The sour taste of the beautiful game

10th September 2011 is a date that Steve Bruce is unlikely to forget in a hurry. After months of parasites infesting his main goal getter, Asamoah Gyan’s head, the Ghanaian left the North East on a surprising season long loan to the United Arab Emirates side Al-Ain, in an apparent attempt to regain his focus. This is becoming an unfortunately common sight in modern day football; the player’s head being turned by the possible chance that they might be able to ply their trade somewhere more glamourous than for their current outfit. As the press has become more and more powerful and intrusive, there is no surprise that some players might be unsettled by a rumour linking them to the bright lights of Madrid, or that their manager allegedly dislikes them. It has affected the most loyal servants to their clubs, with the Steven Gerrard to Chelsea incident springing to mind, and has ruined the mindsets of others.  So why does it happen? Who is responsible? And how realistically can the problem be solved?

There have always been rumours and gossip surrounding footballers, especially when a player has excelled, burst onto the scene or publicly voiced their disdain for their present situation. The rumour mill these days has escalated rapidly, and we are constantly entertained by the possibility of Wesley Sneijder ditching his glorious life in Milan for the frostbite of a Manchester substitutes’ bench, or Arsene Wenger splashing out his entire budget on yet another unlikely, unneeded youthful candidate. Crass, eye-catching stories grab the attention, but really for it to become newsworthy there should be an ounce of truth in the depiction. Perhaps most worryingly as the  Steed Malbranque rumour has shown, stories can be plucked from the air, and if its discussed enough then it becomes plausible. This year has been rife with unsettled footballers, that have been apparently offered bigger bucks elsewhere, and despite the club owning that player’s registration until their contract expires, it is the player that is in control.

A prime example of recent player power has been Samir Nasri in engineering his move to Manchester City. Going into this season, Nasri had only a single year remaining on his Arsenal contract. Arsene Wenger was adamant that despite this fact if Nasri did not sign a new deal he would retain his services for the season and risk losing him on a Bosman next summer. Instead, he dug his heels in and forced the move through. Wenger has retained a strong sense of denial this summer in his attempts to keep Nasri and Fabregas, and he must have known all along that his two most prominent possession merchants were on their way out. The move went through at the end of August, and Nasri’s form and immediate coherent position in the City team, have shown that he made the correct move.

Alongside this new found power for players when dealing with a potential move, is the strength that their agents have in these negotiations. Around this time last year the Wayne Rooney debacle manifested itself onto the nation’s back pages for a couple of weeks. He claimed to have become unsettled and disillusioned by the lack of high profile recruits, and seemed almost certain to leave Old Trafford. He eventually saw the sense, signed a bumper new contract, and lived happily ever after. It is hard to comprehend why a player so well loved and respected at the most successful club in England would want to jump ship, until the salient presence of his agent, Paul Stretford is considered. Stretford was aware that any scare-mongering would force Manchester United into a tight corner, and that their only positive route out was to offer Rooney more money; allowing the agent to pocket his cut of the deal. Alex Ferguson maintained all along merely that ‘Rooney’s advisers say he’s wants a move’, accentuating the fact that the player was in all reality a puppet for his pushy money man.

Perhaps the best depiction of an unsettled footballer and his external conscience is that of the  Manchester-phobic Carlos Tevez and the suspiciously successful Kia Joorabchian. The Argentine has been on a self-imposed nomadic conveyor belt after he sold his soul to the Joorabchian fronted MSI Agency at the age of 21.  Since his economic rights were handed to Joorabchian, Tevez has seemingly moved wherever the money is best; his short spell at West Ham was an attempt to advertise the product, and Manchester United took the bait, snapping him up on a two season loan. He then trundled across the city to sign for the ‘noisy neighbours’, and has enjoyed a gluttonous goal-fest in the blue shirt. This summer another move almost materialised, but in reality was unaffordable. He has cited his family’s absence as a motive, but by contemplating a move to mainland Europe he would have migrated even further away from his motherland. They have now resumed life in the North West, and he claims to be happy to stay in Manchester. So why the itchy feet this summer? It couldn’t have merely been the player wanting out, especially after captaining the side for the majority of last season, and propelling them to their first silverware in almost four decades. He is one of the highest earning players worldwide, and were he to leave would have to take a significant pay cut. He has often spoken of his desire to retire early and to return home, it could be argued that because he is aware of this knowledge, Joorabchian knows that to maximise his profits, he and his client have to tread new nations, and infiltrate new markets because the cash cow won’t be there forever. His latest moment of disruptive madness however has pushed a move in January through prematurely, and he will be forced to rot in isolation, and then ciphered  off to the highest bidder.

This situation involving Tevez is one that documents just how futile a club’s contractual obligations are to an individual player. It appears that even the most settled players have doubts, and are always looking to progress their careers both financially and also on a personal level. Benoît Assou-Ekotto last year gave an enlightening insight into the mind of the mercenary footballer.  As a result it is easily apparent to see just what drives a large portion of professional footballers, and also their background teams to push for that quick buck. The presence of better offers in rumour form and occasionally in reality, force dreams to be considered, heads to turn, and wallets to be well stocked. It appears that this is a side of the game that is going to stay, and if anything become even more deeply rooted into the very existence of the sport. In today’s game money talks; I’m sorry Steve Bruce, but you have lost Asamoah Gyan for good.


You’ll Never Walk Alone

As a Norwich City fan the past two seasons have seemed to have sped by, leaving me almost pedestrianised as I come to terms with which division my team will be plying their trade in next season. I have finally come to terms with the fact that this season did in fact happen, after realising that Sky Sports have prepped their page for next season; with Norwich now competing in the Premier League . I have spent the majority of the past 18 months out of the country, and so my fandom has been forced to be channelled into watching a nerve-wracking live feed, or streaming sometimes patchy Scandinavian coverage to get my fix. I am however thankful that I managed to stay in the loop, and watched the exciting conclusion to the season that surprised us all. I am going to give my account of some of the most interesting parts of the season from the perspective of a Canary in Carolina.

After attending the opening matches of the past two seasons with me, I have come to believe that my American girlfriend is both a bad and good luck omen. She has overseen two defeats, yet both of the campaigns have ended in glory, and her confusion that the side who played so strewn of confidence could do well. Perhaps the most harrowing experience for me, was trying to explain to her after the 7-1 defeat to Colchester, that “they don’t normally play like this”. At the beginning of last season however, I looked forward to a year of consolidation and a possible play off push, but nothing that would involve automatic promotion come May. Paul Lambert had shaken the team awake following a sleepy start and after winning  League One at a canter,  the club was on the up.

After returning to America in August, I managed to catch Swansea’s visit to Carrow Road, and I witnessed a strange occurrence; Norwich had luck on their side! Swansea won a penalty at almost the match’s conclusion, but miraculously it was saved, and four minutes later Ashley Williams inadvertently diverted the ball into his own net, and then Simeon Jackson opened his Canary account with almost the last kick of the game, volleying home from an excellent Grant Holt cross. Norwich had been under the cosh for the majority of the game, yet managed to emerge victorious.  It was the start of the late goal phenomenon: Norwich City were at last playing until the final whistle, a trait that I have rarely seen during my time as a fan. This result gave confirmation that Norwich could compete against the better sides in the Championship, and from my football isolation zone, I could assume three league games in that the season would not be an uphill struggle.

My Saturday mornings consisted of a quick glance over the choice of internet streams, and if unwatchable, it would be on to the BBC live feed for a nerve wracking read. There is nothing quite like sitting in front of a computer screen, watching mere text document some of the most important 90 minutes of your day, especially when it does not update for minutes at a time. Perhaps the worst instance of a reliance upon the dreaded live feed was in the Ipswich game at Portman Road. For some strange reason the game wasn’t televised, anywhere other than at Carrow Road, and because I was on the move a lot that day it was a case of infrequent checks in the first half, and then waiting until much later to see the full time result. Having difficulties with coverage and waiting to discover the result however can have a silver lining, as the surprise that awaits can be a greatly enjoyable one. I had luckily returned to England for the first East Anglian derby match, and after that easy victory, I was expecting this encounter to be much closer, so much to my surprise the largest ever Norwich win in this fixture greeted my eyes.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of being a fan abroad is the distinct lack of atmosphere, and the sense of once the game is over it’s back to your other life. There were two incidents when this was noticeable for me, watching Nottingham Forest’s visit to Carrow Road, and Norwich’s promotion clinching trip to Portsmouth. As the games came thick and fast throughout April, I lost track of when to tune in, and had pre-arranged to visit my girlfriend’s family that day. To reverse my folly, we stopped en route, and I snuck into a Barnes & Noble to take advantage of their free wi-fi, and armchair comforts. I was forced to silently shake my head as perhaps the worst case scenario happened: three minutes in, John Ruddy chased a long Forest punt down, and attempted to return the clearance, but it instead cannoned off of the closest redshirt, Nathan Tyson, and ricocheted into the unguarded net. It did not take the home side long however to get back onto level terms and then to claim a well deserved winner just before half-time. As my girlfriend checked on me in the second half, I was far removed from the external world, completely immersed in the events of a match some 4,000 miles away. As Forest camped in the Norwich half for the final 5 minutes, I was visibly on edge, and would have appeared out of place in such a serene atmosphere; this was not the actions of a man listening to Mozart! As the prone Paul Konchesky was given his marching orders, and the final whistle was blown, I quickly emerged back into a slow moving bookshop in North Carolina in an elated mood, and we were able to continue on to our prior engagement. It was perhaps the most  juxtaposed 90 minutes of my life, as I sat on the edge of my seat silently urging my team on; kicking every ball; and making every header, whilst mundane American consumer life went on interrupted around me.

When Norwich kicked off against Portsmouth at Fratton Park on May 2nd, they were in poll position in the automatic promotion race, Cardiff had shot themselves in the foot, following a 3-0 defeat to lowly Middlesborough, and it was up to Norwich to finish the job themselves. It was simple, if they were victorious they would earn promotion with a game to spare, it was in their own hands. I watched the game in my girlfriend’s student apartment, with our newly acquired  dog, and as far as I could tell was the only person in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that knew of the game’s existence, and that cared for the result. Our hound was confused as his new master gasped and shouted at profligate finishing, and brayed for retribution as yet another heavy challenge came in. Portsmouth’s tactics were to frustrate and to keep Norwich at bay, giving them very little in an attacking third. They were lucky to be level at half time, but I was apprehensive that they could keep it up for the remaining half, and that the promotion party would have to wait until the final game of the season. Then Simeon Jackson popped up to break the deadlock with a well timed diving header, and suddenly the dream was a reality, I celebrated as I too was there on the south coast, and our dog got even more confused. There were chances at either end, but thankfully no heart in mouth moments, and Norwich had done it. I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting nursing a cup of Earl Grey, and brimming with elation, letting it all sink in. Norwich City were the first team in over a decade to be promoted from the third tier of English football to the top in consecutive seasons. Whilst my Facebook newsfeed blew up with triumphant statuses, and glorious screenshots of the Championship table, I went out onto the UNC campus to meet my girlfriend, encountering nothing but oblivious faces along the way, as I basked in my team’s achievement.

The periods of time spent abroad, have taught me that despite being isolated from fellow Norwich supporters geographically, I was still able to be part of the promotion party, and to watch the excitement unfurl. Football is now easily accessible across the internet, and as streamed games become more plentiful, the ability to (no matter what your location) enjoy the action and to zone in is thankfully easy. Sure I might not be able to say that I was at Fratton Park on the day Norwich City were promoted, but I can happily admit that I watched the game in North Carolina, and then returned to the glorious American sun, with a semi-permanent euphoric smile etched upon my face. The world has become a smaller place, one which it is very difficult to fall out of the football loop.

False dawn or back on track?

Last week Chelsea manoeuvred a potentially tricky visit to Copenhagen smoothly and with very little fuss, but does this mean that their season is now back on track, or will it dip once more on their return to domestic duty against Manchester United on Tuesday? Before this can be answered, it is essential to document just when and where their season began to fall apart, and whether it can still be salvaged.

After beginning this season in such scintillating form it looked a forgone conclusion that the Premier League title would remain in west London for another year at least. The Blues were the first team to ever begin a Premier League season with back to back 6-0 victories, and looked on course to emulate last season’s record goal difference . The first stumble was defeat at ‘Eastlands’ by a single goal to a fortunate City side, but the team got back to their best with a victory against Marseille, and then outclassed Arsenal. One of their season’s turning points was the Fernando Torres inflicted defeat to the occasionally decent, but thoroughly unpredictable Liverpool. That lose came on the 7th November, but the London side remained top with a 2 points lead and a game in hand on United, and it appeared to be just another blip. They followed up this defeat with a victory in the West London derby against Fulham at the Bridge, and their season still appeared to be very much still on. The day after however the Chelsea season hit turbulence.

On November 11th, Ray Wilkins, the long standing assistant manager had his contract terminated with immediate effect. it was an unexpected decision for Wilkins, and for the Chelsea playing squad. He has been an integral part of recent Chelsea development, working under Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti, and has been a settled vessel amongst the management uncertainty at Stamford Bridge since 2007. Wilkins is well known to have built up  a rapport with the Chelsea squad, and to have utilised his experience to help get the best out of the team. Carlo Ancelotti claimed that “without him, we couldn’t have won a thing”, and I would wholeheartedly agree with him. His presence was required to allow the medley of recent foreign managers find their feet at the Bridge, and to liaise between the players and the manager. The unexpected news was given to Wilkins whilst he was watching a Chelsea reserve team game, and its reasoning is still yet to emerge. He was replaced by the club’s former head of opposition scout, Michael Emenalo, a man appointed by Avram Grant in 2007. Although Emenalo seamlessly slid into the position, he is a less animated man, and it has been easy to see at times how much Wilkins has been missed.

In the 14 league games since Wilkins’ dismissal, Chelsea have been on a horrendous run of form, and it is a far cry from the all conquering side of Jose Mourinho. They have only managed to garner 17 points from a possible 42, and are in danger of not qualifying for next season’s Champions’ League. Can this all be a result of Wilkins’ dismissal, or are there other factors involved in the mix? It can be argued that this season has been one of Chelsea’s most unfortunate for injuries, and that after a summer clear out, those that have departed, have not been sufficiently replaced. It has been the core of the side that has been hit the worst, with problems in both defence and midfield. The normally omnipresent Frank Lampard has been absent more than he has played, and the team have missed his assuredness and fluidity, as well as his goalscoring prowess. His absence has been compounded by that of Michael Essien, who when he has featured, has not been the dominating man-mountain of seasons gone by, and often looks off the pace. Gone from last season’s double winning squad are the experienced Deco, Ballack, Joe Cole and Belletti, and their replacements: Benayoun and Ramires have struggled with fitness, and acclimatisation to the English game, resulting in a stuttering midfield visibly lacking the composure of season’s gone by.

Perhaps most worrying from a Chelsea point of view, has been the indecision and lack of stability at the back. Petr Cech still appears to be affected by his incident with Stephen Hunt, and is hesitant and nervous when the ball is whipped across his box at pace, or when he has to contest an aerial battle with physical opposition. He has saved Chelsea valuable points this season, but is not the commanding presence that he once was, and this lack of confidence resonates through the back line. John Terry has remained his committed self, but even he is human, and has had lapses of concentration. As a result of injuries to Alex and Ivanovic he hasn’t been able to have a constant partner next to him in the centre of defence, and when an unfamiliar player has filled in, the understanding is noticeably lacking. In January Ancelotti brought in the highly rated Brazilian David Luiz to finally fill the void left by Ricardo Carvalho who moved to Madrid over the summer. Luiz is obviously talented, and will be a great ball playing defender for Chelsea, but he needs time to bed in, and to adapt to the speed of the Premier League. He impressed on his first start against Fulham, but was clumsy and rash in bringing Clint Dempsey down, which resulted in a missed penalty for the Cottagers.

It can be argued that alongside the gaps in Chelsea’s formally formidable armoury, the back bone of the vastly successful team are all ageing, and will soon have to be replaced. Lampard  and Drogba are 33 this year, Terry and Anelka are into their 30s, and even the much maligned Ashley Cole will be 31 this year. They are developing the next generation of world beaters, and are starting to ease promising youngsters into the side, with perhaps the ones to watch in the years to come being playmaker Josh McEachran, the goal poacher Daniel Sturridge and Luiz.

It appears that the best way to describe the current Chelsea situation, is one of turbulent transition, that has rendered the season a disappointing one. Two examples of this transition spring to mind; firstly Alex Ferguson’s recent response to John Terry’s pointless claim that United could falter at the top of the table, as he ruled out Chelsea from recovering the 15 points deficit. In recent years the two sides have been neck and neck, and I am sure that the Scotsman is both shocked and relieved by the shortcomings of the Londoners, with the Premier League title really being United’s to lose this season. Secondly after the signing of Fernando Torres in January, Ancelotti has been forced to tinker with his frontline to attempt to accommodate the Spaniard, and as a result the goals have dried up, and the team have been disjointed. In recent seasons, Drogba and Anelka have been two of the first names on the team sheet, and have proved themselves time and time again to be capable match winners, but neither appears to be a good fit with the new £50 million man, and Drogba has been jettisoned to the bench. With the huge amount of money spent on the striker, Ancelotti has to persist with Torres until he eventually comes good, or else lose face.

As long as they are still in the Champions’ League, there is still a chance that Chelsea’s season can be rescued, and that they will have a trip to Wembley. They will however need to get their season back on track with victory at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, and if they can coax the best out of their frontline, then they will be unplayable. Wilkins’ departure in the middle of the season left the team unsettled and confused, and there is obviously something rotten at the centre of the club, but they can press on for the final third of the campaign, and finish on a high. It is a side in transition, that has the ability to return to greatness once more, they just need to settle down, regain their confidence and to get back on track.

Speculate to accumulate

Since its introduction in 2003, the January transfer window has prolonged the season of excitement and good will to all of those involved in the game, and has given everyone the chance to speculate just who could be on the move. Clubs have the entirity of January to conclude a transfer, yet the biggest deals often surface at the month’s climax. This transfer window was the most costly yet, with the reported figure of more than £200 million being splashed around by just Premier League clubs, and the British transfer record twice broken on the same night. There have been some fantastically exciting off and on sagas, and some last minute panic buys; some fans will be elated, others bemused, and some just downright disheartened. The case is always put that a manager cannot make a huge impact taking over halfway through a season, one quality signing however can be the difference between promotion and mid-table, or relegation and survival. Its a mid winter lottery, and some are more willing to gamble than others.

I speak from my own experiences as a Norwich City fan, that the January window can be a delight or a dread. Some of the best signings that the club have made in recent years were conducted in January. Darren Huckerby was the first January transfer window signing presented to the fans, as his successful loan spell was  made permanent, and promotion soon followed. The following January, a prodigious lower league striker, Dean Ashton was signed and charged with firing the Canaries to Premiership survival (a task that he almost accomplished). Fast forward a year, and Ashton had been snapped up by West Ham to be replaced by the prolific goal getting Robert Earnshaw. This year with promotion again a possibility, the  squad has been modestly bolstered, and much to the surprise of many supporters, a proven goal scorer was not added to the roster. With the current crop of frontmen miss-firing, it would have appeared that an out and out striker would have been on the shopping list, but Paul Lambert stated that he would not spend money for the sake of it, and that he was happy with the squad to complete the job in hand. When a large number of clubs were calling press conferences for the last minute signings, Lambert was discussing the build up to last night’s game with Millwall, and the serenity of the situation was easily visible.

It is interesting to note that although Norwich are very much a club in transition, creeping from strength to strength, they have a reasonably settled squad, and have not chopped and changed much this winter. This can be aligned to the Premier League’s top 3: of these teams, only Manchester City have spent money this January, and that was to concluded their 6 month courtship of Edin Dzeko from Wolfsburg. It appears that these teams have stability, and that too many new faces midway through the season could potentially rock the boat. Dzeko’s signing reflects Mancini’s attempt to complete his squad, and although at £27million the Bosnian did not come cheaply, he has shown glimpses that he could be the final piece in City’s silverware quest, and will thrive at Eastlands alongside Tevez and Silva.

Monday night was an amazingly exciting evening of late transfer action. It all centred around Fernando Torres’ £50 million move to Chelsea, with the Merseysiders reinvesting the money on Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. When the possibility of Torres moving to London surfaced this weekend, I thought that Daglish would persuade him to remain until the end of the season, and then allow him to depart if he still wanted. It seemed to take forever for the Suarez deal to be confirmed, but now that he’s finally here I believe that he’ll take the League by storm. He’s pacy, technically very strong, tenacious, and most importantly has a footballing brain, allowing him to slip in seamlessly with Meireles and Gerrard. Perhaps the most unexpected transfer of the night was that of Carroll, who became the most expensive Englishman yet. He is Newcastle born and raised, and it appeared unlikely that he would be jettisoned from the club whilst he was still in development. Although he has been in fine form this season, gaining his first senior England cap, he has only played 40 top flight games, and at £35 million could be a risk. He is a young man of quite some potential, and has the ability to become a Liverpool legend. Despite losing one of their two world class players, Liverpool fans have much to be cheerful about with their new multi-milion strike force. Daglish has reinvested into the squad wisely and has brought in two hungry young forwards, that could fire the boys in red back into those Champion’s League places.

Now to get to the record breaking transfer, the £50million man, Fernando Torres. His form this season has been questionable, and his body language often has suggested that sharing a pitch with Lucas Leiva and Paul Konchesky is the last thing that he would like to do on a Saturday afternoon. In recent weeks however with the appointment of Daglish, Torres has returned to his potent best, and appeared to be enjoying his football once more. Over the period of a weekend however, he has become the most hated man on Merseyside, and the Kopites that once worshipped him, have been seen burning his shirt to banish his presence from Anfield. In Torres’ defence he has made it publicly known that he will be donning a blue shirt in an attempt to add to his medal collection, and it is fair enough to say that he would have to leave Liverpool to gain the success that he craves. It is possible however to gauge his recent improvement of form as an attempt to display his talents for potential new employers, and to put himself in the shop window. Now that he has procured his big money move, he will have to establish himself in the Chelsea lineup, alongside Drogba and Anelka. The arrival of Torres suggests that one of the established forwards at the club will be forced to leave, Didier Drogba’s name has already been mentioned. He and Torres if compatible would be one of the most fearsome strike pairings ever to grace English football, but I fear that they both perform at their best when supported by wide men and a second striker, and that Ancelotti will have  to make a straight choice.

So after such an exciting January, it will be interesting to see how the new additions bed in, and who by the end of the season will have been worth the money, and whether there will be another Shevchenko style flop. The transfer window has its faults and merits, but there’s no denying that all of that frantic speculation and action would be missed if it ever were to be stopped.

Positively negative…

After watching the pulsating Norwich vs Cardiff match, I concluded that it was perhaps the most exciting Championship game I have witnessed all season, and also realised the positives of anti-football. Cardiff started the brighter, and took advantage of some extremely slack defending to draw first blood. After the ball had hit the back of the net on 7 minutes, Dave Jones instructed his players to consolidate the centre of the park, and to keep at least 9 men behind the ball at all times in an attempt to close out the game. It forced Norwich to hold onto the ball and to probe their opposition, trying to pressure them into a lapse of concentration, the  breakthrough finally came on 90 minutes. Thankfully football prevailed in the end, but it’s important to discuss how Cardiff almost stole an undeserved 3 points from Carrow Road.

If anything, scoring so early on was a negative thing for the visitors. On Saturday, they lined up with four very attacking minded players on the field, and looked like they would attempt to take the game to Norwich, and to force the opposition to play on the brake. In recent weeks the Bluebirds have been woeful away from Wales, and this was the first away point accumulated in the past 5 away days. At the start of the season, they played with a sense of fluidity not so different from Arsenal, but this recent run of form has disrupted this confidence, and they are also currently without top scorer, Jay Bothroyd. In place of Bothroyd on Saturday, was debutant, Jon Parkin, and it was immediately obvious to see that he would be the fulcrum of their attack, with a very able supporting cast of Craig Bellamy, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra buzzing all over the final third. It is a front quadrant that promised goals, but after Parkin’s wonderful volley from the edge of the area, were nullified by a combination of fantastic defending and goalkeeping, and profligate finishing. disappointed when given a sight of goal. It can be argued that by scoring so early on, Cardiff were forced to invite the home team to attack them, and attempted to shut up shop. This meant that for the vast majority of the game whenever Cardiff gained possession, it would be launched route one in the hope that Parkin would knock the ball on to a more fleet-footed team mate.

Although I have no authority to compare neither Norwich or Cardiff to Inter Milan or Barcelona, I feel that the associations make sense. This game had shades of that infamous Champion’s League match up from April last year. Admittedly Inter had a two goal league to protect, and were organised with the plan of blocking Barcelona off before they managed to probe their way into the Nerazzurri penalty area. Mourinho’s tactics that day were to frustrate his opponents, and to attack them with pace when they were given the chance. Despite conceding in the final quarter of the match, Inter held on to make the final, winning the competition. There are obvious parallels between the two games: Cardiff got the single goal that they needed to emerge victorious from the contest, forcing Norwich to spread the ball around quickly in midfield in an attempt to carve open a chance. There were nervy moments for the visitors as David Fox struck the crossbar with a furious effort from 25 yards, and Norwich had two penalty shouts waved away, but until the excellent Russell Martin tapped in from a tight angle, it looked like they would hold on for all three points. With so little space in and around the Cardiff box, it was important that the Norwich midfield moved the ball quickly, and spread the play all over the pitch in the hope of creating space for the front two. The main instigator of this play was the marauding Wes Hoolahan, who was at the heart of everything Norwich. He rarely lost the ball, and cruised all over the park, floating into space. His forward thrust forced the gigantic Seyi Olofinjana to backtrack, reducing his impact on the game to some horrendous first touches and a lot of running. It can be argued that as good as Cardiff’s defensive unit were, their midfield was anonymous, and reduced to spectators for much of the match as the ball eluded them.

The most surprising outcome of the day was the contest between Russell Martin and Craig Bellamy. It was only last season that Bellamy was one of Manchester City’s most consistent and mercurial attackers. He struggled to make an impact on the game on his first competitive return to Carrow Road, and looked short of ideas when he had possession. With the approach of Cardiff after opening the scoring, Bellamy was forced to spend most of the game marking Martin, helping out his defensive team-mates. He has never been a defensively minded player, but in the flat 4-4-2 that Dave Jones’ team line up in, forces him to track back and stay in midfield which truly limits his impact on the game. Bellamy’s contribution can be compared to that of Samuel Eto’o against Barcelona. Eto’o made his name as a jet-heeled goal getter, similar to Bellamy, but on that great night, Mourinho played him out wide, utilising his pace in both halves of the pitch, allowing Inter a chance of relief. In both instances the player’s attacking prowess is subdued for the good of the team, but utilised in a quick breakaway.

The positives of anti-football are visible for all to see, and it’s a style that can garner results. It is a tactic that invites the opposition to come and attack, and to attempt to break them down. It is obvious to see that Cardiff’s, like all team’s tactics change from situation to situation, and that against a weaker side they would go all out to attack them. It’s a credit to Norwich City, and documents just how far that they have come in the past two seasons. Negative football can win points, and is a worthy tactic, but I’m just happy that in this instance football came out on top, but neither side were defeated.

Who’d be a manager???

After a turbulent management merry-go-round period, I can quite comfortably say that there is no formula for the perfect manager, nor the exact circumstances in which the position is maintained, only a guarantee that the job will be unpredictable. There are some in the profession who quite frankly should never have made the leap from playing to coaching, and then there are others who have successfully made the grade. In addition to these managerial inconsistencies, the presence and decisions of club owners have severely damaged the game, and it appears that no one’s tenure as manager should ever be taken for granted.

This past month has been one of the most turbulent for managers that I can ever remember. There have been high profile sackings lacking logic a la Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce, and managers that quite frankly should have seen it coming i.e the unfortunate Roys: Hodgson and Keane.  It appears that after every game, the futures of under-pressure managers are discussed, and the odds of a jettisoning of management alternate week to week. For example those in most immediate danger appear to be Gerard Houllier and Avram Grant, and to a lesser extent Carlo Ancelotti.

On owners making their management choices for their club, Avram Grant recently said that “when you sign a manager, you sign up to a philosophy and you have to know what you are doing.” This is a statement that rings true at the beginning of a manager’s stint, but if results begin to go awry, it is regularly the manager who takes the wrap for it rather than the incumbents of the shirt on the pitch. Grant’s statement can be used to illustrate the horrendous treatment of Hughton at Newcastle. After a demoralising relegation, where there was a distinct lack of fight and hunger, Hughton was charged with a return to the Premiership at the first attempt, armed with a heavily depleted budget. He worked wonders with the team, eventually gaining them promotion as champions. After clearing the first hurdle, Hughton looked for a period of stability for the club on its return to the top division, but was rewarded with a meagre budget, and the installation of Peter Beardsley to his back room staff, without his say. It was an almost identical situation to the one which forced Kevin Keegan out of the club last time they were in the top-flight. Mike Ashley employed Dennis Wise as director of football, without consulting Keegan, and the Newcastle legend soon left the club after being undermined. Despite Hughton recording victories against Arsenal and their local rivals Sunderland, and in top half of the table security, he was crudely shafted, and Ashley drafted Alan Pardew into the hotseat. Post Hughton, Pardew’s team have continued in similar form, and who’s to say that Hughton could not have excelled if he had remained at the helm.

The most worrying factor in this instance, as well as Sam Allardyce’s untimely dismissal, is that those who have decided that change is needed at the club are not football people, they are business oriented, and are oblivious to the realities of the game, and the capabilities of their teams. One only need to look at what the Venky’s group are requesting from their freshly bought Blackburn: a place in the upper echelons of the Premier League, on an extremely minimal budget. There have also been suggestions that they will infiltrate their new manager Steve Kean’s transfer dealings, and that they want a potentially squad disrupting galactio signing, to announce their arrival at the club. Their mooted deal for the washed up star of yesteryear Ronaldhino was a publicity stunt similar to Manchester City’s pointless pursuit of Kaka, and in reality, there’s not enough money in the world to persuade him to swap Brazil for Lancashire, and maybe the Venky’s group will get the message.

Finally it is important to document why managers have traditionally lost their jobs in the past; because they haven’t been able to produce the results that they promised that they would achieve at their very first press conference. Its a strange situation when a manager has cut his teeth at a club, excelling there, and then has flopped at another club. Perhaps the best depiction of this strange situation was Brian Clough’s struggles at Leeds after his triumphant spell at Derby County and later on at Nottingham Forest. This year however, I believe that the pair of Roys have documented the struggle of a round peg in a square hole. Last season Roy Hodgson managed to guide his Fulham team to the final of the Europa League, where they were beaten in extra time by Athletico Madrid. It documented the contrasting fortunes of the club to that when he took over in a relegation battle. Last season proved that his man-management skills were second to none, as he brought out the best in Bobby Zamora, a player who has been lacking in confidence since his regretful move to Tottenham, and managed to resurrect the floundering career of Damien Duff. He also proved that he had an eye for a bargain by signing the gigantic Brede Hangeland, and was rewarded fittingly last season, by being announced as manager of the year. His luck however changed after he took the Liverpool job. He signed players that on paper were befitting of the club, but have been disastrous on the field, and the players have rarely looked interested this season. After several shocking results, culminating in a heartless 3-1 defeat to Blackburn, Hodgson parted company with the club, leaving it in a worse position than when he took charge. After his disappointing 6 months or so in the job, is it possible to say that Hodgson does not thrive under pressure, and that he needs a smaller stage on which to perform comfortably.

It is also amazing to see that he has gone from the most respected coach in England to Alan Green’s scapegoat. Surely the horror shows that have been witnessed by Liverpool fans this season cannot all be his fault, he might pick the team, but the players have to do all of the work on the pitch. I am often interested as to just how much a manager can do whilst his team are on the pitch; if you watch Alex Ferguson during a game, he spends 60% of the match sitting on the bench chewing, 20% complaining about the officials and then 20% barking out instructions. The only possible solution could have been that Hodgson lost the dressing room, and that the players had lost their enthusiasm for the game under his stewardship. All in all it was a sad end to a reign that had much promise.

The other Roy: Keane has just been relieved from a fitful spell in charge of Ipswich Town. Keane made the step from player to manager seamlessly as he took Sunderland from the bottom of the Championship to the summit of the division, returning to the promised land at the first attempt. When he replaced Jim Magilton in the Portman Road hotseat, he was provided a sizeable fund to build a squad capable of recreating his triumph with Sunderland. For whatever reason however, Keane never truly found his feet at Ipswich, and the team never really responded to his tactics. He was an immensely well-respected footballer, but it appears that now as a manager he is unapproachable for his players, and is perhaps too volatile a man to be in charge of a football club. Towards the end of his Ipswich reign, he began to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses: blaming the geographical location of Ipswich for the reluctance of players signing for the club! It just never clicked for him in Suffolk, and its hard to see where he will go from here; maybe it would be better for him to drop down a division to guide a smaller side upwards, and for him to hone his managerial skills before pushing on again.

Who’d be a manager eh?

Well that was unexpected…

What a year 2010 was for Norwich City as a club. They managed to return to the second tier of English football at the first attempt, and then to seamlessly compete for promotion upon their return. Statistically they were the most successful team in the football league during the calendar year: taking 89 points from their 46 games, recording the most away wins, and also scoring the most goals. They have entered into a new year, in similar fashion to the way that they began 2010, with 4 points from their 2 fixtures. They have managed to greatly alter their fortunes in a period of the season that has seen them infamously struggle in the past, and this season has seen them go from strength to strength, including a brief occupation of second place.

They are currently on a run of a single defeat in eleven games, and have beaten the league leaders QPR comprehensively along the way. Perhaps this intensive part of the season is not where promotion is lost and won, but it does lay the foundations for a good season if the results are positive. After 25 games gone Norwich City are occupying the lofty position of third in the Championship, only on goal difference from Cardiff in second. I am not going to get ahead of myself, and jump to any hasty conclusions, but it has been a season of great progress, and they are there on merit. The season is just over half way through, and I suppose that the question to ask is how, according to the quite frankly wooden pundit, Leroy Rosenior, the ‘overachievers’ are doing so well?

Paul Lambert has recruited a team of young, hungry talented footballers, mixed with a smattering of more experienced older heads, all on a shoestring budget. They are a close knit group, and this togetherness can be seen throughout their time on the pitch.  A large number of the first eleven have previously had little experience at this level, and they are eager to prove that they can cut it. Talisman captain, Grant Holt had before this campaign, played a handful of games with Blackpool at this level with very little result, and has looked hungry to show that he is up to the task. He has of course taken the division by storm and has six goals in his last seven games. Of the starting midfield four, only Wes Hoolahan has played significant games at this level, and he is looking a lot more accomplished and consistent than on his last Championship jaunt, finding good goalscoring form in recent weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the back four all have experience at this level and higher, and despite the lack of clean sheets this season (QPR was their first in ten games), they have been outstanding, and have helped to build a solid foundation for the team to move forward. In recent weeks the injuries have been mounting, and against QPR, they were without seven first-teamers, leading to Lambert describing the victory as ‘miraculous’ because of such a depleted line-up. I am more inclined to say that it was a case of Andrew Crofts marking the Hoops heartbeat; Taarabt out of the game, leaving the league leaders unable to make their mark on the match, but both make sense.

In the six games that Norwich have lost this season, they have only been truly outplayed on one occasion: against Doncaster Rovers away. Their performances alone should have at least warranted a point from the home defeats to Hull and Portsmouth, and were unfortunate to lose away to Cardiff and at home to Crystal Palace, and the opening day defeat to Watford can be put down to nerves and the lack of success under the Sky Sports spotlight. This strength and consistency that has been shown throughout the first half of the season has documented that this is a team without fear, and one that does not go out looking for a draw; they have the belief that they can garner three points in every game. This belief must be due a considerable amount to Paul Lambert, and his man-management skills. He is rapidly becoming the best manager that the club have ever had, and currently has the best win percentage in the history of the club: winning 58% of his 77 games thus far. He also has retained the amazing statistic that his team are yet to lose two consecutive games during his tenure at the club, and it shows what great ‘bouncebackability’ he has instilled in his squad. Not only has he restored the confidence of the club, but he is also making sure to keep the players and fans feet on the ground. After being lightly interrogated about the team’s chances of promotion in recent weeks, he has always harked back to his original aim for the season: to retain Championship status. He has however stated that if the team can do this, then they will push on to finish in the highest position that they possibly can.

The Championship division this season has been the most open that I can ever remember, and unlike last season there isn’t a Newcastle or West Brom running away with the automatic promotion places. This can only be good news for a fearless Norwich side. They have taken 4 points off of QPR, without conceding a goal, and have the chance to gain revenge from out-of-form Cardiff in their next league game a week on Saturday. As these teams stutter there is every chance that there could be a side that quietly sneaks into the automatic promotion picture, and if the boys in yellow continue their good form, manage to keep their current squad intact, and add to it and of course retain Lambert, then there is no reason why it cannot be them.