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My thoughts on: The Next England Manager

September 28, 2011 3 comments

England face a trip to Montenegro on Friday 7th October as Fabio Capello aims to secure qualification to next summer’s European Championship Finals in Poland and Ukraine. A draw will suffice but England, as always, will be expected to win and to mount a serious challenge for winning the tournament with the memory of the team’s failings in South Africa still fresh in the mind.

For many, and I include me in that, thought that there should have been a change in leadership after the defeat to Germany; but there wasn’t, and now England sit on the verge of qualification for the 2012 tournament with Capello still at the helm, albeit ready to step down post-tournament (or sooner I guess dependant on the results next week?).

The big question then is who should take the reins and move England forward? To be fair, to call the Italian’s time in the job as a failure may be a bit harsh. We are slowly seeing a change in personnel and the removal of the reliance on a number of players in preference of youth; he has overseen comfortable qualification campaigns and who knows; he may have learned from the mistakes made in 2010 and England may have a good tournament next year (what would happen if we went on to win it I wonder?). The fact remains though that, in my opinion, England need a fresh start inspired by a new regime.

The next England manager?

The leading contender amongst the media and many supporters is Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Redknapp. Although Redknapp is tagged by some as a ‘wheeler dealer’ manager, borne out of his stewardship at clubs such as AFC Bournemouth, Portsmouth, West Ham Utd and Southampton; Redknapp has dealt with many high-profile players, so I fail to see how this attempted blot on his CV stands up. Some might say he hasn’t been that successful, which again I would argue against, citing his time at West Ham Utd with finishes of 5th and 8th and the overseeing of many academy products making the journey into first team regulars (and ultimately internationals).

His two stints in charge of Portsmouth brought about great success for a provincial club; winning the second tier at a relative canter, keeping them in the top-flight and winning the FA Cup and was ultimately more successful than his brief spell in charge of their near-neighbours Southampton.

Now in charge of Tottenham Hotspur; Redknapp has led the club forward to a point where they are now seriously considered as a real and consistent threat to the monopoly of the top-four slots in the Premier League, and indeed, oversaw qualification to the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history.

I hear suggestions that this relative success was only possible due to the financial clout he received at Portsmouth and what he currently gets at White Hart Lane; however, I would argue that this is really not that relevant as being England manager dictates that you have a pool of every English player to select from and the role relies more on coaching ability, tactical nous and man management skills rather than how successful or dependant you have been in the transfer market to acquire success.

The FA I believe have openly suggested that the next manager of the national team will be an Englishman and although it is a sentiment that I would rather, I think it is something of a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the media/public frustration connected to Sven-Goran Eriksson and the current incumbant. By choosing an Englishman does not necessarily guarantee you greater success as the opposite doesn’t as recent appointments have shown. My main issue with Fabio Capello is that I feel he doesn’t have the grasp of the language to communicate effectively nor did he have a great understanding of the English game when he came into the role… I may even question if he fully understands it now.

I would not be adverse to another non-English appointment, but I would stress that it would have to be given to a character who has experience of the English league and is able to communicate clearly and concisely in English. I would have no problems with names such as Wenger, Ferguson, Mourinho or O’Neill being linked to the job; all of which have been successful in England (albeit to differing levels and consistency) and all of which would command the respect of the squad. The same old arguments undoubtedly will be discussed referencing how successful (or lack of it) English managers actually are; but the problem with that is that if you measure success purely by winning the Premier League, until one of those clubs who monopolise that title give an Englishman the job, then it is unlikely we will see it for a few years yet.

Another common suggestion is that in order to be successful England need to appoint someone with proven international management experience. Research shows that this is completely inaccurate as since 1994, only Berti Vogts (one year with Kuwait) and Roger Lemerre (coached under Aime Jacquet’s reign) had previous experience at that level and therefore I think blows that thought process out of the water

The Special One?

For me, the next England manager needs to be an experienced coach, someone who has shown to be tactically aware and successful, someone who can communicate coherently with players and supporters, someone who can manage the players as individuals, including those players who aren’t necessarily in the squad, and someone who commands respect. For me, my choice would be one of the above; Redknapp, Wenger, Ferguson, Mourinho or O’Neill; I wonder whether the FA dare select any of these characters or opt for the ‘safer option’ of Stuart Pearce?

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My thoughts on: Forest 1 v 2 Rams

September 19, 2011 1 comment

Nine months ago, on a cold and foggy December evening, Derby were humiliated by their local rivals Nottingham Forest 5-2 in a game which Nigel Clough describes as a career low point and one that will remain with him until old age. On Saturday, Steve McLaren may have felt a similar feeling as his fledgling career at the City Ground hit a new low.

This fixture appears to have intensified in its importance to supporters from a rivalry borne out of geography, exacerbated by the prevalence of the greatest manager in both club’s history and in more recent times, the increased frequency of players, managers and coaching staff switching allegancy along the A52. It is the most eagerly anticipated game in the fixture list for this part of the East Midlands as the short 13.3 miles separating the two clubs provides plenty of opportunity for family and friends to conflict on their support.

Nottingham Forest have enjoyed two successful years under the stewardship of former Rams boss Billy Davies, although on both occasions failed to succeed in making the play-off final. The presence of Davies undoubtedly helped to stoke the fire between the two clubs (as I am sure is the case that Derby have a manager by the name of Clough); but his dismissal under the guise that owner Nigel Doughty had concerns over his ability to raise the players for another more successful tilt at promotion was one that had a mixed reception amongst the Forest faithful. The appointment of former England (and Derby player and coach) Steve McLaren received a similar level of joy and disappointment, although my view was that it would ultimately be a positive selection with McLaren promoting a brand of football more pleasing on the eye (whereas I would argue that Davies succeeded by knowing that results, however they come, ultimately returned success), and his experience of putting faith in youth development. These are two key beliefs held dear by Forest fans and I think some of the criticism that Davies came under was because he wasn’t always seen as sticking to these principles; my view with Davies is that he sees short-term goals very clearly but if you want someone to develop a football club and adhere to a long-term plan, his vision may appear a little more cloudy.

On the other hand, Derby’s recent performances since Clough’s appointment have led to similar levels of discontent with some supporters believing he isn’t the man for the job whilst others preferring to point to the pressures of massively reducing a wage bill and squad size whilst dealing with the issue of ensuring year-on-year improvement without being given the financial support some believe he has sometimes been promised… an issue familiar with Forest fans maybe?

So despite the fact the Rams started the season in a fashion not seen since 1905, the two defeats against Burnley and Coventry City was a concern in that the Rams have often been very quick to fall out of a good run into something incredibly dreadful. Forest on the other hand had started poorly by expectations (although their early season points return was not too dissimilar to that which has coupled seasons of play-off heartache), and although they suffered a defeat at Southampton last week, the players are very quick to communicate that performances are improving as the squad gets fitter and more accustomed to how McLaren wants them to play.

Steve McLaren looking worried... rightly so I think

The anticipation before the match surrounded personnel and who would be fortunate to be selected for the Rams after what was quite a flat performance at Coventry City a week earlier. I was convinced that Theo Robinson would start; anyone who has seen any of the goals that Forest have conceded so far this season (and I am particularly thinking about the 1-4 defeat to West Ham Utd and the 2-2 draw with Leicester City), will know that Forest are struggling defensively; both with and without the ball. Distribution is poor under harassment, they look slow and confidence is low… quite astonishing taking into account that the last two season’s play off assaults have been built on a solid back 4 and goalkeeper. For Clough to also choose Thomas Cywka to play off the frontman and keep Jamie Ward in the side I feel was very positive and was quite refreshing as Clough I think has been guilty of being a little too negative in his selections on occasion.

To me it looked as though we had set up not to concede (as I think that remains the primary objective in these early months) with the ability to counter quickly. Any game plan however went out of the window inside the first couple of minutes with the sending off of goalkeeper Frank Fielding as he tried to block Ishmael Miller’s (scuffed?) shot (/poor control?). The long ball by Camp to the £1.2million striker proved to the be first of many such balls from a player in red and caused big problems; I don’t understand why Forest didn’t capitalise on the relatively inexperienced Mark O’Brien who, although is maturing at pace and clearly looks to have an excellent future ahead, did struggle with the physique of Miller. I thought if Forest were going to impose themselves as an attacking force, Derbyshire and Miller needed to be clever in their positional play; for Derby, we were quite happy for Miller to tangle with captain Jason Shackell all day long, leaving the young O’Brien to handle the much less robust Derbyshire. When Miller did get free he looked a handful and I think with games and better fitness he will prove to be a good signing.

The sending off for me was a bit harsh. Looking back on the television I don’t think I can argue with the awarding of a spot-kick, and I guess the letter of the law justifies the red card; but with Gareth Roberts clearing the ball from behind Fielding and with the ‘keeper making a genuine attempt to stop the ball, I can’t help but think that this rule really needs to be considered more carefully when goalkeepers are brought into the equation. It was a genuine collision and it would be fair to say that I thought the ‘writing was on the wall’ at 1:05pm on Saturday and prepared myself for another result similar to what we witnessed last season.

What was surprising was that the inevitable onslaught didn’t really come to fruition. Forest ‘huffed and puffed’, but never really got going. It seemed as though they had an awful lot of possession in the middle third with a lot of sideways passes being played, but no-one appeared willing to go past a full-back or provide the guile or intelligence to get what would have been a crucial second goal. Although Derby weren’t proving to be an attacking force themselves, I got the feeling there was an uneasiness around the Forest back-line, and this proved to be the case in what has been made into a very contentious moment in the match.

Congratulations to Jamie Ward after a superb individual goal

Chris Cohen went down in some pain under no challenge in Derby’s half as Jeff Hendrick strode past him. There were calls from Forest players and supporters for Derby to put the ball out whilst Rams supporters, and management, were beckoning Derby to carry on. Derby did carry on and Jamie Ward ended a simple move with an excellent run and finish. Forest fans and players were furious and in the aftermath of the game I have read on a forum that Derby “lacked class” and it showed a “lack of integrity” in what they did (not views shared by all Forest fans I may add); but I will maintain that we did the right thing and played to the whistle. It is easy to throw statements about such as ‘you should’ve kicked the ball out’… but the question is, would you have been happy to do the same if the ‘boot was on the other foot?’. I think the real issue is (and one that was discussed with a number of Forest mates after the game in mutual agreement), was that it took Derby 66 seconds to score after the incident. Within that time there were a number of opportunities for a player to make a tackle and make the decision for the referee in terms of halting play. In addition, you would have to look at the attempts to stop Jamie Ward by Raddy Majewski and Chris Gunter and the effort to save the shot made by Lee Camp; I think it is easy to blame Derby rather than looking at the real issue and that was that Forest defended the moment terribly. If some Forest supporters want to point to gamesmanship and integrity I would quickly refer to the surrounding of the referee after the penalty he had awarded asking for a red card and on a similar level, highlight the 1-1 draw at the City Ground in 2004 where Rams’ forward Junior was barracked and booed for ‘feigning’ injury; he made 13 more appearances as the injury ultimately contributed to ending his career.

Steve McLaren said the goal shocked his side but I struggle to understand how his side can remain shocked for an hour? On paper I think Forest have a better side than last season. True, they have lost a number of players, but how many of them were truly first choice? Forest don’t look like a team; Derby do. Clough has moulded a side that is hard-working and has a great team spirit, and everyone knows their job and to ensure they do the simple things correctly. That’s what happened on Saturday. Derby defended manfully, put the ball in the right places when attacking and looked arguably more dangerous than the home side, despite the numerical disadvantage, whenever the ball was in and around the penalty area.

Jeff Hendrick's first senior goal... quite an important one!

Jeff Hendrick thankfully made up for his earlier glaring miss with a nicely taken winner but even without the three points, this game for me showed that under Nigel Clough, Derby are beginning to look like a team. It has taken a long while for it to come, and I don’t think we are really there just yet, but the foundation of something good is in place. The quality of football will improve as confidence and maturity grows and players return to fitness, but in terms of a performance, I am struggling to think of a better one conducted by a Derby side reduced to 10 men.

Derby did what they needed to do; Forest didn’t and that was the difference in my opinion on Saturday. Forest struggled to fashion any clear-cut chances, looked comfortable playing a square pass, largely lacked leadership (with the exception of Guy Moussi) and generally guilty of being poor (again, with the exception of Moussi, but also Miller and substitute Joel Lynch – who I wonder why he isn’t considered for the troublesome left-back slot Forest continue to crave a solution for), and seriously looked short of confidence and passion.

I may be biased but I thought it was a deserved win.

Cup competitions… what’s the problem?

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

This last week has seen two players highlight their disappointment at not being included in their respective club’s squad allocation for the early stages of the Europa League. Both Rafael van der Vaart of Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City’s Jonathan Woodgate have been made exempt from trips to Greece and the Ukraine with greater importance being placed on the domestic league campaign. Similarly in this week’s opening Champions League round of matches, new Chelsea boss Andre Villas Boas ‘rested’ John Terry and Frank Lampard and Sir Alex Ferguson has decided against taking Rio Ferdinand to Portugal for Manchester Utd’s game against Benfica, as the two English sides prepare to meet on Sunday.

Great manager; not sure I agree with his views

The issue about ‘resting’ players isn’t something I’m going to go into as I have already discussed this at length previously; but what I don’t like is the growing trend of cup competitions particularly, being treated with disdain by some managers; Harry Redknapp even referred to the Europa League as a “nuisance” this week.

I understand that sometimes short-term goals are put to one side in preference for long-term aims, but the contempt and disrespect that is often shown towards these competitions I think is really bad for the game. Redknapp has claimed that he may field a younger side in this tournament, something he has done previously when he took over at White Hart Lane with Tottenham struggling near the foot of the Premier League, and to consider qualification to represent the English league against continental opposition as a nuisance is really poor in my opinion.

I would argue that this is a modern-day view borne out of the incessant amount of money attributed to Premier League success and does not represent views of clubs from other leagues in Europe, and may possibly indicate why English clubs often fare poorly in Europe’s secondary club competition.

This tactic though is not only employed by clubs embarking on a Europa League campaign but is also seen in domestic competition.

Birmingham City are in the Europa League after beating Arsenal

The English League Cup still offers a route into Europe and a trip to Wembley for a club and its fans, but again, early rounds are looked on rather scornfully by clubs; even to the extent that Queens Park Rangers manager Neil Warnock claiming that “people don’t care about the cup” and that he couldn’t get “motivated for the competition”. I find this an incredible thing to say; in my opinion, comments like this do not help generate interest in a great competition that has now slipped down certain club’s pecking order of priorities behind such things as finishing 17th.

The question is, how do you prevent clubs treating the competition as an annoyance and encourage a more positive approach which captures the imagination of supporters?

There have been attempts in the lower division’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with the ruling that at least 6 regular first team players must be selected in the starting XI, aimed at encouraging managers to not field a reserve side. This however has proven to not discourage the likes of Sheffield Wednesday’s Gary Megson who made all three substitutes in the first 17 minutes in their recent penalty shoot-out defeat to Bradford City in order to ‘protect’ some of his regular first team players.

There may be some general antipathy against this competition; particularly amongst those sides who would be regarded as ‘bigger clubs’ in the lower divisions, with aspirations of promotion to The Championship their main priority (I’m thinking of Sheffield Utd and Wednesday, Leeds Utd and Nottingham Forest in recent seasons), but for many other clubs, this represents a genuine opportunity to experience the Wembley atmosphere and provide players and supporters a ‘once in a lifetime’ prospect, with teams such as Carlisle Utd, Luton Town, Doncaster Rovers, MK Dons and Wrexham all winning the trophy in the last six seasons, and all backed by a large following in the final. The appetite is clearly there as Wembley gets closer, but similarly to the League Cup, and also sadly the FA Cup now, how can enthusiasm be reignited for the early stages of the competition for many clubs?

In the current economic situation and the spiralling rise in player wages and ticket prices, surely the first thing that could be introduced is a cap on the price of tickets. This could increase on a round by round basis; for instance in the FA Cup, I would argue that if ticket prices were capped at £8 for round 3 games, we may see a greater uptake in matchday attendance; this could increase to £12 for round 4, £18 for round 5 etc. Just an idea and one that I think deserves researching by the FA. A similar model could be introduced for the League Cup; or at least trialled before the competition loses what little kudos it still holds for many clubs.

Another idea I would be keen to see looked at; and one that counters another issue I have raised previously regarding clubs travelling around the world for showcase friendlies and then complain about player ‘burnout’ as the reason why the League Cup is seen as a competition not worth competing for. Could the early stages of the competition be reorganised to take place prior to the start of the league season? For instance, could round 1 take place the Saturday before the first game and round 2 quickly follow it midweek?

I think without any viable intervention by the footballing authorities in this country, we could see the demise of our cup competitions increase further as clubs continually see success as being measured on their ability to finish 17th in the top division or for those clubs with the comfort of perennial Champions League qualification, a finish in the top 4. For me, cup competitions still evoke the romance of domestic football and should be treasured; I still get excited about the draw for the next round of the cup.