Give B teams a go

FA chairman Greg Dyke’s proposal for a fifth division, incorporating B teams for the Premier League, has, inevitably, brought both praise and criticism, but I believe we should give it a try. It is impossible to get complete agreement on such issues in a country whose football governance is split between three bodies, namely the FA, Football League and Premier League.

However, as the stated aim of Dyke’s 10-strong Commission was to find a way of improving the England national team, I think this idea should be tried. We simply must start giving our Under-21 players more regular, competitive football, something which disappeared with the dismantling of the Central League reserve team competition. As a 16-year-old, I played in an Everton reserve side that often contained six or seven internationals. That was a hard school, but one that sorted the men from the boys.

We need to get back that competitive edge, for it simply doesn’t apply in the current, haphazard, Under-18 and Under-21 “league” system. I have my doubts about the fifth division idea, but I think it’s worth giving it a go. The Academy system has not produced – with the shining exception of Southampton – so something new must be tried, for the sake of the national team.


My 23 for Brazil

ENGLAND manager Roy Hodgson announces his 23-player squad for next month’s World Cup in Brazil today, so I’ll pip him to the post by naming my list which is:

GOALKEEPERS: Hart, Foster, Ruddy. DEFENDERS: Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Jones, Baines, Shaw, Lescott. MIDFIELDERS: Gerrard, Barry, Lallana, Wilshere, Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Henderson. FORWARDS: Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Welbeck, Barkley, Lambert.

I doubt if Barry will get the nod, but I firmly believe he would be a key element, in the holding role alongside Gerrard, the two of them giving us a firm base while allowing the younger players to do the running. Joleon Lescott has not been a favourite of Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini, but he is a dependable defender – and he is left-sided, an important factor when it comes to balance in the back line.

Manchester United’s Phil Jones can play right-back or centre-back and we must wait to see if he is fit. If not, I would draft in his club-mate Chris Smalling, but with the concern that he hasn’t come on as much as expected. For me, Smalling lacks the presence required to be a commanding centre-back. However, it isn’t a position in which England are overly blessed with contenders.

Our opening match is against Italy, whose coach, Cesare Pandelli, says there isn’t a single English player who would make his team. Well, here is my team for England’s curtain-raiser, and let’s hope several members of it make Sgnr Pandelli eat his words: Hart; Johnson, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Milner, Gerrard, Henderson/Barry, Lallana; Sturridge, Rooney.


Tasty Toffees

OKAY, there has been no silverware, but what an exhilarating season for Everton’s fans. Roberto Martinez’s revitalised team didn’t quite pull off their exciting bid for Champions League qualification, but they finished on a high with an away win and they claimed fifth place – one better than last season – and secured European football next season.

It remains to be seen whether formidable loan stars Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku remain at Goodison, but the supporters can be optimistic that, with lads like Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley, Kevin Mirallas, Aidan McGeady and James McCarthy on the rise,  the immediate future looks rosy.

The problem for Martinez – as it is for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool – is dealing with the expectation that an improved season brings. But it is a good problem to have, a problem that means you are doing your job. While Everton improved their position by one place, Liverpool rocketed from seventh to second – and still will feel they missed a big opportunity    to be No 1. With champions Manchester City’s star still rising, Chelsea sure to spend big this summer and Arsenal so unlucky all season with injuries, Rodgers knows the job of overhauling these big players won’t get any easier.

Meanwhile, Everton, under the astute guidance of Martinez, will keep nibbling away at the top four. If the competition next season is half as exciting, none of us will be disappointed.


Toure THE man for me

YAYA TOURE is my Player of the Season, and I am grateful to Manchester City for making my decision a little easier to announce. City’s title success means my choice as No 1 player is also a champion which, in an ideal world, is how it should be. The football writers and the players chose Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and I have to say I was slightly surprised in both cases.

Toure shaded it in my book because, unlike Suarez, he complements his outstanding ability by being unblemished in his integrity on the pitch. I know that some journalists were erring on the side of Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard, because of their concerns over Suarez’s dubious attitude, and that several players have complained about his serial attempts to con referees.

I recently watched a YouTube compilation of Suarez’s litany of misdemeanours, including some shocking examples of diving, late fouls, biting and raking of players’ achilles tendons. It is such a shame because here is a player who, talent-wise, would grace any team in the world. His 31 league goals is a tremendous achievement which almost carried Liverpool to their first Premier League title. But I could not, in all conscience, give my award to a player whose honesty on the field is in question. Lionel Messi doesn’t behave like that, nor did great forwards like Pele and Eusebio.

Toure, on the other hand, is a marvellous example of what being a top footballer is all about. He conducts himself admirably on and off the pitch – and he is an awesome performer, possessed with strength, speed, skill, shooting power and such versatility. Here is a guy who can operate with equal effectiveness as a loose forward, a holding midfielder or a centre-half. Toure, who scored 20 goals from midfield – some of them simply sensational – is 31 tomorrow. Long may he reign at the heart of City’s team.


Nice one for nice guy Pellegrini

THEY say nice guys don’t make winners, so I’m delighted to acknowledge that Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is, at last, an exception to that rule. City’s fully deserved Premier League triumph was the Chilean first title in 10 years’ managing in Europe. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. At City’s home match against Aston Villa, fans unfurled a huge banner proclaiming: “Pellegrini, this charming man.” It seemed out of place, in a sense, in the hard, cynical world of top flight professional football. Yet it was also such a refreshing, uplifting sight.

At the end of a season in which we have seen managers screaming their protestations at officials, trading in sarcasm and, in one case, head-butting an opposition player, not to mention a coach being restrained in a bid to get at the referee, how reassuring that Pellegrini, whose dignity and courtesy remained intact throughout the roller-coaster ride, emerged the victor.

I think the sight of his players  throwing him in the air on the pitch following the title-clinching, 2-0 win against West Ham, told the story of the man who came in last summer and poured oil on the troubled waters of a dressing-room in turmoil. You can always argue that there are no excuses for not winning the big prizes if you have unlimited money to spend. But it isn’t as straightforward as that. The ultimate challenge for a manager is to blend the players, the diverse personalities and egos, into a winning team. Pellegrini demonstrated this season that he has that ability. Not only into a winning team but one that plays wonderfully entertaining football.

Now, the challenge is to move forward from this second title in three years. A second place in between those two successes means City are established as the No 1 club in England. To become a major force in Europe is now the target, a task that is complicated by the restrictions the club faces after contravening UEFA’S Financial Fair Play rules. Against that background, it won’t be easy for Pellegrini to tweak his squad this summer but at least he has several candidates for offloading, including Jack Rodwell, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott, perhaps either Kolarov or Clichy at left-back, and out-of-contract Gareth Barry. It might even be that James Milner, for me one of the unluckiest players in the Premier League in terms of selection, will seek a club where his talents are used more often.


Coleman’s a cracker

I was at the magnificent St George’s Hall, opposite Lime Street Station, for Everton’s end-of-season players’ awards dinner last night, when it was great to see Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley recognised by their team-mates, winning the Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards.

Coleman, 25, signed from Sligo Rovers in 2009, has grown into one of the best right-backs in the business, going from strength to strength since I saw him make his senior home debut as a substitute against Tottenham in December, 2009, when he changed the game, making two goals. As well as being a very good player, Seamus is a lovely lad, humble and with time for everyone. A wonderful example to any youngster hoping to make a career in the game.

Barkley, 20, much praised by manager Roberto Martinez throughout his full debut season, was another worthy recipient. His fabulous strike against Manchester City last weekend, in front of watching England manager Roy Hodgson, might just have clinched his place on the ‘plane to Brazil for the World Cup.

So many players, Distin, Barry, Lukaku, McCarthy, Howard, were candidates for Player of the Year, but you could not argue with Coleman as the choice of both the fans and his team-mates. If he and Barkley maintain their progress, which I’m sure they will, the omens are good for Everton next season.


Blue Moon

I KNOW from personal experience, as player and manager, that diehard Manchester City fans will still not be taking their second Premier League title triumph for granted, even though they require just one point, at home to West Ham, on Sunday to make it a reality. Too often down the decades, City fans have experienced a twist in the tail – when things seemed to be going so well, or so badly!

However, it will take the severest case of Cityitis – a phrase I coined when I was team boss there – for this so-talented team to slip up now. The awesome Yaya Toure has hit top form at just the right time – what an incredible goal he added to his impressive repertoire last night, charging away from Villa’s defenders as if they were wearing flip-flops – and, if he and his team-mates are in similar mood on Sunday, I cannot see West Ham spoiling the party. City haven’t been on top of the table too often this season, but they are now – and I think that’s where they’ll be come tea-time Sunday.

Certainly, Everton fans hope that will be the case, for the thought of a Liverpool success is doing their heads in.  At the Everton players’ awards dinner last night, when news of City’s 4-0 win came through, a spontaneous chorus of the City anthem Blue Moon broke out!


Manchester Dis-United

AS I watched this oh-so-ordinary Manchester United team losing, yet again, at home to Sunderland on Saturday I couldn’t help but think that the Old Trafford fans, so stunned and bewildered by their team’s fall from grace, will probably have to suffer for some time before they see a return to former glories. I remain convinced that ex-manager David Moyes inherited a dysfunctional, fading group and that winning the title with this lot last season was arguably Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest achievement.

More to the point, I reckon that whoever comes in as manager – and it looks likely to be Louis Van Gaal – he is unlikely to have United contesting the title by this time next season. The overhaul required looks too big for there to be a quick fix. United have got too many similar players, too many players whose best position is not identified and not enough stars. The era of Cantona, Van Nistelrooy, Scholes, Giggs, Beckham etc is gone. Now, only Rooney and Van Persie are big, big players – and Van Persie needs to get his act together, for he seems to me to have lost his focus with the retirement of Sir Alex.

He certainly wasn’t on the pitch often enough during Moyes’s ill-fated time at the club. Given the millions of pounds United have invested in their medical staff and facilities, I was surprised that Van Persie deemed it necessary to go to his native Holland for treatment recently. If Van Gaal is the new manager, perhaps he will have as good a chance as anyone of getting his compatriot back on track. Certainly, United need Van Persie and Rooney firing on all cylinders next season. And that would be only the start of the re-fit they require.


Hot shot Barkley

EVERTON’S Ross Barkley may have clinched his place in England’s World Cup squad – to  be announced on Monday – with his wonder goal against Manchester City at the weekend. Barkley’s sensational, bending, dipping shot has to be a contender for Goal of the Season and his strike was the highlight of the 20-year-old’s best game for some weeks. The goal also dispelled in an instant any pre-match suggestion that Everton would not give 100 per cent in a match where victory for them would have been a huge boost to Liverpool’s title prospects.

Unfortunately for Everton, they could not quite cope in the absence of injured centre-back Sylvin Distin and with Phil Jagielka returning from injury and looking around 80 per cent fit. When without one, or both, of those centre-halves this season, the team has looked a little vulnerable. But, whatever happens in the final game at Hull on Sunday, it has been a wonderful first season in charge for Roberto Martinez. I’m sure the Goodison faithful are looking forward to next season with optimism and a sense of excitement at what might lie ahead.

Dilemma over Gerrard

LIVERPOOL’S dramatic collapse at Crystal Palace, squandering a three-goal lead and, almost certainly, their Premier League title hopes into the bargain, highlighted the one obvious deficiency in their make-up, namely their shortage of top quality holding midfield players. In the absence of the suspended Jordan Henderson, Liverpool lacked a midfielder with the discipline and know-how required to put a break on Palace’s rampant forwards. Lucas is there to do a job, but he doesn’t have the athleticism of Henderson.

The situation that left the players, their manager and, most of all, the travelling fans looking shell-shocked, in my opinion threw the spotlight on, of all people, skipper Steven Gerrard and his new “defensive” midfield role. Gerrard is one of the best players Liverpool and England have ever had, but, as I’ve said here before, he is not, repeat not, a defensive midfielder. He reads the game brilliantly, he starts moves from deep positions and he hits marvellous, long balls to the likes of Suarez and Sturridge. But, Gerrard simply does not have a defensive mentality, which is why so many managers, of Liverpool and England, have played him wide right rather than in the centre.

He isn’t a defensive midfielder. He’s a quarter-back, a play-maker. England manager Roy Hodgson was at Selhurst Park last night and I wonder if he is thinking what I am thinking: If Gerrard is to play in a similar role at the World Cup then he must have a minder, a player such as Gareth Barry, of Everton, or Tom Huddlestone, who has done such a great job for promoted Hull City (and who would, surely, have done a similar job for Tottenham had they kept him).

Liverpool have been beating teams because of their vibrant, attacking style but they don’t have the know-how of Chelsea, who stifle the opposition with their “thou shall not pass” approach. To use a popular, modern phrase, their game management was poor. They didn’t start putting passes together, putting the ball into the corners, when the pressure was on. The panic effect does set in at times, when you have been cruising and, suddenly, find yourselves under the cosh. I remember my Oldham side being 5-1 up at Portsmouth and ending at 5-4. Another five minutes and we would probably have lost 6-5! Brendan Rodgers men could have scored 10 on the night at Palace. Instead, they capitulated and, for the first time, the title is now Manchester City’s to claim.