Fly Eagles Fly


What a Super Bowl!!! Although I’m relatively new to American Football, this is one of the most exciting and end to end games I have watched, and the fact it came in the biggest game of the season only adds more kudos to it. Despite the Philadelphia Eagles finishing the regular season as the number one seed, they had been underdogs throughout the Play-Offs against first the Atlanta Falcons, then the Minnesota Vikings, and finally against the New England Patriots, due to the loss of their quarter-back Carson Wentz to a torn ACL and LCL on the 10th December. Without the injury he would surely have go on to be the league MVP.

Triumph against adversity indeed, not to mention the fact they had never lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy before this, having lost twice in the big game, and as they where facing the Patriots – a team who has appeared at the Super Bowl more than any other team, and returning for the fourth time in seven years. This is American Football though, the story of the underdog, the story of the American Dream, and the league which wants to be open and competitive – a team winning their third trophy in four years is not a good advertisement for “America’s Game”. Perhaps our footballing game needs to take a look at how the American’s do it before we end up with a game so detached from the real world of day to day people and so elitist people switch off and the bubble bursts.

As underdogs, any fan around the world without an association to either the New England Patriots, or Philadelphia’s rivals, was rooting for the Eagles – perhaps more in hope than expectation. I wanted the Eagles to win, but in my head I half expected Patriots domination and the Brady-Belichick partnership to set a new record for Super Bowl wins as a coach and quarter-back combo. In the preceding week when the Patriots came from behind to beat the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, although the Jags led from the off and gave themselves a relatively healthy leading at the end of the first half, there was something inevitable about Brady getting the job done to come from behind to win (albeit with the assistance of the officials, stopping the Jags from a potential pick six by blowing the whistle too early). My wife said she hated the fact that the inevitable always seems to happen when it comes to the Patriots, and that it didn’t seem fair that they were able to keep doing it. I felt it my duty to remind her that as she is a Manchester United fan, this is what every other football fan in England felt throughout the 90’s and the 00’s – that feeling that United would always come back to win a game late on, and usually would get some assistance from the officials. Looking from the outside in, I hope she saw and felt my pain for the last two and a half decades. In my eyes, the Patriots have been the Manchester United of the Alex Ferguson era – conquering all in front of them with a swagger and a confidence that just makes supporters of other clubs hate them more. If the Patriots where the Manchester United in this story, the Eagles where something akin to a Leicester City or a Blackburn Rovers – an underdog who had come from nowhere with no-one expecting them to even mount a run in to the Play-offs; they have a talisman in Wentz (Vardy/Shearer), a coach daring to be brave and attacking (Ranieri/Dalglish), and fans hungry for success for a long time (never won the top division before/81 years).

‘Our’ football can learn a lot from the American variation of the game, and I think it needs to before it consumes itself with greed and elitism. The National Football League prides itself on its parity – on ‘any given Sunday’ any team can beat another team (look at this season: the Patriot’s again won the AFC Championship, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs (who only made the Wild Card week of the Play-offs), the Panthers (also made it to Wild Card week) and the Miami Dolphins (who finished 3rd in the AFC East), whilst being run close by the Texans, the Buccs, the Jets and the Steelers before the post-season) – in a regular season of 17 games, they lost almost a fifth of their games. No team in the NFL has gone a full season unbeaten since the 1972 Miami Dolphins who are the only team in history to go the whole season and post-season unbeaten. Look at the Super Bowl finalists for the last ten years: 14 different finalists (out of a possible 20). So how do they keep the playing field so level, and what football learn from this?

1. The Draft

The NFL draft ensures that the worse performing team in the league gets the first/best pick of the eligible college football players that year. Each teams position in the draft is determined by their final standing the previous year – so for the 2018 draft, the Cleveland Browns will pick first (again), and the Philadelphia Eagles will pick last each round. There are currently seven rounds, and the draft is undertaken over a weekend. The College players don’t really get a say in where they go, but that is accepted, as they have ‘made it’, they have beaten the odds to get signed for a team in the NFL. There are occasions where the order is changed and a team may ‘trade up’ by offering a team in a higher draft place a player or future draft pick in exchange for their pick in a certain round; if there is a player a team has identified as key to their development, it is a small price to pay for the better pick. Interestingly during the 2017-18 season the Dolphins traded star Running Back Jay Ajayi for a 4th round pick – a deal seen as somewhat bizarre given how good Ajayi has been for the last couple of seasons given the low round of the pick, potentially even more bizarre now he will have a Super Bowl ring on his finger. If a player isn’t selected during the Draft rounds they become an un-drafted free agent and can sign with any team who makes them an offer – the player can’t return to College though. Players drafted through this process are known as “Rookies” and they don’t command the fees the seasoned pro’s do – that said the league minimum paid $435,000 for the Rookie Season; it sounds like a lot compared to an every day job, but consider that Alex Smith’s recent move from the Chiefs to the Redskins will see him pick up an average of $23.5m a year over four years.

The Draft system wouldn’t work in our football as we don’t operate a College system for player development and recruitment – footballers are often signed to teams from a young age and they develop and either make the first team or are sold on; there isn’t an organised ‘talent-pool’ as such where players can be picked from to give the worst team the best player. What the Draft does do is ensure that transfer fees aren’t a barrier to team development through player acquisition. By the rules, the worst team gets the theoretical best player – in football, the worst team would commonly be the poorest team, and as such not able to afford the best players, whatever age or stage of development. Think Theo Walcott leaving Arsenal aged 16 and going to Tranmere – it just wouldn’t happen.

What also isn’t conducive to the Draft system is the geography of the Football game – it is played all around the world, with an open market for players sales and recruitment. The logistics of a world-wide draft would be mind-boggling, not to mention the algorithms for working out what place pick each team should have.

However, looking specifically at the UK, there are a lot of players who, at the end of their YTS contracts, are tossed on the scrapheap and left to fend for themselves in the real world, often with nothing more than GCSEs. Soccer camps and systems like the Glenn Hoddle Academy are aimed at getting former football scholars back in to professional football after being released. There are good footballers being lost this way, maybe a Draft-like system can be adopted to try and get these players new clubs. Consider this: an NFL Combine-type event is held for all the players to showcase their skills in a range of areas during a week; at the end of the week the teams in the football pyramid are placed in order of worst to best (from say Conference level to Championship) and they can pick through a number of rounds – if a team doesn’t like the look of anyone they can decline to pick. Wages could be set at capped levels for each round of the Draft. I’m sure the players themselves would relish the chance to show what they can do and get a new club; and the clubs get a chance to scout youngsters and sign them up for agreed wages – win win.

2. Transfer Fees and Salary Caps

The NFL (and NBA) do not operate a system whereby players are transferred for vast (or any) sums of money. Instead, they are either traded for another player or a Draft pick, or their contract runs down and they are free to join whoever they like (an unrestricted free agent). In some instances, a players contract may run down but they may then be given the ‘Franchise Tag’ – the tag binds a player to the team for one more year if certain conditions are met; each team only has one ‘Franchise Tag’ – this is often used to extend the bargaining period for new contracts. An “exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player’s team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player. A “non-exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five cap hits at the player’s position for the previous five years applied to the current salary cap, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if the player signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.

This approach ensures that no team can dominate the market by paying extortionate transfer fees which rule other teams out of potential deals. This is further supported with the ‘Salary Cap’ which every team is subject to. In a nutshell, this is a cap set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement of the league, which all the teams must stay within – if a team violates the cap rules, they could be fined up to $5m for each violation, contracts may be cancelled and/or draft picks lost. There is a also a salary floor to go with the cap. Both the cap and the floor are adjusted annually based on the league’s revenues, and as such they have increased year upon year. Each season all teams combined must spend on average 95 percent of the cap or more on salaries. If the league doesn’t reach this limit, it must pay the players the remaining amount. The Salary Cap for 2017 was set at $167m, for 2018 it will be around the $178m mark. Cap space in conjunction with player recruitment needs (e.g. key positions needing to be filled) dictates how much a bargaining power a team has to sign free agents or in salary discussions as part of trades; the greater the cap space, the more you can spend on a player (think Alex Smith going to the Redskins – this represents a big chunk of their cap space). On the other hand, think about Kirk Cousins – he was a Franchise Tag player who will likely now be released as Smith arrives, but he is seen as a more than competent quarter-back, so his options may very well be linked to who needs a quarter-back and who has cap space.

So, although you don’t see extortionate transfer fees, it does potentially lead to massive contracts for some players, potentially creating disharmony in dressing rooms. However, it does keep the playing field level, as no matter the spending power of the owner or chair-person, they are restricted to the Salary Cap and Floor, which is the same for every team. The FA and UEFA tried to do something similar with Financial Fair Play (FFP) but the richer teams just found a way around this as it was aligned to club earnings rather than a line in the sand for all the teams in the league; if anything this only served to further stretch the gap between the haves and the have nots. The current landscape in England is that the clubs at the top of the league are pretty much the richest clubs (Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) and the teams at the bottom are the poorest – what this is creating is almost leagues within leagues, as the richer clubs only pull further and further away from the rest of the league, and from the normal world experienced by the fans.

Is a Salary Cap the way forward? In my opinion, yes. In the Premier League, the Championship, and Leagues 1 and 2 to an extent, the income of the majority of clubs is dictated by the TV money combined with the wealth of the owner – if you have the wealthiest owner, you can spend the most money on the best players which will mean you make the Champions League every year, stay in the Premier League, get richer and further pull away from the poorer sides, creating more disparity and less competition (in theory). We are at a tipping point now in football where we can go two ways – we can stick to the norm and allow the richer clubs to get richer and move further and further away from the rest of the sides in the division and potentially country, towards what seems an inevitable European Super League; or we can do something about it now and look at ways to keep the spirit of competition alive by restricting either transfer spending or wage spending, or both. Look at the Premier League this year, Manchester City have spent a small fortune on what was already an expensive side, and surprise surprise they are running away with the league. If we don’t stop cap spending the game is going to get further and further away from those who love it.

The next TV deal is around the corner and it is likely the cost of the TV rights will again go up, meaning more money for teams to keep paying the exorbitant transfer fees and wages. And although on the surface it looks like it makes our league better, does it actually? Look at this way, TV company’s have to pay more money for the games, who foots that bill? The supporter with their subscriptions. The cost of transfers and wages go up – yes TV money helps pay for this, but who else pays? Supporters in the cost of their tickets, day out at the ground and merchandise. As players and clubs get richer, the supporters who are the lifeblood of the game get poorer. We now have a Premier League which is actually a top 6 and then everyone else, this isn’t good for competition.

Do transfer fees really mean anything these days? As the numbers get more and more obscene, there looks to be no limit on what a player can be transferred for, and does it really matter for the clubs paying the money? They can afford it and more so what is the point of the transfer fee? In the last transfer window some of the biggest deals were done outside of transfer fees with Sanchez and Mkhitaryan moving without fees but for extravagant wages. On the flip side, do contracts really mean that much, with players well known for signing a new four year deal only to leave before the end of the next transfer window. Would there be something to be said for getting rid of transfer fees (similar to the NFL) and basing player movements on contract expiries and trades? It would put more emphasis on the contracts players sign and make them think twice before signing somewhere for the sake of it when they may actually already be eyeing up a move elsewhere. Add in a salary cap for each division and you could quickly bring the game more in line with the common man, whilst also preventing some clubs from over-spending and finding themselves in financial trouble, and stop the rich clubs from spending their way to glory.

3. Man of the Year

To follow on from the point of footballers being more detached from the real-world with the money they earn and spend, the NFL has the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. This is an award presented annually by the NFL to honour a player’s volunteer work and charity work, as well as their excellence on the field. Each year the winner is selected from 32 nominees from the 32 different teams. Wouldn’t it be good to see some of the best players in the Premier League go the extra mile for charity and see some recognition for it, surely it would make them more relate-able to the average football fan?

The last thing Football can learn from the NFL is with regards to video referees and the impending introduction of VAR in to the beautiful game. Yes, in NFL it used to confirm if a touchdown should stand or not, but the players don’t like it and it slows the game down massively, in some circumstances to the point that a touchdown is scored and a team cannot celebrate for 3-4 minutes until it’s been confirmed by people watching the game thousands of miles away. Although what they do well with their video referees is display the footage to all in the stadium so they can see what is being reviewed and can better understand the final call. By not having this feature in football often means the fans at the game are left in the dark with regards to what is actually happening and what is being reviewed, and why the eventual decision is given; yet another way that the armchair fan benefits when the fan at the ground doesn’t.

The NFL and the English Football are two completely different sports in more ways than one, but at the same time there are lessons to be learnt from our American counterparts to ensure we don’t lose the game we love and to ensure we can keep it competitive – now more than ever we need to look at what we can do to keep the Premier League competitive without the risk of crippling and destroying clubs.


The most unpredictable league in the world

This time 12 months ago the world was preparing for footballing life without Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm of Manchester United – his legacy passed on to his chosen one, David Moyes. Who would’ve thought back then that Manchester United would be preparing to a start a season in which they would not feature in Europe, and in which they would play in the second road of the league cup?! Who would’ve thought Sir Alex’s prodigal son, Moyes, wouldn’t even last the season? Who would’ve thought that in his first season away from football, Sir Alex might see his arch-rivals Liverpool come a whisker away from their first Premier League title? Who would’ve thought Arsenal would final end their trophy drought, with an FA Cup win at Wembley?

So twelve months on – is there much point trying to predict what will happen over the course of the next 38 Premier League matches? Probably not, but let’s run the rule over the favourites, contenders, and also-rans.

Manchester City – for me, they start the season as favourites. They may have won the league last year by default during a season of change, but they haven’t lost any players of note and key players have signed extended deals which can only be a good thing. They have also spent money, although the bulk of this has gone on a centre half with minimal caps for the French national side. They will miss Negredo as a battering ram of a plan B, but finish above them and you’ll probably win the league this season.

Liverpool – last season must have been beyond any Liverpool player’s wildest dreams, if they tell you they are happy with finishing 2nd, that will be a lie, they will never get as good a chance to win the league. This is especially so now that Suarez has left and broken up the Suarez-Sturridge partnership. Brendan Rodgers has spent the Suarez money but whether this was done wisely is yet to be seen. He has spent a lot, and brought in a lot of changes – whether this brings them success is yet to be seen. I think they will struggle this year with the loss of Suarez and the number of changes; that coupled with their return to Europe may too big a change for the Scousers, with the midweek games and renewed expectations weighing heavy on a relatively new squad. Champions League qualification this year would be a success.

Chelsea – many expected Mourinho to weave his magic upon his return last year, and the fact that he didn’t probably says a lot about the job which needed to be done at Chelsea. They have strengthened this year, and Jose will be relatively happy that the squad is becoming his own. They have a first class midfield with Fabregas, Oscar, Willian, Hazard, Matic and Ramires – but perhaps look a little short up front. Diego Costa’s style and physique suggest he is suited to the Premier League, but he will need to hit the ground running with Drogba’s advancing years, and Torres continued impersonation of the man who last pushed Liverpool towards the title before last year. But perhaps Chelsea’s secret is that their goals will come from midfield. Will likely be in the top 2 this year.

Arsenal – another stuttered campaign last time out with an awful first game of the season, followed by the usual “Wenger Out” shouts, followed by a strong start, before fading in the middle to end of the season. Arsenal arguably relied too much on Aaron Ramsey last season, and when he was side-lined their challenge fell by the wayside. With Ramsey back fit and the purchase of Sanchez (if they needed more pace and menace running from midfield), they should comfortably finish in the top four and even push the leaders. However, this may depend on whether Wenger is allowed to open the chequebook again. They are short of a striker, a centre half and possibly a defensive midfielder, and this may trip them up. If they don’t spend the money, a lot of pressure will be on Mertesacker and Koscielny to repeat their form from last season, or high expectations on Callum Chambers to step up to the plate. Top four, 3rd at a push.

Everton – a side that surprised many last season, will not have that element of attack this season. By signing two of the players who played a major factor in their high finish last season, they have done brilliant business, and unlike the traditional Everton, have splashed the cash. Whether Romelu Lukaku is already worth the £28m reportedly paid for him, is debatably, but at only 21, there is no doubt he has talent and is more than a handful, and should he do well for the Toffees, they should recoup that money, plus some. Like Manchester City, their best business has been keeping hold of their stars, and none more so than Ross Barkley. Champions League qualification looks a tough ask given the spending by teams around them, but they should be there or there abouts for the top 6 and Europa League qualification.

Tottenham Hotspur – despite finishing just 10 points off a Champions League place, last season will be viewed by many at the Lane as an absolute disaster. They lost their star player, spent the money, yet saw relatively little of what the money was invested in. Soldado failed to find his goal scoring boots, Lamela disappeared off the face of the earth and Paulinho failed to bring the Copa Cobana to London. To top it off, the man who signed them all, Andre Villas-Boas didn’t even make it to Christmas. This summer they have been more sensible with the purse strings and that may prove a good decision. The players they signed did not stop being good footballers overnight, and they are young enough to bounce back. In Pochettino they have a young manager who has shown what you can do with you and a defined playing style. I fully expect to see Erik Lamela show us what he is capable of – potentially due to input of his compatriot manager. Spurs will be pushing top four this year, but I feel will ultimately fall short, but 5th or 6th place is realistic.

Manchester United – for all connected with the club, and for all those not, last season was nothing short of a disaster. Starting the season with the question of whether Moyes could push for the title now looks a little optimistic, maybe even misplaced, as they ended up finishing outside of the European places, not just the Champions League, but the Europa League as well. Arguably the book shouldn’t only stop at Moyes; he had a squad some way off that of those around them in the league, and he allegedly lost the support of a number of the players who had pushed United to the title the season before, but as a manager, his job is to manage this to enable the team to finish as high in the table as possible, something he did not achieve. Many Manchester United fans didn’t think it the Manchester United way to sack a manager so soon in to their reign, but it just goes to show that money talks, and the threat of successive seasons without Champions League football was too great a risk for the club to take. Louis Van Gaal has been brought in after a successful World Cup campaign and has been allowed to spend money that Moyes was not – but he is not a guaranteed answer to their problems, and in all likelihood, it will take more than a season to get back on track and truly challenge for the title – however, their leave from European cup competitions may prove a benefit to their domestic campaign. They have strengthened the squad with the acquisitions of Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, and a new-look attacking 3-5-1 formation should suit the array of number 10’s they have in their squad, but their new look, and potential frail backline could be their undoing. Top six should be a given, and a place in the Champions League would be a decent season.

Southampton – many would not have placed Southampton in the top ten last year, especially considering the national media attention given to the sacking of Nigel Adkins and the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, but in his first full season in charge, the Argentinian was a revelation. They played a good, attractive style of football, combining a youthful squad with home grown talent, with steady players from across the seas. With that however, comes the bigger boys looking to take the jewels in their crown. Already gone from Southampton are Lallana, Lambert, Lovren, Shaw and Chambers – with Schneiderlin unhappy that he was not allowed to join the exodus. Even Pochettino joined the leaving party. This season they have a much trimmed and different first team to last season, along with a new manager. However, listening to comments from Saints fans they don’t seem too phased by the number of players leaving and are happy to put their faith once again in the incredibly successful youth system down at St Marys. They haven’t really spent the money from the outgoing transfer, apart from on Fraser Forster – despite goalkeeper being the one position they were relatively strong – but this could be wise given that every team will know they have the money and will be looking to up their asking prices significantly. It could be a big season for James Ward-Prowse who will be looking to stand in to the light in the absence of his former team-mates. It will be a struggle for Southampton this year and I think an initial target of survival would be wise, but it will all depend on how Koeman and the team starts – a poor start and the seed may have been sown for a season of struggles.

QPR – of the teams coming up to the Premiership, QPR look the best equipped to survive – but we have said this before, twice. Harry Redknapp hasn’t been has happy-go-lucky with the chequebook this pre-season, but the squad he has and the players at his disposal should be enough to keep them up, and the signing of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker could prove shrewd, but whether they can adapt to the rumoured 3-5-1 formation talked of in the media, is yet to be seen. Asking players to fit in to this new style could be difficult, despite bringing Glenn Hoddle in to help with the transition. If they are struggling around Christmas time, expect the chequebook to have lost its padlock and be on the rampage. Survival should be achievable, somewhere between 11-15 most likely, but more down to poorer teams around them than their own quality.

Leicester – a very successful Championship campaign has seen Leicester finally return to the top table of English Football, but the success of that side, could be its undoing in the Premier League. At Championship level the Leicester side was efficient and featured second tier stalwarts like David Nugent, Paul Konchesky, Wes Morgan, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Chris Wood – but the step up to the Premier League is a big one. They have brought in experience in Matthew Upson, but spent big on Brighton’s Leonardo Ulloa which looks like a massive gamble. For £8m a more proven top level striker should surely have been acquired. Along with an established Championship side, Leicester’s promotion also coincided with their owner’s acknowledgement that stability is the way forward, and finally putting their faith in one manager instead of changing every 6-8 months. The question this season may be whether they stick with that faith is continued or if they will get trigger happy after a slow start (their opening fixtures do not look the most appealing), especially with Neil Lennon jobless at the minute. Survival will be difficult and beating the team around them will be crucial. Could be a long hard season ending in relegation.

Burnley – many are looking forward to the return of Burnley to take a closer look at Sean Dyche and what he is doing at the Lancashire club – and this is a reflection of the side he has put together. Last season they were not expected to challenge for promotion but managed to achieve it through automatic promotion, however, one or two more injuries and this could have been very different. Dyche has bolstered his squad with the acquisition of Premier League experience in Matthew Taylor, Steven Reid and Michael Kightly, but will it be enough, and more to the point will they be fit enough and injury free enough to have an impact on the seasons outcome? They relied heavily on the goals of Ings and Vokes, and have added to that fire power with the signing of Lucas Jutkiewicz, but it isn’t the most feared forward line in the land and goals may be an issue. Their biggest asset may be their home ground which is a million miles away from the modern stadiums of the Etihad and the Emirates, but they will have to make it a place teams won’t want to come, and a lot of this may depend on how they get on in their opener against Chelsea – keep it tight and get a draw or even a one nil defeat and the ground could prove key, lose by two or more and straight from the off they have lost that fortress factor. They will struggle, and relegation seems likely – whether Dyche goes down with his ship or jumps to a better offer may be the more interesting question.

Winner – Manchester City

Relegation – Burnley, Leicester, and then between Sunderland, West Brom or Crystal Palace now that Pulis has gone – I’ll go for Palace.

Surprise package – Stoke – Mark Hughes has added to his side well and the signing of Bojan may prove a masterstroke.

Top Scorer – If he stays fit, Aguero, if not, Rooney. A good each way bet would be Fabregas at 66/1
One to watch – Bojan – arrives at the Britannia with a record of 180 games for the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax and Roma. At only 23 he seems to have been around for ages, but if he finds his home in Stoke, he has the quality to score and create the goals that could push Stoke on to their highest finish yet in the Premier League.

First to be sacked – Gary Monk could be in for a tricky season given the players he has lost (Michu, Davies, Chico and Vorm) and looks a decent bet at 10/1. A cheeky side bet may be for Nigel Pearson to be the first to go given their opening fixtures, and combine this with Neil Lennon to take his place and you will probably get some very nice odds (probably for a reason!).

Driving Ferrari’s like Fiat’s

It is a British stereotype that any young attacking player who is not an out an out striker, or who does commend the role of out and out striker due to his lack of years, gets farmed out wide on the wing. In the last two decades, as the world of football has matured and progressed, England has stood still. As the role of the number 10 has become integral around the world, here in England we still rarely use it to its full capabilities, with only a select few managers knowing how to implement it correctly.

Number 10’s have existed throughout the century and have been known to win games and wow crowds, but in England, it is almost a new phenomenon. Look below the Premier League and it is still a rarity to see that number 10 in the hole behind the striker. In England, there seems a reluctance to try something new and play a man behind the front man/men, viewing it as a kamikaze move which will leave a space in midfield and allow the opposition to dominate the midfield. I understand that the cost of losing games is high, but the price of the poor football it can sometimes encourage is potentially a bigger price to pay.

In recent seasons, the number 10 trequartista has come to life somewhat with teams in the northern reaches of the league table opting to employ a man behind the striker as part of an attacking three, rather than what is often perceived as a negative lone striker with a man behind. Look at Chelsea now and they play with one front man, with a trio of players behind him who could be described as number 10’s; it’s a similar story at Arsenal with Giroud leading the line, and a mixture of Ozil, Cazorla and Wilshire sitting behind him creating attacking chances, and playing creative and exciting football. Meanwhile, in the north, one of the best trequartista’s of recent years is still being farmed out wide.

Last season, Juan Mata was Chelsea’s player of the year. For the past few seasons, he has been a dream-team definite with his assists and goals – but this season he was seen surplus to Jose’s requirements, possibly because of his lack of pace and defensive qualities, which wouldn’t suit his style of play. To get out and back playing again, this is a World Cup year after-all, he jumped at the chance to move north to reigning Champions Manchester United. It looked a match made in heaven – Rooney and Van Persie up front, with Mata just behind supplying the ammunition and unlocking defences. In any other season it would have been seen as a Championship defining signing which would strike fear in to any opposition. An attacking line up of Rooney, Van Persie and Mata, with a midfield to compensate with the attacking commitments. But this is not a typical Manchester United team.

One month in to his Manchester United career and Mata has yet to make an impact. True to stereotype, Moyes has not known how to deploy a number 10 effectively, and as a result Juan Mata has found himself stranded out wide. He is not a winger; he does not possess the pace of a winger, and how many times in his career have you seen him beat a man and whip a ball in to the box? This shouldn’t be a shock to United fans though: Shinji Kagawa has found himself in a similar situation – either he couldn’t get on to the pitch or he was played out of position on it – you don’t be the success he was at Dortmund without some pedigree and talent.

Against Fulham, Manchester United played a record number of balls in to the box, and only managed two goals, neither directly from a cross. If you keep attempting something and it doesn’t work, surely it is a symbol to change the method? Surely the method has to be changed when you have a player like Mata on the pitch who is at his best when he is played through the middle and given the chance to unlock the defence? What is possibly even crazier is that Moyes then opted to bring on an out and out winger, and play him at right back. Juan Mata must think that things have gone from bad to worse – at Chelsea he couldn’t get a game; at United he is played out of position and made to look average and inept.

The problem isn’t Mata though, it is David Moyes style, perhaps as a result of his history in management. During his time at Everton, Moyes was accused of being too negative at times, and not committing to win games, preferring to settle for the draw rather than risk the defeat. For a team like Everton, whom he saved from relegation and established as a top 8 side, this is understandable, to an extent, but for Manchester United it is not. To be Manchester United manager, you have to commit to winning games – you would never see Ferguson opting to not lose a game over winning with the chance of losing. Moyes needs to change his approach, and rather than sizing the opposition up, let them worry about cancelling him out.

From personal experience of football management via Championship Manager, you can take a team from mediocrity to the upper reaches of the league by tactically neutralising the opposition, but you cannot go all the way to the title – for 3 consecutive seasons I adopted the approach of setting up in light of the opposition rather than taking the game to them, and not once did I win the league, or the Champions League. It’s a strange comparison, but I think there is some truth in it. When Barcelona play Real Madrid, doe s either team set up not to lose, or do both teams go for it?

This season is a write off for Manchester United, with the only thing left for them to compete for being the Champions League – which is a long shot at best. Is there really anything for Moyes to lose in going for it and taking the game to opponents each week? What is to say that a fluent attacking United side can’t progress in the Champions League? Secondly, much has been said about the break-up of the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership – now is the time to start blooding Smalling and Jones and Evans together; Smalling and Jones were bought for big money but neither has had the opportunity to prove themselves in their natural position. Moyes didn’t spend big on them, so he has very little to lose from playing them together, but massive plaudits to gain from doing so.

I heard a statement today that made me think: It took Ferguson so many years to knock Liverpool ‘off their perch’, come the end of the season, Liverpool may be back on it unless something changes – so much work to achieve something, to have it crumble away almost instantly.

The Irony of Football: Walcott and Keane

Football can be a very fickle game at the best of times, and most football fans accept this, however, it can also be a very ironic game. How many times do we watch the cup draw and see a manager drawn against a former club? Or a player against the team he has recently left?

Take Theo Walcott for example. Back in 2006 Walcott had signed for Arsenal for an initial fee of £5m rising to £12m depending on appearances for club and country. He was such a prized asset, that Arsene Wenger gave the 17 year old a break from the game to allow him to settle in to his new role at the London club. The fact that Arsenal had paid so much for him and then allowed him a leave of absence tells you how highly rated he was. But at this time he was just that, ‘rated’ – he had not proved at the top level that he was a player of quality who could sustain top level performance for any period of time.

Come the summer of 2006 and the World Cup in Germany and Walcott found himself selected in Sven Goran Eriksson’s final World Cup squad. Despite having only played 13 times for the Gunners, and with Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen both recovering from injury, he was selected ahead of players who had had successful seasons. Eriksson saw something in him enough to select him, whether it be for the unknown quality he may have been to oppositions, or for his raw pace, he saw something. However, at the World Cup he didn’t feature – not even for a minute, despite another lacklustre England performance, and despite selection problems.

This is irony raises its head. Over the past 12 months Walcott has delivered goals and consistent performances which would have him on the plane to Rio – but in a cruel twist of fate, his place has been snatched away by injury. At a time when the temperature will be high and increased athleticism required, Walcott is a player who could have shone for England, providing an outlet and threat to teams who do not see England as a pacey and classy team. I bet if Theo could turn the clock back he would sacrifice his time in 2006 for a seat on the plane this year.

Irony case number two: Roy Keane. Back in 2005 Keane had a spectacular fall out with Sir Alex Ferguson and subsequently left the club by mutual consent. In the years to fall it was rumoured to be that he had become outspoken, with Ferguson himself believing Keane had taken on too much of a managers role and criticised the players far too much – Keane denies this, claiming he purely told some home truths that needed to be said.

Following the turn of the year Manchester United, under the steering of David Moyes have lost three games in a row and look a team devoid of ideas, inspiration and belief. At the game this week were Sunderland were the most recent victors, the best player on the pitch was the inexperienced Januzaj – whilst he was pushing forward looking to create, the rest of the team seemed disinterested. How Manchester United could do with Keane now to voice some home truths, to remind them what it is to play for Manchester United, and to push them back on to success. I’m not saying he should replace Moyes as manager (management does not seem his forte) but Moyes could do a lot worse than have him in the dressing giving his opinion. In a time when footballers can no longer accept criticism, and when criticisms and manager actions are openly revealed to the press, players find themselves in a bubble where they believe they are untouchable, regardless of the success they have on the pitch, they are just happy to pick up a pay check – not all players but it is obvious some players have no loyalties or ambition, other than to their bank manager and their ambition to accumulate. For a club like Manchester United they cannot simply turn up, play, get a wage, go home and be happy with mediocrity.

For Moyes this is a new experience; what Everton would have construed as success (top 6) Manchester United see as a failure. This is something he will have to rise to – a season without any trophy is not good enough, yet, aside from the Community Shield, it looks a distinct possibility.

True Fergie may have known the squad was not good enough, but he has rebuilt a Champions League winning squad before, and he did after all leave Moyes with a Championship winning team and the money and players to develop.

What should have been potentially career defining seasons appear to be fizzling out – Walcott may very well have ample opportunity to realise this potential; Moyes on the other hand may already be on borrowed time.

Manchester United: Welcome to the Real World

I’m going to put all my cards on the table from the off here: I am a lifelong Blackburn Rovers fan. I have followed them through thick and thin and in doing so have seen a Premier League title, a League Cup, multiple (and often short lived) European adventures, two relegations, two promotions and numerous cup semi-final defeats. We have never had it easy – at least not since the mid-nineties – and we currently find ourselves in the Championship, with relatively new owners and on the back of a relegation, a failed promotion attempt and 5 managers last season; not to mention the sale of numerous star players. Come the first day of the 2013-14 season the squad will be barely recognisable from that which was relegated at the end of 2012.

For many football fans across the country, the above sounds all too familiar, and it is a scenario many have witnessed since the birth of the Premier League. In fact, only a handful of clubs have yet to experience it, some have come very close to experiencing it, and others have continued along blissfully unaware.

One of those blissfully ignorant to the rigours of 99% of football fans is Manchester United. For the last 17 years whilst they have had Ferguson at the helm, they have competed on every front: league, domestic cups, European cups, big money transfers, and (front and) back page sagas. That is until now. I don’t think you’ll find many United fans who will argue that Moyes was definitely a candidate after serving his apprenticeship at Everton, what I think has shocked United fans, is the lack of activity over the summer.

Each summer every club in the Premiership (yes – even those in the top 6) brace themselves for interest from at home and abroad for their star players. A good summer for many clubs is retaining the majority of players from the season before. A good summer for Manchester United is at least one superstar signing and numerous others signing on again with big money contracts. This year however, the tables seem to have been turned somewhat.

Firstly, there’s the Wayne Rooney saga – does he want to leave? Doesn’t he? Do Chelsea or Arsenal want him? Do Manchester United want to sell him? On the surface it looks as though they don’t, but that fact that bids have been placed, mean he is potentially on the market. At their peak, you would never get a Cole, a Beckham or a Ronaldo wanting away after winning a league title, especially not to teams who haven’t won the league in at least two years, or even a trophy in many a year.

In the last few seasons we have seen Manchester United splash the cash on Van Persie, Jones, Kagawa, Young etc and there was a definite ease and power in the ability to do so. Fast forward to this year, and they are struggling to attract the players, and tempt the opposition to part with their assets – for a lot of money – meaning, to date have made one signing (a left back).

The peasants are revolting – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard Manchester United fans “wish that Fergie was back” or worry “they won’t be in the hunt for the title”, or complain that the “neighbours might get noisy again”. Whilst they have changed manager and pretty much nothing else, the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, have changed their leader, spent the money, and are quietly getting excited about the prospect of the new campaign.

So Manchester United fans – welcome to the real world. For far too many summers you have had easy pickings and the chance to slowly stir towards the new football season. This season you have to suffer like the rest of us as your star players are tempted away and your top transfer targets slip through your grasp. The only difference being, that unlike us long-suffering fans, you have the experience and squad to mount an assault on the Premier League even without signing the likes of Fabregas and Thiago.

One of Manchester United’s reported summer targets is /was Gareth Bale following a scintillating season with Spurs last time out. They aren’t the only ones however, and Real Madrid have entered the race and used the likes of Zidane to stir the interest and pull at Bale’s heartstrings. The rumoured £85m may seem a little steep – especially considering that by Bale’s current age, Ronaldo and Messi had already won at least one Ballon d’Or – but by offering this amount, Madrid are effectively pricing Manchester United out of the talks. I don’t think the hierarchy would give a brand new manager a war-chest of that size to sign a player who has only had two impressive seasons in the Premiership. However, what the Bale transfer could signal is the potential departure from the Bernabeu of Cristiano Ronaldo. Rumours are he is not 100% happy at Madrid and is requesting a lucrative pay rise. Combine this with the fact that Real aren’t cash-rich, and this could hint at the money for Bale being raised by the sale of Ronaldo. In addition to this, Bale and Ronaldo are very similar players, and in recent seasons have both been moved from traditional pacey winger, to play through the middle – I can’t see either of them wanting a move back out wide. What this signals for Manchester United is that CR7 could be back on the market this summer, to help Madrid raise the funds for Bale – those holding the purse strings may be more inclined to give Moyes a war-chest to allow him to buy a constantly proven striker, who is loved still at Manchester United.

As the Bale transfer saga hots up, it looks as though this he will be the first domino to fall to start the transfers moving. With £85m Spurs could in theory have anyone they want, apart from the fact that they have sold their best player and cannot provide Champions League football in the year leading up to a World Cup. One player this small issue could rule them out from signing in Luis Suarez who has said he wants to move to either a) get away from the English press; or b) play Champions League football again. So this puts him on Arsenal’s radar, but at £40m, is Arsene Wenger likely to splash that cash on one player? In short, he needs to or else he will have an angry mob of Gooners after him again, especially after the club promised to break the club transfer record at least three times this summer (so far this hasn’t happened once). That said, were Wenger has spent relatively big, the signings have never really paid off – recently Andre Santos and Andrei Arshavin spring to mind.

Looking at the spending so far this summer it is interesting to see the likes of Norwich up there with the big spending City. At the end of last season I picked them, along with newly promoted Hull and Crystal Palace, to be the team to go down. But a little over two weeks ahead of the new season, I will be backing them to finish in the top half. Chris Houghton has identified where he was weak, and used the prospect of more TV money to invest in his squad to keep them were they are. In Ricky Van Wolfswinkel they have a striker who has scored goals on the continent both domestically and in European competitions; in Leroy Fer they have a midfielder who has won league titles and played in Europe; and adding Hooper to the front line brings an air of excitement and promise – both for the fans and the player. My only worry for them is that should the two new men up front not pay off – they may regret selling the ever dependable mechanic Grant Holt.

Another team who appear to be going for broke are Sunderland. With Paulo Di Canio steering the Mackem ship, they have signed 8 players – the majority of which are known in the European footballing world, and are also internationals. If this pays off for the Italian he could potentially be looking at a very good first season in the Premiership – if it doesn’t, he could quickly find himself under pressure to deliver. One player who stands out to me is the fellow Italian Giacharrini – if Di Canio can get him firing, they have definitely got a bargain.

Look down the A1 and there is definitely a different story playing out. Following narrowly avoiding relegation last term, Newcastle are yet to sign anyone, and the backroom turmoil of appointing Joe Kinnear and the failed recruitment of Mick Harford signal that all is not well at the Toon. At least they have got Papisse Cisse to wear the shirt and get back on the pitch, otherwise the Toon faithful would once again be hoping Shola Ameobi can live up to his potential (he’s 31 now). Worryingly for Newcastle, Mike Ashley seems to be flirting with the idea of buying in to Rangers New Co – if this is the case, he may in the next 12 months be looking to sell Newcastle United to raise the funds; in which case, Newcastle fans can expect a barren season with few players through the door and a bare minimum spent to ensure top flight survival.

So, back to Manchester United – in a weeks’ time they will make there somewhat routine journey to Wembley for the Community Shield were they will be expected to win comfortably against a relegated Wigan side. If they don’t win, and do it somewhat convincingly, the pressure will definitely be on Moyes from the start. Rewind back to May and you could say that playing Wigan at this ground was the beginning of the end for Bobby Mancini.

Wigan enjoyed their time in the Premier League and will undoubtedly be trying to get back there this season, but as they venture down Wembley Way, they will soak it all in and enjoy the day, enjoy the ground, and to an extent, be happy to relive that cup final day and just enjoy the occasion. The problem with some Manchester United fans is that they will never feel this way about a game so allegedly inconsequential. And there lies the issue of drifting away from the real world – they have no comparisons to make for these days, all they have known is cup finals and league titles and win win win and win convincingly. They should take a look to their sides during the Community Shield and realise how good they have had it for so long, and look at the trials and tribulations other clubs and their supporters have to go through each and every season; and realise that change happens and it takes time, and they should feel lucky that they have a stable club on a good financial footing, which already features world class footballers who could challenge for trophies in their own rights. Failing that, if Wigan do beat them, they may crash land back on earth with an almighty thud.

Away from the mainland, away from the action

Whilst the troublesome two-some of Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez occupy the back pages of the press in the UK, Manchester City have been quietly (for a change) going about their business, bringing in no less than four signings, that could potentially be any other clubs “star signing” – yet there has been little attention for this in the press, as they see the actions and quotes (or non-actions and a lack of quotes from Rooney) of the troubled two, as the topic that will sell the papers.

City have brought in Negredo, Jesus Navas, Stefan Jovetic and Fernandinho for a total of around £95m and seem to be the ones in the league spending the money. The likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have yet to get going – even Spurs have been more active, and perhaps most surprisingly, that hasn’t been due to Bale heading for the exit.

Manchester City have definitely stolen a march on the rest of the Premier League when it comes to star/big signings, but the more interesting question is: have the rest of Europe stolen a march on the English clubs?
From the look of things, the answer has to be yes. PSG have swept Edinson Cavani from under the noses of United, City and Chelsea; Neymar has snubbed Chelsea for Barcelona; the Germans seem to prefer Munich to Manchester; and other players such as Higuain and Villa can’t commit to joining the English clubs.

Looking back 5-10 years ago, England where the big spenders in the transfer market, splashing the cash to bring the likes of Robinho, Crespo, Drogba, Tevez, Aguero, Jo (remember him!), Torres et al – now only City look content to splash the cash away from the mainland. Back on the continent, Europe has caught up. English clubs are no longer given the luxury of paying the top dollar and being guaranteed to get their man. Now people are challenging them, and it is making the Champions League look a whole lot more exciting – and the Premier League potentially less explosive.

The forward lines across Europe could look something like: Messi/Neymar at Barcelona, Ronaldo/Benzema at Real Madrid, Ibrahimovic/Cavani at PSG, Mandzukic/Muller at Bayern, and Balotelli/El Sharaawy. Whereas here in England the following front lines don’t look as terrifying as they once did: Van Persie/Hernandez, Torres/Ba, Giroud/Podolski, Suarez/Sturridge (come season opener, neither may be starting!), and Negredo/Jovetic. Out of the list, I’d say only United and City look comparable to some of those across Europe.

What does this mean for the Premier League? It has levelled the playing field. The days of seeing 3 of the 4 clubs in the Champions League heralding from England are long gone, and the teams across Europe have the potential and power to prevent it happening for some years. The money is more evenly distributed across Europe now – no longer is England the only place for a rich owner, each country now has their own, some even two, cash rich clubs – France has PSG, Germany has Bayern, Spain has Barcelona and Real Madrid – and with the money that has been spent, a lot of the clubs who arguably play second fiddle, now find themselves with money to play with. This combined with the fact that the top of the Premier League will be battled out by three managers new to their club (including Mourinho in his second stint), only adds to the potential European disappointment. The one club in England who should be seeing this season as an opportunity for success are Arsenal – same manager, money to spend, a decent mix of youth and experience, but yet again Mr Wenger seems unwilling to splash the cash and go for it. It says a lot that the likes of Higuain have been linked with them, yet there has still to be any movement.

It could also be a good thing though. If players aren’t jumping at the chance to swim the channel to Britain, teams will be, to an extent, forced to look at their youngsters and then players further down the leagues. It may mean some time away from the big domestic European cup competitions, but it could also herald a bright era for the national team – a national team who has had a dismal summer on every front. Look at the players who are being sold for the big money this summer, for a lot of them, this is their first big money move. They must have developed somewhere to legitimise that price tag. Maybe now England can follow in the footsteps and put the emphasis back on development instead of on buying talent from somewhere else. After all, that is where the Giggs’, Rooney’s, Gerrard’s, Terry’s and the Lampard’s developed, on the British Isles.

Hughes laughing now?

With the curtain drawing on Alex Ferguson’s amazing managerial career, many highlighted Moyes’ potential to succeed him, many moons ago – Sir Alex himself is said to have shown an interest way back in the late nineties – but was he always going to be the man to replace Ferguson?

Over the years, many a manager has been linked with taking over from Ferguson, but his longevity as the United boss has far exceeded what many could have predicted back in 1990 when Mark Robins allegedly saved his career with a headed goal against Nottingham Forest and put them on the path to Ferguson’s first piece of silverware for the Manchester club. You’d be hard pushed to find any sane person who would have predicted that he would go on to win another 37 trophies in those 23 years.

Interestingly, many a former United star has moved in to management: Bruce, Keane, Berg, Solskjaer, Robson, Hughes; as well as number 2’s: McClaren, Queiroz, Kidd; all have which have at some point been touted as the Ferguson’s replacement, and many of which have been wanted by the fans. Looking at the list, each has been unique in their achievements since retiring from playing, but one, in my eyes, stands out as, at one stage, being the best fit for United, and having had the potential, at one point, to match Moyes’ key attributes of longevity, relative success, and a small budget (we’ll come back to this one later) – and that is Mark Hughes.

Following his retirement from an illustrious playing career which spanned England, Spain and Germany as well international football with Wales, culminating in 15 trophies across 10 competitions, and an induction in to the English Football Hall of Fame – Hughes managed the Welsh national team and took them as close as they have been to qualifying for a major tournament in 2004, where they were beaten by Russia in the play-offs for the European Championships. Following this disappointment, Hughes resigned as manager of Wales and took up the position of Blackburn Rovers manager in September 2004 – charged with the task of Premier League survival following a poor start to the season and the departure of Graeme Souness to Newcastle – similar to the task taken on by Moyes at Everton in 2002. Hughes achieved this task with the club finishing 15th. The following season he looked to resolve Blackburn’s main issue, a lack of goals, by bringing in Craig Bellamy, who scored 13 goals in 27 games, sealing himself a move to Liverpool – arguably having had Hughes revitalise his career in English football.

In his first full season at Ewood Hughes guided Blackburn to a top 6 spot and a UEFA Cup place, beating Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in the same season – and taking Rovers to Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final where they lost to Arsenal.

In the following 3 seasons, Hughes took Blackburn to league finishes of 6th, 10th and 7th; another semi-final in the FA Cup where they were inches away from beating Chelsea at Old Trafford, a league cup semi-final against Manchester United, the last 32 of the UEFA cup, and another quarter final in the league cup – not bad for just 4 years working with the team. A team he assembled spending little money on the likes of Bellamy, Santa Cruz, McCarthy, Bentley, Nelson, Samba, Warnock – altogether costing around £13 million (and average of around £3m per season).

In the summer of 2008, his head was turned by the opportunity at free spending Manchester City to prove himself as a true top club manager – and it is this decision which can be argued to have ruled him out of the United job for life; regardless of his success or lack of it. A Manchester City manager, can never move across the city to become the Manchester United manager, it just never happens, not even for a player as loved at United as Mark Hughes.

As it turned out, his time at City was relatively short-lived, where he lasted just over a year and a half later, after guiding City to 10th in the league, with one of the best home records, but worst away records in the league. In that season he spent a lot of money on the likes of Robinho, Jo, Adebayor and Sylvinho. However, what people forget is that he also brought in Carlos Tevez, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry – all players who played a key part in City winning the title in 2011-12. However, finishing 10th after spending the money he had done, was not good enough.

From his time at City he then had a year at Fulham, guiding them to 8th in the league and a place in the Europa league through fair play – a stark comparative to his disciplinary form at Ewood which saw Blackburn finish bottom of the fair play league for all Hughes seasons in charge. Surprisingly, Hughes quite Fulham after just 11 months in charge stating that he was ambitious and needed to move to further his experiences. That move, took him to QPR half way through the 2010-11 season, where he just about kept them up on the last day of the season, despite losing to old club Manchester City; following which he uttered the words: “this club will not be in this situation again next year” with him in charge.

Fast forward 10 months, and following QPR’s worst ever start to a Premier League season (which ultimately saw them relegated) Hughes was again sacked, this time having spent close to £40million – in less than a year.

So where did it all go wrong for Hughes? Arguably, you would have to say it was his decision to leave Blackburn Rovers for Manchester City. At Blackburn he had turned them from a relegation threatened team, to a comfortable mid-table at least side, who had at times knocked on the Champions League door. By moving to Manchester City, he not only slammed the door shut in his own face, but heaped the pressure to succeed onto himself, a decision which has back-fired spectacularly on more than one occasion. At Blackburn there was a stable club, an understanding chairman and board, and a level of trust with the money he was allowed to spend. What he spent, he more than returned in transfer fees and tournament prize money along with ticket sales.

If Hughes had looked down the M6/M62 at what Moyes had done at Everton, going quietly about his business, building a team which consistently challenged for Europe each season, without making eyes at other jobs, despite rumours, and spending little money in return for what he got on the pitch (*despite an underlying public conception that Moyes has spent very little at Everton, and operated on a shoestring – he has still spent near to £200m during his reign, with hefty sums spent on Fellaini, Jelavic and Bilyaletdinov to name a few*) – he would have seen the correct way to do things. Build slowly but securely and consistently and stick to your guns. Don’t jump at the first opportunity of money to spend and money in the bank – and more importantly, don’t p*** on your chips and rub Fergie up the wrong way, it’ll only result in one thing, not getting the job that most in football look at with seductive eyes, more so if you have played on that Old Trafford pitch, have become a part of their history, and have once been loved by the prawn sandwich brigade.