Archive | January, 2014

Room for improvement?

30 Jan

Some people love a good cry, don’t they?  There was a young fan on television a few years back, bawling his eyes out because Spurs had been knocked out of the Carling Cup third round.  I remember thinking to myself, if the third round of the League Cup is enough to set him off, the lad was going to be in a world of trouble when he’s old enough to understand the concept of affordable housing.

The whimpering young Tottenham-ite is not alone, though.  Many of us seemingly need to let it all out on a weekly basis.  Whether it be on a Saturday evening, watching Simon Cowell and his band of vocal moderators dash another young person’s hope of becoming a singer.  Or blubbing along to “The Biggest Loser”, a show in which the tears flow by the gallon when an out-of-work Texan truck driver briefly dips below the 300 pound mark.

Football could be doing a lot more to make people cry.  Clearly, some folks aren’t able to have fun unless they’re getting their money’s worth from a hanky at the same time.  So let’s give them something to well up over. 

Thankfully, our emotive brothers from across the pond are way ahead of us on this one.  The Doodle Dandies have long since introduced an award into their sporting spheres that is guaranteed to have us all bawling like a mum at a wedding.  The Most Improved Player award.

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There’s an obvious pitfall that the Most Improved Player award ought to try to avoid.  It needs to swerve becoming a back-handed compliment along the lines of “I see you’re not quite as rubbish as you used to be”.  At my first Sunday League club, there was always a prize at the end-of-season gala called “The Clubman Award”.  With damning inevitably, this award bore an annual route into the feckless hands of whoever had been the most unused substitute that year.  The keen-spirited sap who, on the rare occasions of being called into service, was often required to do so sporting the indignity of the wrong coloured shorts; or a “closely-approximating” civilian t-shirt.  Sadly, the nearest this pocket Pele usually got to the action was being roped into running one of the lines.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the Clubman Award amounted to.  It was a crushing blow for any parent daring to dream they might be fostering the next Gary Lineker.  It was a plaque-based tribute to lousy genetics; insisting on pride of place on the mantelpiece.

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Care must be taken not to let the MIP be seen as the low-hanging fruit of the awards ceremony.  Like the Clubman Award before it, it mustn’t become some sort of homage to mediocrity.  And, of course, it needn’t be.  Arguably, for instance, Gareth Bale could have been a two-time MIP winner based on the monumental leaps he made to his game in 2010/2011 and then again in 2012/13. 

But the winner doesn’t have to be a world-beater, either.  That’s the beauty of it.  Last season also saw the culmination of a journey for Rickie Lambert that went from stuffing beetroot to stuffing Scotsmen.  He was another strong candidate for the 2012/13 award.

Properly calibrated, the award should operate independently of a player’s ability and look only to the improvements made.  The aim being to perform a standardised test of actual improvement over and above expected improvement (thus normalising the gains one would assume a younger player will achieve from season to season, without unnecessarily discounting them from the award).  In theory, then, the award is just as likely to be won by the best or the worst footballer in the league, and everyone in between.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at who is in the running for the 2013/14 MIP.

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Jordan Henderson has to be a contender.  Henderson could be forgiven for wondering how much of a Liverpool career he was actually going to have in the summer.  The ground beneath him was beginning to splinter, and few would have been surprised if Brendan Rogers packed Henderson into the same crate marked “For shipping” as those other gurning parochial oddities who failed to light up the centre of the Anfield park, Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing. 

Six months on and he’s almost undroppable.  He still gallops around the pitch like a zebra who’s just taken a well-meaning syringe to the buttocks from the park ranger.  But he’s now complementing his very considerable lungs with a generous dollop of panache.  His passing has come on a treat and some of his final balls into (usually) Luis Suarez have been first class.  Six premier league assists for the ever-present Merseyside Mackem demonstrates how his technical side has progressed.  If Henderson continues with the good work and wins the Most Improved Player accolade, then perhaps author and former Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, can present him with the award.

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Aaron Ramsey must be another MIP hopeful.  If people really do want tears weaving their way down cheeks like a mazy Chris Waddle dribble, then Aaron’s your man.  There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if Ramsey won the award.  Many players wouldn’t have recovered at all from the sort of injury Ramsey cruelly suffered at the Britannia Stadium in 2010 and yet look at the season he’s having.

He’s managed an incredible goal every other game from midfield and has been committing defender after defender with wonderful flair on the ball.  Jack Wilshere has almost become an after-thought at the Emirates; forced out to the graveyard slot of left-midfield in order to accommodate the brilliance of Ramsey and Özil in the middle.  But, on their own, Ramsay’s performances don’t tell the full story…

Before the start of this season, Ramsey’s career looked destined to be played out in the shadow of an imaginary career that he would have had but for that Ryan Shawcross tackle.  He was his own nearly man.  It was grimacing to watch as the haunting spectre of an entire career never to be fulfilled was laid out in front of him.  And yet, now, going in to February, Ramsey is probably only the width of one Uruguayan’s brilliance away from the main Player of the Year award.  It’s fantastic to see.  Here’s to a dream turnaround continuing and I hope he puts four past Stoke in March.

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While we’re at the Emirates, what about Mathieu Flamini?  A man who, in August, was effectively valued at zero when Arsene Wenger went down to the footballing equivalent of Battersea Dog’s Home and saw a familiar face drooling through the protective wire.  No prominent league position could have been maintained without the snarling Gallic warrior poet doing the lion’s share of the nasty stuff that Arsenal have lacked in recent years.  If the Gunners look sturdier this year, it is noteworthy that his addition, free of charge, is the only change in the defensive half of Arsenal’s pitch.

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When Phil Bardsley was photographed last May lying down in a casino covered in £50 notes, Paolo Di Canio was not in the least bit amused. He declared that Bardsley would never play for Sunderland again.   For a manager who went on to sign 14 unproven players in the summer, fell out with all of them, and then had a “heated discussion” with 5,000 travelling Sunderland fans in front of live TV cameras, you might be forgiven for thinking that Di Canio would have had sympathy for man who likes a bit of a gamble.  But it wasn’t so.  The right-back was out on his ear.  Some way short of assuming the role of peace-maker, Bardsely took to social media to poke fun at Sunderland’s opening day loss.  Having been unable to find a new club over the summer – further hindered by breaking his foot during pre-season – it would be fair to say that Bardsley’s career was not in the ascendancy.

Bardsley is what you might affectionately call the unreconstituted type.  His game is based on those classic British qualities of grit, determination and an ability to put the willies up foreign wingers.  Helpfully, he has the physical characteristics to play this role to a tee.  Such is his heavy brow and Neanderthal features, you wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in his life, Bardsley had lost a family member to a swooping pterodactyl.  And having outlasted the woolly mammoth, the dodo and the fragmentation of Pangaea, Bardsley wasn’t about to let an emotional Roman with a questionable temperament consign him to extinction.

Bardsley was straight back into the team on Gus Poyet’s arrival and has been indispensable ever since.  With a solitary point to their name, Sunderland were dead and buried when Di Canio exited.  Bardsley’s uncompromising defending has helped them into a position where they now have a fighting chance of survival.  What’s more, this “traditional” full-back has been doing it at both ends of the pitch.  A derby win against the Toon was followed up with a victory over Manchester City, with Bardsley scoring the only goal of the game.  In the League Cup Semi-Final, First Leg against Manchester United (his alma mater), Bardsely forced Ryan Giggs into an own goal that had the Black Cats dreaming of Wembley.  As an encore, Super Phil then scored the critical goal in the Second Leg.  Sunderland now look forward to a first cup final appearance in 22 years. 

Despite being written off as prehistoric, Bardsley has shown a Darwinian ability to adapt that is key to any premiership footballer’s survival.  Strong MIP material in anyone’s book.

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Sport is one of mankind’s most noble pursuits.  It manifests a desire of people to improve; whether it be against the clock or against others.  Which is why, for me, the Olympic motto cuts far more powerfully than any medal ceremony.  Faster, Higher, Stronger.  Despite sounding unerringly like a Viagra advert, these words remind us that the only real failure is not making betterment itself your aim. 

Most sportsmen and women will, by the nature of things, never be the best at their sport.  However, there is a lot to be said for recognising those who have made the greatest strides towards reaching that pinnacle, whatever their start position.  Expect to therefore see a “Most Improved of the English Game” trinket being handed out at the Too Good awards ceremony in May.

Hankies at the ready.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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A man who knew a thing or two about improvement.

A man who knew a thing or two about improvement.

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Moyeswatch 2

17 Jan

There’s something different about born winners.  Take Tony Blair, for example.  Post-war Britain’s longest-serving socialist prime minister was so excited at the thought of getting a promotion when the then Labour leader, John Smith, passed away, that he galloped straight home and made love to his wife, Cherie.  That takes a certain mindset.  Here is a man who is not only sexually aroused at the thought of his own political success, but who is even prepared to then brag about it in his memoirs.

Now I’m as career-driven as the next man, but if my boss keeled over tomorrow, I’d be surprised if my first reaction was to get an erection.  A born winner like Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, you can see him perhaps suffering from a bit of what might be called “Blair’s bulge”.

One man that you can bet your bottom dollar wouldn’t be aroused is David Moyes.  Moyes would be as limp as a marigold glove on hearing the news.  Such is the man’s negativity, his first reaction would probably to see if he can squeeze in an extra defender at the funeral.

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United’s form at the time of Moyeswatch 1 was not a calamity by any stretch.  It was a mere aberration.  One of those mid-level disasters, like the cat’s on fire, or you’ve ran out of mustard.  Things weren’t great, sure, but there was still time to slam the stable door shut before the Stallion of Hope bolted for good.

The scale of the disaster has moved on since then. The hamster wheel momentum of the Ferguson years has run out quicker than expected.  Old Trafford is not at amber alert anymore.  This is floating face down in the water territory.

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It’s difficult to see a way back now for Moyes.  He’s shown too much fear.  At the risk of paraphrasing Ken Clarke, there are “good” losses and “bad” losses in football.  Often the manner in which you lose assists the prognosis.  Go out in a blaze of glory, having slung the kitchen sink at the opposition, and you might earn yourself recognition for “having a go”.  Limp to defeat by being overly defensive and you’re much less likely to be pooled into the repechage for another shot at greatness.

Moyes might be the least positive man alive on 80 minutes of a football game.  He can’t wait to weasel Chris Smalling past the fourth official; shepherding him onto the pitch with all the disguised care of Andy Dufresne digging a tunnel out of Shawshank Prison.  Rooney and van Persie aren’t going to put up with this timid tripe.  Players on the front cover of FIFA video games won’t stand for being subbed off for Chris Smalling.  Star players need a pack leader in the managerial hotseat.  Not a scared-y cat who charges behind the sofa every time the doorbell rings.

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The man from Dunbartonshire is getting frantic.  Blaming referees has long been the preserve of a desperate manager.  After the League Cup semi-final first leg, a 2-1 loss against Sunderland, Moyes declared that he was “beginning to laugh at referees” for the “terrible” decisions they keep making.  It is very possible that such amusement is mutual.

Teams are absolutely salivating at the thought of playing United this season.  Three points at Old Trafford just used to be something you’d joke about down the pub.  You’d dream about it, sure.  But only in the way you’d dream about an evening with Martine McCutcheon and a well-sprung mattress.  Or five minutes in a windowless room with Sepp Blatter and a 6 iron.  Not anymore, though.  Teams are counting the days until they can go to Old Trafford and vanquish one of the many fine records that United have built up over the years.

First Everton win at Old Trafford in 21 years.  Done.  First Newcastle win at Old Trafford for 41 years.  Roger that.  First West Brom win at Old Trafford in 35 years.  Home and hosed.  First Swansea win at Old Trafford ever.  It barely needs stating that this is United’s worst start to a season in a quarter of a century.

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The nerves are transmitting back and forth between the playing staff and the fans like some sort of fraught game of one-touch.  Sharp intakes of breath around the stadium are becoming audible.  The impatient cries of “shoot” whenever United approached the Swansea penalty area in the FA Cup 3rd Round did nothing to settle a team already short on confidence.  Moyes’ Boys must be thanking their stars for every away fixture in the calendar at the moment, just to escape the Theatre of Shattered Dreams.

For their part, the Old Trafford faithful are doing their best to take this sudden fall from grace with a sense of humour.  Having persisted for quite some time with that rather needling “35 years” banner, the Stretford End has realised that self-effacement is the better part of valour with their latest effort.  “The Chosen One” banner is hilarious.  Moyes is already forced to take his seat in the dugout for each home game staring out at the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand.  You would think that a 26,000-seater Homage to Crushing Expectation in your sightline would be overbearing enough.  However, as luck would have it, he can also turn to face the Stretford End and gaze at this badly backfiring joke, with him as the unintended punchline.  All it now needs is for the East Stand to be adorned with a picture of Roberto Martinez to complete the poor man’s panorama of misery.

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United fans also have to be careful to fend off a different demon.  Denial.  Conspiratorial tales are being bandied back and forth that seek to exonerate The Chosen One.  Pleas of mitigation that Moyes was set up to fail.  That Ferguson left a ticking time bomb for his fellow Scot to inherit.  An aging squad, falling to pieces, barely managing to scrape the league title by a meagre eleven points last semester.

I can’t believe I find myself in the position of defending Ferguson, but this accusation is a bit beyond the pale.  In 2011, Ferguson signed a goalkeeper barely out of his teens and endured a host of wobbly displays in order to bequeath to his successor a custodian that is now widely regarded as one of the best in the world.  He has brought along Rafael who, temperament aside, is one of the best young right-backs in world football.  Similarly, he has blooded Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck into the team and, to top it off, invested north of £20million on Nick Powell, Wilfried Zaha and Ángelo Henríquez for the future.  They say that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.  To be fair to Ferguson, the old sod has bedded in enough saplings.

Was there still a gap in midfield?  Yes, but that was what the Fellaini money was for.  £27.5million will get you a fantastic midfielder.  Or two very good ones.  In the end, all it got was one very tall one.

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This is a career-wrecker for Moyes.  He’ll never get another shot at the big time.  Another washed up nearly man, thrown on top of the pile of mediocre British managers, along with Mark Hughes, Sam Allardyce, Steve McLaren and a host of other godforsaken souls.  He’s in grave danger of getting a Linked In request from Peter Reid.

Critics are very good at letting you know when you’re on the slide.  “You were the future once” a young David Cameron sneered at the soon-to-be-past-it Tony Blair.  The bellows of laughter rang through the Commons and Tony knew it was one-year rolling contracts from there on.  Moyes’ career in management will be more than halfway through when the next job comes around.  Hopefully he was nice to people on the way up.

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In a study of 200,000 ostriches over a period of 80 years, apparently not a single case was reported where an ostrich actually buried its head in the sand.  I implore United fans not to bury theirs either.  Don’t try to tell yourself that “this is just something all teams go through”.  It isn’t.  David Moyes is doing a terrible job.  He’s on for an astronomical points swing with an almost identical squad.  Seven premier league managers have lost their jobs this season and none of them has done anything like as much damage to their clubs as Moyes is doing to Manchester United.  Last year’s run-away champions lie seventh in January.

There won’t be a Moyeswatch 3, that’s for sure.  For two reasons.  The first is on the grounds of taste.  I’m not going to sit here and preside over a footballing Costa Concordia.  There will come a point when it becomes undignified to pass further comment.  The second reason is I might struggle to get round to it in time.  David Moyes will be Sunderland manager within 18 months.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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It’s impossible to tell what will trigger this man’s loins.

It’s impossible to tell what will trigger this man’s loins.

Who’s the Social Reformer in the Black?

10 Jan

It occurred to me recently that the current batch of premier league referees provide a neat analogy for the cast of The Wizard of Oz.  Howard Webb’s obviously the lion.  A big lad, lovely demeanour, but cowardice runs through him like a river.  Webb needs the Wizard of Oz to sort him out with a bit of bravery.  And no prizes for guessing that Martin Atkinson is the scarecrow.  A clueless idiot with no discernible brain.

You’re probably thinking Michael Oliver is Dorothy, aren’t you?  The youthful, kind and exuberant one; improving the lot of all that surrounds him.  While this is undoubtedly true, no blog of mine is going to talk about referees without dishing out the bulk of the praise to Phil Dowd.  Dowd might look more Middle Earth than Oz, but his uncompromising, no-questions-asked style of refereeing is the one I like the most.  So Phil gets to play Dorothy.

However, one premier league official resolutely defies such simple type-casting.  He’s far too complex.  Never mind The Wizard of Oz, this character has all the contextual layers and differing personality traits of a Dostoyevsky novel.  They call this man Clattenburg.

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Most football referees are content just to implement the 17 laws and five technical standards of the game.  At which point, pleased at a job well done, they cheerfully head back to their bungalow and tuck in to a microwave meal-for-one.  But not this one.

Mark Clattenburg is so much more than a referee.  He’s a social reformer.  Like Rowntree or Bevan.  The sporting branch of David Cameron’s Big Society.  A forward-thinker who doesn’t need anyone’s permission to make this world a better place.

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To understand Clattenburg, you have to understand the journey he’s been on.  Clattenburg arrived on our screens in 2004 as a slightly rotund, ruddy-faced figure.  He had the appearance of a public school games master who might just as easily have been bringing to order a game of Eton Fives as he was a Third Round Replay.  Life had been good to the man from Country Durham.  A career that had begun aged 15 as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award had taken him all the way up to the Select Group referees’ panel.  Clattenburg was in the big league; rubbing shoulders with the Ellerays, the D’Ursos and the Polls of the adjudicating world.

Then disaster struck.  In the summer of 2008, Clattenburg was dismissed by the referees’ governing body for reasons related to taking a string of companies under his stewardship into bankruptcy.  The timing of the dismissal couldn’t have been any worse – only weeks before he had been honoured with selection for the forthcoming Community Shield game.  Just as Clattenburg’s professional life was approaching its apex, a two-footed lunge in the business world had left his refereeing career in tatters.

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To everyone’s relief, the Professional Game Match Officials Board saw fit to reinstate Clattenburg in February 2009.  The old Clattenburg wasn’t back, though.  Instead, a different man emerged onto the field of play.  This one was slim, tanned and rocking a fashionable new mohawk.  He looked ten years younger.  Due to leaps in medical technology, the thinning top that Clattenburg had previously sported was gone.  And so too was the fear.  Richer for the experience of his financial mismanagement, Clattenburg wasn’t going to take any crap from these potty-mouthed footballers anymore.  Instead, he was going to educate them.

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The New Model Clattenburg first made his mark in a December 2009 clash between Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City.  Sick to the back teeth of one particularly irascible Welsh striker, the story goes that Clattenburg approached the City bench during half-time and asked: “How do you work with Craig Bellamy all week?”

We’ve all seen this ruse before.  It was classic “shaming in front of your peers”.  The sort of tactic you might use to stop a twelve year old from burping the alphabet.  Get his mates to start laughing at him, and maybe he’ll pack in the daft behaviour.

Clattenburg’s new role as moderator of the rich and famous didn’t get in the way of his refereeing duties.  He was still careful to ensure that he handed out two yellow cards to Bellamy in the second half.  Punishment that, having made clear to the City bench that he found Bellamy’s very presence intolerable, was perhaps of little surprise.

Good on him, though.  Craig Bellamy was a great servant to Manchester City, as he is to all his clubs.  But if ever someone epitomised the phrase “a whining arsehole”, it was Bellamy.  I regularly winced at Bellamy’s behavior despite looking at him through blue-tinted spectacles.  One can only imagine what the gentlemen with the whistles made of him.

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Wayne Rooney was the next miscreant in Clattenburg’s sightline.  In a match against Wigan, Rooney was seen to land a clear elbow on James McCarthy’s face as the two of them charged down a loose ball.  Any ordinary referee would have sent Rooney off.  But then where did being “ordinary” ever get any of the great social reformers?  “Ordinary” didn’t implement a national health service, free at the point of care for a post-war demographic, did it?  “Ordinary” didn’t provide universal suffrage and equality for women in the workplace.  “Ordinary” sure as sugar wasn’t going to tame this Nike-sponsored tearaway.

For a tough tiger like Rooney, sending him off would have been the worst possible thing to do and Clattenburg knew it.  Boys from the wrong side of the tracks love getting suspended; it’s a badge of honour.  Thankfully, Clattenburg had another trick up his sleeve.  The most powerful weapon of them all.  Love.

Rather than give Rooney the 4,000th red card of his career, Clattenburg took everyone in the DW Stadium by surprise and fixed England’s Number 9 with a hug.  The rationale was obvious.  Wayne didn’t need another early bath; what he really needed was a friendly squeeze from an authority figure.  I was acting up in the playground once and, instead of the usual 100 lines and a short stint outside the headmaster’s office, a rather matronly teacher opted for the more creative punishment of giving me a hug.  Mortified beyond belief, I was as good as gold for weeks.  And so, it transpired (for a while at least…), was Wayne.  2-nil to Clattenburg.

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And so to recent events.  Lifestyle coaching was probably the last thing on Adam Lallana’s mind as he contested various decisions in December’s clash against Everton.  However, noticing a marked uptick in the acerbic nature of Lallana’s dialogue from previous encounters, Clattenburg hit back with a warning about letting success go to your head.  “You’ve changed.  You didn’t use to be like this before you played for England,” remarked Clattenburg, with all the nervous energy of someone sensing they were about to be dumped by a loved one on the cusp of fame.

Lallana ought to have known better than to try it on with an official who was by now well known for refereeing the man as well as the player.  There was a subtle but very obvious undertone to Clattenburg’s retort.  We all knew what Clatts was really trying to say.  “Shut up, you floppy-haired chopper.  You and your pre-pubescent beard only got picked for England because it was a friendly and Theo Walcott was injured.  You’re a mid-table player at best and I have a much better haircut and tan than you”.

Being a cry-baby, La La went straight to his mother and grassed him up.  But the powers that be weren’t having any of it.  The Football Association told Lallana to dry his eyes and stop being such a sniveling hypocrite.  Or words to that effect.

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Like anyone else in the education sector, Clattenburg knows that he’s dealing with the leaders of the future.  Today’s mouthy winger is tomorrow’s first team coach.  That racist centre-back you dealt with a few weeks back will be the manager of side battling against relegation one day.  Getting through to troubled youths at the earliest possible stage is key.  Solve the problem early on and they won’t spend the rest of their lives causing trouble for themselves and others around them.  Adam Lallana may not know it yet, but Mark Clattenburg is probably the only reason why Lallana isn’t in a young offender’s institute.

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Twelve months from now, when Lallana is still languishing on a tiny handful of international caps, Clattenburg has nicely teed up the narrative for a great running joke.  Every time Lallana treats him to another foul-mouthed tirade, all Clattenburg has to do is gently enquire on how his England career is progressing.  Sometimes, in a room full of arseholes, it helps to be the biggest arsehole.  If I were Clattenburg, I’d whisper “superstar” in his Lallana’s ear every time I whizzed past him in my shiny black outfit.

Graham Poll tells a story about how Kevin Keegan once stormed into the Officials’ Dressing Room after a particularly feisty encounter.  Keegan’s blood was racing as he launched into a rant about various mistakes that Poll and his assistants had supposedly made during the game.  Poll sat there quietly until Keegan eventually ran out of steam and headed back towards the exit.  At which point, just as Keegan was on his way out the door, Poll politely enquired, “Kevin.  Did it hurt when you fell off your bike in Superstars?”

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Players (and managers) need to get on board with the idea that, if they give it out, then they are going to have to learn to take it too.  Respect, as Adam Lallana is finding out, cuts both ways.

There’s a better person in all of us and sometimes it just needs a Tier 1 referee to tease them out.  Ask the footballer to retreat the full ten yards and you will have a correctly taken free-kick.  Ask the human being to retreat the full ten yards and you will have correctly taken free-kicks for life.  If all it takes is a few terse words from Uncle Mark to keep a multimillionaire 23 year old’s feet on the ground, then go for it I say.

I believe it was that other great social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.  We’ve all heard this quote, but how many of us actually put our good intentions into practice?  Mark Clattenburg is out there making the world a better place.  One premiership footballer at a time.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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 “Hey Adam, could you get me Stevie G’s autograph at the next England camp?”

“Hey Adam, could you get me Stevie G’s autograph at the next England camp?”

It’s Chelsea

2 Jan

A belated Merry Christmas to you all.  I trust Santa was suitably generous and got you that Starbucks gift card you’ve always wanted.  And a happy New Year too.  Warmest wishes for 2014 from The English Game.

The first day of the New Year is perhaps the most optimistic of them all.  A day when our outlook for the coming 12 months remains as yet unspoiled.  Daring to dream is still an option.  It was therefore chastening for my New Year optimism to be completely dashed by the stark realisation that Chelsea are going to win the league.

I’ve seen enough.  It’s happening.  Sorry to be the one to tread on your strawberries.  The West Londoners remain priced at a generous 7/2, so you can at least still more than triple your money on this now crushing inevitability.

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It wasn’t three wise men but two sets of festive league fixtures that crystallised what had been a nagging fear for some time.  The first of which was Liverpool’s consecutive games against Manchester City and then Chelsea.  Both scorelines finished identically (Liverpool lost both 2-1) but the manner of the two games was telling…

I spent Christmas at a Premier Inn near Luton.  This isn’t some sort of perverse festive tradition.  Rather, it was necessary for reasons of an expanding wider family and the usual constraints of space and beds that arise as a result.  They say that everything is premier except the price.  And they were right, too.  The room was lovely.  In fact, everything would have been completely fine were it not for the fact that, on arrival, my sister and her husband kindly passed on to me a weapons-grade stomach bug that they had been discretely harbouring.

As a result, I spent Christmas Day itself and Boxing Day in a purple-tinted hotel room with my head nestled deep into a toilet bowl.  I’m as weak as a baby now and still have haunting images of the picture of Lenny Henry on my dressing table guaranteeing me a good night’s sleep.  Believe you me, minor tea-making facilities and a shortbread biscuit provide little by way of comfort in the face of persistent and prompt bodily evacuations. 

In my feverish state, I just about managed to watch the Boxing Day clash of City versus Liverpool, although Lord knows it didn’t help matters.  The second half was almost as perilous for City as my own predicament.  Liverpool were moving through City’s defensive line quicker than the pigs in blankets were moving through me.  In noro virus terms, City’s careless defending was the equivalent of placing the vomit bucket in the diagonally opposite corner of the room to where I lay.  Foolhardy and likely to result in disaster.

This contrasted neatly with the manner in which Chelsea undertook the same task three days later.  The game couldn’t have started any worse for Chelsea, with Martin Skrtel firing Liverpool ahead from close range in under three minutes.  However, Chelsea’s response was urgent and professional.  Mourinho’s men were aggressive without being reckless and immediately asserted a businesslike control of the game.  Within 30 minutes of the initial hoo-ha, Chelsea had established a 2-1 lead and there was a certain accomplished inevitability of the result from that point on.

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The New Year’s Day fixtures provided further evidence to bulwark my sense of premier league foreboding.  Against Swansea, City again proved that if they want to win the league, they’re going to have to blast their way to the title.  At times, there are shades of Newcastle in 1996 about City’s on-pitch demeanour.  In a game they could and should have won easily, the scoreline finished 3-2.  There were full-backs regularly in the opposition penalty area.  Wide midfielders who didn’t provide any cover.  In the middle of the park, only Fernandinho seemed desperately keen to win the ball back when possession was lost.  It was unnecessarily risky stuff and the self-control seemed lacking. 

Chelsea, by comparison, put on another disciplined display against Southampton.  The lead took a while to establish but there was a care to their performance.  If the result was to go against them, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be because Mourinho’s well-drilled team were not following orders.

In short, Chelsea are starting to look rather like winners.  They are developing the aura of a team who not only know that they should win, but that they ought not to give even the impression that some other result is a possibility.  With Manchester City, there is always a feeling that the opposition has a puncher’s chance.  Just enough hubris is exhibited to leave the chin exposed to a lucky right-hander.  City will blow more teams off the park than Chelsea, certainly.  But they will also walk into a few more bear-traps along the way.  Especially when things get tight down the stretch and jangling nerves start to override raw talent.

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It’s turning into goals versus grit for the title this season and usually the latter triumphs.  There seems to be more fight about the Chelsea players.  A little extra in the way of pluck.  I love Ya Ya Toure more than life itself.  And, sure, it’s difficult to stop a man the size of a holiday home travelling at 25 miles an hour.  But he’s not a warrior.  Nor is David Silva. 

I’m also delighted to see Samir Nasri having a great season.  But we saw all we need to know about his resolve when he ducked in the wall against a Robin van Persie free-kick last year.  When you’re looking into a player’s eyes to see who has the fire within them to get the job done, it’s hard to eradicate the pitiful image of Nasri on the end of that wall, cowering like Dennis Bergkamp in a first class lounge. 

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In a close title race, having the best manager in the league is also going to be a huge help.  Mourinho is a winner, plain and simple.  A more irritating winner than he was in his first spell at Chelsea, admittedly.  But a winner nonetheless. Contrast this with the Manchester City helmsman.  In nine long years managing in La Liga, Manuel Pellegrini didn’t win a single thing.  Not a Spanish sausage.  For a manager who can include Real Madrid on his CV, that doesn’t make for good reading.  I’m not saying he’s a bad coach; he isn’t.  However, there is a critical, if subtle, distinction between being a good coach and being a winner; in much the same manner as how playing well and winning are not the same thing either.

I thought Mourinho had made a fatal mistake with the paucity of his strikers this year.  I struggled to see where the goals would come from.  It is quite something that no recognised Chelsea striker scored an away goal in the premier league for the entirety of 2013.  Crucially, though, they do have goals in the team.  Hazard, Oscar, Lampard, Ramires and Schürrle have all played their part in making sure the net ripples on a regular basis.  Chelsea may win the premier league with the least effective strike-force ever to do so but, ultimately, the back of net makes no enquiry as to the identity of the scorer.  If you have three or four midfielders all capable of getting well into double figures, the need for the Number 9 to do likewise diminishes.

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So, there you have it.  Chelsea – premier league winners 2013/14.  Sorry for ruining the ending.  About three minutes in to watching the film Titanic at the cinema, I distinctly remember someone very loudly shouting in from the vestibule “it sinks, he dies”.  I fear I may have just done something similar.  Like a botched surprise party, you’re just going to have to fake your reaction when the time comes.  No spoiling it for Juan Mata if you see him though, please.  It looks like he’s going to be forced to sit through it all as well.   

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All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.