28 March 2013

2012/2013: The final stretch

Even Nostradamus could have predicted a 20th title for Manchester United.

It only seems like last week that the 2012/2013 Premier League season got underway.

We're now well into the campaign, with just eight or nine games left to play. While the title seems to be going the way of a Manchester United team currently in a Tiger Woods-style renaissance, the drama seems to be at the bottom of the table. Who will survive, and which sets of fans will be setting their sat navs for Turf Moor and the John Smith's Stadium next season?

There's also plenty to fight for with regards to the UEFA Champions League places. Will it be the end of an era for an Arsenal side who since 1998 have always made it into Europe's elite competition?

This seems as good a time as any to predict how the rest of the Premier League season will pan out. You can see on the left of this table how the table stands as of today. Now, with the help of the BBC Sport website's ever-useful prediction page, I'm going to have a go at predicting the last few rounds of the campaign, starting with this weekend's fixtures:

30 MARCH - 1 APRIL
Results: Arsenal 3-1 Reading, Everton 0-0 Stoke City, Manchester City 2-0 Newcastle United, Southampton 2-1 Chelsea, Sunderland 0-3 Manchester United, Swansea City 2-0 Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United 1-1 West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic 1-0 Norwich City, Aston Villa 1-4 Liverpool, Fulham 2-1 Queens Park Rangers.
Nigel Adkins' reign at Reading starts promisingly as they go 1-0 up at Arsenal, only for their defence to suddenly fold and concede three goals in the second half. Adkins says, "It was a good performance. The lads played tremendously."
However, he is secretly wishing that he got more of a chance with Southampton, whose mini-revival under Mauricio Pochettino continued with a shock win over Chelsea. Aston Villa's boys are torn apart by Liverpool, and they fall into the relegation zone.

6 APRIL - 8 APRIL
Results: Norwich City 0-2 Swansea City, Reading 1-1 Southampton, Stoke City 1-0 Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion 3-1 Arsenal, Chelsea 2-0 Sunderland, Liverpool 2-1 West Ham United, Newcastle United 1-1 Fulham, Queens Park Rangers 3-2 Wigan Athletic, Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Everton, Manchester United 3-0 Manchester City.
Would you Adam and Eve it - Harry Redknapp's Queens Park Rangers are off the bottom! A thrilling 3-2 victory over Wigan Athletic, sealed with a 97th-minute winner from Loic Remy, takes the Hoops above Reading, who stumble at home to Nigel Adkins' old club Southampton.
Tottenham Hotspur regain their four-point lead on Arsenal when Gareth Bale scores for the 45th time this year against Everton and the Gunners falter at West Bromwich Albion. Liverpool get another win to close the gap on 5th-placed Arsenal to just a couple of points.
Manchester United trounce City 3-0 to effectively end the title race. While Ed Chamberlin and Gary Neville try their best to contain their delight, Sky Sports producers start making plans to promote what they call "The Mother Of All Battles - The Race For 3rd".

13 APRIL - 17 APRIL
Results: Arsenal 2-2 Norwich City, Aston Villa 2-1 Fulham, Everton 1-1 Queens Park Rangers, Reading 0-2 Liverpool, Southampton 4-3 West Ham United, Chelsea 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United 1-2 Sunderland, Stoke City 0-0 Manchester United, Fulham 1-5 Chelsea, Manchester City 2-0 Wigan Athletic, West Ham United 3-1 Manchester United.
Southampton are again successful in their attempts to get top billing on Match of the Day when they win by the odd goal in seven against West Ham United, who withdraw their offer of a new contract to Sam Allardyce. The Saints are eight points clear of the drop and have shot up to 12th. Newcastle United are dragged into trouble by arch-rivals Sunderland after Stephane Sessegnon decides for once that he actually wants to play.
Liverpool record another win and overtake Arsenal in 5th. A Reds fan can be seen holding a banner saying: "LIVERPOOL FC: CHAMPIONS 2014".
It's not long before Arsenal move back up to 4th, though, as they put four goals past Everton to leafrog the Reds and Tottenham. Later in midweek, West Ham delay Manchester United's title celebrations by taking three points off the Red Devils. The Hammers immediately offer Sam Allardyce a new contract.

20 APRIL - 22 APRIL
Results: Fulham 0-2 Arsenal, Norwich City 2-1 Reading, Queens Park Rangers 3-0 Stoke City, Sunderland 1-2 Everton, Swansea City 1-0 Southampton, West Bromwich Albion 0-0 Newcastle United, West Ham United 0-1 Wigan Athletic, Liverpool 1-3 Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur 0-4 Manchester City, Manchester United 7-0 Aston Villa.
The great escape is on! Queens Park Rangers are three points from 17th place after Harry Redknapp's boys saunter past Stoke City. The London press laud the QPR boss as 'Harry Houdini' and accuse Stoke of trying to decapitate Harry's players, although to be fair, they have a point.
Manchester City overwhelm an out-of-form Tottenham Hotspur to leave the previously fresh-faced Andre Villas-Boas looking like Vincent van Gogh, albeit with one extra ear. City's joy is short-lived, though, because Aston Villa later give Manchester United free rein of their penalty area before handing them the Premier League title on a silver platter.

27 APRIL - 29 APRIL
Results: Chelsea 0-1 Swansea City, Everton 1-2 Fulham, Manchester City 3-1 West Ham United, Newcastle United 2-0 Liverpool, Southampton 2-2 West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City 1-0 Norwich City, Wigan Athletic 0-2 Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United, Reading 1-2 Queens Park Rangers, Aston Villa 1-0 Sunderland.
Relegation is finally confirmed for Reading when they lose to Queens Park Rangers, who briefly move out of the bottom three. A disappointed Nigel Adkins says, "It was a good performance. The lads played tremendously."
Everton's Champions League push is pushed back when they are shocked 2-1 by Fulham. Several Toffees fans with a combined IQ lower than Jade Goody's corpse bombard BBC 606 with calls demanding that their manager David Moyes be sacked.
QPR's spell in the safety zone only last two days. In the Monday night kick-off, Christian Benteke scores a decisive goal for Aston Villa which puts Sunderland well and truly in relegation trouble. Martin O'Neill tears out what's left of his hair afterwards.
With just three rounds to go, just six points separate the teams in 12th and 19th.

4 MAY - 7 MAY
Results: Fulham 2-0 Reading, Liverpool 2-3 Everton, Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea, Norwich City 0-0 Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers 0-2 Arsenal, Sunderland 0-0 Stoke City, Swansea City 1-0 Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur 4-0 Southampton, West Bromwich Albion 1-1 Wigan Athletic, West Ham United 2-1 Newcastle United, Wigan Athletic 1-0 Swansea City.
Manchester United and Chelsea draw 1-1 in goals and 2-2 in red cards in a bitter battle at Old Trafford. After Chelsea are hit with a dozen separate FA charges and United get off scot free, the Blues' interim manager Rafael Benitez says, "Alex Ferguson runs the FA. Fact."
Despite winning a Merseyside thriller, Everton are out of Champions League contention. Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur will squabble over the last three spots in Michel Platini's cash cow.
As for the real drama, Queens Park Rangers fall closer to relegation when they implode at home to Arsenal. Sunderland are sent into the relegation zone by Wigan Athletic's victory over Swansea City on Monday, and the Mackems' 0-0 draw with Stoke City is deemed so exciting that Match of the Day's producers decide to replace that particular match with highlights of a 1983 World Indoor Bowls Championship Quarter Final.

12 MAY - 15 MAY
Results: Arsenal 3-1 Wigan Athletic, Everton 1-0 West Ham United, Fulham 0-0 Liverpool, Manchester United 5-1 Swansea City, Norwich City 0-0 West Bromwich Albion, Queens Park Rangers 2-1 Newcastle United, Reading 0-3 Manchester City, Stoke City 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland 2-0 Southampton, Aston Villa 0-2 Chelsea, Manchester City 1-2 West Bromwich Albion.
As Manchester United lift aloft the Premier League trophy having swept aside Swansea City, the mood in the northern part of the rainy city is, well, rather rainy. Joe Hart somehow manages to spill a weak Romelu Lukaku shot into his own net to give West Bromwich Albion a midweek victory, and FA Cup winners Chelsea the chance to steal 2nd place from Manchester City on the final day. West Brom striker Peter Odemwingie celebrates his team-mates' win by tweeting, "Still wish u let me join QPR #w*nkers".
4th place will go down to the wire as well - Arsenal lead Tottenham by a solitary point, but their goal difference is so superior that Spurs effectively need to beat Sunderland and hope that the Gunners don't overcome Newcastle United.
Just three points separate the teams in 14th and 19th place, meaning that any two of six teams will be relegated on what Sky Sports call Super Mega Ultra Relegation Grand Slam Sunday - in 3D. Even Stephen Hawking admits that he needs an abacus to work out all of the permutations.

19 MAY
Results: Chelsea 1-0 Everton, Liverpool 2-0 Queens Park Rangers, Manchester City 2-1 Norwich City, Newcastle United 1-1 Arsenal, Southampton 3-3 Stoke City, Swansea City 0-0 Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion 2-3 Manchester United, West Ham United 0-2 Reading, Wigan Athletic 2-2 Aston Villa.
The battle for 2nd turns out to be a damp squib. Chelsea get the win they need against Everton, but Manchester City are too strong for Norwich City as Roberto Mancini manages to just about keep himself in the job. Rafael Benitez is sacked five minutes after full-time and replaced by Gianfranco Zola, who has somehow managed to get Udinese B into next season's Premier League under the guise of Watford.
Tottenham Hotspur defeat Sunderland 2-0, but their efforts to get 4th place look to be futile as Arsenal lead Newcastle United 1-0 going into injury time. However, when Thomas Vermaelen bundles over Papiss Cisse in the box and Yohan Cabaye converts the resulting penalty, Tottenham's despair turns into joy and Andre Villas-Boas does a David Brent dance on the White Hart Lane pitch.
However, the most dramatic moment of the season is saved until the very last minute. Queens Park Rangers are dead and gone following a 2-0 reverse at Liverpool, while Newcastle, Southampton and Sunderland are safe. That means that Aston Villa vs Wigan Athletic decides the final relegation place.
It's 4:59pm, and we're into the last of five added second-half minutes at Villa Park. The hosts are 2-1 to the good when Callum McManaman unleashes an audacious shot from 40 yards out. To the despair of thousands of Brummies, McManaman's thunderbolt flies past Brad Guzan and into the net to get the most dramatic of equalisers for Wigan. The Latics celebrate like they've won the Premier League, and a grown man who looks suspiciously like the Prime Minister is seen crying in the Holte End.
While Jeff Stelling and the Soccer Special boys are at a loss as to how Wigan can survive in the Premier League for yet another season, QPR and Aston Villa come to terms with the fact that they'll be in the Championship next season. Taking their place in the top flight will be Cardiff City, Watford and play-off winners Crystal Palace.

So, there you have it. United are champions, Spurs are in the top four, and Villa, QPR and Reading are relegated. Remember - you heard it here first!

"There, there, dad. At least Birmingham got relegated as well."

27 March 2013

Let's all laugh at Scotland

Charlie Adam is devastated as another World Cup passes Scotland by.

Goodness me, there are 442 days to go until the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and already Scotland are out of contention!

A miserable 2-0 defeat to Serbia, in which they were outdone by the shooting prowess of Filip Djuricic, has condemned them to an eight successive major tournament as TV viewers.

It is remarkable that the first European team to be officially eliminated from the 'Road to Brazil' (note that I didn't say Road to Rio - the World Cup isn't held in just one city!) is not Andorra, Luxembourg or even San Marino. Although I have more chance of dating Amy Macdonald than those three teams have of making it to the finals, at least they still have a mathematical chance of getting through the play-offs, which is more than can be said for Scotland.

For us English, this is a chance to laugh at the Scots' expense. But north of the border, yesterday's humiliation in Belgrade is just another landmark in their national team's darkest period.

Over the last decade, the Tartan Army have lurched from manager to manager. Gordon Strachan is their fifth since the infamous Berti Vogts was axed in 2004. Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley and Craig Levein have all tried and failed to get the Scots into their first major finals of the 21st century.

Scotland's instability with their managers translates to their players. Only two players from yesterday's squad, Kenny Miller and Gary Caldwell, have over 50 caps. Alan Hutton, the only other player capped more than 30 times, has been in and out of the squad since his breakthrough six years ago. The rest of the squad is chopped and changed at the rate that Henry VIII altered his marital status.

The Tartan Army will also be concerned that the Scottish squad is becoming less, well, Scottish. Their last squad to compete in a major finals, at the 1998 World Cup, was full of red-blooded Scots. The current motley crew is anything but.

I'll give you a list of names in alphabetical order: Phil Bardsley, Liam Bridcutt, Kris Commons, Danny Fox, Matt Gilks, Craig Mackail-Smith, Jamie Mackie, Russell Martin, James Morrison, Matt Phillips, Jordan Rhodes. All 11 of those players have been capped or even called up by Scotland in the past twelve months. All of them were born in England.

Most of the players that I've just named are Championship players at best. But the Scottish Premier League has declined to such an extent that whereas it could be argued 20 years ago that it was close to its English brother quality-wise, nowadays, the worst teams in the SPL would struggle in England's League One. With that in mind, it's not that surprising that the SFA have regularly looked south for players whose grandparents 'sh*gged in Scotland', so to say.

The Scottish class of 2013 is a very far cry from Ally MacLeod's Tartan Army of 1978, who shocked Holland at that year's World Cup, and even the team that gave Brazil a scare in the opening game of France 1998.

Scotland used to qualify for major tournaments quite regularly. Now, though, there is great concern that they could end their World Cup qualifying campaign without a single victory, which really would be the lowest of all low points. When you look at their remaining fixtures (Belgium at home, Macedonia away, and Croatia both home and away), it's hard to see where that morale-boosting win is going to come from.

There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, though. Mark Wotte has been the SFA's Performance Director for the best part of two years, and the progress he has been making in developing talented Scottish footballers for the future has been slow but steady.

Arguably the most talented young Scot in football currently is Islam Feruz, a Somalian-born striker who has been in great form for Chelsea's youth team, but seems to have developed a bit of an attitude problem since moving to south London from Celtic. At 17, it's unlikely that we'll see Feruz in a full international for at least a couple of years.

Likewise, it'll be a while before an outstanding teenage goalkeeper makes his senior bow, but I have high expectations of Rangers' Robbie McCrorie after watching him in last year's Under-16s Victory Shield.

The next generation of Scottish soccer stars is some time away from breaking through, but it's clear that they won't have a lot to live up to, because the current crop can't even outlast Andorra in a qualifying campaign.

19 March 2013

Another Blackburn boss bites the dust

Blackburn Rovers managers have shorter lifespans than this little fella.

If any team in the Football League deserves to be relegated, then that team is Blackburn Rovers.

If you thought Nottingham Forest were cruel for sacking three managers in less than a year, then what does that make Blackburn, who have now got rid of three bosses DURING A SEASON! It's the sort of managerial chopping and changing you would expect in Italy, not the north-west of England!

Steve Kean, Henning Berg and now Michael Appleton have been treated appallingly by Rovers' Indian owners. I am not a Blackburn fan, but I will support any attempt by ANYONE to get Venky's out of Ewood Park as soon as possible.

As things stand, Blackburn are 18th in the Championship and four points above the relegation zone. It would perhaps be poetic justice if their disappointing form continued in their last nine matches of the season and they were relegated to League One. That may sound harsh to Rovers fans, but it might just be the thing that makes Venky's think twice about keeping hold of the club.

This is how Blackburn Rovers became a management swap shop:

28 September: Steve Kean resigns
Seven games into the season, Kean resigns, saying, "For reasons I cannot discuss on legal advice, it is with deep regret, given my hard work and service for the club for a number of years that I have been forced to resign as manager with immediate effect due to my position as team manager becoming untenable."

Eric Black is in caretaker charge for a month, and does pretty well, taking eight points from five games in October.

31 October: Henning Berg appointed
The Blackburn website says, "Blackburn Rovers are delighted to confirm the appointment of Henning Berg as the club’s new manager. The 43-year-old, who succeeds Steve Kean, returns to Rovers for a third time, having previously enjoyed two successful spells as a player."

Blackburn win just one of their first ten games under Berg's management.

27 December: Henning Berg sacked
Two days after Christmas, Blackburn release this statement: "Blackburn Rovers FC has announced the departure of manager Henning Berg, assistant manager Eric Black, first team coach Iain Brunskill and goalkeeping coach Bobby Mimms with immediate effect. This decision has been taken following a very disappointing sequence of results. The club thanks the four men for their efforts and wishes them every success for the future."

Gary Bowyer takes temporary caretaker charge. After toying with the idea of putting unknown British Asian coach Judan Ali in charge, Rovers appoint Michael Appleton to his third managerial role of the season after spells at Portsmouth and Blackpool.

11 January: Michael Appleton appointed
Blackburn say on their website, "Blackburn Rovers are pleased to announce that Michael Appleton has agreed to become the club’s new manager. The 37-year-old, who succeeds Henning Berg, will be joined at Ewood Park by assistant Ashley Westwood."
Rovers managing director Derek Shaw said, "We are delighted to welcome both Michael and Ashley to the football club. They are both highly regarded within the game and we are confident that they have the drive and ambition to take this club forward. We will do everything in our powers to support them in our quest to make an instant return to the Premier League."

The Ewood Park win four out of 15 games under Appleton and go out of the FA Cup.

19 March: Michael Appleton sacked
67 days after Appleton arrived, this statement was released: "Blackburn Rovers FC can confirm that Michael Appleton has been relieved of his duties as manager along with assistant manager Ashley Westwood, first team coach Darren Moore and head of senior recruitment Luke Dowling."

Gary Bowyer has been appointed as caretaker manager for the rest of the season, although if we know Venky's too well, the season might actually end like this...

25 March: "Blackburn Rovers are delighted to announce that Paolo Di Canio has been appointed as the club's new manager with immediate effect."
6 April: "Due to disappointing results in recent matches, Blackburn Rovers have today relieved manager Paolo Di Canio of his duties as manager. Danny Murphy has been installed as caretaker manager for the remainder of the season."
14 April: "Blackburn Rovers FC can today confirm that the contract of player-manager Danny Murphy has been terminated by mutual consent."
17 April: "Blackburn Rovers are pleased to confirm the appointment of Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan as first-team manager on a 15-month contract."
29 April: "Shahrukh Khan has departed his position as Blackburn Rovers manager with immediate effect. The decision has been taken as the club is currently three points adrift of safety with one match to go in the 2012/2013 Championship season to go."
2 May: At a Blackburn press conference, MD Derek Shaw says, "Blackburn Rovers are pleased to announce the appointment of our new manager... Terry Venables... has had his contract terminated by mutual consent."
6 May: "In the wake of Blackburn Rovers' relegation to League One, owners Anuradha Desai and Venkatesh Rao have announced that the club has been put up for sale with immediate effect."

For the sake of Jack Walker's legacy, Venky's should get out of Blackburn Rovers NOW.

A young man's job

Meet the new boss: Lee Johnson is just 31 years of age.

Lee Johnson yesterday became the youngest manager in the Football League when he was put in charge of Oldham Athletic.

31-year-old Johnson has followed in his father Gary's footsteps by taking his first role in football management. It's a high-pressure role as well - Oldham are battling against relegation from League One, where they have been since 1997/1998, before Johnson even began his professional playing career!

At his first press conference at Boundary Park, Johnson showed plenty of youthful enthusiasm, saying, "I don’t feel any pressure at the moment, I just feel really excited to get the adventure underway. I can only give it my best which I will.

"All ask of the fans is they give the team the support for the 90 minutes which is so important in this current situation."

Johnson will be making a few headlines over the coming weeks, and not just because of his age. When Lee's Oldham host Gary's Yeovil Town on 16 April, they will become one of a small number of father-and-son duos to manage opposing teams in a Football League fixture.

The former Yeovil and Bristol City midfielder, who left Kilmarnock in January, takes over from Karl Robinson, who was 29 when he became Milton Keynes Dons manager and is now 32, as the Football League's most youthful manager.

Young bosses are nothing new, of course. In 1965, 30-year-old Brian Clough became the new Hartlepool United manager, and nine years later, East Stirlingshire appointed a 32-year-old by the name of Alex Ferguson. They've both done reasonably well for themselves since their first jobs. But when Clough and Ferguson took their first tentative steps in management, it was almost a prerequisite that you had to have a significant amount of life experience to be a head coach.

Chris Brass was one of a few names to break the mould when, in 2003, he was appointed player-manager of York City at the tender age of 27. He didn't do particularly well there, but clubs were soon giving jobs to young bucks like Chris Coleman, Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, and they were reaping the rewards.

Nowadays, you can't move for managers who are younger than 40. As well as Johnson and Robinson, there's Leam Richardson (Accrington Stanley), Eddie Howe (AFC Bournemouth) and Andre Villas-Boas (Tottenham Hotspur), who are all aged 35 or under.

In fact, 15 managers from the 92 Football League clubs are in their 30s. It's easy to forget that Martinez is still only 39, and that Rodgers has only just himself turned 40.

The rise of the fresh-faced coach has been spearheaded by 35-year-old Villas-Boas. The Portuguese got his first big job, as 'technical director' of the British Virgin Islands national team, when he was just 21. He later became Jose Mourinho's apprentice at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan before standing on his own two feet and winning Portugal's Primeira Liga and the UEFA Europa League with Porto aged only 33.

Villas-Boas, who like Mourinho was also inspired by the late, great Bobby Robson, is a forward-thinking coach, and I think that Lee Johnson will be that to some extent at Oldham. He has taken bits and pieces from his former coaches (including big names like Graham Taylor, Steve Coppell and of course his dad) and he said ahead of today's home game with Hartlepool, "I have got a definitive plan of ideas on how I want to go forward and I’m going to be brave in going for that."

Good luck to him. And in a league where one bad run of form could easily get you sacked, young Lee might need some of it.

18 March 2013

Weekend reflections #18

Weekend reflections is back after a two-month absence with The Daily Transfer Request's view on the second-most professional McManaman in football, and the least professional Russian-Nigerian in the beautiful game.

Tekken 7: Premier League edition, featuring new character Callum McManaman.

McMan...ARGHHHH, MAN!
Wigan Athletic defeated Newcastle United yesterday to boost their survival hopes, but their 2-1 victory was upstaged by a horrific tackle from their young forward Callum McManaman.

McManaman, who is a 'distant relative' of former England and Liverpool midfielder Steve, made a horrific lunge on Newcastle star Massadio Haidara just over ten minutes into the game. It was a true striker's tackle, with McManaman's right foot clashing with the left knee of Haidara. The Frenchman never stood a chance.

The 21-year-old wanted to make an impact in his first Premier League start, and he did just that. But as a result of his tackle on Haidara, the Newcastle full-back's season is over, and his whole career could easily have been put in jeopardy.

I'll admit that when I first heard of Haidara, I thought he was Japanese. That seems rather ironic now, because McManaman seemed to come in at him like one of the combatants in a Japanese fighting video game like Tekken or Street Fighter.

Newcastle were incensed that McManaman's tackle on their man went unpunished - not even a yellow card was shown by referee Mark Halsey. At half-time, Magpies coach John Carver went over to confront the Latics youngster, and nearly started a riot in the process. Carver was sent off, which was what should've happened to McManaman.

Wigan manager Roberto Martinez tried to put the youngster's tackle down to fresh enthusiasm rather than any recklessness or aggression. Newcastle boss Alan Pardew was not so forgiving, saying, "The pictures speak for themselves. I thought it was an awful challenge and I was 60 yards from the incident."

McManaman is one of the very few players to have come through Wigan's youth set-up and played for the first-team in the Premier League. Even though he made very little impression on the top-flight before he put his mark on Haidara's leg, he has played a larger role in Wigan's run to the FA Cup Semi Finals.

If he is given a three-game ban, which the FA is likely to hand to him retrospectively, then he will miss their Semi Final meeting with Millwall at Wembley on 13 April.

Here in the UK, we are very critical when people carry out criminal or aggressive acts, and the perpetrators aren't given any sympathy. But if CNN get wind of this, they'd probably say that Callum McManaman's "promising" career had been "ruined". Then, their glamorous young reporter would have claimed at the FA's disciplinary meeting that it had been "incredibly difficult" to watch as "this young man literally watched as his life fell apart".

As for Haidara, he'll hardly get mentioned, although there's bound to be one hack who mistakenly refers to him as Japanese. Bloody stupid Yanks.

West Brom's Peter Odemwingie in his new position as bench-warmer.

'Wing it
When West Bromwich Albion's Peter Odemwingie tried to make history by becoming the first footballer to sign for a new club without his current team's permission, he effectively burned his bridges with the Baggies.

Now, he has - to all intents and purposes - shut the border, declared war on West Brom, and started preparing nuclear missiles for launch.

The Soviet-born Nigeria international yesterday used Twitter to fire another shot at his employers for dropping him to the bench in recent games. The straw that broke this particular camel's back came on Saturday, when he made only a 23-minute cameo as a substitute at Stoke City in a 0-0 draw that was nothing if not a cure for insomnia.

On Sunday, Odemwingie went all Piers Morgan, tweeting, "Keeping me on the bench now is worst [sic] than what they did on the 31st [January]. New advisers told me to take say its all my fault cos it's better or me."

He followed that up with this, "Former Albion sporting director [presumably Dan Ashworth] in the presence of the new [Richard Garlick] and Manager [Steve Clarke] apologised to me in private. Publicly not good? Come under my cloud."

I could copy the rest of Odemwingie's rants here if I wanted to, but I plan on going to bed tonight.

West Brom fans hit back at the 31-year-old, with Mike Russell tweeting, "please shut up Peter, you may not realise, but it's not all about you. Your constant moaning is tedious!!!" When another supporter said that he should be sacked, Odemwingie replied, "That's my wish."

When Peter Odemwingie came to this country in 2010, I had him down as a respectful individual who had coped with the horrific racist abuse he received in his native Russia with dignity. But once again, my personal view on an exceptionally-talented footballer has turned 180 degrees.

Odemwingie won't be short of suitors when he can next be sold in the summer. Queens Park Rangers tried to sign him on Deadline Day, when he left the Midlands for an impromptu drive around west London, and if they stay in the Premier League for next season, they could well make another bid for him.

If Harry Redknapp wants a prolific striker who has scored 30 times in two-and-a-half Premier League seasons, that's fine by him. But unless he also wants another ticking time bomb who could be just one rejection away from going on hunger strike, then he should look elsewhere. After all, he's already got Adel Taarabt.

14 March 2013

Lions aim to emulate 2004 heroes

Powerful defender Danny Shittu heads Millwall's FA Cup class of 2013.

Millwall are just 90 minutes away from their second FA Cup Final in less than a decade.

The Lions defeated Blackburn Rovers 1-0 in last night's Quarter Final replay at Ewood Park, with their captain Danny Shittu enhancing his cult status by heading home the winner after 42 minutes. Kenny Jackett's men will now fancy their chances of pulling off a Semi Final shock against Wigan Athletic at Wembley next month.

Millwall is a club which I have a special affinity for, because the first game that I ever witnessed live was their Division 1 game against Leicester City at The Den in November 2002. I've been supporting them as my second club after Arsenal ever since.

In my first full season of following the Lions, Millwall made it all the way to the 2004 FA Cup Final. At the Millennium Stadium, they put on a brave display against Manchester United (who knocked out Arsenal in the semis) before ultimately losing 3-0.

Their run to the Final earned them their first ever games in European competition against Hungarian side Ferencvaros in the following season's UEFA Cup. But since their grand day out in Cardiff, the Bermondsey club's fortunes have changed greatly. They were relegated from the Championship to League One in 2006, shortly after future Dragon's Den star Theo Paphitis sold the club.

2007 was a big year for Millwall, as American businessman John Berylson bought the club, and then several months later appointed Jackett as his team's new manager. Their arrivals are two key reasons why the Lions returned to the Championship in 2010 and have not been relegated from it since. Berylson and Jackett give some stability to a club which, aside from defenders Paul Robinson and Alan Dunne, has a completely different team to that which reached the FA Cup Final nine years ago.

While the Class of 2013 stand just one match away from the biggest cup game in English football, I will answer the question: What happened to the Lions of 2004?

Andy Marshall (Goalkeeper)
Because the excellent Tony Warner was injured, it was former Norwich City and Ipswich Town goalkeeper Marshall who went in goal for the Final. After staying at The Den for two seasons until their relegation in 2006, he spent the next three years at Coventry City. Marshall's last senior appearance came for the Sky Blues in 2009, after which he moved on to Aston Villa. He hasn't played a single game for Villa, where he is primarily seen as a mentor to the younger keepers, but is still registered as a player at the age of 37.
Marvin Elliott (Defender)
Youth team graduate Elliott played at right-back for the Lions in Cardiff, but is mainly a midfielder. He made over 100 appearance for Millwall until leaving them in 2007 for Bristol City. He has since played over 200 games for the Robins, and two years ago, he earned his first international caps with Jamaica.
Matt Lawrence (Defender)
'Shaggy' captained Millwall on their big day against Manchester United. He was at The Den for six years between 2000 and 2006, having previously turned out for Wycombe Wanderers and Fulham. The right-back then featured for Crystal Palace, and then Gillingham, before dropping out of the Football League at the end of last season. Aged 38, Lawrence is still playing, but for Whitehawk in the Ryman League.
Darren Ward (Defender)
They once called Ward 'the Beckham of Peckham', and Millwall fans have seen him the former Watford and Crystal Palace centre-back play for the club in two different spells. The first, between 2001 and 2005, was far more successful than his second, which started in 2010 and ended earlier this year when he moved to Swindon Town. Ward was briefly co-caretaker manager at Swindon after Paolo Di Canio's temper got the better of him.
Robbie Ryan (Defender)
Former Irish youth international Ryan played at left-back for Millwall for seven years, but was one of the first players to leave after their FA Cup exploits. He was on such low wages that, in the summer of 2004, he signed for Bristol Rovers instead. He was there for three years before retiring from the game after spells at several non-league clubs including Welling United and Croydon Athletic. Nowadays, the man who marked Cristiano Ronaldo in the FA Cup Final works as a cable linesman on the London Underground.
Paul Ifill (Midfielder)
Brighton-born Ifill was snapped up from non-league Saltdean United in 1998, and in a successful seven-year spell at Millwall made over 250 appearances in all competitions for the Lions. The Barbadian international right-winger then sought greater riches at Sheffield United and Crystal Palace before moving to New Zealand in 2009. He has been a key member of the Wellington Phoenix team for four seasons now.
Dennis Wise (Midfielder, player-manager)
One of the hardest men in the Premier League era, Wise signed for Millwall in 2002 after previously playing for Wimbledon, Chelsea and Leicester City. He was then appointed as player-manager a year later following the departure of Mark McGhee, and the 37-year-old led Millwall to their first major final. He abruptly left The Den at the very end of the 2004/2005 season, and after ending his playing days at Coventry City had short managerial spells at Swindon Town and Leeds United. We won't talk about what he did at Newcastle United afterwards.
David Livermore (Midfielder)
Livermore is the only member of the 2004 FA Cup squad that is still at Millwall... albeit, in a non-playing capacity. The former Arsenal trainee enjoyed seven years in midfield for the Bermondsey boys before leaving in 2006. After a very brief stint at Leeds United, he spent the rest of his league career at Hull City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Barnet, and was then appointed player-manager of non-league Histon in 2010. At the start of this season, the 32-year-old returned to The Den as a coach.
Peter Sweeney (Midfielder)
Scottish-born winger Sweeney broke into the Millwall first-team as a teenager in 2002, and played a big part in their run to the FA Cup Final. Since leaving for Stoke City in 2005, he has had a pretty nomadic career. Yeovil Town, Walsall, Leeds United, Grimsby Town and Bury have all had the Glaswegian on their books at some point, but now he can be seen at AFC Wimbledon, having signed for them in January.
Tim Cahill (Forward)
The Australian midfielder was the centrepiece of this Millwall team, and scored the winning goal in the FA Semi Final against Sunderland. In 2004, after a transfer to Crystal Palace fell through, he signed for Premier League stalwarts Everton, where he established himself as one of the league's best attacking midfielders. Cahill left Goodison Park for New York Red Bulls last year, and is next year hoping to play for Australia in a third FIFA World Cup.
Neil Harris (Forward)
The word 'legend' is primarily used at The Den to describe Neil 'Chopper' Harris. He played for the Millwall between 1998 and 2004, and again between 2007 and 2011, with a three-year spell at Nottingham Forest in between. Harris, who survived testicular cancer early in his playing days, is the Lions' record goalscorer with 138 goals in all competitions. In 2011, he was transferred to Southend United, where he still plays aged 35.
Barry Cogan (Midfielder, substitute for Ryan)
Cogan was one of several Irish youngsters to come through Millwall's youth setup in the late-1990s and early-2000s. The midfielder did not develop as expected, though, and after just 24 league games, he left Millwall in 2006 to sign for Barnet. A season at Gillingham followed before he dropped into non-league football with Grays Athletic, Crawley Town, and his current club Dover Athletic.
Curtis Weston (Midfield, substitute for Wise)
In the 89th minute at Cardiff, Weston became the youngest ever FA Cup Finalist at the age of 17 years and 119 days. Sadly, Curtis did not fulfil his potential, and joined Swindon Town in 2006 before moving on to Leeds United. He then enjoyed four seasons as a regular in midfield for Gillingham, but now plays for Barnet.
Mark McCammon (Forward, substitute for Harris)
McCammon's two-year stint at Millwall between 2003 and 2005 was not a successful one in terms of goals - he only scored twice in 23 appearances. The Lions were one of 13 different clubs that the Barbados international striker has played for. Without a doubt the unhappiest spell he had was at Gillingham, as you'll find out in this article from July. Since successfully claiming that he was unfairly dismissed by the Gills, he has been all but unemployable as a footballer.

Marvin Elliott (far left) tackles Paul Scholes in the 2004 FA Cup Final.

11 March 2013

In memoriam: Tony Gubba

Tony Gubba: 1943-2013.

Tony Gubba, one of the most versatile presenters and commentators in sport, has died following a short illness.

Gubba, who was 69 years old, worked with the BBC for many years, and is perhaps best known for his commentary on Match Of The Day.

The Manchester-born journalist joined the BBC in 1972, the year in which he covered the Olympic Games in Munich and was appointed as presenter of Sportsnight, succeeding the great David Coleman. His first FIFA World Cup came in 1974, also in Germany.

Later on, he worked as a commentator for Match Of The Day as well as Grandstand. From the mid-1970s to the early-2000s, he was one of the BBC's three main football commentators along with John Motson and Barry Davies.

Motson said of Gubba after his death, "Tony was a great friend and colleague for over 40 years and I shall miss him greatly. He was one of the original probing reporters - never afraid to ask a difficult question."

Like Barry Davies, Gubba could - and did - commentate on many different sports other than football. Among the sports that he covered were tennis, darts, figure-skating, and ice hockey. Davies himself said, "He was always good fun to be around. I suppose he was a jack of all trades. But he was a master of many."

Gubba covered every summer and winter Olympic Games from 1972 to 2012, as well as every World Cup between 1974 and 2006.

He became well-known for his professionalism and his knowledge of the sports that he covered, which is more than can be said for most of the current BBC commentators that have replaced him, Motty and Davies. He also had a sharp wit at times, and he won himself a new audience with his tongue-in-cheek references when working on the ITV talent show Dancing On Ice.

From 2006 until 2013, he was the voice of Dancing On Ice. "He skates like Benny Hill chasing a chorus girl" was one of the comments he made about 2007 winner Kyran Bracken. He featured on this year's series, which finished last night and was won by Beth Tweddle, but pulled out midway through the series due to ill health and was replaced by Simon Reed.

Tony's sudden death has come as a massive shock to all who knew, worked with and listened to him.

Rest in peace, Tony.

7 March 2013

Another Scottish football casualty

Jim Leishman is trying to save his beloved Dunfermline from liquidation.

Dunfermline Athletic - former members of the Scottish Premier League - are on the verge of going out of business.

Relegation from the SPL to Division 1 last season hit Dunfermline really badly, as they had to sell 22 players just to stay afloat. They owe £134,000 to HM Revenue & Customs as well as some unpaid gate receipts to Hamilton Academical, but unless they can manage to raise around £500,000 via a share issue, they could be liquidated within three weeks.

Dunfermline owner Gordon Masterton is set to stand down from the board if and when the club press ahead with their share issue. With Masterton stepping aside, Pars legend Jim Leishman, formerly a player and manager at East End Park, has returned as the head of a steering group that hopes to save the club from oblivion.

It will be a tough job for Leishman, who said, "It's the hardest thing I've ever done at this football club, it's the hardest thing I've got to try to achieve. Will I do it? I don't know, but I can't do it by myself, that's for sure.

"I've got a short period of time - maybe two weeks, maybe three, maybe four. I've got to remain positive.

"It's about the short-term survival of Dunfermline and the long-term future of the football club."

However, it is starting to look more and more like a lost cause for Dunfermline. They are still playing SPL wages in Division 1 - or at least they were. Players have only received 20% of their wages of February so far, and have threatened to go on strike.

In addition, results on the pitch mean that the chances of them returning to the top flight for next season are, well, not good.

In the last five years, two former SPL teams - Gretna and oldco Rangers - have been liquidated. The loss of a third team, and possibly even a fourth if Heart of Midlothian's financial mess ends in tears, would be a firm indicator that Scottish football is in a financial crisis.

A survey in November found that six out of the 32 clubs in Scotland's top three tiers (SPL, Division 1 and Division 2) were in "financial distress". In contrast, just two out of the 72 in England's equivalent divisions were in choppy financial waters.

It has to be said that the Rangers saga played a big role in the decline of Scots football. Although their liquidation, and subsequent reformation as a Division 3 club, has inflated gate receipts in their new division, overall, attendances in the SPL have dropped in their absence.

The SPL needs to be reformed, and Neil Doncaster mustn't be part of it.

This also comes at a time when Scottish football bosses are discussing plans to change the way the sport is run in Scotland.

The SPL and Scottish Football League are set to merge, but in my opinion, that doesn't go far enough. It is unbelievable that there are essentially three different Scottish FAs for senior, junior and amateur football. There should only be one body that governs football from the grass roots to the Premier League, just like there is south of the border.

This new body should be chaired by someone who isn't Stewart Regan, Neil Doncaster or David Longmuir - the respective chief executives of the SFA, SPL and SFL. Scottish football would be better off without these three human soundbites going forward, to borrow a favourite phrase of Doncaster's in particular.

The new structure of the league system is also up for debate. The 12-10-10-10 system that has persisted for 13 seasons is boring, because SFL clubs have to play their division opponents four times each, and flawed, because the ridiculous split in the SPL after 33 games can lead to teams having three home games against an opponent and only one away game against them or vice versa.

The SPL have proposed a new 12-12-18 system, which gets rid of the complicated split in one division and somehow manages to turn two divisions of 12 teams into three divisions of 8 mid-season. The top eight teams post-split would contest the title and European places, the middle eight would decide between them who starts off in the SPL next season, and the bottom eight would fight to avoid relegation to the 18-team National League. Simples.

But, unsurprisingly, Rangers' chief windbag Charles Green is not happy with the SPL's plans, and wants a 14-14-14 system... otherwise, he's taking Rangers down south into the English leagues.

The Gers CEO's proposal also includes our old friend, the mid-season split. There could be a 6 and 8 split in each division, in which case the top teams would play 36 games and the bottom teams would play 40, or a 7 and 7 split, in which they'd all play 38.

Neither of these plans work, in my opinion. They should keep it simple, and go with the 18-team top-flight that existed before the Scottish Premier Division was formed in 1975. A second-tier should also consist of 18 teams, or even 20 teams, with relegation and promotion to and from the top non-league divisions. Scottish league football has been 'closed' for too long, and it should be opened up.

Obviously, reducing the number of league clubs from 42 would mean that the Scottish league would lose some members. Therefore, this is a good time for Celtic and Rangers especially to consider starting afresh in England's league system.

And if they do... good luck in the Evo-Stik League Northern Premier Division 1 North, guys!

1 March 2013

Giggs goes on and on and on

Ryan Giggs is still crazy for Manchester United after all these years.

It was perhaps fitting that, on St David's Day, one of Welsh football's all-time legends announced that he would be extending his career by at least one more year.

Two days before he makes his 1000th senior appearance, Ryan Giggs signed a new one-year contract at Manchester United. This new deal will take him past his 40th birthday in November, and will put him in an elite band of one-club players who have served their team beyond the point that life is said to 'begin'.

There was speculation that this season would be his last, as United boss Sir Alex Ferguson slowly fazes out the Red Devils' old guard in favour of young and exciting talents. But a couple of outstanding performances in recent matches have put an end to those rumours, and next season will be his 24th in the first-team.

The 'Welsh Wizard' has nothing more to prove in his career, having won near enough everything that he possibly can at an English club. But after putting pen to paper on his new contract, he said, "I am feeling good, enjoying my football more than ever and, most importantly, I feel I am making a contribution to the team.

"This is an exciting team to be part of, with great team spirit, and we are again pushing for trophies as we head towards the business end of the season."

Even though Giggs' image is not as clean-cut as it used to be, due to some newspapers revelations which I will not elaborate on as I don't want to be sued to death by his lawyers, there's no doubting that he is a role model on the pitch for any aspiring footballer. There are few players in world football who can show such unflinching loyalty to one club, and also seamlessly adjust their playing role as their fitness, and importance to the first-team, steadily declines with age.

Ryan Giggs was a United first-team regular at a young age.

Ironically, Giggs could have been a Manchester City stalwart. In 1987, when he was on the verge of joining City's school of excellence, the then Ryan Wilson was approached by Manchester United's young manager, who at the time was trying to make a name for himself in England following unprecedented success at Aberdeen. Signing Wilson on his 14th birthday would be undoubtedly one of Alex Ferguson's best transfer deals in his Old Trafford reign.

In 1989, Wilson represented England schoolboys, playing for them at Wembley against Germany. But despite others believing otherwise, he could never have played for the Three Lions internationally. Wilson, who at the age of 16 changed his surname to Giggs when his mother remarried, was born in Cardiff and both of his parents were Welsh, so he was always going to wear red internationally. He only played for England at schoolboy level because he was educated in Salford.

Giggs made his senior debut on 2 March 1991 - that was 22 years ago tomorrow - as a substitute in United's 2-0 home defeat to Everton. Two months later, he scored his first goal on his maiden start in, of all matches, the Manchester derby. The next season was the winger's first as a regular feature for the senior United team, although he also captained the FA Youth Cup-winning side that would be known as 'Fergie's Fledglings'. You might have heard of some of his team-mates.

After Giggs helped Manchester United win the newly-established Premier League in 1993, the sporting media started to become seriously excited about this fresh-faced teenage sensation. He was arguably the first British footballer to capture the public imagination in such a way since United's boy wonder from three decades earlier, George Best, who once quipped, "One day they might even say that I was another Ryan Giggs."

Two PFA Young Player of the Year awards, won in 1993 and 1994, underlined the youngster's potential. And as the boy became a man, he started to create a reputation for scoring some sublime goals. In 1999, he came up with arguably the best of the lot - this excellent solo goal against Arsenal which put the Red Devils into the FA Cup Final, and introduced his adoring female fans to his chest hair.

By the time he was 30, Giggs had helped his team win eight Premier League titles, as well as three FA Cups and the 1999 UEFA Champions League. In that memorable Barcelona final, Giggs set up Teddy Sheringham's dramatic late equaliser, and United fans know what happened next.

Giggs finally won his record ninth English title in 2007, and he followed that up with another Champions League crown the following year. It was round about this time that Ferguson brought Giggs from the wing to the centre of midfield.

2009 was the year that Giggs made his 800th appearance for Manchester United and lifted the PL trophy for the eleventh time. Even though he was no longer starting on a regular basis, he picked up the PFA Player of the Year award as well as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. In both cases, it could be argued that he only received those accolades to honour him for his long career, rather than because he was particularly brilliant over the previous 12 months.

Giggs took his United appearance tally to 900 in February 2012, and a year later kept up his unmatched record of scoring in 23 successive English top-flight seasons, including all 21 Premier League seasons. There is no stopping the Welsh wizard, even as he approaches his 40th birthday.

Sadly, Giggs did not quite hit the heights for his native Wales.

His international career started in 1991 against Germany. Although he would go on to win 64 caps for Wales, that number was limited because he didn't play in any friendlies for the nine years that followed his debut.

Giggs scored the first of 12 international goals in 1993 while playing against Belgium. His career with the Red Dragons, like Best's with Northern Ireland, did not see him feature at a major tournament, putting him among the greatest players not to have had the fortune of playing at the FIFA World Cup.

It was while playing for Wales that Giggs picked up the only red card of his otherwise unblemished career. What's more, his dismissal against Norway in 2001 was for two bookable offences. He stepped down from Wales duty in 2007 to focus on his United career.

However, that wasn't the end as far as his international playing days were concerned. Last summer, Giggs accepted a call-up from Stuart Pearce to play for Team Merchandise, aka 'Great Britain', at the Olympic Games football tournament. He captained the host nation in London as they crashed out in the Quarter Finals to South Korea, so again, Giggs came away without a medal at international level.

That said, I doubt Giggs will worry too much about that, as his trophy cabinet is so full that cleaning it is almost certainly a full-time job.

Ryan Giggs OBE, the most decorated footballer that this country has ever seen, will surely add even more silverware to that cabinet before he finally decides to call it a day. He remains well on course to win an incredible 13th league championship this season, so he has been anything but unlucky for Manchester United.

2009 was a very memorable year for the evergreen Welsh wizard.

RYAN GIGGS' HONOURS TO DATE
With Manchester United:
12 Premier Leagues (from 1993 to 2011), 4 FA Cups (1994 to 2004), 4 League Cups (1992 to 2010), 8 Charity/Community Shields (1993 to 2010), 2 UEFA Champions Leagues (1999, 2008), one UEFA Super Cup (1991), one Intercontinental Cup (1999), one FIFA Club World Cup (2008)
Individual:
2 PFA Young Player of the Year awards (1992, 1993), PFA Player of the Year (2009), BBC Sports Personality of the Year (2009), Match of the Day's Goal of the Season (1999), Order of the British Empire (2007)

RYAN GIGGS RECORDS
Most appearances for Manchester United (931)
Most appearances in Premier League (612)
Most assists in Premier League
Oldest UEFA Champions League goalscorer (aged 37 years and 289 days against Benfica in 2011)

RYAN GIGGS' CAREER RECORD TO DATE
League: 652 apps, 114 goals
FA Cup: 73 apps, 12 goals
League Cup: 39 apps, 12 goals
Europe: 149 apps, 29 goals
Other Competitions: 18 apps, 1 goal
MANCHESTER UNITED RECORD: 931 apps, 168 goals
WALES RECORD: 64 caps, 12 goals
GREAT BRITAIN RECORD: 4 caps, 1 goal

ONE MORE RYAN GIGGS FACT
Ryan Giggs' career has spanned 22 years - but there is an incredible 37-year gap between his oldest and youngest Manchester United team-mates! Bryan Robson was born on 11 January 1957, while Nick Powell was born on 23 March 1994.