Thursday, 27 August 2015

Podcast: Jonny's Premier League week

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Never mind the outcome: who SHOULD'VE won that World Cup?

There’s nothing more final than an unjust football result. No appeals process exists to shake off the unpalatable, unacceptable and unfair.

What can Atletico do about Real’s last-gasp leveller in the 2014 Champions League Final? And Smith Won’t Score, Brighton fans. It’s best just not to dwell on it.

But what if you could go back and rewrite history in the name of Justice? And what if that was then accepted as science fact by all?

World Cup fans should ask, did the right team win? And I say no, not always.

The best Brazil team not to win the World Cup?
Take 1982 for example: Italy won it but Brazil should have. It would have ended a 12 year post-Pele drought.  An era of Zico, Socrates and Falcao made more fabulous by the last vestiges of sepia-coloured TV pictures and excitable commentary on the phone.

Of course, Italy will point to Paolo Rossi's stunning hat-trick against them - but it was a defeat to send Brazil into their shell until they exacted revenge over Italy in the worst ever World Cup Final twelve years later. A Final so bad it made Diana Ross’ Opening Ceremony penalty kick look appropriate.

But one solitary ninety minutes stands above as the game that both launched a mighty nation, while chiming a knell for another.

The 1954 Final between West Germany and Hungary was the ninety which changed football's direction the most.  Their status’ are now so completely in contrast today, it’s hard to imagine it came about as a freak result . West Germany’s so-called Miracle of Bern.

Back then, Germany was demoralised, a literally divided nation. What they wanted was a morale boost just nine years after the disaster of World War II.

No one would begrudge Hungary oneWorld title
Their opponents, the marvellous Magyars were - well, marvellous. Imperious, brilliant - and the mantle of world champions would all but confirm an era of magnificence.

Hungary had already humbled the West Germans 8-3 in the group stages and made it to the Final courtesy of victory over 1950 runners-up, Brazil and champions, Uruguay.

Ferenc Puskas fractured his ankle during the Finals – but it’d be disingenuous to his teammates to blame that for Hungary’s shocker.

Instead, West Germany's 3-2 win launched a dynasty while Hungary disappeared from sight by 1962. Add to that Germany being disallowed from the 1950 tournament – this was their first post-war football foray.

By 1990, West Germany's destiny was built on history, self-belief and structure. Those pillars helped push them past a weak Argentina.

But that was when host nation Italy should've won.

Fuelled by the unexpected six-shooter Salvatore Schillaci, Italy powered their way through the group stages with Toto's firebrand goals.

Toto's pumped up goal celebrations were nuclear-fuelled
They were cruelly denied by a semi-final penalty shoot-out loss to defending champions Argentina – but it would have been a travesty if one-man Team Maradona had retained the Cup. Andreas Brehme's clinical penalty booked West Germany's date with destiny again.

And it's not just about the World Cup, it's a European Championship thing too. And that my friends, is all about England.

England are so unlucky. They could've buried the mantle of Least Successful Big Nation before Spain ditched the unwanted title first with consecutive victories in Euro 2008, 2012 and the World Cup in between.

It’s because Euro 96 and 2004 belonged to the Three Lions.

Baddiel and Skinner’s “thirty years of hurt” seems a reasonable tariff for crimes against preparation nowadays. It’s 50 and counting.

The Queen of England too excited by a German win?
With ten goals, England scored more than any other in Portugal, starring the Golden Generation and fearless 18-year-old Wayne Rooney of Everton.

Just as Germany seemingly strut to victory every generation, England’s defeats are magnified by frustration at the sudden failure of well, usually penalty shoot-outs.

And the less we say about Wembley in 1996, the better.  With the Czechs, 80-1 outsiders at the start waiting in the final, it was a gimme for the host nation at Wembley .

Excuse me, I have to leave the keyboard for a couple of minutes.

And while we’re on host-nations, Holland should’ve been crowned European Champions for a second time in 2000. They succumbed to Italy in the semi-final on penalties – Italy in turn, lost to a French Golden Goal despite leading in the Rotterdam Final.

Greece's Plan A gameplan worked perfectly!
France were already world champions and maybe, the Clairefontaine youth project deserved this outstanding double recognition – but still,the Dutch with Kluivert, Overmars, Davids, Stam and van der Saar deserved to emulate the Gullits and van Bastens of a generation earlier.

On the other hand, England's bad luck aside, no one can argue with Greece winning Euro 2004; Otto Rehhagel’s procession of one-nil wins was a masterclass of gameplan – nor with Denmark’s romp to Euro 92 glory when UEFA pulled them in from summer holiday deckchairs to replace war-torn Yugoslavia.

As for England,’66 made up for the World Cups they carelessly didn't bother with in the thirties.

Our common memories make the thin-line between success and failure an open wound. What a pity there’s no revisionism in football.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Remembering Sir Bobby Robson

One of football's modern managerial legends and great enthusiasts passed away six years ago today. Sir Bobby Robson's influence still endures to the top of the game today: Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas are his direct disciples. I had the privilege of interviewing Sir Bobby at two very different points in his career and here's my affectionate personal tribute to him:

Sir Bobby Robson, who lost his long-term battle with cancer aged 76, was a good player but it was his zeal for management which really marked him out. A life truly fulfilled with Ipswich, England, PSV, Sporting, Porto, Barcelona and of course, Newcastle United.

During his England days.
He nurtured players to greatness from Romario to Ronaldo; from Gazza to Gary. And if that's not enough, Mourinho and Guardiola, two of the most feted coaches in the world game were cultivated by the great man.

I had the pleasure to interview Sir Bobby with both England and Newcastle. He was the man who crafted Gazza into a senior England performer despite having branded him "daft as a brush". Backing Gazza to step up to the plate was a gamble at the time, but the boss was trusting and generous with ability. He was instantly rewarded as Gazza struck twice in a 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia, the first international I covered for radio.

Sir Bobby was already of pensionable age at Newcastle; he had a great contract and with nothing to prove, the pressure was off. The job was a labour of love. His enthusiasm was so infectious, I smiled with him during our live interview on Prem Plus and he increasingly chuckled back at me. His answers were so long, I had to switch from arm to outstretched oxygen-starved arm to keep the mike under his chin!

Sir Bobby was still on the ball in his Newcastle days
Sir Bobby was famed for mix-ups. On England duty, he wished Bryan Robson a cheery "Morning Bobby!", Bryan dutifully replied "You're Bobby, I'm Bryan, boss!". At Newcastle, Shola Ameobi claimed the boss dubbed him "Carl Cort".

But a less well-known story was relayed to me by former Chelsea and Queen's Park Rangers defender, Steve Wicks.

Wicks had just completed the best season of his career at Loftus Road and had been picked for an England B international in Mexico just months before the 1986 World Cup. Bobby was still pondering the 22-man squad he was going to take to the Finals with rumours that 3 or 4 places were still up for grabs. To add tension to the B game, the boss was going to pick the last available places from the best performers. He popped down to the England dressing room before kick-off to prepare the would-be World Cup stars:

His influence still endures today
"Now, I know you might be nervous 'cos I'm here, but just do your best and good luck to each one of you!", said the England boss.

He then went round the dressing room shaking each of the player's hands with a "good luck son". He arrived at Wicks, an imposing 6 foot 2 inches tall with the physical attributes of a goalkeeper as much as the central defender he was:

"I want you to know son, that you've had a brilliant year... yes, I've monitored you all season!". Wicks couldn't believe it. It sounded like Bobby's mind was made up to take him to the World Cup even before the game had started. "Wow, thanks boss!", Wicks choked out.

"Yes son..... your save at Aston Villa was one of the best I've ever seen!"

In a classic Bobby moment, he'd mixed up Wicks with Woods. Norwich City's Chris Woods, so it was the goalkeeper not the centre-half that went to the Finals.

I've spoken with a lot of friends and fellow fans and the tributes have been no more heartfelt than that of my friend, Jamie Gould. A Geordie and lifelong Newcastle United fan, who told me this:

"It was so sad to see him decline, but he still made it to matches regardless of the difficulties. It was great that he got to manage Newcastle but he was treated terribly at the end. He was the perfect ambassador for the game - but he was more than a Toon manager, more than an England manager, more than a Barca manager. He was a great man of football generally and, moreso, a great man, a great human being. The loss is surely felt well outside the confines of the football world; even people who never met him will say, hand on heart, 'I loved Sir Bobby Robson'".

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Benteke to Liverpool? Villa should strive to hold on to him

The Beast of Bodymoor
It's all over the papers: Liverpool want Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke.

With thirteen goals in fourteen games, it's no wonder he's on the radar of every Premier League club with ambition.

But Liverpool? They're no longer a Champions League perennial and both fans and players alike looked as though they couldn't wait for the season's end.

With lame duck Brendan Rodgers at the helm admitting he'd accept the sack, what would Benteke be walking into?

Steven Gerrard, arguably the greatest to don the Red shirt played his last game in a 6-1 thrashing at Stoke which followed a final Anfield bow, a poor 3-1 reverse to Crystal Palace.

Raheem Sterling was pilloried, mocked and jeered by the travelling away support – Rodgers had urged the fans not to give him a hard time.

This is how they revere their star
So while Benteke prepares for the FA Cup Final with the inspirational Tim Sherwood coaching him to better form, why on earth would he switch to Anfield. Because they were famous once?

If a Champions League club came calling, it'd be more understandable for the 24-year-old Belgian striker to move on. EURO 2016 is on the horizon. Could Villa repel interest from Wolfsburg or Sporting Lisbon? It'd be harder.

No, this is a moment for Villa to use mere Anfield interest to secure him on improved terms over a longer period.

He's on a four-year deal until 2017 so adequate compensation for one of the Premier League's hottest properties is assured - but if Villa are to build on a bright young manager and his more focused squad, they need to treat Benteke as if he were a new signing.

I say pay him what he wants - and when his stock rises even higher next season, then accept his departure.

Benteke's farewell needs to be on Villa's terms. It's not now and it's certainly not to Anfield.