Saturday, December 6, 2008

Man City set for January anti-climax

Manchester City may - according to reports - have bid around £129million for Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas (or, at least, be prepared to pay that amount) but will any players actually make the mid-season move when the transfer window opens next month?

It seems unlikely. Top players will surely want to see out the rest of their club's Champions League campaigns, while the clubs won't want their top players to leave. Of course, everybody has a price, whether they be players or chairmen, but there doesn't seem to be much pull surrounding the light blue half of Manchester at the moment.

Aside from a few impressive displays, Man City have been distinctly average so far this season and have failed to grab the headlines for their on-the-pitch activities. Therefore, is it safe to say that they won't be doing much business in January?

Probably, yet it's clear that once the season ends and the summer window opens, all bets are off.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Watford kid to play for country he's scared of

Football sometimes throws up stories that manage to transcend the back pages of the newspapers and grab wider attention. Today is the turn of Watford midfielder Alhassan Bangura. The 20-year-old was allowed to stay in the UK by the Home Officer in December 2007 and was then given a work permit in January 2007.

All of that should be in the past, though at the time there was a lot in the press about the situation, as Bangura had been playing without permission to work. One of the key reasons he was allowed to stay in the UK was because he stressed he would be in danger of being killed if he returned to Sierra Leone.

This week, Bangura has been called-up to play for Sierra Leone, the country he fears returning to - although it should be stressed he will only be playing in away matches. The player's new national coach, Ahmed Kanu, said: "I’m pleased that I now have Al Bangura in my team and I hope he will bring life to it. He has told me he is ready to give his best for his country. I’ve seen him playing for Watford and he’s a player I like."

Watford have also backed their player to shine on the international stage. A spokesman said: "He’ll be available to play for Sierra Leone in all their away matches and we’re very pleased for him. Because he still fears for his safety he will not play in home games."

Everybody will have a view on this, but perhaps it's best to focus purely on the footballing implications. Surely it is very, very rare for a player to only be available for away matches? It's more likely, even if rare, for a player to refuse to play abroad, although in the modern era it's hard to imagine any national FA allowing that.

Then again, it shows how football is far more global and the best players are playing in an ever-decreasing number of leagues - and there are now even international players who are unlikely to even step foot in the country they represent for the foreseeable future, let alone play in their own domestic league!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Titanic Tottenham should avoid the drop

The press are making a lot out of the fact Tottenham's start to the season is their worst since 1912 - the year the Titanic sunk. But is that really a fair comparison? The Titanic was a mighty ship, whereas Spurs are more like pedalos in comparison!

The massive amount of money been thrown at the English Premier League's version of the game was always going to cause one of the "established" clubs a lot of problems. That it happens to be Spurs is irrelevant to an extent, as if it wasn't them, it would have been someone else.

But can Spurs really, like the Titanic 96 years ago, actually go down? On the surface (the best place for a boat to be) no team is too big to go down, but there is still a long way to go. Just as some pundits have been making wild claims Aston Villa will challenge for a top-four slot, it's far too early to be making serious predictions about a club the size of Tottenham Hotstpur.

One thing worth considering is that Spurs are one of the seven clubs to have played in every season of the Premier League since it began, on that terrible day back in the 1990s, along with Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United. Of those, clearly Everton and Villa would have to be considered the most "at risk".

For Everton's chairman has already said the club needs a billionaire owner, while Aston Villa don't have the money to compete at the very top table, or the global brand to force their way in. Randy Lerner, their owner, may be a nice enough guy, but money talks - and his £600million or so won't go far in the crazy system we now exist in.

The next interesting thing will be to see who takes over Newcastle, how much money they have, and whether Sheikh Mohammed, either on his own or with a consortium, buys Liverpool. For it is possible that a new power group will exist, ending the days of a top-four but creating a new, even more divisive era between the haves and the have lots!

Hull City - fun, however long it lasts

Hull City have been a breath of fresh-air this season - and have shown that sometimes teamwork can overcome stronger teams packed with more expensive, if not better, players. Their defeat of troubled Spurs, shortly after dispatching Arsenal, was enjoyable.

However, it's unlikely to alter the pre-season predictions. Despite their decent start (they are third in the table!), I wouldn't personally bet against Hull getting relegated and I certainly wouldn't bet on Spurs going down. But stranger things have happened, which is why football can, at times, still be enjoyable, despite the obscene amounts of cash involved.

As well as enjoying Hull's unlikely league position, it's also great to see a new face in the dug-out enjoying the action. Phil Brown is currently the highest-placed English manager (with Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth the next-nearest) and is quite correctly winning plaudits across the land.

After beating Spurs, Brown said: "Tottenham might have had 23 shots but the best chances fell to Hull City. My hardest job after last week was to keep their feet firmly on the ground and make sure that they weren't over-confident. We're about three points ahead of our points tally because we didn't expect to beat Arsenal at the Emirates. We are ahead of schedule. It is dreamland."

Brown makes a great point. Nobody expected Hull to beat Arsenal but, once they did, the current trials and tribulations of Spurs made another win possible. To keep his players focused on the job in hand, despite being outplayed for long periods, showed a resilience any newly-promoted side needs if they are to bridge the gulf between the Premier League and Championship.

So while I remain convinced Hull City will be relegated, I'm happy to cheer them on as they stick a proverbial finger up at the big money boys in the top-flight - and if they do manage to stay up, especially if at the expense of a club who have spent silly money, it will be because of the "all guns blazing" opening they have made to their first-ever Premier League campaign.

Though even after beating Spurs and Arsenal, there is still someway to go before Hull's greatest-ever moment is beaten:

I'll get my coat...!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Robinho didn't fancy City move - claim

Robinho wanted to reject a move to Manchester City as he wanted to move to Chelsea, according to the player's former agent. However, Real Madrid's "pride" ensure they would not deal with Chelsea as the transfer window deadline approached.

According to, Wagner Ribeiro had expected to fly to London on deadline day in order to secure a move to Stamford Bridge for Robinho. But the staggering goings-on at Manchester City, who suddenly became the richest club in the world, changed the situation and Chelsea's bid was trumped.

Ribeiro said: "'If you are going to sell cakes in the market, we have a better offer from Manchester City' he (Real's sporting director Predrag Mijatovic) said. I told him that Robinho will reject it but they accepted it. I then demanded a salary higher than Chelsea's offer and got 15 percent more. At the last moment, Chelsea offered €42 million but Real did not want to hear of it. Their pride would not allow it."

The claim again shows just how much money Manchester City have to spend. Offering 15 per cent more wages than any other "top" Premier League club would be staggering, but outbidding Chelsea by such an amount is, quite frankly, frightening. And it's not as though Robinho is the only player in the world who would make a less-than dream move in exchange for a big pot of gold.

January should be interesting, and the summer window may be nothing short of ridiculous, as there is no reason to expect Manchester City to do anything other than use their practically limitless resources to win whatever they want to.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Now South Africans move for Newcastle

A South African group have reportedly offered Mike Ashley £300million to take Newcastle off his hands, following claims a staggering eight consortia have held talks with the Toon supremo.

According to BBC Sport, the South African group has five members who are "thought to be keen to bring back" Kevin Keegan. It has been claimed Keegan could be offered a five per cent stake in the club in order to entice him to return...again!

The South Africans are apparently the front-runners and, as Ashley has no shareholders to consult, they could take control of the club within weeks - and certainly well before the January transfer window. Whether signing new players would actually help Newcastle's situation is a matter of debate.

Given all the talk in the press is of the shaky global financial position, and how we may be heading for the worst period since the Great Depression of the 1920s, it's staggering to think people are currently prepared to make such a punt on perennial underachievers Newcastle - but there seems no reason to doubt there really is interest.

However, in general terms the idea of offering a manager a stake in the club seems a sensible one. Whether it is a sensible thing to offer Kevin "The Quitter" Keegan is another matter, but that will be for the owners to decide. Hopefully a boss would only accept such an offer as a display of stability, rather than to line their own pocket.

But as even Newcastle fans can't decide whether they would want Keegan back (or whether Michael Owen is worth keeping, but that's another story!), who are the rest of us mere mortals to give our opinions?!?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Is Keegan still wanted at Newcastle?

There is an interesting poll being held at the NUFC Blog, asking whether Newcastle fans want Kevin Keegan back or not. Ed Harrison, the blog owner, has received a number of emails from fans of the beleaguered club saying it is time to move on.

The poll currently stands at 416 votes for wanting Keegan back, 235 votes against the idea and 50 "don't knows" (how anyone can not know is beyond me!). While the current standings suggest the majority want Keegan back, it's not as clear-cut as non-Newcastle fans may have assumed.

The comments section of the blog is full of differing opinions, ranging from "Keegan is God" worshippers to others who don't want to hand the job to a manager who has shown a habit of walking away. Some clearly have short memories, as many were begging for him to return to Newcastle - though the current poll standings suggest many didn't want that back then.

Given all of the uncertainty at Newcastle, it may make sense for them to appoint a manager who can offer stability - but, given Keegan's habit of walking away from jobs, can he actually offer that? Appointing a Messiah figure can also paper over the cracks, but that is certainly not what is needed at St James’s Park right now.

New owners may have totally different ideas, too, and some may even have their own "ideal" manager lined-up. Reports yesterday suggested seven groups had expressed an interest in buying Newcastle, and it's likely all will have wildly different views about how to take the club forward, in terms of business structure and managerial staff.

Man Utd and Arsenal impress in Europe

Last night's Champions League games (those involving English and Scottish teams, at least) went as expected - although Arsenal's 4-0 hammering of Porto at the Emirates was impressive.

Manchester United did what they had to do against Danish champions Aalborg, but will be disappointed to lose both Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney to injury. Scholes was stretchered off during the 3-0 win with suspected knee ligament damage, while Rooney also hobbled off.

Celtic, described yesterday as the only underdogs, tried their best to hold off Spanish league leaders Villarreal, but eventually lost 1-0 to ensure their run of not winning away from home in the Champions League continues.

Tonight's games will also be interesting - in terms of the European football balance, if not performances on the pitch. Liverpool should dispatch PSV Eindhoven without too much trouble (the Dutch league is in a bad way), while Chelsea should have no problems away at CFR Cluj.

If Liverpool and Chelsea manage to win by at least three goals, then the four English clubs would have put the ball into the net 13 times in Europe this week - and it would take a brave punter to bet against it happening. Although this year's tournament is still young, there is little to suggest the English domination of the tournament won't continue.

Which, of course, means more cash for the English top-four and a bigger gap in front of the other teams domestically. Sure, it won't worry Manchester City as they will throw money around no matter what, but it will add even more pressure on the other clubs.

Perhaps that is why Mike Ashley is holding out for a top price for Newcastle (if he is, and £300million is still a top price, even though it represents a cut!). The more the top clubs rake in the cash, the more money is needed to try and break their stranglehold. It is possible that Ashley wants new owners who can prove they have mega-money, but who knows?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Edu, Saha, Malbranque and Cudicini for England

If any further proof is needed to show how utterly ridiculous international football has become, look no further than today's claims that Sven Goran Eriksson wanted to call-up Edu, Louis Saha, Steed Malbranque and Carlo Cudicini.

Four decent enough players - but none of them English! However, at the time, none of them had been capped by their countries and were eligible to play under FIFA's residency rule. The serialisation of former FA executive director David Davies's book in the Daily Mail suggests Sven gave the idea serious consideration.

Davies wrote: "'I like Carlo Cudicini', Sven told me - an opinion which led to a very serious consideration being given within Soho Square to recruiting Chelsea's Italian goalkeeper. However, our goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence was particularly concerned, insisting to Sven it would destroy our keepers.

"'Can you also find out about Malbranque, Edu and Saha?' Sven asked me. I wasn't sure what the public reaction would be to an Italian, a Brazilian and two Frenchmen coming into the squad but I did Sven's bidding.

"However, all my discreet enquiries to clubs and agents led to nothing. Miraculously, the moment our interest became known Saha and Edu were called up by their own nations, making them ineligible."

As I have posted before, I used to enjoy international football. The best players would put aside their club rivalries and the sheer pride on their faces when they pulled on their national jersey was a joy to behold. I've yet to see such pride on an England player's face since Italia '90.

But...and there has to be a but...I do appreciate many others still enjoy the national game. Some seem to think getting stonked on lager and shouting at the television is the definition of patriotism (urgh!), and the thought of those fans (let's just say somewhere to the right of centre-right, cough) cheering on four foreign players wearing the Three Lions is amusing, although it shouldn't be.

Would Sven really have picked the likes of Edu and Malbranque? Who knows, but if he did I would hope even the most loyal England fan would stop watching the game. It would be like a fan admitting they would happily sell-out their history and tradition to the highest bidder if that meant winning some some Newcastle fans appear to be doing right now!

Venables slams "poisonous" Berbatov

Football needs characters like Terry Venables - proper people who can be relied on to speak their mind. Of course, they usually end up screwed over by people who don't like the "cut of their gib," or the like, but that's life.

One such character is Terry Venables. He may not have been anywhere near as good an England manager as the myth that has grown in the past 12 years, but he does have a very respectable record as a boss, both at home and in Europe.

Former Spurs boss Venables has made the headlines today (including the back page of The Sun, which is no mean feat!) by labelling Dimitar Berbatov as a "poisonous presence" who should shoulder a lot of the blame for the White Hart Lane club's terrible start to the season following his £30million summer move to Manchester United.

An extract of the article read: "Berbatov kept telling us he had 'a dream'. Well, good for you Dimi. You had a dream with a few extra noughts added to your bank balance. But did Spurs have a dream too? You got your way but your poisonous presence at the start of the season, the brooding and the reluctance to play, has cost the club that believed in you."

Venables also praised Tottenham supremo Daniel Levy, writing how he has "got to know him (Levy) over the years and got to like the way he thinks - and the dreams he had for Tottenham, too".

Three cheers for Venables for speaking out. As he rightly says, it is easy to always blame the men-in-suits but the mercenary players in today's game, who can't be satified with earning more than the average UK wage each week, really have a lot to answer for.

On a positive note, for Spurs fans at least, Berbatov has looked terrible since moving to Old Trafford. Perhaps he can't play without smoking a packet or two of cigarettes every day...?!?

Ashley slashes Newcastle price tag

Following yesterday's claim that an anonymous Nigerian consortium had submitted a bid for Newcastle United, it is now being reported that current owner Mike Ashley has slashed his asking from price from £450million to £280-300million.

According to an article on the BBC Sport website, Ashley would still make a profit of £50million if the club was sold for £300million - not bad business given the current state of the global economy! As Newcastle is a private company, Ashley has no shareholders to consult before accepting or refusing a bid.

As I recently commented on the NUFC Blog, £300million still seems like a lot of money, although it is hard to determine how much an individual club is worth. For example, Aston Villa were bought by Randy Lerner for closer to £60million - and it's hard to find a difference of £240million between the Midlands outfit and Newcastle.

The BBC article does go some way towards explaining where Newcastle's value comes from. The article reads: "Despite the club's current plight, being second-bottom of the Premier League, Newcastle could still be an attractive investment opportunity. St James' Park holds 52,000 fans, with 35,000 of them season-ticket holders, and is currently valued at around £150m.The playing squad is worth around £100m and has a wage bill of £70m, which is by no means the largest in the Premier League."

As for the whispers among Newcastle fans suggesting the Nigerian bid only exists in Ashley's mind, and is merely a method of flushing out other bidders...well, it's possible, but surely not?

Day of the Big Money (or Champions) League!

Until the top clubs in Europe get together and form a continent-wide super league (shudder!), the closest they can get to performing competitively on a global scale is with the Champions League. The four English, and one Scottish, clubs in this year's tournament are all in action either today or tomorrow.

Given the domination of the English clubs in recent years, and not to mention the money involved, they are all expected to win. By me, anyway. Man Utd should dispatch Aalborg in Denmark without too much hassle, though Arsenal may have to grind out a result against Porto the Emirates Stadium. Liverpool should beat PSV Eindhoven at Anfield, while Chelsea should have a productive time in Romania against CFR Cluj.

Of the five teams, only Celtic start as a the clear underdogs. Villarreal are currently top of the Spanish league and Celtic have had an indifferent start to the season. Gordon Strachan has done well to lead the side to the last-16 of the Champions League for two successive seasons (something never achieved by Martin O'Neill, incidentally), but the opening 0-0 draw against Aalborg at Parkhead means Celtic will have to do the unexpected and actually win some points away from hom!

All of the money is in the Champions League, to an extent, and there is a massive audience for nearly all of the games. Although some, shall we say, mercenary players probably trot out the "I moved to Club X as they offered Champions League football" instead of admitting it was for the cash - something CL clubs generally have more of! The great gap in England has also been created by the same four clubs qualifying for a few years - reaching the CL means cash, cash means reaching the CL, and the cycle continues.

What is interesting, in this meandering and possibly fairly pointless post, is the comparison between the old European Cup format and the current Champions League format. One criticism often levied is "but they aren't all champions" and "in a league system teams can lose and still go through". Well, that's quite correct, and the name should be changed. But it's still a far, far stronger tournament than it was in the days of two-legged knock-outs.

For if only domestic champions were allowed in the Champions League, it would be far less competitive. Liverpool, for instance, may have been well off the pace in the Premier League but are arguably better than any other domestic champions outside of Spain and Italy. That three English teams reached last season's semi-finals, and two contested the final, suggests that.

And does anyone really want a tournament where, in one group, are the champions of England, France, Iceland and Georgia? The English and French clubs would progress, and the only vaguely interesting matches would be two between the top two, which would determine which club would finish first and second.

However, I should stress that I don't think the Champions League is ideal and the amount of money involved is ruining the game. But it's not worth trying to fight the inevitable. Because of the cash involved, the only teams who can compete domestically are the ones in the Champions League and it would take oil rich multi-billionaires throwing cash around to disrupt the current top-four in England.

Oh, wait a minute...!

Spurs a crisis club - who next?

Of the 20 clubs in the Premier League, it seemed unlikely not too long ago that Spurs would be the next one to be handed the moniker "crisis club" - but that tag is now appearing in headlines with increasing frequency.

According to an article in today's Mirror, striker Roman Pavlyuchenko is just one of a number of players to have become dissatisfied with Juande Ramos's management at White Hart Lane. The article goes as far as claiming Spurs are "in danger of losing" the player as Ramos's "chaotic reign lurches into crisis".

Pavlyuchenko was quoted as saying: "I talked to our coach about it and I even visited him at his house. I asked him what I had done wrong, why I had been substituted. He said it wasn’t because I hadn’t been playing well enough, it was just a decision to change tactics. He told me not to bother my head with stuff like that."

Spurs are no strangers to managerial mistakes, though. The nine-month spell Christian Gross had in the hot-seat 10-or-so years ago still brings a wry grin to the lips of those who remember its farcical nature. Even so, the situation Spurs are now in is far more serious.

For no team is too good to be relegated. It's hard to imagine Spurs going down - they are one of only a few ever-present Premier League teams - and even harder to imagine Ramos will be allowed to stay beyond Christmas if things don't improve soon.

However, as with Newcastle there is no doubt Spurs have the infrastructure to shoot up the table - let's not forget, it was only a few seasons ago where they went into the last game as the favourites to finish fourth and claim a Champions League place, then literally sh*t themselves.

What is clear, though, is the problems at Spurs need to be looked at closely. For if a team who look so strong can suddenly collapse to the bottom of the table for no real reason, then "weaker" teams with more shaky foundations are in even more danger.

And the longer Spurs spend floundering around the lower reaches, the harder it will be for them to catch up with teams they should be outperforming - such as Portsmouth and Aston Villa. They can also forget trying to reach the level of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and, sooner or later, Man City, too...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Nigerian group submit Newcastle bid

BBC Sport are reporting that the Nigerian consortium linked with buying-out Newcastle have now submitted a bid. If true, it shows how fast things can move in the world of Premier League football!

According to the report, the bid was placed on Friday (Sep 26) evening and is the only one currently on the table - although several other parties are thought to be interested in buying the club from the disenchanted, and under-fire, Mike Ashley.

It's not clear quite how much cash the Nigerian's have, though it's clearly nowhere near the amount available to Manchester City (though they are arguably the richest club on the planet, so that's not surprising!). Earlier reports have suggested a bid in the region of £350million.

Chris Nathaniel, the UK businessman fronting the bid, stressed a lot of work needs to be done on the club's infrastructure and the secret bidders do not want to blow all their money on the purchase and have nothing left to finance other areas, such as transfers.

When asked how much the bid was for, Nathaniel told the BBC: "We can't at this stage, that's confidential between ourselves and Newcastle, but a bid was put in on Friday evening. There's been no timeline given by Newcastle but we hope it will be sometime soon.

"What they don't want to do is spend a load of money to buy the club and have no money to buy players and to work on what is a quite a troubled infrastructure."

Newcastle declined to comment and the identity of the Nigerian bidders remains top-secret. This may just be the opening shot in a bidding war, but at least (for non-Newcastle fans, that is) this group do not seem to have enough cash to buy anything more than a couple of league places.

However, as I mentioned earlier, Newcastle remain an attractive target for potential investors and, given the current football climate, it would be no surprise whatsoever if another, far, far richer group now step forward and show their hand.

There's no point in hating Man City

Graham Fisher has penned an interesting blog entry over at, where he admits to hating Chelsea following their takeover by Roman Abramovich, but having no such feelings about Manchester City.

It's an interesting thought. Perhaps, without wanting to put words into somebody's mouth (or should that be without forcing their fingers towards a keyboard?), it may be because the Chelsea takeover was the first mega-money takeover and those that have followed have been caused by the first.

Sure, takeovers are nothing new. But the Chelsea deal marked the first time somebody came along with the attitude of "hey, I'm a billionaire, I don't care about making a profit, let's get some trophies in any way we can". And, of course, Chelsea and Roman achieved their aim..

Those who own Man City clearly have far more cash than Roman - though when it comes to these sorts of sums, does comparing bank balances really make any difference? Probably not, as their modus operandi appear to be similar - ie spend, spend, spend, win, win, win!

Other traditionalists may not even hold anything against Roman and Chelsea. For it is quite possible to point towards the Sky takeover of English top-flight football - for that's what it was, for all intents - and argue the door had already been opened at that point for the mega-money men.

As soon as the Premier League, backed by Sky (or is that "controlled"?), offered a platform for the super-rich to get one over other super-rich people, and on a global scale, it was only a matter of time before it was exploited. They buy bigger and bigger yachts, give more and more money to charity, do whatever they want to win a big-money piddling contest, and football club ownership is just the current fad.

So is it worth hating Man City? Is it worth hating Chelsea? There are probably reasons to do so, but few have anything to do with money. If they remained the same clubs they were 10-15 years ago, there is no doubt two other teams would be in their position.

From a sports entertainment viewpoint, something top-flight football has been for years, it will certainly be interesting to see how much damage the two clubs, and their owners, do to each other during the upcoming few transfer windows. Interesting until it leads to the death of football, of course...

What's best for Newcastle?

What more can be said about Newcastle United? Probably quite a lot! While they are struggling and have become something of a joke, the situation at St James' Park is no laughing matter, as they will not be the last team to suffer.

Newcastle, for too many years, overspent in order to try and compete with the so-called "big boys". They have a massive, rabid fanbase of truly knowledgeable football lovers (which is a good thing, no doubt about) but have seemingly lacked restraint in terms of spending money.

It's understandable, football is in a boom period and has been for some time. So why not throw cash around in order to try and please your fans - they do, after all, deserve some sort of success. Sadly, though, the boom in football appears to be skewed and now the divide between sections of the Premier League is more pronounced than ever.

But what does the future hold for Newcastle? Can they recover and go on to actually achieve something in the modern game (not a dig, it's proven by the trophy cabinet!)? I honestly think they can - but it won't be in a way I could approve of.

When the Middle Eastern billionaires, or trillionaires, took over Manchester City, they did so after reportedly considering a move for Newcastle or Arsenal.The story goes that Arsenal didn't want to sell and the super-rich group opted for Man City. That Newcastle were mentioned is not surprising - and logic suggests there will be other interested parties out there.

Now, a takeover of Newcastle by a group with mega-money would turn the club into a true footballing force far easier than the Man City "project". Newcastle, as mentioned, have the fanbase, the stadium and - crucially - a proven track record in attracting decent players to the club.

Man City have the stadium, decent fans (full credit to the tens fo thousands who turned out to back them in the third-tier not too long ago) but they lack the proven track record in signing top players. Hence having to throw silly money around in the summer, a pattern that will surely increase until enough mercenaries improve their reputation.

Newcastle, may I be so bold as to suggest, would be genuine top-four challengers very soon after such a takeover (a hypothetical one, of course) and could go all the way. When Liverpool are taken over by Sheikh Mohammed, or a consortium, they will be poised to go all the way. Man City, when things settle, will potentially be able to go all the way.

So, as things stand, it's feasibly that within two or three years, Newcastle, Man City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea (Arsenal are a puzzler) could all be challenging for the title. It would be wide open, albeit a fake version of football driven by billions and billions.

The only question is whether an owner would want to buy into Newcastle when four other teams are already challenging. For once a group of five mega-money teams start competing, there will be no way back for football. A sporting and spending Cold War will have begun.

So what is really best for Newcastle? Their fans would surely disagree, but I would suggest relegation. Spend a few years in the Championship while the money in the Premier League causes an explosion - then Newcastle will be perfectly placed, with their deserving fanbase - to stroll back and dominate, unaffected by the top-flight fiasco.

Aston Villa: Football's best PR spinners?

Aston Villa must have one of the greatest bullsh...erm, public relations machines in the Premier League. Just a few days after only 21,541 turned out to see them humbled by QPR in the League Cup, striker John Carew has been wheeled out to praise the fans!

There is something disturbing about the system at Villa Park. It's understandable that boss Martin O'Neill has managed to make people believe he is better than he is - his media whoring has caused that - but that fans of such a traditional club fail to realise they have sold out to American gold is puzzling.

As for Carew and his words (presumably the words of the PR team, players don't actually say their own words these days - and that goes for any top-flight team), Villa appear to have turned into American wrestling of a while back, by using the logic "if we don't mention the past, it didn't happen!"

There is, of course, the chance Villa have decided to use the article on their official site to the fans who stayed away from the QPR game - perhaps even suggesting it was the fans fault the Championship side emerged victorious, and not the disinterest of the players or the tactical ineptitude of the manager.

Carew (well, it's in his name!) said: "There's nothing better than a packed Villa Park cheering us on. The players are going to need all the support they can get this season with Villa striving for success in a number of competitions."

So if that part of the article is intended as a dig at Villa fans, then I take my hat off and salute the Villa Spinners. And, incidentally, I would agree with them - real football fans don't pick and choose their games and it wouldn't happen with real (ie lower league) football clubs to such an extent.

There are still real fans left in the English Premier League, but a quick comparison of Villa's previous league attendance to the QPR debacle suggests they only account for around 50 per cent of those who attend matches - and it will be that hardcore who suffer the most when football explodes and dies.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Well done East Stirling - a real team!

With all the money floating around at the top of football, and the very really danger the game will (at the top-flight, at least) disappear up its own backside sooner than later, it's easy to forget there are real teams and real players trying to ply their trade at the lower levels.

East Stirlingshire, of the Scottish Third Division, are one great example. They huff and puff every week, but are usually on the wrong end of the result. Their players, who may not even be paid enough to buy a round of drinks, are not household names and they certainly don't earn millions of pounds a year in sponsorship.

But East Stirlingshire are no less a team than Manchester United. And Colin Cramb is no less a footballer than, for example, Cristiano Ronaldo. The fans who watch the team - there were 352 yesterday - are arguably far more "real" football fans than those who watch the so-called "big" teams.

Thankfully, those 352 fans (okay, perhaps a handful were watching the other team) were given a treat yesterday as East Stirling thwacked Elgin City 5-2. The fans deserved such a game, as did the players and everyone associated with the club.

And while few people who don't follow the Scottish Third Division will really care, the result did bring a smile to my lips - a smile that real football is still alive somewhere. Perhaps, once the top-flight is culled, real clubs, real players and real fans will be able to rise to the surface.

I certainly hope it happens - there is still too much good in the lower-tiers of the game for it all to implode when the "top" clubs go bang.

(For a little more on East Stirlingshire, who were once managed by no less a figure than Sir Alex Ferguson, take a look at the Wikipedia article. Which may or may not be 100 per cent accurate...!)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Man City aim to expand and expand

Manchester City's new owners reportedly want to buy the area around City of Manchester Stadium and turn it into a hotel and leisure complex. Oh, and increase the capacity of the stadium to somewhere near that of Old Trafford.

It doesn't come as any surprise - once the initial surprise of litlte Man City becoming the richest club on the planet wore off - but it's clearly not a good thing, if only because it suggests the new Middle Eastern owners are in it for the long run. That may have been a reason to celebrate in the past, but now it means they will probably be around for long enough to help inspire the death of football.

According to the Daily Mail, "It is understood that new City owner, Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al Nayhan, is ready to pay Manchester City Council the £50million it would take to buy the ground that was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and is leased to the club for £2m-a-year. Sheik Mansour wants eventually to expand the 47,000-capacity stadium and take it towards the capacity of 78,000 currently enjoyed by neighbours Manchester United."

Of course, £50million is no money to them at all. The owners earn more than that in interest each day (making some very basic assumptons there, but even if that figure is incorrect, it's close enough). But they clearly are not going to be content with slowly progression. Heck, they don't look like they will be content with progression at the pace of Chelsea - Man City's owners want it all, and they want it now!

But enough with Queen, even if Freddie Mercury remains one of the greatest showmen to ever grace this planet. Man City's apparent attempt to outdo every other club in England, and beyond, is a worry. There is no financial reason for them not to manage it, and there are enough mercenaries in the game who will move anywhere for enough cash to improve their reputation with each transfer window.

In an ideal world - which this clearly isn't - the other clubs would sit back and let City's owners have their moment in the limelight, rather than try and compete. But I can't help but feel there will be a domino effect. Fans want instant success in the modern game, so the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United will be forced to compete, or attempt to, with Man City. That can only end in tears as they haven't got deep enough pockets.

Can anything be done to stop the Man City effect destroying top-flight football across Europe? Perhaps not...

UEFA Cup rename? Nice try, but...

The UEFA Cup and the Carling Cup have a lot in common. None of the so-called "top teams" give two hoots about either competition, yet, if they wanted to, they could win either without breaking much of a sweat.

UEFA know this. They know the Champions League is the only marketable European club competition. Sure, the UEFA Cup may be good enough for the likes of Aston Villa, but such clubs do not have genuine worldwide appeal. Heck, they don't even have continent-wide appeal!

But European football's governing body - who may or may not clash with FIFA one day as the power-balance continues to shift - are as keen as ever to make cash out of any version of the game they can, whether it be the Champions League final, a UEFA Cup qualifier, or two bunches of kids playing with jumpers for goalposts down the local park.

So it should come as no surprise they have decided to make some changes to the tournament, changes which will come into effect next season. The most amusing, surely, is the name change. Let's have a drum roll, orchestra:

The UEFA Cup will be known as the...Uefa Europa League.

Wow. Just wow. And, given the state of the current global economy, I daren't think how much money they paid the marketing-men to come up with that name. UEFA Europa League? It sounds like what it is - a cheap and cheerful, budget, light, no-frills, Tesco Value version of the Champions League.

More material changes include switching the format to a 48 team, 12 groups of four stage with each team in each group playing each other home and away, and the top-24 and the eight third-placed Champions League group teams entering a knock-out stage. If that plan took more than 10 minutes to put together, I'd be amazed!

A statement on the Uefa website read: "The new name and logo will help underline the tournament's special character and unique sporting appeal. Uefa's ambition in making these changes is to rejuvenate the competition in the light of the new European football landscape, which has shifted significantly with the continued success of the Champions League, so that the Uefa Europa League can establish itself as a major competition."

Good luck with that!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Brighton beat the City, Villa are just sh*tty

Nobody really cares about the Carling Cup. I'm not going to blame this on foreign investment, or Sky, or Jimmy Hill as, in my view, it has always been English football's poor relation. So much so that it is the unwanted illegitimate son kept in the cupboard under the stairs and fed just bread a water.

But, even though it has always been a joke, it was still enjoyable to see Manchester City and Aston Villa dumped out of the tournament last night by lower-league opposition. And before anybody asks "Why Aston Villa?" I should explain that even if their owner, Randy Lerner, is a decent man with his heart in the right place, he is still a foreign investor (albeit one worth a piddly £600million or so!).

Of course there is a problem with one part of this equation. While Brighton and Hove Albion are a genuine lower-level club, QPR have more money than Villa - and more money than most of the Premier League clubs. Heck, don't they have a player on-loan from Real Madrid who set up the goal last night?

This is why the death of football is inevitable, in my opinion. Money is now rife throughout the game and there is a growing imbalance. Manchester City - not a true top-tier club (yet!) - can outspend every other club. QPR can outspend most, and if they were in the Premier League they probably would. Yet Villa aren't short of cash - although in relative terms they are in danger of joining other teams who are financially rag-and-bone men!

But, hey, at least he's not Doug Ellis and at least one of their directors posts on Villa fan forums. Hopefully that will make up for midtable existence until football goes "bang". And that's not a Villa thing, but something will happen to many teams; it happened in Scotland years ago. Clubs north of the border don't exist to compete or win, they exist to exist.

Sad, very sad.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cesc Fabregas favourite to join Man City

I've been away for a few days and, following the ups-and-downs of the final week (or should that be day) of the transfer window, that was no bad thing. But some things don't change, and the talk is still of Manchester City and their Middle Eastern owners. Anybody would think there was nothing else going on in the sports entertainment world of football.

According to an article in today's Mirror, Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas is the 9/2 favourite to be the next player to join Man City. Liverpool's Fernando Torres and Barcelona's Lionel Messi are joint second-favourites at just 11/2. Disturbingly - for anyone who cares about football, that is - the odds are short.

So does this mean Man City will actually manage to sign such players? Possibly, but it's unlikely. While they humped Portsmouth 6-0 at the weekend, the did look decidedly ordinary during their loss against Chelsea. Of course, if they beat all but the so-called top-four, they will be doing well and will be in a good position to sign more top-names in January, and then even more in the summer.

But would any self-respecting player on the level of Fabregas, Torres or Messi really leave a top club in favour of a big money move, especially when it's obvious it would be a big money move? The answer, sadly, is probably yes.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Moyes and Pulis: Lower leagues to the top

Premier League new boy Tony Pulis has said Everton need more cash if they are to break into the top-four. Hmm...I'll forgive him because he's new, but not only is he stating the obvious, he is stating what now appears to be the extremely unlikely!

Everton owner Bill Kenwright has already told fans the club needs a billionaire owner to progress but, in reality, they look further from breaking into the top-four than they have for some time. The dominance of the top-four, combined with the massive investment at Manchester City, appears to have caused a lot of damage to Everton's chances of moving on up.

But back to Tony Pulis. The Stoke boss will be hoping his team can beat Everton on Sunday (Sep 14), but ahead of the game he has spoken about the amount of money involved in the modern game - and took a swipe at Man City new boy Robinho, by suggesting the player didn't know anything about his new club before his move from Real Madrid.

Pulis was quoted by as saying: "It is no secret that money talks in football - we have seen it recently at Manchester City with the signing of Robinho. Did Robinho know about Manchester City? I'm not sure Robinho did know much about Manchester City but the money was there and as we all know that money attracts players.

"David (Moyes) has done a fantastic job at Everton, last year they finished fifth and now he is looking at it to see if he can take them into the top four again. But to break into the top four you need more resources, and that's not having a go at (chairman) Bill Kenwright or anyone at Everton Football Club. David Moyes is being really, really ambitious from a personal point of view to take them on to that next step again, and there is nothing wrong with that at all."

Of course, those who read and think the Premier League is the only league worth bothering about in England may not be aware of the fact Moyes and Pulis have had success in the lower leagues, with Moyes once managing Preston North End and Pulis managing a variety of clubs including Gillingham.

Now their work with those two teams, even if Pulis did Gillingham under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, make the current cash injection and death of top-flight football all the more disgusting. Pulis and Moyes have both managed at the sharp-end of the game - how many other Premier League managers can claim such experience?

And how many will be able to in the future? Mega-money owners seemingly prefer to employ "top-name" former players than proven managers, so the rest have to work their way up through the leagues. If Stoke weren't promoted from the Championship, it's unlikely Pulis would ever have managed in the Premier League.

It's just another example of how the top-flight cartel is getting harder and harder to break.

Wenger ponders mega-money injection

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has made some good points - and some not so good points - in his latest rant about how the English game is changing, though it's hard to take the views of a man who apparently has issues utilising English players too seriously.

For while Wenger has slammed clubs where the manager has little say in what players are signed (such as Newcastle, apparently), the Gunners boss still takes the fact there is so much money in the game in a "positive way".

The somewhat dry Frenchman also seemed to take a swipe at Manchester City's signing of Robinho. He told The Sun: "What is worrying is that a player signs somewhere and then the next day he does not even know where he has signed. You cannot say that is a good trend.

“Football is not a supermarket. There is money in the game and I take it in a positive way. But the football bodies have to make sure money is ruled properly and used well for the ethic of the game.

"On the Continent, at least you are informed on what kind of players you buy. It looks like some are not even informed any more. It looks to be going a very worrying way. People who come from another country, they import the way people manage in their country. In England you had a tradition that was never questioned."

Another interesting comment Wenger made was in relation to the comments coming out of Man City about what players they are intending to buy, and for how much money, when the transfer window re-opens in January. Now, while I personally think the "tapping-up" rule is ridiculous it is there and some of the things coming from the Middle Eastern billionaires may go too far.

Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things and, as mentioned, it's hard to have sympathy for a man who doesn't seem to care for English footballers. The only good thing that may come out of that is by cutting down the chances of British players in the top-flight, the ones in the lower leagues will probably survive the implosion when the Premier League dies.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Zola at West Ham: Will it work?

I have to start by stressing I really hope Gianfranco Zola performs wonders at West Ham and has a long spell as manager of the Upton Park club. But...I have serious misgivings about whether he should have taken the job.

Former Chelsea star Zola has never managed a football club before - he was previously assistant manager of the Italy Under-21s - so to take a job as big as the one at West Ham has to be seen as a risk. "As big as the one at West Ham?" I heard you snigger! Yes, West Ham, a London club who have been in the Premier League for some time, have to be considered a big club in terms of a first job in management.

Zola himself said he couldn't turn the job down, and who can blame him? If a burger-flipper at McDonald's was offered to become a board member at Burger King, they wouldn't turn it down. While Zola's new job isn't quite such a huge leap, it is certainly a leap of sorts.

The former Italian international's aim appears to be to play attractive and attacking football. Hopefully that works, but recent history has shown teams concentrating on attacking and, in particular, attractive football are rarely the ones at the very top of the table (okay, Arsenal may be an exception, but they had the players for it).

Zola said: "It's my philosophy is to play offensive football if I can as I have always done that so we will try to play this style of football. What we do here is to make it enjoyable for the players and for the club,"

So can West Ham turn back the clock to the days when they "Won the World Cup," as their fans like to claim? Has anything really changed since Alan Curbishley and the club parted company last week? To be honest, no; the only real change is one for the worse.

The appointment of Zola may bring some cheer to the Upton Park faithful, and they are guaranteed some media coverage for a while, but that doesn't win leagues. In my book at least (a book I'll never write!), Alan Curbishely offered the Hammers a far better chance of success than a person whose managerial virginity remains intact.

And the men in suits upstairs are still the same people as last week...

Extra police drafted in at Newcastle

Newcastle fans are nothing if not passionate and, following Kevin Keegan's resignation, there appear to be fears that passion could turn into something more sinister on Saturday (Sep 13).

Extra police have been drafted in following reports there will be five demonstrations throughout the city before, during and after the Toon take on Hull City. Hopefully the protests will be incident free and the fans get their points across - they have every right to publicly ask questions of owner Mike Ashley and if more supporters were actually prepared to make a fuss, English top-flight football would not be in the mess it currently is.

A boycott of official club merchandise has already begun, and I honestly hope it is successful. Even ignoring the specific problems at Newcastle right now, clubs across the country have been taking fans for a financial ride for far too long. I would urge any fan of a top-flight club who is reading this to take a look at their club's online shop and try and justify every item stocked.

Many will have different views on what criteria would be used to "justify" the merchandise. For me, I try to keep the fact that football was meant to be a working-class game where the fans could cheer the lads on at the back of my mind when I look through the shops. Imagining how the early football fans would react to some of the items on offer is usually a good way to start.

Football moving away from its working class roots has arguably been the main factor in the death of the top flight game. The players generally have a working-class background but the reliance of the clubs on other socioeconomic groups (I think that's the PC term these days) has increased over the years. How they can expect hard-working fans on low incomes to afford two or three club kits for each of their children each year is beyond me.

(And yes, I know nobody is forcing the parents to buy the kits, but they are advertised in such a way - namely by being on television and in front of the crowds at every match - that parents will be under pressure to buy the replica strips).

Now, with the sort of investment Manchester City have just had, it's clear the game is as far away from its origins as it possibly can be. Is it even the same game it was in the 19th century? In the 1960? Heck, even the 1980s?

I honestly don't think it is. The version of football we have forced upon us by the top-flight clubs is all about big-money. It's not about sportsmanship or camaraderie, and hasn't been for some time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everton's £15million man was not first choice!

Headlines sometimes jump out of the page (well, screen usually these days) and leave the reader thinking "What?" Of course, that's exactly the intention, as the reader will usually want to read the article to find out whether their feeling of disbelief was justified.

I had such an experience a few minutes ago, when a headline popped up from Setanta Sports - "Moyes: £15m man was a Plan B". Now, why should I really be surprised about Everton signing a £15million back-up? Probably because I didn't realise the madness had quite reached the non-top four (plus Man City) sides in the Premier League to this extent.

According to David Moyes, a manager I have a lot of time for, Marouane Fellaini may well have been a last-minute signing after Everton missed out on a number of other targets. Or, at least, he appears to me saying that.

Moyes told Everton's official website: "People will say that Fellaini was a last minute thing and he wasn't on the radar and a lot of that is correct. We were after other people; Mbia, we were after two or three people who we couldn't get. But we weren't sitting about doing nothing. We were looking to see who our next targets were.

"We haven't got a lot of stature in the team. So, our criteria was that we had to get someone who was bigger than what we had. We have a lot of smaller people in the team, Artetas, Osmans, Pienaars, so there were lots of good midfielders about but they didn't meet the criteria.

"Fellaini was one who we knew could do that and we have watched him. His games against Liverpool were very good and that probably tipped us over. We realised then that instead of having the potential, he was there."

So, assuming Moyes is being genuine in that Everton had watched Fellaini, it seems the player's performances against Liverpool tipped the balance. Amusing in terms of rilvarly, but Lierpool really were below par against Standard Liege.

And while £15million may not be much money for the top-four (it won't be once Liverpool are bought out by DIC, which I'm convinced will happen within months), it is a lot of cash for Everton. So was it a signing based on ability and a genuine belief the player would improve the squad, or to placate fans? That's one question destined to remain unanswered.

Milan claim no Chelsea Kaka deal

European football at the highest level seems to have more shady deals, winks and nudges than Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in a fancy restaurant - but the outcome seems to be the same!

In the world of modern football, which is more sport than sports entertainment, many fans enjoy the rumour and intrigue almost as much as what actually happens on the pitch. One rumour still floating about following the close of the summer transfer window is that AC Milan were going to sell Kaka to Chelsea as soon as Andriy Shevchenko returned from Stamford Bridge.

The link between politics and football gets even more entwined in Italy, of course, and particularly with AC Milan. Their president, Silvio Berlusconi, is currently the Prime Minister of Italy. How foreign politicians can manage to balance both is a question I have never found an answer to.

But back to Kaka. Berlusconi has denied any deal was arrange with Chelsea - and, as he's a top politician, we have to take his words at face-value, don't we...?

Berlusconi told Antenna 3: "I have absolutely not promised Kaka to Chelsea. Andriy is a big player and I'm convinced our supporters will be happy to have him again with us."

Coach Carlo Aneclotti also stressed Kaka is a key player. Which obviously goes without saying, but in this crazy media circus has to be said otherwise some hack will make something out of nothing being said.

And then we'll have a Kim Jong-il situation in European football...though that may be taking the politicisation of football theory too far!

Didi Hamann hails foreign investment

Man City midfielder Dietmar Hamann thinks the club's takeover by rich foreign investors is the future of European football. Perhaps if he was a 16-year-old kid starting out and not a 35-year-old veteran, he would think differently!

The former German international, who scored the last goal at the old (read "real") Wembley, told a German website he expects English clubs to dominate the Champions League for the foreseeable future, and warned his countrymen that the gulf between the German league and those in England, Spain and Italy will continue to widen.

Hamman told Sport1: "That (foreign investment) is the model for the future. The fans here are overjoyed, it can only be a good thing for the players and the club. But if things continue, the gap between Germany and England, Spain and Italy will only grow wider. English teams have dominated the Champions League in recent years and will probably continue to do so,"

As an amusing aside, Man City are thought to be weighing-up massive January bids for both Germany international strikers - Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski. Rumours on deadline day suggested they made an outrageous offer for Gomez just before the window shut, only to be rebuffed.

One interesting note in all of this is that the German league system has dropped behind the "Big Three" by quite some margin in recent years, meaning the chances of there ever being a "Big Four" system again are very slim. The only real question is which league will drop next - Spain or Italy?

Hopefully neither will try and compete with the transfer fees and wages - if they do, they run the risk of falling into the same abyss as the English system. Those in control in Italy and Spain would be far wiser to accept English domination for a few years in exchange for being well placed to return to the fore when the Premier League blows up.

Brazil and Man City: The Odd Couple!

I have nothing against Manchester City and Robinho - they just happened to be the first club to be taken over by men with infinite money and their first purchase.

But, even though I am fully aware of the massive pot of gold (or platinum...or oil?!?) now available to the once poor relations of Manchester, I still think I am dreaming when I read reports about a Brazil national team that includes a City player.

The British media must be loving it. A player, based in England, at the peak of their career and playing for Brazil. Given the temperamental nature of South American football, the press must be hoping Robinho acts as a conduit for some juicy stories.

It will get worse in January, of that there is little doubt. Even though many clubs won't want to sell half-way through a season - and surely players will want to finish their Champions League campaigns - Man City will be waving around enough cash to make Fort Knox jealous.

Perhaps there could even be some good in the terminal decline of top-flight football. If the British media decide to start covering foreign leagues and international games more often, fans growing up will realise that the English game is not the be all and end all, and was in fact surpassed decades ago.

Or is that too much to ask...?

Man Utd and Chelsea eye another foreign kid

Football clubs get blamed for the amount of foreign players in the game. While the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United do cast their nets wide, European Union freedom of employment laws also increase the problem.

Putting politics to one side, though, Man Utd and Chelsea are at it again. This time they are reportedly fighting over a 16-year-old defender from Denmark. Brondy's Nicolai Boilesen has been handed a trial at Old Trafford, but Chelsea are thought to be monitoring the situation closely.

Boilesen told Ekstra Bladet: "It will be fantastic to come to United because they are my favourite club. I am very proud that two such big clubs are watching me. Whether it (his future) is in Denmark or abroad, only time will tell. For now, I am just coming to England to train with United and Chelsea."

What is disturbing is not that this is another foreign player coming to the English game - heck, the odds are he will amount to nothing and we'll never hear about him again - it's his age and the implications training foreign players has on our domestic kids.

The newspaper are always carrying articles about increasingly younger kids being signed by top English clubs, at an age when they should be more worried about passing their 11-plus (oops, showing my age). If a kid isn't in a decent academy by about 13, they have little chance of "making it".

Add the acquisition of foreign kids to the mix, given there are a limited number of places in the top academies, and things look even less promising. How are domestic kids even meant to get to the top in the version of football we now have to endure? And when did it all go wrong?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

England skipper raises white flag to Croatia

Finally, after years of trying to pretend competition with the game's big boys was possible, and England captain has come out and admitted the national side are barely a second-rate team.

John Terry, who has somehow been reappointed as captain by boss Fabio Capello, has claimed a draw against Croatia tomorrow (Wed, Sep 10) would be a good result. Given little (in terms of population, not ability or spirit) Croatia are favourites to win the group, at least the Chelsea defender is being honest.

Terry was quoted by as saying: "The campaign will not be judged on one match but if we win the game we can take control. he memories of last time, home and away, will be enough to get the lads fighting - it's a fresh start for everyone - a new campaign with everybody fighting for a place under the new manager.

"If we can win, then great. But if we draw it is a very good result too. They haven't lost here for a while and that is something we're aware of."

Just to highlight the difference between the resources available to both countries, may I point out the population of Croatia is about 4.5million, compared to England's 50.8million and to compare the domestic leagues would, quite frankly, be ridiculous.

But if John Terry is prepared to raise the white flag before kicking a ball in anger against Croatia, then so be it. Unless he is following a much-used English tactic of making the opposition seem far better than they are so getting anything can be celebrated with gusto in the jingoistic media.

Even as an Englishman, I hope Croatia win - and win well. Their players deserve it, their FA deserves it and their fans arguably deserve it more, so all the best to them.

Zola set to be handed West Ham job

Following my plea to Slaven Bilic to turn down the chance of becoming West Ham boss, I feel I must urge former Celtic star Gianfranco Zola to do the same.

Zola now the clear odds-on favourite to replace Alan Curbishley after fellow Italian Roberton Donadoni removed himself from the shortlist of candidates. Zola is currently the assistant coach of Italy's Under-21 side.

In a statement, Donadoni said: "I would like to thank West Ham United Football Club for approaching and speaking with me in relation to the vacant manager's position at the club.

''I welcomed the opportunity of speaking with such a prominent Premiership club and of course, the opportunity of coming to the English Premiership.

''However, is does appear that the board have not yet, after some time, come to an agreement and a conclusion on who the successful candidate should be.

''It is important for me to feel that I have the full support of the club and I have therefore this morning taken the decision to withdraw myself from the candidate shortlist for the club.''

Latest selected odds

Gianfranco Zola: 1/8
Roberto Donadoni: 6/1
Slaven Bilic: 7/1
Roberto Mancini: 33/1
Paolo Di Canio: 50/1

So why shouldn't Zola take the job? For all the same reasons Bilic shouldn't. West Ham are in a mess, Zola has everything to lose at this stage (ie the start) of his managerial career in terms of reputation, and anybody outside the English game should think hard before entering it because of massive investment-related death it is heading towards.

My messaage to anyone involved in football outside of England right now? Stay away, consider us quarantined for the sake of your own careers.

Premier League is just a fashion - Kaka

AC Milan and Brazil star Kaka has claimed the English Premier League is merely the latest fashion, and fashions often change. Perhaps the 26-year-old, who claims he will never ask for a move away from the San Siro, doesn't realise quite how much money there now is in England - and how that amount of money is likely to increase dramatically with more Middle Eastern takeovers.

It should be pointed out that Kaka is currently on a long-term contract with Milan (until the end of the 2012/13 season) and that has helped inflate the claims about how much certain clubs are prepared to pay for him. Though with the billions (or is that trillion?) now available at Manchester City, a bid of £250million or so is no longer pure fantasy.

Kaki told Gazzetta dello Sport: "Before it was Real Madrid, now it's England that is in fashion. The market is like that, just as Milan make offers other clubs make offers to Milan. But I will never ask to leave.

"I have always been treated well by (club) executives and my rapport is excellent. Perhaps one day they (club executives) may change their approach with respect to me but I don't see that happening.

"I will only leave if Milan decide to sell me or perhaps on the day when we no longer have the same objectives and that day has not come. Milan has done a good job in the transfer market, the club still wants to win and be competitive and those are my aims."

But is Kaka right? Is the injection of cash just the current fashion? Probably not. The English Premier League is now so global, so commercial, that is offers an investment opportunity unavailable anywhere else in the world. And, of course, it's no longer about expecting a return on the investment.

For the reason why reports of £500,000-a-week players appearing within the next couple of transfer windows seem believable is because the sort of owners who have just taken over Man City have so much money that making anything back (financially) doesn't matter. It's not their main aim - instead, they want the prestige and the publicity.

That's why the current slide towards death is not a trend in football, but instead a terminal illness. Clubs in Italy and Spain would do well to keep away from the madness until the big explosion, or implosion, when they can pick-up the pieces and be glad they didn't go the way of England.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Croatia boss must say no to West Ham jokers

Watching "new" countries perform well against the more established nations is one of the few enjoyable activities international football has on offer. Even as an England fan (but not a fanatic), it was somewhat heartwarming to see Croatia reach Euro 2008.

One of the key reasons for their recent success has been their coach, Slaven Bilic. The young manager is a breath of fresh air in what can be the grey and drab arena that is international football. For that reason, I hope he doesn't decide to jump ship and replace Alan Curbishley at West Ham.

Although I would love to see Bilic in England one day, as he could surely show some of the other managers how to behave, the circumstances surrounding Curbishley's departure will hopefully rule-out a move to Upton Park. Bilic still has work to do with Croatia, and would be wasted at West Ham.

Bilic was quoted by as saying: "
It is great that I'm linked to the club from the best league in the world but it doesn't make my work with the national team harder. In training we always make jokes. Players tease me to take them to England as well. The interest of West Ham is proof that we are doing a great job with the national team."

Of course, Bilic played a season-and-a-half for West Ham in the mid-1990s and may me tempted. My message for him would be this: Slaven, you are far more appreciated where you are and the more you do for Croatia, the more your profile grows in England. West Ham are in a mess and you would do well to steer clear of it until things improve...assuming they do.

Then again, Bilic may realise the English league is not as good as he thinks when his Croatia side play England later in the week. After dispatching England at the qualifying stage for Euro 2008 (well, the fact the team was awful didn't help), would anyone bet against Croatia doing exactly the same again?

Some England fans don't get it...

Following my comments about how some England fans have a superiority complex I received a couple of emails asking what I meant. Allow me to explain. On a basic level, it's that some still think England have a God-given right to qualify for every major tournament.

Now, before I go into full-on rant mode, let me make it clear I am English myself. But that doesn't mean I lock myself in a room and ignore how a worrying large proportion of England fans think and behave.

Following England's drab 2-0 win against Andorra on Saturday (Sep 6) I flicked through a number of football forums, expecting to see the usual whinges about "foreign managers are c**p" or "more players from our team should have played" and, while there was a lot of that, a few other posts jumped out at me.

The most ridiculous was the suggestion teams like Andorra should have to pre-qualify for the qualification stage as they have no chance of actually winning the group or doing enough to get anywhere near qualifying. So why did England only beat Andorra 2-0? Why did Macedonia beat Scotland, who are ranked one place and just a handful of points below England in the world rankings?

Furthermore, why is the United Kingdom - the legal country - allowed to enter four different football teams (I know the historic reasons, I'm saying it's daft)? If France tried to enter a four teams for every tournament, there would be outrage among the so-called England die-hards.

Perhaps the problem is that those who follow England so closely, those who put flags on their uninsured cars and one bedroom, crumbling flats think that the only way to be "patriotic" is to support the England football team, no matter what. If so, it's an issue with wider society rather than football - and there are clearly many issues there.

But as long as this section of support believe the hype about how wonderful the English players are, instead of realising the national team has been distinctly average since Italia '90, more ridiculous excuses will be pulled out with every result...

On a final note, I also find it ironic how those who bang on with the line "don't believe the media, they are anti-our club" happily accept the Great Lie about how wonderful the so-called Golden Generation of English players really was. And it's painful to observe.

Juve chief puts Europe before league

Any remaining doubts that clubs cared more about their domestic league than winning the Champions League have probably been dispelled following comments from Juventus chairman Giovanni Cobolli Gigli.

The Italian side's supremo admitted the "league is important but we want a good run in Europe more this year and my players have told me that they think the same". More interesting, perhaps, were his comments about the club being a "worldwide brand" - something the clubs at the very top seem to worry about more than anything else.

Gigli told La Gazzetta dello Sport: “I want to see Juventus in Japan for the Club World Cup because the Champions League is my main priority. The League is important but we want a good run in Europe more this year and my players have told me that they think the same.

“I want us to be the masters of Europe because we are a worldwide brand and I want us to succeed with a more Italian Juve. Alessio Secco and Claudio Ranieri are good at identifying young talent and developing gifted starlets like Iago and Albin Ekdal for example.

“Then we have the Italian youngsters, like Giovinco who will soon sign a new contract. Along with Mario Balotelli, who has talent and character, I think Giovinco will be the future of the Italian national side."

Fortunately, the second-half of his comments are more promising. If a club can be turned into a worldwide brand without having to sign ridiculous numbers of worldwide players, then the tradition and connection with the fans can be maintained. In reality, though, that's not an easy thing to do, as many clubs have shown before.

It is possible - how possible is questionable - that when top-flight football either implodes or explodes, some form of Champions League structure will be all that remains. A few teams across Europe pooling their resources to create a continent-wide tournament. Perhaps we are already going that way?

For the comment made by the Juve chief hardly express an unusual sentiment, as clubs are increasingly determined to win the Champions League rather than anything else. What is a worry, though, is that Juventus are playing in one of the world's top-three leagues and don't put the pursuit of that title as their number one priority.

Then again, a certain club have been doing that in England for some time, and have reached two finals and lifted the cup once in the past few years...

Rangers star snubs Scotland - report

Following my recent comments about the state of international football, I was not too surprised to read a report in this morning's Daily Record claiming Rangers player Lee McCulloch has told the Scottish FA he does not want to be considered for selection as long as George Burley is in charge.

If McCulloch has actually told the SFA this, he should be given a clear-cut answer: If you don't want to play under Burley, you'll never play again. Because why should a player be able to walk away from the international stage, only to walk back in a year or so?

Without wishing to go over old ground, footballers used to be proud to play for their country, whether it be England, Scotland, Australia or Senegal. A player would always try his best for his club in an attempt to be spotted by his national manager, hoping to one day pull on his country's jersey alongside other players.

According to the Record, McCulloch "will refuse to play for Scotland again while George Burley is in charge". The newspaper also claims they have reason to believe "the Rangers star is one of a number of leading internationals who have lost faith in the new manager just four games into his tenure."

I watched the game between Macedonia and Scotland - if only because I wanted Scotland to win to increase their chances of moving above England in the world rankings next month. Even though I'm English myself, the unjustified superiority complex shown by some rabid sections of the support disgusts me. One of the reasons I'm not too sad football is dying, perhaps...

But back to the Macedonia game. For those who didn't see it and haven't seen the result, Macedonia won 1-0, though Scotland should have been awarded two penalties in the space of about five seconds and did, at times, dominate. The main problem appeared to be the surprisingly high temperature Macedonia and Scotland's lack of end-product.

I couldn't see any reason why a player would blame Burley for the result - with the possible exception of not playing Shaun Maloney from the start (although his time on the bench at Aston Villa may have left him with some rust). What Scotland need now is to put this setback behind them and try and pick up points elsewhere.

They showed in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign they can beat the likes of France and Italy, so for the likes of McCulloch to turn his back on his country, if that is what he has done, disgusts me, is worthy of a ban from all future Scotland matches, and shows, yet again, the mess this once-great game is in.

Man City after Essien and Gerrard?

I've always believed Sunday tabloids exist more for entertainment than news reporting, but today's News of the World really does take the biscuit. In black and white, on their back page, is an article claiming Manchester City boss Mark Hughes has "targeted an incredible double swoop for Steven Gerrard and Michael Essien in January".

Oh, and their billionaire owners are "set to splash the cash to make the world's first £500,000-a-week player". Now, I'm not one to make predictions (okay, that's not true, as I clearly predict top-flight football is terminally ill), but I can't see either transfer happening for so many reasons.

The first is that Chelsea are unlikely to do any business with Man City. Even though Roman Abramovich doesn't have the money of City's billionaire Arabs, he has enough to keep players at Stamford Bridge if he so desires. Robinho leaving Real Madrid for Man City - instead of Chelsea - also ruffled a lot of feathers.

Secondly, there is a good chance Liverpool will be taken over sooner than later. If they are taken over by Dubai International Capital (DIC), there are also unlikely to do any business with Manchester City. Even if a takeover doesn't occur, it's hard to imagine Gerrard leaving Liverpool. Money can buy you a lot of things but, with some players at least, there are limits.

Tabloids, like a good piece of cod, need their "sources" and the News of the World article includes one. A "City source" said: "Mark knows money is no object but he also wants to bring in the kind of players who will fit in with his plans, not just spend massive money for the sake of it. Gerrard and Essien in the same midfield would be incredible. They would fit together perfectly and wouldn't have to take time adapting to the English game in the same way as any big foreign name."

Perhaps the scariest thing about this is that, even though it's hard to imagine either player moving to Man City, everybody is already assuming the January transfer window will see an obscene amount of money being thrown around at any player with a half-recognisable name. And the law of averages suggests that if enough offers are made, enough players will eventually sign.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Berbatov - it gets stranger!

It should be safe to assume Dimitar Berbatov would be drafted into the Manchester United squad as soon as possible, shouldn't it? Given Sir Alex Ferguson's side paid Spurs £30.75million for the striker, surely they would want to use him as quickly as possible?

Surprisingly, it would seem the 27-year-old Bulgaria international will not be fast-tracked into the squad. According to today's News of the World, Berbatov hasn't even joined up with his new team-mates since leaving Spurs.

Even more surprising is the claim Sir Alex had doubts about signing the player because of his less-than-stellar work-rate. Whether it's possible to to believe that while remembering the United boss collected Berbatov from the airport in his own car on deadline day is a matter for debate.

Berbatov will now be placed on an extensive fitness program in order to get his physical condition up to "United standard" - and will certainly have to quit smoking, unless he is prepared to face the wrath of Sir Alex, who is known for being strict about such things.

But, if nothing else, the claims sum-up the impending collapse of top-flight football. Spending £30.75million on a player (an amount which would be the British record if it wasn't for Man City's silly-money move for Robinho) is not really justifiable at the best of times, least of all if a manager with the experience and track-record of Ferguson was not 100 per cent convinced it was the right thing to do.

Friday, September 5, 2008

How much would John Barnes earn now?

While enjoying a pie and a pint at lunch with a colleague, our conversation turned to former Liverpool star John Barnes. Not his international career (which, incidentally, was nowhere near as bad as some remember), but his consistently inspiring performances for Liverpool.

Given the current discussions about the obscene amount of money in the game, including Manchester City's Robinho's assumed wage of £160,000-a-week), the topic soon turned to wondering how much Barnes would earn if he was playing, at his peak, in the Premier League today? We both agreed the highly unscientific amount of "a lot." but couldn't decide exactly how much!

When Barnes was at his true peak, in the late 80s (and before Sky money destroyed top-flight football), he regularly performed above and beyond the level of any other player, at club level, in the country. If English clubs were not barred from Europe at that point, he surely would have dazzled audiences across the continent.

Has any player impressed as much as Barnes at club level since? The only player worthy of mentioning is Cristiano Ronaldo, and specifically during last season. Apart from Ronaldo, many have shone at times - for example, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Steve McManaman, Ryan Giggs - but no others have consistently performed so far ahead of the rest of the field.

So to those who think football is in a good condition and there are no problems with the English Premier League, take a look again at John Barnes in action. Is it right that mediocre, teenage bench-warmers can earn so much more than he did at his peak? I think not.

International football was good once!

Before top-flight football began its inevitable slide towards death, international football used to be a real attraction. The best players would put aside their club rivalries and the sheer pride on their faces when they pulled on their national jersey was a joy to behold.

The last time I remember English players acting as though representing their country was the absolute pinnacle of their career was at World Cup '90 in Italy, when Bobby Robson's side were just a few spot-kicks away from the final, and a likely win against a ghastly Argentina slide.

Since then, apart from a brief glimmer in 1996 when the European Championships were held in England (which may explain the glimmer!), international football has become something of a turn off. Perhaps it's just an English thing, but the problem does seem deeper than that.

England, by rights, should be reaching the semi-finals of the two major tournaments - at the very least. How many other top-20 countries have all but one of their players (the increasingly immobile Beckham) playing in their domestic league? Surely it's none!

But club football has become more important - I now honestly believe a player would rather play in the Champions League knock-out stages than represent his country. A player's wage demands also seem to increase far more if they play in Europe than if they are an international.

Another issue is the transition of football from a sport to sports entertainment. It used to be nearly 100 per cent about what happened on the pitch. Now it's nowhere near that. It's a multi-billion pound industry where fans are just as interested in who is sleeping with who as who is putting the ball in the net.

The problem with football as sports entertainment is the hype that goes with it. Managers and players create "characters" in order to get the headlines. They exaggerate their own personality and have fun with it. When they start taking pot-shots at each other, the individual and character get so muddled it must make for some awkward moments come England duty.

And, without wishing to get too political, it's about a decline in standards. When England won the World Cup in 1966, one of the enduring images is of Bobby Moore wiping his muddied hands before shaking hands with the Queen. The players could hold their own in interviews and came across as thoroughly decent human beings. Now look at the current England squad...

So when England line-up against Andorra tomorrow, what will the players be thinking? Will all of them give 100 per cent, at the risk of picking-up an injury? By rights, England should score at least five, but will that happen? Or will they do enough and then take their feet off the gas, in order to keep as fresh as possible for their clubs?

And they wonder why fans are turning away from the games in their droves!

Keegan's brilliant, too early for Shearer - Shepherd

Alan Shearer may not have been the best footballer (good goalscorer, yes) but he clearly has his head screwed on correctly - if reports claiming he will turn down any offers to become the next Magpies boss.

Following Kevin Keegan's resignation yesterday, the earlier favourites for the job are Gus Poyet, Dennis Wise and Alan Shearer. But former Toon chairman Freddy Shepherd has said he would be "very surprised" if Shearer opted to take the job.

He told the Daily Mail: "I’d be very surprised if Alan Shearer took the job. I just think he wants to give it a bit longer before he goes into management."

Shepherd also pointed out when he worked with Keegan, the boss identified the players and attempts were then made to raise the funds - seemingly in stark contrast to the situation under Mike Ashley, who Keegan claimed had a structure which forced players upon him.

Shepherd said: "When I was there with Kevin we had a simple strategy. Kevin identified the players and we tried to get the money to buy them. I don’t know what’s happening with Mike’s structure, whether it’s fallen apart, but I worked with Kevin for five years and he was fantastic."

The whole situation is clearly idiotic and farcical, but a perfect example of what is wrong with modern football. The game isn't run by fans, players and managers, but by the few money-men at the top. They have earned their money in life and are enjoying spending it. But do they really know the feeling of anticipation real fans have when Saturday comes?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Kevin Keegan quits - Newcastle takeover likely?

Kevin Keegan has resigned as manager of Newcastle following more than two days of speculation about what was actually going on at St James' Park. The former England boss has suggested he could not work at a club where players he did not want in his squad were forced upon him.

In a statement on the League Managers Association website, Keegan said: "I’ve been working desperately hard to find a way forward with the directors, but sadly that has not proved possible. It’s my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want.

"It remains my fervent wish to see Newcastle United do well in the future and I feel incredibly sorry for the players, staff and most importantly the supporters. I have been left with no choice other than to leave."

Few will deny Keegan made the right choice. That a manager of his standing had Dennis Wise as his superior (or whatever the relationship was) never made any sense - a manager has to be allowed to manage, and that includes deciding which players to try and buy and which ones to sell.

Wise, the former Leeds United boss, is joint second favourite, along with Toon legend Alan Shearer, to replace Keegan on a permanent basis at 5/1. Gus Poyet has emerged as favourite at 9/4, but the prices are bouncing around all over the place as the news of Keegan's resignation is so recent.

Given Newcastle fans are among the most vociferous in the country, it will be interesting to see how owner Mike Ashley deals with the backlash (perhaps with a pint in hand?). There must be a chance he'll get out as soon as possible and the club, if they ever managed to sort themselves out, could still be a powerhouse. The new Man City owners are thought to have considered buying Newcastle, will some other mega-money consortium actually go the whole way?

Chelsea boss denies Robinho rift

Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari has denied claims he was angry with the way the Robnho transfer saga was handled - and has warned fans not to believe unofficial "sources" who claim to know how his mind works.

It was claimed yesterday Scolari was left feeling "angry and let down" because Chelsea would not offer Real Madrid any more than £28.4million for Robinho, who eventually moved to Man City for £32.4million.

But those claims were made by "sources," rather than the big man himself, and Scolari how now officially debunked the talk. Apparently, he has no worries about missing out on the player and believes Robinho was surrounded by people who were not "serious about him coming to Chelsea" - but instead were "more interested in the best business deal". A Chelsea manager accusing a player of going elsewhere for more cash? It has been a few years since that excuse was last used.

Scolari told his club's official website: "I have seen the newspapers and that they say I am unhappy or angry with the club. These statements are not true at all. I have not said this and I do not think this. I am very happy with this situation. I talk to only a few people about my team, all inside the club. Other people have been quoted in newspapers saying they know what I think or feel, but they do not know. Only my close team knows.

"I have a press office at Chelsea and I hold a press conference every week. I do interviews for Chelsea TV and say things for the Chelsea website and my own website. If it does not come from one of these places, it will not be true, and will not be what I think."

He certainly protests well! But, assuming all of the talk in the press yesterday was pure tittle-tattle, is the claim Robinho's "people" were after as much money as possible a reasonable one. It seems unlikely as, unless they were psychic, how would they have known a middle-ranking English team like Man City would suddenly have come into money?

It seems a poor excuse, but the real danger will start in January and next summer if Roman Abramovich decides to start throwing cash around all over the place to try regain the initiative. And, sadly, that is more likely to happen than not.