Blue heaven

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

SIMPLY THE BEST

Only a few people become legends in their own lifetime. Sir Alex Ferguson is just such a person. The man who will, surely, be acknowledged as the greatest manager in history, certainly in the UK and, possibly, even the world, is leaving a massive hole for someone to fill at Manchester United.

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It is hard to see beyond the current bookies’ favourite David Moyes or the self-styled Special One Jose Mourinho. Where Everton boss Moyes shades it over Mourinho is with his long, unbroken run as a Premier League manager at Everton. On the debit side, David has never won a major trophy and has limited experience in Europe. Mourinho has won everything. David, of course, is a free agent from this summer, whereas Real Madrid are said to want £20m to buy out Mourinho’s contract. And the feeling is he’s headed back to Chelsea, anyway. One thing I am sure of, and I can’t see an obscure name coming out of left field, is that the chosen one will get both a fantastic job and an impossible job. For the harsh fact is that  Alex’s successor knows one thing for certain: He simply cannot do better than his predecessor. Alex bows out having won his 13th Premier League title and a staggering total of 38 trophies in 26 years at United. You have to re-read the stats to give them chance to sink in. He has been phenomenal, the master of the big decisions on and off the pitch, tactically and in the transfer market and unrivalled in his ability to know when to move players on. No manager gets his transfers 100 per cent right, but Alex has got more right than anyone else. Under his guidance, United have not only produced several major teams but also become the global brand they are today.

Men like Frank O’Farrell, Dave Sexton and Wilf McGuinness found the strain of trying to succeed the other Old Trafford managerial legend Sir Matt Busby too hard to bear. But the man who succeeds Ferguson faces an even bigger challenge! Put it this way, the new man had better target the Treble next season! Certainly, this is not a job for a novice, however promising he may be. Don’t forget, when Ferguson was brought in to start his United revolution, when he was in his mid-40s, he had already established himself as the major managerial force in Scotland where, with St Mirren then Aberdeen he won 10 trophies and, most significantly, broke the Celtic-Rangers domination.

Like many people in the game, I had my run-ins with Alex, who is as formidable as they come when arguing his corner. We fell out when, as Everton manager, I was signing winger Andrei Kanchelskis from United and Alex accused me of trying to fix the price, which wasn’t the case. Then, I had to take him to task for suggesting in his autobiography that my Everton side’s FA Cup victory against United in the 1995 FA Cup Final was the triumph of one ordinary team over another. But these are minor hiccups in an otherwise excellent relationship. Mind you, thank god we never argued about politics. I have been described as having views somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Attila the Hun, while Alex is proud of his left wing upbringing on the working-class streets of Govan. Alex was kind enough to subsequently write the foreward to my autobiography, for which I am extremely grateful. Alex Ferguson is a remarkable man who has earned his place in football history. It’s an honour to have worked in his era and it’s one of life’s pleasures to share a glass or three of his favourite red wine with him.