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Play-off purgatory

NOBODY need try to tell me about the agony and the ecstasy of the play-offs. I know just how beaten Derby boss Steve McClaren and victorious QPR manager Harry Redknapp will be feeling today, for I have experienced what both men did as QPR substitute Bobby Zamora scored a sensational, 90th minute, winner at Wembley on Saturday.

My Oldham team became the first to lose in the play-offs in 1987 – beaten by Leeds in the semi-final on the now defunct away goals rule – and,12 years later, I was in charge at Manchester City as we won one of the most dramatic matches in Wembley history, beating Gillingham on penalties in the Second Division final, after being 2-0 down going into the 90th minute! I also went on to experience play-off defeat with Ipswich Town.

The cruel irony for McClaren is that, while he was coaching Rangers early in the season, they were playing attacking, expansive football. Then, he left to take over at Derby, who became one of the three best teams in the Championship, along with promoted Leicester and Burnley. Derby were the better side throughout at Wembley, but they just couldn’t get it right in front of goal, where keeper Rob Green had one of his finest days.

Losing in the play-offs is a traumatising experience and it can be hard for the manager and staff to lift the players at the start of the following season. Working on that challenge will be Steve McClaren’s priority over the next couple of months.

 

 

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.

 

Red alert

LIVERPOOL’S eighth successive victory, the 4-0 walloping of Tottenham yesterday, has put them on top of the Premier League and – sorry, fellow Evertonians – means Brendan Rodgers’ boys are now the favourites in this endlessly-fascinating title race. My money has been on Manchester City from the start, but I can’t deny that Liverpool are in a wonderful position from which to win their first League title in 24 years. I thought Luis Suarez was again sensational against Spurs and the Uruguayan must be the clear front-runner for the Premier League Player of the Year award. I’m not retracting any of my previous criticism regarding Suarez’s tendency to dive, but I readily acknowledge that his sheer ability outweighs his flaws (by the way, I notice with some alarm that strike partner Daniel Sturridge seems to have acquired the habit of ‘tripping himself up,’ as he did, not for the first time, against Spurs).

Nevertheless, Suarez and Sturridge have emerged as the top flight’s top strike partnership, making a major contribution to the team’s impressive haul of 88 league goals, outstripping Manchester City, whose prolific form in front of goal has been dented by the loss of top-class Sergio Aguero since the turn of the year. Had Aguero remained fit, I’m sure he would have run Suarez close for the Player of the year award. As it is, if Suarez doesn’t win, it will be a glaring oversight. Liverpool’s defence was a bit leaky in the first few months, but the team is now delivering clean sheets while piling up the goals and the destiny of the title is in their hands. They can kill the ambitions of main rivals City and Chelsea by beating them at Anfield in the coming weeks.

 

 

Luke’s a Shaw thing for me

IF, as he has suggested, Roy Hodgson means to make his World Cup squad a vital mixture of youth and experience, I make two suggestions to the England manager: Take Southampton’s terrific teenager Luke Shaw and Everton’s 33-year-old Gareth Barry to Brazil. For me, Shaw’s immense potential was fulfilled in a 45-minute international debut display against Denmark, when the 18-year-old took to the Wembley stage with the confidence and composure of a veteran. I would take him, to the exclusion of Ashley Cole, plus Leighton Baines as the two left-backs. Barry wasn’t even in the squad for yesterday’s match, but he would be my pick, alongside Steven Gerrard, in the midfield holding roles. I am a big admirer of Frank Lampard, but the Chelsea ace will be 36 as the World Cup gets under way in June and he does not play every week for Chelsea. I feel the heat and humidity might be just too much for his ageing legs and lungs. Barry and Gerrard, who is 34 on May 30, are no spring chickens, but, in the “non-energetic” roles in front of the back four they would be, in my opinion, the best pairing.

Gerrard, neither an out and out holding player – he still occasionally allows players to run off him – nor an attacking one, is more of a quarter-back, the man who collects the ball and pings long, diagonal balls, notably and often with deadly effect, to Luis Suarez when playing for Liverpool. Gerrard is a terrific player, but he is not really a link-up midfielder like Barry, who has had an outstanding season at Everton. In the heat and humidity of Brazil, the emphasis will be on keeping possession and short passing is key to doing that. Between them, Barry and Gerrard should be an effective, holding, controlling force who can leave the hard running to the likes of Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana,  Jack Wilshere, Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. England’s first match is against Italy and we are likely to see Juventus star Andrea Pirlo, at 34, patrolling in front of the back four, shuffling about the pitch, dictating the rhythm and pace of the game with his accurate short passes. That is the job Barry can do for England, setting up situations which young bucks like the above-mentioned can, hopefully, exploit.

In such a system, it is important that the full-backs bomb on and deliver dangerous balls into the box – what a beauty young Shaw produced at Wembley, the pity being no-one got on the end of it – and that’s where he, Baines and Glen Johnson, on the right, will be so important to the cause. It was good to see Daniel Sturridge, prolific for Liverpool, score for England for his form eases my early-season concerns that we had no-one to complement Wayne Rooney in the scoring department. Danny Welbeck, who will almost certainly go to Brazil on the basis of his strength, pace and athleticism, is a case in point. Welbeck again showed that, while capable of getting into good scoring positions, he all too often fails to hit the target.

Despite the lack of goals, England’s overall display was pretty good in parts. The emergence of Henderson, Sterling and Lallana has eased my worries of nine moths ago that we lacked young talent to support Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere in the attacking midfield areas. I do fret about who will provide the support to Joe Hart, our No 1 goalkeeper. Ben Foster, John Ruddy, Fraser Forster, of Celtic, and Stoke youngster Jack Butland seem to be the names from which Hodgson will pick two, but I have a surprise suggestion: Chris Kirkland, of Sheffield Wednesday. Chris, who is 31, has bags of experience after stints at Coventry, Liverpool and Wigan and Wednesday’s goalkeeper coach Andy Rhodes tells me he is playing better than ever, a major factor in the team’s resurgence in recent months. Kirkland was hampered by injury problems, one theory being that, in his eagerness to improve, he over-trained in his early years. Now, he’s in control of his game and his preparation and I’m suggesting to Roy Hodgson that a trip to Hillsborough could give him food for thought.

 

Calling Fernandinho

CHELSEA are swarming – literally – over the Premier League title race. And I think my tips, Manchester City, need their injured stars back if they are to overcome last week’s defeat by Jose Mourinho’s hornets and go on to claim the championship crown. Top strikers Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo – he’s playing again but doesn’t seem quite right yet – are being sorely missed, but the one player whose absence was highlighted the most by the home defeat to Chelsea is midfield anchorman Fernandinho.

The £30million Brazilian is key to City’s progress, for his strength, discipline and energy  gives Yaya Toure the licence to do what he does at his destructive best, and that is surge forwards to strike fear into the opposition defence. I’ve mentioned before in these columns that success in the modern game is based increasingly on midfield domination, on hustling and scrapping for possession when you have lost the ball. Chelsea under Mourinho have made this their byword. I studied them against Newcastle on Saturday when, just as they did against City, they swarmed all over their opponents like angry wasps. Not even the opposition goalkeeper was given a moment’s peace when trying to clear his lines. Mourinho has got very one of his players, even someone like Brazilian play-maker Oscar, harassing the opposition when Chelsea lose possession. Liverpool, who destroyed Arsenal on Saturday, did something similar and they are the nearest to Chelsea at putting this strategy into practice. Actually, a similar tactic was employed 45 years ago at Everton by Harry Catterick, who deployed Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey in similar fashion. What a team we were!

City, who have slaughtered so many teams this season with their attacking fluency, play it differently. When not in possession they tend to relax, letting their opponents come on before hitting them on the break – and devastatingly – when they regain possession. To go on doing this, they need Fernandinho, for he works hard when he hasn’t got the ball, whereas Toure only looks happy when he’s running towards the opposition. That being the case, I increasingly question City’s wisdom in letting Gareth Barry go on loan to Everton, where he has been a mainstay of Roberto Martinez’s team. That decision put a lot of pressure on Fernandinho, not only to be a success but also to stay fit for nine months.

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s stunning display against Arsenal, has transformed the scenario at the top. Whereas a week ago I was talking about a three-way title fight between Arsenal, City and Chelsea, now I can’t discount Liverpool who are just six points off the top. At the other end, Cardiff look to be in serious trouble, well beaten as they were by Swansea in the South Wales derby and, alarmingly, reliant on a 34-year-old, Craig Bellamy, to provide a spark. Fulham, who have been in free-fall for many weeks, produced a spirited performance at Old Trafford where their late equaliser might be the inspiration they need to claw themselves out of the drop zone.

 

Save the date – A talk for Breast Cancer Care “A life in football”

I am delighted to announce that I will be doing a talk in aid of Breast Cancer Care called  “A Life in Football”. I will take you through my career from being signed as an apprentice  at Everton to playing for my country and then share some insights into management and great times. Hopefully we will have some time for questions then and back to the bar for a nightcap!

Venue-  The Saddleworth Players Theatre

Date-     Saturday 29th March

Time-    Drinks 7pm Talk starts 8pm

Address- 1 Millgate, Delph, Oldham OL3 5JG

Tickets-  Priced £12 per person  with all proceeds donated to Breast Cancer Care.

There will also be a raffle with signed memorabilia at the venue on the night.

Complementary Hog Roast is served afterwards at The White Lion Pub in Delph.

Please note there are only 160 tickets available for this event so to avoid disappointment book early.

To book your tickets please email your name and state the number of tickets you require – enquiries@dhrsports.com .

Thanks Joe

http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/

Not again, Suarez!

LIVERPOOL’S failure to beat Aston Villa at Anfield has given Everton the chance to leapfrog them into fourth place at West Brom tomorrow. Dare I say it, but for another dubious penalty box incident involving Luis Suarez, Everton’s prospects would be even brighter. Liverpool salvaged a point when Steven Gerrard drove home a penalty, awarded after Suarez went down under Villa keeper Guzan’s innocuous challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever known BBC’s Match of the Day conduct a viewers’ Did he Dive? poll. The result was 60 per cent ‘yes.’ Even Stan Collymore, a former Liverpool striker, accused Suarez of being a cheat on Talksport, though Alan Shearer, in the TV studio, disagreed. I don’t know how often I’m going to have to say this, but for a man blessed with such sublime balance, I’m surprised that Suarez appears to be vulnerable to a proverbial puff of wind.

The fact is, Liverpool’s dropping of two home points gives Everton a great opportunity to reclaim the coveted fourth place. I don’t think Ross Barkley will be fit, but the Blues have plenty of quality midfielders. The question remains, will manager Roberto Martinez strengthen his striking department in this transfer window? I hope so, for if Romanu Lukaku – who tomorrow faces the team for whom he top scored last season – gets injured,  it will be a big problem. Everton have banked £35 million from the sales of Marouane Fellaini and Nikita Jelavic so they do have cash available.

 

Sort it out, City

THE pressure on Manchester City to stay in the title race is mounting and they simply must beat Tottenham on Sunday and Swansea the following Sunday to maintain their excellent home form – then turn their attention to winning away from The Etihad. City face successive away matches, at West Bromwich Albion and Southampton in the space of four days in the first week of December. Another defeat in either of these fixtures – they have lost four times already on their travels – will be a near-fatal blow to their hopes of winning the Premier League for a second time in three seasons. City, who have a five-win 100 per cent home record, simply have to get their act together on their travels and, to do so, they must learn how to cope in the absence of talisman centre-back Vincent Kompany.

The Belgian has become more and more conspicuous by his absence as City manager Manuel Pellegrini’s various selections have failed to produce an answer to the team’s lapses at the back. The Blues are fabulous to watch when surging forward on their home ground, mesmerising the opposition with their midfield artistry and banging in the goals for fun. But no team ever won the marathon that is the League Championship by delivering the goods at home and not turning up when in other teams’ back yards. City have scored 20 goals in five home league matches, conceding just two. Away, they have struck only eight times in six outings and let in 10. They have to come up with the answer soon, for Kompany’s injury problems appear to be worse than originally thought and I am sure Pellegrini will have already targeted another central defender in the January transfer window. Meantime, those wonderful City fans must pray that their team maintains its awesome home form with another victory, this time against a strong, functional-looking Tottenham, who appear to have sacrificed their flair with the sale of Gareth Bale. City are fortunate to still be in touch with the top, thanks to other title contenders suffering mixed results. They will know they cannot count on that remaining the case.

GOOD luck to Oldham Athletic on their long trip to Gillingham tomorrow. My former charges have had a rough ride in League One, producing good performances but poor results and struggling to hit the net. But the 5-1 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win last week has, hopefully, lifted a cloud from the strikers’ heads. Manager Lee Johnson seems to me to be the type of young man to stick to his principle of playing attractive football. I hope for his, and the club’s, sake his philosophy starts to pay dividends.

 

Blue heaven

These are exciting times in the Premier League and for the football-mad folk of Merseyside, in particular. I was at my old stomping ground, Goodison Park, last night to see Everton produce a scintillating first-half display that  enabled them to beat Newcastle, maintain their unbeaten start and join arch rivals Liverpool in the top four. And I’m not sure how many years ago the two Mersey giants shared that distinction! Long may it continue, for it is starting to look as though we might actually have a four, five or even six-club title challenge, which would be wonderful for the game in general. Manchester United’s failings and Manchester City’s inconsistency have given the nod to the likes of Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham, teams that, suddenly, have reason to believe that they can compete for the big prize.

I am impressed by the job Roberto Martinez has done at Everton, who are playing a brand of exciting, possession football that has ignited the passion of the loyal Goodison crowd. “Everton fans are born, not made” read a banner in the stand and you could feel the joy of the blue half of the city as their new-look team tore Newcastle apart in that thrilling, first 45 minutes, when they took a 3-0 lead. Two-goal centre-forward Romelu Lukaku produced more compelling evidence that he can be the loan signing of the season in the top flight, leaving us to wonder afresh why Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho allowed him to leave on a season-long loan deal. Right now, there is no doubt that Chelsea’s loss is Everton’s gain. Lukaku also made a goal for Ross Barkley, the young midfielder whose emergence this season is good news not only for Everton but for England, too. Everton now face their biggest challenge to date, at Manchester City on Saturday. They did well at The Etihad Stadium under David Moyes’s management, but the difference this time is that Martinez’s team will be playing the way City play. City’s first half display in the derby defeat of United was arguably the best 45 minutes played by any team so far, but Everton’s performance last night wasn’t far behind. So, it should prove to be an entertaining match and one that will show whether Everton can be genuine challengers for the big prizes.

United have an even more pressing date, at Shakhtar Donetsk tomorrow in the Champions League, as they bid to re-establish their credentials. Moyes is finding life tough as he tries to fill the shoes of the incomparable Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes has inherited a battle-hardened group of winners, but a group that is showing signs of wear and tear. United need a big result and a big performance following their stuttering start and, in particular, that stunning home defeat to West Brom last Saturday. By now, Moyes should have a good idea of what is his best team – and he needs to play it. Reports this week suggest he will have £50million available in the next transfer window, money that must be invested in at least one world class midfielder. There aren’t many of those who might be available, but  Wesley Sneider, Luka Modric and, again, Cesc Fabregas are men who could do the job done for so long for United by now-retired Paul Scholes, who is becoming more conspicuous by his absence with each passing week. I wonder if United regret not getting involved in the chase for Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s £40million deadline-day capture, for he is the type of player they need, a blender, a man who can link the back four and the midfield, who can start and finish moves. Ironically, Arsenal have the only Englishman capable of such a job, Jack Wilshere, so United are going to have to continue the “go foreign” trend to get their man – or men.

While Arsenal deservedly top the pile after a run of five straight victories and Tottenham increasingly look as though they will do very nicely, thankyou, without the special talent of £86million Gareth Bale, Chelsea are quickly assuming their previous persona under Mourinho…formidably functional if rarely inspirational. Mourinho has restored John Terry and Frank Lampard, his former stalwarts, and is already displaying his eccentric behaviour in front of the media. He walked out of his Champions League Press conference this week, claiming the reporters were always asking about players who were not in his team, as opposed to those who are. Perhaps it was his way of deliberately drawing attention to himself while taking it off his players. Or perhaps he was fearing follow up questions about why he has let Lukaku go to Everton! Mourinho has signed veteran star striker Samuel Eto’o but I suspect there may be similarities between him and another former World Player of the Year, George Weah, who I signed for Manchester City…namely great players who still know what to do but who have lost that vital split-second’s speed that enables them to do it. Who can say what the “special one” was up to. There is one thing for sure, he does tend to play a major part in his own dramas!

 

 

 

The Fab Four

I telephoned Sir Alex Ferguson the other day in my capacity as a fellow member of the hip replacement club. The great man is still in recovery mode following his recent surgery and it was good to chat with my former adversary, the recently-retired most successful manager in the history of British football. My conversation with Sir Alex got me thinking that we are almost certainly never going to see his like again, him and that other outstanding trio of British managers, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough. You see, these four men, collectively winners of a mind-blowing 67 major trophies, would probably have neither the opportunity, nor the inclination, to go into football management in the modern “qualifications” dominated system.

These legends were not only dyed-in-the-wool football men, they were also natural-born leaders, whose phenomenal achievements owed more to their instinctive man-management skills and hunger and desire for success than to anything you could read in a coaching manual. Indeed, when Shankly started his revolution at Liverpool in 1959, I’m not sure if there were any coaching manuals! Now, to get a job bossing a Premier League club, a candidate must endure two or three years’ university course-type study en route to attaining his UEFA Pro Licence, the Holy Grail prerequisite as stipulated by football’s governing body in Europe. You must have your UEFA B Licence, then your A License and, finally, your Pro Licence, achieved after an estimated 240 hours of studying. I ask myself, would Shanks, Paisley, Cloughie and Fergie put themselves through that if they were starting out now? The answer, I’m pretty sure, would be no. That being so, imagine all that managerial quality, all of those titles and trophies, being lost to the game. It is a fascinating thought.

Shankly, for example, founder of the famous boot room culture at Liverpool, used to tell his assistants at the end of the season: “Go to Lilleshall, do the coaching courses, take it all in – then get back here and forget it.” Of course, he wouldn’t have meant that, literally, but implicit in his message was the belief that you can’t be coached to get the best out of footballers. That comes from within, from a man’s instinctive ability to identify a player’s strengths and weaknesses and to maximise those strengths. You need charisma, you must command respect and you MUST be able to judge a player.

Nowadays, you MUST have the UEFA Pro Licence.

Shankly, fuelled by his sheer will and love and understanding of the game, transformed Liverpool from a run-of-the-mill club, wallowing in the old Second Division, into the pre-eminent force in English football throughout the 1960′s and 70′s, leading the club to three First Division titles, one UEFA Cup and two FA Cup wins. His successor, Paisley, the former trainer whose tasks included running on to the pitch with bucket and sponge, was a man whose outward, quiet persona concealed an inner ruthlessness. Soft-spoken Paisley had an ‘everybody’s favourite uncle’ image, but he was known as ‘Rats’ at Anfield because he had been one of Field Marshall Montgomery’s Desert Rats in World War Two. A player of modest ability, Bob developed into one of the managerial giants, taking over the reins from Shankly and scooping an incredible three European Cups, six League titles, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and a Super Cup in nine years. Bob took Kenny Dalglish, arguably Liverpool’s greatest player, and that supremely elegant forward John Barnes to Anfield.

How do you begin to explain the genius that was Clough, like Paisley a son of the North East of England, and the man who worked football miracles by elevating “second city” clubs Derby County and Nottingham Forest to the top of the English game and, in Forest’s case, staggeringly, to the top in Europe. Clough went on FA courses but, I am reliably informed, he was not remotely a stand-out coach, probably only paying lip service to the Establishment. Clough’s feats with Derby and Forest, who won the European Cup in successive seasons, will go down in the annals as one of the greatest achievements in British football. You can be sure that none of his success was down to anything he learned on a coaching course and that all of it was due to his innate ability to command respect and get the very best out of players, so many of whom, in his Forest team, in particular, were guys he picked off the scrapheap. Clough, aided and abetted by assistant Peter Taylor, brought in bad boys like Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, rejects like Ian Bowyer and Colin Barrett, free transfers like supposedly over-the-hill full-back Frank Clark and turned them into world-beaters, members of a team who did not answer back to referees and who went to fortresses like Anfield and Old Trafford and won, when nobody else  could. Clough also knew when to invest, buying Peter Shilton, the best keeper in the world at the time, and making Trevor Francis Britain’s first £1million player – then putting him on the bench on his debut! If that wasn’t an example of how to bring a player down to earth, to show him who is boss, then I don’t know what it was. Clough turned John Robertson, the cigarette-smoking, whiskey-loving, chubby winger into one of the most feared forwards in Europe. He made Peter Withe, a free transfer from Southport, into an England centre-forward. I don’t know how he did all these remarkable things, but I do know he didn’t get his inspiration from coaching manuals.

And then there is arguably the daddy of them all, Ferguson, the tough guy from Govan, Glasgow, who became the first of several candidates to be capable of stepping into Sir Matt Busby’s shoes at Old Trafford and who went on to emulate – and even surpass – the legend. It is difficult to separate Shankly, Paisley, Clough and Ferguson in terms of their accomplishments, but perhaps what sets Ferguson apart is his success in embracing the advent of the twin eras of sports science and the multi-millionaire superstar player. That and the fact that he built so many all-conquering teams. Ferguson, already an icon in Scotland where he pushed Aberdeen above previously all-dominant Celtic and Rangers, took over a sleeping giant when he became United boss in 1986 and he transformed the club into a raging monster that gobbled up silverware like no other club had, not even Liverpool. Indeed, this most driven of men stated that his mission was to break Liverpool’s stranglehold on English football. Ferguson retired in May having notched his 13th Premier League title – 13th! His unrivalled 38 major trophy haul also includes three Scottish Premier League wins, four Scottish Cups, one Scottish League Cup, two Cup-Winners’ Cups, two Super Cups, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and two World Club Cups.

He did all of that and recently said that one of the best decisions he ever made was, while at Aberdeen, to stop taking coaching and instead to observe from the sidelines, thus being in a better position to assess his players’ form, mental attitude and fitness levels. Clough, whose unique approach included rarely bothering to attend training, once said: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s too much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes.” Ferguson had the nerve – and, believe me you need it, especially at that level – to rebuild teams, the confidence to set standards and the determination never to concede control. Those strictly adhered to rules were the bedrock upon which this remarkable man ran United, so successfully, for an unprecedented 26 years. For the modern, top-level, fully-licensed manager three or four years in the job is akin to a marathon stint.

As I say, we will never see the likes of Messrs Shankly, Paisley, Clough and Ferguson again. And more’s the pity.