Player Recruitment

Lukaku, they love you

GET set for a scramble to sign Chelsea’s apparently unwanted strikers Demba Ba and Romelu Lukaku this summer…and I fervently hope that Everton will be the lucky ones when it comes to the latter. The fact that Lukaku has been on loan for the past two seasons, at West Brom and, now, Everton, tells me he, like Demba Ba and Fernando Torres, is not high on manager Jose Mourinho’s radar. He did a great job for the Albion last season and he has been the talismanic striker at Goodison. And the remarkable thing is the lad is still only 20 years old. Lukaku swerved the issue of his club future when questioned this week, diplomatically insisting his focus is on helping Everton claim the fourth, and final, Champions League-qualifying place.

I know, if Chelsea say he is for sale, that the price will be high and that could be a problem for Everton, who do not have a bottomless pit of money and who are a well-run club. Chairman Bill Kenwright and his directors will not be irresponsible when it comes to the transfer market. On the credit side, in terms of Everton’s prospects of hanging on to Lukaku, is the fact that the player knows he is loved by the manager, Roberto Martinez – witness his joyful rush to embrace Martinez after scoring that tremendous goal against Arsenal last week – and that does count for a lot in a player’s mind. That is especially so with strikers, that highly-strung breed of footballer! Witness the post-match interview given by Champions League goal hero Ba the other night, who made little attempt to disguise his disappointment at being overlooked so regularly by Mourinho. I reckon many a manager, here and abroad, will have pricked up their ears.

One thing Lukakau, who has two years remaining on his Chelsea contract, knows for sure is that, if he stays at Goodison, he will be treasured by his manager, his team-mates and the fans, who know a good centre-forward when they see one!

 

Goal star Rhodes

JORDAN RHODES rammed home a message to former club Ipswich – and the Premier League in general – on Saturday when he struck his 50th league goal for Blackburn, his 23rd goal in 44 games this season. I said last summer that I wouldn’t be surprised if a Premier League club or two made Rovers an offer for their prolific 24-year-old Scotland international striker, who was sold to Huddersfield by my former club Ipswich in 2009. I’m thinking precisely the same as we go into this summer.

Some people may have raised their eyebrows when Rovers shelled out £8million for Rhodes in 2012 – but I didn’t. One of the last things I said to chairman David Sheepshanks when I vacated the Ipswich job was: ‘Look after young Rhodes. He’s got what it takes.” I said so knowing there were doubts within the Academy about the lad’s talent. Sure enough, when Roy Keane – who was in the crowd on Saturday as Rhodes struck against Ipswich – took charge at Portman Road, the player was transferred. I took the lad on at Ipswich on the recommendation of his dad, Andy, my goalkeeper coach, taking him from Barnsley’s Academy after being convinced inside 20 minutes of a trial match. He has gone from strength to strength and is a player who, if he gets the ball while facing goal, you feel will score. He did that regularly for Huddersfield and he’s been doing the same for Blackburn. Surely it cannot be long before he gets the chance at the top level.

 

 

Tower of strength

EVERTON manager Roberto Martinez has beaten West Ham’s Sam Allardyce to the signing of towering Monaco striker Lacina Traore on loan until the end of the season. If Traore proves half as effective as Martinez’s other loanees, Gareth Barry, Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu, then he will be a big hit at Goodison Park. The 6ft 8in forward  will, hopefully, prove to be the ideal back-up – if not occasional partner – for the impressive Lukaku who, thankfully, has led the line beyond the halfway point in the season without getting injured.

Everton’s success with Traore is another hammer blow for The Hammers, whose inability to score this season was never so glaringly exposed as when up against goal-mad Manchester City in the capital One Cup semi-final. City thrashed them 9-0 over the two legs, 3-0 in Tuesday’s match at Upton Park when not playing their first-choice midfielders, which merely consolidated my career-long belief that a team is as good or as bad as its front players. Big Sam had record signing Andy Carroll in the side for the first time, following serious injury, but Carroll will need time to get match fit. Meanwhile, The Hammers are involved in an increasingly-intriguing relegation fight, with Manchester United’s cup conquerors Sunderland looking more confident by the week and Tony Pulis working well to restore life to the corpse that was Crystal Palace.

Okay, I would love to see more British – English in particular – players in the Premier League, but one thing is for sure, the multi-national mix is making for a thrilling scenario at both the top and bottom of the league.

 

Blue recruits

THE word is that Everton, along with Liverpool and Manchester United, are  keeping a watchful eye of Sheffield United’s promising teenage striker Diego de Girolamo, born in Chesterfield and with an Italian father. De Girolamo, who is returning to action after a 10-month fitness fight following a rupture to his anterior cruciate ligaments, is an Italian Under 18s star who retains eligibility to play for England and is clearly a young man for the future. I won’t be surprised, though, to see Everton boss Roberto `Martinez sign an experienced striker before the window closes in two weeks, especially as he has sold Jelavic to Hull City. That decision leaves Martinez with Romanu Lukaku as his only top-class striker and, should he get injured, Everton would be in trouble if they don’t bring in quality back-up. To that end, I could see Stoke’s Kenwyne Jones fitting the bill. Jones has height, pace and power and, though his motivation has at times been questioned, there is no doubt the talent is there  and I could imagine Martinez being the man to bring out the best in him.

Zero tolerance required

THE ugly spectre of diving – simulation as it is officially described – has dominated the football headlines again these past few days and it really is time decisive action was taken in a bid to stamp out what is a disgraceful stain on the game. Not for the first time, I am suggesting that a zero tolerance policy be implemented by the Football Association, with referees told to brandish a red card every time they believe a player has cheated. And I also think players should be immediately sent off if they question the referee’s decisions. The authorities simply must be positive about restoring respect for the officials and in their attempts to stamp out the repugnant diving which, while it may be food and drink to the controversy-hungry media, is an ugly practice that threatens to undermine the basic integrity of “the beautiful game.”

Referees and their assistants running the line are being put under far too much pressure, not only by players who harangue them and who over-react in a bid to influence decisions, but also by trial by the TV replay. Linesmen are being held to account nowadays because a replay shows they didn’t see that a player was half a yard offside! And another thing. My zero tolerance policy would incorporate the disgusting offence of waving an imaginary card in the referee’s face, a shameful attempt to get an opponent booked or sent off. People pay a lot of money to go to Premier League – and other category – football matches and they should not have to witness the witless and damn right disrespectful sort of behaviour I am referring to. I see that Southampton have complained that referee Mark Clattenburg allegedly disrespected their England forward Adam Llallana – who was questioning why his team had not been awarded a penalty – a claim that has been thrown out by the professional body that governs referees. Surely, the point is that Llallana should not have been remonstrating with the official in the first place. Had Llallana been shown a red card for insubordination, he would no doubt think twice before questioning an official again.

The fact is that this sort of behaviour has become the norm in the past 10-20 years, and to say I find it tiresome is to massively understate my feelings. I am sick of the sight of players surrounding the referee, brandishing imaginary cards in referees’ faces – and making a meal of it when they are tackled. And I applaud the Manchester United fanzine Red Issue, which has published an article decrying the antics of several of their players –  new boy Januzaj has already been booked an astonishing four times for simulation and Ashley Young has developed a reputation as a diver – and implored manager David Moyes to “sort it.” Moyes did say earlier this season he would speak to the teenager. If he did, it looks as though the message didn’t get across. To their credit, the people at Red Issue insist they can live with defeat, but they cannot accept the sight of players “disgracing the club” by cheating while wearing the famous red shirt. This is the sort of protest that must become an outcry from fans in general and everyone who has the interests of the game as a whole at heart. The authorities must face the fact that the Premier League, which has become a global, multi-billion pound product, is being tarnished by the unruly behaviour of some players. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has got involved, suggesting players who cheat be left on the sideline for a while until the referee decides they can return to the pitch.

Referees – whatever happened to the FA’s “Respect” campaign? – are in a no-win situation when it comes to players exaggerating their reaction to a challenge. The man with the whistle has a split-second to make his decision and, thus, he will get some wrong and some right. Former Grade One ref Graham Poll has made the point that Howard Webb may, understandably, have been prejudiced against Ashley Young, because of the player’s reputation for diving, when he did not give a penalty when the United star was taken out by Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris on the edge of the box. That is precisely what I believe was the case with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, who was refused a penalty when clattered at Chelsea last week, having gone down like he’d been shot. Suarez was fouled – but you can only cry wolf so many times before you get ignored. It would be a darn sight easier for the referee if he could rely upon honest, no-nonsense reaction when players are tackled. Believe me, when I was playing, over 30 years ago, there was a much more genuine approach on the pitch and certainly no pretend card-waving or dying-swan-type diving, which must be a nightmare for referees to deal with. If they start showing red every time they suspect a dive, occasionally a player will be wrongly punished. But the message will soon get across and the practice will be stamped out. Why would you take the risk if you were in no doubt about the severe consequences?

I accept that there is much, much more money involved these days and, as a result, much more pressure on players and managers. But there can be no excuse for rank disrespecting of referees or for cheating. If rugby players can batter away at each other as they strive for victory and, at the same time, accept the referee’s word without demur, why can’t footballers? It’s time to clean up your act, guys.

BLACKBURN host Manchester City in the FA Cup third round tomorrow and what a day it could prove to be for Jordan Rhodes. I pondered whether a Premier League club would try to sign the Rovers star last summer. Now, with Rhodes hitting 16 goals before Christmas to cement his reputation as a prolific striker, I suggest that a strike against the Premier League title favourites would spark enquiries from several top-flight clubs in the remaining few weeks of the transfer window. Rhodes cost Blackburn £8million when signed from Huddersfield two years ago and, though the Championship club say they are in no hurry to sell, we all know that every player has his price. And none more so than successful strikers.

 

 

These Toffees are tasty

WHAT a wonderful five days it has been for Everton, who followed their fantastic, long overdue victory at Manchester United with a thoroughly deserved point at Arsenal on Sunday, when they achieved a rare feat in the first 45 minutes by out-playing the league leaders at the possession game. The Blues had something like 60 per cent of the ball in that first half as they showed they can compete with the best at the modern game, i.e. midfield-dominated possession football, a la Barcelona. I do think that, at times, this style can be a bit slow, but there is no doubt the best way to defend well – and to attack – is by having the ball! If you’ve got it, the opposition can’t be hurting you. Once again, Roberto Martinez’s glittering array of midfield talent was gloriously in evidence, with Gareth Barry doing his usual great job in the holding role and lads like Ross Barkley and the increasingly-impressive Gerard Deulofeu looking more and more like a star of the present than one for the future.

I said that the Toffees were going into a big examination week and the conclusion is that they have passed the test with flying colours. What must really be encouraging for Martinez is that he has quickly arrived at a situation where there is genuine competition for places in the team. Guys like Johnny Heitinga and Tony Hibbert, who has been out injured, will have to fight hard to get into this side and, most intriguing of all, is the situation facing Leighton Baines when he is fit again, for the young Costa Rican Bryan Oviedo has excelled since stepping in at left-back. If Everton, who, with the one defeat are statistically the hardest team to beat in the Premier League, can get to Christmas on the edge of, or in, the top four, then the fans have every right to think anything is possible in the second half of the season. My two concerns are whether injuries to any one of Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin or the prolific Romelu Lukakau would leave Martinez short of adequate cover at centre-back and striker.  Rumours persist that Dutchman Heitinga will want out in January because he needs regular football at this stage of his career. Hibbert could come in at centre-half, but it’s not his ideal role, and summer signing Alcaraz is still waiting for his chance. There is also youngster John Stones, signed from Barnsley, who is highly thought of at Goodison. Up front is a bigger worry, with Jelavic struggling to find the form that fired up the fans on his arrival the season before last and Kone, like Alcaraz a recruit from Martinez’s former club Wigan, still to compete after injury. So, let us hope that Lukaku, a superb athlete as well as a prolific goalscorer, stays fit to spearhead the best looking Everton team in nearly 20 years.

The win at Old Trafford served to emphasise the decline of title holders Manchester United, whose subsequent fifth defeat – again at home – to Newcastle has left David Moyes staring into the abyss in terms of a defending the Premier League Championship. United look hopelessly adrift now and their dramatic abdication has left us with a wide open title race and a gap at the top that Everton and Liverpool – they must be hoping skipper Steven Gerrard will not be out for too long with a hamstring problem – have gloriously filled. Arsenal are in poll position and playing vintage Arsene Wenger-inspired football, but the main reason, in my opinion, for their resurgence is not the record, £40m signing of midfield star Mesut Ozil, excellent though he has been, but the cementing of the Per Mertesacker-Laurent Koscielny partnership at centre-back. These two, who have had the frustrating habit of allowing ‘bad’ goals in the past, now look an assured, solid pairing and they are the base upon which creative players such as Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Arteta and Walcott have been able to build. Throw a Jose Mourinho-rejuvenated Chelsea, the big-spending, if misfiring, Tottenham and the talent-packed Manchester City into the mix and you have a new-look picture, one that promises a lot of twists and turns in the next five months. While the fans of these clubs have every reason to look ahead with optimism, United’s supporters may have to rely upon success in the cup competitions, maybe even the Champions League, if they are to supplement their current diet of bitter shandy with their regular tipple, champagne.

I WAS saddened to read about the match-fixing allegations, particularly those involving a player at one of my former clubs, Oldham, which have cast a dark shadow over the game. In my long career, the one and only time I ever experienced anything sinister in this respect was when, as Everton’s centre-forward, I played in a European tie at Panathanaikos, in Greece, when it was subsequently alleged that the Swiss referee was bribed. The current accusations regarding the fixing of yellow cards, throw-ins, corner-kicks etc show, alarmingly, how vulnerable the game is to such malpractice. Such occurrences, clearly, are easily “arranged.” We must all hope that the authorities get to the source of this cancer and cut it out.

 

Saints alive

I TAKE off my hat to Southampton Football Club, whose 4-1 win against Hull at the weekend cemented their place in the Premier League’s top four and, arguably, marked them as the team of the season thus far. This is the club which languished in League One 30 months ago and is now entrenched in third place in the top tier, its sights set on the Champions League. Something special is happening down on the South Coast and I would think that most, if not all, of the established big guns are looking at The Saints and asking how and why. The news last week that England manager Roy Hodgson had called up Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez to the squad for the two friendlies with Chile and Germany is sufficient to tell us that whatever they are doing at St Mary’s, they are doing it right. But there is far more evidence of the remarkable story being written at Southampton’s state-of-the-art £30million Marchwood training ground.

Left-back Luke Shaw and wide right midfielder James Ward-Prowse, both 18 and in the England Under-21 squad, are threatening to gatecrash the World Cup party next summer. And the Saints academy success story doesn’t end there. Three other teenagers, Callum Chambers, Matt Targett and Jordan Turnbull are established in the Under-19s. Now, I have been a big critic of the much-vaunted, extremely expensive Academy system at the majority of clubs, for the facts show that too few players have come through to become established Premier League players. However, I can only doff my hat to Southampton who, quite clearly, have bucked the trend.

Chairman Nicola Cortese raised eyebrows, including mine, when sacking Nigel Adkins, who had led the team back into the top flight, and appointing countryman Mauricio Pochettino. Twelve months down the line, as the Saints go marching on, who is to argue? Pochettino’s team not only plays with a sense of adventure, it also displays tremendous discipline, a goals-against total of five from 11 matches being proof of my point. Signor Pochettino is clearly motivational and inspirational – and, so far as I understand, he hasn’t yet learned to speak English! Pochettino presides over a “small town,” “second tier” club which boasts one more senior England international than Manchester City or Arsenal and as many as Chelsea, and with a stack of them on the verge of breaking through. And this is the club which gave us Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier 25 years ago and, more recently, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale, of Real Madrid.

I don’t know what is going on down there, but I do know that Cortese and his head of  football development Les Reed travelled the world, studying best practice at the best clubs, and some non-football organisations, before finalising their plans for the Marchwood project, which is due for completion next year. Pochettino, himself a product of one of Argentina’s best youth academies, at Newell’s Old Boys, obviously shares the vision of Cortese, who said recently: “The philosophy is to implement a playing style not from top to bottom, but from bottom to top, starting with the under-eights. We would want to see a starting X1 in the Premier League that is fed from our youth development.”

What a wonderful outlook and approach to the challenge of producing a successful team of home-grown players. And what an example the Saints are setting to the big city, big-spending clubs, whose Academies are trailing in the wake of their seaside rivals. I understand that, while on his fact-finding travels, Cortese was struck by the example of Barcelona’s La Masia Academy, which spawned the majority of the players who formed what is, arguably, the best club side in history, Lionel Messi et al. Southampton seem to be saying: “If Barcelona can do it, so can we.” Manchester City owner Sheik Mansour has indicated he is calling a halt to the big spending after investing a massive £1billion, turning the spotlight instead on to the Academy. Well, City, if Barcelona and Southampton can do it…

 

 

Christmas cracker Rooney

I WILL not be surprised if Manchester United fans get a Christmas present in the shape of Wayne Rooney signing a new “contract for life,” and a follow-up boost in the January transfer window, with the arrival of a midfield playmaker. Former United coach Rene Muelensteen has nominated Borussia Dortmund’s German international Ilkay Gundogan as the player who could knit it together for David Moyes. I would put Chelsea’s Juan Mata in the frame. The Spaniard, who was mooted as a part-exchange when rumours were rife that Rooney could join Chelsea last summer, might well be available if he doesn’t start getting more games under Jose Mourinho. On the face of it, United’s fans can be confident that the Rooney issue is settled, with the 28-year-old back to his world-class best, as he showed when sparkling in Sunday’s massive win against Premier League leaders Arsenal.

Rooney was awesome as both the inspirational marshall of a magnificent collective midfield display, helping out Carrick, Jones, Kagawa and Valencia, and the architect of United’s attacking moves.This was the Wayne Rooney of two years ago, the player who didn’t know the meaning of a lost cause. I remember, a couple of seasons back, watching him chase down a winger who had gone past full-back Patrice Evra. What an appetite for the game! I suspect Sir Alex Ferguson detected a reduction in that appetite and decided to jolt Rooney late last season, when axing him from the team to face Real Madrid in United’s glamour game of the season. The result was  Rooney’s public display of disaffection with life at Old Trafford and, with Ferguson’s retirement, what looked like a grenade with the pin out for successor Moyes to pick up. Well, all credit to Moyes, who seems to have handled a difficult situation well. Rooney is not only playing with all his old skill, enthusiasm and determination, he also appears to me to have reached a new level of self control. Rooney comes from a tough area of Liverpool only about a mile from where I was raised, so I didn’t have any trouble translating the foul-mouthed diatribe he used to level at referees when he was unhappy with decisions – not that you needed to be a lip-reader, anyway! However, I detect a more mature Rooney this season, a man who checks himself before reacting to a perceived injustice on the pitch. There was a moment against Arsenal when he clearly believed he had been hard done to but, where he would once have erupted in four-letter fury, here he contented himself with a puzzled look before picking himself up and getting on with the game.

Maybe United have been waiting to see if Rooney would respond to Moyes and regain his form before deciding whether to offer a contract extension. If so, surely they have their answer. The boy is definitely back! If Rooney goes into next summer without a new deal, and with one year left on his current contract, his value will plummet. And, of course, the following summer he would be available on a free transfer. In this form, he is not only United’s, but also England’s, best forward so, why would the powers that be at Old Trafford not try to keep him there for the remaining, best years of his career?

If Rooney is returned to his impressive best, United as a unit look like they are getting there after a disciplined midfield display which, I admit, I did not think they had in them. Arsenal are the best team in the league at getting behind opponents and to the byline, but United worked so hard to stop them that they did not manage it at all. United certainly had size on their side and, especially in the absence of the towering Per Mertesacker, stricken with illness before the match, the Gunners were really cut down to size. The likes of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla never got to grips with the challenge of breaking down United’s midfield iron curtain. The only time they had a glimmer of hope was when Phil Jones moved back to partner Jonny Evans, with Tom Cleverley coming off the bench and into midfield. Still, they could not put together many of the one-twos that have proved too much for most teams to handle this season. Twenty minutes had passed before Arsenal put three passes together and I don’t recall United keeper David De Gea having a save to make. In retrospect, I think Arsenal showed the strain of two huge matches – and victories – against Liverpool, then Dortmund, the previous week and they are too good not to come back from this defeat. Arsene Wenger said afterwards that the international break which now follows has come at the wrong time, wishing instead that he could get his team back in action quickly. I disagree. I think he can use the next two weeks to sit and talk with his staff and properly analyse this defeat and the way forward. He and his coaches may well reconsider the zonal marking strategy that put Van Persie into penalty area heaven as he ran, unmarked, for 10 yards before powering home the header which ‘killed’ his old team-mates.

The zonal system is all well and good if you have – as Wenger’s great ‘Invincibles’ team did – huge defenders like Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown, men who can attack the ball with power and purpose. On Sunday, and with Mertesacker conspicuous by his absence, a line of defenders was straddling the six-yard box, almost inert, while Van Persie charged in to deliver the coup de grace. Believe me, as a centre-forward, I can tell you there is not much that is more disconcerting than trying to meet a corner, a free-kick or a cross with a big defender’s arms all over you. I – along with big centre-forward contemporaries of mine like Wyn and Ron Davies, Peter Osgood and the lean but Zebedee-like leaper Denis Law – would have thrived on the zonal system, which hadn’t found its way over from the Continent in my playing days. Despite this setback, Wenger, I suspect, still has the nice problem of deciding what is his best team, once everyone is fit while Moyes, though massively boosted by the win, will still try to bring in a proven midfielder, an authentic all-rounder in the mould of a Robson, Keane or Scholes.

AS for my title tips, Manchester City, they, along with Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton slumped to unpredictable setbacks over the weekend. The Stadium of Light is a dark place for City, in danger of becoming the graveyard of their title ambitions following a fourth successive 1-0 defeat there. Manuel Pellegrini’s all-stars can, realistically, afford to lose only twice more if they are to fulfil their potential this season. Despite the wealth of talent at his disposal, Manuel Pellegrini still has problem positions, like left-back, where Gael Clichy and Aleksander Kolarov carry question marks and central defence where, in the continued absence of Vincent Kompany, the team remains vulnerable. Garcia has had plenty of opportunity, in different positions, without being able to cement a role and Demichelis is clearly still finding his feet. Meanwhile, with kingpin Kompany still missing, midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure, the talisman, is a frustrated and frustrating figure. Toure should be running games, but, in the absence of the rock-like Kompany, I get the impression he is being told to hang around rather than run at the opposition. And, I’ll say it again, the City player who could make the difference for them is down the road, on loan at Everton…Gareth Barry.

Not that Barry was able to inspire the Toffees to victory at bottom club Crystal Palace, where the 0-0 was, arguably, the surprise result of a weekend of surprises. I thought that was an away banker for my old club. It certainly wasn’t the result they needed with the Merseyside derby at Goodison coming up in two weeks, especially with Liverpool maintaining their impressive form by thrashing Fulham at Anfield. I will look at the derby next week, a fixture which played such a big part in my career, both as player and manager. Tottenham, who spent even more than City in the summer, continue to cause concern for manager Andre Villas-Boas. Having ‘discovered’ England winger Andros Townsend, in the wake of Gareth Bale’s exit to Real Madrid, Spurs have failed to find a goalscorer. Jermaine Defoe is their best bet, but he can’t get into the team because he can’t play as a lone striker. Expensive recruit Soldado is not  as prolific a finisher as Defoe and he is certainly not a target man in the mould of a Mark Hughes. It is a headache for Villas-Boas, who will know that more was expected after such a big summer spend. The late penalty that rescued a point at home for Chelsea split opinion, but I have to say, if the boot had been on the other foot and West Brom had been in desperate need of the award, their boss Steve Clark would, like Mourinho did, have claimed it was a legitimate spot-kick, albeit a bit of a soft one.

Another team desperately in need of firepower is West Ham who are sliding down the table, having scored only nine goals in 11 matches with three of those coming in what increasingly looks an improbable 3-0 win at Tottenham the other week. Unless they can get big Andy Carroll fit, the Hammers will struggle. And, if Sam Allardyce’s loyal and trusted midfielder Kevin Nolan gets injured I dread to think what might happen. Nolan and Under-21 star Ravel Morrison are their only hopes for a goal in the absence of Carroll, who is yet to play since his summer transfer from Liverpool. Stoke, too, are making heavy weather of it under new boss Mark Hughes, who succeeded long-serving Tony Pulis last summer. Stoke went 2-0 up at Swansea and contrived to draw 3-3 – courtesy of a controversial, late penalty. Pulis was axed amidst a clamour for more of an expansive style, but I did warn then: Beware of what you wish for in football!

A SIGN-OFF mention for my first club as a manager, Oldham Athletic, who I went to watch in the FA Cup tie with Wolves. The club, the town and its people will always have a place in my heart and I left Boundary Park after the 1-1 draw with mixed emotions. Young manager Lee Johnson deserves praise for the football his team is playing, passing the ball well and with a good attitude in the unit. However, there is an old saying in the game, namely you are as good or as bad as your front players. And Oldham’s forwards are not scoring enough goals. The big problem is that goalscorers cost money and Oldham haven’t got any money. The all-round product is good but the positive results are not being achieved and what worries me is that there will come a spell when the team is not playing so well. Then, the pressure will really be on.

 

 

 

 

Oh, no…not deja vu, City

I SAT, transfixed as if in a time warp, watching Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic head over his onrushing goalkeeper Joe Hart to gift Fernando Torres Chelsea’s winner at Stamford Bridge in the final minute of time added. It was a colossal, potentially catastrophic, mix-up between the two City players a mistake that had me shuddering as I relived a similar nightmarish moment from 37 years ago. On December 29, 1976, City played Liverpool, with whom they were vying for leadership of the old First Division and, subsequently, the title, just as they are this season with Chelsea. I had put City 1-0 up in a match seen as crucial to the outcome of the title race and what happened next was brought back into stunning focus by events at The Bridge on Sunday. As we battled to maintain a lead and get a win that would have been a massive boost to our title ambitions, centre-half Dave Watson sent a back header over keeper Joe Corrigan and into the net for an own goal. The match was drawn 1-1… and Liverpool went on to win the title from City by one point!

Now, I know there is an awful long way to go before this season’s outcome, but all I can say, from City’s point of view, is that I hope, come next May, they do not have cause to look back on this mad moment, having just missed out on the big prize by one point. For one point was in their grasp, and deservedly so, as the seconds ticked down on Sunday evening. The inquest into that costly clanger will be under way at City’s training ground, but the damage is done and manager Manuel Pellegrini can only hope there are no more suicidal mistakes. Frankly, City cannot afford any further lapses if they are to fulfil their potential and become champions for the second time in three seasons. For, in my opinion, they are their own worst enemies. Pellegrini’s squad is the strongest in the Premier League and the team should be in a better position in the table. However, City – described by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho after this match as “the best in the league” – keep shooting themselves in the  foot and I believe there is one particular weakness, in the holding midfield area. When City pipped Manchester United to the title two seasons ago, the key players were midfielders Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry. Having claimed the crown, City let Dutch World Cup final ace de Jong leave the club and I don’t think he has been adequately replaced, despite the signings of Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell. When Pellegrini succeeded Roberto Mancini last summer he sent England star Barry to my other former top-flight club Everton, having spent £30m on Fernandinho. The Brazilian is obviously a class act, yet I can’t help but think that, on the evidence thus far, Everton are emerging as the main beneficiary from this chain of events. Barry has been outstanding as Everton have made such an impressive start to the campaign. He hardly ever misplaces a pass – he produced a beauty on Saturday from which Leon Osman struck the clincher in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa – and I think City miss the combined influence of him and de Jong in front of their back four.

The back four? Well, there is no doubt that, in the continuing absence of injured Vincent Kompany, City have another problem. They brought in Martin Demichellis as cover for their captain and key defender and I’m not convinced he is the man for the job. It might be that Micah Richards, who can’t nail down his right-back place because of the superb form of Pablo Zabaleta, would give City a more formidable presence at the heart of defence. I know there are doubts about Richards’s discipline in that role, but he is certainly a muscular, powerful figure, brimful of energy and aggression. He is worthy of consideration while the team struggles to adjust without the massive influence of Kompany. I also believe these factors combine to give a possible explanation for the frustrating failure of the awesome Yaya Toure to dominate every match, which he is capable of doing. When Kompany is missing, too often Toure assumes a more defensive posture, playing matches where he tends to blend rather than impose. The Ivorian midfielder is one of several  magicians in the City ranks, such as David Silva, Samir Nasri and strikers Sergio Aguero  and Alvaro Negredo, players who can change a game with a touch of genius. But Pellegrini must tighten things up at the back and in midfield in order that these guys can cast their spells on the opposition, keep City’s challenge going right to the end – and avoid the prospect of arriving at the final day and looking back in dismay at “that” goal at Stamford Bridge.

At this point I must give credit to Torres, whose lung-bursting run in pursuit of Nastasic’s ill-conceived header enabled him to squeeze the ball inside the near post and complete a personal display that was further evidence of his rehabilitation under Mourinho. Like the reinstated John Terry, at centre-back, Torres appears to be thriving with the “Special One” back in control at Chelsea and he is starting to look like the devastating striker he was at Liverpool a few years ago. While on my favourite subject, strikers, let me add my voice to the TV debate between Alan Hansen and Robbie Savage at the weekend, when Savage nominated Liverpool’s Luis Suarez – what a fabulous hat-trick against West Brom – and Daniel Sturridge as his top partnership, with Hansen going for Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. My pick of the “pairs” is City’s Aguero and Silva, though I concede that Silva is not a pure striker. These two are demonstrating an increasingly-telepathic understanding and they display utter respect for each other’s abilities on the pitch. With players like these, I must stick to my prediction that City will be in the mix at the end of the season.

WHAT a monumental win for Gus Poyet and his Sunderland team in the Wear-Tyne derby! Defeat is tough to take in a big-city derby, and the pain for Newcastle this week will be severe. But it would have been so much worse for the Black Cats had they had their tails tweaked by their arch rivals and been left with just one point from nine matches. Only once in Premier League history has a team with one point from a possible 24, which was Sunderland’s situation going into the match, escaped the drop. That was in 1998/99 when Southampton won their last three matches to stay up. This 2-1 success lifted Sunderland  off the foot of the table, above Crystal Palace, and it gives Poyet something to build on. Having brought in one or two players who he believes can do him a job, like Bardsley and Colback, Poyet now needs to work on developing a new-found spirit. Certainly, in O’Shea  and Cuellar, two vastly experienced players, I believe Sunderland have much more stability at the back than Palace, who face an increasingly difficult fight to survive in the wake of Ian Holloway’s decision to quit. Four times Palace have gone into the Premier League and four times they have been relegated straight away. It’s going to be a helluva task to avoid a fifth first-time demotion. Holloway brought in 14 players in the summer and gave up the struggle to integrate them. I did warn at the start of the season how tricky it would be for Palace to adjust to the extra demands of the big-time and I did so bearing the scars of my harsh experience at Manchester City. We barnstormed through two divisions in two seasons to get into the Premier League and I knew that too many of the players who got us there would not be up to the challenge of keeping us there. Looking at the Palace squad that won promotion, I sensed they faced similar problems to mine in 2000-2001.

FINALLY a word of congratulation to League One Bristol City on their 4-2 win at Carlisle, their first league win since March. What a huge boost for Sean O’Driscoll and his players, who were relegated last season. And what a relief to get that monkey off their backs. City were my second-last club as a player, from 1977-1980 and I have nothing but good memories of Ashton Gate, the city and its people. As a member of the League Managers’ Association Performance of the Week panel, along with Sir Alex Ferguson, Barry Fry and Dave “Harry” Bassett, I give my vote to The Robins.

 

 

 

Barry booster for Everton

Gareth Barry has been given a new lease of life by Everton in a move that could be really good news for the blue half of Merseyside – and, possibly, bad for the blue half of Manchester. Everton played hardball with Manchester United to get the fee, £27million, they wanted for midfielder Marouane Fellaini and then moved swiftly to sign Barry from Manchester City on a one-year loan deal, as well as spending around £13million on Wigan’s James McCarthy. McCarthy is a good player, one of the men who made the difference in the terrific, comeback win at West Ham. But I believe the acquisition of Barry might prove a masterstroke by Goodison manager Roberto Martinez.

This is a 32-year-old who is by no means past his best, a talented, vastly-experienced midfielder, a veteran of 500 league games and a player who still has the quality to get back into the England team, for whom he has not played since May last year. Barry spent 12 years at Aston Villa and the past four at Manchester City, where he was a key figure in their Premier League title win two seasons ago. I am not going to suggest that he will propel Everton to similar glory, but I do think he will prove to be an important component as my former club tries to build on an impressive start that sees them as the only unbeaten team after five matches. Barry has paid the price for City’s multi-million pound splurge on talent in the transfer window, but Everton’s gain might be City’s loss for here is a terrific signing, an often underrated player who wins the ball, takes it and passes it. He reminds me of one of the unsung heroes of my Everton team in the mid-90′s, Joe Parkinson, who did a similar holding job. Barry is on a one-season loan deal but I won’t be surprised if Everton are not talking to him, and to City, long before next summer about making the move permanent.

I am impressed by Everton’s encouraging start and thrilled for my friend and Goodison chairman Bill Kenwright and for the fans. Fellaini’s departure to Old Trafford has been more than compensated for by the arrival of Barry and McCarthy and the fact that Leighton Baines did not accompany Fellaini to Manchester United is another massive plus. Baines, for me, confirmed his status as the best English left-back – and undoubtedly best English free-kick striker – with his two tremendous goals at West Ham, which secured a second successive win, following the morale-boosting victory against Chelsea. Baines has been unlucky to be in the shadow of the consistent Ashley Cole, of Chelsea, who has won more than 100 caps, and the Evertonian will probably face further stiff competition for England recognition from the fast-rising Luke Shaw, of Southampton. Be that as it may, Baines is the top man right now in my opinion. It has been suggested that he wanted to go to United and I can only hope, for Everton’s sake, that that possibility does not resurface in the January transfer window.

The fans must hope that Baines grows more and more enthusiastic about what I see as an Everton squad rich in talent and potential. Young Ross Barkley has quickly confirmed my pre-season expectations. He has such power, pace and the confidence to run at the back four, a tactic that won the free-kick from which Baines struck the first of his goals at Upton Park. Lukaku, surprisingly allowed to leave Chelsea on loan, looks a real handful of a centre-forward. When I first noted him a couple of years ago I was reminded of a youthful Didier Drogba and it is a mystery that Jose Mourinho is reluctant to give him his chance. Lukaku, who was a big hit while on loan at West Bromwich Albion last season, started the move that led to his headed goal in the 3-2 win against The Hammers, but what really impressed me, a former centre-forward myself, was how he gave the pass then peeled off and moved into the box and was in position when the ball was chipped in. Add to that his bravery as he rose for the header and was simultaneously hit on the head by the challenging defender, a crack which left Lukaku dazed and unaware that he had scored. It is also worth noting that the pacey, left-sided Costa Rican Bryan Oviedo made a big impact when he came off the bench and operated in front of Baines. Oviedo, signed 13 months ago, did not get many opportunities last season, but that may be about to change under Martinez. When you consider that players like midfielders Pienaar and  Gibson and striker Jelavic are waiting to make their mark, as an Evertonian you can look forward with optimism.