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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.

You can follow Too Good for the English Game on Twitter (@_SonnyPike) or subscribe by clicking the “Follow” button on this page.


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).


Don’t let this slippery devil fool you.



Drifting rock

2 Dec

It’s always struck me as odd that English banknotes are actually worthless. They’re not backed by anything; it’s only people’s belief they’re worth something that gives them any value. The stuff’s run on confidence and confidence alone.

This being so, we ought give our currency its best shot and put Liam Gallagher on the notes. If confidence, earned or otherwise, is the name of the game, let’s get a big-hitter in. The Queen’s never struck me as a particularly optimistic girl. No brash self-assuredness in her voice. Bit of a shit dresser, too, if we’re being honest. Liam, on the other hand, if he tells you something’s worth twenty quid, then it’s worth twenty quid.


Better yet, let’s get Joe Hart on the notes. Joe’s super confident. And well he might be. You don’t want a bed-wetter between the sticks, do you? It’s a battle of the mind for goalkeepers, with disastrous consequences if they lose. Outfield players have the luxury of only competing against ten others. Not so, for goalkeepers. They have to contend with players, the fans, the press. Even a few of the cheekier ballboys probably like to enquire if the visiting custodian is feeling a touch nervous.

And as much as Hart is one of the best one-on-one shot-stoppers in the business, it’s Joe Hart’s unflinching belief in Joe Hart that sets him apart. Hart would stare down a Haka as soon as look at one. His giant head wouldn’t flinch for a moment, set on that ramrod-straight, drill sergeant neck of his.


Most of us are timid self-questioning souls, who can barely get out of bed in the morning without wondering if we’re in the right job, the right relationship, or if we ring our parents enough. Hart doesn’t bother with any of that nonsense. England’s Number One knows damn well he hasn’t left the gas on. And he isn’t going to waste his days mentally tethered to Best Before dates or whether he needs to bring a coat out.


Naturally, this drives his critics wild. Journalists, opposing fans, they love to hone in on a goalkeeper low on confidence. Put ’em in the spotlight and watch them wither. It’s a long road back for a keeper once a crisis of confidence forms.

Joe never lets these idiots in. He’s a walled city. And in that way, he always wins. Fingers taped and already barking instructions in the tunnel, we witness the unwilting aura of a man who can’t be gotten at. An unyielding structure who stands his full height, whether in the goalmouth or the media access area. Joe Hart is six feet five; he’s fairly confident of that.


This is why Hart is vital to Manchester City. And it’s what Pep Guardiola seems to completely miss about him. Hart is the only player utterly convinced that City can win the Champions League. That they should win the Champions League. The lad who used to keep goal for Shrewsbury Town is the only one who can picture himself shaking hands with UEFA dignitaries, as he lifts the European Cup high above his flake-free head. The man whose transfer fee was fifty times less than Aguero’s, who rose from League 2. Hart knows he’s only got one life and he’s damned if he’s going to throw it away on the group stages.


More, then, is the tragedy of the past few months. Hart has been banished to Turin; loaned out in the prime of his career. In his place, an ageing clown, whose party trick is to caress the ball into the path of oncoming strikers. Joe’s distribution was always an area for improvement. But only in the sense that once every game or so he would lamp the ball unpressured straight into the stands. Restarting with an opposition throw-in was much preferred to restarting from the centre circle, as has become a familiar sight with Claudio Bravo this season.

Prospects for a return are slim. Philosophers make stubborn leaders, and Guardiola is by no means an 80:20 operator; he’s pure doctrine. Hart finds himself marginalised by a gaffer with deep seated beliefs, who is also trying to establish his authority in a new setting; a dangerous combination. And so, without being given so much as a single league outing between the sticks, Hart has been deemed utterly dispensable.


Anyone involved in football has found themselves lamenting a defeat that came from a lack of belief. A nagging sense that if the boys had just believed they would do the business, then they probably would have done. Louis van Gaal is fond of saying that the mental approach of players is football’s last great unexplored frontier. Hard, then, to quantify the hidden loss of casting Joe Hart to one side; a man with enough self-belief for the whole back five and probably a few holding midfielders to boot.

We’re still in the first flushes of the Guardiola regime, but this has been by far his biggest call to date. He will be judged not only on whether he was right, but as much by his willingness to admit the error if he’s proven to be wrong. Given the haste with which he cut Hart loose in the first place, it would be a bold move for Guardiola to bring him home again. The decision would certainly require a healthy dose of self-confidence. Thankfully, Pep doesn’t have far to look if he needs inspiration on that front.

You can follow Sonny (@_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).


“Stones … to Bravo … back to Stones”


Flesh and cloth

25 Jul

I’ve witnessed some painful sights in my time. Grown men beat-boxing. People who say “Brangelina”. And the slow, ticking realisation of a Leave voter, to name just a few. But none were more painful than the sight of Bolton’s Nicky Hunt walking off the field of play on August 16th, 2003.

The Wanderers were playing Manchester United, so Hunt might reasonably have expected a tough day at the office. Quite how tough came as a shock to all, as with 29 minutes to go, Alex Ferguson summoned his new signing from the bench – a pockmarked £12.2million teenager from Portugal. Having had previous for birthing fledgling talents into the English game, the claret-drenched Knight of the Realm seemed to be at it again.

It was as though the future had arrived. As with all depictions of the future, it had a terrible haircut. Cristiano Ronaldo danced past Hunt again and again with a brand of skill we simply hadn’t seen before. There were stepovers, yes. But not of the “are-these-ever-going-to-lead-anywhere” Denilson variety. These were sharper. More chopped. It didn’t matter how side-on Hunt made himself, he and Ronaldo were vessels in the night. Except that Ronnie was a speedboat. A dancing, spaghetti-haired comet trail was all that Hunt saw of the Madeira kid that day.


Ronaldo was everything the modern footballer should be. Fast. Muscular. Orange. The stage was his and his alone. It is said that each player averages a mere 53.4 seconds’ possession during a 90-minute game. That may be true in most cases, but Ronaldo wouldn’t consider it a day’s work unless he’s had a fully-fledged quarter of an hour on the ball.

Yet despite being head, shoulders and trapezoids above everyone else, Ronaldo was not adored by the common man. Vanity is a difficult trait to warm to. Roy of the Rovers, for instance, might not have inspired quite so many budding young footballers if he’d spent the first four or five pages of each magazine flexing endlessly in front of a mirror. But then, on the other hand, who cares? If niceness got you on in life, Gareth Southgate would have won the Balon d’Or.

Deep down Ronaldo knew exactly what the public wanted. And if that meant performing ball tricks in front of jeering Chelsea fans rather than doing a proper pre-game warm-up, so be it. These people had paid their money.


Meanwhile, unbeknown to the young Ronaldo, fate was busy manufacturing him a polarity. Across the English Channel, in a soon-to-be-forgotten place called mainland Europe, another talent was prospering. Except this one didn’t behave like a randy ski instructor with immense ball control. This one was short in the leg and scruffy in demeanour. Unassuming, almost to the point of shyness; if you had to blind guess what he did for a living, you’d have probably gone with roadie for a commercially unsuccessful indie band. Perhaps more jarringly, this other guy didn’t even seem to actively want to be on the cover of Men’s Health.


Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were destined to be locked in an eternal grapple. Opposition teams just a phoney war backdrop, as the two defined themselves not by the eleven players they faced each week on the pitch, but by what the other was doing. It became the great duel of our time.

Adidas, Barcelona and every commentator in the world tried to characterise it as Good versus Evil, or humility against hubris. The spirit of the game versus a preening dickhead. But time has shown this narrative to be misplaced. For one thing, and it might sound trivial, but Ronnie actually pays his taxes. For another, despite all the sulking Ronaldo does on the pitch, he’s the first to turn up to major tournaments and he’s absolutely desperate to be the last to leave. Nobody wanted to win Euro 2016 more than he did. Messi, in contrast, has decided that, aged just 29, international football is no longer his thing. His legacy has become stained by evasive practices, both fiscal and footballing.


So forget “Good versus Evil”. The moniker is too simplistic, and probably just wrong anyway. The contextual layer that really separates the two is how much more earned Ronaldo’s brilliance is.


At first sight, the temptation is to view Messi as the underdog between the two. Diminutive stature, growth hormones as a child, too ugly to get a bird at school, etc. The Argentine might be praised as the one who overcame the greater battle. But like Leo Messi’s Dad and a self-assessment form, not everything’s quite adding up here.

The reality is that Messi is simply not of this earth; blessed with a supernatural talent beyond others’ contemplation. He has a balance that defies the frailty of man sprinting upright on two legs, and a dribble that cannot be reproduced. To watch Leo Messi is to admire a beautiful uber-human who has probably never broken a yolk and never known the trauma of sending a box of cocktail sticks flying. It’s an existence which no amount of training can replicate.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, is completely man-made. He is a miracle of achievement, rather than simply a miracle. God-given talent doesn’t get you four feet off the ground when a whipped cross comes into the penalty area. You get that way through Herculean conditioning. God-given talent doesn’t get you more tricks than any other player on the planet. You have to learn them the same way Michael Gove learnt politics. One deceitful turn after the next.

People praise Messi’s calm and condemn Ronaldo’s petulance. You’re damn right Ronaldo’s angry when something goes wrong. Do you have any idea how hard he’s practiced to get things right? The floor gets thumped and the skies cursed, because an awful lot went into the process.


It’s this distinction between the two that makes recent events so compelling. Ronaldo has finally got the piece of silverware that has long eluded Messi, an international tournament winner’s medal. The human has bested the immortal. Better yet, he did it a matter of days after Messi flounced off from the Argentine national team vowing never to return. Messi’s retirement has therefore made this win a defining factor. A factor which, unless Messi reverses his decision, will always distinguish the two.

Will this force Messi’s hand into returning, just to keep up with his sworn rival? If so, how much more painful will it be if he continues to fall short? It’s not like Messi can blame a lack of support staff; he plays for one of the big beasts of international football, for heaven’s sake. Ronaldo has just dragged a team of lunatics, nearly men and no-hopers to glory.


Domestically, at least, the battle between Ronaldo and Messi will continue to run. Chances are both will eventually retire with the world still torn on who was better. But this victory strikes me as one worth celebrating. This summer, the gods were humbled. Messi was humbled. This summer, a man armed with nothing more than a lifetime of practice got his nose in front of superman.

It was a triumph for Ronaldo, but in a very real way it was a triumph for all of us. Because there’s actually nothing that separates us from Ronaldo other than supreme dedication, extraordinary application and some unusually white teeth.

It’s hard to love Ronaldo, I know. So I won’t ask you to. But when your mind wanders to the pantheon of true greats, remember that almost all have an international trophy to their name. Garlanded Hall of Famers, such as Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Charlton, Platini, Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Matthaus, Gullit and van Basten. They’ve all got one.

Now standing beside them – looking for all the world like a butler in the buff in shinpads – is Ronaldo. He’s in the club, too. Lionel Messi, unless he fancies a rethink, now never will be. International failure looms over him like a suspended prison sentence. A feeling one suspects he will be all too familiar with.

You can follow Sonny (@_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).


“Any chance of the shirt staying on today, Ron?”

Diablo Rojo

25 Feb

Gary Neville is an overachiever. By any metric. If you rank third among even your own siblings in terms of sporting ability, then you’ve exceeded expectation if you peak any higher than the SPL. Yet Neville became one of the most decorated English footballers in history.

Some men are born great. Some men have greatness thrust upon them. And sometimes greatness accrues almost glacially; the sum aggregate of all the grain-by-grain victories. Neville achieved greatness the same way Andy Dufresne achieved liberation from Shawshank Prison. One spoonful of grit at a time.


Outperformance was the norm for Eric Harrison’s love-child and a lot of it was down to exceptional decision-making. No matter how feisty the encounter, Neville could be relied on to make the right call in the heat of the battle. He knew when to overlap the right-midfielder and when to clear his lines. When to kick lumps out of Antonio Reyes (always) and when to wind up Patrick Vieira (in a tunnel, near to a mad Irishman).

It’s this fearsome level-headedness that made Neville’s snap decision to take over at Valencia all the more strange. Did at no point a voice in his head say, “you can’t speak the language, Gary, and you know nothing about La Liga”? Rushing into a six-month contract and starting language lessons on the job was brazen and amateurish. Everything Neville wasn’t as a player.


It’s fair to say the risk hasn’t paid off. Armed only with Phil Neville, Neville arrived in south-east Spain and promptly embarked on a 9-game winless league run. Sandwiched in the middle was a 7-nil cup hammering against Barcelona. A hiding which prompted club legend Santiago Canizares to demand that Neville “apologise and resign” (presumably in whichever order he liked). It was Los Che’s worst defeat in 23 years and didn’t sit well with the mounting possibility that a club who had appeared in two Champions League finals this century might even be relegated.


This has led to Neville being cast in Spain as a sort of Anglicised “Manuel” from Fawlty Towers figure. Desperate to please but really not following the plot at all. You feel he’s moments away from a door being closed in his face, or hit by a frying pan, all the while exclaiming “Que? … Que?” in that loveable Bury brogue. A prank call from Russell Brand can’t be far away.

How did it go so wrong for Los Neviller? Notwithstanding the uncharacteristically poor decision-making in taking the job in the first place, his lack of aptitude has still been jarring. Neville has always been a dab-hand at exceeding expectation, but this hasn’t so much been a reversion to the mean as it has a sky-dive past it.

The continued and heavy branding of Neville and his Manchester United peer group can’t have helped. When you play for a team that hasn’t won a league game for an entire winter, there’s only so many tales about the Class of ’92 you’re likely to be able to stomach. The Valencia players probably mouth along with Neville as he ends yet another stirring half-time team talk with “… but the one thing we had in common was that all six of us never knew when we were beaten”.

Being ordinary humans who had never participated in their own real life dream sequence, Neville’s charges probably couldn’t empathise with the new gaffer. Did these boys own their own chain of hotels or design the north-west’s first 100% eco-home? No. Some of them probably hadn’t even been to the old Cliff training ground, where Scholesy once got locked in the tumble dryer.


When Neville left Sky Sports, he was promised that the studio door would always be left open. But at what point does he fail so badly that he undermines his credibility to return to even that? How hard does he have to pile into the iceberg before only the haunting spectre of Question of Sport team captaincy remains? It’s a chilling thought.


He may yet turn it around. But, for now at least, Neville is steeped in the mediocrity he had always so magnificently avoided. After 25 years of getting way more miles to the gallon than the brochure promised, he’s finally underwhelmed us. “No shame in that”, as his old boss used to say.

There’s collateral damage, of course. After the cock-ups of Moyes and Neville, the next Brit likely to get a stab at managing in La Liga is probably now Jack Grealish. And there will be a few smirks when Neville inevitably does tip-toe back into the Sky Sports studio. Jamie Carragher’s levels of sympathy, for one, are likely to be pitched about as evenly as Carragher himself is.

But this ought to be water off a duck’s back for Red Nev. You can be philosophical about these things when you’ve won everything there is to win in the game. A dismal six months at Valencia will define Neville about as much as a brief stint managing Preston North End defined Bobby Charlton. In short, he’ll live. Plus, if he ever does fancy another crack at management, help is close at hand. Sister Tracey is already Head Coach of England in her sport. Perhaps Gary and Phil can take notes.

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An uncharacteristically poor decision by the Neville.

Confidence’s demise

6 Feb

Louis van Gaal once dropped his trousers in front of the entire Bayern Munich team to show them that he “had the balls”.

As leadership techniques go, it’s not one you’re likely to see cropping up on Ted Talks. Yet, in a funny kind of way, I can’t think of a more appropriate manner for a top-level manager to behave. Footballers thrive on simple instructions from a respected source, right? Well picture a Champions League winner proving to you that he has the balls by quite literally showing you his balls. In terms of player-friendly simplicity, it’s positively Redknapp-esque.


With one loosening of the belt buckle, van Gaal painted a thousand words. Crucial, you would think, in the time-condensed setting of a fifteen minute mid-match sermon. Body language experts spend their lives striving for methods to communicate quickly and concisely; having the gaffer’s unsheltered tackle at eye level might be the Holy Grail.


This was by no means the first time that van Gaal had exposed himself as a rather brash character. There had been plenty of other more figurative unveilings.

“Congratulations on signing the best coach in the world” was how he greeted Amsterdam on taking up his first ever managerial position at Ajax. Installed as the Dutch national coach in 2000, van Gaal was careful to explain to the media that the contract runs through 2006, “so I can win the World Cup not once but twice.” And in his Bundesliga-winning celebratory speech at Munich, van Gaal began by offering all the women in the audience “a big kiss from the coach of the champions” (presumably with trousers re-buckled by this point).


It’s easy to see what attracted Ed Woodward to van Gaal after the Moyes debacle. As Woodward winched a quivering, terrified Moyes out from behind the sofa to have him shot, the revolving machinations of Woodward’s mind were clear. The next man needed a bit more arrogance. A touch more of the bare-naked swagger that befits managing one of the grand old Dames of English football. Steady Eddie needed someone with big balls, and who wasn’t afraid to show them.

Van Gaal fit the mould to a tee. Here was the curtain-tearing, megalomaniac ying to Moyes’ timid and reserved yang. There wasn’t a disputed arm-rest this side of the Rhine that van Gaal hadn’t tried to claim as his.  The voice sings loud in his head. I am superman. No caveats, no qualifiers. Don’t ask me to explain things, because you wouldn’t understand. You are permitted to touch the hem of my cape. Now move your bloody arm.

It’s rare to see this level of unwavering confidence in a man of such advanced years. But then few of us have won the European Cup with Winston Bogarde and a bunch of teenagers. So, you know, have a mince pie and a glass of wine and pipe down.


Having taken the road-show from Holland to Spain to Germany and back to Holland, van Gaal arrived on English shores as the second new dawn in the post-Fergie era. At 62 and unchastened by the years, it was never likely that van Gaal would change tack. Full-bodied assertiveness had made Luis Figo and Rivaldo Ballon d’Or winners on Louis’ watch. There was every reason to suspect he could squeeze a performance or two out of Ashley Young.


Yet it’s here where destiny somewhat snagged her nail. As Al Gore once said, it’s not what you don’t know, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so. Take me, for instance, I’m a terrible swimmer. But I’ll tell you this much: I will never drown. Absolutely guarantee you that. Do you know who drowns? Strong swimmers. Foolhardy idiots who think to themselves, yeh I can probably swim 2,000 metres to that rock. It’s them that never come home.

Unchecked, strengths can become the biggest weaknesses of all. Van Gaal’s brashness – his unshakeable belief that he’s a genius and that you’re irritating – became a self-scuttling device. We’re in the opening scenes of what is now inevitably the death rattle. It could take days, it could take weeks, but make no mistake, Louis is taking on water.


Van Gaal hadn’t likened on how things work on this septic isle. He seemed hell-bent on beginning press conferences at a heightened state of rattiness and building from there. For a while, our journalists tolerated this upstart, as a lion might tolerate a particularly yappy springbok. Perhaps they admired his chutzpah.

But this is the British press we’re talking here about here. These boys chase princesses through tunnels and hack dead girls’ phones for a living. Van Gaal was in a shark tank and, seemingly unaware of his surroundings, couldn’t stop poking the sharks in the bollocks with a big stick.

Demanding the assembled media apologise to him before Christmas got the pen-wagglers’ hackles up. Ceaseless interjections that questions were “stupid” or “disrespectful” only further fanned the flames. By the time he pointed at Neil Custis in January and said “You too, Fat man”, you could almost hear reporters filing down their arrows. Van Gaal was a dead man.


The cocksure Dutchman had gotten away with this kind of behaviour in the past. You can give it the big one in Spain and it won’t matter because everyone’s in bed by two in the afternoon. You can be a forthright prick about things in Holland and it’s no big issue. People will just say “wow, this guy’s really highly strung”, as they crack on with being the tallest and best looking nation in Europe. Not so in England, mate. Not with our journos. Some of these boys are barely over 5’8″. And their wives are no oil paintings. Piss them off and they stay pissed off.


It looked like it would be death by a thousand press conferences, but in the end only half a dozen or so more were needed. And the only man in the whole press room who didn’t seem to see it coming was Louis, as he found himself hoisted by his own gobby petard.

They stripped him bare. Even media new-boy Paul Scholes couldn’t help sticking the oar in at every opportunity. “Boring” this, “overly defensive” that. I’ll bet van Gaal wishes he’d hidden his inhaler.

Van Gaal very quickly found that power is an illusion. It resides only where men believe it to. Once the illusion’s gone, you’re no longer a General. You’re just a man wearing a silly hat. And then very quickly someone will take that hat off you.


The hunt starts for United’s fifth manager in three years. For what it’s worth, I still think Woodward was on the right lines when he opted for van Gaal. He just needs to find another erratic genius who’s a bit more savvy with the media. That bit more charming with the quotes and the throwaway lines, but still with a glittering CV to back it up. A special one, perhaps, who, like Fergie himself, hails from a country at the arse-end of Western Europe.

Manchester United set themselves back half a decade when Bobby “scruples” Charlton refused to give his papal blessing to the signing of Mourinho the first time around. Take the high road again and United may find themselves in the wilderness for good deal longer to come. Few would argue that Mourinho’s good character has improved since his previous application failed on such grounds, but United’s need is now even greater than before. Over to Mr Charlton again, then. What price your morals, Sir Bobby?

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If anyone questioned his authority, van Gaal wouldn’t hesitate to show them his lunchbox.

Cleats of rage

4 Jan

Do you know what happens when a great white shark is taken into captivity? I’ll tell you exactly what happens. It dies.

It refuses to countenance life as a prisoner and voluntarily cashes in its chips, electing starvation as the honourable option. Oliver Twist might have begged for more, but you won’t catch a great white sacrificing himself on the altar of dignity. You can shove your gruel up your arse, mate. “I might leave in a body bag, but never in cuffs” was a line written by the rapper Eminem, but it could as easily have been penned by Jaws, or Bruce from Finding Nemo.

It’s a mindset. And a good one, at that. These toothy killers of the deep need to be on the edge. They need the bother; the hustle bustle. And if that means orphaning a few baby seals along the way, so be it. Life is a struggle, sure, but without the struggle, life is nothing at all.


If you chucked Diego Costa some dead antelope meat, he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’d rather go hungry. Costa is another who knows that dinner needs to be blissfully roaming around the plains until shortly before the bell rings and the table laid. It’s just not satisfying otherwise. Costa eats what he kills. No more, no less.


This perpetual state of heightened aggression is not exactly buried deep within Costa’s layers. A glance at the tall Sergipano gives you a pretty good impression. The face that looks like sad marzipan. The stare that suggests he’s buried a thousand men and will bury a thousand more. Diego knows there’s only one person you can trust in life. And he knows you’ll get further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.

In order to survive in the footballing jungle, Costa needs to turn everything into a dust-up. Whether it’s two minutes in, five minutes in, or a mere 24 seconds, as was the case in November’s game against Dynamo Kiev. Aggro is his tin of spinach. A heated nose-to-nose exchange his form of battle readyment.


Football has asked the question before whether this level of aggression helps or hinders. Much was made of Wayne Rooney’s anger in his earlier years. But the distinction between Rooney and Costa is crisp. Rooney’s anger was always borne out of frustration, and usually with himself at that. Costa’s vexations are targeted and purposeful. The crafty beggar knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s as leading as an invitation up for coffee.

Alan Shearer likes to tell us that Costa should just concentrate on scoring goals, but it isn’t as simple as that. He’ll only score them if he can get the synapses firing optimally. Costa is a good player, but on natural talent alone, not a great player. He has no one great virtue other than a hyper-evolved ability to get on a centre-back’s wick. Recognising this unique talent, Costa was left with a Faustian choice: play like an angel in Division 2, or play like the devil in the Premiership.


Tantalised by the prospect of the upper echelons, Costa took the red pill and Mephistopheles rewarded. Having never previously gotten past ten league goals his entire career, Costa busted the net 27 times in 2013–14, adding a further eight in Europe. So stark was the transformation that Costa and Atlético almost antagonised their way to a shock European Cup win.

Costa’s ascendancy to one of the most feared strikers in Europe offered up a darkly important lesson. He’s teaching us where the new edge lies in 21st century sport. Tactics begets nutrition; nutrition begets sports science; sports science begets, well, this. An insight into what it really means to give everything for the cause. If we truly want to be winners, then perhaps it behooves us all to jam a thumb up the centre half’s’ backside and call his wife a slag, all in the name of being all we can be?


Getting up the noses of defenders was going swimmingly for Diego. And so, like all the best entrepreneurs, he expanded his remit. He went global. Provoking individuals was no longer enough, though. In order to summon that extra ten per cent in the international sphere, Costa realised it would be necessary to disaffect an entire nation…

Native Brazilians had turned out for other countries before. But only ever out of a desire to play some kind of international football of any description. In the manner that an Englishman might stoop to playing for Scotland or one of the Irelands. One simply does not refuse the gold and green shirt, in the way that one simply does not refuse the papacy, or the chance to pull the trigger on June Sarpong.

This didn’t stop Costa turning his back on the Selecão, though (albeit, for maximum effect, not before he hadn’t already turned out for them twice). As a result of Costa’s grand deceit, Brazil were thrust headlong into hosting a World Cup with Fred and Jô leading the line. It was bizarrely improper, and Brazilians were understandably furious. Their form-hitting stunner had jilted them on the eve of the prom, with only a pair of double-baggers waiting in the wings.


The trail of feisty destruction mattered little to Diego. His star just kept getting brighter. A dream transfer to Chelsea followed post-World Cup and the goals kept flowing, buoyed as they were by stamps, arguments and an insistence on taunting Seamus Coleman following an own goal.

The league title was effectively won by March, with Costa 20 goals to the good in a mere 26 games. The old hamstrings played up from time to time, but that hardly seemed to matter, as Costa had once again managed to persuade every defence in the land to chase him rather than the ball.


Costa had broken the machine. He’d found the special sauce. While everyone else was being propelled around by the fairground ride, Costa was actually flying.

Alas, nobody cheats gravity forever, and Costa eventually flew too close to the sun.

The danger was always what would happen if people stopped rising to his antics. A nagging question mark hung latent in the air: if Diego can’t get the juices flowing by instigating personal tête-à-têtes, how will he summon his extra ten per cent?

Worst fears are now unfolding. It takes two people to fight over a jumper, and Costa is being repeatedly left holding both sleeves. His kryptonite has become too obvious, he can’t get a rise out of a centre-back for love nor money. There’s only so many times you can urinate in the three bears’ porridge before Daddy Bear turns around and says: “you know what, you can just have that bowl of porridge. You’ve clearly got mental problems.”


The goals have dried up. Chelsea are awful. Damned by showing too much of his hand, Costa now needs to prove to the world that he has a bastard-free ninety minutes of a decent standard in him.

An ability to evolve has always been crucial. Alan Shearer’s career managed to survive two major knee and angle surgeries, each time revising his skill-set to remain prosperous. When Michael Jordan returned to basketball, aged 32, he developed the game’s most lethal fade-away jump-shot to combat his loss of explosiveness. Most recently, when the well of coherent policy ran dry, canny old Donald Trump fell back on rampant Islamophobia to keep the polls purring. The greats adapt, that’s why they’re great.

The brief is now for Costa to find a way back to the top table. He’s a hunter, but he hasn’t had many meals lately. Time to sharpen the teeth and work out how to start killing again.


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Have some bloody self-respect, man.

Have some bloody self-respect, man.

The quiet revolutionaries

25 Dec

Revolutions come in all shapes and sizes. For every firebrand trying to overthrow communism, another revolutionary is simply looking to move to online grocery shopping. Not all are garrulous affairs.

In fact, a revolution has taken place in English football that you probably didn’t even notice. Like Russian tanks sneaking into Crimea at the dead of night, Southampton and Swansea have very quietly changed the face of top-flight English football.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say they have completed a revolution. They represent the bookend of a transformation that began some twenty years previously, when a gangly gentleman from Alsace took the reins at Arsenal. Now, thanks to Southampton and Swansea, everyone plays the right way.


For newly promoted sides, there used to be one way and one way only of surviving in the premier league: playing ugly. Whereas teams at the top end of the table would boldly lock horns in a battle of wits and beauty, a different lexicon takes hold at the bottom. You’re in a dogfight, down here, my friend. A scrap. A shitty and unpleasant scuffle with the other have-nots. During a given ninety minutes, the very last thing you would want was for a game of football to break out.

Anyone that tried something else seemingly failed. You could trace as far back as Swindon in ’94-95. Buoyed by Glen Hoddle’s stylish promotion-winning side, John Gorman took over the reins and continued to insist the ball be kept at ground level wherever possible. A hundred goals conceded later – still a premier league record – and Swindon were promptly returned to the second tier.

The thread was seamless: from Steve Coppell to Roberto Martinez, via Brian McDermott. Promoted teams led by young managers lacking the requisite cynicism, whose attractive football gained admirers but not points. The accepted wisdom was you needed an Allardyce, a Pulis or – God help you – a Mick McCarthy figure at the helm; a set of blood and thunder stabilisers on which to build a platform to safety.

Playing out from the back was the private healthcare of premier league football. A luxury you might partake in if you could afford, if you were Spurs perhaps, but by no means an option for everyone. Now Swansea and Southampton, the Attlee and Bevin of the English game, have made possession football available to all. Free at the point of care.


It was Swansea that lit the touch paper. Watching them in the 2011 play-offs was something to behold. Football in the Championship typically resembles a teenage boy losing his virginity: lots of positive thrashing around – and by God some willing running – but technically very poor. You could obscure the faces and kits in a Championship game and still tell in under 20 seconds that this was by no means La Liga you had tuned into.

Then along came Swansea, glorious Swansea, and their balletic dismantling of Reading in the end of season shoot-out. It was breath-taking for its sheer incongruity, reminiscent of Princess Di that time she walked among the lepers. Split centre-backs, unhurried play, always an option behind and to the side. A young Ashley Williams looking like a Valleys Beckenbauer. If they had worn red and blue stripes and displayed a suffocatingly virtuous attitude, you would have sworn you were watching Barcelona.

Premier league survival was effortless. A League Cup followed. Managers came and went at the Liberty Stadium but the model stays the same. The greatest compliment I can pay Swansea is that their players never look as good once they leave. Similar to Brian Clough’s Forest teams of the late-80’s, the star-turns would leave for big money only for suitors to realise they had bought the player but, crucially, not the system behind the player.


Buoyed by Swansea’s re-writing of the rulebook, Southampton took the baton and ran with it. Having dispensed with the Clive Woodward nonsense, Southampton went about remodelling themselves as the template for a modern, progressive club. Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino laid the groundwork, with a heavy emphasis on quick short passes, high pressing and a killer youth system. The club hot-footed it up the pyramid in style. In fact, both Saints and Swans are so pleasing on the eye that it’s hard to believe it was only five and eight years ago respectively that these teams were in the third tier. Alas, the New Way was tested to its fullest on the south coast when the inevitable player exodus began…

Southampton found themselves in a terrible mess in the summer of 2014, just as Ronald Koeman was taking over the reins. The previous season’s 8th place finish couldn’t stop the scramble for the exit when the bigger clubs came knocking. First Rickie Lambert tip-toed out the door. Then Luke Shaw. Then the captain, Adam Lallana. Then Dejan Lovren. Then Calum Chambers. It was a ransacking. Southampton were robbed of so much dignity they began to resemble a Danny Dyer movie. All the good work of the previous four years seemingly gone in a summer.

The point was made clear by Koeman himself when, in a charming art-house turn, he tweeted a picture of an empty training ground. Fitting, perhaps, that we have at the heart of this quiet revolution a man so gifted in tasteful symbolism.

There wasn’t a man, woman or fourth official alive who foresaw how well Koeman would cope. Fourth at Christmas, rising to third in the New Year, and a Manager of the Year award that only went begging when Mourinho flashed his ankles at the voting panel. The tantalising possibility as late as April that the Saints might be playing Champions League football almost made me want to forgive Koeman for the David Platt incident. And did I not like that David Platt incident. Sense quickly prevailed, but Koeman’s impact was there for all to see.


Of course, we’ve had teams that play good football before. But now it’s a pre-requisite; whether you’re 1st or 20th, Arsenal or Stoke. “Get rid of it!” used to be the fraught instruction from the terraces. Fans now mock opposition players with cries of “HOOF!” when they’re panicked into clearing their lines. If proof were needed that the times are a-changing, look no further than Sam “Windows 10” Allardyce. Formerly an up-and-under merchant of the first order, Big Samuel now criticises Van Gaal’s Manchester United for their long-ball tactics. This is 2016, baby.


It takes a boldness to play possession football. The easiest thing in the world is to smash it downfield, and doubly so when the chips are down. A get-out clause not helped by pundits’ gleeful obsession with highlighting errors when centre-backs try to play out from the back. Circle the defender all you like, Alan, but it would be nice if Match of the Day critically assessed the odd series of possession-ceding long clearances every once in a while too, because that’s basically the quid pro quo. Less compelling television, perhaps, but a useful aide memoir at the Euros this summer, when the English national team will likely find themselves under continual pressure against the big beasts.


In the 1966 World Cup final, Bobby Charlton was closed down in an average of 8 seconds every time he had the ball. By 1998, with Zinedine Zidane, it was down to just two seconds. Football continues on an evolutionary march, with space the last frontier and possession its elixir. Southampton and Swansea are doing a fine job of surfing the tectonic plates and not letting the continent drift out of sight.

According to Xavi, Barcelona practice “rondos” (piggy in the middle) all day long at La Masia. Ball retention is pretty all they do, apparently (“rondos, rondos, rondos… every single day”), and it shows. Master that and the opposition are toothless. Let’s hope English teams continue to take note and try to keep pace. It won’t be much fun if we’re the ones left forever chasing in the middle.

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Joining the revolution couldn’t be easier. Simply attach this handy Mick McCarthy cut-out mask and apply for your nearest Director of Football position.