29 October 2012

Weekend reflections #9

It just wouldn't be a Premier League weekend with another talking point to get angry about. As well as discussing Mark Clattenburg's man-of-the-match display for Manchester United, The Daily Transfer Request today aims fire at Stephane Mbia, Stoke City, Sunderland and the British media in general.

"12 against 9? Now that isn't fair, Mr Clattenburg!"

Clattenburg: The new Howard Webb
It is a well-known myth that referees support Manchester United, and yesterday evening, Mark Clattenburg did nothing to silence those who believe that.

Clattenburg produced one of the most partial refereeing displays in recent Premier League history as he robbed Chelsea of at least one point at Stamford Bridge. After their 3-2 defeat, even some of the Blues' detractors were beginning to feel sympathy for Roberto Di Matteo's side, who until then were unbeaten in the league season.

The first half came and went largely without controversy. The Red Devils stormed into a 2-0 lead after 12 minutes, but Juan Mata - once again a star player for Chelsea - pulled his team level with a spectacular free-kick just before half-time. Ramires would level the scores with a header early in the second period.

In the 63rd minute, Clattenburg dished out a red card to Blues defender Branislav Ivanovic for a professional foul on Ashley Young. Most of the specators at Stamford Bridge were far from happy with the referee, but that decision was the right one, which was more than could be said for another red card incident just six minutes later.

Chelsea's numbers were reduced to 9 when Fernando Torres received a second yellow card for an apparent dive. However, replays showed that United's Jonny Evans made contact with Torres. At best, Torres was a victim of his own reputation. At worst, this was a dreadful decision on Clattenburg's part.

Seven minutes later at the other end of the pitch, a shot from Rafael da Silva was turned in by his United team-mate Javier Hernandez from close range. Hernandez was shown to be offside when Rafael fired his shot, but the goal stood thanks to poor officiating, particularly from the linesman.

Clattenburg was subjected to a complaint by Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, and he gave the Nigerian a booking. Watching the match on TV, I could only laugh in disbelief. Clattenburg has since been accused of racially abusing Mikel in the incident, and also aiming an insult at another Chelsea blue, possibly Mata.

When the young Durham official's Premier League career began, he was lauded as one of the brightest prospects in British refereeing, but then in 2005, he disallowed a clear Tottenham Hotspur goal against Manchester United (that incident kick-started the goal-line technology debate).

In a 2007 Merseyside derby, he upgraded a yellow card for Everton's Tony Hibbert to red after apparently taking the advice of Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard. Clattenburg also served a lengthy suspension during an investigation into his business activities the following year.

If Clattenburg did racially abuse Mikel and Mata, that's the end of his refereeing career, end of story. And I for one would be among the first to celebrate seeing the back of football's newest 'celebrity referee'.

Stephane Mbia with the shirt he'll be selling on eBay in February.

Juste de passage
When Stephane Mbia signed for Queens Park Rangers, one of my first thoughts was, "This kid's going to be trouble."

I remember that, when he was at Rennes a few years back, the Cameroon midfielder publicly declared that he wanted to play in the Premier League. As it happened, he signed for Marseille rather than Arsenal or Everton. Mbia struck me as just another football mercenary who was only interested in signing for a big club for big money.

Mbia's certainly a very good player, and QPR must've thought that they'd secured a coup when he moved to Loftus Road in August. But on Saturday, he single-handedly cost his team-mates a potentially crucial point at Arsenal.

The situation was that it was 0-0 after 80 minutes. Then, after winning a free-kick when fouled by Gunners captain Thomas Vermaelen, Mbia senselessly kicked out at the Belgian, earning him a straight red card. Within four minutes, Arsenal won the game through Mikel Arteta, and QPR had lost again, despite an excellent team display, particularly from goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

Later on, Mbia did little to make up for his rush of blood by saying about his transfer in an interview, "Marseille needed the money. So I thought why not if it is for their good and mine, but I would never have thought of coming here."

He added, "I thought they were a Scottish club." Mbia must have thought he was being transferred to Queen's Park OR Rangers... although if his display against Arsenal is anything to go by, Scottish Division 3 is exactly the right division for him!

Stephane Mbia seems to be another QPR player that is not really in it for the long haul. He's only in it for himself, hoping that he'll get a dream transfer to a really big club. He's just passing through, if you like.

Marc Wilson before the most exciting incident of Stoke vs Sunderland.

Exclusively live on The Grass Channel!
There are some very strange and obscure television channels cropping up on my Sky+HD box, and somewhere in the 880s, near the Pub Channel and Renault TV, there must be a station that just shows highlights of Stoke City and Sunderland matches.

I reckon it'd be called the Grass Channel, because watching those two teams play this season has been like watching grass grow.

On Saturday, Stoke and Sunderland fought out a 0-0 draw that will go down as one of the most memorable matches in history. Here are the highlights:

  • Stoke's Marc Wilson broke his leg.

I've still got the game on my Sky planner in case you're interested in watching 90 minutes of drama that would rival anything Samantha Womack has ever done in her career.

Despite having signed Adam Johnson during the transfer window, Sunderland are woefully short of creativity and attacking might, and that showed on Saturday, as Martin O'Neill's side didn't have a single shot on target in the whole game. Johnson has struggled to settle at his new club, Stephane Sessegnon is in horrendous form and Steven Fletcher looks like the only Mackems player who knows what a goal is.

Stoke had four shots on target, but their reputation as the Premier League's bad boys continues to grow. They conceded nearly twice as many fouls as their opponents, although at least they tried to win the match, rather than settle for a draw like the Black Cats did.

After nine games, Stoke and Sunderland have six draws each, and I'll be the first to congratulate them on finishing 11th and 12th respectively at the end of another season of mid-table mediocrity.

P.S. I've just noticed that Janine Self, previously of The Sun, now writes for the Daily Mail. Ian Wooldridge must be spinning in his grave.

City won 1-0 - that's the City in blue, not the City in white.

A tale of one City
One of my pet peeves in terms of the football media is the way that they often refer to the Manchester clubs as just 'City' and 'United'.

When Manchester City beat Swansea City, all of the articles about the match saw the team names shortened to 'City' and 'Swansea' respectively. The media tried to rub out any reference to Swansea 'City' and almost insisted that the Welsh club was just called Swansea. In their eyes, there was only one City.

For example, the Mail on Sunday's reporter wrote, "The only clear chance of a dire first half fell to Swansea when Michu burst behind City's backline and was only denied by (Joe) Hart's quick rush from goal and block."

This is confusing. We know that City in this case means Manchester City, but because Swansea are also called City, this can lead some people to scratch their heads and ask: Did Michu burst behind his own team Swansea City's backline?

Surely a better way to avoid confusion when Manchester City play against another City is to refer to Roberto Mancini's champions by one of their nicknames - the Sky Blues (which by the way they've nicked off Coventry CITY), the Citizens, or even Man City.

We've had similar problems when Newcastle UNITED, West Ham UNITED and Leeds UNITED have played Manchester United. Only one team was named 'United' in those matches - and it wasn't Newcastle, West Ham or Leeds.

Also, it's a bit like a politician talking about two eccentric overweight leaders, calling the London Mayor 'Boris' and the deceased Russian President 'Yeltsin'. It's not only confusing, but it's also borderline bias.

I today call on Britain's football journalists to address this issue, so that we no longer have to hear or read about 'Swansea vs City' and think about the same team playing against itself.

27 October 2012

NI boys shock Scotland

NI goalscorer Stephen Fallon.
SCOTLAND 1-2 NORTHERN IRELAND
Northern Ireland bounced back from conceding an early goal to defeat Scotland and win their first points of the 2012 Victory Shield in Dumfries.

Desi Curry's boys won a Victory Shield match on Scottish soil for the first time since 1975 thanks to a dogged defensive showing, with Seanna Foster and Scott Whiteside particularly impressive.

That said, it wasn't all plain sailing for the Irish, who shipped five goals to England last month and could be excused for fearing another thrashing when they conceded after six minutes. Calvin Miller's excellent deep cross to the back post was headed in by Kilmarnock's Greg Kiltie, and Scotland were 1-0 up.

Northern Ireland struggled to deal with Miller down the right-wing, and the promising forward almost set up a second Kiltie goal on 16 minutes. His cross took a deflection before finding Kiltie at close-range, but the shot was blocked by NI goalkeeper Brett Long.

Defender Jack Breslin could have converted from the resulting corner, but Northern Ireland stood their ground before setting up a counter-attack which fizzled out when Jordan Thompson hit a cross that was too long.

The momentum was swinging to NI, who started to have more shots at goal, but they didn't trouble Robbie McCrorie until they equalised on 23 minutes. A well-worked set-piece culminated in Linfield centre-back Whiteside - no relation to Norman - sending a long header from Ben Kennedy's cross into the bottom corner of the net.

Scotland threatened to restore their lead in the 28th minute. Ciaran Lafferty's header was caught by Long, who stumbled but did well enough to keep the ball from crossing his goal-line.

However, when the score inevitably changed to 2-1 after 38 minutes, it was Northern Ireland who had the lead. Jonathan Smith brilliantly turned past Scots captain Adam Hodge, and then picked out Stephen Fallon with a goalward pass. A communication breakdown between McCrorie and Michael Kelly culminated in Kelly gifting the ball to the St Oliver Plunkett pupil, and Fallon couldn't possibly miss.

Scotland went on the offensive in the second half, and on 47 minutes, a low 20-yard strike from substitute Richie Petrie was dealt with by Long, who was looking more self-assured than in Northern Ireland's previous 2012 Victory Shield fixture.

On 53 minutes, a fantastically-hit shot from Miller went a smidgen over the crossbar, denying the Celtic striker a deserved goal.

Three minutes later, Scotland's Celtic contingent combined well again. Breslin made a forward run into the NI box, exchanging passes with Miller in the process, before opening up a chance for Lafferty, which his Parkhead team-mate fired over.

The Scots dominated the second period, and the introduction of Kyle Spence gave them additional attacking impetus. They had another chance after 61 minutes, when Breslin's shot deflected off an Irish defender, but Long read the situation well and made a decent save in the circumstances.

Five minutes from the end, a Spence cross found Lafferty towards the far post, but he shot over when he should have found the net. The fact that he was flagged for offside spared him from some embarrassment.

During the half, Scotland would have eight shots at goal compared to zero for Northern Ireland, but the fact that they lost was just as much down to poor Scottish shooting as it was to almost-heroic defending from NI.

This was a great morale-boosting win for Northern Ireland, who dealt a blow to Scotland's chances of winning the Shield outright. A Wales win against England next week would really put the cat amongst the pigeons and blow the competition wide open.

SCOTLAND: McCrorie; Kelly, Breslin, Hodge, Wardrop; Scott (Boyd), Nesbitt (Hardie), Finnie (Petrie); Kiltie (Spence), Lafferty, Miller.
SCORER: Kiltie 6.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Long; Edgar, Whiteside, Quigley, Foster; Hoey (Barton), Law, Fallon, B Kennedy; Thompson (C Smith), J Smith (Mooney).
SCORERS: Whiteside 24, Fallon 38.

TDTR Man of the Match: Scott Whiteside (Northern Ireland). The source of NI's improved defensive performance, he scored the game-changing equaliser midway through the first half.

25 October 2012

Big-spending Russians

Samuel Eto'o leads the line for big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala.

Tonight, Liverpool will take on a team with probably one of the longest names in European football in the UEFA Europa League.

They are Anzhi Makhachkala, or to give them their full name, big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala. And because they are managed by a former Chelsea boss, the English press like to call them Guus Hiddink's big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala.

As the name suggests, big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala are very rich - or "super-rich" if you're an 18-year-old college student who thinks The Only Way Is Essex is essential TV viewing. They were the subject of a takeover by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov in January 2011, and a month later announced the eyebrow-raising signing of former Brazil full-back Roberto Carlos. The legendary free-kick specialist is now retired from playing and is currently the team director.

The spending would really begin, though, in the summer. Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o was bought from Inter Milan for around £21million, and Kerimov handed him a contract worth a ludicrous £345,000 per week - that's over £2,000 per hour!

Since then, he has been followed by ex-Chelsea defender Yury Zhirkov, the prolific Ivorian striker Lacina Traoré, and two more Premier League alumni in Lassana Diarra and Chris/topher Samba.

So, what attracted these star names to big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, and life in Dagestan?

Well, er, for a start, they don't actually live in Dagestan. Oh no. Dagestan is a far too dangerous and volatile place to live in, and it also shares a border with Chechnya, so instead, Eto'o and co live and train in Moscow.

They only travel to Makhachkala to play in home games at the 15,000-capacity Dynamo Stadium - that's domestic home games ONLY, as UEFA ordered them to play their home Europa League ties in Moscow's Lokomotiv Stadium.

So far, big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala's rise to prominence has been a bit similar to Manchester City's in some ways. In 2010, the season prior to the takeover, Anzhi (who we should really call 'Anji' because that's what their name officially is in English) came 11th in the Russian Premier League and were within three points of relegation.

In 2011/2012 - the season in which Russian football began to switch to the traditional winter-summer calendar used in most European leagues - Anzhi broke into the top half and then qualified for Europe with a 5th-placed finish. During the campaign, they went through three different managers before plumping for a big-name fourth in ex-Russia boss Hiddink.

Almost halfway through the 2012/2013 season, big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala are, not unlike City, flying high at the top of the table.

Also, most of Russia - particularly Moscow - now hates them and their endless supply of cash. Where have we heard that before?

Kerimov is hoping to continue their rise up the football echelons by building a 45,000-capacity ground in Makhachkala, but whether they'll be able to fill it for UEFA Champions League matches is debatable. Obviously, Dagestan is not the most secure venue for a major sports event, and big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala will surely fall foul of UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules, as the gate receipts and TV rights they get are pitiful compared to what the club pays its players weekly.

So they're just like Manchester City, then.

We'll be hearing more about big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala in the future, whether they storm to victory in the 2015 UEFA Champions League Final or go bankrupt with debts the size of Kyrgyzstan's GDP.

P.S. A word of warning for Mr Hiddink. If things start to go pear-shaped for big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala, and a certain Portuguese coach struggles in London, trigger-happy Kerimov might decide to have another change of manager.

That said, Luis Andre de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas' big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala is a ridiculous name for a football team, and LADPCEVBBSRCAM doesn't exactly role off the tongue, either.


LADPCEVB - the next manager of big-spending Russ.. okay, I'll stop now.

22 October 2012

Jason Brown on racism: part 2

Jason Brown during his days as shotstopper for Blackburn Rovers.

Last week, Aberdeen and Wales goalkeeper Jason Brown was scathing in his criticisms of football's governing bodies and anti-racism campaigns.

His interview on Sky Sports News attracted much attention as he slammed FIFA and UEFA for ignoring racism, and said that campaigns like Kick It Out weren't doing enough to address the issue. The interview, which you can read here, is by far the most-read article in this blog's short history.

Earlier this afternoon, Brown was invited to the Sky Sports studios for a second interview with presenter Jim White.

He started with one of the points he raised in his previous interview, "It's got to the point where enough's enough now. We as players feel we have to now take it upon ourselves and speak up."

When asked about Rio and Anton Ferdinand's refusals to wear Kick It Out T-shirts before the weekend's Premier League fixtures, Brown replied, "I don't know what their stance is. If you look at everyone who didn't wear it (the T-shirts), I think there is a lack of belief in Kick It Out. I think everyone can see it for what it is.

"I spoke to (Kick It Out chairman) Lord Ouseley the other day on a radio station and what was quite disturbing for me was, one of his last comments was, I'm not here to speak out for black professional football players who are wealthy.

"Does money come into race now? Is that what we're saying, that if you've got money, you have to take it? That's disappointing. How can people trust these people? How can people expect us to sport these T-shirts and badges when the chairman of Kick It Out says I'm not here to speak out?"

He continued, "You can't be reactive to these situations, you need to be proactive. I know for a fact that four or five players have met with Kick It Out and the PFA and asked them if they can give some suggestions to tackle this. They gave them suggestions, they told them their ideas, but it seems they lost it somewhere because they've done nothing.

"We're (black players) not here to become rebels and start up trouble. We're in the game because we love it, but at the same time, the people we trust - the unions, the PFA, the Kick It Out scheme - are not doing what we ask them to do. What are they here for?"

White asked Brown what he and the likes of the Ferdinands and Jason Roberts wanted to be done. Brown continued, "Jason's got his own view, so has Rio and Anton and everyone else. We all know that Kick It Out are not funded with loads of money, even though the Premier League is a billion-pound corporation, but what they can do, instead of using whatever they get for printing these T-shirts, they can drive up and down the motorways and introduce themselves. I didn't know who Lord Ouseley was until I spoke to him the other day, and he's been the chairman for ten years.

"Let players reassure players that if there are incidents of racism within a club, player on player, you can come to speak to me because I'm here to voice your opinion. Ask us, not just black people, white people and other different races and religions, ask us what can we do?"

What were Brown's views on PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor?

"Gordon Taylor is one of the people that sat down with the players. Maybe the paperwork's lost under his desk. They're not doing enough. They're here to speak to us. With the race issue, they've just let it slide.

"You don't have to fall out with people, but what you can do, you can go and say to Sepp Blatter, excuse me, you're not doing enough. The players are not happy.

"Football's a worldwide sport played by many races and religions. We don't want it to come down to a point where we feel that, because we're a different colour or religion, we can't play football because we're scared of getting abuse."

Brown also had a stark warning that a breakaway union for players of ethnic minorities could follow.

"People have said there can't be a breakaway, and I'm all for that. We all have to fight racism together. I'm not saying we want to be rebels, but at the same time, if you're not doing enough, then you're forcing us down that road. We don't want to do this but we gave you suggestions, and it's about time you started reacting.

"I'm not saying people should lose their jobs. I just feel that it's a bit difficult now for me to trust Kick It Out when the chairman says he's not here for black professional footballers.

"How about you get yourself in the office with Sepp Blatter, sit him down and show him a video about racism? Let him understand it, I'm sure he does.

He goes on, "I am passionate about this. I suffered racism as a football player, and when I was a kid, and it hurts. I've got two children, and I want to be able to look them in the eye and say I'm trying to fight this cause. I'm not going to change the world, but I'm part of the cause to fight this, so that when my son and daughter want to play football, they don't have to worry about someone racially abusing them."

Finally, the 30-year-old was asked by White if there was any chance of racism being eradicated from football at some point during his career.

"That would be a bit naive of me if I said, yes, it would. Racism's not going to go overnight, but we need to start making strides and counter-attack it. It doesn't help when you have clubs and federations not doing it. We have to remember that the FA have opened themself up for Serbia to say, before you start pointing the finger at us, how about you get your own house in order."

If there were more people in football like Jason Brown, who are outspoken and willing to take the footballing authorities to task, maybe we would be closer to kicking racism out of football. When the PFA next come to electing a chairman, he should be seriously considered.

Weekend reflections #8

Another Premier League weekend is over, and once again, a non-footballing matter dominates the agenda. As well as discussing the Kick It Out T-shirt boycott, The Daily Transfer Request will today look at the encouraging signs coming out of Queens Park Rangers, and Southampton's shambolic defence.

Here's the spot the difference puzzle in Manchester United's fanzine.

You can't silence free speech
This Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson showed just what sort of person he is.

The Manchester United manager was far from happy that Rio Ferdinand decided against wearing an anti-racism 'Kick It Out' T-shirt prior to United's meeting with Stoke City. Ferdinand was one of several players to join Reading's Jason Roberts in boycotting the campaign, which has been accused of not doing enough to combat racism.

Ferguson called the decision "embarrassing" and said that Ferdinand "let us down" before saying that he will deal with the 33-year-old.

Who does Ferguson think he is to condemn Ferdinand for not wearing a T-shirt for a campaign that he apparently does not support? Surely he's heard of free speech - and that's what the former England defender is advocating by standing by his views! Then again, someone who has held the same lofty position for 26 years might have forgotten a bit about democracy.

The Professional Footballers Association stood by Ferdinand yesterday, with chairman Clarke Carlisle saying, "We will definitely monitor the situation very closely and make sure Rio Ferdinand's rights as a human being, never mind as a footballer, are not undermined in this position.

"Everyone has a right to free speech – just like you can't coerce anyone into shaking hands, you can't make somebody wear a T-shirt – although I do personally believe that joining in with the campaign is the best way forward."

My personal view on the matter is this. These anti-racism T-shirts always seem to crop up after a major incident has taken place, and it's all well and good wearing something with the slogan "One game, one community" on it, but what's the real point in wearing them?

If a BNP-supporting teenage kid sees a few footballers wearing shirts saying "One game, one community", that won't turn them away from xenophobia, likewise seeing someone in a Fred Perry polo won't encourage them to play tennis. Real action, like custodial sentences for abusers, and competition bans for nations and clubs that have large groups of racist supporters, will do the job.

I sincerely hope that Kick It Out do more to combat racism than just handing out these garments to players. Why don't they actually put pressure on the football authorities to do what it says on their tin - and kick racism out of football?

QPR winger David 'Junior' Hoilett was magnificent against Everton.

QPR finding their range
In my last Weekend Reflections article, I suggested that Queens Park Rangers' poor start to the season was down to their manager, Mark Hughes.

Having watched them play Everton last night, I still believe that. In what was a very intriguing battle at Loftus Road, QPR looked the better side and should have won, but ultimately, they could only manage a 1-1 draw.

It all started so well for Hughes's men, as they scored from a counter-attack in the second minute. Junior Hoilett stormed 60 yards down the pitch before firing a low shot in off Leighton Baines. The Canadian winger would be a thorn in Everton's side with his pace and technical skill.

Hoilett's strike partner, Bobby Zamora, was unlucky not to score a second goal five minutes later, as he only just failed to connect with a low Armand Traore cross.

In the 33rd minute, though, QPR's defensive frailties that have greatly let them down earlier in the season did so again. While defending a Leighton Baines free-kick, the Hoops failed to defend against the aerial threat that Sylvain Distin posed, and the Frenchman's bullet header from Baines's delivery hit the post before going in off the unfortunate Julio Cesar's back.

Moments later, another Everton defender - Phil Jagielka - was given too much room when QPR defended a corner, and the England international thumed a header against the crossbar. After that, the home defence settled, and Cesar would make a crucial save from Nikica Jelavic in the second half.

However, Rangers will feel that they should've won. Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar was sent off after a silly spell in which he conceded a number of needless fouls, and QPR could easily have won a late penalty for Seamus Coleman's mistimed challenge on Hoilett.

I've said something along these lines before and I'll say it again. QPR - with a world-class keeper in Cesar, two excellent creative midfielders in Esteban Granero and the albeit inconsistent Adel Taarabt, and a bargain buy in Hoilett - are more than good enough to avoid relegation. They just need a new defence, and perhaps another change in manager.

Not only did Jose Fonte handball, but his shirt was without a sponsor.

Saints' defenders from hell
QPR's backline is certainly not the most watertight, but it's almost impenetrable when compared to that of Southampton.

Their 4-1 defeat at West Ham United means that they have conceded 16 goals in four away games. Overall, their tally is 24 conceded in eight.

Southampton had more possession than their opponents during the match, but when they did concede the ball, it was more often than not in front of their own goal. They didn't particularly want to do that against a West Ham team who on the day were at their clinical best - out of nine shots on goal for Sam Allardyce's men, eight were at least on target.

It was a particularly good day for West Ham's local boy done good Mark Noble. The Hammers midfielder scored twice, with his second goal coming from the penalty spot after Jose Fonte - perhaps the best of Southampton's woeful defenders - handled the ball.

The Saints do have some great attacking talents in Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert. If the table was sorted by goals scored, Southampton would be in upper mid-table with 13. As much as I admire Nigel Adkins' faith in his attacking philosophy, though, he needs the substance to go with the style.

Adkins perhaps spent too much of his transfer kitty in the areas where he didn't need to make a great deal of improvement. Nathaniel Clyne and Maya Yoshida were their only recruits for the defensive line, and neither has started life at St Mary's in particularly great form. Adkins could have done with another, more solid centre-back to go with Yoshida, especially as Jos Hooiveld has been exposed as completely incompetent at this level.

The manager also signed three goalkeepers, but none of them are of the standard required in the Premier League. Former Celtic shotstopper Artur Boruc had a pretty poor debut on Saturday, youngster Paulo Gazzaniga spent last season with Gillingham in League Two, and USA youth international Cody Cropper has to date made zero first-team appearances. The one keeper that the Saints already had, veteran Kelvin Davis, was never going to be reliable in the top-flight.

Overall, then, the south coast outfit have a defence to rival that of the 1993/1994 Swindon Town team that conceded 100 goals in their only PL campaign. At their current rate, Southampton will certainly go close to reaching that unwanted milestone if not surpass it.

Blackpool's entertaining Premier League journey ended after just one season, and it looks like the Saints' dream will be similarly short.

21 October 2012

Cliché Count #2

At the end of the day, the sun goes to bed.

Two months ago, The Daily Transfer Request did a Cliché Count which showed just how much rubbish spews out of football pundits' mouths. Sky Sports are doing nothing about it, though, so it's time for another.

In August's Cliché Count, Gary Neville emerged as the worst offender - the King of Clichés, if you like - with Jamie Redknapp a close second. What happened this time around? And was the previous total of 37 beaten?

Between 1:00pm and 6:30pm, I have been watching Sky Sports' Super Sunday programme, which saw them broadcast live coverage of Sunderland vs Newcastle United and Queens Park Rangers vs Everton. During those five-and-a-half hours, I have kept a note of EVERY cliché uttered by a Sky presenter, pundit or commentator. Here's a reminder of what I've been looking out for:

  • Standard football clichés (i.e. it's a game of two halves)
  • Business jargon (i.e. going/moving forward, out of their comfort zone)
  • Overuse of 'obviously' when it isn't obvious
  • Super prefixes (i.e. super-, ultra-) and double-superlatives (i.e. top top)

And here are the results:

ED CHAMBERLIN
"Are QPR the one side in there that've got that X-factor?"
TOTAL: 1

GREG WHELAN
"Is it a good point in terms of momentum going into the Merseyside derby?"
TOTAL: 1

ROB HAWTHORNE
"...in terms of the overall attempts."
"He's also overtaken him in terms of USA caps now."
TOTAL: 2
 
GARY NEVILLE
"It's the best I've seen of QPR in terms of when they give the ball away..."
"Obviously Pienaar was playing further inside."
"Wonderful, wonderful defending."
TOTAL: 3
 
MATT LE TISSIER
"Obviously he's just as important for his side."
"He's obviously stuck Shola in today because of his fantastic record in this fixture."
"Obviously a training ground practice."
"The referee got that one wrong for me."
"Obviously, the complexion of the whole game changed when Newcastle went down to ten men."
TOTAL: 5

NIALL QUINN
"So that game became very very important."
"Obviously, rightly applauded for all the goals he's got."
"That's the part of the ground I think has the least impact in terms of noise."
"They were dictating the pace, Sunderland were finding it really really difficult..."
"Big big point, and obviously then Tiote (wrong player) getting the deflection for the goal."
"Obviously they'd prefer the three points..."
"This is a very very important period for QPR."
"They're not a million miles away from them."
TOTAL: 9

RAY WILKINS
"Most certainly, and obviously if you get beat as well, Ed..."
"I don't know the strength of this derby not having played in it, but obviously..."
"Demba Ba's the only one basically scoring for them."
"But I think this is a really important game, obviously for them also."
"No corners, basically, no corners at all."
"They are, at the end of the day, playing for three points."
"If Steven Fletcher's foot is planted, then that's him out for a long long period."
"But he's made a very very bad challenge."
"And Mark will obviously come under a lot of stick because at the end of the day, it's his job to get them right."
"They are conceding goals and obviously not scoring enough as well."
"Everton have started the season remarkably, it's the best start for a long long time."
"With Taarabt and Traore, they looked really really good."
"But it's very very important from a coach's point of view..."
TOTAL: 14

Ray 'Butch' Wilkins: Good player, but a terrible pundit.

As far as the commentary teams were concerned, Alan Parry again avoided the traps in the Sunderland-Newcastle game although co-commentator Matt Le Tissier did make a few too many 'obvious' gaffes. The QPR-Everton team of Rob Hawthorne and reigning TDTR cliché king Gary Neville tripped up a few times.

But once again, the main two pundits stole the show. Niall Quinn again disappointed with his amount of obviouslys and double-adjectives, but we have a new King of Clichés in the shape of the dreadful Ray Wilkins. He made 14 of them to be precise, and at the end of the day, he was the resounding winner.

Overall, it wasn't as bad as last time round, but Sky's football team are still leaking clichés at a rate of one every 10 minutes. Frankly, for a station that prides itself on being the home of great sports coverage, that is an unacceptably high rate.

19 October 2012

10 years of Rooney-mania

When he was young: Rooney scores his first senior goal.

A football star was born 10 years ago today, on 19 October 2002.

It was the closing stages of a Goodison Park meeting between Everton and the reigning Premier League champions, Arsenal, who had been unbeaten in their last 30 league matches. The score was 1-1 when a 16-year-old apprentice skilfully controlled a long ball from Thomas Gravesen, turned around and moved forward before smashing a shot which swerved into David Seaman's top-right corner.

The Gunners' unbeaten run was up in smoke, and Everton victorious thanks to their new local hero.

Commentator Clive Tydlesley told us to "Remember the name... Wayne Rooney!"

We certainly could not forget it, and a decade on, Rooney is one of world football's biggest names, a millionaire many times over. But when he became the Premier League's youngest goalscorer at 16 years and 360 days old (a record since beaten by fellow ex-Evertonian James Vaughan), he was earning just £80 per week.

He had made his senior debut for Everton two months earlier against Tottenham Hotspur, and some aspects of his first season would be signs of things to come.

He won the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award in December 2002, but later that month received his first red card for a poorly-timed challenge on Birmingham City's Steve Vickers. That goal against Arsenal would be the first of eight in his debut campaign, as an unheralded Everton side came close to qualifying for Europe.

The young Scouser would also pick up a few nicknames. His first such one, 'Roonaldo', didn't really catch on and he instead became 'Wazza' after earning comparisons to Paul Gascoigne. Nowadays, his surname is idiotically shortened to 'Roo' by the tabloid newspapers, and some people refer to him by the name of an animated ogre voiced by Mike Myers.

Whatever you called him, you couldn't deny that there was something about him. After a difficult second campaign in which he scored nine league goals for the Toffees, despite them battling against the drop, the 18-year-old became hot property. At the end of August 2004, he became world football's most expensive teenager by signing for Manchester United for around £25million.

His debut for United went into club folklore. On 28 September, he scored a hat-trick and set up a fourth goal as the Red Devils thrashed Fenerbahce 6-2 in the UEFA Champions League. A month later, he brought an end to Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten league record and won the 2004/2005 PFA Young Player of the Year award, an accolade which he would retain the following season.

2005/2006 was Rooney's best campaign to date. He scored 16 league goals for United, and won his first major trophy in the form of the League Cup, but broke his metatarsal against Chelsea, an injury which put his place in England's World Cup squad at risk. In the end, he did take part at the World Cup - and things went well for him as I'll explain later.

The goals continued to flow for Rooney, as he took home the 2010 PFA Player of the Year award, and helped United to win three successive PL titles, a Champions League crown and a FIFA Club World Cup, although the FA Cup has always eluded him.

The closest he got to winning the PL Golden Boot was in 2009/2010, when his 26 goals were trumped only by Didier Drogba of Chelsea. He would beat that total two seasons later, when he found the net 27 times. In the campaign prior to that, he won his fourth league championship, scoring THAT overhead kick against Manchester City in the process.

Although mainly used as a forward, Rooney's long-term career at Old Trafford could be as a midfielder. Rooney has been playing more of a team role in recent years, and when he loses his sharpness in front of goal, he could easily convert into a playmaker.

His club career has been glittering, but his international career less so. His England debut came in an infamous defeat to Australia at Upton Park in February 2003 when he was 17 years and 111 days old, making him the Three Lions' youngest player before Theo Walcott came along. Later that year, he scored his first international goal against Macedonia.

UEFA Euro 2004 was where Rooney announced himself to the world, scoring four goals in the Group Stage. However, in the Quarter Final against Portugal, Wayne was injured, and England went out. Had he been fit, they might have got through, but that's neither here nor there.

Euro 2004 would be Rooney's best international competition to date. He had another nightmare against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, getting sent off for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho and again contributing to the downfall of Sven Goran Eriksson's men. He went scoreless in that tournament, and also in the 2010 WC, despite scoring nine goals during the qualifiers.

Euro 2012, which Rooney missed the start off after kicking out at Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic, saw the English talisman find the net just once.

So despite having an impressive goalscoring tally at international level of 32 goals in 78 games, not too many of those goals have come in major matches. That said, you can't knock that record, and Rooney could potentially get close to - if not beat - Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time record of 49 England strikes.

Like his celebrity, Wayne's relationship with his childhood sweetheart Coleen has endured and strengthened during the past decade, even though as a teenager he did have relations with, ahem, mature ladies of the night. The pair married in 2008, their first child Kai was born a year later, and a second is on the way.

After a decade of Rooney-mania, have we already seen the striker at his best? At club level, I'd say yes, but at international level, he still has potential to fulfil. It would be a surprise if he didn't finally score his first World Cup goal at Brazil 2014 or become the first Englishman to reach a half-century of international goals.

At 27 years of age on Wednesday, there's still plenty more to come from Wayne Mark Rooney.

A more mature Shrek captains England against San Marino last week.

WAYNE ROONEY'S CAREER RECORD TO DATE
League: 322 apps, 144 goals (253 apps, 129 goals for Manchester United).
FA Cup: 30 apps, 14 goals (26 apps, 14 goals for United).
League Cup: 18 apps, 6 goals (12 apps, 4 goals for United).
Europe: 71 apps, 31 goals (all for United).
Other Competitions: 7 apps, 4 goals (all for United).
CLUB RECORD: 448 apps, 199 goals (Cards: 86 yellow, 3 red).
ENGLAND RECORD: 78 caps, 32 goals (Cards: 10 yellow, 2 red).

18 October 2012

Jason Brown on racism

Jason Brown didn't pull any punches when criticising football's authorities.

Earlier this afternoon, I've been listening to an interesting interview with Aberdeen and Wales goalkeeper Jason Brown on Sky Sports News regarding racism.

Brown, who was the target of a racist message on Twitter just a few days ago, had some harsh words to say about Serbia, FIFA and anti-racism campaigns while talking to Jim White.

Here, I highlight some of the key points that the 30-year-old shotstopper raised in his interview.

Early in the interview, Brown asked, "Are FIFA and UEFA just going to keep this (racist chanting) happening? It's like the Hillsborough disaster. They were warned, but they did nothing about it.

"With the Danny Rose situation, what are they gonna do? Just wait for something serious to happen, a situation where a player gets stabbed on the pitch, where a supporter runs onto the pitch, or another player hits someone and it turns into a massive brawl? It's ridiculous."

Jim White then asked Brown about his own personal experiences of racism when playing for Wales in Serbia back in 2003. Brown reiterated that he felt FIFA and UEFA were ignoring the issue, and called it "disgraceful" that nothing had changed in nine years.

White also asked, if the top organisations are ignoring it, is it up to the players to take action themselves?

"Does it need to come to that? All I ever see is UEFA and FIFA seem to just hand these countries (where black players are racially abused) tournaments. What are they going to do? Give Serbia a World Cup or European Championship?

"If push comes to shove, they're going to force a breakaway."

He added, "We (black players) go on there (the pitch) to entertain, we go on there to give the best. Danny Rose went on there to give the best for his country, and he's getting monkey chants. What are the delegates doing in the stands, that's what I want to know. Were they at the burger bar when this was going on?

"This is how it is. When you've got people that are in denial, they don't want to admit racism's in football, we're gonna continue having these problems. God forbid it doesn't come down to a situation similar to Hillsborough, where you're gonna get people retaliating in a way and someone's really gonna get hurt."

What would Brown say if he was able to speak directly to Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini?

"I would say these people (the abusers) don't understand. They're uneducated people. How about you take (tournament) points off them? Fining them doesn't do anything - these federations get money from fining players all the time.

"How about saying, right, I'm gonna take six points off you, which could be the difference between qualifying for a tournament or winning a league championship? That'll cost them, and if they do it again, say right, we're gonna withdraw you from the tournament. Take them out of the tournament - that's gonna hurt, that's being serious.

"And if they do it again, why not go to the extreme of saying right, that's it, you're banned from a tournament? Until you can show us that you're up to date and condemn racism, we're not going to let you be part of this beautiful game we have."

Brown was also scathing about the Professional Footballers' Association and the anti-racism campaigns that it has ties with.

"The whole Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football thing is just one big smokescreen. I refuse to wear any of their T-shirts or do any adverts for it because they don't really push it hard enough. It's almost like they're comfortable, let this keep rolling along as long as it doesn't really hurt us.

"It's interesting that yesterday, you had people coming on TV and speaking up, saying 'Serbia this, Serbia that'. How about when English-born players and other Premier League players that have racially abused other black players? They were all sitting on the fence, but now because it's another country, they want to pipe up."

That brought White to another question - what would Brown want to see done? Jason asked Jim what would happen if he racially abused a Sky Sports colleague, and Jim replied that he'd be sacked.

"There you go. People say that this is extreme, but do you really want black players, Muslims (Brown is a Muslim convert) and Jewish people to take the football federations, FIFA and UEFA, seriously? If you do, let's do it properly. Let's not do it half-heartedly, and we don't wanna hurt one or two people or we can't get rid of this player because they're too good.

"How about saying that we're thinking about the bigger picture, we're thinking about the young kids that are coming through our academies and look up to these players. They're the next generation coming through. Let's show that we're making a stance - we don't like this, we condemn it, and we're going to fight racism properly.

"The guy yesterday from the government (presumably he meant the Sports Minister Hugh Robertson), I couldn't take him seriously. I would've taken him more seriously if he'd said to me, I'll hire The A-Team to deal with this. When you started asking controversial questions, he didn't know what to do."

Finally, when asked if he would front a breakaway PFA for black players, Brown replied:

"I haven't got a crystal ball, but it's getting to a point that, because they keep ignoring us, it may have to go down those lines. But if we do go down those lines, let's not hear, 'He's a troublemaker' or 'Let's not employ him because he's part of that PFA'. How about respecting what we're trying to do and understanding that we've had enough. A line has to be drawn.

"How far do you want to let this go? Do you want to let this go to the point where one of the supporters ran up to Danny Rose and stabbed him?"

Jason Brown would make a fine politician when his football career comes to an end, and I hope that Blatter, Platini, and PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle have been listening to what he's had to say.

17 October 2012

Don't shut them out, KICK THEM OUT!

Danny Rose sees red after getting sickening taunts from Serbian supporters.

The vitriolic abuse that some of England Under-21s' players received in Serbia last night shows that some people just will not learn.

We should have been talking about a wonderful night in Krusevac for the young Lions, who scored an injury-time winner through Connor Wickham to go through to the final stages of the European Under-21 Championship, which will take place in Israel next summer.

Instead, we're talking about what happened moments later. England defender Danny Rose - who had been abused by parts of the home support during the match - celebrated in front of the Serbia fans, and all hell broke loose. There was a mass brawl involving players and coaches from both teams, and some fans got into the action as well, invading the pitch.

After the anger died down a bit, a disgusted Rose kicked the ball away, and was given a straight red card by the referee. As he walked off to a chorus of sickening chants from some of the Serbian supporters, the Sunderland left-back made a clear indication that he had been the subject of monkey chants.

The 22-year-old Yorkshireman added in an interview with Sky Sports News that he was pelted with stones while taking a throw-in.

Rose's reaction to what happened in Krusevac wasn't the most professional, but it was easy to understand his frustrations. This is the year 2012, and still, black footballers are subjected to the most abhorrent abuse in certain parts of Europe, particularly eastern Europe, and even more specifically, Serbia.

In the 2007 European Under-21s finals in Holland, the abuse that England defender Nedum Onuoha got from Serbian fans was so loud and widespread that the stadium announcer appealed for them to stop. Justin Hoyte was allegedly given similar treatment after the final whistle. UEFA's punishment for the Serbian FA was a pitiful fine of £16,000.

Three other black Britons - the Wales trio of Nathan Blake, Rob Earnshaw and Danny Gabbidon - were abused four years earlier when they played Serbia & Montenegro. Back then, UEFA fined the Serbs just £11,000.

And although a major incident against Italy in October 2010 was not racially motivated, Serbian ultras did force the abandonment of a Euro 2012 qualifier by smashing their way through a safety barrier and hurling missiles and flares onto the pitch. They were forced to play one match behind close doors, banned from sending supporters to three games, and fined £107,000.

This time, though, a real message needs to be sent out to tell the brutes once and for all that racism is completely unacceptable.

Paul Ince, who watched the match as an ESPN pundit, and whose son Tom was in the England team, demanded, "If it was (up to) me, they would be kicked out for the next five tournaments. This takes us back to the dark ages."

Ince's demands for a ban for Serbia from international football were echoed by PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, who was also on ESPN's punditry team, Rose himself, and Kick It Out campaign chairman Lord Herman Ouseley.

I am in the same camp. At the very least, Serbia should be barred from competing in the qualifiers for the next European Under-21 Championship for Czech Republic 2015.

What's even more astonishing though than the Serbs' sickening treatment of black footballers is their refusal to acknowledge their wrongdoing. Although technical director Savo Milosevic apologised in person following the brawl, head coach Aleksander Jankovic said, "Apologise for what? It takes two to have a fight. You should be happy that England qualified. We can discuss that (incident) tomorrow and analyse what happened. Let's talk about football."

Within the last couple of hours, the Serbian FA have come out with this incredible statement: "The FA of Serbia absolutely refuses and denies that there were any occurrences of racism before and during the match at the stadium in Krusevac.

"Making connection between the seen incident – a fight between members of the two teams – and racism has absolutely no ground and we consider it to be a total malevolence.

"And while most of the English team players celebrated the score, their player number three, Danny Rose, behaved in inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner towards the supporters on the stands at the stadium in Krusevac, and for that he was shown a red card."


Michel Platini has done precious little right during his tenure as president of UEFA, but it's about time he changed that. He must tell Belgrade that enough is enough, because Serbia's racists don't just deserve to be shut out, they should be kicked out, and expelled from international competition.

16 October 2012

How did Belgium become so good?

The Belgians are coming! Axel Witsel and co are a team to fear.

As a country, Belgium used to be famous for chocolate, Tintin, incontinent children and being generally boring.

But now, for the first time in three decades, they have a football team to be proud of. What's more, this is a team that could actually challenge for major honours!

Not too long ago, Belgium was involved in a political crisis that saw it go 535 days without a government - a world record - and end up on the brink of breaking into two. Rather ironically, it was during this crisis, which started in 2007, that most of its current crop of young soccer stars began to blossom.

In the early part of 2008, the only Belgian in England's Premier League was Emile Mpenza, who epitomised his generation of footballers in his country. A young striker who showed plenty of promise in his younger days, his career went downhill after the 2002 World Cup - the last major tournament Belgium qualified for. An attempt to rejuvenate his career at Manchester City failed, and he was soon to be found at Plymouth Argyle.

That summer, City put their faith in another Belgian. 22-year-old Vincent Kompany's international career began when he was just 18, and by the time the centre-back moved to the City of Manchester Stadium, he already had 20 caps for the Red Devils. He quickly established himself in the Citizens, and before long, he was captain for both club and country.

Around the same time, Everton manager David Moyes spent £15million of his transfer budget to bring Marouane Fellaini to Goodison Park. The youngster instantly became recognisable for his Hair Bear Bunch revival barnet, but proved that he had substance, scoring nine goals from midfield in his first season.

The successes of Kompany and Fellaini encouraged more Premier League clubs to look for other Belgian players who would make their names in England. Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen was in the same Belgium team as Fellaini that reached the Semi Finals of the 2007 European Under-21s Championship. Later PL arrivals Jan Vertonghen and Kevin Mirallas were also in that squad, as was one major star who has to date avoided the overtures of the so-called best league in the world.

Axel Witsel was merely 18 years old when he played a starring role for the Standard Liege side that won Belgium's Jupiler League. In fact, the following season, Witsel scored the goal that retained the title for Liege. A technically sound player with great passing ability, he was soon a key player for the national team, for whom he has won 33 caps to date despite only being 23.

Last year, Witsel went abroad for the first time by signing for Portuguese outfit Benfica. After an impressive first campaign there, he was the subject of a €40million transfer to Zenit St Petersburg last month.

But soon, Belgium's best new talents got even better - and even younger! Romelu Lukaku, labelled the new Didier Drogba, topped the Jupiler League's scoring charts when he was just 16 years old. Although great things were expected of him when he joined Chelsea and he hasn't fulfilled that potential yet, you've got to remember that he is still 19, and for someone so young to have 17 international caps is still very impressive.

Eden Hazard was also 16 when he made his league debut in France's Ligue 1 for Lille, and entered Belgium's national team at just 17 - completely bypassing the Under-21s. This summer, he made a £32million transfer to Chelsea, and Blues fans will tell you that, even though he's only been at Stamford Bridge for a few months, he is the genuine package.

An explosive attacking midfielder who can dictate a match and leave even the world's best defenders look like quivering wrecks, Hazard is the figurehead of the Belgian football revolution.

Add Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Moussa Dembele, Nacer Chadli, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin De Bruyne into the mix, and you have a 'Golden Generation' of Belgian footballers. But why do the Red Devils look so dangerous now?

Even though they haven't qualified for a major event since 2002, Belgium has never stopped producing good players - it's just that there are so many of them at the same time, and all of them are pretty young and can improve further.

Former international Thomas Buffel said, "In previous years, Belgium always had good players, maybe two, three or four in every campaign, but now it has as much as maybe 15 or 16 players who can fight for a spot, and that is a real strength. Even if they miss a few players there are others who can come in and do the job."

Can this Golden Generation reach the heights of the 1986 Red Devils that finished 4th in the World Cup? Well, Belgium are currently top of their qualifying group ahead of their meeting with Scotland, so it's looking good with regards to them ending their 12-year major tournament drought.

Brazil 2014 is probably too early to think of Belgium as title contenders. UEFA Euro 2016, which will be hosted by neighbours France, should be something to target, and most of their golden boys will be aged between 25 and 32 by the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

If Belgium are ever going to win a major football trophy, it will be within the next six years.

13 October 2012

No more no-contests!

And that's the 468th goal San Marino have conceded...

England's 5-0 win over San Marino last night has once again highlighted one of the big problems of the European qualifying rounds of the World Cup.

For too long, UEFA has agreed to let all of its member nations enter the World Cup and European Championship qualifiers at the same round-robin stage. With 53 members, the round-robin can become a long, drawn-out affair. In the UEFA Euro 2008 qualifiers, for example, one of the groups saw its teams have to go through 14 matches.

It doesn't help that a number of those teams have no prospect of reaching any major tournament for at least the next decade, if not even more. For teams like Andorra and Liechtenstein, picking up even one point is almost cause for a national celebration, while San Marino - officially the joint-worst nation in world football - are little more than target practice for the continent's behemoths.

What's more, these nations aren't getting any better, even though they get an almost-annual game against one of the big guns. For example, San Marino's record for the 1994 World Cup read: Played 10, Drawn 1, Lost 9. They scored two goals and had a goal difference of -44.

Fast forward to 18 years later, and the Sanmarinese managed to not only lose every single one of their ten Euro 2012 qualifying matches, but they also conceded 53 goals without reply!

No wonder that whoever was in charge of the music at Wembley decided to play the theme to Mission Impossible before kick-off. There was more chance of Tom Cruise keeping a clean sheet against the Three Lions than Aldo Simoncini.

Of course, there are exceptions to the general rule that minnows stay as minnows. Before my era, Turkey could be classed as whipping boys, and obviously that isn't the case anymore. Albania, too, have taken big strides, and even Luxembourg have buckled up.

But those small fry who either can't improve or won't improve their national standing need to know where they stand. On all of the other continents except South America (who only have 10 members, all of whom are pretty strong), there are preliminary rounds ahead of the main qualifiers when it comes to the World Cup. This way, you don't get any total non-contests like Australia vs American Samoa was in 2001.

It's like at the Olympic Games. You don't get some total novice from Nepal or the Solomon Islands who can barely sprint the length of their garden running against Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. The no-hopers were all weeded out before Bolt and co came into contention.

I've been wanting preliminary rounds in European qualifiers for some time now, and this is how I'd do it:

Let's say that Michel Platini has placed Yours Truly in charge of organising the qualifiers for Euro 2016. Unlikely, I know. There needs to be 23 qualifiers out of 52 to join France in the finals.

I'll have nine groups of five teams for the main Group Stage (that'll give the teams a nice number of eight games - not too few, not too many). That means that only 45 can take part in this stage. I'll seed the top 38 European nations (excluding the French) in the FIFA World Rankings through to this stage, sending the 14 teams from 39th downwards into a two-legged preliminary round.

The purpose of the prelims is to knock out the real dead wood, and give the winners a confidence boost which they can take into the Group Stage.

(For the record, in the Group Stage, I'd send the top two nations in each group through automatically along with the best 3rd-placed team, and put the other 3rd-placed teams through the play-offs.)

Of course, missing out on a money-spinning trip to Germany or England would hurt the coffers of those who don't qualify from the prelims. UEFA could subsidise this a little bit by introducing a minnows tournament, like AFC have in the shape of the Challenge Cup. Fair do's to anyone who wins that, and there might even be the incentive of an automatic place in the next qualifying round-robin for the victor.

That might kick-start things for a country like Liechtenstein or the Faroe Islands.

A preliminary round could even become a necessity in the coming years, because UEFA's membership is more likely to grow than shrink. Gibraltar could potentially be welcomed to the fold next year, paving the way for Jersey, Guernsey, (perhaps) the Isle of Man, Greenland, and not to mention Kosovo, who have been recognised by 92 sovereign states since their 2008 independence. There's also talk of Belgium splitting into two - Flanders and Wallonia.

Heck, if the Spanish financial crisis gets even worse, we could even see Spanish regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia becoming independent!

I don't know about you, but in my opinion, a 2022 World Cup qualifier between Germany and Jersey isn't exactly going to be the greatest football match of the next decade.

11 October 2012

Newcastle count the Wonga

Three Geordies prepare to be declared bankrupt at Newcastle Crown Court.

Earlier this week, Newcastle United announced a four-year sponsorship deal with loan company Wonga.

As part of the deal, Wonga have given naming rights for the Magpies' stadium to the Geordie faithful, meaning that the Sports Direct Arena will return to its rightful official name of St James' Park.

That's good, but overall, the deal doesn't look great from a moral point of view.

The north-east of England has the highest rate of insolvency in the country. Why then, would the flagship club of that region sign a sponsorship contract with a company that offers short-term loans at a yearly interest rate of over 4,000%?

Wonga, who were formed in 2007 before shooting up into prominence, are also the sponsors of Blackpool and, rather humorously, Heart of Midlothian, who cannot afford to pay the wages of their players. Maybe Vladimir Romanov's got a loan with them?

The only reason that Wonga are able to afford the £24million to get this deal done is that they have targeted poor people and made them even poorer with ridiculously high-interest loans. In the end, a portion of that £24million goes into the bank accounts of the multi-millionaire footballers, making thier lives even cushier.

They are stealing from the poor and giving to the rich! They might as well be sponsored by Mitt Romney!

Just when you think Mike Ashley can't drag Newcastle's name further through the mud - he comes up with this.

But then again, this is the Premier League, sponsored by Barclays, who manipulated banking lending rates during the early stages of the recent financial crisis.

Their clubs encourage fans to fly to a state that regularly violates human rights (Fly Emirates, Etihad Airways), do their banking with a company that has strong links to another (Standard Chartered), throw away their money by gambling (Genting Casinos, Bet365, 32Red, SBOBET, 12BET) and then drown their sorrows when they realise they've wrecked their life (Chang Beer).

Still, at least we can start calling the Newcastle stadium St James' Park again! No, hold on, we never stopped doing that.

8 October 2012

Weekend reflections #7

In today's edition of Weekend Reflections, we ask whether Queens Park Rangers should sack their manager, discuss Tottenham Hotspur's top-four credentials, and look at football's model professionals.

Park + Granero + Cesar = 2 points? DOES NOT COMPUTE.

Sparky's a blown fuse
This summer, Queens Park Rangers secured a number of transfer coups by signing Park Ji-Sung, Esteban Granero and Julio Cesar amongst others.

Those three top-class players should not be playing for a team that is rock bottom of the Premier League with no wins from seven games. Of course, it does take time for a squad to settle once several new players have been added to it, but QPR have already lost to Swansea City and West Ham United at home, and failed to beat Norwich City on their travels. They should have at least got one win from those three matches.

Their latest disappointment came at West Bromwich Albion, who maintained their impressive start to the season with a 3-2 victory.

Time after time, the Rangers defence was cut open, and it took just five minutes for James Morrison to nod West Brom into the lead. Morrison helped to increase that advantage in the 22nd minute, as Anton Ferdinand made a hash of clearing his cross, giving Zoltan Gera a gift-wrapped goal.

Ferdinand was one of the weak links in a far-from-solid defence which also had centre-half Clint Hill acting as a makeshift left-back. Don't get me wrong about QPR, though. Attacking-wise, they were certainly competitive, with Adel Taarabt scoring an excellent first-half goal and Granero opening his QPR account after Youssouf Mulumbu ensured victory for Albion.

If such a talented crop of individuals, who have the makings of a very decent team, can underperform to this extent, you have to say that the manager must take the blame.

QPR have already gone through a lot of managers during their time under foreign ownership. Hughes is the seventh permanent manager at Loftus Road in five years, but even though he hasn't completed a calendar year, his record reads Played 25, Won 6, Drawn 4, Lost 15. Forget Champions League, this form is basically a free ticket into the Championship.

Hoops owner and prominent Twitter user Tony Fernandes has reiterated that he will not sack the former Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City boss, and although his faith in Sparky is admirable, it is more likely misguided.

When Harry Redknapp is on the market, any underperforming Premier League or Championship team - particularly from in or around London - must be thinking about whether a change of scenery is needed.

QPR are the perfect fit for Redknapp - cosmopolitan but with plenty of English players, exciting, full of talented players, and top-four potential. Maybe Fernandes should really think about whether Hughes is still the right manager before he misses out on the in-demand 65-year-old.

Happy days for Jermain Defoe and Steven Caulker (hugging).

Villas-Boas earning his Spurs
Andre Villas-Boas faced a big job when he agreed to take the place of Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur.

After a shaky start, Villas-Boas seems to have got a hold on things now. Last week's victory over Manchester United gave them new-found belief, and they were always going to come out on top in yesterday's meeting with a dishevelled Aston Villa.

Prior to kick-off, the Portuguese took a big gamble by ending Brad Friedel's run of 310 consecutive Premier League games (stretching all the way back to 2004, when Villas-Boas was just 27) and giving Hugo Lloris his first PL start. The France keeper kept a clean sheet, although he didn't have to do a great deal of work against Villa, who surprisingly didn't play Darren Bent from the start.

The manager praised young defender Steven Caulker as a potential England international earlier in the week, and his faith was repaid after 58 minutes. Jermain Defoe's shot at goal appeared to be going wide before it struck Caulker to gift the former Swansea City loanee his maiden PL goal.

Nine minutes later, Aaron Lennon (not Danny Lennon as an erroneous Skytext report named him) capitalised on a mistake from Villa's Joe Bennett and fired into the far corner.

A 2-0 win moved Spurs up to 5th in the table. Can they stay there? Of course they can, especially with Defoe going great guns and Jan Vertonghen adding a bit more steel to their defence.

Villas-Boas was a risky appointment for Tottenham. Nobody questioned that he was a smart young coach with a bright future, but one of the fears was that he might clash with Gareth Bale like he did with Chelsea's old guard. In fact, Bale is playing just as well under 'Avy Bee' as he did under 'Arry. So far so good, then.

The next Premier League game on the itinerary for Tottenham is on 20 October against... Chelsea. Win this one, Andre, and you'll really silence the critics.

Hahahahaa, @TheRealAC3 really is a #prizetw*t.

The professionals
The 1950s was not a good decade for professional football. This was the decade in which Tom Finney labelled the FA as a "bunch of right buggers", Stanley Matthews stormed out of Bloomfield Road in a huff after being substituted, and Jackie Milburn made a dive that would make Bob Clotworthy proud.

No, wait, I'm getting confused. The above three were all model pros, which is more than can be said for Ashley Cole, Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez.

Today, I'll look at all three in turn. First of all, I'll have to start with Ashley Cole, who for some reason is not particularly well-liked by The Sun. On Friday, Chelsea's left-back brandished the FA as a #bunchoftw*ts on Twitter. The fact that he could say that four days before being due to meet Prince William, President of the Bunch of Tw*ts, is quite frankly #amazeballs.

And then, after Alan Shearer called for him to be banned on Match of the Day, Cashley retweeted a message saying, "Alan Shearer says @TheRealAC3 needs to be banned for comments. I want his opinion on bans for kicking Neil Lennon in the head. #GlassHouses." What a choc-ice, as Rio Ferdinand might say.

Needless to say, the Bunch of Tw*ts have now slapped him with a misconduct charge, and are set to ban him from England's World Cup qualifier against a bunch of no-hopers on Friday.

Like John Terry, Cole has done his level best to drag Chelsea's name through the gutter. Roman Abramovich is an owner that cares a lot about image, and it remains to be seen how long he can tolerate the troublesome twosome.

Now, how about we discuss Manchester City's enigmatic Italian striker Mario Balotelli? After being substituted against Sunderland, he marched straight down the tunnel - shunning his manager and team-mates - and in double-quick time, he was out of Eastlands and on a plane bound for Italy.

Balotelli, it seems, is so high-maintenance that City might have to hire a psychiatrist for his psychiatrist. He is, of course, a wonderful striker when he's at his best, but a run of five goals in his last 16 appearances indicates that he isn't.

Cristiano Ronaldo isn't exactly a dream to work with, but his record of scoring more than a goal every game justifies the extra work Real Madrid have to do for him. Balotelli does not justify that, and manager Roberto Mancini (who has a love-hate relationship with his compatriot) has a big call to make.

Then, there's the casual racist Luis Suarez. The Liverpool forward's crystal-clear dive in the box against Stoke City proved once again how pathetic he can be.

Stoke manager Tony Pulis called for the Uruguayan to be banned, saying, "I've been on about and banging the drum about people who fall over and in one incident in the second half, it's an embarrassment. The FA should be looking at this. Give him three games and he will stop falling over."

I'd be interested to hear what Pulis had to say about his centre-back Robert Huth, who stamped on Suarez during the first half. But back to Suarez, and how to solve a problem like him.

Should footballers be banned retrospectively for diving? Yes, but all instances should be treated the same. For example, it's pointless to give a Liverpool player a three-match ban for diving if you're only going to suspend a Chelsea player who does the same for one match.

Or what about imposing a rugby-style sin bin? Make the play-actors stew for 10 or 15 minutes before letting them back into the game.

Whatever the punishment, the FA should take a hardline stance on diving sooner or later.

Kettering: Now THAT's a crisis

Kettering Town's caretaker boss Alan Doyle has an impossible job.

If you thought Portsmouth fans were going through hard times, spare a thought for those souls in Northamptonshire that follow Kettering Town.

The Poppies' financial troubles really came home to roost on Saturday, where they played their entire Southern League Premier Division match against Bashley with just 10 players. Their goalkeeper Ben Gathercole did not show up, although their situation was so bad that if he had, he would have featured at left-back.

Afterwards, caretaker manager Alan Doyle revealed that Gathercole had refused to play because he and several other players were owed wages by Kettering. It wasn't until Doyle pledged to give him some money out of his pocket that Gathercole considered turning up - but he never did.

Unsurprisingly, Bashley exploited the home team's one-man deficit by thrashing them 7-0.

So far, Kettering are rock bottom of the Southern League Premier with no wins from nine games and -5 points to their names. They had ten points deducted for financial irregularities, which begs the question: How did they get into a financial quagmire?

You have to go back to 2005, when a consortium led by businessman Imraan Ladak bought Kettering. One of Ladak's first big decisions was to hire Paul Gascoigne as manager. As you would expect from someone who was a loyal servent to Burnley, Boston United and Gansu Tianma, Gascoigne left the club after just 39 days.

Ladak's chairmanship would be a very eventful one, which saw him go through several managers, and he even hired Ron Atkinson as director of football for a few months. To find out more on the 'enigmatic' Ladak, have a read of this interesting article from 2010.

In 2009, the Poppies got all the way to Round 4 of the FA Cup. They even took the lead twice against Premier League Fulham before bravely falling 4-2. The following season, they finished 6th in the Conference Premier, and it looked like the seeds were sewn for Kettering's charge into the Football League.

In 2011/2012, Kettering left their ground of 114 years - Rockingham Road - to move into the more modern Nene Park stadium vacated by the defunct Rushden & Diamonds. One of the ground's first Kettering home games saw team-mates Moses Ashikodi and Jean-Paul Marna come to blows. Ashikodi was placed on an 11-man transfer list later in September. That was pretty bad, but then in November, the whole of the Poppies's squad was put up for sale.

By now, the club was in such severe financial difficulties that they couldn't pay their players full wages. Ladak denied that the club itself was up for sale, but admitted that there was a dispute over sponsorship money. Kettering were reportedly owed over £400,000!

In February, Ladak was replaced at the helm of Kettering by new chairman George Rolls. Relegation to the Conference North/South followed in April, but a month later, Rolls told a fans forum that debts had topped £1million. The club entered into a Company Voluntary Arrangement that would see them relegated a further division, into the Southern League Premier.

But Rolls wasn't a good egg - in June, the FA banned him from football for five years for breaches of betting rules. He was replaced as chairman by Ritchie Jeune, who resigned after a few days, paving the way for Ladak - who still owned Kettering but had taken a back seat - to come back to prominence.

Now, though, to say the situation at Kettering Town is dire would be to play it down. Kettering still have a transfer embargo in place, so cannot sign any players, and more of their current staff are walking out over unpaid wages. The prospects of the Poppies ever being able to field a full team again aren't looking great.

Another non-league club who are trying to get out of the quicksand is Truro City, the Cornish club who famously won the 2007 FA Vase before shooting up the leagues. After arriving in the Conference South, the liquidation of chairman Kevin Heaney's housing company hit home for Truro, and a club that spent big even by the standards of some FL teams was now around £700,000 in debt, and battling for its very future.

Last month, Truro went into administration, and as a result slumped to the bottom of the division. A proposed takeover by a former manager has collapsed, and unless something drastic happens, Cornwall could lose its biggest football club within months.

More and more football clubs, particularly at non-league level, are struggling to keep their heads above water. But some Kettering and Truro supporters fear that it's not a case of if they drown, but when they drown.