The rise of Rickie Lambert and the evolutionary next steps for English football by Soccer Punk

September 10, 2013

Before England’s vital 2014 World Cup qualifying games at home to Moldova and away to the Ukraine, FA Chairman Greg Dyke revealed his vision for improving the England team. At the same time he announced the twin long-term objectives of reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and winning the 2022 World Cup. He also bemoaned the lack of English players in the Premier League and the lack of opportunity for young English players at Premier League clubs, and gave a damning description of the current English game by likening it to a tanker in need of turning.

The overall solution as he sees it is to have debate within all levels at the top of the English game, between clubs, the FA, journalists and various others working in football, and for them to challenge themselves to find acceptable ways that will help make England as feared an opponent as Germany, Spain and Argentina are feared today.

What Dyke also did by revealing his 2022 target, by making the unflattering tanker comment and through his production of statistics to demonstrate just how bad it has gotten for English players and how difficult it is for English managers to work with such a shallow talent pool, was take the pressure off the current manager and his players.

In the media you keep reading or hearing things like ‘if England qualifies for Brazil, then reaching the quarter-finals would be a magnificent achievement.’ The key word in that is ‘if’. ‘If England qualifies?’ The very existence of ‘if’ suggests doubt and a feeling that there is much work to be done between then and now. It also suggests that while we should qualify it would not altogether be surprising if we didn’t. Expectation in the England team appears to be at its lowest since the 1990 World Cup.

Days later and England’s routine 4-0 victory over the Moldavians at Wembley was interesting in that it brought one or two things Dyke said in his announcement into sharp contrast.

Universal Studios reveal pictures from the upcoming X-rated Shrek movie

Universal Studios reveal pictures from the upcoming X-rated Shrek movie

To give some context, Wayne Rooney had already withdrawn himself from England selection after having his forehead sliced open by Phil Jones’ boot. Theo Walcott was one of the first to publicly comment on the injury by Tweeting how Rooney now looked like something out of a horror film. I wonder how many times Walcott wrote in the Twitter box ‘Rooney looks like an X-rated Shrek!’ and deleted it before finally settling on what he posted?

Okay, Rooney was out, but it is not like he’d been ripping up trees of late, and we still had some decent strikers in the squad.

However, Daniel Sturridge was next to withdraw. The absence through injury of the Liverpool striker, with three goals in three Premier League starts, was a blow to Roy Hodgson and his team. Two good forwards out for the Moldova and Ukraine games, and then Danny Welbeck is harshly booked in the Moldova game and England suddenly became acutely reliant for the difficult trip to Ukraine on a 31-year old recent debutant who has spent the majority of his career plying his trade in the English lower leagues when not working in a beetroot factory.

Rickie Lambert has only one season of Premier League football to speak of, and has never played a Champions League game in his life. Nevertheless, Rickie Lambert is also very good competitor with dimensions to his game that bring to mind the intelligent play of Teddy Sheringham, another late bloomer.

Lambert’s almost miraculous ascent is an inspirational story of toil, focus and perseverance, but it is only remarkable for the fact he had slipped through the net for so long. The proper scouting of English players is something Greg Dyke and his colleagues might want to address. On the eve of the Ukraine game manager Roy Hodgson said he had misjudged Rickie Lambert for a long time and that you just don’t turn into a good player overnight at the age of 31. Maybe, as Lambert’s elevated status in the England set up hints at, the English talent pool is wider than we think and just needs to be encouraged and given a chance to show what it can do.

Lambert’s arrival on the scene also shows us that international friendlies are not a total waste of time. Against Scotland, Lambert rose to the occasion and rose to meet the ball with his head for a winning goal that made him an instant national hero. Friendlies give the manager the opportunity to experiment with formations, tactics and player selection, and to see first hand how it works in a competitive environment. So, if the FA wants England to be one of the world’s elite they should stop with the meaningless friendlies ruined by the non-stop flow of substations and should work hard to secure friendly games for England against rivals and top teams that fans want to see England beating. English players need pushing and not protecting.

Greg Dyke will face opposition as he tries to evolve the English national team into something the rest of the world fears, and a lot of that opposition will come from Premier League clubs who will receive the public backing of Premier League team fans who value club over country. Club versus country, in my opinion, is a no contest.

If a player wins in the Premier League he will win the respect and praise of the football community. Contrast this to winning for England and instantly becoming a national hero known by everyone in and out of football. My mum, not a football fan, knows who Rickie Lambert is, and she knows him not for what he has done for Southampton (the place where she lives), but for what he has done for England. Bobby Moore, Sir Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters all had distinguished club careers, but it is what they did for England that will keep their names alive.

Wayne Rooney: As good as it gets? By Roland Rock

August 14, 2013

Writing as an England fan, on the day England renew football’s oldest rivalry with Scotland, I can’t help thinking about Wayne Rooney and how his situation at Manchester United could affect our hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil, and our chances there if we qualify. I hope Rooney does leaves United to join league contenders Chelsea. A move south to the capital, if it happens, could be just what the most gifted and exciting English player since Paul Gascoigne needs.

It is remarkable, given the number of goals he has scored, chances he has created and trophies he has won, that we even think and talk about Rooney as not yet reaching full promise.

The unrealistic expectations we place on Rooney is in part due to the spectacular way he rose (seemingly overnight) through the youth ranks at Everton and into their first team.

The early part of his career was defined by an all action, all purpose personality that stamped itself over games. You could not miss the boy wonder. He was strong. Powerful. He was inventive and could create. He could be delicate. He possessed unimaginable skills. He was spontaneous. Fearless. And he played with wit and a clear and love for the game. He looked as though he would never tire and could go on forever.

In Rooney, English football suddenly had a 16-year-old boy who could terrorise seasoned, battled hardened defences, in one of the most competitive and unforgiving leagues in world football. England fans thought we had found the diamond to go with Golden Generation.

Yet since joining Manchester United, Rooney’s edges have been dulled. He is still a very good player for club and country, but there is a strong feeling amongst many that he was as good as he’ll ever get when he peaked as a teenager. Once considered an equal of Messi and Ronaldo, Rooney has, for whatever reasons, fallen behind the other two. Messi and Ronaldo have continued improving their talents and assume a greater responsibility for what happens on the pitch, whereas lately Rooney has been found lacking and ineffectual.

Such is the vast sum of wealth bestowed upon him as reward for his gift of kicking a ball; Rooney’s grandchildren, if he ever has any, may never have to do a day’s work in their life. So money, while nice, can no longer be a motivation. At 27, Rooney is still young enough to go from very good to great. This, I suspect, is the motivation for him seeking an exit from Old Trafford. If he remains caged at Manchester United he will always be very good, but by joining a new team and taking on a fresh challenge he could yet become a true great, and he owes it to himself to find this out.

If he joins Chelsea, as is expected, and is given a starring role in a squad packed with exciting attacking talent and options, it can only be good for the England team. If Mourinho works closely with Rooney and is successful in giving him the same appetite for football and winning that he installed in Terry and Lampard, it also can only be good for England.

Whether he has been coasting this past half-decade, or stagnating, there is one thing certain, if Wayne Rooney remains at Manchester United or joins Chelsea he must step up his level of performance if he is to convince those who think these past five years have been a slow decline after hitting the peak early in his life.

If he does join Chelsea and fails to respond to Mourinho and just can’t click with his new teammates or find form, his so-called decline could become quite an evident and possibly rapid one. With precious few alternatives to Rooney, that would not be good news for Roy Hodgson and the England team.

Even so, I remember seeing the 16-year-old Rooney play and remember growing dizzy just thinking about how good he was then and how good he would be when he was fully matured and at the top of his game. He is 27 now, the age generally associated with footballers who reach their peak. I believe that with a move to Chelsea there is every chance he will regain some or all of the spark that made him stand out all those years ago. This would be very good news for England. Though probably not so good for other Premier League teams and David Moyes, the unlucky manager saddled with the responsibility of selling him to a rival.

Killer: a game of pool with @RobbieSavage8, @Joey7Barton, @Marcotti, @jonawils, Luis Suarez, Kevin Keegan and others by Roland Rock

August 1, 2013

American writer and participatory sports journalist George Plimpton once wrote a piece on playing golf at night. It was very late, and extremely dark, and with the course entirely to himself he decided to play four balls per hole. To make this activity more interesting he imagined the balls as having their own player and he assigned the identity of a different American columnist to each one. Soon his players took on certain characteristics and ticks, and their conversation came to dominate his head. Out of this came a keen rivalry in the group, which led to his imagined players gambling on every stroke.

Interested to see if this literary device could be adapted to suit football, I arrived early at the Bent Brief pub in Southampton and staked claim to one of its two pool tables by laying on it £60 in pound coins.

I have played enough pitch and putt, a small amount badly, to know that if I attempted night golf I would still be hacking around on the course right now. To save time, and to spare the efforts of whoever’s responsibility it would be to repair the playing surface after my damage, I decided instead, as I’m reasonably competent at it, to hold a pool tournament between eight imagined characters linked to football.

We would start with a winner-takes-all game of killer (£5 to enter), and then switch to regular pool in a knockout competition with quarters, semis and a final. The winner would take the money left on the table. The previous night I made all the necessary preparations, working out the order of play for the game of killer and holding the draw for the knockout.

I set my scorecards down on the table left of the jukebox and started going over the rules with the players. This is when Papiss Cissé interrupted to say he was sorry, but couldn’t take part due to being unable to reconcile the gambling aspect of the exercise with his religion.

We hadn’t even finished the rules and already one of my imagined players was dropping out. Naturally, this was disappointing, but Cissé was so utterly charming and apologetic that I had to respect his beliefs and admire his courage for sticking to a principle. Robbie Savage, on the other hand, was a different matter.

With Cissé out, Savage progressed to the semis of the knockout unhindered. This fact was not lost on the gloating Savage, and he gave a full volume, fist-thumping celebration in the faces of the other players. It was extraordinary while it lasted, and then he settled into a steady patter of exalting his pool-playing talents and knocking the chances and abilities of the others.

My suspicion was that this was a deliberate ploy by Savage to stimulate some side bet action, but he was verging too far and my fear was that one or two of the group would not tolerate him any longer. Mark Lawrenson, one of the elder statesmen in our midst, was on to this before I, and he tried diffusing the awkward situation with a string of old school one-liners and puns centred on ‘bent’ and ‘brief’.

Lawrenson hoped injecting a bit of humour would bring a semblance of order back to proceedings, allowing us to start our game of pool. No one laughed at Lawrenson, but Savage had at least gone quiet. Lawrenson’s idea had worked, to a point, and it would have been brilliant had he decided to quit there and then.

Instead, with his ‘bent’ and ‘brief’ repertoire exhausted, he began telling ‘pool’ related jokes. Forty minutes later Lawrenson ventured further, telling unrelated to the game of ‘pool’ jokes that simply made reference to the word ‘pool’, and it was just when ending a particular one about a father giving his little girl a glass of water to give to the man at the front door collecting for the local swimming pool that it happened.

Considering his combustible reputation, Joey Barton had been pretty docile, but I had noticed during those last ten minutes of Lawrenson’s joking diatribe that the gritty and often controversial midfielder was counting to ten rather a lot and making strange panting noises with his mouth and nose, which, in retrospect, I guess, were breathing techniques to clear and calm his mind.

Without warning, Barton jumped on Lawrenson and pressed him against the wall, using the pool cue across Lawrenson’s neck to hold him in place. Lawrenson should have kept his own counsel, but he couldn’t resist telling Barton that he had leapt more like a kangaroo than a Joey. It was then that Barton in one swift and terrible action brought the butt of cue down below Lawrenson’s belt, an appalling attempt to give the BBC pundit three Adam’s Apples. It took all our breath away. Even Robbie Savage was speechless.

Barton was asked to leave immediately, and when it became clear his victim could not muster a response, not even a semi-comical one, Lawrenson left unable to continue. Plimpton’s imaginary players bickered, that’s all. Mine had made religious objections, told too many inappropriate and offensive jokes and acted violently. We hadn’t hit a ball yet!

Finally the game of killer was underway, with Paul Scholes breaking up the pack nicely. He didn’t say much before or after his shot, and I started doubting the wisdom of my player selection.

Next up was football tactics writer Jonathan Wilson. It took an age. He had an obvious and simple pot, but that did not prevent him from assessing all other shots available on the table and their possible outcomes. Just when you thought he had finished his analysis and was ready to do what needed to be done, he fished out his smart phone and started accessing all kinds of data to assist him in making the right choice.

Eventually he took the easy pot and missed. The ball rattled in the jaws of the pocket and hung tantalisingly over its edge. He cursed his luck and spent the rest of the game making observations on the tactical play of the other players, that and wondering about his semi final in the knockout competition against Robbie Savage. Wilson had also benefited from a bye following Barton’s expulsion.

It was Savage who was actually next on the table and he made no mistake with the ball left teetering over the pocket by Wilson, but he was a tad fortunate to avoid going in off as the cue ball whizzed back down the table. Football journalist Gabriele Marcotti stepped up and dithered at the table for a short while before sinking a difficult pot and leaving little on for Kenny Sansom, who eagerly snatched the cue out of Marcotti’s hand.

Kenny moved around the table doing his Norman Wisdom impression and elicited a laugh from the others when he feigned heart attack after catching the eye of one of the Bent Brief regulars and telling the others he’d thought Joey Barton had returned. Then he concentrated on his shot, but such was the quality of Marcotti’s safety play, Kenny found his options limited to a position of hit and hope. He struck at the balls with great ferocity and potted the white.

It was all very entertaining, but it was when he finished his disastrous shot and I went to cross his name off the killer list that I realised Sansom wasn’t supposed to be playing. He was not invited. I explained this and how even though three players were now not playing he was ineligible for Killer, which he was out of now anyway following his miss, and that he couldn’t have a place in the knockout. He understood my reasoning and said he was just passing by and thought I wouldn’t mind his joining in. The other players insisted he play in the knockout, and I complied. With a simple bit of scribbling out and the adding in of his name, the imaginary Kenny Sansom replaced the imaginary Mark Lawrenson in quarterfinals.

Luis Suarez now placed the cue ball and took his shot. It wasn’t bad, but like Jonathan Wilson his ball refused to go down and hung perilously on the pocket’s lip, waiting to fall in. As Suarez walked away he left what others saw as a trailing leg and came into contact with the side of the table. The impact was minimal, but it was enough to cause his ball to drop.

Savage was first to complain and said there was no way he was having that. The others agreed and said it was a poor show on Suarez’s behalf. Suarez himself was on the floor rubbing away at his shin in an extremely affected way, like his leg might fall off if he didn’t. Though he was on his feet in seconds to protest his innocence when my decision to call his action a foul eliminated him from the game.

Kevin Keegan took the cue from Suarez and made no mistake with his shot. Paul Scholes then made a fantastic double and showed his accuracy and control over pool balls to be almost as great as his accuracy and control over the football. Robbie Savage completed a routine pot and Marcotti produced another splendid effort to suggest he was the one to beat. Kevin Keegan suffered from following Marcotti and missed, because, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out to everyone, Marcotti had grasped all the fundamentals of the game and was not only attacking well, but was demonstrating great defensive tactical thought and skilled command over the cue ball.

Scholes, Savage and Marcotti were the only players left. Based on research and calculations conducted on his smart phone and observations of what he’d seen so far, Wilson said that in all probability Marcotti would win on account of him being the better player. Savage took instant dislike to the Blizzard man’s insight.

He confronted Wilson and suggested both he and Scholes would triumph over Marcotti, as they each understand what it means to compete and win at the highest level. Savage went on to explain that Marcotti’s experience was gained from watching sport and that he would not know how to handle real pressure when it came. Scholes nodded. Wilson, like Marcotti, is a man familiar with the intense pressure caused by writing to deadline, and so he dismissed Savage contemptuously with the wave of a hand and a rather cute disbelieving chuckle that sounded like something that should have come out of a hamster.

In a pure act of intimidation Savage eyeballed Wilson. He then turned his attention to the slightly embarrassed and lightly perspiring Marcotti, and eyeballed him. Savage offered up a bet that Wilson and Marcotti both declined. Savage wandered off thinking he’d made his point and won. Wilson returned to his smart phone and began factoring in the Welshman’s desire to win.

Scholes took on and impressively sunk the next. So did Savage and Marcotti, who once again left the cue ball in an almost impossible position for Scholes. In a barley audible whisper Scholes asked for the cue ball to be cleaned. It was the one meaningful thing he’d said all game. Kenny Sansom performed the duties, reprising his Norman Wisdom impression, and cleaned the ball and took all of the credit when Scholes got lucky with a ricocheted ball that crept into a side pocket. Kenny was again very entertaining.

Savage asked Wilson for an opinion on who he now thought would win, and Wilson promptly told him he hadn’t changed his mind and that all evidence and reasoning pointed towards a Marcotti victory, but that they all had a chance. Savage told Wilson that he wasn’t being funny, but he was not going to listen to a man who’d been knocked out without potting a single ball. The others laughed, but not as loud as Wilson did when Robbie missed the pocket with his shot by a few inches.

Marcotti scored with his shot and again displayed his touch for the game by leaving Scholes in difficulty. This time it was too much for the Quiet Man, his shot to nothing produced exactly that: nothing. Marcotti graciously accepted the £40 prize money, saying he would donate it to my holiday fund, and selflessly congratulated the others on their performance.

I decided a drink at the bar would provide a nice break at this juncture. It was there, while sipping on a rum and coke, when it came to me. I ought to reinstate Joey Barton to the knockout competition and, like so many before, give him a second chance.

Back at the table I informed the players of my decision. The only two who didn’t threaten to walk if Barton returned were the journalists Wilson and Marcotti. I wasn’t sure about Scholes. I could barley understand the Ginger Prince when on the rare moments he decided to contribute he mumbled something or other, so I’d stopped listening to him a while back. Though I did have the distinct feeling he would’ve preferred to be with his family and wouldn’t have minded walking away anyway.

Marcotti was most vocal in his support for Barton’s returning to the competition. Wilson agreed with Marcotti, but mostly he was internally processing his thoughts about taking on Barton and then possibly Savage for a place in the final. He was excited at the prospect of taking on two of modern football’s hardest competitors, and if he lost to Barton? Well, he was just as excited by the potential Barton and Savage semi final grudge clash that was growing even juicier by the second with this falling-out. Again he let out that hamster-like chuckle.

By now, after he realised I wouldn’t budge and that Barton would play, Savage had taken to calling me pal in a way that gave me much unease each time he said it. He said it a lot as he kept reiterating there was no way he would play if Barton did. Suarez of all people went into a speech on rules, ethics and sportsmanship. It was surprisingly articulate, with many good and well-made points, but I had to look away from him for fear of laughing at the irony. Kenny Sansom said he wouldn’t play either if Barton came back, which I thought was a bit rich considering he himself wasn’t supposed to be playing, and Kevin Keegan said he was with Kenny, Bobby and the Uruguayan fella on this one.

So I picked the remaining coins off the table and went back to the bar, leaving my imaginary players to it.

 

Writer’s note:

Days after writing this story, Papiss Cissé wore the Newcastle United team shirt advertising a loans company. According to the media he had previously said he would never wear the shirt, because the company and its practices conflicted with his interpretation of the religion he follows and the responsibilities he takes from it. The media then informed us that discussions between him and his club were taking place to resolve the issue. Now he has apparently reversed his decision and will proudly wear the shirt in front of millions of fans worldwide.

That’s if he ever made the original decision not to wear the shirt as was reported in the first place, and, what I’m basically trying to say, is that even though what was said about him and the Newcastle United shirt may have actually just been a highly successful PR manoeuvre by the loans company to regularly communicate their messages to as great an audience as possible, I do regret not trying harder to persuade him to stay and play pool. 

 

 

   

Is Spanish football and the national team decline? by Soccer Punk

July 3, 2013

Some followers of football find Barcelona and Spain’s superior technical dominance boring, whereas others, myself included, have long been in awe. Both teams smother opponents with disciplined, often mesmerising, passing and movement, and combine this with a near tireless work ethic to regain the ball when it has been lost. The effect of this in full swing is both beautiful and terrifying. But is it over?

At the peak of their powers Barca and Spain redefined football. When they took to the pitch it was no longer a game that would ebb and flow from one to end to the other. Barca and Spain would simply keep and control the ball for 90 minutes, tormenting the opposition, weighing heavy on their chest and slowly choking the life out of them while threatening to strike at any second. Even the best teams they played suffered this fate.

It was a matador style of play, and, just like a matador with a bull, they wore opponents down with grace and poise and tired them out by making them chase shadows before finally driving the sword in deep for the kill, ripping straight through the heart.

However, 2013 has shown both teams to be vulnerable. Barca were soundly beaten over two legs by an athletic and technically gifted Bayern Munich side in the Champions League semi-final, and Spain were beaten 3-0 by Brazil in the Confederations Cup.

Both Barca and Spain are inextricably woven together, sharing many of the same players and characteristics of play. Was it fatigue finally catching up and causing this downfall? Age? Have they been worked out?

It will be interesting to see how both Barca and Spain respond in 2014. Barca has already recruited Brazil wonder kid Neymar, and Spain’s younger players have this summer been winning more tournaments.

However, what of the long-term? There is currently an exodus of Spanish players who, unable to represent either of the domestic giants Real Madrid or Barcelona, or at least wanting to sit on their bench, are leaving La Liga for better wages and perhaps an increased opportunity to win silverware – think David Silva, Juan Mata and Javi Martinez.

The Barca and Real duopoly seems unlikely to be broken any time soon, and with them both earning more than the rest from television rights and regular participation in the Champions League, it is easy to see La Liga becoming an even less competitive and weaker league, especially as Spain’s economic problems continue and players leave in numbers for opportunity in other countries.

A possible headache for the national team (and many of the clubs) is the number of foreign teams circling the next generation of Spanish players. A move abroad can be a good football education, but for a long time now Spain has been regarded as one of the best countries for coaching and improving young players. Will the next generation be improved moving abroad, or will their development suffer? Will this be the undoing of Spain and cause them to ultimately lose their Matador identity and become once again ordinary?

The art of hitting the bar (and post) by Soccer Punk

July 3, 2013

Johan Cruyff once said he would purposely try to hit the crossbar because it was more aesthetically pleasing. I agree. When the ball pings back off the bar or post it is almost always the single most exciting, dramatic and pleasing moment in the game, and is certainly much better to look at than any goal. Yet somehow the media only ever remember goals.

For instance, everyone can recall the brilliance of Maradona’s much shown dribbled goal against England in Mexico, regarded by many as the greatest ever scored. Yet few remember the 1989 Copa America match between Uruguay and Argentina and the piece of genius that followed when just inside the Uruguay half Maradona received the ball with his back to the goal and in a flash spun and sent a looping volley over Uruguay’s back four. The ball soared high and also caught out Uruguay’s keeper, Javier Zeoli, who was now a spectator in no-mans-land, watching like the rest of us as the ball cannoned back off the bar and sailed once more over his head, clearing the penalty box.

Go to 1min 40sec for Maradona hitting the bar

In terms of aesthetics, Maradona’s spectacular miss will always trump his goal against England. Heck, that goal is even eclipsed by the twenty-year-old Maradona hitting a post at Wembley during a 1980 meeting with England.

Go to 1min 30sec for Maradona’s hitting the post against England

Not only do we not celebrate the beauty of hitting the woodwork, but we are also guilty of seriously undervaluing these instances that are good enough to beat the goalie but not quite good enough to hit the back of the net. For reasons that are blindingly obvious, I believe the laws of the game can be improved so that before penalties are used in matches that cannot end in draws, they are first settled by the number of times during the game each team has struck the woodwork, with the one who has hit the bar and posts the most progressing.

Yet that rule change is unlikely to happen, and without added importance and the media’s continued fascination with remembering goals and ignoring the beautiful world of woodwork hitting, it would seem the times when players hit the bar or post will be forgotten by all except for people like me who collect and appreciate them like others collect and appreciate art.

So spare a thought for Jamie Carragher and remember him in his last game for Liverpool with all sides of Anfield demanding he shoot when the ball came to him some distance outside the QPR box. Think of how he obliged this request by shooting hard and how the ball took a slight nick off a QPR defender, which did nothing to the shot’s power as it fizzed goalward.

Remember all of Anfield watching on, dreaming of a fairytale ending for their Liverpool legend, and how the Kop instinctively drew in its breath, once more trying to suck the ball into the net. And remember how instead of finding the top corner, which is where the ball was surely headed until its cruel deflection, it instead cannoned off the left post and out.

Carragher’s was a most spectacular and wonderful miss, replayed and lamented that night by Match of the Day pundits, before being cast aside, never to be seen again. So, given the context, I wonder if Cruyff would say it was English football’s most aesthetically pleasing bit of woodwork hitting since the 1966 World Cup Final, and worthy of exhibit at the Tate?

 

Sir Alex to manage Man U again and the fix to make Chelsea the 2013-14 Premier League champions? By Roland Rock

June 24, 2013

All over the world this summer hundreds of meaningful football matches will be taking place, but none will be happening here in the UK. Here it is football downtime. And we are at that stage in the fallow period when fevered fans who are barley surviving on their daily diet of transfer speculation and wondering how managerial appointments and new player signings will work out begin seriously counting down the days to the start of the new season. When you are used to dining on caviar for much of the year it is not easy make the instant transition to having to swallow tripe.

Ray was making this exact point to a very influential figure connected to the Premier League who drinks too much. It was late at night and Ray was sitting with this man, they were hidden away in a booth of a club and having what Ray thought was a pleasant and private conversation when suddenly the man leaned across and grabbed Ray’s tie and pulled. Ray’s chin smacked down hard on the table. The man smirked and asked if he had Ray’s attention.

Considering the pictures Ray had of the man, it was a risky thing to do, but perhaps understandable. Ray decided the man could have this one for free and dabbed at his bleeding lip with a napkin, assuring the man that if he didn’t before he sure as shit had his attention now. Then stretching out his considerable 6ft 5 frame, flexing his muscles and cracking his knuckles, all in one fluid movement that spoke of aggression and a love for inflicting pain, Ray warned the man never to pull a stunt like that again if he valued his life.

The man moved on as if nothing had happened and began talking football truths that you’d probably never hear or read about on the rumour mill.

First he informed Ray of medical teams at Premier League clubs scouring the globe in search of the very finest in tetanus and rabies shots. They want the vaccinations in place for next season, as there is a fear the Premier League super villain The Nibbler will strike again. Even though Luis Suarez will have probably moved to Germany, Spain or Italy, medical teams do not want to risk it. Suarez might stay another season and, you see, medical teams at Premier League clubs like to be prepared, and they are also a superstitious bunch that knows these things come in threes.

Premier League fears The Nibbler will strike a third time

Premier League fears The Nibbler will strike a third time

Feeling this ‘tip-off’ was designed to ridicule him, Ray explained the need for something better to give his clients and shoved a picture under the man’s nose to encourage him to be more productive.

Recognising his face in the picture the man agreed, and shooing Ray with his hand so Ray would put the picture away he said, “you heard it here first.”

Sir Alex to replace David Moyes

Sir Alex to return as manager of Manchester United?

“Tell your clients there is a chance of Fergie being made manager of Manchester United again by the end of January 2014. If it goes pear-shaped for Moyes, Fergie will be brought back temporarily to save the season. It’s unlikely Moyes

will find himself in the relegation zone or thereabouts at Christmas, but your clients might be interested to kn

ow the contingency plan is in place and the club holds it as a viable and working option.”

Next up the man advised Ray to ensure his clients do not bet on Brendan Rodgers being sacked from Liverpool anytime soon. Word is Liverpool are a work in progress and those running the club will accept short-term disappointment for long-term success, believing Rodgers is the right man for right now to deliver what they want.

Ray thanked him for helping his clients save money and reminded the man that he and his clients are in the business of making money, not saving it. The man said he perfectly understood and suggested Ray tells his clients to put many £££s on Chelsea winning the league, as it had already been decided.

Mourinho Premier League trophy

Will Mourinho once again have his hands on the Premier League trophy come May 2014?

When Ray questioned the man on the authenticity of such a claim, he just laughed at Ray’s naivety and said that Ray had been in this business long enough to know how the business works, and that if Ray really didn’t know by now he should go back and speak to his clients who’d clue him up.

The fix was in. Ray ran it over in his head. Chelsea will win the league, though the man might be falling on his own sword and lying to discredit Ray so his clients turn against him and it would be no more Ray.

Ray brought the picture out again, only for a second, and asked for something extra. Something wild. Something he could use that would show him that the man wasn’t full of shit and trying to set him up with the Chelsea tip-off.

The man smiled and nodded and told Ray about a broadsheet journalist preparing a drug cheat scandal set to rock the world of football in much the same way the Lance Armstrong revelations rocked cycling. Evidence had been accrued, but said evidence could be expunged, made to disappear, even, and the story could be nipped in the bud, which would delight so many powerful people in the game who cannot afford its image to be tarnished. The man went into his briefcase and fished out a piece of paper listing names of footballers from around the world that’d be thankful and willing to do favours if someone could silence the journalist whose name was at the very top of the list. He pushed it across the table towards Ray.

Ray pocketed the list and stood up to leave. Before going he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and told him he’d be back in touch very soon.

A scrapbook of football events in March

March 28, 2013

From Sir Alex Ferguson blowing his stack after defeat to Real Madrid to people who bemoan the lack of romance in modern football while at the same time trying kill whatever romance is left. A football review of March 2013.

Real Madrid’s March visit to Old Trafford for the second leg of their Champions League duel with Manchester United left two lasting images.

The first was the tireless performance of the evergreen Ryan Giggs. Deployed by his manager in a central midfield position, Giggs chased down, harried and disrupted Real Madrid attacks with all the vigour of a player half his age. He is best known for excellent creative wing play, but when operating in the centre there is another dimension to his game that is often overlooked. He is very good defensively and, unlike teammate Paul Scholes, is a master of clean, crisp tackling. It is hard to believe that next birthday Giggs will be 40 years young, yet there he was against Madrid, still playing at the highest level in what was his 1000th competitive game in a glittering career, sprightly and canny as ever, displaying little evidence of slowing. He may not be Manchester United’s captain, but United will probably never have a better leader on the pitch, such is his example.

Which brings us to United’s leader off the pitch and the second lasting image of the night. It was an image that occurred in the mind moments after the final whistle when news filtered out that Sir Alex Ferguson was “too distraught” to fulfil his post-match media commitments. Too distraught? Apocalyptic more like. “Too distraught” was surely PR code for ‘Being restrained by members of his team and match day security who, armed with mops and brooms, had cornered the fiery Scot in the dressing room after he downed Mourinho’s gift of an expensive red in one before smashing the end off the bottle against a wall and threatening to go out and slice open the ref who sent Nani off – a reaction to the official’s controversial decision that altered the game in Madrid’s favour and ultimately cost United the tie.’

Seconds later the near 10 million watching events at home on ITV must have collectively thought, ‘if Fergie’s angry now, just wait till he sees a playback of Roy Keane’s comments.’

March was the month when United’s former skipper Roy Keane brought some of the aggression he used to show on the pitch into the normally sedate arena of football punditry. After the United/Madrid game and England’s 1-1 draw in Montenegro, Keane was blunt and honest to the point of being uncomfortably so, which makes him excellent to watch as he struggles to contain his emotions. Pens are thrown down in disgust, he huffs, puffs, shakes his head when others are speaking and offers occasional verbal tics that illustrate strongly he does not agree, and this provides a dramatic tension in the studio and a sense that Chiles, Dixon and Southgate are walking on eggshells in his presence. No one wants to be the one who sets him off. It is like he has secretly spat out the brain-numbing medication TV sports producers give football pundits before they go on air, which is why he reminds me very much of another rebellious Irishman, Randall McMurphy, the mutinous character in Ken Kesey’s splendid book One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

While this was going on at Old Trafford a man who was up in court last year admitting to being “the most disorganised person ever”, and also revealing that he’d never read a book, wrote like a two year old, couldn’t spell, had no financial acumen and didn’t know what an email was, basically pining his whole defence on being too stupid to do the crime, was surprisingly given plenty of airtime and column inches by the football media. There was Harry Redknapp, football’s very own Rain Man, telling the world QPR needed to achieve 37 points by the end of the season if they wanted to stay in the Premier League. It was, of course, an excellent mind game from the wily campaigner, designed to unsettle the concentration and focus of players and teams above QPR that are also involved in the relegation scrap. We shall have to wait to the end of the season to see if this man with severe learning difficulties, who is also a director of three real estate businesses, and whose home is a £10 million house in Sandbanks, is right.

Towards the end of March a large group of English people connected to football who eulogise the ‘romance of football’ whenever a ‘David versus Goliath’ match is drawn in the FA Cup, conveniently put aside all thoughts of romance when adopting the deeply pragmatic view that lesser European national teams should enter pre-qualifying rounds to gain the right to contest in qualification for European and World Cup tournaments. This point was amplified in the wake of England’s comfortable 8-0 stroll over a San Marino team for whom winning a corner is cause to celebrate. This arrogant group asked why England should have to bother wasting their time with little teams like this? Why indeed. Then again, why should top international teams have to bother with decidedly average international teams like England? Prevent lesser European national teams from playing in the qualifiers as they do now and it will deprive us of unforgettable moments to laugh at, such as when Scotland twice failed to beat the Faroe Islands and the time San Marino went 1-nil up against England after just 10 seconds.

Liverpool FC foil gangsters

March 14, 2013

From match fixing in football to Larry David’s new appointment at Boca. A football review of February 2013. 

February greeted the UK with subzero temperatures and snowstorms, and news of a truly shocking global match fixing conspiracy. I used to watch a match and believe what I saw on the pitch. Now thanks to the unwelcome and widespread presence of organised crime infiltrating Football, when watching a match it is hard to trust your eyes. Doubt is present and compels you to wonder if what just happened on the field was choreographed by ‘bought off’ players and/or match officials to suit the wishes of an illegal gambling syndicate, the bastards

At its best Football provides us with a captivating unscripted drama of immense power and quality. It’s just that these days Football has criminals supplying players and match officials with a script to fix certain outcomes so they can make huge amounts of money by gambling on them happening. The result is that what was once random and beautiful is less so, and this makes me sad.

Though I’m not sure what is worse? The crushing realisation football is dirty, or the fact I wasn’t in on it. I would have enjoyed making successful bets and pretending that I had some sort of sixth sense as I collected my vast winnings from the bookies. Even so, the extent of 680 fixed matches in 30 counties, including international matches and the high profile Champions League is very serious and damaging. For the sake of the sport it clearly has to be stopped. Match fixing is no laughing matter. Except for the one match of those 680 that took place in England, the farcical 2009 Champions League group game between Liverpool and Debrecen.

If the allegation is correct and Liverpool were indeed playing that September night with an extra man, the Debrecen goalkeeper who was on the payroll of match fixing gangsters to assist Liverpool in any way he could so that they scored at least three goals past him, it’s funny. Funny because as a gambler you would think a set up like that was a sure thing, but even with the help of the opposition’s goalkeeper, hapless Liverpool could still only score one goal. Ho, ho, ho. That’s funny, and it becomes more so, because not only did the Liverpool players inadvertently thwart this crime by not being able to hit a cow’s ass with a banjo, but their piss-poor finishing also inspired an angry exchange of texts amongst the gangsters, texts that later exposed their illegal enterprise to the authorities and now forms part of the proof against them. You have to laugh.

Elsewhere in February a Reuters report announced that Chelsea and England midfielder Frank Lampard has taken to writing fiction and is set to publish five children’s books about a young boy, his dog and his football-loving friends. (Good for him, this sounds okay so far.)

In the report Frank makes a statement explaining the idea of writing the series of books came to him when he read to his own children at home. (Hmm, there’s further promise found here, He’s been doing his research, and with all cynicism aside you have to figure that with Lampard’s appeal his books could inspire a generation into reading, and that has to be brilliant news any way you look at it.)

The project also sees “Shrek” animator Mike Jackson onboard to illustrate the series. (My god, this could be fantastic.)

The report goes on to inform how Neil Blair and Zoe King, who took forward J.K Rowling’s deal for her “Harry Potter” series, handled Lampard’s deal. (Seriously, with successful big-hitters who both know a thing or two about the children’s book market staking their reputation and pushing this through, I can’t see how Lampard won’t deliver parents and children something very special indeed. It’s maybe too early to begin bandying around the words ‘genius’ and ‘literary masterpiece’, but we have a winner here. It’s extremely hard to see how this could fail.)

The report also tells us Lampard is using his own experiences for the stories, (Uh oh…) and Frank’s statement ends by telling us the stories are also loosely based on friends and teammates. (Oh dear… Oh well)

As well as giving children’s literature a new voice in the guise of an author who in the past took part in a sex tape with two professional footballer friends, and who on another occasion with three Chelsea teammates upset grieving Americans at Heathrow airport the day after 9/11 with an insensitive display of public drunkenness that included stripping, swearing and puking, and whose teammates whose experiences he intends to use who are themselves often singled out as men of questionable moral fibre, February also gifted us the horsemeat scandal.

The horsemeat scandal was great, but only because I had always feared that whatever was in my burger was much worse. I was sort of relieved to find out it was just horse and let out a big ‘phew!’ and continued stuffing my face. The scandal also provided wags an excellent opportunity to make jokes at the expense of teams not doing so well, with gems such as ‘Food hygienists looking for traces of horsemeat checked the Emirates Stadium, but could only find donkeys’

In February Brenda Rodgers told the BBC Raheem Sterling had lost his zip. Ever since hearing this odd declaration I’ve been plagued with a mental image of the Liverpool youngster walking by himself in the wintry conditions shivering, unable to do up his coat. Poor lamb.

Meanwhile, a sneak preview of the new Curb Your Enthusiasm series aired, showing a dramatic change in fortunes for Larry David, as he is installed as  the new manager of Boca Juniors.

Manchester United Vs Real Madrid – United’s finest 45 minutes

February 12, 2013

As Manchester United prepare to do battle with Real Madrid once more, Roland Rock looks back to the half-time team talk that inspired United’s finest 45 minutes of football.

When Sir Matt Busby’s Manchester United trudged down the Bernabeu tunnel at half-time and made their way to the dressing room, 3-1 down on the night to a rampant Real Madrid in the second leg of their 1968 European Cup semi-final, there were not many in the stadium who would have put their pesetas on the glorious second half comeback they were about to witness. Madrid, the dominant force of early European Cup football and 5-3 conquerors of United in their previous semi-final meeting eleven years earlier, was firmly in control and eyeing an eighth final appearance in thirteen years.

Yet what happened in United’s dressing room has since entered football folklore, as one of the best half-time team talks ever given. Outplayed and seemingly beaten, Sir Matt, following a long period of silence, told his team a simple truth that re-motivated his men.

“I reminded the players that the aggregate score was 3-2 and that we were in effect only one goal behind. I told them to get out and play. After all, if you are 3-2 down at half-time in an FA Cup-tie you don’t consider you are finished.”

In the second-half United abandoned the cautious approach of the first half and attacked Real. In the last twenty minutes David Sadler pulled a goal back. Then with ten minutes left to play and both teams seemingly guarded and frightened of losing, the unlikely figure of Bill Foulkes popped up to score, making it 3-3 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate in United’s favour.

It was fitting that central defender Foulkes would score the goal that would take Manchester United to their first European Cup final. He was, at that point, England’s most experienced player in Europe, a veteran of United’s very first game in European Cup competition against Anderlecht some twelve years earlier, and a survivor of the Munich air crash. He had shared the whole trial and tragedy of United’s quest with Busby.

Bill Foulkes in action

Speaking to David Meek for the book Red Devils in Europe, Foulkes said of his goal, “Paddy Crerand was taking it (a throw-in) and no-one seemed to want the ball. I shouldn’t have done, but I called for it. Paddy looked and decided against. He threw it to George (Best) who promptly shot off down the wing and eluded three or four tackles. Perhaps it was with moving slightly forward to call for the throw-in that prompted me to keep running. Anyway, I reached the corner of the box and again I found myself calling for the ball. George saw me and I thought I was going to be ignored again. I thought George was going to shoot, but instead he cut back the most beautiful ball to me. It was perfect and I just had to side-foot it in at the far side.”

The scene in United’s dressing room at full-time was in stark contrast to those just forty-five minutes earlier. In his column the next day for the Manchester Evening News, United midfielder Paddy Crerand wrote, “Manager Matt Busy, unashamedly and understandably crying, hugged us all one by one. We all broke into a spontaneous round of clapping.”

Sir Matt Busby and Manchester United, backed by club chairman Harold Hardman, led the way for English teams in European club competition and had the foresight to defy the insular English FA by entering the 1956-57 European Cup draw as champions of England. Chelsea spurned the opportunity the season before, and so it was that United became the first English team to compete against the continent’s best. Then in 1968, ten years on from the terrible Munich disaster, Busby and Manchester United would follow up their Madrid miracle and famously complete their European odyssey with a 4-1 victory over Benfica in the final at Wembley.

From Raheem Sterling comparing his Liverpool manager to a middle-aged Jamaican lady, to white hanky protests and cup football becoming sexy again. A football review of January 2013.

February 2, 2013

Liverpool and England’s Raheem Sterling told John Cross of the Daily Mirror that his “remarkable journey from hardship to becoming one of the Premier League’s most exciting youngsters” was down to his mum. The talented teenager explained that his mum, Nadine, rules his life, is constantly telling him how to improve his game and that it is very much like having his very own Jose Mourinho on hand.

Thinking it might help improve my own football abilities, or at the very least provide an interesting experiment to write about here on the Soccer Punk blog, I went round my mum’s house and asked her if she would be my Special One.

Mum looked puzzled initially at this request, then she thought about it for a few moments before replying calmly, “I think it’s illegal, and I’m not sure your dad would like it, or your wife.”

“No!” I cried. “That’s not what I meant” and I showed her the Sterling interview. Upon seeing this she looked relieved and we both agreed not to pursue the experiment further, or to speak about it ever again.

The most worrying aspect, aside from the whole oedipal thing of my mum briefly thinking I wanted to have sex with her, was a line in the interview from Sterling about his mum: “Some of the stuff she’s telling me, the manager is telling me as well.” It is a comment that suggests Brendan Rodgers has the football brain of a middle aged Jamaican lady, which could explain some of Liverpool’s stranger results this season. On the flipside it might actually mean that Nadine really does know what she is talking about and that she is a football manager in waiting whom Premier League clubs thinking of changing manager should consider.

One team that did change manager in January was Southampton. The south coast team overlooked Nadine and replaced the unlucky Nigel Adkins with the largely unheard of (in England, anyway) Mauricio Pochettino. In Pochettino’s first game in charge, a 0-0 draw at home to Everton in front of the television cameras, it was expected that Saints fans would wave white handkerchiefs to protest the board’s decision to sack Adkins. However, the protest never materialised as fans realised the appearance of thousands of white handkerchiefs wouldn’t achieve much, except make observers who hadn’t heard about the protest think Southampton was suffering a massive flu epidemic.

As Nigel Adkins was being sacked, the publicity shy but always thought provoking Joey Barton claimed on Twitter to be more intelligent than 97% of the social network site’s users, and that football had held him back in life. It’s not clear at this stage what Twitter enthusiasts such as the leader of the free world and President of the United States, Barrack Obama, the Dalai Lama or theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, thought of the controversial Marseille midfielder’s put down, but the general feeling is that without football Joey would be unknown, and maybe in jail.

Following the Spurs and Man U 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane, the FA asked Sir Alex Ferguson to explain post-match comments he made about one of the officials. I know he’s a Scot with an accent, but he’s not that hard to understand. Bit racist of the FA that.

January was also the month when English cup football became sexy again. All round the country there were shocks and upsets aplenty, and there were none more shocked and upset than the Swansea ball boy who received a good kicking from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. Failing to give Hazard the ball after it went out of play, the Swansea youth suffered at the hands, or rather at the boots, of Chelsea’s highly rated Belgium international. It was an unexpected piece of violence which, when you consider Hazard’s first name, should really have prompted more puns in the media along the lines of EDEN’S NOT PERFECT. The League Cup’s other semi-final saw the biggest shock of the season so far, in that a very poor Aston Villa team had somehow reached that stage of the competition. How? Order was dutifully restored by League Two’s Bradford City who comfortably eased past Villa and on to a final showdown with Swansea.

The FA Cup, the oldest and most prestigious football competition in the world, resumed in January, affording lower and non-league clubs the opportunity to put it up their Premier League and Championship counterparts, and my how they did. Brendan Rodgers, who must have been having one of his middle-aged Jamaican lady coaching days, saw his Liverpool team knocked out by Oldham Athletic 3-2. Yet the biggest surprise, surpassing even Villa’s shock appearance in the League Cup semi-final, was reserved for Norwich City, defeated at home 1-0 by non-league Luton Town. It was the first time a non-league club had beaten a top-flight team since Sutton United put Coventry City out 2-1, in the 1988-89 season.

There was even more cup football in January with the African Cup of Nations kicking off in South Africa. DR Congo goalkeeper Muteba Kidiaba treated us all to one of the oddest goal celebrations ever seen, which sparked a worldwide trend of copycats. Or should that be copydogs?