Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Clough name lives on at Derby

By JOE MORRIS (making his Soccermongery debut). Joe takes a look at the Cloughs, their bond with each other - and Derby.

The relationship between father and son is always a special one, but for Nigel Clough the bond with his dad, Brian, could never be broken. Father and son were never less than best friends and you somehow knew that one day Nigel would do exactly; the same job as his doting dad.

Earlier this month, Nigel Clough became the new manager of Derby County, 42 years after Ol' Big 'Ead breezed into the old Baseball Ground. In 1967 Clough senior was an unknown, Derby were struggling at the wrong end of the old Second Division and a band from Liverpool were conquering the world.

After serving a stern 10-year apprenticeship at non-league Burton Albion, a boy called Nigel has been catapulted into the deep end at Championship club Derby County. Which is roughly where Clough senior came in. By the end of Brian Clough's career both Derby County and Nottingham Forest had become household names with trophies galore.

Brian Clough won League championships in abundance with both Derby and Forest, boasting one of the most identifiable of voices. He was forthright, opinionated, an infuriating nuisance at times but always accessible to both the public and media alike. He once called an eccentric Polish goalkeeper a clown, hollered obscenities at his players when close season training wasn't going according to plan, and in a League Cup match against QPR, lashed out at Rangers supporters.

In their Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester United last week, Nigel Clough sat quietly in the Directors Box remembering the good times with dad. In contrast to his controversial father, Nigel, it would seem, is an altogether different footballing boss. It remains to be seen whether Nigel will tell his players exactly what he thinks of them and whether cups and saucers are thrown in the dressing room.

Clough junior, apart from bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ol' Big 'Ead, is also a devoted family man. He will set out his footballing theories, put a sympathetic hug around his players when things go pear-shaped and then undoubtedly demand three points and the Champions League trophy

When he was at Burton Albion all Clough had to deal with was a postage stamp sized ground, little or no money for new players and the electricity bills. Non-league clubs are the poor relations in football's great pyramid, so when he takes his place for his first match as Derby boss the culture shock may just startle him.

He will climb into the Pride Park dug out, take in the glamorous surroundings and wonder what he's letting himself for. In the old days Derby's Baseball Ground would often resemble a gravel pit. Brian Clough would walk out on the pitch, politely applaud his adoring supporters and then watch his much revered side including John McGovern, Archie Gemmell, Kevin Hector and John O'Hare.

The task that faces son Nigel is entirely different and this time there are no European cups or League Championships on the immediate horizon. There is no Peter Taylor to confide in when the boys are under-achieving, only a reliable back room staff to hand out reassurance.

When Nigel the younger was growing up, dad Brian would often take him to to all the matches. You can still see the little boy in shorts sitting excitedly next to his dad and just smiling. True Brian Clough was a master motormouth, tactlessness personified and a man with no regard for the niceties. But he taught his players all of the game's finer virtues and he also encouraged them to treat the ball like a favourite uncle.

If Nigel Clough can make half the same impact as his monumentally successful dad then Derby County could well be back in the big time in no time. During one League encounter against Manchester City, a groundsman had to run on to the pitch to paint a penalty spot.

From the resultant penalty Derby scored. Brian Clough would have seen the funny side of that one isolated incident. If Nigel Clough can keep looking at the bright side of life then Derby County could be grinning from ear to ear.

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Friday, 13 March 2009

Playing a 39th game overseas will NEVER work!


Alright, alright! I'm giving Marcus the platform he deserves for this well-argued piece. Personally, I like the 39th Game idea, although I confess it doesn't quite resonate with the same force it did pre-Credit Crunch. Here's Marcus!

Most football fans I speak to seem to agree with me that the Premier League has lost some of its appeal. Some of the sparkle that made it such an attractive product in the mid-90s seems to have gone.

I’ve noticed that most of my mates aren’t as eager to see every televised game as they once were. Over the last few years, they haven’t been quite so keen to make sure they’ve finished their Sunday dinner by the time the first of two live Premier League matches comes on. They don’t seem as bothered if their girlfriends want to take a trip to the DIY store on a Sunday afternoon either.

The evidence supports my case. Viewing figures for the FA Cup have dropped alarmingly this season, and I don’t think it’s because the rights have transferred from the BBC to ITV. Some people may prefer their football on one channel over another, but I don’t for one second think that’s a decisive factor as to whether or not they watch the game.

The truth is football needs a shot in the arm- something that’ll capture the public’s imagination the way the new and glamorous Premier League did in the 92/93 season.

At present, the entire bottom half of the table are worthy candidates for relegation. Many of these teams have their share of journeymen who enjoy a hefty pay packet and don’t feel any sense of loyalty or ambition to their clubs. Too often, their managers send them out to play negative, ugly football, and in these tough economic times, the fans are voting with their feet.

Football requires a revolution on the same scale as the formation of the Premier League, and failure to do so will see the steady decline in interest which is well underway escalate over the next few years.

Various ideas have been floating around as to how best to do this, most of which are quickly and rightly dismissed as completely impractical. However, one proposal that has repeatedly been suggested during the last 12 months or so is playing an extra round of matches of overseas. Their inspiration for this proposal often comes from the success the NFL have had in staging matches at Wembley. I’m sure its many advocates are well intentioned, but really, this idea needs to be put to bed now!

When we think of English football’s global appeal, we generally think of a few clubs. Certainly, Manchester United and Liverpool have strong fan bases in Asia and other parts of the world, but does it really span much beyond that? Is there really any demand for Premier League football in other parts of the world that does not involve the top four? Let’s look at this weekend’s fixtures for inspiration:

I can see demand for tickets for Man Utd v Liverpool being massive just about anywhere where football has any kind of fan base. But how well would Sunderland v Wigan go down in Bangkok? Or what about Bolton v Fulham in Johannesburg? Or perhaps West Ham v West Brom in Shanghai? Come on, it’s hard enough to persuade people from West Brom to go and watch them play!

The second problem this would create is that it would massively devalue the league system. If, as Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, then a league system is the least worst way of establishing which football team is consistently the best. Every team plays every other team home and away over the course of a season, and the team with the most points at the end wins the league.

Of course, it’s not perfect and can never be completely fair. There will always be injury lay-offs which were no fault of the player or the club, suspensions that should never have been, and bad pitches caused by allowing rugby to be played on the ground (an increasing problem, and one I’ll have to get used to in a year’s time when Cardiff City move into their new stadium). However, until somebody thinks of a fairer way of deciding it, the league system will do.

Adding an extra round of fixtures will completely destroy the league as a concept. Imagine if, at the end of the season, your team finished second in the league with only a point separating you from the winners, yet you firmly believe that the champions had a much easier ride in their overseas fixture than your team did.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if court cases soon followed. The whole purpose of the league system would be lost. Make no mistake, such a proposal would be far more controversial than introducing the play-off system in both codes of rugby (I didn’t support that idea either).
Unless these two fundamental problems can be properly addressed, it’s time to kick this idea into touch once and for all.
Also on Soccermongery: Jonny's version of the same subject

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Fulham's Cottage industry no match for the Manchester United steam-roller


Tommy Trinder, the late comedian and one-time Fulham chairman, must have called the club's fans some of the luckiest people in the world. By the end of their 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester United most of us felt enormously privileged. United were through to an FA Cup semi-final against Everton and Fulham looked like lost tourists in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.

Undoubtedly Fulham remain one of the most endearing clubs in the Premier League, rather like one of those cute teddy bears in Hamley's shop window. Every so often they sit comfortably in the middle of the Premier League and then just topple over when nobody expects it.

Half way through this criminally one-sided FA Cup massacre, Fulham chairman Mohammad Al Fayed just slumped forward in his seat as if life had well and truly dealt him a poor hand. Perhaps he was more concerned about the profit margins at Harrods.

Al Fayed has had more than his fair share of heartache in recent years but it may not be very often that teams of Manchester United's stature come along and spoil his day.

Football, as we all know, is all about attitudes and platitudes, but when it comes to sheer class then United could probably give you chapter and verse. Once again United displayed all the game's most commendable values. There was, as ever, a marvellous sense of proportion and perspective about United's football that holds us totally mesmerised.

Wherever you looked, every red United shirt knew exactly where the other was. From the heart of their defence to the front line passes were zipped to feet with instinctive accuracy. Darren Fletcher. Michael Carrick and Patrice Evra moved around Craven Cottage like the bishops and knights on a chessboard. It was only when United scored an almost inevitable fourth goal that Fulham were in checkmate.

But it was the strength of Sir Alex Ferguson's new breed of ball players who caught the eye. Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Richard Eckersley are the emerging kids who may turn into the next David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. Maybe not overnight, but Old Trafford is priming itself for another invasion of the country's best young talent.

For Fulham this was the day when more pressing issues seemed to pre-occupy them. They lie in the calm waters of the Premier League but they may have to get their priorities right. There is an unnerving brittleness and vulnerability about the Cottagers that does leave you feeling queasy. Their football is correct and proper but manager Roy Hodgson may have to keep his players' heads above water.

We all know that Fulham were once regarded as one of football's playful circus acts who loved to fall over. During the 1950s their midfield maestro Johnny Haynes, almost single-handedly at times, kept Craven Cottage fans on their feet. Haynes was the chief architect and engineer of everything that Fulham turned their hand to. There was Tosh Chamberlain, Jimmy Hill and Bobby Robson, men of honour and honesty.

But Fulham are still prone to pratfalls and moments of extreme amateurism. You can almost see the incompetence when things go horribly wrong. After years in the old Second Division and Third you can almost see the cracks. Craven Cottage still has an old fashioned Victorian feel and the neatly black and white painted balcony at one end of the ground is a quaint throwback to another age.

Throughout this savage 4-0 mauling by United's roaring lions, the midfield graft and industry of Danny Murphy and Simon Davies did show some initiative for Fulham. But for all the hard running and red-blooded endeavour of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, Fulham were rather like peasants at a country landowner's ball.

Manchester United are well and truly on course for a season of astonishing achievement. They will now look to an FA Cup semi-final against David Moyes' Everton confident in their own footballing knowledge.

Next for United are Jose Mourinho and Milan and the possibility of a clean sweep looks a splendid reality. Perhaps Tommy Trinder was right. We are indeed very lucky people!

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Saturday, 7 March 2009

Villa's bum rush

A Sunday league referee ordered a penalty to be retaken when a player on the defending team broke wind as the ball was kicked.

A Chorlton Villa player was booked for ungentlemanly conduct and the ball re-spotted when the referee adjudged his flatulence had put off the taker, from rivals International Manchester.
The initial effort was saved but the retake went in, and the official compounded Villa's misery when he sent off their goalkeeper for protesting.
Two more Villa players were given their marching orders for abusive language, although they clung on to win 6-4. Villa boss Ian Treadwell said he was unsure which end the noise had come from, commenting: "My gut feeling is that someone made the noise with his mouth."
The club now face a £97 fine for the three sendings off. The referee, who asked not to be named, said: "They were not a nasty lot. It was just a normal day at the office.
"The player who made the noise was booked for ungentlemanly conduct - trying to put the other player off."
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Thursday, 5 March 2009

Forget it! Arsenal's search for the perfect goal, and Spurs' obsession with a glorious past!


Arsenal, it seems, are determined to score the perfect goal. There are moments when they try to walk the ball into the net. Somebody, you feel sure, ought to give them a paint brush rather than a football!

Maybe too many cooks do spoil the broth. Then again, Arsenal fans have probably had too much of a good thing in recent years.

During their 1-0 win against Roma in their Champions League qualifier last week, Arsenal were over-elaborate to the point of absurdity. At one point in the first half they strung so many passes together that you almost expected them to trip over.

Everybody knows about the classical passing game and of course it's a feast for the eyes. But now and again it seemed that Arsenal were over-egging the pudding.

Over the years, European giants such as Barcelona, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have devised a game for their supporters that is beyond our understanding. Their defenders move the ball out of defence effortlessly, midfielders look for incisive through passes and strikers try to blast home the final product. Simple really.

The longer the game went on the more it seemed likely that Arsenal would end up in a cul-de-sac. There can be no doubt that some of Arsenal's football has a breathtaking artistry about it. Under Arsene Wenger they are deliciously well co-ordinated and technically exquisite. If somebody took their artist's easel away they'd probably go home and cry. Besides, you'd hardly snatch an ice-cream away from a child if they were actually enjoying it.

At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Argentina came as close as any international team to scoring that perfect goal. In one remarkable sequence of 27 passes Argentina quite literally toyed with Serbia and Montenegro before scoring.

Thirty-six years earlier, the masterful Brazilian side of Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto and the incomparable Pele dragged Italy from one side of the pitch to the other in the 1970 World Cup Final. After one gloriously giddy passing movement, Alberto crashed the ball into the net.

Tottenham, of course, used to be the flag-bearers for stylish and imaginative football. Whatever the outcome of their Carling Cup Final against Manchester United the fact is that Spurs are not quite the same any more.

The general feeling along Tottenham High Road is that since the heady days of Bill Nicholson and, to perhaps to a lesser extent Keith Burkinshaw, the glitter and glamour has moved across London.

The likes of Aaron Lennon, Tom Huddlestone, David Bentley and Robbie Keane are still pleasant to watch. But in a season of struggle and strife, Spurs are like a creaking ship without a decent captain. After a disastrous start to the seaon with only two points from eight games, Spurs almost capsized.

But no longer are Spurs the floating cruise ship of the Swinging 60s and 70s. When Bobby Smith, Danny Blanchflower, Cliff Jones and John White picked up the ball it was as if somebody had sprinkled stardust over them. They passed and ran with the ball as if it were a carefully-rehearsed dance routine. The ball seemed to be attached to them like an umbilical cord.

A decade later and Spurs were still strutting their funky stuff. Alan Gilzean, Ralph Coates and Martin Peters from West Ham made more than the sweet music of their 1960s predecessors. Gilzean and Coates were natural water carriers and playmakers while Peters was just years ahead of his time. Like Glenn Hoddle and Osvaldo Ardiles they made the ball do all the work. Hoddle would often stop, dwell on the ball and have a cuppa tea - but he knew where Spurs were going.

Now Tottenham find themselves in desparate trouble at the wrong end of the Premier League. The more succesful teams over the years have always been able to trust their experienced players. At the moment Spurs are simply finding out more about each other. When Juande Ramos was driven out of the club Spurs didn't know what day or month it was.

The appointment of Harry Redknapp has stabilised the club in a way that only he could. Redknapp is one of those reliable footballing men who calls a spade a spade. He'll buy players who fit almost seamlessly into the team, maintain discipline within the club and then buy himself the cheapest suit on the market. For Redknapp, smooth continuity is almost essential.
But as he demonstrated at West Ham and Portsmouth, once poor and mundane players become putty in his hands. Luka Modric may have been a notable exception but both Modric and David Bentley have now flourished. Modric is an excellent player but it became obvious that he needed a comforting arm around his shoulder.

Both Roman Pavlyuchenko and Darren Bent are fighting for places in Spurs' forward line while Robbie Keane continues to give his impersonation of a travelling gipsy. Rejected and spurned by his boyhood dream team Liverpool, Keane is a goal-scorer extraordinaire who would score for any side in the world.

But for Spurs the season remains in a state of chaotic uncertainty. At this point in the football seasosn, the crocuses come out, managers look tense and terrifed and Sir Alex Ferguson just checks his watch.

The top four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Aston Villa are like immovable lorries. Manchester United are beginning to disappear into the sunset and the rest are just gasping for breath. Business as usual in a way.

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Also on the Soccermongery: A powerful piece from James-Guy Jacobs on football under Nazi Occupation: Dynamo Kiev's Death Match