Friday, 20 October 2017

The kits are not alright…

Been a strange week or so for kits. Liverpool did brilliantly to set a new club record and score seven at NK Maribor, but they did it playing in all-orange. You half expected to see Johan Cruyff bamboozling a Maribor full-back. Man United held out for a dire 0-0 draw at Anfield while wearing grey, the very same-coloured kit that once caused Sir Alex Ferguson to make his players change their kit at half-time, supposedly because they couldn't see each other in grey at Southampton.Then there was Scotland failing to qualify for the World Cup while wearing luminescent pink. I'm all for breaking down gender stereotypes, but even so, it still reminded me of the garish pink of my daughters' My Little Pony toys. At least purple might have had Scottish heather associations. In fact it wasn't so long ago that West Ham had an all-purple away kit, which was very Essex. While Manchester City used to wear a luminous green cycle courier away kit and recently won at Chelsea wearing claret and blue. Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn't away kits have something to do with a club's traditional colours?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Redemption of Fellaini, the man who is more than just hair and elbows

It's hard not to feel pleased for the much-derided Marouane Fellaini, who has just scored twice for Manchester United against Crystal Palace. When he was signed by David Moyes he came to signify all that was wrong with post-Sir Alex Ferguson Man United. Fellaini was a big lumbering lump, not mobile, slow, all elbows. He arrived in the same season as Juan Mata, and the Guardian's Barney Ronay describers the little and large Moyes signings as looking like, "an odd couple, man-child double act in a John Steinbeck novella." 

Yet if you take a look at what Fellaini has won in his United career it's just about everything. He won an FA Cup with Louis Van Gaal and last season added a League Cup and Europa League to his trophy haul. That's three more trophies than, say, Harry Kane and Deli Alli have won while Alexis Sanchez has only an FA Cup. He's also human, and one of the first things Jose Mourinho did at United was to say that Fellaini was part of his plans. Perhaps he just needed to feel the love after the Moyes disaster. 


This season the 29-year-old Fellaini could quite conceivably add a league title to his trophy haul. So he can't really be that bad a player. United rarely lose when he plays, and Mourinho knows when to use a big man who scores goals and can play in a variety of positions. All those adaptation of Leonard Cohen saying, "So long Marouane," have proved a little premature.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Jose's bunch of animals

What is it about Jose Mourinho and cuddly animals? After Man United's win at Swansea he announced that he "let the horses run free." 

Jose has form for this kind of thing. Before a game against  Basel in 2013 Mourinho likened his Chelsea players to, "beautiful young eggs, eggs that need a mum, in this case a dad, to take care of them”. What, even David Luiz? Mourinho then gushed: “And one day we'll arrive in a moment when the weather changes, the sun rises, we break the eggs and the eggs are ready to go for life at the top level."

Jose also used eggs in a rambling omelette metaphor at Chelsea, coming over like a Portuguese superchef“Omelettes, eggs. No eggs, no omelette. And it depends on the quality of the eggs. In the supermarket, you have eggs class one, class two, class three. Some are more expensive than others and some give you better omelettes. So when the class one eggs are in Waitrose and you cannot go, there you have a problem.”

Back in 2006 Mourinho was more concerned about swans, telling a press conference: “What's football compared to life? A swan with bird flu, for me that's a drama."

So we've had horses, swans and eggs and quite possibly Jose will soon unleash the dogs of war (or at least Marouane Fellaini). Could Mourinho be a frustrated farmer? If it doesn't work out at Man United then he just might  get a role on Countryfile.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Why Laurie Cunningham was Different Class

For a pioneering footballer Laurie Cunningham’s career has been strangely neglected. Dermot Kavanagh puts that right with his excellent biography Different Class. Cunningham was thought to be the first black player to represent an English national side with the England Under-21s in 1977, though the FA later gave the record to Benjamin Odeje, who played for England Schoolboys in 1970. Laurie played six times for the full England side and in 1979 was the first English footballer to sign for Real Madrid, having been part of West Brom’s ground-breaking ‘Three Degrees’ trio of black players with Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson.

Cunningham was the son of Jamaican immigrants and grew up in Finsbury Park, London. Kavanagh writes movingly on the racism of the 1970s and how Cunningham found refuge in his love of dancing to funk and becoming a dandy in de-mob suits, hat and tie, while everyone else was in denim and cheesecloth. In fact his dance moves helped him establish the athleticism and suppleness that was to dazzle full-backs.

FUNK, FASHION AND FOOTBALL
He was let go by Arsenal as a schoolboy but found a home and an understanding manager at Leyton Orient in George Petchey. He would be late and sometimes miss training, but Petchey knew that underneath the suit and hat he was quite a shy character who needed encouragement. Cunningham became a brilliant winger and after three seasons at Orient he was bought by Johnny Giles for West Bromwich Albion.

When Ron Atkinson was appointed Albion manager Cunningham’s career really flourished. Big Ron described him as “arguably the best British talent since George Best” and allowed Cunningham to express himself in a devastating partnership with Regis. A 5-3 win at Man United was one highlight, but it was also a period of terrible racism, monkey chants and banana throwing. Even the so-called ‘wits’ at Liverpool serenaded him with songs from The Black and White Minstrel Show when he took corners. Luckily Cunningham’s unflappable nature meant he responded by playing even more effectively.

REAL THING
At a time when British footballers rarely moved abroad, Real Madrid came in to sign Cunningham. Back then the whole deal was, incredibly, conducted without an agent. Laurie had great moments at Real, staring in a memorable win at Barcelona and winning La Liga and the Spanish cup. He moved to Madrid with his long-term partner Nikki Hare-Brown, learned the language and enjoyed the Spanish lifestyle. But his career was affected by a broken toe after a terrible tackle and then he had several botched operations and a knee problem. When he was pictured in a nightclub wearing a plaster cast the Spanish press was outraged. He had bought a crumbling luxury house from a team-mate and eventually Nikki returned to England disillusioned by fame. Laurie had lost his pace and played when not fit against Liverpool in the European Cup Final, where Madrid lost to Alan Kennedy’s goal.

His Madrid career was over and he made a number of moves, including a loan spells at Manchester United and then Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester and Rayo Vallecano. Yet he found new stability with his Spanish wife Silvia and in another forgotten moment, joined Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang in 1988. He played nine league games, scoring twice, and came on as a sub in the FA Cup Final where the Dons famously defeated Liverpool. His son Sergio still has his FA Cup winning shirt.

CRAZY GANG
In his last season Cunningham scored the goal that gained promotion to La Liga for Rayo Vallecano in 1989. But, never good with money, he had financial worries by this stage and after a night out died at 33 in a car crash while not wearing a seat belt and three times over the drink driving limit.

Cunningham spent five years in Spain at a time when there was little coverage of European football in Britain. But Kavanagh evokes just what a great player he was and has quotes from most of the key figures in his career. While with his love of dance, he would have been a natural for Strictly in this celebrity age.

Ian Wright sums up what an inspiration Cunningham was to his generation of second-wave black players: “Laurie played how we saw black guys playing football, anywhere, on any level. He had the skills, but most importantly he had the swagger, he had that ‘vibe’. He played like we’d play: of course there was some showing off involved but it was all about enjoyment and celebrating what you could do. Laurie was the first to bring that sort of strut to that level of professional football and he was like a magnet for us.”


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

What's the Premier League ever done for us?

So the Premier League is 25 years old this season. What's it ever done for us? Well, moments I like to recall include Eric Cantona's king-fu kick at Crystal Palace followed by his seagull and trawlers speech, Mario Balotelli letting off fireworks in his bedroom, Kevin Keegan's "love it" speech, Claudio Ranieri's dilly ding dilly dong, Paolo Di Canio trying to substitute himself and being persuaded to stay on by Harry Redknapp, Joe Kinnear's multi 'f' word rant at the hacks, that 'Agueeeero!' moment, Wayne Bridge's non-handshake with John Terry, Suarez's bite out of Ivanovic, Arsene Wenger's duvet coat, Phil Brown giving his half-time team-talk on the pitch, Jimmy Bullard's celebration mocking Phil Brown, Van Gaal's dive in the technical area, Alan Pardew's headbutt on David Meyler, a beach ball scoring for Sunderland against Liverpool, Ketsbaia's mad hoarding-kicking celebration, Bowyer and Dyer's fight with each other at Newcastle, Eden Hazard's dismissal for kicking a ball boy and a host of other silliness. Football, bloody hell.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Out damned spot! In praise of the penalty

It's been a good week for penalty incidents. First Southampton's Fraser Forster put off Liverpool's James Milner by standing right in front of him as Milner attempted to place the ball on the spot. Forster towered over Milner and just his sheer size must have intimidated the left-back. Then James Ward-Prowse delayed things further by taking a drink from a bottle in the back of the goal, receiving a yellow card. When Milner did finally get to take the spot kick he hit it hard and low, but Forster guessed right to pull off a fine save, having successfully out-psyched the taker. It's wasn't quite Corinithian spirit, but most fans do like good bit of gamesmanship. 

Perhaps the most famous bit of penalty gamesmanship was Liverpool's Bruce Grobbelaar performing his "'spaghetti legs" routine — wobbling his legs in mock terror —  in the 1984 European Cup Final, forcing AS Roma's Graziani to graze the top of the bar with his kick. More recently in the Bundesliga in 2015, Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz slyly damaged the penalty spot by raking his studs on the turf. Cologne's taker Anthony Modeste slipped on the area Hitz had damaged and missed. Hitz later apologised and was, bizarrely, billed £89 by Cologne for damaging their pitch. 

This week we also saw Riyad Mahrez have a penalty ruled out for Leicester at Man City for taking two touches. As his standing foot slipped Mahrez inadvertantly kicked the ball against his other foot while shooting. Although he still netted referee Bobby Madley disallowed it, proved that all referees are really the spiritual descendants of Blakey from On The Buses. Madley was technically correct, but since Mahrez wasn't trying to get an advantage, most footbal fans would have preferred him to pretend he hadn't seen it and let the goal stand.

The final penalty drama came with a penalty shoot out between Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield in the Play-Off Semi-Final. Huddersfield custodian Danny Ward saved Forestieri's penalty and then provided the memorable sight of a goalkeeper in pink kit running the length of the pitch to do a knee-slide before the delirious Terriers' fans. Of course an £80 million final or vital Premier League points shouldn't really depend on whether your man bottles it from ten yards or the keeper performs a little skulduggery or makes a great save — but it's certainly fun for the rest of us. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Can Moyes get his mojo back?

Do managers lose confidence in the way that players do? Sunderland's David Moyes looks thoroughly chastened after relegation and you wonder if he's ever recovered from his traumatic season at Manchester United, where he didn't actually do that much worse than Luis Van Gaal. Having various current and ex-United legends leaking stories to the press portraying him as an amateur in Fergie's shoes can't have helped his self-belief. 

Who now recalls that Match of the Day clip of Moyes arriving at Everton? When David Ginola looked a bit sulky after getting subbed, Moyes rushed over to remonstrate with the player and point out with a jabbing Glaswegian finger who was in charge. It was Moyes who signed players such as Seamus Coleman, Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini for Everton. The club had ten years of top half finishes and managed to finish fourth and reach the Champions League qualifying round in 2004-05 on very limited resources.

Yet after sackings at Man United and Real Sociedad he's looked tired of the struggle at Sunderland. He gave the players an excuse to underperform after two games by saying the club was in a relegation struggle.While signing players from his old clubs looked too conservative. Paddy McNair is a promising centre back to judge by his time at Old Trafford and a good signing long term, but signing Everton old boys Pienaar, Anichebe and Oviedo merely strengthened the belief he had run out of ideas. Add to that the signing of Joleon Lescott, which after his troubles at Aston Villa with defending and texting images of fast cars last season, was the transfer equivalent of a suicide note. 

His attempt at dressing-room type 'banter' with the Sun's Vicki Sparks merely made him look even more reactionary and landed an FA charge. While he's not been helped by Hull's new boss Marco Silva coming in to the job and reshaping the side with seven imaginative signings after selling his best players Snodgrass and Livermore.

You would trust the dynamic Everton boss to rebuild Sunderland. But can the current David Moyes do the job? It's hard not to feel sorry for Moyesy. He's a man who looks like he needs a break from the game to get his hunger and confidence back. If he is entrusted with the Sunderland job next season he needs to find his positivity again.