27 May 2013

2013 Championship Play-Off Final preview

Will Wilfried Zaha's last Crystal Palace game be one to remember?
Around £120million, and a place in next season's Premier League, is up for grabs this afternoon in the Championship Play-Off Final. Will Crystal Palace or Watford reach the promised land?

Both teams have prior experience of winning Play-Off Finals to reach the top flight, but neither has graced the Premier League for several years. Whatever happens, one of this season's big success stories will have a fairytale ending at Wembley.

Crystal Palace are play-off veterans, having gone up to the top division via that route in 1989, 1997 and 2004. Since the formation of the Premier League, they've never stayed up for more than one season, but they only have to look at the last two Championship Play-Off Final winners - Swansea City and West Ham United - to see what is achievable.

Ian Holloway won the Play-Off Final as Blackpool manager in 2010, but three years on, doing the same with  the Eagles would be just as great an achievement. The charismatic Bristolian, whose Blackpool team lost last year's Final to West Ham, has taken a Crystal Palace team that Yours Truly tipped for relegation to a 5th-place finish, and to the very brink of promotion.

Holloway will again have to contend with the loss of the Championship's top goalscoer, Glenn Murray, who suffered a serious cruciate injury in the first leg of the Semi Final against Brighton & Hove Albion. Former Norwich City striker Aaron Wilbraham will take his place up front, but defender Jonathan Parr and captain Paddy McCarthy are also ruled out through injury.

39-year-old striker Kevin Phillips is on the bench today, and this could well be the final match of an eventful career. It will definitely be Wilfried Zaha's last match for Crystal Palace before the exciting young England international completes his £15million transfer to Manchester United.

Whoever edited Watford's Wikipedia page deserves a British Comedy Award.
Watford's season has been a remarkable one. They missed out on automatic promotion to Hull City on the final day of the regular season. Then, deep into injury-time in their Play-Off Semi Final second leg against Leicester City, with the aggregate scores level, they conceded a penalty. Manuel Almunia saved from Foxes midfielder Anthony Knockaert, and about half a minute later, Troy Deeney scored at the other end. Watford were on their way to Wembley!

They are now within 90 minutes of a return to the Premier League. Their previous two stints, in 1999/2000 and 2006/2007, were both earned by winning Play-Off Finals, but neither lasted more than one season.

Watford's rise up to 3rd place in the Championship has not been without controversy. Gianfranco Zola's Hornets have exploited a loophole in the loan system allowing them to bring in several players on loan from Udinese and Granada, who like the Vicarage Road club are owned by Giampaolo Pozzo. Without such players as Almen Abdi and Matej Vydra, it's unlikely that Watford would've finished in the top half, let alone the top three.

After taking his team to a training break in Marbella (which is not that far from Granada), Zola will today name an unchanged squad from that which started against Leicester. Deeney and Vydra will be up front, but Zola is still undecided on a couple of places, which means that Matt Briggs and Jonathan Hogg could potentially miss out to the benefit of two more Udinese rejects.

I really should be impartial about this game, but to be honest, I am anything but. Watford's journey to Wembley has come at the expense of their soul, and Vicarage Road is now no more than a finishing school/dumping ground for Udinese. Crystal Palace will have my full support this afternoon, and my head as well as my heart says that they will edge this one.

TDTR PREDICTS: Crystal Palace 2-1 Udinese 'B'

Troy Deeney is one of the few Watford players actually contracted to them.

25 May 2013

2013 UEFA Champions League Final preview

Will Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp still be smiling at full time?
The first ever all-German Final of the UEFA Champions League takes place tonight as Borussia Dortmund face Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium in London.

When the Semi Final draw was made, many were expecting Real Madrid vs Barcelona in the Final, but this clash between the Bundesliga's big two is no less exciting, and at the end of it, we will see a team from Germany lift the famous trophy for the first time since 2001.

Borussia Dortmund's only previous European Cup Final to date was in 1997, when Lars Ricken scored the winner against Juventus and their team included the likes of Karl-Heinz Riedle and Paul Lambert. Today, their squad retains a very German core, with a string of youngsters making their mark on global footblal.

Borussia saw off Manchester City in the group stage and staged an incredible comeback against Malaga in the Quarter Final before doing enough to stop Real Madrid in the Semis.

Borussia, nicknamed Die Schwarzgelben (or the Black Yellows), are managed by Jurgen Klopp, a fairly young coach at 45 years old who led them to successive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012. The bespectacled Klopp is charismatic and laid back, but his unusual look for a football manager disguises a tactical genius. In five seasons, he has guided BVB from the brink of bankruptcy to the edge of immortality.

Klopp is missing his main creative force in midfield, as Mario Gotze - who ironically will join Bayern in the summer - will miss this game with a hamstring injury. Defender Mats Hummels, who like Gotze is among several young German internationals in the Dortmund team, could also miss the game with an ankle injury. Polish right-back Lukasz Piszczek will play tonight, though, before having hip surgery.

Two other youthful Germans to look out for in Borussia's line-up are midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and forward Marco Reus. However, the big star of this team is a Poland international. Since moving to the Westfalenstadion from Lech Poznan in 2010, striker Robert Lewandowski has scored 75 goals in just 139 games. It is not inconceivable that Lewandowski could score the winner against Bayern Munich tonight and then join Bayern in the summer.

Thomas Muller has a famous Bayern surname - can he follow in Gerd's footsteps?

Bayern Munich are in their 10th European Cup Final and have previously been crowned champions four times. They won three successive titles during the Gerd Muller era between 1974 and 1976, and their last recent success was in a 2001 penalty shoot-out against Valencia.

This year, Bayern have taken the Bundesliga by storm, picking up 25 points more than 2nd-placed Borussia to be crowned champions again. In the Champions League, they suffered an early group stage loss to Belarus's BATE Borisov, but they won the group, saw off Arsenal and Juventus in the knockout stages, and then demolished Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate to reach Wembley.

This will be manager Jupp Heynckes' penultimate game as manager of Bayern (his last will be the DFB-Pokal Final against VfB Stuttgart next week). Once this season is over, 68-year-old Heynckes will hand over the reins to a certain Josep Guardiola and will almost certainly retire. How he would love to end his career with a second Champions League winners' medal to add to the one he picked up as Real Madrid boss in 1998.

As you would expect from a team nicknamed 'FC Hollywood', near enough all of the Bayern players are household names: any football fan would recognise the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and captain Philipp Lahm. I have said time and again that goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has been outstanding this season, although to be fair, he's hardly had anything to do!

There are no fresh injuries in the Bayern team, but they'll still be without defender Holger Badstuber, who last week ruptured his cruciate ligaments for a second time and will be out until the latter stages of next season.

Tonight, the Germans invade London, with massive yellow and red armies mobilising at Wembley. Who will be victorious when Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli blows the final whistle? Although I have to admit to having a soft spot for Borussia in recent years, I have to say that Bayern are the strong favourites.

This could potentially be a genuine classic, just like the last Champions League Final to take place under the arch two years ago.

TDTR PREDICTS: Borussia Dortmund 1-3 Bayern Munich

24 May 2013

2012/2013 Premier League: was I right?

Five days on from the end of the Premier League season, it's time to look back at The Daily Transfer Request's pre-season predictions to see where I went right... and where I went wrong.

In the days building up to the big kick-off, I looked at all 20 Premier League teams and predicted where they would end up on 19 May. To find out exactly what I said at the time, click on the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

I will now look at all of the teams once again, from top to bottom, and explain why I got certain predictions spot on and why some of the others were further off the mark than this.

Rio Ferdinand "merked" my belief that Manchester United's defence was leaky.
1. Manchester United (Predicted 1st, no change)
I said at the very start that Manchester United "are hungrier and show more togetherness than City", and I was right. While Roberto Mancini was losing the Eastlands dressing room, Sir Alex Ferguson was building a younger, more dangerous team.
My prediction that United would win the title was made before they rubber-stamped the signing of top scorer Robin van Persie, but his arrival from Arsenal only made me more confident that my prediction would come true. After all, I said, "One marquee signing can really make the difference", and van Persie WAS the difference maker.
My only doubts about the Red Devils was that their defence was rather leaky. To be fair, though, Rio Ferdinand has been excellent in the centre of defence since his early-season slump, and David de Gea has - as predicted - become a more dependable goalkeeper.

2. Manchester City (Predicted 2nd, no change)
Before the season began, I said that Manchester City had to show no mercy against other top teams if they were to have a good chance of retaining the Premier League. While the Citizens were unbeaten against teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, they suffered damaging losses against Everton and Tottenham Hotspur late in the season, and their April win over United was merely payback for a more decisive reverse in December's derby.
Apparently, Sergio Aguero and David Silva were "unstoppable at their best". Well, in that case, they weren't unstoppable this season. Aguero's PL goal count dropped from 23 last season to 17 this, and Silva was arguably even more disappointing. The Spanish winger only managed eight assists this term, compared to the 15 he made to steer City to championship glory.
You can also forget my belief that "opposing teams dread going to the City of Manchester Stadium". Five teams took at least a point from City's home ground this season compared to just the one in the previous campaign - in fact, Manchester United and Norwich City both came away with all three points.

3. Chelsea (Predicted 3rd - no change)
Cracking Manchester's stranglehold was indeed a tough ask for Chelsea. They lost to both Manchester sides in the Premier League this season, and their victory at Old Trafford came when the trophy had already had '2012-13: Manchester United' engraved on it.
I was spot on with regards to Chelsea's strengths. Their solid defence was the third best in the PL, and they conceded four goals fewer than the champions. Winger Juan Mata had a brilliant season by all accounts, and Eden Hazard lived up to his £32million transfer fee. The Blues were, however, lacking in alternative centre-forward options to Fernando Torres, and although they were scoring enough goals from midfield, new arrival Demba Ba came in useful after joining from Newcastle United in January.
Roberto Di Matteo was not given much of a chance as Chelsea boss, but the Stamford Bridge did not - as feared - go off the rails with another change of manager. In fact, Rafael Benitez led them to 3rd place in the league, an FA Cup Semi Final, and glory in the UEFA Europa League. As far as interim managers go, Benitez did a pretty fine job. Fact.

4. Arsenal (Predicted 4th - no change)
"If the injury crisis of the last campaign does not repeat itself, the Gunners should continue their fine record of qualifying for 15 successive Champions Leagues." I said that in the second paragraph of my Arsenal preview, and in truth, the Gunners did not have another injury crisis, and they did qualify for a 16th successive UEFA Champions League. However, they didn't leave much room for manoeuvre.
Arsenal were rejuvenated by their summer signings - to some extent. Santi Cazorla was the driving force of his new team from the start, and although striker Lukas Podolski was at his most deadly during the middle of the season, the less expensive Olivier Giroud came good towards the end, and the Frenchman finished the campaign with one more goal than his German team-mate.

5. Tottenham Hotspur (Predicted 7th - 2 places better)
Who said that Tottenham Hotspur were at risk of going backwards under Andre Villas-Boas? Oh, wait, it was me. What a blooper that was. Villas-Boas came within one Newcastle United goal against Arsenal of delivering UEFA Champions League football to White Hart Lane, and the demanding Portuguese manager brought the best out of Gareth Bale rather than alienated him, like I thought he could have.
Here's another glaring error from Yours Truly: "And even if they lose Modric, they still have a deadly attacking midfielder in Rafael van der Vaart." That's the same Rafael van der Vaart who joined Luka Modric in leaving Tottenham early in the season. Villas-Boas made up for losing van der Vaart by adding Clint Dempsey to his squad, and Dempsey arguably made a bigger contribution to Spurs' attack than the Dutchman would've done had he stayed.

"Fuller said that I would be a failure at West Brom? Who's laughing now?"
6. Everton (Predicted 8th - 2 places better)
Ahead of the new season, I typed these words of Everton, "Toffees fans can expect another solid if unspectacular season under David Moyes's stewardship." Solid it was, but it was also quite spectacular in places. A blistering start, contrary to my prediction, saw Everton launch a surprise challenge for a UEFA Champions League place. In the end, they were unlucky not to qualify for Europe at all.
My description of Marouane Fellaini as a midfield lynchpin was never truer this season - he was absolutely the key reason behind Everton's impressive form. The brilliant Belgian will surely follow the Toffees' sought-after Scottish manager, as I described David Moyes, to Manchester United in the summer, and he will be greatly missed at Goodison Park.

7. Liverpool (Predicted 5th - 2 places worse)
Brendan Rodgers has, to some extent, "rejuvenated a Liverpool that looked stale under Kenny Dalglish at times". Youngsters like Raheem Sterling and Suso have been like a breath of fresh air for Liverpool, especially in the first half of the season. I said before kick-off that big things were expected of Sterling, although to be honest, I didn't expect him to be a senior England international by now!
However, it wasn't the happiest of first seasons for the Reds' new manager. A very poor start was not significantly improved upon - as far as I'm aware, Liverpool didn't break into the top six at all this season, let alone the top four. 7th was as high as they got. That proves correct my pre-season summary that Rodgers could not expect to finish in the top four at the first time of asking.

8. West Bromwich Albion (Predicfed 17th - 9 places worse)
Steve Clarke, I can only apologise. I severely doubted the Scot's managerial credentials until West Bromwich Albion made a sensational start to proceedings. Although the Baggies could not sustain that form, they did at least blow in the water my prediction that they would be relegation candidates without the stability that former manager Roy Hodgson gave them.
When I came to writing up my preview, I stated that Clarke was renowned for building strong defences. In fact, they conceded four more league goals than last season, but 59 is still a reasonably low number of goals to let in. West Brom didn't need improving at the back, but they certainly did up front, and Clarke addressed that by signing three strikers. Romelu Lukaku was fantastic, but Yassine El Ghanassy and Markus Rosenberg... were not.

9. Swansea City (Predicted 11th - 2 places better)
Hands up those of you who thought Swansea City were going to suffer second-season syndrome. A few of you, then. I don't wish to gloat, but I never thought Swansea were going back down to the Championship, because they had too much attacking quality to be relegated. They may have only scored as many goals as relegated Wigan Athletic, but the deadliness of Michu up front spurred them to a top-half finish.
Manager Michael Laudrup continued the free-flowing attacking game that predecessor Brendan Rodgers advocated, and in fact improved on it. Unlike last season, when Swansea's heads dropped as soon as they went a goal behind, they showed their fighting qualities more often, as plenty of late goals earned them crucial points, and they even fought back from conceding the first goal to beat Wigan Athletic 3-2 in April!

10. West Ham United (Predicted 13th - 3 places better)
West Ham United were always "the strongest of the three promoted sides", both on paper and in reality. Sam Allardyce's no-frills approach to management saw the Hammers finish well clear of the drop. As I said in the summary, "Big Sam doesn't do relegation battles."
I will always own up when I get things wrong, and in hindsight, the sentence "Their away form's good, but they really need to sort things out at home" couldn't be more inaccurate if I added that West Ham played their home games at Downton Abbey. The Hammers won nearly half of their matches at Upton Park, but on the road, they won just three times and scored a pathetic eleven goals. Their away form's actually far from good!
Allardyce was a little hit and miss with his bargain signings. Midfielder Mohamed Diame was a fantastic Bosman acquisition, but Modibo Maiga hasn't justified the £7million fee that Big Sam paid for him, nor did Alou Diarra for his £2million price. I thought very highly of defensive midfielder Diarra to begin with, but after three PL appearances for the Hammers, he ended the season on loan at Rennes.

Norwich finished comfortably in mid-table - no wonder Chris Hughton;

11. Norwich City (Predicted 15th - 4 places better)
Chris Hughton picked up where Norwich City's former manager Paul Lambert left off, and proved that he was just the man to ensure that they didn't get second-season syndrome. The Canaries may not have had as much breathing space as they did last season, but they did end up finishing one position higher.
Hughton's tactics weren't as pretty as Lambert's, and the stats prove that. Norwich didn't score as many goals as they did in 2011/2012, but the number of goals that they conceded was also markedly reduced. You couldn't exactly say that Hughton was getting his tactics wrong.
With their new, more pragmatic approach to the game and hardly any big stars in their team, Norwich have proved once again "that you don't need superstars to stay in the most glamorous league in football", like I said when predicting them to finish clear of the bottom three.

12. Fulham (Predicted 14th - 2 places better)
Yours Truly wrote at the start of his Fulham preview, "Fulham fans are anticipating another season in mid-table under the guidance of Martin Jol", and that prediction was right on the button. I also said, though, that if they kept hold of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele, they could even challenge for a top-seven finish. They couldn't keep either midfielder, and in the end, the Cottagers had to settle for finishing just outside the top half.
I thought that Fulham's two new strikers, Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega, "could either be absolute bargains or unmitigated disasters". Petric scored just five goals, and Rodallega only three, with both being totally outstripped by fellow new signing Dimitar Berbatov. Therefore, they are more suited to the latter category, and Fulham need to sign a half-decent sidekick for Berbatov next season.

13. Stoke City (Predicted 13th - 3 places better)
Stoke City didn't stagnate like I feared pre-season, but a poor end to the season brought a sense that major change was perhaps needed ahead of the next campaign. That change came at the top, with Tony Pulis' departure coming after the manager led his team to yet another lower mid-table finish, well clear of relegation.
I wrote that Stoke were particularly effective at home. In truth, their performances at the Britannia Stadium were not bad but not great, although their home form was much better than their away form, which was pretty awful. Just two of their wins came from outside of the Potteries.
While the Potters had a meaner defence than Europa League qualifiers Tottenham Hotspur, their attack was about as deadly as Paul O'Grady tickling you with a feather duster. Last season, Stoke were the PL's worse team when it came to scoring goals, and this season, they would have repeated that feat had Queens Park Rangers not been even more impotent.

14. Southampton (Predicted 18th - 4 places better)
"If they start badly, it could set the tone." Those were my exact thoughts on Southampton before they started the season by losing six out of their first eight matches, conceding 24 goals in the process. I also said in my preview, "The St Mary's club are good when it comes to holding leads, although that will be tested this season." Indeed they were. They threw away leads against both Manchester clubs in August - in fact, they were 2-0 up on United before Robin van Persie decided to steal the show.
At that point, Southampton were looking odds-on for relegation, and the owners' love affair with happy-go-lucky Nigel Adkins died down. Mauricio Pochettino came in, but despite having as much grasp of the English language as I have of Spanish, he guided the Saints up the table. They lost just two of their final ten league matches, thus blowing to smithereens my pre-season fears.
In the Weaknesses section of the Saints preview, I wrote, "St Mary's is home to a number of talented kids like left-back Luke Shaw. However, you can't look at the squad and pick out a player that is bona-fide Premier League class." Nine months on, and you can pick out a few players of Premier League class in the Southampton squad. One of them is Luke Shaw, who before this campaign had made just one senior appearance in the FA Cup.

15. Aston Villa (Predicted 12th - 3 places worse)
Aston Villa came 16th last season, but I thought that they looked like a team that could "steadily work their way back up the table under an excellent young coach". Paul Lambert took them from 16th all the way up to 15th - a whole one-place improvement! That said, though, this season could've gone much, MUCH worse.
I genuinely feared for the Villans' long-term Premier League future at the early stages of the season, especially with goalkeeper Shay Given in such low spirits after his UEFA Euro 2012 horror show. However, there were some positives to come out of Villa Park this season. Brad Guzan proved a very worthy replacement for the declining Given, defender Matt Lowton's late rise up the English football echelons continued, and the arrival of Christian Benteke late in August gave Villa a talented goalscorer of the highest quality.
I should also point out that I expected bright things of Andreas Weimann, and the young Austrian was Aston Villa's third-highest goalscorer in the PL this season. I also put Gary Gardner in the same category, but sadly,  a cruciate ligament injury meant that he only played in the very first game and the very last game of the season.

QPR's Junior Hoilett was one of the best worst free signings of the season.
16. Newcastle United (Predicted 6th - 10 places worse)
"Can Newcastle boss Alan Pardew live up to increased expectations at St James' Park?" Our survey said... (BUZZER) Newcastle United, who came within a whisker of a potential Tuesday night trip to Barcelona last season, came within a whisker of a potential Tuesday night trip to Barnsley this season. I was one of many who just could not foresee Pardew's Black and White army getting into a relegation battle, especially not with their legion of French stars.
Perhaps, in hindsight, they bought too many French players too quickly. Full-back Mathieu Debuchy hasn't lived up to expectations, Gabriel Obertan looked like the polar opposite of a player signed by Manchester United years ago, and Massadio Haidara suffered a serious injury early on in his St James' Park career. I also said at the start of the season that "few Britons know about midfielder Romain Amalfitano"... and, er, that hasn't changed a bit.
"Were there to be a spate of injuries, Newcastle might have to depend on inexperienced youngsters" was another thing that I said when looking at the Magpies squad. Although there wasn't exactly an injury crisis on Tyneside, the Geordies did suffer some significant losses. I previously mentioned Haidara, but Dan Gosling was also a long-term absentee, and Ryan Taylor played just once before suffering not one but TWO cruciate knee injuries! Taylor's absence was another key reason for Newcastle's decline.

17. Sunderland (Predicted 9th - 8 places worse)
Having previously said that Sunderland were good for the top half under Martin O'Neill, the Ulsterman immediately proved me wrong by leaving them good for relegation when he was sacked in March. He was replaced by Paolo Di Canio, who quickly turned the Stadium of Light into a media circus but managed to keep the Mackems up due to Wigan Athletic's own failings.
Sunderland needed a prolific goalscorer before the start of the campaign, so O'Neill brought in Steven Fletcher. He started the season so strongly that he single-handedly carried the Black Cats through their first few matches, but after scoring five goals in September alone, he only found the net six times in subsequent months. With Fletcher's form going south, Sunderland clearly lacked another quality centre-forward, which is why I think the decision to sell Fraizer Campbell to Cardiff City in January was a bemusing one.

18. Wigan Athletic (Predicted 19th - 1 place better)
Far too often, Wigan Athletic have borrowed from Lady Luck, and now they have paid the price. Sooner or later, the Latics were going to be relegated, and the sale of Victor Moses to Chelsea robbed them of their talisman. Their goalscoring record did improve enough thanks to the excellent signing of Arouna Koné, but it still wasn't enough for the FA Cup winners to avoid dropping into the Championship.
In the previous campaign, Roberto Martinez kept the Latics' head above water after overseeing famous victories against Manchester United and Arsenal amongst others. Following their latest great escape, how many points did Wigan manage to pick up against the eventual top four this time around? ZERO. Yes, they may have taken four points off 5th-placed Tottenham Hotspur, but even the other two relegated teams did better against the big guns!
Ahead of this campaign, I said that goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi had greatly improved over the previous 12 months. Well, he undid his good work by contributing to the joint-worst defensive record in the PL, and he was replaced as number 1 midway through the season by Joel Robles.

19. Reading (Predicted 20th - 1 place better)
Nine months ago, I raved about how great a signing Pavel Pogrebnyak was for Reading, and how great a loss it was for Fulham. Well, just like the old Soviet liquidators, I must clean up the mess made by the prediction that blew up in my face. Pogrebnyak found the net just eight times - even Adam Le Fondre, in his very first season as a Premier League player no less, scored six more than the former VfB Stuttgart striker.
It isn't just the disappointing Pogrebnyak that should be blamed for Reading's failure to stay up. A defence which I called watertight ended up as the joint-worst in the division. It was never a good idea to have 30-something Ian Harte as one of their regular full-backs, especially when he had the pace of a superglued slug.

20. Queens Park Rangers (Predicted 10th - 10 places worse)
Oh dear, where do I start? "QPR... should finish considerably clear of danger" Erm, no. "Ex-Blackburn Rovers forward David 'Junior' Hoilett could be the best free transfer this summer." Wrong again. "The revolution under wealthy businessman Tony Fernandes is finally underway." And it's over in a flash.
Queens Park Rangers' squad had more changes than David Bowie's image, but only two of their 17 new arrivals could be considered to be heroes, namely Julio Cesar and Andros Townsend. One could also identify Loic Remy as a successful signing... if you were really going to push the definition of a successful signing.
In summary, QPR had a dreadful season. And on that note, I bid you adieu.

20 May 2013

Final weekend reflections

It's time to say goodbye as the Premier League season draws to a close. After yesterday's final day of action, we look at those big names making their final appearances, but first, there's a look at the contrasting emotions in North London.

Arsenal's English stars, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, celebrate.
Hooray, we finished fourth!
They always seem to find a way, do Arsenal. For the 16th season in a row, they have qualified for the UEFA Champions League.

Their 1-0 win over Newcastle United secured a 4th-place finish ahead of neighbours Tottenham Hotspur. It kept alive their proud record of having never failed to qualify for Europe's elite club competition since Arsene Wenger's first full season as manager.

The decisive goal came seven minutes into the second half. Theo Walcott's free kick was headed towards goal by Lukas Podolski, and the much-improved centre-back Laurent Koscielny swivelled to fire the ball in.

Walcott could have finished Newcastle off in injury-time, hitting the far post when it was easier to score. At that point, one goal at the other end would have shattered Arsenal's Champions League dream for another season, but the final whistle blew a few minutes later with the Gunners' win secured.

Wenger and his backroom staff celebrated as if they had won a trophy, but it was perhaps more out of relief than joy, because after eight trophyless seasons, failure to finish in the top four would surely have meant the end for the 'Professor' at the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners didn't start this season particularly well. It wasn't as bad as last season, when they spend the early stages of the campaign dangerously near the relegation zone, but they were 10th after 15 games. Their form steadily improved, but as recently as 3 March, they were seven points behind Spurs in the standings.

Once again, though, a late Arsenal surge saw them get back into the top four. From 1 February onwards, Arsenal accrued 35 league points - five more than Tottenham, or indeed anyone else. 26 of those points came from their last ten matches, which consisted of eight wins and two draws.

That sort of form makes one wonder: why didn't Arsenal start the season like that? Also, why didn't Wenger spend big on players that can be outstanding now rather than four or five years down the line?

Well, apparently, that's going to change. Wenger has promised to splash more cash in a bid to finally end the Gunners' trophy drought, and with four of the top six clubs having a change of manager next season (possibly even five if Andre Villas-Boas decides to leave Tottenham for a bigger challenge), the 2013/2014 campaign represents a massive opportunity for the Frenchman and his players.

We Gooners all know that Arsenal are too good to go eight seasons without winning any silverware, but surely, SURELY, it'll be ninth time lucky.

Andre Villas-Boas gives his commiserations to his Tottenham team.
Not again!
Tottenham Hotspur fans must be waking up today thinking, "What have we done to deserve this?"

Last season, Spurs broke into the top four of the Premier League, but missed out on the UEFA Champions League after Chelsea won the Final of that competition on penalties. Yesterday, they beat Sunderland 1-0 to set a new club points record in the PL era of 72... but it still wasn't enough to get into the Champions League, as bitter rivals Arsenal edged out Newcastle United 1-0.

One Newcastle goal would've tripped up the Gunners and allowed Tottenham to finish fourth. In the end, though, they came fifth and must settle for a third successive season of ITV4 Thursdays in the UEFA Europa League.

Tottenham were practically camped in the Sunderland half throughout the match. They had 23 shots at goal (19 of them on target), 14 corners, and they played the final 16 minutes with an extra man after Sunderland's David Vaughan was dismissed. They could easily have won by a canter, although in this case, they just needed to win, no matter how narrow the winning margin.

The goal that they so desperately wanted came in the final minute of normal time. Gareth Bale, who had been so near to breaking the deadlock several times, jinked inside, and then curled a 25-yarder into the top corner of Simon Mignolet's net. It was a fabulous goal good enough to win any game, but because of events at St James' Park, it was meaningless.

Bale has had the best season of his career so far, and with Tottenham having to settle for the Europa League, you can't help but feel that it'll be his last at White Hart Lane. The Welshman has attracted the attention of several European giants, including Real Madrid, who last summer paid in excess of £25million for Spurs midfielder Luka Modric. How much is Bale worth, in that case?

Missing out on prestigious away games at the Nou Camp and the San Siro will also force manager Andre Villas-Boas to change his transfer plans. Established names like Gonzalo Higuain and David Villa are surely out of the question.

Villas-Boas will probably go down the old Tottenham route of buying young English talents who are just making their mark in the top flight. That raises the likelihood of Spurs bringing Southampton's exciting teenage left-back Luke Shaw to White Hart Lane.

Hmm, Southampton's exciting teenage left-back signing for Tottenham? Where have I heard that before?

Steve Harper: "Time to say goodbye, paesi che non ho mai..."
So long, farewell...
There has been a surprisingly high number of English footballing figures making their final bows this weekend.

On Saturday, David Beckham's floodgates opened after he captained Paris Saint-Germain to victory over Brest. Yesterday, we also saw Jamie Carragher make his last appearance for Liverpool, and it ended in typical fashion. No, Carragher didn't score an own goal, but he kept a clean sheet.

Then, there was the double goodbye to Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and midfielder Paul Scholes. A remarkable game, which United led 3-0 and 5-2, ended with West Bromwich Albion levelling the scores at 5-5!

It was an incredible end to Ferguson's 1,506-game career at Old Trafford. Everyone else says that he managed United for exactly 1,500 games, but they don't seem to count intercontinental matches for some reason.

There was also Michael Owen's final game, but he couldn't end his brief Stoke City career with a goal against Southampton. Aside from those previously mentioned, there were two other long-serving Premier League figures saying goodbye yesterday, and I'd like to give them a mention.

Newcastle United gave their backup goalkeeper Steve Harper a rare start against Arsenal. It was his 199th and final match in the Newcastle goal after 20 years at St James' Park.

In the 37th minute, Newcastle fans applauded their number 37, and County Durham boy Harper was visibly moved by the cheers from his supporters. He is very much an unsung hero on Tyneside - whenever he is called upon, which is not very often, he always does his level best to keep the Magpies' opponents at bay.

Harper had a string of loan spells early in his career, and could easily have left Newcastle permanently in search for guaranteed first-team football. BBC commentator Steve Wilson summed up his loyalty to the Magpies, saying, "In an era in which players, only recently, have asked for transfers because they occasionally get substituted, he's stayed for 20 years at this football club without barely ever getting off the bench."

Now aged 38, he has plenty of career options. He could continue his playing career at another club, or he could become a pundit, a coach, a manager, or even a referee! Whatever he does next, good luck to him.

Good luck, also, to one of the Premier League's leading referees after his retirement. Mark Halsey's final game of his 14-year PL career was Norwich City's 3-2 victory at Manchester City.

The 51-year-old survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009, and his wife has also battled against cancer. He said after blowing his final whistle, "I have had three great years since I have come back from my illness and hopefully I have been an inspiration for all those men, women and children out there living with cancer, and it can show them we can beat this."

You most certainly have, Mark. Enjoy your retirement as well.

19 May 2013

2013 TDTR Awards winners

Last month, I published a list of nominees for the 2013 TDTR Awards. With the Premier League season now over, I am delighted to announce the winners and the losers of these awards, starting with my marquee award:

PLAYER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Robin van Persie (MANCHESTER UNITED)
(Gareth Bale may have swept all before him in the official awards, but as far as I'm concerned, he's not the best player in the Premier League this season. For the second year in a row, it's Robin van Persie, who scored 35 goals in his debut campaign with Manchester United. The £24million striker really was the deciding factor in the title race, as Sir Alex Ferguson snatched him from under the noses of Manchester City just before the season began. van Persie has been prolific throughout the campaign, save for a short lean spell in late February and early March, fantastic hat-trick in the title-clinching victory over Aston Villa effectively ensured that he would deservedly win this award. Congratulations, Robin.)

(WORST) PLAYER OF THE YEAR
WIENER: Jose Bosingwa (QUEENS PARK RANGERS)
(After surviving on the final day of last season, Queens Park Rangers went big with their signings. They brought a UEFA Champions League-winning full-back to Loftus Road on £65,000-a-week wages, so they would have expected a lot from Jose Bosingwa. What they got was a stroppy prima donna who refused to be a substitute against Fulham and was dropped for two months as a result. They also ended up with an undetermined player who showed his passion for QPR by laughing on the afternoon of their relegation. Rangers fans will be praying, not just hoping, that 'Boswinga' Bos-wings it to another club, and fans of other Premier League teams will be hoping that it's not to them.)

TEAM OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Manchester United
(There is always a temptation to avoid the obvious choice, but Manchester United were the best team in the PL by a long chalk. They finished 11 points ahead of Manchester City, lost just five games in the league and have the dream combination of a fierce attack and a solid back line. With goalkeeper David de Gea [pictured] becoming more and more reliable, and youngsters Tom Cleverley and Javier Hernandez starting to realise their potential, this team could - on paper - dominate the league for some time. That said, next season could be difficult without a certain Scotsman in charge...)

MANAGER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Sir Alex Ferguson (MANCHESTER UNITED)
(Who else could it be? The greatest manager in football history, Sir Alex Ferguson, has completed his final season as Manchester United boss in typical winning style, lifting his 13th Premier League championship. Ferguson's tactics and management style allowed United to keep their heads while City lost theirs, and ultimately led to them winning the title by such a big margin. Sir Alex will now step up into the boardroom, allowing David Moyes to come in and inherit one of the best ever teams to grace Old Trafford. Enjoy your retirement, Fergie, you deserve it.)

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Oscar (CHELSEA)
(Oscar came to Stamford Bridge this summer as a young midfielder from Sao Paulo looking to make his name at Chelsea. 65 games later, he has certainly done that. The 21-year-old has already established himself as a first-team regular, scoring ten goals, including a couple of stunners in the Champions League. He looks set to take over from Frank Lampard as the Blues' midfield dynamo when the England ace does leave. Liverpool's Raheem Sterling made more of an impact in the first half of the campaign, but because Oscar has shone throughout the campaign, the brilliant Brazilian gets this award.)

VETERAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Frank Lampard (CHELSEA)
(Oscar may be the new Frank Lampard, but the old one isn't looking like he'll be heading for the knacker's yard any time soon. An impressive season tally of 15 Premier League strikes took the Stamford Bridge stalwart onto 203 Chelsea goals, beating the club record previously held by Bobby Tambling. He also led the Blues to glory in the UEFA Europa League Final, after which he signed a new contract to stay put for at least another campaign. When Lampard, now aged 34, finally does depart, he will be regarded as a Chelsea legend - that's if he isn't already.)

DEVIL OF THE YEAR
SINNER: Luis Suarez (LIVERPOOL)
(If a striker picks up ten yellow cards, they can be considered a bit dirty. If that striker deliberately uses his hand to help score a goal, you can also call him a cheat. And if that same player thrusts his teeth into the arm of an opposition defender, then he's a generally nasty piece of work. That striker's name is Luis Suarez, and no matter how brilliant the Liverpool man has been for his team, you cannot ignore his disgraceful antics on the pitch. A ten-game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic is just what this very flawed genius deserves, but I'll also give him this award to put on his dinner pla... mantelpiece.)

CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Glenn Murray (CRYSTAL PALACE)
(Last season, Glenn Murray - previously of Brighton & Hove Albion - scored seven goals for Crystal Palace. This term, he scored 31. His incredible return to form, especially since Ian Holloway took over at Selhurst Park, is one key reason why Palace have gone from being relegation possibilities at the start of season from being in the Championship Play-Off Final. Unfortunately, Murray suffered a serious knee injury in the Semi Final first leg against Brighton, so if the Eagles do reach the Premier League, we won't see him there for some time. Such a shame.)

SURPRISE OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Bradford City reach League Cup Final
(Not since Rochdale in 1962 had a fourth-tier team reached the Final of the League Cup. Then came Phil Parkinson's Bradford City, who quietly made their way through the early rounds before winning tense penalty shoot-outs against top-flight sides Wigan Athletic and Arsenal. That was followed by a nail-biting Semi Final against Aston Villa, in which the Bantams did just enough to make history and book a date at Wembley. The Final against Swansea City didn't quite follow the Hollywood writer's script, but Bradford - now promoted to League One - will never forget this season just gone.)

MATCH OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Reading 5-7 Arsenal (League Cup)
(Brian McDermott had never beaten his old club Arsenal as a manager, so when Reading went 4-0 up within 37 minutes, he could be forgiven for thinking he was in dreamland. Arsene Wenger [pictured] was stunned, and gave his Arsenal players the hairdryer treatment at half-time. The Gunners then turned a 4-1 deficit at the break into a 4-4 draw after normal time, thanks to Theo Walcott's leveller deep into injury time. After 30 minutes of extra time, it was still 5-5, but two dramatically late Arsenal goals completed one of the most extraordinary matches you are ever likely to see.)

GOAL OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Cameron Jerome (STOKE CITY vs Southampton)
(Stoke City were trailing 3-2 to Southampton in the closing stages of their Premier League clash. Tony Pulis' men tried to carve out one last attack, but after Peter Crouch failed to control the ball cleanly, team-mate Cameron Jerome went for a hit-and-hope half-volley from distance. This was the result. I gave serious consideration to Robin van Persie's sublime second goal against Aston Villa, but Manchester United have won plenty of awards already, and the drama surrounding Jerome's stunner meant that I decided to give this accolade to him instead.)

MERIT AWARD
WINNER: Stiliyan Petrov
(Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with leukaemia last year, and has missed the whole of this season as a result. Aston Villa fans paid tribute to their absent captain by chanting his name in the 19th minute of matches at Villa Park - they have nothing but respect for Stan, and the feeling is mutual. Sadly, Petrov will not be back on the football pitch again, having announced his retirement, but he is setting up a charity to help others with his illness. Because he is handling his cancer battle in such a dignified manner and is determined to save more lives from leukaemia, he has the utmost respect of myself and many others in the football family.)

WORLD STAR OF THE FUTURE
WINNER: Viktor Fischer (AJAX & DENMARK)
(This has been 18-year-old Fischer's first season in the Ajax first-team, and the Danish winger has made a smooth transition from youth to senior football, scoring 12 times in 33 games. Fisher, who was the joint-top scorer in last season's NextGen Series, was very much an important figure as Ajax retained the Eredivisie title. He won his first cap for Denmark last year, and it's only a matter of time before he really makes his mark on the world stage. A lucrative move to the Premier League - perhaps to Manchester United or Chelsea - could come this summer.)

WORLD TEAM OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Bayern Munich
(Bayern Munich walked the Bundesliga this season, losing just one game as they picked up 91 points and ended up with an incredible goal difference of +80. Typically of any German team, one of the key reasons behind their success is the solidity of the defence, which protects perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world right now - Manuel Neuer [pictured]. Bayern have also been devastating in the UEFA Champions League, as they tore Barcelona to shreds and booked a place in the Final against rivals Borussia Dortmund. If Bayern were to win next week, it could be the start of a period of dominance from the Munich side.)

WORLD PLAYER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Lionel Messi (BARCELONA & ARGENTINA)
(He may not have lifted the Champions League this year, but Lionel Messi is still the best player on planet football at the moment. The Argentine magician has scored 46 goals in La Liga this season for wire-to-wire champions Barcelona - just four short of his total from the previous campaign. He continues to score and create goals at an incredible rate, but the really scary thing is that he's still only 25 years of age! For the fifth year in a row, I have picked out Messi as the best footballer in the world, and if he carries his amazing form into the next 12 months, it's not impossible that he could break his own record for the most goals in a calendar year! I bet Cristiano Ronaldo is wetting himself!)

2013 League One Play-Off Final preview

Brentford's Marcello Trotta will be key - just don't get him to take a penalty!
A place in next season's Championship is up for grabs today as Brentford and Yeovil Town battle it out at Wembley in the League One Play-Off Final.

Brentford and Yeovil both had surprisingly impressive seasons, finishing 3rd and 4th respectively in the standings, and now two of League One's supposed lesser lights are just 90 minutes away from the second tier of English football.

Brentford could've clinched automatic promotion in the final minute of the final day, but Marcello Trotta missed a penalty before Doncaster Rovers launched a rapid counter-attack and scored at the other end to break the Bees' hearts. The Play-Off Semi Final also sent pulses racing, as the Londoners edged out Swindon Town on penalties.

This club has reached the play-offs six times, but they have never gone up via that route. In their last Final in 2002, they were beaten by Stoke City, who clinched promotion to Division 1 as a result.

If Uwe Rosler's men were to go a step further today, they would be in England's second tier for the first time since 1992/1993, when they went straight back down again. Since Rosler's arrival at the start of last season, the Griffin Park club has become more ambitious, and if they do reach the Championship, it could be the start of a golden period for them.

The German has no fresh injury concerns, although goalkeeper Richard Lee and left-back Scott Barron remain long-term absentees. Trotta is likely to keep his place up front alongside Harry Forrester, and they are just two of a number of promising youngsters on Brentford's books. Midfielder Adam Forshaw and defender Harlee Dean should also be watched closely.

Yeovil hotshot Paddy Madden, who cost £11,985,000 less than Fabio Borini.

Getting into the Championship would be a dream come true for Brentford, but even more so for Yeovil Town. The club from the West Country are hoping to complete just their 10th season as Football League members with promotion to the second division - a feat that seemed unimaginable when they were a Conference club renowned for causing FA Cup giant-killings.

Yeovil have actually come close before, in 2007, when they got all the way to the Final before falling prey to Blackpool. Until this season, that was their only experience of the play-offs.

Manager Gary Johnson, who led the Glovers into the Football League in 2003 and League One a couple of years later, returned in January and guided them to their best ever league finish.

Like his Bees counterpart, Johnson doesn't have to adjust his plans due to any new injuries. Defenders Dan Burn and Jamie McAllister have both struggled with injuries recently but should be fit. Yeovil will continue to look to the division's leading scorer - £15,000 bargain buy Paddy Madden - for goals, although it was actually midfielder Ed Upson who got them past Sheffield United in the Semi Final, and he'll be just as important.

This match will be a very tight affair, indeed I expect it to go into extra time at least, although Yeovil won both of the sides' league meetings this seasons and will fancy their chances a bit more. However, I've got a sneaky feeling that Brentford will make it third time lucky, and give Bees fan Natalie Sawyer even more to smile about tomorrow.

TDTR PREDICTS: Brentford 3-2 Yeovil Town (after extra time)

18 May 2013

2013 League Two Play-Off Final preview

Nahki Wells will hope to be in the goals again for Bradford City today.
The Football League Play-Off Finals get underway at Wembley today, with Bradford City and Northampton Town the first two teams to take to the pitch.

7th-placed Bradford and 6th-placed Northampton both overcame higher-ranked opponents to reach the League Two Play-Off Final, and neither team was expected to do particularly well this season, so promotion to League One would be a pleasant surprise for either side.

Incredibly, this is Bradford City's 64th match of a memorable season. This will also be the Bantams' second trip to Wembley in just under three months, having previously made it all the way to the League Cup Final before getting tonked by Swansea City.

The Yorkshire club are looking for their first promotion since being relegated from the Premier League in 2001, and are aiming to do so via their first Play-Off Final since 1996, when they beat Notts County in the Division 2 Final. Despite having little to celebrate in the play-offs in recent years, they do have the slight edge over today's opponents, having not lost to Northampton in four previous meetings this term.

Manager Phil Parkinson, who is in demand from several clubs in higher divisions, has no injuries or suspensions to worry about when he comes to select his team for this afternoon. Parkinson is expected to field the same XI that overcame a first-leg deficit to knock out Burton Albion in the Semi Final a fortnight ago.

That means striker Nahki Wells, who scored twice to turn that tie around, keeps his place up front alongside James Hanson. Captain Gary Jones will marshal the team from midfield, and goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin is preferred to League Cup hero Matt Duke.

Can Adrian Boothroyd do with Northampton what he did with Watford?

Northampton Town's mission is to get back into League One after four seasons down. Having finished a lowly 20th in the previous campaign, they were expected to struggle, but said "Cobblers" to their critics to reach the play-offs for the fifth time.

However, the only time they won a Play-Off Final was in 1997, when they overcame Swansea City by a solitary goal to get out of Division 3. Since then, it's been mostly frustrating in the post-season for the East Midlands team, but in Adrian Boothroyd they have a manager that got Watford into the Premier League via that route just seven years ago.

Boothroyd will need to get his team to overcome their on-the-road jitters. This season, they had the second-worst away record in League Two - only relegated Barnet fared worse when not at home.

Northampton are set to be without striker Clive Platt and defender Joe Widdowson through injury, while another forward - Alex Nicholls - is still unavailable after breaking his leg in October. Among the players that they are able to utilise, though, are on-loan Wigan Athletic keeper Lee Nicholls, striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, and PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, who is primarily a centre-back.

For either Bradford or Northampton, the long wait for play-off glory will end imminently. The Bantams will be slight favourites, especially if the game goes to penalties, so The Daily Transfer Request predicts that they will win to complete the first stage of their ascent back up the leagues.

TDTR PREDICTS: Bradford City 2-1 Northampton Town

16 May 2013

Beckham marks end of an era

David Beckham and Michael Owen will both retire later this month.
I was very surprised, and I'm sure many of you were too, when David Beckham announced that he was to retire from playing.

After nearly four months at Paris Saint-Germain, Beckham will bring the curtain down on a two-decade career in a Ligue 1 game at Lorient on 26 May.

Just four days ago, the 38-year-old became the first English footballer to win league championships in four different countries. The former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Los Angeles Galaxy star, who also featured for Preston North End and AC Milan, will go down as one of the best British players of his generation.

The London-born midfielder began his professional career with United in 1992 - the year that he was part of the famous FA Youth Cup-winning squad that became known as Fergie's Fledglings. He would make 394 appearances in eleven seasons for Alex Ferguson's team, and won the Premier League six times as well as the UEFA Champions League in 1999.

In 2003, he became the latest superstar signing of Real Madrid's Galactico project, linking up with some of the great players of his era - Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos. He would also win a league title in Spain, but not until his final season (2006/2007), when Real tore the championship from Barcelona with an excellent comeback win against Mallorca.

Becks' next destination was Los Angeles, as he signed a very lucrative deal with their Major League Soccer team. It was wins all round as Galaxy won the MLS Cup in 2011 and 2012, Beckham continued to excel on the pitch, and soccer became more popular in the United States during his time there. He also had two loan spells at AC Milan during the 2009 and 2010 off-seasons, although the second didn't end too well.

On deadline day of January 2013, he made one last transfer, and it was - unsurprisingly - to another wealthy and ambitious club. Well, it was hardly going to be Scunthorpe United, was it?

This is what you could've done, David, if you decided to stick around...
Typically, his time in France has ended with yet another league championship, which has cemented his reputation as one of British sport's most prolific champions of recent times.

Beckham gets a load of stick for all sorts of reasons (selling himself out, letting himself be pictured in his undercrackers, giving his kids ridiculous names...), but you can't accuse him of not being professional or a role model, and those traits weren't more evident when he was playing for England.

After making his England debut in 1996, Beckham went on to make 115 appearances for the Three Lions, captaining them 59 times and scoring 17 goals. Arguably the best of those 17 goals came on the afternoon on 6 October 2001, when England were losing to Greece in a game that they needed to win to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, he did this.

Beckham is the most high-profile of a number of recent England football stars to retire this year. Before this month began, the retiree with the biggest reputation was Michael Owen.

Owen burst onto the scene as a teenage scoring sensation at Liverpool in 1997, and a year later, he announced his arrival on the world stage with this wonderful solo goal for England against Argentina.

By the age of 22, he was a Ballon d'Or winner, and he was on course to break Bobby Charlton's England goals record of 49. However, a string of injuries meant that he only got as far as 40, in 89 caps, and by the time he moved to Real Madrid in 2004, he had already peaked.

Owen's time at Real lasted just one season, and he returned to the Premier League with Newcastle United before finally winning a league title with Manchester United in 2011. After being released by the Red Devils last season, he tried to prolong his career at Stoke City, but a grand total of eight appearances and one goal for the Potters suggests that he would've been better off retiring there and then.

We will also be saying goodbye to Jamie Carragher...
Michael Owen made his Liverpool debut in the same 1996/1997 season as Jamie Carragher, a centre-back who would turn out for the Anfield side 736 times, scoring five goals (and even more own goals!). Carragher would also lift the Champions League trophy in 2005 and play 38 times for England, although the Premier League has always eluded him.

Unlike Owen, who was burnt out long before his current age of 32, Carragher is bowing out at the top, aged 35. He has been a regular starter for Liverpool over the last sixteen seasons and has decided to retire before he is reduced to a bit-part player by manager Brendan Rodgers.

A fourth England ace who will call it quits very shortly is Paul Scholes, Manchester United's very own one-club man. Scholes has played 717 matches for United since 1994 and won all sorts of trophies with them. He briefly retired from playing in 2011 before coming back last year, but has now decided to hang up his boots for good.

Scholes started out as a forward before becoming a tough-tackling midfielder, and one of the best players in recent years to play in the middle of the park. Although his disciplinary record left plenty to be desired, many footballing luminaries have lauded him for his style of play, especially his pinpoint passing, and also for his attitude on the pitch.

As well as being a consummate professional, Scholes comes across as being considerably more humble than most footballers nowadays, although you can't describe his England career as 'humble'. In 66 appearances, he scored 14 times before retiring in 2004 to prolong his United career and spend more time with his family.

For Beckham, Owen, Carragher and Scholes to all retire in the same year is quite remarkable. It really is the end of an era in English football, especially when you consider that, with Beckham, Owen and Scholes all forming part of the 1998 FIFA World Cup squad, the only member of that team who will still be playing next season will be Rio Ferdinand. He is the last man standing from my first experience of being disappointed by England.

Blimey! I'm 23, and already I'm starting to feel old!

...but Rio Ferdinand is still going at the age of 35!

13 May 2013

Far from magic Johnson

Gus Johnson. To be honest, Don Johnson could've done a better job.
Every football commentator has their foibles. David Pleat has his inability to pronounce players' names correctly. Clive Tyldesley has his obvious bias towards Manchester United. Martin Tyler has his belief that everyone should listen to his voice, no matter how loud and overegged his words sound.

Put all of those together, take them to America, and you have arguably the worst commentator in football.

Few outside of the States will have heard of, let alone heard from, Gus Johnson before, but the Fox Soccer 'play-by-play announcer' (that's what the Yanks call a commentator) has become an Internet hit with his reaction to Ben Watson's FA Cup-winning goal for Wigan Athletic against Manchester City on Saturday.

If you thought Martin Tyler screaming "AGUEROOOOOOOOOOOOO!" was loud, listen to this. (WARNING: Side effects may include permanent deafness, tinnitus, other types of hearing damage, and Ian Wright.)

Trying to beat Krakatoa for the largest sound ever made was bad enough for those who, like me, have only now come across Johnson. Thank God, though, that they haven't heard the worst of him.

Johnson is a basketball commentator by trade, but this season, Fox have given him some soccer work. I bet they were soon regretting it after his display in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Semi Final between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

As well as pronouncing Andres Iniesta's surname as Ian-esta, and Thomas Muller's as Moolah, he used the basketball term "full-court press" to describe Bayern's pressing strategy. Also, any announcer who makes Ian Wright sound like the voice of reason in the commentary box is doomed from the outset.

It gets worse, though. Johnson constantly refers to Manchester United as Man U, like they're a college football team, and renames the PL as the "British Premiere League". And he doesn't just get players' names wrong (Sag-na, anyone?), he even gets their nationalities mixed up! Apparently, Eden Hazard is French and Ryan Giggs is one of England's greatest ever players.

During the FA Cup Final, then, one must surely have feared Johnson saying that Ben Watson was the brother of actress Emma Watson, or that the Manchester City and Wigan managers were related because they shared a forename and the first two letters of their surname. Who knows, he might even have called the winners Wigan Warriors!

To be fair, Gus Johnson has only been commentating on football matches for three months, but after making so many schoolboy errors, he should now stick to what he actually knows, and that's basketball. Otherwise, American soccer fans might have to put up with even more of Gus's pearls of wisdom, and he might come out with these 'gems':

On Sir Alex Ferguson: "Sir Alex Fergus-SON takes charge of his last ever matchup as Man U head coach, a position he has held since soccer was invented by Rupert Murdoch in 1992."
On Southampton vs Stoke City: "Free kick Southampton! UNBELIEVABLE! THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING SOCCER MATCH THAT HAS EVER BEEN PLAYED ON THIS PLANET! No, scuse me, it's a corner to Stoke."
On the UEFA Champions League Final: "It's the final showdown for the European Soccer Series - Bo-russia Dortmund v Bay-earn Munich, two titans of the German Bund-sligger clash at Wembley Arena, London!"

11 May 2013

2013 FA Cup Final preview

Sergio Aguero will be Manchester City's main man in attack once again.

The 132nd FA Cup Final is an all-Greater Manchester affair, as the Goliaths of mega-rich Manchester City take on the Davids of plucky Wigan Athletic.

More than half a billion people worldwide are expected to watch the match, which kicks off at Wembley Stadium at the untraditional time of 5:15pm. From Beijing to Buenos Aires, they'll be tuning in to find out who will win. All that we know for sure is that a manager called Roberto M will be celebrating at the final whistle.

The hot favourites to come out on top are Manchester City, who are in their tenth Final and chasing their sixth win. Roberto Mancini's first major trophy as Citizens manager came at Wembley in 2011, when his team beat another first-time finalist, Stoke City, to lift the FA Cup.

The hero of that hour was Yaya Touré, and the midfielder is fit to play this evening after missing the midweek game against West Bromwich Albion due to fatigue. However, Scott Sinclair - who has hardly been seen since his summer transfer from Swansea City - will not feature due to a blood clot.

City will turn to Romanian giant Costel Pantilimon in goal, selecting him ahead of first-choice keeper Joe Hart throughout their FA Cup run. He has been impressive during that run, not conceding a goal until the Semi Final against Chelsea. This will almost certainly be Pantilimon's last game for the club, as he wants regular first-team football next season.

It could also be Mancini's last hurrah with the Eastlands club if reports linking Malaga head coach Manuel Pellegrini with his job are to be believed.

Aside from Sinclair, Manchester City have no injuries to be concerned about, and their deadly up-front trio of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri are all set to start.

It's a big day for Wigan Athletic's likeable manager Roberto Martinez.

Wigan Athletic were only formed in 1932, by which time today's opponents had already reached two FA Cup Finals and won one of them. This is Wigan's first time in this most special of footballing occasions, although they did reach the 2006 League Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium.

Today marks the fulfillment of a 53-year dream for chairman Dave Whelan, who broke his leg in the 1960 Final and returns there for the first time since. The injury, suffered whilst playing for Blackburn Rovers against Wolverhampton Wanderers, effectively ended Whelan's playing days. He then built up a successful business, bought his local club Wigan in 1995, and in less than two decades, he has taken them from the bottom end of Division 3 to the FA Cup Final, and with it UEFA Europa League qualification.

Manager Roberto Martinez faces a tough task if he is to take the Latics that one step further. He is already without three defenders - Maynor Figueroa, Ivan Ramis and Ronnie Stam - through injury, and is set to lose a fourth in Antolin Alcaraz. To make things worse, winger Jean Beausejour could also be ruled out.

Fortunately, Martinez can still call upon Arouna Koné. The Ivorian striker has been one of the Spanish boss's better signings this season, and he'll have to be on form to end Wigan's run of having not scored in their last seven games against Manchester City.

Just like City, Wigan will play their second-choice goalkeeper in this evening's showpiece. Ali Al-Habsi was number 1 for a couple of years until Joel Robles arrived on loan in January, but the Oman international continues to feature in the cups.

The FA Cup has not had a new name engraved on it since Wimbledon in 1988, and Wigan will have to play the game of their lives this evening if they are to alter that fact. City, though, will we desperate to end what they now consider to be a disappointing season with their third trophy in as many campaigns.

Although Wigan cannot be discounted, it's very likely that Manchester City could run away with this Final, and The Daily Transfer Request fears that will be the case.

TDTR PREDICTS: Manchester City 3-0 Wigan Athletic

8 May 2013

Fergie's time

Last night, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC were reporting that one of the greatest managers in football history was about to announce his retirement.

This morning, it has been confirmed that Sir Alex Ferguson will step aside as Manchester United boss at the end of his 27th season at Old Trafford.

In footballing terms, this is a breaking news story that only comes about once in a generation. This is the end of an era not just at Manchester United, but also in English football. When he leaves his post and steps up to the United board, he will have left a massive hole that will be difficult to fill, even if a certain Portuguese coach is annonited as his successor.

Unless you have been living in a cave since 1986, you do not need to be told how successful Sir Alex Ferguson has been at United. He is undoubtedly the most successful British football manager of all time, and in a quarter of a century, he has transformed a sleeping giant into a soccer superpower with nearly 40 more honours than they had before he came on board.

This is Sir Alex's journey from a young and talented Scottish coach to world domination:

Ferguson brought incredible success to Aberdeen before heading south.
1941-1986: Pre-United
Alexander Chapman Ferguson was born in Govan, Glasgow on New Year's Eve 1941. 16 years later, he made his senior football debut as a striker for Queen's Park. While playing for the amateur club, he worked in the Clyde shipyards as an apprentice tool-worker. He continued to do so when he joined St Johnstone in 1960, but four years later, he turned professional with Dunfermline.

Three prolific years at East End Park followed, and then Ferguson got the chance to play for his boyhood heroes, Rangers. He was at Ibrox for two years, but his time there came to an end after a poor performance in the 1969 Scottish Cup Final against Celtic. Ferguson was blamed for one of Celtic's four goals in the Final, and Rangers froze him out of their first-team until he was transferred to Falkirk.

During the 1970s, Ferguson was promoted to player-coach at Falkirk, but he left in 1973 after being stripped of his coaching responsibilities by the club's new manager. After a season with Airdrie United, he retired from playing in 1974 at the age of 32.

Ferguson decided to move into management, initially with East Stirlingshire, where he cut his teeth from June to October. He then received an offer from St Mirren, which he accepted after taking advice from the man who was at the time Scotland's most reputable manager, Jock Stein.

In 1977, St Mirren - who were struggling in the second tier when Fergie arrived - were promoted to the Premier Division as champions of Division 1. The average age of the Buddies' team was just 19, and their captain Tony Fitzpatrick was only 20, so you could say that they were the original Fergie's Fledglings!

After a major falling-out with the club board, Ferguson was sacked in 1978. He took over at Aberdeen in June, and turned them into champions of Scotland just a couple of years later, in 1980. A strict disciplinarian, he brought the best out of his team, and although the Dons would not win another league title until 1984, an even more prestigious trophy was heading to Pittodrie.

The date - 11 May 1983. The venue - Gothenburg, Sweden. The match - Aberdeen vs Real Madrid in the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup. Eric Black gave the Dons an early lead before Juanito equalised from the penalty spot. There were no more goals in normal time, so extra time followed, and eight minutes from the end, Peter Weir took possession from Real. He hit a long ball to Mark McGhee, whose subsequent cross from the left wing was headed in by substitute John Hewitt. Aberdeen were the winners of a major European trophy for the very first time.

Ferguson won two more Premier Division titles at Aberdeen in 1984 and 1985, and stayed with them despite offers from Arsenal, Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur. In the latter year, he got an unexpected chance to manage Scotland at a FIFA World Cup following the shock death of Stein from a heart attack. Like many others before and since, he tried to get the Scots out of the Group Stage alive, but like all of them, he didn't succeed. His tenure as national coach ended after just ten matches.

This was what some Manchester United fans thought of Fergie in 1989.
1986-1992: Destination Old Trafford
On 6 November 1986, Alex Ferguson left Aberdeen for pastures new. His destination was Manchester United. The Red Devils had got rid of 'Big' Ron Atkinson after they slumped to 21st in the English Division 1 table. His first two results were not that promising - a 2-0 defeat to Oxford United and a 0-0 stalemate at Norwich City - but when United beat Queens Park Rangers two weeks after Ferguson's appointment, their fortunes steadily improved. They finished the campaign in 11th place after Fergie tightened discipline and curbed the drinking culture at the club.

In his first summer as United boss, Ferguson brought a number of new faces to Old Trafford - among them were Steve Bruce, Viv Anderson and, er, Jim Leighton. Although United dramatically improved as a result (they finished 2nd), they were still a long way behind local rivals Liverpool.

1987/1988 was promising for Manchester United, but the following season, it looked like being a false dawn. The Red Devils ended up 11th again in 1989, and Fergie splashed the cash once more, for Paul Ince, Gary Pallister, and his future assistant Mike Phelan. The 5-1 loss at Manchester City that September represented a new low point for the Ferguson regime at Old Trafford, and fans were soon holding up banners saying "Ta Ra Fergie".

Manchester United were just outside the relegation zone at the start of 1990, and they were on a seven-game winless streak when they faced Nottingham Forest in Round 3 of the FA Cup. A goal from Mark Robins saw United through to the next round, and their cup run would extend all the way to the Final, where they overcame Crystal Palace to win their first piece of silverware under Ferguson's management. If it hadn't been for that Robins goal at the City Ground, the chances were that Ferguson would have been sacked.

An inconsistent United team came 6th in the 1990/1991 Division 1 table, and their manager looked abroad in search of players for the first time. Ukrainian winger Andrei Kanchelskis would spend four years at the club, but a more significant impact would be made by a Danish goalkeeper by the name of Peter Schmeichel.

The Red Devils led the table for much of 1991/1992 before ultimately losing out to Leeds United. However, there was much to be encouraged by in terms of the youth players. Lee Sharpe had been a hit since his signing from Torquay United in 1988, but he was just two of many exciting talents at Old Trafford. In 1992, Manchester United won the FA Youth Cup with David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville - all future regulars for the senior team. Phil Neville and Paul Scholes would soon make their way into the first-team picture as well.

United players mob Eric Cantona after he inspired them to the 1994 Double.
1992-1998: Kings of England
Manchester United started the first ever Premier League season rather slowly, and Alex Ferguson was under pressure again. That was until one day in November, when he received a phone call from Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson. Somehow, he managed to turn an initial Leeds United approach for Denis Irwin into a Man United swoop for the Whites' French maestro Eric Cantona. That was the big turning point.

Cantona was a major influence in the second half of the season as United (Manchester, not Leeds) surged to the top of the PL. On 2 May 1993, Leeds lost against Oldham Athletic, and Ferguson was broken the news that he had won the title whilst playing golf. It was United's first league title for 26 years. Another period of red dominance, this time from Manchester as opposed to Liverpool, was underway.

1993/1994 brought about United's first ever domestic double, as the FA Cup was added to the Premier League. With Cantona in free-scoring form and young midfield hardman Roy Keane brought in to replace the declining Bryan Robson, it seemed that nothing would stop them from making it three titles in a row. Except Cantona.

The fiery Frenchman took leave of his senses after being sent off against Crystal Palace in January 1995, performing a kung-fu kick on a loud-mouthed Palace supporter. Cantona was banned for nine months, by which time Manchester United had ceded the championship on the final day to big-spending Blackburn Rovers.

Shortly before Cantona's capitulation, Ferguson once again spent wisely in the transfer market. swapping Keith Gillespie and £7million for Newcastle United hotshot Andy Cole. However, the following summer was tougher for Fergie, as he let Ince, Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes leave, and after failing to sign any big-name replacements, he decided to promote his Fledglings instead.

On the first day of the 1995/1996 season, a young Manchester United team lost 3-1 to Aston Villa. That prompted Match of the Day pundit, and former Liverpool defender, Alan Hansen to utter the immortal lines, "You can't win anything with kids." Nine months later, and Hansen was consuming the biggest humble pie ever made.

Newcastle United had stormed to the top of the Premier League, and were ten points ahead of the Red Devils by Christmas 1995. Eventually, in a battle of minds, Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan cracked, Ferguson stayed composed, and Manchester United ate into the Magpies' lead before pinching the title on the final day. Shortly afterwards, Cantona scored the winner in the FA Cup Final, and United had done the double Double.

Another Premier League title was wrapped up in 1997, but Cantona's sudden retirement hit United hard, and the following season would end without a new trophy in the Old Trafford cabinet. It was time for Ferguson to delve into his transfer budget once more.

Three was a magic number for Alex Ferguson and Manchester United in 1999.
1998-2003: Trebles all round
Alex Ferguson spent a lot of money in the summer of 1998 - nearly £30million, in fact, on Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke, PSV Eindhoven defender Jaap Stam and Swedish midfielder Jesper Blomqvist. The first two were instrumental in United's success in 1998/1999, but it was the club's existing stars that stole the show.

It was extra time in the FA Cup Semi Final that Ryan Giggs lit up Villa Park with one of the greatest solo goals ever seen in English football. That goal secured a dramatic win over Arsenal, and after beating the Gunners to the Premier League championship weeks later, United won the FA Cup Final 2-0 against Newcastle. A third domestic double was nice, but what Manchester United really wanted was a Treble. And that meant beating Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League Final on 26 May.

It was United's second European Cup Final, and it came 31 years after Best, Charlton and co lifted the trophy at Wembley. However, with injury time left to play at the Nou Camp, it didn't look like Ferguson's team were going to repeat that feat. Bayern were 1-0 up thanks to Mario Basler's free kick and looked as solid and resilient as your typical German team.

Ferguson had earlier brought on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a bid to, at the very least, force extra time. In the first minute of added-on time, Sheringham took full advantage after Bayern failed to clear away a corner. That was the equaliser, but a couple of minutes later, with literally just seconds left on the clock, United pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. Beckham's corner was flicked towards the far post by Sheringham, and there was Solskjaer to toe-poke it in and complete the most incredible comeback in European Cup Final history.

Ferguson returned to England with an unprecedented three major trophies in one season for Manchester United. Just over a fortnight later, he became Sir Alex, as a knighthood was bestowed on him by the Queen.

The next two Premier League titles were won comfortably. In 1999/2000, they finished 18 points ahead of Arsenal, but they failed to defend the Champions League or the FA Cup, the latter because they withdrew to take part in FIFA's Club World Championship. They returned from that tournament in Brazil trophyless, and with many accusing them of disrespecting football's oldest cup competition.

The 2000/2001 Premier League was won by a 10-point gap from Arsenal, although again, victory in any of the cups was not forthcoming. After winning English football's top flight three years in a row, Ferguson brought in Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy - the latter would've joined a summer earlier had he not suffered a serious knee injury. He also sold Stam to Lazio after falling out with the Holland defender over comments made in his autobiography, and replaced him with the ageing Laurent Blanc.

van Nistelrooy was an immediate hit, but Veron was a £28million flop, and after they lost to West Ham United on 8 December 2001, Manchester United sat 9th in the Premier League table. Ferguson had earlier announced that 2001/2002 would be his last season in charge at Old Trafford, but as United's form improved, he agreed to stay on in February.

The Red Devils finished 3rd, and ahead of the 2002/2003 campaign, Sir Alex made his biggest gamble yet. He broke the British transfer record again, paying £30million for Leeds United centre-back Rio Ferdinand. It was very expensive, but worthwhile - United had the PL's best defensive record as a late comeback saw them overtake Arsenal to win their eighth league championship under Ferguson.

That win was the end of the road for Manchester United and their superstar right-midfielder, England captain David Beckham. On 15 February, after the Red Devils were knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal, Fergie lost his cool. He allegedly kicked a boot in Beckham's face (although some reports said that he threw it at Beckham). The pair's short-term relationship was damaged, and in the post-season, Becks was sold to Real Madrid. Who would fill the number 7's boots at United?

Jose Mourinho would be the bane of Fergie's life for the best part of four seasons.
2003-2007: Dominance under threat
The new number 7 at Manchester United was a flashy Portuguese teenager called Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro. Ferguson paid a good £12million for Sporting Lisbon's 18-year-old winger, and Cristiano Ronaldo would end his first season in England with a trophy. However, it was not the Premier League.

Forgetful Ferdinand missed a mandatory drugs test in late 2003, and was subsequently banned for eight months. The loss of a defensive rock was a major blow to United, who could only manage 3rd place as unbeaten Arsenal dominated and mega-rich Chelsea planned an assault of their own.

United didn't win the Champions League, either. They were felled at the Round of 16 when Costinha scored in the final minute to send Porto through to the Quarter Finals. This was Sir Alex's first meeting with a young, charismatic coach called Jose Mourinho, and it wouldn't be his last.

For Ferguson personally, it was a frustrating season. He fell out with United shareholder John Magnier over the ownership of a racehorse, and refused to speak to the BBC for seven years after they screened a documentary which cast his agent son Jason in a negative light.

Victory in the FA Cup Final meant that 2003/2004 wasn't completely fruitless for Manchester United, but the following season was a different matter, even though they spent £25.6million on the signing of wonderkid Wayne Rooney from Everton. Chelsea, now under Mourinho's guidance, took the Premier League title to Stamford Bridge for the first time. Liverpool triumphed in the Champions League, but the bitterest pill - as far as United were concerned - was in the FA Cup Final against another rival, Arsenal. Ferguson's men were beaten on penalties, with Scholes missing the crucial spot-kick.

United had struggled in goal since Schmeichel's departure after the 1999 Treble-winning season. Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez and Roy Carroll all flopped. Ferguson turned to the experienced Fulham keeper Edwin van der Sar for the 2005/2006 season, which was the Red Devils' first under the ownership of Malcolm Glazer and his family.

That season yielded just the one trophy: the League Cup, which was Ferguson's first since 1992. With Chelsea continuing to spend their way to the very top, this was very much a transistional campaign at Old Trafford. Keane left by mutual consent, van Nistelrooy soon followed, while the January signings of Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic bolstered the defence.

Keane's replacement in the centre of midfield was Tottenham Hotspur's Michael Carrick, an £18million signing in July 2006. While the United midfield line was looking stronger than ever, Rooney and Ronaldo were starting to hit their stride as well. As a result, their four-year wait for another Premier League crown was ended in 2007. The king was back on his throne.

Manchester United were crowned European champions again in 2008.
2007-2011: Back on top
There were plenty of arrivals for the next season: Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani and Carlos Tevez all signed for Manchester United ahead of what would prove to be another hugely successful campaign.

The Premier League was won by United after a close three-way battle between themselves, Chelsea and Arsenal. While a squad which Sir Alex called the best he had ever assembled did their talking on the pitch, the boss talked his way into trouble off it. His disdain towards referees was always well-known, but when he said that refs chief Keith Hackett was "not doing his job properly", the FA threw the book at him.

On 21 May 2008, United were chasing another double of sorts, as they faced Chelsea in Moscow for the Champions League. The first all-English European final came down to penalties, but when Ronaldo missed, Blues captain John Terry had the chance to take the trophy to south London. He slipped on the wet pitch, missed the penalty, and moments later, van der Sar saved from Nicolas Anelka to secure a second Champions League title for Ferguson, and a third for Manchester United.

Now aged 66, the question was: how long would Sir Alex go on for? United fans were wishing he could manage them forever when, in 2009, they celebrated an 18th league championship, pulling them level with Liverpool. To put that in context, before Man United won their first Premier League title in 1993, they had been crowned English champions just seven times.

United also won the League Cup, but lost out on the Champions League to a Barcelona team that was beginning to look like they could dominate world football. At the end of the season, Ferguson said that he would carry on as long as his health permitted him.

The hunt was on for that record 19th championship, and Manchester United would have achieved that in 2010 if they beat Stoke City on the final day (which they did) and Wigan Athletic shocked Chelsea. Alas, Chelsea were in no mood for dramas as they demolished the Latics 8-0.

Ferguson officially became Manchester United's longest-serving manager on 19 December 2010 when he overtook Sir Matt Busby's tenure of 24 years, 1 month and 13 days. He would finish the 2010/2011 season by completing his big mission of overtaking Liverpool on the league championships count. In the end, the Premier League was won comfortably, with a nine-point lead and just four defeats.

Sir Alex now had the chance to do what Sir Matt did, and win the Champions League at Wembley. The opponents were Barcelona, and it was an excellent match... if you were a Barca fan. Thanks to one of the greatest team displays ever seen in top-level football, Barcelona denied Fergie his third Champions League win.

"We've done it, lads, we've won the tit... oh, wait, no we haven't."
2011-2012: Noisy neighbours
2011 represented the end of the line for some of Manchester United's old guard. Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar retired, as did Paul Scholes, although the latter would come back the following January. Sir Alex Ferguson lined up a couple of youngsters to replace them, namely goalkeeper David de Gea and defender Phil Jones. England winger Ashley Young, who while not THAT young was still only 26, was signed from Aston Villa.

In 2009, Ferguson referred to big-spending rivals Manchester City as "noisy neighbours". United's neighbours became even easier in October 2011 when a thumping 6-1 win at Old Trafford firmly established City as the team to beat in the Premier League. It was Ferguson's worst home defeat, and he didn't like it one bit.

A couple of weeks later, he was in a happier mood when the North Stand at Old Trafford was renamed as the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. His mood continued to improve as the season went on, and United got closer and closer to their rivals in the standings.

After 37 teams, City were on 86 points, and United were on 86 points. The Citizens' goal difference was +8 better compared to the Red Devils'. Basically, on the final day, United had to get a better result against Sunderland than City got against Queens Park Rangers to make it title number 20.

United did their bit, narrowly defeating Sunderland 1-0. They then faced an anxious wait as City played out the last few minutes against QPR. Manchester City were 2-1 down when Edin Dzeko equalised in injury-time, but surely, SURELY, they wouldn't get a winner in the time that was left! United fans waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Then this happened. And this was how they reacted. If Sir Alex Ferguson was going to bow out on a high, it wasn't going to be on 13 May 2012.

With a 13th league title sewn up, Sir Alex Ferguson is heading for retirement.
2012-2013: The final curtain
Sir Alex Ferguson sought to get revenge on Manchester City, and he did so by pinching Arsenal captain Robin van Persie from under their noses. It would prove to be around £27million well spent, while Fergie also invested in Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa, whose first season at Old Trafford would be a bit more mixed.

The campaign began with a shock 1-0 loss against Everton, managed by David Moyes. Despite this early set back, Manchester United quickly got back to winning ways, and as the Citizens slipped up, United built a solid lead.

The Red Devils were going great guns in the Premier League, but in the Champions League, they were early casualties. They lost a controversial Round of 16 clash against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid after Nani was the recipient of a perhaps unwarranted red card.

Back on the PL front, United were so dominant that their lead was as big as 18 points at one stage. They missed the chance to all but seal the title on 8 April when they were beaten by Manchester City, but the party eventually got underway a fortnight later. Ferguson's big-name signing, van Persie, repaid the best part of his transfer fee with an incredible hat-trick against Aston Villa. With the help of their number 20, United had got league championship number 20.

With 13 league titles and 36 other trophies on his CV, Sir Alex Ferguson now sees this as the right time to retire - at the age of 71 - from a job which he has held for over 26 years. In eleven days' time, Manchester United will finish the season at West Bromwich Albion. It will be Sir Alex's 1506th and final game in charge.

Before then, the Old Trafford faithful will have their chance to say goodbye to Ferguson when United play host to Swansea City this Sunday. There won't be a dry eye in the house.

SIR ALEX FERGUSON'S HONOURS
With Manchester United:
13 Premier Leagues (1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013), 5 FA Cups (1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004), 4 League Cups (1992, 2006, 2009, 2010), 10 Charity/Community Shields (1990 [shared], 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011), 2 UEFA Champions Leagues (1999, 2008), 1 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (1991), 1 UEFA Super Cup (1991), 1 Intercontinental Cup (1999), 1 FIFA Club World Cup (2008)
With Aberdeen:
3 Scottish Premier Divisions (1980, 1984, 1985), 4 Scottish Cups (1982, 1983, 1985, 1986), 1 Scottish League Cup (1986), 1 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (1983), 1 UEFA Super Cup (1983),
With St Mirren:
1 Scottish First Division (1977)
Individual:
3 LMA Manager of the Year awards (1999, 2008, 2011), 10 Premier League Manager of the Season awards (1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011), UEFA Coach of the Year (1999), 4 World Soccer Magazine World Manager of the Year awards (1993, 1999, 2007, 2008), BBC Sports Personality of the Year Coach Award (1999), BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award (2001), Order of the British Empire (OBE 1983, CBE 1995), Knights Bachelor (1999)

SIR ALEX FERGUSON'S MANCHESTER UNITED RECORD
League: Played 1033, Won 624, Drawn 237, Lost 172, For 1939, Against 924, GD +1015
FA Cup: Played 120, Won 80, Drawn 22, Lost 18, For 230, Against 93, GD +97
League Cup: Played 97, Won 62, Drawn 10, Lost 25, For 178, Against 107, GD +71
Charity/Community Shield: Played 16, Won 4, Drawn 7, Lost 5, For 22, Against 22, GD 0
Europe: Played 232, Won 124, Drawn 61, Lost 47, For 393, Against 213, GD +180
Intercontinental: Played 6, Won 4, Drawn 1, Lost 1, For 11, Against 7, GD +4
OVERALL RECORD: Played 1504, Won 898, Drawn 338, Lost 268, For 2773, Against 1366, GD +1407