31 December 2012

2012 reflections

With just a few hours remaining in 2012, The Daily Transfer Request looks back at some of the footballing highlights and lowlights of the previous twelve months.

Ravel Morrison is such a nice, well-mannered young gentleman.

January saw the transfer window open for business once again.

One of the first moves of the year saw Manchester United coax midfielder Paul Scholes out of retirement in time for the FA Cup win over rivals Manchester City.

Scholes' performances in the closing stages of the season confirmed what we already knew. Even at 37 years of age, he is still an atrocious tackler.

United also sold one of their young midfielders to West Ham United. Ravel Morrison had long been touted as England's new star middleman, but since then his attitude has led to his career going down faster than, well, Ashley Young.

To say that Morrison is a likeable chap is like saying that Bashar Al-Assad deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even before exiting his teenage years, he's been charged with assaulting not only his girlfriend but also his MOTHER, convicted of criminal damage, admitted two charges of witness intimidation, he's posted homophobic messages on Twitter (on which he's also used more than a few swear words to describe life at Manchester United), and he demanded a £30,000-a-week contract just to stay at Old Trafford.

Big Sam Allardyce quickly realised that he'd made a big mistake in signing Morrison. After one substitute appearance for the Hammers, he was loaned out to Birmingham City. In his first two months at St Andrew's, he made only three appearances.

Since then, he's started to make headlines on the pitch rather than on it, breaking into the Birmingham first-team and insisting on wearing his first name "RAVEL" on the back of his shirt like he's a Brazilian wonderkid. It remains to be seen whether he becomes this country's answer to Kaka or the English Kleberson.

Elsewhere in the transfer window, Blackburn Rovers defender Ryan Nelsen and Everton striker Louis Saha decided that they'd had enough of being injured at their respective clubs, so they decided to join Tottenham Hotspur, where they could be injured alongside Ledley King.

Meanwhile, Bolton Wanderers, who were battling against relegation, signed the United States international defender Tim Ream. He is perhaps best known as the first professional footballer to have been named after a catchphrase from 'The Only Way Is Essex'. Reports that Owen Coyle also wanted to sign Rick Vajazzle and Harry Shuttupp were wide of the mark, although he did formally declare an interest in Kirk Youvegotfakeboobsandyoulookreallynice.

6 February was a good day for Harry Redknapp. In the morning, he was cleared, alongside his former Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric, was cleared of tax evasion after a lengthy trial.

Then, that evening, Fabio Capello had a hissy fit over the FA's decision to clear John Terry of the England captaincy. Somehow, Capello can't seem to fathom why someone who is on trial for racially abusing an opponent should not lead out England at UEFA Euro 2012. The Italian says arrivederci to Wembley, and resigns with immediate effect.

Now Redknapp, who has long been tipped to become England manager one day, is wanted by many players, pundits and punters to coach the Three Lions at the European Championship.

Whatever happened to Harry at the end of one of the greatest days of his life is unclear. I think it went something like this...

9:00pm: Harry receives a phone call from Prime Minister David Cameron inviting him to a dinner in his honour at 10 Downing Street.
9:15pm: Harry arrives home, finding his son Jamie and daughter-in-law Louise standing at the door. Louise tells Harry that he's going to become a grandfather again.
9:20pm: As Harry heads up to bed, he finds a note on the bedroom door which reads, "Sorry I can't be here tonight, darling, but I've got you something extra special. Love, Sandra"
Harry enters the room, where he finds Shakira lying on his bed, sporting red silk underwear, and with Wednesday's lottery numbers written on her torso.
9:25pm: Harry and Shakira... okay, that's enough.

I couldn't find another photo of Andre Villas-Boas. Will this one do?

March was the month in which Chelsea finally decided to get rid of manager Andre Villas-Boas.

Villas-Boas came to Stamford Bridge as this 33-year-old managerial wonderkid who would apparently turn Chelsea into multiple-time European champions. Now, with his reputation in ruins and his name reduced to just three letters, he would've been lucky if his next job had been at Leyton Orient.

And here was what they said when they sacked Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2009: "The board would like to place on record our gratitude for his time as manager. We all feel a sense of sadness that our relationship has ended so soon. Unfortunately, the results and performances of the team appeared to be deteriorating at a key time in the season."

When Villas-Boas left the Blues, they were 3-1 down after the first leg of their UEFA Champions League tie with Napoli. But his replacement Roberto Di Matteo wrote the perfect script for a feelgood against-the-odds sports movie by winning the tie in extra time, knocking out Barcelona in the semis, and then defeating Bayern Munich on penalties in the Final. In Munich.

Surely Di Matteo was the right man to take the Blues forward, and lead them to unprecedented success? Er, maybe not...

Elsewhere, one of Villas-Boas' Portuguese countrymen, a retired semi-pro footballer, sued the Baptist Church for ruining his chances of playing for Manchester United. If he was successful, he would've set a precedent. Prince William was looking at this case keenly, in case he had a claim to sue his grandmother for wrecking his chances of playing for Aston Villa.

On 30 April, Vincent Kompany's header late in the first half gave Manchester City a 1-0 win over Manchester United.

The result put City top of the Premier League on goal difference going into the final two games of the season.

Sky Blues boss Roberto Mancini, who is very much a glass-half-full type of guy, talked up his team's chances of winning the league afterwards, saying, "This result changes nothing; we still have to win the last two games. United are favourites."

Mancini should bottle his optimism and sell it to manic depressives like Professor Brian Cox and Nigel Adkins. He could make millions! Hell, he could make enough money that he doesn't have to work in Manchester anymore and instead retire to Corsica!

And if anyone is wondering what happened to Richard Keys after he was sacked by Sky Sports... I am saddened to tell them that he passed away suddenly in April.

On the morning of 5 April, Keys' lifeless body was discovered at his home in London. He was found collapsed beside a copy of the Daily Mirror, in which Lawrie Sanchez predicted that there would be a female manager in the Premier League within ten years.

The coroner determined that Richard Keys had died from fatal hilarity.

"AGUEROOOOO!!!!" The goal that nearly gave Martin Tyler a cardiac arrest.

13 May produced arguably one of the greatest finishes to a British football season.

If you can't remember what happened, then you really shouldn't be reading this blog. I could find you a nice blog about flowers instead, if you're interested in that, or refer you to a website containing a load of text messages sent from a canine to his human friend.

Wait, come back!

Anyway, I'll refresh your memory. It's 4:50pm at the City of Manchester Stadium, and Manchester City are losing 2-1 to Queens Park Rangers. The latter have battled bravely despite having Joey Barton sent off for doing his best impression of Mario Balotelli on caffeine. With local rivals United beating Sunderland, City know that only a win will get them the Premier League title they crave so much.

Within five minutes, all hell breaks loose. Paul Merson takes up the story on Soccer Saturday.

This dramatic win for Manchester City quashed rumours that the Premier League was actually a TV drama written by Sir Alex Ferguson and the people who created Friday Night Lights. Ferguson himself showed great restraint in not accusing the referee of being biased towards City by allowing for some added time.

Half an hour later, Citizens captain Vincent Kompany triumphantly lifted the Premier League trophy, despite valiant attempts of a a fully-kitted John Terry - shinpads and all - to hijack the celebrations and take the limelight for himself.

He'd get his chance six days later at the UEFA Champions League Final. And at the Olympic Games in the summer. And at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in December.

I hear that John's also got something big planned for round about June next year. I don't know why, though.

UEFA Euro 2012 gave the BBC and ITV another chance to fight over who would present the best coverage of the tournament.

Usually, it's the BBC that come out on top, usually because their presenter doesn't have to say after a commercial break, "Welcome back to Euro 2012. Join us after the break for more adverts."

But this year, it's been very, very different. ITV knocked out the Beeb in the first round - indeed, in the first few seconds of the first round. While Adrian Chiles and co spent the entire tournament in Poland and Ukraine, Gary Lineker's team were located for the group stage in the popular Krakow suburb that is, erm, Salford.

The BBC's chief airtime-waster Alan Hansen, who hasn't won any punditry competitions since he was trumped by some kids in the 1990s, predicted that Germany, Holland and Portugal would all make it to the Semi Finals. That prediction looked at the very best incredibly risky as those three teams were all in the same group, and only two of them could get to the Quarters... unless Hansen had discovered a UEFA loophole which could see the Germans buy out Greece's place in the last eight.

As for the rest of the pundits in Auntie's squad, Alan Shearer was dull as ditchwater, Mark Bright tried to shoehorn in a plug for lastminute.com, and I couldn't understand anything that Mick McCarthy said. After the tournament, the BBC's only half-decent pundit, Lee Dixon, left the Corporation and signed for... ITV.

So from now on, I'd like to see ITV and ITV alone host coverage of the major tournaments. Just as long as they don't create another 'comedy' series starring Alistair McGowan to go with it.

Ryan Giggs stands next to United's new Chinese-American goalkeeper.

Manchester United signed a sponsorship deal with Chevrolet which will see its shirts emblazoned with the logo of the US car brand.

But wait, Chevrolet won't appear on United shirts this season, or even next season. This deal does not start until the 2014/2015 season, and runs right up until the 2020/2021 season. There's forward thinking, and then there's FORWARD THINKING.

In fact, by the time this deal begins in two seasons' time, United might even have done a deal with ANOTHER company to sponsor their shirts from 2021/2022 right up until the 2050s!

Just two months earlier, Chevrolet agreed to become the Red Devils' official car sponsor. What football club needs a car sponsor? Does this deal mean that all of the United players have to drive Chevys to the training ground, or is it okay if the new kid at Old Trafford wants to drive to Carrington in a Ford Focus?

Other than Chevrolet, Manchester United also have sponsorship deals with AON, Nike, DHL, Betfair, Singha Beer, Casillero del Diablo, Thomas Cook, Hublot, Turkish Airlines, Smirnoff, Epson, Mister Potato, STC, 3, PCCW, TM, Globacom, VIVA, Turk Telecom, MTN, Honda, Airtel, Zong, Beeline, and Globul. Surely it's only a matter of time before they find a new sponsor to become their "Official Sponsors' Sponsor", if you know what I mean.

There are a lot of clubs in football that struggle to attract even one sponsor. For United to have over 25 is absolutely incredible.

Oh, and by the way, UEFA Euro 2012 came to an end. Who won it? Meh, some half-decent Spaniards.

The farce that was the 'Great Britain' football team finally came to an end at London 2012.

I knew all along that having a GB football team at the Olympics was not a good idea. It could have potentially led to FIFA forcing through plans to merge the four home nations into a joint British team. If all went well for them and they came away from Wembley with a gold medal, the FA themselves might have said, "You know, why not? We've got nothing to lose."

Unpredictably, the Scottish and Northern Irish FAs went all huffity puffity and didn't want their players involved, and neither did the Welsh, but they in the end allowed Aaron Ramsey and Neil Taylor to make it an England & Wales men's team at the Olympics.

The team, inevitably branded with the US-style Team GB tag, won their group which also included Team Senegal, Team Uruguay, and Team United Arab Emirates. Next up in the Quarter Finals was Team South Korea, but fortunately, that match didn't work out as planned.

It came down to a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw, and after Daniel Sturridge became the latest Englishman to rue Yosef Dagan's invention, Ki Sung-Yueng became my new favourite player by putting South Korea through and killing the GB experiment stone dead.

Now, it appears that there will never be another Great Britain men's football team at the Olympics again, and it's unlikely that the Home Nations will join up to create another women's side. As a proud Englishman who sticks by his national team through thin and thin, I'm absolutely delighted.

Meanwhile, back in South Korea, one excited fan - Park Jae-Sang - was so delighted to see his country beat the British that he created a very extravagant dance for a song that would become, erm, quite popular. You might know what one I'm talking about.

Meet Steve Kean's replacement as manager of Blackburn Rovers.

If you want to know how to run a football club, look at what the Indian owners of Blackburn Rovers do at Ewood Park. Then do the complete opposite.

In May, Blackburn kept the faith in Steve Kean, despite him leading the club to their first relegation from the Premier League since 1999. Four months later, they decided that, even though he had put them in a good position to win promotion straight back from Championship, it was time for the Scot to be sacked. Venky's move in mysterious ways.

After failing to persuade Harry Redknapp that a 65-year-old Londoner should end his career at a failing club in the north-west, the people who promised to bring Ronaldinho to Ewood Park chose another ambitious manager of great stature. But Josep Guardiola wasn't interested, so they got Henning Berg instead.

It took Venky's a month to offer Berg the job after Kean was sacked. It took them less than two to sack him when they realised that: A) he was completely incompetent, B) a chicken could've done a better job, and C) their timing was as spot-on as the man who bought tickets to Michael Jackson's This Is It tour on 25 June 2009.

Also in September, John Terry decided that he had enough of hijacking sporting celebrations, and retired from international football to spend more time with his families.

This came shortly after he received an invisible handshake from Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, with whom he gets on like a house on fire. He also received the same treatment from QPR captain Park Ji-Sung.

After the Olympics and Paralympics, it was good to see that football too was in the mood for sportsmanship.

It was appropriate that on the eve of Halloween, the Madejski Stadium witnessed a defensive rocky horror show worthy of Richard O'Brien.

This was Reading boss Brian McDermott's first match against his former club Arsenal as a manager. It couldn't have got off to a better start, as the Royals led the League Cup Round 4 clash by 4 goals to 0 after just 37 minutes. The Gunners, whose first XI's combined age was younger than my 79-year-old grandmother, were in complete and utter disarray.

When Theo Walcott scored just before half-time, it was perhaps little more than a consolation.

When Olivier Giroud headed in Walcott's corner after 65 minutes, Reading fans were still nervous but hopeful of finally closing out a victory.

Then Laurent Koscielny made it 4-3 with just one full minute left on the clock. There would be four minutes of injury-time. Then came a fifth. And a sixth. Reading were through to the Quart... WHAT'S THIS? Arsenal have equalised!

Some of the Gunners players were so ecstatic that they thought they'd won, and threw their shirts into the crowd, then had to embarrasingly ask for them back. Meanwhile, some Reading players could have been forgiven for wanting to throw themselves off a cliff (of the Dover variety rather than fiscal).

They felt a bit better in injury-time when, after conceding the lead to Arsenal, they pulled it back to 5-5 after 119 minutes. Surely they would force penalties at least!

Erm, no. One goal in the final minute from Walcott, and another in injury-time from Marouane Chamakh meant that the Gunners won 7-5 to book a place in the Quarter Finals, where they would coast to victory over Bradford City, or at least that's what every man and his dog thought would happen.

Once again, Reading had thrown away a winning position. The Berkshire club had got to the point where, even if they led five-man Truro City 17-0 with five minutes to go, they still couldn't be entirely sure of getting that 'W'. No wonder Brian McDermott always seems to be looking at the floor whenever he gives interviews.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic defeats England on his own and silences the critics.

You don't mess with the Zlatan.

Sweden's talisman, so good that he is known only by his first name, has long been criticised by the British media for being lazy and arrogant. In one match against England, he made them do a 180-degree turn on how they view Mr Ibrahimovic.

Not content with merely scoring a hat-trick in the opening match at Stockholm's new stadium, he added a fourth goal in injury-time - and what a belter it was.

If you don't remember that goal, either you're a goldfish or you're an Englishman whose memory is as selective as Sir Alex Ferguson's.

British football journalists, who were previously very quick to dismiss him as he'd never played in England and wasn't Spanish, rushed for their dictionaries to find words that adequately described not only the goal but Ibrahimovic himself. In their eyes, Zlatan was now a demi-god who would have single-handedly beaten the Three Lions even if he didn't have 10 team-mates with him.

If Joe Hart had any words to describe Ibrahimovic, they would not be printable. The England goalkeeper had a shocker with that goal - coming well out of his area to head away a long ball, allowing Ibrahimovic to tee up what would be regarded as one of the greatest strikes in history.

In the first half of the year, Hart hardly put a hand wrong. People were talking about him in the same context as world-class shotstoppers like Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas.

But since the summer, he seems to have been struck down with England Goalkeeper Syndrome. David Seaman had it. So did David James. Robert Green was half-decent until he was laid low with it in Rustenburg.

This season, Hart has not been Mr Reliable. He's made plenty of schoolboy errors, and is better known for criticising his team-mates and being wise after the event rather than actually being wise during the event.

England Goalkeeper Syndrome is contagious, so surely it's only a matter of time before young Jack Butland gets infected and becomes the new Massimo Taibi.

UEFA went off their rocker this month by announcing that Euro 2020 will be staged in multiple countries.

Oh yes, that makes absolute sense. My austere 30-year-old self would love to shell out my family's savings on supporting England in the European Championship.

I'm looking forward to watching Gary Neville's Three Lions play group matches in Georgia, the Czech Republic and the German Mediterranean (formerly Greece), before going to Norway for the last 16, Portugal for the Quarter Final, and Wembley for the Semi Final, in which we lose to Germany on penalties. Great idea, that, Michel!

And finally, Queens Park Rangers' new manager Harry Redknapp has claimed that his team can avoid relegation from the Premier League this season, despite winning just one match so far and being eight points from safety.

I'll give you time to pick yourself off the floor after rolling on it laughing your Party Rockin' a** off.

Here are some other wise 2013 predictions from mystic Harry:

  • The world will end on 21 January - as that is the date when Tesco will invade Denmark.
  • David Cameron will go overboard with Olympic fever and call a referendum asking if the full name of the United Kingdom should be changed to "Team GB".
  • William and Catherine will name their first child after the country's favourite grandmother - Agnes Brown.
  • 72-year-old veteran singer Cliff Richard will enjoy a chart renaissance after becoming a rapper and changing his stage name to 'Fiscal Cliff'.
  • Portsmouth will be taken over by someone with money and a good human rights record.
  • Someone in the country will vote Liberal Democrat in a by-election.
  • During his tour of the UK, Michael Bolton will be arrested as part of Operation Yewtree over his 1995 song Can I Touch You... There?
  • Scotland will qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
  • Christopher Fuller will finally find a girlfriend. (Now you're just being silly, Harry!)

30 December 2012

More than just an excuse

In England, we call tomorrow New Year's Eve. The Scots call it Hogmanay. For Scottish football fans, that means only one thing.

On the night before the New Year, viewers on BBC Scotland are treated to the funniest football-related sketch show of the year, if not the ONLY football-related sketch show of the year.

Every Hogmanay since 1993, Only An Excuse? (which started as a radio show in 1987) has been broadcast in a 30-minute shot late at night. It stars actor, impressionist and Rangers fan Jonathan Watson, and the first couple of episodes also featured Celtic supporter Tony Roper, but he's long gone.

Watson's most popular characters are his impersonations of Sir Alex Ferguson and the Rangers-obsessed presenter Chick Young, but he also stars as other Scottish footballing figures like Denis Law and Graeme Souness.

Obviously, being a Scottish show, nearly all of the sketches are Scots soccer-related, but having a joke at the expense of their national team never gets weary.

As an Englishman looking in, I've watched the annual show from 2009 onwards and it is always a fantastic end to the year for me. If you want to see for yourself, switch to BBC One Scotland (Sky channel 951) at 11:00pm tomorrow night. It'll be the funniest half-hour of the footballing year, I can guarantee.

Until then, here are some highlights from previous years of Only An Excuse?

This sums up Derek Riordan's Celtic career:

Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor celebrate a rare good result for Scotland:
Chick Young isn't a fan of Susan Boyle:
And here is the aforementioned Chick Young talking to Paul Le Guen:
And finally, Phil Collins the Rangers fan:

28 December 2012

In memoriam: Vaclav Drobny

Vaclav Drobny: 1980-2012.

Sad news from the Czech Republic - former defender Vaclav Drobny, who was on the books at Aston Villa for a season, has died.

According to the Czech website iSport.cz, Drobny was killed in a bobsleighing accident at the mountain resort of Špindlerův Mlýn in the north of the country. He was just 32 years old.

If Aston Villa fans don't instantly recognise the name, then they can be forgiven. Drobny was loaned out to Villa Park for the 2004/2005 season but did not make a single appearance for David O'Leary's team.

I have to admit that when I found out he had died, I recalled hearing of him some time ago, but still had to Google him to find out where I came across that name before. It appears that he was one of many foreigners to come to the Premier League unnoticed and leave in a similar vein.

Drobny arrived at Villa at the same time as fellow defender Martin Laursen. Despite having won his only two caps for Czech Republic earlier in 2004, he didn't make as much impact in the claret and blue half of Birmingham as Laursen, who is still greatly respected by the club's fans today despite the premature end to his own career.

After starting his career at Czech minnows Chmel Blsany, he signed for French side Strasbourg in 2002, making just over 40 appearances for them. It was Strasbourg who sent him to Villa two years later. When his brief stint in English football didn't go to plan, he was sold off to Sparta Prague.

Sadly for Drobny, a European Under-21 Champion with the Czech Republic in 2002, his career went into freefall. He was loaned to Jablonec 97, and spent some time at German second division team FC Augsburg before returning home with Spartak Trnava and Bohemians Prague.

It appears that Drobny's career ended following his release by Bohemians in 2011. A career with so much promise was over. With his playing days finished, he went into coaching and also became a TV pundit.

Drobny passed away this morning from injuries suffered in a bobsleigh crash. According to the news source, his bobsleigh went off the road or track (I'll confess that my knowledge of the Czech language isn't great) and he crashed into a tree. He was taken to the University Hospital in Hradec Kralove, where he succumbed to his injuries.

Any death is sad, but Vaclav's passing at such a young age is also tragic.

Rest in peace, Vaclav.

27 December 2012

Forest chop down O'Driscoll

Sean O'Driscoll at Nottingham Forest: sadly, it wasn't allowed to last.

Nottingham Forest have sacked their manager Sean O'Driscoll - rather harshly I feel - after just five months in charge.

His sacking on the day after Christmas came in the aftermath of an impressive 4-2 victory over fellow Championship play-off contenders Leeds United. In fact, that win saw them leapfrog Leeds into 8th in the table - putting them just one point outside the top six.

Despite their relatively poor finish of 19th last season, I was one of not many people who tipped Forest as major contenders for the play-offs in this campaign. Indeed, I predicted that they would win promotion in their first season under the ownership of the al-Hasawi family from Kuwait.

To be fair, Forest haven't done bad. The only thing they could be accused of was being inconsistent. I don't recall them going on a winning streak of more than two games all season, and in December, they've beaten Burnley and Leeds but lost to Hull City and Watford.

Turn the clock back five months, and Forest was a club in turmoil. In the 12 months since sacking manager Billy Davies in June 2011, the Tricky Trees had tried two very different managers - former England boss Steve McClaren and lower-league journeyman Steve Cotterill - without much success.

A team that had finished 6th the season before fell 13 places down the table. By the end of the season, their squad had been decimated. Whoever would be their third manager since the end of the 2010/2011 season would have a tough job on his hands.

When the al-Hasawi brothers bought the East Midlands team this July, they vowed to respect the legacy of Nigel Doughty, the club's long-time owner who sadly passed away in February. One of the first announcements they made was to rename the Youth Academy after Doughty. Another announcement, made a week after they sacked Cotterill, was that O'Driscoll had been appointed as their new manager.

O'Driscoll is not the most high-profile managerial name in the Football League. He did a fine job at AFC Bournemouth and Doncaster Rovers, before being harshly dismissed by the latter in September 2011.

This was what Fawaz al-Hasawi - now chairman at the City Ground - said when O'Driscoll was hired in July: "We interviewed many well-known and high profile figures but we truly believe Sean O'Driscoll is the best man for the job.

"Sean's passion for Nottingham Forest, knowledge of the game and the Championship in particular, plus his work ethic, shone through in our conversations."

Five months on, and this is what he said yesterday: "We have a responsibility to look to the future for this great club because we have huge ambitions for it.

"We feel we have developed a really strong squad of players but are still searching for consistency, underlined by the fact that we have not won more than two games in succession in the Championship this season.

"And with the January transfer window approaching, we feel it's the right time to make a change. We are looking to bring in an ambitious manager with Premier League experience."

So, we now know what the al-Hasawis are like. I think that Cyndi Lauper once sang a song about something along those lines, but I can't for the life of me remember what it is.

Oh yes - it's this one.

One name immediately springs to mind when the al-Hasawis talk about an ambitious manager with Premier League experience. I bet Forest fans are shuddering at the prospect of Mark Hughes coming to the City Ground, especially after he somehow transformed a group of very gifted players at Queens Park Rangers into a group of very gifted players who can't play as a team.

As for the other contenders, what are the odds on a return to Forest for Roy Keane? He has been out of work since being sacked by Ipswich Town nearly two years ago, apart from the odd stint as a god-awful pundit for ITV. Then there's also Alan Curbishley, who has been linked with almost every job in English professional football for the last four years.

If you want a dark horse, I'd say Paolo Di Canio will surely get a job offer from a Championship club soon. Could the Swindon Town gaffer be on his way to Nottingham Forest?

But Sean O'Driscoll has, not for the first time, been given a raw deal, and I hope he finds work at another club soon, preferably a club that has enough sense to stick with him.

24 December 2012

Weekend reflections #15

In a Christmas Eve edition of Weekend Reflections, Sir Alex Ferguson accuses a Swansea City defender of attempted murder, Chelsea give Aston Villa eight sacks of coal, and Reading continue to struggle in their search for some good fortune.

Robin van Persie tries to rugby-tackle wannabe murderer Ashley Williams.

OT boss goes OTT
Last week, Sir Alex Ferguson gave away some secrets about why he has been so successful as Manchester United manager.

One tip he didn't hand out to others though was this piece of advice, "When your star striker is hit in the face, get absolutely furious and demand that the opposition defender is hung, drawn and quartered, and his name treated in the same manner as Jimmy Savile's".

That's what happened at the Liberty Stadium. where United were held to a 1-1 draw by Michu, er I mean Swansea City.

In the 75th minute, Red Devils striker Robin van Persie was brought down near the Swansea penalty area by Nathan Dyer. While prone on the floor, an attempted clearance from Swans captain Ashley Williams hit the Dutchman in the face.

van Persie immediately got up, and almost tried to strip the Wales skipper of his shirt, he was so furious. The yellow card came out for both Williams and van Persie, and the red mist descended on Ferguson.

Using his world-renowned sense of perspective, Old Trafford emperor Ferguson calmly said, "In the van Persie situation you can clearly see that he could have been killed. The FA has got to look into it regardless that he has been given a yellow card. He should be banned for a long time because that was the most dangerous thing I've seen on a football field for many years.
"Robin is lucky to be alive. He could have had a broken neck."

If you look at the incident clearer, you might think that Ferguson's comments were a little over the top. Williams wouldn't have deliberately hurt van Persie - as a defender, it is natural for someone in his position to clear a loose ball as soon as it enters his penalty area.

As for Williams' clearance potentially killing Robin van Persie, that's preposterous. Such an impact would have, at worst, knocked him unconscious for a little while. Players have suffered worse injuries when being struck square in the face by a ball that was hit with more power, so in comparison, that incident was rather tame.

Another part of Ferguson's complaint also falls down. It can't have been the most dangerous thing he's seen on a football pitch for many years if he also witnessed Roy Keane's horrific career-ending challenge on Manchester City's Alfie Haaland in 2001 or Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan six years earlier. But I supposed they were your players, Sir Alex, so it doesn't really matter, huh?

With the New Year fast approaching, I've predicted three things that Sir Alex will say in 2013:
  • Antonio Valencia is knocked out after a clash of heads with Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale. Ferguson says, "Bale's a mass murderer like Anders Breivik. He should be jailed for life."
  • Wayne Rooney twists his ankle after being tackled by a Stoke City player. Ferguson says, "They should bring back public hangings for people like Ryan Shawcross."
  • Rio Ferdinand falls down the stairs at home and breaks his arm. Ferguson says, "This is part of Chelsea's grand plan to destroy all life on Earth as we know it."

"Thanks, Rafa. Shame none of the fans are so grateful."

Boring, boring Chelsea
It took a while to get going but Chelsea have finally hit their stride under Rafael Benitez.

In their last four games on European soil, the Blues have scored 22 goals - eight of those came last night against an Aston Villa side who have well and truly had the wind taken out of their sails after a mini-resurgence.

We always knew that Chelsea's attack could potentially be the deadliest in the Premier League, but this was something else. But for a missed penalty, they would have matched the record PL win of 9-0 by Manchester United against Ipswich Town in 1995.

Stamford Bridge erupted after just three minutes, when Fernando Torres headed in Spanish compatriot Cesar Azpilicueta's cross. Two unlikely goals from defenders David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic gave the Blues a comfortable 3-0 lead at half-time, but not many people could foresee just how easily it would get for Benitez's side.

Villa's manager Paul Lambert likes to field a young team, but his boys' relative lack of experience compared to the international superstars of Chelsea would tell in the second half. Just two of Lambert's starters, keeper Brad Guzan and winger Brett Holman, were older than 24, and apart from Clark, none of his defenders had much PL experience before this season.

Frank Lampard, making his 500th Premier League start, scored Chelsea's fourth goal on 58 minutes to move closer to becoming the Blues' record goalscorer. Ramires added a fifth after 75 minutes, and referee Phil Dowd made life even worse for the Villans by giving away some silly penalties. Oscar converted one of them, but Lucas Piazon missed the other not long after Eden Hazard increased the lead to 7-0.

Ramires finally put Villa out of their misery with an eighth goal for Chelsea, and his second for himself, in the closing stages.

Despite seeing their team enjoy their most comfortable win since they lifted the Premier League by putting eight past Wigan Athletic two years ago, a large number of Chelsea fans still weren't happy with Benitez. To them, Roberto Di Matteo is still the guvnor.

Ain't no pleasing them.

Reading boss Brian McDermott is not pleased with the referee.

Unlucky Royals
Spare a thought for Reading fans this Christmas.

After being robbed of a point in heartbreaking fashion by Manchester City on Saturday, Reading will be bottom of the Premier League table on Christmas Day. In 20 previous seasons of the PL, just one team that occupied 20th spot on Jesus's birthday has managed to survive at the end of the campaign.

In the second minute of second-half injury time at the City of Manchester Stadium, Citizens midfielder Gareth Barry unfairly jumped on Royals defender Nicky Shorey to reach David Silva's cross and head it home. Delight for City, but despair for Reading, who have picked just 9 points from 18 games.

If there was much justice in the world, Queens Park Rangers would have been the team sat at the bottom of the heap when Santa gives out his presents. Why do I say this?

Reading do have great difficulty in defending good positions, but at least they play as a team and play with spirit. Any team who can go 4-0 up against a strong Arsenal side, whether they hold onto it or not, deserves respect, and the same goes for their manager Brian McDermott. He has not shied away from playing attacking football just because the opponents are of better quality now than they were in the Championship.

QPR, in contrast, are no so much a team as 11 expensive men brought together and told, "Here are some matching jerseys to wear, and that green field there is the pitch. Play on it."

Rangers were at real risk of going a whole Premier League season without winning while Mark Hughes was manager. Harry Redknapp has come in and got them back on the right track (QPR only lost by one goal against an out-of-form Newcastle United team in midweek), and he has quickly identified the massive wages paid to overrated players as a problem.

José Bosingwa stormed out of Loftus Road when he was told to sit on the bench for a game earlier this month against Fulham. The former Chelsea full-back, who has been one of the worst summer signings of this season, earns £65,000 per week. Bosingwa sums up why QPR's big plan to spend their way into the UEFA Champions League is backfiring and getting them a one-way ticket back to the Championship.

After the mess of a half-season they've had so far, QPR deserve to go down. Reading need to improve in the New Year, obviously, but if their battle against relegation is futile, at least they're going down with more dignity than the Hoops.

21 December 2012

Villas-Boas' jargon bucket

Tottenham Hotspur's coaching staff (Villas-Boas is third from left in back row).

Andre Villas-Boas is a walking, talking soundbite.

I've touched on this before, but the Tottenham Hotspur manager really does talk like a businessman who is trying to sound smarter than he actually is. The Portuguese coach's grasp of English is so incredible that one would think he'd shadowed a real-life Don Draper in his younger days, and that his assistant manager should be January Jones rather than Steffen Freund.

Here are some of the things Villas-Boas has said during his time in England, along with translations into the plain English that most other managers use:

AVBese: "[The chairman and I] spoke about the January situation and the eventuality that we could look to strengthen the squad to be better. What came out of those conversations was that our level of focus is not to do a lot in January. Our squad will become big even in terms of numbers with the return of injured players."
English translation: "We won't be making any signings in January. We've got some players coming back from injury then, so we don't need to add to our squad."

AVBese: "We are extremely happy with our goalkeepers' competition. When the decision was in favour of Brad [Friedel], Hugo [Lloris] accepted it and now the decision has fallen in Hugo's favour, Brad accepts it."
English translation: "We've got two excellent goalkeepers who will always work hard to get into the team."

AVBese: "For sure it is not something that is very pleasing to see. The most important thing for the players to realize is that we do things for the benefit of the team. We understand individual frustrations but we, as a team, are more important. The game wasn't going well for [Jermain] Defoe in our thought process. Maybe he could think the opposite but we don't take him off to punish him. We took him off to improve the team."
English translation: "One player isn't bigger than the club."

AVBese: "We have increased the complexity of the tasks the players have been doing at the end of training. The more complex the exercise, the more concentration they need at the end. They need to be very, very creative.
"It does not mean that the problem is solved, but the players are conscious we have conceded in the past and they want to get it right."

English translation: "We need to be more creative, but at the same time, we need to stay solid at the back."

AVBese: "We have been incentivating the players on a positive but trying to impact what is a negative statistic."
English translation: "We need to focus on the positives."

AVBese: "For Chelsea to have won the FA Cup and the Champions League, it means we were still present in those competitions at that time [when I was sacked]. The squad was being put in place towards the future and the owner took the decision, which I have to respect, but I never accept it.
"Chelsea was not so gratifying in terms of success, but it was very gratifying professionally for me. I have learned from a couple of things I did wrong, and also you have to trust the right people at the right time. This gathering with Tottenham gives me even more stability towards the future."

English translation: "Roman made the wrong decision when he sacked me, and I'll prove him wrong at Tottenham."

AVB thinks outside the box in terms of talking in the context of going forward.

AVBese: "They [the players] don't have to back my project. It's the owner who backs my project. Some of them don't back the project? That is normal. I think the owner has full trust in me and will continue to progress with the ideas that we have."
English translation: "I have the full support of the chairman."
Chelsea English translation: "I'll clear my desk later this afternoon."

AVBese: "The referee was poor. Very, very poor. And it reflected in the result. I spoke to him at the end and I was very aggressive. I don't care if he's OK or not. Anyone can have a bad day but this was not a bad day for us: it was a good day for us but a bad day for the referee. Conspiracy theories can lead to bans and people calling us cry babies, so we're not saying that. But it keeps happening."
English translation: "The referee made a lot of bad decisions, and I'm not happy about them."

AVBese: "David [Luiz] is going to be one of the greatest central defenders in the world. Why? Because of his characteristics: technical ability, anticipation and speed. I think he's played fantastically well here, but sometimes people have misconceptions and a player has to carry that stamp for the rest of his life."
English translation: "David Luiz can be a top, top player."

AVBese: "Sunday is a different kind of challenge. We face Man United in perhaps their most tremendous moment of motivation, flair and style – and a team that has made its impact in the beginning of the Premier League. Motivation will be a key factor. It’s about the capacity of players to transcend themselves."
English translation: "Manchester United are in good form, and we'll have to play very well to beat them."

Not only does Villas-Boas come across as a pompous git, but he can speak an awful lot of rubbish at times. Does that remind you of another certain Portuguese manager who used to work at Stamford Bridge?

17 December 2012

Time for a breather

Joe Allen is one Liverpool player who could do with a Christmas break.

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers is one of the best man-managers in the Premier League.

Rodgers knows how to handle the development of young players. He likes to give them plenty of opportunities, but recognises when it's time to give them a rest.

That was evident in Saturday's 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa at Anfield. After a lethargic midfield display from his side against a Villa team that itself is full of talented youngsters, the Northern Irishman said that he would like to rest Raheem Sterling and Joe Allen for the next few games.

Sterling has only just turned 18, but has made 25 senior appearances for the Reds already this season. During this time, England's most precocious talent since Wayne Rooney also made his international debut for the Three Lions. It was only a matter of time before the speedy winger started to look jaded.

Allen is four years older at 22, and one could say that he is even more important to how Rodgers' Liverpool team works. The boss developed Allen during their time at Swansea City and has turned him into one of British football's top passers of the ball, but he too has had a lot of action this season.

As Joe himself might say, obviously Allen is in need of a rest, obviously, because at the end of the day, obviously he's human and obviously cannot play every minute of every game. Obviously.

Rodgers told the media of his plans for the duo, saying, "There is no doubt Raheem is one who does need a breather. I've thought about it over the past couple of weeks. In order to do that you need to have that depth to take him out and put somebody else in.

"He's a naturally very, very fit boy but he needs that mental rest as well. That time will come and he will get the breather soon enough.

"There is no doubt after working with Joe and seeing him [now], he’s another one. If we're honest, there are a few who could do with that breather, especially mentally. It's something for sure I need to have a wee look at."

The problem for Rodgers is this: Who does he bring in when the time does come for Sterling to sit out a few games? It's highly unlikely that anyone at Liverpool can match the Jamaican-born prodigy for pace, but one of Rodgers' summer signings, Moroccan winger Oussama Assaidi, hasn't played a great deal this campaign so this could be a good chance for him to show what he's got.

As for temporary replacements for Allen, Suso had a run in the first-team earlier on but is only 19 and his progress needs to be closely monitored. Maybe that central midfield spot could go to Jordan Henderson (stop laughing at the back!), who replaced Lucas Leiva in the second half against Villa.

Indeed, Rodgers could decide to continue his plan to bring as many youth team players into the first team fold as he can, by giving another player or two their senior debuts.

Going into the last three games of 2012, Liverpool are 12th in the Premier League, and are as close to the top four as they are to the relegation zone. Those three matches - at home to Fulham, and then away to Stoke City and Queens Park Rangers - are all very winnable. Picking up seven or nine points from those fixtures could put the Reds in a good position to challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot.

Brendan Rodgers has some tough decisions to make over the next couple of weeks, but two decisions that he should take would be to rest Sterling and Allen for the time being. He'll want his best assets in tip-top condition for two especially important away games in January against Manchester United and Arsenal.

A break would give Sterling and Allen the chance to put their feet up and celebrate Christmas with their families, and in the 18-year-old former's case, his children.

Speaking of which, does Raheem still believe in Father Christmas?

16 December 2012

2012: the year of the racists

England's Danny Rose (3) was abused by Serbian supporters in October.

2012 has been a great year for British sport in general.

The whole country was glued to the London Olympics, where we saw unprecedented success for the team representing Great Britain, or at least that was what the country was called until some Polish advertising executive decided to Americanize us into Team GB.

Sportspeople like Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis - all of whom would be deserving winners of BBC Sports Personality of the Year - summed up not only the Olympic spirit but the new determination to win that us Britons now have.

If 2012 could be summed up by one word, many of us would say 'gold'. You couldn't say that about football, though.

This was the year that the British not quite fell out of love with football, but more stopped being obsessed with it. That's because the word of 2012, as far as football is concerned, is 'racism'.

Towards the back end of 2011, there were two high-profile racism cases in the Premier League. By December of that year, the FA had already imposed an eight-match ban on Luis Suarez for his slur aimed at Patrice Evra.

However, it took until this September - 11 months in total - for the FA to ban Chelsea captain John Terry for using racist language towards Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers. During those 11 months, the whole saga became a media circus. He was stripped of the England captaincy, and taken to court, where he was found not guilty of the charges he faced.

How long did the FA ban Terry for? Four matches. Go figure.

When it comes to dealing with racism, David Bernstein and co could be described as 'inconsistent' in their punishments for offenders. UEFA could be described as 'ignorant'.

Back in October, England Under-21s defender Danny Rose was subjected to the most appalling racial slurs by large numbers of Serbian football fans. His reaction to the abuse started a large brawl between players and coaching staff of both the England and Serbia teams.

UEFA seemed to pay more attention to the scuffle than the racial abuse. Four Serbian players and two English players, Steven Caulker and Tom Ince (both black, I may add), were suspended for their parts in the melee and two Serb coaches were banned outright for two years apiece.

What punishment did the Serbian FA get for what happened in Krusevac? A fine of €80,000 - that's £65,000 in sterling - and an order to play one Under-21s game behind closed doors. For goodness sake, Nicklas Bendtner received a larger fine for sporting a pair of sponsored underpants at UEFA Euro 2012! Good to see Michel Platini has his priorities spot on.

Anti-racism campaigners were incensed, and rightly so. Lord Herman Ouseley of Kick It Out said, "This is a paltry slap on the wrist and again we haven't seen decisive action from UEFA."

UEFA's punishment for Serbia was seen as so paltry that FIFA president Sepp Blatter, hardly the most reasonable of sports administrators, said he'd meet with Platini to discuss it. Let's hope that when they do meet, Blatter is the man speaking sense for once.

Yesterday evening, another news story concerning racism in English football broke. It is alleged that Manchester City's Serbia defender Aleksandar Kolarov made insulting comments to a couple of Newcastle United fans who were holding up an Albanian flag.

Those of you who know about the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s and the tensions surrounding Kosovo will know very well that Serbians and Albanians are not the best of buddies. We've had plenty of stories about whites abusing blacks, and this is another form of racism if Kolarov did abuse those two Albanians.

This is the same Kolarov that just a few days ago filmed his take on what Jingle Bells would've sounded like if it had been 'sung' by William Shatner.

A comedy genius with racist tendencies? Who'd have thought that Aleksandar Kolarov was related to Jim Davidson?

In all seriousness, though, it is sad that football this year has been overshadowed by the same issue. As well as those incidents listed above, we've also had these:
  • Oldham Athletic midfielder Tom Adeyemi was left visibly upset after receiving abuse from a Liverpool supporter, who was not charged with any crime over the incident.
  • Another Oldham player, Lee Croft, was wrongly accused of hurling racist language at a ball boy.
  • A teenage Millwall fan racially taunted Bolton Wanderers striker Marvin Sordell at The Den. Sordell's team-mates Lee Chung-Yong, Darren Pratley and Benik Afobe were also insulted.
  • Aldershot Town striker Danny Hylton received an eight-match ban after being found guilty of two charges of racial abuse.
2013 is just over two weeks away. Let's hope that 'racism' is not a word that is even mentioned when we review the footballing events of that year.

12 December 2012

Bradford's Valley Parade is back on

Giant-killers Bradford City can celebrate for the first time in years.

The last decade hasn't been kind to Bradford City supporters, so to see them celebrate the Bantams' progression to the League Cup Semi Finals at Arsenal's expense was heartwarming.

The team currently 4th in League Two pushed a side ranked 65 places above them in the league standings all the way, drawing 1-1 after 90 minutes and extra time, and then winning 3-2 on penalties.

What's more, they weren't playing against the usual Arsenal League Cup side full of youngsters with more acne spots than senior appearances. Almost the Gunners' entire starting XI consisted of international players for the likes of England, France, Germany and Spain. These players were more used to playing in World Cups and European Championships than the League Cup. Even Arsenal's only non-international, Francis Coquelin, had seven caps for France Under-21s.

What international experience did Bradford's players have? Nahki Wells has a few caps for Bermuda and Rory McArdle some for Northern Ireland, and three others in the XI were capped at age-group levels, but that was it. Their team also had very little in the way of Premier League experience.

That's why it was such a shock to see City go 1-0 up after 16 minutes through a volley from Garry Thompson, formerly of Morecambe and Scunthorpe United. Wells then missed a great opportunity to put the home team at Valley Parade 2-0 up.

It took quite a while for Arsenal to even get a shot on target - Bradford keeper Matt Duke didn't have to make a save until the 70th minute. After that, it was backs to the wall stuff for the Bantams, who held on until three minutes from time, when Gunners captain Thomas Vermaelen headed in a cross from two-time European champion Santi Cazorla.

Extra time followed, and after 30 goalless minutes, it came down to the dreaded penalty shoot-out, or in Bradford's case, the hotly-anticipated penalty shoot-out. They were unbeaten in their last eight shoot-outs going into last night's clash. By 10:24pm, that statistic read nine.

It was a dream start for Bradford, who went 2-0 up through Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones after goalkeeper Duke saved shots from Cazorla and Marouane Chamakh. Things then got more tense for the Bantams, but Alan Connell scored to put Arsenal at the point of no return.

Vermaelen stepped up for the Gunners' fifth penalty, knowing that if he scored, he would take the game to sudden death. The Belgian's effort rebounded off the post, and the biggest party of the year in West Yorkshire could begin.

You could say that, of Bradford's 14 heroes from last night, one in particular stood out. Duke fought testicular cancer in 2008 when he was at Hull City, and three years later, he moved to Valley Parade. At the age of 35, he put in a goalkeeping performance of the standard that he has never reached before, and probably never will reach again.

The club's troubles since relegation from the Premier League in 2001 are well documented, but we should emphasise them to put this result in context. They went into administration twice, in 2002 and again in 2004 when they were relegated to League One. Three years later, in 2007, they dropped down to League Two. There were a few times in the six years from 2001 to 2007 that Bradford's very existence was in jeopardy.

In fact, after the club finished 18th in League Two for the last two seasons in a row, there were some people who feared relegation to the Conference Premier would come this season.

Bradford City AFC has seen many highs and lows, ranging from their final-day victory over Liverpool in 2000 which secured their Premier League status for another season, to that horrific day on 11 May 1985. Yesterday will go in the former category, and will be remembered by their fans for many years to come.

10 December 2012

Weekend reflections #14

There goes another Premier League weekend, so let's reflect on it. Today's points of discussion are: the Manchester momentum shift, Arsene Wenger's views on diving, and 15 minutes of pain for Tottenham.

This is what you could have won, Manchester City.

It's United's to lose
A thrilling Manchester derby culminated in United snatching a 3-2 victory just when it looked like hosts City would seal a point.

The result at the City of Manchester Stadium put United six points above their local rivals at the top of the Premier League. It also confirmed what we all knew - while the blue half of Manchester has the best players, the red half has the best team.

City dominated the first 15 minutes, having 78% of the possession in the game's opening stages. But in the 16th minute, the tide changed. United went on a counter-attack initiated by Robin van Persie, who could easily have moved to the other side of Manchester this summer. After Ashley Young charged up the pitch and played in Wayne Rooney, the Red Devils' star man cut the ball through Gareth Barry's legs and into Joe Hart's far corner.

Rooney was on the scoresheet again in the 29th minute. Rafael da Silva's delivey from the right flank was finished with power by Rooney, who didn't need too much luck this time. City's long-standing unbeaten league record was at serious risk of collapsing.

The Citizens were badly underperforming, and some of their players were particularly struggling. Obviously, the loss of captain Vincent Kompany to injury after 21 minutes did not help. In the first half, City left-back Gael Clichy was skinned by United winger Antonio Valencia, and Mario Balotelli was taken off early in the second after another inconsistent game.

Sky commentator Martin Tyler said during the match that Roberto Mancini was perhaps an "indulgent" manager to Balotelli. We all know how much Mancini loves Super Mario, but when the young Italian turns into Bonkers Balotelli on a regular basis, you have to wonder how long the scarfed one will stand by him.

Anyway, after Balotelli exited stage right, City's traditional Eastlands fightback began. Moments after Young had a third United goal questionably chalked off for offside, Yaya Toure clawed one back for the home team on the half-hour.

Four minutes from time, Carlos Tevez's corner was accidentally flicked back by van Persie to Pablo Zabaleta, who thundered in Manchester City's equaliser. 2-2, and City fans were wondering: "Have we been here before? Can we win it in injury-time?"

The injury-time winner did come... but not from them. In injury-time, van Persie's free-kick was turned into the City net by a deflection off the wimpish Samir Nasri's ankle. United could celebrate a famous victory, but not before Rio Ferdinand was struck by a coin thrown from one of City's less human supporters.

Manchester City have looked very suspect defence-wise this season, and they don't share the team spirit that Manchester United have. The title momentum is with Sir Alex Ferguson's side, and they don't look like surrendering it any time soon.

"You're not Arsenal's messiah, Santi, you're a very naughty boy!"

When it suits you, sir
What are Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's true views about diving?

I refer the honourable gentleman to the statement Mr Wenger gave on 15 April 2012: "If an obvious dive is punished by a three-match ban, the players would not do it anymore. I would support it."

I will now refer the honourable gentleman to an incident at the Emirates Stadium in North London on 8 December, in which Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla, to quote the layman, went down like a sack of spuds in the West Bromwich Albion penalty area.

As a result, Arsenal won a questionable penalty which was converted by Cazorla's Spanish countryman Mikel Arteta.

At an interview post-match, Mr Wenger replied, "I am sorry if it was not a penalty but I have spoken to Santi and he said he was touched, lost his balance. Has he made a bit more of it? I don't know.

"Of course [I will speak to Santi if he has not been touched]. I will look at it, don't worry."

It was plainly obvious to all that Cazorla was not brought down in the box by Steven Reid, but rather by himself. If Oliver Stone intends to remake his 1986 film Platoon, he should cast the Spaniard as Charlie Sheen's character because that dive was literally winning.

Wenger, like Sir Alex Ferguson, is not renowned for being the most neutral managers, certainly not when it comes to decisions being made against his team. But Cazorla's dive was so pathetic that it can't really be condoned, and Wenger perhaps should have been more critical of his playmaker.

Santi Cazorla is a fine player, and one of the best signings of the season, but like many other foreigners (and to a lesser extent British players - I'm looking at you, Ashley Young), he... isn't adverse to the idea of gamesmanship. I, and many other football fans, lost patience with the football authorities on this matter a long time ago.

So, FA executives, why don't you finally get your acts together and actually try to stamp out diving? Wenger's plan would work very well... so long as none of his players get in trouble, of course.

Andre Villas-Boas, producer of the 80-minute Tottenham Hotspur show.

More fears for Villas-Boas
If the Premier League was played by the rules of the Under-16s Victory Shield tournament, Tottenham Hotspur would be doing pretty well for themselves.

What I mean is this: If all PL matches ended after 80 minutes, Andre Villas-Boas' Spurs would be top of the table. In fact, they are fifth, and that's largely down to them conceding 10 goals in the final 15 minutes of games this season. As a result, they have squandered 14 points from good positions after 75 minutes.

It's no wonder then that Villas-Boas often looks like Droopy played by a young Harrison Ford and talks like a 90s-era IBM computer on its last legs during post-match interviews.

Their latest crime came at Goodison Park, where they led Everton 1-0 going into injury-time. Clint Dempsey's goal on 76 minutes had put Tottenham on course to move back into the top four.

God knows what happened next or why it happened, but by the final whistle, Tottenham had lost 2-1. Firstly, Steven Pienaar scored against his former club with a diving header, and then Nikica Jelavic returned to scoring form by hitting the winner.

At the end of the game, Villas-Boas - who more than any other Premier League manager speaks like someone out of Mad Men - replied inconclusively, "Those goals have come through different situations.

"It's something that we are aware of and that's why we speak about it openly. It's something that we have to improve, seeing off the game and seeing off results."

Is it a lack of fitness or a loss of concentration that is contributing to Tottenham's struggles? We don't know as of yet, but it's something Villas-Boas absolutely must address if he is to stay in the job longer than he did at Chelsea.

He needs to make the Spurs players aware that it's no good starting a race like Usain Bolt if the race you're running is a marathon. Or at least he'll borrow something from a boardroom meeting at an American advertising company like he usually does.

7 December 2012

Platini's Euro-vision

Michel Platini with representatives of all of the UEFA Euro 2020 host countries.

UEFA have decided in their infinite wisdom to host the Euro 2020 finals in several countries across Europe.

There's no doubt that finances were a key factor in making this decision. Instead of putting the financial pressure on just one or two countries to build enough stadia and infrastructure to host a 24-team tournament, it'll instead be the fans who have to get their wallets out to spend thousands on supporting their team.

This is just the sort of idea that would come from the mouth of UEFA president Michel Platini. Just last week, he made the gob-smacking proposal to expand the Champions League to 64 teams - a move which could potentially see the 7th-best teams in the likes of England and Spain compete in a tournament originally intended for just the league winners.

I'm struggling as to how they'll organise this tournament in so many countries.

There are six groups of four teams, so potentially you could host each group in a different country. For the sake of argument, let's say that the top six European teams in the FIFA World Rankings - Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, England and Holland - all get a group, and all of those teams automatically qualify for their group.

Obviously, that would be very unfair on the other teams, as each of the hosts would have a massive chance to get to the last 16, to be held in God knows where or God knows how many countries. Platini and his accountant would be delighted, though, to see all of the big guns in the knockout stage.

Were each group to be staged in two countries, that would bring up further problems. Let's say that Portugal and Russia are the two hosts in a group. They'll each get three matches, but where will Portugal vs Russia be held? If it's in Lisbon, the Russkies have every right to be cheesed off, and likewise Cristiano Ronaldo would be none too pleased if he and his 22 mates had to go to Moscow.

It would be even worse for a team like Serbia if they had to fly to Moscow for one group match, then to Lisbon for the second, and then back to Moscow for the third! So much for the efforts to battle global warming.

Likewise, it would be pointless to host each group in a neutral country. I doubt that the people of Stockholm would be particularly excited to watch a dead rubber between France and Hungary.

Also, with fans reluctant to spend so much money on jet-setting across Europe just to watch their national team play, there is a real risk of matches being played in half-empty stadiums. If Platini wants Euro 2020 to see crowds of 1995 Major League Baseball proportions, he's certainly doing a good job with that.

At the very least, UEFA should emulate what they did in the European Championships from 1960 to 1976, and host the Semi Finals and Final in the same country, or even the same city. Wembley looks like the favourite to host the Finals, paving the way for the Semis to be held in two other London venues - the Emirates Stadium and the Olympic Stadium/New Boleyn Ground.

The biggest losers in all of this could be Turkey, who surprisingly were the only country to vote against this proposal. Turkey controversially lost out on hosting Euro 2016 to Platini's France, and their bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games in Istanbul was affecting their attempts to stage the Euros in the same year. One would think Platini had a vendetta against the Turks.

They, and many football supporters like myself, will be hoping that this experimental change to the European Championship format is temporary.

Sadly, it may not, and if Michel Platini becomes President of FIFA in 2015, the potential of a FIFA World Cup being staged across the planet cannot, although it absolutely must, be discarded.

4 December 2012

Misconstrued Sun headlines #2

The Sun's chief sports writer and his colleagues hard at work. (Photo: Chris Lott)

Britain's best-sold comic used to be either the Beano or the Dandy (it's certainly not the Dandy now). But at this moment in time - it's The Sun.

A few months ago, I showed you some football headlines from The Sun which could easily confuse less knowledgable readers. For example, POD SET FOR NO 10 doesn't immediately suggest that Lukas Podolski will wear Arsenal's number 10 shirt.

You won't be surprised to learn that The Sun have not improved when it comes to creating snappy headlines, and here are some of their worst offerings from recent weeks:

What's the actual story? Arsenal flop Andre Santos is set to return to Turkish football in January.
What does the headline SUGGEST? Andre Santos is not keen on having a traditional Christmas dinner before 26 December.

What's the actual story? Joleon Lescott fears that his lack of games for Manchester City recently could see him lose his England place.
What does the headline SUGGEST? Les Ferdinand fears that his lack of games for Tottenham Hotspur recently could see him lose his England place.

What's the actual story? Ukraine want Harry Redknapp to be their next national team manager.
What does the headline SUGGEST? The Ukrainian opposition, perhaps inspired by a mission on Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, launch a darker version of 2004's Orange Revolution.

What's the actual story? Roy Hodgson is seeking the help of psychiatrists in a bid to solve England's penalty shoot-out jitters.
What does the headline SUGGEST? Problem solved! England are good at taking penalties now!

What's the actual story? Newcastle United midfielder Yohan Cabaye will be out of action until January due to a groin injury.
What does the headline SUGGEST? Newcastle United's Yohan Cabaye had to walk all the way to St James' Park after the taxi taking him from his home stopped suddenly.

What's the actual story? Newcastle United have been linked with a move for NAC Breda's Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj.
What does the headline SUGGEST? The Beach Boys have come out as long-suffering Newcastle United fans.

What's the actual story? Chelsea will not be bringing back ex-manager Avram Grant as an advisor.
What does the headline SUGGEST? Chelsea will not be giving the manager's job to two-thirds of their former boss Andre Villas-Boas.

What's the actual story? Daniel Sturridge's representatives have claimed that he did not talk himself out of a transfer from Chelsea to Liverpool.
What does the headline SUGGEST? Daniel Sturridge has been rebranded to capitalise on the success of Team GB.