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.

images

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.

Share your thoughts and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

 

The Greedy 12 and the Super League

It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday until all hell broke loose. Embarrassing and greedy quickly started to trend on Twitter alongside the word “Super League” which told you everything you needed to know. The decision by 12 European clubs to announce a breakaway SuperLeague has been widely condemned by footballs governing bodies, its former and current players and most importantly the fans, who all see this move as financially motivated and without any consideration for them.

After months of secret, behind closed doors talks twelve clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have signed on to be founder members of this new JP Morgan backed European Super League (ESL) which was announced late Sunday afternoon, one day before UEFA was due to announce a potentially expanded Champions League.

The “Big 6” in England have signed on to a European Super League much to the dismay of the FA, the Premier League and the British government.

FIFA have been quick to condemn the move whilst UEFA has threatened tough sanctions on the clubs involved and their players including banning them from all other league and cup competitions and even stopping players from potentially representing their national teams. Legal action could also be taken against each of the 12 clubs with UEFA seeking significant damages rumoured to be around £50-60billion. UEFA have also been supported by the three national federations and leagues that the 12 currently play in, stating that any move of such would result in their eviction from their domestic leagues and cup competitions. But it’s the reaction of the former players and the fans that tells the story. Both have been outraged by the news and have rejected the idea of a Super League being a good thing or indeed even for them. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville called the move absolutely disgusting and a decision based solely on greed whilst former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher called it an “embarrassing decision for Liverpool and for those who have come before”. Hard to disagree.

In a statement released by the new ESL, the founding clubs had agreed to establish a “new midweek competition” with teams continuing to “compete in their respective national leagues”. Three further teams would join shortly to make 15 founding teams that would be secured in their places in the league (couldn’t be removed or relegated) and a further five would join based on performances elsewhere. The hope was that the new league could start as early as next year but the ESL has a lot to do before that becomes reality.

The statement went on to say that the global pandemic had “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model” and that conversations with UEFA had failed to answer concerns about the need to provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid.” The ESL will apparently help to put the game on a more sustainable footing in the long term.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has been named as the president of the European Super League and is one of its principle instigators

ESL vice chairman and Manchester United owner Joel Glazer was quoted in saying “By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid.”

There is a lot to unpack there but underneath it all is the general sense that the owners of these 12 clubs are being motivated by one thing and one thing only – greed. The richest clubs in football simply want more money. Talk of fixing the European game, improving the quality for fans or providing a more financial support to the football pyramid is just smoke and mirrors for what this is really about. These 12 clubs feel entitled to more and because UEFA won’t buckle to their demands, they are trying to force their hand.

Whether all 12 believe this league will happen is one thing but what’s more important is that they have massively overestimated their own hand. Either foolishly or naively, the clubs believed that the fans would be excited about this league and more so that their own domestic leagues ( English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga) would be comfortable with this. Neither of which is true. What has happened is instead the greedy 12 have landed in a PR nightmare with no one for support and a general feeling from supporters that they don’t care about anything other than money. Now facing some difficult conversation, not only with FIFA and UEFA but as well with their national leagues, the European Club Association and the Players Football Association, it’s fair to say that the announcement didn’t quite go as planned.

Former players Rio Ferdinand, Francis Benali and Robbie Savage react to the news about the proposed European Super League.

The League may never happen due to a variety of reasons and as suggested earlier, it might never have needed to happen. It could all be a ruse to get UEFA to back down and agree to the changes these 12 clubs wanted as part of a new look Champions League – more power, preferential treatment such as annual participation regardless of performance and above all else more money. But now having overextended themselves and misread how much power they actually have at the wider footballing table, it might be a harder battle to win.

Regardless of how those discussions go or how things pan out over the next few weeks and months, the fans ultimately will have their say or the ability to voice their opinion at the least by turning their backs on the clubs in more than one way. For the instigators of this new league, it’s worth noting that it was supporters who helped to build these clubs up to where they are today and that they quite easily tear them apart as well – Super League or no Super League.

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Hungary – The Greatest Team Not to have the Won the World Cup

There are few teams in the history of football that deserve more than they got but the 1954 Hungary squad is one exception. Quite simply put, Hungary should have been the World Champions that year which could have fundamentally shifted the forward trajectory of Hungarian football for years to come. Instead Hungarian football slipped slowly into the abyss with only a few glimmers of light shining through over the past 67 years. A win for Hungary in that final would have inspired a generation and those after them to talk more about how good a team that was and how the Magical Maygars transformed football in the 1950’s.

It all began in 1949 with the appointment of a revolutionary coach called Gusztav Sebes. As a country under communist rule, Hungary’s Deputy Sports Minister Gusztáv Sebes was tasked with creating their national team in an endeavour to further sporting excellence. Inspired by the Austrian Wunderteam and the Italian team that won two World Cups in the 1930s, Sebes set about transforming Hungary into one of the most dominant and feared national teams ever to grace the world of football. Adapting a 4-2-4 formation perfected by MTK head coach Marton Bukovi which pioneered the crucial deep lying centre-forward position, Sebes would create a side capable of playing fast flowing football that embodied pace, movement and unrelenting brilliance. He ensured that each member of the team was able to understand the individual style and strengths of each of his teammates and that every member of the squad was comfortable playing in multiple if not every position. Total Football was born.

Sebes vision – Hungary formation 1953

What helped Sebes to be successful with this approach was that his team was primarily made up of players from the state sponsored Army team Honved so they were already familiar with one another. Added into this, that Honved team not only had some of the fittest players at the time (army run after all) but also some of the most gifted including Gyula Grosics, Sándor Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik and of course Ferenc Puskás. Adding in Gyula Lóránt at centre back and Nándor Hidegkuti in that newly created deep lying centre forward role, Sebes built one the the very first team of superstars. Under his tutelage, Hungary recorded 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat, scoring 215 goals along the way in the six year period between 1950 and 1956.

Among those victories, Hungary became the Olympic champions in 1952, winning all five games and scoring 20 goals in total. That was truly when the world woke up to the Magical Magyars. It left many wondering how Sebes formation worked so well and more importantly how Péter Palotás had been used as a withdrawn centre forward. Sebes tactic was essentially to use the traditional striker as a more deep lying playmaker, as well as dropping the two wingers back into midfield to create a team capable of performing a quick turnover. The tactic also helped to draw opposition defenders out of position which in turn opened gaps for others to run into.

The gold medal in Helsinki earned Hungary a glamour friendly against England the following year at Wembley. Sebes, always meticulous in his planning arranged for a friendly with Sweden in advance of that game as they played in a similar style to England. The belief in the England camp however was that they were far more tactical and technically superior than Hungary and were confident that their record of having never lost on home soil to a team from outside the British Isles would stay intact. They were wrong. Sebes produced a surprise in that game by switching out Palotás for Nándor Hidegkuti and its proved to be a masterstroke as Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick as Hungary humiliated England beating them 6-3 on the day. Having failed to learn their lesson, England sought revenge the following year only to be on the end of a 7-1 defeat this time in Budapest.

England captain Billy Wright and Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas exchange flags before their 1953 clash

Next up for Hungary was the 1954 World Cup which they went into as clear favourites having won an impressive 27 straight consecutive games. Hungary issued a statement of intent early on in that World Cup thumping South Korea 9-0 in their opening match before dispatching West Germany 8-3 in their next group match. The trio of Kocsis, Puskas and Hidegkuti were unplayable, scoring 12 of the 17 goals between them. In the quarter finals, Hungary faced the 1950 losing finalists Brazil in what is now widely referred to as the “Battle of Berne”. Under driving rain and with a point to prove, Brazil sought to agitate and kick their opponents which resulted in tempers on both sides rising to boiling point. Hungary eventually won the game 4-2 but not before having József Bozsik sent off along with Brazil’s Nilton Santos for fighting.

The semi final against defending champions Uruguay, who had never lost a World Cup match in their history, was a calmer affair but was not without drama. Missing Puskas, Hungary worked tirelessly to edge out a 2-0 lead which pushed Uruguay to step up a gear. They replied by pulling one back early in the second half before snatching an equalizer 4 minutes from time to send the game into extra time. Despite Uruguay being as technical gifted as their counterparts, they could never match Hungary’s fitness and it was the Maygars who sealed the victory with two goals from Kocsis that set up a final against West Germany.

In the “Miracle of Bern”, better known as the 1954 World Cup Final, Hungary were widely considered favourites having already beaten West Germany convincingly in the group stages and on a 31 game winning streak. However with Puskas still suffering from an ankle injury but wanting to play, Sebes knew he would have to make a tough decision with his team selection. He chose to play Puskas and the “Galloping General” repaid that faith scoring after only 6 minutes. Czibor made it 2-0 shortly after before West Germany pulled it back even with two goals just before half time. In the second half, Hungary were the more aggressive but couldn’t find a way past the german goalkeeper. Six minutes from the end, Hungary were shattered when Helmut Rahn scored a third goal. However Hungary rallied and two minutes before the end, Puskas put the ball into the back of the net, but it was bizarrely ruled off side and West Germany won the game. The controversy with this game however was in the refereeing by Englishman William Ling who gave several key decisions throughout the match in West Germany’s favour. There were also rumours that the German’s had been given performance enhancing drugs in the lead up to the match which allowed them to keep up with the ultra fit Hungarians. Regardless, Hungary lost that game and it is now considered as one of the greatest upsets in football history.

Hungary’s defeat in the 1954 World Cup final was especially hard to take due to the multiple refereeing decisions that went against them that day with some suggesting the game was rigged.

After that defeat, Hungary continued to dominate international football playing 19 games, winning 16 and drawing 3 up until February 1956 when bizarrely Sebes was sacked and replaced by Marton Bukovi which also coincided with the Hungarian revolution of the same year. That was the catalyst that broke up the Magical Maygars. A majority of the players playing for Honved away to Atletico Bilbao in the 1956 European Cup when the revolution broke out back home in Budapest. Unable to go home, a majority of the players sought out new clubs with Puskas joining Real Madrid and Kocsis and Czibor moving to Barcelona.

The significance of this team on football history cannot be understated. The tactics created by Bukovi and adapted by Sebes opened the game up to a new way of thinking, that tactics could be adaptable and could influence games. The ideology attached to those tactics created the Total Football philosophy which would be embraced by Holland in the 1970’s and probably plays into the ideologies being created by our modern day coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. And the positions themselves, with the freedom to move from your deigned role or remove the shackles spawned various iterations that are widely accepted today – the attacking playmaker, the false nine, the sweeper keeper. For that contribution to football, Hungary deserves more than they got. Olympic gold is nice but for a team that dominated and revolutionized international football it’s simply not enough. The 1954 World Cup should have had Hungary’s name carved onto it but instead this great team will be forever noted in the history books as World Cup runners up.

Article by Martin Cowgill.

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

One On One with: Harry Redknapp

As far as English managers go, there are few quite like Harry Redknapp. Highly respected, likeable and in possession of a dry wit and a thousand stories to complement it, Redknapp sets himself apart in the game. The former manager, known for his spells at Bournemouth, West Ham, Portsmouth and Tottenham to name a few, may be more focused on building his own personal brand away from the pitch rather than building a team on it but that doesn’t mean that football is done with Harry yet.

We caught up with him recently to talk about his managerial career, trusting in youth at West Ham, converting Gareth Bale to a winger and that Portsmouth FA Cup win.

Back Of The Net: You played alongside Bobby Moore at West Ham and against the likes of Billy Bremner, Dave Mackay and the great Pele during your playing days. What did sharing a pitch with guys like that teach you about being a footballer? Did you carry those lessons on into your career as a manager?

Harry Redknapp: These players are among some of the best players that have been, but all very different in their style. It is always an honour to play with or against the best players and to improve your game you learn so much from them.

BOTN: Your first taste of management came at Bournemouth when you replaced Don Megson in October 1983. You spent ten years at The Cherries mostly in the lower leagues. It appears to be a great place for a manager to learn the trade, as evident again with Eddie Howe, their current manager. Is that club set up for success by the way its structure versus how other clubs operate? How do you rank the job that Howe has done there?

HR: It could benefit all young mangers to go through the system at lower level but many do not and are still successful. Eddie has done a very good job at Bournemouth and is an example of a good young English manager.

eddie-howe-harry-redknapp-011

Harry with Bournemouth’s current boss Eddie Howe (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: During your time in charge at West Ham, you brought through and helped establish the likes of Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand as footballers. A lot of other managers might not have given youth players such prominent roles favouring imports instead in order to secure their own jobs long term. Was that decision based simply on the belief that these players were talented enough or driven by other factors such as financial restrictions?

HR: I am proud of the young players that i have helped develop who have gone on to either play for England or been a regular at a club. My thoughts have always been the same if you are good enough the age does not matter.

BOTN: You signed your son Jamie in the January 2005 transfer window presumably because you knew exactly what he would bring to the team. Does that play a big part in the decision-making process when choosing players? Is that also why you signed the same players like Defoe, Crouch and Kranjcar on several occasions?

HR: Jamie would have been an excellent signing with his experience but his injuries got the best of him and he had to retire at the end of the season. The players you mentioned all have quality in different ways and I have always looked at them to be included in clubs i am involved in where possible for that reason.

Midfielder Niko Kranjcar (right) has played for Redknapp at three different clubs (Image from Tumblr)

Midfielder Niko Kranjcar (right) has played for Redknapp at three different clubs (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: The return to Portsmouth, under new ownership seemed like a logic step in your managerial career. But rumours suggest that you were all set to join Newcastle following Sam Allardyce’s sacking. How close were you to joining the Toon Army?

HR: I meet with them and was flattered by their offer, but in the end i decided to stay with Portsmouth.

BOTN: So as you say you remained at Portsmouth and won the FA Cup with them in 2008 with Kanu scoring the winning goal in the final against Cardiff. That win put you in the record books as the last Englishman to win the coveted trophy. How special was that moment for you? At what point in the tournament did you start to believe that you might be able to go all the way?

HR: It was a very special moment and Kanu was a special type of player. Once we won at Old Trafford and then Chelsea got knocked out I thought the cup was a possibility, but we still had to work hard to win the cup.

methode_times_prodmigration_web_bin_c4afcac8-8d5c-3119-a24b-7d7ca3c8fbbd

One of Harry’s finest moments was lifting the 2008 FA Cup with Portsmouth (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Arguably your most consistent and successful spell as a manager came at Spurs where you regularly took them into the Champions League season after season. Was that your most enjoyable job as a manager? 

HR: Yes, Spurs were near the bottom when I took over but we managed to turn it around and have a good season after that. I enjoyed my time at Spurs and think I am well respected by the supporters of the club.

BOTN: You played a major role in the career of Gareth Bale when you managed him at Spurs. You mentioned in your book that you saw more in Bale than just a left back and eventually switched him to left wing which allowed him to unleash his explosive pace and transform him into one of the world’s best. How pleasing was it to see Gareth flourish at Spurs then in Spain? 

HR: Gareth has a special ability and can play in several position. He has helped to turn around the strength of the Welsh national team as well and I always thought he would do well in Spain.

Bale_Redknapp_2695594b

Redknapp played a role in converting Gareth Bale (left) from a fullback into a superstar winger (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: After leaving Spurs, you managed at QPR and Birmingham, held advisory positions at Derby, Central Coast Mariners and Yeovil and various punditry and TV roles including a stint in the Jungle. Have we seen the last of Harry Redknapp as a football manager? Is the one role that could tempt you now to come back?

HR: You never know in football, but I am very busy currently with many endorsements and my theatre tours which is about to start soon.

BOTN: On several occasions, you were touted as a potential England manager, but it never materialized. You did however manage Jordan for a while during their World cup qualifying campaign. Did the experience with Jordan change your perception of managing an international team? Did it heighten the disappointment of not getting to manage England?

HR: I had always wanted to consider an international team management if it was offered and to manage England would have been a great honour. The Jordan job was just to help out for a couple of matches, but it was enjoyable all the same.

1458681152-330e0edf41be4ebc203e01254fe27104-1038x576

Redknapp did get a taste of international management with Jordan albeit for a short time only (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: As a former manager of Spurs, what do you think they need to do to eventually win the Premier League? Are you impressed with what Pochettino has done to date?

HR: He has done a great job and he knows exactly what he needs to do to win the league. Moving into the new stadium I am sure will help as well.

BOTN: Your nephew Frank Lampard is now the manager at Derby County after having a very successful playing career. Did you give him any advice about the transition from playing to managing? How far can he go in the game as a manager?

HR: Frank is his own man with his own ideas and am sure he will be successful as he will work hard and give the job 100%.

0_HMV-Football-Extravaganza

Harry with nephew Frank Lampard (right) and son Jamie Redknapp (left)  – Image from Tumblr

BOTN: We all witnessed something extraordinary during the Carling Cup Final this year when Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted much to the disbelief of his manager Maurizio Sarri. After the match the club played down what had happened as a misunderstanding and after a fine and a week on the bench, Kepa resumed his position between the sticks. Do you think Chelsea managed that situation well? Do you have sympathy for Sarri and the position he was put in? 

HR: The manager runs the team and players should be respectful of his decisions during the game, but it is difficult to comment as we do not know what was said afterwards and it should be an internal club matter.

BOTN: Finally, who was the hardest player to manage? Paolo Di Canio? Adel Taraabt?

HR: There are good and bad players to manage and i would not comment on individual players.

BOTN: Harry thank you for taking the time and good luck with your theatre tour!

To find out more about Harry’s 34 night theatre tour which started May 1st, check out this link.  Harry’s new book – The World According to Harry is out now. Order it now here.

You can also follow Harry on Twitter

Share your thoughts and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Takeover done. Now what for Newcastle?

4 years. 48 months. 1460 days. 35,040 hours. It’s a long time to wait to get what you want but finally its happened with the consortium led by Amanda Staveley and back by the PIF taking control of Newcastle United Football Club. The deal worth £305m is not without its controversies, much of which is aligned to PIF’s involvement but for the Newcastle fans who have spent the last 13 years being ignored and abused by their clubs former owner Mike Ashley, it matters not. Finally their club is free again and can now hopefully live up to its potential. Staveley and co will undoubtedly be aware of the enormous task that sits in front of them. A lot needs to change and quickly but where to start? Likely the first point of call will be with the manager.

Amanda Staveley and Newcastle’s other new owners have a lot to do now that they have the keys to this iconic club.

There has been a lot of talk about what will happen with the manager situation but there are very few who actually think Steve Bruce should or will remain in charge. His £8m payoff has been widely touted as being the first piece of real business by the new owners and its a move that will please the fans who have been bewildered by how Bruce has remained in charge for this long. To be fair to Bruce, who is 1 game shy of making the 1,000 games as a manager, it’s not totally been his fault with a lack of funds and mounting injuries largely to blame. But he hasn’t helped himself with his inability to use what he has and get the best out of them resulting in only 3 points from Newcastles first seven games of the season. Adding in to this, his close ties to outgoing owner Mike Ashley means he has to go. But who will replace him?

The job itself is an interesting one especially the opportunity to build something almost from scratch and wealthy backers willing to do that. However it’s also a long term project that will need patience and a few transfer windows to rebuild a squad that is threadbare at present. Antonio Conte and Zinedane Zidane are two high profile names linked with the job with the former slightly more interesting given his experience in the league after he won the title in his time at Chelsea. Both are currently out of work and are title winning managers but would this challenge present an opportunity for them to test themselves or would it be seen as too much of a risk to their reputations. After all, money doesn’t necessarily guarantee success at least not in the short term. Perhaps which might be enough to deter them. The other option is to look more short term and find a manager who can stabilize the club, assist in creating a more balance squad and bring belief back to the fans and the players that Newcastle can once again compete.

Conte is one name tipped with the job but can Newcastle’s new owners persuade him to join?

Top of mind is Brendan Rodgers who has done just that at Leicester City. The former Liverpool and Celtic boss is tactically sound and capable of building squad needed to perform. Having come close to winning the league with Liverpool and with Leicester (to a degree), would he view the opportunity at Newcastle as a way to eventually go one step further or will he see it for what it is – a risk. After all, success is defined differently by everyone so his idea of success might not align with the new owners, even if they are saying outwardly to the fans that this will be a long term project. What, if after two seasons in charge, Rodgers has Newcastle comfortably in the top 8 and had a few good runs in the cups. Will that be viewed as a success or will he be dismissed in favour of a bigger name manager. There is however one manager who the new owners will give a longer rope to and that is former Newcastle boss and now Everton manager Rafa Benetiz. The Spaniard is viewed favourably by the consortium having been top of their wish list for manager over a year ago had the takeover gone through then. He would likely be afforded more than just a season and a half especially if his vision aligned with theirs. But would they be able to convince him to leave the project he has only just started at Everton for another bite at the cherry at Newcastle. Time will tell.

Regardless of who is brought in, the rebuilding job needed at a squad level is more than apparent. With the exception of Allan Saint Maximin, Callum Wilson, Joe Willock and club captain Jamal Lascelles, quality across the board is seriously lacking. With no real production line of talent coming through, acquisitions in the short term will be needed to improve Newcastles fortunes. The spending will start in January before a real overhaul in the summer. With 12 of the first team squad over 29 years old, time is not on Newcastle’s side and new faces will need to be added which will not be an easy task. Identifying these targets and working behind the scenes to start the conversations will likely fall to the clubs new Sporting Director which should only be one man – Les Ferdinand. The former Newcastle icon has been Director of Football at QPR for the past 6 years and has done a tremendous job there and is the right man to lead the changes at St James Park. Having played for the club in its heyday he will understand the deep connection the fans have to the club, their expectations and what needs to be done to return Newcastle back to a place where they are competitive. The fans aren’t expecting to see Mbappe or Messi walk through the doors and into the famous black and white jersey but they are looking for players who can make them better and give their all for the club every time they step onto the pitch.

Sir Les Ferdinand should be the only name under consideration for Sporting Director

To help this evolution on the pitch, several things need to happen off it. Firstly investment into the training ground and in to St James Park to modernize them both is much needed. Both have suffered over the past 13 years under Mike Ashley’s ownership who barely put any money into either besides enough to give it a lick of paint. Secondly, rebuilding the youth academy from scratch including renewing ties with key youth clubs in the surrounding area to unearth the next generation of stars. Adding former players like Warren Barton, Lee Clark and Rob Lee to the youth setup would help as well as only players from the past can educate the players of the future about what it’s like to play for this club. Thirdly, establishing a strong scouting system and opening up ties internationally will allow the club to expand further, generate new sources of revenue and find hidden gems from across the world which will keep the club competitive in the future. And finally and likely the hardest of them all, making Newcastle United into a global brand. It’s something that Mile Ashley foolishly ignored whilst other clubs in the league and around Europe reaped the benefits. Outside of England, Newcastle has only a small loyal following and certainly not on the same international scale as Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United. Building a global brand will take time, it will need the right people leading it from a strategy perspective, it will need to tap into the clubs icon players of the past like Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan, David Ginola and Jonas Gutierrez who can passionately sell the club to foreign fans and it will need funding, something that shouldn’t be an issue now. Opening up this iconic club to a wider audience only has upside and will elevate the club into a new stratosphere as they look to compete with the biggest clubs in world football both on and off the pitch.

Article by Martin Cowgill

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

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

All Aboard the Managerial Merry-go-round

The departure of Carlo Ancelotti from Everton to rejoin Real Madrid came as a shock to many especially those in and around the club. Having only hired the Italian 18 months ago in what at the time was deemed as a masterstroke, Everton now find themselves with a massive gap to fill and a search for their 6th manager in five years. But Ancelotti’s return to the Bernabeau only came about when Zinedine Zidane decided enough was enough and walked away. The sentiment from the Frenchman was that he no longer felt that the club had faith in him or the willingness to support his longer term vision so taking his leave seemed to be the only solution. His actions however as well as the actions of a few other high profile managers in Italy, Germany and France have acted as the catalyst for change in the managerial world and kick started the merry go round of moves that we are now witnessing across Europe’s top five leagues.

The question is not really where to begin but instead where to stop given the vast number of changes that have and are set to happen. Managerial changes throughout Europe’s leagues are at an all time high with adjustments being made both by the clubs due to the after effects of a global pandemic which crippled the football financial ecosystem and by the managers themselves who need change after an intense pressure filled season. No league felt this more than Italy so it seems like a good a place as any to start.

Antonio Conte’s decision to leave Inter only days after guiding them to their first Scudetto in 11 years highlighted the financial impact of the pandemic which has ravaged the game. Unable to strengthen his squad in the summer due to financial cut backs at the club, Conte decided like Zidane to quit. He was quickly replaced by Simone Inzaghi who led Lazio to a sixth placed finish. Simone faces the prospect of taking Conte’s squad and selling off one or two of its prize assets as the club looks to pull back €80m. Lazio are yet to announce their new manager but are being heavily linked with Maurizio Sarri.

Conte’s decision to depart sparked a host of various other managerial moves

The former Chelsea manager has been out of work since leaving Juventus in 2020 when they decided to test out Andres Pirlo as manager with the hopes that the former midfield maestro could have the Zidane effect on Juve. That didn’t work out in the end and he will depart this summer with Massimilano Allegri returning to the club he left in 2019. Jose Mourinho is also returning to Italy this time with Roma after they let Paulo Fonseca go last month. Fonseca has yet to decide on his next move but has been heavily linked with Tottenham and Wolves as well as several other clubs across Europe.

The one season manager does seem to be a reoccurring trend in Italy with Conte only lasted at Inter a year having replaced Luciano Spalletti in 2019. Incidentally, Spalletti himself is also on the move this summer joining Napoli after the exit of Gennaro Gattuso to Fiorentina. Gattuso is the long term replacement for Cesare Prandelli who sensationally quit in March citing a feeling of distress as well as personal reasons behind his decision. Gattuso spent two years at Napoli after replacing Carlo Ancelotti who was sacked only a couple of weeks before he showed up at Everton.

Speaking of Everton, the race to replace Ancelotti is well under way with former Everton and now West Ham boss David Moyes tipped for a sensational return. However the club is also rumoured to be considering Eddie Howe (out of work since leaving Bournemouth) and Nuno Espírito Santo who left Wolves just a few weeks ago. Howe who was in advanced talks with Celtic before turning them down, is also in the running for the vacant role at Crystal Palace after Roy Hodgson took his leave. Ex Chelsea boss Frank Lampard is also in the frame for that role as is ironically Santo who could spur a tug of war between the two clubs as they jostle for their number one pick. Meanwhile at Celtic, they are looking more seriously at Ange Postecoglou having failed to get Howe or Jesse Marsch in earlier attempts.

Will Eddie Howe return to management in the EPL with Everton or Crystal Palace?

Marsch chose to move to RB Leipzig this summer from Red Bull Salzburg as the automatic replacement for Bayern bound Julian Nagelsmann. It will be an exciting challenge for the American that will have him pitting his wits against one of the brightest young coaches in the game right now in Nagelsmann. The 33 year old german takes over at Bayern Munich from Hansi Flick who will take the reins of the German national team following the completion of Euro 2020. Elsewhere, Marco Rose will join Borussia Dortmund as manager in the summer, with Borussia Monchengladbach hiring Adi Hutter from Eintracht Frankfurt as his replacement. They in turn hired Oliver Glasner from Wolfsburg who in turn then appointed former PSV boss Mark van Bommel as their new manager. Finally Leverkausen grabbed Gerardo Seoane from Young Boys Berne as they looked to make a quick replacement for the Lyon bound Peter Bosz.

In France, the big news surrounds Christophe Galtier and his next destination after he sensationally steered Lille to the French title last season. Days later he would quit the club and has been linked with a host of jobs including Spurs and indeed looked likely to end up at OGC Nice before a gap in the compensation package appeared too big to bridge. There are also rumours starting that Zidane could replace Mauricio Pochettino at PSG if the Argentine makes a sensational return to Tottenham.

This summer will see changes at a host of other European clubs including Montpellier HSC, RC Strasbourg Alsace, Angers SCO in France, a new managerial appointment at Valencia with Jose Bordalas signing on from Getafe and in England, West Brom and Sheffield United are at different stages of their process with West Brom still considering candidates whilst Sheffield United have moved quickly confirmed Slavisa Jokanovic as their new boss.

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Spurs mull over potential replacements for Kane as he eyes the exit door

Spurs fan’s biggest nightmare is likely about to come true. Club legend Harry Kane, after a 17 year association with the London club, has stated he wants to leave. It’s the hunt for trophies that has made the English skipper so desperate to find a new club. Tottenham, who are without a trophy since 2008, reached the UCL final in 2019 but since then have only drifted away from the top level. Kane is regarded as one of the best strikers in the world and big clubs all over Europe would love to have him in their team. However, it won’t be that simple. Kane signed a 6-year contract with Spurs in 2018, tying him up with the club till 2024. This gives Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy an upper hand in the negotiations. Levy would fight hard to keep hold of his best player and the minimum £120 million price tag would be hard to meet for the buyers in a pandemic hit transfer market. But a couple of big money signings and the spending domino could start to fall. Kane will need to be determined to force his way out of the club and if he does, what’s does that mean for Spurs?

Replacing Kane and his goals, if possible, would be stressful for the decision makers at Spurs. The dependency on him has only increased this season as he is not only the top goal scorer but also the highest assist maker for Spurs as well as in the league, recording 23 goals and 14 assists. His technical ability, finishing skills, and vision makes him a complete player who can win matches on his own. That makes you think, anyone except a few generational talents would be a downgrade from one of the most lethal strikers. Spurs, a club in managerial limbo and downward trajectory doesn’t seem like an attractive proposition to the talents of Mbappe or Haaland. So, Spurs would need more than one astute attacking signing to replace Kane’s numbers and receipts from his sale would allow that.

Manchester United and Manchester City are among the front runners for Kane’s signature. A deal with one of those clubs could lead to Anthony Martial or Gabriel Jesus heading to Spurs. Martial would bring pace with decent finishing ability. But the French international’s movement is not great, he doesn’t get involved in build-ups and can disappear in games. On the other side, Jesus’s link-up play is highly underrated and the Brazilian could lead the front line by pressing with great intensity. However, there are doubts about his finishing skills, as he often misses good scoring opportunities. Both Jesus and Martial are yet to hit the 20 goal mark in an EPL season.

Would Manchester City use Gabriel Jesus as part of a player plus money deal for Kane?

Other striking options from within the league are Southampton’s Danny Ings and Leeds United’s Patrick Bamford. Ings only has 12 months left on his contract and given his recent goalscoring exploits could be looking to sign for a big English club. Ings boasts good technical skills and link-up play as well as being potent in front of goal and can put up impressive numbers like he did in the 19/20 season (22 goals in 38 league appearances). However, his injury record is a worry and often hinders him from maintaining his form. Given that Ings could be signed for a relatively low fee, it would be a good coup for Spurs if they sign him as one of the pillars to Kane’s replacement package and not the direct replacement. Patrick Bamford just completed another strong season for Leeds, registering 17 goals and 7 assists. Bamford’s movement and build-up play is impressive and he could fit well in the Spurs team. But there might be a disparity between his market value and his value for Leeds. And there is also the question that most of Bielsa’s players face – how would he fair in a non-Bielsa organized side?

Outside England, there have been links with Andre Silva and Memphis Depay. The Portuguese striker had an incredible season for Frankfurt, on loan from Milan. Silva scored 28 goals and assisted 5 from 32 games for Eintracht Frankfurt this season. He is lethal inside the box and brilliant with headers but he doesn’t get much involved in the build-up play. The 25 year old’s release clause of £26 million could be activated in the summer with several top clubs competing for his signature but Spurs can weigh up their chances by offering him a starting position.

Silva has a proven goalscoring record with 92 career goals in 235 appearances but could he fill Kane’s boots?

Depay had a prolific season for Lyon, scoring 20 and assisting 12 goals from 37 appearances in Ligue 1. The Dutch international is definite to leave this summer and is heavily linked with Barcelona but that could change with Barca’s decision about Koeman’s future still pending. His pace and movement are his best attributes and can take on different roles in the front-line. His transfer move would cost around £50 million but there may be some doubts about taking a gamble on Depay after his failure to ignite when at Manchester United. The Dutchman only scored twice in 39 appearances for the Red Devils over two ill fated seasons. Has he shown enough growth as a player and in his game at Lyon to warrant a sizable investment?

Coping with the departure of your best player is never easy, especially when he is also the highest goal scorer. With no manager in charge, who is going to envision the signings on the pitch? Can Spurs be efficient in the transfer market and have they learned from making a series of underwhelming signings from Bale’s sale money? Of the seven players signed with that money, only one (Lamela) remains and arguably only a couple more could be deemed a success. There is also a question of whether Kane’s desperation to leave give a sense to other players outside of the club that Spurs is not the place to be? These are tough questions that Levy & Co. may have to work around.

Some help can also come from within the existing squad. There would be room for Son to step up and finally reach the 20 goals a season mark. The likes of Ndombele and Lo Celso can increase goal contributions from midfield. Or there is the possibility of retaining Bale for one more season, this time in a more central role. At the same time, with one of their leaders leaving, the team’s belief and confidence could be seriously hampered. Using some of Kane’s transfer to bring in a new leader might be worth considering as well. All in all this could be the most important transfer window in Spurs modern history. If Kane is sold early on in the window, there is potential to bring in new players and rejuvenate a squad that has failed to get over the line a number of times. But a late departure or the wrong players being brought in could also spurn the possibility that Kane’s departure will result in Spurs downfall. Oh to be Daniel Levy right now.

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

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Hammers on Fire Thanks to Astute Transfer Business

At the start of the season, no one would have put their money on West Ham fighting for a Champions League spot. Yet, here we are with two games left to play and they sit 7th on the table, 4 points behind Liverpool in 5th. The Hammers, who finished 16th last season, have done some smart business in the transfer market to turnaround their reality. They are notoriously famous for being too ambitious in the transfer market, for chasing glamorous players instead of the right ones. However, there has been a change of approach in signing players in the last couple of years at West Ham. David Sullivan, the club owner, has reduced his own influence on player recruitment and let manager David Moyes be the decisive man on that matter. Moyes has bought players desperate to prove themselves as well as found some hidden gems without breaking the bank in doing so. The impact of their recent signings is visible all over the pitch from defence to attack and has resulted in instant success.

The key signings

Tomáš Souček – Initially brought on loan in January 2020, and then signed permanently last summer from Slavia Prague for £15 million, Soucek is a prime candidate for signing of the season. Naturally a defensive midfielder, he has been deployed by Moyes more in a box-to-box role, making late runs in the box. He has given West Ham a real goal threat from midfield and is the co-highest goal scorer for West Ham this season along with Jesse Lingard and Michail Antonio, scoring 9 goals while also being a defensive pillar in midfield. The Czech hardly ever stops running when on the pitch, constantly providing his team defensive cover and getting involved in attacks. On average, he covers 12.2km per game, which is highest in the league alongside Brighton’s Pascal Gross. Soucek’s aerial prowess is another asset that stands out. Against a very physical Burnley side a couple of weeks ago, he set the record for most aerial duels won by a player in a match this season with 17. With Soucek no missing a single league games for the Hammers in 20/21, this might be the best £15 million West Ham has ever spent as the 26 year old is only going to grow in value with the numbers he is producing.

Soucek has proven to be a bargain for West Ham. After impressing on loan, West Ham parted with £15 million in one of the best pieces of transfer business this season.

Vladimír Coufal – Another great Soucek contribution for West Ham was telling Moyes about Coufal. This hidden gem was also signed from Salvia Prague for just £5.5 million in the summer and has been sensational down the right flank. The Czech has made the Hammers’ backline more solid and possesses amazing crossing ability, grabbing 6 assists in his first EPL season. His physical strength, high work rate and good tackling ability makes him a barricade for the opposition wingers. The right back is often deployed by Moyes as a wingback when playing with a three man backline, and contributes to attacks not just just through crosses but also linking up the play well and being efficient on the ball. The 28 year old has garnered praise from his manager for his attitude. Moyes claims that the two Czech internationals have brought a winning mentality to the squad, which is required when trying to keep up with the big dogs. Bought after Fredericks picked up an injury early in the season, Coufal has now made the position his own, starting 32 league games this season. West Ham fans could be assured that their right flank is in good hands under Coufal, who keeps the opposition attackers at bay while providing attacking impetus going forward.

Jesse Lingard – Signed on loan in January until the end of the season, Lingard came to West Ham on a mission to prove his doubters wrong. The England International has scored 9 and created 3 in just 14 appearances. He has already paid back the dividends plus extra for his £1.5 million loan fee having scored crucial goals in West Ham’s race for European football. With West Ham keen to sign on him on a permanent transfer, the only downfall regarding Lingard’s recent performances, is that it will likely add a few millions more to United’s asking price. Mostly used as a no.10, Lingard operates with great dynamism and flexibility, interchanging positions with the wingers. Even if his goal scoring slowed down, he would still have a lot to offer with great link-up play and an eye for a defence splitting pass. The 28 year old has already become a popular figure in the West Ham dressing room because of his charismatic personality and has a great relationship with Moyes. Making his move permanent would be on top of West Ham’s list, although his price tag and interest from bigger clubs will be an issue in that pursuit.

Craig Dawson – His impact goes often under the radar compared to other arrivals but he has been as influential as the other loan signing up front. Initially brought as a cover to Diop, Ogbonna and Balbuena, Dawson was given a chance after injuries in the back line and he grabbed it with both hands. Brought on loan in October, the experienced centre back has become integral to West Ham’s amazing season. As a part of his clause, West Ham will be making Dawson’s transfer from Watford permanent for just £2 million as he has made more than 15 league appearances this season. He has brought great leadership and organization to the Hammers defence for a very economical price. With a high tackle success rate of 78%, Dawson also has an eye for the occasional centre back goal having scored 4 this season in all competitions. In Dawson, Moyes has found someone to rely on and base his defence around for future seasons.

Dawson arrived quietly but has impressed hugely under Moyes with his move set to be made permanent this summer.

One signing that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations is Said Behnrama but there is still a sense of hope that he could come to fruition in the next season. The Algerian, signed from Brentford for £26 million has shown glimpses of his creative abilities and has managed to get 5 assists in 28 appearances but still has a lot to do to live up to his transfer fee. He did manage to open his goalscoring account for the Hammers at the weekend against Brighton with a beautiful curling shot from outside of the area which will have pleased Moyes and the player himself. There is no doubt about his talent and could be given a grace period as it’s only his first season in the English top flight.

The kind of signings West Ham would want to distance themselves from is of Sebastian Haller. Signing a big name player for a huge fee and then being forced to sell them for a loss after a period of underwhelming performances. Haller arrived with a lot of promise after being part of the Eintracht Frankfurt trio strike force of Haller, Rebic and Jovic. Whilst Rebic left for AC Milan and Jovic joined Real Madrid, Haller headed for London but under false pretences. Whoever scouted Haller clearly did a poor job and looked only at his goalscoring and assist numbers and his height (6ft 3in) instead of how he fitted into that Frankfurt frontline and how he scored most of his goals. He was labelled as a target man which he isn’t (he prefers to dribble more and drop deep to pick up the ball) and from then on never really fit with how West Ham wanted to play. Hardly his fault but an expensive lesson all the same for the Hammers.

Haller should not be considered a failure, more a mistake by the club who bought him to perform a role which wasn’t his strength

Trust in Moyes’ judgement should be carried on into this summer as they will look to build up on this season’s success. It would be impressive if they again pick up some right pieces from lower or lesser known leagues. West Ham’s main priority going into summer is signing a new striker. The Hammers are being linked to Tammy Abraham, who has struggled to get into Tuchel’s Chelsea team. Abraham’s style of play would suit Moyes’ system and he has also proved that he can shine in the Premier League. The other option is Ivan Toney who has been lighting up the Championship for Brentford. They could also improve between the posts with Fanianski now 36 and not as nibble as before. They have been linked to Sam Johnstone, who recently received an England call-up and would be looking to find a club in the Premier League as West Brom already relegated. West Ham will want to keep hold of Declan Rice as well but if a too hard to resist offer arrives from a big side, they could use that money to find a replacement and upgrade other positions. However it would be burdensome to find someone who can dictate passes and protect the backline the way Rice does.

If West Ham can continue doing their transfer business in the same vein to the last couple of windows they could surely become a familiar face at the top half of the table. A top 6 finish this season would not only attract quality players but also deepen West Ham’s pocket. It would be some achievement if Moyes can pull it off, given those who doubted that he still had what it took as a manager. Success for West Ham under Moyes looks possible especially if they keep making the right decisions on the pitch as well as in the transfer market.

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

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

A Summer of Transition Ahead For Crystal Palace

With the regular season soon drawing to a close, Crystal Palace has some decisions to make soon as 12 of their players are out of contract this summer. With the manager, Roy Hodgson and a dozen of his players running out of contract, a rebuild at Crystal Palace is on the table. And the timing may just work in their favour. With the pandemic rattling club finances all over Europe, promising players can be signed for relatively cheaper transfer fees than previously. Added into this, with players looking to secure their own futures following a difficult period, they may accept lower wages just to resign for the club.

A majority of the players approaching the end of their term at the London club will be 30 or older by the summer. Averaging at 28.2, Palace is the second oldest team in the league. Freshen up the squad should be a priority and Palace have already made some moves within the club towards that.

Crystal Palace face a summer of change with a majority of its first team out of contract

Academy talents Jesurun Rak-Sakyi and David Omilabu have signed their first professional contracts with Palace recently after Fionn Mooney, Jadan Raymond and Tayo Adaramola did the same. Promoting from within with be welcome news for the Palace fans. Signing up Rak-Sakyi, who was included on the bench for the visit to Stamford Bridge on 20th April, was seen as a positive move after reports of the attacking midfielder coming under radar of clubs in England and Germany. The reality of promoting a bunch of promising scholars into the first team is that it would still take some time for them to integrate and reach the appropriate level so strengthening in the short term from other areas remains a priority.

Targeting up and coming British players like Eberechi Eze and a loan deals with an option to buy, similar to what they did this season with Phillip Mateta are the kind of moves Palace would want to replicate going in the transfer window. However before they can do this, Palace must address its salary problem with the high earners currently not proving their earnings on the pitch. Renegotiating their contracts or moving them on all together could help to balance the books and make the rebuild an easier job.

Take for example Mamadou Sakho, one of the highest earners at the club, who has hardly featured this year because of injuries. It won’t be a bad decision to let him go considering his age and injury history. Similarly Christian Benteke who is on £120,000 per week is an interesting one as he is one of the players who’s contract expires in the summer. The club appeared happy for him to leave in January and indeed held talks with other clubs to sell him but he insisted on staying. Now in better form and scoring once more, talks have progressed between the player and club around a new contract. The two however are separated by quite a bit in terms of what Benteke should be paid with Palace hoping the Belgian striker will stay but on much lesser terms. The potential to turn Mateta’s loan into a permanent signing also brings complications to Benteke’s future at Palace. It may be best for Palace to let the 30 year old striker depart in the long run.

High earners Sahko and Benteke could be allowed to leave to release some wages for future signings

Palace also have an option to permanently sign Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea at the end of May. He has not managed to make any serious impact this season, registering 2 goals and 1 assist in 17 appearances but offers another option if Benteke is to leave. Wages however could be a deciding factor as he is also one of the highest paid players in the club currently on £90,000 a week. Unless he is willing to accept less, it’s more likely that he will probably be returned to his parent club when his loan finishes. .

At the right back position, Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Ward and Martin Kelly are out of contract this summer. With promising youngster Nathan Ferguson returning from injury next season, two of the seniors should be let go in the coming months. Ward has made more starts this season and is on less than half the wages of Clyne which makes the argument for Ward to be selected. However despite earning £80,000 per week, 30 years Clyne who is a year younger than Ward he played well when he’s not been injured and is arguably the better player of the two. Like Benteke, former England player Clyne would likely have to accept reduce wages to stay on. Kelly will definitely be released having failed to make a single appearance this season.

On the other side of the defence, Patrick Van Aanholt has been competing for his spot with the impressive Tyrick Mitchell. The left back still has bits to offer and could be offered an extension but regardless of Patrick’s contract situation, Mitchell is more than ready to make the left back position his own after impressing several times this season. Having spent three seasons at Palace already, Dutch full back Van Aanholt may decide it’s time to move on and has garnered interest from Galatasaray over a free transfer.

Veteran centre backs, Scott Dann and Gary Cahill are running out of time too. With the aim of reducing average age, both of them could be let go. However, Cahill has shown he can still put in impressive shifts and with the possibility of young defenders coming in, his experience and leadership qualities could be useful. There are reports of Palace looking to swoop 19 years old centre back Radu Dragusin on a free transfer after the Romanian has been frozen out of Juventus first team.

Should Palace retain veteran defenders Scott Dann and Gary Cahill? That is one of many questions that the club has to answer this summer

After signing Jack Butland last summer and extending Vicente Guaita’s contract, Palace are likely to let go of reserve keepers, Wayne Hennessey and Stephen Henderson and look to sign a young 3rd choice keeper or promote from its u23 team with Rohan Luthra, Jacob Russell and Oliver Webber all keen to make the step up.

In midfield, James Mcarthy has only 12 appearances this season and is down the pecking behind Riedewald and  Milivojević so it would be surprising if he is given an extension. Andros Townsend has seen less game time this season because of emergence of Eze and the winger told Talksport how his contract situation has affected his performances and Palace are likely to wait till the end of the season before handling contract situations. The club may look to retain his services as he has the ability to change games on his own when in form. James McArthur is likely to be given a new deal having performed consistently for Palace since his arrival in 2014. Jeffrey Schlupp will also be handed new terms in the coming weeks.

Crystal Palace are in a zero-debt position and have managed their finances pretty well in the pandemic. They are plotting a £50 million spending spree in the summer and will try to make the most of that by adding some free transfers and loan deals in the mix. Player markets across Europe are vulnerable, especially Ligue 1 who possess good talent but the French clubs are in a desperate position to raise money and could be preyed on for economical signings.

Whilst the rebuild on the pitch would probably be centred around Zaha, Eze, Riedewald and Mitchell and will start soon, the decision over who is in the dugout come the start of the season is the priority. With Roy Hodgson most likely to end his term, Palace have been linked with Eddie Howe and Patrick Viera for the management role. Both men bring different skillsets and experience to the role but are also in high demand meaning that Palace will have to move quickly to get their man. Regardless of who they hire, the new manager will likely want to bring in new players to suit their style of play hence the urgency to appoint them first. It’s likely to be a summer of transition for Crystal Palace both on and off the pitch. With several moving parts including expiring contracts, heavy expected transfer activity and a change in management, it’s a lot for Palace to manage but if done well, they could use this transition to build something exciting for the future.

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

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

In Pep We Trust – How tactical tweaks turned around Man City’s season

Pep Guardiola’s men are approaching what could be a mesmerizing end to their season. Manchester City, cruising to their 5th Premier League title with 11 points clear on the top of the table, in the semi finals of the Champions league and the finals of the EFL Cup are in cruise control. However it was not this rosy from the start; fragilities in the back line and imbalance in attack led to a shambolic 5-2 home defeat to Leicester in only the second game of the season which was then followed by some cagey draws and less than convincing 1-0 wins. It wasn’t until after the 1-1 draw at the Etihad against West Brom on 15th December, that they turned things around and went on a sensational 21 games winning streak in all competitions that put themselves back in a position to contest for all four titles (EPL, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League). Their quadruple dreams may have broken by Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final but they still have a lot to play for.

Credit where its due goes to the players, namely a reborn John Stones, possible signing of the year, Ruben Dias, unlikely goal scoring hero Ilkay Gundogan, the creative forces of Kevin De Bruyne and Joao Cancelo to name a few. But, of course, the man most responsible for the remarkable season turnaround is Pep Guardiola. In an interview with BT Sports in March, Guardiola explained the changes that brought around this tranaformation in his team:

“It was the day after West Brom at home when we drew 1-1. We could have won but I went to myself, my staff and friends and said I don’t like the team, I don’t like the way we play. We ran too much, we were not in the position. We ran too much without knowing exactly what we have to do with the ball. Our strength is when we have the ball. And we just came back to the principles, that’s all. So the wingers high and wide, a lot of players in the middle and come back without the ball, run like animals and with the ball, be more calm, play more passes,”

Ilkay Gundogan has been in rich goalscoring form for Manchester City this season

One of the main tactical tweak Guardiola made was to have one of his full-backs play in a midfield position – either Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko. In the build up play, the full-back forms a double pivot with the holding midfielder; this gives defensive solidarity in the midfield and allowed Gundogan to operate higher up and make runs in the box. Once City are in the attacking third, the inverted full-back gets in advance positions to create chances by playing passes through the lines, over the defence and linking up play. It is mostly Joao Cancelo that was used in this role as he has exceptional quality with the ball at his feet. This change also helped City to press with more numbers higher up the pitch.

Early on in the season it looked like De Bruyne was given the whole responsibility of creating openings and opponents were able to deal with that, but later, a better balance was found which still allows him to be the most creative outlet. The benefits of the season defining change can also be seen in player stats; Gundogan is City’s highest goal scorer this season with 16 goals in all competition and Cancelo ranks no. 8 in the Premier League for key passes. Added into this, City has scored the most goals in the Premier League (69) to date but has done so without a recognized goalscorer like Spurs have with Harry Kane or Liverpool has in Mo Salah. Instead the goals are more evenly distributed throughout the team, more so than any other team in the league – Gundogan (12), Sterling (9), Mahrez (9), Jesus (8), Phil Foden (6), De Bruyne (5).

One factor affecting that is Guardiola deploying a false 9 on many occasions, especially against higher quality opponents. Mostly De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva have been used in that position but even then the attacking four operates very fluidly and interchange positions through the game. This causes havoc in the opposition defence and the City players score different types of goals from different positions.

Deploying a false 9 with Bernardo Silva in the role allows space to develop between the centre backs who are stuck between following Silva as he retreats back into midfield or tracking one of the four runners (Mahrez, Sterling, De Bruyne, Gundogan).

One more eye-catching stat is that Man City has only scored one goal from counter attack this season in EPL. Guardiola has regularly talked about his team being more calm and playing more passes which is the likely reason behind this stat. It’s true that most teams sit back deep when playing against City and avoid being caught on the break. But still there have been many instances where City could have hurt a team on the counter but they rather choose to wear the opposition down by playing more passes and dominating the position. Playing more passes is not just their way to attack but defend too. “We control and be organized through the passes, because what makes the team balanced is the ball,” said Guardiola in the post match conference after the UCL 2nd leg against Dortmund.

“It’s not three incredibly huge holding midfielders or physicality, what makes the team have good balance, compact, is what we do. With. The. Ball. Extra passes help everyone be in the right position and when you lose the ball always you are organized, and that is what we have done since day one we arrived but sometimes you need more time to get it.”

In defence, with one full back advancing to midfield, the other one stays back and the two centre backs spread to form a wide back three. This allowed City to play passes from the back, rotate sides and control the tempo of the game. The inverted full back and the defensive midfielder gave more passing options and also protected the back line. This compact organization has made City way less vulnerable to counter-attacks, which was the way to get at them earlier in the season and also large parts of last season. It has worked wonders as they possess the best defence in Europe this season;  City has conceded the least number of goals in EPL (24) and the Champions League (3), level with Chelsea.

The centre back partnership of Dias and Stones has been a revelation for City this season

The resurgence of John Stones and the new signing, Ruben Dias have been crucial for City’s defence, keeping the previously impressive Laporte restricted to only a handful of appearances. The centre back pairing of Stones and Dias have been Pep’s go to for the important games and even when the two players have been paired with someone else, they have performed brilliantly due to the way that they are set up.

One distinctive factor about City has been the heavy rotation. Pep Guardiola has made over 100 changes to his starting lineup in the league this season, well more than any other team. No places, other than Ederson’s and Rodri’s, can be taken for granted. In a press conference in December Pep said:

“It’s not about rest here,” It is about rest when a big clash like a UCL tie is looming but mostly it’s not. Every game I put in the best players, sometimes for the benefit of the team, sometimes because of injuries, but especially the players who play well. It’s not about the players who believe, ‘I deserve to start because I have been here for three or four years’.”

Sterling and Laporte have been the biggest victims of the regular overhauling, but that shows the performance and consistency Pep demands of his players. Rotation has sometimes not worked with the recent loss against Leeds attributed to too many changes. But rotation was necessary ahead of the Champions League 2nd leg game against Borussia Dortmund, the most important game of the season until now. For most of the season, changing the starting 11 has helped in coping with a hectic season and has not been a hindrance on getting the results needed, which is remarkable. It can be said that City possess a deep squad but it’s never easy to change half the starting 11 from the last fixture and keep the performance level high.

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

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Is Going Down The Worst Thing For Newcastle? Maybe that’s the plan.

After another woeful performance, this time against Brighton and Newcastles chances of staying in the Premier League took a nose dive. With nine games left, it’s hard to see how they survive especially with Steve Bruce still filling the managers chair. Tactically inept, starved of ideas and with the players body language suggesting they have given up hope of survival, Newcastle under Bruce look like a sinking ship. It’s a sorry state of affairs for the loyal Toon Army who have endured more than most as the season has gone on. The end, we all fear, looks right around the corner and we are perilous to stop it.

Relegation however may not be the worse thing for Newcastle and indeed might be part of the plan as Ashley continues to work behind the scenes on reviving the failed Saudi bid. That bid was stopped by the Premier League’s new ownership test as well as a handful of other instigators who fuelled by their own personal agendas (or indeed paid by someone else’s) kiboshed any chance that Newcastle United had of a better life. That might sound flippant but for all Newcastle fans, the last almost 14 years have been a nightmare under Mike Ashley who decided early on that owning a football club was more for a personal advancement than that of the clubs. The Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bid was far from perfect and indeed didn’t quite sit right in the minds of a lot of Newcastle fans but when you have the opportunity to escape the clutches of a torturer’s cell, you don’t consider if its any worse on the outside.

The Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund failed in its first attempt to buy Newcastle but are rumoured to be waiting in the wings

For now Ashley remains in charge and the club stumbles towards yet another relegation. But this one feels almost different as if it has been engineered that way. It might sound like the ramblings of a drunken Newcastle fan trying to make sense of what is happening but if you would just allow me to explain my thought process, it might not be that insane. So here goes. It’s no secret that Ashley has wanted to sell the club for a long time and indeed has entertained several offers but none met his lofty elevated set price tag. That was until the Saudi’s came along with more than enough money to meet Ashley’s greediness. From that point onwards, Ashley and his band of merry idiots pushed everything towards making that deal happen. Unfortunately a coalition of naysayers that including BeIn Sports, Amnesty International bizarrely, several MP’s likely paid handsomely for their objections and of course the insecure duo of Liverpool FC and Tottenham FC threw blockers up at very convenient intervals in the hopes of derailing the bid. And it worked. It gave the Premier League enough doubt that it sat on its hands for long enough that the Saudi’s walked away.

A furious Mike Ashley, who saw his dream of buying Necker Island and kicking Richard Branson out slowly disappearing, has sought legal advice and challenged the Premier League to justify why it delayed its decision to refuse or approve the Owners and Directors Test’ (‘OADT’) which all new owners need to pass. With the PL not willing to budge on its fence sitting position, it will need to go to the Court of Arbitration which could take many months if not well into next year. That for Ashley is too long. So perhaps he came up with another plan. A plan so mischievous that even Dick Dastardly and Muttley of the Wacky Races would approve. Why fight the Premier League on the takeover when he can push through the take over through the EFL, who are the governing body of the English Championship and the other leagues below. Given the EFL’s previous track record of takeovers (looking at you Nottingham Forest) and their lighter version of the directors test which involves solving a 16 piece jigsaw puzzle and telling them how much you like football, it should be a breeze for Ashley to sell the club.

Footage of a director trying to pass the EFL directors test recently

The challenge however was how to get into the Championship without the fans, the league or anyone else known their dastardly plan. The answer came in the figure of Steve Bruce. Retaining his services as manager and potentially cutting him in on the plan made it almost too easy. Under Bruce, Newcastle would play boring defensive non attacking football. He would throw any notion of tactical changes out of the window and would set the team up so badly it could only really hope to not fail too badly. Relegation would land Ashley, his band of idiots and likely Bruce a very handsome pay off when the revived Saudi bid finally got its approval in the Championship. Ashley would walk away into the sunset with two bulging suitcases full of cash and leave Newcastle under new billionaire owners who would then transform the club into PL challengers within a matter of years, much to the disappointment of Liverpool, Spurs and the Premier League. Far fetched? Maybe. But let’s see what happens if they are relegated. If i’m right, it’s going to be a very interesting and lucrative summer for Newcastle Football Club.

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Newcastle and Fulham face dogfight to stay in Premier League

As we get into the business end of the season, it’s getting tense at the bottom of the English Premier League. The fates of Sheffield United and West Brom are almost sealed and can surely start thinking about their next campaign in the EFL Championship as their ships are well underwater already with 9 games left to play. 10 points separate West Brom and the safe zone whilst Sheff Utd are rooted to the bottom 14 points deep in the drop zone. Southampton and Burnley sit at 14th and 15th spot respectively, with 33 points each and are 7 points clear of the relegation zone. Things would have to go pretty wrong for them and very good for the teams below them to really be threatened with a strong possibility of going down.

A huge win for Brighton against Newcastle on Saturday has given them a 6 point cushion over the relegation zone. They are not completely safe yet but the 3-0 against the relegation rivals would give them a big confidence boost. With the quality of football they play, they should be able to see it through, but they can’t let their main problem resurface again: low conversion rate. On many occasions they have played teams out of the park but not completed their chances, dropping a staggering amount of points on the way as a result.

But it’s the fight between Fulham and Newcastle that could very well go down to the wire. Only 2 points separate them; Fulham sit in 18th place on 26 points, Newcastle in 17th on 28 points. And to make things more exciting Fulham will host Newcastle on the last match day with an anticipated return of fans in the stadiums.

English Premier League table as of March 24th

Fulham has grown to become a much better team and found themselves in the position they are because of a dreadful start to the campaign rather than how they have played recently. As Scott Parker said in the pre-match conference of their game against Leeds, “We are a different team, different animal this time,” reflecting on the reverse fixture, which was way back in September at the start of the season. The London team has shown belief and great fight lately pulling off amazing results with victories against the two Merseyside clubs. February signing Josh Maja has given them a boost upfront and Joachim Andersen and Tosin Adarabioyo have gelled well to give Fulham a solid pair at the back and reduce the influx of goals. All this but they still might go down.

One of their biggest problem this season has been turning draws into a win. After 29 matches, Fulham has played the highest number of draws in the league (11), alongside Brighton. This includes draws against their relegation rivals – 2 goalless draws against Brighton alongside score draws against Newcastle, Sheffield United, and West Brom.

Fulham’s failure to beat the sides in and around them may come back to haunt them.

The football Fulham play is not bad and even worthy of staying in the top flight. They play with high intensity, press high up the pitch, attacking with pace through the channels, and are not afraid to commit men forward. They are an attractive team to watch and the prospect of them staying up and allowing Scott Parker to build the squad further is very exciting for the Fulham fans.

If Fulham are to stay up they would have to show their recently found hunger and belief till the end of the season. After going on a decent run they have lost their last two games and need to get back to winning or even drawing ways soon if they are to takeover Newcastle. The least they could do is stay within touching distance of Newcastle and then give it all against the team, which is not better than them by any means.

Fulham’s Remaining fixtures:

Aston Villa (A), Wolves (H), Arsenal (A), Chelsea (A), Brighton (H), Southampton (A), Man Utd (A), Newcastle (H)

Moving on to Newcastle, despite having a couple of points and a game in hand over Fulham, Newcastle is being given lower odds than Fulham to go out of the top flight, and if you watch their recent performances that makes sense. Magpies fans are being disappointed week in and week out, watching their team play with low intensity while defending deep and playing on counterattack. The tactics might not be the main problem but the fact is that the approach is not working and Steve Bruce has done little to nothing to refresh things up is the main issue.

Injuries to their attacking player have only made things worse. Their top goalscorer as well as highest assist maker, Callum Wilson has missed the 8 league games whilst he recovers from a hamstring injury. In addition, their biggest talent in Allan Saint-Maximin has suffered from multiple injuries, preventing him to get a foothold in the season. There have also been numerous other injuries to key players along the way which has added to Newcastles woes. The good news is that Wilson and Saint-Maximin are both expected to return soon after this current international break.

Newcastle fans protest against manager Steve Bruce following the 3-0 defeat to Brighton.

There have also been problems off the pitch for The Magpies too. Reports of a bust-up between Steve Bruce and Matt Richie followed by reports of Newcastle players being concerned with given too many days off. These issues can be reflected on their performances on the pitch. The race to stay in the Premier League will be intense and such matters can only make things worse.

Newcastle needs to find a way to start getting results soon, as Fulham are breathing down their neck. Their biggest hope is to get a boost from Wilson’s return in April, the centre forward who has scored 10 and created 5 goals in 21 league appearances this season. More than anything, Steve Bruce and the players both need to step up and take responsibility for what’s going on and turn things around before it gets too late.

Newcastle’s Remaining fixtures:

Tottenham (H), Burnley (A), West Ham (H), Liverpool (A), Arsenal (H), Leicester (A), Man City (H), Sheffield Utd (H), Fulham (A)

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

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Inside Chelsea’s youth development – turning talent into profit one player at a time

In medieval times, children are educated/skilled as apprentices in certain crafts to one day produce skilled craftsmen. But an apprenticeship is only the first step. Once an apprenticeship is completed, the individual leaves on a journey for some years to hone their skills as master-in-training in hopes of one day becoming a master. Individuals in this phase of training and life experience came to be known as “journeymen”.

In modern football, we see journeymen in young academy graduates who have not received the nod for first team football, taking loan opportunities in lower leagues or international leagues to gain playing time and experience. The loan system was seen to be beneficial to both the club and the player with the central idea of player development. The concept was welcomed by fans and association alike to train more elite talent for both club and country. But, in the recent decade, we have seen a change in the ethos of the loan system with clubs abusing and monetizing from the system.

Fans and analysts alike will point to Chelsea F.C. and their system of “youth development” as the chief contributor to this change but, they would not be completely right. Yes, it is true Chelsea found success through buying players, they have a notorious loaning system and more recently were fined and handed a transfer ban for their youth recruitment strategies. Although, today they are not only club who adopt such a system, they have certainly paved the way for such practices. 

Roman-Era

Chelsea was taken over by Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich in 2003 which brought forth riches and a new identity to the club. In the upcoming years, Chelsea who were formerly, a mid table club were now among the elites of the premier league with superstar players recruited through transfers winning multiple league and cup titles. But, this model of splurging cash was never a long-term solution of success with the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules (FFP) in 2009. But, with the globalization of football and more revenue incoming from TV deals and sponsorships, success is expected spontaneously and in perpetuity. So, for years the club remained on the edge of creating financial controversy. So, they established reformation of their academy and dedicated a team of scouts, coaches and medical staff to take care of the recruits.

Talent Farming

The first generation of graduates from the academy provided several promising recruits like Ryan Bertrand, Gael Kakuta, Josh McEacharan and Patrick Van Aanholt. But these recruits were unable to break into a first team filled with talented cast the likes of Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. Between 2007-2011, Chelsea sacked 4 managers in hopes to compete with Manchester United who themselves lost Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. This meant the young graduates could not convince the new managers, whose priorities were always immediate success.

With the academy recruits unable to convince the manager and with the current squad playing past their prime, Chelsea saw more opportunity and increased their scouting methods and started to pickup talent from abroad with potential to develop and in turn also create a more global identity to the club. Now came the next set of youths: Lucas Piazon, Kevin De Bruyne, Oriol Romeu, Patrick Bamford, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen, Victor Moses, Christian Atsu etc. each showing potential to breakout. 

With the new generation of talent, Chelsea streamlined their “development” process to generate a path for these talents to first team. The club established a separate division to handle player development which included, a director, a set of coaches and medical staff. The process starts with buying players for a low fee, followed by initial assessment after which a player may be placed in the reserves or on the loan list. If a player is on the loan list, they are initially sent to a soft testing grounds (weak leagues with low expectations) to get some playing time. Chelsea have sent players to Vitesse Arnhem (a club owned by Roman Abramovich’s Friend), a city with a population of about 100,000. The loans are mostly for a year but, can sometimes be cancelled midway if a player is unable to adapt to the league. The financial deals are worked out such that a part or most of the players salary is covered. The coaches or director will personally visit the players at the loaned clubs and assess their development. Based on the assessment they may decide to allow the player to finish the loan deal or cancel it and move them elsewhere to suit their development needs.  

At the end of the year, the team analyses the data and decide to take one of three routes: Retain the player, Sell the player (if the market demand was present) or move them to a more challenging testing spot for further development. This started an eternal cycle of loan moves for young players who report to cobham facility at the start of the year and move on to the next loan immediately.

Monetization

Success in life sometimes comes down to luck. Clubs may not always come across a player like Messi or Ronaldo immediately. Sometimes, talent is seen immediately, sometimes it only shows up later in life or in the eyes of another. Case in point, Chelsea have sold some talented players from their academy when they do no feel this player can reach a certain potential. So, they sold them after a few years of recruitment when their market value is at its peak as they cannot guarantee playing time with the club.

Some examples include, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Ryan Bertrand to name a few who were unable to convince the manager for regular football or who were not satisfied with the club’s communication. The club made dividends on their initial investment of these players when their market value and demand was high (in most cases selling them to the clubs where they were loaned).

Success stories

When all is said and done, this system has been in place since 2012. At one point, the club sent as many as 40 players on loan. So, what is the verdict? Was this system truly developed for “player development” or simply a money mongering strategy. What is there to show to the fans, analysts and association that their system is meant for youth development and not a monetization project.  

Andreas Christensen: The lanky danish Centre-back joined Chelsea at the end of André Villas-Boas tenure in 2012 with high expectations. After making his debut under Jose Mourinho in 2013, he spent two successive loan spells at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Chelsea immediately saw his value and integrated into the first team in 2015 as the touted heir to John Terry.

Thibaut Courtois: Similar to Christensen, the Belgium prodigy arrived at Stamford bridge in 2011 and was immediately sent on a three-year loan to Atletico Madrid where he won the Europa league, La-Liga (breaking a Spanish deadlock held by Barcelona/Real Madrid) and made it to the Champions league final in 2014. Chelsea immediately integrated the heir apparent to Petr Cech as the starting goalkeeper in 2014.

Kurt Zouma: The French Centre-back was signed from Saint-Etienne in 2014 but, remained on loan for a year at the former club. After making his Chelsea debut in 2015, he was sparsely involved in first team action. After successive loan spells at Stoke City and Everton, he is lauded as the future of the Chelsea’s backline alongside Christensen.

Kurt Zouma is one of several players to be bought by the club and developed into first team players (Image from Tumblr)

Mason Mount: The Englishman rose through Chelsea’s youth academy in 2017, spent two successive loan spells at farm club, Vitesse Arnhem and Derby county, where he played under Frank Lampard. When incoming manger Frank Lampard took the helm at Chelsea in 2019, he immediately integrated the young prodigy into the team. Then 20-year-old was an instant success and remains a key figure in the team till date despite the exit of the golden boy manager.

Undecided: Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Reece James. Chelsea’s transfer ban in 2019 along with the departure of superstar Eden Hazard meant the club were suddenly left vulnerable in the premier league. Incoming manager Frank Lampard was faced with a daunting task and decided to take a leap in faith with the many talent young reserves in his squad. With the exception of Loftus Cheek who departed for Fulham, the above-mentioned players featured heavily in Lampard’s squad rotation and feature in Thomas Tuchels now.

The Others

No system is perfect. More often than not, there are times when someone can get overlooked due to injuries, error in judgment or worst of all human greed. We will look at a few cases (not all) where Chelsea’s system failed the players and jeopardized their careers.

Tomas Kalas & Lucas Piazon: The Czech centre-Back and Brazilian winger arrived in London in 2010 and 2011 respectively during the dawn of Chelsea’s “youth development” stratagem. They both spent their initial testing grounds loans at Vitesse Arnhem followed by loans in Germany and in the English Championship. In total, they spent 7 loan spells each with Piazon making one start for Chelsea and Kalas played 2 games. Kalas’s Chelsea career may only be remembered for his debut at Anfield against Liverpool in 2014 where Steven Gerrard let the league title “slip” away whilst Piazon has no such privilege. Their market value was highest during their loan spell at Fulham F.C. in 2016-2017 and 2017- 2018 campaign where their stays overlapped and they found success helping the club promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2017-2018 campaign narrowly missing out promotion the previous year. When they reported to the Chelsea at the end of their loan spell in 2018, they were expecting an offer from Fulham to start their careers but, they received no information from the club. In a recent interview with a Czech chat show on his role at Chelsea, Kalas said “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone, they put me there instead”. After another loan spell, Kalas was eventually sold to Bristol City for a profit whilst, Piazon was let go in summer 2021. 

Why were these two talented young players career’s derailed by Chelsea’s system. Was it matter of oversight? Surely, it is not something as simple as that. We may never know the answer at least that was Piazon’s opinion in a recent interview with Sky-sports.

FIFA Loan Rule Amendment

FIFA has also taken notice to the change in the trend of player loan system and decided to act on curb such practices. According to the new rules, starting from the upcoming season (2021-2022), clubs are allowed only 8 transfers in and eight transfers out per season (and not more than three transfers between clubs) with the number set to reduce to 6 players from the 2022-2023 season.

Why has FIFA decided to act now?

Whilst, managers and analysts alike scorned Chelsea’s model of “player development”, the system was not violating any rules. Other Clubs now started to adopt this system, the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, RB Leipzig, Atlanta, Juventus, Inter Milan, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers adopted a similar model. Manchester City and RB Leipzig also setup a feeder clubs in Girona F.C. (City own 47% shares in Girona) and RB Salzburg respectively. The model was working and Clubs now had a way to avoid FFP rules and also fill the Home-grown player quota. But the situation got out of control as now clubs were sending an average of 30 players on loans. Although, in my opinion the nail in the coffin for FIFA’s involvement may have been the transfer of high-profile players like Kylian Mbappe and Alvaro Morata who initially moved on loan to their future clubs with the transfer fee following the next fiscal season thus, satisfying FFP rules.

At the end of the day, football is a business and clubs and fans seek success which cannot come without drastic measures in certain cases. Luck plays a large part in a world filled with several talented players. FIFA exists to maintain the integrity of the game and enact policies to support the players.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Do Fans still feel close with their club?

The 21st of February, 2021 marked the anniversary of the first reported cases of Covid-19 in each country across Europe which initiated an excruciating period of lockdown and social distancing. This news came as an especially hard pill to swallow for football fans because it meant an immediate halt on all professional sporting activities; no more fans at stadiums, likely no Euro 2020 and Liverpool fans couldn’t rejoice their long awaited and dominant premier league trophy win. With no clear directive on the timeline of containment of this global pandemic, sporting authorities were starting to bleed cash. Smaller clubs were on the verge of bankruptcy while, larger clubs had to make adjustment to the salaries. Even Barcelona FC had to make promises to players to pay their salaries at later date with some interest during this stagnant revenue period.

Messi and co agreed to a 70% pay cut durning the pandemic but not without conditions attached

After months of deliberation, football authorities started to come up with the best solutions to bring back sporting activities despite the turbulent conditions. Bundesliga was the first league to be back up and running, the Deutsche Fußball liga (DFL) governing body set up the idea of a bubble with daily testing of players and staff along with clear mandates to be followed during the season. This framework worked out very well, the season was restarted albeit some hiccups on the way due to human error.

Some clubs across Europe also started experimented allowing fans into the stadium last season. The Bundesliga allowed 20% of stadium capacity in cities like Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Bremen but, due to varied infection rates Munich and Berlin were not granted such privileges. Meanwhile in France and Italy, about 1000 fans were allowed during game day but, the lawmakers and the big leagues are still not certain the fans may completely return this season before the vaccine rollout (2020-2021).

Fans in Germany watch a Bundesliga match

Considering all these factors, another big question remains: How do the fans feel about this new epoch in football? It certainly can’t be fun watching your favorite clubs and players on the telly all the time, I mean you can’t even watch the game in a sports bar with your friends given the restrictions. The ambience at the stadium with the ever-passionate banner groups behind the goalposts banging the instruments, the ultras occupying the east and west stands singing songs and shouting those occasional insults and the global fans who come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of their stars makes every game that much more exciting.

Every season, the fans are also eager to look forward to the new additions that will improve their clubs. The top 5 leagues in Europe invested a total of £3 billion in the summer 2020 despite the drop in revenue, in comparison the previous transfer window saw £5.25 billion in investment. Fans are always critical of their club’s decision making, making their feelings known during games and most of the times the clubs listen to them as the fans are the significant make up of the club (as well as media).

Case in point, Chelsea Fans who were excited for the 2020-2021 season after their club invest upwards of £200 million in young talent with immense potential. The team which barely survived the top four finish last season under the tutelage of a Chelsea legend now had the look of a dynasty. After a phenomenal start to the season followed a string of bad losses and Chelsea fired their golden boy manager, Frank Lampard. This was a decision which can have repercussions on the minds of the fans about a club who refuse to give time to their manager, who are known for their revolving managerial door, who have now fired yet another manager (and a club legend no less).

Although, the owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, personally wrote a letter to the fans about the difficult decision to sack Lampard. London is home to many great football clubs. This decision in the current climate can create unease in the psychology of the fans and their outlook towards the club. Along with the fact that Manchester United’s decision to give Ole Gunnar Solskjær time to turn things around for the club despite the early exit from the champions league, a decision which is now bearing fruit could influence the fans.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Arteta’s Troubles Mount As Arsenal Continue To Slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share your comments and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brown signs for Rangers in July, 1958.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOTN: Working for Sir Alex must have been interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig Brown was selected as Scotland manager in 1993.

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

BOTN: How did he threaten you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOTN: Is that when Goram decided to leave?

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

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

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

BOTN: Really? What makes you think that now?

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

BOTN: Those two being against Norway and Morocco.

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

To be continued.

For part 2, click here

Diego Maradona – The Greatest of All Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share your memories of Diego and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Manchester United – A Shadow of its former self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newcastle’s Failed Takeover Was Anything But Black And White

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

Amanda Staveley led the bid team trying to takeover Newcastle

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

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

Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad takes over Sheffield United

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share your thoughts now and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Where next for Messi as he calls time on Barca

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

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

Man City

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

Can Pep persuade Messi to join him at Man City?

PSG

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

Juventus

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

Messi and Ronaldo in the same team?

Man Utd

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

Newell’s Old Boys

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

Messi has a decision to make.

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

Share your thoughts now and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

What Next For Relegated Trio?

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

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

championshipcropped_1figuekv6kynx1s9b1l7xym71q

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

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

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

Norwich

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

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

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

Deeney-Gray

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

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

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

eddie-howe

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

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

Share your thoughts now and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

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)

Share your thoughts and follow us now on Twitter Instagram

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

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

BAYERN

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

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

Flick and Kovac

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

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

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

i

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

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

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

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

Karim Benzema – A Misunderstood Genius

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

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

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

ac89aa1f6250a3407769f6585454ce8c

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

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

DoS9uV9WkAEblH3

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

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

lVcPrM

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

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

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

Pied Piper of Manchester

“Into the street the Piper stepped,

Smiling first a little smile,

As if he knew what magic slept

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

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

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

1197966915.jpg

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

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

18c1ce603616a37b5aac782abac63e7b

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

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

Picture1

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

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

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

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

manchester-united-champions-league-2007-08_g7b0kcdstjhr1ptysvfxz1xyu

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

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

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

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

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

One On One with: Marcus Gayle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share your thoughts now and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

One On One with: Jeremie Aliadiere

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

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

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

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

Clairefontaine Academy, France

Clairefontaine Academy, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The legendary Dennis Bergkamp (Image from Tumblr)

The legendary Dennis Bergkamp (Image from Tumblr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremie Aliadiere at Middlesborough (Image from Tumblr)

Jeremie Aliadiere at Middlesborough (Image from Tumblr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Jeremie on Instagram.

One On One with: Warren Barton

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

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

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

Follow Warren on his official Instagram account.

Share your thoughts now and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram now.

One To One with: Luke Wilkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke-Wilkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Luke+Wilkshire+Australia+v+Jordan+ENX2fXk7avNl

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

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

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

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

hiddink-italy-850x455

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

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

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

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

download (1)

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

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

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

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

Luke_Wilkshire_2016

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

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

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

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

images (1)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 10.16.33 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LW: None at all.

BOTN: Thanks Luke, pleasure talking to you. 

Follow Luke on his official Instagram account.

Share your thoughts now and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram