It is nothing new to suggest that the business of football management has become more and more precarious in recent years. A rant on some of the ludicrous sackings over the past few years would provide enough material for an entire book. But the sacking of Southampton boss Nigel Adkins is quite simply on another level.
The decision is just wrong in so many ways. I heard a discussion on talkSport about a week or so ago discussing the disappearance of loyalty in the game, but conversation was mainly focused on players and managers having no loyalty to their clubs. Perhaps the discussion needs to be flipped on its head. How can we expect managers to stay loyal to their clubs when they can be dismissed from their position despite back-to-back promotions and a run of just 2 losses in 12 games?
The club’s fans forums have been inundated with irate fans, including one resident Saints supporter raging, ‘We’ve had some seriously dark points such as administration, however this one tops the lot. With Adkins gone we will not only lose him, but all he has given us over the past 3 years.’ This must be the greatest concern for the fans and players alike. Adkins will have built a strong team spirit that now may well be pulled apart by his departure as the core of the current team will have been with him since their days in League One.
When Adkins faced the press he always brought with him a smile and an admirable positivity. Mauricio Pochettino will bring with him a translator, for in his infinite wisdom Nicola Cortese has appointed a manager who does not speak a word of English. Cortese said that he believed that Pochettino would get the best out of the players, so it should be interesting to see how the South American communicates his ideas to Rickie Lambert…the scouser.
In fairness to Pochettino what he does say is incisive and to the point. At his first press conference he dropped the revelation that ‘our biggest challenge is to win the games ahead of us.’ At least he seems to have grasped the basic principle behind competitive sport.
Why do chairmen always seem to be the only ones who can’t recognise the absurdity of their decisions? It is quite clear that the rest of the footballing world can see how nonsensical this decision is and it has got to the point where it is painful and embarrassing to read the news of yet another chopped manager who was simply unable to work miracles. Unfortunately it is just a sad fact that too many of our clubs are not run by football men, but profiteers like Cortese who know nothing of what is involved in building a successful side and creating a team ethic.
This Saturday saw Iffley Road Sports Centre play host to OUWAFC’s inaugural 5-a-side tournament, which proved to be a great success with players of all abilities turning out to flex their footballing muscles ahead of Cuppers quarter finals, blow off some post-collections steam and generally ease themselves back into the game after the Christmas vacation.
The tournament, which took place between 5.30 and 7pm on Iffley’s floodlit astro pitches, was open to both college and university players.
With the option of individual entries and impromptu teams forming on the night, there was really no excuse not to get involved and a total of seven teams with a maximum of eight players took part. Participants included Merton-Mansfield, St Anne’s and Jesus college and a team made up of Blues and Furies players.
Although the abilities of the teams varied greatly, the format of the tournament helped to even out the field. Each game was just five minutes long, with rush goalkeeping, meaning that capitalising on every scoring opportunity was crucial and keeping your wits about you advisable. The result was intense fast-paced play with all the fluidity and movement you would expect from 5-a-side but with an added element of urgency.
The teams were divided into two groups and the top two teams of each group progressed to the semifinals. With both semifinals ending goalless after five minutes they descended into a tense sudden death situation where the first goal was to win.
Teams from OUWAFC and Mansfield Road, a local ladies team who also play in the first division of the women’s college league, emerged victorious and went head to head in the final where a goal from OUWAFC’s Vanessa Butz claimed victory for the University team.
Overall, the tournament was highly enjoyable for everyone involved thanks to its casual and accommodating ethos and the enthusiasm of all its participants, regardless of ability. Credit goes to OUWAFC President, Julia Skisaker, and Blues captain, Kim Kilmartin, for organising and running the event. Kilmartin later commented on the promising turnout:
“It was really good to get so many girls out playing. Hopefully we can continue to increase participation through events like this.”
The hope is that by holding similar events in the future they can encourage college players to try out for the Blues and Furies teams and generally raise the profile of women’s football within the University in the longer term.
A goal with just minutes remaining denied the Blues a famous draw away at Reading FC U18s on Wednesday. Having fought back from the disappointment of conceding two early goals, Oxford could have nicked it themselves in the second-half, and were unfortunate to concede when Reading’s left-winger cut inside and curled a delightful shot from the edge of the area past the helpless Tom Haigh. With a few senior players missing too it was a performance that higlighted the squad’s strength of character.
As the Blues turned up at Premier League side Reading’s training ground, they were greeted by U18 head coach David Dodds, a former Blues coach just over a decade ago. Justifiably nervous ahead of the game, Oxford were facing one of the best academy sides in the country: Reading U18s have lost just once all season and were ten games unbeaten, including a 3-0 demolition of Arsenal. Yet the Blues had their own unbeaten record to uphold in this fixture and were certainly not going to relinquish it without a battle.
Despite starting the game well and putting together some dangerous counter-attacking moves, two long-range efforts all of a sudden saw the Blues 2-0 down. First a snap-shot from the edge of the D beat the unsighted Haigh in goal, before an effort from 25 yards left Haigh grasping at thin air as the ball looped over him and into the net.
It would have been easy for the Blues to let their heads drop and capitulate, but they yet again showed the kind of grit and determination that has proved a vital part of their success this season. Not to be disheartened by the early scoreline, they defended diligently and doggedly, whilst looking to use the pace of Ed Grimer and Ezra Rubenstein on the wings to hit Reading on the counter. And after 34 minutes they were justly rewarded when high pressing led to Grimer intercepting a ball on the edge of the Reading box, racing clear and incisively finishing low into the far corner. Almost straight from the restart, however, a rash challenge from Mark Jamison – who peformed superbly in his first game for 11 months – gave Reading the chance to restore their two-advantage from the spot, but their striker saw his effort rebound off the post.
As Oxford grew into the game after the break, they began to create more chances and exert concerted pressure on the Reading defence. The home side found it more and more difficult to carve any clear-cut chances out of their superior possession, and the Blues’ equaliser after 53 minutes was exactly what the away team deserved – and what a way to score! Grimer received the ball around twenty years out on the right edge of the area, shifted the ball out of his feet and made a yard of space past his man, before hitting a rasping shot that soared into the top corner and gave the keeper no chance. It was to be Grimer’s last action as he was forced off with injury, but what an impact he had made.
Substitute Kieron Gilfoy made his debut for the Blues and added renewed bite to the Oxford midfield, and in truth the match could have swung either way in the final fifteen minutes, with Julian Austin having several shots blocked or saved, whilst centre-backs Jamison and Bassett made some vital last-ditch challenges. Reading’s winner was galling to take after such a sterling performance by the Blues, who can at least take some consolation from the fact that all three goals they conceded were long-range strikes of high quality. Some of these players may well be playing in the Prewmier League some time soon, and the Blues can take heart from the fact they pushed the stars of tomorrow as hard as anybody this season.
Academy director Eamonn Dolan introduced himself to the Blues post-match and praised the lads for their attitude and performance, particularly singling out left-back Adam Fellows, who was in imperious form and rarely beaten all day. Dolan’s warm words were gratefully received by the Oxford side and will hopefully inspire the Blues to maintain their unbeaten run in competitive fixtures this term, as they look to clinch a league and cup double and maintain their Brookes Varsity trophy.
AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng made headlines this week with his walk-off against Pro Patria last Thursday. The final straw came in the 25th minute of a friendly which had been inundated with racist chanting from the first five minutes. His actions have prompted a global response from the footballing world, but some have asked whether such a reaction was appropriate.
Milan legend Clarence Seedorf admitted that the Ghana midfielder’s walk was ‘a signal’, but went on to say that footballers are merely ‘empowering that little group (of racist supporters)’ with their actions. Boateng may have stopped the abuse at this particular game, but he also ended the spectacle for genuine fans. In the wake of such overwhelming support for his gesture, some have joined Seedorf in asking if his is an example that should be adopted on a mass scale.
Boateng’s principle is certainly admirable, and football indisputably needs a no-tolerance policy on racism in all of its myriad forms. Troublemakers will continue to wreak havoc until they are brought to justice, and it seems that Milan have set quite the precedent for future offenses. It seems likely that Italian football fans will become familiar with walk-offs in the near future, for better or for worse, as players follow Boateng’s example.
Granted, his walk was not the first of its ilk, but it has brought a potential solution into the public eye. Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o famously begun to walk-off the pitch following abuse at Real Zaragoza during his Barcelona days, only to be persuaded to continue by Frank Rijkaard, his teammates and the referee. For Boateng, no such persuasion came, and the support of his fellow players and the club as a whole played a huge part in making this particular protest so powerful. AC Milan is a big team, and Boateng a big player. Few recall Messina’s Marc Zoro storming off against Inter back in 2005, in which, again, fellow players (including Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins) were the impetus behind the continuation of the game, but this surely will not be so quickly forgotten by the footballing community.
Football must embrace the walk-off as a powerful tool against the bigots that have blighted the beautiful game for too long. Of course, the well-behaved majority will suffer in such instances, but perhaps such frustration will manifest itself in the outing of racists by the public themselves. Until these figures are rightly ostracised for their actions, they will continue to believe they can get away with it. Seedorf’s points ring true, but if identification of racists is tightened up, then they can easily be kicked out of stadia worldwide, with the match continuing inside. Clubs, authorities and fans alike must band together for a greater cause, one which Milan have done well to defend.
Michael Owen is poised to make his Stoke comeback after another injury lay-off, and, when he takes the pitch once more, the Potters will be hoping that he’ll roll back the years. But it’s not just the Boy Wonder, scourge of Argentina and Germany, who Stoke are looking back to: it’s also the penalty-box predator. Fox-in-the-box, poacher, goalhanger; call it what you will, but this breed, of which Owen was pedigree, is one that, if not quite dying, has to adapt.It’s not long, of course, since Heskey and Owen were England’s go-to strikeforce. But for years, the big man-little man combination has rarely been present at football’s top table. The rise of the false nine has been well-documented, with first Francesco Totti at Roma and then Lionel Messi flying the flag for these impish auxiliary trequartistas, players who play a pivotal role in attacking build-up in addition to striking endgame.
But, though it may be fashionable to deny it, the conventional number nine still exists, at least within the Premier League. Grant Holt manfully leads the line for Norwich. Andy Carroll still lumbers into Premier League penalty areas like a pony-tailed battering ram, if not in Liverpool colours. And Didier Drogba’s strength and aerial power have been key in Chelsea’s recent history, not least in dragging them over the Champions League line last May.
The Owen-type poachers, though, are even fewer in number. Jermain Defoe and Javier Hernandez are only real examples of such strikers in the top half of the table: short, pacey predators who often contribute little aside from providing the finishing touch. Defoe has a creditable return of ten league goals so far, but never seems sure of his place under Andre Villas-Boas, for whose tactical philosophy Emmanuel Adebayor, if only he would achieve some consistency, appears a better fit. Meanwhile, Hernandez certainly has a role to play as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s enviable striking quartet, but is a specialized, occasionally-used weapon. His singular role is not one that is occupied for the majority of Manchester United games, with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck all notable for their ability to play across the forward line.
A more technically-focused game across Europe, driven partly by the hegemony of the tiki-taka philosophy of Barcelona, has, from the top level down, discarded the fox-in-the-box. Owen never got a game at Real Madrid, despite netting, on average, every 145 minutes, because of the continental mistrust of the one-dimensional forward. Gary Lineker scored 21 goals in 41 games in his first Barcelona season under Terry Venables, but, when subsequent manager Johan Cruyff brought him into a deeper role, he soon lost his place, unable to exert any influence over games.
Falcao of Atletico Madrid stands out today as the pre-eminent strikers’ striker, an arch-predator whose penalty-box focus has amassed him more league goals than Cristiano Ronaldo this season, with 16 to 13 with half as many shots. But he’s a different kind of poacher – ‘The Tiger’ has many strings to his bow. Like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a similar forward, he’s a handful in the air in a way that Defoe can never be, he’s also two-footed in a way that would put Michael Owen to shame, and he’s even started scoring free kicks too, curling one into the Real Sociedad net from range last month.
So, for the footballing world to take note of Owen in the way that it did at St Etienne in 1998, or Munich in 2001, he will have to be a different kind of predator. The way of the false nine is not the only path available to strikers, with space remaining for the unselfish centre-forwards of the Heskey mould, but, at the top level, the only poachers who consistently get game-time are the ones who distil the fine art of goalscoring into its purest form, scoring with more than one foot, scoring from headers, from free kicks, showing the athleticism clear in Falcao’s diving header against Deportivo, while retaining the capability to hold up play when necessary. The penalty-box predator must in this way adapt to survive; the hunter has become the hunted.
PHOTO// BRIAN MINKOFF – LONDON PIXELS
So that was Christmas – you’ve had your fill of mince pies, recovered from the traditional NYE hangover and your tutors have thrust a fistful of collections in your direction.
But football fans still have a reason to be jolly – the 3rd round of the FA Cup is right around the corner – the annual contest pitting minnows against the nation’s mightiest.
This year lowly Hastings can cause one of the cup’s greatest ever upsets when they make the long trip north to Teeside to face Championship Middlesborough while tricky tests await both Merseyside clubs with Liverpool travelling to Mansfield and Cheltenham entertaining Everton.
So distract yourself from the monotony of past papers and indulge in handful of my favourite 3rd round shocks.
Havant & Waterlooville 4-2 Swansea, Wednesday 16 January 2008 (Replay)
Conference new-boys Havant & Waterlooville brought League 1 promotion chasers Swansea back to West Leigh Park thanks to a last gasp equaliser from Rocky Baptiste in Wales. A money-spinning tie against Liverpool and a trip to Anfield was on offer and the stage was set for a cup classic.
The Hawks, playing in their fifth FA Cup tie of the season after kicking off their campaign in the fourth qualifying round, raced into a 3-0 lead with an own goal from Swans’ skipper Garry Monk and strikes from Jamie Collins and Baptiste.
Guillem Bauza pulled one back before the interval before Jason Scotland set up a nervy second period, but Tom Jordan’s header sealed a famous victory in front of almost 4,500 fans.
Although the Swans would take the League 1 title in May, it is the Hawks who wrote their name into football folklore. In the fourth round they gave Liverpool a scare after taking a 1-0 and 2-1 lead and going in at half time with the scores level. But goals from Yossi Benayoun and Peter Crouch were too much for the non-league side whose cup dream eventually ended in a credible 5-2 defeat.
Cardiff 2-1 Leeds, Sunday 7 January 2002
Going into the game Leeds were leading the Premiership title race while Cardiff sat two points outside the play-offs in Division 2. David Moyes’s high-fliers included Robbie Fowler, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka and had reached the Champions League semi-final the previous season. On paper this tie was a foregone conclusion before a ball had even been kicked.
An early Viduka strike looked to have put paid to any slim suggestions of a shock but Graham Kavanagh hit back quickly with a stunning free-kick. Leeds had already lost Rio Ferdinand to injury and Smith was given his marching orders before half time for a dubious elbow.
Cardiff took the game to their multi-million pound opponents and Chairman Sam Hammam, whose “Crazy Gang” at Wimbledon won the cup in 1988, left his seat in the director’s box to watch the remaining minutes standing behind the goal.
The owner was perfectly placed to witness FA Cup history as his side pulled off the giantkilling of the round when defender Scott Young stabbed home from a Kavanagh corner.
Cardiff went on to finish fourth in Division 2 but were unable to reach the play-off final at the nearby Millennium Stadium, falling to Stoke in the semis – Leeds’ early title hopes were dashed by eventual FA Cup winners’ Arsenal and also had to settle for a disappointing fourth placed finish.
Shrewsbury 2-1 Everton, Saturday 4 January 2003
Division 3 strugglers Shrewsbury pulled off perhaps the most bittersweet of cup shocks when they knocked out David Moyes’s Everton.
The Shrews frustrated Wayne Rooney all afternoon and took the lead just before half time with a goal from veteran striker Nigel Jemson to the delight of a packed Gay Meadow. Niclas Alexandersson’s strik
e on the hour mark looked to have earned Everton a replay but Jemson had the last laugh with a late winner.
The journeyman’s goal set up another home tie for the Shrews
– this time against Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea – but a brace from Gianfranco Zola and goals from Carlton Cole
and Jody Morris ended the Shrews’ slim hopes of reaching the 5th
round.Things only got worse for the Shrews who could only muster three more wins before finishing rock bottom of the Football League.
PHOTO/ surprise trucks
An entry into Wikipedia’s more informal sister website, ‘Uncyclopedia’, more or less sums up the current challenges facing Scottish football; ‘as a rule Scotland does not succeed in sporting events…There may come a day when the odd fluke is not the only victory – until that day we Scottish hang our heads in a deep shame. Most Scottish people support Celtic.’
As the 19-year-old striker Tony Watt slid a right-footed shot low past Victor Valdes, to send a fervent Celtic Park into raptures and into history, amidst a plea from Hearts football club for financial help and the national side’s on-going search for a new manager as they sit bottom of their World Cup qualifying group without a win, this somewhat tongue in cheek entry has become increasingly prescient.
But for the Scots it is becoming ever more difficult to see the funny side. They have already lost their treasured Old Firm derby as Rangers languish in the Third Division after financial meltdown and seemingly the Edinburgh derby is now under threat after Hearts’ statement that the club’s future is now under serious threat. Clearly TV revenue and attendances have been hit hard by the collapse of Rangers and the repercussions of a breakdown of the second largest domestic showdown could have ramifications for the entire Scottish league. Research from business recovery firm Begbies Traynor has shown that six Scottish clubs were showing signs of distress at the end of October, coming at a time when finances should be at their strongest after season ticket sales. Ken Pattullo, from Begbies Traynor, said: “The plain fact is that if a club is in trouble at this stage of the season, it looks very bleak for the prospects of financial survival when the cash flows are really put under pressure in the spring and early summer.”
Meanwhile the plight of the national side raises pertinent questions for the realistic prospects of Scottish football. It is doubtful whether Levein’s successor will be able to do any better, given his limited resources and a squad that clearly lacks the pedigree to fulfil the yearning of qualification. Indeed the very fact that the job has become a poisoned chalice can be demonstrated by the wealth of talented Scottish managers in the Premier League who have not even been considered as realistic targets. Clearly the Everton job is more desirable than the Scottish job for David Moyes.
What can be done to save Scottish football? Plans for a new three tier system, modelled on England’s Premier League have been proposed, with SFL chief executive David Longmuir claiming the plan “encourages the flow of clubs between the divisions… refreshment and vibrancy of clubs”. Whether that is enough remains to be seen, but realistically it seems that the survival of Hearts may become crucial to the survival of Scottish football as we know it, thus it would perhaps be advisable for the SFL and SPL to concentrate their efforts on that, rather than any grand scheme.
Joe Mansour on why the Premier League needs a non-EU player quota and Jonathon Davidson on why it doesn’t
It is clear that the need for a non-EU player quota is long overdue: the 2010 home-grown squad quotas have done little to address the lack of quality English players in the game, and with less than half of players in the Premier League being English we are falling behind the like of Spain and Germany in the production of high-quality young stars.
This year, out of the twenty-three nominations for the Ballon d’Or, only one (Wayne Rooney) is English, and only Ashley Cole was flying the flag in the Champions League Team of the Year. It is obvious that there is a lack of genuinely world-class English talent at the moment, and a quota would give those with the potential to be international-quality a better chance to shine – just witness the likes of Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell, and Daniel Sturridge, who week-in week-out waste away on the bench while their foreign counterparts strut their stuff on the pitch.
However, it’s not just the lack of outstanding English talents which is a cause for concern: examples such as Raheem Sterling, although all too rare, show that quality English players are occasionally given the opportunity to shine. In a time when money and celebrity are making fans feels alienated from the players, the lack of English players in our top division increases that gap ever further. In the first game of the current season neither Fulham nor Wigan started with any English players, and in the recent “London” derby between Arsenal and Chelsea, only four players in the starting line-ups were English. How can the fans connect to their clubs if so few of the players even feel connected to the country? Of course, people will complain that imposing home-grown quotas would reduce the quality of the league; however, for all the claims of the Premier League being the ‘Best League in the World’TM, of the 44 players who started the Euro 2012 semi-finals only four plied their trade in the Premier League.
A quota system wouldn’t solve the problem immediately – it would have to act alongside other initiatives like those seen in Spain and Germany. But it would go a long way towards giving young English players the opportunity they deserve without being displaced by foreign players of no greater quality, and more importantly help to bridge the ever-increasing gap between fans and players.
The Premier League is undoubtedly the best league in the world. Like many of its European counterparts it provides football of the highest quality. Where it is distinguished from La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga, however, is its consistency in providing quality, largely thanks to the contributions of foreign players.
To take the example of La Liga – where 77.1% of footballers are Spanish – both Barcelona and Real Madrid deliver world-class football, but below this La Liga fails to replicate the quality of the Premier League. In England teams such as Arsenal, Everton, Newcastle and Spurs – none of whom are title contenders – can still compete with the biggest clubs and ensure quality further down the table. A quota would merely see the Manchester clubs and Chelsea monopolise the best home-grown talent in the same way as Barça and Real, starving lesser Premier League clubs of talent.
Besides, the introduction of a quota would be both ineffective and unsettling for English football. A greater premium on home-grown talent would simply distort the transfer market. Greater demand for British players has already seen Blackburn Rovers splash £8 million on the unproven Jordan Rhodes, whilst Andy Carroll’s valuation of £35 million remains farcical in the eyes of most. In contrast, imports such as Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cissé have added fresh quality to the league at bargain prices.
Those in favour of a quota seeking national glory turn to the example of Spain, where the ‘tiki-taka’ generation has in- deed paired the beautiful game with unmitigated national success. But no such success could be achieved through the simple enforcement of a quota for home-grown players. The Spanish national team has benefited from a number of sophisticated academies – such as Barcelona’s much-hailed ‘La Masia’ – that have nurtured the technical development of Spanish youngsters. All of the top English clubs now demand a fluent passing game – best demonstrated by Chelsea’s recent overhaul in players – which the English youth system fails to develop and a quota would fail to deliver.
National success, then, could be achieved through alternative routes that would also preserve the Premier League’s excitement and quality of football. Rather than opting for the short-termism of imposing a quota, the governing bodies of football need to focus upon grass roots initiatives. Strides have been made with Gareth Southgate’s plans to revolutionise youth football in England and the opening of St George’s Park – the new National Football Centre – that will allow coaches to share ideas and nurture future generations of footballers. But these are only the first steps in what must be a long-term plan.
PHOTO// Ilya Khokhlov