One On One with: Simon Grayson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grayson

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

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

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

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

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

Grayson-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeds Grayson

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

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

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

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

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

BOTN: What about the Leeds fans?

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

leeds promotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lennon and Grayson

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can follow Simon on Instagram.

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

Interview Contributions by Gordon Skinner.

 

 

 

The Uninspiring Italian Hired As Leicester Boss

Claudio Ranieri's appointment was so uninspiring that they even announce his hiring with him sitting down  (Image from Getty)Former England striker Gary Lineker is never short of an opinion about anything these days. The BT Sport host uses the marvels of social media and his uncanny ability to be wherever a TV camera or radio mic happens to be when something occurs in football. He has become the medias go to man for comments, one liners and headline grabbers. So when Leicester City, one of Linekers former clubs announced the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as their new manager, there was only ever going to be one man who the media called. And once again Lineker delivered calling the well-travelled Italian “an uninspiring choice” and an indication of a growing problem in football which sees the same group of old tired managers clambering for all managerial appointments that become available. For once he may have a point but we hesitate to admit that just in case it goes to Linekers already swollen head.

Always with an opinion - Gary Lineker  (Image from AFP)

Always with an opinion – Gary Lineker
(Image from AFP)

After the sacking of the ostrich quoting former manager Nigel Pearson, speculation over who would take over the foxes went into overdrive with the British press and football gossip blogs wetting the bed in excitement. They threw the usual set of candidates into the mix:  a former player (Neil Lennon), a former manager (Martin O’Neill), a current player with no managerial experience (Esteban Cambiasso) and a well-traveled British steward of the managerial game (Sam Alladyce). They even did some back of a napkin math figuring out that Guus Hiddink’s departure from the Dutch national team meant only one thing; that he was bound for Leicester. There was no way that Hiddink’s failure in recent months to inspire the Dutch to qualification wins had anything to do with it nor his intention to step away from the game the moment he left the Holland job. Including Hiddink’s name gave the media what they wanted – a name to play on, a big star who would excite the foxes fans enough that they part with their hard-earned cash in order to buy their newspaper for the exclusive details behind his imminent arrival.

One for the fans - Guus Hiddink  (Image from PA)

One for the fans – Guus Hiddink
(Image from PA)

But in the end the Leicester board pulled a fast one, appointing “a highly respected coach with both club and international experience”. The well-traveled Italian has managed primarily in Italy (Cagliari, Napoli, Fiorentina, Juventus, Parma, Roma and Inter) and Spain (Atletico Madrid, Valencia twice) as well as stints as boss of Chelsea, Monaco and Greece along the way. The perfect fit for Leicester it would seem apart from a few minor details. Firstly Ranieri’s success at the various clubs he has been limited to say the least and his international experience is less than impressive having been sacked by Greece after failing to win a single game. At club level, the last trophy Ranieri picked up was the French Ligue 2 title with Monaco back in 2012 which was his first trophy since 2004. Managers should be judged on their success and for Ranieri the judges are still very much in debate chamber. He has won 9 trophies in a 27 year managerial career but most are lower league titles: 1 each from the Italian Serie B and C leagues and that French Ligue 2 crown with Monaco. He did find some success early on in his career at Fiorentina and Valencia (during his first stint in charge) securing the Copa and Supercopa Italia titles and the Copa Del Rey, Intertoto Cup and Super Cup respectively. But apart from this, Ranieri has fallen short on a too frequent basis.

Monaco under Ranieri seal the Ligue 2 title (Image from Getty)

Monaco under Ranieri seal the Ligue 2 title
(Image from Getty)

His success at Monaco was expected given that the team was funded by a billionaire and had a squad that was earning ten times what their nearest league rivals were making.  It’s a familiarly story throughout Ranieri’s managerial career with the Italian lucky on more than one occasion; inheriting a good squad but failing to move it forward. His time at Chelsea for instance coincided with a change in their financial fortunes with Roman Abramovich rolling into town, bulging suitcases of money firmly under both arms. After failing to impress the Russian, he left to re-join the then reigning La Liga and UEFA Cup champions Valencia but couldn’t inspire his talented side to perform and was sacked eight months later. Spells at Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan followed, all of which had strong enough squads to challenge but in typical Ranieri style, he fell short on all three occasions. Escaping to the south of France was supposed to repair Ranieri’s damaged reputation and things looked good for the Italian as he guided them back to Ligue 1. But the jump appeared to be too hard to cope with and again Ranieri was sacked after failing to make the grade.

Ranieri has failed to win anything since 2012  (Image from PA)

Ranieri has failed to win anything since 2012
(Image from PA)

Then came a switch to national football with the surprise appointment to the Greek national team managers position. Greece were on a high after reaching the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, narrowly missing out on a quarter-final spot thanks to an agonizing penalty shoot out defeat to Costa Rica. Ranieri’s arrival heralded a different approach and one that the Greeks believed would take them to the next level by sailing through qualification for Euro 2016 but instead the country slid backwards. His strange tactical alterations and lack of ability to speak the language lead to confusion among the players who looked like an amateur team in an already weak qualification group. Defeats to Romania, Northern Ireland and the lowly Faroe Islands was enough to end Greece’s hopes of qualifying and with it led to his sacking for which Hellenic Football Federation’s president, Giorgos Sarris publicly apologized for his “unfortunate selection of manager”.

Confusion reigned during Ranieri's spell in charge of Greece  (Image from Getty)

Confusion reigned during Ranieri’s spell in charge of Greece
(Image from Getty)

Ranieri’s reputation is in tatters which makes his appointment at Leicester so baffling. Leicester’s survival last year was down to consistency under Pearson who found a tactic and team mid way through the season that worked and stuck with it. That resulted in the most dramatic of turnarounds which saw Leicester fly up the table to safety. But now in his place the board has hired a man known ironically as the Tinkerman due to his constant need to alter tactics and team selection making consistency almost impossible. Hardly what Leicester needs going into the new season. Ranieri is dramatically different from Pearson which is maybe why the board selected him. He is quiet, reserved and polite unlike Pearson who made a name for himself last year with his brash, bully like approach. Quite simply he is vanilla, plain and simple which by itself is very uninspiring so perhaps Lineker was right after all.

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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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O’Neill Takes Calculated Risk Adding Keane To The Ticket

O'Neill/Keane ticket - a winner? (Image from Getty)In a move set to reinvigorate Irish passions, the announcement of the dream management duo of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane yesterday is exactly what the country needs. Since the removal of Giovanni Trapattoni as manager last month after failing to steer Ireland to World Cup 2014, rumours around the appointment of O’Neill as the preferred candidate have been growing gradually day over day. It comes as no surprise that the former Leicester, Celtic, Aston Villa and Sunderland manager has been handed the role but the addition of Roy Keane to the ticket at the last minute was a curve ball that few could have expected. Keane, who has been out of management since leaving Ipswich in January 2011, joins as assistant manager and has expressed his enthusiasm for the role and how he is looking forward to working alongside O’Neill. The duo’s first test will be against Latvia in a friendly match in just over 9 days’ time. Expect fireworks.

Giovanni Trapattoni was dismissed after failing to qualify  (Image from David Maher / SPORTSFILE)

Giovanni Trapattoni was dismissed after failing to qualify
(Image from David Maher / SPORTSFILE)

O’Neill’s managerial record speaks for itself and he is one of the smartest coaches in the game, bringing both experience and knowledge to the job. But whether he can control the temperamental Keane, not known for his composure or biting his tongue will be interesting to watch. The pair has only worked together before as TV pundits, often sharing the microphone on ITV sport and have the same ideology that stems from their time working at Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough.  Clough’s influence on the pair is clear to see but that’s where the similarity ends. Whilst Keane speaks his mind and is not afraid of the repercussions, often playing the hard man with ease, O’Neill prefers to be more reserved, softly spoken yet forceful with his views. The theory behind combining these two footballing greats is to get the best out of a talented Irish side with a sort of good cop, bad cop routine. In fact, it was O’Neill’s idea to approach Keane about the role in the first place, much to the reluctance of the Irish FA. Having dealt with Keane related issues in the past, the FA were hoping to avoid any similar types of problems in the future so adding Keane to the package to secure O’Neill was not exactly what they had planned. But without Keane, there would be no O’Neill so the FA agreed.

Which Keane will show up?  (Image from Getty)

Which Keane will show up?
(Image from Getty)

O’Neill is taking a risk in bringing Keane into the fold, one that can go either way. Keane’s arrival to the setup could help to reignite the passion in the players that started to dwindle towards the end of Trapattoni’s reign.  Winning only 4 out of 10 games in the World Cup qualifying group C was not good enough and resulted in Ireland finishing in fourth place behind Austria. Keane was not impressed by Ireland’s defeat at home against Austria as a TV pundit so now having the chance to work with the players to ensure it doesn’t happen again will make him more determined than ever. It will be up to O’Neill to manage that approach as Keane has a reputation for heavily criticising players performances and effort levels, something that the professionals of today take offence to. Keane’s mantra is that you play hard to win, and the effort you apply should be the same as he applied as a player, which has the tendency to create problems between him and the players under his control. If Keane does disrupt the dressing room, there may be little that O’Neill can do to rescue the situation and could result in him losing his job, especially if results on the pitch go south as well. Time will tell how the new look Irish management team perform together and more importantly which Roy Keane will show up to the party.

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Di Canio Arrives At Sunderland Amidst Controversy

Paolo Di Canio (Image from Wikipedia.org)It wasn’t going to be long before Paolo Di Canio found his way back into football management but his appointment at Sunderland will have come as a surprise to many, given the high regard the fans had for exiting boss, Martin O’Neill. It would appear as though Sunderland’s owner, Ellis Short held O’Neill with less favour as he wielded the axe following Saturday’s 1-o defeat to Manchester United. With the club dangling too close to the relegation zone for Short to be comfortable with, O’Neill was dispatched and Di Canio brought in, with the hope that he can save the Black Cats from disaster. A drop to the Championship would spell financial ruin for the club who have for too long-lived beyond their means without punishment. Di Canio has seven games, starting against Chelsea on Sunday to get the points needed to keep them in the Premiership.

New Sunderland Boss Di Canio (Image from Getty)

New Sunderland Boss Di Canio
(Image from Getty)

Di Canio’s reputation for one of the more entertaining managers in English football comes mostly from his spirited time at Swindon, where the Italian was not afraid to speak his mind. Having taken up the reigns in the summer of 2011 following Swindon’s relegation to League Two, De Canio inspired their revival, getting them back into League One in his first season in charge. Never afraid to speak his mind, Di Canio was a media dream as off field antics often matched the dramatic and charismatic play on it. Only three months into the job, he was involved in a very public spat with striker Leon Clarke who angered Di Canio by arguing with Swindon’s fitness coach Claudio Donatelli. When Di Canio intervened, the two were caught on camera having a heated debate in the tunnel which led to the end of Clarke’s Swindon career. Shipped out on loan almost immediately by the club, Di Canio maintained the clubs integrity by not revealing what was said, rather commenting that Clarke was “not very professional”. After Clarke’s departure, things started to click for the club which went on a run that lead to their promotion. Di Canio’s hands on approach and relationship with his players, often publicly praising them for performances, was credited for the success and helped to elevated Di Canio’s reputation as one of England’s up and coming managers.

Di Canio and Clarke clash after match (Image from Getty)

Di Canio and Clarke clash after match
(Image from Getty)

But financial troubles at Swindon would ultimately lead to Di Canio’s departure. After months of financial difficulties and staring administration in the face, the club decided to sell star winger Matt Richie to Bournemouth behind Di Canio’s back. It would be the last straw for the fiery Italian who resigned weeks later, citing broken promises as the principle reason. He did return to Swindon a few days later, but not in an official capacity, breaking in during the middle of the night with one of his assistants to take back some possessions that he had left in his office. The club decided not to report him to the police or press charges but did leak the story to the press for no reason other than to shame Di Canio. This action would not be enough to deter Short and Sunderland who saw Di Canio as the perfect candidate to spark a Sunderland revolution. It would appear though that Di Canio’s past has sparked some controversy with MP David Milliband deciding to leave his position on the Sunderland board in protest due to Di Canio’s past history and views around fascism and racism.

David Miliband has left Sunderland in protest of Di Canio's appointment (Image from PA)

David Miliband has left Sunderland in protest of Di Canio’s appointment
(Image from PA)

Milliband has accused Di Canio of making statements of a political nature, directly linked to Italian dictator Mussolini, but the club and Di Canio have been quick to squash them. Yes Di Canio has outright and outspoken views around the dictator calling him “a very principled ethical individual who was deeply misunderstood” but links to fascist movements have been wide of the mark. Di Canio is more annoyed by the allegations of racist views he is suppose to have following a celebration and hand gesture he did during a 2005 Lazio match which some say was aimed at the clubs right-wing fans. Di Canio denies wrong doing and insists he isn’t a racist citing that his best friends in football – Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell are both black and have never had a single issue with him. Milliband’s decision may have been caused more by his pending move to New York where he is due to take up a dream role as head of a charity but it comes at the worst time for Sunderland who are trying desperately to get their season back on track.

The hand gesture that got Milliband so upset (Image from Reuters)

The hand gesture that got Milliband so upset
(Image from Reuters)

Di Canio knows that if he can encourage his new players to work with him until the end of the season and get the points needed to stay in the league, he will be able to start a fresh in the summer and really rebuild. With money to spend and some quality players already at his disposal, Di Canio will be looking forward to proving that his time with Swindon was not a fluke and that he really can be a top class manager. But before he can do that he needs to secure enough points in the last seven games to keep them safe. With no easy games to come, including trips to Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton it is really sink or swim time for the fiery italian coach. Sunderland fans will be praying that he has an immediate effect on the players and that he can secure premiership football for next season.

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All Aboard The Managerial Merry-Go-Round

As the winter months approach, managers across the Premiership are starting to feel the chill. A quarter of the way through the new season, the fog is clearing and owners are reviewing where their pieces are placed. For the Glaziers and Roman Abramovich, things are looking rosy as their two teams, Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, fight for the top spot. Bill Kenwright’s Everton are performing above expectations, sitting in 4th place, making manager David Moyes position safe. However other managers are not so fortunate. The race is now on to see who will be the first manager casualty of this season and who will kick off this years managerial merry-go-round.

In the Championship, the league below the Premiership, the ride is now in full flow with several managerial changes already. As expected, Owen Coyle has departed from the Bolton hot seat to be replaced by Crystal Palace’s Scottish manager, Dougie Freedman. The Selhurst Park team wasted no time in bringing in Blackpool’s Ian Holloway as Freedman’s replacement. Holloway had spent three successful years at Blackpool, during which time he engineered promotion to the Premiership which obviously impressed the Palace board. Blackpool, however now search for a new boss with caretaker boss Steve Thompson throwing his name into the ring for a shot at the top job.

Down the road, Blackburn finally dismissed Steve Kean to the delight of their fans. After an extensive search which included failed approaches to Tim Sherwood, Billy McKinlay and an ambitious initial discussion with Harry Redknapp, they finally chose former defender Henning Berg as the man to take them forward. Berg was delighted to take the job despite coming out publicly some 4 weeks ago to say that anyone who took the job would have to be mad. I guess he had a change of heart. One candidate who was mentioned in connection with the Blackburn job was Alan Curbishley who also held ambitions to take over at Ipswich following Paul Jewell’s dismissal but he lost out yet again to former Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy. McCarthy, out of work since his sacking from Wolves last season, was delighted to get back into football after a spell on the sidelines and ironically has brought in his replacement at Wolves, Terry Connor as one of his coaching staff, who was also sacked by Wolves recently.

One manager who left his job of his own accord was Eddie Howe. The young manager made a dramatic return to former club Bournemouth in early October citing personal reasons. His replacement, surprisingly, was Sean Dyche. The former Watford boss, sacked in July before the new season had even begun, is seen by the Turf Moor club’s board as the man to help them back into the Premiership but with little managerial success to date, it’s a risky appointment. One manager who is actively seeking promotion this season is Gianfranco Zola at Watford. The former Chelsea boss was appointed as Dyche replacement by new Italian owner, Giampaolo Pozzo who has masterminded the transformation of Italian club Udinese and Spanish club Granada in recent years. He hopes that, along with Zola and some significant investment, that he can lead the troubled London club back into the Premiership at the first time of asking.

Back in the Premiership, there have been no casualties so far but its only a matter of time. There are a few potential candidates and a few who might not see the axe coming. Mark Hughes at QPR has not experienced the best start picking up only 4 points in the first 10 games and yet to register a win despite the arrival of several players this summer. New boys Southampton have found the transition tough as well, leading to vultures circling over the head of Nigel Atkins. Former Southampton striker Alan Shearer waits anxiously in the MOTD studio for that call from the Saints. Meanwhile new Villa manager Paul Lambert has not had an easy time in his new role, struggling to make the changes necessary to his squad to get the results needed. Sitting in 17th place, 4 points above the drop zone, his card may be marked by owner Randy Lerner but a win at the weekend against a disappointing Sunderland may have loosened the noose round his neck.

His opposite number in last Saturday’s game, Martin O’Neill may be a surprise dismissal at Sunderland. Having been in the job just over a year, the results have not been fantastic and American owner, Ellis Short may decide to take the club in yet another direction. O’Neill will argue that last season’s impressive finish can be replicated but the start to this season has been less than impressive and sees the Black Cats sitting in 16th place, just above O’Neill’s former club Aston Villa on goal difference.

Regardless of who is first to go, the Premiership merry-go-round will start soon and see a host of changes before the end of this season. Managers across the league are desperately scrambling to grab on to their horses before the ride begins and secure themselves tightly to make sure they don’t become one of those casualties.