Saturday, 29 May 2010

Play-offs would've stopped English football's greatest story

I overheard a conversation about Nottingham Forest last night. A casual observer asked if Forest had finished third in this season's Championship, why Blackpool, three places and nine points behind them would be in the Premier League instead of them next season?

The Tangerines, who on the last day of the season clinched the final playoff place, beat two teams in a knockout competition at the end of a rigorous campaign. Basically, Blackpool came into form at the right time as Forest got tired. The team who finish sixth often win promotion. When it was explained to the observer why the playoffs existed, "money" was the predictable, but truthful answer given.

Which reminds me. In 1977, Forest also secured third place in the same division to claim their place among the elite. There were no playoffs then. The rest, as they say, is history.

What came next was one of the most extraordinary ascents to the game's summit ever seen.
Brian Clough's men stormed all before them: signing Peter Shilton and Kenny Burns in the close-season, Forest went on to complete an astonishing League Championship and League Cup double followed by a successful defence of the League Cup and the first of two successive European Cups. Trevor Francis became the first million pound player and journeymen like John Robertson, Archie Gemmill and Tony Woodcock became football's biggest stars.
I'm not saying Billy Davies' charges would have done the same thing had they been promoted, but it's highly questionable if the extraordinary events would've unfolded for Cloughie's men had they been forced to play three more games at the end of a tough campaign, and just to earn the promotion they'd already won on merit.
There aren't relegation playoffs anymore as defeat for the vanquished is too painful, the drama too acute. Remember the riots at the Chelsea v Middlesbrough game at Stamford Bridge all those years ago? The conventional wisdom is that playoffs should be about a positive prize - promotion to the higher league. And that tired metaphor about the Premier League's Promised Land.
But given the history of Nottingham Forest, I am not sure about the play-offs at all.

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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

England's ordinary display is no indication of our World Cup prospects

England were far from brilliant in beating Mexico in their final Wembley warm-up before the World Cup Finals. But without Chelsea's "weary" Cup Final players (a game played nine days ago!) it wasn't a first-choice line-up either.

Still, Peter Crouch added to his impressive tally: 21 goals in 38 international appearances and Wayne Rooney came out unscathed as did the rest of the squad. It was one of Crouch's comedy goals which the referee generously allowed as he appeared to bundle it over the line with his arm.

It was good to see both Ledley King and Glen Johnson score. It's important we can rely on goals from all over the park; a need magnified by Rooney's diminishing England strike rate.
He's scored just once in his last seven having hit ten in the previous seven.

King's header disguised a rather below-par performance. He was frequently left standing by his Spurs teammate, Dos Santos in Mexico's attack. But Johnson's goal was a peach; his rising left-foot drive from outside the area was more than enough to earn him Man Of The Match when in fact no one really deserved it.
Even a West Ham player scored. Guillermo Franco took advantage of some sloppy England defending - followed by a most surreal celebration from the Mexican fans, delayed because of their viewing angle to the action at the other end of the stadium.
Two seconds later - uproaorious celebration. Good news travels fast!

Adam Johnson came off the bench for his full England debut. An old-fashioned dribbler, he looks set to be Fabio Capello's wildcard - and a substantial one at that. Jamie Carragher was comfortable if untested on his return to the fold as was Joe Hart, who caught everything with confidence. Opportunities seem to opening up for him at both club and country level. Milner joins Crouch and Baines on the plane and I'd pick Walcott too. Despite struggling with his form, he's a player capable of greatness. It's just all ahead of him!
But despite the slack passing, England had plenty in terms of invention and match fitness - and we're as ready as we're ever going to be to take on the rest of the world in South Africa.

Click here: Avram Grant: football's most celebrated loser. Soccermongery's all about your feedback, so write away, right away!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mourinho Premier League return would break the Golden Rule

One finger for Chelsea, the other for Barca!
As Jose Mourinho outfoxes Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Louis van Gaal to record a stunning Champions League victory, rumours of a Premier League return intensify. Luckily for the Portugeezer, the clamour from Real Madrid is louder. But Soccermongery warns against him coming back to England. 

We still hear a lot about The Special One over here. Our obsession never cooled despite a raft of new heroes and headlines created since.

Despite leaving England two-and-a-half years ago, Mourinho's life at Inter is well chronicled by our media.
His rows with Italian officialdom and managerial peers, his dissatisfaction with Serie A and his rumoured desire to return here one day. His raffish Portuguese style galvanised Chelsea to previously unchartered waters of success. But now the Inter project is complete with a stunning treble, it's widely rumoured he'll be managing at the Bernabeu, the scene of arguably his greatest triumph as a coach so far. 
Kenneth Williams
But English clubs big enough to support both The Special One's salary and his ego would probably shuffle their incumbent manager out the door just to secure him.
You could well imagine United, City - or even Liverpool with new ownership encouraging Jose back "home".
But what a mistake that would be! "Never Go Back", screams the old adage.

Mourinho's remembering his time at Chelsea through rose-tinted spectacles. He arrived at Stamford Bridge, all posturing and bravado crowned as European Champion with Porto.

The hottest property in the world game, he gave Roman Abramovich's billion pound project real focus. Six trophies in three astounding seasons followed.

But that was then. This is now.

English football, built on huge debt or the billions of a benefactor totally dominated the European game. But the tide is turning. Not only is UEFA kicking the English game when it's down - but Britain's desperate Labour government were killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

English clubs pay more tax than their Spanish counterparts - the players too are feeling the tax pinch. Already the trickle of foreign stars coming to England is diminishing. Spain and Germany are more favoured destinations. It costs more for an English club to sign and pay for an international star.

Cristiano Ronaldo's defection from Manchester United to Real Madrid may prove symbolic - unless the Premier League can really focus on exploiting emerging new markets such as the Far East and India.

Mourinho would return to a less mighty English game. That's why talk of taking over at Real would be a better port of call for him. But could the sheer force of his personality or Manchester City's millions buck the trend?

Click here for Avram Grant, football's most celebrated loser and The full-length Nike World Cup advert in HD.

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Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Nike World Cup advert: the best ever?

Starring Rooney, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Ribéry. Rip roaring!



Also on Soccermongery: why Grant the loser is lauded as a winner. plus:

Soccermongery's Champions League video preview:

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Say NO to video evidence in football

Welcoming Simon Manuel to the Soccermongery writers parade - and what a debut! He's with FIFA all the way on rejecting the use of video evidence. Here's the nightmare scenario.

It’s Sunday 13 July 2014. The World Cup Final at The Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. England v Germany.

It’s the last minute of extra time with the teams locked at 2-2 and England substitute Daniel Sturridge is clean through on the German goal. As he’s poised to shoot the referee blows his whistle and brings play back. Germany have called for their last video referral.

They’re claiming a goal after Lukas Podolski’s snap shot cannoned off the bar and bounced towards the line moments before 'keeper Joe Hart’s long clearance released Sturridge. Germany are convinced they’ve scored but England are also considering a referral as video evidence has revealed that the corner that led to Podolski’s shot should have been a goal kick after brushing a German boot on the way out.

After viewing video replays from 9 different angles over 4 minutes the goal line evidence is inconclusive and play resumes with a drop ball in the centre circle. The match peters out and the Germans go on to win on penalties.


Far fetched? Maybe the bit about England getting to the World Cup final but the video referral? Not if FIFA bows to the views of the likes of Arsene Wenger, Terry Venables, Mark Hughes and Alex McLeish to name but four of the managers calling for football to follow the likes of cricket, rugby league and American football and use video technology in some form or other.

After Thierry Henry’s infamous handball knocked the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup, Wenger insisted that referees can't cope and need external help: "Football accepts that a billion people see it, one guy doesn't see it and it is the one who prevails. It cannot work,"
Last Saturday, after his Birmingham side were denied an 81st minute goal after Liam Ridgewell’s header was adjudged not to have crossed the line, manager Alex McLeish said: “In key moments like that, they are actually doing the officials a disservice by not using [video technology]”.
Ironically, McLeish’s rant came on the same day that FIFA announced that they'd ruled out the introduction of video technology to assist officials during games thereby ending all further experiments with goal-line technology. Most of the response of the press was that this was just another example of how out of step FIFA is with what football fans really want. The Daily Telegraph’s headline read “What are FIFA’s technophobes afraid of” and sarcastically mocked FIFA by suggesting that FIFA thought football was already perfect and couldn’t be improved.
Football isn’t perfect but I think FIFA’s decision is nothing less than the saviour of the game we love. If goal line technology was introduced it wouldn’t be long before teams were allowed a set number of video reviews similar to those already in place in American football and recently introduced in cricket – farcically in the case of the non dismissal of Graeme Smith in the final England v South Africa test match in Johannesburg.
FIFA’s main reason for rejecting technology in football is that it would disrupt the flow of the game. Of that there can be no doubt. The great genius of football is the fact that the game can change so quickly. Brian Clough famously said it only takes a second to score a goal. He was only exaggerating a bit. Wayne Rooney’s brilliant goal against Arsenal at The Emirates this season was scored a mere 9.2 seconds after Ji-Sung Park had won the ball in his own penalty area.
Advocates of technology say that the money in the game means you have to move with the times and that’s it’s too important not to use because football is now big business.

But football isn’t about money, it’s about sport. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not the fact that football is big business that makes us go straight to the back page of the newspaper every morning or tune to Sky Sports news every time we turn on the TV. And it’s not because football is big business that people like Southampton fan Vince Reeves recently risked missing the birth of his first child so that he could keep his place in the queue to get tickets for the recent 5th round FA Cup match against Portsmouth.
Football isn’t real life, it’s a long running soap opera that brings out every human emotion: joy, despair, frustration, deceit, respect, love, fear….the list is endless. It appeals to us on an instinctive level. A teams of humans against another team of humans officiated by humans.
The call for technology is just an attempt to bring football into real life. To bring order to chaos, to impose the CCTV culture of our age onto sport. FIFA should be applauded for standing firm against this. What makes football so compelling is its innate unpredictability. Maradona’s “hand of god” and the referee’s failure to spot it are as much part of the game as the sublime goal that followed.
Football teaches teamwork, loyalty and discipline but most of all it teaches everyone who has ever watched or played a game that football, like life, is not fair. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. You can appeal to a higher being, in football the referee, and sometimes he answers your prayers and sometimes he doesn’t. On occasion he get’s it plain wrong just like in life the big man upstairs doesn’t help when your wife runs off with your best mate or your prized BMW gets nicked.
Pundits on TV say things like the referee “should” have awarded a penalty or free-kick or a player “should” have passed or “should” have scored. It’s as if there is a blueprint that ought to be followed. One day a game will be played when technology will make sure that every refereeing decision is correct, every pass will be perfect and every chance that “should” be scored will go in. It will be the most perfect game ever, and also the most boring. Football will have died.
Fast forward again to the Maracana. The referee hasn’t blown and Sturridge coolly rounds the keeper and slots the ball into an empty net. England have won the World Cup for the first time in 48 years. Video replays show that Sturridge was marginally offside when he received the ball but hey, that’s football.
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Monday, 10 May 2010

Good Players Don't Always Make Good Managers

By MARCUS STEAD

Some years ago, Brian Clough gave an interview to the BBC’s Garry Richardson, in which he said, “You’re a good interviewer... you might even be the best. But if I put you behind that camera, you probably wouldn’t know where to start.”

Cloughie made an important point, and it’s one for which every Premier League chairman should take heed (and a few broadcasting executives, but Jonny’s already written about that!)

A person’s ability as a player proves absolutely nothing about their suitability to manage a big club. Sir Bobby Charlton wasn’t cut out for management, and there are plenty of other world-class players who haven’t made the grade once they’ve hung up their boots.

When Mark Hughes was appointed Wales’s manager, I was among those who felt putting someone with no managerial experience in such a big position was like taking a gamble that would put even Mike Ashley to shame.

We knew absolutely nothing about whether he was cut out for management, and to this day, I think my fears were justified. No Wales fan will ever forget that day in late 2002 when we beat Italy at the Millennium Stadium. But before and after that famous victory, there was some absolute dross from the team, and his win ratio was less than 30%.

In club management, he got Blackburn playing some decent football, and Manchester City have looked reasonable on occasions since he took over, but the fact remains he hasn’t got a single significant achievement to his name nearly a decade after he started at Wales.

There have been a number of ex-players who were given their first crack at management at the highest level, only for it to end in disaster, but so many Premier League chairmen don’t seem to be getting the message.

On the other side of the coin, some pretty unremarkable players turn out to be world-class managers. Okay, so Sir Alex played at a high level in Scotland, but can anyone tell me anything (without cheating) about the playing records of Arsene Wenger, Rafael Benitez or Jose Mourinho? All three retired very early from playing, served their apprenticeships and took low-level jobs in management.

To give an English example, Roy Hodgson played very little first-team football, yet he commands an enormous amount of respect as a manager, and will no doubt build on his success at Fulham.

This is exactly my point. Aside from being an ex-sportsman who fancies a career in the media, can anybody think of any other walk of life where you can take your first job at the very top of your chosen profession?

In normal life, you are either expected to gain some sort of qualification, or start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up. Why should football management be any different? Premier League chairmen should realise there are plenty of promising young managers in the lower leagues who deserve the opportunity to prove themselves at a higher level. Most weren’t big names as players, but have made the best of the limited resources they’ve been given to work with. These people deserve a chance of working with limited resources in the big league.

Giving a managerial novice a job in the Premier League isn’t fair on him either, no matter how good he was as a player. Gareth Southgate has learnt his trade in the full glare of the national media, with his every mistake scrutinised in front of the whole country. He may yet prove to be a good manager, but surely it would have been better for him to learn the ropes at a smaller club, where only a few thousand diehard supporters would be on his back.

So things didn’t work out for Paul Ince at Blackburn, but that doesn’t make him a bad manager. Maybe he needed more time. Another person who has followed the “proper route” and has genuinely earned the right to manage a relatively big club is Nigel Clough. Don’t get me wrong, I very much doubt the thought of appointing the current manager of Burton Albion would’ve occurred to anyone on the board at Derby had it not been for his father’s legacy.

That’s not to say Clough Jnr doesn’t fully deserve a crack at the (fairly) big-time. He has already led Burton to one promotion and would probably have got them into the Football League if he’d stayed put.

There’s a chance his father’s remarkable achievements at Derby all those years ago may hang like a noose around his neck, and the weight of expectation could prove too high. But a far more likely scenario is that he’ll adopt similar principles to those he applied successfully at Burton and lead Derby back into the Premier League within a few seasons.

It’s a pity many others with managerial CV’s similar to his aren’t given a chance.

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Sunday, 9 May 2010

Burnley's Fair Play League hopes dashed

As quickly as hopes were raised for Burnley, they were dashed! UEFA's decided to award Fair Play places in Europe to Sweden, Denmark and Finland next term, so ending the relegated Clarets hopes of joining the Euro elite from August. But Soccermongery says the Fair Play League is distinctly unfair - to deserving clubs:

Why should Burnley manager Brian Laws have been incentivised by Europe's governing body to send out his team urging careful challenges in their last game of the Premier League season? Because that's what Laws would've been mindful of as he prepared his Clarets for their last (ever) game in the top flight, at home to Tottenham. A place in Europe via this contorted route was still up for grabs at the time.

It’s not as if they were a particularly clean team anyway. Burnley were just the highest up the Fair Play table who'd not qualified for Europe.

In fact, they finished as low as seventh. Incredibly, the six teams above them didn’t need a back door to Europe like this; they'd already qualified. Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Villa among them.

What the Fair Play League shows year after year is that successful teams are usually disciplined enough to play the game the right way, leaving struggling hoofers like Burnley to earn this ridiculous route into the Europa League.

I suppose it might've stopped an exodus of players from Turf Moor following their relegation to the Championship. That and the parachute money, of course. But it’s still a European-style fudge and nonsense.

If UEFA awarded a Europa place to the most improved side in the Premier League, it might help that club to develop further. Stoke or Birmingham would drink to that suggestion.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Redknapp proves Premier League discriminates against English managerial talent

Harry Redknapp's achievement in securing Tottenham's first-ever appearance in the Champions League is every bit as significant as his FA Cup win with Portsmouth two years ago.
It shouldn't be forgotten just how much disarray Spurs were in when Redknapp replaced Juande Ramos literally overnight. They've gone from ‘two points in eight games’ to 70 from 37 inside two seasons. The oddball Wembley defeat to Pompey is the only black mark this campaign.
Spurs’ resurgence under the stewardship of their cockney manager's been astronomical. In a matter of 555 days, the former West Ham winger's turned the club’s fortunes totally on their head, steering them from the clutches of relegation to what will be their highest league finish in 10 years.

Sam Allardyce often complained that he'd have got more of a sniff of the top jobs in the Premier League, if he were called Samuele Allardice (it's in Italics for a reason, folks!) Now, Harry's made Spurs one of the more coveted jobs in English football through force of will - and with an all-British coaching staff.

And 2010 marks the resurgence of the English manager in the world game. Joining Redknapp in raising eyebrows are Fulham's Europa League hero Roy Hodgson and the former wally with the brolly, Steve McClaren, who's just won the Eredivisie with Twente Enschede.

The one-nil win over Manchester City at Eastlands, Tottenham's last rival for that coveted place, shows they have the application and big-match mentality to give the Champions League "a good old go" as Harry might say.

Even by last January's transfer window, Redknapp had assembled a decent squad with a strong-looking bench. Much stronger than their competition in Aston Villa, who picked from their inexperienced but talented youth team, Manchester City, who were still garnering a new team spirit and Liverpool, who under the leadership of Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez, fell away under pressure to perform.

Redknapp's flexible and pro-active enough to realise his current squad's not good enough to reach the business end of Europe's elite competition. His wheeler-dealing in the market is well documented - and now he'll be able to attract top players to the club.

But perhaps rather than wholesale changes, Redknapp may only need to tweak the squad, such is the talent and spirit within it. From Crouch to King, from Gomes to Danny Rose, Tottenham have the basis to build on their phenomenal season.

They might be about to embark on their first adventure in Europe at this level, but don't expect Tottenham Hotspur to roll over against the big sides.

Click here: Why Mourinho should think twice before a Premier League return.