Sunday 22 October 2023

The Subject of Ownership at Manchester United is a Fascinating One...

I write this blog because I love football. It is a sport I love whole-heartedly and during the 50 years I have been actively attending matches I have learned that ardent followers are emotional creatures. They love their team so much that they experience personal umbrage if anyone harms their football club. With the exception of Mike Ashley at Newcastle United, who was wise enough to take the cash and run when Amanda Staveley rode into the North East with her wealthy gang of Middle Eastern bandits, I have never experienced a level of hatred to match what the fans feel about the Glazers' ownership of Manchester United. 

From the start of the 2005-6 season there was a distinct disquiet around the stadium which I detected on my first matchday trip to Old Trafford for a Group Champions League fixture against Benfica in September 2005. United were 2nd in the league but the anger towards the owners was venomous. It was like being at a wedding where everything was perfect from the food and venue to the entertainment but the vibes between the bride and groom were awkward; we have all been there! The team won that night but fingers were being pointed at Sir Alex for being such a cheerful bedfellow of this weird family of American geeks who were rarely present and publicly mute whilst heaping debt onto a highly profitable club and earning themselves fat dividends. 

Winning football matches and winning domestic trophies gave a fresh nuance briefly to the perception of the narrative, and the Glazers enjoyed some reflected glory for not interfering with Sir Alex on the football side. Winning three consecutive Premier League titles from 2007 to 2009 and a Champions League victory in 2008, albeit in fortuitous circumstances thanks to a John Terry penalty miss in Moscow. Wayne Rooney was not fooled though, and made his frustrations known aloud about the lack of a World Class mindset at Old Trafford following the departures of game-changing players Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in 2009 and 2011 respectively; it was thinly veiled attack on the motives of the Glazers. His words were not heeded seriously and despite winning the Premier League in 2010-11, it is reported that the United dressing were unimpressed by the tone of how his comments reflected on them as individuals. For his stance, he was given a lucrative contract instead of being sold like Jaap Stam (who dared to question the manager in his autobiography, a decision Ferguson admiotted to me later as a mistake. But, despite being kept at the club,  Rooney was marginalised and new signing Robin Van Persie fired the United team to the Premier League title in manager Alex Ferguson's final season at the club. More significantly Chief Executive David Gill also left his role at the same time. 

The reality of the business model was laid bare when Ed Woodward, a man with very little knowledge of high stakes football administration, new manager David Moyes, inexperienced in the clinical process of lifting trophies, defending a Premier League title and managing and maintaining the mindset of a playing staff of habitual winners that needed refreshing and...the Glazers as exposed owners who continued to be absent and disinterested. The rot set in very quickly and with every passing year the unmistakable DNA of the Red Devils has vanished into the sunset. 

Those yellow and green scarves, created by die-hard fans who have vocalised and displayed their displeasure in fanzines, podcasts and youtube channels, not to mention the hordes that flood radio phone-ins regularly has been gaining traction in the last 10 years and, having seen the light, it seemed that the Glazers were ready to sell and walk. But alas, they have stalled because despite the opportunity to net a significant sum in the billions they have been greedy! I referenced Mike Ashley earlier, a man who is an astute businessman that did enough to keep Newcastle in the Premier League despite the vitriol and hatred to create a platform for the club to aspire to the dizzy exciting adventure the Magpies now enjoy. Like a suffering Casino punter, he struck gold when Amanda Staveley rang his mobile to give him £305 million and he kept his shirt in the process. Why did the Glazers not take £5 billion and canter into the sunset? Surely, for another billion you cannot tell me they want to keep flying back to Manchester to experience that abuse just to feel the North Western precipitation on their faces and a taste a few more plates of Lancashire Hot Pot in Manchester Picadilly and Deansgate or has Bez and Shaun promised them a night on the beer in Salford Quays. Guys, just sell and let Jim take the heat before this unpredictable world crteates yet another disaster and your winnings disappear in clouds of smoke! Just ask Tom Hicks and George Gillett who left Liverpool with nothing; timing is EVERYTHING! 

The tussle between Sheikh Jassim and Sir Jim Ratcliffe has been intriguing to observe based on the tiny morcels of information that we are fed about the perceived negotiations. One thing that is becoming abundantly clear to me is that the Glazers are actually a dysfunctional family unit and probably have always been thus. I am sensing that at the time of the acquisition of Manchester United, father Malcolm was the General and since his passing in 2014, the chain of command is not as resolute as it might be. Rumours are emerging that the Glazers regularly frustrated the Qataris by repeatedly moving the goalposts during negotiations to the point that they have now walked away altogether. It appears that Mr Ratcliffe, on the other hand has decided that the best tactic is the long game and opted for 25%...for the time being. Better to be within the set-up and observe the temperature and then ease out the family gradually. 

But, the biggest currency in reality, involves the results on the pitch. If United can progress significantly in the Champions League and remain in contention for both domestic cups, deal-making becomes an easier process for all concerned because the perceived consequences will lessen, in the short term.. The most important person in the conundrum right now, is Erik ten Hag, his success, or failure, will be pivotal to the outcome of the ownership chess-game. It took Sir Alex Ferguson 3 years to win the FA Cup, 6 hard years to conquer the league, after which he remained in contention consistently and finally 13 years to finally win that first European Cup in 1999. But it was in clinching that first hard fought league title in 1992 that really ignited everything regarding the dominant Red Devils global brand as we know it today. 

With so many proverbial potholes in the current United story, plus the recent sad passing of Sir Bobby Charlton, the in-tray of nostalgia, emotion and immediate uncomfortable operational dilemnas with the playing staff that I will not list here, the reality is a hugely delicate junction in the status, identity, value and most importantly the history of this great club. 

Saturday 4 September 2021

Lay Off Raheem Sterling!

Since the end of May, I have played numerous engagements but one recent event particularly stuck in my mind as I drove home because I was persistently asked the same question, and gave the same response; "Where are you from?" "Duston!" "No! Where are you ACTUALLY from?" "OK! I was born over there (indicating Northampton General Hospital) so I should say the Barratt Maternity Hospital!" But the question always persists. Of course I understand the narrative being pursued here because I have faced the same question frequently for every year I have spent on this earth, and these days thoroughly enjoy pleading ignorance much to the annoyance of my inquisitors! Eventually I relent, smile and state; "The answer to the question I think you're trying to ask is, my parents met in St James, Northampton, but my mother is from Barbados and my father is from Grenada in the West Indies!" What usually follows is a predictable account of how they once visited Jamaica even though I have no allegiance to the place and patiently I listen to their enthuasistic account of an Afro-Caribbean friend who I remind them of. I always michievously ask if their friend also keenly studied the Piano and I get a blank response! And then we move these moments at present I think of one person; footballer Raheem Sterling. You see I get that intensity of cross-examination just for playing the piano well and I was born here, eat beans on toast, have always lived in the smartest areas, know the words to Jerusalem and am on first name terms with most of the movers and shakers of my home town, Northampton. Raheem Sterling, the saviour of the England football team during the Euros, was born in Jamaica and came here as a child. I shudder to think how his polite little interactions really go with the well-heeled ladies and gentlemen from the upper eschellons of British life. OK, before anyone gets hot under the collar, I am going to lay my cards on the table; why is Sterling not celebrated more for his achievements? I watched as he opened the scoring for England on Thursday and then the monkey noises started and a barrage of drinks were thrown at him, but he took it in his stride calmly. Watching the match at home, I was fuming, I could see what was playing out and so did every person of colour. Why is the poor guy "on trial" everytime he pulls on an England shirt? Before writing this blog, I watched the way he conducted himself calmly and eloquently at his press conference for England back in June following his Man of the Match performance and winning goal against Croatia, and many of the journalists were obsessed with whether he deserved his place in the team. HE was resolute and measured in his responses and yet Harry Kane was a rusty as a nail in the same match and no-one doubted his place in that line-up! If, England experience any success in the Qater World Cup, he deserves a knighthood. The business of Sterling's Britishness or Englishness should no longer be an argument; it should be buried right now, and never revisited. He is a proud Brent boy who grew up yards from Wembley Stadium, and acknowledges hia roots in the area. More importantly, he should be lauded for recognising the power of his achievements on the pitch being a catalyst for other youngsters residing in the same humble surroundings to believe and pursue dreams of greatness in any walk of life. So, let's celebrate the boy as well as his team-mates who have first time in my lifetime given many Englishmen a genuine reason to believe that we can make a credible challenge with great players, support staff, and a brilliant leader in Gareth Southgate. Those lads have an unbreakable spirit so let's give Sterling plenty of love so the next time he plays and scores, the opponents he has are wearinmg the opposition shirts; starting with Andorra later today... Come On England!

Thursday 19 August 2021

Hasn't He Gone Yet? The Saga of Harry Kane...

Everyone knows that Harry Kane wants to move to Manchester City, and everyone also knows that Manchester City want to sign Harry Kane. So, why is the whole thing taking so long?

This whole circus reminds me of my junior school days. Remember those days when for several days a gang of boys are whispering on one side of the playground and a gang of girls are on the other doing exactly the same thing; Both discussing the speculation that a certain boy and a certain girl have declared an interest in one another. The word is that he is going to ask her out at the school disco at the end of the week. Everyone has an opinion about how he should approach her, what he should say first, when he will say it, what he might be wearing, whether she actually "went up town" last weekend with her besties to buy something special instead of going to her nan's? Heaven forbid,  what if she says "No" when he asks? At times, it all becomes unbearable to think about anything else, it feels critical. And then at the big event when the DJ plays the last dance, finally they melt into one another's arms and EVERYONE breathes a sigh of relief! 

These are the facts, Harry Kane gave an interview to Gary Neville on one of the Sky Sports Television platforms, before the end of the season, when he openly declared an admiration for Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City. Everyone who follows football clearly understands that the modern-day professional footballer knows the power of his quotes in the public domain; it is the reason why so many live post match interviews are so bland. The script is clearly defined and so are the predictable responses. Football clubs are brands and comments made in front of the media have to be "on point!" No-one dares to upset the narrative and watch closely, as we saw with Brentford last Friday, a club learning to live with the high visibility of the Premier League machinery when players and managers give those supposedly "in the moment" reactions, the club media man is never far away. Kane had something to get off his chest and naively he blurted out that he wanted to win trophies, we heard him loud and clear, then he slid off to the Euros lead the National side in an almost perfect campaign, scored goals, most importantly one against the Germans (something that might have gained him a knighthood, had they won the thing) and was largely still the golden boy...until his car took him to Florida instead of Enfield for his football training.

Daniel Levy is a savvy operator, or likes to think he is. He has enough clout to delay big transfers; it's his signature move. The transfers of Dimitar Berbatov, Gareth Bale, and Luca Modric to name a few were agonisingly drawn out affairs that financially did not benefit the Spurs cause. But, that's his way of exerting control like a cantankarous primary school caretaker refusing to unlock the gates before the alloted time as the schoolchildren are getting soaked in a brutal downpour. Misplaced power is not clever and despite a few good seasons in the past, it is abundantly clear that Spurs right now are nowhere near being an elite club demanding respect, in the fashion of a similar project like say Leicester City. The team is has stars clearly, but is STILL unbalanced a little like like Arsenal down the road, and the thinking is not yet joining up. That said, Levy alone should not be made a scapegoat for this charade.

Top footballers (and the not so elite ones) delegate much of their dirty work to other people such as agents, social media agencies, financial advisors and so on. But it is in moments like these that one truly realises how ineffective some of these personnel are or more succinctly how poorly they advise their clients. Harry should have appointed the best representatives money can buy; people who know the terrain of dirty deal-making; it is a brutal business. His elementary mistake was to be surrounded by well-meaning but naive advisors, when he signed the long-term contract that Daniel Levy is holding him to...without that release clause. I genuinely believe that Daniel and Harry did have a pleasant conversation during which the player was given the impression that he could leave, if Spurs failed to land silverware. The problem is, that conversation wasn't put in writing, and is open to variable interpretation. Viewers of the ITV1 daytime show "Judge Rinder" will be familiar with the level of creativity, when it comes to interpreting a past conversation, and of course the biggest piece of advice Robert Rinder gives to all those, who are morally wronged, in every dispute, is "get it in writing!" Remember that Harry has been at Spurs for a long while and should have remembered that history might repeat itself, when he signed that contract. Modric, Bale and Berbatov, I am sure, are still scarred from their protracted experiences.

Up in Manchester, meanwhile, the other protagonists are also toying with Harry like a cat with a half dead bird. Surely this could have been avoided had they written the correct cheque at the first time of asking and allowed Harry to bed in, find Mrs Kane a nice house in Cheshire and enble the quest for further domination to begin with ernest. Look at Jaidon Sancho, he is so settled at Carrington with Manchester United that he and his new team-mates have probably already created a tik-tok account with 10 million followers whilst this nonsense rumbles on. Or, maybe, just maybe those supposedly deep pockets are not so deep after all! Maybe, quite simply they cannot afford the fee, unless they offload a few valuable palyers themselves. Are they playing the double-bluff? If so, that back-fired when they lost to Spurs last weekend. 

This business of a false number 9, for a team like City, does not wash, for me. Sergio Aguero was a pivotal player for them, and should have played a greater part in that Champions League final back in May. That crucial goal against QPR that clinched that first title, is worth a billion pounds to Manchester City. Kevin Keegan and Newcastle were so so close and faltered at the last hurdle, never to reach those heights again. If Harry is the best option available, and most of us believe that he is. Not only will he  improve his own game, he could push them to that immortal place they desperately crave; lifting the Champions League trophy.

For the sake of the fans who will pay significant money for the privilege of their live football fix, it's time to move on with the football story, get the damn thing done and allow Spurs and City fans to know their fate; and know whether Harry will wear their colours or not. With so much uncertainty in the world, let's get this deal done one way or the other so this blogger and the rolling news channels can move on. Harry! What about PSG? Keep your options open kid, Messi can pick a pass...just putting it out there.

Thursday 12 August 2021

Football?? Bloody hell!

The great Jimmy Greaves once said "It's a funny old game!" and of course he is right but perhaps back in the 1980s when he made that statement he was being more cryptic than we'll ever realise. There's the simple game of 22 men chasing a pig's bladder full of wind...and then there's all that other stuff; the business! 

There was the pandemic when everything stopped, then racism became everybody's narrative for a while, then the football resumed. without fans, then we eventually had the Euros during which England's manager, Gareth Southgate, showed Prime Minister Boris how to portray the role of a true Statesman without a whiff of irony, whilst giving us a sense of pride and identity riding the crest of a lucky wave. Then we had the Jack Grealish situation, the Lionel Messi drama, a cameo with Lukaku and as I write we are still awaiting the Captain 'Arry Kane soap opera to conclude. I am already knackered keeping up with it all and the season is about to start!!

Before I start, let's get one thing straight! Not playing physical engagements has been a dream come true for me because it allowed me a much overdue rest and the headspace to follow every single nuance of the beautiful game without the logistics of 300 engagements that I might have been doing during that period. That said I am currently writing three books, planning and filming numerous online courses and have been busily engaged networking with every inch of the United Kingdom and most of the globe. So, the answer to "Did I Miss Performing Live Gigs" is a big fat No! Apart from the many special individuals that have been taken from me, Lockdown has been a fabulous window of many opportunities; and following football obsessively has been on the top of that pile!

Let's start with the Euros and England. My tip to win the tournament from the start was Italy. They were the one team that were solid, had a consistent unbeaten record with a high calibre experienced manager Roberto Mancini whose in-game execution was unrivalled by any other. It was Mancini that won that first trophy for Manchester City back in 2011 at the expense of a mis-firing Manchester United team in a definitive semi-final F.A.Cup time on an April afternoon. That day United sorely missed their suspended talisman Wayne Rooney. His deputy Dimitar Berbatov repeatedly fluffed his lines and Mancini seized his opportunity to inflict defeat on their neighbours for the first time in the competition and guide the disbelieving blue Mancunian faithful to their first major trophy. The following season he eased them over the line for the Premier League title in THAT pulsating game against QPR before his premature sacking after an F.A.Cup Final defeat to (current Belgium manager) Roberto Martinez and his Wigan Athletic team in 2013 (who were relegated days later, and have never returned to the Premier League). A major tournament with the final at Wembley Stadium, was too big an opportunity for an emotive creature like Mancini to miss and his tactical acumen in the second half of the Euro Final against England was a masterclass in game management at the highest level.

That said, the England team showed a resilience that has never been seen before and by hanging on, we almost did to the Italians what they have routinely done to other nations in past tournaments; We all know that Marcus Rashford would score that penalty 999 times out of 1,000 and sadly for him and the nation that one time was Sunday 11th July 2021; fine margins indeed.

Despite berating Southgate for being inferior to Mancini's tactical acumen, I must salute him for his success in creating a calm and collective belief in the psyche of his players. It is widely accepted that the majority of the squad now have big match experience with their clubs but the manner in which they dealt with all their opponents, and I will include Scotland revealed a tournament strategy that we have never seen before. Croatia, Scotland and Czech Republic were credible group opponents, as were Germany and Denmark. It must never be forgotten that playing and beating England is a huge deal for other nations regardless of what others may tell you. Our Premier League is envied and our home grown stars are widely discussed globally. For the first time in my life, I am looking forward to a World Cup tournament that we can genuinely win in Qatar and the other nations are worried. For the first time in my lifetime, we have a collection of formidable individuals with a cohesive and effective mindset, something that ultimately destroyed the highly fancied and talented French squad. The victories against Germany and Denmark were special evenings that we, like many families shared together and will always treasure.

Whenever I think about the finances of Barcelona and Real Madrid, I keep returning to the tale of the  Emperor's new clothes. Beyond the very slick P.R. and mystique of both clubs, since the Coutinho transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona in January 2018, I have been struggling to understand how the business model was operating under financial fair play rules because the revenue of both clubs despite their huge global brand awareness was not that far ahead of say Manchester United who, despite the unease of the fanbase with the Glazers, is clearly defined; despite the current lack of on-pitch success. Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Madrid for Turin was, for me. much deeper than a genius footballer "who wanted another challenge in another culture." He was sold because quite simply Madrid were broke and desperately needed to claw back cash hastily; at that time, Barcelona genuinely believed they were untouchable; "living on the never never" was a fantasy existence that was destroyed by the pandemic. All of us that are in business know that when September kicks in, the banks will show their real teeth and be ruthless. The Messi situation is sadly an embarrassment for the Catalonian club and a warning for everyone involved operating in the murky shadows of the football business. As I said in the previous paragraph, the Premier League product is watched avidly around the world and thankfully, for now, all and sundry are keen to pay that premium price because quite simply, every match is competitive. On the other hand La Liga without it's two biggest stars is no longer the huge draw it once was, and is in danger of resembling the Scottish Premier League with Celtic and Rangers fighting one another every season. Time to watch those pennies a little closer chaps and then the pounds...

Lionel Messi playing at Paris Saint Germain is, for me, a very sobering sight. His tears were genuine, Barcelona has been his whole life and an unavoidable business decision has delivered him to France. To justify the whole circus, he has to win the Champions League next season. However, with an outlay of probably £300 million this summer, so must Manchester City; after failing spectacularly in the final against a very slick Chelsea who have smartly signed Romelu Lukaku. For both coaches Pochettino and Guardiola, there is absolutely no other show in town and I genuinely fear that both of them will fail again. So what happens then? Former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan, a man who himself has trodden those faltering steps as a deal-maker correctly described the Messi signing, on the radio station "TalkSport" as a "Harlem Globe-Trotters" acquisition. Last season, neither Messi nor Ronaldo were anywhere near the business end of the Champions League; and in reality, they are yesterday's headline-makers in real footballing terms. Time waits for no man, even Usain Bolt lost a 100 metres race eventually. It is a young man's game! So, despite the huffing and puffing of the Middle Eastern millions, it could be the silent Russian in West London who has the last laugh. Watch this space...

Talking of huge signings, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph, I am not convinced that the presence of Jack Grealish will signal a Champions League title for Manchester City in the coming season. Pep's big chance for that trophy was last season after dumping PSG emphatically on route to the final. The professional manner in which the team survived the brilliance of that all action forward line, and make no mistake here Mbappe, Neymar and Co. were scintillatingly terrifying at times in those first 30 impressive  minutes of that Champions League Semi-final first leg. The manner in which they achieved their victory and made PSG unravel so spectacularly was equalled by the absurdly disappointing lack of sharpness in the actual final that Chelsea exploited so effectively. Understanding the intricate demands of an intensive warrior like Guardiola will feel like an never-ending boot camp of the intensity Grealish will have never encountered before. I do believe he will shine but like Mahrez, coming to the boil will be a gradual process. In the coming season, I am expecting to see him start games where he will be regularly experiencing those lower league cauldrons in numerous cup games like the EFL and the F.A.Cup as he acclimatises to the high table of regular elite football.

Chelsea are a team I am expecting to see featuring on the landscape next season; Tuchel is a highly experienced operator in the unique environment of dealing with mystical obscenely wealthy paymasters who are quietly obsessive about having everything monitored and reported by shady aides who behave like human CCTV systems. The appointment of Frank Lampard was a masterstroke to appease the Chelsea fanbase who would have loved the temporary P.R. narrative of promoting from within. However, his removal was brutal, though not wholly unexpected especially when an under-par and injury-ravaged Manchester City visited "The Bridge" on Sunday 3rd January, and suddenly were allowed to find their rhythm and momentum with a ruthless 3-0 first half display to romp unhindered to the title. By the time Leicester had humiliated them 2-0, 16 days later, Mrs Thomas Tuchel had already received the memo to sort the moving arrangements for the family photographs and the bed linen to London. Marina Granovskaia is world class at removing clutter; my wife often prays that she might visit my music room one day soon and do the same! But, the Premier League is a long and arduous project, despite the Champions League victory, the results at the end were indifferent at best; we are watching...and so is Abramovich!

Everyone knows that Harry will leave Spurs for a vast sum of money at some point very soon. Unfortunately, Spurs owner Joe Lewis and his General Daniel Levy will strive to extract a maximum profit for the deal, but at the expense of the dynamic of the playing staff and it's new manager Nuno. I like Nuno but he'll need a few transfer windows to create anything close to a side to seriously challenge the elite top 4. I should say in reality Top 6 because Leicester and Everton are the best of the rest by a country mile. But, I digress! Harry Kane, once he moves, will need to find his shooting boots in the Champions League from February because that is when Manchester City need him most, to bridge the gap to the elusive Champions League. Winning the Premier League is not the priority regardless of what the hierarchy at City are saying out loud. Can they really do it this season? 

There is something very eerie about the lack of noise coming out of Old Trafford. The Jaidon Sancho business is done, he and Marcus Rashford are already established as gaming mates, but little has been said about Paul Pogba which for United is great news, and all the other players have, it seems, rested effectively. Manchester United, despite that final defeat to Villareal have a formidable line-up, make no mistake. There are numerous revitalised game-changing players in that squad like Jesse Lingard, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and the brilliant Luke Shaw who know and understand "the project" and what is required and expected. The return of 75,000 roaring fans in a rocking Old Trafford is going to be very big advantage. Despite the manner of the defeat in the Europa Cup Final, you sense that everyone from top to bottom at the Carrington Training Complex is ready to explode into life.

But what about Liverpool? Virgil van Dijk is back in business, along with a rejuvenated Jordan Henderson and THAT forward line. What will Jurgen Klopp's boys bring to the party? This is a squad that many predict will bounce back and win the Premier League title. I myself am not convinced they have refreshed the squad in enough depth to achieve that but a fast start is a must for the boys from Anfield. Everton's huge advancement under the brilliant Carlo Ancelotti and their extremely settled squad will be a distraction in the city too and I am expecting them to close in on one of the knock-out cups this season too. Merseyside is going to be an interesting watch.

To welcome Brentford to the Premier League is a wonderful boost for football fans everywhere who dream that one day their unfashionable team may realise that dream. Striker Ivan Toney is a very confident young man who has grafted hard for his chance at the top table since scoring an outrageous bicycle kick at Dagenham and Redbridge at the age of 17 to save my beloved Northampton from non-League oblivion in 2013. As the youngest player in our history to play for the Cobblers, the whole town is hoping he can become a success this season. The harsh reality is that for Brentford to have any hope of survival, he will need 20 goals against some of the world's meanest defenders. Can he and the Bees achieve that amazing feat? More importantly, are there three weaker squads than Brentford in the Premier League this season? That's another blog for the Maestro to explore in the coming weeks. I wish them, Norwich and Watford well.

Arsenal like Tottenham have fantastic stadia and yet, neither are any closer to success now than at any time in their existences. Not building upon the momentum of an F.A.Cup victory the previous season was a huge mistake for Arsenal and the sacking of Jose Mourinho on the Monday before the Carabao Final was sheer madness. After watching a fluid Leicester City team win the F.A. Cup in May and then cheekily pick-pocket an under-strength Manchester City team with their Box Office record signing Grealish stealing all the pre-match headlines at Wembley, was a clear indicator of how steep the curve is for Tottenham and Arsenal. A clean balance sheet is important but football is about powerful emotive experiences and neither team look like exciting their fans anytime soon. With all due respect to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nuno Espirito Santo is navigating different waters in the capital and losing your star player for £160 million is not a great look; unless of course that Harry Kane does not actually leave Spurs and is content that £200K is plenty to live on for now. Let's be frank, anything is possible with Levy! Mikel Arteta has to show a lot more than he did in a feeble 2-0 defeat at new boys Brentford on Friday. He cut a weary figure throughout on the TV screen, Arsenal fans need to see a serious uplift immediately or his Emirates adventure will be consigned to a refuse skip and the Gunners will be forced to start again. How he fares in the  next few fixtures will be critical for him.

There is much to say about the subject of racism as a proud Englishman who happens to be black. The George Floyd situation blasted open the doors of debate about discrimination and ignorance, which has been overwhelmingly positive. I began attending Cobblers matches with my father in 1974 and like the theatre and the concert hall audiences we did not encounter many people of colour. Racism was subtle but as I became older and more established with my Piano studies, I started to recognise systemic barriers thst were inexplicable and built purely on ignorance. Contrary to the metropolitan narrative, there are many football club communities with very little experience of dealing with ethnic minorities and with a lack of enlightenment racial probelems develop and thrive comfortably. There are many sports that I will not name here that have no engagement or very little with people of colour and many of those environments breed destructive attitudes that exist unchecked. There is a long way to go regarding tackling racism and I am fully supportive of the players taking the knee, because by doing so, they are determined to make the stand that they are not prepared to let the issue go away and Gareth Southgate's conduct in this regard was brilliant. Despite his expensive Etonian education, Boris Johnson's stance, on the issue, was at best embarassing and at worst a disgrace. 

The most powerful aspect of the England team, during the European Championships was the way they conducted themselves throughout the campaign and brought the nation together. As a result, the push back from the general public in response to the online abuse, suffered by the three penalty takers Marcus Rashford, Jordan Sancho and Bakary Sako, was overwhelming. 

Collectively, the British public is back in love with the game of football and breathlessly excited about returning, albeit cautiously, to engaging with the match-day experience. The beautiful game is back at the elite level and we are braced for some terrific competitive action. As strange as these times are, I am desperate to feel the hum of an expectant crowd before kick-off. This weekend, I will be with Jeff Stelling and the Sky Sports pundits along with their counterparts at BT Sport but it won't be long before I am back at the Riverside, Sixfields and all the other great and humble stadia arguing with fellow football nuts about the finer details. Football is coming home!

Thursday 3 January 2019

Mourinho - The Tale of the Sacked One

When Jose Mourinho was sacked on Tuesday 18th December 2018 at 8.45am, there was a collective sigh of relief. If football was about creating a corporate match-up, winning trophies and maintaining the visibility of the brand profile; He should have been the perfect appointment. So, from the Glazer/Woodward perspective it was, until August 2018, a successful piece of business. But, the football is the real oxygen that drives everything and to be blunt, the deterioration of the team before our very eyes was so alarmingly poor that it felt like a cancerous tumour had invaded the whole institution. Yes! It really was THAT bad.

Any Premier League squad that possesses a forward line-up containing Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba should never have struggled in this fashion, and with negative goal difference too. What did Mourinho actually achieve in 2017 to earn that second improved contract in January 2018? Only those who sanctioned can answer that one; and one feels that an appearance on camera (and I do not mean Man Utd TV) from somebody senior is overdue; if only to explain why after such a contract extension he was then not granted his wish to sign further players during the summer window. Rational thinking was clearly absent, without leave. In many respects, Jose Mourinho was within his rights to be unhappy but, the tue reality is that the atmosphere became embarassingly toxic during that promotional tour in the United States and specifically, his ill-judged comments regarding the attendees at an exhibition match was a huge insult to the club's vast international fan base. Under David Gill or Martin Edwards, such sabotage to the club's great name and pedigree would never have been tolerated. With the traditional third season Jose red mist looming everyone predicted trouble, and everyone, sadly was proved to be correct.

But, why did it all go so badly wrong for this serial winner? The answer simply was his ego. The infrastructure of Manchester United at Carrington is excellent but the swift emergence of neighbours Manchester City as a significant force on and off the pitch has clearly rattled what is becoming widely known as the Ed Woodward era. However, Jose Mourinho spent significant funds including a World Record fee (at the time) for Paul Pogba but still failed to energise his unit. Foolishly, he was distracted by his failure to control the media agenda; something that he had masterfully done in his earlier days but that monster has become a huge and uncontrollable voracious beast and a wiser older Mourinho should have been savvy enough to keep his head beneath the battlements and do his real talking on the training ground. After all, he is rightfully still highly lauded as a coach and even in this ill-fated existence, there are numerous examples of tactical brilliance and courage within the debris of disappointment and frustration. Touch-line reporters on the BBC payroll will remind us all that Sir Alex Ferguson chose, despite the threat of fines, to avoid all media interviews...and he retired as winner of the Premier League.

Elite Premier League Footballers are still, in the main, highly paid, naive, immature working class children who need firm but understanding leadership. Somehow, the mandate to create an environment with these individuals became compromised when he signed Paul Pogba; a genuine superstar sportsman. Mourinho could not live with the profile of this individual because it relegated him to the wings of the big stage. His other huge mistake was to enter any debate about his achievements as a coach in comparison to his rivals Jurgen Klopp, Maurizio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola. The late Sir Bobby Robson once told me that the hardest job in football was dealing with the media NOT the players. A cursory glance at his record reminds us that he managed some of the biggest players in World football in his stellar career at Ipswich, Barcelona, FC Porto and of course England; and remember, some of those headlines were brutal! Mourinho simply lost his way and failed to lead the players, who simply struggled to execute their considerable talent any longer. His refusal to play Pogba at Liverpool on Sunday 16th December, when the team were crying out for a simple moment of inspiration, was the final straw and he was history. There are suspicions that once his assistant Rui Faria departed, he gave up and decided to have an extended break at the Lowry Hotel whilst awaiting for the axe to fall and his pay-off to be concluded.

I have pondered why the coming of the axe was so long and painful. Defeats to Brighton and Tottenham in August were awkward to watch and I questioned his right to remain with my personal trainer Joe at the time; his response reluctantly was for the manager to be given time despite hos obvious frustration with the palying style and painful failure. I recall Saturday 29th September, with no wedding to play for a change, my priority was to enjoy the excellent commentary on Radio 5 Live! with some Fish and Chips. As West Ham defeated Manchester United at the London Stadium immediately after the midweek loss at home to Derby County on penalties in the third round of the Caraboa Cup, objectively my conclusion was that Mourinho had long given up the fight and was wearily waiting to be sacked. Many people point to his Champions League victory in Turin, against Juventus on Wednesday 7th November as a moment of salvation but for me he knew he was clearly yesterday's man by then; hence the outrageous celebrations at the final whistle.

Moving on, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a brilliant manager with the Carrington DNA and in time we will see those skills tested and perhaps he may be given the job permanently but for now, he simply has told that team 'to go and express themselves.' That is simply what they have done against Cardiff, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Newcastle. My belief is that they will achieve a top 4 finish above Chelsea and Arsenal because in attack they are better than those teams; Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool have superior strength and stability in all areas except in the goal-keeping position.

Having watched United beat a dogged Newcastle United at St James' Park this week I felt more convinced about Solskjaer's suitability to Manchester United than any manager since Ferguson. The reality of him becoming anything permanent beyond the summer hinges on how he handles the two-legged tie against PSG in the Champions League on 12th February 2019. If he wins that contest, the pressure on the board to pay off Molde and make the job permanent will be deafening. He will have achieved something unheard of in the post-Ferguson era; a winning football team with the Red Devils DNA.

The longer I observe characters like Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs on television I am reminded that Manchester United are first and foremost a great football club albeit with a huge outreach. Tony Pulis said recently before his sacking at the Baggies (West Bromwich Albion) and his appointment at my 'Boro (Middlesbrough) that Football clubs belong to us the fans; players, managers and owners come and go. This weekend, many small regional clubs that win their F.A. Cup ties this weekend will want Manchester United at home because they possess the greatest aura of all football clubs; it guarantees a full house, Live TV coverage and a small taste of the razzmatazz. A flourishing Manchester United is, and should aspire to that once more.

Jose Mourinho is a great football manager and in time, he will prove himself once more but on this watch, he not only nearly destroyed a great team but mistakenly forgot that it was his privilege to excite the pathetic dreams of simple folk who live for their football fix at Sir Matt Busby Way.

Monday 9 July 2018

Do We Dare To Dream?

England are in the semi-final of the World Cup 2018 in Russia. The last time that happened was in 1990; New Order produced a great World Cup song, John Barnes was the Raheem Stirling (What is it about those laid-back Jamaican-born folks that cannot produce on the International stage?) of the England team. Germany were a powerhouse and mentally were stronger than us despite the 1-1 scoreline and the penalty loss. So, can we get to the final? My heart screams YESSSSS!! Let's take a considered view

In my last blog, I berated Jordan Pickford for being a calamity waiting to happen. Since then, he has been our player of the knock-out rounds; without question. Harry Maguire had question marks over his ability and has not only smashed the doubts, he scored the first goal against Sweden; he, and John Stones, look truly international class. Despite my opening statements, Raheem Stirling is an unsung hero for England. His tireless work on and off the ball has enabled other players to find space and create opportunities. The telling moment for me was when the coach of Columbia chose to intimidate him at Half-Time; clearly he posed a threat to them otherwise. To his credit, and the rest of the team, he rose above it and kept his dignity. I recognised in the early stages that Columbia had a plan for him and I sense that the 'N' word was muttered into his ear lobes at regular intervals that night. One senses that the full devios extent of the tactics of the Colombians will be disclosed when the England team return early next week. For me that was the defining game for England, tenacity enabled them and the on-field leadership of the brilliant Jordan Henderson to emerge victorious. If England are to lift the World Cup on Sunday evening, that will be the game on which historians will focus.

And so to Croatia, a team that have featured on our landscape numerous times. Personally, I think they were the best team at the group stages but at the business end, I am not convinced that they have enough ability to beat us collectively but they do possess Luca Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield and that duo is dynamite! Yes! it will once again be nerve-tingling, but I feel that this is OUR time to shine. Our defence are fluid, disciplined and creative, our midfield will work very hard and I love our forward line regardless of whoever is in it. One of Rashford, Lingard, even Stirling and of course Harry Kane have a great chance to find the net and write their names in history. It's their match to lose and we, the Noel family are very excited.

Fly your flags, stand proud, sing the National Anthem with passion and dare to dream; Football is finally coming home. Come On England!

Thursday 28 June 2018

Here We Go Again - The Last 16

The much discussed World Cup Football tournament in Russia is not only here, it is vibrant, impressive and much discussed by everyone. It is a huge 4-year staging post that defines our own individual life-stories and more significantly has the potential to lift the mood of a nation. As I have regularly pointed out recently to every cynical individual who claims to hate football and this tournament, success or failure for England here directly impacts us all. So, with the Group stages completed, how do I assess our chances.

England have qualified comfortably from the Group phase; that in itself has been a success because we won the first match 2-1 against a dogged Tunisia, despite isolated patches of nervous anxiety, by scoring critical goals when it mattered most on a Monday night and then recorded a ruthless 6-1  execution of a haplessly erratic Panama team on a baking Sunday afternoon. Fabulous! Let's be brutally honest, we were expected to win both of those games but the critical issue is we love an occasion; last Sunday was the ultimate excuse for the greatest of gatherings. After the final whistle, as I drove to discuss to meet a friend to discuss the logistics of another Wedding for the Maestro,  the pungent smell of Barbeques firing up was everywhere. Nothing in this world compares to the consumption of an ice-cold beer as we dare to debate how we might/could/should/ win the thing...etc. It's the realisation of the high life; the kids are playing happily together, you agree to everything the wife says and England are through to the next round. Then, at work on Monday we forget that the real test is Belgium on Thursday! Do we play or rest Harry Kane? Should we rest our best players? Which route is the easiest? The honest facts are these, we had a reality check against Belgium; we lost 1-0, they dominated possession, our back-up midfield players are too light-weight. Jordan Pickford is a calamity waiting to happen but I'm not telling you anything you didn't know already am I?

Here is the reality, we have by default been awarded an easier route to the Semi-Final as was the case in 1990 when we drew with Eire, the Dutch, and beat Egypt then defeated Belgium in Extra-Time and came from behind to beat Cameroon before being edged out by the Germans in the Semi-Final who defeated a woeful Argentina in an ill-tempered final to lift the trophy. There is a similar pattern emerging here; England have two winnable matches against Colombia and then Sweden or Switzerland. It would be disrespectful to suggest that any of those teams are weak but the reality is that none of them possess unplayable box-office players. All three have match winners but none of them possess players of that ilk. Big players create huge intensity and the courage to produce opportunities in critical moments that affect outcomes. So, yes! I think we can and should progress to the Semi-Final.

If we get there, do we possess enough to become contenders? Yes because of the following players;  Marcus Rashford, we have a player with terrifying speed, agility, desire and belief. Harry Kane, we genuinely have one of the very best centre-forwards in the whole tournament. Jesse Lingard is a fabulously creative and hard-working player who has regularly scored significant goals for Manchester United and is without doubt the player opposition coaches will highlight for special attention. I am very concerned about the creativity of our midfield; Jordan Henderson is a good leader, willing workhorse but does not possess the X-Factor, he is not a street-wise warrior like say Sergei Ramos. Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling are two players that need to impose themselves on the landscape if we are to progress further, particularly Sterling. If he can score a big goal in the Semi-Final on Wednesday 11th July; the negative headlines will evapourate and the tattoo nonsense will be history; for me it's that simple. Sadly, I am not convinced that Dele Alli will recover from that knock to make a mark on this tournament but time will tell

What will stop us going beyond the Semi-Finals? If we are to defeat France, Argentina, Brazil or Uruguay our attack needs to be ruthless and our defence needs to be decisive at set-pieces. Sadly despite the huge number of goals in our team, the back door may slip open once too many times.

IF England are not contesting the trophy, and my head shouts profusely that they are not! My personal favourites for the title are Brazil, France and Uruguay, with Belgium as my dark horses; but despite the absence of Germany there are still some seriously strong candidates all over the last 16 draw. It's easier for me to say that Japan, Denmark, and Sweden definitely won't win it on this occasion although those nations, could like England have a wonderful chance to reach the last four; but deep down I sense that it will be us. Harry Kane is the key man for England; goals win matches and goals win trophies in tournaments; and he is chomping at the bit to write his name in the history books.

Whatever happens, it will be a festival of fabulous football, goals and excitement. The summer of 2018 is rocking; bring it on and don't forget to stock the fridge with loads of beer; enjoy the journey. Come on England!!!