The story of football’s secret title

I start this article with a question. Which title has been held by both Brazil and Curacao (formerly Dutch Antilles)? Has been defended successfully by England more times than Argentina and Germany? Has been held by 48 different nations? A title Scotland has had more success with than any other nation? Not got it yet?

It’s Friday 30th May. Uruguay take on Northern Ireland in what would seem like any ordinary friendly. However, there are penalties if the game ends in a draw. People across the country take to the internet to find out why, and notice there is something on the line.

“Northern Ireland can win something tonight. Their friendly against Uruguay will see the winner take home a trophy, could see penalties.” – @FullPitchPress on 30/05/2014

What is this trophy? Well, Uruguay are the current holders of the Unofficial Football World Champions (UFWC) title, spawned in 1872 and virtually manifested by the CW Alcock Trophy, and a goal from Christian Stuani secured a successful defence over the Northern Irish. They won on the 16th October 2013 in a stunning back-and-forth encounter with Argentina, ending 3-2, their 17th of 19 (and counting) UFWC victories. Let’s first lay down the rules: a nation wins the title by defeating the current title holder, winning one ranking point in the process. A draw sees the title remain with the holders, though draws do not contribute a ranking point. The title is defended in every single international “A” match played by the holder, be it a friendly, qualifier, or World Cup final. The title has it’s own official reptilian mascot called Hughie and even an array of merchandise.

Below is a table of the top 10 most successful nations, and the results may seem a little surprising.

ScreenHunter_02 May. 31 18.31

*Adapted from Ranking table at http://www.ufwc.co.uk/rankings/.

You are reading that correctly: in it’s most unofficial sense, Scotland are the best team on God’s green Earth, with England a close second. 48 years of hurt my backside, right? It’s not quite as clear cut as that, it never is. We’ve haven’t held the title since 1975, which spanned from the first victory against West Germany in March until a 2-1 loss to the former Czechoslovakia in October. Since then, we’ve had four shots at the title, the first being the unforgettable loss to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup on penalties, then a loss to France in a friendly at Wembley in 1999, followed up by draws in friendlies against France (1-1) in 2000, and the Netherlands (2-2) in 2009. So really, it’s only 39 years of hurt and counting, thanks Baddiel and Skinner. In fact, the legitimacy of the table has come under scrutiny from many sides, as a lot of Scotland and England’s points came before the inception of the World Cup, where there was a lack of competitive opposition and the two spent the better part of 60 years trading victories, in matches solely competed between nations of the British Isles until Hungary got a shot in 1909. But hey, who are we to complain?

The first ever UFWC match was England vs Scotland, and, in an exact mirror of modern day British Isles-based football, it was a dour 0-0. Their second encounter ended in a 4-2 victory to England, so yes, we we’re the first (unofficial) world champions. The first non-Isles nation to capture the UFWC title was Austria in 1931, winning it from Scotland in style with a thumping 5-0 win. A full match report can be read here. The first team outside of Europe to clinch their first title victory was the USA, beating England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, only to lose their newly-won honour THREE DAYS later in a 5-2 thrashing by Chile. As mentioned earlier, Curacao won their only title as Netherlands Antilles. This puts them level on wins with a much bigger footballing nation: Mexico. Mexico had won their title from Czechoslovakia in June of 1962 and held it for the next 9 months undefended, until one of the shocks of competitive football saw Netherlands Antilles beat them 2-1 for their title in June 1963 at the CONCACAF Cup in El Salvador, an own goal by Jesús del Muro proving all too costly for the Mexicans.

As I have already mentioned, England haven’t held the title since 1975 and have only had four opportunities since then to reclaim it. Well, shot number five could well be around the corner. If Uruguay can overcome Slovenia on Thursday 5th June, the UFWC will make its 12th appearance at the World Cup, a competition in which no team has entered with the title and walked out with it still wrapped around the proverbial waistline, the Netherlands coming closest by reaching the final in 1974 and 2010 before being defeated by West Germany and Spain respectively. The first defence would be against Costa Rica, and provided that there are no shocks there, England are next in line. Can they take our tally to 74 victories in the group stages of the World Cup? We shall have to wait and see if they can defy the odds against Uruguay and reclaim the title which we held before anyone else.

All statistics sourced from the UFWC wesbite at http://www.ufwc.co.uk.

But David, you were The Chosen One

https://i0.wp.com/i3.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/incoming/article6124922.ece/alternates/s615/PA_SOCCER-Man-Utd-105827_6843070.jpg

After month upon month of fan unrest and heavy speculation, David Moyes has finally been put out of his misery. His sacking puts one final coat of gloss on what has been a truly harrowing season for everyone involved with the Red Devils. The dossier for what went wrong is full of fan and professional opinions, containing varying degrees of aggression, sympathy and philosophy.

For a start, Alex McLeish was one of the first to come out and say what has been said about every sacking this season: he needed more time. This got me thinking: What exactly is time? Managing a football club is not about how much time you have to make slight advancements, it’s about how well you use this time to get the best out of your club and players. Take Brendan Rodgers and Tony Pulis as examples. In two seasons, Rodgers has taken Liverpool from Mid-table obscurity to the verge of their first Premier League title in 24 years. Pulis, who I was not originally fond of as the man to save Crystal Palace, has taken them from relegation fodder to mid-table consolidation on merit in 23 games. David Moyes has had 35 games and three cup competitions to prove his worth, and clearly, he hasn’t used what time he has had effectively enough. This is Manchester United, the creme de la creme, and there is no place for time wasters at the top. You’d think, over the course of the season, they would have got better, gone on a run of form, or maybe won a trophy. But they haven’t even shown signs of improving performances on the pitch, let alone winning matches. When Mauricio Pochettino entered the fray at Southampton last season amidst a relegation scrap, the fans were on his back from the get go; what he did was use the time he had to make them a defensive unit who could break out quickly from opposition attacks, and now they’re more than secure in a lofty 8th place after a phenomenal season. Moyes? He’s come in, and by the looks of it tried to teach canny playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata that the only way to attack is to pummel the box with crosses until something goes in. This has been the one major disappointment for me this season: severe one-dimensionality.

Clearly, as a second point, Moyes has been tactically inefficient. Insistent on utilising the outdated 4-4-2 formation, Kagawa and Mata have find themselves playing as widemen this season. Let’s take a short walk across the conurbation to Manchester City; they also play a variation of 4-4-2, but Silva and Nasri have all the freedom they could wish for, playing more as a rank of attacking midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 formation than wingers in a 4-4-2. Moyes tried to change the formula when van Persie succumbed to injury, and it worked to a degree, with Mata proving to be much more effective in his natural #10 role. However, drafting in Ashley Young on the right was a massive mistake. Being ambidextrous, he can play on either side, but he still favours his right peg, which means one thing: a barrage of crosses from the right. Even a change in formation to one that suits his players more did nothing for his one-dimensional approach to attacking. And yes, Kagawa was still stuffed out wide where he doesn’t belong. Playing Januzaj or Zaha would have been a much better decision than Young. They both have the ability to create and excite, and having them mix up their positions with Kagawa and even Mata would have made for a visually pleasant and effective attacking display. The defensive issues haven’t been addressed either. Phil Jones needs to play in a single position to develop as a world-class talent, and none of the old guard have replacements lined up. £27.5m for Fellaini looks even worse when you consider some of the transfer dealings for some the world’s most promising defenders have gone right under their noses: Medhi Benatia and Angelo Ogbonna cost a combined £23.3m in the summer to Roma and Juventus respectively, a brand new defense for £4m less than the cost of Fellaini, and they’ve missed their chance. His relentless and hopeless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas wasted, you guessed it, TIME. While not like for like, Christian Eriksen, Tottenham’s most impressive player this season, cost £11m. Can someone please explain to me the logic in not signing him over the overvalued and out-of-reach Fabregas? One final note: giving Wayne Rooney a £300k-a-week deal is not a statement of intent, it’s a statement of witlessness. Let him cry about his “lack” of wealth and sign a new, promising, hungry player on the back of a solid world cup; Abel Hernandez, Jackson Martinez, Alessio Cerci, Ciro Immobile, Mattia Destro, Son Heung-Min and others all have the potential to break out if taken.

It wasn’t all Moyes’ fault though: the fans have to take their portion of the blame. They’ve been blowing hot and cold about facing the prospect of a life without Fergie, knowing this season wouldn’t be as good as the last 20 or so they’ve enjoyed. There was a sense of optimism around the club at first, but when things started to go sour a few months into the season, and home losses racked up, that turned to disdain. Not being used to not succeeding is hard, I know, but speaking from experience, you back your team and manager through everything. From Moyes’ first loss to his last, the majority have been the exact opposite of supportive and silent at matches, barring boos for their own team. Sure, you cheer the team when they win or draw, but the reaction to losses has, on the whole, been pretty sad. Take Crystal Palace again; not to be biased, but we have the loudest support in the Premier League at home regardless of the result, and are always topping the away support numbers lists. United fans just don’t have that in them, particularly since the Glazers have come in, where everything has just felt like a business and not a club.

While I believe this sacking is long overdue, the timing means that no one is going to gain anything from this sacking. Sure, Ryan Giggs gets his chance to interim-manage the team, but three games from the end of the season, it isn’t going to make any difference. Sacking managers at this stage is just pointless unless there is a ready-made replacement in the pipeline, so they should have given Moyes those three games, and then sacked him if they were poor, or just sacked him anyway, considering how dogged a campaign it has been for them. Same goes for Hughton, who was sacked with five games left: if he was that bad, why not sack him sooner to give a new face the chance to resurrect the season? With Norwich now looking certain to be relegated, one has to wonder whether the power to sack a manager should be taken well out of the owner’s hands. Of the twenty managers who started this season, only eleven have made it to the end of the season, and ten have been sacked altogether. That number is far too high, so something in the regulations has to change in order to protect managers.

All in all though, Moyes’ time is up. The shortlist is being drawn up as I write this. One can hope, for the neutral, Steve Kean, Terry Connor, Leroy Rosenior, or the dynamic duo or Paul Jewell and Chris Hutchings make stunning returns to high-end football management, or maybe even a management consortium comprised of all five. For United fans, they’ll be hoping the second dawning of the post-Fergie era goes markedly better than the first. Hell, it can’t get much worse, right? Only time will tell.

Winning football matches or playing attractive football? Attractive football, every time

As I start, I know that I’ll be in a minority with this viewpoint, and open to ridicule. Who wants to lose with dignity when you can win with bruises? Nevertheless, I firmly believe that attractive and entertaining football should always be the priority.

 

On my football radio talk show which I host with Smoked Sammon creator Kris Coombes, the excellent question in the title was put to us by Jake Buckley. I knew that I’d be up against it when Kris and guests Alex Harman and Tom Lilley unanimously said “results” with haste. My housemate listening to the show said that he groaned when hearing this, correctly predicting my contrary view. The charge levelled at me is that football is a results business. I agree, but it’s also an entertainment business. The escalating and extortionate cost of attending football matches is clear for all to see; why would people want to pay good money to watch teams lump the ball in the air? Do you part with large sums of money to see David Silva or Jonathan Walters? Brian Clough got it right when he said “Any idiot can coach a group of players to kick the ball as hard and high as possible and then gallop after it…give me time and I could train a monkey to do it”. You wouldn’t go to a musical festival to see bands focusing all of their efforts on making sure that every note is played correctly (the football equivalent is ‘playing to percentages’); you want to see and hear verve, noise and excitement.

 

Football fans are a loyal bunch. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that teams should play the most negative football on the presumption that fans will keep coming back for more; this same premise means that clubs often charge ridiculous amounts for tickets and replica shirts, knowing that fans (however disgruntled) will cough up. Stadiums are prone to losing supporters if the style of football is dreary; a smattering of die-hard loyalists won’t make up the financial difference. Sky Sports know this all too well; is Stoke v Crystal Palace going to be televised over Liverpool v Swansea? Of course the bigger teams get more coverage, but the point still stands. Football fans want to see a good game and leave the ground feeling they’ve got their money’s worth; they don’t want to be massaging a sore neck from looking skywards for most of the game.

 

Pragmatism has to play a part. I perfectly understand teams who are battling for survival towards the end of the season grinding out results more; fans do demand this, and I accept this. The same is true for teams battling for silverware; I remember Man City towards the end of the 11/12 season favouring a more cautious approach, having blitzed teams earlier in the year. However, over the course of a season, attractive football should be a priority. People may sneer back that if you’re not winning, it’s irrelevant. However, this isn’t good for the long term; take Derby County as an example. In the 06/07 promotion season we were the masters of grinding out 1-0 wins, and didn’t play the greatest football. I confess that I was one of the many who didn’t care one bit about the football we played; I was chuffed to see us winning so many games, and sure enough we beat West Brom 1-0 in the play-off final (despite being outclassed for most of it). The 07/08 Premier League season? You know the rest. A tiny bit of consolation would have been if we had given it an honest go at playing nice football, and to go down with a few plaudits. Instead, the football was dreadful, and fans certainly didn’t feel ‘entertained’. Long ball football can bring quick fix results, but at best you’ll reach a point where you stagnate in mid-table (Stoke), and at worst you’ll have the sight of Claude Davis trying to find Kenny Miller with a hopeless punt up field.

 

Who says you need stacks of cash to play football in an entertaining way? Through steady progress and footballing continuity, Swansea City under Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup built up ‘Swanselona’ from League 1 to the Premier League and a League Cup win, gaining plenty of admirers along the way. The Championship is fast developing as a good footballing league; I would argue that the vast majority of teams who get promoted from it are teams capable of good football, and who at the very least don’t rely solely on the route one approach. A positive approach can reinvigorate a team so much. Nigel Clough did strive for good football at Derby County, and we often saw good footballing performances. However, he too was culpable for resorting to negative tactics. Steve McClaren took over with the Rams in 14th place, and with a change of formation (from a lopsided 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1) and a more positive approach they are (at the time of writing) in 3rd place.

 

Ultimately, it’s hard to deny that none of the very top teams play long ball football. Granted, the likes of Jose Mourinho favour a counter-attacking and restrictive approach, and this can pay dividends. Nevertheless, Mourinho’s teams still play football on the floor, and utilise this with some incredibly talented players. Furthermore, he can still be outperformed by more positive sides; who can forget Barcelona’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2010? Or Dortmund’s thrashing of Real Madrid in the Champions League last season? I hate the stereotype of the British game; even playing football at an amateur level I still hear cries of “put it in the mixer” and “gerrit in”. The national side has all too often prided itself on a direct, physical approach; Jack Wilshere (a little too proudly) notes “we have to remember what we are…we tackle hard, are tough on the pitch… you think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and tackle hard”. What’s been the reward? Years of dreadful failure, but (contrary to belief) not underachievement; our technical limitations are obvious. Gus Poyet got it right when he noted that in Britain we all too often praise defenders if they can boot it clear, and wingers if they’re fast, without asking questions such as “can they pass it? Do they have a good touch?” You could have Usain Bolt on the wing, but if he can’t cross or pass the ball, how is he any use, even if he beats the full-back?

Attractive football is vital because it entertains the fans, but rather than be in conflict with results I think attractive football ultimately brings results. The best technical sides, ultimately, win the top prizes. Tactical nous and flexibility play a part, and the best teams don’t always win, but they mostly win. Teams lower down the divisions can be rewarded too if they have the confidence and conviction to carry out attractive football; Gus Poyet turned Brighton from being a League 1 relegation threatened team of long ball hoofers to a slick passing outfit competing for promotion to the Premier League. Football is a results business; attractive football more often than not brings those results. As fans, we deserve good football.

Ten stand-out players so far this season

10) RICHARD DUNNE

Judging by some of their defensive displays this season, Aston Villa may come to regret the release of experienced Irishman Richard Dunne. In 11 appearances for QPR this season, he has conceded 4 goals, while QPR have only conceded 6 all season. Much like Wayne Bridge and Matthew Upson last season, he has caught my eye by rejuvenating his career in the Championship.

9) KEVIN LISBIE

Michael Owen wishes he was still scoring goals into his 30s like Kevin Lisbie. Lisbie has hit a real purple patch of goals this season, 12 to be precise, which has helped propel Leyton Orient to the top of League 1 as their shockingly impressive league form continues.

8) LEWIS HOLTBY

£1.5m is a real snip for a player of such quality. Hampered by injury at the start of the season, Holtby hit form in the Europa League where everything Spurs did seemed to involve him in a big way. He bagged 3 assists and a goal in the process. Always wearing his heart on his sleeve, he’s slowly started to cement his status as the creative hub of the first team, ousting Christian Eriksen in the process, no mean feat. Without doubt a possible future Spurs captain.

7) BRITT ASSOMBALONGA

Much was said when he moved to Peterborough from Watford for over £1m in the summer, a pricetag which raised many an eyebrow. He seems to be justifying  that pricetag with some exceptional performances up top, bagging 7 goals and scooping a Young Player of the Month award.

6) JAMES VAUGHAN

James Vaughan is one of those players who never reached the potential his peers told everyone he would. Several loans out, a move to Norwich, still no goals. His initial loan period at Huddersfield was solid, scoring 14 times, but a permanent move there seems to have done wonders to his form. At times he’s looked unplayable on the shoulders of centre backs this season, bagging himself 9 goals in 12 appearances. Players can bloom into superstars late, hopefully this is the case with Vaughan.

5) OLIVIER GIROUD

Olivier Giroud has looked like a completely different player this season. While his goalscoring form has petered out somewhat recently, he practically made the Wilshire goal dubbed ‘goal of the season’. He has impressively developed his all round game this season and become more than just a poacher but someone with an assist or so in him as well. We might finally have a true replacement for Henry at last.

4) AARON RAMSEY

This season’s SECOND biggest surprise has been the astonishing form of Aaron Ramsey. when he broke his leg in 2010, no one thought he’d ever recover to reach his potential. Well, it seems there is no predicting anything these days, as he is now a mainstay of the Arsenal midfield. What’s surprised me is his sudden ability to sell defenders dummies, score from a variety of places, assist with a range of passing, and an ability to retain possession with strength, which no one could have foreseen.

3 & 2) SAM VOKES AND DANNY INGS

Never before has a top scoring striker leaving your club been such a blessing in disguise. Pundits feared for Burnley’s Championship status when Charlie Austin departed for QPR in the summer for a lofty fee, and never has that looked like such a good deal. It has allowed Danny Ings and Sam Vokes to form possibly the most lethal strike partnership the Championship has ever seen. They link up seamlessly and have already amassed 17 goals between them this season. A lot of the credit for this has to go to Sean Dyche, but if he wants to earn promotion, he has to keep these two out of the physio’s room.

1) DEJAN LOVREN

His transfer seemed to slip under everyone’s radar, but having watched a few Lyon games last season out of interest, Lovren’s performances really stood out to me, not just because he is a world class centre back, but also because he has so much passion for everything he does. He gives 100% every game for Southampton, gets himself and his teammates pumped for every game, and is responsible in part for Southampton’s almost impossibly good defensive record this season. He gets the important goals too, having got the winner against Liverpool and the equaliser against Manchester United. What impresses me most is how he always celebrates likes he’s just won £15 million on the lottery when they get points, slapping his teammates faces and screaming at them with glee and adrenaline. If it wasn’t for Adam Lallana he’d be captain already. Lovren’s pure passion could well be the sole reason for Southampton’s form and eventual European place.

Assembling a Premier League XI of players who don’t start regularly

Watching Shinji Kagawa start for the first time in what feels like an age against Stoke at the weekend got me thinking: what if I were to put together a starting XI of players who don’t start regularly for their clubs? Would be able to reach the top 4, or would it sink into the Football League sea? Before I begin, I want to highlight some notable omissions from the XI, perhaps forming a sub’s subs bench if you will.

Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – It says a lot about Chelsea’s faith in Petr Cech that arguably the best young keeper in the world is constantly being loaned out to Atletico Madrid. It’s about time he got his chance in the blue jersey. Personally, I think he’ll be gone within a few seasons, probably to Barcelona. The only reason he doesn’t make the squad is because he is getting regular football, albeit in a different division.

Willian and Kevin de Bruyne (Chelsea) – Both of these have been used in rotation with mainly Schurrle and Mata this season but Mourinho seems to have settled on his trio being Schurrle, Hazard and Mata. Haven’t shown me enough in the games they have played in to warrant a place in my side.

Gerard Deulofeu and Arouna Kone (Everton) – Big things were expected of these two when they signed for Everton. Deulofeu has buckets of potential and Kone has last season to live up two. Neither have played enough, though when Kone has, he hasn’t been brilliant. I’ve left these two out because they are being kept out by players in form.

Edin Dzeko (Manchester City) and Iago Aspas (Liverpool) – Dzeko has been scoring goals this season when he has played, and Aspas looked inspired in pre-season. However, they aren’t making the lineups for their respective clubs because of the form of their positional counterparts: Negredo/Aguero and Luis Suarez respectively.

Here’s the XI:

———————-Freidel———————-

–Richards–Diakite–Agger–Monreal–

———————-Sandro———————

————–Kagawa——Jovetic————-

——Mata —Hernandez—-Lamela——

GK –  Brad Friedel: Due to his advancing years, he probably will never be considered a first choice keeper by any Premier League side. However, I believe that he still puts most of the Prem’s keepers to shame with solid and consistent goalkeeping displays. Personally, I hope he gets another chance at regular Premier League goalkeeping at another club, because no keeper can overthrow Hugo Lloris at Spurs right now.

RB – Micah Richards: A player with bags of ability going forwards and going back who never seems to have been given a fair crack of the whip, Micah Richards occupies my right-back position. Personally, Zabaleta has been the only good part of City’s back 5 this season, but that doesn’t mean that Richards isn’t being criminally wasted at City. He’s more than capable of playing at centre back ahead of Demichelis in the absence of Kompany. And why he never gets called up for England is a mega-rant for another day…

CB – Daniel Agger: When Liverpool played a flat back four with a laughable lack of success against Southampton earlier this season, Daniel Agger was the one who was criticised the most with his performance at left back. Let me get this straight, he IS NOT a left back. Sakho CAN play there. It was a terrible decision to begin with. Now that Liverpool play 3 centre backs, Agger has been left out in the cold and that’s strange considering Martin Skrtel hasn’t played well all season (he seems to give away a not-penalty every game). No wonder he’s being linked with moves away.

CB – Mobido Diakite: Sunderland landed somewhat of a coup when they signed highly-rated French defender Diakite in the summer. Since then, he has been plagued with hamstring injuries which have limited his appearances. However, when he has been fit, he’s played well alongside the very very poor John O’Shea and out-of-depth Valentin Roberge, even helping his side to a point at Southampton with a dominant defensive display. Now he has disappeared from the squad again after first being dropped (don’t ask me, ask Di Canio) and then not re-emerging in the squads with what I would presume to be another injury. This guy needs a solid centre back partner, and more game time.

LB – Nacho Monreal: Monreal ended last season in great form but has barely played this season and I really can’t understand why. Kieran Gibbs is a good attacking full-back but I honestly can’t see him ever being better than Monreal defensively and I’d call it evens going forward. Arsene, this is the one mistake you’ve made all season… barring what happened against Villa.

CDM – Sandro: Sandro has been absolutely dominant in midfield in the Europa League this season. He breaks play up, sets it up, tackles hard, drives forward, gets back, he’s the complete package, yet Dembele, who isn’t even a defensive midfielder, plays in his place. It beggars belief. Yes, Dembele is quality, particularly at retaining the ball, but Spurs shouldn’t oust Sandro just to squeeze him in. Fortunately, I think AVB is beginning to realise this, as he has started Sandro in the Prem recently.

CAM – Shinji Kagawa: This one’s been discussed so much it’s becoming cliched to mention ‘omission from the starting line up’ and ‘Kagawa’ in the same utterance. All I will say is this: #freeshinji. Oh, and when you do free him, don’t stick him on the left.

CAM – Stefan Jovetic: This is the most criminal waste of talent in the squad. Why spend £20 million on a benchwarmer? He’s too good to be left out in favour of the likes of Samir ‘passenger’ Nasri, James Milner and and out-of-position Yaya Toure. Maybe the issue here is that he works best off a striker, and City already play both Aguero and Negredo. It’s going against what I believe to squeeze players into teams out-of-position just to get them in, so City may need to find a new role for the Montenegrin.

RW – Juan Mata: No need for too much discussion here. Yes, people will say his form has dipped, but Chelsea’s PLAYER OF THE SEASON FOR 2012-13 probably just needs a bit of confidence from Mourinho, who seems to think quite low of him, which must be affecting his confidence.

LW – Erik Lamela: £30m buys you cover for Andros Townsend it seems. Widely tipped as a replacement for Gareth Bale, Lamela’s Tottenham career is yet to take off, with no starts in the Premier League. Part of this is the form of Townsend and Holtby at right and centre-attack midfield respectively, but left-mid is yet to be nailed down it seems, with Sigurdsson, while in good form, not being a natural wideman. If they do start playing Lamela here over Sigurdsson and the likes of the inconsistent Eriksen and Lennon (which they should, games means player development), I’d expect to see a much more potent Spurs attack, because Lamela has goals and assists aplenty in his arsenal.

ST – Javier Hernandez: When Robin van Persie appeared to show signs of a dip in form earlier this season, Moyes has stuck with him, to his credit. And it’s fair to say van Persie is being outclassed by Rooney still, which is very unlike him. That’s why I can’t understand why Moyes hasn’t dropped him for Hernandez yet. Not only would it give van Persie a kick up the arse, but Hernandez is a proven goalscorer who would have buried a lot of the chances van Persie has missed this season. He’s quick and is a very natural poacher-style goalscorer, which would seem to complement Rooney’s playing style perfectly. Criminally wasted talent who may need to work harder for the team on the pitch to nail down a starting birth.

Where would this team finish?: Given the attacking prowess of this team, a top 4 finish would seem a lock. However, I could see this being a team that gets somewhat drowned out in midfield a little if Mata and Lamela don’t track back and help out, which could lead to problems for the back 4. They could easily finish in the top 6 and push for Champions League though, albeit probably not under my management.

If you think there’s a player I’ve missed who is criminally underutilised, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Holloway leaving is best for both parties, but who should replace him?

Many South London fans’ heart’s sank earlier today with the announcement that Ian Holloway has departed the club by mutual consent. The decision comes off the back of a run of 5 straight defeats and only one win in 8 with 7 losses, leaving Palace deserted in the relegation zone with 3 points, two ahead of Sunderland. Many fans have jumped to the same conclusion that I did: it’s too soon, he needs to be given time, and that this is all just one giant knee-jerk reaction. However, on closer inspection, it seems like the time was right for both parties to go their separate ways.

Holloway is a man known for using his passion for the game as his main weapon. Normally, he would be able to say some inspiring words in his team talks and the team would perform better as a result. However, it seems that this didn’t work against Fulham, leading Holloway to say that his team had lost the spirit it had had during their promotion season. It was this undermining of the importance of team spirit by Holloway that has lead to a shocking downturn in form recently. In addition, his signings have been more about quantity than quality, as noted by things such as Jimmy Kebe’s lack of composure infront of goal at Liverpool, and, in general, anyone’s ability to hold down a regular starting place. Holloway seems to have given up at a very early stage, which is very unlike him, and as a result, stepping away from the job may be the right decision, given that there are 30 games and a transfer window left for the new manager, started with the visit to Arsenal at the weekend. The guy just knew he couldn’t keep them up.

Steve Parish stated in today’s press conference that he didn’t want to let Holloway go. He would rather have gone down and come back up with him if it meant that the club was moving forwards and the squad and playing style was settling. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be. The two have separated on amicable terms, Holloway will probably be in a new job before the close of the year, and Parish now has the task of trying to find a new, experienced manager to keep the club up. Many names are already being touted, notably Uwe Rosler and Sean Dyche on the Facebook fan page. While I would especially be in favour of a move for Dyche, these both seem very unlikely despite their highly impressive club records. Top of the bookies’ lists is Tony Pulis followed by Avram Grant, Neil Warnock, and Roberto di Matteo. Of the four, Neil Warnock seems the least likely, as he is probably done with management, at least for now. Avram Grant is also unlikely, as he has been relegated twice as a manager. Tony Pulis seems to be an ideal candidate having never been relegated as a manager, and he would sort out the shoddy defense. However, Palace do not play hoofball, Parish does not want to see hoofball, the fans do not want to see hoofball, and even if he was accepted, Palace don’t have the players to play hoofball. This leaves di Matteo. A former Champions League winning manager, may find the task of keeping a bulging, unsettled squad up rather unappealing, but he is by far the best candidate for the job if he is up for some hard work, and should be approached first. Other than this, I’d love to see Dougie Freedman return and finish what he started, and perhaps bring back the team spirit that got Palace to where they are in the first place. it isn’t working out at Bolton and could be tempted by a move to the Premier League.

I expect a manager would be in place next week, giving Keith Millen the chance to manage the game against Arsenal. Parish will likely have many more sleepless nights ahead as he draws up his shortlist.

 

No longer making plans for Nigel

As overused as this cliche is, it is nevertheless the end of an era. It seems a lifetime ago since Nigel Clough took over in January 2009, watching his new employers defeat Manchester United 1-0 in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. His remit was to keep the club up, after the utterly disastrous spell under Paul Jewell, and he achieved that aim. His next task was to reduce the wage bill whilst producing a competitive team, and he did that too. An emphasis on youth was also placed, and the Rams (with the setback in 10/11 an exception) began to climb the table. However, it would appear that the 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Was his sacking right?

My first reaction was mixed. Prior to Clough’s sacking, I had said to my sister not long after the Forest defeat that “I’m becoming more sceptical of Clough”. Be careful what you wish for. I feel no joy or optimism over this decision. Inconsistency has blighted the 13/14 campaign already, but prior to the City Ground result the Rams had the best away record in the league, with form at Pride Park the Achilles heel. On reflection, I feel that he should have been given at least until January, if not the end of the season. I’ve said recently that I wouldn’t mind finishing outside of the play-offs this season, provided that the play-off challenge was there, and was consistent. That’s looked unlikely so far this season, but are seasons made and broken in September?

Let’s evaluate Clough’s reign. He achieved his initial remit, and whilst the progress since has been relatively slow, it has been tangible and visible. Paul Jewell (and Billy Davies to an extent) littered Derby with far too many first team players, leaving Clough with essentially a bureaucratic as well as coaching role. I’ve spoken more in depth about Clough’s tactics in a previous post, but to surmise he has always tried to implement a passing style at Pride Park. For someone derided as ‘non-league Nigel’ by some, we played far better football under Clough’s reign than many of his predecessors, with George Burley probably the last manager to provide attractive football. His financial constraints have been clear for all to see, and in my opinion Clough’s good signings far outweighed his bad ones. When backed with larger sums for individual players, he has more often than not provided good value; think Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell and Richard Keogh, with Conor Sammon possibly the only expensive flop (although the jury is still out to a degree). When Clough detractors have gleefully pointed out his worst deals, they have often been either freebies (Lee Hendrie, Lee Croft, David Martin) or low cost signings (Chris Maguire, Chris Porter).

My main frustration with Clough was his stubbornness. Too often a substitution would be left late in a game, when changes were urgently needed. Michael Jacobs, a talented if raw winger who can play the Jamie Ward role has frequently been left in the cold due to his poor record at tracking back. Players would be signed and initially praised, only to be quickly frozen out at will. Formations would come and ago, with a clear lack of width (4-4-2 shapes would often involve central midfielders on the wing), and players often shoehorned into position (such as Craig Bryson on the left wing during the 12/13 season, or Jeff Hendrick on the right this season). Clough’s public blasting of players often got on the nerves of the supporters, such as this harsh view on Tomasz Cywka (a Clough signing): “So he can go back to Wigan or wherever he came from, I am not really bothered, until he learns the game”. A Clough team, ultimately, would be immensely hard working and dedicated, but with a lack of flair to unlock the tightest of defences. It became a little tiresome to reach the halfway point of a season with the mantra “let’s build for next season”.

However, it was refreshing to have a manager who clearly cared for the club. Cynics will say that it’s a results business, but what’s wrong with a bit of heart in the game? I of course want every manager of Derby County to succeed, but never more so than with Clough. I longed for the sight of Nigel holding aloft the Championship trophy (or play-off trophy; they both entail promotion), doing his family proud. Robbie Savage tweeted that Clough was a man “who put the club before himself”, and it’s hard to disagree with that. He clearly loved the club, and gave his all for the cause. His tenure was littered with quality signings; Shaun Barker, John Brayford, Jason Shackell, Craig Bryson, Jamie Ward and Richard Keogh to list a few. Furthermore, whilst the work of academy coaches should never be overlooked, Clough put the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes into the first team; the latter in particular has the world at his feet. Clough never once directly moaned about the financial constraints, and on their day his teams could be a match for anyone in the league. Championship clubs may be sceptical, but League 1 and 2 clubs could certainly do a lot worse than Nigel.

September was too early to sack Clough. Pessimism has infiltrated Pride Park recently, but he could have turned it around. Perhaps a promotion challenge was just beyond him, but an improvement on 10th from last season was not beyond the realms of possibility. Buoyed by the cash of Will Hughes’ potential sale next year, who knows what Clough could have done with some money finally at his disposal? The alternative looks bleak, which I have often said to Clough-haters. Tony Pulis, seriously? We have methodically and carefully built up a passing game at Derby; why throw that away at one stroke with a rash appointment? I’d love to see where Will Hughes would fit into a Tony Pulis team. Jamie Ward and Craig Bryson would be considered too small. The long ball approach is archaic and ultimately ineffective; even Stoke tired of Pulis eventually despite his promotion exploits. The next manager has to be a significant improvement, and someone who can buy into the ethos on passing football and a strong academy. Of the available options, my best case scenario would be Gus Poyet, but that is extremely unlikely.

Had we finished below 10th this season, I may have called for Clough to go. However, the board’s pandering to a consistent and long-term approach looks pathetic with this decision. September is too early, and this looks all too much like a knee-jerk reaction. The board have a lot of questions to answer; Clough has been a convenient shield for their lack of investment. Had Clough had another year or two, perhaps we finally would have exploded a la Burton in 2009, with everything clicking into place. Thanks for everything Nigel. You kept us up, cleared the deadwood, reduced the wage bill, gave youth a chance and brought some entertainment back to Pride Park, even if it was often in patches. More importantly, you gave a damn about the club. On and off the pitch, the next guy has big shoes to fill.

Clough’s highlights:

-Derby’s 3-2 victory (after being 2-0 down) over Nottingham Forest in 2009, their first at the City Ground since 1971

-Four consecutive victories at the start of the 11/12 season; Derby’s best start for 106 years

-Down to 10 men and 1-0 down after one minute, Derby beat Forest 2-1 away in September 2011; they make it a league double in March 2012 with a Jake Buxton effort in a 1-0 win

Clough’s low points: 

-A 4-1 home defeat to Scunthorpe in January 2010; the first time his position was seriously called into question

-A 5-2 away feat at Nottingham Forest in December 2010. Need I say more?

-The 10/11 season. Fluid football in a 4-2-3-1 formation was later undone, and a strong promotion battle quickly regressed into a relegation dogfight and a 19th place finish

Best signings:

-Shaun Barker

-John Brayford

-Craig Bryson

Worst signings:

-Lee Croft

-Chris Maguire

-Nathan Tyson

Let’s finish with a quote from Brian, which sums up the current situation: “If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well”.

Diving in to the diving debate

As a Crystal Palace fan, you can all understand my beef with Ashley Young. A player notorious for simulation and conning referees and not for his ability, Young was at it again on two separate occasions. The first was a booking, fair play by Johnathan Moss. The second will likely engender debate across the country for a long time.

The incident plays out as follows. Mile Jedinak gives the ball away to Young and he bears down on the Palace goal. He takes a touch towards the box and, pretty clearly, does not follow the ball and instead runs into the path of a retreating Kagisho Dikgacoi. He then proceeds to lean into him and go down before Dikgacoi slides and goes down too. The result is a penalty and a red card for Dikgacoi. I can’t find any footage of the incident right now but I will embed it as soon as I find it. For those of you who have seen it, there are at least three things we can agree on.

  1. The incident took place outside of the box, and thus wasn’t a penalty.
  2. Dikgacoi was not the last man, as Delaney was covering.
  3. Young had deviated from the path of the ball and thus it could not be considered a goalscoring opportunity.

Those three things are clear enough, but there is a pretty clear case for a fourth point: Young initiated the contact and thus dived to con the referee into giving the decision for United.

Gary Neville once gave an analysis most University lecturers would be proud of on diving which many of you I am sure have seen. He argues that 95% of attackers, when in the box, are looking for limbs to trip over, and will often move their legs unnaturally towards defenders to make sure of the contact. In instances like the ones he describes, it is both a foul and a dive, as you have to go down to make the foul noticeable to the referee and officials.

In the case of Ashely Young, however, there was no leg to trip him up, and his movement into Dikgacoi was far from natural. When Dikgacoi eventually made the slide tackle, Ashley Young was already most of the way down and the contact had already been initiated by Young. It was cynical, intentional, and effective, but very much unlike what Gary describes in the video. It’s this sort of thing that needs eradicating from the game. But how? There are a number of problems.

At the forefront of this is the difficult job the referees have. His view of the Young-Dikgacoi incident was obscured, because all he will have seen is Dikgacoi’s back and him sliding in on Young (this was probably his downfall in the end, sliding in from behind, even without contact, is asking for trouble). The interpretation of referees is different; for example, a different referee may have sent of Young for a second bookable offense, or just given Dikgacoi a yellow. Steve Parish told 606 that he’d like to see red cards for incidents like this. As good as this idea sounds, what if you give a player a red who was legitimately fouled? What if Tevez had got injured in the tackle in the video AND been sent off for simulation? Hardly just is it?

Secondly, there’s the issue of retrospective action as the leading deterrent against diving. I’m probably going to sound very opinionated here so those who don’t like healthy discussion should stop here. Retrospective action is not the answer. Yes, you can give divers the bans that they warrant, but by Gary’s definition, you’d be giving several retrospective bans every week. Things such as points deductions have also been discussed, but that isn’t going to give relegation-threatened teams their hard-earned points back, is it? It’s still going to leave a bitter taste.

In my opinion, the best way to tackle the diving pandemic is to incorporate some level of technology into the sport. On television broadcasts, we are spoiled with access to replays and analysis referees aren’t, and they need it more than we do. Most premier league grounds will have a large monitor somewhere in the stadium: why not broadcast replays so that everyone can see them including the referees? Alternatively, have a referee or so in the production booth where selected replayed are broadcast to the public and let them see them in there? The only way to correctly make a decision is to make it in real time, and the only way that can be done is allowing referees to access replay technology. Couple this with hefty fines for divers and then we can think about red cards for diving. Then, we can really put to bed something which is plaguing the beautiful game.

Ibrahimovic is a great player, but it doesn’t excuse him from being a role model

This is a bit off topic, but I think it may implicitly highlight the more down to earth nature of the Football League!

 

Before I start what could develop into a lengthy rant, let me establish the facts; Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a cracking player. His fourth goal against England last year would have been enough to secure his legacy, but that would be to discredit his achievements at some of Europe’s biggest clubs; Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. He’s won numerous titles and accolades along the way, and at the age of 31 he scored 35 goals in 46 games last year for Paris Saint-Germain, along with 11 assists. He should be celebrated for his undoubted ability, but he should also be castigated for his often callous attitude to the game.

 

I know that I’ll be in a minority here. Many football fans take to Ibrahimovic’s ‘colourful’ outbursts as a hilarious form of laddish banter, and find him an entertaining source for quotes. The headline “Zlatan Ibrahimovic announces he is donating his entire salary to Zlatan Ibrahimovic” may raise chortles, but are we really going to pat him on the back for saying “the children of Paris are not leading Ligue 1 in goals this season. I am”? I find it hard for Ibrahimovic to be endeared to me in this time of economic hardship when he adds “if anything, the children of Paris should be giving me even more money for having the privilege of being in the same city as my incredible quality”. 80% of football fans will probably laugh at this ‘Zlaritible donation’, but I doubt they would if they lost their job, or indeed if a primma donna was to blatantly dive and win a penalty at their team’s expense; the hypocrisy is ludicrous.

 

Not only has Ibrahimovic been boastful about his financial gain and conspicuous consumption (he is said to earn some 14 million euros a year), but he has had utter contempt for one of the game’s great managers; Pep Guardiola. In a published autobiography called ‘I am Zlatan’, Ibrahimovic labels Guardiola (the winner of 3 La Liga titles, 2 Copa del Reys, 2 Champions League titles, 3 Supercopa de Espanas, 2 UEFA Super Cups and 2 FIFA Club World Cups in his managerial career alone) a “spineless coward”, before going on to add this curious anecdote: “None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys”. Surely not! Footballers acting modestly? “The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. Everyone did as they were told”. Fans across the country rightly lament the often arrogant nature of the modern footballer, yet will they agree with Ibrahimovic’s thesis? Ibrahimovic can’t really contest the way that Barcelona has been run over the years, which has brought the Catalans magnificent success; the episode highlights the heavily individualised nature of the towering Swede.

 

People will rightly say that there are plenty of other footballers guilty of heavily inflated egos.  Pierre van Hooijdonk may not immediately spring to memory for some, but he supposedly said that Celtic’s £7,000 a week offer “might be good enough for the homeless…but not for an international striker”. I’ve picked Ibrahimovic out in this piece because he is such an outrageous example. He also hasn’t always been value for money; when Inter received around £40 million plus Samuel Eto’o for Ibrahimovic from Barcelona in 2009, who do you think got the better deal? Barcelona sold him for around £20 million a year later to AC Milan. Ibrahimovic obviously had little control over what was paid for him, but if we are to take his earlier quotes with PSG as gospel then he was worth every penny.

 

It’s a crying shame that we can’t just discuss a player’s ability on the pitch, and I’m aware that I’m prone to calls of hypocrisy, but quotes of Ibrahimovic’s capacity inevitably draw this kind of derision. I wouldn’t mind at all acting like a schoolboy if I was earning over £200,000 a week, especially if it was to do a hobby. Every footballer is a role model, and should act so accordingly. As a world class player, Ibrahimovic is in the spotlight, and whilst his remarks may be entertaining, they act as a symbolic smack in the face in an ever escalating financial bubble for football fans. Would it really cost much for Ibrahimovic to be just a little more modest? Zlatan is a remarkable player, but there are players better than him that are capable of toning down the arrogance. He’d do well to remember the words of former Ipswich chairman John Cobbold (Sir Bobby Robson’s former boss): “you have to love the game more than the prize. The game is more important than the prize because without the game, there is no prize anyway”.

 

Off-topic Mondays: Deadline Day – Clubs and players to watch

Today starts the dawn of a new, weekly post series about all things… non-Championship. I would have done a Championship deadline day piece, but the topic is far too broad to leave the big guns out of it. So here are some players and clubs and players to watch today.

Wigan Athletic

Since Wigan got relegated, everyone was expecting this huge exodus of talent, particularly from midfield. So, who exactly has left Wigan so far? Well, Alcaraz, Kone, and Joel Robles have all departed for pastures blue, Franco di Santo has left on a free, and Figueroa has hot-footed it to Hull. All of their talented midfielders remain contracted to the club, which will please Wigan fans to no end. As a result, I would largely expect a few Premier League clubs to put bids in for their talent as the window nears closure. Everton have seen a £10m move for James McCarthy get flat out rejected, and Newcastle remain interested. Similarly, the rumour is Crystal Palace have had a £2.5m bid for Callum McManaman turned down, but it seems that they have since turned their attentions to Forest’s Adlene Guediora and, perhaps ambitiously (and hopefully flat out not true), Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner.

Real Madrid

All the talk surrounding Real Madrid has been about two things: Gareth Bale’s world record move, and deluded United fans thinking Ronaldo will actually return to Old Trafford. For those of you who missed it, Mesut Ozil is on the verge of a move to Arsenal, and Kaka has gone home to AC Milan. The word from Carlo Ancelotti today is that Fabio Coentrao will not be leaving, which personally saddens me because he’s too good to be sat on the bench every weekend, and I’d love to see him in the Premier League (come on Daniel Levy, do the usual). Other names linked with moves away are Angel di Maria, again possibly to Arsenal, and Karim Benzema, though a lack of striking cover may spell the end of any speculation surrounding him.

Newcastle

Joe Kinnear was brought in to sign all the players Alan Pardew needs to push for Europe once again. So far, he’s trolled him by signing QPR striker and previous Newcastle rejector Loic Remy on loan. That surely is some sort of prank. Rumour has it that they were on the verge of signing Aaron Hunt, until Kinnear pronounced his name wrong, and they have since moved on to Charles N’Zogbia… I jest and digress. In all seriousness, Newcastle need some players, any players, and James McCarthy is a linked name. If they don’t bring bodies into the club, expect them to face a very tough season.

Peter Odemwingie

It’s always been interesting to see what happens with this guy ever since he showed up on a London car park with a sign saying “will kick ball for food”, but it looks like he might actually be moving this deadline day around. Cardiff have been given permission to speak to the Nigerian forward and all we can do is pray and hope that it falls through and the drama can continue come January.

The remaining members of the Aston Villa bomb squad

Yeh, they aren’t moving. No one wants them. Stephen Ireland, Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia and co. will continue to leech Randy Lerner’s money until their contracts expire.

Arsenal

They’ve finally come to life, and they’ve left it very late. Ozil is pretty much a done deal, and more look to be on the way in. Emiliano Viviano from Palermo will join to provide competition for Wojciech Szczesny. Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye have all been linked. And, to my knowledge, they havent been linked with a single defender, which is kind of what they need. Expect an influx of talent.

Spurs

I don’t know why, and I don’t know who. But it’s SPURS. They WILL do something. Rumours are Hulk, Tom Ince, and Coentrao.

Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini, and Shinji Kagawa

Even with Liverpool, Newcastle and Arsenal all around, somehow Manchester United are this seasons soap opera. The fans are getting edgy. The board refuses to deliver. Why didn’t they hijack the Ozil deal? Wouldn’t Christian Eriksen have been the ideal creative midfielder? Why don’t they swoop for Juan Mata, seemingly becoming more and more available? Instead, they’ve gone for Ander Herrera, a player who plied his trade at underperforming Athletic Bilbao last season. £30m is the fee. He’d better be good. Additionally, Moyes seems to be far too focused on a player who doesn’t really fit the United mould: Fellaini. I can understand why, he’s an arial threat, and Moyes knows him well. He is not the answer. He isn’t a creative, natural CAM like a Gotze or an Ozil or an Eriksen. There is however a solution, one that really maddens me that Moyes has ignored…. PLAY KAGAWA. Just play him, he’s one of your best players. He can score, he can create, JUST PLAY HIM. It’s no wonder Dortmund fans are getting antsy, he’s too good to sit on the bench while TOM BLOODY CLEVERLEY plays EVERY GAME and he’s simply not good enough to pull on the red jersey. So David Moyes, you can sign who you like, I don’t care. But please sell Kagawa to a club who actually wants to play him and not waste him for the purpose of marketing in Asia. The rumours are that Dortmund and Atletico Madrid will bid for his signature, but I’ve heard rumours of a Premier League loan to Aston Villa for him… watch this space.