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Best of luck, Dan

Dan Ashworth is the director of elite coaching at the FA, the man charged with the job of trying to return the England team to a lofty position in the world rankings by finding a way to produce young players capable of taking on, and beating, the best teams in international football. It is a tough challenge and it is one that I – and I presume Dan Ashworth, too – think can only get tougher after watching the complete break from football that masqueraded as a World Cup qualifier when England drew 0-0 with Ukraine in Kiev on Tuesday. Okay, the result leaves England on top of Group H and with their fate still in their own hands as the final two qualifying matches, at home to Montenegro and Poland, loom next month. Okay, it was as they say in soccer speak “job done.” Okay, manager Roy Hodgson’s options were severely limited by the loss, through injury, of his most potent attackers, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck. But let us be brutally honest…we are hoping to go to Brazil next summer to contest the World Cup finals and, on this evidence, we can’t string two passes together, let alone three or more!

I was happy to acknowledge that England did a thoroughly competent job when they dispatched little Moldova 4-0 at Wembley the previous week. In Kiev, however, against stronger opposition, but by no means classy opposition, we were incapable of producing the spark that might have broken a grim deadlock created by two fit, strong, athletic teams dedicated to closing each other down. Even Jack Wilshere, the young Arsenal player I admire so much and upon whom so much of our hope for an improved future depends, could not find a team-mate, not even with passes from less than 10 yards. England peaked as an attacking force in the first minute, when Frank Lampard put Theo Walcott through on goal, though it was only a 50-50 chance. The sum total of clear cut opportunities was two, a missed header for each team. Dire stuff, indeed. Oh, for a player of the calibre of Paul Gascoigne, arguably England’s last truly world class footballer, who had the intuitive creativity to turn such a stalemate on its head.

Now, I accept that such players – Barcelona’s brilliant little forward Lionel Messi is the best current example – are born, not made, but there is clearly a category just one rung down from those guys and teams like Germany, Spain and the new kids on the international block, Belgium, are prime examples of nations that have players in it. Little Belgium, population just under 11 million, top their World Cup qualifying group by five points and are certainties for Brazil 2014. Belgium! I know the country is famous for chocolate, but when you bring to mind Anderlecht, Bruges and Standard Liege you have run out of their premier league clubs to name. Yet they currently have 11 players in the English Premier League, outstanding talents like Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Christian Bentecke et al, and their national side is sweeping away all opposition en route to the World Cup finals.

They must be doing something right over there and, so, I suggest Mr Ashworth makes sure he sends scouts to study their methods. The Dutch, with their total football, the Spanish, with their love of possession, the Germans, whose clubs dominated last season’s Champions League, and, now, the Belgians, all seem to be more successful than we English at producing quality players. Somehow, and I don’t pretend to know why, we have lost our way since those heady days of 1966 when a team boasting several players – Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore for sure – who would have graced a World X1, won the World Cup at Wembley. Perhaps the answer lies in part in the advent of sports science and an obsession with physical perfection and the welter of statistics that go with it. I think scouts are brainwashed into making athleticism the priority over ability. Has the word ‘athlete’ superceded the word ‘footballer?’ I recall a match when I was manager of Ipswich when we beat Burnley 6-0 at home and the club statistician came into my office, a frown on his face, and said: “Boss, they out-ran us!” I told him: “That’s because they were chasing the ball for 90 minutes.”

At that time, Ipswich had players who were adept at playing possession football and Burnley’s boys could have run a marathon apiece and still not competed with us. The alarming aspect of England’s display in Kiev was that, in that tight situation, we could not hold on to the ball and make things happen. They say that statistics don’t lie, but they can certainly be misleading. England top their group, but their four victories were two apiece against Moldova and San Marino. I mean, wouldn’t you expect Manchester United to beat Oldham and Bury every time? England have lost only once in 20 matches. On the face of it, impressive. But, when you analyse the limitations in that performance in Kiev, you tend to be sceptical about the story behind those numbers. Certainly, it will be interesting to see if England improve their 14th place  when FIFA produces its updated world rankings tomorrow. We have had to reluctantly accept for a long time now that we are not good enough to contest the world and European finals, but we should aspire to be firmly embedded in the world’s top 10. What is certain is that we have lost our way, while others have steamed ahead, and we can only wish Dan Ashworth well as he attempts the formidable challenge of producing players who will crystallize new FA chairman Greg Dyke’s improbable call for a World Cup win in 2022!

FOOTNOTE: The FA flirted with a charge of double standards this week when they announced they will take no further action against England and Tottenham full-back Kyle Walker – who, incidentally, got a merciless run-around from Ukraine’s Konoplyanka – who was pictured inhaling the drug nitrous oxide during the close season. Now, I am not advocating punishment for young Walker, merely observing that when Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand missed a routine drugs test in 2003 – when he was an England stalwart – he was  hammered with an eight-month ban. And Ferdinand was never shown to have taken any illegal substance.

 

 

Mission accomplished

England’s so-called golden generation failed to live up to their billing at the last World Cup, in South Africa. But it just might be that the ‘golden oldies’ who remain from that ill-fated mission are the men to propel the nation through the qualifying phase and into next summer’s finals in Brazil. I am thinking of midfield stars Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and fairytale striker Ricky Lambert, a trio of thirty-somethings who gave us reason to believe at Wembley on Friday evening. I have bemoaned the dearth of emerging English talent and I’m not going to dwell on that now, preferring to applaud an impressive performance by the team in general and the above-mentioned players in particular in the 4-0 cruise against Moldova.

I have been an admirer of 33-year-old Gerrard since he broke into the Liverpool team 15 years ago, rapidly developing into a player for all positions and a man for all occasions. As manager of Manchester City I tried, and failed, to take him on loan when he was trying to establish himself at Anfield. He has produced many tremendous displays, in a variety of roles, for club and country but rarely have I seen him as dominant as he was against Moldova. He ran the show, a match that was won by keeping the ball and hitting short passes, aided and abetted by the evergreen 35-year-old Lampard and the youthful Jack Wilshere. Okay, Moldova are hardly formidable opposition, but I was impressed by the manner in which England set about and completed their task, which was to go into Tuesday’s much tougher looking encounter with Ukraine in Kiev with a win under their belts.

Gerrard, who once ran a Champions League final – Liverpool’s stirring fightback victory against AC Milan in 2005 – from right-back, is such a natural footballer he could have played at centre-half or even possibly up front as well as in the various midfield roles. Watching him dictate proceedings last night, I was filled with optimism that he, Lampard – who will win his 100th cap on Tuesday – and Wilshere can form a golden triangle in midfield that could not only be the cornerstone of a successful qualifying campaign but also go on to help England do well in Brazil. Lambert built upon his scoring debut against Scotland last month by scoring again and providing the passes for two more goals and the fresh injection of confidence he gained from that might prove vital in Kiev, where England will be without suspended Danny Welbeck, the two-goal benificiary of Lambert’s incisive passing. For 31-year-old latecomer Lambert the ‘pinch me’ period continues and I hope, for his sake and for England’s, that it carries on right through to Rio. Delighted, too, for Welbeck – and dismayed by the unjust booking that has cost him his place against Ukraine – for he is, suddenly, starting to score the goals that embellish his undoubted ability as a front-runner. What he must guard against is becoming a scorer of great goals, like the two he got against Moldova, rather than a great goalscorer. If he is a learner, and I have no reason to think not, he will do well to note that Lambert has the knack of being in and around the six-yard box when the chances fall. Lambert, playing at this level after just one season in the Championship and one in the Premier League, has got fitter as he has got older and he is a shining example to every player who might be tempted to think his dream is over. Ricky was clearly always talented. He simply realised he needed to work harder to get where he has today. Good on him – and good for England and his club, Southampton. Now, let’s see what he and his fellow OAPs can do when the going gets tougher on Tuesday.

 

 

Moyes must be careful

David Moyes is in danger of being accused of double standards over his attempts to sign Marouane Fellaini from his former club, Everton. Moyes seems to be growing increasingly frustrated in his attempt to pull off a double deal for midfielder Fellaini and left-back Leighton Baines, but he must be careful not to let his impatience leave him wide open to criticism from the Goodison club. New Manchester United manager Moyes is a friend of mine and I have nothing but respect for the way he managed Everton for 12 years. However, I must take issue with him over his remarks regarding Everton’s refusal to do business at £28million.
David has suggested that Everton are standing in the way of their players’ career progress by playing hardball over the proposed deal, with Goodison chairman Bill Kenwright making it plain he considers United’s offer unrealistic. And the fact is that David Moyes knows full well why Kenwright is taking such a firm stand because, as the manager who signed Fellaini in the first place, Moyes agreed with Kenwright on a ‘golden handcuffs’ valuation on the Belgian international of £24 million. Now, when he is trying to sign the player for a second time, it seems David is conveniently overlooking that valuation. United made an original offer of £12 million for Baines, upping that figure to £28million to include Fellaini, thus suggesting a £16million price for the latter. No wonder Kenwright is not inclined to do business!
The Goodison supremo is a lifelong Evertonian, as true a Blue as you could ever meet, and he has, and always will, do all he can to ensure that he does right by his beloved club. No-one knows that better than Moyes, who worked so closely with Bill for all those years – and who agreed that £24million valuation! So, David is hardly in a position to start suggesting Everton are the bad guys. If he wants Fellaini badly enough – and it would seem that he does – then he and United will have to pay the price, or something closer to it. The biggest clubs complain, often with justification, that the selling clubs try to rip them off in the transfer market because they are richer. That’s a fact of life. You always have the option of pulling out of a deal you think is becoming unrealistic. On the other hand, if you want a player badly enough and you have the wealth, then you simply have to pay the price. United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the biggest clubs in the world and, as such, they must expect to pay top dollar in the transfer market. You could argue that United paid over the odds when they signed Robin van Persie, from Arsenal, for £24.5million 14 months ago.
But Sir Alex Ferguson knew Van Persie was the striker who could shoot United to the title – and enable him to retire as a winner. And that is precisely what happened.
I am on record as stating I am not convinced Fellaini is a Manchester United-style player, whereas I can fully understand why Baines’s crossing ability is coveted by Moyes, who can probably envisage even more goals for the prolific Van Persie from such a supply line. But Moyes clearly believes that Fellaini, who cost Everton a club record £12.4million, is the man to fill a void that undoubtedly exists in the United midfield. That being the case, then Moyes must surely acknowledge the facts of the situation. Moyes could not lure the gifted Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona and it might be he is feeling the pressure of failing to clinch a big signing, with the transfer window closing on September 2nd. However, trying to pressurise Everton, while conveniently overlooking the detail of his previously agreed valuation of Fellaini, will not help his cause. And, if I know Bill Kenwright as well as I think I do, he will stick to his guns. With Fellaini valued at £24million and Baines at, say, £13million – Everton turned down United’s original £12million offer – that puts the package at a minimum £37million. Real Madrid, who paid United £80million for Cristiano Ronaldo, are about to smash that world record fee to land Gareth Bale, from Tottenham. United, like Madrid, may have to accept that, sometimes, you just have to pay the price.
My suspicion that Manchester City would have a weakness in central defence following the injury to Vincent Kompany was born out in their shock 3-2 defeat at promoted Cardiff City, where they were embarrassed by two close-range headed goals from Fraiser Campbell. Joleon Lescott was partnered at centre-back by the Spaniard Garcia, who is a midfielder. The problems are likely to continue when the injured Nastasic, who was on the bench in Cardiff, returns for both he and Lescott are natural left-sided players and, unlike two natural right siders, two lefties rarely combine well. The balance just doesn’t seem to be good. So, don’t be surprised if City splash out yet again in the transfer market. This defeat was a short, sharp shock to their system and Manuel Pellegrini will be well aware he cannot afford to slip behind the pacesetters early in the race.

Toffees treat…

Everton, the club for whom I made my debut at the tender age of 16 and who I went on to manage to FA Cup final success over Manchester United in 1995, face a fascinating season under their new boss Roberto Martinez who will, I feel, face the same challenge as his predecessor David Moyes, namely a question mark over the strength in depth of the squad. There is no doubt in my mind that a full-strength Everton team, performing week in, week out, is capable of contending for fourth place – and qualification for the Champions League. However, take out one or two from Pienaar, Fellaini or Gibson in midfield and they have a  problem filling the gap/s.

This is why I feel this is a big, big season for youngster Ross Barkley, who must grab his chance with both hands when the time comes. Barkley is an England Under-21 player who has gained invaluable first-team experience on loan at Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, allied to a smattering of appearances for Everton. If he steps up to the plate this season, to add his abilities to those of the above-mentioned, quality players, then Martinez will have a formidable midfield group, which, of course, also includes England player Leon Osman. It is also important that impressive young Irishman Shane Duffy comes through at centre-half to provide back-up to the experienced central defenders. John Stones, a young recruit from Barnsley, looks a good prospect, too.

Another big factor will be the form of Marouane Fellaini, he of the big hair, who is a match-winner when he’s in the mood. It is vital that Fellaini, who starred in last season’s opening-day victory over eventual champions Manchester United – who have recently been linked with a move for him – needs to continue to curb the temper and misplaced aggression that sometimes has cost Everton dearly. Like last season, when he was sent off at Stoke for a blatant elbow offence. Clubs like Everton, whose resources are stretched, can ill afford to have their key players suspended for three matches, or more. Mind you, Martinez seems to have secured the services of a gem of a midfielder by beating clubs all over Europe to sign Gerard Deulofeu, from Barcelona, on a one-year loan deal. Martinez, so my ‘spies’ tell me, is focused on producing a team that plays out from the back and this style should suit a kid like Deulofeu, who starred for Spain at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey this summer. Martinez is cautioning the fans not to expect too much too soon, but Barca will be expecting Deulofeu to play a few times and, once he does, he may be in to stay.

Another huge factor for Martinez is the form of striker Nikica Jelavic, the Croatian signed by Moyes from Glasgow Rangers for £5million, a lot of money for Everton, in January, 2012, and the future of key man and left-back Leighton Baines. Jelavic was an instant hit at Goodison, becoming the quickest player to hit 10 goals for the club since Tom Browell, in 1912. Two of those goals were in a 4-4 draw at Manchester United. On the final day of that season, Jelavic scored his 11th goal against Newcastle, making him the top scorer for the season. Sadly, the goals dried up in 2012-13, when Jelavic lost his place to Victor Anichebe. Martinez needs the Croat to hit the ground running this time around. If he does so, and the other pieces of the jigsaw – like Baines not rejoining former manager David Moyes at Manchester United – fit into place, I can see Everton challenging for that precious, fourth place. Either that, or again fighting it out with Merseyside rivals Liverpool for sixth and seventh.

 

City slickers

Seven days to go to the big kick-off in what promises to be one of the most exciting Premier League campaigns in many a year…and I’m tipping Manchester City to reclaim the title that they surrendered so tamely last season. The competition from current champions Manchester United and Chelsea – both clubs under new management – Arsenal and Tottenham will be intense but, if City perform to their capabilities, they will be top of the pile next May.

While United and Arsenal have been embroiled in protracted transfer sagas this summer, City have flexed their unrivalled spending power with a near-£100million splurge on four top class players, midfielder Fernandinho, winger Jesus Navas and forwards Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. Controversial strikers Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez are gone and, if the men who have come in are of a more harmonious nature, then City boss Mario Pellegrini will parade a formidable unit when City start their campaign against Newcastle at home. These new signings embellish a squad containing many players who would grace any team in the Premier League, such as goalkeeper Joe Hart, centre-back Vincent Kompany, strikers Kun Aguero and Edin Dzeko and midfielders David Silva and the awesome Yaya Toure.

Now, this guy Toure, for whatever reason, did not perform to his best last season, certainly not on a consistent basis. If that was because of the alleged lack of communication between players and former manager Roberto Mancini, then City fans must hope that mutual respect has been restored with Pellegrini. If all is well in that respect, then I suggest that Toure can once again be the catalyst for a title triumph, just as he was two seasons ago. Make no mistake, when this beast of a player is at his buccaneering best he is virtually unstoppable. Toure’s style is unique in the Premier League, for he can sit in midfield or bomb on with equal ease and he scores goals as well as makes them. And, when surging forward, the man is a rampaging force at the heart of a team which has match-winners in several positions. I believe that winger Navas will be in that category, for he has the speed, skill and confidence to cause chaos.

If I were Pellegrini my concern would be that the defence, which is shorn of the services of the injured Matijia Nastasic for six weeks, does not repeat the generosity it showed when allowing AC Milan to hit back with three goals after being 5-0 down in a pre-season match. That was a bit disturbing! However, I’m sure City will have been working hard on efforts to ensure there is no repeat when the action gets under way for real next weekend, or, in City’s case on the Monday night. As I say, they start with a home fixture against Newcastle, then play two of the promoted teams, Cardiff, away, and Hull City. No disrespect to any of the aforementioned, but it is not difficult to imagine City getting off to a maximum nine-point start from their first three matches. And you can’t underestimate the value of a good start to your campaign.

If City step up to the plate, which they too often failed to do last season – when they were again my tip for the title – I can’t see Chelsea, despite being re-energised under Jose Mourinho, Arsenal, with or without the tremendously talented Luis Suarez, or even Manchester United stopping them from winning the title. David Moyes has a big, big challenge at Old Trafford, where his early days as successor to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson have been dominated by the ongoing Wayne Rooney situation. Rooney apparently wants out, Chelsea apparently want to sign him and United don’t want to sell him. The fans are frustrated, not least because United have yet to make a big signing and because the player Moyes coveted, Cesc Fabregas, says he is staying at Barcelona. Fabregas would do wonders for United, whose winning of the title at a canter last season with a team short of top quality midfield talent was, in my view, one of the most remarkable of Ferguson’s many achievements. I will be surprised if Moyes is able to replicate that in his first season in charge.

 

Mick’s mission

Oldham Athletic, the first of the four clubs I managed, got off to a winning start in League One last Saturday. Ipswich Town, the last of my  clubs as a manager, did not, going down 2-1 at Reading and that after taking the lead. I know little about the players at Ipswich and, therefore, it is difficult to predict how their season will pan out, but I do know that, in manager Mick McCarthy and his assistant Terry Connor, the club has two good coaches, men who have worked together well for a long time at previous club Wolves and they should make Ipswich a credible outfit. Mick has an unjustifiable reputation as a dour individual but, be that as it may, I know him to be a man who demands a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and I’m sure Ipswich are in good hands.

I watched Ipswich’s last match of last season at Burnley, when they lost, and, though half of the players were “already on the beach” as the saying goes, try as I might I did not see much that would encourage the fans to feel the team will be challenging for promotion this season. They sold Michael Chopra last season and let Jason Scotland go, so I think they need to find a good striker before the transfer deadline at the end of the month to give them a chance in a division where almost any team can beat any other, which is what makes the Championship an exciting competition. Ipswich, with their strong fan base and excellent facilities are one of the biggest clubs in the Championship and I know Mick McCarthy will build upon the job he did in saving them from the drop last season. He will certainly ensure plenty of perspiration, if not too much inspiration.

The bookmakers are not often wide of the mark so, when they make the three relegated clubs, Reading, Wigan and QPR favourites to return to the Premier League, I suspect they are not far wrong. All three will, of course, benefit from the generous parachute payments bestowed on clubs in their first season out of the top flight and all three made a winning start on Saturday. I watched chaotic club Blackburn – four managers last season – salvage a 1-1 draw at Derby on Sunday and I did not see much to convince me that they are about to reverse their fortunes. In Jordan Rhodes, a player I signed as a kid at Ipswich, they have a natural goalscorer – but Lionel Messi would struggle to score goals in that team, the final pass was so poor.

 

 

Come on Oldham

The coffers are almost empty, some of the best players have been sold, there are rumours of a takeover and the bookmakers are tipping them for relegation…normal service is about to be resumed for my first club in management, Oldham Athletic. The Latics, where I was in charge for 12 mad, marvellous years from 1982, go into opening-day action at Stevenage on Saturday with young team boss Lee Johnson facing a big challenge to improve upon his success late last season in steadying the ship and keeping the club afloat in League One. I have met and talked with Lee and been impressed by him as a young man and with his approach to the job. I wish him and the club well – but I have to reserve judgement until the team has played five or six matches because so much has changed regarding the squad this summer.

For a start, Oldham have lost three of their better players in winger Lee Croft, big striker Matt Smith, who made his name with his FA Cup exploits last season, and, most significantly of all in my opinion, centre-back Jean Yves Mvoto. And I fear they will struggle to hold on to another key man, midfielder Jose Baxter, who went there from Everton where he took my claim as the youngest player ever to start a first team game. Not that Lee Johnson has sat back and watched the ‘brain drain’ happen. He has recruited no less than eight players and has a ninth in Adam Rooney (no relation to Wayne) lined up. I am not familiar with many of the new names, but I saw one of them, an 18-year-old striker called Johnson Clarke-Harris, play against Oldham reserves for Bury last season and I was impressed. He is talented and I know Lee Johnson is excited about his prospects. Another signing, central midfielder Anton Rodgers, is the son of Liverpool manager Brendan.

The point is that all of these players have to blend and, with so many new faces, it is a big test for the manager and an intriguing situation for me to ponder, especially as it reminds me so much of my first season as a rookie manager when, starting on a one-year trial, the then chairman Harry Wilde told me bluntly: “Joe, you’ll have to sell someone.” Such were the financial restraints at Oldham and the situation hasn’t changed. Equally, to manage in these circumstances is a great opportunity and a test of your ability to identify talent, to acquire players for small – or, preferably, no – transfer fees and to blend them into what will become a winning team. Lee Johnson has my sympathy and also my support as he embarks upon this challenge, for Oldham, the club, the town and the people, will always be close to my heart. My three sons were raised there and the two eldest Lee and Darren, have made the district their family homes.

However, I cannot overestimate how tough it will be for the team to establish itself as promotion challengers, though the players have made a good start with a solid pre-season during which they were unbeaten in five matches. Winning breeds confidence, whatever the level of competition, but my one concern is that the team did not keep a single clean sheet in those five warm-up games. Solidity in defence is crucial and that is why I consider the loss of Mvoto to be the most significant of the summer departures. He had a great attitude and an admirable work ethic, which is particularly valuable at a little club like Oldham. I am sure that Lee Johnson possesses those qualities, too, and he will need every ounce of his energy as he shoulders a work-load that incorporates scouting, keeping close tabs on the youth system, such as it is, working closely with his chairman – and managing the team! It is a big ask – as I found out all those years ago – but it can be enormously rewarding and I wish Lee Johnson, an impressive young man, the best of luck. Boundary Park, the little, ramshackle wind-swept stadium which I nicknamed Ice Station Zebra when I was manager, can be a cold, intimidating venue to visit. It is also one of the warmest, friendliest places in football. I would love to see the good times return.

 

 

 

Zero tolerance

It is time to get tough with players – and staff – who abuse referees. I propose that the FA and, subsequently FIFA, implement a zero tolerance policy towards those who disrespect officials. I suggest any act of abuse be met with a straight red card and a one-match ban. If there is a re-offence, then a two-match ban would follow, then a four-match ban and so on. I am pretty confident that such a stance would quickly stamp out a problem that has become the biggest blot on the landscape of British football. The sight of players, and often managers and coaches on the touchline, challenging, berating and frequently foul-mouthing referees has become the disgraceful norm in recent years. In short, it is a disgrace and an embarrassment.

This disturbing lack of respect for officialdom is, you could argue, not just a football problem but also a societal disease, something that has developed, seemingly unchecked, over the past 30 or so years. The problem must start in the home, where parents have a responsibility to teach their kids the importance of recognising and respecting those in authority. It also befalls football coaches, from junior through to the pinnacle of the professional game, to bang the same drum when it comes to accepting referees’ decisions without question or dissent. The argument goes, especially at the highest level of the game, that the pressure on managers and players is such that they are entitled to dispute decisions they don’t agree with. But that simply won’t wash.

I watched the British Lions and Australia, hard men all and some of them man mountains, batter the hell out of each other in 80 minutes of pure attrition in their rugby union test match last Saturday. Throughout the fearsome, tension-packed contest there were numerous refereeing decisions and penalties awarded. There was also not a single word of dissent from these magnificent, often bruised and blood-spattered combatants. Seventeen-stone giants were summoned to stand before the official, like schoolboys brought to the front of the classroom, and had the reason for their punishment explained, followed by a warning that worse would follow if they re-offended. To a mountainous man, they listened politely before returning to the ranks. I was so impressed. If they can behave so impeccably when faced with decisions they may not like, why can’t footballers? I’ve heard it said that rugby union is a middle class game and, therefore, that it mirrors middle class standards. That arguments collapses when you consider the heroes of Super League rugby, the game’s 13-man-a-side code and the working-class version, who play just as fiercely and who accept the referee’s word just as respectfully.

Football managers and players in the glaring spotlight of the money-drenched Premier League are under a lot of pressure to retain their top-flight status. And the pressure on players and managers to get into the Premier League, with all its financial rewards, is also immense. It is a situation that produces intolerance of refereeing mistakes – but it is no excuse for it. Quite simply, referees have the toughest job in football. They are men doing a job most people would run away from and they deserve the respect of players and managers. Sure, mistakes are made. But human beings make mistakes, especially when they are making decisions in a split-second and when confronted with the disgraceful diving antics that blight our game. I wasn’t whiter than white in my career. As a cocky Everton youngster I once had the temerity to tell referee Graham Hill I thought he was having a bad game. But I didn’t swear at him. He told me I wasn’t doing too well, either! And when, as Everton manager, I went to David Elleray’s dressing-room to dispute his sending off of Duncan Ferguson in the last minute for foul and abusive language, I was summoned before an FA disciplinary hearing and I wrote a letter of apology to Elleray. They were rare moments of indiscipline on my part and I believe that no team I managed had a reputation for lack of respect for the officials.

Too often nowadays our TV screens are filled with images of players confronting officials and staff ranting on the touchline. It is getting out of control, it is setting a bad example to young people – and it has to stop. Managers must lead by example and players must respond. The late, great Brian Clough proved you can be a winner and still respect the referee. He never criticised the officials and his players knew it would be the worse for them if they did so. With that philosophy, Cloughie’s Nottingham Forest twice won the European Cup! In other words, to use the pressure as a reason for challenging decisions is an argument that does not hold water. Instead, footballers should take a leaf out of those rugby players’ books. If players and managers continue to be abusive to the men in black, then punishment must be instant – and severe. The FA launched their “Respect” campaign several years ago and little has changed. It is time to get tough.

Zero tolerance!

 

Softly,softly for Moyes

David Moyes starts the biggest challenge of his life when he takes over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United on July 1. But, believe me, he will have met the United players before then. And, when he does address his superstar Premier League champions for the first time, David will be telling them: “I’m here to make it business as usual. Let’s keep up the good work.” The likes of Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, players who have been there, done it, worn several of the T-shirts, don’t need to be told they’d better start doing things differently!

This is not a situation like the one that confronted Andreas Villas-Boas when he took over at Chelsea 12 months ago when, it seems, he had a mandate to make sweeping changes. Moyes, who already has the public approval of players like Ferdinand – and, of course, Ferguson who nominated him as his successor – will stress he has no need, nor intention, to bulldoze his way into the biggest job in club football. David’s first major issue is Wayne Rooney’s future. There has been no denial from Rooney of the stories claiming he wants to leave the club, so David will need to sit down with the player and his agent Paul Stretford and sort out the situation. David will, of course, be armed with Alex Ferguson’s take on the affair and it just might be that Rooney’s days at Old Trafford are numbered.

Certainly, Rooney would not be missed if United have lined up a sensational move for their former superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and, or, Borussia Dortmund’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, the man who destroyed Ronaldo’s Real Madrid with all four goals in their Champions League semi-final first leg 4-1 win two weeks ago. Wayne’s role seems to have changed from the all-action forward he was when he arrived at United to a more mature, more withdrawn operator. Whether that is more in Wayne’s mind than Alex’s, who knows? But it is a fact that Wayne has been in and out of the team and playing in different positions and this  may be a factor in Rooney’s reported unsettled state of mind. Someone will be happy to pay around £30m for Rooney, who should be in his prime in his late 20′s, and that might be seen as good business at United.

And, if United are, indeed, aiming to bring back Ronaldo, who has been blitzing La Liga defences for the past four years and for whom Real will want their money back, it is feasible it could be a self-financing deal, with the potential sale of players like winger Nani, striker Chicarito – and Rooney. I don’t see Moyes raiding Everton for players, though I do think  Leighton Baines, the best left-back in the country, could join his boss at United. Everton’s Marouane Fellaini is being touted for the big move, but I’m not convinced the Belgian is what United need, either in midfield or up front. Nor do I see a wholesale switch of backroom staffs, though don’t be surprised if David wants his Goodison assistant Steve Round to stay with him. At United, the backroom structure is as sound as the playing side and I’m sure Alex will have pushed the job security of the people who have served him so well. There is also the Phill Neville factor. I know David thinks a lot of Phil, who is from the same mould,  a man who gets in to training early, gets the players up for it and who, like his Sky pundit brother Gary, has an excellent knowledge of the game. Phil made 386 appearances for United before joining Everton eight years ago – and he might be a candidate for the Goodison job. He could well get an interview, though I feel such  a huge step would be too soon without experienced support.

For Moyes, the biggest concerns, aside of the Rooney issue, will be the age of Rio Ferdinand, at 34, and the injury issues that plague him and his centre-back partner Nemanja Vidic. United have marvellous, young defenders coming through, like Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but Moyes might be tempted to try to take his Everton stalwart Phil Jagielka as insurance. Meantime, David Moyes’ biggest challenge is to get the players’ respect on the training pitch. I’m sure he’ll do that.