On this week’s show: The FA vs Gingerism, Jez gets the sack (possibly) but returns as a rejuvenated political figurehead, Paul Buckle finally gets hauled over the coals after his bad start at Bristol Rovers, pioneering the art of radio with a triple threat Paper Scissors Rock match, Liverpool OUT (or IN), Chelsea’s missing Aqueducts; plus transfer window, Premier League, Championship & lots more.
In terms of footballing excitement, this season’s boxing day set of fixtures in the Premier League didn’t really deliver a great deal. Not that there should be any extra pressure on teams or managers to come out all guns blazing on St. Stephen’s day, but none of the games really did much to add to the festive cheer of the neutral.
Man City wobbled again, this time against a very resilient and organised West Brom side; Chelsea were unable to overcome Fulham in the West London derby, the 5th draw against Fulham in the last 11 home league meetings between them; Liverpool were unable to bash the Blackburn door down, due to some inspired goalkeeping and poor finishing; and anyone suffering from a post-Christmas lull would have been put to sleep by the utterly soporific Stoke-Villa clash.
So it’s understandable, then, for attention to be focussed elsewhere, namely the refereeing standards in a couple of the games. Firstly at Old Trafford, Connor Salmon received a red card for tickling Michael Carrick’s nose as they were about to challenge for a header, effectively ending the game as a contest and gifting Man Utd a 5-0 win. Secondly, we witnessed a truly shambolic refereeing performance at the Emirates Stadium, Stuart Attwell sending off Nenad Milijaš for a strong challenge on Mikel Arteta that was certainly worthy of a yellow card, but that didn’t look particularly vicious; it looked at worst only equally as dangerous as Alex Song’s wild swipe at Steven Fletcher’s shin that only warranted a caution.
The Arsenal-Wolves game was played at a very high tempo, and certainly leant towards the spicy side of competitive as the game drew on, but almost all the potential flashpoints were handled so poorly that the tensions between the teams rose a lot higher than they necessarily should have. Mr. Attwell’s performance lacked any sort of consistency or authority, and Mick McCarthy would have had an easy scapegoat had Wolves conceded at the end; credit where it’s due for hanging on in there; defending the 6 yard line is a difficult task but they somehow pulled it off.
Tying the two poor refereeing displays was Attwell’s yellow card given to Adlène Guedioura for flailing his arms at Per Mertesacker. The incident was almost a carbon copy of Sammon’s infringement against Carrick the previous day (slightly worse, if anything), and yet the punishments were very different. There is just no consistency. Referees have a hard enough job without deciding to interpret the rules in a laissez-faire eisegesical nightmare.
At the heart of the problem is the decision to fast track younger referees. This is not to say that a 29 year-old man is incapable of making the correct decisions. But it’s not too much of a leap of logic to posit that an older, more experienced referee would be better at diffusing inflammatory situations that they have encountered many times previously, and at keeping their head while 22 grown men revert to their inner toddler and have enormous tantrums whilst waving imaginary yellow cards in their faces.
Years of experience in the lower leagues, where the crowds are at least less populated and the tempo of the matches a little slower must surely be a rite of passage for all referees. Attwell spent just a solitary season in the Football League before being promoted to the top flight. His career, already littered with controversies (most notably, the ghost goal for Reading against Watford) should be caution enough to the relevant authorities that their “initiative” should be permanently shelved and only brought up as a reminder next time anyone has an equally stupid idea.
Unfortunately, there is little hope for improvements in refereeing while current referees’ chief Mike Riley is overseeing the development of officialdom. Riley, whose name became synonymous with controversy during his long career as a Premier League ref, is unlikely to drive any common-sense into the way matches are refereed. Accused on the record by David Moyes of being biased towards Manchester United, of being “disgraceful” by Phil Brown, and who once openly celebrated a goal in a Premier League match; this man is in charge of the nations referees. What could possibly go right?
For a almost a decade after the ban on English clubs competing in Europe post-Hesyel ended, the English champions (mostly Manchester Utd, but also Arsenal, Leeds and Blackburn) struggled to make an impact at Europe’s top table. The powerhouse of continental football was Italy, being represented in 7 consecutive European Cup/Champions League finals between 1992-1998.
These were testing times for English teams in Europe’s elite competition. Whilst the Cup Winners Cup was kind, (Man Utd winners in 1991, Arsenal in 1994, Chelsea in 1998), the gulf in class between in the English champions and their continental counterparts was highly visible. The aura of English clubs, created by the European glories of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa – winners of 7 out of 8 finals between 1977 and 1984 – was long forgotten. The English stranglehold on the European Cup was lost on that tragic night at Heysel when 39 Juventus fans were killed. In the ensuing 5 years, the English club game would be left behind.
Without wanting to rely too much on a held opinion, however true it may be – that English players are not as technically gifted as their comrades from mainland Europe – English clubs and players in the early 90’s had lost whatever edge they had over European teams that allowed them to dominate the 70’s and 80’s. The enforced 5 year sabbatical created a power vaccum that needed to be filled, and as the English clubs returned, that power had very much shifted to Italy.
In a self-perpetuating cycle of success begetting success that we would witness first hand in the Premier League at the turn of the century, the lustre of Serie A would attract top talent from around the world: Van Basten, Batistuta, Rui Costa, Bergkamp, Sensini, Boksic, Deschamps to name but a few, joining the plethora of home grown talent which would make it the benchmark by which other European leagues would measure themselves.
But, as with all occurrences and all situations, this too would pass. Arguably, the biggest turning point, the pivotal moment which saw the power slip away from Serie A would again involve Juventus, this time as they were pegged back from 2-0 ahead in their Champions League Semi-Final second leg against Manchester Utd, losing 3-2 on the night of April 21, 1999 and going out 4-3 on aggregate.
Whilst the two Milanese clubs would enjoy further Champions League success in the next decade, the end of collective bargaining for TV rights in Italy and the all-consuming sprawl in popularity of the Premier League as it began to dig its claws into every corner of the planet signalled a fading in the Serie A star. As the money gushed into the coffers of the Premier League clubs, and with Sterling trading very strongly, so did the talent turn its head. Just as Britain quietly assimilates the parts of other cultures who have immigrated here into its own, so would the Premier League become technically more pleasing whilst keeping the high-tempo and intensity more associated with the kick and rush heyday of times past.
Of course, it would be highly remiss of me not to mention that the current dominant forces of Europe lie in La Liga’s two horse race. Barcelona have set the bar; only Mourinho’s doggedly defensive Inter Milan team stopped them winning 3 consecutive Champions League finals. The rest of Europe, Real Madrid included, have been left playing catch up, trying to find a way of dealing with the relentless pressing and passing, without being Tiki-taka‘d into submission.
But, this too shall pass. Barcelona trailing by Real Madrid by 3 points after 16 games may not be a sign of their imminent demise, but it at least gives hope to others that they may not be as invincible as was once thought. And if the torch of continental domination is to be passed once again, the two Anglo-Italian ties in the 2nd round of the Champions League could act as a power broker.
Arsenal, having seemingly put their early season woes to bed, face a Milan side level on points with Juventus at the top of Serie A. January may provide the Gunners with the chance to bring in defensive reinforcements, but their somewhat creaky back line could struggle to deal with the attacking prowess of Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic. Chelsea and their under-fire manager Andre Villas-Boas must take on Napoli, conquerors of Man City. A swift counter-attacking side, their front of three of Lavezzi, Hamsik and the lethal Edinson Cavani will surely trouble Chelsea’s weakening defence and out-of-sorts goalkeeper.
The last time there was no English representative in the last 8 of the Champions League was in the 1995-96 season, when Graeme Le Saux and David Batty’s comical in-fighting saw Blackburn finish rock bottom of their group. If the same outcome were to be repeated this season, it would be a far less ignominious situation for the clubs, and the league as a whole. The longer-term significance, though, would be far greater.
30 Yard Sniper’s podcast returns once again. This week: It’s a Ray Wilkins special in Cliche Corner; Alan Curbishley’s home brewing business; the stakes are raised (slightly) in the ever effluvient Super Quiz; plus a round up of the rest of the weekend’s action and brief look at who needs a happy Christmas in the Premier League.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Sir Alex Ferguson is his Man-Management abilities. Rarely does a Manchester Utd side take to the field not 100% certain that they will win the game, whilst being terrifically motivated and focussed on their task. This is his psychological trump card, for where many great collections of players have failed to deliver the goods, throughout his managerial career, Fergie’s teams have been utterly relentless in their drive for silverware and success. His ability to mould the collective persona of his teams around his vision of success is what sets him apart.
Another of his vital skills is the ability to know when the team needs to be rebuilt. It’s happened countless times; first of all, imposing his will on the dressing room, and ending the drinking culture at the club with McGrath, Robson et al. Then in the early 90’s, having to rebuild the team as the likes of Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Hughes were phased out. He’s been able to cover superstar-sized holes in the team after a player’s departure: Ince, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, and still he keeps on building successful teams.
Three things have happened that threaten the Ferguson dynasty, of which only two are rectifiable by him. Firstly, Roy Keane has not been properly replaced as the enforcer in their midfield. Secondly, Paul Scholes, despite being a shadow of his former self in the last 4 or 5 years of his career, finally disappeared from view, and despite having years of warning, the goalscoring, creative thrust from midfield also hasn’t been replaced. The players brought in to try and plug the gaps have varied; there’s the energy of Park and Anderson, but no guile; there’s Michael Carrick, who has a very high pass completion ratio (file under “does nothing”). Darren Fletcher is aggressive and bullies referees, but his overall fitness is lacking and in all honesty, is nowhere near as good a footballer as Keane was. Ryan Giggs is a 38 year-old left winger who has been shunted into the middle due to a dearth of viable alternatives. The centre of their midfield has gradually drifted away, and doesn’t look like coming back anytime soon.
And finally, The Glazers. Before they arrived, you could have bet your bottom dollar that something would have been done before there was a bona fide crisis. Despite continuing to fund large outlays on some players, this midfield problem, which started as a crack but has since been eroded into a gaping hole, doesn’t look like it will be solved soon. It is almost a certainty that he will buy in January, and buy big. But in the back of his mind, he will be thinking Juan Veron, Juan Veron. And worrying about making the same mistake, and history repeating itself; in the 2005-06, they failed to qualify from their Champions League group (which had Benfica in it), and finished a distant 2nd to Chelsea in the Premier League.
Man Utd strike such fear into the hearts of their opponents that even with a 2nd rate central midfield, they have been able to win games and league titles (see last season). However, their main weakness has now been exposed. They will still win many games, but teams will go to Old Trafford with less fear now. They will know they can be beaten. All the man-management in the world cannot hide that the heartbeat of the Man Utd side is weaker now than it has been in the last 20 years. And with the added blow of Nemanja Vidic being out for the season, the crisis doesn’t look like resolving itself anytime soon.
Michael Hall is once again joined by his ebullient cohorts Robin Hearn, Jez MacBlain, and via 200 mile-long cup and string communication technology, Rob Cleminson. On this week’s show: The FA’s missed refereeing opportunity; Sack Race 2: The Next Generation; Leo Fortune-West stars as the centrepiece of the Super Quiz; A Text from John; 30 second challenge; plus Premier League, Champions League and lots more.
Watching the draw for the group stages of an international tournament has always been something of a mystical experience. For one thing, they are almost always presented in English, despite it not being the mother tongue of the people running the show. Further, we come face to face with the “Question in English | Answer in Russian/French/Ukrainian” interview technique, though what illusions of spontaneous human multi-lingualism one may have held are shattered when the hostess reads her reactions to the interviewees answers off a pre-prepared card.
The show begins. Having never witnessed Cossack dancing in the past, I find the opening section of the show to be quite fascinating. Finally, I had discovered the inspiration for MC Hammer’s famous trousers. Our genial hosts are an extremely pretty Ukrainian lady and a Polish man, whose authentic English accent with a hint of Estuary is slightly unnerving. Has he been in Eastenders? After a short video montage, we stare down the barrel of truly unlistenable football-themed Europop, along with some rather creepily enthusiastic backing dancers.
Following this, one member of each of the previous 13 winning teams is wheeled out, holding an authentic signed football from that tournament. After the introduction member of Italy’s 1968 winning team, the camera cuts to a chirpy-looking Fabio Capello, sporting easily the biggest smile he’s managed during his tenure as England boss. Then follows one of those socially awkward moments where no-one’s really sure of the proper etiquette: the formal introduction of a football. The official match ball of Euro 2012 is dangled from a cable and receives a fairly generous, if slightly uneasy round of applause.
After what feels like days of foreplay, we are then forced to watch an instructional video for the machinations of the draw. It’s like sitting in the staff room at Woolworths and watching a 10 minute video of a man lifting a box “correctly”, leaving you with the same feeling of your life ebbing away before your eyes.
UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino then takes over, hosting with all the flair of a strict headmaster handing out end of term awards to over-excited children. Zinedine Zidane is chided in French for being too enthusiastic with his handling of the first ball. Peter Schmiechel’s bolshy attempt at ad-libbing after Denmark are again drawn with Portugal leads to a few moments of decidedly awkward silence as Infantino desperately tries to get back on script. Any tension there may have been prior to the show has long been replaced by an overwhelming desire to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible so everyone can get down the pub.
The dignitaries in attendance who had long ago slipped into a coma are about to be startled by another bout of feisty Europop, but apart from that, the whole thing is over. Ireland are drawn with Croatia, Italy and Spain (gulp), while England face Sweden, France and co-hosts Ukraine. Back in the BBC studio, Mark Lawrenson is visibly aggrieved at Ireland being drawn in the toughest group, while Martin Keown raises his eyebrows bullishly and thinks England “will be fine.” Without Rooney, Martin? We’ll see.
Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic and Russia;
Group B: Holland, Denmark, Portugal and Germany;
Group C: Spain, Ireland, Croatia and Italy;
Group D: Ukraine, France, Sweden and England.