Has the FA Cup lost its magic?

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

Current holders Arsenal with the FA Cup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wigan’s Rebuild Starts With Caldwell Appointment

Gary Caldwell has been appointed as Wigan's new manager with the task of rebuilding them (Image from Getty)Dave Whelan slumped down into his chair late on the night of May 11th 2013 with a large grin on his face after a day of celebrating his club, Wigan Athletics finest hour . In what was described as one of the greatest FA Cup final upsets for a quarter of a century, relegated Wigan stunned Manchester City with a 1-0 win thanks to a late Ben Watson header. Whelan, who bought Wigan in 1995 when they were in the old Division Three (now the Football League Two) deserved the day after giving his heart, soul and more importantly money to the club for over 18 years. The JJB Sports founder was highly regarded by many in football as an example of how owners should act. At 76 years young on that day, Whelan could have been forgiven for considering retirement from his role as Chairman of the club with a new chapter about to begin back in the Championship. But the former Blackburn and Crewe full back decided to stay on and committed to getting the club back into the Premiership.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back now Whelan may be thinking that he made a mistake by staying on instead of leaving on an all time high. Life in the Championship has proved troublesome for Wigan from day one. With manager Roberto Martinez departing for Everton and a host of players following him out the exit door, a rebuilding job was needed starting with the appointment of a new manager, someone who could set the tone for the years ahead. Whelan opted for Owen Coyle but when the Irishman failed to emulate Martinez style and results he was sacked and replaced by Uwe Rosler. Unfortunately for Whelan, the German coach fared no better and only lasted 11 months before he was pushed out as well. Then came arguably Whelan’s biggest mistake when he handed the reigns over to Malky MacKay. The Scot was embroiled in a racism row with his previous club Cardiff along with the Welsh clubs sporting director, Iain Moody. His controversial appointment was made by Whelan who claimed that MacKay had made a mistake and paid the price so he should be granted a second chance. Fan groups and sponsors were up in arms with several of the latter pulling their financial support as a consequence of his appointment. It was then when Whelan knew he had made a mistake himself but now stuck with MacKay under contract he had little option but to get on with things.

Unfortunately for Whelan the controversy continued with the Chairman himself then caught up in a racism row. Defending his appointment of MacKay in an interview with the Guardian, Whelan told the reporter that “Jewish people chase money more than everyone else” and later referred to Chinese people as “chinks”. His throwaway comments were largely criticized by fellow club owners including West Ham’s David Gold and Cardiff’s Vincent Tan. Whelan and Wigan’s reputation was in tatters. With the pressure growing and Wigan slipping closer to the Championship relegation zone, Whelan decided enough was enough and stepped down as Chairman, handing his 23 year old grandson David Sharpe the keys. Sharpe who became one of the world’s youngest football bosses surveyed the legacy that his grandfather had left and knew that significant changes were needed to get the club back on track.

Whelan with his grandson and newly appointed Chairman David Sharpe  (Image from WiganFC.COM)

Whelan with his grandson and newly appointed Chairman David Sharpe
(Image from WiganFC.COM)

Sensing an opportunity to cleanse the club once and for all was all the incentive Sharpe needed to make the changes. With the club teetering on the brink of relegation (8 points from safety with 5 games left), there was little protecting MacKay from the axe. After Monday’s 2-0 defeat to Derby, MacKay was shown the door and replaced by former club captain Gary Caldwell. The inexperienced Scot may look to be a surprise appointment by Sharpe, his first major decision as Chairman but for a player who has spent five years at the club and was the driving force behind that 2013 FA Cup win he is seen as a sensible choice. He will be supported by an experienced backroom staff including Mike Pollitt, Eric Black and Graham Barrow but it will be a crash course in management for the 32 year old. Sharpe has no concerns about his decision to hire Caldwell calling him the perfect candidate and backing up his appointment by insisting he was the only candidate considered for the role. Caldwell will be tasked with keeping Wigan in the Championship this season but if unsuccessful he will still be in place for the start of the new campaign in League One. Sharpe is planning for the long term and views Caldwell as an up and coming manager much like Whelan viewed Roberto Martinez when he appointed the Spaniard in 2009. More importantly for Sharpe, he wants a fresh start for Wigan, one free of scandal and damaging headlines. He may be young but even at 23, Sharpe understands fully the impact on the club of the decision by his grandfather made that fateful night back in May 2013. He will be conscious not to make the same mistakes.

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Last Chance Saloon For Wenger As He Targets Cup Success

Last Chance Saloon for Wenger (Image from Getty)A wry smile crept over Arsenal Wenger’s face as he sat back and watched Wigan dispatch favourites Manchester City in the quarter finals of the FA Cup. He knew that this might be his best shot at delivering what the fans want – a first trophy in nine years. It’s hard to believe it has been so long but it has. When Arsenal last one a trophy, Manchester City were fighting for survival, not titles and Wigan had just secured their passage to the Premiership for the first time in their 73 year history. Now with only Premiership side Hull and Championships sides Sheffield United and Wigan left to compete against, this may be the best chance Arsenal have had in a very long time. City’s victors Wigan are up first in a semi final showdown that is a must win for Wenger if he is to keep his job longer than this summer.

Up Next - Wigan  (Image from Getty)

Up Next – Wigan
(Image from Getty)

Not that it’s a cut and dry as it seems. They face tough opposition in Wigan, who are looking to join a select list of clubs who have successfully defended the FA Cup. Shock winners last year, courtesy of a solo Ben Watson strike against Manchester City, Wigan have gone through a lot of changes since that fateful day in May last year. But what hasn’t changed is the belief and determination that they can win the cup again and beat anyone put in front of them on the way there. So far Wigan, now under the management of Uwe Rosler, has put MK Dons, Crystal Palace, Cardiff and City to the sword as they continue their run to Wembley.  Facing Arsenal, who have struggled lately with form, after a blistering start to the new season, will not worry Wigan as it’s the Premiership side that have it all to lose. In the past Wenger has given little care to the FA Cup, preferring to use either second string or emerging youngsters in these games. But he can ill afford to squander an opportunity to return to Wembley, especially given recent history.

Martins goal still haunts Wenger  (Image from PA)

Martins goal still haunts Wenger
(Image from PA)

Arsenal and Arsenal have been in this position before and have let a potential cup win slip through their fingers. Memories of a cup final defeat at the hands of Birmingham City still lay heavily on the minds of the Gunners faithful. That last minute drop of concentration that allowed Obefemi Martins to capitalize still must etch away at Wenger on a daily basis. Now could be his chance at redemption, but he must keep his players focused more on the job in hand than what level the opposition are playing at.  One thing that might work in Wenger’s favour is the fixture list for the two teams between now and the 12th April, when the two sides are scheduled to meet. Having been knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich mid week, Arsenal face difficult games against Spurs, Chelsea, City, Everton and Swansea in the league before playing Wigan. The Championships side however have eight games to play in the league before they take on Arsenal including three must win games at the start of April which will likely stretch Rosler’s side to its fullest. Cup success for Wigan would be a bonus but gaining promotion back to the Premiership is their main goal. Sitting in 7th place, with two games in hand, Rosler’s team is pushing hard for a playoff berth. With 13 games left in the standard season including crunch games against Reading, Leicester and QPR, the clash with Arsenal may not be top of mind. But try telling that to owner Dave Whelan who still basks in the glory of last year’s cup success. Promotion back to the Premiership and lifting the FA Cup again is his dream, one that Arsene Wenger must do all he can to shatter.

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One Down, 37 To Go For Moyes and United

In the Bag - Moyes with Trophy No.1 (Image from Getty)Going into Sundays Community Shield match against Wigan, Manchester United were clear favourites but the importance of the win for David Moyes in particular cannot be understated as he tries to pick up where Sir Alex Ferguson left off. The new United boss knows he has a challenge on his hands to continue the winning traditions started by Ferguson, who swooped up 38 trophies for United in 26 years in charge. Yesterday’s 2-0 victory over Championship side Wigan sees Moyes pick up his first trophy and relieves temporarily some of the pressure that comes with his new job.

RVP was the star of this years Community Shield  (Image from BBC)

RVP was the star of this years Community Shield
(Image from BBC)

It’s not been the fairy-tale start for the former Everton boss who has had a torrid pre-season so far with on field performances somewhat substandard and off field problems mounting up.  The failure to capture any new players has not gone unnoticed with moves for Barcelona pair Thiago and Cesc Fàbregas failing to bear fruit with the former opting to join Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich revolution only days after apparently committing his future to United. After the failure to sign Thiago, Moyes switched his focus to Fàbregas in an attempt to persuade the former Arsenal skipper to end his second spell at Barcelona and move back to the Premiership. The star of Spain’s European Cup win decision to stay with the Catalan giants instead to moving to Old Trafford was another blow to Moyes who is desperate to strengthen his midfield before the end of the transfer window. Moyes knows he has a glaring hole in the middle of the park with no one to fill the void left by the retiring Paul Scholes. Michael Carrick has done enough to prove he is worth a starting spot but who plays next to him is still an issue. Scotland captain Darren Fletcher is the obvious choice but he is still out after being diagnosed with IBS, an inflammatory bowel disease. He was expected to make pre-season training but a flare up has ruled him out for the foreseeable future, adding weight and emphasize to Moyes search. He is now likely to return to Everton to try and grab Marouane Fellaini (possibly as part of a joint bid alongside Leighton Baines) but Everton will resist the temptation to sell as the duo are key to Roberto Martinez’s plans.

No Go - Fabregas says no to move  (Image from AFP)

No Go – Fabregas says no to move
(Image from AFP)

And then there is Wayne Rooney. The striker has been difficult to manage ever since Moyes took over with speculation around a move to Chelsea mounting every day. Rooney has had his head turned by Jose Mourinho’s interest but is not acting as professionally as expected for a player of his experience. He has thrown his proverbial toys out of the pram in move that makes Luis Suarez attempts to leave Liverpool look tame. Moyes has a huge decision on his hands about whether to force the player to stay with promises of further fame and fortune or to cut the troublesome striker loose. One thing is for sure that Ferguson would not have stood for such petulance which Moyes will be aware of and will be keen to not set an early precedence for the rest of his squad. He has less than 20 days to decide as a move will have to happen in advance of the transfer window closing just in case Moyes needs to reinforce his front line.

Rooney sulks yet again  (Image from Getty)

Rooney sulks yet again
(Image from Getty)

Despite these off field dramas and failure of his team to click on the pitch during the pre-season friendlies, it appears as though United finally began to click yesterday, albeit against a weaker Wigan side that they faced last year. The big test will be next Saturdays clash with Michael Laudrup’s Swansea who is sure to be a tougher opposition after strengthening well in the summer. Moyes will want to kick the new season off with three points as he looks to add further trophies to his United collection.

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Weir Steps Into The Management Fold At Sheffield United

New Job? David Weir (Image from Getty)It was only a matter of time before former Everton, Rangers and Scotland legend David Weir took his first steps into management. Having had a distinguished career that saw him play at the highest level all the way up to his 39th birthday, Weir hung up his boots only a few years ago and rejoined Everton as Reserve team coach. During that time, he impressed the clubs hierarchy with his professionalism and strict approach to coaching, so much so that following the departure of David Moyes to Manchester United; Weir was one of the front runners interviewed to replace him. That job eventually went to former Wigan boss, Roberto Martinez but made Weir ponder his future and think more about taking that step into management.

Weir played for Rangers until he was 39  (Image from Getty)

Weir played for Rangers until he was 39
(Image from Getty)

When the vacancy at Sheffield United became an distinct possibility, Weir  knew that this may be his first opportunity to take the hot seat. The League One club has been in a slide for the past decade and see Weir as the man to turn things around. The Blades had been without a manager for eight weeks after sacking Danny Wilson who failed to get the club out of the division and have interviewed several candidates such as Stuart McCall, Gareth Southgate and Karl Robinson, but the trio all turned down the job. Weir by no regards was the last chance saloon for the club with other potential candidates mentioned, but they decided that they didn’t need to continue their search and instead gave Weir the nod by handed him a three year deal.

Weir learned from the best in Smith  (Image from AFP)

Weir learned from the best in Smith
(Image from AFP)

His appointment won’t come as a surprise to many who have tipped Weir as a future manager for some time now. Having learned from two of the best managers in the game; Walter Smith and David Moyes, Weir has soaked up their knowledge like a sponge. The 43 year old former captain possesses a deep knowledge of the game from tactics to player motivation tools to fitness and nutrition, which helped him to prolong his career at Rangers. Sheffield United will be hoping he can use all of his acquired skills to turn around the troubled club, kick them into shape and send them on a path towards promotion back to the Championship.

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Martinez Out Grows Wigan, Clearing Path to Everton

Roberto Martinez resigns from Wigan (Image from Reuters)It shouldn’t come as a surprise to most Wigan fans who heard the fateful news that their illustrious leader for the past four years and the man who guided them to their first ever trophy, has decided to resign. Roberto Martinez has simply out grown Wigan and after shunning several approaches from larger clubs over the past few years, he has decided that enough is enough and it’s time to move on. He handed his notice in yesterday to a dejected Dave Whelan, who must have suspected this was coming. Wigan have fought hard to remain in the Premiership since their promotion from the Championship in 2005 but their luck ran out this year when relegation survival proved to be one step too far.

Martinez to take over from Moyes at Everton  (Image from Getty)

Martinez to take over from Moyes at Everton
(Image from Getty)

Martinez had been at the helm for four years, and has produced his own form of major to stave off the drop but a successful run in the FA Cup this season, which saw them upset the apple cart with a 1-0 victory over Manchester City in the final, has ultimately led to their downfall. Dropped points against West Ham, Swansea and Aston Villa in the last few games will be touted as the reason why they have been condemned to the Championship next season, but the truth is that they have not been the resilient force all season that they have been in past seasons. Ivory Coast striker Arouna Kone has been a revelation and another great signing by Martinez by chipping in 11 goals this year but it was Wigan’s leaky defence and lack of goals from midfield that have led to their demise.

Arouna Kone has scored the goals but the midfield has been guilt of not helping  (Image from CP)

Arouna Kone has scored the goals but the midfield has been guilt of not helping
(Image from CP)

Martinez has done what he can to keep them in the league but now is the time for him to move on. His performance as manager over the past years and in particular this season with that impressive against the odds cup run, have helped to build his stock in the league. Wigan has held on to their manager for too long, managing to keep him focused enough to ignore the advances of other clubs, most notably Liverpool and Aston Villa last season. But now the open vacancy at Everton appears to be too strong a pull for the Spaniard and he has decided to part ways with Whelan and Wigan to make sure that move goes through. Whelan is somewhat annoyed at this due to the fact that Wigan could have pocketed up to $2million from Everton for Martinez, but he will understand why his faithful manager has done what he has.  Whelan will push Kenwright for the payment regardless but the odds are stacked firmly in Everton’s favour, especially given Martinez resignation.

Whelan and Martinez celebrate the FA Cup win  (Image from Getty)

Whelan and Martinez celebrate the FA Cup win
(Image from Getty)

A move to Everton makes a lot of sense for Martinez as he joins a club with a much stronger squad but also a family club, where the players and owners are aligned towards the same goal. The lack of funds for new signings will not concern him as he is used to operating under a tight budget and the draw of regular European football will also have been a key factor. Departing Everton boss David Moyes has built a strong foundation for Martinez to inherit and it will make the transition easier. Added into that, in Bill Kenwright he has a chairman who is as compassionate, understanding and willing as his previous boss, Dave Whelan was. It’s a perfect match and a challenge that will excite Martinez much more than the standoff relationships he would have encountered at Liverpool and Aston Villa. For Whelan, the search for a replacement is on, as is preparation for life in the Championship. It will be a summer of upheaval at the DW stadium, with several keys players leaving and others arriving in preparing for both domestic and European football campaigns next year. But before all that can start, Whelan needs to plug the hole that Martinez has left. As the only manager to ever lift a cup trophy as Wigan boss, they may be too big a pair of boots to fill.

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The Tale of The Two Roberto’s – But What Now?

The Two Roberto's (Image from EPLTALK)It was the tale of the two Roberto’s at Saturday’s FA Cup final at Wembley and the tale of two seasons. Wigan’s triumph, thanks to a goal in the dying minutes of the game, highlighted small things about both sides but more importantly about their managers than either would care to admit. Martinez looked like a man possessed on Saturday, pushing his players along with each kick of the ball whilst his opposite number sat pensively on the bench next to Brian Kidd. Mancini showed little emotion over the ninety minutes except to jump up and march to his technical box to scream commands at his players. Martinez on the other hand spent the majority of the match camped out in his technical area willing his players on like a dotting dad on the side of his kids match. In the end a solitary goal from comeback star Ben Watson, returning to the team as a substitute after a horror leg break in November, which settled the game.

Mancini more passionate about pastilles than players  (Image from The Sun)

Mancini more passionate about pastilles than players
(Image from The Sun)

It was the perfect ending to a horrid season for Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini, who less than a year ago was basking in Premiership glory after pulling of a last minute miracle himself to snatch the title. Now after a second place finish, a losers medal in the FA Cup final and two unceremonious exits from the League Cup and Champions League, Mancini’s time looks set to be up. Rumours that an agreement has been struck to bring in Malaga’s Manuel Pellegrini as Mancini’s replacement surfaced before Saturday’s match much to the dismay of the Italian coach. It will surely have impacted his effectiveness to immobilize his team for those ninety minutes on the Wembley pitch and the performance during the game of City’s multimillion squad backs that notion. But the truth is that Mancini’s head has been on the block, ready for execution for some time now after failure to qualify from their winnable Champions league group left City’s owners red faced with embarrassment. The summary of City’s campaign is disappointment, with a squad capable of so much more but with a coach lacking in tactical imagination and motivational skills. Mancini’s tactical mistakes in Europe against Ajax and his lack of motivational powers needed to rally his City team leading 1-0 at White Hart Lane in a crucial game, have ultimately been his undoing. Mancini will exit not through the front door as a winner but quickly through the back under a cover of darkness.

On the way - Pellegrini (Image from Getty)

On the way – Pellegrini (Image from Getty)

For Roberto Martinez, it’s onwards and upwards. Wigan owner Dave Whelan is convinced he can keep Martinez from leaving for a bigger club like Everton but with Wigan likely to drop down into the Championship, a European adventure might not be enough of a pull to keep Martinez at the DW stadium. It’s still mathematically possible for Wigan to avoid the drop but they need two victories in their final two games plus some other results to go their way for that to happen. Martinez has managed to engineer their survival four times so far but this season may be too much for the talented Spaniard. His reputation is growing with other clubs in England and his homeland now paying close attention. After masterminding the cup win on Saturday it will be almost impossible for Whelan to keep his manager much longer. Martinez too, however faithful to Wigan must be yearning for a new challenge, one that doesn’t always end up as a relegation dog fight. A move to Everton to replace the Manchester United bound David Moyes would interest him, especially after failing to get the Liverpool job less than ten months ago but it may not be his call. Everton chairman Bill Kenwright is rumoured to favour trying another scot in the form of Malky MacKay so that door may be shut for Martinez before he has had a chance to stick is head through it. Spain looks like a more likely option but with only the Malaga job coming up, he may have to start the season at Wigan, even if that means in the Championship.

What next for Martinez?  (Image from Getty)

What next for Martinez?
(Image from Getty)

It will be an interesting summer for the two Roberto’s, with neither quite sure what will happen in the future. Returns to their respective homelands looks like a potential route but to do so there has to be an opportunity. Mancini knows he doesn’t have the same grace period as Martinez to decide, with his fate likely to be decided before the end of the season by the City owners. Martinez on the other hand has a job, and if Whelan had his way, it would be for life. But Martinez needs to move on, try something new before he does long term damage to his growing reputation. If he fails to move and Wigan slip down into the Championship with no guarantee of a quick return, the FA Cup accomplishment he worked so hard to achieve will slowly fade into a distant memory. The phone will stop ringing, the media will stop talking and suddenly Martinez will be looking at jobs at Millwall, Middlesbourgh or Leeds as his next big move (no offense to them). Not quite what he imagined when he lifted the cup so high on Saturday at Wembley.

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Newcastle Slump Continues As Relegation Fears Increase

Worrying times for Pardew (Image from Getty)Newcastle’s abysmal display against Liverpool only strengthens the feeling that the North East club are in more danger than Alan Pardew cares to admit. Sitting five points above the relegation zone with three games left, many people would assume that Newcastle are safe but if their current form continues and the masters of the great escape, Wigan can conjure up yet another miracle, Newcastle could be joining QPR and Reading in the Championship next season. It would be a dramatic turn of events for Pardew who was voted Manager of the Year last season following his team’s impressive fifth placed finish. Now only Roberto Martinez and his team stand between Newcastle and an unwanted reunion with England’s second tier.

Can Martinez engineer another great escape for Wigan?  (Image from Getty)

Can Martinez engineer another great escape for Wigan?
(Image from Getty)

Aston Villa’s stunning 6-1 win over fellow strugglers Sunderland has breathed fresh life into their faulting campaign, moving them above Newcastle in the table and rubbing salt into their wounds. Newcastle’s performance at home to Liverpool was described as spiritless and embarrassing by former striker Alan Shearer on MOTD and the worst he has seen. Some may point out that Shearer has seen a lot worse performances than Saturday’s affair, most notably during his fateful spell as Toon boss which ironically ended up in relegation. But the former England front man does have a point in that several players have been posted missing, not just in the last game but on several other occasions this season. Players who should be stepping up to field the responsibilities of pulling the team forward have been found wanting instead. Experienced starters like Steven Taylor and Jonas Gutiérrez have not had the greatest campaigns whilst striker Shola Ameobi inclusion in the squad is questionable having only scored one goal in twenty two domestic games.

Which way to the goal? One in 22 for Ameobi domestically is not a good return  (Image from Reuters)

Which way to the goal? One in 22 for Ameobi domestically is not a good return
(Image from Reuters)

Others like Rob Elliot, Mike Williamson, James Perch, Dan Gosling and Vurnon Anita appear to be not up to grade and highlight the inefficiencies that exist in this skeleton bare squad. Yes the first eleven have quality in abundance, right through the spine of team from Krul to Coloccini to Cabaye to Cisse with wonderful support roles performed by Santon, Tiote and Ben Arfa but beyond that Newcastle are a Championship side. Harsh criticism perhaps but true as an extended European run has shown. The statistics don’t lie. 4 wins from 13 games played after a European game, including seven defeats. 13 goals scored and 19 conceded. Key points drop against fellow strugglers like Wigan, Sunderland and Aston Villa have left Newcastle dangling precariously above the drop zone. Newcastle should be able to play two games on the bounce like many Premiership clubs but it would appear that after a short trip to the continent, jetlag got the better of them.

Newcastle played 13 games in Europe this season including Anzhi (Image from Getty)

Newcastle played 13 games in Europe this season including Anzhi (Image from Getty)

The honest truth is that Newcastle doesn’t have the squad to cope with a multiple tournament attack, especially when injuries to key players hit. Any team losing the likes of Krul, Cabaye and Ben Arfa for large chunks of a campaign would suffer but without adequate cover, Newcastle has really suffered. Reinforcements did arrive in January in the form of Debuchy, Sissoko and Gouffran which helped but by then the damage had been done. Added into this selling your inform striker to Chelsea and having your goal scoring machine from last season misfire (3 goals in the first half of the season, 5 so far in the second half for Cisse) has made life difficult for Alan Pardew. Then there are the youngsters that Pardew has been highly critical of for not being able to step up when needed but chances have been few and far between which is a requirement to making the grade. The truth is that probably Pardew doesn’t believe they, or the likes of Curtis Good, Roman Amalfitano and Haris Vuckic are worth a shot, even if they do. Pardew needs points and performances to keep his job and risking it is just not worth it.

Now half a strike force - Cisse all alone up front following Ba sale  (Image from Telegraph.co.uk)

Now half a strike force – Cisse all alone up front following Ba sale
(Image from Telegraph.co.uk)

But there is hope in the form of a fresh start and a new season. Newcastle can regroup in the summer, reevaluate and strengthen by sending scout extraordinaire Graham Carr out to see what other gems he can uncover. With no European football next year, Pardew needs to build a squad capable of playing for domestic honours only so will need to buy sensibly as well as clear out those who are not up to the grade. Before he can start this process, Pardew needs to secure Premiership football for the club for next year. To get there all they have to do is pick up enough points in the last three games to stave off relegation and condemn someone else to that fate. With games against QPR, West Ham and Arsenal to come, on paper it looks possible but having only won once away from home all season and two of the three games away from St James, Pardew may need a miracle. If they fail then Pardew might be wishing he hadn’t signed that eight year contract as he faces up to life as a Championship manager once again.

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Cardiff Reach The Promise Land But Can They Stay There?

After a 51 year wait, Cardiff City have finally reached the promise lands of England’s top division, the Premiership. The Championship title is yet to be secured but Cardiff care little as they have managed to seize one of the two automatic promotion places with three games to spare. Manager Malky McKay has masterminded what many others failed to do and built a side capable of competing and more importantly winning in the Championship. Cardiff have flirted with promotion for the past ten years so to finally achieve it will come as a welcomed change to the faithful Bluebird fans.  Their quest next season will be to stay in the Premiership and replicate the success of fellow Welsh side Swansea who capped a good year for Welsh sport with their League Cup final victory. But that’s not as easy as it seems.

Going in the right direction - Cardiff win promotion  (Image from BBC)

Going in the right direction – Cardiff win promotion
(Image from BBC)

History does not bode well for Cardiff next year as they embark on their debut campaign in the world’s most watched league. Promotion success has frequently been followed by relegation despair the season after as clubs fail to cope with the differences between the leagues. Since its inception in 1992-1993 season, the Premiership has welcomed 59 promoted teams (only two were promoted in the 1994 season due to restructuring of leagues) with 25 teams going straight back down the following year (that number will grow by 1 if Reading are indeed confirmed as relegated this year). In addition, of those that managed to avoid the drop in their first year, seven were relegated in their second year back (again that number will increase by 1 if QPR are relegated this season). So what lessons can Cardiff take from past failures and indeed successes to stay in the Premiership long term?

Master and Chief - Malky MacKay  (Image from Huw Evans Images)

Master and Chief – Malky MacKay
(Image from Huw Evans Images)

Lesson 1 – Buy only what you need to survive. Clubs have shown that you don’t have to replace your entire squad when you come up, only strengthen areas you deem as to be not up to par. After all you wouldn’t have claimed promotion if your players weren’t good enough. The misconception is that the gap between the Premierships top teams and the Championships top teams is too wide which is somewhat true, however the majority of the teams in the bottom half of the Premiership are likely to be on similar groundings, with most having come up only a few years previously. The age old adverb ” if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” rings true in this case. Look at Sunderland in 2006 who signed 14 players or Derby County in 2007 who signed a total of 19 players over the season during two transfer windows. Both ended the season bottom of the league after the squad failed to gel quick enough to compete. After spending the first four months trying to get to know each other, the team then found themselves being replaced by new arrivals in January and facing an already uphill climb to escape relegation. Buying to solve problem areas is a better solution as nine times out of ten; it helps the team avoid relegation. Well that is unless you are Norwich City in the 2004 season, who bought wisely with the likes of Thomas Helveg, Dean Ashton and David Bentley arriving but were unable to prevent their team escape the trapdoor.

Danish International Thomas Helveg was unable to keep Norwich in the Premiership in 2004  (Image from NorwichFC.com)

Danish International Thomas Helveg was unable to keep Norwich in the Premiership in 2004
(Image from NorwichFC.com)

Lesson 2 – Forward planning. Most clubs don’t look at the fixture list as an opportunity but the smart managers like Wigan’s Roberto Martinez and former Swans boss, Brendan Rodgers do. They studied the list like it was a manual to the Premiership, trying to work out where they could likely get the points needed to hit the magical, yet mythical 42 point mark. Facing Manchester City away from home at the start of the new season is not likely to be one of these places but tackling Norwich (sorry Norwich fans) at home in the middle of December may well be. Planning can give you an idea of what number you are likely to finish on and how close you potentially could be to the bottom three. It also acts as motivation when your team picks up a surprising win away from home against an Arsenal or Chelsea in September. The unexpected result making life a little easier and giving your team that safety barrier, just in case you lose one of your so called guaranteed three pointers.

Using the fixture list to build a forward strategy is the best approach (Image from EPL)

Using the fixture list to build a forward strategy is the best approach (Image from EPL)

Lesson 3 – Score more than you concede. It may sound like common sense but many teams fail to understand that it doesn’t matter if you concede three goals in a game as long as you have scored four. A healthy points tally always outweighs a healthy goal difference so promoted teams need to make sure that they have goal scorers in their team. Notice we said scorers plural as often its left to one man (e.g. Kenny Miller in Derby’s disastrous 2007 campaign) to hit all the goals. If he struggles, you lose. Derby found out the hard way as Miller chipped in only four goals all season and his teammates added another 18 for a total of only 22 goals. After only one win all season they were relegated with one of the lowest point’s totals (and one of the highest goals conceded totals) in Premiership history.

All by myself - Lone Derby striker Kenny Miller  (Image from Getty)

All by myself – Lone Derby striker Kenny Miller
(Image from Getty)

Lesson 4 – Build a back bone. Every successful team in history has been built on a solid backbone – solid goalkeeper, tough centre half, creative or strong midfielder and deadly striker. If you have these four and they work together, the other players seem to matter less. Not that they don’t contribute but the backbone appears to dictate what the result of the game is likely to be, with the rest of the team feeding off of them. QPR have found it tough this year without a solid backbone. Yes they had Julio Cesar and Ryan Nelsen but without a Joey Barton or an inform Abel Taarabt playing, they lacked the structure for their strikers to feed from. Similarly, like in most operations, substituting key vertebrae like Ryan Nelsen for Christopher Samba midway through the season was always going to be troublesome, despite how good Samba is. Harry Redknapp’s team has never recovered and looks destined for life in the Championship next year because of it.

Losing Nelsen changed the QPR backbone (Image from Getty)

Losing Nelsen changed the QPR backbone (Image from Getty)

Cardiff’s manager Malky McKay will be aware of the trials and tribulations of life in the Premiership having played (and being relegated) with Watford in 2006. He is a smart manager so will plan accordingly and will already know the areas in which he wants to strengthen. With owner Vincent Tan suggesting a sum in the region of $25 million being made available to MacKay next year, he has the funds to do so. In Marshall, Turner, Cowie and Bellamy, he has a strong backline, but experience may be the only thing he needs to bring in with few in his squad having played in England’s top league. It will be a test for his squad on how they cope under extreme pressure next year but this is after all what they have been waiting for (and their fans) for almost 51 years. If they can heed the lessons of teams gone by then there is a good chance that Cardiff will follow Swansea’s lead by cementing their place in the world’s most watched league.

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English Football Back To The Dark Ages As Hooligans Return

hooligans return to the English game (Image from Getty)They call it the beautiful game but this past weekend in England, it was anything but. For once, the players were not at the heart of it as the fans this time took centre stage in disgracing the nation’s favourite pastime. Violence and inappropriate behaviour marred three separate matches on Saturday and Sunday as hooliganism reared its ugly head once more. Scenes more recently found in Russian, Italian and Greek football reemerged from its slumber to tarnish what were three thrilling encounters.

Violent scenes like these making their way to British shores  (Image from Getty)

Violent scenes like these making their way to British shores
(Image from Getty)

In Stoke, with the home team fighting for Premiership survival, some of Stoke fans were caught on television publically mocking the Manchester United fans by making diving plane gestures and singing songs, in reference to the horrific Munich air crash in 1958 that killed 23 Manchester United players and coaching staff. Stoke fans claimed after the match that it was in retaliation for the United fans actions following a moving one minute clap salute to a 14 year old Stoke fan who had died earlier that week. The United fans, again in a small minority, were heard singing ” What the f*cking hell was that” after the conclusion of the tribute which sparked the outburst by the Stoke fans. But pictures after the match of a banner, held up by Stoke fans that read “Munich b*st*rds” suggests otherwise.

Stoke fans taunt the United fans with airplane gestures  (Image from Sky Sports)

Stoke fans taunt the United fans with airplane gestures
(Image from Sky Sports)

Up in Newcastle, violence erupted following the much anticipated Tyne-Wear Derby, contested between Sunderland and Newcastle. The rivalry between the two clubs is known but the two sets of fans have been fairly calm with their approach to each other for some years now, so Sunday’s explosion as somewhat unexpected. Having lost 3-0 to a rampant Sunderland, a small selection of Newcastle fans faced up to some Sunderland fns as they made their way home. Police on horses intervened and stood between the two sets of fans in an attempt to keep the peace. However the plan backfired as the Newcastle fans then attacked the police, with one fan actually punching a horse! Masked individuals taunted the police and the Sunderland fans as they actively looked to start a fight. After a few hours, police did manage to bring the situation under control and a total of 29 fans were arrested, including the individual who assaulted the police horse.

A Newcastle fan punches a horse  (Image from Getty)

A Newcastle fan punches a horse
(Image from Getty)

Keeping rival fans apart is hard enough for the police but when fans of the same club start to fight, the job is even tougher. This is exactly what happened at Wembley as Millwall fans brawled with each other during their FA Cup semi final match against Wigan. Millwall has had a reputation for bad fan behaviour for close to four decades now, with some of it captured in the movie The Football Factory starring Danny Dyer. But yesterday’s scenes, with several fans spotted throwing punches and others with severe cuts and bruises, is what the club is trying to get away from.  The club has spent time and money trying to improve its reputation both on and off the pitch and until yesterday was on the path to success but yesterday’s events have pushed them back once more. Terrifying scenes captured the fighting and the fear of some people around them, including a young girl whose father was desperately trying to protect her from the violence all around.

Millwall fans fight themselves at Wembley  (Image from The Sun)

Millwall fans fight themselves at Wembley
(Image from The Sun)

Other smaller incidents involving Bradford and Portsmouth fans as well have made it a weekend to forget for the FA. All the clubs involved have come out publicly and criticized their fans that took part in these disturbances and vowed to take action on anyone found to be involved. The police will be conducting a series of investigations, along with the FA and various league bodies to understand what the root cause of these issues were. Late kickoffs which allow people to drink for extended time, low policing levels at games and after games as well as drug use and criminal intent have all been cited as reasons behind the trouble. But it seems like too much of a coincence that over two days there were five separate incidents of fan misbehaviour.

Danny Dyer in The Football Factory  (Image from Getty)

Danny Dyer in The Football Factory
(Image from Getty)

The problems in the Russian and Greek leagues were not dealt with quickly and were allowed to grow, resulting in the issues that they are seeing now so the FA must act quickly to prevent these type of incidents from becoming a trend. The FA and the clubs know that it is only a small minority of fans that are ruining it for the rest of them and they must act swiftly to stamp it out before it escalates. English football grew out of the hooliganism phase it went through in the 1970’s and 80’s so a return to those days would be very much unwelcomed. Football is about the fans, they are its life line but if the hooliganism aspect is not dealt with now, it could be the end of the beautiful game in England

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Poor Ownership Spells Disaster For English Clubs

Appleton the latest manager to get the sack (Image from Reuters)The only word to describe what is going on at Blackburn is farcical. For the third time this season, the struggling championship side is looking for a new manager after sacking Michael Appleton early last week. Blackburn sit in the bottom half of the table, four points clear of the drop zone but heading in the wrong direction. Their remaining fixtures offer little hope as they face teams fighting for the coveted automatic and playoff spots. Sacking Appleton at this time is merely a desperate attempt to avoid the drop but it may be too late for the troubled club. It follows a trend that is starting to worry League Manager Association boss, Richard Bevan who has seen the number of dismissals in England’s four leagues grow dramatically season over season. This year, with two months of the season left, a total of 103 managers and coaches have already lost their jobs, compared to 94 in total last year. The principle reason behind these dismissals is a heightened needed for quick success at the clubs, with less time given for change by ruthless owners. There is no longer a grace period given to managers and their staff, its sink or swim in what is becoming an ever-increasing stressful job.

Worrying times for Richard Bevan (Image from Getty)

Worrying times for Richard Bevan
(Image from Getty)

The pressure placed on these managers and coaches has been gradually growing over the past two decades as football clubs evolve from sporting organizations to companies in their own right. Clubs are run as a business with every aspect analysised and within any company, profits and results often determine the success of its employees. Whilst it may make sense to run a club in such a way, especially in the recent years of financial insecurity, it’s important to remember that it is still a sporting organization. Understanding the history and foundations the club are built on as well as the guiding principles behind running any such sports franchise, requires the knowledge to do so.  The worrying trend in football across the world is the influx of outsiders who understand little about the game and even less about the clubs. This group of new owners has come in, not to build upon what has gone before but instead nine times out of ten, for self profit. 

Bad management - Venky's (Image from Getty)

Bad management – Venky’s
(Image from Getty)

Blackburn owners, the Venky’s have managed to drive awareness of their Indian based chicken firm across European football, not through advertising but through the calamitous ownership of Blackburn. After all there is no such thing as bad press. Their hands off approach and lack of understanding about the mechanics of British football club have ultimately led to the clubs demise and raised questions with the English FA around their screening process for foreign investors or potential owners buying into an English club.  To go into details around all the disastrous decisions made by the Venky’s would require an extended blog or indeed two and its material that has been covered on more than one occasion by the collective media. But the simple fact remains that the Indian brothers, who promised so much including glamour signings like David Beckham and Ronaldinho when they first arrived, have little concern for the plight of the club and will likely jump ship once their alterative motive has been achieved.

Lofty plans to bring Ronaldinho to Blackburn never materialized (Image from Daily Mail)

Lofty plans to bring Ronaldinho to Blackburn never materialized
(Image from Daily Mail)

The above is not to state that all owners coming into the game have this objective; merely a small group of them but it’s a group that is expanding season after season. There are some owners like Dave Whelan who genuinely care for Wigan and has invested a lot of his time and money into helping the club develop. But Whelan is in a minority as more and more come in looking to profit from the growing reputation of English football. Ultimately it’s the fans that suffer and have a decreasing influence in the decisions made within it and with ticket prices on the rise and their club becoming more commercialized by the day; the fans are slowing losing the connection that they have with their club. The solution for some is to radically overhaul the rules around ownership and adopt a model similar to that of the German Bundesliga, which has adopted the successful 50+1 rule. This states that members of a club must retain at least 51% ownership, so preventing any single entity taking control, stopping an owner with a different agenda than that of the fans from radically changing the club. This means that the fans have a say in every important decision that happens at the club – from every appointment at the club including the players as well as the general day-to-day running. The decision by the German FA to enforce this rule some time ago is reaping the benefits now with the Bundelsiga on the rise and likely to become one of the most economical and attractive leagues in the world, both to players and future investors. Clubs are run properly as businesses but with the fans full support and blessing. 

50+1 rule is working in Germany (Image from Getty)

50+1 rule is working in Germany
(Image from Getty)

The English leagues could adopt a similar solution but it would take a fundamental shift by the FA to make the change and enforce it. But greed and an inability to look long-term will and has prevented this from happening as the FA and Premier League basking in its 15 minutes of fame. Eventually times will change and clubs across England will have to adapt to survive as foreign investor interest dries up. If the fans are in control then the clubs will never have to worry, for as long as they are around, the club will be too. This cannot be said about single owners who are investing for the wrong reasons who will drop their bad investment whenever and wherever they can. The Venky’s are unlikely to stick with Blackburn much longer, especially if they drop down the leagues once more. With the value of their investment dwindling, it won’t be long before they depart Ewood Park just as their managers have done before them. That could offer up the chance for the Blackburn fans to recapture their club and seek control with the single objective of getting Blackburn back on track and eventually back to the Premiership.

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Unhappy Rangers to Flee the Scottish Nest?

Ibrox Gates (Image from smh.com.au)Rangers fight with the football authorities within Scotland continues as the countries three football bodies announced its plans to restructure. The proposed new structure of 12-12-18 would see a reduction of the overall leagues from 4 to 3 with the SPL and Division 1 adding 2 more clubs to it ranks. The problem and for what Rangers feel aggrieved is that the final two leagues will be combined resulting in no promotional places for the winners of the current Division 3, which Rangers currently lead by a comfortable margin. Understandably it’s another blow to owner Charles Green’s plans to get the club back to where they feel they belong – the SPL. With another year languishing in the lower divisions added in to the mix, Rangers could find themselves back in the financial peril that they have worked so hard to recover from.

SPL and SFA representatives meet to reveal the new league setup (Image from The Sun.co.uk)

SPL and SFA representatives meet to reveal the new league setup
(Image from The Sun.co.uk)

The 54-time Scottish champions are keen to be part of the discussions about the much needed revamp of the leagues but so far have not been included as they are deemed too low down the totem pole to have a voice. But with one of the largest followings in Scotland and an average 50,000 people turning up to home games at Ibrox, it appears to be yet another slap in the face by the SFA. Green is keen to get to the table to pitch his idea of three leagues of 14 teams, which to many makes more sense but the powers that control the game seem hell bent on continuing down the path they have suggested. To be fair, the new league structure proposed is a vast improvement on the existing format as Scotland’s depth in quality is limited to its top tier and a handful of lower clubs, including Rangers.

Rangers during their glory years (Image from Bleacherreport)

Rangers during their glory years (Image from Bleacherreport)

The bad blood that exists between Rangers and the SFA and SPL stems from their financial irregularities that have plagued the club in the last two years. Bad management, in addition to the development of payment schemes so grey that no-one can clearly decide if they are legal or not, led to Rangers dropping into administration which allowed the SPL and SFL to condemn Rangers to its lowest division. The Glasgow club deserved their punishment, no matter how harsh some may think it was, but now the punishing should stop. Sitting in the 3rd Division, with a diminished squad, Rangers are on the road to recovery, now more financial stable than ever before and regularly fielding a new crop of youngsters that could one day become Scottish internationalists. However Green believes that the Scottish authorities are not helping in any shape or form by changing the formats without consulting his team.

Charles Green (Image from PA)

Charles Green
(Image from PA)

Green and his team are continuing to look at options including leaving Scottish football for good. Talk of a European elite league or Atlantic League has been doing the rounds for nearly a decade with Rangers and city rivals Celtic keen to join the likes of PSV, Porto and Anderlecht in a breakaway league. It hasn’t gained any traction and presents too many problems to resolve quickly, namely gaining approval from UEFA and FIFA. The same approval would be needed if Rangers alone were to leave Scotland for pastures new. Another option touted regularly has the old firm joining the English Premiership, an idea which is backed by managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Harry Redknapp who see the values of adding two of Europe’s biggest clubs to its ranks. Others are more skeptical such as Wigan owner Dave Whelan who rightly so is protective of Wigan’s place in the league, which would surely be at threat if such a move, was to happen. The idea has also been squashed by Richard Scudamore, the Premiership’s chief Executive, who publically announced that “Rangers and Celtic will never play in the Premiership whilst I am in charge”.

No go: Richard Scudamore (Image from the Guardian.co.uk)

No go: Richard Scudamore
(Image from the Guardian.co.uk)

Scudamore’s defiance may be tested if Green goes ahead with option number three, a potential move to the English Conference leagues. A move would get them in to the English setup and with five promotions would see Rangers in the Premiership, with Scudamore unable to prevent it from happening. A move to the conference may take longer to get o their chosen destination, but for Green the level in which the club would be playing in would be much strong, even in the lower leagues. With Cardiff and Swansea both competing in the English leagues, there is already the precedent and with Conference chairman Brian Lee giving his backing to conversations, this could be the clearest path for Rangers and Green to take.

No Objections to move from Conference chairman Brian Lee (Image from Flickr)

No Objections to move from Conference chairman Brian Lee (Image from Flickr)

Green has yet to come publically about Rangers next steps but has released a series of statements to the media that give indications of the direction he wants to go in:

“ The recent widespread debate on the reconstruction of Scottish football has been welcome and I am glad that Ally McCoist and myself have contributed and helped stimulate discussion rather than watch everyone sleepwalk into a solution that very few, if any, football fans across Scotland want. To be absolutely clear, it would have been easy for me, on behalf of Rangers, to support this model. There is no model on the table that offers our club a potentially quicker route back to the highest echelons of Scottish football. However, I believe that while all clubs have to look out for their own interests, the greater good of Scottish football cannot be ignored.”

“I would like to set out what Rangers believes to be a workable way forward that may appeal to fans of all clubs. First, we think any reconstruction should be implemented not next season but the following season so that every club knows what it is playing for at the start of the season. Secondly, we believe that further consideration should be given to a 14-14-14 model, which can be constructed in a way that ensures there is no loss of games but will deliver greater competition through the leagues, particularly with the implementation of play-offs. Finally, I am fully aware of the unique challenges a club the size of Rangers face in Scotland. That is why we must explore all options for the long-term, including playing out with Scotland.”

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Bradford Disappoint Villa to Reach Historic Cup Final

ITroubled Times for Paul Lambert (Image from AP)t’s been a torrid season for Paul Lambert and his struggling Aston Villa side. Misfiring in the league and now every much involved in a relegation dogfight, their season looked to be imploding but for one shining light – their Capitol One cup run. Facing league Two Bradford in the semi finals, Villa fans could be excused for thinking about a trip to Wembley for their club for the first time since the Birmingham club walked away with the League cup in 1996. If Lambert could deliver silverware in his first season in charge, then perhaps owner Randy Lerner would afford him more time to rectify his mistakes in the league. But the nightmare for Villa continued as Bradford secured their place in the final, despite a valid attempt at a resurrection by Lambert’s men on Tuesday night. Ultimately it was their first leg performance that let Villa down and left them with too much to recover from. Trailing 3-1 going into Tuesday’s game, Villa knew that two goals and a clean sheet would put them through and end Bradford’s fairytale run.

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

Bradford City Fans Are On Their Way To Wembley
(Image from The Guardian.co.uk)

But it wasn’t to be as Villa yet again conceded a costly goal that they couldn’t recover from. Despite winning the match 2-1, Bradford was left to celebrate reaching their first final since 1939. They also managed to pour salt to the wound by become the first League Two side to ever reach a final, an embarrassing  statistic that will haunt Aston Villa for a long time.  Bradford should be congratulated as their path to the final has not been easy, beating two other Premiership sides, Wigan and Arsenal along the way. Manager Phil Parkinson has called the achievement “the biggest moment in the clubs history” and one that ”will take some doing for anyone to do this again”. With Swansea beating Chelsea in the other semi final, Bradford fans must believe they have a better chance of winning the cup, now that they face the welsh side instead of the current Champions League holders. No disrespect to Swansea though who deserve their place after a fantastic run and will themselves be looking to put their names in the record books by winning the trophy.

Cup opposition, Swansea (Image from AFP)

Cup opposition, Swansea
(Image from AFP)

So what now for Paul Lambert? With the transfer window close to closing and his side still languishing in the bottom three of the Premier League, one thing he doesn’t have is time. Lerner has been supportive and continues to back the former Celtic, Borussia Dortmund and Scotland midfielder, but if the slump continues, he will need to act to prevent Villa from near certain relegation. In a game ruled by money, relegation is a scary prospect for any club but for Villa even more so. As one of the only teams to have never been relegated from the Premiership, the club has a high wage bill that would have to be dramatically slashed if they drop down a division, with the sale of key assets like Christian Benteke and Charles N’Zogbia likely to be the way to do that. Lambert has started to plan for the future by investing in youth players but with a view to them playing in the Premier League, not in the competitive Championship. Granted Newcastle benefited overall from relegation some season ago, allowing them to restructure the club from the ground up and move towards a more stable baseline, but it’s unlikely that Lerner will see relegation as the best reason to kick off this process.

Time to Stick or Twist Randy Lerner (Image from The Guardian.co.uk)

Time to Stick or Twist Randy Lerner
(Image from The Guardian.co.uk)

For Bradford, their season is improving all the time. Not only are they playing well in the league and looking towards potential promotion to League One but now they have a cup final to prepare for. It will likely be the highlight of many of their players careers with most looking forward to just playing in the game, not necessarily winning it. As huge underdogs, they will have a task ahead of them to turn over Swansea and come out victorious after ninety minutes but it also takes all the pressure off of the Bantams. Parkinson is likely to relish the underdog tag and with the pressure lifted, they may just take that final step towards cup success and proved yet another shock by beating Swansea. It will be a difficult day for Paul Lambert as Bradford and Swansea walk out onto the pitch at Wembley next month, knowing fair well that this was a tournament there for the taking for Villa. Whether Lambert Is still the boss of Villa come the final is up to Lerner but it doesn’t look good at the moment for the Scotsman.

Make Or Break For Clubs During January Transfer Window.

Transfer Window now open (Image from DailyMail.co.uk)The fans love it. The media loves it even more. So why does the January transfer window scare so many clubs including its managers and chairman? Well quite simply, the next 32 days can make or break your season.  Less than 7 days into the window, the early signs are indicating that it will be a busy one, with several clubs already dipping into the market to strengthen their squads. History has taught us that the January transfer window, whilst generally not as busy as in the summer, can be more important to the success or failure of a club. In the summer, players have time to bed in to life in the Premiership and with their new team, managers can play around with formations and players. But come January, the gloves are off. There is no grace period, each signing needs to make an impact immediately or risk being labelled a poor capture. Managers are frantically watching at the over priced market, looking for ways to save their season. So what clubs need to act during this window and who should they chase?

Newcastle

With the Ba saga finally concluded, Newcastle can focus on getting back on track in the league. Moving Papa Cisse into main central striker role once again from his wide right position, should lead to more goals but its the lack of depth across the squad that has been Newcastle’s undoing this year so far. With the loss of key players like Cabaye, Ben Arfa and Steven Taylor, their replacements have been unconvincing, lacking both in the talent and experience needed to play competitive Premiership football. Alan Pardew appears to be still nursing the hangover from celebrating his new eight year contract that keeps him at the club until 2020, but now faces the real possibility of relegation as Newcastle slip further down the league. With only three clean sheets this campaign and having won 2 of their last 11 games in all competitions, strengthening across all areas is a necessity for survival. French right back Mathieu Debuchy has arrived to help the defence but another one or two are needed. West Ham’s James Tomkins and Southampton’s Luke Shaw could offer options at the back and fit with Pardew’s mandate of investing in young talented players. On a similar note, midfielders Ross Barkley from Everton and Southampton’s Adam Lallana or James Ward Prowse could bolster a weak midfield. Upfront, the Ameobi brothers provide cover but lack goals so Loic Remy of Marseille or Genk’s Jelle Vossen would make strong partners for Cisse.

Newcastle Target? James Ward Prowse (Image from Football365.com)

Newcastle Target? James Ward Prowse (Image from Football365.com)

QPR

Harry Redknapp has a job on his hands. His toughest challenge yet sees him inherit a good squad that lacks in confidence and results. He needs to hold on to Ryan Nelson, subject to a coaching offer by his former club, DC United or if he lets him go sign a replacement quickly like Michael Dawson from Spurs. But midfield is the area Harry needs to work on the most. QPR haven’t looked the same since Mark Hughes broke up the trio of Barton, Derry and Taarbat and results have gone against them ever since. Barton, now on loan with Marseille and partner Shaun Derry weren’t the silkest of players, but as two tough tackling, no-nonsense central midfielders, they broke up opposition teams attacks like a hot knife through butter. Without the duo, teams pass their way through the QPR team until they get to a weak back four and eventually punish the team. An enforcer like France’s Yann M’Vila would be an ideal fit if they can secure him, but a player of his calibre should be pulling on a shirt from one of England’s top four, not its relegation favourite. Harry also needs to find a player in the style of Scott Parker or  former Newcastle captian Rob Lee who can not only protect the back four but drive the ball up field and create openings. They are few and far between and come at a price so Harry may struggle to get a player of this nature. A loan deal for Yossi Benayoun may be ideal as QPR look for inspiration. Whilst not defensive, Yossi can create from very little and would add a new dimension to the team.

Good Signing: Yossi Benayoun (Image from Soccertransfers.net)

Good Signing: Yossi Benayoun
(Image from Soccertransfers.net)

Southampton

To be fair to Nigel Adkins, Southampton haven’t played that poorly this season but still find themselves in  a relegation dog fight. Sitting in 17th place, above Wigan on goal difference only, Adkins needs to strengthen to survive. Based on form and looking at attacking statistics, Southampton have played well and would be sitting comfortably in mid table but in reality, having drawn six games and lost ten (five of which were by only one goal), they find themselves in a mess. Adkins biggest problem is his defense and in particular his first choice goalkeeper. During the first half of the campaign, the Southampton boss used three different goalkeepers – Kelvin Davis, Artur Boruc and youngster Paulo Gazzaniga with little success. None of the three have stepped up to make the slot their own and all are  guilt of making mistakes. Granted Gazzaniga, at 21 years old is still learning so can not be too harshly criticized, but both Davis and Boruc a have had long careers so should  not be making the schoolboy type mistakes that they have been guilty of. It appears as though Adkins has no choice but to buy another safe pair of hands and stop the rot. Former England and Blackburn goalkeeper Paul Robinson would fit the bill, or Birmingham’s Jack Butland, who is attracting a lot of interest due to his recent form.. If money is tight, then a 6 month loan deal for QPR’s Rob Green or the free signing of Scotland stopper Crag Gordon may also be options available.

Opion: Paul Robinson (Image from EPLTALK.COM)

Opion: Paul Robinson (Image from EPLTALK.COM)

Liverpool

Liverpool need a striker and it’s not Daniel Sturridge. The recently £12 million acquisition from Chelsea is not the answer to Brendan Rodgers problems, even if the Northern Irishman thinks he is. Despite scoring on his debut in the cup against Mansfield, the England striker has never been an out-and-out goalscorer. With 40 career goals from 140 appearances, the pacey forward has never really demonstrated his ability to be a 15-20 goals a season striker. His best ever tally was 12 goals in all competitions for Chelsea last season but that was from 44 appearances so 1 in 4 on average. With 17 games left in the domestic season, and based on the same goal scoring ratio that would mean Strurridge would chip in an extra 4 goals between now and the end of the season. That’s £3 million a goal, which to Liverpool fans may be a difficult pill to swallow. Strurridge is a useful player, a squad player, but he is not the next Fernando Torres. For that Liverpool will need to look elsewhere. The likes of Charlie Austen of Burnley, Nicolas Helenius of AaB and Loic Remy of Marseille may be a better option for Rodgers to look at. With Liverpool almost coming out publicly and admitting they got the last transfer window wrong and were left short of numbers up front, Rodgers won’t make that mistake again. Well hopefully not for his sake.

Not the answer: Daniel Sturridge (Image from Dailymail.co.uk)

Not the answer: Daniel Sturridge
(Image from Dailymail.co.uk)

Swansea

The Welsh side have yet again performed above expectations but not unexpectedly. The foundations laid down by Roberto Martinez, followed by Rodgers and current boss Michael Laudrup have led to stable base to build upon and success on the pitch. Laurdrup, who faced criticism when he took over the post in the summer, has won over the players and the fans with his strong work ethics and approachable manner. Added into this, his ability to locate and purchase a bargain such as Michu has helped to bolster the teams chances of survival. Sitting 9th in the league with 29 points to their name so far, it would appear as though Swansea are safe. But as history shows, the magic mark for survival in the Premiership is around 42 points which leaves them needing 13 points from their last 17 games. To give them a chance of getting the points needed, they need to retain the services of their influential spanish midfielder, Michu. A sensation since arriving in the summer, he has helped lift Swansea to the position they are in with some incredible performances and 13 goals along the way. His form has started to attract interest both domestically and back home in Spain, with several clubs rumoured to be willing to pay over the odds to sign him during this window. Laudrup could cash in on his £2 million signing and likely make considerably more. But he also knows that it could cost his team dearly as they push to secure Premiership football for yet another year.

Swansea must hold onto Michu (Image from The Sun.co.uk)

Swansea must hold onto Michu
(Image from The Sun.co.uk)

Manchester City

The defending champions find themselves trailing in the race for the title, some 7 points behind local rivals, United. It’s not been a smooth first half to the campaign with Mancini’s men being knocked out of Europe at the Champions League group stages by three teams they should have been winning if not competing against. Added into this, the constant drama surrounding Mario Balotelli has led to more than one sleepless night for Mancini. The latest event, a training group bust up with the manager himself, will surely signal the end for the talented yet troublesome Italian striker. Mancini has tried to father him over the past few years but has not managed to curb Balotelli’s enthusiasm for destructiveness. With suitors watching with interest, Mancini must sell him now to give his team the relief it needs for a final push towards retaining the title. With the money he gets from selling Balotelli, Mancini can pursue another striker who will add goals rather than headaches to the mix. Falcao is on every clubs radar so may be too difficult to secure in this window without a fight so it may be worth Mancini switching his attention to Russia and the problems that Hulk is having in settling there. A powerful striker, with goals galore across his career, he may give City the edge against United in the race for the trophy.

City Option? Hulk (Image from Wikipedia.org)

City Option? Hulk (Image from Wikipedia.org)

With 24 days left in the transfer window, there is still plenty of time for clubs to make the necessary changes to their squads before attacking the second half of the campaign. At the end of the season, we will be able to look back and see who has bought wisely, who made rash purchases and who failed to make the grade which ultimately lead to their club being relegated. Come May three teams will face this fate, but for the managers involved in that struggle at the moment, and the ones balanced just above them, now is the time to act to save your clubs season.

Spanish Fire Sale Puts Clubs Across The Globe On Alert

Swansea’s summer capture of Michu hardly caught the imagination but its one that should have rung alarm bells across the world of football. Not one of Spain’s better known players, Michu was signed for only £2 million by new Swans boss, Michael Laudrup. The Danish legend couldn’t believe his luck in getting the player for so cheap and with little fight from his club, Rayo Vallecano or other clubs in La Liga. Whilst Michu is not a glamour player, he is the type of squad player that most Spanish clubs desire – regular performer, strong technical ability and the scoring touch (15 goals from midfield last season). But the sad truth is that, no one bidded for his services simply because no club, outside of the big two in Spain, could afford to.

The economic crisis that has gripped Spain over the past two years has not left the countries football clubs unaffected. Besides the big two – Barcelona and Real Madrid, the vast majority of clubs are suffering due to the down turn. With 40% unemployment in the country, money is tight for its people so spending on non essentials has been hit hard. Ticket sales are down, expensive TV packages are being given up, merchandise sales are at an all time low as fans use their hard-earned cash for other means. With the exception of Madrid and Barcelona who pull a large chunk of their revenue from abroad, the Spanish clubs are struggling to balance their books, with a majority now posting losses. This has led to assets being sold, players released and a trimming of the wage budgets.

Whilst their city rivals Real spent close to € 30million this summer on signings like Luka Modric and Michael Essien from Tottenham and Chelsea respectively, UEFA cup winners Atletico Madrid could only manage to spend € 1m, relying on loan deals and free transfers to bolster their squad. Deigo Simone, Atletico’s spirited manager, resisted the temptation to sell his talisman Radamel Falcao for a huge sum to one of Europe’s high spenders – Zenit, Manchester City, PSG or Anzhi, instead working with a smaller transfer budget in this window. But as Falcao’s contract runs down and his form continues, Simeone will come under more pressure to cash in on his star player whilst he can, rather than risk losing him for free.

UEFA Cup runners up Athlecio Bilbao are in the same position, spending low this summer (€ 2.5m) whilst desperately fighting off potentail suitors from abroad for their striker, Fernando Llorente. The strikers contract is running out soon and the risk of Bilbao losing him for free may force their hand in the next window. Similarily, unless the economic situation improves and further cash is injected into the club, they may be forced to sell star players like Iker Muniain, Fernando Amorebieta and captain Carlos Perpegui, in order to balance the books.

But it’s not just star players that are leaving for pastures new. Core squad players, like Michu, are being snapped up for bargain prices by clubs in England, Germany and Russia as they take advantage of the growing financial problems the clubs are faced with. Unable to offer the same wages as their foreign counterparts, spanish clubs are losing players for generally less than their true market value. This summer, Wigan snapped up Iván Ramis and Arouna Koné, Swansea picked up Michu as well as Pablo Hernández for cheap and Celtic grabbed Miku as Gefate looked to lower its wage bill. All five were core players for their respective clubs but reluctantly left to ease their burden and allow the club to continue.

It’s a similar story across the border in Portugal, but not yet at the same level. Portuguese clubs are looking towards Russia, England and Germany for rich clubs to purchase the best of their talent, with Hulk and Axel Witsel already leaving champions Porto for Russia and massive transfer fees. As their economic crisis deepens, further players will have to leave to keep clubs afloat but as with Spain they know that they have a silver lining. In times of trouble, when money is tight for clubs and they are unable to purchase their talent, they turn to their established youth teams for the next crop of young stars who will take the step up to the first team. Realistically its the only thing that is keeping some clubs alive but it will also be only a matter of time before these assets are being stripped as well by Europe’s elite if the crisis continues.