Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Gray Skies: Weekend Observations 22nd-24th January 2011: Part Two

The main controversy from the weekend came on Saturday as Kenny Dalglish's first win as Liverpool boss and an apparent return to goal scoring form for Fernando Torres was overshadowed by the offside law, the presence of oestrogen and careless disregard for the positioning of recording equipment.

By now, I'm sure we've all heard or at least heard about the conversation between Sky Sports' own Chuckle Brothers went all Gordon Brown and said something sexist about a woman lino when they thought their mics were off.

The fallout has seen Andy Gray lose his job. A sad day for fans of crazy electronic touch screen football analysis.

Apparently, women need the offside rule explained to them because according to Keys and Gray, they don't understand it and are likely to get the big calls wrong.
The irony being that there was a big offside call in the game and Kenny didn't "go potty" because it worked in his favour and, if you can believe it, little Sian Massey got the decision right! Bless her...

Offensive? Yes. Outdated? Of course. Surprising? Well, not at all really. While we have reached a point in society where we rightly promote equality among the sexes let's not pretend that that we've reached some sort of utopia of gender equilibrium. Football, like the majority of popular sports the world over is disproportionately male dominated. This kind of 'banter' is exactly what you will hear in changing rooms, boardrooms and in the stands week in, week out. Only recently has the women's game started to attain something resembling recognition but it is still very much a man's world where sexism will be rife. Is it really any wonder that messes Gray and Keys continue to hold these attitudes?

While they may not have expressed it in such a derogatory way, many people, of both genders, followers and non-followers of the game alike would raise an eyebrow when they hear that a female official is set to be involved in a high profile match. Not because of any underlying prejudice/sexism but because it's against the norm. It's natural to question whether someone who you perceive to be unfamiliar with a particular role is capable of doing the job properly. Football as whole is often resistant to any suggested 'non-traditional' changes. A case more of Institutionalised conservativism (small c) than discrimination.

Keys and Gray appear to have crossed the line, however. But just as the comments by the Sky duo were reprehensible, there is a risk from the other side of falling into a trap of being patronising and condescending which, for me, can be just as offensive. People have been quick to heap heavy praise on Massey for making the right decision but looking at the replays, it was not a hard call to make. People shouldn't go overboard. Drawing unnecessary attention, positive or negative, simply undermines her. Just let her do her job.

Back to Keys and Gray. As much as they would like to suggest any sort of non-offensive light hearted motives behind their comments, they are the two men who have been at the forefront of promoting the modern game and so they ought to know better. Don't tell me to get excited about Stoke v Blackburn with hours of build-up, needless over-hyped nonsense from pundits who fail to grasp basic English language skills *cough* Jamie Redknapp *cough, cough* and then say that "the game has gone mad" just because someone who sits down to piss has managed to infiltrate the 'Old Boys' Club.

The initail fallout saw the pair removed from our screens for this week's Monday Night Football encounter between Bolton and Chelsea before the news of Gray's sacking on Tuesday afternoon. As had been rightly pointed out, had these been racist or even homophobic comments, there would have been shown the door fast than you can say "Do me a favour, love".

People need to decide what they are more pissed off about; the fact what was said was sexist or because they were factually incorrect? The motives behind the comments might have actually held some weight if Massey's male counterparts were actually good at their job. As matter of principle, I feel it my duty as someone who watches far more football than is healthy, to point out the frequency with which existing, vaginally-challenged officials get decisions wrong. Not a week goes by without a mass debate about the bastards in black making mistakes.

For me, I don't care what gender they are because penis or no penis, they a likely to be as incompetent as each other. If Andy Gray or anyone who has an issue with the sex of a ref can find a woman who is worse than Chris Foy then I might listen to their views.

In fact, why not replace them all with women? Most of the current mob aren't fit for purpose anyway and with women enforcing the laws you'd probably bring a stop to all the foul-mouthed abuse from the likes of Wayne Rooney that the current officials rarely see fit to punish.


Liverpool looked a far more adventurous and expressive side in the game so maybe the fabled 'Kenny effect' is having its desired impact. Raul Meireles' sublime strike for the reds' second goal was a prime example. Previously, you would imagine only two players in the team would even dare try that shot. A better and encouraging performance from them.

After the loss of Darren Bent and injury ruling out Danny Welbeck, you'd have to think only Andy Coulson had a worse few days than Sunderland did last week but things ended on a high thanks to a 2-1 win over Blackpool at Bloomfield Road.

Like Hull before them, a fantastic early start might just see Blackpool stay up this season but recently, their obvious limitations are coming to the fore and with just one league win and four defeats in 5 matches since the turn of the year, Ian Holloway's team may soon find themselves dragged into a relegation dogfight against a load of teams far more experienced when faced with such a battle.

Their poor form has been largely ignored thanks mainly to news of vultures circling over Lancashire looking to snatch a Charlie Adam shaped carcass. As it stands, the tangerines' star player has handed in a transfer request which the club has turned down. For many, this isn't quite Wayne Rooney or Carlos Tevez but the impact that would be felt by Blackpool if they were to lose their man would be far greater than if the aforementioned pair were to leave City or United respectively.

For now, they remain in a fairly comfortable midtable spot three points behind a Blackburn side that disappointed me this week by not doing anything bonkers... what's that you say? A two year contract for untried and inexperienced initially-only-intended-to-keep-the-seat-warm manager Steve Kean? Nevermind.

In fairness, Rovers did manage to pick up a pretty useful 2-0 win over West Brom thanks in part to another quality own goal, a screamer from young pup Junior Hoilett, and a dodgy decision from the officials who failed the award Peter Odimwinge one of the most nailed on penalties you are ever likely to see at any level of football.

"Someone should got down there and explain the rules about fouls to Clattenburg"

As clear as it is that Kean is literally doing nothing that Sam Allardyce wouldn't have, isn't it funny to see how unhappy the Walrus is looking these days? The simmering tension between him and fellow pundit Ian Holloway on Sky after the game when asked about their respective styles of play was just a joy to behold. Ollie preached on about the importance of entertaining - which admittedly may well prove to be his downfall - while Big Sam talked about 'playing to your strengths'. Any poor soul who has ever had the misfortune to sit through 90 minutes of watching his teams play "football", would know that this translates into hitting it long to the big man up top and kicking anyone who is better than you.

On a similar subject, one of this season's less interesting subplots has involved two angry Welshmen who have spent the last few months publically bickering over tackling. For those that care, it began when Fulham's Moussa Dembele was hacked into next week by Stoke's Andy Wilkinson back in September's Carling Cup match between the two sides. This led to an angry, dismissive handshake by Fulham boss Mark Hughes to Stoke boss Tony Pulis. Fulham midfielder Danny Murphy then suggested that Pulis - among others - consciously send players out to go in too physically on opponents. His comments were greeted with scorn and widespread condemnation from the same backward thinkers of the game who probably still think that women don't understand the offside law...

3 weeks ago, Pulis returned the angry handshake to Hughes after Stoke were beaten at home by the Whites. The sides met again this week at Craven Cottage where there was yet more controversy as Fulham were awarded a penalty which saw thug-in-chief Ryan Shawcross sent off and the home side eventually run out comfortable 2-0 winners. Of course, the two managers saw the incident differently to continue the perceived bad feeling between the clubs.

Ok, Hughes actually squashed the beef after the game but forgive me for trying to get myself excited at the prospect of a huge heated and more improtantly, new rivalry developing between two of the league's most unfashionable sides. Would keep things interesting, right?

You could even have a woman ref their grudge matches...

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Hats the way to do it - Weekend Observations 22nd-24th January 2011: Part One

They say that things come in threes; Buses, Stooges, Wise men, Bronte Sisters and most relevant to the following blog, goals to complete a hat-trick.

It was a tale of two strikers and two hat-tricks at the top of the Premier League this weekend. For Manchester United, Dimitar Berbatov hit his third treble(which includes one quintuple) of the season in a 5-0 battering of Birmingham to consolidate top spot. Down in London, Robin van Persie almost single-handedly saw off Wigan with all three goals in Arsenal's convincing 3-0 home win lifting them to second.

As I always say about the gunners, when it clicks into place they look a frightening unit who have the beating of anyone. Consistency remains a problem but for the first time since Jesus was going through puberty it seems as though the spearhead of their attack is fit and firing.

Saturday's haul made it 6 in 3 for the Dutchman who is doesn't only contribute to the scoring charts but also provides a number of assists for his teammates. Share and share alike!

If van Persie can avoid a return to the physio room that has almost become a second home to him over the past few seasons then Arsene Wenger’s team are as good a bet as anyone to potentially prevent United from winning the league as well as challenge for other honours both now and in future.

That said, Saturday saw the reds look someway convincing for the first time in weeks as they swept aside a Birmingham team who seemed content to go to Old Trafford, bend over, look toward their more illustrious opponents with 'come hither' eyes and take a pounding all the while showing about as much resistance as Kerry Katona's g-string.

One could make the case that following their battling performance at St. Andrew's three weeks ago, Birmingham, under the leadership of one Sir Alex' cronies in Alex McLiesh, felt obliged to give United the freedom of Manchester on Saturday. If this wasn't the case then you really have to wonder why people rave about Roger Johnson who may as well been a traffic cone for the 'defending' he actually did.

As much as I'd like to, I can't be completely disingenuous towards United as I have to admit they looked about far better than they have all season. An ominous sign for the chasing pack. I have speculated before that if they could be as average as they have been so far but still head the table unbeaten, it will be curtains for the others when they actually started to play well.

Aside from Berbatov's hat trick, the fat waste of space Wayne Rooney who I condemned here just last week seems to have hopped into the DeLorean and travelled back to this time last year. Rooney looked some way near his best having been heavily involved in almost all five goals and showing some brilliant touches throughout. However, Shrek was still guilty of one of the misses of the season when he blinked and put a header wide from about a quarter of a centimetre out. Still only three for the season from the scouser.

A striker not concerned about his goal scoring form is multi-million pound Darren Bent who provided an instant return on the money Aston Villa invested in him with the winning goal in his new side's 1-0 victory over fellow frivolous spenders Manchester City.

People raise their eyebrows over the price and seem more than ready to point out his supposed limitations and highlight his dodgy period at Spurs where they seem to forget he was top scorer in his final season and had to play under the chaotic and constant managerial upheaval in his three years there. Admittedly, he may not have the attributes of some of his more high profile peers but as he showed with his goal on Saturday evening, he is more often than not in right place at the right time. He gets the goals, goals win games.

If nothing else, he's even somehow managed to make Gerrard Houlier smile!

As for City, the defeat saw them drop to third behind Arsenal and United who both have games in hand on them. It's not as if they were outplayed by Villa. They had their many chances but failed to find the back of net. One of those occasions that is often written off as a bad day at the office. However, but are bad days at the office becoming more frequent for City? Recently they have lost to Everton, lucky to come away from the Emirates with a draw and defensively suspect against Wolves. As much as I've touted them for success all season, they seem to be stuttering at present. Worryingly, the goal came from a Joe Hart error. Not his first over the last few weeks either. Has the England keeper curse struck again?

Villa's win over City lifted them away from the relegations zone which still contains a West Ham side unfortunate to come away from Goodison Park with a 2-2 draw against Everton. According to highlights, the Hammers actually looked half decent and put in a good performance despite the final result. The fact that they do seem to be fighting for their lives at present just highlights the absurdity of the Gold/Sullivan/Brady triumvirate and their constant undermining of cheerful Avram.

The main talking point from the game was the ridiculous red card issued to Frédéric Piquionne after he picked up a second yellow for celebrating his goal with his own fans. I don't much explanation is needed to describe how daft it is for this to be considered a bookable offence in the first place but equally daft are the players that continuously fail to recognise this and get themselves into trouble. The Frenchman has himself, and ONLY himself, to blame.

Also dropping points in the upper echelons of the Premier League, and after an outstanding Christmas period, the Tottenham train seems to be derailing somewhat at the minute after no league wins in their last three games. Their most recent setback came in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Newcastle at St. James' Park where in fact, Spurs were lucky to come away with anything following Aaron Lennon’s last gasp equaliser.

Apparently, 'arry was mugged on a scouting mission in Madrid last week. Against the magpies the tables were turned as it was his side doing the stealing as they managed to get away from the North with a barely deserved point.

A curious player is Lennon. Pacey and skillful but about as good with crosses as Dracula. The fact he can't use his left foot will always hinder his progress as player and I personally believe that this is solely down to those stupid tramlines he has shaved into the side of his head and eyebrows which clearly affect his balance.

Creeping up on City and pulling away from Spurs in a bizarre turn of events that I totally predicted would happen, Chelsea remembered that they were actually a half decent football team and put a laclustre Bolton team to the sword on Monday 4-0 with the sort of ruthlessness that had us all drooling and quaking in our boots in equal measure at the start of the season. Four goals from four different players - including the surface to air missle Didier Drogba decided to launch with is right foot - is a telling statistic that indicates that once more Carlo Ancelotti's men are working together as a cohesive, well-oiled unit and any talk of their demise has been vastly exaggerated. I think that so many people wanted to see Chelsea fall on their collective arse that they convinced themselves that Stamford Bridge was indeed falling down. A couple of recent convincing wins would suggest that this was never the case.

Whether or not they are 'back' remains to be seen. They have some serious ground to make up on the teams above them but in this most bizarre of seasons that seems totally devoid of anything that could even be mistaken for consistency, it would take a brave man to dismiss Chelsea's chances completely.

Part Two to follow

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Substandard Sunday: Weekend Observations 14th - 15th January 2011: Part Two

Part One Here

On Sunday the stage was set. Girlfriends up and down the country despaired as Sky Sports were about to serve up a veritable feast of football with three back-to-back Premier League matches followed by matches featuring the big two in La Liga. Of course, in the final game, Barcelona didn't disappoint but by that stage, many were probably wondering why they bothered as the day produced stalemate after stalemate. 'Super Sunday' turned into the 'Day of the Draw' – not a good outcome for Sky and all their excessive hype. As former Norwich striker Darren Huckerby observed on Twitter, the Feast of football was more like a bargain bucket.

The 'starter' was served up in the form of a typically frantic second-city derby. There was actually very little to observe in Birmingham and Aston Villa's 1-1 draw. However, despite being technically poor and pretty much making a mockery of the claim of the Premier League being the bestest league in the world ever, it was still weirdly entertaining as both sides were desperate for a win to pull them away from the bottom of the table. That and the bragging rights of the West Midlands. I maintain that Villa are a far better side that they are currently showing but unless they start getting results the once unthinkable scenario of Championship football could yet be a reality. Perhaps the reported interest in Darren Bent and his goals could help them in their quest.

This may well be the most bizarre transfer of the season. So many questions are being asked. When the story broke and I text my housemate - a supporter of niether club - he furiously replied and demanded to know how Villa could afford to pay £18-£24 million and why the hell they would spend it all on Bent!?

On the other side of that coin, why would the England striker currently playing for a Sunderland side that could well be in Europe next season decide to join a relegation threatened Villa side? But alas, I think all of us have long since stopped questioning the logic and reason behind the many, many random decisions in football.

Bent played what may well prove to be his last game for Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby before handing in a transfer request on Monday. Another dour derby that failed to live up to it's billing. Sunderland had themselves an opportunity to close in on the top five but blew it as they were only able to scrape a very fortunate 1-1 draw at home to their Northeast arch rivals. If Bent does go, the Mackems will be more than happy that they still have goal scorer Asamoah Gyan in their ranks.

Following the first two derbies was what many were describing as the most important Merseyside derby... well... since the last one. This particular match took on extra importance because it was the return to Anfield of 'King' Kenny Dalglish meaning we were subjected to what felt like an hour long rendition of the red scousers belting out "You'll Never Walk Alone". I have to say, it made for quite emotional viewing.

Nausea is an emotion, right???

Coincidentally enough, 'The King' left Liverpool two decades ago after drawing a Merseyside derby 4-4. Could his return be just as spectacular? No, not really. The result was the same but the scoreline different. A 2-2 draw proved was just about a fair result for the rivals and fallen giants who can't be even separated in the league right now as they sit in a lowly 13th and 12th respectively – both on 26 points and a just 4 off the drop zone.

Without wanting to dwell too much on Liverpool and the messiah complex they seem to have inherited from Newcastle, an intersting stat shows that the in his first three competitive matches, the much maligned 'Woy' managed two wins and a draw. Kenny's current record: one draw, two defeats. Granted factors such as preseason and transfers need to be taken into account but maybe, just maybe, he isn't quite the saviour the Kop believe him to be.

Nothing sums up the current failings of the two clubs more than the list of goalscorers. Meireles, Distin, Beckford and Kuyt all scoring in the same game? That's Premier League misfits hall of fame right there.

And so to the main course, an intriguing but ultimately disappointing 0-0 draw between two teams fighting it out at the very top of the table. Recently, everyone has been getting a little over-excited about Tottenham and talking about a potential title challenge. In years gone by it would be fair to say that Spurs had something of an inferiority complex against the top sides. The last 12 months however have seen wins over Chelsea, Liverpool, and most importantly for everyone in N17, Arsenal. This weekend, 'arry's boys 'ad their best chance in a while to end what has been an embarrassing run of winless matches against Manchester United stretching back 10 years.

Unfortunately, this Tottenham side who some would argue are on something close to equal footing would United, allowed that meekness of days gone by to take over once again. In contrast to their win at the Emirates, their performance lacked the bottle required for these big games and they never really looked capable of beating the league's pacesetters. Even after United were reduced to 10 men and 'arry threw on Jermaine Defoe, they failed to produce anything of note. Luka Modric is one of those players one could watch all day without getting board and Spurs' creative maestro was pulling all the strings. But he would have been left frustrated by the lack of movement from Peter Crouch up front who managed to be about as useful as an inflatable dartboard.

United once again managed to avoid defeat despite still looking barely above average for the duration. The point took them back to the top of the league above City and Sir Alex will be encouraged by the fact Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have managed to reform the 'sturdy' defensive partnership that provides more protection than a titanium condom. A backline that will most likely see them as Champions again come May. They allowed Tottenham close to nothing on Sunday.

As good as they are in defence, there must surely be a slight worry about the other end of the pitch as Wayne Rooney continues to put in the kind of shocking performances that would see him struggle in League Two right now. At least players at that level know how to complete a five yard pass and trap a ball without it bouncing off them and going out of play. I dont understand the insistence of Sky commentators among others to constantly try and defend his displays and suggesting that he is 'trying to hard'. If he's playing badly, slate him in the same way you would Berbatov or even Cristiano Ronaldo before him. As we saw in South Africa, Rooney is no longer England's golden boy so doesn't need nor deserve the protection from the media.

Sticking with Rooney and failure by 'neutral observers' to take him to task, the striker's appalling behaviour over the course of the match somehow turned out to be even worse than his attempts to play football! When Rafael was rightly given a second yellow card and subsequently sent off for tripping Assou-Ekoto, the scouser was clearly seen on Television mouthing a number of obscenities for which he was rightly booked for. Not that this stopped him however as he continued his sweary monologue when another decision went against him.

Note to Sky: if we can all see Wayne Rooney calling the referee a 'Fucking Wanker' then you must have too. We're not asking you repeat what is said but at the very least comment on the fact that talking to the referee in such a way is unacceptable. It's funny how Sky Sports News are quick to run special features on how many officials at grass roots level are walking away from the game but their commentators refuse to condemn someone like Rooney whose actions directly influence the amateurs and children that take to the field in parks up and down the country every weekend. Ok, Rooney has no obligation to be a role model but when he is acting in such a way that is fundamentally against the spirit of the game, he needs to be reprimanded. What are the authorities doing? If Ryan Babel is fined 10 grand for something that was seen to undermine an official, then Rooney should be facing a similar punishment for a verbal assualt that is potentially more damaging than bad photoshop skills. I don't hold much hope for such a thing happening any time soon though.

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Monday, 17 January 2011

Taken for Granted: Weekend Observations 14th - 15th January 2011: Part One

Saturday saw Manchester City beat Wolves 4-3 and finally hit the dizzy heights of the top of the Premier League (albeit for a mere 24 hours) ahead of their crosstown rivals. However, what at one point what looked like an emphatic ascension to the summit turned out to be quite a nervy stumble over the finish line as the blues took their foot off the proverbial pedal whilst cruising at 4-1, almost allowing Mick McCarthy's side to come away from Eastlands with an unlikely draw.

The usually resolute City defence had VERY bad day at the office in a very unMancini-like performance. I've always said that winning the league, for any team, will require defensive solidity and stability. It would be going too far to suggest that the City backline is looking questionable but let's not ignore the fact that in their last league game at Arsenal, they looked far from secure in the opening exchanges and were it not for the home side's innate profligacy, Kolo and the boys would have been dead and burried before half time. In fact, this weekend's match was not dissimilar in style to the kind of matches overlooked by Mark Hughes last season. The epic draw against Burnley being a prime example.

It's hard not to be patronising or to resort to tedious 'never say die' cliches when talking about Wolves but what else can be said about their performance? A great first half display wasn't justly rewarded and as the home side almost found to their cost, Wolves also finished the game strong. Few would have begrudged them an equaliser had it come. They fully contributed to the most entertaining game of the weekend.

The highlight of an eventful game was the mazy run and finish by Carlos Tevez for his pant-wettingly brilliant first goal. With all the recent talk of unhappiness, homesickness and general moaning about life, other players would have wilted and you imagine many failing to maintain anything close to high standards on the pitch. Carlitos has been as effective for his team when smiling (a horrible sight!) as he is when doing his best Mr. Grumpy impression. If only his teammates "cough" Emmanuel Adebayor "cough, cough!" would adopt anything like the same sort of attitude.

The rest of the Man City attack also performed brilliantly despite the absense of messes Silva and Balotelli – a good response after all the criticism they faced for a percieved lack of ambition after the Arsenal game. The highlights gave the impression that 27 million pound man Edin Dzeko looked lively enough to suggest that he won't be out of place in the Premier League and that I might just find myself eating my words once more.

In what many are desperately trying to convince themselves is the most exciting title race for years and years and and years, third placed, no-title-for-seven-years Arsenal are keeping pace and enhanced their credentials with a rather convincing 3-0 hammering of... er, the hammers of West Ham. The ruthlessness and ease with which they dispatched of the East Londeners provided something of a fine response to the previous week's cup humiliations.

Any football fan watching could surely not help but be impressed by the fluidity of the passing and movement in midfield but what will please gooners most was the impact of part-time striker, part-time first aid dummy Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman continues delight with his ability as much as he frustrates with his constant injuries. Can he stay fit? Imagine the impact he could have on Arsenal's title challenge if he does. But as is always the same old story with Arsenal, the question is: IF?! Next week, they will probably drop points at home to Wigan and find themselves in 'crisis' again.

One team certainly in a genuine state of something resembling a crisis is the side Arsenal the put to the sword without breaking any sort of sweat. Rumours were abound all weekend that the West Ham board were about ready to get shot of the world's happiest man, Avram Grant and replace him with a man who already has claret and blue paraphernalia in abundance, former Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill. There has been a subsequent denial/show of support/vote of confidence from the club.

In truth, is it really fair to use a defeat against a side with title aspirations as an excuse to dump Avram? Recent results (the Newcastle massacre aside) would suggest something of an improvement in their fortunes. Bringing in a new manager at this point will surely just cause chaos in the changing room as a bunch of, let's face it, limited players try to adapt to a new way of thinking.

Besides, while admittedly achieving relative success at Wycombe and then Leicester, O'Neill's 'big' jobs at Celtic and Villa have involved something of a dependancy of being able to spend money. Something you cannot imagine he will be able to do at cash strapped West Ham. Is he a better manager that Grant? Almost certainly but you have to wonder if he could do any better with this current squad than the diminutive Israeli. You could argue that O'Neill would only damage his reputation by taking the Irons job. Keeping them up would be his minimum requirement and if he failed to do that he would be crucified.

However, if Grant had anything to do with the signing of Wayne Bridge, then that in itself is a sackable offence. What a shocker of a debut! The (thankfully) former England International was at some fault for all three Arsenal goals before putting the cherry on the cake by limping off injured before full time. People have suggested that he hasn't played much football recently and was rusty but whose fault is that? Bridge has been happy to sit on the bench at not one but TWO clubs for a number of years collecting a massive pay cheque and contributing the sum total of diddly squat. Bridge was SO bad that on Match of the Day, Alan Hansen who usually loves ridiculing poor defenders couldn't even be bothered to stick the boot in and so left him to Alan Shearer. When you have a striker and someone as dull as Shearer taking the piss out of your defending, maybe it's time to seek out a new career.

It wasn't a disastrous weekend for West Ham as almost all the teams in close proximity to them at the foot of the table failed to win their respective matches. The exception being West Brom who picked up a much needed and hard fought 3-2 win against a Blackpool side that continue to look at home in Premier League. Despite the loss, David Vaughan's opening goal for the tangerines was up there with some of the best at this level. Charlie Adam also displayed the kind of form that suggests there should be little surprise about the interest shown by other Premier League teams. If the likes of Steve Sidwell, Denilson, Keith Andrews, Lee Cattermole and Lucas can hold down careers at this level, then why not Adam?

Also down bottom, Fulham drew 1-1 at Wigan in a match where I was genuinely surprised to find out that Whites' goalscorer (in the loosest sense of the word) Andrew Johnson still existed.

For weeks I suggested Chelsea were going through a minor blip and would bounce back. The second I flip this and say that they might struggle to make the top four and their manager is in the firing line they decide to pick up the most routine of 2-0 victories over Blackburn. It is, how you say? Law of the sod. Branislav Ivanović, who opened the scoring showed footballers the world over the importance of shooting because the opposition defence may end up being just as abject as Rovers. Honestly, his shot seemed to have crept past the entire population of Blackburn as it trickled over the line! Speaking of whom, the Lancs club continued to make headlines for moments of sheer comedy by hiring former Arsenal barn door protector John Jensen as a coach. Given his almost tragic goalscoring record at Highbury, Rovers fans the world over will be hoping he isn't coaching their strikers.

Mind you his Only Arsenal goal wasn't that bad

Part Two to Follow...

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Weekend Observations 8th - 10th January 2011: Sweet FA

You are free to pick your own cliché about this supposedly most sacred of weekends as I'm sure you will not be alone in expressing any gushing sentiment towards, what is – we are led to believe – is the world's oldest cup competition. The tournament actually runs from about September as part time and amateur teams up and down the country square off for the chance to come up against more high profile and illustrious league counterparts as the rounds go on. However, for many observers, the third round is the REAL start of the competition as we see the introduction of the Premier League and Championship big boys and all eyes are trained on the twin tow... er, the massive arch thingy of Wembley Stadium where the final will be played in May.

One of the things that makes the cup so special is the fact that some barely known or recognised team from football's nether regions has the chance to cause an upset against a higher ranked opponent, something that has happened on a number of occasions in the past.

This year's competition has not let us down in that respect. Well done to Southampton, Burton Albion and Notts County who all produced shocks this weekend but the real stories came at Broadhall Way and the Broadfield Stadium respectively as Stevenage and Crawley Town produced the kinds of fairy tales that would have Disney sitting up and paying attention.

Firstly to the leafy suburbs just North of London as Hertfordshire's finest took on Newcastle United. You wouldn’t think there would be much, if any, history between the Geordies of Premier League fame and a club that has spent all but the last 6 months of it’s entire existence in non-league football. But alas, this where the romance of the cup comes into play. 13 years ago the two sides were drawn against each other in the fourth round when Newcastle demanded that the match be switched to St. James’ Park as they felt Broadhall Way was not a venue befitting of their lofty status.

Public bickering between the two clubs ensued but the tie was eventually played following some modifications to the Stevenage home ground. The then non-leaguers famously secured a 1-1 draw meaning a replay at St. James’ Park where they were controversially knocked out after a hotly disputed Alan Shearer goal which it was later proved hadn't crossed the line.

Naturally, revenge was on the minds of the League Two side this time around and they did not disappoint with an emphatic and thoroughly deserved 3-1 victory against a side some 75 league positions about them.

The game's major talking point however, came after the final whistle when in the midst of the celebrations, an over-exuberant Stevenage fan on the pitch actually punched one of his own players. I have to say, I sincerely hope they throw the book at this and ban him from ever attending a football match again. I find it absolutely disgraceful that he got that close to Joey Barton and decided to hit someone else! Shameful. Just shameful.

(The player in question Scott Laird didn't suffer too much by way of injury from the incident and the perp has been apprehended so I guess we can kind of make light of the whole incident now...)

Of course, Newcastle are no strangers to upsets of this kind.

Like many clubs in the lower reaches, Crawley Town have been teetering on the brink of oblivion for a number of years, coming close to folding completely on more than one occasion. Recently, they have found something resembling financial stability and are rocketing their way up the Blue Square table (currently second) with the once unthinkable ambitions of playing in the football league next season. Given their performance in their dramatic late 2-1 victory over Derby County of the Championship, one would say they wouldn't look out of place. An eventful game was settled in injury time when Sergio Torres scored the kind of goal his more high profile namesake would be both proud and jealous of at the moment given his own ropey form.

Speaking of whom, Nando’s Liverpool were in the headlines before a ball was even kicked on third round weekend. Yes, On Saturday morning, the inevitable happened and Roy Hodgson was finally sacked from his post and Anfield hero ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish was placed in temporary charge until the end of the season.

Yes, Liverpool FC: the club where sentiment and emotion supersede logic and reason. Don't get me wrong, Hodgson was the wrong appointment from the start and so it proved during his tenure but he was hardly given a chance was he? This Liverpool team finished 7th last season and were in a terrible state of uncertainty at boardroom level. Hardly the easiest of circumstances for ‘Woy’ to operate under and let’s be brutally honest, with the players at his disposal were they really expected to be performing much better? 5 months is hardly any time to stamp your authority and implement the changes required.

The continued lack of support and undermining from the fans didn't help matters either. How is a manager supposed to do his job each day when he knows the supporters were out for his blood before a ball was kicked in anger? The constant chanting for Dalglish was both unhelpful and undignified.

And what if ‘King’ Kenny doesn’t get it right in the next four months? Who will the all-knowing Kop chant for then? Let’s not forget he's been out of the game for over a decade and it’s been a good 20 years since he was a success on Merseyside. Football has moved on leaps and bounds since then and who's to say he will even be able to understand the rigors of the modern game. I'm not saying I want him to fail but I can't say I will even be remotely surprised if things don't quite go to plan between now and May. Then again, what is the plan?

Dalglish was given a baptism of fire with a third round trip to the old enemy Manchester United. It wasn't to be a happy return as United ran out 1-0 winners thanks to the double act of Howard Webb and Dimitar Berbatov. The former awarding a penalty despite the fact it was clear to every human being lucky enough to possess at least one working eye had seen that the latter had taken a dive. The second minute spot kick was dispatched by Ryan Giggs, 53, and there was no more football worth talking about for the remaining 88 minutes so all attention fell on Webb and his questionable decision making once more.

I'm not going to go with the view that he favours United (although the evidence would suggest that this is the case) but quite simply, he tends to invariably get big decisions wrong on a regular basis. One of the few defences of the man is that he allows the game to flow. What that says to me is that he doesn't apply the rules as he should and when he isn't getting a decision wrong, he is just bottling out of making a call at all. How this man is considered one of the world's best referees is beyond me and possibly more a reflection of the terrible state of officiating rather than his non-existent competence for which has been unjustly rewarded for.

On the subject of diving, Berbatov wasn't the only guilty party this weekend. In Crawley’s win over Derby, the Rams' Chris Porter took a tumble in the box but justice was ultimately served when portly winger Kris Commons had his spot kick saved. At the Emirates on Saturday, before actually winning a penalty when he was fouled, young Theo Walcott had, just moments before, tried to con us all by chucking his slender frame to the ground with little invitation as he tried desperately to win Arsenal a spot kick in the latter stages of his side's surprise 1-1 draw against the Championship's Leeds United. After the diving incident, Theo was quick to both admit and apologise for his actions.

Walcott, for all his footballing limitations, always comes across as a down to earth, smart and articulate lad and this is evident in this post match confession. With all the lies, greed, two-facedness and general bullshit we have to put up with from most people involved in football, it was a breath of fresh air to hear a player seemingly acknowledge his wrongdoing and show some form of regret about doing it unlike some more hypocritical ones out there.

That said, he shouldn't have been diving in the first place. No sense in apologising after the crime. He may not be up there with the Ronaldos and Drogbas of the world but he shouldn't be surprised if people start looking at him in the same accusing manner from now on.

Of course, if you listen to most pundits, fans or general people in the game, diving is the worst possible crime that can ever be committed on the football pitch. Yes, an action that causes no physical harm is apparently signaling the death knell of the game. A high profile dive will more often than not take up more column inches than say.... a bad tackle. Something the staunchest critics of diving will try and justify as 'part of the game'.

Yes, there were people in some quarters who tried to suggest that tackles by messers Gerrard and Tiote in their respective matches which were both punished by red cards were somehow acceptable. English football's Neanderthal mentality strikes again.

On a similar theme, in Blackburn's 1-0 cup win over Championship table toppers QPR, the Hoops' Jamie Mackie flew in on Gael Givet and was unfortunate to himself end up breaking his leg in two places. This was not the end of the story however as Rovers' El-Hadji Diouf apparently stood over the injured Mackie shouting abuse and taunting the Scotland international. This led to Diouf being predictably hammered from all quarters and prompted Rangers manager Neil Warnock to describe the Senegalese international as a 'disgrace' and a 'sewer rat'.

Far be it from me to ever defend Diouf as there are many, MANY reasons to dislike him but on this occasion, I think people ought to cut him some slack. Having seen his teammate completely wipped out (and subsequently stretchered off) I'm pretty sure many *cough* John Terry *cough, cough* other players would have reacted in exactly the same way. Even more significantly, unless I'm missing something, I'm pretty sure the striker doesn't have a medical degree so at the point at which he was supposed to have been abusing Mackie, how could he have possibly have known the extent of the injury? The pictures of the QPR man being stretched off do not suggest a double break. There is no support on his leg nor is the he using any sort of breathing apparatus usually given to players suffering from this kind of distress. At best, the injury appears inconclusive. It just seems easier for people to point the finger at the panto villain than to look at the situation as a whole.

I also find it funny when people who reside in glass houses somehow get their hands on a bag of stones and decide at that very moment to practice their throwing. Neil Warnock has long had a reputation for sending players out to act in a less than gentlemanly fashion on the pitch and he himself has been accused of calling for opposition players to have their legs broken. This is certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black and it would be crazy for anybody to give Warnock's hypocritical rant any more attention than it deserves.

Finally, football and social networking made for some very uncomfortable bedfellows this week. It seems that posting your thoughts on Twitter can get you in some trouble if you are professional footballer. In the fallout from the penalty incident at Old Trafford, Liverpool's Ryan Babel posted a (badly) photoshopped picture of Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt which has landed him in hot water with the FA who have slapped him with an improper conduct charge.

Earlier in the weekend, Liverpool's alleged right back Glen Johnson responded to criticism from Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson by bringing up the former Arsenal man's drink, drug and gambling problems on his twitter page in an act the showed about as much tact and class as a multi-millionaire footballer stealing a toilet seat from B&Q...

Even the fallout from the Diouf incident has seen QPR players going Tweet crazy. So, as a result of these 'tweets', we've got the authorities investigating players' conduct as well as clubs looking to clamp down on what kind of content is posted.

While some of the posts may be ill-timed, not properly thought out and of course, down right controversial, let's ask ourselves, it is really a big problem? Footballers are often accused of not being able to relate to fans and living in their own bubble. People are always complaining about players not being able to understand the so-called common man like you or I.

Something like Twitter is a great way of bridging that gap. We're all sick to the back teeth of the regulated, vacuous, cliche-riddled, nondescript interviews that players are forced to give so why deprive them of a means to publicly and honestly express themselves? Don't agree with what they say then so what? They are as entitled to their opinions as we all are and as long as what they say isn't libelous, they should not be censored from communicating them. Let them tweet cake!

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Friday, 7 January 2011

Midweek Observations 4th-5th January - Part Two: Tough at the Top

At the top of the league it was business as usual as Manchester United, for the umpteenth time this season, managed to win a game whilst being far from their best. The 2-1 victory over Stoke City at Old Trafford was exactly what was expected and provided literally nothing of note worth talking about so I will give it no more attention beyond this very sentence.

United remain unbeaten and are favourites for the league title. Two bizarre facts given the fact they've barely looked anything above average this campaign. From their point of view this is surely a good thing. The reds famously have a reputation for performing better in the second half of the season and seeing as they have been pretty crap up until now yet still sit comfortably at the top of the table the situation looks ominous for the rest. Imagine if Wayne Rooney remembers how to play football as well!

... Although they might not need him to if this guy carries on as he has been recently

That said, an improvement in their performances will be vital as their remaining fixtures see them having to face Chelsea both home and away, cross-town rivals City at Old Trafford as well as trips to White Hart Lane, the Emirates and Anfield. Sir Alex Ferguson will know that there is no way his side will come away from such a daunting set of fixtures unscathed playing the way they are at the minute.

Of course, this could all be academic and the Reds could win the title by default if all their so-called rivals insist on continuously taking a sawn-off shotgun, pointing it towards their collective feet and pulling the trigger. This midweek round of games has proven to be quite fruitful.

I touched on Chelsea's defeat and many problems in part one. While I'm wary of writing them out of the title race (because like herpes, they will never quite go away completely...), I imagine that after 6 league defeats and a poor run that sees no sign of abating, Carlo's blues have a challenge on their hands to simply finish in the coveted top four let alone win the league.

Naturally, this is the cue for them to go on a 10 game winning streak making me look stupid.

Across London in the beautiful north, both Arsenal AND Spurs are harbouring realistic title aspirations for the first time since flares, afros and LSD were in fashion. Arsenal's kids appear to have finally 'matured' and Tottenham are playing as well as anyone the league. Victory against Fulham last weekend was their ninth league game without defeat since the start of November. Champions? Maybe a stretch too far but the year does end in a 1...

Wednesday night however saw both sides stutter. Spurs faced a tricky match on paper away at Everton and so it proved as Louis Saha inspired the Toffees to a 2-1 victory despite the best efforts of Rafael van Der Vaart who wasn't far off winning the game by himself for the away side.

If Spurs are to maintain their challenge for top honours, the mercurial Dutchman will certainly be central to this. Having had problems with injuries in the first half of the season, 'Arry will be 'oping to 'igh 'eaven that one of the most important players in his team can stay relatively fit from now until May.

You'd probably play as well as Rafael van der Vaart if you knew you had the lovely Sylvie waiting for you at home as a reward

Meanwhile at The Emirates, United's two closest challengers faced off with second place Manchester City frustrating third place Arsenal in a 0-0 stalemate. Recently, I lamented the state of play with the Gunners questioning the purpose of a side that can at times look head and shoulders above anyone else in terms of ability with some mesmerising football but ultimately fall short because they only know hoe to play one way. As soon as the opposition figure out a way of stifling this, Arsene Wenger's team seem to run out of ideas.

And so it proved when City came to town.

In case you missed it – for which you should be thankful to whichever deity it is you pray to – the game was the most one-sided encounter you could expect to see at this level (bestest mostest competitive league in the world ever. Blah, blah, blah, etc). Arsenal set out to attack, City didn't. Arsenal controlled possession, City didn't. Arsenal tried to win the game, City... well, you get the picture.

There were a couple of red cards for Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna that I guess I ought to mention but even in this situation it was the Arsenal man who showed more attacking intention.

In the end, City played for a point and achieved their goal while Arsenal will regretfully look at this as two points dropped. For all their posturing, the gunners were nothing short of flaccid in the final third. Van Persie, Walcott and Wilshire were all guilty of missing chances. If this were a fairy tale, it would be the Three Little Pigs. The big, bad wolf huffed and puffed but proved about as useful at blowing as a nun.

Much noise has been made about City's 'negativity' and game plan of simply avoiding defeat rather than actually contributing anything to the football match but the home side still had their chances and failed to take them. City's tactics can hardly be blamed for this. Yes, the blues were defended brilliantly in the second half but in the first 45 they were all over the place. Had Wenger's team been more clinical, they would have been home and dry by the interval and City's tactics would have been rendered irrelevant.

Besides, regardless of its aesthetic merit or lack thereof, someone ought to remind the so-called purists out there that defending is a part of football too and an art that warrants the same admiration as free-flowing passing, 30 yard volleys and any aspect of the attacking side of the game one would care to mention.

So, Arsenal play great football but still sometimes lack the cutting edge to make them truly great and Man City can be incredibly dull but effective.

This match taught us nothing.



Blackpool 1-2 Birmingham City
Fulham 3-0 West Brom
Manchester United 2-1 Stoke City


Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City
Aston Villa 0-1 Sunderland
Blackburn Rovers 3-1 Liverpool
Bolton 1-1 Wigan
Everton 2-1 Spurs
Newcastle 5-0 West Ham
Wolves 1-0 Chlesea

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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Midweek Observations 4th-5th January - Part One: Managers on the brink

The sack race is on...

Wow! Has there ever been a single round of fixtures that has put so many football managers 'on the brink'? At 10pm on Wednesday night, speculation was rife that anything up to FOUR managers could be getting the boot after some disappointing and shocking results. The metaphorical crosshairs have been aimed at London, Birmingham and to the surprise of literally nobody who has ever even seen a football, Liverpool.

At the time of writing no-one has been handed their pink slip but I very much imagine that none of the four men about to be discussed will have gone to bed after their respective matches and had anything close to a decent night's kip.

The first manager waking up in a cold sweat is Roy Hodgson – a man I and many others have spoken about at length already this season. It's safe to say that 'Woy' was never a popular choice amongst Liverpool fans. His appointment seemed as perplexing as it was unexpected. Despite a wealth of past experience and relative success at Fulham just last season, was Hodgson really expected to transform the fortunes of the scouse sleeping giant? On the contrary, it turns out he is doing nothing more than accelerating their decline. This is by far the worst Liverpool FC have been since I began watching football and things seem to have reached something of a nadir over the last week with the shock defeat to Wolves at Anfield followed by the 3-1 demolition at the hands of Blackburn.

Yes, Liverpool are so bad that they were comprehensively beaten by the current laughing stock of the premier league; a team who can't seem to go a day without embarrassing themselves somehow. This week alone they've tried to shoehorn themselves into transfers they have no realistic chance of ever completing coupled with the fact their chairman genuinely believes watching some football on telly is a sufficient qualification to own a football club. Yes, boys and girls, Liverpool were beaten by this!

What made this defeat all the more remarkable (aside from the fact Benjani grabbed a brace...) was the fact that Hodgson has only ever been sacked from one other job in his entire career. Where was that you ask? That's right, when he was manager of Blackburn. Can't imagine he is too fond of this area of Lancs.

Back in August, Chelsea were riding on the crest of a wave. The rest of the league could only look on in awe as the blues were running rampant up and down the country like some sort of modern day Mongol army with Genghis Carlo at the helm. Such was their dominance, many of us imagined that they would have the title already wrapped up by the stage of the season and would be able to put their feet up as the rest looked on in envy.

But it wasn't meant to be as a freak result at home to Sunderland in November set the wheels in motion for what has become an almighty crisis at The Bridge culminating in Wednesday night's 1-0 humbling at the hands of a Wolves side that began the evening bottom of the league.

Giving Carlo Ancelotti the boot would have been unthinkable three months ago but given the fact Chelsea have only managed 7 points from the last 27 available, dropped from top spot to fifth and are now 9 points behind Manchester United having played a game more, questions will no doubt be asked. Aside from results, performances, both from individuals and as a team have been poor and uncharacteristic mistakes are being made throughout the team.

This result would suggest that the former Milan man cant seen to motivate or inspire this side at the moment and the longer the poor run goes on, the more difficult it will be to turn things around. In theory, a game against a side at the foot of the table would have been ideal to try and get things back on track but such is Chelsea's current state of malaise that even a team featuring Christophe Berra and Kevin Foley couldn't prove to be beatable.

But can you really sack a man who less than a year ago won the club's first ever league and cup double? Well, Roman Abramovich has never been shy in disposing of underperforming managers before despite previous successes as Jose Mourinho and to a lesser extent, Big Phil Scolari will testify. All eyes will be on the mysterious Russian Oligarch to see if he will pull the trigger on the Italian.

Wolves' win lifted them from the foot of the table where they were once again replaced by West Ham. The hapless hammers were annihilated 5-0 by Newcastle at St. James' Park. Much has been made of Avram Grant's 'leadership' so far this season but having lifted himself out of the drop zone for the first time in what seems like decades, some poor deluded fools might have thought West Ham could push on in their fight against the drop.

It wasn't so much the fact that West Ham lost but more the fact they were so emphatically humiliated. When you allow Leon Best, a striker whose goals per game ratio is so underwhelming it would be more effective to have a single block of lego leading the line, to score a hat trick then you know there are serious problems. A recent run of semi-decent form provided a glimmer of hope but the footballing lesson they received in the north east has brought them right back to earth with a bang. There is losing and then there is this; the grim reality of the situation they face if things continue as they are. A truly damaging defeat which could prove to be the last straw as far as Grant is concerned.

West Ham are joined in the drop zone by a side that just two seasons ago almost found themselves playing Champions League football. How times have changed. When Martin O'Neill left in the summer, people expected Aston Villa to return to midtable obscurity. No-one could have imagined they would be embroiled in a relegation battle. Gerrard Houllier was expected to steady the ship but like the captain of the Titantic, he seems to have steered said ship straight into an Iceberg. A 1-0 home defeat to a stunning Phil Bardsley goal for Sunderland has condemned the villains to drop below the dreaded dotted line on many printed versions of the league table.

Admittedly, Houllier been hamstrung by injuries to key players and been forced to field a number of youngsters but quite simply, and at the risk of getting caught in the sticky web of football cliché, with the likes of Young, Agbonlahor, Albrighton and Brad 'Hellboy' Friedel in goal, this Villa team, albeit not the top four challengers of years gone by, is far too good to go down (Yep, I said it!). The former Liverpool boss must be under pressure to stop the rot before the damage becomes irreparable.

While not want to endorse the sacking of any of the above, if messes Lerner, Abramovich, David Squared and whoever is in charge at Liverpool these days were to pick any time to get shot of their respective managers, you'd think that the first week of January would be the ideal time to do so. The transfer window is open allowing any potential incoming replacements the opportunity to make any 'cosmetic' changes needed to get their teams back on track.

You can't imagine there is much surgery needed at Stamford Bridge and Villa Park given the quality of players in both sides relative to their current repective aspirations (title challege and surviving relegation). However, in the cases of Liverpool and West Ham, you imagine they’d be wanting a full scale face lift.

So... who's going first?

Part Two to Follow... maybe