City slickers

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

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

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

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

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


Brain drain

Retiring FA chairman David Bernstein has inadvertently thrown up another worrying question with his condemnation of Premier League clubs’ practice of buying non-English players in the transfer market: Namely, where are all the English coaches/managers? Bernstein is rightly concerned that the ongoing influx of foreign players to the Premier League is eroding the development of home-grown talent and, in consequence, the future of the national team. The FA need to urgently address the fact that we are not producing sufficient players of quality who would force themselves into Premier League club squads. However, it isn’t only native players we are short of in England, it is coaches, too. We should be worried about the alarming shortage of top-ranked English coaches at our biggest clubs.

It is an alarming fact that, in the 20 years since the formation of the Premier League, in 1992-93, the title has not been won by a single English manager. The last Englishman to win the League Championship was Howard Wilkinson, whose Leeds side claimed the old First Division crown in 1991-92, the season before the Premier League was created. Currently, we have only four Englishmen in charge in the Premier League, Sam Allardyce, at West Ham, Alan Pardew, Newcastle, and Ian Holloway and Steve Bruce at promoted Crystal Palace and Hull City.  That startling fact, coupled with the decreasing number of English players, means that slowly, but surely, the national identity of our top division is being eroded. As a result, the prospects for our national team are paling. I find that alarming.

Not enough of our retiring top-class players are going into coaching and management and a big factor here has to be money: They have got too much of it. When injury cut short my playing career at the age of 32, I still had a mortgage to pay and three boys to raise and I needed to work. Nowadays, Premier League players of that age have millions of pounds in the bank.  Above all, I wanted to stay in football and, so, I applied for managerial posts and, after losing out to Terry Cooper for the job at Bristol City I was fortunate to land the role as manager at Oldham Athletic, where I spent 12 marvellous years before moving on to Everton, then to Manchester City and Ipswich. At all of these clubs, I was able to bring to bear the experience I had gained as a player at the highest level of the English game, including the national team. Now, it seems our brightest, top quality players are either drifting out of the game or choosing careers in the media. Men like Gary Neville – okay, I know he has a part-time coaching role with England – and Jamie Redknapp work for Sky TV. Martin Keown is a newspaper pundit. These are intelligent guys who played the game at the highest level, who understand the game and could conceivably have become successful coaches. Instead, they chose the media route to ongoing involvement and I can only conclude that the wealth they accrued from their playing days was a factor when it came to weighing the pros and cons of going into management, which is a thrilling, but stressful, business to be in. When you have got financial security for life, as any Premier League player who has been responsible with his earnings will have, the need to stay in football to  earn a living is not a consideration. There will always be exceptions, of course, like Gary Neville’s brother Phil, who retired from Everton last season, and who is on record as saying he wants to go into coaching and management. I can’t help but feel we need more young Englishmen to do the same. I must say, the cause might be helped if the FA were to modify its rather laborious coaching badge course which I could see putting many people off. Too many top class English professionals are leaving the game and not enough potential top class players are being produced. It is a scary double whammy.



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.


Arsenal must pay the price

Arsenal go to Newcastle on Sunday for their final Premier League fixture, when a point will be enough to clinch Champions League qualification – and what a massively important outcome that would be for the Gunners. The word is that manager Arsene Wenger will have up to £70m to spend in the transfer market this summer, provided he maintains his annual success in qualifying for Europe’s top competition. It follows that, if Wenger spends big on top-drawer names, he will also have to pay top wages and that’s something Arsenal haven’t done. At least, not in comparison to the Manchester Uniteds, Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world. I think that is what the Gunners will have to do if they are to end their recent trophy-less seasons and take on the Big Three.

Arsenal is one of the best-run clubs in the world and, in Wenger, they have a manager who has consistently produced teams that play exciting, fluid football. Wenger’s teams get behind the opposition, get to the byline so often. I often think how happy I would have been to be the centre-forward. If you could put Alan Shearer in to the teams Wenger has produced, he would have smashed every scoring record. The problem has been that Wenger has lost a lot of top class players in recent years, men who have gone to other clubs where they have often doubled their wages. And, because Wenger has been unable to compete in the pay stakes, his replacements have too often not been of similar quality. I am an admirer of Wenger, who goes on producing inspirational – if not always functional – teams, despite this financial handicap and I believe that, if the board backs him with hard cash, Arsenal will be a serious threat next season. Put it this way, if they are serious about trying to lure Wayne Rooney, from Manchester United, they will have to increase their current top pay packet of £100,000 a week to £250,000. Crazy, I know. But that is football at the highest level in the modern era. It will also be interesting to see if Tottenham, who are also knocking on the door for that final Champions League place, reassess their wages policy in a bid to make the step up to the top four.