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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.

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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.

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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 of 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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

——

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 seeing it out, 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.

———–

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.

————

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.

————

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.

———

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.  

———

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”.

Pandemic special

16 Jan

As the temperature looks to dip below freezing tonight, it’s important to remember that a great many sex workers would have died this winter if it wasn’t for the generous contributions of Kyle Walker.  The plaudits have all gone to Marcus Rashford this pandemic, and rightly so, but while Rashford has dominated the front pages with his impressive social conscience on school dinners, Walker has been quietly doing his bit too, ensuring that vital income streams do not dry up during the biggest crisis this country has faced since Steve McClaren’s England reign.  Marcus looks after the kids, Kyle takes care of the mums.  Together – and I’ve thought of a nifty phrase to coin this – they are a CITY UNITED.

It doesn’t end there though.  The North-West has been at the footballing forefront of all things Covid-related.  Back in April, Liverpool F.C. took the brave decision to swallow their pride and furlough support staff.  Sacrificing yourself at the altar of dignity and asking for a hand-out isn’t easy at the best of times.  Imagine, then, some of your payroll earning six figures a week and still having the courage and humility to ask the UK government to step in and pay the wages of your less well-off employees.  Gutsy stuff from the red side of Stanley Park.  And having humbled themselves to exaltation, I feel confident in stating that Liverpool must have subsequently gone on to vote against the greed-soaked power-grab that was Project Big Picture in October without needing to fact-check the matter.

Others are turning their mind to the solution itself, the vaccine.  The great play-off berth back to normality.  It’s here that Sean Dyche is dipping a visionary toe.  Dyche might look for all the world like a mid-ranking UKIP politician – an image not exactly helped by managing Burnley – but it’s all a clever bluff.  The son of a globe-trotting management consultant, Dyche is erudite and thoughtful, and having kept Burnley in the top flight of English football for over half a decade, possibly also a genius.

Dyche’s view is that, once key workers, the elderly and the vulnerable have been given a shot of the good stuff, professional footballers should be next in line.  It’s the sort of statement that you initially dismiss as ludicrously self-entitled, then you start to see the merits of, and probably end up concluding somewhere in between.

The logic of the Ginger Mourinho’s health pitch is as follows: in order to continue playing at the moment, premier league footballers are being tested anywhere up to four times a week, at very considerable ongoing cost.  If that money could be channelled back into the national health system instead, there is a compelling economic argument for having footballers vaccinated early.  And that’s before taking into account the difficult-to-measure but undoubted psychological benefits to the millions (billions, really) who derive enjoyment from watching premier league football.  As we all know too well, the show is only precariously on the road at the moment; the sword of abandonment hangs heavy over the 2020/21 season.

The problem with Dyche’s argument is it slightly misses the point that the fifty year old who dies because Jay Rodriguez was given the vaccine instead of them probably won’t feel all that consoled by Burnley charting course for a sixth straight season in the top flight (impressive, as previously mentioned, though that is).  And while I’m no expert in mental health, it’s difficult to imagine anyone’s psychological lot being improved by the knowledge that Monday Night Football has blood on its hands. 

As it is, these strange times continue for now.  Football, the world, and an army of home boozers keep soldiering on with no obvious finish line to aim for; a bit like forced entrants in the world’s shittest bleep test.  “Catch it, bin it, kill it” used to be the Conservative Party’s policy on immigration, but these days they’re deploying the slogan for health reasons as well.  Here’s hoping they get the ball under control soon.

The only difference between this man and Captain Tom is that Kyle Walker knows the meaning of the word humility.

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Watergate

18 Jul

Amid the furore of Brexit negotiations this week, in which one politician after the next tried and failed to find a solution to the witless mass opinion of the British public, one news story went largely unnoticed. The lifeless body of a man from Daventry was found inside a wall in a woman’s washroom. He’d been there for over a month. With tactful reserve, the Guardian newspaper reported that “his motive for climbing behind the wall is not known”.

I’ll bet there are hundreds of male bodies decomposing in the infrastructure of female toilets. There must tens if not hundreds of thousands of men worldwide who do this sort of thing. For the sake of argument, let us cautiously assume that one in every twenty men on earth is currently stationed behind a stud wall while a woman urinates a matter of inches away. It only takes a few trapped limbs and heart attacks before the body count really starts to pile up.

People forget, but most men disappear off the map after formal education. They stop turning up for work one day and colleagues naturally assume they’ve topped themselves, quietly taking them off the payroll. Most, of course, have actually topped themselves. But some are just fatally trapped in the building’s infrastructure.

Exterior wall – damp proof course – pervert – stud wall – plasterboard. It’s a familiar story. A lot has been done in recent years to combat male depression, but women have to recognise that there is quite likely a man trapped about a foot and a half away from you at this very moment. And he needs your help.

The safest thing to do would be to put CCTV up in the ladies’ latrines. Then we can all rest easy. But how likely is that in the current climate? Fear of big brother, the rise in feminism and GDPR make it a non-starter. It’s a murky business either side of the party wall, and we can’t just brush it under the carpet.

Nobody with the exception of Joanna Lumley can solve all of the world’s problems. But together, with patience and a notable degree of understanding, we can each do our bit.

So a personal request from Too Good for the English Game. Please, next time you see a familiar face staring up at you from the u-bend, or you hear a faint breathing sound to your left even though you know you’re in the end cubicle, reach out to the man at your side. Give him a blanket, a hot cup of tea, and ask him to turn off any audio-visual equipment. Because Elon Musk isn’t going to lend a helping hand out of this tight situation. Not while all the R&D money is being diverted to Legal. It’s up to us to talk these men down from the porcelain cliff edge.

Thank your for your understanding.

Up top

2 Jan

Picking England’s Number 9 used to be a piece of cake. The nation wouldn’t give it a moment’s thought, and rightly so, not when there was the daunting task of who to shoehorn into that tricky left-midfield berth.

Gary Lineker got the nod for seemingly decades. Then Alan Shearer took over.  After that, Michael Owen, and then Wayne Rooney.  You could set your official England Supporters Club watch by the presence of these men. 

But who now, though? As if 2016 didn’t cast enough uncertainty into the world; the last thing we needed to start 2017 was a debate on who England’s main striker should be.  And yet here we are. 

——–

There are options, of course. Go back a couple of years, and who could have predicted Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy would be two of the main contenders?  Yet their infectious running and endless harrying have brought joy to a divided nation.  Neither is exactly Leo Messi, but the pair’s sheer level of industry is up there with two Christians in a national park who’ve been told there’s an image of Christ in one of the puddles.

Kane and Vardy are romantic options for leading the line. Players whose underdog background and style of play stir the loins. 

With Vardy, there’s something genuinely intoxicating about his straight-line velocity brand of football. You can sense the electricity as he tears towards the ball like a fiver-clutching vegetarian making a beeline for the victim economy.  It’s hard not to enjoy watching Jamie Vardy when he’s on song.  And he’s been on one helluva song. 

Vardy’s debut premier league season finished with a measly 5 goals. Difficult, then, not to smile when he scored on 29 August 2015 against Bournemouth and didn’t fail to score again in a league game until the Christmas lights were up.  Vardy’s off-field antics mean he’s unlikely to be given a UN ambassadorial role any time soon.  But if Bank Ki-moon ever needs an injection of pace up top, he knows where to look.

——–

While it might be a struggle to reconcile liking Jamie Vardy with your broader world view, Harry Kane is nothing short of a charm. Big trusting eyes and warm of interview.  Physically cherubic, with those lovely red cheeks, if in a slightly might-have-struggled-with-algebra kind of way.  A real Best Case Scenario for dating your daughter.

As with Vardy, Kane is already twenty-five past any level of expectation. Farmed out in his formative years to team after team further down the footballing pyramid, Kane developed a classic case of McEachran-itis; destined to appear in squad photos at the start of every season, only to vanish into the ether of Manish Bhasin’s witching hour highlight reel.  Leyton Orient.  Millwall.  It didn’t matter how shit the team was, so long as they were within touching distance of the M25 and on late.

But then, all of a sudden, as though a North London genie had appeared from a lamp, piping up with something unintelligible in faux Cockney-ese, in a tone suggesting that the genie probably thought he was more of a geezer than he actually was, Kane was granted his wish of a shot at the big time.

And by crikey he grasped it. Game after game, Kane dared the nation to say it was just a run of form. Teased us all with the prospect that he would be back being analysed by Steve Claridge and Leroy Rosenior in next to no time.  The disbelief continued right up until Kane finished runner-up in the scoring charts; this despite not even opening his account until November.  As an encore, Kane won the golden boot outright the following year.  The nation had found a bona fide centre-forward.

——–

Just as Kane was tickling everyone’s wholesome fancy, along came a striker who was even lovelier, even younger and even more of a throwback. Marcus Rashford is a dream within a dream.

A brace on his European debut, another brace on his league debut, the winner in his first Manchester derby and the youngest English player to score in his first senior international game. Not bad for a four month period in the midst of his A-levels. 

All being well, Rashford could conceivably become England’s Number 9 until 2030. Young strikers are rightly approached with caution, though. They burst onto the scene with all the lustre of a young Harrison Ford, only for many to drift off into the lower leagues or even, God forbid, Sunderland.  Sometimes you’ve got a genuine unicorn on your hands.  Sometimes all you’ve got is a horse with a dildo strapped to its head, and you’re left feeling thoroughly duped by the cheeky bugger.  Rashford looks likely to be the former, but it’s still early days.

——–

All these romantic options. Warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?  Well not mine, mate.  The romantic option is what made Michael Jordan give up basketball and play baseball for two years.  Badly.  The romantic option is why Jeremy Corbyn is currently denying the UK government an effective opposition.  It’s the reason kitchens up and down the country are littered with bread-making machines.

The Swedish press summed up romance perfectly when 17 year-old Theo Walcott was taken to the 2006 World Cup. They likened Sven’s decision in picking Theo to being locked out of your house with only €1 and choosing to spend it on a lottery ticket.  It might work, but the better option would have been to buy a phone card.

Daniel Sturridge is England’s phone card. He’s the head not the heart.  He’s got something better than romance: pedigree.  Born into a footballing family and with clubs fighting over him as a teenager, there’s no rags to riches story with Sturridge because there never needed to be; he was always going to be really good.  This doesn’t make him the populist choice for headline-hunting journalists, but I would ask you to look beyond the loudest and most obvious, just as Sturridge himself does on the field of play.

People remember the colossal balls up against Iceland in the summer, forgetting that there was very nearly a colossal balls up in the group stages against Wales. England couldn’t seem to unlock the massed ranks of the Welsh defence for all the call centres in Swansea.  It took a moment of guile from Sturridge and – crucially – the willingness to take a chance, to do something different, that got England the crucial goal.  While Kane was busy hitting free-kicks the wrong side of the goal-line official and corners into neighbouring stadiums, Sturridge was one of the few that emerged from Euro 2016 with any credit.

——–

In short, Sturridge has the ability to peer over the horizon when Kane and Vardy can only see hills and ocean. And while you would happily back either of the latter two to run riot against many of the punch-bags in international football, when it comes down to it, when it really matters, my money would be on Sturridge to find a way through against one of the big beasts.

Sturridge’s career has been somewhat chequered to date. Partly due to a poor decision to go to Chelsea at an early age, but mostly because of injury problems.  His fragile nature should not count against him when considering options for England.  If he’s fit, he should play.  He can at least last the length of a major tournament; and certainly for the duration that England tend to remain in for.

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

unicorn

Don’t let this slippery devil fool you.