Saturday, August 8, 2009

Has the football league ever had it so good?

The new football league season kicks off today and fan of the teams in the lower divisions of English football must be licking their lips at the opponents they will face.

In the Championship, Newcastle and Middlesborough will be the big scalps of the season. Teams like Peterborough and Blackpool must be so pleased to be able to say that they are in the same division as these massive football clubs. It is only a few years since Kevin Keegan’s famous, ‘I would love it if we beat them rant’ at Alex Ferguson, when it looked as if Newcastle United would be Premier League champions. Middlesborough themselves were playing in Europe only a handful of seasons ago.

A league including other big clubs such as with Leicester, Nottingham Forest, Derby, Bristol City, West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday is sure to rouse the fans. Clubs that could all make a case for deserving to be in the Premiership for the size of their fan bases, will be sure to throw up a lot of interesting match-ups and fierce rivalries in the coming weeks. It looks like it could be one of the best Championship seasons in years.

Yet it is not just the Championship that now has all the big non-Premier League teams. League One can now boast an wonderful line up of once great clubs. Playing in the third tier of English football this season are most notably, Leeds United, Norwich City, Southampton and Charlton. All of whom have played in the Premier League within the last five years. Leeds United of course made the semi final of the Champions League in 2001 but since then have infamously collapsed into relative obscurity in League One.

Even League Two has hit the headlines in recent weeks. Although not boasting the same array of big clubs, the oldest club in the world Notts County have just signed up Sven Goran Eriksson as director of football. Eriksson is one of the highest profile managers in the world and arguably one of the best. With new rich Arab owners Notts County could be a club to watch in the next few seasons as they look to climb from the fourth league to the top.

Whatever happens it looks as if it will be a very exciting season this year.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Problem With Manchester City, Originally Published December 4, 2008

So you are a club who lose your last game of the season 8-1 against Middlesborough. Your manager has just been fired despite getting the club into Europe for the first time in five years. The club’s owner, who may be arrested for corruption, has expressed a desire to sell your club and your captain has voiced huge discontent at the whole situation.

This was Manchester City seven months ago. The club was in disarray and the future looked bleak for their fans.

When highly regarded young manager Mark Hughes was hired the mood was lifted slightly. But there were still rumblings from skeptical fans who thought Hughes would not encourage his players to play good football. Hughes is a manager who was focused on physical aggression and assertiveness from his players during his time at Blackburn.

There was some light at the end of the tunnel though when Abu Dhabi United Group Investment and Development Limited completed a takeover of Manchester City. This instantly made the club the richest in the world. Sadly, the deal was made on the transfer deadline day and the club only managed to sign one player Robinho who was previously on the verge of signing for Chelsea. This was a huge coup for the club and broke the British transfer record costing £32.5 million.

So, with a renewed confidence around the club the new season started but Man City have not set the league alight. They are currently hovering just two points above the relegation zone with nearly half the season gone.

With the transfer window opening again at the start of next month the press and the fans are already buzzing with transfer rumours. Sky Sports News reported yesterday that Man City had offered £128 million for Real Madrid’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas. A ludicrous amount perhaps but it is certainly money that the owners can afford to spend in abundance.

The problem is that Man City do not have the pulling power of the big four. They will struggle to attract the huge names they have been linked with such as Kaka and Messi because of the lower prestige of the club. Okay, they did sign Robinho from under Chelsea’s nose but the fact remains that money is not everything in football. Yes, it counts for a lot but Casillas has apparently rejected Man City and many of the big players will follow suit. The club is still considered to be a smaller club than the Premier League’s famous ‘big four’ of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. It is unlikely that players will reject the chance to play in the Champions League to play in the UEFA Cup for City.

It is hard to see how they can break into and establish themselves in the top four with such a high standard of football being set by the ‘big four’. The Man City revolution is not likely to have a big impact for a few seasons yet.

So maybe City should set their sights lower down. The huge European clubs will not sell their best players. Perhaps the likes of Lazio’s Pandev and Werder Bremen’s Diego should be main and realistic targets. It seems a waste of time chasing after players at the top clubs such as Barcelona and AC Milan. There are still great players with huge potential playing for smaller European Clubs.

Who knows if the owners are willing to be patient? Maybe they will get fed up without Champions League football and will sell the club on again. Only time will tell, but City fans should be a bit cautious in their glee. The future may not be as bright as the fans hope, they may not be challenging for the title even with the huge cash injection.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The foreign players versus home grown players debate (originally published on my old blog December 1st 2008)

Anyone who has followed football over the last few years will have heard many different views on how foreign players have effected club and international football. There has been a huge increase in foreigners across most of Europe’s leagues in the past decade. This has caused suggestion that the amount of foreign players playing for a club should be capped. FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michele Platini have both backed proposals thata their must be a minimum of 6 home grown players and a maximum of 5 foreign players per team.

Whilst such a proposal would expect to result in an increase in standard of certain national teams whose youngsters will get the chance to play top flight football, it is of little doubt that the standard of football in these leagues would decrease.

Maybe the argument is purely a club versus country debate. Which is more important and which do the fans prefer. Well, it is tough to judge whether international football is preffered to club football. Fans tend to like both types of football and without polling Europe to find out, it is very difficult to draw any significant conclusions because of the undeniable popularity of both.

So rather than try to determine which is favoured it is probably easier to analyse whether foreign players have improved the top European leagues and whether less foreign players will help national teams to prosper.

Using the English Premier League as an example, most people will agree that the quality of football has dramatically increased over the past few seasons. With English teams dominating the champions league’s latter stages not many would deny that the English Premier League now has the highest standard of football anywhere in Europe and probably the world. The bigger nations in Europe such as Spain, Italy and Germany also seem to have gained something with the increase in foreign players. This has seen the revenue of these leagues increase by millions and millions in recent years.

Perhaps this increase in revenue and popularity still would have occurred without foreigners and of course there is no definite way to judge it but it is hard to dismiss the impact of foreigners in the bigger European nations.

The countries that have suffered most from the increase in foreign players in the top leagues in Europe are the smaller European countries and the rest of the world. Countries such as Holland, Brazil and Argentina are finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto their home grown players. As soon as players within these countries start attracting interest from the big European footballing nations they have an impossible task to hold onto their players.

So on the upside in England, Spain, Italy and Germany the standard of football has improved over the last few years. On the negative side pretty much every other country’s club football is suffering because of it.

The next question is whether or not the state of the national teams in England, Spain, Italy and Germany are deteriorating because of the influx of foreigners into their leagues.

A lot of Englishmen will point to England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 as a prime example of how foreigners have ruined the state of their national team. However, even before the decrease in English players in the Premier League England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, a tournament in which they made the semi-finals four years earlier. Of the other main European footballing nations who have a similar amount of foreigners in their league, Spain won Euro 2008, Germany were the beaten finalist’s and Italy are the current World Cup holders. So on the whole it can be argued that in fact the impact of foreign players has not had a negative effect on the leading European nations national sides and may have even had a good effect. Even England, who can have the most complaints in this respect, are having a great qualifying campaign this time around.

It is unclear if countries should limit the number of foreigners playing in their club teams. It would be a great shame to see the worlds best clubs being limited in talent and the top European leagues would probably lose a lot of global appeal. Maybe this is the reason FIFA and UEFA have failed to sanction such a proposal despite their head henchozs both being in favour of it.

Big Match - Big Fight Previews

There is a great weekend of sport in prospect and it begins today with the highly anticipated match up between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford this lunchtime.

The game has an added bit of flavour this year given that the Merseyside Reds have beaten United already in the league. Although, at Old Trafford it is likely to be a different story.

Rafael Benitez's war of words has backfired this season, after his infamous list of things he despised about Sir Alex Ferguson and his United team, Liverpool's title challenge fell apart at the seams and United went on an amazing unbeaten run in the league which is still standing. This has left a Keegan-esque feeling reverbarating around Anfield and perhaps many fans just wish Benitez had kept his mouth shut.

But this has not deterred Benitez from firing verbal warnings again to Ferguson. Saying that United are not untouchable and that he believes his Liverpool team can still win the title.

This must all be music to Sir Alex's ears though and as usual he has the psychological upperhand on one of his rivals managers. The more Benitez talks the more Liverpool seem to fail but in fairness to him it makes for great press coverage.

It is hard to see past United today, their formidable form has seen them become real quadruple contenders and again Liverpool's best chance of winning anything appears to be in Europe.

Prediciton Manchester United to win 2-0

On to the big fight now...

Amir Khan tonight is looking to become the number one contender for the WBO crown. In his way is legendary Mexican fighter Marco Antonio Barrera. Barrera is an undoubted talent who has won world title fights at three different weights, a remarkable achievement in a sport where weight is everything.

It is perhaps surprising to see Khan put into such a tough fight so early on in his career. Although Khan at 22 is 13 years younger than Barrera, at 35 Barrera is still a world-class talent.

Khan was given easy fights for a while but now it seems the time has come for Khan to really step it up and show his class. Khan probably would not have been given such a tough fight had he not lost in 54 seconds to relative unknown boxer Colombia's Breidis Prescott. That defeat has put some serious doubt into the minds of his backers and his apparent glass jaw was there for all to see, something that is a worry for any boxer and not something that can be easily fixed. Khan has probably been given this fight to show that he truly is world-class and that defeat was a 'fluke' occurance.

Khan looks to have bounced back positively from this defeat and is in better physical shape than ever. Whether the defeat will have taken a huge mental toll we are yet to see but one thing is for sure we will probably find out tonight. Khan will have to start fast and make sure he does not take any brutal punches if he is to win tonight.

Although the bookies have Khan as a slight favourite it is hard to oppose such a warrior as Barrera. Whatever happens it is sure to be a great fight and well worth watching.

Just a quick word for our British hero Andy Murray he is back in action this week in Indian Wells, although he has been blighted with injuries he can win this tournament on his favoured hard court surface.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Champions League or English Premier League?

Kings of Europe or Kings of England?

It sounds like a straightforward question. Surely to be the champions of Europe is a greater achievement than being the best in England, just because of the sheer number of extra teams in the whole of Europe compared with England.

So basic statistics suggests that it is a far bigger honour to be the Kings of Europe. But as most people in sociology will tell you, statistics are not everything.

Is it really tougher to win the Champions League?

Perhaps, one of the best arguments for the Premier League being tougher to win is that in 2005 Liverpool won the Champions League, in the same season they finished a lowly fifth in the Premier League, even below their main rivals Everton. If the Champions League is so tough to win then how on earth did the fifth best side in England win it?

Maybe, another point to add to this one is that in two-legged cup competitions it is far more likely that a 'weaker' team can beat a 'better' club. The nature of cups is so that a fortunate goal here or there could end up winning you the competition. Something that is unlikely in a League where over the 38 games of a season luck pretty much evens itself out.

It is very rare to hear anybody say that a team who wins a league did not deserve it. Even the most biased of fans have to admit that when a team wins a league it is a great achievement which is unlikely to be 'lucky'.

Is the Champions League competition tougher in terms of teams than in the Premier League?

In some ways 'yes' and in some ways 'no'. Yes, it is tougher in the way that all of Europe's elite are competing to win the trophy. The likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan are far better than the average Premier League side. But on the flip side of this teams such as Anorthosis, CFR Cluj, Bate Borisov and Aalborg are arguably far weaker than the average Premier League opposition.

Would fans prefer to win the English Premier League or the Champions League?

This is a difficult question to answer, one that was perhaps far easier to answer four or five years ago. Back then, English Premier League teams did not dominate Europe's top club competition in the way that they do now. It seems that if the league is weaker then it is more of an achievement to win in Europe.

However, this has all changed over the past few seasons and was proven by last season when English teams were only knocked out of the Champions League by other English teams. After an all English final and another season where so far all four English clubs have made the quarter-finals it is hard to deny that the EPL is Europe's toughest to win league. As a result because it is played over 38 games it seems a much fairer way of assessing which English team is the best. If your team wins the EPL there are more reasons to brag than if your team wins the Champions League.

All in all it is very hard to assess which competition is the greater to win in terms of achievement and prestige. People such as Roman Abramovich and Massimo Moratti would far sooner see their teams Chelsea and Inter Milan win the Champions League than their own Leagues. However, the die hard fans of such clubs especially in England probably would rather see their side lift the league trophy, knowing what a great achievement this really is. Yes, the Champions League is very tough to win but there is a greater luck factor involved, would Porto really have won the EPL the league they won the Champions League? Of course it is nice to beat teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid rather than hammering Wigan or Fulham but until a season long league is created between Europe's elite it is difficult to conclude that the Champions League is harder to win than the EPL.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The NFL - America’s Team The Dallas Cowboys

Once in a while a sports article grabs you. It really gets your attention and given the amount of writing out there - it has to be something special. Having read an article in The Observer Sports Monthly named ‘Sex, drugs and shoulder pads’ words by Jeff Pearlman. I was amazed at some of the things that went on with the early 90’s Dallas Cowboys.

Just to give a quick overview, the team were known as 'America’s team' because of their flamboyant and arrogant football skills.

The Cowboys were the best team around and won 3 Superbowls in quick succession. A remarkable achievement given the fact that the NFL has salary caps and draft systems that hinder great teams from dominating year after year.

As is often the case in top level sport the Dallas Cowboys received many perks for their jobs. Women would throw themselves at the players and the players single or married would invariably accept the proposals. It was almost as if the aptly named Cowboys themselves could almost be forgiven for just going along with it all. Hey, if they are being offered it why not take it?

One of the perks of the job was a free haircut the players would be given by a guy named Vinnie. One afternoon in the training camp Vinnie was giving huge linebacker Everett McIver a much needed trim when Irvin burst into the room demanding that he got his haircut instantly.

Star receiver Michael Irvin was the self promoting self proclaiming ‘main man’. Irvin was the kind of guy who was great at his job and knew it. Even when the police bust into his house to arrest him on suspicion of drug taking and cavorting with prostitutes Irvin still had the guile to ask ‘Do you know who I am?’.

Irvin always got what he wanted and had grown accustomed to this so when McIver refused to give up his seat Irvin was insulted. McIver and Irvin were soon jostling each other and a fight eventually broke out. At the end of which Irvin took some of the hair scissors that were lying around and slashed McIver’s throat with them. There was blood everywhere and McIver was taken to hospital, no-one knew if he would survive or not. A horrible ending to a rather petulent argument.

McIver did not talk of the incident at the time and it was all swept under the Dallas carpet.

However, this was certainly not Irvin’s first violent incident. It had been alleged that in a charity basketball game Irvin had become so frustrated with the referee that he got angry and shattered the officials jaw.

Definitely a character, Irvin even pulled a ‘mooney’ at an NFL representative when they explained a new on the field ruling that he did not agree with.

This sort of behaviour would have seen most of us sent to jail long before he eventually was - but Irvin was an American hero and the Cowboy franchise fought tooth and nail to keep this the case.

As a result Irvin’s misdemeanors were almost celebrated to the point where Irvin felt untouchable. It is an uncomfortable thought to try and think of Irvin’s life had he not been a footballer, he was very fortunate to have such a path presented to him.

In the end, time caught up with Irvin (though he outlasted most of his fellow players in the living the fast life department - three are already dead) and after 800 hours of community service Irvin realised he had to change. It is said that he put his faith in God and was healed, others say rehab. Irvin a now hall of famer went out with a great sentiment when he said in his acceptance speech.

“I sat right where you are last year and I watched the class of 2006: and the late, great Reggie White represented by his wife, Sara White. And I said ‘Wow. That’s what a hall of famer is.’

“Certainly, I am not that. I doubted I would ever have the chance to stand before you today. So when I returned home I spoke with Michael and Elijah. I said: ‘That’s how you do it, son. You do it like they did it.’”

The crowd let out a great uproar that lasted seemingly forever and it felt that tears in his eyes Michael Irvin had fianlly found some redemption.

An unbelievable story but one which is probably familiar to many celebrities who have lived the high and fast life.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hiddink Hope

Chelsea Football Club has been on a seemingly downward spiral ever since the sacking of Mourinho. The less than inspiring replacement Avram Grant did little to impress fans and as expected achieved some solid results but nothing particularly special. Soon he was out of the door ready to be replaced by the one who may be the 'real special one' Luis Felipe Scolari. Again the hype turned out to be rubbish as Scolari's inexperience of top class club management was his downfall and after a string of poor results he was also shown the exit. All of this coming in the space of not even two full seasons.

This is to not even mention the reported dressing room bust ups and the ageing squad which seemed to have been past its footballing prime. Also forgetting the owner, Roman Abramovic, who was less than interested in a club which he had built up from top 4 finishers to back to back title winners. Transfer funds were drying up and there was little reason for Chelsea fans to be optimistic.

Then suddenly, from nowhere along came a hero. A manager who could save this dwindling club and rekindle the owner's interest. His name Gus Hiddink. A former European Cup winner, a man known for his ability to turn average sides into potential world beaters. A man tough enough to eradicate the dressing room disruptions. It seemed as if Chelsea fans prayers had been answered.

A few weeks on from his temporary appointment Chelsea already look a renewed team, a force to be reckoned with. Undefeated since the ruthless Dutchman took over the reigns and again hopeful of salvaging something from another bleak season. Hiddink's tactical noose cannot be questioned and he had even got temperamental star Didier Drogba playing at the top of his game. Hiddink has brought a real unity to the previously disillusioned Chelsea squad something that only a ruthless manager can acheive.

But just as it looks as though Hiddink has restored hope to Stamford Bridge, the feeling may not last long. Hiddink has only been given a contract until the end of the season. By which time he may not even take the job, assuming he is offered it, as he is still the coach of the Russian national team. It is hard to be too optimistic when the instability that has blighted Chelsea for the best part of two seasons is still aparent. Chelsea would be far better off if they make sure they hang on to Hiddink. Another new manager by the start of next season will just add to the uncertainty of the club's future and names like Carlo Ancelotti and Frank Rijkaard are hardly going to enthuse the Chelsea fans in the same way that Hiddink has.