Congratulations Leicester – The Saviours of Football

Birmingham City v Leicester City - Pre-Season Friendly

Birmingham City v Leicester City - Pre-Season FriendlyIt is with enormous delight that I congratulate Leicester for becoming Premier League Champions 2015-16.

Like most people, I have been watching Leicester all season and wondering when the “wheels would fall off” and there have been a few periods of the season which have tested the new Champions with a serious run of fixtures but they came through them all with flying colours.

Even “squeaky bum time” appears to have eluded them as they have racked up 24 points in their last 10 games.

Claudio Ranieri deserves enormous credit for his achievement this season. When he took over from Nigel Pearson (who had just about saved Leicester from relegation last season), there were some murmors of discontent from the Leicester faithful who thought Pearson had been harshly treated: after all… Leicester weren’t exactly ever going to actually WIN the Premier League and so survival was as good as a cup win for the “minnows”.

However, Ranieri seemed to have something Pearson didn’t have when it came to managing a bunch of players whose combined “value” was less than the “Big Teams” usually spend on a single player.

And this is why seeing Leicester winning the title is so satisfying for me.

I have become increasingly disillusioned with football in recent years. The sheer amount of money coming into the game over the last twenty years or so has really torn the heart and soul from the beautiful game.

The corruption at the very top of the game was not very difficult to predict, nor was the concept of “player power” with young men who’d barely started to shave suddenly commanding salaries that made their managers look like paupers. That shady (and, in some cases, canny) businessmen would come along looking to help themselves to a slice of the pie was also not a surprise. Some have done well by the clubs they have bought whilst far too many have driven them into oblivion.

The Financial Fair-Play rules brought out by UEFA, whilst seemingly introduced with good intent, actually seemed to make it almost impossibe for any team outside the established elite to ever break into it again in the way that Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City had crashed the Premier League party down the years thanks largely to a Sugar Daddy owner.

But Leicester have just done it.

While the “Big Clubs” in the Premier League have been busting their wallets, waving their financial willies and generally indulging in all kinds of self-destruction, Leicester have quietly gone about the good old-fashioned business of playing great football as a team and winning football matches.

The end result being that the best TEAM won the League title.

I have no affinity with Leicester City whatsoever – it might as well have been Wycombe Wonderers for all I care – but, from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU LEICESTER CITY.

Thank you for restoring my faith in football, thank you for showing the rest of the footballing world that a bottomless wallet isn’t always necessary to achieve success and thank you for the way you shoved two fingers up at the “Elite” and beat them.

Everyone connected with Leicester City this season has just created history, achieved footballing immortality and has perhaps started a revolution in football for which the rest of us should be eternally grateful.

Let Me Save You Some Money Michael

I must admit that I was a little shocked to hear that Michael Laudrup had been sacked by Swansea the other day.

On the face of it, it seemed quite ridiculous.

This was the manager who had kept them in the Premier League last season and guided them to the League Cup to boot.

But the facts are thus:

Whilst winning any piece of silverware is a piece of history for the club, football these days is motivated by money and the League Cup nets the winner around £100,000 in prize money (there may be more from the TV companies who follow their run and certainly there’s more in terms of ticket sales etc) but, it’s all largely small fry these days and £100,000 would hardly get the likes of Wayne Rooney out of bed for a week.

No, the decision was probably made with regard to these figures:

In their last 30 matches (i.e. stretching back to last season), Swansea have picked up 29 points.

In their last 20 matches, Swansea have picked up 20 points.

In their last 10 matches, Swansea have picked up just 4 points.

What was already a relegation return has, of late, turned into a great big neon sign saying “WARNING!!!” in bright red letters.

The cost of relegation these days is measured in the tens of millions.

With the team currently just two points above the relegation zone and with the general points-return being downwards, something had to change.

Whether the sacking of Laudrup and the (temporary?) appointment of Monk will make the required difference remains to be seen but four points from a possible thirty doesn’t seem too hard to improve upon.

So. Michael. Drop the legal proceedings and save yourself some money. This is the way modern-day football works. If you’re not producing the goods, you’re on your way out.

You haven’t been producing the goods.

The Weekend That Rocked The Premier League

I was going to write a review of our 1-0 victory over Arsenal for this post but, as it happened, that result became even more significant due to results elsewhere.

With managerial changes at City, Chelsea and United (the best three teams in the league for the last few years) this season was always going to be interesting and so it is proving.

As Saturday’s fixtures got underway, all seemed to be going to plan as Liverpool started to dismantle the beleaguered Fulham and Chelsea went ahead against West Brom.

There would be no way back for Fulham and Liverpool did end the weekend as one of the big winners but things started to go a little awry at Stamford Bridge as West Brom came from behind to lead 2-1.

Now, home defeats for any side managed by Jose Mourinho are rare and in his two stints at Chelsea, he had yet to lose a home Premier League fixture – an incredible 65 match unbeaten streak.

With the clock ticking away, this ridiculous record looked in danger of finally coming to an abrupt and unexpected end.

I didn’t see the game itself, only the highlights, so I don’t know if all the added time was correct or not (Chelsea’s equaliser has been officially recorded at 90+6) but what I do know is that the penalty that led to it came as a result of as ridiculous a decision I’ve seen all season.

Yes, I appreciate that as a Manchester United fan, I should probably keep a little quiet on this subject – “Fergie Time” became something of an embarrassing joke for us and we’ve been handed no small number of crucial but dodgy penalties at crucial times but what happened at Stamford Bridge on Saturday topped the lot.

At least Mourinho must be pleased to know that the refs are all rooting for him and his unbeaten record.

However, Chelsea would have been looking at this one as a three-pointer but it didn’t happen.

Before leaving Saturday, I suppose I should give a mention to Southampton whose 4-1 win over Hull meant that they ended the weekend in third place. I doubt very much that they will stay there for much longer but Mauricio Pochettino has been as impressive as any manager in the league since he took over the reigns there last season and I feel certain that one or two “bigger” clubs will be watching him with great interest and if he does manage to keep them there for much longer, I doubt he himself will be at Southampton for much longer.

And so onto Sunday.

With both Tottenham and City playing before us, we always knew that we’d go into our game against Arsenal with a clear picture of what the table could look like by the time our match had ended.

I doubt that anyone could have predicted what would happen in those two games, though.

First Tottenham were beaten 1-0 at White Hart Lane by Newcastle thanks in no small part to a record-breaking display from Newcastle ‘keeper, Tim Krul who pulled off fourteen saves to leave Tottenham scratching their heads.

Without wishing to take anything away from Krul’s magnificent performance, I do think that some clues might be provided when they look at the table and realise that they have only managed to score nine goals in their eleven Premier League matches this season.

If that was a mild shock then what was to come next was positively seismic as City were beaten 1-0 by the team rooted to the foot of the table – Sunderland – as Aguero’s golden spell in front of goal finally came to an end.

Man of the Match was our old boy Wes Brown who was making his first appearance for around 22 months – good to see you back, Wes. If Wenger was our manager, he might comment that he still views Wes as a United player. He certainly did a job for us yesterday.

And then, it was the big one. United v Arsenal.

After all that had happened, Arsenal came into the match knowing that a win would restore a five point gap at the head of the table and leave the likes of ourselves, City and Chelsea a long way behind.

We knew that a win would put us right back in the mix and we started off as positively as I could have hoped.

Whilst Arsenal coped with much of what we threw at them, we were the clear winners of the first half and fully deserved to be 1-0 ahead as RvP let Wenger know that whilst he might still see RvP as a Gunner, RvP’s only concern is defending the title he won wearing the shirt of Manchester United.

Given the form of both teams leading into the match, it’s perhaps churlish to criticise Moyes too much but the fact that Arsenal were very much the better side in the second half and Moyes made his customary defensive changes in order to cling on to the 1-0 lead as the match reached the latter stages suggests that he’s still of a mind to “not lose” rather than “win” but given the importance of this result, I suppose it’s forgivable on this occasion.

In any case, he has inherited a team of winners and Wayne Rooney, for one, certainly wasn’t about to settle for a draw here and, as has been said elsewhere, his presence was almost like us having twelve players on the pitch.

We didn’t come through the match unscathed though and the international break comes at a good time for us in some ways as Vidic appeared to be knocked unconscious in a collision with De Gea (yes, you read that right… De Gea knocked out Vidic!) and had to be substituted at half-time.

So, unlike most of our rivals, who will probably spend the next couple of weeks stewing, we can enjoy the break to a certain extent (although I’m sure the team wishes that there was another game on Wednesday night).

The work is nowhere near over but this is suddenly looking a lot better for us than it was a few weeks ago.

As for the league as a whole, it’s all getting very interesting with just six points separating the top eight and with Manchester City sitting in that eighth place, it isn’t all going according to the usual routine.

In the immortal words of Kevin Keegan… “Luv it!”

Well Done, Roy

West Bromwich Albion v Blackburn Rovers - Premier League

Have just watched England secure qualification for next Summer’s World Cup and felt I just had to say a big Well Done to Roy and the boys.

I don’t know what it is about Roy Hodgson. He reminds me of my gran. Whenever he’s giving a press conference, I half expect him to take out a ball of wool and start knitting me a jumper.

But he’s put together a decent team there which is very attack-minded and belies that seemingly cuddly and safe exterior that Roy exudes.

It was also good to see four United players making the starting line-up with Rooney, Welbeck, Carrick and Smalling all given the nod for such an important game.

I do hope that Carrick is now given a slot in the World Cup squad and is given a fair crack of the whip out there. I thought he played well again tonight and was unfortunate to be dragged off in favour of Lampard but Captain Gerrard was never going to be replaced and, as it turned out, that was for the best anyway – Carrick does a lot of things well but he’s not much of a goal-threat.

Welbeck didn’t have one of his most effective games and Smalling generally has me wondering if we really don’t have anyone better in the whole of England who can be better at right-back when Walker is unavailable but then he goes and wins an important header and all is understood and forgiven.

The Tottenham lad Townsend looks like he could become England’s not-so-secret weapon and I do like his attitude and Leyton Baines has done his own cause no harm in Ashley Cole’s absence – his delivery from wide areas is superb.

No, we won’t win the World Cup (some of our defending tonight was breathtakingly poor) but we might at least finally have a team and a manager that is prepared to go out with a bang rather than the whimper of England in more recent tournaments.

Well done, Roy. For the first time in a long time the close-season looks worth looking forward to.

Broken Windows

broken-windows

broken-windowsBack in the good old days when this was all trees, teams could buy and sell players at any point throughout the season, there was no “transfer window” (Registration Period to give it its official name).

However, around 2002, UEFA decided that it would be a good idea to implement a 12 week Summer transfer window and a 4 week January transfer window and recommended it to the member associations and, as far as I can tell, they all accepted and implemented the recommendation.

The benefits of having a registration period is that once the window closes, everyone knows that their squad is settled until the next window, no big club can come along and make an offer a smaller club can’t refuse for their star striker at a crucial period such as the middle of March, for example.

Of course, this doesn’t stop rumours circulating about players in between the windows which might have the effect of unsettling and distracting a player but that’s one of the cons of the arrangement.

The media also enjoy the transfer window. Indeed, Sky Sports News have almost made it their entire programming schedule during the summer months as, desperate to keep viewers viewing, they hype up every rumour to fever pitch. They even have a minute-by-minute countdown to when the window closes to heighten the drama.

Personally, I don’t think the two window system is such a bad idea. One of the criticisms is that it can make clubs, especially smaller clubs, “stockpile” players when they really can’t afford to have so many players on the books but the recent limits on squad sizes have surely negated this issue to a large extent because no club can have loads of players on the books unless they’re young players and anything which encourages giving the youngsters their chance has to be supported, I feel.

The argument against the window says that without it, clubs would only carry players that they really need and replacements can be sought on a “as needed” basis (to cover long-term injuries etc) at any point in the season.

This prevents the need to be paying salaries for players who might hardly be used anyway (a classic example: how many back-up goalkeepers are paid substantial amounts yet don’t even get used?)

The other argument against it is that it induces “panic buys” and the selling club can exploit this urgency by ramping up the price.

Look at our own situation at the moment. We’ve done nothing in the transfer window so far and there’s now less than two weeks to go.

Even if we bought a couple of players tomorrow, the selling clubs would find themselves short on players and would need to go out and buy, this has a knock-on effect until some club somewhere down the line finds themselves short of a player just as the window snaps shut and ten million quid in the bank has never won a game for anyone.

There are pros and cons to both arrangements but everyone seems to have agreed that the window system is the better arrangement.

However, if we’re to have a window then I do think that it should open when the last game of the season has ended and close before the first game of the following season kicks-off.

The situation we have at the moment can hardly be described as ideal.

The various leagues are now very much underway, I’m sure that every manager and every player now just wants to concentrate on the campaign at hand but all know that at any moment, the phone might ring and the meticulous planning goes out of the window (no pun intended).

Indeed, just yesterday, we had a situation where Newcastle were about to play their first game of the season, a tough match away to Manchester City. Manager Alan Pardew said after the game that his pre-match preparations all included Yohan Cabaye but Arsenal put in a £10 million bid for him yesterday morning and this apparently distracted Cabaye to such an extent that he couldn’t start last night’s match.

Newcastle lost 4-0. Not good. I’m not for one moment suggesting they would have won with Cabaye but that’s not the point here. The point is that this kind of thing really need not and should not happen

The close-season lasts for around 9-10 weeks which is surely enough time for everyone to wrap up their business – there seems no logical reason to have it extend into the season itself and it seems to have happened because UEFA initially recommended that the registration period should be that rather arbitrary figure of twelve weeks.

The issue of the January window will have to wait for another day (perhaps if we ever get to a stage in England where we all agree to a winter break?) but for now it probably needs to stay as it is, despite it being subject to just about every criticism of the summer window and more, it does have its uses.

As far as I am aware, the 12 week length of the transfer window is only a recommendation from UEFA, not an actual rule and it is up to each member association how exactly they implement it.

Alan Pardew said last night that he asked the Premier League why it doesn’t shut before the season starts and was told that other member associations didn’t want to change so we’re not changing.

I see no reason why we have to be the same as other associations. If, for example, Spain wish to keep their window open until September, let them do so but they will know that ours shuts the day before the first game of the Premier League season.

Hardly rocket science, is it?

2013-14 Premier League Preview

premier-league-2013-14

premier-league-2013-14On the eve of the start of the 2013-14 Premier League, I thought I’d take a look at the state of play right now and offer some thoughts on what might happen between now and May.

This season is the most unusual in decades purely and simply because Sir Alex Ferguson won’t be involved. Straight away, that throws a massive question mark over everything.

With Sir Alex at the helm, everyone knew what to expect from United: A rough ride and if you wanted to win the Premier League then, more often than not, that meant finishing above Manchester United.

Us United supporters obviously want Moyes to succeed and continue where SAF left off. Hell, I hope he does even better than SAF! But at this stage of the proceedings, the uncertainty and apprehension is almost palpable.

The one thing that is certain right now is that Moyes inherits the Champions.

The team isn’t suddenly going to degenerate into relegation fodder just because the manager has changed. Sir Alex picked players not just for their footballing ability but for their attitude, their winning mentality, their desire to be successful – in short: their character.

This will remain a constant to be relied upon throughout the coming campaign and should see us right.

The question marks aren’t exclusive to Manchester United, though.

Manchester City have done plenty of business during the summer and now boast a much stronger squad in terms of depth but they too have changed their manager.

Last season was largely disappointing for the Noisy Neighbours – even as an outsider, it all felt like a bit of a non-event to me. They never really put up a sustained challenge for the title they were defending and their campaigns in all other competitions ended with disappointment.

If Pellegrini can get them pulling in the same direction again then, of course, City have to be viewed as strong fancies for the title again.

I’d still suggest that there’s plenty of potential for implosion again there though.

Then we have Chelsea who have also changed their manager (although this has almost become de rigueur for them and it hasn’t really done them much harm down the years).

This change, of course, is a change with a difference because it heralds the return of their most successful manager ever – Mourinho.

Achievements before (especially before) and after Chelsea mean that it would be churlish to suggest that Mourinho was bankrolled to success – the guy clearly has the knack of winning even without the backing of a billionaire – but I also think that he arrived at Chelsea at a good time the first time round.

Back then, we were going through a slight “wilderness” phase (the Coolmore nonsense, the Glazer takeover, the decline and departure of Keane and botched attempts to replace him were all surely distractions for Fergie) but once Fergie started to get back on top of things (and a certain Mr Ronaldo started to blossom), normal service was resumed and Mourinho left pretty sharpish.

Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s not but Mourinho’s return to the Premier League just as Fergie has retired must surely be seen as another “good time” and with his bids for Rooney over the summer, he has wasted no time in getting under the skin of Fergie’s successor.

With Jose around, one prediction I will make is that we’re in for some fun and games this season. Welcome back, oh Special One!

Then we come to Arsenal. A bit like us, the summer started with the club announcing that there were untold millions to spend and the manager was given instructions to spend them but, so far, spending has been virtually non-existent.

If us United supporters are concerned about our lack of spending then surely Arsenal fans must be even more concerned – they made the Champions League by the skin of their teeth last season and without significant investment, their chances of actually winning the title must be as non-existent as their summer spending thus far.

Of course, they were pushed all the way by Spurs last season and with Spurs seemingly about to sell their best player, it wouldn’t surprise me greatly if Wenger disagrees that huge investment is necessary. If only my missus was as averse to spending as Mr Wenger, I’d be a very happy man.

The way they celebrated qualification for the Champions League last season suggests to me that their priorities and attitudes to winning have perhaps changed in recent years.

Then we come to Tottenham themselves and it seems clear that they key to their season is how the Gareth Bale situation pans out. Losing him would weaken their first eleven considerably but, depending on how the move is financially structured, it could provide them with the funds required to strengthen them in terms of depth.

Once again, a massive question mark hangs over one of the league’s main contenders.

Liverpool have been in the doldrums for a while now and their second place finish in 2009 seems like a lifetime away but whilst Brendan Rodgers has had his work cut out with wantaway Suarez over the summer there were actually signs that he was making progress towards the end of last season as they lost just one of their last twelve matches.

If Rodgers can keep Suarez (yet another massive question mark) and Liverpool can continue where they left off in May then a top four finish has to be seen as a realistic target once again.

Everton’s fortunes will be the subject of some interest this season. Obviously, yet another managerial change has taken place there and ex-Wigan boss Roberto Martinez has taken over from our man Moyes.

Moyes left them in sixth place last season and that kind of placing had become fairly standard for Everton under Moyes – the measure of Martinez and, by extension, of Moyes, will be where Everton finish up next season.

It’s hard to see a great improvement but not so hard to see a dip.

Of the rest, there were a few surprise packages last season – not least the likes of Swansea and West Brom who finished far higher than most would have imagined at the start.

Can they do it all over again? Sometimes they do but more often they don’t.

More will be expected of Newcastle this season. For a variety of reasons, their 2012-13 season was a bit of a disaster and they spent most of it looking over their shoulder at the relegation zone instead of the Champions League places they were looking at twelve months earlier.

I said a few weeks ago that this season could be the best ever and I stick by that view. There are just so many unknowns it really is as unpredictable as I can ever remember it.

As usual, at least three teams have strong cases for the title and at least six teams have strong cases for the Champions League places. The relegation places are again likely to be decided late into the season with half of the league facing the possibility of relegation well into March.

What I will also predict is that one of the three big managerial changes (Pellegrini, Mourinho and Moyes) won’t work out and one of them will be out of their job by this time next year (I would suggest that Pellegrini is the most vulnerable).

Whoever you support: good luck, enjoy and may the best team win.

Bring it on!

Drop The Punditry, David

moyes-pundit

moyes-punditWas watching the England v Scotland match on ITV this evening (very good game, by the way and it was great to see a good United representation in the squad with Danny Welbeck in particular doing his cause no harm but I’d like to see his goals per game ratio for United increase to somewhere close to what it must be for England these days).

However, I was a bit perturbed to see David Moyes sitting alongside Lee Dixon and Roy Keane in the studio.

Whilst Adrian Chiles tried to his best to honour what was obviously an off-screen promise to not mention Wayne Rooney’s situation, he couldn’t help but ask after the game, “So will we be seeing Wayne playing in the Premier League in a United shirt before the end of the month?” (Emphasis mine).

Moyes gave a bit of a blathery, non-committal type answer which didn’t convince me at all.

However, he really shouldn’t be putting himself in this position anymore, I think.

By all accounts he is being well remunerated by Manchester United so he can’t be doing it for the money and I would have thought that managing a club the size of United doesn’t really leave you with much free time and if he has some free time, I would rather him spend it doing something other than TV punditry.

As far as Rooney goes… well… I suppose we have to remember that he hasn’t really played for three months and so if he appeared rusty then there’s good reason.

However, a lot of what he did tonight looked a lot like what he was doing for large chunks of last season when match-fitness couldn’t have been used as an excuse.

Passes were underhit, passes were overhit. The little flicks and through balls never came off. It really did feel like watching a young kid and you say, “Hmm… there’s something there, he has potential” and not a world class player who really should be at the peak of his career and dominating proceedings.

My gut feeling right now is that he will be a Chelsea player by the end of August BUT we won’t sell him until after we have played Chelsea on the 26th (as we meet them at Old Trafford, they might as well just take him back on the team bus).

What this means is another week and a half of Moyes having to choose his words carefully.

If I were him, I would be putting myself in front of as few TV cameras as possible.

Could Next Season Be The Best Ever?

I hate to sound like the United fan who’s never happy but…

We won the Premier League title last season and that was great after having it ripped so cruelly from us with, almost literally, the last kick of the 2011/12 season by none other than Manchester bloody City (I’d have taken it better had it been Reading or Swansea or something).

It just didn’t really feel like a great “win” though. At no point in the season did it feel exciting for me. Sure there were a few weeks at the start when it looked like Chelsea might prove big challengers but that soon faded and Champions City just never looked like they were at the races.

Despite equalling our record ever points tally, it did feel more like the rest didn’t want it enough and so we almost won by default – at no point did I feel like I was watching the “best ever” United side.

Sure there were some excellent individual performances from some of our players (RvP, Rafael, Carrick, Vidic to name but a few) but there were some equally woeful performances from others at times (Valencia, Rooney, Evra – none of those can claim to have had their best season ever).

However, this coming season looks like it is going to be a classic. There have just been so many managerial changes that it can only be interesting at the very least.

All the top four have had managerial changes (Arsenal? I hear you say… bear with me…)

We, of course, are the biggest story from a managerial perspective, SAF has gone and Moyes takes his seat on the throne.

It’s going to be weird not seeing the reassuring presence of Fergie in the dugout and literally anything could happen from here on but I have faith in Moyes – in a funny sort of way, I hope that he exceeds all expectations and has United supporters thinking, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”

Chelsea have now welcomed Mourinho back and I do wonder if Roman Abramovich regrets parting with him in the first place. Who knows how many more trophies they would have won had he stayed? Personally, I think it’s a mistake to go back in football but if anyone is going to prove to be the exception to the rule, it’s “The Special One”.

Manchester City parted company with Mancini and have now confirmed Manuel Pellegrini as their new manager. I must say that his managerial record doesn’t exactly leap off the sheet at you but I suppose, in fairness, it reads better than that of David Moyes!

And then we have Arsenal – no, they haven’t changed manager but I feel that what is happening there could well see a managerial change in terms of his philosophy. Ever since the Emirates Stadium became more than a twinkle in the board’s eyes, Wenger has found himself hamstrung in terms of budget. He has worked minor miracles to keep them on the gravy train that is the Champions League down the years but they qualified by the skin of their teeth last season.

This and the fact that the stadium financing has ceased to be such a burden appears to have opened the purse strings for Wenger and he can now approach the game in a completely different way – he has money to spend and the urging of the owners to spend it.

I do get the impression that Wenger has had to be as much a politician/diplomat as a football manager over the last years but now he is once again free to concentrate solely on building his squad as he sees fit and just being a football manager.

If he can show the same kind of knack for bringing in quality players and getting them to gel as a potent force as he did when he first arrived then we could well see the strongest Arsenal side for years next season.

Other notable mention are, of course, Everton and Liverpool.

Everton have taken Roberto Martinez from Wigan and already he is talking about Champions League football – personally, I don’t think Everton have a chance and I do believe that the true value of Moyes is about to be seen.

Liverpool may not have changed manager this summer but Rodgers did seem to get to grips with his new club towards the end of last season and I do expect them to improve this season. They still won’t be challenging for the title and if Suarez decides to leave then they will have a big gap to fill but at least their manager appears to have grown into his position.

All in all, there are just so many unknowns about the coming season that I can’t help but feel that it will be superb.

I think it’s a given that at least one of the managerial changes won’t work out and, at the end of the day, only one team can actually win the Premier League and the might of the Spanish and now German teams are still there to scupper any English chances in the Champions League.

It could well be the case that, due to the big changes, the overall quality of the English Premier will dip a little this season making it much more compacted in terms of points but that could well mean that no one team streaks ahead and wins by a mile – we could very well see three or four clubs still very much in with a shout with a handful of games left to play for one of the most fascinating run-ins for years.

I can’t wait.

Mike “WTF?” Ashley Is At It Again

mike-ashleyNewcastle owner Mike Ashley is a conundrum. Not much is really known about the man himself (for starters, his Wikipaedia page gives his birthdate as simply 1964/65 but a Google search for his name shows 1963 in Google’s biography bit over on the right of the page) but he apparently comes from a fairly modest background, left school at 16, opened a sports shop at some point in the 80s when he himself would have been in his early twenties and is now worth an estimated £1.5 billion after guiding his business from that one shop in Maidenhead to over 400 branches of the well-known Sports Direct chain.

Clearly he has made some very astute business decisions over the last 30 years or so.

So, how come since taking over Newcastle around six years ago he has made so many absolutely awful decisions in his running of the club?

When he started his takeover bid, Glenn Roeder was the manager, he was replaced for the start of the 2007/08 season by Sam Allardyce who left the club in January 2008 “by mutual consent”.

Under fire from the fans, Ashley needed to do something to get them behind him so he sent out a team of crack forces to find Kevin Keegan who, since leaving Manchester City three years earlier had spent most of his time playing golf, playing golf and playing golf. When Keegan was found, he was brought back to England and was duly appointed Newcastle manager just a week after Allardyce’s leaving.

The whole second-coming of Keegan never quite felt “right” to me – the reasons seemed wrong, he’d been out of football too long, it always felt like a decision based on sentiment and fan pressure.

By the end of the 2008 season, the cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship between Ashley and Keegan and, far from bringing back the glory days of Keegan’s previous stint at Newcastle, they finished in twelfth place.

With the 2008/09 season barely started, Keegan resigned on 4th September saying, “It’s my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want“. It was an opinion that Mike Ashley might have done well to take note of.

The man Ashley chose to replace King Kev was even more bizarre – Joe Kinnear – another man who had been out of the game for around four years by the time he took charge at Newcastle at the back end of September 2008.

chris-hughton_joe_kinnearKinnear already had a record for ill-health having suffered a heart attack in 1999 whilst managing Wimbledon and it was a related issue that meant he needed heart surgery less than six months after taking charge at Newcastle.

Ashley was once again looking for a new manager and once again seemed to succumb to the popular choice amongst the fans when he appointed the recently retired, fans-favourite – Alan Shearer.

Can I just remind you at this point that these decisions were being made by the same man who had built a multi-billion pound retail giant from scratch in just 25-30 years.

The footballing world looked on in shock, horror and disbelief as Shearer only succeeded in getting Newcastle relegated (and when I say “shock, horror and disbelief” I mean, “Well, wtf did you expect?”)

Whilst Shearer seemed happy to take the job on when Newcastle were a Premier League outfit, reveling in his portrayal as Newcastle’s favourite son and saviour, he didn’t seem too keen on getting his hands dirty in the unglamorous Championship and especially not when there were far more attractive propositions to him such as being a pundit for MotD on the table.

Anyway, after lurching from one disaster of his own making to another, Ashley’s enthusiasm for the whole football club owner thing seemed to dissipate completely and, instead of looking to appoint a new manager, he simply let assistant manager Chris Hughton do the job whilst he got on with the business of trying to sell the club to anyone wanting to spend £100 million on a newly relegated Championship side.

It was the first time that Ashley didn’t actually make a decision about the manager. This was a default position that came about as a result of the lack of a decision.

It probably goes without saying that it turned out to be the best decision Ashley never made in all his time at Newcastle.

Hughton just got stuck into the job and started the season well, winning the “Manager of the Month Award” for August, September and November. Mike Ashley stopped sulking, took the club off the market and made Hughton the permanent manager.

Hughton duly delivered, won the Championship and Newcastle were back in the big-time.

Then Ashley sacked Hughton just three months or so into the new Premier League season in what was seen by many as one of the biggest “Thanks a lot. Here’s a kick in the bollocks” moments in the history of football.

Three days after Hughton’s sacking, Alan Pardew took over on a five and a half year contract.

Alan-Pardew-Newcastle-Uni-006Newcastle finished the season around mid-table and Pardew set about rebuilding in the summer of 2011 with some very astute signings (Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye, for example).

Newcastle finished fifth that season and Pardew won the “Premier League Manager of the Season Award” – the first Newcastle manager ever to achieve this distinction.

However, Pardew and Newcastle seemed to be a bit unlucky with injuries in the 2012-13 season, came nowhere near replicating the achievements of 2011-12 and found themselves very much in the relegation fight for most of the season.

What Ashley would do about this, if anything, was always going to be interesting.

The answer came with today’s announcement from Newcastle that Joe Kinnear has been brought back to the club and given that most maligned of roles – “Director of Football”.

Here’s what Kinnear has to say about himself and his new role when interviewed by Sky Sports News today:

[My role will be] in charge of transfers, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the side we’ve got and to help out Alan Pardew in every possible way that I can.

What I can offer is that I believe that I’m a very good judge of players, I believe that I’m a very good tactician.

I intend to make Newcastle far better than they are now. I think I’ve got a bright head, I think I can see a good player and know a good player and get the right players in for us to be successful. I have no other agenda, that is exactly what I want to do and if I see players at the club right now and I believe they’re not good enough to be at Newcastle then I intend to move them on.

If we feel, when I sit down with Alan Pardew and talk to him about the strength of what we need to be successful then I will make sure that that is carried out. I think I’ve got… well, I know I’ve got… more knowledge than most people at Newcastle as a football manager and that’s not being disrespectful to anybody and so therefore I know that we will have a decent season.

The video of the nine minute long interview can be seen here and it is quite odd listening to him – it’s almost as if he feels that he is going to be the actual manager, he’s certainly lining himself up to take all the credit should Newcastle do well next season but it will obviously be Pardew who will be left carrying the can should things go badly.

Quite what Ashley’s obsession is with Joe Kinnear is anyone’s guess but this is yet another bizarre decision and, after Keegan’s parting words five years ago, you’d think he’d have learned a lesson.

Pardew will not be liking this one bit and I would be very surprised if he’s still there by the end of the season with Kinnear taking the job for himself again.

You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to see this as a likely future and you don’t need much in the way of intelligence to see how much Ashley has undermined yet another decent manager of his.

You do have to be absolutely batshit crazy to understand Ashley’s thought processes, though.

What’s Happened to Financial Fair Play, Michel?

A few years ago, the UEFA President, Michel Platini introduced plans for Financial Fair Play.

Personally, I’m not totally in favour of the proposals but I appreciate the rationale behind them (basically, to ensure that clubs live within their means) and I can respect their merits.

Je Ne Sais Quoi

Je Ne Sais Quoi

Although they apply to all European clubs, they did, at the time, seem to be largely an attack on the nouveau riche in the English Premier League.

Bolstered by Abramovich billions, Chelsea had gone from Premier League also-rans to consistent Champions League contenders (and, indeed, winners) in just a few short years.

Manchester City have been threatening to do the same for the last couple of seasons.

However, at the time the proposals were floated, it was found that the Premier League’s 20 clubs, far from being “rich”, actually had a combined debt of over £3 billion.

Clearly, some were running well beyond their means with no hope of Champions League salvation in sight (West Ham, for example, had reported a loss of over £90million over the period 2005-2010). Portsmouth were by far the worst example, though, and if ever there was a case for the introduction of some financial regulation then they were it.

As a result of the impending FFP regulations (or perhaps in spite of them, I don’t know) Abramovich does seem to have changed his approach in recent years and seems to have tempered his own funding in an attempt to get Chelsea paying for itself. There does appear to be some controversy over how it was achieved but the last accounting year showed that Chelsea had had its first ever profitable year since Abramovich took over ten years ago.

Even Manchester City have been much more subdued in the last couple of transfer windows – seemingly in an attempt to give the books some semblance of respectability.

But now I’m a bit confused.

It seems our English clubs have been far more careful of late and are trying to act sensibly in the irrational and emotional world that is football but what do I see from Platini’s homeland, France?

Paris St Germain and Monaco are suddenly spending money like it’s going out of fashion.

Prior to being taken over a couple of years ago, PSG had recorded losses of some €19 million and was carrying a debt but, backed by the new owners, were suddenly able to become the biggest spenders in world football in the 2011-12 season and, by all accounts, this summer is likely to see a similar amount of money being spent (in excess of €100 million).

Monaco are obviously not, strictly speaking, a “French” club but they do play in the French league and are generally regarded as a French club.

These too were bought by a billionaire a couple of years ago, were relegated to Ligue 2 but have now regained Ligue 1 status.

In recent years, we have become accustomed to seeing top names linked with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, City, United but now the front-runners appear to be PSG and Monaco (some reports suggest that Monaco are lining up a €100 million bid for Ronaldo. Whether the reports are true or not, is irrelevant, the fact that Monaco have the financial clout to make the rumour perfectly believable is the point).

So, what does Platini have to say about all this? He seemed pretty outspoken about it when English clubs were spending crazy money and reaching Champions League finals almost every year.

Well… not a lot, it seems. Suddenly he claims to be “powerless to stop it”.

One of the things that has often been said against the FFP regs is that owners could simply “sponsor” their own clubs with silly-money deals from other business interests but this has always been dismissed by UEFA as they say that such things will be market-tested and anything obviously completely over-the-top would be investigated.

PSG has been bought by Qatari investors and, towards the end of last year, they set up a sponsorship deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority worth some €150 – €200 million per year with the club…

As I said at the start, I personally have no problem with any of this on a footballing level (I do have reservations about Qatari influence for other reasons quite outside of football which I won’t go into here) but I do find the seemingly double standards quite strange.

But when a Frenchman turns a blind eye to what happens at French clubs, one of which is owned by the people who employ his own son, I suppose I shouldn’t find it all that strange.

C’est la vie.