"..Down with the Titanc...you're going down with the Titanic..."
Recently, over a cold beverage or two I was asked who I thought would win the Premier League. "Man United" I muttered, barely able to raise any enthusiasm towards something which I now considered to be a certainty. "But surely..." he spluttered with earnestness usually reserved only for Garth Crooks and the like, "City have the best players, the most money...blah...blah...blah" the words tailed away into the noise of the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon as my interest faded. Had he asked who I though was going down, now that would have been altogether different! I have plenty of thoughts on that matter. All of which I am about to share with you, my lucky, lucky reader.
With just over a month to go until the season finishes is it right to early label someone as 'certain' for the drop? Of course not! This won't come as much of a surprise but Wolves are already looking like the Premier League's basket case. Mick McCarthy once said that he couldn't produce miracles as he wasn't 'Merlin the Magician'. Even Jesus Christ would struggle with this lot. Clueless at the top and even more hapless on the pitch, the men from Molyneux seem to lurch from one disaster to another. There has even been talk of some sort of a restoration which would see the return of Big Mick to the helm. Perhaps a few weeks ago they may have had a chance. Not any longer. Down you go....
Scrapping it Out
Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn and QPR. All of them have had moments when they've looked as dead as a member of the Carry On... team, only to shock to their unsuspecting victims by springing back to life. Usually the idiots left wandering around Dracula's castle, despite being told countless times by the torch-baring villagers not to go anywhere near it, have been a surprisingly unwary Liverpool. Dalglish's men have so far been bitten by QPR, Wigan and Bolton and with a trip to Castle Ewood looming in several weeks, Rovers are already sharpening their fangs in anticipation of a Red blood feast.
Placing the horror metaphors aside; Wigan certainly look to be the more vulnerable of the four. With tiny gates matching equally small ambitions, the Latics seem to harbour only one simple desire, that of Premier League survival. Like Coventry before them, Wigan seem to thrive on amazing acts of escapology and I have a funny feeling that once again they'll be on the trapdoor when it slams shut.
Bolton, on the other hand, were expected to have a decent season. Nothing spectacular but a good, solid, mid-table kind of year. Although careful watchers of footballing trends may have noticed that Wanderers finished last season with the sort nosedive that Tom Daley would be proud of. Owen Coyle, once even tipped as a possible successor to Arsene Wenger (seriously!), found it almost impossible to raise the deadweight that Bolton have become. But slowly results began to improve and the Sword of Damocles backed off. Following Fabrice Muamba's illness Bolton attracted something akin to a wave of sympathy. So it would be a trifle harsh for that good will to end in relegation...wouldn't it?
So, if Bolton aren't dropping then surely Blackburn must be following Wolves in the Championship, right? Err...well no, actually. Rovers have been something of a soap opera this season, although probably a bit more Crossroads than Dallas. Teflon Steve Kean has been spouting Venky's propaganda with the certainty of Comical Ali (check him out on Google, Gulf War II fans) much to the derision of the Ewood faithful. Despite the lurid chicken pun headlines Kean's eggs have not yet hatched (see what I did there) and a couple more wins will mean last season's final day escape act coulld be happily avoided. That said, if things don't change drastically over the summer, there's not a cat in hell's chance of them staying up next term.
Meanwhile, QPR have had a strange old season haven't they? Early feelings of optimism were somewhat obliterated with a devastating 4-0 hammering by Bolton on the opening day. In a PR disaster, fans who sat and watched the Loftus Road humiliation were also being charged fifty quid each for the privilege. Something had to change and fast. Enter yet another wealthy owner in the guise of life long 'Rangers fan, Tony Fernandes. Things had to change and in the New Year change they certainly did. Exit dependable Neil Warnock, enter dependable Mark Hughes. However, results remained pretty much the same. Joey Barton, brought to the club and installed as captain by Warnock became something of a hate figure amongst the faithful and QPR remain entrenched in the bottom three. At Ewood Park, Mark Hughes' 'competitive' Blackburn gained something of a reputation and were nicknamed 'Blackeye' Rovers. Since his appointment in January QPR have already had three dismissals with loanee Djibril Cisse claiming credit to two of those. Just a coincidence, surely? And with some genuinely horrible fixtures; Arsenal at home, Man United away, Swansea at home and a tricky game at The Hawthorns on the horizon, I'm sure the Championship will welcome them back with open arms. Probably.
So, if Bolton, Blackburn and Wigan are going to survive for another season who else are heading south come May?
In every season there is usually one club who hasn't read the script and makes a last minute dash for the relegation trapdoor. Some are successful and slip under the line as though relegation was their intention all along. (see Reading 2008) Whereas others just miss out and resolve to be even worse next time around. It has amazed me that no one, and I mean no one is even mentioning this lot. They've shed many of their better players, the style of football is negative at best and let's be honest here, the manager has a pedigree in getting his teams under the line. I speak, of course about Aston Villa. With nine games to go the Villains sit a comfy eight points above the drop zone. But they're not in any danger, are they? Their next four games see matches against Chelsea, Liverpool, Stoke and Man United. Not exactly the sort of fixtures to throw about too much optimism. Anything less than four points out of those games and Villa could well be up to their necks in the brown stuff and Alex McLeish could well be looking at the ignominy of relegating both Birmingham clubs. Even someone like Gary Megson couldn't boast a CV like that!
There you have it. My three for the drop are Wolves, QPR and making a very late and very 'successful' dash for the line, Aston Villa. Let's see if I'm right.
'I can see Watford from up here!'
The Gunners show off the spoils of a season in a recent open-top bus parade.
Recently the Premier League's most erstwhile mage, Arsene Wenger stated that to finish fourth was like winning a trophy, or something like that. I daren't put it into quotation marks for fear of a libel popping out the magic hat like a rabbit with a bloodlust. But for the sake of our own amusement let us deal once and for all with this conceit. The question is fairly straightforward: Is it truly better to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League rather than the short term glory of a pot named after a gaseous, chemical brew that tends to lead to thuggish chants such as "we're on the piss and having a laugh!"? (Needless to say everyone within a twenty mile vicinity would rather staple their own eyelids shut than share that particular brand of joy.)
The record books tell us that the Gunners have not added to their silverware haul since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Okay, since 2005, but who's counting anyway? Well, it turns out that many of us have and it appears that despite illusions to the contrary Arsenal have, in recent years, been relatively unsuccessful. (Cue sharp intakes of breath.) But hang-on, one cotton-picking moment, a 'Gooner' could now snap their irritated digits in your face and say, "But we always qualify for the Champions League." Of course this is true and backs should be well and truly slapped all round for such a worthy achievement. By the same token, if we assume by Arsene Wenger's logic that finishing fourth and qualifying for the aforementioned all singing, all dancing 'Champions' League is akin to winning a trophy then it turns out that Arsenal have been...shock horror... incredibly successful. Since the last actual trophy was paraded on an open-top bus (The FA Cup in 2005), Wenger has led his illustrious, all conquering Gunners to several outstanding fourth placed triumphs in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011!!!
With Tottenham and Chelsea faltering it's conceivable that the men from the Emirates may well be taking their exalted place amongst the elite once more in 2012/2013. Although without labouring a point, isn't it only worth entering a competition if you're actually going to win it? (One losing Final in fifteen, fact fans!) So instead of giving the Emirates cleaning lady a series of rosettes with "4th Place" displayed on them to dust wouldn't it be nicer to let her proudly polish the odd trophy or two?
There's always next year...
Well, we all got what we wanted. Didn't we? Ding dong! the witch is dead and all that. After the badly advised 'Capello Index', all the John Terry captaincy sagas and an anaemic World Cup campaign Fabio is no more and they're all dancing in Fleet Street tonight. The numerous West Ham United supporting hacks who, following his acquittal for tax evasion, have already begun preparations for King Harry's coronation. But will he really want to take a sip from such a poisoned chalice?
England managers from times gone by have found the press are always waiting to turn if results begin to head southwards. Look what happened with Swedish stereotype Sven, Kevin 'tactically naive' Keegan, dear old Bobby Robson and even the ever cantankerous, Sir Alf Ramsey. If a World Cup Winner didn't stand an Earthly who the hell could? Some of his successors, it could be argued, hardly helped themselves. Glenn Hoddle was often regarded as a bit of an oddity but that was fine, Eileen Drury n' all, whilst the English team looked any good. But all too soon came the ill-judged World Cup diary, alienating some of his best players followed by an inevitable dip in form. The press smelt blood and had a feeding frenzy when Hoddle's rather odd comments about the disabled (which he maintained was 'misconstrued') cost him his job.
There were others who probably deserved the ridicule they received: Don Revie failed to get England to the 1978 World Cup then took the a real sheik's cash and legged it. In the early 1990s Graham 'the turnip' Taylor matched the 'achievements' of Revie by picked substance over style and failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. And lest we forget the 'wally with the brolly'.
I'm not saying Harry Redknapp should not take the job but perhaps he needs to wear an extra reinforced concrete overcoat. More than anyone in the management business he knows that those who currently laud him will one day be asking for his head. Winning Euro 2012 might help a bit though.
"So, Harry. Do you still want the job?"
Goodbye to all this...?
Your precious kiddywinks have barely begun planning what to do with their school holiday when lo-and-behold! the SPL is kicking off already. Yes, at 12.30pm on July 23rd, that's JULY 23rd, Rangers begin the defence of their crown at home to Hearts. 'What nonsense is this?' I hear you cry. But wait, is it really such a bad thing?
As anyone 'north of the border' knows, the Scottish summer can be a fairly fleeting experience. So why not embrace it? Instead of football supporters having their match-day experiences ruined by bone-chilling winds and biting arctic conditions, followed by inevitable postponements and abandonments, why not let them enjoy their football in a degree of comfort? Of course, there's the players to think also about. They've hardly had the chance to kick the sand out of their flip-flops before the Old Firm look unassailable at the top of the league. But surely Scottish football can only be enhanced by matches played on a nicely mown pitch in August? Rather than a lottery on a World War One battlefield during the usual fixture pile-up in mid March. Besides, the clubs would only otherwise be wasting their time playing meaningless friendlies. Much better to get back on with the bread and butter.
In fact, whilst I'm warming to the theme (all puns intended) I'd suggest that if the SPL really wants to reform and improve the all round quality of the game why not just go the whole hog, follow the example of the Irish model and become a Summer League?
Transfer deadline day cometh...
I don't believe in Brian Swanson, I just believe in me...
Something caught my eye this Monday morning whilst being simultaneously being smacked repetitively in the face by Sky Sports News' new, garish, all singing, all dancing look. It was our old friend Brian Swanson who's smily face popped up to inform us that there were only fifty-nine days left until the transfer window was shut. It felt like some loony evangelical signaling the countdown to another rapture. The world had definitely gone mad.
The whole point to this misguided hype was originally fill the back pages at a time when, quite frankly, little or nothing was going on. (Unless you count tennis?) But in these days of 24 hour, saturation coverage the demand for a story, any story, has been cranked up a ratchet or two million. This was perfectly illustrated yesterday as a flock of vultures descended on Tottenham's Chigwell base on the first day of training sniffing for that morsel of meat amongst Harry Redknapp's very own bare bones. Some grainy pictures of new signing Brad Friedel and a few words from the man himself at the gates, brilliantly interrupted by an impatient driver honking behind, was all they got. Anything worth reporting? Not really. It didn't stop Sky from repeating the interview ad nauseum for the next sixteen hours though. (Including that minor incident road rage which was by far and away the most reportable aspect to the interview.)
I'm not saying that I myself don't get caught up by the speculation that drives the industry at this time of year, it's more the case that I don't believe most of it. You wonder sometimes on how much is based on leaked information from the from the clubs, agents or players. Probably its just a squabble of bored and desperate journalists attempting some sort transfer window jenga. If the newspapers have been making up stories for years why not twenty-four hour television? Remember, just because it appears faster, stronger and in high-definition does not necessarily make it true.
Burnley's Clarke Carlisle on Countdown with host and Soccer Saturday legend, Jeff Stelling.
"Footballers are all as thick as two short planks and are paid far too much for their tiny, self indulgent, brain cells can possibly cope with."
This is the public image of your average professional footballer and due to one or two infamous incidents down the years one that is difficult to dispel. So imagine my surprise when I tuned in to to the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ last night (do people still 'tune in'?) to see one of these footballers going toe-to-toe with such luminous minds as Alastair Campbell, Simon Hughes MP and of course David Dimbleby, the Oxford University educated host. But Burnley’s Clarke Carlisle is no stranger to such intellectual spheres. Back In 2002 he was awarded the accolade of ‘Britain’s Brainiest Footballer‘. (You might assume that there was not too much competition) Then in 2010 Carlisle not only competed in Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ but actually won two matches before being narrowly beaten in the third. This got me thinking. Surely Carlisle can’t be a lone voice in the wilderness? Surely there must have been other footballers with IQs larger than their own boot size? Surely there must another player who did not literally possess a 'football brain'? To use an old, much-used phrase from the 1990s, the truth is indeed out there...
MacKenzie made it onto 'Countdown' whilst playing for Notts County, a full two years before Clarke Carlisle and outdid him too by winning six games on the spin back in 2008. Now orchestrating Tamworth's midfield, MacKenzie's Question Time invitation is presumably still stuck in the post.
The former Arsenal centre-back may have the appearance of a cave-dwelling troglodyte, who is waiting to bash his next stegosaurus over the head with his gnarled fist. But the Swiss International is more articulate then he looks and can speak fluently in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese. That's an impressive six languages! Looks can be very deceiving.
Which brings us very neatly to this fella. Dowie began to study at the University of Hertfordshire for a master's degree in Aeronautic Engineering after being rejected by Southampton as a 16 year old. Once he completed his degree Dowie was employed by British Aerospace, no less, before moving back into football. Nowadays he's often used as a pundit and during his managerial career Dowie favoured motivational books like 'Beyond Winning' and 'Chicken Soup for the Soul'.
Known to most of us as 'Calamity', James is a keen lover of art, both in appreciation and that as an artist in his own right. He also has his own AIDS foundation in Malawi and writes a regular column for the Observer of which he donates all his fees to charity. An all round nice guy.
The former Bolton defender returned to Iceland in 2003 where he studied to become a fully practising lawyer. Aside from the courts Bergsson also presents for the Icelandic TV show '4-4-2', which inevitably discusses the English Premier League.
Neil 'Shaka' Hislop
Another intelligent goalkeeper! Hislop played football at Howard University in the United States whilst he studied for a degree in mechanical engineering. (In which he gained full honours) Whilst not technically becoming an actual 'rocket scientist' he did an intern at NASA. Hislop covered the MLS for the Guardian newspaper and now works as a commentator on ESPN's Press Pass programme.
Steve Heighway and Brian Hall
Bill Shankly's teams of the early 1970s had not one but two University graduates. (Hall in Mathematics and Heighway in Economics) Somewhat inevitably their Liverpool team-mates nicknamed Heighway and Hall 'Big' and 'Little Bamber' after the then host of University Challenge, Bamber Gascoigne. (No relation of Paul)
Known by Celtic supporters as one of the club's worst ever signings. The Norwegian International, who's name rekindled memories of American teen flicks of the 1980s, amazingly became an airline pilot after his retirement. Probably to find some of the balls he skied out of Parkhead in his three years at the Scottish club.
Graham Le Saux
The former Chelsea and Blackburn man appeared on the front cover of Mensa magazine and has worked on the BBC's 'Working Lunch' as a reporter and presenter. Not a friend of Robbie Fowler.
With a name like that you have quite a lot to live up to and the former Brazilian International Captain does more than that. He is a doctor of medicine, actually qualifying whilst still playing professional football. Socrates also writes for newspapers and magazines on football and politics and is currently writing a fictional novel about the 2014 World Cup which is due to be held in his homeland. Not only is he a celebrated intellectual but he also captained probably the greatest team never to have won a World Cup. The great Brazil side of 1982. You can't get much better than that!
Are you up for it?
Its the FA Cup Third Round and despite the many efforts over the years to sanitise it somehow I can't fail to still be excited. Its almost like finding the one remaining Christmas present that had been lying dormant under the tree for the past few weeks and as yet unwrapped. I can't help but admit that it's by far and away my favourite weekend of the season! Whether it's the potential for humiliation, shocks or even seeing a minnow getting a right hammering, there's something about the third round that only this country could really produce.
However, there was a dark, dark time, around the turn of the century when all the magic seemed to have been lost. In 2000 the holders Manchester United pulled out of the competition to compete in a World Club Cup held in Brazil as the FA tried to brown-nose FIFA in their bid for the 2006 World Cup. An fruitless exercise doomed to failure. Around this time the Third Round proper was also played in December before the decorations even went up! Meanwhile, clubs lower down the ladder drawn against more illustrious opponents would frequently exchange Cup progress for cash and happily swap venues in order to have a 'pay day'. If all this wasn't bad enough the Cup Final itself began to be played the week before the final round of Premier League fixtures and in 2000 the old Wembley, the two towers and all that was mothballed after a dog of a final between Aston Villa and Chelsea. For the next six years the English F.A. Cup Final would be played in Cardiff. Hardly a fitting epitaph.
But then gradually things began to change. The third round was returned to its rightful place at the beginning of January. Clubs could no longer swap venues for financial gain. And never again would a club be allowed to pull out of the competition on little more than a promotional exercise by both themselves and the FA.
Now it has returned to its rightful place as the best weekend on the football calender. When David can meet Goliath on a level playing field and embarrass the hell out of them. I am glad to say that the FA Cup has come through the hard years and regained much of its magic.
'Tis the season of goodwill to all men. We've decided to embrace the spirit by giving each and every Premier League manager a little gift to unwrap on Christmas morning. We certainly hope they will find their presents useful...
Arsene Wenger: A cure for myopia and a copy of Football Manager 2011 so he can buy whatever player he likes without spending any real cash.
Gerard Houllier: Diplomacy lessons and an A-Z with the Liverpool pages torn out.
Alex McLeish: A DVD copy of Bambi so he can see what Birmingham City fans have to watch whenever Nikola Zigic takes the field.
Steve Kean: Will of course get a bird for Christmas before he gets it from the Blackburn fans in 2011.
Its been a bit nippy at Bloomfield Road this Christmas. Undersoil heating would do this man nicely.
Ian Holloway: Some undersoil heating so that Blackpool can play at least one home game before next April.
Owen Coyle: Can have whatever he wants for Christmas. Its around Easter that he probably gets a little more nervous. Did he ever get around to spending those 30 pieces of silver?
Carlo Ancelotti: A rear-view mirror so that he can be ready just before someone knifes him in the back. And a head-weight for his uncontrollably wandering eyebrow. (many thanks to @SRobinsonTRFC for that one!)
David Moyes: A guide to the local A&Es so he can keep track on his players. And a set of jump-leads to help Everton get off to a good start next season, for once.
Mark Hughes: Gets to take his players out to a grab-a-granny type nightclub, just to remind them of how easy it really is to score.
Roy Hodgson: A one-way ticket back to Fulham, Milan or Switzerland plus an old LP featuring 'When the Red, Red Robin...' and not forgetting 'The Green, Green Grass of Home'.
Roberto Mancini: For the man that has everything Mancini gets a team who can actually play together.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Still grieving after the loss of his friend Fergie gets a statue of Sam Allardyce which he places outside OT for kindly donating six points to MUFC every season.
Alan Pardew: A copy of Alan Partridge's previously thought to have been pulped autobiography, 'Bouncing Back'.
Tony Pullis: Also gets a guide book for all the local A&Es so he can visit those opposition players (usually from the Islington area of North London) who have just played at the Britannia.
Steve Bruce: A pair of hiking boots just in case the old feet start getting itchy once again.
Harry Redknapp: A free pass to a local archaeological dig so he can see someone else down to the bare bones.
Roberto di Matteo: A Grim Reaper's outfit so he can wear it at away games to terrify the likes of Wenger and Moyes.
Avram Grant: Just the sack.
Roberto Martinez: A copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Jekyll and Hyde' so he can begin to fathom out which one his Wigan team really are.
Mick McCarthy: A Sam the Eagle mask from the Muppets to amuse his friends. Wait! He's been wearing one for years.
'What? There's no presents in this thing?'
'There is your P45...'
Unless you haven't noticed Christmas is only just around the corner. With crisp and even snow crunching under foot, Jack Frost nibbling at your nose and the sweet smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But this also signals one of the most important periods of the whole football season. A bumper three matches in seven days over the holiday period all wrapped up beautifully by FA Cup 3rd Round round day. Why would anyone want to change that? But one of the more hoary of these roasted chestnuts that regularly fills many a commentators mouth is whether we should instead be embracing a more continental approach to the season of good will. The winter break.
The blue lines of Ipswich Town.
The winter break is often trotted out by managers and journalists alike, especially after a poor International tournament such as last summer's World Cup. The poor darlings are "tired", they plead unconvincingly. However, the argument now also has the weather on it's side. When a mild October descended into a cooler November out came the gloves and the often ridiculed snoods. Then December came along, bringing with it such a taste of the Arctic that I half expected to see a polar bear going through my bins this afternoon. Up and down the country games were being called off left, right and centre. Ipswich Town even hit upon the idea of painting their touch-lines a vivid blue! The fact that Premier League games were now being postponed (two games at Blackpool and counting...) was something of a novelty. Until this year this was something that hardly ever happened and for it to happen in twice in the same year (January was equally as cold) was almost flabbergasting.
With all this in mind is it time that we considered this mid-season break? For one, the weather, as extreme as it has been has been unusual to say the least. In 2008 the first snow of the winter didn't fall until the winter was technically over. (Perhaps fulfilling the strange wish of some people out there who genuinely do dream of a white Easter!) With under-soil heating and modern technology, pitches still resembling the bowling-green surfaces of August. These days it seems as though matches are cancelled mainly on 'police advice' as the UK increasingly follows the suing culture of the US. In fact these conditions are so rare that I heard someone commenting that the recent polar clash between Ipswich and Leicester City resembled something from the 1970s!
The winter break is British tradition. Until the late 1950s matches were played on both Christmas Day as well as Boxing Day. (In Scotland the last December 25th fixture card was as recently as 1971). Its the time of the year we all look forward to, don't we? Aren't those terrible International breaks bad enough? To your average football fan the move towards a winter break would be akin to cancelling Christmas. So for the time being try and enjoy your Yuletide football because if certain dissenting voices have their way it could be the last.
Aron Gunnarsson (Coventry) trudges off through the snow after a straight red.