FIFA World Cup 2014 – Sunday 15 June 2014

Group C

Columbia (1) 3 -0 (0) Greece

A comfortable looking win for Columbia, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of this game. The South American team went ahead on 5 minutes, from a Amero shot which Greek defender Kostas Manolas should have cleared, but instead scuffed it and it crept agonizingly away from keeper Karnezis’s despairing dive. Greece had two good chances in the first-half both falling to Kone. The second of which, just before the break, brought a decent save from Columbian keeper Ospina. 1-0 at half-time.

Columbia made Greece pay on 58 minutes, when poor defending from a corner left Gutierrez unchallenged to knock over from close range. The Greeks though could have got back into the game, but with the goal at his mercy Gekas managed to direct his header against the bar when it seemed easier to score. The points were secured in time added-on when Karnezis in the Greek goal offered only a weak hand allowing Rodriguez’s shot into the corner.

Post-match question. Why wasn’t Samaras booked for a blatant dive in the second-half?


Group D

Uruguay (1) 1 – 3 (0) Costa Rica

A shock result in Group D as the side expected to finish bottom turned a 1-0 half-time deficit around with second-half goals from Campbell (54 minutes), Duarte (57) and Urena (84).

Post-match question. Are Uruguay a demoralised outfit after this defeat or will they be now a very dangerous animal come next Thursday?


England (1) 1 – 2 (1) Italy

So we didn’t get the mauling I feared, but the reality is that England have lost their opening game and so the pressure is cranked up for the Uruguay and Costa Rica fixtures.

On reflection from the game last night, I feel like a parent receiving their child’s end of term report. It’s not what you had hoped for, but can’t be too hard on the kid as you know they have tried hard.

‘Sir’ Roy will always have a special place in my heart for what he did at Fulham and feel that he is one of the last football ‘gents’ (witness him shaking hands with all the Italians substitutes prior to kick-off). He gave us last night a glimpse of a younger England team which whilst raw and sometimes naïve did provide some cause for optimism.

Italy are a decent side and their possession and ability to slow the tempo will mean for me they are Europe’s main threat in these Finals.

* * * * * * * * *


Well by the time I’d got up, one game had already finished as the Group C fixture between Japan and Ivory Coast was at 02:00 this morning. Japan took the lead through Honda with a sweet left foot shot but were beaten by two second-half headed goals. They both came within the space of two minutes, first a flicked header from Bony and then one from Gervinho, which the Japanese keeper should have dealt better with,

The rest of today follows with the familiar pattern of games at 17:00, 20:00 and 23:00


Group E

Switzerland v Ecuador

The Swiss qualified for the Finals after finishing top of their group and going undefeated. However, the achievement is tempered when you look at who they played – Albania, Cyprus, Iceland, Norway and Slovenia. Ecuador took the last of the automatic spots in the CONMEBOL group finishing fourth.

Within the Swiss ranks, Reto Ziegler had spells in England with Spurs and Wigan Athletic, and a player I can’t believe is an international centre-back, Philippe Senderos. He (incredibly) lists Arsenal, AC Milan and Valencia amongst his clubs, but can only say he was for me a liability every time he pulled on a Fulham shirt. Villa fans you have been warned. Also boasting Arsenal as a previous club is Johan Djourou, with a brief loan spell at Birmingham City as well. Midfielder Valon Behrami was at West Ham between 2008 and 2011, whilst fellow midfield partner Gelson Fernandes was signed by Sven-Goran Eriksson for Manchester City and later Leicester City.

Watford fan’s will be anxious to see the new summer signing from Ecuador, Juan Carlos Paredes, in action, having moved from Barcelona (the Ecuadorian version, not the Spanish). Antonio Valencia Ecuador’s captain is the biggest name in their squad, the striker having joined Manchester United from Wigan in 2009. Another player with experience of Manchester (this time at City) is Felipe Caicedo, although he was unable to claim a regular starting spot.

This is a difficult one to call and may end up as an attritional draw.


France v Honduras

France had the dubious pleasure of being in the same qualifying group as Spain, so had to settle for a runners-up berth and only got to the Finals after a dramatic play-off victory against Ukraine. The French lost 2-0 in Kiev and seemed to have a difficult task in the return leg. However, France had wiped out the deficit by half-time with goals from Sakho and Benzema. Sakho emerged as the hero of the hour getting his second and the goal that sealed qualification for Brazil. Honduras took the last automatic qualification spot in the CONCACAF Group, finishing third behind USA and Costa Rica.

France could nearly field an entire team from England, with 10 players currently plying their trade in this country. They are, Lloris (Spurs), Debuchy (Newcastle United), Evra (Manchester United), Sakho (Liverpool), Sagna (Manchester City), Sissoko (Newcastle United), Schneiderlin (Southampton), Giroud (Arsenal) and Remy (QPR). In addition, Yohan Cabaye was recently at Newcastle United and Paul Pogba had a very brief spell at Old Trafford.

Honduras too can boast some British connections with Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Juan Carlos García (Wigan Athletic), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic), Wilson Palacios (Stoke City) and Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic).

As England can testify from their friendly in Miami, Honduras won’t be afraid to put their foot in. It could be an uncomfortable test for France, but I think Les Bleus will have too much talent and come through to win.


Group F

Argentina v Bosnia-Hercegovina

The ‘panto-villians’ that are Argentina, who count amongst their squad the Manchester City trio of Pablo Zabaleta, Martín Demichelis and Sergio Agüero and of course the World’s Best Player Lionel Messi. However, despite all the talent in their ranks, they just aren’t cuddly are they? How I’d love an upset Italia ’90 style in this game.

Bosnia-Hercegovina qualified by winning their group, but it was on goal-difference after they finished level on points with Greece. This game will be a bit of an Etihad reunion as Edin Dzeko is likely to lead the front-line for Bosnia. The Premier League connection is added to by Stoke City keeper Asmir Begovic, who will need to be at his very best to keep Argentina at bay.

An imperious 3-0 win for La Albiceleste could well be on the cards. Oh no it isn’t…oh yes it is…

Soccerex European Forum (Manchester): The Four Lions

Day 2 – Thursday 11 April 2013

15:15 – 16:15       The Four Lions

–      Roy Hodgson, England National Team Manager

–      Bryan Robson, England Legend

–      Kevin Keegan, England Legend

–      Michael Owen, England Legend

–      Moderator: Hayley McQueen, Presenter, Sky Sports

Michael Owen (on screen)

The opening question of the session from Hayley McQueen was to Michael Owen and asked whether his impending retirement felt real. He replied that he knew before Christmas that he was going to call it quits at the end of this season and added that every week was one game closer to retiring. Owen added that he was surprised how emotional he was when he made the announcement and was sure it would be equally emotional after the last game of the season. Bryan Robson asked Michael Owen if he planned to stay in football. He replied that he had a few things he was involved with, such as punditry work, doing his coaching badges and setting up a management company to look after young players. McQueen asked if Kevin Keegan had any advice about retirement. He responded that Michael Owen was lucky that he was in a position to decide when to end his career, as others didn’t have that luxury. Keegan added though that he believed Michael Owen could have carried on playing in midfield, as he had done a few times at Newcastle. However, Keegan added that ultimately there was nothing that could replace playing.

Moving on, Hayley McQueen asked about the significance of the introduction of ‘Goal-line’ technology to the Premier League. Roy Hodgson said that everyone wants it and it had to be right that injustice when goals were not given was corrected. However, he added that not all countries and their leagues would be able to afford it. Hodgson did wonder if it would lead to further technology being used. Bryan Robson picked up on this point and said that the technology may only be decisive on 2 or 3 goals a season, whereas how many occasions are there are close penalty calls and so reasoned should technology be used to look at these incidents. Roy Hodgson added that back in the 70s and 80s handball shouts were few and far between, but said that in some games he had watched recently there were 10 or 12 appeals for handball. He added did we want to stop a game on that many occasions whilst a decision was viewed ‘upstairs’.

The next topic for discussion was in relation to the new UEFA regulations for dealing with racism. Roy Hodgson replied that the ‘new’ UEFA stance was much needed. However, he was concerned that although CCTV was in grounds in countries such as England, Spain and Germany, there were numerous others without the technology which would make identifying troublemakers difficult. Hodgson continued that he was concerned that the small minority who go looking for trouble could bring about the closure of a whole ground and make the majority suffer. Bryan Robson said that he wholeheartedly supported UEFA’s efforts to improve the situation, but didn’t believe racism could be 100% eradicated.

Kevin Keegan

Hayley McQueen next asked Kevin Keegan about the stresses of being an England manager. He replied that dealing with the press was always a difficult one. Keegan added it was like facing an over in cricket. The first ball up would be a friendly one you could hit for a four or six, as would the second and third ball, but you knew that sooner or later a beamer and a googly were coming! Keegan continued that as England manager you  had a Press Officer who would prepare the responses, but you had to be careful and make sure you answered the questions properly. He went onto say that it was difficult going to games as England manager and remembers going to Highbury to watch Arsenal against Chelsea and only having one English player to watch, whereas the French National Coach was able to watch eleven players. Keegan said that would be okay if he was then able to go to watch Paris St-Germain against St Etienne and watch six or seven English players. However, he said that he loved working with the players, but it was difficult not having the regular contact and communication with them.

Roy Hodgson was asked if the amount of foreign players in the Premier League hampered the progression of English talent. He responded that clubs had their own agendas and therefore brought in overseas talent in the hope of bringing success, but Hodgson added we just had to deal with it. He continued that it was important to maximise what talent was available and build around senior players, but that invariably youngsters took time to develop and blend in. Bryan Robson joined the debate and said that foreign talent had enhanced the league in terms of the skill they brought and what other players learnt from them. Kevin Keegan said that it was important that England had ‘generals’ in first-team’s and that our own ‘play-makers’ were developed. He continued that at Manchester City, their midfield included David Silva and Javi Garcia, who whilst ‘generals’ for the club, weren’t in the top three for the Spanish National Team. Robson said that in the 70s, there were three or four quality Scottish players at each club. Roy Hodgson came in with the point that we had to be more optimistic. He reflected that 10 or 12 years ago, Spain were not amongst the top World teams, so they embarked on an investigation to look at what needed changing. Now The FA is studying the Spanish to see what they do, that we don’t, whether that be in terms of coaching, club organisation or developing young players.

Hayley McQueen asked Michael Owen whether playing abroad helped his development. He added that English players going abroad is rare, with part of the reason being that the Premier League is so lucrative. Owen continued that when he was younger football was so very different at international level and across Europe. He said that now he thought that the game was broadly similar, so players don’t need to play overseas.  Owen added that he enjoyed his time at Real Madrid, although his family struggled, but that he did miss the Premier League whilst he was in Spain.

Roy Hodgson

Roy Hodgson was then questioned as to how optimistic he was about England going to Brazil next summer with a full and fit squad. He said that with clubs going on tours pre, during and post season it made it all the more difficult. Hodgson added that the ‘club v country’ issue is not something confined to England as he encountered it during his time as Swiss National Coach. He continued that be understood the situation from both sides as he had worked as a club manager. Bryan Robson half-joked that Sir Alex Ferguson would have preferred all his players to retire from the international scene! He continued that a club manager has the interests of the team at heart so wants fresh players come the start of a new season and not the problems of tiredness and injuries that the European Championship and the World Cup inevitably bring.

Hayley McQueen asked if England was in a transitional phase. Roy Hodgson replied that we had to be positive. Yes, he added there were clubs where squads were filled with foreign players and so it was a different world now for managers. Hodgson continued that young players have to be playing first-team football, but it was a very difficult situation. Michael Owen added that he had never been stopped from going on international duty, but knew of managers who rather you didn’t. He continued that in recent years the League Cup and FA Cup were used to rest players and queried whether internationals were next. Owen continued that there had to be dialogue about the situation, so that players perhaps only played a half in international friendlies. Kevin Keegan interjected that he saw that as a compromise and generally compromises never worked. Bryan Robson added that compromise was the only way. Roy Hodgson made his view clear when saying that UEFA had detailed certain dates or ‘windows’ when friendly internationals could be played, so there was no excuse for club managers not to be aware of these slots and therefore should be able to plan them in.

Given that England had internationals at Senior level and the summer European Championship at Under 21, Hayley McQueen asked where players who were eligible for the U21s but who had played at Senior level, would be selected. Roy Hodgson said that there were obviously discussions to be had with Stuart Pearce. However, he continued that in his opinion if a player has played consistently at a higher level then they don’t go back down. Hodgson added that he couldn’t understand why clubs denied players the chance to play international football at any level and quoted an instance when there were sixty withdrawals from an England U20s squad prior to a tournament. He said he simply couldn’t see why a club would stop 18/19 year olds being released.

Bryan Robson

Continuing on this topic, Hayley McQueen wanted to know how important it was for players to progress through the international levels. Michael Owen said that on a personal level he gained enormous benefit playing at various age-group competitions as it prepared him for his later experiences at Senior level. He added that he never had a summer off between the age of 15 and 20. Owen acknowledged that some players can cope physically with these demands at a young age, but he added his body didn’t mature enough until his early 20s. He continued that it was difficult to say whether missing out on some of those tournaments would have helped extend his career. Kevin Keegan said that for him it was important that players sailed through the levels and that as an England manager you wanted an elite group of four or five who progressed quickly to Senior level. Keegan added that Michael Owen had only played one game for the U21s. Roy Hodgson made the point that if a player at 19 was not a key player at a club; he liked to think that international experience at the relevant age group was vital and so enable them to get a break at a later point. Michael Owen wondered whether ‘special’ players should be treated differently. Kevin Keegan said that the age-groups team needed their ‘generals’ to play. Bryan Robson recalled the Under 18 (Mini) World Cup that England won in 1975. He added that along with himself, Glen Hoddle, Alan Curbishley, Ray Wilkins and Peter Barnes all played in the tournament despite the fact that they were playing first-team at their respective clubs. Robson considered that winning the competition provided then a confidence and boost that help progress their careers. Michael Owen said that in Spain they seemed to serve an apprenticeship before moving up. He observed England didn’t have the numbers to do this and instead youngsters found themselves forced up, but asked if there was an ideal model. Roy Hodgson said that it was an interesting debate and that there was no ‘right or wrong’ answer. He added that if you built an early and successful relationship with players, it lasts a life-time, with Dario Gradi being a case in point with the work he had done over the years at Crewe.

Kevin Keegan commentated that when he was a player, if you weren’t playing it felt like a failure. He continued that if you get paid ‘big’ money you had to put in the ‘big’ shifts’. Keegan said it was not right that England players like Gareth Barry and James Milner weren’t regulars at Manchester City. Bryan Robson said that he remembered one season when at WBA where he played over seventy games including many on some terrible pitches. He added that they managed by doing less training and that the top players at clubs were rarely rested. Robson continued that current players have all the advantages of better playing surfaces, diets, training and medical support, yet play nowhere near the amount of games of the past. Roy Hodgson said that he didn’t believe modern players played too much and that we were slightly hood-winked as we ‘took it as read’ that players took part in too many games. In support of his point Hodgson said that from his analysis of the England squad many players only completed 15 -19 full games (in actual minutes) during a season – hardly a situation which causes ‘burn-out’.

Hayley McQueen next asked whether it mattered if England qualified through the Play-offs for the 2014 World Cup. Bryan Robson replied that the aim should always to finish top of the groups and therefore qualify automatically. He continued that you should ‘hammer’ the minnows and not lose to the strongest teams. Robson added that it was still in England’s hands, but that the games at Wembley were now ‘must-wins’ and the young players now have to ‘step-up’.   Michael Owen added that coaches and players had improved amongst the ‘smaller’ countries and agreed with Bryan Robson that the games at Wembley have to be won.

Turning to the recent game in Montenegro, McQueen wanted to know how it came to be the proverbial ‘game of two-halves’. Kevin Keegan said that these things happen, in that you go forward in the opening forty five minutes, yet come out after half-time and it’s all so different. He added that it happened in the opposite manner as well and recalled how the two games against Scotland in the Play-Offs for Euro 2000 reflected this. England had been comfortable at Hampden Park winning 2-0, but then lost at Wembley 1-0 and just about hung-on to qualify. Keegan continued though that the important thing was qualify. Roy Hodgson was asked how he fielded criticism. The England manager said that people are entitled to their opinions, but their comments were generally made with the benefit of hindsight. He continued he might be being naïve, but held the belief that the public understood the situation. In terms of the game in Montenegro, he said that as a manager you can’t believe that what happened in the opening half is not continued into the second period and therefore you don’t rush into substitutions. Hodgson reinforced what Kevin Keegan had said in that qualifying is the ‘be-all and end-all’.

Hayley McQueen

Next Hayley McQueen wanted to know about the failure of England when confronted by a penalty shootout. Roy Hodgson was visibly irritated by the question and Kevin Keegan stepped in to provide a response. Keegan said that it was very hard to replicate the match scenario and recalled a story from his days at Liverpool. He remembered how after he had missed a penalty against Burnley that in training a penalty competition was organised. Peter Cormack emerged as the winner and three weeks later at Coventry City, Liverpool were awarded a penalty. Keegan said that Cormack didn’t want to take it and so he had to take it and Keegan missed! Bryan Robson jokingly remarked the best thing to do was not draw! Roy Hodgson then said that they do practice penalties, so they can say they have, but continued that in practice before the Italy game they were ‘flying-in’. Hodgson added that ultimately it was all about composure. He said that Clive Woodward had once said that penalty-taking was a ‘science’; however Hodgson said he wasn’t convinced as good players miss.

Hayley McQueen asked Roy Hodgson as to which was the toughest of the four national teams he has managed. He replied that getting Switzerland to the World Cup in 1994 and getting them to the last sixteen gave him particular pride as the Swiss emerged from a Qualifying Group that contained Italy, Portugal and Scotland. Hodgson added that his time at Finland was also pretty satisfying when they narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro 2008. He continued that to work at International Level was a privilege and that he enjoyed working with the variety of players. However, Hodgson added that he understood that failure was also part and a reality of the role. He continued that ‘other people’ made the job tougher or easier. Turning to the panel he said that the three ex-players were a tremendous example in terms of the enthusiasm they displayed during their career and that England was lucky to have fans who shared that passion.

The session closed when Roy Hodgson turned interviewer and asked the panel who their football idols were. Kevin Keegan said that for him it was Billy Wright, as he was a ‘small’ guy who went onto be a world-class player. He added that he remembers watching on television Wolves against Honved and being amazed by Wright. For Bryan Robson, he said that Bobby Moore was his idol, a great reader of the game and so smooth in everything that he did. Michael Owen said that as a kid he was an Everton fan and Gary Lineker was the player he looked up to and wanted to be. Roy Hodgson had the final word, saying that for him, his idols were two players who were part of the 1966 England World Cup squad who didn’t get to play – Gerry Byrne and George Eastham.

UEFA European 2012 Championship: Preview

As summer stills attempts to make its mind up about whether to actually show up this year, June sees the beginning of the UEFA 2012 European Championships, hosted by Poland and Ukraine. The award of the event to these countries has divided opinion. UEFA President Michel Platini, unsurprisingly, is fully supportive of taking such a major tournament to new territories. However, Theo van Seggelen (Secretary General of the World Players Union, FIFPro) is concerned that the abiding memory of the Championships could be more about racism and violence than events on the pitch. This assertion is based around work carried out by FIFPro and highlighted at the Soccerex 2012 event in Manchester and covered recently by the BBC’s Panorama programme. It is a very real concern and UEFA must be holding it’s breath at what may ensue over the next month.

On the pitch, the general consensus is that there is no pressure on England going into the tournament as the expectation from the media and football public is low. The tournament has been swallowed up amidst the Jubilee Celebrations and the impending Olympics; perhaps it is no bad thing. Preparation has hardly been ideal for the Three Lions, with the appointment of a successor to Fabio Capello left in limbo for months. Then once appointed, Roy Hodgson received a less than overwhelming response from some sections of the media and fans. For my part I think it is a good appointment given that The FA were totally sold on having an English manager this time around. Hodgson has good experience at club and international level and I just hope he isn’t subject to the sniping that marked his brief time at Anfield. Of the England squad picked by Hodgson, it has a very familiar look about it and it will surely be the ‘last hurrah’ for the likes of Terry and Gerrard. There hasn’t been a great deal of luck with injuries either, as the squad has seen Ruddy, Barry, Lampard and Cahill all have to withdraw and there has also been some background dissent at the non-selection of Rio Ferdinand. Will adversity work for or against England?

In terms of how the 2012 competition pans out, I can’t see the shocks and emerging of an underdog to win, as happened earlier this year in the African Cup of Nations. Having said that, Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004, showed that upsets are possible. However in 2012 for me the European ‘big guns’ of Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Italy will be the ones to beat and in terms of the Groups, this is who I expect to emerge to the knock-out Phase:

Group A: Russia and Czech Republic.

Group B: Germany and Netherlands.

Group C: Spain and Italy.

Group D: England and France.

Tomorrow Poland face Greece at the National Stadium in Warsaw, in the opening fixture, with Russia and the Czech Republic playing later in the day at the Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw. Co-hosts Poland do not have a great track record in the European Championships, and have only ever qualified for the Finals on one occasion, that being in 2008. In their Group games the Poles lost to Germany and Croatia and drew against Austria. Poland won their last warm-up game 4-0 against Andorra, but will be under tremendous pressure from the home fans to get a winning start to their campaign against Greece.

This will be the fourth appearance for the Greeks in the Finals. Their debut came in 1980, where they drew 0-0 with West Germany, but lost to the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. Greece had to wait 24 years before qualifying again and what an incredible tournament they had. In the Groups Stage, Greece beat hosts Portugal 2-1, drew 1-1 with Spain and went through on goals scored after a 2-1 loss to Russia. In the Quarter-Finals, the reigning Champions France were beaten 1-0 to set up a Semi-Final meeting with the Czech Republic. The game went to extra-time and a single goal was enough to see Greece into the Final. Incredibly the Greeks overcame hosts Portugal 1-0 with a goal from Charisteas to become European Champions. However in 2008 it was a rather different story for Greece as they lost all three Group games, to Sweden, Russia and Spain. Greece qualified for this tournament after topping a Group containing Croatia, Israel, Latvia, Georgia and Malta. The Greeks were unbeaten winning seven games and drawing three. However, going into their last friendly before Euro 2012, Greece had not won in four games, before a 1-0 win over Armenia provided a boost ahead of tomorrows game.

Russia (in the guise of the Soviet Union) were the first European Champions in 1960 beating Yugoslavia 2-1 and had an impressive record in the early years, finishing runners-up in 1964, fourth place in 1968 and runners-up in 1972. There were then barren years until 1988 when they reached the Final only to lose to the Netherlands. As the political situation changed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union broke apart, by the time the Euro 1992 arrived a team that represented the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a regional confederation formed by 12 of the 15 newly formed sovereign states that emerged out of the break-up, competed in Sweden. In the Group games, the CIS drew with Germany and the Netherlands before bowing out with a 3-0 loss to Scotland. As Russia emerged as a footballing entity they qualified for Euro 1996, but finished bottom of their group, losing to Italy and Germany before ending with a draw against the Czech Republic. Eight years later in Portugal, Russia again finished bottom of their Group after losses to Spain and Portugal, although they did beat eventual Champions Greece 2-1 in their closing game. Four years ago, Russia had their best showing in recent years, reaching the Semi-Finals before bowing out to three second half goals from Champions elect Spain. In qualification for Euro 2012, Russia topped the Group in which the Republic of Ireland were runners-up. In their last warm-up game, Russia impressively overcame Italy 3-0.

As Czechoslovakia (prior to the political break-up in 1992), the country had a rather hit and miss European record, in that between 1960 and 1992, they failed to qualify for six of the nine tournaments. However, when qualifying they had an impressive record. In 1960, Czechoslovakia having lost to the Soviet Union in the Semi-Finals, beat France to take third place. Sixteen years later Czechoslovakia won the competition, overcoming West Germany winning 5-3 on penalties. Another third place was achieved four years later, overcoming Italy 9-8 on penalties. As the Czech Republic the team has qualified for every Finals from 1996 to date. In England in Euro 1996, they made it to the Final, only to lose to Germany. In the tournaments of 2000 and 2008, the Czech Republic didn’t get beyond the Group stage, but in 2004 got to the Semi-Finals only to lose to eventual Champions Greece in extra-time. Their qualification for this years tournament was sealed through the play-offs with a 3-0 aggregate win over Montenegro. Their last outing before this tournament ended in a 2-1 defeat to Hungary.

The opening round of games in any tournament are invariably cagey, as nobody wants to get off to a losing start, so part of me says that the two opening fixtures will end as draws. Let the action commence…

2010/11: Expectation

Expectation – is it a burden or a motivator? In football terms, I suppose it’s different things to different clubs. As a Fulham fan back in the 1995/96 season I was grateful that we managed to avoid relegation to the Conference. There was no expectation, just a relief that the club actually existed. That season marked the low-point and the start of a journey that has been quite unbelievable. If somebody had told me that within 16 years, the club would be in the top-flight for 10 consecutive seasons and would reach a European Final, I’d have said they needed a very long lay down in a darkened room.

As wonderful as that journey has been, on a personal level I’ve always tried to be realistic about the expectations for Fulham. For others, there has been an unreasonable (as I see it) rationale as the club has progressed. There is nothing wrong with ambition, but it has to be balanced with reality. Some people may consider my views as lacking aspiration or as killing a dream, but I have my position because ultimately our teams do let us down.

As the last of the winner’s tickertape fluttered down in Hamburg at the end of the Europa League Cup Final and Fulham trudged off, thinking of what might have been – there were bound to be consequences. Firstly, Roy Hodgson became a managerial target and was bound to leave and secondly fans were thinking that Fulham “had arrived” and that 2011/12 would bring a top seven finish and domestic silverware.

Mark Hughes took over and after going unbeaten in the League in August and September, the remainder of 2010 became decidedly desperate. A Boxing Day mauling by then bottom of the table West Ham at the Cottage and dropping into the bottom three made those balmy European nights seem a life-time away. The reality of relegation was an unwelcome apparition as 2011 awoke. I had that dread and fear in the stomach that comes from knowing your club is in trouble. Cold logic tells you that you’ve had a good run, 10 years in the Premier League has been a bonus. However, a positive run of results in both the League and FA Cup as January turns into February and suddenly there is a whiff of expectation. The FA Cup Fifth Round looms, you get a home tie against a fellow Premier League team. I’m expecting Fulham to win, for the first time this season I’m feeling confident. As I said earlier in this piece, eventually your team lets you down and it hurts. Following that loss to Bolton, I’m now looking worriedly at the remainder of the League fixtures and dreading the rest of the season. How can the result of one game make me feel so different?

Leeds United unlike Fulham is a “big-club”. History, tradition, trophies, fans – and a huge expectation. But that expectation varies too. There are those who think a mid-table finish this season would be creditable – those who feared a relegation battle – and those who see a second successive promotion. The trap has been laid, 14 games to go, sat in 6th place, just three points away from an automatic promotion spot – expectation level has been set. Barnsley come to Elland Road tonight, a win and the right results and Leeds could be second. And so the expectation would grow. Would that be the springboard to go on and clinch promotion? Would the pressure become too great? Expectation – is it a burden or a motivator?

 He who dares Rodney. He who dares…..

2010/11: The England Job – runners and riders

When new football season kicks off in August 2012, England will have hosted the Olympic Games and the European Championships in Poland/Ukraine will be a distant memory. What we also know is that England will have a new International Manager. Now assuming that England qualify for the tournament and Capello isn’t sacked before then, the highest paid International Manager will step down from the job in 2012. In all likelihood and without wishing to be defeatist, that will be without England taking the European crown in 2012.

Already we have seen “candidates” throw their hat into the ring and there seems an inevitability that the next incumbent will be English. My concern about anybody declaring their hand this early is with regard to their focus on their current role. If a manager is thinking about another job elsewhere, even in two years time, it must act as a distraction. As a Chairman or a fan, I would be worried that any uncertainty would spread through the club and translate to the players. Would this for instance affect players signing for a club, if they thought the manager would be leaving? Some may argue that the possibility of the England job would spur on the manager to achieve even more at the club they are currently with. Unfortunately, as I’ve said I see it as a point of distraction.

So what of those English managers in the frame? Can somebody explain the role of Stuart Pearce? Is he genuinely being groomed as the next England manager? Pearce holds the position of Under 21 Manager and has had some success with the team. However, the images of Pearce beside Capello in South Africa and the inane “explanation” of the antics by Pearce, leave me with the impression that he is no more than a jester in Capello’s Commedia dell’Arte, and that the ex-Forest man will be gone once the Italian departs the stage.

Then we have Henry James Redknapp, who has managed Bournemnouth, West Ham, Portsmouth, Southampton and Tottenham. “Harry” has had some success along the way at these clubs, with the FA Cup win at Portsmouth his major prize and  taking Spurs into the Champions League this season. Is it coincidence that the clubs Redknapp has managed have gone on to suffer serious financial problems?   Add in the corruption allegations that have dogged him since the Panorama investigation of 2006 to the point of him being charged in January 2010 with two counts of cheating the public revenue and his suitability for the England job starts to look a little tatty around the edges. Although it never stopped El Tel……

Then we have Samuel Allardyce, who in his time has managed at Limerick, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United, with his current posting at Blackburn Rovers. His darling of the media reputation as all things good about English mangers was built at Bolton. However, he has never won any of the major domestic honours as a manager and the style of football was and still is direct to say the least. Some will argue he did well with limited resources for the Trotters, but is that a major criteria for a future England Manager? Then like Mr Redknapp, “Big Sam” was featured in the football bribery expose by Panorama in 2006 and so a whiff of corruption also lingers around Mr Allardyce.

Roy Hodgson has not put his name forward, and that is the mark of this modest and respected football figure. He has International and European experience, although his detractors may argue he has got teams to Finals, but ultimately his teams haven’t  gone on to take the trophy. If he manages to work his magic at Anfield, how likely would Liverpool be to release him after the barren years on Merseyside?

That’s part of the joy of football – the speculation. Memo to all: gentleman, concentrate on the job in hand and see what you can achieve.

2012 what an interesting year it could be……