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!

 

Case for the defence

Ian Holloway, a lovely guy, has shown what a good manager he is by winning a second Championship play-off final in three years, his success last week with Crystal Palace following the achievement he had with Blackpool. Now, as then, Holloway has an even bigger mountain to climb if he is to keep his club in the Premier League. Blackpool won the hearts of the neutrals with their open, attractive football, but they did not survive because they could not defend well enough to keep out the Premier League strikers. It is going to be a familiar problem for Holloway as he embarks upon a frantic summer of hasty planning and, hopefully, prudent transfer dealing. For, make no mistake you Palace fans, your team needs an overhaul if it is to survive the challenge next season. The blunt truth is that, in Wilfried Zaha, Palace had only one player of obvious Premier League quality. He is on his way to Manchester United.

I don’t have any idea what size of budget Ian will have at his disposal, but I do know he needs a lot of new players, starting with four defenders. It is easy for fans of clubs promoted to the top flight to dream that their heroes can, and will, rise to the occasion. But the reality is often different. The gulf in quality between the Championship and Premier League is distinct. That is why, if palace have any chance of keeping the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero at bay, they must have strength in depth in their defensive ranks. An even bigger problem is goal scoring at the top level. Of all the positions, striker is the toughest when moving up to the top flight. Simply because the defenders are that much better than those you have faced in the Championship. In Glenn Murray, Palace have a player whose 31 goals last season is a marvellous achievement. But, believe me, Murray will find it much harder to hit the net when tussling with the likes of Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Vidic. Top flight defenders tend to be bigger and quicker and that is why the majority of promoted strikers who have scored 20-plus the previous season struggle to get 10

A quirk of the play-offs is that they delay your ability to finalise your preparations for the next season and, so, though successful, your plans can be thrown into the melting pot. Ian will most probably be trying to re-arrange warm-up games, possibly now cancelling friendlies against Premier League teams, and he will face complications such as expectations of top-flight contracts from the players who won promotion. All in all, it adds up to an intense summer for Ian, who may need to be ruthless in his dealings with some players. When my Manchester City team won back-to-back promotions to return to the Premier League in 2000, we signed three or four players, but needed seven or eight, and were relegated. Ian, after his experience with Blackpool, will be well aware of the size of the challenge. The biggest step up is for the forward players – but the case for the defence is imperative. Good luck, Ian.

 

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.

 

Penalties – hit ‘em hard

What a fairytale at Wembley where one of football’s good guys, Kevin Phillips, secured the richest prize in the game for Crystal Palace, while  ensuring he will again play in the Premier League – in his 40th year. Now, believe you me, that takes some doing, especially for a centre-forward. On the rare occasion that players continue past that age milestone, it is invariably goalkeepers. Phillips clinched this exciting extension to his remarkable career by executing the perfect penalty, struck hard and true, high to the keeper’s right. It was the ideal model for any would-be penalty taker, the fusion of good technique and cool nerve.

The first piece of advice I would give a young player on the art of penalty-taking is “don’t change your mind.” You must make up your mind where you are going to place the ball and stick to it. Do not allow the keeper’s antics to influence you. Your opponent will try to “show” you which side to hit it, but you must ignore him and stick to your plan of action. And don’t indulge in this modern habit of strolling up and chipping the keeper, like Sunderland’s Jeff Whitley famously did in the Division One play-off semi-final of 2004 against Palace. Whitley hesitated in his run-up and chipped the ball straight into the keeper’s arms. Palace went through 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out, with Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy furious with his midfielder. You should hit the ball hard and, above all, hit the target. Put the shot either side of the keeper or blast it down the middle – but hit the target. Phillips, who started his career as a right-back before being released by Southampton and going into non-league football with Baldock Town in 1992 was brought back into full-time football by, of all clubs, Watford, whose hearts he broke with that penalty. He has had a wonderful career, scoring many goals for Sunderland, Southampton, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham and Blackpool, from whom he is on loan at Palace, and been a fine ambassador and a good role model for youngsters, never arguing with referees. I presume manager Ian Holloway will make sure Phillips gets a permanent move and one more shot at scoring at the highest level. The other star of the show was a player just starting out on what promises to be a good career, Wilfred Zaha, the winger who will face Palace next season in the colours of Manchester United, who have paid £15million for his services.

 

 

Tribute to Tony

In the wake of Tony Pulis’s undeserved exit from Stoke City, I have a message for their fans: “Be careful what you wish for in football.” It seems as though Pulis was shown the door, following the seven most successful years in Stoke’s history, because chairman Peter Coates and his board succumbed to the growing rumblings of discontent from sections of the support. Stoke’s directors say they want to “take the club in a different direction.” Well, I hope for their sake, that direction isn’t backwards because it will take something, someone, special to emulate what Pulis achieved. Namely, lifting the club into the top flight for the first time in 23 years, becoming the only Stoke manager to finish above the top-flight bottom six for five consecutive seasons, taking the club into Europe, contesting an FA Cup final, a cup semi-final and four quarter-finals.

Now, the feeling is that some fans believe their team should be doing all of that while playing Manchester United or Arsenal-style football and that Stoke are no more than a long-ball team. Well, it’s a fact that Newcastle played more long balls than Stoke last season and I don’t hear anybody branding them in the same vein.The fans might do well to contemplate the situation at Wigan, where Roberto Martinez produced a good footballing team – that was relegated after shipping 73 goals. It is true that Stoke have relied heavily upon corners and knock-downs for their goals and their style was becoming a bit predictable. But Pulis was trying to change things. Evidence of that was in his signing last year of midfielder Charlie Adams, from Liverpool.

Stoke simply cannot compete, financially, with the biggest clubs and I think Pulis did a marvellous job with the resources at his disposal. Pulis won my respect and admiration in 1999 when his Gillingham side was 2-0 up with four minutes to go against my Manchester City in the Second Division play-off final at Wembley. We scored twice in the 90th minute and beat them on penalties and his sportsmanship and dignity in the face of such crushing disappointment made its mark on me. So, to Tony, I say well done, while being hard done to. And, to the fans I repeat, beware what you wish for.

 

 

Where are all the Englishmen?

Watching those superb German teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, contest the Champions League final got me thinking, and worrying, about the state of English football. Or, to be precise, the England national team. From a former, proud, England international centre-forward’s point of view, the most significant statistic of the final at Wembley was that the two teams sported no less than 12 Germans in their starting line-ups. And there were others, either on the bench or injured, who would have graced either side. Could any two of our Premier League teams have come anywhere close to fielding 12 Englishmen in a showpiece duel? I don’t think so. Manchester United v Manchester City might produce six or seven. Chelsea v Arsenal, three or four at best. It is a fact that should concern every Englishman and particularly those at the FA charged with managing the development and success of the national team. I look around the top division and wonder where are the next generation of players who might end England’s 47-year trophy drought.

With the current England team in transition and, frankly, short of world class performers, the scary thing is I don’t see much evidence that our Academy system is producing the youngsters who will remedy that situation. We are waiting to see if Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere will emerge as a player who can run an international match. He has the talent, but does he have the fitness? Wilshere has spent a lot of time injured the past couple of years. And where are the top class strikers and defenders we need if we are to challenge the Germans, Spanish, Brazilians and Argentinians on the big stage? I look at England and I fear for the future. Our best forward, Wayne Rooney, seems to be in a state of flux with his club career. His Manchester United and England team-mate Danny Welbeck scored only one Premier League goal last season! The two best central defenders of the past decade, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, are now yesterday’s men. Midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are in their dotage. Okay, in Joe Hart we have a world class goalkeeper, but there is no established No 2 in that position. Oh for the days when we had two or three keepers of similar ability. We are spending more money than ever, we have better facilties than ever and more staff than ever. Yet the talent doesn’t seem to be coming through. England boss Roy Hodgson has one helluva job on his hands and he will have worked a minor miracle if he achieves success at the European Championships next year.

As for Saturday’s spectacular night at Wembley, I think the German juggernauts produced an exciting, if not brilliant, match…a contest that was thrilling without quite reaching the heights of their semi-final showdowns with Barcelona and Real Madrid. It occurred to me how significant it is that the two teams have achieved pre-eminence in Europe without a superstar like Franz Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts, Gunter Netzer or Gerd Muller in their line-up. In other words, what an advert for the power, pace, athleticism and effectiveness of football in the Bundesliga. Having said that, I must make special mention of Bayern’s magnificent keeper Neuer, undoubtedly the world No 1, and his Dortmund counterpart Weidenfeller. Both players were the stars of the show. Full marks to Bayern’s Arjen Robben, who made their first goal and scored the winner, and his fellow winger Frank Ribery, whose backheel set up Robben for his superb finish. I must say, though, that Bayern might well have finished the match with nine men had Italian referee Niccola Rizzoli been more stringent. Ribery threw his arm into the face of  Lewandowski, an act that merited at least a booking, if not a red card. And Dante’s penalty box lunge, which resulted in Dortmund’s equaliser from the spot, had to be a yellow card. Given that Dante had already been booked, that would have been the end of his final.