Match of the season

MANCHESTER CITY play Arsenal tomorrow in a ‘high noon’ shoot-out that must qualify as the match of the season, with my title favourites City in a position to either grow or blow their claims to the crown. Victory at their Etihad fortress – City have battered Manchester United and Tottenham there and inflicted the only defeat of their season upon Everton – would lift Manuel Pellegrini’s all-stars to within three points of the Gunners. Defeat would leave them nine points adrift and with a mountain to climb. Put it this way, it must be many a year since a team which lost five times before Christmas went on to win the league. It will be a battle of the midfield magicians, fit again David Silva, Yaya Toure and re-energised Samir Nasri pitting their wits against Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta. And will Jack Wilshere, such a potential big player for England at the World Cup, rise to the occasion? It is a mouth-watering prospect and it should be quite a spectacle.

It will be intriguing to see what team Pellegrini picks for, surely, he must name what he considers to be his best eleven for this fixture against the league leaders. That being the case, the continuing exclusion of goalkeeper Joe Hart for Premier League matches would be significant, a major blow to the player and a big worry for England boss Roy Hodgson who needs his No 1 keeper to be regularly employed between now and the World Cup Finals next summer. Another England player who has been in and out of the City team but who must merit serious consideration is the much underrated James Milner, who can play either side of midfield and who was, for me, the man of the match in the magnificent midweek win at Bayern Munich. I presume that skipper Vincent Kompany, rested in Munich, will be adding his considerable presence to the defence, where I would like to see him partnered by Joleon Lescott. Arsene Wenger will play his usual five-man midfield behind lone striker Olivier Giroud – and I can’t wait to see how the drama unfolds.

Let us hope Pellegrini avoids any further embarrassment with regards to information black-out. I refer, of course, to the ridiculous situation in Munich, where the City boss and, it appears, his players were unaware that they required just one more goal – i.e. a 4-2 scoreline – to top their Champions League group and thus avoid the minefield they now face in Monday’s draw for the knock-out phase. It seems Pellegrini thought City needed a 5-2 win to secure first place and, as a result, did not deem it worth the risk of top scorer Sergio Aguero coming off the bench and getting injured in the chase for two strikes, keen as he was to keep his star striker fit to face the Gunners. Pellegrini has taken a lot of stick in the British Press, but I think City’s army of back-up technical and statistical staff must carry as much of the can. Why wasn’t the manager made aware of the precise requirements? In the event, second-placed City will go into the hat with giants of the game like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and big-spending Pars Saint Germain. Pellegrini can only pray his ignorance of the facts doesn’t come back to bite him. And I can only think that the back-up people have been made aware they need to smarten their act.

ON the subject of draws, England’s World Cup group is just about as tough as it gets. Uruguay – their line led by the prolific Luis Suarez – are ranked six in the world, Italy, such a competition-hardened nation down the decades, are seventh and Costa Rica have rocketed through the list from 66th in January to 31st. England, who are 13th, are really up against it and I urge the staff and players to focus on the fact that, in the humidity and the heat of Brazil, and against such opposition, possession of the ball will be crucial to their hopes of progression. Keeping the ball has not been a feature of England’s displays in recent years and, if they don’t improve that side of their game, they will struggle to emerge from the group. The best players, Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard must be at their best and I think Gerrard, currently sidelined at Liverpool with a hamstring injury, will have to be cherished. If we are winning a particular match, it might be that the 33-year-old midfielder will need to be substituted and cotton-wooled for the next encounter.



No more pain from Wayne

England are on the road to Rio and it is a time for all the nation’s football fans, myself included, to rejoice. Now, we have seven months to prepare for the biggest tournament of them all, the World Cup, and I must say, manager Roy Hodgson has something to work with. The arrival of winger Andros Townsend has breathed fresh air into the England squad and the Tottenham 22-year-old, along with fellow youngsters Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, represents an encouraging vibrancy as we look ahead to Brazil. I must say, though, that our two most important players are, and will remain, the vastly experienced Wayne Rooney and captain Steven Gerrard, the two men upon whom we still rely heavily for our goals.

Rooney, at 27, and 33-year-old Gerrard hit the target against Poland to clinch our qualification, their goals merely underlining their significance in this England team. Both players, with their ability, experience and big-occasion know-how, will be vital to the cause next summer, when we must pray they remain fit. Rooney, our one world-class forward, looks like he has regained his enthusiasm and focus following his period of discontent after Sir Alex Ferguson sensationally axed him from Manchester United’s Champions League quarter-final glamour tie with Real Madrid. There is no doubt Rooney had not been performing to his highest level and former United boss Ferguson, in his undeniable wisdom, stunned the player by leaving him out, then said Rooney had asked him if he could leave Old Trafford. It was obviously a wake-up call from the master man-manager, but it looked like one helluva mess for David Moyes to inherit when he succeeded Sir Alex this summer. To his credit, Moyes appears to have risen to the challenge. Rooney is back in the United team, playing in what I certainly think is his best position, namely the second striker – and he’s looking like the Rooney of old. Certainly, he has been England’s outstanding performer in the two successful Wembley matches against Montenegro and Poland, when his two goals took his tally in internationals to 38 and when he became the country’s all time leading World Cup scorer. Now, of course, we want to see him score in the finals!

The most encouraging aspect of Rooney’s current form is his demeanour on the pitch. So often, his play has been sullied by the image of the scowling, profanity-riddled player, cursing referees when penalised or when he felt he did not get the benefit of the doubt. Refreshingly, Rooney looked like a man in control of his emotions and, therefore, his game on Tuesday and England will need him in this form and this frame of mind in Brazil, for he is the man to whom the likes of  Welbeck and Sturridge at the front end of the team will look for example and leadership. And, though Welbeck continues to impress with his strength and work-rate, and Sturridge is coming on leaps and bounds, Rooney is likely to remain our biggest goal threat. Ironically, Gerrard, operating in his central midfield position, continues to be the second most likely to score! I have admired the Liverpool player ever since he broke into their team as a teenager and, though I am an Evertonian, I do have some sympathy for Gerrard because of his failure to crown a wonderful career with a League title. It would be fitting for him if he could lead England to at least a respectable showing in the World Cup finals…it is hard for a diehard patriot like me to predict that we can actually win it. But we live in hope and I hope and pray that Rooney and Gerrard remain injury-free for the rest of the Premier League season. These are players who have earned their football degrees. For lads like Wilshere, Townsend, Welbeck et al, it’s a case of moving from High School to university next summer. Let us hope they all emerge with honours.

There is little doubt that Hodgson has “found” a player in Townsend, who has played almost as often for England as he has for Tottenham! Here is a winger who does what his ilk are supposed to do, namely receives the ball and runs at defenders, allying pace and trickery. He’s got a mean shot on him, too. With Walcott, currently injured, waiting to join the party Hodgson will have some exciting attacking options, one of which might well be the use of Walcott in more of a centre-forward role. A word, also, in praise of left-back Leighton Baines whose delivery for Rooney’s opening, headed goal, must have had David Moyes drooling. Moyes, as we know, tried and failed to sign Baines in the transfer window and I know that Everton fans remain concerned that the player may yet be lost to them in the January window. There were a couple of moments in the second half against Poland when Baines lost the plot defensively – as did England collectively on more than occasion in the match – but there is no denying his class as a raiding full-back. Baines not only gives his manager that threat, he also affords him the option of selecting a midfielder in a narrower role, thus tightening things up in the middle.




No clowning around, England!

I am sure Roy Hodgson’s England squad don’t need telling, but, ahead of Tuesday’s must-win clash with Poland, I’m sending them this message, nevertheless: “Let’s have no clowning around at Wembley.” In saying so, I refer, of course, to that fateful night, 40 years ago, when Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski defied Sir Alf Ramsey’s star-studded team, denying England a place at the World Cup Finals in the process – after being branded a “clown” by Brian Clough. Cloughie, presumably, was trying to destabilise the Poles by dismissing their keeper, but the jibe backfired as Tomaszewski produced the display of his life to restrict England to a 1-1 draw, reminding us that any keeper is just as  capable of having a blinder as a horror show.

In that match, for example, Peter Shilton, the best English goalkeeper I played with or against, in a golden era that boasted Ray Clemence, Gordon Banks, Peter Bonetti, Joe Corrigan and the two Phil Parkes’s (of Wolves and West Ham), allowed a tame shot from Domarski to go under his body. And that after the legendary Norman “bites yer legs” Hunter had missed a tackle on the halfway line to let Lato speed clear to set up the goal that killed our World Cup hopes. At the other end, the “clown” Tomaszewski was having the night of his life, keeping out the likes of Allan Clarke, Martin Chivers and Mick Channon. Yours truly, by the way, was watching on TV, while recovering from career-threatening back surgery.

Now, that Poland team sported world class talent in the form of Lato, Gadocha and Kazy Deyna, who went on to be a favourite at Manchester City. The side we face on Tuesday is ranked a lowly 65th in the world – but, once again, it’s a case of England beware! I trust there will be no dismissive pre-match jibes about the keeper who will try to stop Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge in their tracks, namely Southampton’s Artur Boruc, a player who is good enough to relegate Arsenal’s excellent Wojciech Szczesny to the sub’s bench. And we must hope that Borussia Dortmund forward Robert Lewandowski is not sufficiently stung by Poland’s failure to qualify for Brazil that he turns in the type of world-class performance of which he is capable. In short, the danger signs are clear. England must ignore the ranking that puts them 48 places ahead of their opponents, acknowledge the omens of 1973 and knuckle down and get the job done, just as they did against Montenegro on Friday.

I would leave out 35-year-old Frank Lampard because I do believe the demands of two such vital matches in five days are too much for one of his age. Lampard is a superb athlete but this might be asking too much. As my friend and mentor and former Everton team-mate Jimmy Gabriel used to say about the advancing years: “Age is like a screw in your back that steadily comes loose – and, suddenly, falls out.” I am sure Jack Wilshere, left out of the starting line-up on Friday, would do a great job against the Poles, playing alongside Steven Gerrard. I was surprised that Hodgson left out Wilshere, but I must applaud the England manager for his selection of Andros Townsend, who terrorised Montenegro and showed us why he is keeping out not only Aaron Lennon but also £30m new boy Erik Lamela, at Tottenham. Let us hope Townsend can do a similar job on Tuesday. He is giving Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas what we managers call a “nice problem.”

PS. I’m shaking my head in despair at the fuss on Twitter as a result of ITV presenter Adrian Childs’ quip about Polish builders ahead of Tuesday’s match. I really cannot see the problem. Childs’s tongue-in-cheek remark about needing some building work doing is as harmless as jokes about Irish labourers or Asian restaurants. If you are offended by that, then I suggest you get a life!



England expects

Montenegro, one of the states formed by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, lie 10 places below England in the world rankings and do not have any ‘world stars’ in their ranks. Yet this tiny nation tops World Cup qualifying Group H, has not lost in three meetings with England – all drawn – since its formation, and its team contains more itches than a tramp’s overcoat. They call themselves the Brave Falcons – and brave is what England must be at Wembley if we are to avoid the humiliation of failing to qualify for next year’s finals in Brazil.

However, I don’t advocate that manager Roy Hodgson throws caution to the wind by tampering too much with his midfield. I have heard suggestions that he is considering dropping 35-year-old Frank Lampard for Michael Carrick or axing Lampard and Danny Welbeck to accommodate James Milner and Tottenham’s promising youngster Andros Townsend. Well, I wouldn’t recommend either of those options. In saying we must be brave, I am suggesting we must be totally positive, but not risky. I believe Hodgson should stick with the vastly-experienced Lampard and Steven Gerrard, supported by Jack Wilshere, and worry about replacing these old soldiers when – and if – we get the job of qualifying done. Make no mistake, this is a tricky-looking fixture and I don’t think it is one to entrust to relatively inexperienced players like Townsend.

Montenegro may not have any superstar names amongs their ranks, but they do have very good players, men whose qualities adorn top European teams like Juventus, Fiorentina and Lille. Striker Vukevic, for example, for some mysterious reason was not a success at Blackburn Rovers, yet he now leads the line in Serie A for Juve, while centre-back Savic is a mainstay at Fiorentina after being jettisoned by Manchester City. These guys are no mugs and players like Lampard and Gerrard must get to grips with them quickly and ensure that England impose themselves in front of an expectant Wembley crowd. Goals haven’t been coming easily for England and we must hope that the returning Wayne Rooney, who will drop off the in-form Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, can produce the type of dynamic performance of which he is capable. One of the reasons Sturridge left Chelsea was that he did not want to be used as a wide striker, yet he does some of his best work running in from wide areas, just as the athletic Welbeck does. These guys must be urged to tear at the Montenegro defence at every opportunity.

The front runners will be ably supported by Everton’s in-form left-back Leighton Baines whose selection is automatic given the injury sustained by Ashley Cole. The loss of Cole may prove a gain for England for Baines is the more creative of the two, a player who can supply crosses for the likes of Sturridge, Rooney and Welbeck to attack. It is vital that England dominate possession and Baines can play a big part there. Centre-halves Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka pick themselves, but I would restore Glen Johnson to the right-back slot if he is fit. The Liverpool player is far and away our best in that position, though Kyle Walker will do a good enough job if he plays. And, despite all the flak he has taken this season in the Premier League, Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart remains a shoe-in.

This really is what they call a must-win game. The situation is clear: Beat Montenegro and then Poland on Tuesday, also at Wembley, and we will be heading for Brazil. Failure to do so is too awful to contemplate.



Smoke signals!

The weekend’s top-flight football threw up three examples of the exciting, emerging talent that we have in the Premier League. However, the exploits of Jack Wilshere and Adnan Januzaj were accompanied by danger signs, while we must hope for his, West Ham’s and England’s, sake that Ravel Morrison has banished the demons that caused that great problem-player-tamer Sir Alex Ferguson to allow him to leave Manchester United nearly two years ago.

Let me first take the case of Arsenal midfielder Wilshere, who was photographed last week smoking a cigarette at the door of a nightclub. Now, smoking tobacco is not illegal but there is a welter of medical evidence telling us it is bad for our health and it is not a habit  any athlete should be encouraged to indulge. It most certainly is not something Wilshere should rejoice in, as he appeared to when tweeting his approval of the Arsenal fans’ chant “he smokes what he wants” after the 21-year-old came back from a poor first half performance at West Bromwich Albion to score a superb equaliser. I am sure Arsene Wenger will be taking his prodigy aside and pointing out the pitfalls, not only to Wilshere’s health but also his image, of being pictured with a cigarette in his hand. Let me declare a personal interest here, in that I am a committed, lifelong non-smoker, someone who grew up abhorring the habit after being raised in a household where parents and grand-parents turned the air acrid with cigarette smoke. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, but the reality is that more footballers and managers do so than you would like to think, though perhaps the habit was more prevalent in my playing days than it is in the modern era. For example, when Everton won the League title in 1970 I was one of only four players in the team who did not smoke. I doubt if such a ratio exists in any of the current Premier League teams, though the tendency to enjoy the occasional smoke is more common amongst the foreign players. The problem Wilshere must address, apart from any potential risk to his health and performance levels, is that, as the midfielder upon whom so much English hope rests for the forseeable future, he needs to be more aware of the image he portrays.

Gone are the days when footballers mixed socially with newspapermen, shared a beer and a smoke, and could rely upon a mutual understanding that these occasions remained unreported. I recall going on tour with England Under-21s to Germany, Italy and Hungary, accompanied by a press pack who spent hours paying cards and having a beer or two with the lads, comfortable in the conviction that “what happened on tour stayed on tour.” The problem these days, for both players and press, is that there is no such informal coming together, no mutual trust, and consequently, there is no hiding place for highly-paid, celebrity sportsmen. The media’s access to footballers is increasingly controlled and, therefore, reporters and photographers are only too happy to  adopt a “gloves off” approach and expose the private side of players’ lives. Photograph-taking mobile ‘phones also mean a player is vulnerable every time he steps out of his front door, which is why I would say to Wilshere: ‘If you must smoke, smoke in the house.’

Manchester United fans, still struggling to come to terms with the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and their team’s stuttering start to the season, have a reason to be cheerful today, in the slender shape of teenager Adnan Januzaj who burst on to the scene in spectacular style with his two-goal rescue act in his first start at Sunderland. The Belgian-born 21-year-old wide midfielder certainly impressed me, in particular with his technique when striking the winning goal, a 20-yard volley. Januzaj stayed over the ball and never took his eye off it as he struck, unerringly, into the corner of the net. He looks a real prospect, one that manager David Moyes obviously recognised early in his reign by giving him some exposure during the pre-season matches. And I see there are reports United are to offer Januzaj – his parentage and grand-parentage means he qualifies to play for Albania and Turkey, as well as Belgium, but the FA’s hopes of recruiting him for England via residency rules are, apparently, slim – a £30,000-a-week contract. United will need to act fast, as several big clubs around Europe are alive to the boy’s quality. Another warning note, though. Januzaj was booked on his debut for diving and Moyes and his staff must act to ensure that the lad does not allow this to become an ugly side to his game. Diving is one of the more unsavoury aspects of modern football and it really has no part in a youngster’s portfolio. If Januzaj is to go on to become the next in a long line of United  icons, in the mould of Law, Charlton, Best, Cantona, Ronaldo and Rooney, then diving he can do without. Moyes gave a youthful Rooney and Ross Barkley their first team debuts at Everton and he says he has a similar feeling about Januzaj. Let’s hope for United’s sake that his instinct is sound.

And so to Morrison, a young man from Manchester who lost his way so seriously that Sir Alex thought it best to sever him from his local environment in his own best interests. When letting him join West Ham, Ferguson told Hammers manager Sam Allardyce that he would have a special talent on his hands – provided he could keep the boy on the straight and narrow. Big Sam sent Morrison on loan to Birmingham last season and, if the goal the 20-year-old attacking midfielder scored against Tottenham yesterday is anything to go by, then the boy is well and truly re-focused on his football. Morrison went on a mazy run from the halfway line before coolly chipping over the keeper’s legs as West Ham produced a stunning 3-0 win at White Hart Lane. It was the biggest surprise result of the weekend, one that strengthens the impression that we are in for the most open title race for many a year. And Morrison’s goal, a certain early candidate for goal of the season, was hopefully a sign that England – and West Ham – have a star in the making.


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.



Come in No 9

Forty or fifty years ago the claim was you could whistle down any coal mine shaft in Yorkshire and come up with a potential England fast bowler. In the same period, when I was a young centre-forward at Everton striving to get into the England football team, I faced fierce competition from a host of players, men like Brian Kidd, Trevor Francis, Peter Osgood, Mick Channon, Frank Worthington, Mick Jones, John Radford, strikers who were good for 20 goals a season, and more, in the old First Division. Now, you wonder where the next prolific England centre-forward is coming from.

Yet another disappointing display from the national team, against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday, when our only goal came from ageing midfielder Frank Lampard, got me thinking, and worrying, about the lack of international-class English talent being produced by our much-vaunted Academy system. When the Academies were introduced some years ago, the idea was that they would nurture England players of the future, players of genuine class who would help to restore the national team to the glory days of 1966, our one and only World Cup-winning year, when Sir Alf Ramsey’s team sported four or five genuine contenders for inclusion in a World XI . But it simply hasn’t happened. A Tier One Academy costs a club circa £5million a year to run! We have more money, more science, more staff, more medical facilities than ever before and don’t get me wrong I think that science and medicine has a vital place in elite sport – but I don’t see any sign of a crop of young Englishmen who look likely to challenge the world’s best.

This massive investment in sophisticated dietary, fitness and training systems does not seem to be bearing fruit. In some ways, I wonder if the focus on perfection could be negative. For example, the pitches these Academy kids play on these days are pristine, their surfaces as smooth as snooker tables. A far cry from my days as an Everton youth player when we had to clear cow muck from a pitch at Tranmere or at Darwen, near Blackburn, where the toilet was a plank of wood across two oil drums. I’m not campaigning for a return to such conditions, but they were character-building and I do believe that playing on rough surfaces as a kid helps your ball control. I even suggested to an Academy coach recently that he consider preparing a poor pitch, maybe let the grass grow and allow a bobble or two, with the aim of improving basic skills. Look at the legendary players of my lifetime, the Peles, Maradonas, Rivaldos, men who, as kids, honed their superb technique on the dust bowl, stone-strewn pitches in the slums of South American cities. Perhaps our fascination with giving our kids the best of everything has some drawbacks. Does this for example have an effect on their Psyche? Are the young English players of today as mentally tough as yesteryear?

What I know for certain is that we don’t have young centre-foward capable of scoring 20-plus Premier League goals a season and ready to knock Wayne Rooney off his perch as England’s attack leader. Rooney, who has not managed the final step to becoming world class yet, remains far and away our best bet – and he notched only 16 goals last season in the league. You look at the current England squad and worry that the players who would frighten the best teams in the world are simply not there. Okay, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Manchester United’s Phil Jones have the potential and Liverpool right-back Glen Johnson has had the best season of his career. But the only world class player I see in the squad is goalkeeper Joe Hart. Oh, for another Paul Gascoigne or a Colin Bell, that great Manchester City midfielder, players who could run a match at the highest level. And, oh, for another goal machine, a Gary Lineker or an Alan Shearer. I noticed that midfielder Lampard’s 29th goal for England puts him just one behind Shearer in the record books. That is good for Frank, but it further highlights the crying need for a goal machine to lead the attack.


Bundesliga is best

img courtesy of 1600.iso -

Bayern Munich take on Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley on Saturday evening – and what a pulsating exhibition of pacey, powerful football we have in prospect. For, make no mistake, the fact that these Bundesliga giants are contesting the showpiece match of European football is clear evidence that the German model is the best on the continent. The Premier League keeps saying it has the best product, producing the best football, but such claims can be justified by the Bundesliga, where big crowds watch a brand of exciting, direct football week in, week out. Bayern and Dortmund have blown away all opposition in the Champions League, their unstoppable progress to the final culminating in the awesome semi-final destruction of the pride of Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Don’t forget, en route to the semi-finals, Bayern had battered Arsenal at The Emirates and Real Madrid had eliminated Manchester United.

So, that tells me that not only are our top English clubs some way behind the Germans but now so, too, are the Spanish who, in Barca in particular, have dominated the European scene for the past few years. Personally, I’m delighted to see the German emergence because they play my type of game, a fast, direct style which should not be confused with long ball football. By ‘direct’ I mean putting the emphasis on moving forward with pace and hitting probing, positive passes. When I gave my team talks, my mantra to my players was: “When a team-mate makes a forward run don’t disappoint him…hit him with a pass.” This is what Bayern and Borussia are doing, what Barca and Real could not cope with. Bayern’s approach blew holes in Barca’s close-passing game, a style which is heavily reliant on Iniesta, Xavi and Messi and which, in my opinion, can be too ornate at times. Certainly, Messi and Co found Bayern too hot to handle and, don’t forget, Glasgow Celtic beat Barca in the Group Stage.

So, I think we are witnessing the dawning of a new brand of power play, one which the coaches in England, Spain and Italy may well have to adopt if they are to keep up with the Germans. These guys are big, strong and talented and have so much running power. Whether or not Bayern and Borussia will cancel each other out to some extent at Wembley remains to be seen. It will be fascinating to find out.


Give Brits a break

As the season nears its close we await the confirmation of another two foreigners, the Chilean Pellegrini and the Portuguese Mourinho, to take charge at Manchester City and Chelsea respectively.They will replace fellow “outsiders” Roberto Mancini and Rafa Benitez…and so the fascination for foreign coaches in the Premier League continues. Having been in football as a player and manager for the best part of 45 years, I admit to being something of a traditionalist who believes that homegrown talent should be more in evidence in the managerial ranks. However, I do concede that, now that we have so many foreign players in the Premier League, having a multi-lingual non-Brit in charge does make some sense. We British can’t deny that, historically, we have been too lazy when it comes to learning other languages. A notable exception is England boss Roy Hodgson who is trilingual, at least. Mind you, how can anyone be expected to make sense of the FA’s previous national coach appointment, Fabio Capello – the Italian who couldn’t speak English! The FA aren’t renowned for common sense decisions, but that one really did take the biscuit.

While reluctantly conceding there is some validity in having a foreigner in charge at a multi-national Premier League club, I must say I can’t see why that is necessary outside the top division, where the average percentage of non-British players is much lower. And, frankly, I can’t imagine a man coming from abroad to take a Hartlepool or Rotherham through the divisions. As I said the other day, the appointment of David Moyes to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, one Scot for another, is a big fillip for British coaches and for the League Managers’ Association, who have long been campaigning for better representation for homegrown coaching talent.


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.