a partnership. It took time but we nailed it in the end.

Bright, Steve Coppell and Ian Wright (Image from CPFC)

Bright, Steve Coppell and Ian Wright (Image from CPFC)

BOTN: In September 1992, you made the switch to Sheffield Wednesday and continued your rich vein of form, finishing as the club’s top goal scorer three seasons running. That period was when the game in England began to drastically change with the introduction of the Premier League and the riches that came with subscription TV. As a player at that time, did you understand how dramatically things were changing or was it simply business as normal?

MB: At the time I didn’t realize how much impact Sky Sports would have on the game. It was incredible, it transformed football and the way it was covered. They had wall to wall programmes on their channels including The Boot Room which was one of my favourites. I know Andy Gray and Richard Keys messed up but they were fantastic for Sky. Great coverage, great presentation. Players soon realized everyone was under scrutiny plus the money element started to filter through to the players.

BOTN: The move to Sion was clearly a surprise to you when it happened. I understand things weren’t going well at Sheffield Wednesday so when the switch to Switzerland became a realistic option, it seemed too good to turn down. The move was bittersweet in the end, and you left after failing to get paid what was owed to you. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Do you think the situation in Sheffield clouded your judgement around that move or was there simply no way of telling what was going to happen? Would you change anything if you had the chance?

MB: I loved FC Sion. I was really disappointed when it was cut short but everything happens for a reason. I worked with some good people in Switzerland. David Pleat left me out of the team; I still thought I was good enough but he had other plans. Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I was having French lessons three times a week, working in beautiful conditions, I used to drive over the mountains to Milan and watch Paul Ince play for Inter;  his wife Clare used to meet and drive me there. I was experiencing a different culture, I loved it. In the end I had to go to UEFA who got some of the money I was owed from the Club.

The Owls - Bright during his time at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Tumblr)

The Owls – Bright during his time at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: You finished your career at Charlton under Alan Curbishley, helping them to gain promotion through the playoffs. After what happened at Sion, how pleasing was it to play at a well-run club like Charlton and a manager like Curbishley? 

MB: I know it’s one of those things fans don’t take kindly to (playing for rivals) but I had to get back to the UK and Curbs was very good to me. I had two really enjoyable years there. The team was young but he needed some experience so Mark Bowen and myself joined. It was a fantastic journey for the club to get back to top flight football. Reaching the play-off final at Wembley was a match in a million, 4-4 after extra time, 7-6 to Charlton on penalties.

BOTN: Are you surprised that he hasn’t managed to get back into management after leaving West Ham in 2008?

MB: I find it incredible Curbs hasn’t worked since leaving West Ham. It’s a shame that all his knowledge is lost to the game.

Curbishley (far left) and Bright (Centre) celebrate Charlton's Division One playoff win (Image from Tumblr)

Curbishley (far left) and Bright (Centre) celebrate Charlton’s Division One playoff win (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Your father was from The Gambia and you were born in Stoke on Trent, England meaning that you could have played international football for both countries. Despite scoring 213 goals you were overlooked by both England managers during that time, Graham Taylor and Terry Venables. How frustrating was that? Did you consider playing for Gambia or was that not an option?

MB: No. I did trained with the Gambian national team in 1996 when I was on holiday, something my uncle arranged it for me. I did give it some thought but ultimately decided not to. I was told by Trevor Francis that he believed I would be in the England squad when it was announced after the weekend, but Gordon Watson jumped on my back after I’d scored and something popped in my knee. I had to have a small operation on it so it wasn’t meant to be. It was a golden era for strikers back then:- Lineker, Beardsley, Shearer, Wrighty, Teddy Sheringham, Andy Cole, Ferdinand, Kerry Dixon, Mark Hateley etc.

BOTN: It’s fair to say you had a tough childhood spending a majority of it in foster care whilst also enduring racism on a regular basis. In your book “My Story”, you talked openly about your life and how those experiences early on drove you to succeed. How much do you feel your childhood has defined you as a man and the way that you now live your life? Did it alter your approach to being a professional footballer?

MB: Good question. Good foster parents shaped me. My foster parent, Grandad Davies installed good values in me and my brother and taught us to respect people and money. The actor Neil Morrisey was in the same foster home as me and he believes it drove us on to be successful. I would say it played a part for sure. Desire to succeed in football has to come from within as it’s a tough industry. My Grandad worked in the coal mines in Staffordshire, he was all about hard work and it filtered through to me. I feel I was the best I could have been as a player and a person.

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My Story is out now.

BOTN: As Crystal Palace’s director of the Under 23 development squad, you must have been happy to see the progress that Aaron Wan-Bissaka made at the club before earning himself a £45 million move to Manchester United this summer. Does his development through the youth ranks at Palace and eventually into the first team vindicate the work that you and the rest of the youth development team are doing? 

MB: Aaron’s success wasn’t anything to do with me. Richard Shaw, Dave Reddington and Roy Hodgson who believed in him should take the credit for his development. He showed others below him in our academy there’s a pathway to the first team if you work hard, listen and dedicate yourself. The opportunities maybe limited so when your chance arrives, you’d better be ready.

BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. 213 goals in total over your career. Do you have a favourite one?

MB: I scored a great goal at Barnsley, a left foot 30 yard strike into the top corner, and a good one at Leicester City against Everton. I turned Kevin Ratcliffe and curled it with the outside my right foot over Neville Southall. A beauty; unfortunately there was a dispute which lead to no Match of the Day coverage so only those in the stadium remember it! I also scored a decent one for Palace when we beat Millwall 4-3 at Selhurst, again into the top corner.

BOTN: What was the best team you played in? Sheffield Wednesday 1992/1993 season?

MB: Two teams; the Palace team that finished 3rd in 1991, and the Sheffield Wednesday team of 1993. Two great teams.

Bright and Waddle celebrate after Sheffield Wednesday's FA cup semi final win (Image from Tumblr)

Bright and Waddle celebrate after Sheffield Wednesday’s FA cup semi final win (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Since retiring in 1999, you have run quite a few marathons for charity. Do you actually enjoy doing them or are you driven purely by a sense of wanting to help the charity?

MB: I ran them to stay fit and raise money for good causes. My best time was 4hrs 3min, to think Eliud Kipchoge could have ran two marathons in that time!

BOTN: Thank you for your time Mark and good luck with your book!

My Story: From Foster Care to Footballer by Mark Bright is published by Constable on 7 November in hardback, £20.

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Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Could England Triumph at Euro 2020?

England moved top of their World Cup 2022 qualifying group after registering 3 wins in a week. They beat the lowest ranked international team in San Marino 5-0, then Albania 2-0 before managing a 2-1 win over Poland on the final day of the March international break.

The wins against San Marino and Albania were as easy as they come and indeed they should have beaten Albania by a higher margin. With the next competitive games set to be at the Euros, these two games gave Southgate a chance to explore who would lead his attack with a plethora of talent at his disposal. However the match against Poland was a stark reminded for England fans of the possible mishaps at the back, the pragmatic back 3 is anything but convincing but it is certain to be used against oppositions of higher quality.

England lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system for the three qualifiers and only switched to a reminiscing 3-4-3 for the last five minutes against Poland. Looking into the 4-2-3-1 system, with the double pivot, one defensive midfielder is to stay back at all times and help to build from the back. The other was given the freedom to join attacks from the right side and help create overloads in the wide-area with the extra responsibility of getting back in shape when possession is lost. The attacking midfielder up front shifts to the left side to create overloads and is given the most positional freedom and also the responsibility to create openings.

Maguire celebrates after scoring against Poland

Creating overloads in wide areas is a big part of how they attack with the full-backs pushing up high and the midfielders drifting wide. They then link-up play with wingers to create openings, find space to cross in the box, or attract the opposition defence before switching up play quickly. It also allows them to press up high with high intensity after giving away possession.

Mason Mount shone in the no.10 role in the WC qualifiers and is one of the players who has probably booked his spot in the starting 11 for the Euros. Declan Rice was solid at the no.6 role and is looking a good fit for it, in the absence of Jordan Henderson and was accompanied by either Kalvin Phillips or James Ward Prowse. If Henderson can recover from his groin injury in time he would be taking the second defensive midfielder role as the skipper brings experience and leadership to the side.

The centre back partnership of John Stones and Harry Maguire is looking certain to feature in Euros. Meanwhile Nick Pope was given the chance to be in the net as Pickford missed all three games after sustaining an injury to his oblique abdominal muscle. The Burnley keeper’s vulnerability when playing out from the back was highly visible and that will make it harder for him to take the number 1 spot at the Euros from Pickford, who is more proficient with his feet and also preferred by Southgate.

The England manager’s controversial decision to leave out Trent Alexander-Arnold came as a shock to a lot of fans, but to bring it to context, the Liverpool right-back has not been at his best this season and England possesses top-quality talent at his position. Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James are all competing for that role and bring more diverse and suitable attributes to the table for England; Walker can also play in a back three allowing Southgate to switch systems easily mid-game, Trippier can play on either flank, and Reece James is a pacy upcoming talent himself, who plays with high intensity. It still feels unfair to leave someone of Trent’s quality out and as Southgate said, he could still make it to the Euros if his performances for Liverpool improve. Not to mention, Wan Bissaka has found it hard to get in the England squad due to the four men ahead of him.

Southgate’s decision to leave out Trent Alexander Arnold from the last squad raised a few eyebrows

Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw will be competing for the left-back position unless there is a surprise find in the last few months of the season. If Grealish can make it back to the squad, he will be competing with Rashford and Sterling to play in left-wing and Jadon Sancho could be seen fighting with Foden to play on the right flank. Keeping in mind, Foden, Sterling, and Rashford can play on either side but Southgate has figured out what flank he likes them to see in. Harry Kane in his hybrid of out and out striker and false 9 roles is likely to start every game at the Euros, with Calvert Lewin giving a superb option from the bench.

According to bookmakers England, alongside France are the favorites to win the Euros, but are they really? Well, they are a top-quality team on paper, and Southgate and his men now have valuable cup competition experience. But history tells England performs the best when expectations are low and disappoint when hopes are high. Looking at other big football nations in Europe, new generations of Spain and Germany are highly inconsistent, Netherland looks to have played the wrong card in appointing Frank De Boer as their manager. Italy is re-emerging and could still threaten whilst Belgium and Portugal have vary different points to prove. Not forgetting, Croatia and their new dark horse partner in Turkey who could all pose a significant risk to England’s chances at Euro’s success.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Has the FA Cup lost its magic?

Once considered the most prestigious of cup competitions, the Football Association Challenge Cup, better known as the FA Cup may be starting to lose its appeal. As the oldest national football competition in the world, it has build itself a very high reputation globally. That said, there are those who are questioning whether this competition is still as important as it has been historically or whether the magic and significance of this competition been lost over time?

Current holders Arsenal with the FA Cup.

The beauty of the FA Cup is that it gives an opportunity to teams of all levels to compete for a major trophy with over 700 teams entering annually. Generally teams based in the highest tiers of English football don’t enter the competition until the 3rd round, months after it began with the preliminary rounds featuring the non league sides and lower divisional teams. Reaching the FA Cup final and indeed winning it was once considered a must for most of the top tier sides, especially those that feature in the Premier League. But it’s now often viewed as a hinderance to their league ambitions whether that be competing for European places or simply surviving against the drop.

Whilst it could be argued that the FA cup is has lost some of its significance for the larger clubs, for the smaller clubs it remains a massive competition and in a lot of cases helps many of them to protect the future of their club. This is due to the prize money per round and the revenue potential from attendance gates (obviously not right now due to COVID-19 and fan restrictions) which can be significant enough to help keep a struggling club running, especially if they come up against a high reputation side e.g. a Premier League team. This was the situation with Marine FC this year. Having pocketed only £1,444 in prize money after beating North West Counties League side Barnoldswick Town in the qualifying rounds, Marine reach round 3 of the competition and were drawn against Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur at home. Despite losing the game 5-0, Marine netted over £75,000 which to the club was a ‘godsend’ allowing them to fund the club for a significant period of time beyond that game. As well as due to the money side and TV payment it can allow smaller teams to get their name out on a national scale and acquire/attract more fans for the club especially locals who may not have supported local previously.

Marine FC vs Tottenham Hotspur game on the 10th January 2021

It is a certainty that the FA Cup is still a very important competition within the English Football system, especially for lower league teams. That said, the reputation of the cup has definitely stunted to some extent with the decreased interest of the nations top sides. Thats not to say that the Premier League clubs have written off the tournament completely. To most, they still focus on this competition despite its drawbacks but adopt a different approach using it as a way to rotate their squad as seen by José Mourinho’s Tottenham side versus Marine FC which was a combination of first team/reserve players as well as some youth.

“The cup run has been a lifesaver for us financially for where we are in non-league.”

Marine FC Manager Neil Young about their FA Cup run, Jan 2021.

They do this to ensure the key players within their squad are rested for other competitions such as the league or in Europe but also to give a run out to those fringe players in the squad or blood youngsters into the first team. This helps to keep the entire squad happy as well as allowing the manager to test or try out new tactics. In certain cases, the cup can be used as a distraction from a poor league campaign and to boost morale and confidence. Wigan in 2013 are a great example of this. Struggling badly in the Premier League, Wigan focused on the FA Cup as a way of keeping the players together and morale high. They surprised many with their unlikely run to the final which they won with a late goal against favourites Manchester City. The FA Cup win came only three days before their final game of the season in the League which despite an uptake in form resulted in Wigan being relegated.

Post by Samuel Cox, Back Of The Net contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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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: 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.

Grayson

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.

Grayson-1

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.

Leeds Grayson

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

leeds promotion

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.

Lennon and Grayson

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.

Leeds-united

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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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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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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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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How Bolton Wanderers went from beating Bayern Munich to near non-existence

Twelve years ago, a late Kevin Davies equalizer at the Allianz Arena sealed a 2-2 draw that saw Bolton Wanderers knock then four-time European champions Bayern Munich out of the UEFA Cup. Now, just four weeks away from the start of the 2019/20 season on August 3rd, the club is in administration with no owners and just five senior outfield players – three midfielders and two strikers ensuring they couldn’t even field a balanced five-a-side team. To make matters worse, Bolton Wanderers will begin the campaign in the third tier of English football on -12 points.

Kevin Davies strike against Bayern still lives on in the memories of the Bolton fans (Image from Tumblr)

Kevin Davies strike against Bayern still lives on in the memories of the Bolton fans (Image from Tumblr)

This is the short story of how one of the English FA’s founding members fell so hard, with no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.

The good times

Last week I discovered a DVD reviewing the season that Bolton first qualified for Europe back in 2005 lurking in my collection. That team ruffled the feathers of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and more, with players like Gary Speed, Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro and cult heroes Henrik Pedersen and El-Hadji Diouf making it fun to be a Bolton fan. That crop of players came within three points of qualifying for the Champions League, then signings like Hidetoshi Nakata and Nicolas Anelka saw the club qualify for Europe again in 2006/7. But Bolton’s board failed to back the lofty ambitions of manager Sam Allardyce – and that’s when the troubles began.

Glory Days - Under Allardyce, Bolton attracted players like Youri Djorkaeff and Jay Jay Okacha (Image from Tumblr)

Glory Days – Under Allardyce, Bolton attracted players like Youri Djorkaeff and Jay Jay Okacha (Image from Tumblr)

Hard times hit Bolton

A series of failed managers followed Allardyce, including Sammy Lee and Gary Megson. While a diabolical 5-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Stoke City in 2011, a serious injury to key midfielder Stuart Holden and Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest in a cup match at Tottenham Hotspur in March 2012 contributed to the club spiralling into decline. Two months after the Muamba episode, Bolton were relegated from the Premier League after an 11-year stay. And a failure to qualify for the Championship play-offs at the first attempt saw financial ruin kick in as the club failed to get high paid Premier League earners off its books for several years.

By 2016, Bolton had racked up £172.9 million-worth of debt, which former owner Eddie Davies wrote off when Ken Anderson – who had been banned from being a company director, let alone running a football club, for eight years in 2005 – took control. Fans dreamt of a new beginning, but the reality was several winding-up petitions from HMRC, multiple unpaid debts to the local council, utility suppliers and other football clubs. A two-year transfer embargo also followed, during which the club was relegated to the third tier of the English football for the first time in 23 years then somehow got promoted at the first attempt.

Fans protest the running of the club by Anderson (Image from Tumblr)

Fans protest the running of the club by Ken Anderson (Image from Tumblr)

All-time low

A dramatic last day survival courtesy of unlikely hero Aaron Wilbraham 12 months ago only delayed the inevitable, as Wanderers were again relegated from The Championship in May. This time they did so in record-breaking fashion, suffering the club’s most defeats (30) and most home defeats (15), scoring the least home goals (13) and tied the record for least home wins (4) in a single league campaign. They even failed to play their final home match of the season against Brentford after players and staff went on strike over unpaid wages.

The writing was on the wall when players boycotted a pre-season friendly last summer over unpaid bonuses. Anderson has repeatedly broken promises to the fans – who protested against him in January – and was only every interested in trying to make money for himself. The result was dragging the club to the all-time low of its entire existence being at the mercy of a High Court judge over unpaid debts back in April.

The Bolton fans are now waiting nervously to see what happens next to the club they love (image from Tumblr)

New owners seem imminent at Bolton, but it has taken weeks for the pending consortium to agree a deal with the incumbent administrators – and they’re going to have a huge task on their hands when the deal finally goes through. Last season’s players haven’t been paid since February, while it’s unclear whether staff have been paid and whether other debts still hang over the club. Plus, they’ll have the small matter of having less than a month to build a squad capable of overcoming a 12-point deficit and competing in League One.

That Kevin Davies goal in Munich amid the era of taking on Europe’s elite seems like aeons ago, and it seems impossible for Bolton Wanderers to ever rise to those heady heights again. The good news is that there is still a club there for fans to support, but what state that club is going to be in is anybody’s guess

Post By Rob Latham (@robilaz)

Can Bolton recover from this? Will we see them back in England’s top flight soon or be forever lost amongst English footballs lower tiers. Share your thoughts and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

From maestro to manager – four exceptional midfielders aiming to make their mark as managers

In the wake of some troubling times at his old club and the uncertainty surrounding current coach Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard’s name started to be linked more often with a Chelsea return. Perceived as one of two potential candidates being evaluated by Chelsea (the other being Zinedine Zidane), it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back at the Bridge anytime soon. Which in itself is remarkable given that less than 18 months ago, Lampard was a million miles away from becoming their next boss. But an impressive start to his managerial career at Derby and the need to return to something familiar has provided food for thought within Chelsea’s hierarchy. Lampard gained most of his reputation playing for the club as a star midfielder who provided guile but also goals to boot.

Lampard scored 147 goals for Chelsea during a 13 year stay (Image from Tumblr)

Remarkably he is one of several former star midfielders who are making their transition into management with the world watching on intrigued by how they will fare on the other side of the white line. Many expected Lampard not to make the transition well and to flop at Derby but his level headed yet tactical approach appears to have rubbed off as the Rams push eagerly for one of three lucrative promotional places to the Premier League. Derby sit 7th in the Championship with another 45 points still up for grabs so anything is possible between now and the end of the season. The fans will be hoping that Chelsea don’t come calling anytime soon and that Lampard can finish what he has started by getting Derby promoted.

New Rangers boss, Steven Gerrard (Image from Tumblr)

Just under 300 miles north of Derby in Glasgow, Lampard’s central midfield partner for England is also proving that rookie managers aren’t to be afraid of. Steven Gerrard may have switched the Merseyside derby for the Old Firm one when he took over at Rangers but so far he hasn’t looked out of place. The former Liverpool legend has galvanized the former Scottish champions and has help transform them from the shambolic mess he inherited from Pedro Caixinha to potential title challengers in his first full season in the job. Gerrard, who appears destined to manage Liverpool one day, has taken management in his stride and is flourishing in the cauldron that is Scottish football. Having is former manager, Brendan Rodgers across the city at rivals Celtic will have helped not only with his transition but to give him added motivation to “get one over his former boss”. Whilst Celtic maintain a healthy lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership, Rangers are closing the gap slowly but surely. That might accelerate now that Rodgers has departed for Leicester but only time will tell.

Scholes and Brazilian legend Pele at Old Trafford (Image from Tumblr)

Whilst Oldham may not have had the recent success of Rangers or Derby, the League Two side still had its rich history to drawn on when it went looking for their latest manager. In the end they turned to another great midfielder, Paul Scholes who jumped at the chance only a few weeks ago. The former Manchester United and England star grew up supporting the Latics so starting his managerial career there was a no brainer for both parties. Regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation, Scholes tenacity and eye for a killer pass made him one of the most respected and all rounded players of that era. Now Scholes is applying that same approach to management but success will take more time as Scholes is finding out. One win, one draw and two defeats so far will not have dampened his spirits but it will have demonstrated to him the gap in quality between what he is used to and what he has to work with. The test will be if Scholes can take what he learned during his days at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson and apply it to Oldham.

Fulham handed Parker the managers job after sacking Ranieri (Image from Tumblr)

Scott Parker didn’t expect to be managing in the Premier League this season but when the axe fell on Claudio Ranieri earlier this week, it was Parker that Fulham turned to to step up into the fray. Parker has no managerial experience at this point however he has been operating as a coach for a couple of years first, at Spurs in the Under 18’s then at Fulham as a first team coach. Like Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes, Parker will lean heavily on his experiences during his playing career which spans over twenty years and 600 professional games. He takes over at Fulham with the Cottagers in a precarious position, ten points adrift of safety and staring relegation in the face. But perhaps with ten games to go, this is the best time for Parker to take control. With nothing to lose, Parker cannot fail. If he is unable to improve performances then Fulham will go down as many currently expect they will. If he manages to turn things around and can save them, then his stock as a manager will soar and will likely result in him getting the job on a longer term basis. As a player, Parker was a formidable force in the centre of the park, a no nonsense battling midfielder who lead by example often under the role of captain. He will be looking to get a reaction from his new team immediately both on and off the pitch as Fulham fight it out over their remaining ten games.

Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes and Parker (Image from Tumblr)

All four managers have something to prove. All four were exceptional central midfielders both for club and country and gained reputations to match that. As they transition into managerial roles, will they be able to transfer their natural ability on the field to their coaching off it? Time will tell.

One On One With: Howard Webb

In the world of professional refereeing, there are only a few who can claim to have officiated a World Cup Final. Indeed, it’s a select group of twenty men which includes three Englishman: William Ling, who refereed in 1954; Jack Taylor, who took charge in 1974; and our latest interviewee, Howard Webb, who officiated over the 2010 final. Whilst the final itself was one of his personal highlights, Webb’s career is full of memorable moments, including nearly 300 Premier League games, the 2009 FA Cup Final and the 2010 Champions League Final, making him the only referee to manage that final and the World Cup final in the same year.

Howard Webb books Robin Van Persie during the FIFA World Cup Final in 2010 (Image from Tumblr)

Now in charge of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which oversees all referees in the US and Canada, Howard is enjoying life in New York. We chatted with him recently about his career, which Scottish referee was his mentor, his thoughts on changing penalty kicks, and that Nigel De Jong challenge during the World Cup Final. Enjoy!

Our thanks to Howard for taking the time to talk with us. I hope you found it as interesting as we did.

Throughout May, Howard and his fellow PRO officials will once again be supporting Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) drive to increase awareness of the fight against Huntington’s Disease. Your support could make a difference during #HuntingtonsDisease awareness month. Join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #LetsTalkAboutHD.

Additionally Howard’s book – Howard Webb: The Man in the Middle is available now online and at all good bookstores. You can also follow Howard on Twitter.

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What’s in a number? A lot apparently as EPL & FA clash over Brexit plans

Christmas should be a time to step back from work, spend some quality time with family and simply relax. But for the British government and embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, there will be no such respite as they attempt to scramble a deal across the line for Brexit. With Britain scheduled to leave the EU next March, the clock is ticking against May and her team to get a deal finalized or risk exiting without one in place which could have dramatic ramifications. As the debate rages on about what the agreement should look like or indeed whether Britain should be exiting at all, football has remained fairly removed from the whole process. That is until now.

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May – All she wants for Christmas is a Brexit deal (Image from Tumblr)

The implications of Britain’s plans to leave the EU are now starting to be felt in football with the FA and Premier League clashing over what should happen in a post Brexit world. Key to the debate is what squads should look like moving forward. The FA is pushing to reduce the number of non home-grown players in squads from 17 to 13 by 2020 but that has been rejected by the Premier League. They have made it abundantly clear that they disagree with the FA’s position citing that there is no evidence to support that such a move would strengthen the England national team. Supported in their argument by the English Football League (EFL) and the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), the Premier League contests that such a move would in fact weaken teams in the league and affect their overall product which is now globally valued at around £6.3bn.

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The Premier League is now one of the most highly sought after leagues in the world (Image from Tumblr)

Both sides do make compelling arguments supporting their stance and continue to discuss with the British government who will make the final decision of what should be the recommendation included in the Brexit agreement. If the FA is successful, it could create headaches for about half the clubs in the Premier League who would have to adjust their squads accordingly to comply. At present, clubs are permitted to have a maximum of 25 players in their first team squad, 8 of which must be home-grown. Home grown is simply defined as a player born in the UK or a foreign player who has been developed by a club affiliated with the FA for a minimum of three years before they turn 21 much like Cesc Fabregas was at Arsenal). If the FA gets its way this would shift to 12 homegrown players. Clubs like Chelsea have historically struggled to comply with the existing cap and indeed brought in 38-year-old goalkeeper Rob Green in the summer as a way to make sure they met the cap. But if the number was adjusted, they would be forced to sell on some of their foreign players and either buy British or promote from their youth academies. The former will lead to elevated prices around home grown players whilst the latter will put pressure on clubs to stock pile youth players in order to make sure they have enough coming through to met the cap.

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Just there to make up the numbers – Chelsea’s Rob Green (Image from Tumblr)

The FA is often at pains to point out that only 30% of players who have made starts this season are qualified to play for England which is damaging the countries chances of progressing yet recent performances on the pitch by the national side have suggested otherwise. Indeed successes at under 17 and under 21 level World Cups as well as a semi final appearance at the 2018 World Cup for the full team demonstrate how English football is flourishing despite checks and measures like the existing cap. The Premier League also argues that changing the number wont affect the overall number of foreign players arriving with an average of 13 non home-grown players at the clubs at present. it is advocating for a relax governmental approach which would effectively create a loophole for sports and allow for an open market to exist.

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Problems with the national side? Not based on recent performances (Image from Getty)

Both sides believe they have the upper hand in the disagreement, however with the FA currently running the existing system with government approval they may hold more of the cards. The Premier League is unlikely to fold either and will be hoping that recent talks about a coup which would see Theresa May removed from power, a new leader elected and a hasty back out of exiting the EU (a move which seems to be gathering momentum rather than diminishing) come to fruition. Not surprisingly the FA is keen to enforce the home-grown number change regardless of the outcome of Britain’s Eu discussions so its fight with the Premier League may go beyond these existing talks. But for now, they must push for a consensus as the government looks to finalize the Brexit deal.  With less than four months to go, it will be a nervous time for all involved with the ramifications of any decision not really felt until the summer of 2021. Christmas for them is effectively cancelled.

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One on One with: Liam Ridgewell

To play the role of captain, you need to have confidence, determination and a natural ability to lead.  Liam Ridgewell has all three. He may have started his career back in England with Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom., but it’s in Portland, USA where he now leads by example. As captain of the Portland Timbers, Ridgewell has established himself as one of the most reliable defenders in the MLS and has fast become a vital cog in Portland’s machine, leading them to the MLS Cup. We caught up with him recently to find out how things are going in the Pacific North West, and how it all began.

BackOfTheNet: Liam, thank you for sitting down with us today.

BackOfTheNet: Not many people will know that you actually started your career at West Ham in their youth academy before leaving to join Aston Villa. As a Londoner, what was the reason behind that switch?

Liam Ridgewell: At the time their youth system was flooded with a lot of talent coming through already, e.g. Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole. So, my path to the first team would’ve been very tough and felt I needed to change as I had been there since the age of 8. Being a London boy, it was a very tough decision to leave. That’s when I went up to Aston Villa at the age of 15.

BOTN: How would you sum up your time at Aston Villa?

LR: I couldn’t have asked for much more, coming through the ranks at Aston Villa. It’s a place that is obviously very special to me, giving me the chance to fulfil my dream and I’ll always be thankful. My time spent their playing, I loved every minute of it, but by the end of it, not playing regularly as I had been under previous managers, I couldn’t sit back and watch, so felt I needed the move to keep my football career progressing. That’s when my move to Birmingham materialized.

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Liam made the break though at Villa (Image from Liam Ridgewell Instagram)

BOTN: How do you feel now when you read about the financial difficulties they are having?

LR: Tough to read about their financial difficulties, obviously the relegations have been a big hit on the club, something you never want to see, especially for a club that gave you your chance. I hope they can figure out a way to get themselves right and back in the big time where they deserve to be.

BOTN: You are one of a few players to have moved from Villa to Birmingham. Did you have any hesitation in joining them due to the rivalry?

LR: Yes, I did have hesitation due to the big rivalry and I had to think about it very strongly, more for family reasons. But in needing to carry on with my progression in my career, Steve Bruce was a tough manager to turn down, given how good of a player he was in his playing career, and to spend time with him and learn, it helped me a lot. Once I had made the decision I was fully committed and loved my time there. My decision was not based on the rivalry but based on the progression of my career and being able to play week in and week out. I feel that helped with the fans and the rivalry because I think they understood why I made the switch.

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Ridgewell during his Birmingham days (image from Liam Ridgewell Instagram)

BOTN: You had an interesting time at Birmingham with various ups (League Cup win, being named captain) and some downs (leg break, relegation). What are your underlining memories of those years? How did you cope with the highs and lows?

LR: Some unbelievable career highs with Birmingham was none other than winning the league cup against Arsenal. It’s a memory that will always stay with me as it was such a big achievement for us as players and us as a club. Being named captain at the age of 22 was a hugely proud moment for me as I never expected it at such a young age as we had some great senior players there. Coping with the pressure of that is something that I loved and took in my stride, and that is just the type of person that I am. Being the captain of a club is a big honour and responsibility.

Relegation was the biggest low in my career as we were such a good team and building a brilliant squad. I know everybody says it, but we were too good to go down and to this day I still think what kind of team we may have been if we had stayed up and managed to keep all the boys there. Breaking my leg was very tough but sometimes that’s what football brings and you have to stay mentally strong to make sure you come back from it stronger and better.

BOTN: Portland made you an offer when you became a free agent in the summer of 2014, but I’ve read you had a couple of other options on the table. What made you move to the US?

LR: Yes, I had other options to stay in the UK but after my time at West Brom. I felt I needed a change to revive my love for the game and found it when I came to the Timbers.

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In training for Portland (Image from Liam Ridgewell Instagram )

BOTN: Are you disappointed that the MLS still has a somewhat negative, if naive, perception back home?

LR: I think a lot of people have not watched enough of the MLS to be able to give an opinion, so the more it’s televised the bigger it will become. There is definitely still a way to go for the MLS to capture some of the audience back home.

BOTN: I saw an interview you did recently where you talked about your life in Portland with the house on the lake, etc. Does Portland now feel like home, or do you still harbour desires to go back to England?

LR: Portland life is fantastic and I’ve really enjoyed living here. It’s made the move all the easier for me and my family, but I still have desires to come back home to play before I decide to hang up my boots.

BOTN: At several of the clubs you have played for, you have been named as captain. What qualities do you think you have that makes you a natural choice for leader? Do you think that a player’s position (i.e., centre half vs striker) should come into consideration when choosing a captain?

LR: No, if you have the qualities to be a captain it doesn’t matter where you play in the pitch. Personally, for me, a captain leads by example, helps people even if that person isn’t having a good game, and enjoys being the captain. And being heard 24/7 may have helped my case [laughing].

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Captain Ridgewell (Image from Liam Ridgewell Instagram)

BOTN: Is centre half your most comfortable position? We have seen you play there, but also at left back, and as a holding midfielder throughout your career.

LR: Yes, that’s where I have played most throughout my career and feel comfortable, but my time spent at left back at the back end of my time at Birmingham and at West Brom. I really did enjoy as it allowed me to be more involved in the attacking side of the game, roaming forward from left back and getting myself a goal every now and again at the back stick.

BOTN: How important is it for a player to be adaptable?

LR: Adaptability is good, but for myself I prefer to be set at one position at a club as then I know my role and can perform to my best.

BOTN: Thinking back on your entire career, what do you think is your stand out moment – being capped for England at under 21 level? Winning the league cup for Birmingham? Or the MLS Cup as captain for Portland?

LR: My most stand out moment was being capped at under 21 level and captain for my country.

BOTN: Let’s talk swimwear and in particular your company Thomas Royall that you started with Sam Saunders and John Terry. How did that come about?

LR: Myself and Sam had been talking about ideas for after football to keep us busy and came up with many, but one day Sam came up with an idea, after visiting many pool parties one summer, of starting a swimwear range. I loved the idea and so we started brainstorming on looks and designs. We then brought in a team and with our head designer, Laura Moore, we haven’t looked back and formed what you now know as Thomas Royall. John became part of the Thomas Royall team after shopping for swim shorts online for his holiday and simply loving the brand and wanting to be a part of it. This year we released the new women’s and girl’s line and still have many more ideas pending for SS19.

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Business venture with Saunders (m) and Terry (r) – Thomas Royall

BOTN: Finally, some quick-fire questions: Most complete player you played with?

LR: Gareth Barry, my time spent with him at Aston Villa.

BOTN: Hidden gem in the MLS?

LR: Darlington Nagbe who plays for Atlanta now.

BOTN: What will you do after retiring?

LR: After retiring I’m looking to go into management, but obviously with Thomas Royall going from strength to strength each year, that is something we set up for life after football.

Thanks again Liam! Good luck with the rest of the season and congratulations on the arrival of your baby girl!

For great swimwear options for this summer, check out Thomas Royall 

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World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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Jack Rodwell, The Forgotten Man

In the summer of 2012, a wry smile crept over the boyish face of Jack Rodwell. Having burst onto the scene some four years previously, the now 22-year-old was finally starting to see the fruits of his labour. Signing on the dotted line, Rodwell completed his move from boyhood club Everton to the now über wealthy Manchester City who were actively in the market snapping up the best talent England had to offer. And Rodwell was certainly one of those. Now a full international having made his England berth some ten months previous, Rodwell was widely considered one to watch; built-in the same kind of mould as Steven Gerrard with the passing range that Frank Lampard would be proud of. Even Roy Hodgson who had been appointed as the Three Lions manager a few months earlier from Rodwell signing for City was giddy with the potential that the player had. Everything it seemed was set for Rodwell to succeed both at club and international level.

Jack Rodwell made his England debut in November 2011 against Spain (Image from Tumblr)

Jack Rodwell made his England debut in November 2011 against Spain (Image from Tumblr)

Except he didn’t. His move to City fizzled rather than sparked his England prospects. A lack of playing time hindering any chances of selection, much to the frustration of Hodgson. To be fair to City, it was hard to squeeze Rodwell onto the pitch that already contained David Silva, Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong. In the limited time Rodwell did see on the pitch he failed to impress amongst the collection of superstars. Reoccurring injuries, in particular to his hamstring led to City becoming frustrated with their prize acquisition and eventually deciding to cut their losses sanctioning the sale of Rodwell to Sunderland after only two seasons. The move to Sunderland was viewed as many as the sensible one – Rodwell would be able to play more and in doing so gain the strength needed to stop his recurring hamstring injury from returning. Back playing regularly, Rodwell could regain his England place and hopefully one day reach his childhood goal of playing at a World Cup.

Rodwell's career has been ravaged by injuries (Image from Tumblr)

Rodwell’s career has been ravaged by injuries (Image from Tumblr)

Except he hasn’t. For one reason or another, Rodwell’s career has flatlined. His demise is hard to understand partly because it appears to be self-inflicted. Things did start well at Sunderland with Rodwell playing a majority of games in his first few seasons but again injuries meant that he spent large chunks on the treatment table instead of the pitch. Over the first three seasons (120 weeks) at the Stadium of Light, Rodwell spent a quarter of them (30 weeks) out injured mostly with hamstring or ankle issues. It proved to be a troublesome time for the player as it was for the club who in fairness have been battling against relative chaos for the better half of a decade since Martin Ellis’ arrival and were finally relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

Scunthorpe-United-v-Sunderland-Checkatrade-Trophy

Rodwell has spent a large chunk of time on the treatment table (Image from Tumblr)

As the club dropped into the Championship, there were expectations that their higher paid players would take a pay cut but also their more senior players would stand up and be accounted for as the club looked to rebuild and bounce back up. Again when it came to Rodwell, neither happened. Rodwell’s money spinning contract remained in tact whilst the player himself completely checked out, refusing to play for the club. Efforts were made to sell him or even loan him out but none proved successful. Eventually Sunderland offered to terminate Rodwell’s contract in January but again the player refused in a move which baffled then club. He has been vocal in saying he doesn’t care about money and just wants to play except Sunderland and its fans have seen very little evidence to support this.

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Where has the passion gone? (image from Tumblr)

Instead he appears happy to sit on the bench or on the sidelines whilst his Sunderland contract ticks slowly down to its finish. Even his former boss Chris Coleman stated that he wasn’t quite sure where Rodwell was towards the end of his reign. In a way the whole situation is a shame. An inform Rodwell is a force to reckon with; skillful with both feet, an excellent engine that gets him up and down the pitch like a cheetah on steroids and a strong passing range that makes him the natural fit for a majority of teams. But many have now forgotten that as the seasons tick on. Rodwell has been replaced in their minds from being “the next big thing” to another failure story of English football. The longer he stays in the football wilderness and refuses to resolve his Sunderland situation, the harder it will be for him to make a comeback.

jack-rodwell

During his younger years at Everton (Image from Tumblr)

So what is next for the 27-year-old? That is the great unknown. It’s clear that Rodwell isn’t in the right mind space at this time, either frustrated with what has happened to his career to date or with his time at Sunderland or simply with football itself. But his reluctance to resolve things opens up more questions about his appetite for the game and is ultimately marking him out as a bad apple to potential future suitors. It could be that he is willing to sit tight knowing that his wages are safe under his airtight contract up until 2019. They may take a hit following Sunderland’s relegation to League One; dropping from £70k to a measly £40k including loyalty bonuses but still for someone who has played a grand total of 159 minutes last season, it’s still not bad. Or perhaps he can be persuaded to come back into the fold and fight for the cause by new Sunderland boss Jack Ross. Rodwell still has time to revive his career one way or another but needs to make a decision on his future either way. Stick or twist, Rodwell needs to get back in the game or eventually he will be known mainly as footballs forgotten man.

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Mourinho’s Shaw Shank or Redemption?

As England took to the Wembley pitch against Italy in the recent World Cup preamble, the figure of Luke Shaw was no where to be seen. Out of the national team reckoning and in danger of exiting from his current club, Manchester United sooner rather than later it’s fair to say that Shaw’s career is at a cross roads even at the tender age of 22. By this point, Shaw should have been a permanent fixture in the England team and have been on the plane to Russia this summer as part of their World Cup squad. But instead he will be house hunting as his agent desperately tries to seal his departure from Manchester United after being once again publicly shanked by his manager Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho has publicly shanked Shaw several times during his reign (Image from Tumblr)

In prison, the shank is a makeshift knife used to injury another inmate with a blow to the abdomen. Whilst the analogy may not be spot on, it does feel to Shaw that his manager continues to stab him where it hurts with his repeated remarks. The latest came after the game against Brighton in the FA Cup when Shaw was substituted at half time. Mourinho was critical of both wing backs (Shaw and Valencia) but in particular of Shaw who was failed to get his positioning correct in order to shut down crosses into the Manchester United box. In the post match interview, Mourinho was quizzed about shaw’s removal and answered bluntly that too many dangerous crosses were coming into the box from Brighton from his side of the pitch so he had to remove him. It was the latest criticism of the player by the Portuguese coach who last year claimed that despite a good performance by Shaw he played with his body, but Mourinho’s mind. Whilst the comment may seem to be extremely harsh, its not uncommon for managers to publicly criticize their players usually with the end goal of generating a positive reaction from them. However in Shaw’s case, it seems to be having the opposite effect with the player visibly becoming more retracted and downhearted from the continuous nit picking of his game by his manager.

To be fair to Mourinho, this is not the first time that Shaw has been criticized by a manager. There have been questions about Shaw’s weight not just under Mourinho but under Van Gaal as well. Less that the player is fat; instead more about his desire to improve himself. Others have questioned his motivation levels too wondering if he is taking life as a professional seriously enough. Shaw isn’t one for being caught out and about during the small hours of the night so instead the criticism stems from his demeanour in training and effort on the pitch that have lead to queries about his desires to play at the highest level.  finding a way to motivate Shaw has been the source of much of the frustration from Mourinho who has tried a variety of different techniques with the player to encourage him to come out of his shell and finally live up to his potential. Former Southampton youth coach Jason Dodd said in a recent BBC radio interview that Shaw is the type of character that needs a cuddle first then a jab in order to get him going but it would already appear that Mourinho has tried this approach unsuccessful. Shaw looks likely to depart Old Trafford in the summer much to the players disappointment.

Luke Shaw’s condition and motivation have been questioned by different managers raising more questions (Image from Tumblr)

This is hardly the ending that Shaw would have hoped for his United career when he signed from Southampton back in the summer of 2014. After bursting onto the scene at St Mary’s aged only 16, Shaw became a fan favourite and was highly sought after by England and Europe’s big guns. Signing for Manchester United for £30 million turned out to be one of the players proudest moments and for many they expected him to become a mainstay in the United side much like Denis Irwin and Patrice Evra had done years before. Whilst a series of injuries including a nasty double leg break have restricted his playing time somewhat, Shaw has struggled to really grab the attention of his managers and his erratic form has left them wondering if the wrong player joined from Southampton four years ago. Shaw has slowly become a bit part player used sporadically by the club much to everyones frustration. In the last four season, Shaw has made only 39 league appearances for United compared to the 60 he made in two seasons at Southampton. Of those 37, he has been subbed 13 times compared to the 12 at Southampton. To be fair he has featured more in cup and European games for United taking his overall appearance number to 67 (this doesn’t include preseason or International Cup appearances) but primarily in games of less significance or in Champions League/Europa League games after United have qualified.

Redemption is possible for Shaw but he will have to earn it. Manchester’s need for a solid left back is obvious given the extended use of winger by trade Ashley Young or central defenders come left backs Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo in that role. England too need a fit and in form Shaw as they have struggled to find a consistent left back since the international retirement of Ashley Cole. Shaw has the talent as we saw at Southampton but needs to find tune his craft to become one of the worlds best left backs. He needs to learn how to take criticism and turn it into positive motivation to help him improve whether that be at United or at a different club. Maybe its too late under Mourinho so moving away from Old Trafford to a new club and a new coach could be the best thing for him.  However If he cant, he runs the risk of slipping into obscurity and wondering where it all went wrong for a player that many believe had/has talent in abundance.

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Jordan Pickford is a great signing for Everton

In the awkward few weeks after the league season has ended and before any summer tournaments have begun, fans are left with new signings to pretend to be outraged about. There is a new unspoken rule that all players must be written off and doubted before they have even been unveiled these days.

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Pickford’s transfer fee raised some eyebrows but will it turn into a good investment by Everton in the end? (Image from Tumblr)

Next up was Everton’s new signing Jordan Pickford, signed from Sunderland for around £30m. Never mind that he is an exciting, young, English goalkeeper (and boy are they needed), many were quick to bring him down a peg or two. Whilst the fee may sound crazy, perhaps looking at the deal from Sunderland’s perspective offers some insight. The Black Cats, newly relegated, in serious debt and selling their most valuable player, were hardly going to sell cheap. From Everton’s point of view, you have to ask yourself 3 questions:

Does he improve Everton?
Yes, bloody hell yes. Everton have struggled badly in goal for years now. Maarten Stekelenburg was a terrible signing and Joel Robles, who has been at the club for 4 years, isn’t up to scratch either. Signing a new keeper and a replacement for Romelu Lukaku are the top priorities for Ronald Koeman this summer.

 

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Pickford is a solid shot stopper who will only improve over time (Image from Tumblr)

Would any of Everton’s rivals sign him?
Pickford was undoubtedly one of the breakthrough players of last year. Any team in the top six would like to have Pickford either as a starter or future No.1, so Everton are conceivably beating off some stiff competition for Pickford.

Can Everton afford it?
It’s worth remembering that Lukaku will probably leave for upwards of £70m this summer so I’d say they can easily afford to invest in other areas. Everton have already spent similar amounts of money on Morgan Schneiderlin and Yannick Bolasie in the last 12 months.

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Long England career ahead for Pickford (Image from Tumblr)

In a previous post, I talked about how important and undervalued goalkeepers are and how it’s about time teams started spending big money on their keepers. Everton have identified that problem in their team and Pickford, at 23 years of age, is a long term solution. From an England point of view, its great news too. An up an coming talent is moving to a big club to learn and improve. At Goodison, he’ll play in a strong team (Everton had the 6th best defence last year) and hopefully get good experience in the cup competitions and play European football. Try and ignore the price in today’s market, just look at the player. Pickford’s a real prospect, a great keeper and much needed at Everton. You’d love him at your club.

Post by Tough Tackler – @thetoughtackler (www.toughtackler.co.uk)

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Big Sam Walks Away As Pressure Becomes Too Much To Take

There is little doubt about the passion Sam Allardyce has for football, you can see it in his eyes. But in the last few weeks and months of the regular season, those eyes started to glaze over. The pressure of life as a football manager appears to have taken its toll on the former Bolton, Newcastle, Sunderland and England boss who sensationally quit as Crystal Palace boss just three days after the season concluded. With many believing that his resignation was done in order to set up a return to Sunderland, Allardyce has gone on record to state that is not the case and instead looks more likely to retire than manage again. In a carefully worded statement, Allardyce said that he has no desire to manage another club and that instead he wanted to live life more – travel, spend time with his grandchildren etc away from the pressures of being a 24/7 club manager.

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The pressure of management in England appears to have taken its toll on Allardyce (Image from Tumblr)

It’s been less than five months since “Big Sam” stepped back into the limelight at Crystal Palace very much seeking redemption. His sin was to undermine his position as England manager by being caught in a newspaper sting operation where he gladly advised how to circumnavigate FA third-party ownership rules for a small fee. That misdemeanor cost him his dream job after only 67 days and one game in charge. Sam had been a fool and paid for it. With the Premier League season underway and Allardyce somewhat of a pariah in English football, a return to club management looked  impossible. That was until then Palace boss Alan Pardew oversaw a slide in form for the London club and paid the penalty. Out he went and Allardyce was parachuted in to save the day.

Sam's spell as England boss ended badly following a newspaper sting (Image from Tumblr)

Sam’s spell as England boss ended badly following a newspaper sting (Image from Tumblr)

It’s a job he has built a reputation on – saving clubs from the drop and once again he delivered. When he arrived at Selhurst park in December, Palace were languishing in 17th place having picked up only four points in their previous ten games. Within days Allardyce had identified three key areas to work on – strengthen the central defence and left back areas, find a replacement for Mile Jedinak who was foolishly sold to Aston Villa five months earlier and reinvigorate striker Christian Benteke who looked starved of service and confidence. To counter the first two issues he added Mamadou Sahko and Patrick Van Aanolt to the defence and brought in Serbian stopper Luka Milivojevic from Olympiacos to protect the back line. The highly versatile Jeffrey Schlupp was added too to give Allardyce options. Benteke however was a different beast and required more time. The Belgian had been on the score sheet eight times already that season but was missing more chances than he was taking. Benteke felt the pressure placed on him under Pardew to be the sole provider of goals so never considered passing or setting up a teammate over shooting. That changed under Allardyce and whilst Benteke’s overall return of goals didn’t dramatically increase (scored 7 in the league under Allardyce), the team scored more with Benteke acting more as a hold up man for his teammates.

Palace celebrate survival for one more year (Image from Tumblr)

Palace celebrate survival for one more year (Image from Tumblr)

All of this work paid off as Palace secured 8 wins in their remaining 21 fixtures and ensured survival with a 14th place league finish. At his press conference following defeat by Manchester United on the last day, Allardyce spoke about needing to sit down with owner Steve Parish to discuss how to grow the team and who to sign with a dig at previous signings being the wrong ones. That meeting happened on Tuesday with Sam deciding to walk rather than fight on. Something may have happened at that meeting or in the run up to it that changed Sam’s mind but whatever it was it wasn’t an easy decision for Allardyce to make. Whilst his reputation has been restored, perhaps the impact of what happened to him during his ill-fated stint as England boss has tainted his love affair with the game? Saving Palace should have been the catalyst for Big Sam but instead it was the final straw. Life in the pressure cooker that is football management has finally taken its toll on one of England’s biggest characters.

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Can Conte and Chelsea hold off Tottenham’s challenge to clinch the title?

For the longest time it looked as though there wouldn’t be a title race in the Premier League as Chelsea pulled out in front and started to put breathing space between them and the others. The chasing pack stuttered through its fixtures whilst Chelsea notched win after win to put themselves in a commanding position by Christmas. The challenge by Guardiola’s Manchester City never materialized as he woke up to the severity of the situation he faces whilst Jose Mourinho struggled to get his new look Manchester United side to convert a draw into a win on too many occasions. Arsenal’s off field “Will he go, won’t he go” saga with Arsene Wenger derailed their push early on whilst Liverpool’s patchy away form stalled Klopp’s chances of lifting the trophy for now. That left Tottenham as the only potential suitor who could catch Chelsea and wreck their title party. The race was on with the two best teams in the league going full pelt for the finish line.

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It is debatable which team; Chelsea or Tottenham is the best in the Premier League. Many favour Spurs purely based on their attractive brand of football that has produced a similar amount of goals as their south London rivals but at the same time leaked less at the back. Added into this, Pochettino’s men are on fire with a recent run of nine straight wins putting them firming back into the title race. But its Conte’s side that holds top spot and have everything to lose. Four points separate the two going into the last four games. On paper, Tottenham have the harder run in with West Ham, Manchester United, current champions Leicester and Hull still to come. Chelsea on the other hand face Middlesbrough, West Brom, Watford and relegated Sunderland. Whilst its hard to see Tottenham dropping points at this stage based on their current form, its equally hard to see where Chelsea will slip up; conceding the points that Spurs would need to overtake them.

Tottenham have been sensational this season with Kane and Alli in particularly good form (Image from Tumblr)

Tottenham have been sensational this season with Kane and Alli in particularly good form (Image from Tumblr)

Last Sunday’s trip to Goodison was the potential banana skin that lay in wait but Chelsea simply side stepped it with a stellar second half performance and walked away with a comfortable three points. Spurs did their part to keep things interesting with a strong 2-0 victory over Arsenal ensuring the first season in 22 attempts that they will finish above their other London rivals. It also put them onto 77 points, the most points the club has ever achieved. Twelve points still remain so Tottenham could finish on a club record breaking 89 points and still not end up as champions. Only Manchester United (92-93, 99-00, 08-09), Arsenal (03-04) and Chelsea (04-05, 05-06) have finished with more points. What that means is that this tally would have been good enough to win the league in 14 of the past 25 seasons (plus potentially a further five more title depending on what their goal difference will be at the end of the campaign).

Conte celebrates with his players after securing a valuable three points against Everton (Image from Tumblr)

Conte celebrates with his players after securing a valuable three points against Everton (Image from Tumblr)

That itself is an illustration of how good Chelsea have been this year. Relentless to the end in many ways. Conte will be aiming for full points as well which would see Chelsea finish on 93 points. That would be three points better than Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003-2004 (who went unbeaten the entire season) and only two points worse off that the current points holder, Chelsea who in Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge secured the title with a staggering 95 points (they lost only once but drew eight times much to the Special Ones annoyance).

Better than the Invincibles? (Image from Tumblr)

Better than the Invincibles? (Image from Tumblr)

Conte’s side have lost five times this season but have drawn considerably less games than Mourinho’s team hence the points gap but the argument can be made that the league has changed and become harder to win in recent years making Conte’s achievements all that more special. Conte will be hoping that he can steer his team over the finishing line in style and in doing so become only the fourth Italian manager to lift the premier League following in the footsteps of Carlo Ancelotti (Chelsea), Roberto Mancini (Man City) and of course last years surprise winner with Leicester Claudio Ranieri.

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 Three Things That Can Help Sunderland Bounce Back

Cut adrift at the bottom of the Premier League, relegation was always inevitable for Sunderland. The fans had already accepted it before kick off against Bournemouth on Saturday having watched a goal shy Middlesbrough side beat them 1-0 midweek. In the end a late goal by Bournemouth’s Josh King coupled with Hull’s draw with Southampton sealed their fate. Life in the Championship beckons for The Black Cats but it is not the end. Yes its a major setback and the loss of TV revenues is a huge hit. But Sunderland like arch rivals Newcastle who suffered relegation last year can bounce back. The Championship has become the Premier League’s graveyard and has proven difficult for teams who have failed to adapt to bounce back (Leeds, Blackburn, Queens Park Rangers etc). To avoid this happening to Sunderland , change is needed at the Stadium of Light and hopefully everyone connected to the club knows this. However sometimes knowing what to change can be the hardest part so with that here are three things we think are needed for Sunderland to return to the Premier League at the first attempt.

Trust in Moyes

Sunderland fans are divided on whether or not David Moyes should be retained as manager but for the club to have the best chance of bouncing back up, Moyes must stay. The former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad boss was not been able to turn around Sunderland fortunes this season since taking over from Sam Allardyce last summer but to be fair to the Scot it has not been all his fault. The lack of interest by the clubs owner and main source of funding Ellis Short has hindered the much needed overhaul of a Sunderland squad that has been dangling preciously close to the edge for some time now. Moyes did manage to bring in 13 new players, some on permanent contracts and some on loan deals but at the same time saw 16 players leave. This amount of turn over is usual when a new manager takes charge but usually when 13 new players arrive, the squad starts to resemble the managers vision.

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Januzaj was one of several players to arrive. The Belgian signed on loan from Manchester United for the season (Image from Tumblr)

However this is not the case with Sunderland as Moyes had two frustrating windows, both battling the club for enough money to achieve his plans but also fighting against the clubs image as a regular Premier League relegation candidate. In recent weeks, Moyes frustration has shown by his public stating after several defeats that he couldn’t fault his players who gave everything. Whilst that may sound like a strange thing to say, it was Moyes way of saying that the players he has just simply aren’t good enough for this level. Moyes is not a bad manager as proven at Everton and has tasted life in the Championship before with Preston (albeit several decades ago and under different circumstances) so should be the right man to guide Sunderland back into the Premier League.  He will need to be backed though both by the fans and the board and allowed to transform the team for life in England’s second tier, much like Rafa Benitez did at Newcastle this season.

Trust in Youth

Sunderland’s drop into the Championship will likely result in a massive clear out with a majority of the more well known names like Defoe, Borini and Kirchhoff departing. There will be other forced sales like the exciting Jordan Pickford who has burst onto the scene this year in goal and has been a revelation despite difficult times at the club. His stock has risen so much that it will be impossible for Sunderland to hold onto him but the net bonus of that is that he should move for a considerable fee. Other players will be freed from their contracts or sold and spaces made available for new recruits but for Sunderland to have long term success they should turn to their youth players for new blood.

Its unlikely Sunderland will be able to hold on to Pickford when they drop into the Championship (Image from Tumblr)

Its unlikely Sunderland will be able to hold on to Pickford when they drop into the Championship (Image from Tumblr)

Like Pickford, the club has produced from its academy several new faces who could play big roles next season. Josh Robson, Michael Ledger, George Honeymoon, Lynden Gooch and Ethan Robson are all exciting home grown players that will surely have the fans on their feet on a regular basis if given the chance. The Championship is a tough league to test out new youngsters but it can also be the perfect place to do so at the same time. Building a squad that is a mix of experienced pros and youthful exuberance could be the key to success for Sunderland and its promotional push next year.

invest, Invest, Invest

A lack of consistent investment has ultimately lead to Sunderland’s current predicament. Owner Ellis Short has made no qualms about his desire to sell the club this year and appears to have lost all interest. Whilst no one has been able to match the bid price set by Short, the owner appears unwilling to add additional funds into the club at this time beyond what he deems as necessary. As an illustration of this, Sunderland’s net spend this season was only £15m (£39m spent, £24m received) which is hardly considerable considering the amounts being splashed not only by clubs in the top 6 but also clubs in and about the relegation zone (Middlesbrough – £39m, Crystal Palace – £50m, Burnley -£44m, Leicester – £26m, West Ham – £42m). With the exception of Middlesbrough who look to be accompanying Sunderland into the Championship next season, the rest have added well to their squads and have applied little pressure on the manager to balance the books.

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To be fair to Short, in the time that he has owned the club (coming on 8 years now) he has given over large amounts for transfers (£163m over last five years) but the money has not been spent wisely and as a result Sunderland have stuttered along. They have danced around relegation for the last five years only once finishing mid table – a respectable 14th in 2013-2104 but it appears lady luck has run out just as Short’s patience has run out too. A new owner needs to be found quickly and one willing to invest not only in the first team but in building a sustainable management structure as well, similar to the one found at Southampton. Only then will Sunderland be on a better footing for the years ahead.

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Remembering the Immense Ugo Ehiogu

Immense. Not a word used often in football but it has been used several times in the last twenty four hours to describe Ugo Ehiogu who has sadly passed away after suffering a heart attack. The former Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and England defender was 44. As usual, Ehiogu was going through his preparations on Thursday as Spurs Under 23’s coach at the clubs training ground when he collapsed. He received immediate treatment from staff at the facility before being transferred to hospital. He died early Friday morning. He is survived by his wife and two kids.

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Until his death, Ugo had been in charge of Tottenham’s under 23’s (Image from Tumblr)

Best known for his time wearing the claret and blue strip of Aston Villa, Ugochuku (Ugo) Ehiogu  actually made his start at West Brom as a trainee before eventually forcing his way into the first team in 1989. He would only play twice for the Baggies before Ron Atkinson came calling and a move to Aston Villa was agreed. Atkinson was impressed by the youngsters power and immense frame and earmarked him as one for the future. It would take Ehiogu almost three seasons to prove to Atkinson that he was the right partner for Paul McGrath at the heart of the defence replacing Shaun Teale but he eventually got his way and never looked back. Over a nine year spell with the club, Ugo would rack up over 300 appearances helping Aston Villa win the League Cup in the 1995-1996 season. His performances over that time also earned him an England call up and a debut substitute appearance against China in 1996 replacing Tony Adams. It would be one of only four appearances for England for Ugo but he did manage to score against Spain in his final appearance in 2001.

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The defender was loved by the Villa faithful (Image from Tumblr)

By that time Ehiogu was playing for Middlesbrough following a record breaking £8m move. Whilst injury ultimately hampered his time at the Riverside, he did manage to forge a successful partnership with Gareth Southgate, a player who he had previously played alongside at Aston  Villa years earlier. With Ugo and Gareth at the heart of their defence and the fantastic trio of Boudewijn Zenden, Gaizka Mendieta and Juninho ahead of them, Middlesbrough stormed to the League Cup final in 2006 where they faced an equally impressive Bolton. Under Sam Allardyce, Bolton had amassed a collection of world class players including Jay Jay Okacha, Ivan Campo and Youri Djorkaeff but it wouldn’t be enough to break down a resilient Middlesbrough who won the game thanks to goals from Joseph Desire Job and Zenden.

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Ugo, alongside defensive partner Southgate, lifts the Cup for Middlesbrough (Image from Tumblr)

Upon his release by Middlesbrough in January 2007, Ugo joined Rangers in the Scottish Premiership. Despite only playing a handful of games for the Ibrox club due to manager Walter Smith favouring Davie Weir and Carlos Cuellar ahead of him, he will forever be in the memory of the Rangers fans mostly due to scoring the winning goal, a spectacular overhead kick  in an Old Firm derby game against Celtic only two months after arriving at the club. He would eventually leave Rangers to join Sheffield United on a free after just one year but Ugo’s injury problems followed and after just one full season at the Blades, Ehiogu called time on his playing career.

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Ugo’s stunning over head kick against Celtic (Image from Tumblr)

Tottenham, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough have all confirmed that they intent to honour Ehiogu this weekend before their respective matches with his other clubs Rangers, West Brom and Sheffield United also likely to follow suit.  Tributes from those who played with Ugo have spoken about what a great guy he was and an immense player. Ugo’s former chairman at Middlesbrough Steve Gibson spoke about the influence Ehiogu had over a part of the clubs rich history.

“Ugo was one of our heroes at Cardiff when the club won its only ever major trophy, “said Boro chairman Steve Gibson. “Ugo and Gareth Southgate were the rock on which Steve McClaren brought the club its best period in its history. He wasn’t just a good footballer, he was a great man.”

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Pampered Players Aren’t To Blame For England’s Failings

Following on from England’s embarrassing exit from the European Championships at the hands of Iceland, fans and pundits have been quick to blame the “washbag generation” of pampered England stars who don’t have the fight. Jamie Carragher in his excellent Daily Mail column has talked of how young players today have become babies and today’s mentality strips them of the character needed to succeed. He went on to suggest English players today have it easy, they get driven everywhere, they get looked after by agents and it’s made them weak.

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Ryan Giggs echoed these words in his first appearance on ITV during Euro 2016, saying that players are rewarded in football these days before they’ve even achieved anything. I can see why a tough, old-school characters like Carragher and Giggs shake their heads at the youth of today but come on, this cannot explain England’s struggles. Players weren’t pampered, self-obsessed millionaires in the 70’s and 80’s and England were dreadful. During the 70’s, England didn’t qualify for a single tournament in that era. Of seven tournaments between 1972 and 1984, England only qualified for two. Back then they were brought up as apprentices, cleaning boots and paying their dues just like Carragher and Giggs would have wanted and they performed worse than the England team of today. Sir Alf Ramsey failed to get England to three tournaments, were his team’s arrogant, spoilt, little babies?

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Were things any different during Ramsey’s reign? (Image from Tumblr)

The era of English football, where “men were real men”, produced precious few divas and prima donnas but they didn’t produce too many successful sides either. I dare say that money has turned many an England player greedy, only focused on the pounds signs and the next big move but let’s not forget that they can still play a bit. The problems affecting England have been there long before the big bucks came to town; what was wrong 40 years ago is still wrong now. It won’t be long before you see another cringing tweet by an England star of his latest fast car, mansion or magnum of champagne but let’s not pretend the culture of today’s stars has held the national team back.

No amount of selfies makes you misplace a pass or fluff a free kick. Why so many ex-players pine for an era when England would routinely fail to even qualify for tournaments is beyond me. Let’s stop pining for the good old days that, frankly, weren’t that good anyway.

Post by Charlie Tang, writer for BOTNBlog and ToughTackler

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Back Of The Net Podcast – Pep Rips Hart Out Of City As Maradona Opens His

Welcome to the Back Of The Net podcast! This week we look at Pep’s decision to dispense with England stopper Joe Hart, Big Sam’s first England squad, Oliver Burke’s transfer to Germany, who the British clubs will face in the Champions League and Europa League and finally Diego Maradona’s scoring ability off the pitch!

Listen below, download via Soundcloud, ITunes, Stitcher, TuneIn or on all good podcast services!

https://soundcloud.com/user-303027057/my-opinion-podcast-1

As always, comments welcome. Let us know your thoughts and what you would like to hear on future pods. Enjoy!

England’s Hunt For A New Manager Takes An All Too Familiar Path

Abject failure, catastrophe, disaster beyond repair, calamitous. All over exaggerations heard about the current problems facing the England national team following their disappointing exit from Euro 2016. Yes, it was a surprising exit at the hands of Iceland, but one that truthfully those closest to the game would know was coming for some time. It all started during the qualifying campaign. England qualified for France fairly convincingly, and with little effort, which ultimately ended up being their downfall. With no real competitive games as such in two years (with the exception of Switzerland), England was on auto pilot for too long. When manager Roy Hodgson did retake the controls in the few months in the run up to the tournament, it was as if he had forgotten exactly how to fly and was hastily retraining himself. A series of pointless international friendlies did nothing to convince the watching spectators that lifting the trophy in July would be a possibility. Instead those games only served to confuse the fans and media with former England winger confessing that he couldn’t work out what system England were playing and what the general plan was. These experimental games only seemed to serve the purpose of giving players like Danny Drinkwater and Andros Townsend false hope that they might squeeze on to the flight to France. In the end, neither did, and for their own reputations sake it’s probably a good thing.

Danny Drinkwater’s man of the match performance afainst Holland in a friendly before Euro 2016 did little for his chances (Image from Tumbl)

During the tournament England played a strong possession game which appeared to please Hodgson and the always animated Gary Neville. But possession without purpose leads to nothing and England made qualification from the group look extremely difficult for themselves. Hodgson, to be fair, did not help England’s chances when he made some strange choices, including shoehorning Wayne Rooney into the team as a midfielder so he could compensate for picking four other strikers in the squad of 23. His decision making in the run up to the tournament and throughout was poor; selecting a barely fit Jack Wilshire ahead of Drinkwater or the impressive Mark Noble of West Ham, for example. Similarly, putting his top marksman Harry Kane on all free kicks and corner kicks was so baffling even Kane probably didn’t understand why. Finally, his lack of a plan B on several occasions costs his side more than just three valuable points and potentially a fairly good shot at winning a relatively poor tournament outright.

Hodgson appeared to be unsure of his best team and formation leading up to Euro 2016 (image from Tumblr)

In the end, Hodgson fell on his sword resigning moments after the defeat at the hands of Iceland in the last 16. Almost instantaneously debates began over who should take over – Englishman or foreign, young or old. Sam Allardyce, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Mancini, Arsene Wenger, Eddie Howe, Glenn Hoddle and strangely Steve Bruce were all linked with the position with Big Sam the clear bookies favourite as the search got underway. Leading the recruitment process is FA chief executive Martin Glenn (who candidly admitted that he knows nothing about football) so would be seeking out the advice of others in order to make an informed decision. In the end, a three man panel of Glenn, FA technical director Dan Ashworth and FA vice chairman David Gill will pick the 18th manager of England who will lead the team through the qualifying campaign for Russia 2018. However, as usual, the discussion around who they should appoint is focused on what type of manager they want to bring in, rather than the question that needs to be answered: what style or identity should the England national team have? That question more than any other will dictate who the right man (or woman) for the job should be. It’s an approach used by other nations during their selection process and was integral to the decision of the RFU (Rugby Football Union) to appoint Australian Eddie Jones to the position of head coach of the England Rugby team, a move that has already proved to be the right one.

The appointment of Eddie Jones by the RFU was doen based on the style of play that they wanted England to adopt (Image from Tumblr)

Answering that question however may be the difficult part. England historically has relied on big name players at the heart of their team with a formation developed around them, most of the time unsuccessfully. Nine times out of ten England breezes through qualifying for major tournaments creating a false sense of security that the formation is working. However it’s worth noting that England generally avoids the harder teams in the qualifying group draws due to their regular high positioning in the FIFA World rankings. As a result, it’s only at the tournament itself when England faces tougher oppositions that problems with the choice of formation occurs, usually leading to an exit. The lack of a plan B often also stems from this with the belief that plan A is good enough to work. Turning this on its head and starting first with the style or identity that England want to have will help define the formational options and the manager capable of making it work. For example, if England decided to follow Germany’s lead in playing a high pressing possession game then someone like Jurgen Klinsmann would make more sense than Sam Allardyce. It’s not necessarily that the Sunderland manager doesn’t know how to play a high pressing game but his experiences to date indicate that his preferences are towards other styles. If however England chose to play like Iceland as a tough to break down unit who are more rigid than fluid in nature, then Sam becomes one of the stand out candidates. Fundamentally the FA trio must focus less on Russia and more on the long term future of the national team. Build the foundations now to create long term success rather than constructing a half-baked solution that will need repairing or scrapping in four years time.

Is Sam Allardyce the right choice? (image from Tumblr)

Italy’s success at this year’s Euros are an indication of how effective this approach can be. The Italians were not blessed with the most talented squad going into the tournament with several Italian journalists calling it the worst team in fifty years. But in manager Antonio Conte they had a coach who understood the style that Italy wanted to play and built a formation around that. The players he then selected fit into this system rather than the other way around (which is what England did). When PSG’s Marco Veratti dropped out due to injury, Conte turned to Lazio’s Marco Parolo; a similar type of player who can drop straight into the gap left by Veratti rather than reworking his system to accommodate a different type of player. The entire squad knew the system, how they intended to play and what their role was leading Italy to a quarter final spot. England must learn from past mistakes, define their style and approach going forward. Once they have done this, only then can they confidently choose a manager who can be most effective in executing against that, regardless of who that is and where they come from.

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 1 – Groups A, B and C

Watching the European Championships or any major international tournament with your friends is generally highly enjoyable. That is until your so-called friend starts spouting stats and facts about each team making you feel simply like you don’t know anything about football. But fear not, we are here to help. Below is your group by group cheat sheet which should help impress your friends and shut up Mr. Know it all. Each group contains who should win the group, who are the dark horses (a horse racing term for an unexpected winner that in football only seems to appear at major tournaments), one player to watch and some good old fashion generally knowledge about each team. Enjoy!

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Captain Lorik Cana will lead Albania out at their first ever tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Group A – Albania, France, Romania + Switzerland

Q: Who should top the group? – France

Q: Who are the dark horses – Switzerland

Q: Player to watch – Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

France host for a record-breaking third time. Its a record that France should hold onto going forward after UEFA announced its intentions to hold the next set of European Championships across multiple countries. Albania play their first ever major men’s tournament having qualified second in a group containing Portugal, former winners Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. More remarkable is that they only scored ten goals in 8 games, the lowest of all the qualifying teams. Goals will be a problem for them in France. Romania drew more games in qualifying than any other (five) but benefited for the collapse of Greece under the management Claudio Ranieri (who would be sacked only to re-emerge months later and lead Leicester to a surprise Premier League title) beating them in their first match. They also have in their squad the tournaments tallest player in goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (6ft 6in).  Finally the Swiss kick off their Euro 2016 with an interesting clash with Albania which will see brother face brother as midfielder Granit Xhaka faces up to his little brother Taulant. Both born in Switzerland to Kosovo Albanian parents, Granit opted for his country of birth whilst Taulant picked Albania. It will be the first time they have faced each other at international level and a first for the European Championships but not in major competitions with the Boateng brothers (Kevin Prince and Jerome) holding that honour when Ghana met Germany at the World Cup in 2014

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More than just Bale? (Image from Tumblr)

Group B – England, Russia, Slovakia + Wales

Q: Who should top the group? – England

Q: Who are the dark horses – Slovakia

Q: Player to watch – Deli Alli (England)

England embark on a record ninth Euro’s appearance (more than any other nation) but also sadly own the record for most appearances in the quarter finals without winning the trophy (eight times). This year the selection of Marcus Rashford means that England will have the youngest player at the tournament (18 years old). They face an aging Russia side that is the second oldest (behind Republic of Ireland) however the late inclusion of 26-year-old Zenit midfielder Artur Yusupov should lower it slightly. Interestingly Yusupov was not originally in the squad for the Euros but benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Yusupov lucked out when he happened to stay in the same hotel as the Russia national team in Monaco whilst on his holidays. After Igor Denisov pulled out, Yusupov was asked to cut his holiday short and make up the numbers. Much to his girlfriend’s annoyance, he accepted and immediately joined the squad despite not having his boots (he had to borrow a pair whilst his boots were flown in from Russia with love). Slovakia’s players may not be that well-recognized but could be one of the surprises of the tournament. Their key player is Napoli’s Marek Hamsik who will have the best haircut at the Euro’s – his signature mohawk. If Slovakia are to progress they will need him and fellow midfielder Vladimir Weiss to be on form, creating chances for their forwards. Weiss finished qualifying with the most assists which contributed to 33% of all of Slovakia’s goals. Wales found goals hard to come by in qualifying scoring only 11 times (7 of which were scored by Gareth Bale – 64%). They may be seen as a one man show but in fact have one of the best defences with only Spain, England and strangely Romania conceding less in qualifying. Manager Chris Coleman has the team playing as one and defending as such which shows in the qualifying stats with forward Hal Robson Kanu the third highest fouler with 26.

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Poland beat Germany in qualifying – can they do it again at Euro 2016? (Image from Tumblr)

Group C – Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine

Q: Who should top the group? – Germany

Q: Who are the dark horses – Poland

Q: Player to watch – Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)

World champions Germany enter the Euro’s in indifferent form having struggled at times during qualifying. However history is on their side. Germany are the constant theme at the Euros having featured in every one since 1972. They have also reached the most finals (6), winning half of them – a record they share with Spain. At this Euro’s Germany will be heavyweight hitters (they are the heaviest squad on average at 80.3kg) as they look to become only the second side to win the Euros whilst current World Champions. Northern Ireland feature for the first time having never reached the finals before (they have qualified for two WC’s in the past). Michael O’Neill’s side enter the tournament as the inform side unbeaten in their last 12 games. They will rely on the goals of Kyle Lafferty to get them out of the group stage after his heroics in qualifying. Lafferty has found game time at club level hard this past season and in fact made more appearances for Northern Ireland since August 2015 than he did at his various clubs (9 for country versus 6 for club). That is in stark contract to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski who was a constant for Bayern and Poland last year and has been in devastating form. He finished the season in Germany with 42 goals in all competitions plus as top scorer in qualifying with 13. However Poland are far from being the Lewandowski show with several other members helping them to finish as the top scorers overall with 33 goals. Ukraine on the other hand could only muster 15 strikes (6 of which were against Luxembourg). Having only ever won a single game at the Euros (2-1 vs Sweden at Euro 2012 – surprisingly one more win than the Poles have achieved), they will be looking to build on this and hopefully progress with a win over Poland. To do so they will need Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kiev’s Andiy Yarmolenko to be on form. Both players are looking to impress during the tournament to earn money spinning moves to the Premiership or Bundesliga. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is an avid collector of wines so will be looking to toast his sides progress if they can get beyond the group stage for the first time.

Look out for Part 2 – Groups D, E and F on Monday.

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European Championships 2016 Review

The European Championships in France are vastly approaching and with less than two weeks until the tournament starts. It may be time to consider the contenders for the tournament and what footballers may impress. Here are five potential winners to consider.

France

When host nation France kick off the tournament on June 10th 2016 at the iconic Stade De France stadium in Paris, expectations will rise and reach fever pitch. It only seemed yesterday to most followers of Les Bleus, when they lifted the trophy back in Rotterdam in 2000. Since then French football has gone through many transitions and from the devastation of an early group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup a new young and exciting side has emerged.

Built around the young and powerful Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, Didier Deschamps has produced a side that can threaten any side in Europe on their day. They possess huge potential in young strikers Antoine Greizmann and Anthony Martial, who have had great seasons respectively with Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, and will be the blueprint of French football for many years to come. Experience is vital too and they can look to wise old heads of Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna to help carry a nation.

However, the loss of Karim Benzema may be a big blow to their hopes. After he was excluded from the squad regarding a bizarre blackmail story with fellow French teammate Mathieu Valbuena. It has left a dark cloud over French football. The striker much like Pogba is a genuine world class footballer and will be devastated to miss out on a home tournament. Someone will have to fill the gap that Benzema has left.

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Benzema has been left out of the French squad due to off field issues (Image from Tumblr)

Spain

In some ways Spain have gone quietly under the radar coming into the tournament and this may help their chances. This is a side that for all their world class talent were so underwhelming in Brazil and were never really able to get going. They still are to be taken seriously however and Vicente del Bosque will be desperate to make up for that disappointment.

What cannot be underestimated is that they are still much very strong defensively and offensively. Real Madrid and Barcelona defenders Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are in their prime and are still on their day as good as any centre-backs in Europe. Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba can still be a dangerous outlet for the national side going forward too. Their midfielder is full of quality and they have strength in depth in so many areas. David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Koke can all open up defences with great movement and passing.

The question mark and in recent times has been their strikers. Spain have struggled to really find a natural goal scorer in matches and have tried numerous experiments. They have tried Diego Costa, Roberto Soldado and Paco Alcacer in lone roles and all have failed to establish themselves as Spain’s main man up front. They may place their faith in Juventus striker Alvaro Morata, who at 23 has a bright future and continues to impress at the Italian club, domestically and on the European stage.

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Spain will rely on Morata to fire them to glory (Image from Tumblr)

England

When the tournament starts it will be fifty years since the national side lifted the World Cup trophy back in 1966 at an ecstatic Wembley and still to this day it is a source of inspiration for the suffering fans. Every tournament is the same too, the expectations rise only for the side to perform poorly. Only for another golden generation to fail where their predecessors were so successful.

The 2014 World Cup added to a long line of failures at major tournaments and since then Roy Hodgson has vowed to create a brand new generation that can be exciting but at the same time be able to rise to pressure. Emerging is a new generation of young players with big potential and exciting ability.

Harry Kane is a prime example of this new system. He has adapted well to international football bringing the form that helped him win Premier League golden boot for Tottenham this season. There are mentions for his club team mate Dele Ali, who like Kane has been a revelation since he made the move from League One side MK Dons last summer and Ross Barkley. The young Everton midfielder, who is exciting to watch and has a huge future for the Merseyside club.

From an England’s fan viewpoint, they will be hoping they can go one better than the past generation that featured David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Wayne Rooney is the last remaining active player of that generation and would be desperate to at least be one player to win a major international tournament.

It would be great also to note the achievements that Leicester and Jamie Vardy have achieved this season. It was not so long ago that Jamie Vardy was playing in the lower tiers of non-league football in England has had a remarkable rise. He has helped Leicester achieve a fairy tale by winning the Premiership this season and that story may continue with England.

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Harry Kane will lead the line for England (Image from Tumblr)

Germany

Germany are the World Champions and will be hoping to replicate recent sides such as France and Spain, who in recent times have followed World Cup wins with winning a European Championship.  They are in good shape but may be slightly different from the current side that ended the World Cup with several stars retiring and will have to replace the hole their influence had on the side.

Phillip Lahm, the Bayern Munich full back was the engine of the German National side and has retired leaving a huge gap to fill in defence. Miroslav Klose was always the talisman with a knack for always scoring vital goals for the national team and his retirement was always set to happen at the age of thirty seven. The record scorer with seventy one goals would always be a big miss for any side.

There is still enough world class talent to make them favourites and forward Thomas Muller is their star man going into this tournament. A man for the big occasion. His record in World Cup finals for goals is very impressive and will be eager to make a mark in this European Championship. Mesut Ozil is always a creative force and with numerous assists for Arsenal will be looking to unlock defences for the national side.

Matts Hummels, who has swapped Bayern Munich from Dortmund in recent days is a world class performer and adds defensive stability to the back four. It would be good to look out for Wolfsburg’s talented midfielder Julian Draxler as well who has huge potential. Mario Gotze may have had little game time at Bayern but still could be a game changer on his day as well.

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Germany are in good spirits ahead of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Italy

Out of all the contenders Italy are the most unpredictable. They usually reach the final of a major tournament and win it or struggle and fail by crashing out at the group stages. However they could never be counted out due to the quality and pedigree they possess.

The Azzurri are Europe’s most successful side in World Cups and will be eager to make up for the final disappointment back in 2012. In truth, they were simply torn apart by Spain on that night and Antonio Conte was appointed in the aftermath to lead Italy to glory. His domestic success with Juventus has made him one of Europe’s best coaches and will be changing the blue of Italy for Chelsea at the start of next season.

His management has built a calmness to the national side and this is based around the legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who at the age of 38 is still one of the best goalkeepers in world football. A huge influence on the national side and still breaking records too, going 870 minutes without conceding a goal in Serie A for Juventus this season. The experience of Daniele De Rossi is still there for the Italian side and the Roma midfielder can still have an influence breaking up the play in the midfield.

Leonardo Bonucci is the man in defence for the Italians after a rock steady season for Juventus and will be the man to help keep things nice and steady defensively. Lorenzo Insigne is a dangerous and exciting performer for Napoli. Huge expectations may be on his shoulder to deliver the goals for the side and will be looking at the influence of Lazio winger Antonio Candreva to supply the chances.

Post by The FootySite. For more stories, Fantasy Football and more check out The FootySite 

Wrong Move, Right Time As Neville Accepts Defeat In Spain

Despite giving his all, Gary Neville’s Spanish excursion has ended in failure. It was widely expected that the former Manchester United and England defender would depart Valencia at the end of the season but the club has decided to part company with Neville now so that they can start the build for next season. Manchester City’s exiting manager Manuel Pellegrini has already been installed as the early favourite to take over. Neville unfortunately leaves with one of the worst records for a manager in Valencia’s history, denting his pride but not his belief.

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Valencia’s 7-0 hammering by Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey was the beginning of the end for Neville as manager (Image by EFE/Alberto Estévez)

Throughout Neville remained professional. He refused to turn on the club or talk badly about it behind its back even if he does feel slightly chewed up and spat out. Success at Valencia was always going to be challenge given the clubs internal problems and high fan expectations. Neville was informed of the clubs decision well before the start of the international week but preferred to keep the news quiet so that the players both in the Valencia squad and England setup where Neville is a coach under Roy Hodgson, could concentrate on that. Even Hodgson was on the dark until after the defeat to Holland once again highlighting the mark of the man. Neville returned to Spain to tell the players, speak with the media and pack up his things.

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Neville returned to his other job as England coach despite having learned that he had been sacked by Valencia (Image from Getty)

If given the option again, Neville would still chose to go to Spain to start his managerial career highlighting the self belief that radiates from the man. Those who mocked Neville’s move will bask in his abject failure, quickly highlighting the differences between giving an opinion on television versus managing a club day to day. But in truth he should be praised for taking the risk in the first place. Moving to La Liga is never easy regardless of how much experience you have, look at David Moyes. Not being able to speak the language hardly helped too. But Neville poured his heart and soul into the project alongside his brother Phil but in the end was beaten by a combination of bad luck, injuries and poor results. In his exit statement, Neville was honest and open – results were not good enough (only ten wins from twenty eight games, three of which were in the league) so he had to fall on his own sword.

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Even experienced managers like David Moyes have failed to make the grade in Spain (image from Getty)

Returning to England will be tough for Neville but he is thick skinned enough to handle it. Decisions over what to do next will be front of mind for him and he will not be short of options despite his failure in Spain. Going back into his media job with Sky looks to be an easy option for Neville who did insist during his announcement as Valencia boss that he doesn’t see himself as a manager long term. But now that he has had a taste of the managers chair, will be be able to turn his back on it? If he does take up another managerial position, Neville needs to find a project outside of the critical English media lens. Resurrecting a fallen giant like Leeds United, Derby County or Nottingham Forest would make sense both for him and the club. Betting odds have reduced on Neville taking over at Aston Villa too but given the well documented internal issues at that club, he would be advised to stay well clear. First and foremost he will turn his attentions to England and helping Roy Hodgson to prepare for Euro 2016. England are many people’s dark horses after good showings against France, Germany and Holland in recent friendlies. Once the tournament has finished, Neville will look to start his next challenge whatever that may be.

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Nightmare Scenario For Premier League As Italy Gets Set To Steal a Champions League Spot

 

With twelve games to go, the race for the Premier League title is heating up. Four clubs (Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City) have pulled out in front whilst Manchester United, Southampton, West Ham and Liverpool are leading the chasing pack. Whilst only one team can win the title, the desire to finish in the top four places is strong given that they all are rewarded with coveted Champions League spots. England has had four spaces in Europe’s premier tournament since 2001 but now that could be under threat as Italy close the gap on England in UEFA’s coefficient table. Introduced in 1979 as a way of statistically ranking and seeding teams in club and international UEFA competitions, the coefficient system has been widely criticized for favouring the stronger nations across Europe who compete more regularly in the various competitions. That said, without a viable alternative it is the only system that can be used fairly. Currently the club coefficient rankings are determined by the results of clubs within both the Champions League and the Europa League over the last five seasons added to the clubs association coefficient.

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England are at risk of slipping down the coefficient standings (Image from UEFA)

Whilst English clubs have consistently featured and reached the closing stages of the Champions League over the past five seasons, it is their failure to take the Europa League seriously that now puts their position in the coefficient standings at threat. In the past five years, only six teams have made it at least to the round of 32 with only Tottenham and Newcastle making it further (quarter finals) and Chelsea running out as winners in the 2012-2013 season. In comparison, Italy have consistently featured in the final stages of both competitions with Juventus making the final of the Champions League and both Fiorentina and Napoli making the semi finals of the Europa League last year. This has led to Italy closing the gap on England who now run a risk of losing one of their Champions League spots to their Italian counterparts starting from the 2017/2018 season.

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Juventus reached the Champions League Final last year helping Italy climb in the standings (Image from Getty)

With this, the Premier League has sprung into action and is contemplating offering its sides competing in the Europa League financial incentives to go as far in the competition as possible. Also on the table for discussion is the potential for better organization on cup competitions including only playing cup fixtures midweek, the removal of two legged semi finals in the League cup and replays. It’s a bold move by the Premier League as it desperately looks to hang on to that fourth Champions League spot. But why has it gotten to this stage and more importantly why have English clubs not taken the Europa League seriously until now? The truth is that English clubs see the Europa league and its current setup as a hindrance. Too many games, too much traveling with little reward has always been the principle complaints. A long Europa league campaign can have a major effect on a team’s league performance as Newcastle found out in the 2012/2013 season. With a small squad to play with, Newcastle struggled in the league due to injuries and fatigue picked up during their run to the quarterfinals that year. After being knocked out by Benfica, then boss Alan Pardew admitted that the European campaign had disrupted his side’s league form with Newcastle only picking up two wins in eighteen, slipping into the relegation zone in the process. Whilst they survived, the valuable lesson learned was that to compete at home and abroad you need to have a large group of talented players, something that few clubs outside of the top five have that their fingertips.

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Newcastle’s run to Europa League cost them form in the Premier League (image from Getty)

Both Italy and England have three sides remaining in this years competition which could ultimately have a major effect on the standings. With three teams each left in the competition, the results of their upcoming games on Thursday have added weight. Tottenham travel to Fiorentina in a rich vein of form and will be hoping to put one over their Italian opponents in the first league. But for manager Mauricio Pochettino the game presents another difficult decision. Sitting second in the Premier League, only two points behind leaders Leicester this could be his sides best chance of winning the title that he will get. So the question remains will he play a full strength side against Fiorentina and risk injuries that could affect his teams run in towards the title or will he sacrifice the Europa League to ensure Tottenham have their best shot? For the League it is difficult call to make – on the one hand they want Tottenham to challenge in the last few months of the season as it makes their product more attractive. But defeat and an early exit for Spurs could cost them in the long run with England losing one of its spots. Not an easy decision by any shape of the imagination.

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End of a Era As Terry Gets Set To Leave Chelsea

There has been a dark cloud over Chelsea as late as their fans try to get to grips with the departure of the special One for the second time, Jose Mourinho. Today that could became a little darker when they awoke to hear the news that beloved captain John Terry would be leaving the club as well. The club has revealed that discussions with Terry about his long-term future have been ongoing for some time but they were always reluctant to offer him a new contract. At 35, it would go against their club policy to offer him a new deal preferring to let him leave much like Lampard did two years ago. Terry would have preferred to stay but it was never on the cards so will end his 21 year association with the club at the end of the current season. The news has been greeted with mixed reviews with some devastated and others simply glad he is going.

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All change at Chelsea – First Jose, Now John (Image from Emipics)

There are various reasons for why people haven’t exactly warmed to John Terry. His off field antics for one which have seen him bed countless women behind his wife’s back including teammate Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend and mother of his child, Vanessa Perroncel. Then there are his on field antics with Terry accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, an act so vile that he was stripped of the England captaincy, charged by the police and banned by the FA. A messy court case followed with Terry eventually acquitted due to the inability of a professional lip reader to identify what was caught on tape. The fact that an eight year old could make out clearly what was mouthed by Terry to Ferdinand made the whole process laughable and led to Anton’s cousin Rio Ferdinand publicly slamming the Chelsea captain.

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Terry was caught on camera racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand during a game (Image from getty)

Away from all the drama, Terry has become over the years the poster child centre back and a tip of the hat to defenders of the past – a commanding figure marshaling his defence, stern in the challenge and not willing to give up until he game is won. He is a born winner, blooded by Claudio Ranieri but crafted by Jose Mourinho into one of England’s best defenders. Since 2000, Terry has been a permanent fixture in the heart of the Chelsea defence so his appointment as captain four years later made perfect sense. It would prove to be an inspired move by new boss Mourinho with Terry going on to become the most successful skipper in the club’s rich history winning four Premier League titles. Four FA cups, three league Cups and eventually the champions League. Personal honours also followed with Terry named as UEFA Club defender of the year three times (2005,2008,2009) and in UEFA’s team of the year on four occasions. He would also represent England 72 times (34 of which as captain) and played at two World Cups and two European Championships before retiring from international football in September 2012.

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Natural born winner – John Terry with the Champions League trophy (image from Getty)

His departure from Chelsea may have come as a surprise to some but at 35 and with little left in the tank; the decision to call time on Terry’s spell at the club is hardly unexpected. Once he was one of the first names on the team sheet, Terry has become the question mark with even Jose Mourinho doubting his ability and dropping him to the bench shortly before he was axed. Retirement from the game may be an option but for Terry it isn’t on the cards as he looks for one final swan song before hanging up his boots. Despite Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew already jumping the gun in stating his desire to sign Terry, the man himself has no desire to stay in the Premier League and play for another club beside Chelsea. A move to one of the various lucrative leagues like China, Qatar or the US could be on offer whilst it’s not out of the realms of possibility that he could go to Italy or Spain as well although his lack of pace could curtail that as an option.

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