The Banshee of Cork

3 Feb

Anyone who negotiates legal agreements for a living knows the power of compromise.  Cede a little here, turn a blind eye over there, and by jingo you’re in the boozer by 4:45pm.  It’s called being commercial, guys.  Indeed, whether it’s 1.55am in the nightclub or you’re signing away a slice of Crimea to the Russians, where would we be in life without the odd compromise?

One man who’s never taken a chance on a compromise is Roy Keane.  Famously, there’s no middle ground with Roy.  No face-saving trade-offs.  No handshakes at the courtroom door.  One of us lives today, one of us dies.  The first casualty of every compromise is the truth.  And Cork’s favourite son has always wanted questions answered in a more truthful way than a complex world will allow.

—————

The playing career of Roy Keane was a thesis in truth sought and justice meted out.  A Dostoyevsky novel in cleats.  Punishment.  Retribution.  Damages, ordinary and aggravated.  It was all in there.  Good didn’t always necessarily triumph, but there were themes of probity and rectitude and we all felt a little wiser after the event.

When Keane was out on the pitch crunching into people, a sense of moral obligation was at play.  An understanding that David Cameron’s Big Society couldn’t just be about community graffiti walls and giving up your seat for old people.  Big Societies still needed a judge, a juror, a hooded axeman.  We slept safe in our beds because we knew that rough centre-mids stood ready to visit violence on those that would harm us.

If it felt a bit beyond the pale at times, that mattered little to Keane.  After all, the world could be a frustrating place when the truth was staring you point blank in the face.  Didn’t it behoove all of us to put a two-footer in on those who refused to turn towards the light?  There’s so much beauty in the world and yet Patrick Vieira still went around bullying right-backs.  What was a box-to-box enforcer to do?

—————

All manner of beefs, grudges and bad blood ensued in the name of rehabilitation.  Keane didn’t want to cripple Alf Haaland any more than Nadhim Zahawi wanted to file his returns.  But he did it so that Alf Inge would become a better person.  

Keane didn’t want to tell Mick McCarthy that he was a “shit player, a shit manager” and that he “wasn’t even Irish”.  Feck, no.  He did it because Mick McCarthy needed to know that he was a shit player, a shit manager and that he wasn’t even Irish.  And perhaps then the Irish national team wouldn’t be forced to turn up to World Cups with training facilities that resembled a car park.  

It’s faintly moving that Keane was prepared to give up playing in what was likely to be his last ever World Cup for the sake of his principles.  It would be more heart-rendering still if you thought that it had crossed Keane’s mind for even a moment not to say anything.  As ever, magnet to gospel that he is, it was foot-on-the-gas straight towards “you’re shit at your job and I’m going to tell you”.  No stop-offs or deviations en route.  No quick coffee at the service station of “should I damage my career in this way?”  And, in fairness, why should there be?  Don’t forget, the man wasn’t even Irish.  A point well made, if indeed one likely to draw blushes from about 70% of the rest of the squad.

—————

The managerial game was always going to be a tough nut to crack for a tough nut who had a habit of giving people a crack.  And yet it started well for Keane, taking a Sunderland team fresh off the back of five straight losses in August to a Championship title in May.  True to nature, the disciplinary side of things came easy to Roy.  When Anthony Stokes, Marton Fulop and Tobias Hysen were late for the team coach on a trip to Barnsley one day, Keane simply left them behind.

Despite a Manager of the Year award and a first win against rivals Newcastle in 28 years, Keane was stood down three months into his third season.  The players apparently celebrating on hearing the news.  A blighted spell at Ipswich was best remembered for spats with the medical team, a barely fathomable twenty draws in a single season, and the re-signing of one of the blokes he wouldn’t even let on the team bus at Sunderland.  Oh and he didn’t like the fact they played in blue either.  

While Keane’s foray into the gaffer kingdom was ultimately one of limited success, you were left with a reassuring sense that he did things according to his lore, his beliefs.  Keane’s Austinian “orders backed by threats” philosophy was found wanting, but at least examined on its own terms.  No half-measures.  No compromise.  An immaculate code adherence, if indeed one that only served to make the evolution into his third act all the more unedifying.

—————

For the past five years, Roy Keane has just played a character called Roy Keane.  The outbursts are now nothing more than a product commissioned by TV executives; manufactured eruptions delivered on cue while Dave Jones flicks us that wry smile as if to say “I might have to jump in here in a minute”.

It’s sad to see a man with so much natural pent-up rage selling it as a commodity on Sky Sports.  Like if Gerry Adams did panto, you can’t help but feel it cheapens what went before.

For me, Roy Keane’s greatest selling point wasn’t that you thought he was in the right in respect of every argument he got into.  It was that you knew that he was absolutely and utterly convinced that he was in the right.  Keane bled conviction.  Wore it as proudly as the captain’s armband he wore for every single team he ever played for.  It dishonours us all that he’s now stooging his own personality.

—————

Perhaps on some level Roy appreciates the direction of the tide.  This is 2023, not 1997.  Today’s public space is dominated by pronouns, all-gender restrooms and Rylan; not midfield warriors whose terrifying presence alone lifted the standards of an entire team.  Maybe Keane recognises that the old world is best left where it is.  Let the Real Roy Keane calcify into a reflection of his era while he performs this mugging marionette reel in front of the cameras.  Smile and wave as he embarks on a new life as the Widow Twankey to Micah Richards’ Aladdin. 

It’s a living, I guess, and that’s something.  Bobby Moore won a World Cup and the English game left him for dead.  Jesse Owens beat the Nazis and ended up pumping gas at a petrol station.  The studio is warm at least and the chairs comfortable, even if Eni Aluko is sat in the next one along telling an audience of millions that Wales should rest Gareth Bale in the second game of a major tournament.

But it leaves the essence of the man in the rear view mirror.  Roy Keane of all people shouldn’t have allowed himself to be reduced to a cartoon husk.  Lee Sharpe, maybe.  Ian Wright, almost certainly.  But not Keano.  There were surely other career paths for Roy to take.  A full-blooded lollipop man.  A lay magistrate giving local ne’er-do-wells a fucking good sanctioning.  Maybe the world’s most terrifying headmaster.  Instead, we’re left with this “canned anger” punditry gig that’s gotten to the point where even Jamie Redknapp’s not frightened of him anymore.  And if that isn’t a compromise then I really don’t know what is.

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Ironing out a grievance.

Fading from the light: the career of Michael Owen

12 Jan

It was the late nineties.  Britain was cruising the stratosphere powered by the twin-burners of New Labour and the Spice Girls.  Wannabe had usurped Wonderwall as the nation’s anthem and the former bass player of Ugly Rumours was making good on his promise that things could only get better.  The credit crunch was still miles away and your parents were busy bleeding the country dry on cheap debt and a state-sanctioned housing bubble.  Most notably of all, for no apparent reason, Brian Moore had started referring to Paul Scholes as Paul “Shoals”.

These were prosperous times.  King Tony and Scary Spice were leading us through the longest fiscal expansion in post-war history.  And just when we thought things really couldn’t get any better, along came a young striker from Chester who mustn’t have weighed more than nine stone soaking wet.

—————

He looked like a school prefect and he sounded like a trainee accountant.  You could have passed him off as a normal kid in any sixth form college in the land were it not for two things: he was faster than a greyhound and more lethal than a drawer above a bed with no stops on it.

But it was Owen’s sheer pace off the mark that really grabbed you by the lapels.  There’s “quite nippy”, then there’s the sort of speed at which your face drops when you realise Ben Stiller is in the film you’ve paid to see.  Owen was the latter.  In a game where battles are typically won and lost on inches, Owen always seemed to be miles ahead of defenders.

———-

Football was a doddle for Lilleshall’s most famous graduate.  Maybe too easy.  There was something unerringly nonchalant about Owen’s goal celebration against Argentina in ’98.  It was completely out of sync with the scale of the occasion and, as importantly, what it meant to the rest of us.  Five seconds after it went in, I was under a pile of bodies that would have made Ulrika Johnson blush.  Owen, by contrast, just sort of trotted off with his palms out in front of him, like it wasn’t much of a thing.  Believe me when I say I’ve celebrated goals in training a lot better than that.  In retrospect, you wonder if he mightn’t have celebrated it a bit more…

———-

Of the many retirements and farewells that were announced at end of the 2012/13 season, the one that touched me the most was Owen’s.  That seemed to be in contrast with the feelings of the majority of the footballing public, whose heartstrings were tugged in other directions.  Tears flowed in the streets of Manchester when Paul Scholes announced he was off again for the second time.  Commercial departments went into state funeral mode when David Beckham confirmed that he, too, would be hanging up his boots.  Even Steve Harper was visibly overcome with emotion as the Toon faithful sang his name during the 39th minute of his last game for Newcastle.  For all the gourmet platter of well-wishings on offer, very little was divvied onto the plate of Michael Owen.

Owen, by then, was at Stoke.  A club he hadn’t exactly had much time to build up an emotional bond with.  Potters fans gave him a bit of a clap at the end of his final game, but we’re talking here about men weaned on ex-javelin thrower midfielders, two metre strikers and centre-backs who snap shins for a living.  It was asking a bit much asking for them to get dewy-eyed over some short bloke with a good disciplinary record, especially one who’d only turned out for them on nine occasions. 

What saddened me was that nobody seemed to care very much.  Owen, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, isn’t roundly loved by the nation.  He’s a bit of a Liam Gallagher figure, in that he was once adored by all, but this has been slowly whittled down to the point where it now feels like it’s just me.

————

He’s not even particularly well liked by the teams he played for.  Indeed, he’s probably less liked by them.  Liverpool fans never recovered from Owen having the nerve to swap Harry Kewell, Igor Biscan and El Hadji Diouf for Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo.  Not that Owen’s new paymasters were desperately appreciative either.  In keeping with what appears to be a Spanish tradition, Real Madrid proceeded to play one of England’s best strikers out on the right-wing.  And despite scoring more goals than he had starts for the Bernabéu club, Madrid still took the view that Robinho and Julio Baptista were better bets, so Owen was shipped back to England. 

Unfortunately, they might as well have labeled the crate “damaged goods”, as by this time Owen’s hamstrings had filed for Chapter XI.  Nobody told Newcastle, though, so they were pretty miffed when broken fragments of the striker washed up on the Geordie shore for a record fee.  Scouse sensitivities were then further angered by Owen going on to join a hated rival and, being a famous ex-Liverpool player, Manchester United fans never really liked him in the first place anyway. 

————

This lingering rancor seems to have deprived Owen from being remembered quite as he ought to.  It’s not that he’s been forgotten – there isn’t an Englishman alive who’ll ever forget St Etienne – it’s just that we seem to have divorced the man from the moments.  He’s a hero denied hero status; trammeled by a collective desire to pass his greatness off as just something that happened in our lives; joyous but unearned, like a lottery win. 

The moments are all there.  Owen was our shining light against Argentina twice, he killed Germany in Germany and he gave us hope against Brazil.  He won a cup final in ten minutes, and in 2001 was judged by a panel of experts to be the best player in Europe; better than Zidane, even.  Michael Owen the person did that.  Not some sort of transcendental emotion that lives on in the collective English conscious.  Michael Owen.  The chubby fella on BT Sport who likes horses.

So let’s stop praising the moments and start praising the man.  Say it with me.  Michael Owen was England’s brightest star of the last thirty years.  Not Wayne Rooney.  Not Paul Gascoigne.  Michael was it.  The great white hope.  He’s debatably England’s greatest ever striker, yet a recent BBC poll didn’t even have him as one of the options.

——-

The premature foreclosure of Owen’s career was, in footballing terms, a tragedy.  A tragedy brought back into sharp focus in 2015 when Wayne Rooney, cigarette and giant lollipop in hand, ambled over the line to become England’s highest ever goal-scorer.  My mind immediately thought of Owen and how that record should have been his.  Had he remained remotely seaworthy, Owen would have sailed past Bobby Charlton’s 49-goal mark at the same speed he used to race past Emerson Thome and Linvoy Primus.  With a clear run at it, something near 70 goals might have been achievable.

——–

It wasn’t to be.  But with the death of the dream should not go the reality of what Owen was: the most feared Englishman of a generation.  The guy you absolutely one hundred per cent wanted the ball to fall to when it properly mattered.  Here at Too Good we have every confidence that we could embed video clips into this webpage if we wanted to. Every confidence. But Owen’s moments were so important you’ve seen them all a million times anyway.  So instead we’ll settle for a quote from Owen himself in the build-up to the 2011 Champions League final…

United were up against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Broken beyond repair and long past warranty, Owen was something like the third-in-reserve striker in Fergie’s list of substitutes.  It was frankly a miracle he’d gotten as far as the bench.  Despite this, on the eve of the game, Owen decided to tell the press that he “still felt he had one last big goal in him”. 

I couldn’t help but smile.  Here was a man who barely met the physical requirements of an office five-a-side game anymore.  Yet he still fancied his chances of getting on the end of something on the biggest stage of all.  Still thought he could anticipate a ball no-one else did; get a toe in before anyone could track him.  And the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still bloody well believed him

———

In the end, Owen never got on the pitch that day.  His prophecy did prove correct in one respect, though.  He did only have one last goal in him.  Not exactly the big one he’d dreamt of, mind.  A close-ranger for Stoke against Swansea.  A rather meaningless 90th minute consolation in a rather meaningless 3-1 defeat.  It was his first goal in nearly a year and a half, and to be his last.

It scarcely seemed fitting.  But then not much of Michael Owen’s career past the age of 25 was.  Having tantalised with so much promise, the brightest star of the golden generation had shone most briefly of all.  Owen’s achievement as the only English Ballon d’Or winner since the advent of the compact disc is likely to stand untouched for quite some time to come.  But, as D:Ream themselves might have tunefully opined, things really could have been so much better.

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Owen’s career went from bad to worse.

Panel show

12 Jan

Every once in a while, a genius in the field comes along.  James Prescott Joule turned the laws of thermodynamics on their head.  Colonel Sanders reinvented the chicken.  I believe it’s now my turn to stand on the shoulder of giants.  In the words of Tony Blair, I feel the hand of history creeping up Cherie’s blouse.

One of football’s perennial ills reared its head last week.  On 59 minutes of the Arsenal v Newcastle game, Gabriel rose for a free-kick only to find his progress halted by Dan Burn yanking on his shirt.  It was naughty.  Arsenal should have had a penalty but none was forthcoming.

Shirt-pulling in the box is hardly newsworthy stuff, of course.  But for some reason, like the presence of James Corden on television, it’s just unthinkingly accepted.  We can’t seem to contemplate a better existence.

It made little difference to Arsenal’s frustrations, which were as palpable as they were understandable.  Gabriel took to Twitter to express his annoyance.  Arteta nearly took off on the sidelines.  North London hackles were all over the shop and rightly so; Andy Madley’s oversight had likely cost Arsenal two vital points.  Points that could prove crucial in Arsenal’s first title-challenge in nearly two decades.  This wasn’t an ex-royal casually bragging about gunning down Afghans; this was serious stuff.

———

So what can be done?  Footballing authorities don’t seem capable of tackling the problem.  And appealing to the honour of premier league defenders is unlikely to bear much fruit; those unscrupulous garment-shaggers will stop at nothing.  As ever, it falls to critically and commercially unsuccessful bloggers to find a solution.  Thankfully, Too Good is on hand to rid the English game of this affliction.

Before I dive in, let me just say this: the first thing they do to geniuses is laugh at them.  Edison, Columbus, Wilbur and his brother.  Even Elon Musk – a man literally in the midst of arranging space tourism – takes his fair share of jibes.  I’m conscious I risk sacrificing myself at the altar of ridicule here.

Nevertheless, here’s the plan:

Instead of a one-piece football shirt, the shirt is divided up into velcro panels.  

Those sneaky defenders want the shirt off your back?  Fine, give it to them.  Let’s see how dry Madley’s whistle stays when Dan Burn is literally left holding a piece of Gooner jersey.  The smoking gun of precision engineering has just guaranteed a penalty.

I defer to Too Good’s extensive R&D team on the exact structure of the shirt.  Basically, however many panels and whatever strength velcro provides the most compelling evidence that a shirt has been pulled.  Weak enough to detach when a defender grabs it; strong enough to survive a few ground slides and incidental body checks.

If it sounds daft, ask yourself this: given a repeat of the situation the other night, which shirt do you think Arteta would prefer Gabriel have on?  I think we both know the answer.  Had it maintained the eight-point gap between Arsenal and City, Mikel would have stitched the velcro on himself.

———

There’ll be naysayers, of course.  There always is.  They’ll contend that if you gave one such penalty you’d have to give twenty a game.  This argument is disingenuous.  If any type of foul went habitually unpunished in football then of course there would be a lot of them.  How do you think Mourinho made a career?  The only reason why there isn’t is because they do go habitually punished.  You won’t end up with twenty penalties a game; you’ll just end up with a lot less shirt-pulling.

Face facts.  The day they started putting dye in leisure centre swimming pools was the day we all stopped pissing in them.  Only die-hard attention-seekers continued to weave intricate patterns in the deep end.  The rest of us packed it in.  Give the referee incontrovertible evidence that a shirt has been pulled and the practice will stop overnight.  

Moreover – and here’s the real beauty of it – shirt-pulling will now have little or no effect anyway.  With detachable panels, you’ll be free to leap like a salmon while the defender is left cradling a little polyester patch.  Bosh, one-nil.  Wheel away celebrating like a human jigsaw.

———

There you have it.  The next great leap forward in world football.  I’m off down the patent office to register Velcro Assistant Referee technology.  

Velcro first took the world by storm in 1957.  We’ve been fastening shoes, securing coat lapels and hurling midgets at inflatable dartboards with the stuff ever since.  Time for those clever little hooks and loops to take centre-stage once more.

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An exhibitionist about to wreak havoc.

The four-thousandth article called “The strange case of Dele Alli”

4 Mar

Identity theft’s all the rage these days.  And why not, right?  I’d far rather spend your money than mine.  Otherwise, what the hell else are we all voting Labour for?

But in most cases of identify theft someone at least has the common decency to pass themselves off as a person. This week some blighter is pretending to be my car.

Two penalty charge notices came crashing through the letterbox on Monday. Both for driving through closed-off roads.  The reg plate checked out, but if you look closely at the grainy images, that’s not my Corolla.  Small silver car, sure, but what about the shape of the back windscreen?  And where’s my aerial?  It’s a ghost car.  Someone’s tickling my chassis here.

Where this ends is anyone’s guess.  At the very least, I assume these penalty notices will keep coming, sending my well-marshalled credit score into a tailspin and leaving me on the street when the time comes to re-mortgage.  And that’s assuming no-one’s lining up a bank robbery or drive-by shooting with this doppelgänger wagon.  So best case scenario I’m homeless; worst case I’m staring down the barrel of fifteen to twenty.

——-

You have to feel Dele Alli would have some sympathy with this.  Someone stole Dele’s footballing PIN number a long time ago.  Identity cloned and talent vaporised as if he’d dribbled headlong into the world’s biggest phishing scam.  Only the husk remains of England’s most exciting prospect from four years previous.

It certainly can’t be described as a blip anymore, that’s for sure.  Dele has barely put a foot right since the 2018 World Cup.  Valuation soaring somewhere north of £80m, all of a sudden the sky went black and the birds fell out of the sky.  A whole cycle has passed since then of innocuous displays and increasingly little game time. 

It’s a sad state of affairs if, in fairness, one entirely of his own making.  Few seem prepared to stand in Dele’s corner at the moment.  And when you have Spurs royalty like Glen Hoddle getting hot under the collar about something as silly as the clothes Dele wore at his Goodison unveiling, you get the sense there’s a back story about general levels of professionalism being alluded to.

——-

It will surprise no-one that Dele’s first touch in professional football was a back-heel.  And listening to his own analysis in interviews, Dele talks a lot about needing to express himself, about the conditions being right for him to show people “what I can do”.  There’s a relationship of artist and paintbrush here, of football as a solo pursuit in which Dele is tasked with coming up with a beautiful solution.  Which is all well and good, except there’s 38 games to be played each season and it’s no use winning five of them 12-nil if you lose all of the rest.  Like the insisted-upon coitus on Valentine’s Day when the spark has long gone from a relationship, Dele needs to learn to put a shift in. 

Expressing yourself is an indulgence.  This is the premier league, Dele; we’re not here to fuck spiders.  Burnley away, 90-mile-an-hour stuff, Sean Dyche completely hoarse within ten minutes of kick-off.  We’re not painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we’re flogging NFTs of baby chimps to children.  Piling them high and selling them cheap, my man.  Some days you’re Kurt Zouma.  Some days you’re the cat.  The trick is to make the best of both situations.

Case in point, Manchester City have one of the best left-sided attacking midfielders in the world.  But what does the mad Spaniard do?  He plays Phil Foden centre-forward and tells him to bloody well get on with it.  Rather than cry foul over his tainted oeuvre, Foden crashes through 14km a game and creates bags of chances for his team.

——–

In the long run, focus and discipline invariably beats talent.  No-one can teach Dele Alli to be self-starter in life except Dele Alli.  Some people sit at home and sulk on Champions League nights if their team didn’t qualify.  Some people dust themselves down and get burgling the houses of the players that did qualify.  It’s high time Dele showed the world he’s at least prepared to shackle a terrified wife and child to a radiator and bag up the jewellery.

————-

The baton now passes to Frank Lampard to winch Dele out of the abyss.  It’s tempting to conclude, from a positional sense at least, there’s no-one better placed in football management to help Dele.  But the issue has never been one of ability.  The challenge for Lampard is to man-manage a player whose focus, not unlike Prince Andrew’s recollection, just seems to drift on occasion.

So how do you teach humble?  What elixir of modesty do you use to refloat a container ship-sized ego that has run aground? At the bare minimum, a few character-building turns as draft excluder on defensive free-kicks can’t hurt.  There’s also the nuclear threat of letting Dominic Calvert-Lewin pick out an outfit for Dele every time he’s voted worst in training, albeit being made to wear some truly dreadful clothes might not immediately strike Dele as a form of punishment.

Whatever approach Lampard takes to raising Dele off the rocks, you have to hope – against all the odds now, it must be said – he succeeds.  When all’s said and done, at his peak, Dele is the reason why you watch football.  He’s a goal out of nowhere; a hand grenade with the pin long removed.  The sort of madness-maker who wins back-to-back Young Player of the Year awards and celebrates by punching Claudio Yacob in the stomach, promptly ending his season early in suspension.  Unmarkable. Unplayable.  Unmanageable.  Not indispensable, though.  No-one ever is.  And it’s an awfully long road back from here.

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Can’t fault your bravery, Glenn.

Sportswashing Direct

24 Jan

The board game Monopoly was my first taste of wealth.  Scrabble was all well and good and Risk had its moments, but the crushing economic reality brought to bear in Monopoly was something else.  Looking my big sister in the eye as she waded through hotel-laden parts of the board and demanding sums of money that I knew in my heart she couldn’t afford and would never recover from, God what a rush.  I’ve longed to be a landlord ever since.

Unfortunately, subsequent tastes of opulence have been frustratingly slim – the only notable exception being the vicarious joy that comes with being a Manchester City fan.  On matchdays, I get to bask in the full splendour of unimaginable riches.

It changes you.  No point pretending it doesn’t.  All of a sudden you’re richer than a cheese and crab dip.  Imagine, then, what it feels like to be a Newcastle fan right now.  Manchester City’s bank balance barely registers as a postcode lottery win when rebased against the Toon’s newfound prosperity.  $500+ billion in cold hard black gold?  This is it, boys.  The supping well.  No-one’s rooming with Nile Ranger anymore.

———-

For the fans, this all rather falls into your lap.  Can’t do nought but enjoy the ride.  For the current staff, a sense of foreboding is probably the main emotion.  The real interest lies in those first new arrivals and their motivations for coming.  Eddie Howe being at the top of that list.  Howe is about as close to choirboy as football management has to offer.  Which makes his arrival on Tyneside all the more fascinating.

Everyone knows the saying.  If you’re 20 and you’re getting pegged by your neighbour’s wife in a leisure centre car park, then you’ve got no heart.  But if you’re 40 and you’re not getting pegged by your neighbour’s wife in a leisure centre car park, then you’ve got no brain.  Newcastle’s new manager has wised up to this reality.  He’s been honest with himself.  Congratulations Eddie, you lived long enough to become the villain. 

———-

As Howe is finding out, one of the privileges of wealth is it invites you to be a special kind of dickhead that simply isn’t accessible to the common man.  John Terry wouldn’t routinely leave his Bentley in disabled parking spaces if he was on a zero hours contract.  Jimmy Savile wouldn’t have sexually abused hundreds of children across Britain if his wealth and status didn’t afford him the access.  And while it is grossly unfair to compare Eddie Howe with a monster like John Terry, we can see that in his own way Howe has already started to channel his inner wanker.

Signing Kieran Trippier was standard fare for a nouveau riche club finding their feet. England full-back, slightly overrated, wrong side of thirty.  It was straight out of the Wayne Bridge playbook.  Chris Wood, on the other hand, what a statement that was.  £25 million on a 30 year old centre-forward with a whopping three goals to his name this season, signed purely to weaken a rival relegation candidate.  Talk about cynical.  Imagine having all that money at your disposal yet still looking Amanda Staveley in her wild, wild eyes and telling her that was the plan.  Not Aubameyang.  Not Ousmane Dembele.  The New Zealander averaging a goal every 579 minutes.  Reach for the stars, Ed.

And just to prove that if a grave’s worth shitting in, it’s worth filling up the whole coffin, Howe is at it again.  If the Sunday papers are to be believed, he’s about to bid for James Tarkowski.  He’s also been snooping around Carrow Road for Todd Cantwell.  Presumably a Watford player is next on the list.  After that, it’s a toss up between an in-house presenting role for Tim Lovejoy and bombing Israel.

———-

This boss-level dastardly behaviour of asset-stripping the other relegation candidates is all the stranger because of who Eddie Howe is.  The Bournemouth club legend, so popular he was re-purchased using fan’s own money after two years in the wilderness.  A faith repaid when he overcame a seventeen-point deficit in his first season as manager to avoid relegation to the Vanarama National League.  As a topper, Howe climbed all four divisions of the football league, staying in the top flight for five seasons straight playing attractive, attacking football.  In that fifth and final season, he was the first premier league manager to take a pay cut during the pandemic.  This is a good man. 

———-

Whatever the explanation for the current Anakin-to-Darth skit, Howe knows his Newcastle team must hit the groove fast.  The season’s more than half gone and neutrals aren’t exactly willing them to stay up.  Howe has at least learned one valuable lesson quickly; that you can always hire one half of the poor to kill the other half.  Perhaps he got some tips from upstairs on that one.  Better hope Chris Wood adds a fourth goal to his season’s tally then.  After all, sportswashing is a tough gig in the Championship.  Cleansing the Saudi brand really requires the deep waters of prime-time Premier League coverage.  17th or higher is a must.

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Eddie Howe, there, enquiring after Rose’s buyout clause on the flotsam.

Commencing the descent

21 Nov

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might look like the sort of man who would walk in on his wife in bed with another man and gently announce “I’ll take myself off to the pub then”.  Reaching past them both to grab his jacket before gingerly treading towards the door.  But this is of course a nonsense.  The devilment in Solskjaer was clear to see as far back as 02/03, when Fergie stuck him out on the right wing to piss Becks off.  Solskjaer enjoyed a glorious half-season kicking the bejesus out of premier league left-backs.  It was as though the track rabbit had pulled a 180 and started lamping the greyhounds.

He’s an easy target at the moment though is old Ole Gunnar, and not without some justification.  Along with Gareth Southgate, he holds one of the two great managerial offices of state in this country.  Yet neither had so much as an ounce of pedigree when they showed up on interview day.  Molde, Cardiff and Middlesboro?  Places you could well believe were twinned with each other, but breeding grounds for the United and England jobs?  “Never put in temporary charge a man who, four wins down the line, you don’t want public opinion to force you into giving the role full time”, you might think. 

And yet, when all said and done, for two seasons Solskjaer acquitted himself well.  After the face-down-in-the-water debacle of the Moyes regime, the weirdness of Van Gaal and the misery of Mourinho, Solskjaer was a ship-steadying force for good.  A 3rd place finish in his first full season followed by 2nd place last time around (above Klopp, above Chelsea).  This is about as good as any sane United fan could expect.

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There’s a touch of the Insulate Britains about Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford.  Initially dismissed as a bit of a clown, his sheer resolve gained admiration in some quarters while driving others to the brink.  Solskjaer’s had his hands glued to Sir Matt Busby Way for nearly 3 seasons now, and every time you thought some bloke in a Ford transit van was about to violently knock his block off, he pulls through with another three points out of absolutely nowhere.

United’s ability to come from behind under Solskjaer has been really quite something.  The saucy red comeback boys have won a scarcely credible nineteen times from losing positions during his three-year tenure.  In many respects, the fortitude is to be admired.  But, as the saying goes, the superior pilot uses his superior judgement to avoid situations that require the use of his superior skill.  There’s not much glamour in securing a two-goal lead in the first thirty minutes of a game and killing the game dead, but you don’t half look professional.

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Unfortunately, nothing grows in the garden of Old Trafford these days and the cheerful Norwegian now finds himself being wheeled towards the palliative ward.  Hopelessly trapped between expectations and reality.  Anything higher than fourth place an impossibility, anything lower a calamity.  A calamity with added farce if “Lazarus man” Moyes beats him to it.  Comprehensive defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City are one thing.  A firm spanking by relegation-threatened Watford quite another.

It’s happening Ole, this is Sinatra territory.  The bonus track.  All that’s left is how you want the legacy to be written.  A little advice?  Summon the spirit of 02/03 old boy, and that glorious springtime whacking lumps out of Ian Harte, Mauricio Taricco and Alessandro Pistone.  Put some keys in your hand and go out swinging.  Toss a ball at Jonathan Liew and demand he do ten keep-ups.  Go in two-footed on a Custis.  Ask Jonathan Wilson to tell you again that one about how your 30-goal a season striker is somehow the issue with United at the moment.  Maybe you haven’t been a roaring success, but you haven’t been quite the dismal failure they would dearly like to paint you as either.  Treated the same, Ferguson would have had hoods over heads and be driving out into the desert by now.  It’s not your fault that journalists literally can’t think of anything else to write about at this time of year.

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After that, well, it’s into the sunset isn’t it?  Back to being a club legend.  Relax and enjoy the wild ride of United’s decennium horribilis; see where it goes next.  Will United executives finally start making decisions with their heads rather than their hearts?  Or is Phil Neville just around the corner?  Nobody knows, but then that’s part of the fun of structural decline.  This century’s already eaten up Debenhams, Thomas Cook and Woolworths.  The giants of yesteryear trampled by the Amazons, the Apples and those pesky sovereign wealth funds.  The future used to mean hope.  But time passes.  Possibilities decrease, regrets mount.  Better the warm cloisters of nostalgia than face up to the reality that Solskjaer is really only a symptom and not the root cause of Manchester United’s continuing decay.

A little something on the side

17 Oct

Being a professional footballer can’t be the most taxing life, can it?  Pick a colour for the leather interior of your Testarossa.  Watch Salt Bae bounce several ounces of salt off his forearm onto your dinner.  Ponder whether you’re going to skip the post-match handshake with Callum Robinson on Sunday.  The calm waters of being a supremely athletic youthful millionaire are rarely troubled.

Pity poor Marcus Rashford, then.  How easy is it to focus on passing drills when you’re mentally tethered to the 4.3 million children in Britain living below the poverty line?  What a burden.  Football might even seem a little insignificant by comparison.  And if that’s not enough, Rashford’s manager actually thinks he’s doing too much on the extra-curricular front.  Ole Gunnar wants less school-age dinners and more last minute winners.

“Marcus has done some remarkable and fantastic things,” Solskjaer told the press as Rashford returns from a shoulder operation, “… but now he maybe needs to prioritise his football”.  Oof.  That one hit harder than a Rashford tweet aimed at a Tory front-bencher.

In many respects, this was classic Fergie-inspired “concentrate on your football” rhetoric.  With Lee Sharpe, the job was to keep him out of the nightclubs.  With Eric, it was the away end.  With Rashford, it’s G7 summits.  Put that famished ten year old down, Marcus.

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It’s an interesting, if possibly unfair, point that Solskjaer is making.  The name Marcus Rashford certainly conjures up more on the social justice front than it does professional football at the moment.  But it’s equally thought provoking that, of the presumably many outside interests Solskjaer’s squad of players must surely have, this is the one that irks him.  Paul Pogba changes his hairstyle three times a day.  Cristiano Ronaldo’s life ambition is to star on the cover of Men’s Health every month.  Harry Maguire likes to holiday.  It’s hardly as though Rashford is skipping training to visit food banks.  What’s Ole particularly got against children sleeping on a full stomach?

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Chances are, being the masterclass tactician that Solskjaer is, the canny Norwegian recognises the deeper point for contemplation here; the Malthusian question emerging.  How good does Marcus Rashford have to be at football to help the most children?  The sheer scale of Rashford’s philanthropic endeavours depends to a very large extent on him continuing to have a successful top-flight career.  Playing for Manchester United adds seven figures of followers onto your social media account and provides a platform to change the world.  Some terrific charity work is undertaken in the lower leagues of English football, but the star striker of Macclesfield Town is unlikely to be granted an audience with Boris Johnson any time soon.

Imagine, then, the pressure on Rashford.  The stress.  Every below-par performance putting lives at risk.  Every missed chance a Findus crispy pancake that never makes it onto the dinner plate.  Football was never a matter of life and death regardless of whatever deluded nonsense ventured out of Bill Shankly’s mouth, but in Marcus’ case it just might be.

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The free school meals crusade certainly wasn’t a one-off gesture, that’s for sure.  Rashford is delving further into the world of social welfare, this time with a focus on getting more kids to read.  And while it’s, shall we say, interesting that someone so keen on literacy campaigning doesn’t seem to actually write any of his own social media posts, Rashford’s intentions are undoubtedly sincere.

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Maybe, for the best of everyone’s sake, Solskjaer is right to put up some boundaries on Rashford’s extra curricular activities.  “I” before “e”, but not on matchdays.  Relevancy is not a myth.  Divorce the sports star from the sport and you’re not left with much.  Kournikova taught us that.  And Attlee and Bevin didn’t have the distraction of midweek European games.

Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, Jadon Sancho, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and a certain Portuguese returnee are all competing with Rashford for places this year.  He needs to be focussed.  It’s impossible to say for sure how many packed lunches it would take for Ronaldo to forgive an over-hit through ball, but you suspect it’s a lot.  There’s only so many seats at the dinner table of the United starting XI and the reality, unseemly as it may be, is it’s performances on the pitch that will allow Rashford to have the greatest impact off it.

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Blueprint

19 Feb

If Pep Guardiola took over a Sunday league team, he’d lose his first game in charge 7-0.  He’d lose the second game 15-0 and call it progress.  What’s interesting is he might be right.

The inherited brilliance of his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams concealed some important things about Pep Guardiola the football manager.  The first being just how bloody long it takes to grasp his system.  It took four years for John Stones to become a Guardiola player.  Gabriel Jesus might never get there.

There is no Plan B.  That’s abundantly clear.  The plan is the plan.  The ball is your daughter’s chastity.  The last vaccine in the care home.  It doesn’t matter if it’s bobbling and Liverpool’s front three are swarming all over you; find a pass.  It doesn’t matter if Jamie Vardy is charging full pelt and your self-assessment is overdue; find a pass.  Clear your lines and you’ll find yourself clearing your locker.

Other leeways will be granted.  It isn’t an enormous issue if you’re a defender that can’t actually defend, for instance.  Stick to the plan and you might never need to.  If you’re a midfielder, you don’t necessarily even need to be able to run.  And while it’s a bonus if the goalkeeper can stop shots, let’s just say Pep has more holistic plans in mind for you.  You can see now why Guardiola didn’t give club legend Joe Hart even a cursory ten games at the start of his reign to prove he was completely ill-equipped for the road ahead.  Dropping him at the outset was an act of mercy.

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Football used to be about space and finding the stuff.  Guardiola has collapsed this theory quite literally.  His players don’t spread out, they coalesce.  The temptation might be to think of Paul Scholes as a sort of archetypal Guardiola player, but those 35 yard cross-field balls of soaring beauty would have landed Scholes training with Benjamin Mendy and the reserves.  Sexless three metre passes are the order of the day; shorter if you can manage it.  Triple-A, risk-free balls to one of the two nearest options.  The exciting thing is this remains true even if you’re in your own crowded six yard box.

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I used to reflect on how hard City had to work to score a goal under Guardiola and compare it to how cheaply they gave them away, but I’m beginning to think this is just a necessary by-product.  When it goes wrong the Guardiola way, it blows up pretty quickly.  In his first year at Eastlands, when they finished 3rd, City were conceding the sort of goals that would catch cameramen out.  The footage would still be of a replay or a close-up when the ball hit the back of the net.  City would require a 47-pass move to equalise.  The same is still true today really, it’s just that City are managing to do an awful lot more of the latter than the former.

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I think you have to already be one of the best teams in the league to play the way Guardiola wants.  I really don’t think you get away with pushing your luck this far if you’re 16th in the table.  Even at the Emirates, Mikel Arteta is steadily extricating Arsenal from the high table of English football trying to implement Pep’s ethos.  The Guardiola method is a finishing school for excellence rather than a general manual on how to play the game.  For most teams, it would be like a normal human trying to use an Olympic standard pole vault; it won’t work and you’re going to hurt yourself trying.

That’s not an issue for Guardiola though.  After a quick practice with the reserves, he started managerial life with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.  He inherited a Bayern team that had just won the treble and his next move was to the Manchester branch of a sovereign wealth fund.  We’re unlikely to ever know what he’d do with Burnley.

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What is true is his Manchester City team are starting to look like the best side in Europe at the moment.  A sort of Mancunian Harlem Globetrotters who you feel are a fit De Bruyne and Aguero away from their best tilt at the big prize. 

In this system that requires the greatest level of nerve, the test will be how well Guardiola’s outfit handle the big occasions in Europe this year.  It will be interesting to see just how solid those six yard box rondos really are in the last 30 minutes of a big European final.  Mourinho-style pragmatism football is tailored to cope with this kind of pressure, alleviate it as best as possible.  By design, Guardiola’s system does not allow this luxury.  The players cannot put the burden down.  That’s not the plan.  They just have to learn to handle it.

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England goalkeeper Joe Hart was keen to meet the new gaffer and understand his plans.

Red, white but forever blue: Steve McManaman won’t leave Manchester City alone

31 Jan

For some reason, it’s a hard-wired rule of English football that pundits and co-commentators have to have played for one of the teams that are on the telly that day.  There’s no obvious logic for this – they’re either decent at the job or they’re not – but then there’s no obvious logic for the taxpayer paying Zoe Ball £1.3m a year.  Some things we just unthinkingly accept.

The cast is familiar at the top end.  Carragher for Liverpool, Gary Neville for United.  You might get a Crouch or a Hoddle for Spurs.  Obviously the well gets a bit shallow the further down you go, and eventually you find yourself taking them on trust that the man in the studio for the Burnley game is in fact Tom Heaton.

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I don’t know why this practice came about.  It’s not as though a player who played for a club 5-10 years ago has any special insight into the current team.  If they did, I suspect they wouldn’t be giving it away for free on Super Sunday.  Maybe TV executives think it will warm the hearts of supporters to see one of their “own” in the studio.  Either way, it’s a cruel fate that Manchester City get landed with Steve McManaman.

Always Steve McbloodyManaman.  Every single Champions League game for as long as I can remember.  For these precious years that City get to battle Europe’s elite, games are always played out to the backdrop of Steve McManaman, analysis escaping out of him like steam from an old kettle.

There are no positive associations between McManaman and Manchester City.  Even the press conference announcing his move to the club struck an oddly sour note.  McManaman’s nose was put out of joint by a line of questioning and he responded tersely, listing out all of the trophies he had won at Real Madrid.  McManaman concluded to his audience that he had nothing left to prove in the game.

Unfortunately for Manchester City, he was proven right.  McManaman played 35 games for the club and was shit in every one of them.  Didn’t score a single goal in two seasons.  Couldn’t run, didn’t look like he wanted to.  Just trousered one the best salaries at the club and then retired.  His ongoing relationship with Manchester City via the intermediary of BT Sport has now lasted many times longer than his actual direct association with the club.  Like the haunting spectre of a best forgotten ex-girlfriend becoming bezzies with your wife, he just won’t go away.

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I could have easily gotten over this by now.  Fifteen years of wishing Gary Neville would get swept away by the tide didn’t stop me swooning pretty much instantly once Red Nev took to the studio.  But McManaman’s just so bloody bad at this job too.  It’s as though the gears are jammed and he’s stuck in exasperation mode.  He’s never seen anything ordinary.  Listening to him observe a short corner is like a child describing Disney World.  I honestly thought the ball hitting the corner flag and staying in play against Olympique Marseille was going to tip him over the edge.  The acts of a game of football are rarely side-splittingly hilarious.  And yet, for reasons best known to himself, “Macca” chortles his way through ninety minutes plus stoppages like an ageing relative who’s just discovered memes.

Life isn’t fair sometimes, but you wonder if it has to be this unfair.  When a burglar defecates on one of your rugs, you’re left thinking what was wrong with just bagging up the iPads.  United don’t have Carlos Tevez co-commentating on their matches.  No-one’s inviting Sol Campbell into the studio for Tottenham games.  Why must City be singled out for such perverse suffering?

Indeed, it would be a bit less galling if Sky weren’t up to the exact same trick.  In a weirdly similar gambit, Sky have the temerity to wheel out Robbie Fowler as Manchester City’s “representative”; a man who also turned up at City overweight in 2003, several years past his best, was lazy beyond belief and picked up huge wages.  It’s as though television executives are on a bizarre but subtle crusade to highlight the mismanagement of the late-Bernstein era.

It all rather begs the question why we even have partisan pundits in the first place.  If the idea is that they’re lending us their expertise, surely they’re doing us a disservice if they strive for anything other than the strictest accuracy?  There’s no place for a misty-eyed retelling of the game.  Don’t flannel me with false positives if the truth is we were awful.  I need to know, man.  Gaslighting me into believing we deserved all three points isn’t doing me any favours.

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Hope springs eternal of course, and new blood may be just around the corner for City fans.  Fresh from a managerial stint at Fleetwood Town, there’s no way Joey Barton is going to swerve the allure of prime-time punditry.  And by crikey we’ll get some searingly honest analysis for our buck then.  Barton has never shied away from speaking the cold hard truth, even when the justice system isn’t compelling it from him.

That’s for the future, though.  Before he can light up our screens, Barton still needs to be extensively media-trained and, ideally, taught how to count to ten.  For the present, on those big European nights, we’re wedded to sharing the experience with Stevie Mac.  A tinnitus-inducing hinge on an old door, speculating excitedly about some of the more basic premises of the game.  Wide-eyed exclamations on a sport he’s supposed to be familiar with.  An expert, even.  Although, judging by his time at the City of Manchester, you would never have known.

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Barely worth marking.

Big Sam dreams of Albion

19 Jan

Ever wondered how long a dream lasts?  A minute?  An hour, maybe?  What about 67 days?  That was how long Sam Allardyce’s England dream lasted before it spectacularly imploded in the puff of a tape-recorded evening meal.  A lesson learned the hard way: it’s not what you don’t know, it’s who you don’t know.

You hear of lottery winners who, drunk on their windfall, find themselves back in the same office chair eighteen months later.  Big Sam probably admires that kind of longevity.  Like a ball thrown vertically upwards, stopping only momentarily at its apex, Allardyce quickly found himself back in the middle reaches of the English game.

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There was something comforting about seeing Allardyce back on domestic duties at Crystal Palace.  Sam was in his natural habitat once more.  Back in the galleys, battling relegation and ironing out defensive frailties. 

Allardyce had no sooner returned to the civic stage than he was tearing into the Watford mascot, Harry the Hornet, demanding he be given a 3-game ban for mocking a Palace player for diving.  Utterly incensed and shaking with anger in the mixed media area, Allardyce implored the self-same Football Association that had shattered his England dream to take disciplinary action against a man dressed up as a bumble bee.  It felt like slipping on an old pair of trainers.

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A year at Palace was followed by a year at Everton.  Most people thought that was our lot for the Big Sam Experience, but after two years out of the rap game we’re being treated to a swansong.  He’s back, baby.  Chewing gum in the dugout of another unfashionable corner of England.  This time, it’s his hometown of West Bromwich.

You have to think this will almost certainly be Allardyce’s last gig and for that reason alone we ought to cherish it.  When all said and done, Sam is the very essence of English football.  Like the English game itself, he’s both a relic and an innovator.  A man who simultaneously brought us Jay-Jay Okocha and Kevin Nolan.  Beautiful yet ugly, like Mariah Carey.  There might be other managers who snigger and pretend to be baffled at the concept of the “West Ham way”, but it takes a special person to do so while actually managing the club at the time.

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Critics are already writing off West Brom’s chances of survival this season but I’m not so sure.  Sam’s on familiar ground here.  He’s got an entire team of players you wouldn’t recognise in the supermarket and a midfielder who recently scored an own goal from 25 yards.  And yet, despite this, West Brom managed to take a point off the reigning champions at Anfield in only his second game in charge.  Two more losses followed but the Baggies have now registered their first victory under Sam, a battling 3-2 away win at Wolves.  He’s only got to rein in Brighton and Fulham for fuck’s sake.  This is distinctly Allardyce-able.

Don’t forget, winning minor parochial battles is all Allardyce has ever known.  In his autobiography, Sam casually mentions that as a younger man on the Midlands dating scene, the love rival for his now wife was snooker player and fellow Brummie, Tony Knowles.  It was nip and tuck for a while on which way the future Mrs Allardyce would go, but Sam eventually ground his opponent down.  Just like he always does.

It’s a great snippet, reflective of a man whose best skirmishes were always resoundingly domestic.  Allardyce was never meant to be England manager.  Hot summer tournaments stuffed into a blazer were never going to be his thing.  Sam’s got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.  He just wants to beat the local snooker hotshot in a best-of-35 frame game of love and get the missus safely back down to balk.  Except now Tony Knowles is Brighton & Hove Albion and Lynne Allardyce is premier league survival.  

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West Brom lie 19th with a -27 goal difference, but the gap to 17th is only five points.  Allardyce will need to squeeze every last inch out of Prozone and Sammy Lee to ensure his record of never losing top-flight status stays intact.  Do it, and his legacy will be secured. 

Allardyce spent years dreaming of the Albion job.  Admittedly, the Albion in question was England, not West Brom.  But that’s by the by.   You can’t dwell on regrets at Sam’s age.  His pint glass of wine is half full, not half empty.  Real actors can perform on any stage.  And Big Sam’s got his premier league ballet shoes back on for one last twirl.

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Big Sam, there, just listening out for the “West Ham way”.