Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A Highland Fling double header

Regular Soccermongery readers know how I love to experience the lore of other football nations to see how their fans, players and stadia fit together.
..and if you know your history! Celtic fans before kickoff.

And there's few lands this sassenach has greater respect for than Scotland. When football was proclaimed to be 'coming home' at Euro 96, the very assumption seemed one-eyed.

No doubt England is 'a' home of football. The Sheffield Rules and the Football Association are indeed foundation stones. But it was the Football League and my beloved Aston Villa that was literally built on the pioneering skills and drive of Scots. Archie Hunter, George Ramsay and William McGregor are basically the forbears of the football industry. They did it from Villa's boardroom, touchline and playing fields.

And so it was with a keen eye to history, I went along with my pal and fellow journo Iain Ramage to not one, but two games. Talk about making the most of a Saturday afternoon!

Terry Butcher's team play for him.
First destination: the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium for Inverness Caledonian Thistle against Celtic. Hype sprang eternal from the local press. Fresh memories of a 3-2 Caley win the season before coupled with Celtic's Premier Lag to Rangers put a determination in the step of the home team.

And a well organised Caley proved a match for the visitors even growing in stature as the game progressed. That was until Greg Tansey was sent off for what boss Terry Butcher called "assault by fingernail". A midfield challenge with Georgios Samaras ended Caley's chances as Celtic eventually broke the ten men's resolve - but not until the hour mark.

Celtic's sell-out end sung with vigour all game even finding time to taunt Terry Butcher for being both English and outclassed by Maradona in Mexico. To me, those taunts sound like back-handed compliments. Inducted into the Scottish Football Hall Of Fame earlier this month, the ex-Rangers star must reflect with quiet satisfaction at Celtic's attention. After all, it was 25 years ago.

Still, one day Scotland will be good enough to play Argentina in the second round of a World Cup - well, possibly.
Good game!
It was disappointing to see the Caley contingent punctuated by empty seats but walking out of the stadium to see a beautiful stretch of water, forest and hills certainly wasn't. There aren't too many more beautiful settings for top division football in the whole world.

After a minor battle to get out of the car park, it was six miles down the road to our next game, a Highland League encounter between leading lights Nairn County and Lossiemouth at Station Park. With no preconceptions of what to expect, I must say I was totally bowled over by the experience.

Walking into the ground, I saw about thirty heads above the perimeter wall. I imagined a modest uncovered terrace about ten rows deep. Turning the corner, to see a mound of turf was a bit of a surprise. The row of heads stood at the back of the hill for the best view. Truly a Spion Kop!

It's such an intimate ground. Fans and players, keepers and management interact. There's nowhere to run and hide at this level. You can hear everything. For Lossiemouth, read potty mouth!
As the visitors left back took a throw, a kid in the stand shouted, "you need a haircut!". The mop top, two hours from a Saturday night out just nodded in agreement.

Special mention for Andy Neill and Connor Gethins, who looks a real talent. I haven't watched enough football north of the border to make a judgement on how high he could play, but surely there's a Scottish League club who could use the ex-Peterhead striker's services again.

Honoured to talk to Les Fridge on the pitch post-match
We sat in the main stand and watched ebb and flow to a three-all climax, although opportunist Lossiemouth took their chances when County should've wrapped it up at 2-nil and 3-2.

The Highland League is played with commitment, pace and fitness. There's quite a lot of chasing the long ball.

Donald, the club photographer saw me take a photo of Nairn boss Les Fridge and offered me my own private audience with him at the final whistle. I was on the pitch talking football with the boss! That doesn't happen at Villa.

The ground is beautifully maintained and every club official wears a Nairn tie to add to the air of pride and professionalism at the club.

"Haste ye back", an expression I heard a few times during my afternoon. I really hope to very soon.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

One-nil to the England!

England followed up a win over the world and European Champions on Saturday with a win by the same scoreline against Sweden.

Breaking a duck in beating the Swedes for the first time since 1968 is obviously a positive although again, the manner of victory shows we're lucky even to be fourth favourites to win Euro 2012. What does that say about the parlous state of French and Italian football at the moment?

England's autumnal era has everything to do with Fabio Capello's decision to step down at the end of next summer having given two years notice of his intentions. That, coupled with the lack of desire among our millionaire professionals to actually pull on the national shirt is a devastating double hit to our hopes.

The best that Fabio can do is to make young, hungry players the fulcrum of his squad and get Sergeant Stuart Pearce to motivate them for each game. To that end, Phil Jones, Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell could be so important.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

England's win a contradiction in terms

It was England's first win over a reigning world champion since Argentina were humbled at Wembley in 1980. It also ended a run of three straight defeats against the Armada in which we'd not scored at all.

And yet it was probably the first demonstrative acknowledgement that we're simply no match for the likes of Germany, Holland and the Spanish to win Euro 2012.

Because England's win was 0% inspiration 100% perspiration. Not that tracking back and winning every ball isn't without merit - it is. But it's not enough in itself to win tournaments.

Scott Parker broke it up in midfield, Joleon Lescott was alert to everything and Glen Johnson marauded when called upon.

Friendlies are often a difficult monitor of progress. Apart from not knowing how seriously the opposition are taking it (and Spain may well have played with more urgency had it been competitive), the sheer amount of substitutions breaks up the drill and formations worked up by the starting eleven.

Then again we have strength in depth: Fabio Capello could have easily picked a quite plausible alternative team. Who knows where the inspiration might come from in the future? We have Jones, Rodwell, Wilshere, Welbeck and Walcott to invest our dreams in.

On a completely different level, Spain have their problems. They came into the game without a win in four and luck deserted them in that fashion. On this display, they hardly look worthy favourites to win in Poland and Ukraine.

So it's Sweden next at Wembley and another chance for England to win, build confidence and break a duck of incessant draws against the Scandinavians.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Eck settling Villa's turbulent twelve months

Eck's shining light of stability 
Aston Villa's 3-2 home over Norwich City's ended a two successive defeat downturn and put the team into a respectable eighth place.

Only the usual suspects with bigger resources are outperforming Villa, Newcastle aside.

Alex McLeish isn't yet winning over the fans with his workmanlike style of football, nevertheless the club are much more stable than twelve months ago. In the wake of Martin O'Neill's shock departure on the eve of last season, the board scratched around to appoint the wholly inappropriate Gerard Houllier after a disastrous dalliance with Kevin MacDonald.

McLeish was always going to find resistance from the naysayers in arriving from the rabble at Small Heath, but I can't help but admire his Carling Cup win, particularly with the team he had and its startling lack of firepower and history of achievement. Yes, Blues were relegated at the end of the season but I think that had everything to do with the physical excesses of the Cup run.

What McLeish does do well is encourage players to grow in stature and confidence. Warnock and Petrov are beneficiaries of the new regime even if Ireland continues to annoy the faithful with his lacklustre shows.

But the fast-maturing Gabriel Agbonlahor's stepped upto the plate to become a senior player of real influence and quality at Villa Park. Working on his game rather than weight-training's helped plug the void left by the departed Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.

Agbonlahor and Bent developing a partnership
And increasing that work rate and goals is invigorating the strike partnership with Darren Bent. The £24m hit man, bought in the January transfer window has now scored 46 times since the start of the 09/10 season: no one, not Rooney or Drogba can match that.

It's important to remember what a proven striker we have and but for his checkered Tottenham career, Bent may have been playing for another top four team now, instead of arriving at Villa via Sunderland.

In defence, Villa have capability, talent and experience but lack confidence. But as results improve, so will form and as the season develops, so will fitness. There's nothing wrong with the reputation and commitment of players like Dunne, Collins, Warnock and great new keeper, Shay Given. Fans are calling for Collins to be dropped, but his early season progress has been hampered by injury.

The only legacy of the Houllier period was his commitment to youth. So many players staked their claim to the first team - and for one reason or another, they've slipped out of the reckoning. But Chris Herd is one player who's not only showing what a fine prospect he is, he's also creating competition at the back: so key to a developing squad.

I take Villa to continue improving and for Alex McLeish to look back at his first season in charge at Villa Park to finish higher than last season's stunted ninth place.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

How 25 years of Ferguson at Manchester United started

Clear vision for United from the start
Sir Alex Ferguson's been Manchester United boss so long, half his players weren't even born when he stepped into Old Trafford in November 1986.

As CEO of @sportsmediaUK, I commissioned a radio documentary on his time at United but for one reason or another, we never aired it. I'm now delighted to be serialising it here on Soccermongery to coincide with Fergie's 25 year anniversary as United boss. Sir Alex Ferguson"s 25 years at United: his arrival at Old Trafford (mp3)
United's previous manager!
Here's Episode 1: starting just before Fergie's arrival. FA Cup winner Ron Atkinson was sacked as United sunk to one of their lowest ebbs. Liverpool were out in front as England's foremost club with multiple League, Cup and European successes. Survival in the old First Division was far from assured for United and drastic action was required from the board.

They looked to the Aberdeen manager who'd taken on and beaten the Old Firm to put the Dons at the top of Scottish football.

Tom Tyrrell was Piccadilly Radio's Manchester United reporter from the start of Fergie's reign. He's been eyewitness to, and been on the receiving end of, Fergie's infamous hairdryer - but survived to collect all of the audio interviews in this great radio programme.

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