30 November 2012

Last-gasp England lift Victory Shield

Jordan Rossiter lifts the Victory Shield, the latest England captain to do so.
ENGLAND 1-0 SCOTLAND
A dramatic late winner from Giorgio Rasulo gave England a victory over Scotland which ensured that they would win the Victory Shield outright yet again.

Kenny Swain's boys were already guaranteed to lift the Shield for a 12th successive year, but they went into the match in Burton knowing that a Scottish win would see them share the spoils with the Scots. In the end, victory meant that they ended the tournament with a perfect record of three wins and no goals conceded.

Just two minutes into the action, England had their first chance. A fantastic cross from Mandela Egbo right on the byline found Joshua Onomah, who flashed a header just wide.

Five minutes later, a free-kick from Mukhtar Ali led to a goalmouth scramble in the Scotland area. A number of English players had half-chances, but the opportunity to score was lost when Onomah shot wide from inside the six-yard box.

Scotland weren't without their attacking threats. Calvin Miller again looked lively in the opposition's half, as did Greg Kiltie, whose game would end at half-time due to injury.

That said, most of the action was in Scotland's half. The Tartan Army kept the deadlock intact thanks to some assured goalkeeping from Rangers' Robbie McCrorie, who midway through the half did well to catch a low effort from England skipper Jordan Rossiter.

The Scots' best chance of the half came after 32 minutes, but Ciaran Lafferty couldn't get a clean connection to Miller's cross from the right wing.

In injury-time, Fulham striker Patrick Roberts had a chance to put England ahead, but gave himself too much time, and his low shot was cleared just inches from the line by Michael Kelly.

When play resumed, Onomah continued to struggle up front for the Three Lions. On 42 minutes, he went through on goal, but some strong defending on Adam Hodge's part kept him at bay.

Demetri Mitchell, one of England's better performers, brought a catch out of McCrorie with an audacious long-distance shot in the 48th minute. Sadly for him, injury would soon bring a premature end to his game.

England goalkeeper Ryan Huddart was having as good a game as his counterpart, and on 52 minutes made a fine save from Kelly's free-kick.

Seven minutes after that, McCrorie was equal to a free-kick taken by Ryan Ledson, and a few moments later, the Scottish custodian kept out Onomah's flicked header. When Brandon Fox tried his luck from inside the area in the 69th minute, he was also denied by McCrorie.

After a nervy final 10 minutes of normal time, the game sprung back into life in injury-time. Seconds into stoppage time, Scotland substitute Joe Thomson saw his header blocked by the left leg of Huddart, and Tom Brewitt cleared before Thomson could fire the rebound home.

Three minutes later, Scottish hearts were broken. Callum Cooke won the ball for the hosts, and exchanged passes with Rasulo before aiming a shot at goal. Ryan Caird's tackle on Cooke deflected the ball towards Rasulo, and the 15-year-old - who has already played for the Milton Keynes Dons first-team - couldn't possibly miss.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Scotland, who have shown plenty of promise in their first year under Mark Wotte's guidance. With some of the tournament's standout players in their ranks, it's difficult to believe that they only finished 3rd with one win and two losses.

But once again, the plaudits have gone to England. They have retained the Shield with three wins out of three, and there can be no doubt that they deserve it.

ENGLAND: Huddart; Dasilva, Gomez (Adarabioyo), Brewitt, Egbo; Mitchell (Cooke), Ledson (Pybus), Rossiter, Ali (Fox); Onomah, Roberts (Rasulo).
SCORER: Rasulo 80.
Booked: Brewitt 52.

SCOTLAND: McCrorie; Kelly, Breslin, Hodge, Wardrop; Caird, Boyd (Nesbitt), Petrie; Kiltie (Spence), Lafferty (Hardie), Miller (Thomson).
Booked: Petrie 50.

TDTR Man of the Match: Robbie McCrorie (Scotland). The Rangers goalkeeper showed great maturity on this big occasion, and after shutting out England for so long with some fantastic saves, he didn't deserve to be on the losing team.

29 November 2012

Fall and rise of the Norteys

Everton striker Nikica Jelavic: He's hot, then he's cold.

With the Premier League fixtures for October and November now completed, it's time to look at the progress of The Daily Transfer Request's official Fantasy Premier League team.

October was a pretty bad month for the Nortei Norteys, who slipped to their lowest overall position to date, but some good performances in November have been cause for encouragement.

GAMEWEEK 7
We made one transfer prior to Gameweek 7, that being the introduction of Ben Foster and the axing of John Ruddy. But against a struggling Queens Park Rangers, West Bromwich Albion keeper Foster conceded two goals and only picked up one point.
 All of our starting players scored at least one point, but only captain Nikica Jelavic - who found the net - and midfielder Adam Lallana got more than three. As a result, we only scored 30 goals, and had our lowest weekly ranking to date. Not a fantastic start to the month, to be honest.
POINTS: 30 (299 Overall). RANKING: 2,345,133rd (1,409,453rd Overall).

GAMEWEEK 8
This week could best be described as average for the Nortei Norteys. 42 points was just below the average, as was our weekly ranking.
 Once again, it was a poor choice of captain that cost us dearly. It wasn't Yohan Cabaye or Adam Lallana, who were both on target, or Manchester United's Danny Welbeck, who trumped the duo with a goal and an assist. Had Welbeck been my skipper, his 10 points would've been doubled to 20. But no, it was instead Nikica Jelavic, who scored... one point, ah ah ah, doubled to two points, ah ah ah!
 Now if you don't mind, I'm off to call 999 because I think I'm having a cardiac arrest.
POINTS: 42 (341 Overall). RANKING: 1,301,917th (1,420,434th Overall).

GAMEWEEK 9
And we'll move swiftly on to gameweek 10... oh, you want to know what happened in week 9.
 I won't beat around the bush. We were terrible, as not one player scored more than two points, leaving us with our worst overall ranking this season. In fact, we were so bad that there were only around 50,000 players (out of nearly 2.5million) that fared worse than us this week!
 Also, Scott Sinclair's lack of games for Manchester City meant that his value was falling faster than Jimmy Savile's reputation. I put on my Abramovich act and wielded my axe for the following week.
POINTS: 14 (355 Overall). RANKING: 2,443,249th (1,812,066th Overall).

GAMEWEEK 10
The big transfer of the week saw the aforementioned Sinclair shafted, and replaced by Liverpool's teenage sensation Raheem Sterling. He had a solid debut for the Norteys, but it was the performance of other players that caught the eye.
 West Bromwich Albion's clean sheet meant big points for Liam Ridgewell and Foster, the latter of whom scored 8 in his last game before a serious injury curtailed his Norteys career. The star performer was Cabaye, whose goal for Newcastle United at Liverpool helped him towards a weekly tally of nine.
 45 points is not a particularly bad score - we moved up nearly 100,000 places, and ended up with exactly 400 points after ten rounds. However, our team value dropped below £98million for the first time, so that was a cause for some concern.
POINTS: 45 (400 Overall). RANKING: 588,345th (1,712,550th Overall).

GAMEWEEK 11
Not a week to remember. Jelavic and David Silva were our top scorers on 7 apiece, but the Norteys only managed 32 points and dropped back down the standings. My choice of Swansea City defender Angel Rangel as captain didn't pay off, as he only had two points to double.
 Nothing more to say here, so moving on...
POINTS: 32 (432 Overall). RANKING: 1,914,941st (1,777,556th Overall).

GAMEWEEK 12
Better - but another golden opportunity missed. Here's what happened: Sterling got two assists, Silva one goal and two assists, and Steven Fletcher one of each. Who did I have as captain? Jelavic, who scored an average one point, doubled to two, compared to Silva's undoubled 16.
 As for the overall performance of the team, we scored 52 points, putting us nicely in the middle of the weekly standings. Not bad, but we were Aldershot Town reserves compared to one team who scored an unbelievable 132 points this week alone!
POINTS: 52 (484 Overall). RANKING: 1,219,263rd (1,745,588th Overall).

GAMEWEEK 13
A serious injury to Cabaye meant that the Nortei Norteys were robbed of the excellent Newcastle United midfielder. His replacement was Michu, who was enjoying a fine start to life at Swansea City. The Spaniard would've scored three debut points had he not been benched, but I wasn't too worried, because for us, this was a solid week scoring-wise.
 Two assists (Fletcher and Welbeck) and two clean sheets (Ashley Cole and Matthew Lowton) helped us to pick up a decent enough weekly score of 43 points. The Norteys' steady ascent up the rankings continued.
POINTS: 43 (527 Overall). RANKING: 778,760th (1,704,112th Overall).

GAMEWEEK 14
I made two late changes to the squad for the midweek Premier League fixtures. Foster and Phil Jagielka were both on their way out. Joe Hart immediately vindicated my signing of him by keeping a clean sheet for Manchester City, and fellow newcomer Steven Caulker justified my decision NOT to start him, as he didn't feature for Tottenham Hotspur against Liverpool.
 Meanwhile, Michu scored for Swansea after finally coming into my starting XI, playing a key role in the Norteys' solid 43-point performance. Cole and Lowton also fared well in defence.
 Just over a third of the way through the season, and the Nortei Norteys are some way off their end-of-season target of the top million. Our short-term aim is to make sure that we are still in the top 2,097,152 by Gameweek 18, as this will mean entry into the Cup - or at least the Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Extra Preliminary Round of it.
POINTS: 43 (570 Overall). RANKING: 1,448,978th (1,701,326th Overall).

So, how is everyone else in our official Ivan Golac Cup league trophy shield vase thing faring? Here are the standings after four calendar months of action:
1. Tarxien (663)
2. Semprit FC (661)
3. Daryoush FC (656)
4. The Nortei Norteys (570)
5. LepraFC (562)

It's shaping up to be a very close battle between the top three, but at the moment, the Australian team has the advantage. Apparently, their manager supports Manchester City, which reminds me of a stereotypical Aussie question: "What's your favourite colour, blue?"

Anyway, it's all to play for, so I'll be keeping you updated on the closest title race since, er, the last one.

27 November 2012

Gary Speed remembered

Gary Speed: 1969-2011. Never forgotten.
It was on this day last year that British football lost one of its most popular figures.

We were all shocked when, at around lunchtime on Sunday 27 November 2011, we heard the devastating news that Gary Speed was dead. The suicide of Wales' popular young manager and former midfielder, who was just 42 years old, came out like a bolt from the blue.

Speed was found hanged at his home in Chester, just a day after appearing to be a picture of happiness and health on the BBC's Football Focus programme. While the show was being filmed, the Wales boss was speaking very positively about the future of Welsh football.

As a player, Speed was a decorated attacking midfielder who won the 1992 Division 1 title with his first club Leeds United and went on to play for Everton, Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers in a long Premier League career. He made 535 appearances in the PL - a record which stood until David James surpassed it.

Speed also won 85 caps for Wales between 1990 and 2004. After a short managerial stint at Sheffield United, where he ended his playing career, the Flintshire native was hired by the FAW to manage a Wales team in turmoil.

The Dragons had plenty of exceptional young players like Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen. However, building up their confidence and creating a team that could challenge for qualification for a FIFA World Cup or European Championship proved a difficult task for previous manager John Toshack.

His impact as Dragons manager could not be overestimated. When he took over in December 2010, Wales were ranked 112th in a row. Ten months later, they were 45th.

Wales had won five of their ten matches under Speed's tenure, including four of his last five. Their excellent form earned them FIFA's Best Mover award for 2011, and they were placed in a competitive but winnable World Cup qualifying group, but just two weeks after they beat Norway 4-1 in a friendly, Speed was dead.

Speed's loss shattered the morale of the national team, who under Chris Coleman won only one match this year. It is very easy to criticise Coleman, but he took what was almost an impossible job under those circumstances.

His many friends were quick to pay tribute to the man they called 'Speedo'. One of them was Sky Sports reporter Bryn Law, who like Speed was from North Wales and based in Yorkshire. Law couldn't hold back the tears in a report on his long-term pal the day after his passing.

Gary's death also had a devastating impact on his family - his wife of 15 years, Louise, and his sons Ed and Tom.

The Speed legacy lives on in 14-year-old Ed, who was an unused substitute for Wales Under-16s' Victory Shield match in Northern Ireland last week. There is a bright future ahead for Ed, and Gary will undoubtedly be looking down from upstairs as a very proud dad.

Gary Speed, we miss you, and we never will forget you.

26 November 2012

It was 20 years ago today

20 years ago today, Eric Cantona joined Manchester United.

There will be no Weekend Reflections today. Instead, we'll be reflecting on a transfer that changed the destiny of English football's biggest prize 20 years ago today.

The day before 26 November 1992, Howard Wilkinson - the manager of Leeds United, the last team to win the Football League Championship before the Premier League was born - made an offer to his Manchester United counterpart, Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson takes up the story, "Leeds came on the phone asking if we'd sell them Denis Irwin. It was a non-starter.

"But jokingly I suggested we'd swap him for Eric Cantona, and there was this pause at the other end..."

Ferguson was in need of a new striker at Old Trafford. The Red Devils had come second to the Whites in the previous year's title race, but now they were 8th in the table. In their last 13 games, they had found the net a mere nine times on the way to just two victories.

The Scot searched everywhere in England for a new forward. He inquired about Southampton's penalty expert Matt Le Tissier and Sheffield Wednesday's exciting striker David Hirst. He also looked into the possibility of signing Brian Deane, who a few months earlier became the Premier League's first goalscorer as Sheffield United won 2-1 against Fergie's men.

Cantona's goalscoring record with Leeds wasn't something to write home about. He scored nine goals in 28 league matches for the Yorkshire club - not absolutely brilliant by a forward's standards, but he did set up plenty for Lee Chapman, who was their main goalgetter. The France international also bagged himself a hat-trick in the season-opening Charity Shield against Liverpool.

On 25 November, Ferguson was in a meeting with United chairman Martin Edwards, who received a phone call from the other United's managing director, Bill Fotherby, who enquired about Irwin.

Edwards said a straight no to Leeds' offer, but after failing in a counter-offer for Chapman, he saw that Ferguson had scribbled Cantona's name on a piece of paper. When Edwards mentioned the name of the man who would become King Eric, Fotherby confessed that the enigmatic Frenchman was unsettled at Elland Road, and within hours, the two clubs had agreed a fee of £1.2million.

Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United on 26 November 1992, and the rest, as they say in France, is histoire.

In his five years at Old Trafford, Cantona scored 82 goals in 185 appearances, won four PL titles and two FA Cups, and then quit football abruptly to become an actor.

His impact on English football as a whole was just as significant as that he made at United, if not even more so. He became the Premier League's first superstar, paving the way for other big names like his two successors as United's number 7 - David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo - to enjoy unprecedented fame and riches.

There's a brilliant article on the now-neglected Dubious Goals Committee blog that asks what would have happened if Ferguson agreed to send Irwin to Leeds, and DIDN'T get Cantona in return.

Arguably, Manchester United wouldn't have been quite as successful as they actually were. Maybe it would've been Aston Villa that made history as the first Premier League champions. Maybe Ferguson would, right now, be playing golf and enjoying his retirement rather than coaching United's players in his 27th year in charge.

Therefore, it isn't hyperbole to say that Eric Cantona's transfer from Leeds United to Manchester United was the most important in the 20-year history of the Premier League.

24 November 2012

Ballymena showdown ends in draw

Andrew Hoey equalises for Northern Ireland.
NORTHERN IRELAND 1-1 WALES
Northern Ireland's hopes of winning the Victory Shield were ended in Ballymena, as they could only manage a home draw against Wales.

It was a true game of two halves at the Ballymena Showgrounds. Wales dominated the first half, during which they took the lead, but Northern Ireland fought back in the second to give Desi Curry's men their best Victory Shield finish since 2007.

NI had the first chance of the game after two minutes, but Jordan Thompson's free-kick was well caught by Lewis Thomas, and the visitors soon began to take control of proceedings.

In the 9th minute, a fantastic long-ball from Ioan Evans picked out the Welsh team's brightest star, Danny Byrnes, who lobbed over the home keeper Brett Long. Sadly for the Oldham Athletic prospect, the shot was inches wide of the target.

Wales broke through on 14 minutes, when captain Joseff Morrell's free-kick was flicked in at the near post by the head of Everton's James Graham.

Tricky winger Daniel James could have won the Dragons a penalty in the 19th minute, when he was on the end of a couple of strong challenges from Irish left-back Mark Edgar. A minute later, NI had their own penalty claim turned down, although Cian Harries appeared to block Jonathan Smith's cross with his hand.

Northern Ireland had a rare opportunity when Greg Law outmuscled Morrell in the 31st minute, and hit a fine pass to Smith. Although Smith's close-range shot looked like hiting the side-netting, Wales keeper Lewis Thomas decided not to take any chances and palmed it out for a corner.

Five minutes from half-time, James took the ball from the half-way line and sprinted towards the goal, with only a block by Long's foot preventing him from increasing Wales' lead.

All in all, it was a good first-half display from Wales, particularly from their midfielders. Attacking players Byrnes and James were a constant threat to the Northern Ireland defence, and Lloyd Humphries was proving to be a good ball-winning anchor.

Sadly for the Welsh team, Byrnes would only last a few minutes after the break, having suffered an injury which ended his game prematurely.

The second half was, in some ways, a mirror image of the first. Wales had the first real chance of the half on 49 minutes - the impressive James hit the far post from the very edge of the penalty area.

Then, Northern Ireland scored in the 14th minute of the period. The equaliser came from Glenavon midfielder Andrew Hoey, who slotted the ball home from a tight angle. Lewis Thomas appeared to hurt himself while bravely trying to stop Hoey.

Very soon afterwards, in the 56th minute, Wales striker Connor Lemonheigh-Evans used his strength to force Long into fumbling a catch. The Bristol City boy could have scored were his shot not blocked by a nearby NI defender.

Throughout the game, Lemonheigh-Evans took advantage of some shoddy Northern Irish defending, creating chances out of nothing. When he was substituted, the Dragons never looked like retaking the lead.

Indeed, Northern Ireland were looking the side more likely to win it. Stephen Fallon's excellent 64th-minute through-ball, coupled with a slip by Graham, gave Smith the perfect chance to make it 2-1. His first shot was saved by Lewis Thomas, but by the time he could tee himself up for a second, Humphries had raced back to put the ball out for a corner.

Right-back Seanna Foster put in another strong performance for Northern Ireland, and on 72 minutes, his goalward cross nearly found Smith, but a Welsh defender headed it over to prevent an almost certain goal.

When Fallon fired over in the dying minutes, NI's hopes of getting the win they required to have a chance of sharing the Shield were dashed. However, this team has shown itself to be greater than the sum of its parts, and Curry can be very proud of how his boys have played this year.

That's more than can be said for Wales, who underperformed despite having a number of highly-rated attacking talents in their squad. Osian Roberts' squad have had trouble scoring in 2012, and the coach has plenty of work to do if 2013 is to be a better year for the Dragons.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Long; Edgar, Whiteside (Mallon), Quigley, Foster; Hoey (Barton), Law, B Kennedy; Thompson (Doherty), J Smith (Mooney), Fallon.
SCORER: Hoey 54.

WALES: L Thomas; Harries, Graham (Parry), Evans, Pearson; Morrell, Humphries; Edge, Byrnes (D Thomas), James; Lemonheigh-Evans (Bellamy).
SCORER: Graham 14.

TDTR Man of the Match: Daniel James (Wales). The Hull City winger was a consistent danger to Northern Ireland, and looks like being one of the finds of this season's Victory Shields.

21 November 2012

Chelsea: pathetic in the extreme

Roberto Di Matteo has been harshly sacked by trigger-happy Chelsea.

Lord Alan Sugar's club might be Tottenham Hotspur, but it seems like Chelsea's owner has bought his catchphrase: "You're fired!"

This morning, Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo was sacked by Roman Abramovich. That's right - just six months after leading the Blues to the FA Cup and their first ever UEFA Champions League title, the Italian has been deemed not the right man to take the club forward.

Di Matteo leaves Stamford Bridge with the Blues on the brink of an embarrassing Champions League exit. After being thoroughly outplayed last night by Juventus, who won 3-0 in Turin, the holders need to beat FC Nordsjaelland and hope that Shakhtar Donetsk defeat Juventus to get through the group. Otherwise, it's the Europa League for them in 2013.

This was the culmination of a bad run of form which has seen Chelsea win just two of their last eight matches. They haven't won any of their last four Premier League matches.

After 12 PL matches, Chelsea are 3rd in the table with 24 points - four behind champions and leaders Manchester City. To most title challengers, this is acceptable, as the season is a marathon rather than a sprint and there is still loads of time remaining. But if you're a certain Russian billionaire, your team might as well be in the relegation zone.

It is commonplace in a lot of European countries, like Italy and Abramovich's Russia, to sack a manager at the first sign of things going wrong and quickly replace them. Abramovich - along with Heart of Midlothian owner Vladimir Romanov - has brought this "I want it all and I want it now" culture to British football.

Every team will encounter peaks and troughs in a season. That's football. It's how managers handle the troughs that determines whether faith should be kept in them.

If Manchester United were run in a similar manner to Chelsea, Alex Ferguson would have been sacked at some point between late 1988 and early 1990. Instead of winning the league title many times over and two Champions Leagues in the last 20 years, United would probably now be managed by someone like Danny Wilson in League One.

I would not rule out the possibility of Chelsea sliding further down the table if their instability continues.

Roman's track record when it comes to replacing managers is unrivalled in the Premier League. He has gone through eight managers in nine-and-a-half years - Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo. Five of those lasted less than a year.

In a similar way to Henry VIII's wives, you can remember Roman the Terrible's bosses like this: sacked, resigned, sacked, sacked, left, sacked, sacked, sacked.

The way that Di Matteo - the sixth boss to be dismissed by Abramovich - has been treated has been nothing short of despicable. He did make a few tactical faux pas, yes, but anyone who can overturn a 3-1 first-leg disadvantage in the Champions League last 16, and then beat Bayern Munich on their own turf in the Final deserves a lot of kudos rather than a P45.

Because of what he has done at Chelsea, and to a lesser extent West Bromwich Albion, Di Matteo should be able to walk into any PL club and demand a job. If Queens Park Rangers (who aren't exactly the most patient of clubs either) finally decide to get shot of Mark Hughes, they could make a far worse appointment than the softly-spoken former Italy midfielder.

Now that Di Matteo's done for, who will take the poisoned chalice that is the Chelsea manager's job? It's been widely publicised that Abramovich has been almost pleading Josep Guardiola to return from his year-long break in New York. If I were Pep, I'd tell Roman to shove his offer right up his popka.

Guardiola won practically everything possible as Barcelona boss, and the next logical step for him as a manager is either international football or the Premier League. If he were to go for the latter, rather than take over at Stamford Bridge and risk being axed after six months for drawing 0-0 at Norwich City, he should be more tempted to coach Arsenal or either of the Manchester clubs.

Should Guardiola see sense and reject Chelsea, the Blues are likely to turn to Rafael Benitez, who has been unemployed for about two years now. Benitez has a pretty decent Champions League track record, and although his league form isn't that hot, he is capable of getting the best out of £50million striker Fernando Torres, and we all know how much Abramovich loves Torres.

Former Liverpool gaffer Benitez could be offered a contract "on a short-term basis", which to most clubs is "until the end of the season", but in Chelsea terms could be "two weeks".

Other contenders for the job are Mourinho (not the first time he's been linked with a Bridge return), Alan Pardew, Harry Redknapp and David Moyes. Chelsea stalwarts Eddie Newton and Gianfranco Zola have also had their names put forward by Blues supporters.

But if Abramovich continues sacking bosses for only finishing second in a major competition, or for dropping Torres, pretty soon, the only job applications he'll get will be from kids who play Football Manager.


The Blues' next manager? Well, he is made in Chelsea!

19 November 2012

Weekend reflections #12

This is our 12th edition of Weekend Reflections! Big wow. Anyway, today, we'll be looking at Chelsea's struggles, Liverpool's resurgence, and the new most-hated man in North London.

Chelsea should stick with Di Matteo - but Torres is a different story.

Have a little patience
Chelsea's blistering start to the Premier League hasn't lasted. A 2-1 loss at West Bromwich Albion extended their winless streak in the league to four games, and blue really is the colour at Stamford Bridge now.

Saturday's game at The Hawthorns was a tale of two strikers. West Brom's Shane Long was part of the Republic of Ireland team that looked hopeless at UEFA Euro 2012, and just 24 hours prior to kick-off had learned of his grandmother's death. Chelsea's Fernando Torres also played at Euro 2012, winning the tournament with Spain to cap a wonderful few months in which he lifted the UEFA Champions League trophy.

One of them cost £5million, the other £50million. Going by their performances on Saturday, one would have thought that Long was the most expensive signing in British football. He was absolutely brilliant, scoring a 10th-minute opener when he headed home from James Morrison's cross, and then creating a second-half winner for Peter Odemwingie after Eden Hazard had equalised for the Blues.

In comparison, Torres - the actual costliest player in Premier League history - was anonymous. He never looked like scoring, and when he was substituted in the second half, it continued a barren spell in which the Spaniard has scored just once in seven appearances. His late-season purple patch from the previous campaign is well and truly gone.

Time is running out for the 28-year-old to justify his price tag, and it looks more and more likely that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich will cut his losses in January. A long-term replacement for Torres will be needed, in that case. There's some bloke at Atletico Madrid, I think his name is Radamel Falcao or something like that. He's pretty good. Roman might've heard of him.

But who will be the Blues' manager in January, when Abramovich will next have the chance to splash the cash? Will it still be Roberto Di Matteo, whose Champions League win might be conveniently forgotten by the Russian should this barren spell continue?

I've said it many a time, but Abramovich should be patient with Di Matteo. After all, who inspired the Blues to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Napoli? Who kept the faith in Torres when Chelsea fans were demanding his head earlier this year, allowing El Nino to get back into some kind of form?

However, I fear that it's only a matter of time before Abramovich sets the hounds on Di Matteo and brings in Josep Guardiola. I'm beginning to think that "sabbatical" is Catalan for "waiting until the Chelsea manager's job becomes vacant yet again".

Striker Luis Suarez has been irresistible for Liverpool this season.

Red hot
Not so long ago, supporters of Liverpool were subjected to relentless jokes, but they're now having the last laugh.

A comfortable 3-0 victory at Wigan Athletic has moved Brendan Rodgers' team to 11th place - just five points below Everton in 5th. Their revival is down largely to three men - a teenage wonderkid, a star striker, and a born-again flanker.

Three days after making his England debut at the tender age of 17, Raheem Sterling continued to put forward his case for being named as Young Player of the Year. Two minutes into the second half, Sterling pounced on Jean Beausejour's awful pass and left Maynor Figueroa for dust. He then cut the ball to Luis Suarez, and the Uruguay striker finished with aplomb.

Suarez's personality is not the most likeable, but nobody can doubt his prowess in front of goal. That was his 9th in the Premier League, and eleven minutes later, he became the PL's first player this season to notch up 10 goals.

This time, the goal was set up by the third of Liverpool's terrific threesome. José Enrique may have been displaced at left-back by Glen Johnson, but Rodgers has given him a new role as a left-sided attacking midfielder. José Enrique took his opportunity with both hands, brilliantly setting up Suarez for 2-0.

There was also time for the former Newcastle United man to get his first goal in a Liverpool shirt, on 65 minutes. Sterling played a one-two with Suarez and then had his shot poorly parried by Ali Al-Habsi, presenting José Enrique with a chance he couldn't possibly miss. 3-0, and three more points for the Reds.

Not only is Rodgers continuing to produce the free-flowing football that his old Swansea City team enjoyed last season at Anfield, but he's doing it with some exceptional young talents. Sterling is far from the only kid in the starting XI - midfielder Suso and right-back Andre Wisdom have made the most of their opportunities and are establishing themselves in the first-team too.

Stewart Downing must surely realise now that he's got as much chance of breaking back into the Liverpool first-team as Helen Flanagan has of continuing her acting career when she returns from the Australian jungle. In other words, he should start looking for a new club sharpish.

Yes, Andre. Adebayor was in full control of his emotions!

Adebayor's got Togo
It's the North London derby, and a third of the way through the first half (after 15 minutes for those who are mathematically challenged), Tottenham Hotspur lead 1-0 against bitter rivals Arsenal. So far so good for Spurs.

Emmanuel Adebayor, once of Arsenal but now treated with contempt by Gunners supporters, brought more boos out of most of those at the Emirates Stadium in the 10th minute by putting Tottenham ahead. Wojciech Szczesny, making his first start in the Arsenal goal for what feels like five years, failed to save Jermain Defoe's shot with enough conviction, and Adebayor easily thumped in the rebound.

Six minutes later, though, Adebayor's adrenaline got the better of him. He flew into a challenge on Gunners playmaker Santi Cazorla, sending the Spaniard flying. He could easily have broken Cazorla's leg on a less fortunate day. As far as referee Howard Webb was concerned, there was no decision to be made - the Togo international had to go.

Adebayor's red card really was a game changer. Arsenal stormed into a 3-1 half-time lead after goals from Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and, eventually, Olivier Giroud. On the hour, Cazorla made it a three-goal advantage for the Gunners, and that was restored by Theo Walcott late on after Gareth Bale notched up another goal for Spurs.

Arsenal are now 6th in the Premier League table and Tottenham 8th. Those positions would have been reversed had Spurs held on. If Adebayor decided to put his anger towards Arsenal supporters to one side rather than take it out on one of their new heroes, a Tottenham side with 11 men would obviously have been much better-placed to retain, or even build on, a 1-0 lead.

Despite this, Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas refused to pin too much blame on the player he simply calls 'Ade'. He even claimed that the forward was in full control of his emotions. In that case, I'd hate to see him when he isn't!

Villas-Boas should also cop some flak for his choice of tactics in the game. Any manager who fields as attacking a formation as 3-5-1 away from home against, of all teams, Arsenal is asking for trouble. Villas-Boas is not renowned for playing attacking football even at home, so that formation change was surprisingly foolhardy.

To quote Sir Winston Churchill, Andre Villas-Boas is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It's difficult to work out what's going on inside his head at times.

16 November 2012

Ibrahimovic's goal in context

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, seconds before he stunned the footballing world.

We've only just managed to get our breath back following Wednesday's memorable friendly meeting between Sweden and England in Stockholm.

England's team of young guns did reasonably well, but they were undone by the individual brilliance of one Swedish striker. The source of Sweden's 4-2 win was a four-goal tally from a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The first two goals were just clinical. The third was a finely-drilled free-kick that caught out Joe Hart in the England goal. But the fourth... well, put it this way. There isn't a word in the English dictionary that can describe it.

It was the first minute of second-half injury-time, and Hart made an uncharacteristic error, coming out of his area to head away a long-ball into the path of Ibrahimovic.

The Paris Saint-Germain used his left leg to get him airborne, and then with his right-foot, he looped the ball into the goal, leaving Hart dumbfounded and thousands of Swedes delirious. It was the perfect end to the first ever game played at Stockholm's brand new Friends Arena, but it might as well be called the Zlatan Arena from now on.

The son of a Bosniak father and a Croatian mother, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the archetype of a modern multi-cultural Swede. However, he had a very rough childhood, which saw him drop out of school get into trouble with the law a number of times, but football saved a violent young Ibrahimovic from oblivion.

Ibrahimovic, who is often nicknamed 'Ibra' or otherwise known as plain Zlatan, has often been criticised in the past for being lazy and arrogant, and having an attitude problem that would make Mario Balotelli look like the model professional.

That said, you can't knock his record. The 31-year-old has an excellent record of 246 goals in 504 club matches, he's won nine league titles in three countries (although two of them with Juventus were later revoked), and he has cost over £150million in combined transfer fees.

And now, he will also be remembered for one incredible goal against England, which has been described by many people as the best ever scored in a professional football match. But is it?

You've got to put this into perspective. As brilliant as the goal was, in the end, it was only scored in a friendly - not a World Cup or UEFA Champions League Final, or even a competitive match. Also, scoring past a defence that includes players like Carl Jenkinson isn't exactly like climbing Mount Everest to world-class superstars of Ibrahimovic's talent.

Where you're from or who you support also plays a part in how you decide what one's the best you've seen. Most Swedes now consider Ibrahimovic's wonder goal to be unsurpassed, although Real Madrid supporters, for example, will have other thoughts. It's a bit like asking South Americans who the greatest footballer ever is - Brazilians will say Pelé, and Argentines will say Diego Maradona.

It was one of the greatest goals ever, but not the best in my opinion. Although I grudgingly regard Maradona's second against England in Mexico 1986 as being the number one of all-time, when it comes to judging goals, you can only really go by those you have actually seen in your lifetime.

Therefore, I have compiled a top ten list of the best goals I have seen since I began watching football way back in 1998:

10. Lionel Messi
BARCELONA vs Real Madrid, UEFA Champions League Semi Final (2011)
9. Thierry Henry
ARSENAL vs Tottenham Hotspur, Premier League (2002)
8. Wayne Rooney
MANCHESTER UNITED vs Newcastle United, Premier League (2005)
7. Lionel Messi
BARCELONA vs Getafe, La Liga (2007)
6. Ronaldinho
BRAZIL vs England, World Cup Quarter Final (2002)
5. Ryan Giggs
MANCHESTER UNITED vs Arsenal, FA Cup Semi Final Replay (1999)
4. Giovanni van Bronckhorst
HOLLAND vs Uruguay, World Cup Semi Final (2010)

3. Paolo Di Canio
WEST HAM UNITED vs Wimbledon, Premier League (2000)

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
SWEDEN vs England, Friendly (2012)

1. Zinedine Zidane
REAL MADRID vs Bayer Leverkusen, UEFA Champions League Final (2002)

14 November 2012

Football Manager 2013 review

Football Manager 2013 has been out for nearly a fortnight, and now, having spent some time playing the demo, it's time for me to give my feedback.

Transfer deadline day in Wales with a BBC Radio 2 DJ. Love it.

New features
Perhaps the most significant addition to Football Manager for this season is a new 'Classic' mode. This is a more streamlined version of FM which harks back to the more simpler days of the old Championship Manager series. In this mode, you can apparently get through in a matter of hours rather than days.

Being the type of FM player that likes to go into great detail when building a team and a club, I personally decided to stick with the regular mode when playing the demo. That said, it's a nice addition for wannabe managers who have more important real-life responsibilities and don't have a great deal of time on their hands.

I prefer the challenge modes introduced alongside Classic, which give you a number of short-term missions, like making Alan Hansen eat his words and winning the league with kids, or driving a team threatened with relegation away from the drop zone.

I do like the new staff roles that Sports Interactive have put into the game. You can now have coaches for specific roles in specific squads (senior, reserve, under-18s), and for the first time, you can hire a Director of Football. The DoF's main responsibilities will be to handle contract negotiations, and to buy and sell players - the best could even make AND save you a fortune!

But my favourite new feature is the new transfer deadline day, which allows managers to get involved in the Sky Sports News-style media circus of the 24-hour marathon if they want to. Whereas in previous FMs, deadline day would be so dull that it would send Jim White to sleep, in FM13, there are many, many more transfers done on the eve of the window shutting, so that adds more realism to the game.

The match engine looks much better than it's ever done.

Improved features
The match engine has been improved a great deal, although it's not perfect. The player animations and the movement of the ball are more realistic, the main director camera shows the game at more angles, and even the spectators seem livelier.

On the flip side, I've seen players hoof the ball hopelessly down the flanks shortly after kick-off far too often, and defenders make too many silly goal-costing errors. Also, sometimes, players still seem to move with more flexibility than breakdancers and contortionists!

The new Twitter-style match feed allows your assistant manager to give you feedback on how the game's panning out. This allows managers to change their tactics accordingly, either to close down a dangerous opposition playmaker, or to hit more long balls forward.

The navigation menus have been tidied up, and the new pop-up menus are useful, especially when deciding to give a player specific duties. In addition, training has been given yet another overhaul, which now allows you to manage training on a week-by-week and a match-by-match basis.

The tone system which was introduced for player talks in FM12 has been implemented to press conferences for FM13. There are more questions asked than ever before (although the questions still get repetitive) and you can now answer, for example, in a passionate, a cautious or even an aggressive manner. I was tempted more than one time to reply to one question by aggressively shouting, "YES, I TOTALLY AGREE! DAVID WAS ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC TONIGHT!"

Player talks have been enhanced and you now have more options in terms of things to talk about. Also, in my demo save, my relationship with one of my players deteriorated to such an extent that he even refused to speak to me! If this is a minor new feature, it's one I quite like.

"Christopher Fuller, he's so good! Give regards to Richard Wood!"

My first FM13 career
To test out the Football Manager 2013 demo, I started a career as manager of League One side Coventry City, who had just been relegated but had plenty of good youngsters to choose from.

Pre-season went well, with my Coventry team going through that unbeaten. We didn't lose in the league until our seventh match, and that was part of a mini-blip in which the players seemed to resemble a bag of nerves.

As far as transfers were concerned, we did very little before the transfer window was shut. Although I hired several new staff members, as Coventry's squad already consisted of many players in their first seasons at the Ricoh Arena (some of whom I would never have signed in the first place), all I did player-wise was to sign a left-back on a short loan and sell Carl Baker to Charlton Athletic for £300,000.

That was until our blip in late-September, when I brought Aston Villa striker Andi Weimann in on a three-month loan. What a beast of a player he turned out to be! In 17 games, he scored 12 goals for us, proving to be the archetypal poacher. And guess what? We got him for absolutely nothing - Villa didn't ask for an upfront fee or for us to pay any wages!

Weimann turned our form around, and helped us through a six-game winning streak which put us top of League One for a while. I won the Manager of the Month award for October, and even got Swindon Town boss Paolo di Canio sacked in the process! After our 17th league game, we had 34 points, whereas the real-life Coventry have just 17 points at the same stage of the season.

The rest of 2012 went reasonably well for the Sky Blues, save for a couple of runs of successive defeats. Now, with the New Year just beginning and the demo coming to its conclusion, Coventry City are 2nd in the league. So all in all, not a bad start to my FM13 life!

Summary
Each new edition of Football Manager is hyped up as the best ever, and in my opinion, I have to say that I agree. There are so many new features and improvements to this year's FM that it certainly can't be called a mere 'season update'. With some tweaking, the match engine would be so incredibly realistic that it'd be like watching an actual game.

Consider FM13 to be on my Christmas wishlist, and my days in the outside world numbered!

TDTR Rating: 9/10.

P.S. Normal service will resume once I've guided Romford to the UEFA Champions League.

13 November 2012

Seven caps for seven virgins?

Wilfried Zaha is one of seven potential debutants for England.

England are travelling to Sweden ahead of tomorrow's friendly international in Stockholm, where several players are hoping to win their first caps.

No fewer than seven international virgins are in Roy Hodgson's squad, ranging experience-wise from the tremendously young Raheem Sterling to the late bloomer Leon Osman.

The big headline-maker is someone who is living what would be Britain's equivalent of the American dream if there was such a thing. Wilfried Zaha was born nearly 5,000 miles away from London - in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan - but tomorrow, he could be a senior England international.

Wilfried's family moved to the British capital when he was just four. His talent with a football became obvious at a young age, and he came through the Crystal Palace academy before breaking into their first team in 2010. Since then, he has won two caps for the England Under-19s and five for the Under-21s.

The young winger's senior record with Palace highlights his potential. In 110 appearances, he has scored 14 goals and created assists for 10 others. It's no wonder that clubs of the stature of Arsenal have been sending scouts to watch the 20-year-old, only as of last Saturday, in action.

Zaha will become the first outfield player from the second tier of English football to play for the Three Lions since Jay Bothroyd two years ago. Is the kid's call-up fully deserved, or is it a worrying indicator of the lack of English options in the Premier League? The answer, you could say, is a bit of both.

The top English goalscorers in the current PL season are Jermain Defoe and Kevin Nolan, both with five (the league's top scorers overall are Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie on eight apiece). Then, you have to go down to Peter Crouch and Rickie Lambert on four, and there are just five other Englishmen with three goals. Hodgson doesn't have a lot to choose from.

Then again, if Hodgson wanted a fresh-faced and free-scoring striker from the Championship, why didn't he give Charlie Austin a call? Three years after turning out for non-leaguers Poole Town, Burnley frontman Austin tops the second-tier's scoring charts with an unbelievable 17 goals, and is in a patch that is so deep purple that you can almost hear a Ritchie Blackmore solo whenever he puts the ball into the net.

I'm not saying that Zaha doesn't warrant a call-up as much as Austin. He is a mercurial talent, whose career could potentially reach greater heights than Austin, and he certainly doesn't lack self-confidence. In an interview with the Daily Mail, he said, "Unless I'm looking at (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi, I'd never look at someone else and think he's better than me."

Zaha's call-up to the England squad has come amid speculation that he will be picked for the Ivory Coast team for next year's Africa Cup of Nations. Even if he does play for England tomorrow, as the Sweden game is considered to be non-competitive, FIFA's eligibility rulings mean that he can still switch allegiance to the Ivory Coast at some point until he makes his competitive debut for the English.

It's a similar situation to what happened with Victor Moses, who like Zaha is a product of Crystal Palace's academy. Following a tug-of-war between England and Nigeria, Moses - now at Chelsea - opted for his African country of birth.

Carl Jenkinson: From Charlton Athletic to England in 18 months.

Raheem Sterling is also in that boat. Liverpool's 17-year-old winger came to England from Jamaica when he was six years old, and has yet to decide which country he will play for competitively.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article suggesting that it was perhaps too early for Sterling to merit a senior call-up. In my opinion, the situation's changed. His run in the Liverpool first-team has been sustained, and he has performed consistently well, proving the old adage that if you're good enough, you're old enough.

Arsenal right-back Carl Jenkinson, 20, will make his England debut once he receives international clearance from FIFA. The Essex-born defender is currently considered to be Finnish after winning Under-19s caps for his mother's home country, but unlike Zaha and Sterling, he's already made his mind up. He's adamant that he wants to be a senior international with England.

The old boy of England's new guard is Leon Osman, an underrated midfielder who has spent his entire career at Everton, and whose performances have only now received recognition at the age of 31. But when you consider that Scott Parker didn't become a regular for the Three Lions until he left his 20's, Osman still has time to make an impact for his country.

The other three possible debutants are Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Steven Caulker (20), Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster (24), and Stoke City captain Ryan Shawcross (25). Caulker broke into the Spurs starting XI this season, Forster has come off the back of THAT memorable win over Barcelona, and Shawcross has long been talked about as England material.

All seven of those newcomers picked by Hodgson deserve to get at least some gametime in Stockholm tomorrow night.

Following England's exit for UEFA Euro 2012, Hodgson has recognised the need to develop some fresh faces for a future assault on a major tournament. You can be sure that there will be plenty more coming into the Three Lions set-up soon.

12 November 2012

Weekend reflections #11

Today, The Daily Transfer Request reflects on the weekend's Premier League action, which included fine performances from City's Spanish maestro, United's brilliant striker with a rubbish nickname, and two Old Trafford old boys done good.

David Silva boards the Manchester City supersub Edin Dzeko.

Silva leaves Spurs bronzed off
Welcome back, David Silva, we've missed you.

The 2012/2013 Premier League season started very slowly for Manchester City's attacking superstar. After Spain's exploits at UEFA Euro 2012, he looked tired in the early stages of the campaign, but after a month's layoff with a hamstring injury, Silva is back to his best.

City were trailing 1-0 at fortress Eastlands to Tottenham Hotspur after Steven Caulker headed home midway through the first half to boost his England prospects. But Silva turned the game around in the second half.

On 65 minutes, Silva picked up the ball on the halfway line and charged forward. His pass, intended for Yaya Toure, was intercepted poorly by Spurs right-back Kyle Walker, who could only divert it to Sergio Aguero. One neat turn past Caulker later, and the free-scoring Argentine was on the scoresheet after tapping past Brad Friedel.

City were level, and two minutes from the end, they secured victory thanks to a Silva pass which could only be described as sublime. He lobbed a pass into the Tottenham penalty area, and Edin Dzeko timed his run to perfection to thwart the Spurs offside trap and power the ball beyond Friedel.

Dzeko has scored five times as a substitute in the Premier League this season. No wonder he's being called a supersub! The Bosnian himself dislikes the nametag, but he's in esteemed company, and I'll be talking about another of his kind later.

Citizens boss Roberto Mancini didn't include Mario Balotelli in the matchday squad, and his gamble paid off. Aguero and Dzeko are world-class goalscorers and more reliable, not to mention professional, than bonkers Balotelli.

As for his counterpart, Andre Villas-Boas took a risk that backfired. It takes a very brave manager to drop Jermain Defoe immediately after he scored a midweek hat-trick, but Villas-Boas did, and he started with Emmanuel Adebayor up front instead.

Adebayor repaid his manager's faith with a distinctly average performance against his former side. Defoe only came on for the Togo international ten minutes before full-time - not too late to make a difference, but if he'd played for significantly longer, things might have been different.

This once again begs the question: Is Andre Villas-Boas ambitious enough and hungry enough to take Tottenham forward?

How many goals have you scored tonight, Chicharito?

Pea shooter
Watching Manchester United when they're 2-0 down in the second half is the complete opposite of watching a Danish crime drama - because you know exactly what's going to happen next.

In episode 11 of The Fergie Years: Season 27, entitled Aston Villa away, the cast stuck to the script and United came back to win 3-2 against Villa, whose own season has made as excruciating viewing as seeing Nadine Dorries in a bikini.

I'll stop the TV analogies, now.

Villa drew first blood in first-half injury-time after Andreas Weimann swept home from a fine Christian Benteke cross. Five minutes into the second period, the Austrian rising star was on target again, having been assisted this time by Gabriel Agbonlahor.

At half-time, Sir Alex Ferguson replaced the anonymous Ashley Young with Javier Hernandez, the Mexican striker whom United insist on naming 'Chicharito', or 'Little Pea'. By the final whistle, Hernandez had left Lambert a little pea'd off.

Enter Manchester's other supersub, of the red variety. Pocket rocket Hernandez staved off the challenge of Villans defender Ciaran Clark and shot through goalkeeper Brad Guzan's legs to make it 2-1 after 58 minutes. Five minutes later, Rafael da Silva's cross found Hernandez at an angle, and his strike deflected in off Villa's Ron Vlaar.

Whenever one of the so-called big teams fights back from behind, the script (sorry) usually requires that they score the winner five minutes before time. And in the 87th minute, Hernandez dived to connect to Robin van Persie's inswinging free-kick, and there was no chance of Guzan keeping his header out.

United were victorious, and they didn't even need Fergie time!

As much as I despise Hernandez's silly nickname, I rate the lad very highly as a striker, and can't understand why he doesn't start that many games for the Red Devils. Now, though, Ferguson has got Hernandez's message, and he will start Chicharito up front in their next PL game against Norwich City.

He has now scored 40 times in 94 appearances during his three seasons at Old Trafford, and a good few of those have come of the bench. Remind you of anyone?

Dimitar Berbatov gets the respect that he deserves at Fulham.

Berbatov's far from Dim
Okay, guys, I'll get onto him in a second, but first, a word about someone else who should've had more opportunities at Manchester United.

Dimitar Berbatov looked a snip at £4million when Fulham bought him on deadline day, and now he's excelling at a team where he is their attacking centrepiece.

The Bulgarian striker scored twice and was the inspiration for the Cottagers' 3-3 draw at Arsenal. At 2-0 down, Berbatov made the Gunners pay for using zonal marking at corners when he headed home from Bryan Ruiz's delivery.

He then set up an equaliser for Alex Kacaniklic, who is turning into one of the Premier League's breakthrough players this season, five minutes from half-time. Fulham went ahead on 67 minutes when Ruiz was fouled in the Gunners' penalty area by Mikel Arteta, who later would miss a spot-kick himself, and Berbatov converted from 12 yards.

Fulham's lead lasted for just a couple of minutes before Olivier Giroud drew level. Arsene Wenger's abject Arsenal would have lost had it not been for Giroud, who continued his upturn in form with two goals.

This season already, Berbatov has scored five Premier League goals in a Fulham shirt, setting up a further three, and there is provision for many more. It's thanks to him, and the equally impressive Ruiz, that the south Londoners are the second-highest scorers in the PL currently.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: Coming to a Premier League club near you.

Hip, hip, Ole!
I've been alluding to him in this article, and now I would like to pass on my congratulations to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for winning his second league title in Norway.

I'll be honest, and say that when Solskjaer retired from football in 2007, I didn't have the baby-faced assassin down as a future manager. But even one of the sport's nicest guys would have stuck two fingers up to his critics after leading his first professional club, Molde, to unprecedented success.

At the start of 2011, former Manchester United supersub Solskjaer became manager at the Aker Stadion. He led them, in their centenary year, to their first ever Tippeligaen title. With it came UEFA Champions League qualification, although they failed to make the group stages.

This year, he's done it again. Molde secured the championship with one game to go following a 1-0 victory against relegation candidates Honefoss. The winning goal was scored by yet another player in the Solskjaer mould - the young Nigerian substitute Daniel Chukwu.

The 39-year-old has already been touted as one of world football's brightest young coaches, and now his reputation will only grow.

Despite strong interest from England, Solskjaer showed tremendous loyalty to his employers, notably turning down the advances of Aston Villa this summer. When Blackburn Rovers wanted him, he said no, and they got another Norwegian in ex-Rovers defender Henning Berg, who to be honest is a poor man's Solskjaer.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has nothing else to prove in his home country, so where next for him? Whichever Premier League club wins the race to sack their manager first will undoubtedly be interested, but will he move then? Or is he even waiting to take over at Manchester United when a certain Sir Alex Ferguson retires?

9 November 2012

Hearts broken

I'm swindling Hearts fans out of their money, but don't tell anyone...

If Heart of Midlothian do, as some supporters fear, go into liquidation at some point in the campaign, they will not deserve any sympathy.

Hearts have received a winding-up order from HM Revenue and Customs over a tax bill of around £450,000. They are already contesting another tax bill of £1.75million, and delays in the payment of wages to players are now commonplace at Tynecastle.

Things look financially bleak for the Scottish Premier League club. The situation is so bad that, on Wednesday, they made a plea to supporters, a "call to arms" if you will, urging them to give financial support to keep the club afloat.

The statement read: "This isn't a bluff, this isn't scaremongering, this is reality.

"Without the support of fans, there is a real risk that Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game on 17 November against St Mirren."

If I were a supporter from the maroon side of Edinburgh, I wouldn't listen to them. Hearts fans who give money to the cause are effectively handing it to Vladimir Romanov, the Lithuanian banker who has owned the club since 2005, and whose recklessness has left the Jambos in this situation.

What Hearts needs is a takeover from a wealthy person who understands what it's like to be associated with the club. But this is Scottish football, and what person of a sound mind would want to invest in a Scottish football club?

In the last decade, we have seen Rangers go under, Gretna wound up, and Livingston relegated from the SPL to Division 3 in just three years because of their finances. Celtic look set to utterly dominate football in the country for many years, and anyone who believes that another club can have a Manchester City-style rise is at best an optimist of the highest order.

Romanov has ruined a club that looked like breaking the Old Firm's dominance in the early stages of his revolution.

He arrived at Tynecastle seven years ago, and at first, the garden was rosy. At the start of the 2005/2006 season, George Burley led the team through a run of ten games unbeaten, which included a breathtaking eight-game winning streak to kick off the campaign. But then Burley was inexplicably sacked, the chief executive resigned (and replaced by Romanov's son), and instead of winning the SPL, Hearts were a poor second behind Celtic and just a solitary point above Rangers. Great work, Vladimir.

Burley would be one of many managers to come and go. The full list of Romanov's bosses reads John Robertson, George Burley, Graham Rix, Valdas Ivanauskas, Anatoliy Korobochka, Stephen Frail, Csaba Laszlo, Jim Jefferies, Paulo Sergio and John McGlynn. That's in just seven years.

Romanov also approved the arrivals of countless Baltic players, some on short loans, from FBK Kaunas (a club which he owns in his home country), and often on unrealistic wages for an SPL club. This practice was scaled down in later years, but the likes of con artist Saulius Mikoliunas did nothing to boost the club's reputation, which had already been damaged by Romanov's comments about referees being bribed.

By 2007, thanks largely to their ridiculously high wage bill, Hearts were in £36million of debts and had to begin selling their best players, such as Craig Gordon and Christophe Berra. On the pitch, they moved further and further away from the Old Firm instead of getting closer. The only trophies that the Jambos have won under their Lithuanian owner are two Scottish Cups from 2006 and 2012.

It now seems that Romanov has withdrawn a lot of financial backing from Hearts and has given up on chasing Celtic, but he is still the owner, and as long as that is still the case, Heart of Midlothian cannot and should not survive in its current state.

As cruel as this sounds, I hope their plea for urgent investment falls on deaf ears. Why should the hard-working supporters of Hearts bail out a wealthy man whose financial dealings would even make Bernie Madoff embarrassed?

Rangers were kicked out of the SPL and a new company was created for a Gers club in Division 3. At the moment, that scenario - grim as it looks - might just be the best case for Hearts and their supporters. Also, the long-mooted restructuring of Scottish football cannot come soon enough for any club in the SPL and the Scottish Football League.

6 November 2012

In memoriam: Ivor Powell

Ivor Powell: 1916-2012.

Ivor Powell, whose career in football spanned an incredible eight decades, has died at the age of 96.

Powell's career began as a wing-half at Queens Park Rangers in 1937 and ended as a 93-year-old coach at the University of Bath in 2010. He was awarded an MBE for his services to football.

Born in the south Welsh village of Bargoed, Powell started his working life down the mine with his father and brothers. At the age of 20, he went to London after being offered a trial at QPR. This was unsuccessful, but after impressing in a reserve game a year later, the Loftus Road club offered him a contract.

Powell's best days as a player were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, although he did go on to make 159 appearances for QPR and won eight caps for Wales between 1946 and 1950. Powell struck up a close friendship with Stanley Matthews while guesting for Blackpool during the war, and they were best men for their respective weddings.

In 1948, he was transferred to Aston Villa for a then-record fee for a half-back (£17,500) and spent three years there before becoming player-manager at Port Vale. His playing career ended when he held a similar post at Bradford City in 1954 after suffering a knee ligament injury against Welsh club Wrexham.

He spent a few years in Cumbria, managing Carlisle United from 1960 to 1963 and being responsible for their first ever Football League promotion. But it was in 1964 that he moved down to Bath, where he was briefly coach for Bath City and later started a 37-year career as a coach at the city's university.

Team Bath's greatest result in the Powell era was arguably a 4-2 penalty shoot-out win over Horsham in 2002 which sent the team into Round 1 of the FA Cup. They became the first university team to achieve such a feat, although the run would end with a valiant 4-2 loss to league outfit Mansfield Town.

Powell was officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the world's oldest football coach in 2006, and received his MBE two years later.

Upon his retirement in 2010, the University of Bath's vice-chancellor, Professor Glynis Breakwell, said of him, "Ivor's dedication and commitment to coaching and sport over nearly four decades here at Bath has been an inspiration to thousands of young people."

In terms of longevity, very few people in football come close to Ivor Powell, one of the most widely-respected people in the sport in this country.

Rest in peace, Ivor.

5 November 2012

Weekend reflections #10

Today, our weekend reflections are on another near-miss for Reading, abhorrent chanting at Old Trafford, and a half-decent midfielder at Everton.

"Back in August, Simon, I had as much hair as Marouane Fellaini."

Wanted: A victory
Reading can't seem to get a win from anywhere at the moment.

On Tuesday, they had that memorable League Cup tie with Arsenal, where they were 4-0 up after 37 minutes, but still managed to lose 7-5 after extra time. Manager Brian McDermott described it as the worst night of his managerial career, when it looked like it was going to be by far his best.

Sunday was their biggest opportunity yet. They were away to Queens Park Rangers, who like McDermott's men had yet to taste victory in the current Premier League campaign. Things were looking up for the Royals on 16 minutes, when Sean Morrison's header came off the crossbar for defensive team-mate Kaspars Gorkss to thump it home.

QPR were distinctly average in the first half, with their only serious effort coming on 37 minutes when Esteban Granero's free-kick was met by a fingertip save from Alex McCarthy. But Mark Hughes' half-time team-talk appeared to do the trick, as Rangers looked better after the break.

Djibril Cisse, he of the dreadful blue hairstyle, clinched a point for QPR in the 66th minute. He controlled a fine cross from Jose Bosingwa before poking it past McCarthy to leave the bald McDermott metaphorically tearing his hair out.

Here is the Royals' sorry tally of missed chances in this season's Premier League:
  • On 22 August, they led Chelsea 2-1 with just over 20 minutes to go. They lost 4-2.
  • On 29 September, they took the lead twice against Newcastle United. Each time, Demba Ba levelled, and the game finished 2-2.
  • On 6 October, they had a 2-0 advantage over an out-of-sorts Swansea City side. Again, they could only draw 2-2.
  • On 27 October, Reading led 1-0 at half-time against Fulham but managed just a 3-3 draw, although to be fair, they did score a very late equaliser to win the point that they did get.
  • Then, of course, there was 4 November against Queens Park Rangers.
Yesterday's draw was the fifth time already this season that Reading had blown a winning position in the league, losing them a total of eleven points. Put it this way - if they had held onto their lead every time, they would be 6th in the table now, not 18th.

One positive to come out of yesterday's match, though, was the performance of young English goalkeeper McCarthy. He made a string of fine saves, particularly from Granero and Adel Taarabt, to stake his claim for a regular starting place.

This season, McDermott has been uncertain about his main custodian, with McCarthy and Adam Federici both getting regular outings. But Federici's shambolic showings in recent games, and McCarthy's performance against QPR should make the 22-year-old the favourite to become Reading's permanent number 1.

Robin van Persie: Just because he left Arsenal doesn't make him Jimmy Savile.

Savile row
The issue of racism has reared its ugly head already this season, and now we've had the unwelcome return of some pretty unsavoury chants.

Arsenal's 2-1 defeat at Manchester United was soured by vitriolic abuse used by some supporters from both clubs.

Some United fans at the Stretford End chanted about Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's oversized coat. Others, more shockingly, compared him to the former (in more ways than one) Sir Jimmy Savile. "Are you Savile in disguise?" asked the far from silent minority.

I should point out that some West Ham United fans sung something similar when Wenger's boys recently visited Upton Park.

Some supporters from the away end at Old Trafford were also far from squeaky-clean. A number of Gunners fans branded their former striker Robin van Persie as a "Dutch Jimmy Savile". They didn't just compare him to Savile - in another song, they brought up a case in 2005 where van Persie was arrested after a false allegation of raping a former beauty queen.

It's funny that Arsenal fans didn't chant about this when van Persie was banging in the goals at the Emirates Stadium. And in a way, it's not dissimilar to the disgusting abuse targeted at one of their old boys, Sol Campbell, by the more repulsive followers of Tottenham Hotspur, who used to adore him until he moved across north London.

Relations between footballers and supporters are close to reaching breaking point. We've already had one player in the Championship attacked by a spectator this season. Let's find a way to combat these unacceptable problems before something even more serious happens!

Marouane Fellaini is one of the standout performers of this season.

Marouane's a top Fella
Finally, a word about a midfielder who, even in this early stage of the season, must be considered a candidate for Player of the Year.

Marouane Fellaini is rightly regarded as the main reason for Everton's solid start to the campaign. His two goals, sandwiched by a Tim Howard own goal and a 90th-minute Fulham equaliser from Steven Sidwell, earned the Toffees a 2-2 draw and another point for their tally.

Fellaini now has five PL goals for this campaign, trumping even his team-mate Nikica Jelavic, who was surprisingly ineffective at Craven Cottage on Saturday.

The tall Belgian, whose afro makes him an even bigger presence, proved once again that he is an expert when it comes to latching onto long balls. In the 55th minute, he powered in from Kevin Mirallas' cross, and in the 72nd, he controlled a massive punt from defender Phil Jagielka before scoring with another fierce effort.

It's no wonder that Jagielka described him as "unplayable" in a post-match interview. "It's not just a case of chucking him up there to collect long balls, he's a really good footballer," said the England international.

This last point that I'm going to bring up might be worth noting, considering Everton's strong form in their first ten games (17 points for a team that usually begins strongly) and Manchester City's disappointing form in comparison (just 22 points from 10 for the champions).

It seems to me that, on the new Football Manager 2013 game (OUT NOW), Manchester City almost always sign Fellaini in the first season. Maybe Roberto Mancini should have bought him instead of Jack Rodwell, and as Fellaini isn't English, he might well have been a bit cheaper to boot!

4 November 2012

The best of Ian Holloway

Ian Holloway: half Jose Mourinho, half Tim Vine.

Football has always had characters, and Ian Holloway is one of the biggest of this generation.

Yesterday, Holloway was confirmed as the new manager of Crystal Palace, leaving Blackpool to sign a four-and-a-half year contract at Selhurst Park.

Eagles fans have plenty to look forward to, both on the pitch and off it. His sharp wit and one-liners mean that he is now the country's funniest Bristolian, following Justin Lee Collins' conviction for harassment. In fact, he is often so funny, one would think he was a frustrated comedian.

But like many of us, Holloway has had to put on a brave face amid some challenging obstacles in his life. He greatly regretted not being at the hospital when his father passed away 25 years ago (he was playing in an FA Cup tie for Bristol Rovers at the time). He also has three profoundly deaf daughters, and a TV documentary in 2004 highlighted the stress that he was under when managing Queens Park Rangers.

Here are some legendary quotes from the man affectionately known as 'Ollie':

"I am a football manager. I can't see into the future. Last year I thought I was going to Cornwall on my holidays but I ended up going to Lyme Regis." Mystic Ian couldn't predict Queens Park Rangers' match against Manchester City.

"Every dog has its day, and today is woof day! Today I just want to bark!" Holloway celebrates Rangers' promotion to the Championship.

"To put it in gentleman's terms if you've been out for a night and you're looking for a young lady and you pull one, some weeks they're good looking and some weeks they're not the best. Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi. She weren't the best looking lady we ended up taking home but she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let's have a coffee." Classic Ollie - this came after a scrappy QPR win over Chesterfield.

"It's all very well having a great pianist playing but it's no good if you haven't got anyone to get the piano on the stage in the first place, otherwise the pianist would be standing there with no bloody piano to play." Holloway talks about pianos, er I mean defenders being used in midfield.

"I have such bad luck at the moment that if I fell in a barrel of boobs, I'd come out sucking my thumb." Holloway bemoans his luck, or his lack of it for that matter.

"Sir David Beckham? You're having a laugh. He's just a good footballer with a famous bird. Can you imagine if Posh was called Lady Beckham? We'd never hear the end of it!" Holloway on rumours of a knighthood for David Beckham.

"I don't see the problem with footballers taking their shirts off after scoring a goal. They enjoy it and the young ladies enjoy it too. I suppose thats one of the main reasons women come to football games, to see the young men take their shirts off. Of course they'd have to go and watch another game because my lads are as ugly as sin." Ollie on the introduction of FIFA's ban on players removing their shirts during a goal celebration.

"Apparently it's my fault that the Titanic sank." Holloway said this after Plymouth Argyle fans criticised him against Leicester City.

"I love Blackpool. We're very similar. We both look better in the dark." Early on in his Blackpool reign, Holloway indicated how much he loved his new club.

"In the first half, we were like the Dog and Duck; in the second half, we were like Real Madrid. We can't go on like that. At full-time, I was at them like an irritated Jack Russell." Holloway was annoyed after Blackpool drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace.

Reporter: "Ian, have you got any injury worries?" Holloway: "No, I'm fully fit, thank you."

"If he's only worth £4million, then I'm a Scotsman called McTavish." The offers received for captain Charlie Adam irked Blackpool boss Ian McTavish.