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!!!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Night That The Wenger Fairy Dust Evapourated For Good

Trudging through my local Co-op in Old Duston village fulfilling my duties simply as a hassled father and husband instead of a coveted Maestro, my eyes were drawn to two bold but contrasting landmark headlines on the New-stand; Peaches Golding became the first Black Lord Lieutenant in Britain serving Bristol today and a gloating Gary Lineker smugly telling all that BT Sport had secured exclusive rights for Champions League Television coverage; not least because his salary will rise even more ridiculously higher. As a man of colour, I was moved by the first story but stunned a little by the second. When I was a child I watched (with my father's permission) the highlights shows, foreign players with fancy hair and strange goal celebrations, supporters who played musical instruments to lead the singing was part of the beauty of European club competition; like the F.A. Cup, everyone always watched the final. The world has changed, choice is gargantuan for the lucky few and the shared experience along with generosity is becoming obsolete. Footballers are no longer just pictures on cards that schoolchildren exchange, they are now 'global brands' with numerous millions following every utterance and pout on various Social Media platforms. Meanwhile in all the haze of consumerism, our national game is drifting away from our gigantic Terrestrial High-Definition Television Flat-Screens and more worryingly the next generation... Arsene Wenger too is drifting uncomfortably away.

The confirmation of his demise was delivered in devastatingly ruthless fashion last night. Many fans of 'the beautiful game' are quietly reflecting that the end of an era has now been confirmed. I had similar sentiments as I trudged away from Old Trafford on Tuesday 5th March 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were well beaten by Real Madrid. The difference is that Mr Ferguson had already announced his retirement to avoid confusion and distraction Losing 5-1 twice to one of the pace-setters of the game, namely Bayern Munich who are managed by an equally hard-bitten veteran like Carlo Ancelotti. His time is clearly up; defeat against a non-league football club bearing my name is unthinkable; let's not go there for now! I am bemused why things have become so bad for a great club such as Arsenal under his tutelage and allowed to simply get worse. Mourinho called him a specialist in failure, we berated him for that comment but after all he might have been correct in his assertion.

Those of you who REALLY know me, will be aware that my love for Middlesbrough was born on Saturday 10th September 2005 at Arsenal's expense at the Riverside. Having been regaled with tales of artistic football that is pleasant on the eye by many 'Gooners' I travelled to the North East in search of a first-hand experience of the brilliance of an Arsene Wenger's team. What I discovered, in reality, despite the beautiful football was the embryo of a soft underbelly that has flourished unchecked for nearly 12 years. Middlesbrough bullied Arsenal on a chilly September evening and with two moments of brilliance courtesy of a debut strike from Yakubu and great trickery from Massimo Maccarone for the second. Incidently, of course at the present time 'Boro would buy moments of magic like that at any price to activate a credible stay of execution for this season's Premiership campaign, but that is a blog for another reflective day. At the end of that 2005-6 season, enthusiastic conversations enthused about a new ground which would help promote a new mindset for the 21st century and the capacity to compete with the big boys of world club football. As time has ticked on, two simple things have endured; the ground is indeed always full (60,000 plus) and the club have achieved consistent qualification for Champions League football every year, usually at the frustrating expense of Tottenham Hotspur. Could you ever imagine Real Madrid, the jewels of the Spanish capital settling for that or the Kings of Catalonia at Barcelona even contemplating such ambitions as 'a job well done!' The Emirates existence has yielded 4 trophies; two F.A. Cups and two Community Shields - a poor return. Could it be possible that Wenger has hood-winked everyone, is he the Modern Day version of that mystical Emperor with the questionable wardrobe attire. Consider this, surely David Moyes at United would have lifted more than two trophies in 10 years but, his status is now lamented as damaged goods and the Sunderland gig is doing him no favors either. Would Arsene Wenger really be faring better at the Stadium of Light?

People talk wistfully of title-winning teams but once Patrick Vierra left the Arsenal midfield their intensity was never the same again. Kante was the talisman for Leicester City last season, this campaign he has joined a superior outfit that, last season, lacked critical focus and the right general to tighten the loose screws; and guess what? Chelsea are topping the league! Wenger's Arsenal lack true game-changers, clinical strikers, leaders and most crucially a winning mindset. Right now and for a long time everything has been nearly. Sturridge and Lukaku nearly made it at Chelsea but were shipped out to Liverpool and Everton respectively and despite honourable endeavor are still operating in nearly environments. A cursory glance at Koeman's defeat at Spurs and Liverpool's capitulation at Leicester proves that.

Am I being harsh? Yes! But football is now a harsh huge business, as is life, and the natives at Arsenal are paying more for their football fix per head than my affluent Middle-Class luvvie friends down the road at the Coliseum, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and that for me is the bottom line; watching football isn't cheap, If you yearn for an environment to showcase brilliance, and you are granted your wish 'on your terms,' by your paymasters, as he has, then you must deliver. Arsene Wenger once designed a great script for modern footballers, the trouble is that everyone else has surpassed the rehearsal stage now and is delivering upgraded performances and productions. For whatever reason, he has chosen to ignore the fact that the scene-stealers belong to other teams because he and all of those who run Arsenal failed to accept the rules of engagement. The fairy dust needed replenishing a long time ago and has turned to flour. If he does not bow out gracefully, his final curtain call could make uncomfortable viewing. 'Taxi for Wenger!' The ignition has been truly engaged, the only question now is who steps into his shoes?

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Euros! In Celebration of Wales; The Football Nation!

I have in a previous blog berated my beloved England team for failing so predictably in yet another tournament. On the other hand Wales, appearing in a their first major tournament since 1958, stormed to the Semi-Finals; topping their group in the first round of matches. So why did Wales succeed where England failed? Let's look at the evidence...

Chris Coleman was an excellent leader on and off the pitch. Although the Euro campaign was a huge emotional assignment for him and the nation, his approach was uncomplicated, his players showed great discipline and the supporters were fabulous. Wales have always had excellent players but rarely had elite ones; Ryan Giggs was in that category but his commitment to International Football rarely matched the desire of his superlative Manchester United contributions; and as a result Wales were becoming a habitual nearly team. Gareth Bale, on the other hand, is brilliant, oozes fire and brimstone and more pertinently regularly stepped up to deliver game-changing performances in the qualifying games. His contribution has created an atmosphere of belief in the Welsh team and despite the blip against England on June 16th, the reaction to despatch Russia so ruthlessly was a real statement of their intentions to progress. Achieving a Semi-Final place by beating Belgium was no surprise, after all their star man whilst Eden Hazard had a patchy season at Chelsea last season, Bale won the Champions League and was no bit-part player. The surprise, was the nature of the execution with three brilliant goals that had me rising out of my seat with elation. Wales were sensational!

Despite the pockets of hooliganism in France, I enjoyed the way supporters of each nation arrived in healthy numbers and heartily cheered on their teams. Although the Welsh supporters were outnumbered by their Belgian counterparts, in THAT Quarter Final, they were never going to be out-sung!! After Ashley Williams equalised, the choir struck up and probably mesmerized not just the opposition fans but the players on the pitch!! There are very few more pleasing sounds on the ears than a Welsh choir; maybe those mischievous Russians ultras were disarmed by the beautiful lyrical phrasing of the fans. It's worth noting that there was no more trouble from them following that match!

Much has been made following my last blog about the number of foreigners 'invading' our Premier League and suppressing English talent. The entire Welsh squad was drawn from the same Premier AND Football League of the English players, but they succeeded and England failed. As I mentioned in that Blog, the Premier League is very strong from top to bottom and I actually expect greater success in the next European clubs' campaign from British teams. Chris Coleman achieved because of his leadership, team dynamics, belief and critically the presence of a world class match winner. In the defining Semi-Final, Cristiano Ronaldo's brilliance was the heart-breaking difference; sometimes you have to celebrate special players and his top drawer contribution was the only thing that could kill off Wales. In the same way Antoine Griezmann despatched the Germans in the other semi-final. On another night that might have been Bale's moment and then the trophy would have been lifted by Ashley Williams.

History one day will put this achievement into context for future generations to marvel. Congratulations Wales for making the summer of 2016 so inspiring for their nation, and the rest of us.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Unthinkable Has Happened Twice...

So, after posting my last blog which spoke about how Leicester City might win the Premier League, they achieved it and rocked the football world in the meantime. Could anyone top that? Yes! England were dumped out of the Euros 2016 by a nation of which 10% of the population were watching from the stands; namely Iceland. And here we are as the Olympics approach waiting breathlessly for one of the most anticipated Premier League campaigns ever.

Let's talk about England. In early June, I stumbled upon two significant sporting people from my childhood in a famous American Diner in Northampton. One was my P.E. teacher, an ex Cricket Captain and my sporting mentor as a teenager, the other a serious childhood rival on the football field who become a Professional footballer; both are still working currently at the high end of Professional sport. They are both, like myself, well known locally. It was an absorbing hour of memories, opinions and mutual acknowledgement of each other's individual legacies. England's participation was discussed and it was widely agreed that grass roots football was strong and healthy at present and the current England squad was quietly confident of progressing to the semi-finals. Then, the tournament began. Frustration in match one was followed by desperate relief after match two and disbelief after the concluding third match. My personal trainer Joe Power, a trusted football man, assured me during our session on match day Monday that we would destroy Iceland that night and have enough guile to disarm France at the weekend; I had an uneasy feeling; Iceland won the game and the rest as they say is history. So what actually went so badly wrong? A cursory glance at England's football tournament history reveals that one of the attributes that define us as a nation, consistently fails us in the hostile heat of tournament football; mental strength and indisputable belief. With a highly decorated, talented and experienced warrior like Wayne Rooney as general and rampant goal-scorers like Kane, Vardy and Rashford leading the line backed up by hard-bitten razor-tongued coaches like Gary Neville. Why were we so clueless, when it mattered most? My simple conclusion, after watching Northamptonshire's Andrea Leadsom surrender so meekly and swiftly after fluffing her lines with a seasoned media hack, one emotional weekend in the choppy waters of a leadership campaigning, Roy Hodgson simply, despite a wealth of experience, could not handle the pressure of clinical decision making when it mattered most.

There are many attributes that Roy Hodgson possesses, he is statesman-like, multi lingual, comfortable in foreign cultures, eloquent on camera and respected by the European football community. Sadly the unpleasant odour that defines his history of weakness in high pressure scenarios would have troubled the nostrils of a City Head-Hunter if he were a Merchant Banker. Of course life is too simplistic to say that his failures at Blackburn and Liverpool were a concern; everyone has a bad day at the office. Great leaders roar back from a set-back, objctively. Looking back the Blackburn experience overwhelmed him, at a time when the club should have achieved more; Blackburn went into free-fall just before Christmas 2010 when a certain Sam Allardyce was relieved of his duties for not producing glitzy football and having Ronaldinho's agent in his contact book by those deluded Venky's. The sheer intensity and bravado that Jurgen Klopp exudes at Liverpool, starkly contrasts the meek press conference he tried to conduct, at Ewood Park ironically, before eventually being sacked. Big games require a big a game mentality, on the training pitch, inside the dug-out and then critically during a 90 minute match. I have, in my career worked alongside numerous actors, amateur and professional who have astounded and amazed me in the rehearsal studio only to crumble or resemble something entirely different when they tread the boards in front of a live audience or an intense Television studio. Regrettably Roy is one of those, we found out too late.

Many people have said that the players let Roy down but the reality is that players like any workforce need an enforceable, clear but flexible blueprint that everyone understands. With the exception of the Wales game, which was won by desperation more than guile, Roy failed to make an inspired call during the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo lifted the trophy on Sunday 10th July for Portugal, but because of his unfortunate injury, the final was actually won by his team-mates who collectively succeeded as a unit. I am relieved that with Sam Allardyce at the helm that will not be an issue for the next campaign for England.

Sam Allardyce has his wish, to manage at the highest level. If he succeeds in winning a tournament, he will simply be awarded the freedom of England. I do not think, he will achieve this but, he will be an improvement on what has gone before because he has been preparing for this moment for the last 15 years! Now is his chance to truly define his philosophy with the national side. My own view is that Sam cannot fail because England are a poor team. Forget those friendlies, we have not progressed to the Quarter-Finals in a tournament for 10 years and since 1966 have reached the Semi-Finals of a major tournament twice - World Cup Italia '90 and Euro '96 losing both on penalties to eventual winners Germany. Can Sam reach those dizzy heights? Is he a 'special' manager? Bobby Robson and Terry Venables were both in that elite class; both succeeded at Barcelona and Robson was also a huge success in Portugal after producing miracles with a small but enthusistic Suffolk club called Ipswich Town. I know that Sam has huge self-belief, intelligence and an obsession to absorb great ideas from revolutionary thinkers. I am reassured that we have the right man. Let's see how he manages when the real business starts in September.

There is nothing like a new football season to wash away the weeds of despair that follow another disappointing tournament campaign. This one has excitement written all over it.My own team Middlesbrough are back in the elite along with Burnley and Hull, humble Bournemouth are there spoiling to fight and scrap like teams such as Stoke, Southampton and Swansea, Watford and West Brom. Newly homed West Ham, and all those teams with new Head-Teachers like Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Sunderland, and Hull City. It feels like a proper new school term. Then perched on the top are...Leicester City!! Their impossible title achievement has, alongside the huge injection of money to the Premier League raised the bar for every club. Can THEY do it again? "Surely not" everyone cries! Claudio Ranieri will easily achieve his 40 points this season. If he manages 6th place this season after all those additional European fixtures and energy sapping travelling, that will be another amazing achievement. I personally believe that he can, after all, his players have learned the all important lesson of crossing the white line of victory; for me it's still a huge advantage for a well backed club.

In a season when all the big clubs bombed so spectacularly, except Arsenal who quietly finished in second place - let's not forget that(!) much is expected from the big sharks for this coming season. The roster of managers makes very impressive reading: Koeman, Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp, Comte, Wenger, Moyes, Bilic etc. It is also well worth noting, that Premier League players from all 20 clubs featured prominently in the Euros this summer; the rank and file footballer in our league is very strong. Who will win it? To be honest, for once, I truly don't know because the variables of tactical approaches, mind games, personalities and quality on show will be akin to a wedding reception sweet trolley, it's mouth-watering. The Manchester clubs are going to be strong, so will Chelsea and Arsenal. Liverpool and Tottenham will be in the conversation perhaps but for this coming season, there will alas be no more 'winnable games!' Every club has inventive players, but we won't learn a thing, in earnest, until October when the clocks go back!! Let the madness begin...just like the hot sunny days.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Can Leicester REALLY win the Premioer League?

It is the question on everybody's lips. Back in the Autumn, the excitement centred around Jamie Vardy breaking the Premier League record for scoring goals in consecutive matches, then once broken he actually did not score, but Leicester continued to find the net and more significantly kept winning and sit on top of the Premier League 5 points clear of Arsenal. It has in equal measure shocked and excited us all. But, can they REALLY win it? Let's look at the evidence...

A fact that no-one can dispute is that, in the past, teams that are leading the league table in February usually go on to win the title. So the simple answer ought to be Yes! they can. Yet, watching the pundits Charlie Nicholas, Paul Merson, Matt Le Tissier and Phil Thompson expertly marshalled by Jeff Stelling on Sky Sports Super Saturday yesterday, you sensed that the cynics still believe that they will tumble, and tumble hard. Watching the ruthless defeats of Liverpool and Manchester City, they were executed with high quality possession play and exquisite finishing. Although I didn't watch the entire match, the league defeat at White Hart Lane of Tottenham was a real head-turner; because Spurs are a team in a rich vein of form, and yet they grafted, rode their luck, muzzled a rampant Harry Kane, and scored a critical winner as though they'd been at it for years!

What about Arsenal? I can hear you gooners loud and clear! Leicester lost at home to a rampant Arsenal side in late September 2-5, who then despatched, alas no! Blitzed Manchester United with a first half demolition the following week only to fluff their lines against lowly Olympiakos days later. On paper, Arsenal ought to easily defeat 'lowly' Leicester, but the team that they meet pack a real punch and after the Valentine's Day showdown, high-flying Hull breeze into town in the FA Cup looking to prove their Premier League pedigree as they (for the moment) sit at the summit of the Championship table, followed by the magicians of Catalonia; namely Barcelona and then a much improved Manchester United; February could make or debilitate Arsenal - history would suggest the latter, which strengthens Leicester's pursuit of the title. But, all of that could be purely academic, after all this is the season of surprises and the biggest one could be Arsenal finally discovering some backbone?

What about Tottenham? For me, they are the only true rivals for Ranieri's Foxes. In Harry Kane they have a red hot striker, in Dele Alli they have a fabulous play-maker and their defence is mean; in short they are an awesome package and are in striking distance of the title...if Leicester falter. Can Daniel Levy hold his nerve when 'squeaky bum time' comes? More importantly, can Spurs the club handle it? I am not convinced myself, Pochettino himself can handle anything, some of his players? I am not so sure; mentally they are new to all of this. Being one step from the trap-door last season and winning the battle will give Leicester an advantage, they are pursuing a positive target this time that has no consequence and Ranieri is the perfect manager to guide them. I need to be convinced about the Spurs collective; maybe an FA Cup instead?

That brings us to Manchester City. For me, Manuel Pelligrini has suffered the ultimate betrayal. He somehow has to continue and pursue four trophies; he may win them all but in all probability may win nothing at all. The speculation involving Pep Guardiola has been as damaging as last season's ill-timed warm weather jaunt prior to the ill-fated FA Cup tie with my team Middlesbrough. Speculation undermined Mark Hughes, then Roberto Mancini but with Pelligrini, it was unforgivable. For the Leicester game, focus should have been 100% on the match. This defeat may define their season; the distraction due to poor news management by the club will be costly. As I have stated in these blogs time and time again, small details can make or break a season. Vanity on this occasion is a curse for Manchester City; the cost of Guardiola's appointment may be greater than the deep pockets Sheik Mansoor can absorb...

The usual suspects like Manchester United and Chelsea are probably out of the conversation in terms of winning the title but may affect the ultimate destination. Both teams are obstacles to the title chasers and I sense that any of the above that can avoid defeat against these powerhouses will lift the Premier League title. For different reasons, both of these teams have rediscovered their DNA but too late to hit the front. I believe that if they negotiate Paris St German, a huge tie Chelsea could be a surprise package in the Champions League, and the Europa Cup could provide silverware and a launching pad for United respectively. Both teams are led by savvy street-wise Dutch Generals in Hiddink and Van Gaal, the latter has shown the depth of his strength and resolve to rescue what at times looked like a total disaster. Recent trips to watch both teams play live and today's fixture between them has been a timely reminder of the depth of high quality present. With both of them still in the FA Cup, do not be surprised if one of them lifts the trophy at Wembley. As one ponders those possibilities, it becomes clear how desperately badly both teams have performed this season. For the sake of their huge army of loyal and high spending fans, not to mention the sponsors, it is imperative that Manchester United and Chelsea restore pride and status as a matter of urgency. But, even with Pep Guardiola at City, these two will be back into the Premier League conversation next season alas! with new managers - expect Box-Office appointments! Jose Mourinho will be at the Theatre of Dreams but who's the other one? Surely not Ranieri? Now that could be VERY interesting!

Talking of great managers, Jurgen Klopp has been a fabulous appointment for Liverpool Football Club. Watching him at work with his intense desire to make good from what is clearly not up to scratch is absorbing, entertaining and refreshing. I love the way greets all the players at the conclusion of a game, his players and opponents alike are given hearty respect and acknowledgement; it's great to be a part of Jurgen's world! Yet, he has edge, and plenty of it. Like Van Gaal, he is always on the front foot with his media briefings, unique, open honest and last week at Leicester he was blunt. Liverpool have been screaming for this type of manager for a long time, and it was apparent to everyone who saw his first media briefing, Jurgen Klopp will deliver. Sunday 28th February could be the springboard that this club has been craving since that Steven Gerrard slip against Chelsea. One way or the other, this will be a watershed season.

Let's get back to the present and Leicester City, because this is their time and their moment. After the Manchester City I believe they will lift the title because they possess collective graft, a great manager, star quality in the penalty area and no fear. For the last game of the season on Sunday 15th May, they are away at the current champions Chelsea. The beautiful game will change forever if they lift the title and parade it around Stamford Bridge; how ironic that the trophy could make two outings in the same venue with different teams! I, like many football fans, want to see all my friends, that follow Leicester City to be drunk with disbelief alongside my mates in Teeside celebrating promotion for Middlesbrough as champions and all the Northamptonians cheering the Cobblers winning the league to move to League One. All the folks in Dorset keep telling me as they watch the Cherries host Premier League fixtures, that dreams really do come true, I want to believe it too! Come on Leicester!