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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

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.

Alive and Kicking – The Original 22 Stars Of The Premier League

When the Premiership launched in 1992, the League decided to take the risky decision and give the rights to their games to one pay for television provider, Sky. At the time, the idea of having to pay to watch football on TV was fairly unusual as the public had been spoiled over the years with free viewing courtesy of the BBC and ITV. However with the freshening up of England’s top division, it was felt that a new approach was needed and the League was impressed with Sky’s ideas of how they wanted to revolutionize football. Since then Sky has gone on to dominate the pay for market, fighting off competition from Irish firm Setanta, US giants ESPN and now British Telecomms to remain top dog in terms of the Premiership. As Sky prepares for it’s 23 year as broadcaster, they have launched a new ad campaign featuring one of the leagues best players over the past 23 years Thierry Henry. The former Arsenal and France forward has been cleverly inserted into a few memorable moments over the past two and a bit decades including celebrating with Alex Ferguson, avoiding Tony Yeboah’s thunderbolt and commiserating with Kevin Keegan after Liverpool snatch all three points in dramatic fashion against his side Newcastle in the thrilling 1996 4-3 clash.

Tony Yeboah's wonder strike is still remembered to this day (Image from Tumblr)

Tony Yeboah’s wonder strike is still remembered to this day (Image from Tumblr)

It seems like an eternity since Sky launched its original ad campaign featuring some of the then stars of the league against the backdrop of Simple Minds “Alive and Kicking”. The campaign featured the likes of Tim Flowers, Gordon Durie, John Salako and Gordon Strachan who posed along with the 18 other players for a promotional photo shortly after making the advert. The picture below is that photo in all its glory, complete with remarkable strips and more than a few dodgy haircuts. But where are those players today, how many stayed in the game and how many have left for pastures new.

The 22 stars of the original Premier League advert (Image from Getty)

The 22 stars of the original Premier League advert (Image from Getty)

Several of the players featured have stayed in the game in some capacity or another. Current Scotland boss Gordon Strachan and Aston Villa boss Tim Sherwood are the most recognizable but there are others who have dedicated their careers to coaching players both at senior and junior level. David Hirst, Peter Beardsley and Alan Kernaghan work with youth players at Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle and Ireland respectively whilst Tony Daley has become Wolverhampton Wanders fitness coach. Former goalkeepers Tim Flowers and Hans Segers have taken up goalkeeping positions at Kiddieminster Harriers and Dutch side FC Oss whilst Ian Butterworth is now chief scout at QPR, working alongside Andy Sinton who is the clubs ambassador, the same role as John Wark performs at Ipswich. Others like Gordon Durie who left Rangers following the appointment of Mark Warburton and former Liverpool defender Mark Wright are looking for their next job in the game.

Tony Daley is now head of fitness at Wolves (Image from Twitter)

Tony Daley is now head of fitness at Wolves
(Image from Twitter)

Unfortunately there are a couple amongst the 22 that found themselves in decline after retiring. Former Sheffield United player Carl Bradshaw found himself on the wrong side of the law after assaulting a taxi driver earning him a four month stay in prison. He was released and is now living a quieter life as a bed and breakfast owner in Norwich. Former Nottingham Forest defender Gary Charles was considered to be one of the best right backs England ever produced in the early part of his career but after giving up the game in 2000, Charles struggled with alcoholism and too ended up in prison. But since then he has turned his life around and is now working at the University of Nottingham as their Director of Football.

Entertainment and in particular TV work has appealed to several of the 22 including Lee Sharpe, Andy Ritchie and John Salako who spend most of their retirement in a studio talking about the beautiful game. Arguably the most famous of the 22 is Vinnie Jones, footballer turned movie star and now one of Hollywood’s go to hard men. He has starred in a variety of blockbusters from Mean Machines to Gone in 60 Seconds to the X Men trilogy and now resides in Los Angeles. That leaves us with three unaccounted for players – Ian Brightwell, Andy Pearce and David Hillier who have all stepped firmly away from football into other professionals. Brightwell runs a successful property development firm who also bizarrely specializes in building squash courts whilst Pearce is also in construction as a site supervisor. Former Arsenal midfielder Hillier may have taken the furthest leap by putting his neck on the line day in day out as a fireman in Bristol.

How many could you identify? Now that you know their names, can you correctly identify the teams in order from left to right starting with the back row? Leave a reply on our FB page with the chance to win a prize!

Share your thoughts now on Facebook:www.facebook.com/BackOfTheNetBlog or on Twitter:https://twitter.com/BOTNBlog

Back Of The Net Podcast – Strachan’s Scotland Sorrows

We are back with another podcast and todays has a solo focus -the future of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan after a poor start to their World Cup Qualifying campaign. Should he stay or should he go? Can he pick a striker who can score? Will he drop Grant Hanley? Is Barry Bannan his lovechild? All this and more in this weeks pod! Enjoy!

https://soundcloud.com/user-303027057/my-opinion-podcast-3

The Challenges Facing Scotland After Yet Another Failed Qualifying Campaign

In an expected result, Scotland finished off their dismal qualifying campaign in style with a 6-0 win over lowly Gibraltar matching their result in Glasgow. Not quite the end they were hoping for but all dreams of reaching France next summer died when they failed to see off Poland with only thirty seconds remaining. Dissecting what went wrong in this campaign has a strange familiarity to it. Like a path ventured down too many times, Scotland continues to present the same problems over and over. Plucky when the underdog, Scotland displays the passion for which they have become famous for. But passion hardly ever ends in points and for some bizarre reason that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s when we are supposed to be top dog that is the main concern, unable to cleanly dispatch the lesser nations of the Faroes Islands, Estonia and our new nemesis Georgia. But surely both are equally important. Qualification isn’t dependent on taking the scalp of a larger, more technical nation but it can’t hurt right?

Poland's last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention (Image from PA)

Poland’s last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention
(Image from PA)

In this campaign when Ireland snatched four out of six points from Germany and ran Poland close in both of their meetings, why could Scotland not match or better that? Arguably they are a better team than their North Sea neighbors, even if you only base that on our two meetings with Ireland when Scotland took home four from six in terms of points. Why do they have the belief  that they can get a result yet Scotland appears to not. There are a thousand excuses for why Scotland failed to beat Germany or Poland, everything from unfortunate deflections to better quality of players and the personal favourite – they simply lacked that wee bit of luck on the ball. Nonsense, all of it. In football anything can happen. Look at Greece who went from struggling to win a European Championship game to tournament winners in just a few matches. It’s eleven men vs eleven men, not David vs Goliath. Germany were strangely under par in qualifying and were there for the taking but Scotland lacked belief that they could actually do it. Even when they do score, blind panic sets in and Scotland fold like cheap deck chairs. They prefer to go behind and rally rather than take the lead and control. But time after time, taking the lead is a curse. This is what cost Scotland a qualification spot really, not dropping three points against Georgia.

Shane Long fires Ireland's winner against Germany so why couldn't Scotland do similar? (Image from Getty)

Shane Long fires Ireland’s winner against Germany so why couldn’t Scotland do similar?
(Image from Getty)

It doesn’t help that the entire team seems unconvinced by the defence. Once a staple of Scottish football, the defense looks less convincing by the day. Bremner, Greig, Hansen, Gough and Hendry have been replaced with middle of the road defenders, all of which are good but never great. Indeed Strachan only ever played the same back four twice in ten matches. Leaky is not the word as Scotland shipped 12 goals in qualifying including Gibraltar’s first ever international goal. In comparison Wales conceded only four times as they qualified highlighting the real issue Scotland faces- they cannot defend. Makeshift left backs, rotating centre half, limited right backs and goalkeeper loyalty conundrums all plagued this campaign and ultimately cost Scotland qualification. Being tight at the back can be the difference between winning and losing, stopping the opponents from scoring then nicking a goal at the other end to secure an unfavorable 1-0 win. Scotland did it in the past against France (twice), Holland and England despite being under a barrage of pressure for the entire ninety minutes. Both in Scotland and in Poland, the Scots had the lead before letting it slip. Six points instead of 2 may have been the difference between Scotland progressing to France 2016 and Poland staying at home to lick its wounds.

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland (Image from Getty)

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland
(Image from Getty)

So what is the solution? Perhaps following the NFL’s lead and appointing a defence coach who knows how to organize the back five  and make them solid once more. Scotland could employ a permanent defensive midfielder to sit and cover the back line but again without coordination this move would be limited. There is a nucleus of players there to work with but the need structure and guidance if they are to be successful. Fresh blood is often what is needed but the lack of talent coming through is a concern however this is hardly a new problem for Scotland or indeed most countries of our size like Northern Ireland or Wales. Good players can become great if deployed correctly and possess the belief needed to succeed. Scotland have just under a year now to regroup, refocus and go again before the World Cup qualifiers kick off. That should be enough time to sort of Scotland’s defensive frailties and reestablish the passion and belief needed to help them qualify.

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Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

“Three more points” is the message that Wales boss Chris Coleman will be telling his team as they stand on the edge of greatness. After a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cyrus in their seventh European Championship qualifying group match, Wales find themselves on top and within touching distance of next years tournament in France. It will be an amazing achievement for Wales who have failed to qualify for every tournament since 1958. Mathematically Coleman has it correct – three points from their last three games will be enough for Wales to reach the promise lands and rid themselves of the ghost of ’58. And with Israel up next on Sunday who they ironically beat back in ’57 to reach the 1958 World Cup, it’s surely a case of when not if for Wales. Rush, Giggs, Hughes and Saunders all tried in the past to propel Wales to a major finals without luck. But now this new generation looks set to do it and write their names into the record books.

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament (Image from Getty)

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament
(Image from Getty)

Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu have all played their part but Wales owe a huge debt to one man in particular who has been outstanding. With five goals and several assists so far, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale has played an instrumental role in putting Wales in with its best chance of qualifying in nearly sixty years. It was his goal that settled the tie with Cyprus much like his strikes against Belgium, Israel and Andorra before that. Bale appears to be unstoppable when he pulls on the red shirt of his home nation. Arguably a poorer side without their talisman in their starting eleven, Bale makes Wales tick but is far from the only reason why they find themselves in this position. Coleman has done a solid job since replacing Gary Speed under tragic circumstances, bringing his side together as one whilst instilling belief that qualification can and would be achieved. Standing in their way were some formidable foes but by playing as a group and more importantly for each other, they look set to do it. Stunning yet hard-fought wins over Belgium, Israel and Cyprus has Wales on a seven game unbeaten run that looks set to continue all the way until the Euros kick off next summer in France.

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

Wales will likely be joined there by England who are unbeaten in their group and are within touching distance themselves. But if current form continues and some other results fall favourably for them, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be joining Wales and England at the Euros making it a clean sweep for the home nations. Northern Ireland lie second in their group behind Romania but ahead of Hungary going into today’s crunch clash with the Faroes Islands. Three points today are essential before Micheal O’Neill’s side can even start to think about Monday’s defining match against Hungary. By that stage, Northern Ireland could have a five point cushion between themselves and Hungary, especially if Bernd Storck’s side fails to beat leaders Romania in their match today. With Greece and Finland still to come, qualification is hardly guaranteed but like Wales, the Northern Irish players have faith that they can make it happen. Unlike Wales though, Northern Ireland don’t have a Gareth Bale-esque figure in their ranks. Instead they have a team of grafters who give their all to the cause and to date have produced some fine results against Finland, Greece, Hungary and Romania. Kyle Lafferty, the gangly former Rangers frontman has been their unlikely hero, picking up the hero status from David Healy and running with it. Five goals in six games shows he is a man in form and if his country is going to qualify, they will need Lafferty to maintain that form and fire them towards France.

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

Out of all of the home nations, Scotland has the toughest challenge after being placed in a group with the current World champions Germany and heavyweights Poland. But Gordon Strachan’s side has performed brilliantly so far and kept themselves in contention going into the home straight. Currently third in the group only two points behind Germany and three behind Poland, their remaining four games will have the Tartan Army on tenterhooks. Up first is a must win game against Georgia today, played at the same time as Poland visit Germany with the result of that game arguably more important than Scotland’s. After Poland’s surprise victory at home against Germany, the group has been left wide open and is anyone’s for the taking.

Poland's win over Germany has left the group wide open (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Poland’s win over Germany has left the group wide open
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Strachan knows that to stay in contention he needs to win today and then prepare his side for two crunch home fixtures against the group leaders. He will look towards the more experienced members of his team – Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney to provide the motivation to the rest of the squad as they remind the others of the anguish they went through after several failed qualifying campaigns. Not that the Scotland squad needs to be motivated though, having lost only one of their last six qualifying games. There is a real belief in the group that if they play together they can get the results they need to reach France. Two wins from their last four games might not be enough but three wins especially one over Germany or Poland could be. It would be an amazing achievement for Strachan’s men to reach Euro 2016 and join the other home nations in doing so.

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Scottish Future Looks Bright With Latest Batch Of Talented Youngsters

One of a host of bright stars for Scotland - Ryan Harper of Real Madrid (Image from Getty)Once considered a breeding ground for new talent in the 70’s and 80’s, Scottish football entered into a somewhat dormant phase of its history with few Scottish born players making the move to other countries to ply their trade. Of the ones that did, only a handful succeeded such as Paul Lambert who joined Borussia Dortmund from Motherwell and helped them to the Champions League title in 1997 before returning to join Celtic. Others like Gary O’Connor lasted only a few seasons abroad before returning sheepishly to Scotland to rebuild his career. But now a new generation of talented players is emerging and interest in Scottish football has spiked again with many clubs now sending scouts to watch specific players. The latest player to agree to the move is Stephen Hendrie, the Hamilton left back who has signed a pre contract with West Ham and will depart for the Premiership in the summer.

Hendrie has agreed to join West Ham in the summer  (Image from Getty)

Hendrie has agreed to join West Ham in the summer
(Image from Getty)

The 20 year old has had a superb season helping his side perform above expectations in the Scottish Premier League. Over the years Hamilton has become one of several clubs in Scottish football who continuously discover, develop and sell on young talent. Previous graduates include midfielders James McArthur and James McCarthy who both left the club to join Premiership sides and have since built notable careers. Whilst the latter of the two has chosen to represent the Republic of Ireland at national level, he is still Scottish by birth and a good example of how the clubs youth system is progressing. Similarly Dundee United, Inverness Caley Thistle, Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibernian have all had talented Scots leave their ranks in recent years to test their skills at a higher level.Switching to the English Premiership has been a common theme for several Scottish players once they start to out shine the other players in Scotland. Alan Hutton, Charlie Adam, Andrew Robertson, Steven Naismith, James Morrison and Steven Fletcher are all examples of players who have made successful switches and continue to play in England’s top league on a regular basis. But now other European leagues are sitting up and taking notice of the Scottish talent on show. The recent move of Ryan Gauld from Dundee United to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon is probably the one that springs to mind to most after his £3 million move. The player dubbed “mini Messi’ by the Dundee United fans is still only 19 but excelled in Scotland over a two year period before Sporting came calling. He is now pushing hard for a starting spot in the Lisbon first team after performing well in various cup matches.

Gauld is considered one for the future for Scotland national manager Gordon Strachan who is reaping the benefits of work carried out former Performance Director Mark Wotte. The Dutchman was drafted in by the SFA in 2011 to revamp the countries failing youth system and immediately set about implementing the recommendations of a review conducted by former first minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish. These changes most notably included a shift in mindset around how clubs were developing its younger players, focusing more on technique, fitness and healthy living. The plan, partially backed by the SFA with significant investment saw the appointment of Wotte and the birth of a new generation of players. Whilst it’s the clubs that deserve most of the praise for the way that they have nurtured talent, McLeish and Wotte deserves some credit for starting the conversation and helping Scottish football to get back on track.

The late Henry McLeish and his report  (Image from STV)

The late Henry McLeish and his report
(Image from STV)

The future now looks rosy especially for the national team. Not only can Strachan call up players who have spent several years in the Premiership developing their games but he now has a wealth of talented players coming through to freshen up his side. Gauld, along with the likes of Chelsea’s Islam Feruz, Real Madrid’s Ryan Harper and Dundee United’s Stuart Armstrong are the future of the national team. For the fans their hopes are that this new generation can help the national side to finally end its long term exodus and reach a major international tournament, something it has failed to do for nearly 30 years. Reaching a World Cup or European Championship would be just reward and indicate how far Scotland has come over the past ten years. If the influx of talent young players leaving the country for stronger leagues across Europe is an indication, then Scotland looks to be on course once more to reaching its goals.

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Scotland’s Mini Messi Destined For Greater Things

Gauld arrives at Sporting Lisbon (Image from AFP)Once in a lifetime is how 18 year old Ryan Gauld described the opportunity to move to Sporting Lisbon. After completing his £3million move from Dundee United, the dazzling midfielder spoke to reporters at Edinburgh airport about his dream to play in Europe and how he couldn’t turn down this chance. Gauld is not fazed by the move nor feels under pressure to live up to expectations which bode well for his future career in Portugal. Sporting who beat several top clubs across Europe for his signature, are so confident in his ability that they slapped a €60 million release clause into his contract to warn off any future interested parties. Having lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United in 2003 for only €15 million, it’s understandable why they want to protect their investment in a player who has demonstrated on several occasions how talented he actually is.

Gauld has terrorized Scottish defenses since his breakthrough  (Image from Getty)

Gauld has terrorized Scottish defenses since his breakthrough
(Image from Getty)

Gauld’s transfer comes at a time when Scottish football appears to be turning the corner, with several new young players bursting onto the scene. Dundee United has been the epicenter for most of this talent, with Gauld joining Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven, John Souttar and Andy Robertson in the first team recently having all come through the youth ranks. All of this is welcomed news for Scotland manager Gordon Strachan who is rebuilding the national team after years of disappointment and heartbreak. With MacKay Steven already a full international and the likes of Jordan Rhodes continuing to improve at national level, the future looks bright for Scotland. Gauld has not yet won a full senior cap, restricted to Under 19 and 21 appearances only but his move to Sporting may expedite the situation especially given Scotland’s lack of creative influencers. In Gauld, Strachan may have a player who can become Scotland’s outlet of creativity for the next decade.

Moves like Messi  (Image from Getty)

Moves like Messi
(Image from Getty)

Gauld has lit up the Scottish Premier League for the past two seasons with his mesmerizing ball control and unique ability to drift away from defenders with ease. Watching fans may be inclined to compare him to the late Davie Cooper which is a fair tribute to the youngster given Cooper’s legacy. But Gauld is much more than just an imitation of Cooper, he is the real deal. For someone so young, Gauld possess amazing vision and can read a game like no other. At only 5ft 6in, his small stature gives him incredible close control and speed on the ball which is a nightmare for opposition defences, whilst his ability to interchange his finishing either with power or a side footed pass illustrates his range. Gauld is destined for greater things, with the dreams of a nation resting on his shoulders. Hardly surprising he has been dubbed Mini Messi. Like Messi, the pressure will be on Gauld to live up to those lofty expectations and not end up as another British failure abroad. Few Scots have succeeded abroad (John Collins at Monaco, Paul Lambert at Borussia Dortmund, Steve Archibald at Barcelona) but the rest have failed miserably. Given his personality and grounded approach, Gauld will be keen to prove his worth and pay back the faith shown by Sporting by giving his all from day one. His break into the first team will come and it will be up to him to seize it with both hands or face returning to Scotland as another flop. However anyone who has watch Gauld so far will know that this is unlikely to happen and Gauld will use this move to his advantage as he looks to build upon his career in Portugal. Share your thoughts below or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BackOfTheNetBlog or Twitter: https://twitter.com/BOTNBlog. You can now follow us on Tumblr and Instagram as well!

World Cup Hangover Hands Hope To Europe’s Smaller Nations

Three games played and maximum points obtained for Northern Ireland and Iceland has placed them in a good position in their quest to end their respective hiatuses from international competitions. Having never qualified for the European Championships and possessing only limited exposure at World Cups (Northern Ireland have qualified three times – 1958, 1982 and 1986 whilst Iceland have never made it) both nations are desperate to qualify for France 2016. The startling improvements in both sides over recent years have given hope to their legions of fans who are praying that this is the time that they will make it. Having suffered heartbreak during the last World Cup qualifying campaign by narrowly missing out thanks to a playoff defeat by Croatia, Iceland have once again stepped up and are showcasing  the talents of what many are describing as a new golden generation. Convincing wins over Turkey and Latvia were swiftly followed by a shock 2-0 win over Holland on Monday past that has left Lars Lagerbeck’s side top of Group A, level on points with the Czech Republic. To suggest Holland were off the pace would be accurate with their World Cup heroic’s still heavy on their legs but credit must be given to Iceland who battled hard and created several good chances throughout the game and deserved the points. Whilst Holland licks their wounds under new coach Guus Hiddink, Iceland can prepare for their next game against the Czech’s safe in the knowledge that significant progress has been made in their bid to qualify for France.

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland (Image from Getty)

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland
(Image from Getty)

In Group F, Northern Ireland gave their chances a dramatic boost with three stunning wins over the Faroe Islands, Hungary and Greece putting them top of the pile. Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has been in exceptional form scoring in all three games but it’s at the back that Northern Ireland have looked so impressive. Roy Carroll has rolled back the years with a series of fine performances in goal whilst Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have marshaled the defense against some top opposition. In the last game against Greece in particular, the Northern Irish backline stifled attack after attack by the Greeks who like Holland have failed to spark under a new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The group is far from over for Northern Ireland with a long way still to go including tough matches against Finland, Romania and Greece to come but manager Michael O’Neill will take much optimism from the performances of his team in their opening few games which has left his side with a strong chance of qualification.

Lafferty sinks Greece (Image from Getty)

Lafferty sinks Greece
(Image from Getty)

The World Cup hangover appears to have affected several of Europe’s top nations including its current world champions. Having gone all the way in Brazil, Germany looked odds on favourites to top their group and progress to the European Championships in France for a shot at winning an historic double. But it would appear that the hangover from the party following their World Cup win has not yet subsided after three below par performances. One win, a draw and a shock defeat to Poland has Joachim Low’s team lying in third place in the group on four points with it all to do. After the retirement of the influential defensive pair of Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker, Germany have looked less than convincing at the back. Manager Joachim Low has drafted in several potential solutions but none look as convincing as the exiting duo. Germany’s problems are not just limited to the back either with issues upfront as well. With Miroslav Klose finally calling time on his international career and an injury to Chelsea’s Andreas Schurrle, the World champions have struggled to convert the simplest of chances in their last three games. In total Germany created 35 chances in their opening group games against Scotland, Poland and Republic of Ireland converting only three of them. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Max Kruse has been identified as the successor to Klose’s crown but has yet to replicate his goal scoring club form on the international stage.

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany (Image from PA)

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany
(Image from PA)

Scotland’s chances of reaching their first international tournament in over 16 years stayed on track with a well fought 2-2 draw with Poland. After losing to Germany in game one and then beating Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday by a single goal, Gordon Strachan’s team travelled to Warsaw to face a buoyant Poland, who had surprised many with their 2-0 win over Germany. The game was ninety minutes full of end to end action with neither team willing to walk away with nothing. In the end a draw was a fair result and leaves both teams in contention for qualification. Next up for Strachan and Scotland is a home match against Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with both managers knowing that only three points will do in what is becoming an increasingly open group. Having held Germany to a 1-1 draw in their last match (thanks to a 94th minute equalizer by John O’Shea), the Republic travel to Glasgow next month with seven points from a possible nine. After collecting maximum points against Georgia and Gibraltar in the first two matches, the hard fought point against an arguably tougher foe in Germany will give the Republic of Ireland belief that they can beat Scotland in their own back yard. With all time leading goal scorer Robbie Keane back firing at all cylinders, the Scots will need to be cautious next month if they are to gain any points.

John O'Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany (Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

John O’Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany
(Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

Wales too are playing a cautious game after an impressive start to their qualifying campaign. Wins over Andorra and Cyprus plus a 0-0 draw with Bosnia has put Wales top of the group but with a series of difficult matches ahead against Belgium and Israel, Wales are taking nothing for granted. Led by the talents of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, this youthful looking Welsh side hold strong belief that they can reach France 2016 and end the welsh fans misery. Having only ever reached one World Cup (1958) and one European Championship (1976), the welsh fans have been starved of competitive international tournaments for too long and are now looking towards manager Chris Coleman and his new batch of players to correct this problem. Hope is high in the welsh valleys but like the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland there is still a long way to go.

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Scotland Take Aim For France And Euro 2016

Tom Hanks stars in Saving private Ryan (Image from Getty)In 1998, Tom Hanks starred in the hit movie Saving Private Ryan about a team of men on an almost impossible mission to rescue Matt Damon (Private Ryan) from deep within Germany. Their journey was long and treacherous with several heartbreaks along the way but eventually they made it to their goal and recued Ryan. 1998 was also the last year that Scotland qualified for a major international tournament – the World Cup in France. Like Saving Private Ryan, Scotland has been on a long journey that has seen eight heartbreaking attempts to qualify ending in failure. They have lost managers along the way (seven in total) but still they have persevered. After all Scotland’s goal is to finally end their 16 year hiatus from the international stage and make it to one of footballs premiere events. Now bossed by Gordon Strachan, optimism was high ahead of their new campaign – Euro 2016, with pride and belief firmly back in place. That was until the draw was made which has placed Scotland in one of the toughest groups, facing up to World Champions Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

Scotland's last appearance was at France 1998  (Image from DailyRecord)

Scotland’s last appearance was at France 1998
(Image from DailyRecord)

With the German’s favourite to claim top spot, all eyes are focused on the second automatic qualification spot (now in effect since UEFA changed the number of teams competing in the finals from 16 to 24). Qualification won’t be easy especially given the teams Scotland has to face. Poland, inspired by their captain Robert Lewandowski will be no push over’s as they showed against England in the last World Cup qualifying sections. Despite having an aging squad, Scotland will face a strong Polish side that are highly organized and like to attack on the break. The two teams are schedule to play each other in a friendly in March which will help them both to eye up potential weaknesses or hidden dangers. How much will be on show is unknown as both managers will be mindful to keep their cards close to their chests ahead of the qualifying games that actually matter.

Dangerman - Robert Lewandowski  (Image from Reuters)

Dangerman – Robert Lewandowski
(Image from Reuters)

The Republic of Ireland have been reborn with a new manager in Martin O’Neill, supported by the fiery Roy Keane, and will be looking to make Euro 2016 after failing to clinch a place at the World Cup this summer in Brazil. With a host of exciting youngsters like Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick coming into the team, O’Neill is building for the future. The need for freshness has never been greater with talisman Robbie Keane, Andy Reid, Richard Dunne and Shay Given reaching the twig light years of their careers. Keane in particular has yet to commit to another campaign which could come as some welcome news to Scotland. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker has lead the line for Ireland for well over a decade now and has been their biggest threat. But general wear and tear plus a desire to prolong his career in the USA could force the former Inter Milan and Spurs striker to call it a day. With or without Keane, Ireland still pose a realistic threat to Scotland’s chances of qualifying and Strachan is well aware of this.

O'Neill and Keane look to mastermind Ireland's qualification  (Image from Getty)

O’Neill and Keane look to mastermind Ireland’s qualification
(Image from Getty)

Whilst Georgia and Gibraltar are outsiders in the group to qualify, both are out to prove something which could spell trouble for Scotland. Georgia continues to build their reputation on the international stage and under former Newcastle and Georgia legend, Temuri Ketsbaia they are making significant strides. He has built a side for the future with Rostov’s Jano Ananidze and Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Levan Kenia notable stand outs. Their biggest problem has been upfront where they have failed to fill the boots of former Rangers striker Shota Arveladze but the so far uncapped Giorgi Iluridze, who plies his trade with Hakduk Spilt, may provide the answer. Gibraltar will embark on an historic campaign when they kick off against Poland in September. It will be only their fifth ever match and their very first qualification game after being granted UEFA membership early last year. The team is made up of mostly semi professionals but will be out to show that they are not just there to make up the numbers.  Like San Marino and Andorra before, they will likely defend in numbers in the hope of pulling off a draw, much like they did against Slovakia last November.

Replacement needed for Shota Arveladze  (Image from Reuters)

Replacement needed for Shota Arveladze
(Image from Reuters)

This may be Scotland’s best chance of qualifying for a while with two automatic spots up for grabs and a best placed third spot available too. They will need full points against Georgia and Gibraltar and a minimum of two wins from four against Poland and Ireland to stand a chance. They will also need Germany to do a clean sweep of the group to make it an even playing field and a three horse race. Strachan will not be expecting much from the two games against Germany but given recent history where Scotland have shocked the likes of France and Holland with victories, maybe snatching a point or three against Joachim Low’s team is not necessarily out of the question. If they can reach the twenty point mark, qualification to Euro 2016 could be within their grasps. The irony of a return to France has not been lost but there is still a long and treacherous journey ahead before they can achieve their goal.

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Boyd Rekindles His Troubled Love Affair With Scotland

Boyd has been scoring for Killie (Image from PA)Kris Boyd has a point to prove and tonight against Norway, he will be hoping to get a chance to do so. The Kilmarnock striker has been rewarded, thanks to some fine club form, with a return to the international fray he so sensationally left five years ago. A lot has changed since then for both Boyd and Scotland but the love affair hasn’t. It was under the ill fated George Burley era in 2008 that Boyd fell out of favour with the former Ipswich and Hearts gaffer who preferred to try different strikers than trust in the then Rangers frontman. Boyd’s last straw came ironically in a dull 0-0 draw against Norway at Hampden, when needing the win and three points, Burley chose to hand a debut to Chris Iwelumo ahead of Boyd leaving the striker to mull over his future on the bench. In the match better remembered for that miss by Iwelumo, it also marked a turning point in Boyd’s international career.

Boyd has scored 7 in 18 for Scotland (Image from PA)

After the match Boyd called the SFA to tell them that he no longer wished to be considered for selection under Burley something that angred the coach and the fans. Boyd felt at the time that he was the victim but his approach was ill advised and badly timed which instead painted him as the villian. Burley did offer an olive branch later thst year insisting that if the player was totally committed to the cause then he would be allowed to return. Burleys offer, whilst sounding sincere was almost a desperate plea to Boyd as he fended off speculation that he was going to be sacked. Eventually Burley was dismissed and replaced by Craig Levein who instantly threw the door back open to Boyd. However, the former Rangers hitman by then was struggling for form and bouncing between clubs. Boyd looked increasingly less like the powerful striker that lit up the SPL in the early part of his career. Failed moves to England, Turkey and then the US eventually made Boyd take stock and he decided that a return to Scotland may help rescue both his club and intetnational futures.

Happy to be back in the fold – Boyd (Image from Getty)

Now five years on from that fateful public bustup, Boyd is back in the news but this time for the right reasons as he blazes a goalscoring trail in the Scottish Premiership, back home at his first club Kilmarnock. He has a freedom about his play that many haven’t seen since his move to Ibrox in 2006, scoring for fun with both feet and occassionally his head.Gordon Strachan couldn’t ignore him much longer and gave the 30 year old a much deserved recall. In the friendly against Norway tonight, the pressure is off with nothing for the two teams to play for other than bragging rights so throwing Boyd back in makes sense. Along with a couple of other fringe players, Boyd will get the chance to show what he can do and make his case for a permanent squad place ahead of Euro 2016 qualifying next year. All has been fogotten by Strachan who has wiped the slate clean and allowed Boyd back into the fold. The same might not be true for the Tartan Army who still hold a slight grudge for Boyds actions five years ago when he abandoned his country in a somewhat petulant move. Boyd knows that he will have to win them over and the only way to do that is through 100% effort and most importantly goals, something he is quite good at doing.

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Cooper lives again in new Scotland starlet MacKay-Steven

Gary MacKay Steven (Image from Skysports.co.uk)Anyone growing up in Scotland in the early 1980’s will remember fondly a home-grown player who excited the crowd, regardless of what team you followed. A player with incredible close control, a dazzling turn of pace and enough natural ability to turn a game on its head if needed. Davie Cooper was not only a Motherwell and Rangers legend but a Scotland one as well. Since his passing, Scotland have struggled to produce another player just like him – a natural winger, who aims for the by line and has the tricks up his sleeve to avoid the challenges on route.

Wing legend Davie Cooper (Image from Forum.ea.com)

Wing legend Davie Cooper
(Image from Forum.ea.com)

The last potential candidate was James McFadden, who has disappeared off of the football map in the past few years after a string of injuries and poor performances have limited his playing time to a few games here and there. He was seen as a genuine contender to Coopers crown in particular, with both players starring for Motherwell during their careers and both possessing superb close control and dribbling skills. Like Cooper, a fit McFadden was the first name on the Scotland national team sheet and produced the performances to match, against the likes of Holland and France. But the years have now caught up on McFadden who is fading fast in terms of being Scotland’s guiding light. Since then, Scotland has looked at many players to fill the void but with little success. But now, they may have produced a player with enough flair and guise that even Cooper himself would have been impressed – Dundee United starlet Gary Mackay-Stevens.

McFadden's career has faded in recent years (Image from thesidelineagenda.com)

McFadden’s career has faded in recent years
(Image from thesidelineagenda.com)

As a talented youngster, who started off his career with Ross County before being snapped up by English Premiership side Liverpool, looked to be the next Scotland star to take England’s top division by storm. However two injury ravaged years at the Anfield club saw MacKay-Steven released and returned to Scotland, eventually picked up by Airdrie United. It was here that he managed to get a consistent run in the first team making 21 starts in final six months of the 2010-2011 campaign, enough to convince Dundee United to sign the player at the end of the season. Under the guidance of manager Peter Housten, MacKay-Steven has focused his play on becoming an old fashion winger, with enough pace and trickier up his sleeve to fool most of the Premier League defenders. Last season the 22-year-old made a promising start to his United career, playing 31 times for the club and getting on the score sheet on four occasions. This season he has gone from strength to strength, hitting three goals already in only eight appearances including important strikes against Motherwell and Celtic that have earned his team a valuable point. But goalscoring is only a small part of MacKay-Steven’s repertoire with the main focus this year being on his superb wing play and assists for the United strikers that have been his making as a player and have led to him being capped at Under 21 level for Scotland.

Mackay Steven scores for Scotland under 21s (Image from Sport.stv.tv)

Mackay Steven scores for Scotland under 21s
(Image from Sport.stv.tv)

His wing play and in particular his selection of tricks has brought the media limelight firmly back to MacKay-Steven. His latest tricks, on display to the home crowd against Kilmarnock, involved the player controlling the ball firstly with his chest before balancing it on the top of his left foot. As the defender closed in, Mackay-Steven flicked the ball upwards and over the defenders head before spinning round and past him to collect it again. He then began his run down the left flank, only to be halted by a desperate lunge by the Kilmarnock midfielder knocked the ball out for a corner kick.

Mackay shows his skills against Kilmarnock (Image from AP)

Mackay shows his skills against Kilmarnock
(Image from AP)

With Gordon Strachan now installed as national team boss and looking to inject some life back into a faltering Scottish qualifying campaign, he may well look at a player like Gary MacKay Steven to inject some much-needed pace and flair into his team. If nothing else, the talented youngster has the ability to be a game changer from the bench if Strachan decides to deploy him that way. Either way, it won’t be long before MacKay Steven is pulling on the dark blue of Scotland at full international level and following in the footsteps of another skillful Scottish winger, one Davie Cooper.

To watch MacKay-Stevens dazzling the crowd, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sj1wo9fYfA

You Can’t Teach Old Dogs New Tricks, But You Can Give Them A Cap

Much to Ponder - Strachan (Image from Getty)With qualification for Brazil 2014 already impossible, Scotland manager Gordon Strachan has decided to use the forthcoming game against Croatia next month as a test bed for potential new international stars. After an impressive season with Celtic where he scored a total of 10 goals including a fine winning strike against Barcelona in the Champions League, young striker Tony Watt is promoted from the youth team to Strachan’s main squad as one of six changes. Joining him will be Hibernian striker Leigh Griffiths, who on loan from Wolves, has been in blistering form with 28 goals this season, capped off with a much deserved SPL Player of the Year nomination. Alongside Watt and Griffiths, Strachan has called up the untried and uncapped quartet of Stuart Armstrong, Gordon Greer, Ryan Jack and Gary Mackay-Steven in a very much changed Scotland squad.

Tony Watt Scores against Barcelona  (Image from PA)

Tony Watt Scores against Barcelona
(Image from PA)

But it’s the inclusions of Gordon Greer that raises a few eyebrows. Greer has been in fine form for Brighton this season, which made it to the Championship playoffs before eventually falling to a Wilfred Zaha inspired Crystal Palace. But at 32 years young his call up, unlikely Watt or Armstrong who are just starting their careers, seems late in the day and less forward thinking. Whilst Scotland historically have been strong in the centre back position with the likes of Hansen, Bremner, Hendry and Calderwood all pulling on the dark blue over the years, recent years have been somewhat lean with an over reliance in the Caldwell brothers and an inconsistent Christophe Berra. Greer could help in the short term but long term Scotland need to find a suitable replacement to build a defense around. Strachan has clearly rewarded Greer with a call up based on form but from the players prospective, will this mean a regular place in the squad going forward or more likely a solitary cap that he can tell his grandkids about one day.

Greer gains Call Up  (Image from Getty)

Greer gains Call Up
(Image from Getty)

Yes Greer is not the only player to be capped at international level in his 30’s and will certainly not be the last so touting his call up as a token gesture may be wild of the mark. But history suggests that, excluding goalkeepers who can play into their forties, outfield players in their 3o’s have started the quick decline towards retirement. There have been recent examples of other countries handing international debuts to older players such like England capping Kevin Davies or Chris Powell, with both players well into the latter part of their careers. Spain did perform a masterstroke with the call up of 30 year old Marco Senna just before World Cup 2006. Senna, who was born in Brazil but chose to play for Spain after gaining citizenship, went on to become the player of the tournament at Euro 2008 as Spain triumphed in what would be their first of three back to back international titles. Senna however is the exception to the rule with most players over 30 having only a bit part career at international level.

Inspirational Senna for Spain  (Image from Getty)

Inspirational Senna for Spain
(Image from Getty)

For Greer, the hope is that this will be the first of many call ups to represent his country. Having played already at B level, he will be excited to make his full debut if given the chance against Croatia next month. However the player is likely to be realistic about his chances of gaining several caps especially given his age. With the World Cup dream now buried alongside other failed qualification attempts, Strachan will now be focusing on his Euro 2016 campaign, which will start in earnest in September 2014. By that time, Greer will be 34 and edging closer to retirement unless he can find a second wind like former Scotland players David Weir and Graham Alexander and play till he is forty. Regardless to pull on the shirt of your country of birth is a major honor and one that Greer will savior for the rest of his life, even if it’s a onetime only event.

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Scotland the timid?

World Cup Dream dies for Scotland (Image from PA)Another campaign, another disappointment for the tartan army.  Tuesday’s defeat to Serbia confirmed what most had already accepted that Scotland would not be travelling to Brazil next summer to take part in the FIFA World Cup. The two nil score line followed Fridays loss to Wales and made it now mathematically impossible for Scotland to progress. It has now been 16 years since Scotland took part in a major tournament and memories that event, France 1998 are fading fast. Yet again it’s back to the drawing board for the SFA and new head coach, Gordon Strachan.

The Tartan Army ponders another failed campaign (Image from Getty)

The Tartan Army ponders another failed campaign
(Image from Getty)

Whilst the damaged had already been done before Strachan arrived,  the two performances offered little in the way of comfort for the bewildered Scottish fans. New faces were introduced to the mix and old faces returned but the defeated attitude remained in tact from the Levein days. A spirited first half against Wales where Scotland took the lead was all undone as the players failed to show up in the second half.  Defeat led to dejection which shone through on Tuesday as all pride was lost. In both matches, the same mistake was made. When Scotland lost a goal, they scrambled up field immediately  to try and get a goal back which resulted in too much space at the back for Wales and Serbia to attack. Patience departed the squad as they were left in a blind panic which ultimately led to their undoing. It was painful viewing for Strachan and his assistant Mark McGhee, who looked on helplessly on both occasions as their team fell apart.

Back to the drawing board for Strachan and assistant McGhee (Image from Reuters/David Moir )

Back to the drawing board for Strachan and assistant McGhee
(Image from Reuters/David Moir )

As ever blame reverts back to the structure of Scottish football and in particular its grassroots. Henry MacLeish’s detailed report into the national game highlighted the problems over three years ago and pointed towards a solution that would radicalize Scottish football to the core. Unfortunately for the ever loyal Scottish faithful, the report is likely acting as a door stop only at the SFA rather than being acted on. Yes Mark Wotte has been introduced as performance director with the mandate to address youth development but one man cannot change Rome in a day nor can he change the Scottish game overnight. A plan needs to be developed, money spent and time given for it to alter the present. An overhaul of the current league setup and major plans to improve the quality of the game in Scotland were highlighted against Serbia when the starting line up did not feature a single SPL player. Granted Celtic’s Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew were missing but apart from those two, it is hard to think of another who would displace one of the starting eleven that took the field that night. France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany have all taken radical steps to reposition their league to be more youth focus and are now reaping the benefits but as yet Scotland abstains, much to the annoyance of its fans.

McLeish's report set out clear plans to rejuvenate Scottish Football from the ground up(image from Getty)

McLeish’s report set out clear plans to rejuvenate Scottish Football from the ground up
(image from Getty)

Patience is needed, first and foremost, for change to happen but this does not help Strachan’s current problem. His main concern should be that Scotland has lost the one thing that made them so formidable in years gone past – their battling spirit. Scotland the brave is now Scotland the timid with no bite left within the lion rampant. The players lack the belief that they can actually qualify for a major tournament and this shows in their game. Out muscled and outplayed in Serbia and shamed into dirty tactics at home, Scotland does not present a viable threat to many nations who have evolved along with the modern game. Gone are the days of Colin Hendry, Kevin Gallacher and Gary McCallister who would give their all every time they pulled on the dark blue jersey. Kenny Miller and Darren Fletcher are two of only a handful of players in the current setup who can run their socks off in a game for Scotland but to succeed in international football, you need all eleven men plus the entire subs bench to be covering every inch of the pitch together as a single unit.

16 Years of Hurt - Scotland's last appearance at a major tournament was France 1998 (Image from PA)

16 Years of Hurt – Scotland’s last appearance at a major tournament was France 1998
(Image from PA)

Yes Scottish players need to improve their technique, bulk up and regain their composure but most of all its the spirit and team belief that will change their fortunes. The tartan army will turn out wherever and whenever needed, even to shovel snow in Serbia to make sure the game goes ahead, and all they ask for in return is for the team to give it’s all in every match and maybe just once manage to reach a major tournament. They need something to shout about, a team to be proud of and then the Tartan Army will truly shine. After all, it is at major tournaments where the tartan army can best lay claim to be the best support in the world.

Scotland Boss Ponders How To Stop Bale Ahead Of Wales Clash

Much to Ponder - Strachan (Image from Getty)Later this afternoon, Gordon Strachan will embark on the next phase of his managerial career as he leads out Scotland for his first competitive match in charge against Wales. Strachan faces an uphill struggle as he tries desperately to revitalise Scotland’s world cup qualifying chances which so far have flatlined with no wins in the first four matches. The diminutive Scot was brought in to replace Craig Levein who did very little to improve his own managerial reputation during his time as the top man but fortunately for Strachan has set the bar so low that a single win in qualifying will look better on paper than Levein’s efforts. But getting that elusive win in the forthcoming double-header will not be easy as Scotland have to travel to Serbia next Tuesday after entertaining Wales at Hampden today. When the draw was made for the groups, Wales appeared to be the easiest team but few had remembered about Wales secret weapon – Gareth Bale.

Mission Impossible - How to stop Bale (mage from PA)

Mission Impossible – How to stop Bale
(mage from PA)

The Welsh winger is having the best season of his career. His performances have been so dazzling, that most would put him in 3rd spot, behind Messi and Ronaldo, as the best player in the world at the moment. He is impossible to contain, moving from one flank to the other after been given more freedom by his respective managers at Tottenham and Wales, and with electric pace and the ability to finish with both feet and his head, Bale is on fire. Going into todays game, Strachan will know that to beat Wales, he will need to come up with an effective plan to stop Bale. Easier said than done and only Strachan really knows how he is planning to do it but he certainly has a few options that he can use.

Scotland prepare midweek for today's game (Image from Guardian.co.uk)

Scotland prepare midweek for today’s game
(Image from Guardian.co.uk)

For one he can man mark Bale. By putting a player tight onto the winger and having him follow him wherever he goes, it should restrict the time he has to control, turn and size up the space.  This can be highly effective with the right player chosen to perform the duty. If Strachan and Scotland go down this route, he will effectively sacrifice a player to contain another. That player will have no position other than the one Bale occupies at that time and his job will be simple – to follow Bale and stick as close as humanely possible. Scotland have used this tactic before with either Scott Brown or Gary Caldwell acting as the marker but with Brown out and Caldwell likely to start at centre half, it may fall to the likes of Steven Whitaker to do this role. The only issue with this tactic is Bale’s awareness and pace. He has become accustom to having someone man mark him this season and is aware that very few people possess the pace that he does so Scotland will need to be careful that he doesn’t spin his mark and start running as no one in the team will be able to keep up with him.

Spain's Alonso man marked by a croatian defender (Image from Getty)

Spain’s Alonso man marked by a croatian defender
(Image from Getty)

Another possible option open to Strachan is the double team. Less tight marking but instead when Bale gets on the ball, he instantly has two markers tracking is every move, working together to deposes him. On the right flank Alan Hutton and Steven Whitaker again could be asked to do this (Hutton has already proved he can as he marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game when Mallorca met Real earlier this month), but as Bales often floats between the wings, Scotland will need to be careful that Bale doesn’t pull two players out of position leaving a gap for others to exploit. Generally with extremely skillful players or ones with pace, the double team is highly effective and is the most likely option that Strachan will adopt but he will have to decide who those two players are depending on where on the pitch Bale is at that time.

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter (Image from PA)

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter
(Image from PA)

The third solution harks back to a by gone age when footballers were real men and literally kicked lumps out of each other. Stories about former Scotland defender Billy Bremner are legendary but one story stands the testament of time and is still used as a tactic today by several teams. Bremner’s approach, when faced with a powerful or creative striker (or in this case Bale) he would simply make them aware of his presence within the first few minutes of the game by either dragging his studs down the back of the strikers leg or by stamping on his heel. The philosophy was simple – either it injures the player enough that he has to be substituted and the problem disappears or that he is rattled and mental scarred for the rest of the game, worrying that every time he gets the ball, he will get the same treatment from Bremner as he got in the first few minutes. Highly effective yet highly risky as one bad challenge early on may result in an injury but could also result in a dismissal for the defender which is something Strachan will definitely not want – facing up to Bale and Co with just ten men.

A typical Bremner challenge (Image from Weallloveleeds.co.uk)

A typical Bremner challenge
(Image from Weallloveleeds.co.uk)

Regardless of what Strachan chooses to do or what tactic he employs, stopping Bale from playing will be a key objective if his side are to get the three points. His problem may not actually be a problem as Bale struggles to shake off an ankle knock he sustained at the weekend for Tottenham. But Wales coach Chris Coleman cannot afford to play the game without Bale, having already lost Joe Allen and David Vaughan to injury. The Welsh medical staff have been resting Bale from training sessions in an effort to have him ready for today’s game but he may not be 100% which will come as good news to Strachan. The Scotland boss will be planning for their trip to Serbia as well and analyzing the risks that they present but for today only,the focus is on Bale and Wales and those valuable three points.

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Icon Returns For Motherwell’s Champions League Push

James McFaddenWith Rangers now languishing in the lowest league in Scotland, the door has been thrown wide open for the rest of the Premier League teams to challenge Celtic for the title. The current Scottish champions are already running away with the league after opening up a sizable 18 point gap between themselves and the chasing pack. Closest to them in second place is Motherwell, who strengthened their squad yesterday with the return of the iconic James McFadden. The Scotland striker has been without a club since leaving Sunderland early last month and has signed a deal with the North Lanarkshire club until the end of this season. In a deal that never looked likely to happen, due to McFadden’s legacy wage demands, it would appear as though the player has backed down in order to secure consistent first team football. Its a win win situation for both parties as Motherwell push to cement their current position and McFadden attempts to get his career back on track.

Up and Coming - McFadden during his first spell at Motherwell (Image from STV)

Up and Coming – McFadden during his first spell at Motherwell
(Image from STV)

At only 29 years old, McFadden shouldn’t be back at his first club, but instead terrorising defenders in the English premiership or a league of similar stature, as he did during the early part of his twenties. Unfortunately, like Scottish compatriot Craig Gordon, this talented player’s career has been ruined by long term injuries that has limited his playing time. Without regular on field exposure, clubs have had little faith that McFadden is still the player he was and has resulted in him being released by Birmingham, then Everton and most recently Sunderland. Its a vicious cycle that many a professional has had to face and is hard to correct without the player demonstrating that he is beyond the injury problems that have hindered him. Some take to more innovative methods to prove they are worth a contract. Owen Hargreaves, a free agent after leaving Manchester United in the summer of 2011,  posted YouTube videos in a bid to convince potential suitors of his fitness, which was enough to convince Manchester City to sign the player on a short term deal. McFadden’s move to Motherwell shows a sign of faith from the club that McFadden’s injury worries are behind him.

Hargreaves took to YouTube to show his Fitness (Image from Youtube)

Hargreaves took to YouTube to show his Fitness
(Image from Youtube)

McFadden will be hoping that his injury troubles are behind him as well, as he looks to kick-start his career again. Once the first name on the Scotland team sheet and seen as a legend in the dark blue by the fans, McFadden will be hoping he can regain the form he once had and force his way into new boss Gordon Strachan’s long term plans. The new Scotland boss would love to have the old McFadden back to his best and will be monitoring the players progress at Motherwell with interest as he looks to potentially call up the player who last starred for his country in February 2012. Criticised by former boss Craig Levein in that game for his poor attitude and performance, McFadden will want to wipe the slate clean and show the Scottish faithful that he can still be a match winner for them as he had done in the past. But first he needs to play regularly for Motherwell and put in the type of displays that the club grew to expect during his first stint at the club.

McFadden scores a wonder goal against France (Image from PA)

McFadden scores a wonder goal against France
(Image from PA)

It was in the summer of 2000 that a young 17 year old James McFadden burst onto the Scottish football season, in stunning fashion. Not since Davie Cooper had the Motherwell fans been so excited by a player in the claret jersey. The combination of high octane pace, close control and undeniable brashness made McFadden an instant favourite with the home support. Within a season, McFadden was picking up the countries Young Player of the Year award and gaining a reputation as the most exciting prospect to come out of Scotland in a decade. Before long, McFadden was moving to England’s top flight with a move to Everton, where he stayed for five years, making himself into a useful component in manager David Moyes plans. A £5 million move to Birmingham followed but unfortunately for McFadden, it was at St Andrews that the problems with his right knee started. His troublesome right knee has dogged the player ever since and failed moves to Everton and Sunderland, have eventually led the player back home to Scotland.

McFadden's time at Birmingham was blighted with injury (Image from Action)

McFadden’s time at Birmingham was blighted with injury
(Image from Action)

Motherwell don’t necessarily need McFadden but the player will be welcomed into the squad regardless. Manager Stuart McCall has built an impressive team on an extremely tight budget but still lacks that x factor needed to win the title. Motherwell sit in second place on merit and whilst they have scored regularly in games, their over reliance on striker Michael Higdon has not gone unnoticed. His 17 goals this year have secured more points for the club than any other player, with only three others in the squad scoring more than one goal all season. McFadden in his first spell with the club averaged a goal every second game so McCall will be hoping that he can pick up where he left off and help push Motherwell closer to that lucrative second place finish and a shot at the Champions league. If McFadden regains his form and fitness, it is unlikely that Motherwell will be able to hold on to him beyond the summer as the player still has a good four to five years left to play. It’s a big if at this stage as McFadden hasn’t played competitively for some time now and will need to step up if he is get back to his best. McFadden knows his career is not over yet and now is his chance to get it back on track and once again become a player who sends fear down the spine of opposition defenders the world over.

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One Month Down, Another 11 to Come

Strachan won 50 caps for Scotland as a player (Image from BBC Archives)It’s hard to believe that it’s already February and we are one month into 2013. We covered a lot this past month so in time honoured tradition, here is the January recap. Much of the month was spent speculating around who would move where during this months transfer window. Fans and the media watch with anticipation as key players across Europe decided their next move. Spanish clubs were fairly quiet this month in the transfer market as most face up to the economic crisis that is gripping La Liga and its teams so it was left to other clubs to dip their toes into the market.

Balotelli during his Inter days (Image from CNN)

Balotelli during his Inter days (Image from CNN)

One club who did decide to take advantage of the transfer window was Manchester City as they finally called time on the much troubled stay of Mario Balotelli. The Italian striker moved by home to Italy to join AC Milan after City boss Roberto Mancini gave up hope of being able to tame him. The final straw appears to have been a sensational training ground bust up between the two, as described earlier this month on the blog. Dutch star Wesley Sneijder made a surprise move to Galatasaray mid month only to be joined later on by former Chelsea striker, Didier Drogba after he decided to end his Chinese experiment. Former teammate Frank Lampard looks likely to be joining LA Galaxy as they missed out on their first choice, Brazilian superstar, Kaka. Not a bad second choice option though for Bruce Arena’s men as the player still has plenty left to give.

Lampard is MLS bound

Lampard is MLS bound

Lampard will be joined in the MLS by QPR defender Ryan Nelsen, but not in a playing capacity as the New Zealander has decided to take on his first managerial post at Toronto FC. It was one of three management changes this month, the others being the long awaiting and much anticipated appointment of Gordon Strachan as Scotland manager and the surprise dismissal of Nigel Atkins from Southampton, with Mauricio Pochettino taking over immediately in a move that most presumed was weeks in the making. We also took a look at some top talent across the globe including Croatian wonderkid Alen Halilovic, Scotland’s Gary Mackay Steven and Paul Pogba, the talented French youngster setting Serie A alight, much to the disappointment of Manchester United boss, Sir Alex Ferguson. We featured a stunning goal from Colombian striker Carlos Bacca and an equally amazing double save from Peru Under 20 goalkeeper Angelo Campos, whilst taking a closer look at a ball boys acting skills during the Swansea vs Chelsea League Cup semi final game.

Bradford City Fans Have a Finalto Look Forward To (Image from The Guardian.co.uk)

Bradford City are on their way to Wembley
(Image from The Guardian.co.uk)

Speaking about Swansea, cup shocks made the news and we covered them all – Bradford, Leeds, Oldham and St Mirren. Ethiopia looked to cause a shock as they took part in the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 31 years. This is one tournament that so far Michel Platini has not been able to change, unlike Euro 2020 but there is still time for that to happen. Speaking of change, we looked at the options open to Rangers as they look to move to England and start afresh, as the SFA radically adjusts the Scottish league setup. Rangers owner Charles Green is clearly finding it difficult to forget how they were treated in the past by the SFA and SPL.

The Match gets under way (Image from Video)

The Match gets under way (Image from Video)

Finally we had some good news with three lighter pieces – Swansea’s homeless finds an Angel in Rangel, Elephants that play football in India and some dodgy free kick taking from Thailand all feature this month in what was yet again another action packed month in the blog.

SFA Place Their Bets On Scotland Revival As New National Boss Is Named

New Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan (Image from Getty)The SFA has finally listened to the fans and appointed its new manager in the form of Gordon Strachan. The 55-year-old former Celtic, Middlesbrough, Southampton and Coventry boss was presented to the media yesterday to draw to a close the speculation over who would eventually be chosen to replace Craig Levein. Strachan, the fans and bookies favourite from the start since Levein’s dismissal, seemed relaxed yet proud about the prospect of managing his country and the ambitious task of restoring some national pride. After an abysmal start to World Cup 2014 qualifying, which has resulted in Scotland lying bottom of Group A with only two points in four games, Strachan’s first task is to repair the spirit of his team and pick up the pieces of Levein’s disastrous reign. Replacing the worst Scotland manager on record, even worse than Berti Vogts, with a 22% win rate in all competitive games, Strachan will not struggle to eclipse what Levein did, as long as he can get the team playing again. The job may be seen by many as a poison chalice, but for the Scottish Hall of Fame inductee, it’s the right challenge at the right time in his career.

Scotland fans sent out an SOS for Strachan (Image from Caughtoffside.com)

Scotland fans sent out an SOS for Strachan
(Image from Caughtoffside.com)

After a successful playing career spanning over 26 years including spells at Dundee, Aberdeen, Manchester United, Leeds United and Coventry, the former FWA Footballer of the Year took up his first managerial job at Coventry following Ron Atkinson’s move upstairs to the Director of Football role. Having worked for a year previously as assistant manager to Ron and having played for him at Manchester United, he took the job with Atkinson’s blessing. It was during this time he would form a close bond with Garry Pendrey who joined Coventry in 1998 as assistant to Gordon following Alex Miller’s departure. The two grew close and Garry would end up following Strachan throughout his managerial career, including subsequent moves to Southampton, Celtic and then Middlesbrough. During the duo’s time at Celtic, they fought back the challenge of a Rangers team in transition, managed firstly by Strachan’s close friend and former Aberdeen teammate Alex McLeish, then French manager Paul Le Guen and eventually former Scotland manager Walter Smith, to win back to back titles for three successive years. Strachan’s time in the east end of Glasgow was his most rewarding as a manager as he finally experienced European football and in particular Champions League football as a manager. After failing to win the title in his four-year, Strachan left the club to take up his final managerial appointment at Middlesbrough but his time here would be restricted to only a year after struggling to change the fortunes of the north-east club.

Strachan won 50 caps for Scotland as a player (Image from BBC Archives)

Strachan won 50 caps for Scotland as a player
(Image from BBC Archives)

Strachan’s new job may however be his toughest yet. Sitting bottom of the group with qualification hanging by a thread and looking less likely, Strachan knows he needs to turn things around and quickly. With only one friendly against Estonia before a crunch double-header against Wales and Serbia, Strachan has little time to experiment. But his honesty in the press conference yesterday will come as a relief to the tartan army as Strachan looks to find a formation that works for the players he has first before tinkering with it later. After watching the sometimes inept tactics employed by Levein during his reign, including the much publicised 4-6-0 formation he adopted against a poor Czech Republic side in an important qualifying game, fans will be confident that the players who take the field against Wales in March will be relaxed enough with where they are supposed to be playing, that they may be actually able to play instead. Strachan also admitted to the media that the international game has improved over the years (Belgium’s rise along with Serbia as technical teams are good examples of this) so qualification for major tournaments is harder than ever. Scotland will need to adapt to survive and play better to qualify but Strachan knows this after watching endless hours of both domestic and international football since leaving Middlesbrough in late 2010.

Puppet on a string: Levein's tinkering cost him his job (Image from Daily Record)

Puppet on a string: Levein’s tinkering cost him his job
(Image from Daily Record)

Besides the team, Strachan will know that half of the battle he faces is controlling the media which turned on Levein fairly quickly into his reign as national boss, in some cases so severally that Levein was unable to recover and by the end became a bumbling wreck, repeatedly stating the remaining number of points available to Scotland in qualification, despite defeat after defeat. Strachan should be able to cope however as he has adopted a likeable style that draws the media in but controls them as he wants. His ability to make light of a situation or crack the occasional joke plays well into the media’s hands who cannot help but laugh and move quickly on. Qualification for next year’s World Cup, however, is no laughing matter and Strachan will know that it will be difficult to get the points needed to reach the tournament in Brazil, despite the fans hopes and prayers. Focusing on France 2016 should be a more realistic goal but Strachan has a never say die attitude and in his own words, his team will give 100% to their forthcoming qualification ties and above all else give it “their best try”. Realistically this is all the Scottish fans can hope for at this stage in the qualification process.

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