Perfect storm

THE Perfect Storm hit Old Trafford last night, leaving David Moyes and Manchester United with a heck of a job on their hands to repair the damage. The penalty shoot-out implosion as United crashed out of the Capital One Cup semi-final to Sunderland was the culmination of a growing crisis that I – and many others – had seen coming since last season. I have alluded to this several times in this column and I’ll have to say it again: United’s 13th Premier League title win last season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s glorious swansong as the most successful manager in the history of British football, was all the more remarkable because it was achieved with a squad that was clearly fraying around the edges.

Now, a combination of that ongoing fact, plus injuries to key players like Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, has left new boss Moyes with the mother and father of a job to restore the team to former glories. The massive problem Moyes inherited is that United icons like midfield maestros Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have not been adequately replaced, resulting in a sub-standard level of performance in that key area. United have authorised a club record £37m fee for Chelsea’s Juan Mata – and that, plus the £28m spent of Maroaune Fellaini last summer must only be the start of the spending if United are not to allow the phenomenal success story that Ferguson wrote over a 27-year tenure to unravel. I am sure that, within weeks of taking over last July, Moyes will have realised that all was not what it seemed with the squad and that, by now, he is crystal clear about the extent of the rebuilding required. He needs another two top class midfielders and he needs to strengthen a defence that has lost its air of authority along with the waning powers of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra. Goalkeeper De Gea’s embarrassing fumble to allow Bardsley’s shot to enter his net will renew old doubts about him and, as for the strike department, so much will depend upon whether Rooney and Van Persie stay at the club. I see rumours have reawakened as to the possibility of Rooney going to Chelsea and that makes me wonder if there is an unspoken agreement in the Mata deal. What is for sure is that if either, or both, of those players had been in the team last night, what a big difference it would surely have made. Not least from the penalty spot, where you would expect Rooney and Van Persie to succeed.

As it was United’s inexperienced, shoot-out nominees blew it, big-style. It is hard for the fans to understand how professional players, particularly those at the top level, can miss from 12 yards, but the fact is it takes a special character to step up in front of 70,000 people, with millions more watching on TV, in a make-or-break situation, and do the job. It is down to pressure and how well or badly you handle it. Rooney wouldn’t have had a problem with that. But there aren’t that many Rooneys or Eric Cantonas out there, men who thrive on the tension. A mistake that is often made, as it was by several of the failures last night, is to try to place the ball. To do that, you have to either be lucky, with the keeper  going the wrong way, or you have to have the nerve to withhold your strike until the last split-second, something that former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli is good at. No, believe me, the most effective method for most players is to smash the shot thus giving  the keeper little hope, even if he has dived the right way.

In the final analysis, though, as Moyes graciously admitted, United were not good enough to subdue a Sunderland team struggling near the foot of the table. On the assumption that United, therefore, cannot possibly be good enough to win the Champions League, their season is, effectively, over in January! When can you remember that last being the case? It is time for sweeping change and Moyes should not be judged until the end of next season, when he will have had time to implement his revolution.




Papering over the cracks

A night of mixed emotions for David Moyes as he watched his much-changed Manchester United beat Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, exacting revenge for the recent Premier League defeat in the process. The win, against a pretty much full-strength Liverpool, gives Moyes a little breathing space amidst the welter of criticism in the aftermath of United’s 4-1 derby-day thrashing by Manchester City. But, last night’s display merely papered over the cracks of the most pressing problem the new United manager faces, namely the shortage of invention in midfield. It is a tribute to Ryan Giggs’s fitness, desire and quality that he is still playing at this level on the eve of his 40th birthday. I am afraid it is also a stark indication of United’s urgent need of reinforcement in that vital area. The 1-0 win was a much-needed morale-booster for Moyes and his players, and yet another example of United’s ongoing never-say-die spirit, but the display did not address the big issue of the team’s shortage of ideas in midfield. You could see why Moyes wanted to sign Cesc Fabregas, from Barcelona, in the summer.

The warning signs were there last season when golden oldies Giggs and now-retired Paul Scholes were figuring so frequently. Tom Cleverley is an England international but still has to fully convince that he can be a major influence at Old Trafford. Antonio Valencia does not look 100 per cent confident after coming back from serious injury, Kagawa is quality but possibly lightweight, Nani continues to excite and exasperate in equal measure – you could see Wayne Rooney waiting for the simple pass that did not come, then watching, perplexed, as Nani did something extraordinary – and Ashley Young does not seem to have made the transition from Premier League to Champions League quality. In short, Moyes needs someone to complement the excellent Michael Carrick, United’s most consistent player last season, who was rested against Liverpool. The deficiencies highlight the absence of ‘forgotten’ man Darren Fletcher, the often unsung hero in whom Sir Alex Ferguson placed so much faith. Fletcher has been struggling with a health problem for the past two or three years and his continued absence has been a big loss, for this excellent athlete and fierce competitor, a player who is decent on the ball and who scores goals, was en route to being top class. Moyes said this week he needs two players – and you can bet that, come the January transfer window, the targets will be midfielders.

A big plus for Moyes was the return to starting action of the excellent Jonny Evans at centre-back. He and Chris Smalling did a good job against one of the league’s most dangerous attacking duos, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, who was back after his 10-game suspension. Evans, still a young man but already an experienced player for United, is very quick and I can see him putting huge pressure on Rio Ferdinand to be first choice alongside Nemanja Vidic. Even Vidic may have reason to start looking over his shoulder if Smalling gets the opportunity to play regularly. Lack of first team action is, it seems to  me, all that is holding him back. It will be interesting to see who plays at centre-back at home to West Brom on Saturday, and even more so, who figures in midfield.

I was delighted for the Liverpool fans that they got to see Suarez in action again, even if the controversial Uruguayan looked a little rusty. I did not agree with the FA when they hit Suarez with the 10-match ban after his bite on the arm of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not condoning such behaviour, far from it, but I believe it was more of a social, rather than a football, offence and, as such, should have been met with a social punishment i.e. a lengthy period of community service, working with kids in Liverpool and setting a better example than he did on the pitch that day. Fans of my old club Everton may find it ironical that I speak out in sympthay for Liverpool supporters. However, my view is that the hard-working, hard-up folk who shell out for a season ticket should not have been deprived for so long of the sight of a player who can go on to rank alongside Liverpool’s legendary strikers, Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish. For me, the most serious offence on the pitch is the blatant, over-the-top, potential leg-breaking tackle. Ask any player which he’d prefer, a bite on the arm – and Suarez’s misdeed was more of a petulant gesture than a vicious act, he didn’t even break Ivanovic’s skin – or a smash from behind against his knee and he will opt for the former. What Suarez did was distasteful – no pun intended. It was a red card offence and that, in itself, brings an automatic three-match ban. Had he served that ban and been ordered to spend time with the people of Liverpool, hopefully showing the better side of his nature, then I think justice would have been better served.




Don’t rush to judge Moyes

The knives are already being sharpened and pointed towards Manchester United manager David Moyes, following his team’s capitulation in the Manchester derby on Sunday. Let me state right now that it is much too early to judge the new United manager, a man who took on one of the best, but most challenging, jobs in football when he succeeded the incomparable Sir Alex Ferguson this summer. I have said here before, and I’ll say it again, United won the title last season by 11 points but it was a false margin, owing more to City’s failure to live up to their potential than to the quality at Old Trafford. And, in that respect, I believe that that 13th title success for Ferguson was amongst the finest of his many fine achievements. City had the better players, but United had the better team.

At The Etihad on Sunday, City had both the better players and the better team, comprehensively dominating the midfield and winning individual battles all over the pitch. In fact, for United only Wayne Rooney did himself justice as his team-mates spent most of the 90 minutes on the back foot and facing their own goal, swamped by a sea of blue. It must have been tough for Moyes to take, especially as United have already lost to their other great rivals, Liverpool – and because they face them again on Wednesday in the Capital One Cup, a match that now assumes massive significance. But I caution Moyes’s critics and the doubters amongst the United fans…this guy is no Paolo Di Canio – the histrionic Italian who was sacked by Sunderland overnight Sunday – he is a strong, determined, level-headed character and a man who won’t lose his nerve. It has been a particularly daunting opening period for Moyes. Hard enough to step into Sir Alex’s shoes, even tougher not to have made the signings he would have liked in the summer, and then faced with opening League matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and City. It will be interesting to see how he approaches the League Cup-tie with Liverpool, who also lost on Saturday, at home to Southampton. Moyes might well be tempted to play his strongest possible team, whereas a good result against City would have afforded him the option to be more experimental. Either way, knowing Moyes as I do, I am sure he will hold his nerve throughout this awkward, early phase of his tenure in the highest-profile managerial post in British football. Let’s give him at least another six matches before we rush to judgement.

One thing is for sure, following the emphatic victory for the blue half of Manchester…City’s performance was awesome and, if they maintain that level, they will fully justify being so many people’s – myself included – tip for the title. City were superior in virtually all positions, with Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta the best of a very good bunch. Kompany, in my opinion, has surged ahead of United’s Nemanja Vidic, who does not look as dominant since coming back from injury, to become the outstanding centre-back in the Premier League. Toure, quite simply, is a unique player, a towering midfielder who is so versatile he once played a Champions League tie for Barcelona at centre-half. He often operates in the holding midfield role but, when let off the leash, as he was against United, he is almost unstoppable, Usain Bolt in football boots, a runaway train that clears all before it off the tracks. Two-goal Aguero is Mr Perpetual Motion, a strong, stocky man who is hard to knock off the ball and who is an excellent finisher and his Argentinian countryman Zabaleta, well, he has become the best right-back in the league. In fact, I think he’s probably the best full-back. Zabaleta, signed by Mark Hughes at the start of Sheikh Mansour’s City revolution, is somewhat unheralded in the media but, believe me, not by the professionals, who hold him in the highest regard. Watching him against United, I couldn’t help wondering: “Whatever he’s on, I could do with some of that.” He is that rarity, a full-back who defends well but who also gets forward and even scores the occasional goal. He is a 100 per-center. A manager’s dream.

These players were the jewels in the crown of a gem-encrusted Manuel Pellegrini team who won the day on all fronts, superior in their pace, power and tactics. Credit to United for the way they kept going at 4-0 down, but I will close with a friendly word of advice to David Moyes, regarding Marouane Fellaini, United’s one big signing of the summer, at £27million. Fellaini, along with Michael Carrick, never got near Toure and Fernandinho in the central midfield, a failing that, once again, highlighted United’s deficiencies in that area. Fellaini produced his most effective displays for Everton, under Moyes, when used further forward, as a support act to the strikers. I do not see him as a complete midfielder, nor as a disciplined holding player. And that leaves the more advanced role, as a loose forward, as the best option for a return on that big investment.


Pressure on the purse-strings

It is interesting to note, following my recent comments here, that Manchester United have now upped their dual offer for Everton’s Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini to £36million, which had to be the starting point of the proposed double signing. As I have already pointed out, it was at best cheeky and at worst insulting for United to offer £28million, with manager David Moyes adding insult to injury by accusing his former club of standing in the two players’ way by not agreeing to sell at that price, because Moyes, while Everton boss, had already been party to a £24million valuation being put on Fellaini. Now, United have seen sense, though I feel they will have to go a little higher if Moyes is to clinch his first major signings before the transfer window closes on Monday night.

Pressure to strengthen United’s suspiciously lightweight midfield is undoubtedly building on Moyes, who has seen attempts to sign Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara and Real Madrid’s Cesc Fabregas fail. As United’s fans grow increasingly restless, having watched arch rivals Manchester City and ambitious Tottenham splash around £100 million apiece this summer, news comes of a rejected £25million offer for Athletic Bilbao’s Anders Herrera and an enquiry for Roma’s 91-cap Italy star Daniele De Rossi. Moyes clearly recognises that midfield is the key area that needs instant, top-class reinforcement. I certainly believe that to be the case and I think the majority of United’s fans think so, too.  Michael Carrick was superb last season, the consistent performer as United won the title at a canter, but those around him are not as impressive. Brazilian Anderson has never quite lived up to expectations, Tom Cleverley, though now an England player, is yet to convince that he is top class, and the Japanese Kagawa, though  a delightful footballer, is a bit lightweight for the gruelling demands of a long, Premier League season. Moyes knows he needs one, possibly two, midfielders but the problem for United is that, as one of the world’s top clubs, they will have to pay top dollar to get the men they want. Herrera has a £30million release clause in his contract and Everton appear to value Baines at more than the £12million originally offered, suggesting they will want £36million-plus before agreeing to sell the two players. With four days to go to the transfer deadline, neither United nor Arsenal have spent a penny. They will have to put their money where their mouths are or risk more rejection – and the fury of their fans.

It does look increasingly as though Wayne Rooney will stay at United and, given how fit and streamlined he looked against Chelsea last Monday, that, at least, is a huge boost for Moyes. I have never doubted Rooney’s commitment, but he has looked less than 100 per cent, physically, at times over the past couple of seasons. Not so at Old Trafford the other night, when his sharpness was a beacon on an otherwise dull occasion, one which reflected negatively on Jose Mourinho. You might have expected the second chapter of the Roman Abramovich-Mourinho partnership to provide something of real substance, but Mourinho’s decision to play without a recognised striker was disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given the way they went 2-0 up against promoted Hull City at home in their opening match – then went into their shell. These early signs suggest Mourinho has not changed his outlook and philosophy much while in Italy and Spain and that he remains, above all else, a supremely practical manager. Certainly, his team selection suggested he doesn’t have much faith in his strikers, Torres, Demba Ba and Lukaku. No wonder he coveted Rooney and no doubt the arrival of Samuel Eto’o on a one-year deal is designed to put pressure on the aforementioned players.

So, let us hope that Sunday’s heavyweight clash at Anfield between Liverpool and United lives up to its traditional billing as one of the crunch matches of the Premier League season. Sir Alex Ferguson consistently claimed the fixture was United’s biggest, though I tend to think that was a sideswipe at Manchester City. I think most United and City supporters would say the Manchester derby means more than any other match. One thing is for sure, Chelsea under Mourinho won’t lose many matches. The question is, will they get bums off seats like I hope Liverpool and United will do this weekend.


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.

No way, Jose?

What an intriguing situation we have in the Premier League with the Big Three under new management next season. David Moyes, at champions Manchester United, Manuel Pellegrini, with runners up Manchester City and Jose Mourinho back at Chelsea…it’s going to be fascinating to see how they all take to their new roles. Certainly, each one of them has a massive job on his hands, and each has his own different challenge. But, perhaps the trickiest task is Mourinho’s because he attempts to deny that old football adage: Never go back.

The self-styled Special One swept into English football like a whirlwind in his first spell at Stamford Bridge. Having announced himself as a super confident extrovert by dancing down the Old Trafford touchline under Sir Alex Ferguson’s nose after his Porto team knocked United out of the Champions League, Mourinho went on to take Chelsea to unprecented levels of success, cleaning up all of the domestic trophies, before going on to further success with Inter Milan and then hitting the buffers at Real Madrid, where he couldn’t fulfill the obligation on every manager at the Bernabeu and conquer Europe, as well as dislodge Barcelona from top honcho status. The image that characterised Mourinho’s trophy-laden times at Porto, Chelsea and Inter was of a man who was cocky, chirpy and, at times, downright arrogant. Yet that picture was too often replaced last season by a sullen expression, Mourinho often sideways on in the dugout, as if detached from his team.
Mourinho’s return to the Premier League will be wonderful for the English Press, the football-loving public and, in particular, the Chelsea fans, who see him as the returning prodigal son…but he will fit that description only if he rediscovers the twinkle in the eye that so characterised his first stint at the club. He recently talked about his ‘need to be loved’ which is all very well, a natural human emotion – but not necessarily one which you should be proclaiming as a football manager. I can’t imagine the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson ever publicly talking in such terms! So, we need to see Mourinho shake off the surly image that soured his last season at Real and replace it with the bounce and ebullience that he will need if he is to belie the widely-held theory that you should never go back. Famous examples of men who tried, and failed, to replicate earlier successes are my old Everton team-mate Howard Kendall, who twice went back to Goodison, where he had won the European Cup-winners’ Cup, league title and League Cup in the mid-80s, Kenny Dalglish, whose recent return to Liverpool was shortlived, and Kevin Keegan, who must wish he hadn’t gone back to Newcastle, where he was such a hero as player then manager first time around. If Mourinho is to avoid similar embarrassment he must quickly put his problems at Real – where he fell out with captain Iker Casillas and several other big names – and renew the bond he had with the Blues stars during his first period at the Bridge.
Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Mancini’s successor at City, has a clearly defined priority: He simply has to reunite a dressing-room packed with superstars that was clearly disunited last season.  I have previously stated my sympathy for Mancini, axed after delivering the Premier League title and FA Cup in the two previous seasons. However, it has become increasingly clear since the Italian’s exit that he ‘lost’ too many of his players, notable examples being keeper Joe Hart, skipper Vincent Kompany, midfielder Samir Nasri and striker Carlos Tevez. With the unity gone, so was the collective will to push on and retain the title. I mean this in no way as a criticism of United, but City have more outstanding individual players than their arch rivals and, as such, should not have conceded their title so tamely. City’s Middle Eastern owners expect nothing but the best after splashing hundreds of millions of pounds over the past four years, and that means conquering Europe. First, though, for Pellegrini comes the challenge of re-establishing team harmony, harnessing the huge bank of talent at his disposal and mounting a serious title challenge. The Chilean’s man-management skills will be of paramount importance.
Pellegrini and Mourinho know that they face a huge task to dislodge United, whose 13th title success was an enormous tribute to the retired Ferguson, who won the crown with weeks to spare and, as I say, with a team which, individually, was inferior to City’s. A key to United’s triumph was the never-say-die, keep-going-to-the-final-whistle spirit fostered so passionately by Ferguson throughout his twenty-six and a half years in charge. United’s mental strength is unrivalled in the Premier League and David Moyes must ensure that it remains so. Moyes will also know that his first buy is so important, his statement signing that is going to improve a team which has just won the title at a canter. At Everton, David was shopping in the bargain basement. At United, he will be spending big in Harrods. There is talk of Cristiano Ronaldo returning from Real Madrid. Now, wouldn’t that be a stunning statement of intent by Moyes?




Managerial mayhem

So, David Moyes made his first appearance at Manchester United on Monday, nearly six weeks before his official start date to succeed the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. I predicted more than a week ago that Moyes would meet his new players before July 1st – many of them weren’t there on Monday but be sure he will see them all very soon – as he gets set to fill the biggest shoes in football management. David’s challenge at Old Trafford got me thinking about the ever-increasing pressure on top-flight managers. United will give their new man every possible chance to settle in and put his mark on team affairs. But that won’t be the case at many other Premier League clubs, where impatience and unrealistic expectation means the managerial casualty rate will go on rising.

Ferguson managed United for twenty-six and a half years, a feat that will never be matched. Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal 17 years and David was at Everton 11 years. If anyone survives five years at any other Premier League club he will do well. A few poor results bring pressure from the fans, often fuelled by the media, and, unfortunately, club chairmen react. A big problem is that expectations become totally unrealistic. Rarely does a club outside of the top four or five win anything, yet this season Wigan claimed the FA Cup and Swansea the League Cup and both will play in Europe next season. Now, the fans of every team will expect their club to emulate these two unlikely trophy winners. In fact, these days, the biggest ‘mistake’ a manager at one of the fringe top-flight clubs can make is to raise expectation levels by winning something! It simply brings more pressure to do so again. I experienced the problem when I went to Everton in 1994 – after a 12-year stint at Oldham, by the way – and took the club from bottom to sixth, won the FA Cup and the Charity Shield and we went into the next season as outside favourite for the title. But a cruel list of injuries torpedoed our progress and I was bitterly disappointed to lose the job I had always craved.

Although David has left Everton in great shape, having finished above city rivals Liverpool in the table, it pains me to say that Liverpool, because of stronger financial backing, might have a better chance than Everton of gatecrashing the Platinum Five – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham – than Everton. David, I’m sure, will be given the full six years of his United contract to stamp his authority at Old Trafford and I hope that his successor at Goodison Park will get similar loyalty. The sad fact is that, in this ‘instant’ world in which we live, few clubs seem to have learned the lesson from Ferguson’s reign: namely, the longer he was there, the more United were successful. The majority of top-line bosses are now nomads. When Mourinho returns to Chelsea it will be his seventh job since 2,000. Ancelotti, who is expected to succeed him at Real Madrid, will be taking up his sixth post since 1995. And what about Luis Felipe Scolari, manager of Brazil, who has had no less than 23 jobs! As I said, we’ll never see the likes of Ferguson again.



Last day drama

The Premier League title race was decided weeks ago by Manchester United and Wigan, Reading and QPR are confirmed as the three relegated clubs – but, thankfully, we still have drama to savour in tomorrow’s fixture finale. Tottenham are hoping to pip Arsenal to fourth place and, therefore, qualification for the Champions League play-off place, while the Gunners are also involved in a race for third place with Chelsea. And that particular battle could result in a tension-filled play-off at Villa Park on May 26.

That scenario would occur if Chelsea were to draw at home to Everton 0-0 and Arsenal were to win at Newcastle 2-1, leaving both London clubs level on points, goal difference and goals scored. At least, that’s as I understand the complicated situation! The third-placed club would go into the Champions League at the Group stage, while fourth place means the qualifying competition. Mark my words, it won’t be easy for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. While I expect Arsenal to at least draw at Newcastle,  who are safe from relegation and under no great pressure to perform, and Chelsea, fresh from their Europa Cup triumph, are buoyant, I expect my former club Everton to make life very difficult at The Bridge. Look at the facts: Everton, who have lost only one more match than Manchester United, have drawn 15, making them the draw specialists of the division. The Toffees haven’t won at Chelsea since my team did so, 1-0, in my second game in charge in 1994 and I’m sure outgoing manager David Moyes would dearly love to sign off with  a similar result.

For Tottenham, their home clash with Sunderland is a must-win game. And I expect them to do so. Injury-hit Sunderland, who have secured safety by the skin of their teeth, don’t have the firepower to win at White Hart Lane, where they might do well to win a corner-kick! Tottenham, on the other hand, play their biggest match of the season, with Player of the Year (and Young Player of the Year) Gareth Bale primed to sign off his superb season in style. I just feel that it will end in bitter disappointment for Spurs, as I expect Arsenal to beat Newcastle, thus securing fourth place, at least.


Grin and bank it

Manchester City have made a mess of their sacking of Roberto Mancini, who deserves better treatment after delivering the FA Cup and a first league title in 44 years in his three and a half years in charge. It cannot be right that the rumour mill was churning at full pelt long before he was told of his fate. I admit that, after City’s shocking cup final display against Wigan, I am not shocked by Mancini’s sacking. But I am disappointed on his behalf and I know he will be bitterly upset at losing his job. After all, he was City’s most successful manager of the past few decades.

Okay, he may have made mistakes in the handling of some of his players. When he had the problem with Carlos Tevez not wanting to come off the bench in the Champions League last season, he came out and said the forward would never play for the club again. That left him exposed, especially as Tevez returned to play a crucial role in the last few matches of the season as City clinched the title. He upset keeper Joe Hart with criticism after the match at Real Madrid this season, got on the wrong side of skipper Vincent Kompany and did not handle Mario Balotelli well. Balotelli, who was sold to Milan this season, caused too many problems on the pitch for too long. So, maybe Mancini’s man management wasn’t the best. But he deserved better than this.

I sympathised early this season when he stated: “There is no respect for my position.” Lack of respect is a problem in society these days, not merely a problem confined to football. And football managerial sackings simply go with the territory, especially at this “galactico” level. Increasingly, the saying amongst top-flight managers these days is: “Grin and bank it.” That’s not to say that the huge compensation pay-out Mancini will surely get lessens the blow to his pride at losing the job he loved. Ironically, Manuel Pellegrini, the man tipped to succeed Mancini, suffered the same fate at Real Madrid a few years ago. With increasing foreign ownership of clubs, the tendency to fire managers after one, two or three years is increasing. When people come with “a five-year plan” it makes me laugh. As my “uncle” Jim Royle – of the TV comedy The Royle Family – would say: “My arse!” That is why it was so refreshing to see Manchester United not only appoint a Briton in David Moyes to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson but also to give him a six-year contract. United are one of only a few clubs who retain a traditional attitude to longevity and loyalty and I’m sure they will strive to give Moyes time to do the job. At the same time, I reckon Arsenal and Chelsea – though the Blues are soon to change manager themselves – will be looking at the upheaval at City and the switch over at United and thinking they have an opportunity to regain domination over their Manchester rivals.



D-day looms for Rooney

Wayne Rooney, by far England’s most talented striker, is ending the season in no man’s land, with a parting slap from retiring Sir Alex Ferguson, who pointedly left Rooney out of the squad for his last home match in charge, against Swansea, on Sunday. Sir Alex says he has turned down a transfer request from the player, while admitting he can’t be sure Rooney will be at United next season, so it will be down to new boss David Moyes to decide how the situation is resolved.

One thing I do know is that Rooney remains by far this country’s best forward, still the only Englishman who guarantee 20 goals a season in the Premier League. And that is because, at his best, he is strong, aggressive, deceptively fast, good in the air for a man of average height, utterly fearless and possessed with a fierce will to win. That particular characteristic was clear for us to see when he was nine/ten years old and preparing to join Everton’s Academy, when I was manager in the mid-90′s. He is so good that he can operate with equal effectiveness either up front, wide or in central midfield. And it just might be that therein lies Rooney’s problem. I don’t know if he has a preferred position, but the fact that he has been played in different roles might be what is disillusioning him. Rooney likes to be the top dog and it might be that he feels his nose has been put out of joint by the arrival of Robin van Persie. Or the problem could be that Sir Alex is unhappy with Rooney’s physical condition and that he is trying to make a point by having him in and out of the side.

I must say, whether it is a physical or a mental issue, I feel Rooney hasn’t been at his sharpest this season. He and Moyes, who successfully sued Rooney over allegations in the player’s book that he was “overbearing” and “controlling” at Everton, clearly have had their differences. It will be interesting to see the outcome when the two men get together to thrash out the current impasse.