Tuesday 16 July 2024

‘One more’ lonely night: Spain 2 England 1. Euro ‘24 Final

 I've already back-tracked on unflattering comments I made towards Alvaro Morata in these pages, so let me now add Marc Cucurella to that list. From the first game Spain played against Croatia at the European Championships that they have just won so wonderfully, M to the C has performed like the little shaggy-haired irritant who impressed at Brighton rather than the cartoonish figure of fun that Chelsea have shaped him into. He has harried and bitten and invaded the personal space of would-be attackers like my nine year old boy trying to get the plastic ball off me in the corner of the living room. Then, in the 84th minute of the Final against England in Berlin, just when we'd forgotten he could cross the halfway line, he produced the match-winning ball for Oyazarbal (on for Morata).

Of course, it could so easily not have been the match-winning cross, with Declan Rice's header a minute or so later forcing Unai Simon into a save, followed by Marc Guehi’s effort being cleared off the line by Dani Olmo, but that ending wasn't used, and we are left with a Chelsea man's 'assist' cancelling out a Chelsea man's equaliser. It’s not all fairytales in football.

You don't need to be told these details, of course, it's likely that if you’re reading this, you watched, although nothing can ever be ruled out entirely, which is why people gave England a chance of winning, or saw it written in the stars: Yes ok, Spain may have won six games out of six in this tournament, including against the hosts and the World Cup runners up, equalling France's 1984 record to boot, but the Three Lions had done a bicycle kick in the 95th minute to level with Slovakia, beat the Swizz on pens and then rinsed the Dutch who'd finished 3rd out of 4 in their group in minute 90. What part of destiny don't you understand?

There are football lovers and there are those who don't give a shit about that sort of thing, generally known as supporters of the other team, and there's nothing wrong in that; nobody with any credibility is in it for the half and half scarves. That said, it feels fitting that Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams combined to provide the opening goal, and that both should play prominent roles. Yamal probably should have scored on his left foot to make it 2-0, but from infield he played in Morata to miss from close range (not that he's there to score goals, I hatsen to add) and Williams played in Olmo, who scuffed his shot wide just after the first goal.

For all that, when sub Cole Palmer sidefooted in from distance in the 73rd minute, there seemed, for a brief while after, maybe as brief as a minute, that this whole Coming Home scam might be legit. The boy wonder had done it thanks to that most English of things, an accidental plan. When Jude Bellingham lost the ball in his own half and dived in rashly and too late to stop sub Martin Zubimendi (more on him later) marauding through the English midfield, he can't surely have been thinking of the bigger picture, and yet Who Else perhaps could have helped engineer the gap that then appeared due to his own failings as Zubimendi advanced upfield and played an imperfect ball to Oyazarbal that ended with Jordan Pickford rolling the ball into the new space, where Palmer played in Bukayo Saka, who laid it into the box for Who Else to lay it back for the on-running Palmer to pick out the heel of the unfortunate Zubimendi on it's way to the net past Simon?

Qualitee, mate. Proper. Coming home, bruv, I tell ya.    

This England team play in ‘moments’ they said. Southgate has used the Portugal model of 2016 and the French of 2018, essentially stay in the game and bank on a wonder from one of the wonders.  Our boys are too knackered to play as freely as they did during the season, no matter what football blokes say about professional athletes not being allowed to be tired, the money they’re on. A very English mentality. Unfortunately, it’s also very English not to keep the ball very well - even with the players we have now. Moan about Grealish not being picked for the squad all you like, it’s a cultural problem. Portugal were underwhelming champions, it was said, but they could keep the ball and that must give you a better chance. 

Perhaps one of those ‘moments’ was Rodri’s withdrawal at half-time, the player who ‘doesn’t lose’ (unless it’s to Spain’s Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter final and Manchester United in the FA Cup Final) unseen in the tunnel as the players re-emerged for the second half while defensive midfielder Zubimendi waited on the touch line, stripped for action. Initial intel was that it was centre half, Aymeric Laporte, Rodri’s former team mate, who had been subbed, but he was then picked out of the line ups by chief witness Lineker, at which point speculation and excitement in the pitch studio mounted as Rodri remained unsighted. There were shades here of the Ronaldo is-he, isn’t he? drama before the 1998 World Cup Final, not as sensational maybe, but potentially a “psychological blow” for Spain, as Ferdinand remarked. My mind raced to the Rooney documentary re-tracing Euro 2004, Michael Owen describing the mental toll of seeing your most influential player leaving the field - and possibly the tournament - as Wayne Rooney did against Portugal in the quarter final that year.

This, though, was Spain, and though they themselves have their own history with fragility, it turned out that Zubimendi was a better replacement for Ronaldo than, well, Ronaldo and certainly Darius Vassell for Rooney. Williams’ goal came just two minutes after the restart. 

And despite the sub’s unwitting contribution to England’s equaliser, it was the other sub who ensured that Spain became the first country to win four European Championships, which is quite remarkable given the sense of underachievement over so many decades, and remarkable too, that it isn’t Germany. 

As for England, they are the first country to lose successive European Championship finals - a tremendous upturn in achievement considering the pre-Southgate era 2016 humbling by Iceland in France. In two years time, it will be coming home again of course, which will be the ‘centenary’ World Cup played in all the world (FIFA is for everyone except Greta Thumberg) but more importantly marks 60 years of hurt, the 30th birthday of 30 Years of Hurt. And if it doesn’t come home for some unfathomable reason then, then it will be at the next Euros, when it’s actually at home already (along with other British Isles nations - do they all get to qualify?) and it will be 60 years since Sweet Caroline was released.*


*Fact-check that if you must, but I’d question why somebody would make that up. 


Saturday 13 July 2024

Euro 24 Final preview: Matadors vs Bull-dogs

 Wednesday afternoon, the day of the England-Netherlands semi-final, and I hear Three Lions for the first time this whole tournament. Can’t complain about that, some people don’t get through the first week of December without avoiding WHAM’s Last Christmas (which I’d much rather hear.)

My local supermarket broke the spell, and then they played Being Boring by Pet Shop Boys, which made we wonder if there was an England theme going on, a thought not dispelled by the next song being WHAM’s (again) Club Tropicana, which was Gareth Southgate’s contribution to the pop-titles-in-the-interview game that the World Cup squad in 1998 secretly teased the TV media with.

Apparently, they weren’t as boring against the Dutch while I busied myself dropping off and collecting my daughter from Dance and lent a hand to the missus who was packing my eldest son’s bags for his Duke of Edinburgh trip. She then ironed my shirt and trousers for my new job away-day in the morning and made tacos, which we had round the table while the match was on (but not on.) I wasn’t compelled to make  any comments. The previous night, I got to watch Spain-France, and that’s all that mattered. Steve Wilson and Jermaine Jenas agreed in the first half that they could watch that match all night, and already didn’t want it to end. It’s unusual to hear that said during a game involving France, but the Spanish are so good, so watchable, so pleasantly surprising throughout this tournament, that even the presence of a Didier Deschamps team yet to concede in open play (and not score in open play until taking the lead in this match) couldn’t prevent an entertaining spectacle breaking out. 

Contrary to my previous remarks, Lamine Yamal can score, and not only that, he produced an equaliser that brought a guttural response beyond even the outcome of seeing the youngest goalscorer ever in the Euros. The movement reminded me of David Rocastle’s goal for Arsenal at Manchester United in 1991-92, the way Yamal feinted and fooled Rabiot (who was also foolish enough to broadcast his doubts about him before the game) and then bending a vicious curler in off the post. He’s been a delight this summer, a treasure.

Dani Olmo has been exceptional too, “this kid” as Rio Ferdinand called him, showing a significant progression on his impressive run outs in 2021 (can’t comment on ‘22.) He’s only starting because Pedri was kicked out of the tournament by Toni Kroos in the quarter final, but the two touches to put him in for his winning goal against the French again showed his quality.

Spain dropped off a bit in the second half, tried to manage the game, but were lucky that Mbappe, sans mask, blasted over when dribbling into the box. He’d earlier set up Muani for the goal, and was probably responsible for cover right back Jesus Navas, 38 (22 years senior to the team mate stationed on the same flank) going off just after the hour hobbling, but his best work this summer has been the calling out of the far right party that thankfully haven’t made it to power. In fairness, that would have been his greatest contribution should he have won the Golden Boot.

That Golden Boot honour, for the moment, is between Olmo and Harry Kane. While Olmo has three goals and two ‘assists’ - putting him ahead - Kane added to goals against Denmark and Slovakia with a typical Kane penalty against Netherlands. He’d already got his shot away, over the bar, when the challenge came in, permitting him to roll around on the floor looking at the ref. Even his biggest fan, Danny Murphy, said it was “harsh”. A second fortunate pen for England in two Euros semi finals. I didn’t see the award of the one against France that he put over in the quarter-final of ‘22.

Hopefully Morata will be ok, having been bashed in the knee after the French game by a security guard trying to wrestle the latest pitch invader with selfie intentions. I mocked the ex Chelsea man for his big-game goal scoring unreliability in my last post, and though he did actually blast over against Germany at close range, his job has been to create space and distract defenders. As Ally McCoist co-commentated in that game, Morata is a forward at his best “when running away from the ball”. That doesn’t sound complimentary either, but the captain does invaluable work. Spain’s speed of play should be too much for Ingleterra, subject to nothing out of the ordinary happening, like a sending off. There should have been one for Spain against England in ‘96, the yellow card shown to Aberlardo for going through the back of Shearer seconds in to the game not followed with a second when he cynically impeded Steve Mcmanaman minutes later. This happened before the wrongly ruled out Julio Salinas goal and the wave  of attacks and missed chances from the visitors in the second half. 

If the game on Sunday goes to penalties, England fans, unlike in ‘96, will be in anticipatory mode (as much as excitement can actually come through during these moments.) The penalties against the Swiss have been by far the most assured, competent activity by Southgate’s players in Germany. Seemingly nerveless executions by Palmer, Toney, Bellingham, Saka and Alexander-Arnold meant that Akanji’s  fluffed attempt was decisive. His season began (?) with an own goal/deflected mishap in the Community Shield to ensure a shoot-out that his Man City team lost, and has now ended with this. Even Kane didn’t need to get involved in the five out of five, having gone off in extra time after falling over Southgate in the dugout.

Just before the Eng-Swi shoot-out started, Gary Lineker, rebel of the Beeb, said - in contrast to Rio Ferdinand’s unhappy experience of taking a penalty in these situations - that he enjoyed going up to take one as it showed that you’ve “got a pair.” I’m all for Lineker’s calling out of Tory policy/Nazism (when they were in poweršŸ¤­) but this was the latest comment of his that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the presentation aspect. The previous one had come just the night before, and again from a Ferdinand observation, as Ronaldo was having both legs massaged during the Portugal team huddle just before extra time. 

“Thank goodness he’s not having a third one massaged!” Lineker joked.

Going back a couple of years, ‘Links’ reacted saucily on Match of The Day after Alan Shearer had praised a goalkeeper for “making himself big.”

“Well, we all like to do that, don’t we!”

It’s a bit like the time Lineker interviewed someone - Teddy Sheringham, maybe, or Chris Waddle - on Football Focus after being called “a jellyfish” by Vinnie Jones following criticism of the Wimbledon hard man-turned actor, and the set being interrupted by an animated jellyfish floating along the screen. A bit unexpected and a bit strange. Perhaps Lineker forgets he’s not on the late-night Euros podcast, during which he described England-Denmark  as “shit”. Lucky for him, there was no such product during Euro 88, when it was the tabloids alone advertising Bobby Robson watched instead of Mickey Mouse ones.

So, Sunday, a repeat of the women’s World Cup Final last summer. It would also be a bit Lineker to say ‘and that was a pretty quiet affair, I seem to recall!’ During the immediate aftermath of the Dutch game, Southgate held one finger up to the England fans - but not in response to the cups of water thrown at him in the group stage. ‘One more’ left, he was saying, a bit like Steve McMahon at Anfield in May 1989šŸ¤­, but also perhaps as a tribute to 1998’s World Cup yob-anthem Vindaloo, ‘We’re-gonna-score-one-more-than-you’ (and we also like inauthentic curry that brings you in a sweat but is quality for the banter.)

After the draw against Switzerland, Southgate claimed that his team were “showing the characteristics of teams who win tournaments’, which presumably referred to their ability to equalise. In the semi they went one better, coming from behind (for the third game in succession) to win 2-1 without extra time (for the first time in two games), sub Ollie Watkins, on for Kane, turning and firing past Verbruggen. 

“Teams who win tournaments grow into them!”, boomed Guy Mowbray, who seems to lose his mind when England win knockout games. This theory seems to have been true of the ‘66 World Cup win, when an attritional 0-0 draw with Uruguay was followed by the ‘we want goals’ game against Mexico, where that restless, juvenile section of the crowd had to make do with one, a beauty, scored by Bobby Charlton. France were then felled and the ‘animals’ behaviour of Argentina overcome in the quarter final, setting up a semi with Portugal, Charlton scoring two and Eusebio a late penalty in a 2-1 win. Euro ‘20-21 is perhaps more relevant to today, a “bright first twenty minutes” according to a neighbour against Croatia, a flat 0-0 with Scotland and then a tight 1-0 against Czech Rep (as was) most memorable for ITV commentator Sam Matterface saying that he didn’t know there was a second group stage in the ‘82 World Cup in Spain. The first knockout game was so memorable I can’t remember it, unless this was the Germany 2-0, in which case I can’t remember the quarter final, but do know that Denmark took the lead in the semi with a great free kick, and that England won with the generous penalty, manufactured by Raheem Sterling and ballsed up by Kane, before putting in the rebound. 

Whilst England look ahead to their first Final outside of England, Spain will know they have been the best team, and there is no suggestion that they will wither into regression now. That is, though, in a way, likely, as the Final is often a cagey, static affair, but normally still, the greater momentum and the better story wins out anyway. 

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Mens European Championships 2024: Pre-Quarter-Finals review

Right, that's the small talk down, now let's get on down to business. I have a bit of time to cover these Championships, so let's pretend nothing of any significance has happened these last two weeks in Germany.

Maybe there is no act of deception to play out, actually: Scotland out in the first round again when there was a feeling they might not do that this time. Albania out when, between the 24th second and the 13th minute, we might have had Greece on our hands. England not living up to their latest Golden Generation tag, through to the last 16 (just!) but performances encapsulated by Harry Kane of Leicester City or Leyton Orient. Clive Tyldesley sarcy with a double dash of irritating, Ally McCoist telling his commentator that they have a “fair and valid point”, Romelu Lukaku fluffing it up like an amateur, taking other people’s goals and making them offside; the visible reluctance in Kevin De Bruyne’s eyes to pass to him. Alan Shearer not listening to history, amazed by Italy’s limp 2-0 defeat to the accomplished Swizz in the first knockout round, “to go from there [2021} to now”, as if the Azzuri have never before disappointed in the defence of a title, or indeed even failed to qualify for the tournament immediately after. 

There have been a few surprises for me, though, a 16 year old in the Spanish team for one. And not just a novelty entrant from the bench barely more involved than Theo Walcott in Sven Goran Eriksson's 2006 England squad, but a fully-fledged first team player, braces in the teeth, national equivalent of GCSE's results in, toying with defences like Glenn Helder on his Premier league debut (Steve Chettle is still rocking in a corner.) People say there are no surprises anymore when it comes to international football (Kevin Keegan said it at least, during the World Cup of '98) but to those of us who don't have sport subscription channels, it's like it's 1990. Even the birth of Football Italia in '92 (?) demystified things a bit, but without even the Champions League and other monstrosities sold to the highest bidder, it's the World Cups (apart from those in Qatar; in fact any while Infantino is still in charge of FIFA) and Euros doing the introductions for me. 

Lamine Yamal's inswinging arch of a ball for Nico Williams to head in against Georgia in the last 16 was a thrill to see, as was Williams' feint past the defender and finish for the third. These are two great-to-watch wingers helping make Spain exciting like many said they weren't in 2012 particularly, with their elite-level hypnotism over both opponents and some viewers. Barcelona’s Yamal takes the free kicks too, in fact the only thing he can’t seem to do is score. He’ll be the youngest player ever to score in European Championship history, but his efforts against Croatia, and particularly Georgia, who they hounded in the last twenty minutes and could have scored 8 against, suggests that is a record he might not take. 

Real Sociedad's Williams is accomplished in the goal scoring art, but most delightfully of all he is a dribbler! A renaissance artist. While Yamal bamboozles with tricks on on the right, Williams slides past them on the left. Two young, talented Spaniards of colour, which seems very important. With Rodri and Pedri and Fabian Ruiz behind them, it might not matter that Alvaro Morata is the best they've got up front, playing the Serginho/Lukaku role. That's probably a bit unfair on Morata, but you wouldn't trust him to score a game-winning chance against Germany tomorrow. Or would you? He scored the winner for Atletico Madrid against Real last season.

ITV pundit Gaizka Mendieta has concerns over the defence (naturally, given Marc Cucurella is part of it), which Germany could exploit. Nonetheless, it’s a hotly anticipated last eight tie that is clearly too soon in the making. A year ago, a home tournament was looking like a humbling prospect for Hansi Flick’s team, but now under Julian Nagelsman (in buttoned-up to the top match day shirt) they are on track to become the first host winners since France in ‘84. The team’s progress may be scripted through Kai Havertz, mocked at club level when beginning the season at Arsenal, played at left back for country, but now one of the most dangerous players in Europe, his talent and edge and cunning now applied. Antonio Rudiger is their stand-out defender. The former Chelsea, now Real Madrid man (he's won the Champions League with both) stands out for other reasons to a disturbing growth of new Germany thinking, and as usual he is expected, and does, take the vile abuse and calls for expulsion from the national side on the grounds he is a muslim (like Ozil is) with grace.   

An opening night 5-1 thrashing of Scotland looked impressive, but how much of this was down to the opponents, people said, a question I found difficult to answer watching the late-night highlights through stinging eyes. Bayern’s Jamal Musiala (like Havertz and Rudiger, ex Chelsea) hit his stride against Hungary, before the customary balloon-bursting third game draw for the already qualified. The fizz was evident enough, although it could have gone flat against the Danish in the last 16, Crystal Palace’s Andersen having a header chalked off for a VAR boot-size-dependent special, and then conceding a penalty for the crime of having an arm. Havertz tucked away the pen and Musiala got a second to finish them off in a reverse score line of the ‘92 Final. The Danish manager showed his mobile phone to a tv interviewer afterwards to depict the VAR controversies, as if he didn’t know the game had been on telly.

Like Germany v Argentina in the 2010 World Cup, Germany-Spain is too soon for me. I remember, even as a 9 year old watching only my second international tournament, France ‘84 (albeit - as coverage was limited in England after we failed to qualify - only the Final and one semi-final live; I like to think that I was seeing France-Portugal unfold as it happened, Dad inviting me in from the stairs to be in on one of the most exciting games in history) being amazed that it was the Spanish who’d got through against West Germany in effectively a group stage decider. My understanding of the losers as a world force must have been hard-wired even then (and with successive appearances in the next two World Cup Finals and a semi final and Final showing in the next two Euros, I hadn’t seen anything yet.) 

Spain’s 1-0 win in the 2008 Final wasn’t so much of a surprise by the time that match came around. David Villa’s hat trick in a 4-0 win against Sweden in the first game of the tournament in Switzerland and Austria would have been written off as yet another false dawn to anyone who’d been aware of history since 1964 (or, equally, ‘84), while Germany would have been fancied again two years after their return to prominence with a World Cup semi final on home soil. Their hosting of that tournament, rather like now, might have seemed ill-timed, but the rebuild after a dip in fortunes (just the one European championship win and World Cup Final appearance in the last ten years) concluded with a semi-final against Italy, only going a goal behind in the last few minutes of extra time and then conceding another on the break. Still, though, there was an unconvincing nature on their way to the Final in ‘08, particularly at the back with Metzelder and Mertesacker while the talisman Michael Ballack mirrored their unpredictably. Spain meanwhile, under Luis Aragones, began to make people wonder if the decades of underachievement were about to come to an end, notably when they overcame Italy in a quarter final penalty shoot out. They’d lost 3-1 to France in an equivalent game at the World Cup in Germany, but had seemingly cleared a significant barrier by defeating the World Champions. A semi-final against a dynamic Russian team led by Andrew Arshavin appeared to represent a challenging path back to their first Final in 24 years, but an inspired Cesc Fabregas was part of a sound 3-0 win. The Final was won by Fernando Torres’ goal, shrugging off Philip Lahn to score past Jens Lehman. And so began the first of Spain’s three-in-a-row domination. 

In the middle one, Carles Puyol’s header from a corner separated the teams in the 2010 World Cup semi-final in South Africa, while in Poland and Ukraine two years later at the Euros, only Italy prevented a repeat of the Euro 2008 Final, beating Germany 2-1, enabling them to lose 4-0 to Spain in the Final. Just as Spain's straglehold over the rest of the world came to a shuddering halt in Brazil 2014, Germany reasserted their trophy-winning prowess, beating Arentina 1-0 in Rio. A sustained camapign of inclusion, widening the pool for potential future stars and exploiting the advantages of immigration (such as with, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedeira) restored them to their rightful position as Europe and world's best.

Yet, Germany didn't quite take-off in the way that Spain did in their absence at the top of the game. France and Portugal winning the next two tournaments, and rather, both have faced a struggle to get back. Spain's mision to relace Xavi and Iniesta and Busquets and Silva was always going to be marked impossible, while Germany's triumph in Brazil seemed to overwhelm them mentally, the reverse progress/anonymity of their provider and scorer that night, Andre Schurrle and Marion Gotze, emblemic of their deterioration. Group stage exits in Russia '18 and in Qatar '22 followed,  and though there wasa semi-final defeat to France in 2016, they went out to England at Wembley in 2021 underwhelmingly. 

Both now find themselves on an upward curve again as they prepare to meet in Stuttgart, running into form at the right time (Spain lost to Scotland in the qualifiers) under new coaches Nagelsman and Luis De Le Fuente. The latter was caught up in the Luis Rubiales drama after the women's victory in the World Cup in Australia last summer, expressing regret at applauding the disgraced Football Federation president (albeit after Rubiales was suspended), but may now be on track to lead his country to the heights reached by the women's team. 

Did I mention France and Portugal earlier? They meet in the other quarter final tomorrow, a perhaps more historic meeting than Spain-Germany even. '84's semi-final will never be beaten, and though France also won the last four clash in 2000 with the last kick of the game, the rematch was a diluted tribute, Zidane's bent arm in the air celebration following the Silver Goal penalty a homage to Platini's last-gasp winner 16 years before. Portugal gained revenge and some in 2016, berating the hosts in their own country, despite Ronaldo - who didn't play in '84 or 2000 (but its worth checking) going off injured in the first half.  Ronaldo's tears later turned to joy, unlike after the 2004 Final defat to Greece in his own country, while the breakdown in these Euros in Germany came during the break for Extra time after his second half penalty was saved by Solvenia's Jan Oblek, the still outstanding Atletico Madrid goalkeeper.  His desperation to score another goal at this level was painfully clear by the manic expressions before every free kick (which have become a Roberto Carlos tribute act) and the solemn reactions to every missed attempt. 890 club and country goals behind him, including 130 to top the all-time international scoring charts and he still needs one more. He tries to score direct from every set-piece, even from his own six-yard box, apart from corners because he wants to head those in, except he can't because the spring or the timing is off. Goals are addictive - scoring them made me go giddy until I was 36 when I deservedly busted my knee trying to be a tough man all of a sudden. But why is he still out there, missing every ball? An esteemed journalist suggested that the reason he unexpectedly laid on a goal for Bruno Fernandes in the group stage was to become the record assist breaker in the competition. The counter argument is that being the record holder proves that he is aware of orhers. But he’s not assisting the team by being a fixture in it. How much do they need him, really? Does coach Roberto Martinez have any say over this? Will an injury such as in the ‘16 Final - when he was still great - come to their rescue?

On that note, how much do we really need France? A controversial question of course, but not so when talking about international football. They’re like the musical equivalent of that Mary J Blige song Family Affair, which you think’s going to get good any second but just perpetually flatlines. Yes, their record is impressive, 3 finals in 8 years, but they are very much in Didier Deschamps image. When Kylian Mbappe broke his nose in their opening game, no blood was evident, for the whole team is as cold as water (carrying.) I have admired Mbappe's off-pitch work, which with fellow striker Marcus Thuram has been to speak out against the pervading far-right Le Penist party that is genuinely threatening Emmanuel Macron's position.  I'm happy to put Mbappe's outgoing PSG connections to one side to allow his messaging. The majority in the French team is one of players of colour, and the white forward, Antoine Griezmann- World Cup winner and top scorer at Euro 16 - has a father whose family migrated from Germany, while his mother is of Portuguese descent. So perhaps we do need the France team, hopefully to show (or be allowed to show) their full potential. With Mbappe up front and William Saliba at the back, the foundation isn't bad at all.

England v Switzerland is a repeat of their first game in '96, when the home side's tournament began as it would end, an Alan Shearer goal in a one-all draw (before the extra time and penalties etc...) and the 3-0 Wayne Rooney-inspired group game in 2004. The first of those outcomes appears more likely, with the Swizz looking more assured and more of a collective, which is quite staggering given the quality of England's players. I thought a Bellingham-inspired England would give them a convincing case for a tournament triumph here, more so than the Golden Gen bunch, which when you look at them, particularly in that 2004 Euros, seemed to have all the ingredients. It was just held back by the Englishness. And maybe that's still the case now.

Netherlands-Turkey is perhaps the tie of the two unlikeliest winners, but there's top Premier league quality in that Dutch back four (a ready Jurrien Timber might have made if four) behind Brighton's Bert Verbruggen (who I thought was Belgian) and of course they did alright the last time they played a Euros in (West) Germany. The scorer of their semi final pen against the hosts that night is now in the dugout, it’s just a surprise to see that Ronald Koeman has swapped his face for Jon Voight’s, like in Mission Impossible. 

Turkey? Can’t say I have been paying much attention, though they did score two cracking goals in their first game, especially from another young star in the making, Arda Guler, 19 of Real Madrid. Maybe the European champions will learn from the Martin Odegaard situation and stay with him. They will argue that they know what they’re doing, with Bellingham and Kroos (possibly about to play his final ever professional match) and Modric, I suppose. 

Hope you enjoy the quarter finals when they come. 

Tuesday 25 June 2024

Super Kev

 Kevin Campbell’s left foot volley, lodged into the top left hand corner of the goal at the Clock End past a full-stretch Nigel Martyn, seemed, from my line of sight from the opposite North Bank end, like the show-stopping conclusion to a then 13 game unbeaten run where each spectacular Arsenal goal had been even better than the next. 

This was spring 1992, and Arsenal were about to beat Crystal Palace 4-1, just as they had the previous September at Selhurst Park (which would form the middle part of a trio of 4-goal showings for the Gunners against their South London rivals, beginning with a 4-0 win at Highbury in February 1991, on their way to the First Division title.) Yet, the picture of the double extravagances over Steve Coppell’s side that finished 3rd in 90-91 doesn’t tell the story of the Gunners’ season as champions.

A month before Selhurst Park, Arsenal had laboured to a final-minute salvage of a 1-1 draw at home to Queens Park Rangers on the opening day, and then the team that had lost only one game in the whole of the previous season lost two in succession, both by 3-1, at Everton and Aston Villa. Manager George Graham had been praised by Jimmy Greaves for not joining in the ‘summer of madness’ that had seen £72 million in transfer fees change hands in the First Division, but the resistance was now questioned (certainly by my friend Llyr.) There had been speculation about Paul Parker, but he went to Manchester United. 

Arsenal stopped the rot with a midweek win at home to a Luton Town that would be relegated that season and not seen again in the top flight for 33 years, but idiosyncrasies in individual performance, such as Lee Dixon’s barmy own goal in a 2-1 home defeat to Coventry City and David Seaman’s strange recklessness in a wild 5-2 win at home to Sheffield United, played to the adage that it was much harder to defend a title than win one, as had been the case in 89-90.

Flashes of that title-winning aura came in away draws at Leeds United (who’d go on to become champions) and Manchester United (who’d come second), as well as at Selhurst Park, where Campbell was, as the saying would become, ‘unplayable’. Playing up front in his first full season as strike partner to Alan Smith, having started for the first time against Palace in the 90-91 February 4-0 and scoring eight times in ten games between then and May, Campbell looked like a player who would terrorise defenders for years. In the yellow chevron shirt, he opened the scoring at Palace, who seemed winded by comments in the week made by chairman Ron Noades about black players not showing up in the winter. In the second half, Campbell produced a perfect cross for Smith’s header for 2-0, scored a third and played in Michael Thomas for the fourth. It was an individual performance of talent, confidence, strength, drag-backs and complete goal-involvement. And one that was perfectly timed as the side approached their first European Cup match for 20 years. 

Against Austria Vienna, Campbell didn’t score but, even with some scruffy shooting and less finesse than at Palace, he harmed the defence all the same and helped Smith score four in a 6-1 home rout. Afterwards, Smith told the press he would  “get thirty goals a season” playing alongside Campbell. Both forward players scored in the 5-2 against Sheffield United on the Saturday, commentator Martin Tyler (as would be heard on the end of season video, 92 for 92 - the title signifying the goals scored that season) responding to Campbell’s strike with “that’s a very popular goal, here [Highbury}”.

The signing that Arsenal made in late September brought a player to the club for whom “popular” would become an understatement, Ian Wright regarded just as affectionately today as when he was tearing up grounds all over the country for what would be six years at the club (the affection is mutual, Wright in his role of television pundit unabashedly referring to Arsenal as “we”. ) Yet, amidst the excitement of the £2,500,000 purchase, there was intrigue over George Graham adding an obviously first-choice striker to a team that had just scored 15 goals in the last 3 games. 

Wright’s goal on his debut at Leicester City in the League Cup and hat-trick at Southampton in a 4-0 win of again champion-like quality pushed the doubts to the side immediately, but there is a strong argument that Wright’s flourishing brilliance had a negative effect on both Smith and Campbell’s careers, while the team’s success became tied up in the new man, going out early in the cups without him, defeat at Coventry City in the League Cup followed by a demoralising exit in the European Cup to  Benfica and, humiliatingly, at Wrexham in the FA Cup (the two clubs having finished at either end of the league table the previous season.) Once the team recovered themselves from a bleak midwinter, the rampant charge to the finish line went to 17 games unbeaten, which would prove a little window of glorious sunshine that George Graham seemed happy to tolerate for the time being. Campbell’s stunning volley against Palace at Highbury wasn’t to be the show-stopping finale to Arsenal’s resurgence; there was a goal from near the halfway line by Anders Limpar in a 4-0 home win against Liverpool, but perhaps more prescient was Wright’s dramatic hat-trick completed against Southampton in the final minute of the final game of not only the season but the North Bank to claim the Golden Boot for the league’s top scorer from Gary Lineker of Spurs. While his second goal was a mesmerising, thrilling charge from the halfway line that evaded two challenges and finished with a rasping drive beyond Tim Flowers, the rather fortunate shinned goal that clinched it came from a bobbled shot by Smith (on as sub, having lost his place in the team during the unbeaten run) while it was Campbell who carried the elated Wright on his back during the immediate celebrations. Although Smith would go to the European Championships in Sweden with Graham Taylor’s England - alongside Paul Merson but not Wright or Campbell - he and Campbell, who scored just nine goals after Wright’s early-season arrival, had become the new star’s servants. And it was Wright, not Smith, who had just scored his 30th goal that season - a tally he would match the following season.

The next two seasons saw a curious mix of ground-breaking trophy success and a dispiriting malaise in the league. Although 4th in 93-94 was a clear uptick on 11th in the inaugural Premier League season of 92-93, the rise and rise of Wright went off in a different track to the growth of the team. The firepower was now consolidated into one player, the production line hampered by the engineered sales of David Rocastle (to Leeds) and the increased marginalisation of Limpar. Campbell did score 19 goals in 93-94, including the decisive header in the Cup Winners Cup semi-final against Paris St.Germain (his big moment typically overshadowed by Wright’s tears that followed a second yellow card of the competition - ruling him out of the Final) and Smith bagged the only goal of the game against Parma to win the trophy, but both players would be out of the club after only one more season. 

Smith’s retirement was enforced due to ankle problems, and had he remained fit would probably have been kept on by new manager Bruce Rioch for the 95-96 season, even with Dennis Bergkamp arriving from Italy to join Wright and John Hartson as the club’s central forwards. Campbell’s move to Nottingham Forest that summer at the age of 25 came five years after he burst onto the scene with a goal on his debut against them in March 89-90. His 59 goals in one season with the youth team had built eager anticipation among the fanbase to see the latest home-grown star come through the production line. Even the most annoying Tottenham fan in my school and football circle (he was quite a specimen) admitted Campbell was “one for the future”.

That future, if regarded in terms of starting in the first team, began in just under a year with the last of the four goals against Palace in February ‘91 and first of the eight in the run-in, as he and another youth product (who would also fall out of favour and be gone by 95-96), midfielder David Hillier, gave the team fresh impetus. 

Next time round against Palace, Campbell was the boss, no longer a prospect but becoming one of the best strikers in the league, an international tournament in the summer to aim for and others in the future, including one on home soil. Who knows if Ron Noades’ comments had any bearing on Wright taking centre stage at Arsenal so soon after. Wright would have left South London for bigger things at some point, and at 28 would have been aware of the urgency around it if he wanted to add some trophies to his career. 

Is it that simple that Campbell’s Arsenal trajectory was punctured by Wright? Or was it that his impact was only ever going to be brief? Did he bulk up and lose mobility, and subsequently confidence? He didn’t seem to hit the ball so cleanly; evidence of that pre-dated Wright, such as in the Austria Vienna game that still benefitted Smith, but the drilled winner past Chelsea’s Kevin Hitchcock to complete a 3-2 comeback a couple of weeks after Wright’s arrival would become rarer. 

Campbell scored on the opening day of the Premier League season at home to Norwich City with a half-fit Wright on the bench, but a two-goal lead was lost in a sensational turnaround for the Canaries, winning 4-2, and the title hopes that followed the 17-game unbeaten run faded in the gloom of other unexpected and dispiriting results. Campbell was shunted wide, sometimes in a three-up-front formation, and as an unprecedented double-domestic cup triumph became the priority, Campbell’s muscularity seemed to be used as a wrecking ball. The double-cup triumph was gloriously secured, channelled through Wright, scorer of nearly half the team’s goals. Campbell managed just four in the league and five in the cups, his season undermined by a series of missed chances. For the supporter, the hope remained that this was just a blip, that the Campbell who first emerged on to the Highbury pitch to such acclaim against Forest, and whose presence ensured that Andrew Cole’s £500,000 transfer to Bristol City barely registered, would return in time.

The 19 goals in 93-94 including two hat-tricks suggest there was something of a return to his former self, but still the explosion and the aura were not quite there, while the misses continued. In the early big game of the season at Manchester United, he failed to put away a good chance to open the scoring and the home team won 1-0 thanks to a stunning Eric Cantona free kick. The nadir, though, came at home to Bolton Wanderers in the defence of the FA Cup, Campbell fluffing chance after chance, one notably gilt-edged, in the 4th round replay defeat (3-1) to the Division One side managed by Rioch. In the North Bank stand, my booing was joined by many others. Graham defended his man, making the point that he didn’t miss on purpose and then, more insightfully, that he didn’t hide either. Graham’s friend and 1970-71 Double-winning captain, Frank Mclintock, stuck up for him too, though he did happen to list several faults in his game before saying “but apart from that…”. But when physio Gary Lewis explained Campbell’s spell out of the team as a back injury, adding “with backs, you can’t take chances”, there was an accidental punchline, 

One display at Torino, in Wright’s absence as the team navigated a goalless first-leg draw in the Cup Winners Cup quarter final, was perhaps Campbell’s most abject display, and yet there he was in the next round to score the goal that put Arsenal in the Final, and with it a place up front with Smith again, his old strike partner the goal hero this time.

For a brief while, 94-95 seemed as if Campbell and the team might rekindle the title credentials of old; with a European trophy in the cabinet, and new signing Stefan Schwartz patrolling the midfield in front of the famous back five, even a match atmosphere of near terrace-quality surrounded an opening day 3-0 beating of Manchester City, Campbell opening the scoring after two minutes. At Leeds in midweek, Howard Wilkinson described Arsenal’s performance as the best by an away side in his time there…scant consolation, though, when the game was decided by a David Seaman mistake in the final minute, giving the home side the points. They started well at Anfield the following Sunday too, only for Robbie Fowler to score a four-minute hat-trick to settle the game. A 0-0 draw at home to eventual champions, Blackburn Rovers - reduced to ten men after Jason Wilcox’s sending off - was followed by another stalemate at Norwich, and that was how brief that while was. 

The wheels truly came off that season amidst two ‘scandals’ involving Merson and Graham, with only the player surviving at the club and, in between, Arsenal signed two forwards in January, 19 year old John Hartson, a raw prospect from Luton Town bought for £2,500,000, and Chris Kiwomya, who’d fallen out of favour at struggling Ipswich Town, coming in for £500,000 as set at a tribunal (he was replaced at Portman Road by Lee Chapman, who’d gone to Arsenal for the same fee, also set by a tribunal, from Stoke City in 1982.)

Hartson, like Campbell, was a tall, physical striker who formed an instant partnership with Wright, while the nimble Kiwomya scored against Forest the night Graham was sacked, ending a run of four months without a home win, and added two in a 3-0 win at Palace, where just four years before Campbell had shone so brightly. Campbell did actually score at Selhurst Park that season, albeit with the aid of a hand, presumably unseen by the ref unlike most of us in the ground, in a 3-1 win against Wimbledon, but his goal at home to Chelsea the following week, on 15th October 1994, would be his last for the team. Arsenal reached the Cup Winners Cup Final again, despite the season of turmoil, but Campbell played no part in the heartbreak defeat to Real Zaragoza.

Campbell returned to Highbury in the yellow and black away colours of Nottingham Forest four games into 95-96, although for the player who’d won a league title, both domestic trophies, a European trophy and had always given his best for the club he’d cone through the ranks of, it wasn’t a warm homecoming. His every touch was booed by a significant section of the crowd while the transfer fee paid by Forest was mocked to the tune of the Roses advert: ‘Thank you very much for two and a half million, thank you very much, thank you very, very, very much!’ The last few years of missed chances seemed to be the driver, although possibly some fear, too, realised when he scored past Seaman in the second half, equalising David Platt’s acrobatic first half strike. This, his last goal at Highbury, had come in the same fixture as his first. I found the Roses song amusing, but the booing said more about some Arsenal fans than their former player; after all, he wasn’t the only player wearing 10 that they turned on that night. 

Campbell later became a popular player at Everton, scoring a run of goals to save them from relegation, just as he’d helped Arsenal win the title; he would also become the only player in 20 years to score the winning goal for them at Anfield in the Merseyside derby. Happily, once his career was over, the mutual affection between himself and Arsenal shone through in his media work and social media presence. Since his sad death at 54 last week, his warmth and kindness has featured in the tributes just as much as his career exploits, Arsenal bloggers and podcasters and ex team mates and media colleagues all saying the same thing in slightly different words. During 90-91, when Campbell was the face featured on that month’s club calendar, my Dad, close to the club staff, made an inquisitive remark about his close-shaved hairstyle, before adding “very nice young chap” and walked off.

I wasn’t lucky enough to know Campbell, settling for a liked Twitter post when footage of his Selhurst Park 91-92 performance against Palace was uploaded, Smith getting in on the conversation too. I remember him also, as part of those halcyon North Bank days between January 1991 and May 1992 when from about 2:20 in the afternoon, he and Lee Dixon would be first out of the tunnel for the warm up, their emergence and the reception from behind the goal becoming excitingly anticipated, then the chanting - “Super, Super Kev, Super Kevin Campbell!” - the mutual applause and maybe a request for a silly dance or ‘twist’. Perhaps most of all, it’s how he made me feel with that breathtaking volley at Highbury against Palace (from, for balance, Wright’s pass!) when he set me off with my friends in a frenzy of face-contorting, body-launching excess of absolute joy and happiness. 

Monday 10 June 2024

End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points)

Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crystal Palace, really. Brighton must await the Premier League introduction of Eastbourne Borough before living a derby that doesn’t necessitate the naming of a motorway. 

Once again, the manager is front and centre, Roberto De Zerbi waving goodbye to the fans on the final day, ending his season and a half tenure due to differences with the board. 11th in a season of Europa League football is no mean feat, especially without Encisco and March for the bulk of the season and Mitoma for the second half of it, not to mention the summer sales of Mac Allister to Liverpool and Caciedo to Clearasmudlake Chelsea for £100,000,000 (Caceido becoming the latest player to score from the halfway line at Stamford Bridge and not win MOTD’s Goal of the Season.)

Evan Ferguson scored a hat trick early on but that proved a false indicator for this season at least, Welbeck still popping up as the biggest goal threat. Anyone who’d’ criticiser Brighton for not “kicking on” from their top six placing and FA Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out appearance last season needs to wise up. Like their made up rivals, they have established themselves as part of the Prem furniture while progressing. Of course, it can all change quickly. Who will come in to steer the ship? The full-time Chelsea manager before Poch is still available…

12th: Bournemouth (48 points)

Just a few weeks into the season under new manager Andoni Iraola, when The Cherries looked as flaky as they’d ever been during their stays in the Prem over the last calendar decade, the ever in-the-moment Alan Shearer compared their struggle to the resurgence at Wolves under Gary O’Neill, who’d been replaced by Iraola in the summer: “It’s looking like a pretty embarrassing decision”, big Al grimly observed.

Well, I appear to have reached Bournemouth before Wolves in this club-by-club rundown of positional standings. Well done again, Al! 

Notwithstanding heavy defeats at Man City and at home to Arsenal, it would have been tempting of course, to pillory the employment of a Johnny Foreigner over One of Our Own, much like the dismissal of Nigel Adkins for the Argentinian Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton in 2012-13 just as Bournemouth’s south coast neighbours were appearing to hold their own back in the Prem. Little did we know that one day Pochettino would rise to the heights of leaving Chelsea by mutual consent.

Yet, the 6-1 defeat at the Etihad in November was followed by a 7 game unbeaten run, the highlight of which (probably) was a 3-0 win at Old Trafford and also included a hat trick at Nottm Forest by Dominic Solanke, emerging as a 20-goal Premier League striker just when it seemed he was destined to always take second Billing. The form table put them behind only City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Iraola was suddenly spoken of as one of the Brat Pack of Basque region managers/coaches now in the Prem, alongside Guardiola, Arteta and Emery. Summing up Bournemouth’s season on the final Match of the Day, Shearer sternly conceded that they’d “had a good season after the controversy of Gary O’ Neill losing his job.” Oh, Alan! 

13th: Fulham (47 points)

Still no Wolves, eh?

A second successive consolidation in the Prem for the West London inoffensives. Does this move them out of the 'yo-yo club' category? How long is a piece of yo-yo string? 

Marco Silva found a way to compensate for losing main man centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic to the blood money league - Rodrigo Muniz weighing in with 9 goals - while fatefully keeping hold of midfielder Palhinha, who'd seemed destined to go to Bayern Munich before the August window shut. The Portuguese midfielder reportedly had a change of heart when Harry Kane arrived at the Allianz Arena, his about-turn grounded in the sudden belief that Fulham now had a better chance of winning a trophy for the first time in their history than Bayern adding to their 11-years-in-a-row Bundersliga domination or any cup at all they entered.      

Theoretically, Fulham decided the title race, taking four points off Arsenal, fortunately catching the runners up in their two periods of uncertainty. The 2-2 at The Emirates was followed by a 5-1 tonking at The Etihad (international break in between), Silva receiving his latest in a flurry of red cards when protesting about the routine injustice that most teams face against the champions. City then beat Fulham 4-0 in a May stroll. 

Will Silva’s side make it a hat trick of spells in the Prem at the end of next season? Same as all the clubs in this mid-lower section of the table, this may depend on how bad the promoted/returning clubs are. 

14th: Wolves (46 points)

Wolves! Welcome! 

Of course I’m not mocking you, Wolves, I’m mocking Alan Shearer. I have a lot to thank Wolves for: for being there, ravaged by injury, when Arsenal needed a tonic after defeat by Munchen preceded by defeat by Villa: for being a goal down at home to Spurs in the 90th minute and winning 2-1: for forcing through a vote to end VAR. Gary O’Neill was the acceptable face of the moaning manager, and I enjoyed the thrill of him taking on the PGMOL in seemingly every game where the last farcically bad decision by a ref or VAR, or a non-decision was overshadowed by the next. He got a bit addicted to it in the end, seeming to search out the injustice, but really you couldn’t blame him for being on high alert. If Newcastle and Manchester United tried to contest the monopoly of injury misfortune, then Wolves had no company under the lone rain cloud. 

There were, though, bright spells. Mathias Cunha looked a very important asset for any club in this zone just outside the danger zone, one that scores goals regularly and with the promise of doing it for a few seasons yet. Sarabia looked decent up front too, while the ball-carrying exocet missile Pedro Neto engineered goals and wins, including against Man City. The shot hamstrings look to be a problem, which may see him leave for a bigger club where he can be used more sparingly and crafted. Ait Nouri wowed as a defender with silky touches, one of the very best players around that sounds like half of a Jimmy Nail number one hit in 1992. 

O’Neil did at least have a big smile on his face when they won at Bournemouth in October, scoring a late winner through another goal threat, Hwaang Hee-Chan, after Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook had been sent off 9 minutes after half time at 1-1. This may have been a rare case of Wolves being on the right end of a refereeing decision, but they must also be accountable for their improper treatment of Barcelona academy product Nelson Semedo, who after five seasons believes he is still part of a club partnership at Camp MoliNou. If you're reading this, Nelson, you ain't ever going back.     

15th: Everton (40 points)

The Toffeemen reached the benchmark 40-points that famously avoids relegation (unless you're West Ham Utd) despite a fluctuating 8 points being shaved off their total thanks to Financial Fair Play breaches. In the same way that news of Manchester City being investigated over 115 charges last season galvanised their title charge, the injustice felt by the legally-savvy Goodson faithful generated an upturn in form. A literal low point was a 6-0 loss at Chelsea, though coming out on top of a Merseyside title decider seemed to be the fans highlight. Manager Sean Dyche was typically sacrosanct throughout the whole affair. "These are the harsh realities of existing in an industry where you don’t have Manchester City’s lawyers”, he allegedly said. “This is a situation I’ve inherited, not one I invented. We’ve all got firefighter suits on. But with many hoses. We have more than one fire extinguisher at this club. I understand it’s not 1985 anymore, or 1987, or even 1995. We’re not naive. Please don’t call us that. There’s room to improve, it’s about progression. We’re doing everything we can with the extinguishers available. If they want to take our life-preserving equipment away, we as coaching staff and players can’t control that. I’m not a miracle worker. I’m Sean Dyche. A worker”, he allegedly added.

16th: Brentford (39 points)

Five months without Ivan Toney, three without Bryan Mbeuno, a whole season without Rico Henry, weeks without Ben Mee and yet Thomas Frank’s team have secured a fourth season in the Prem. They somehow found the goals and kept the discipline to stay competitive. It’s no mean feat, and one that doesn’t get mentioned much. Perhaps they like it that way, staying in the shadows, keeping their head down. They gave Arsenal two tough games and even worked out how to get Neal Maupay to score a couple. Maupay’s clownish beef with Villa goalie Emiliano Martinez at the Community Stadium was a rare moment of hilarity in the Premier League. You’d think Martinez would be more grateful, Maupay having caused Bernd Leno’s long-term injury that brought Martinez into the Arsenal team and an FA Cup winners medal at the end of that 19-20 season, leading to his move to Villa and subsequent Champions League football next season. 

17th: Nottm Forest (32 points)

Mike Baldwin, played by Johnny Briggs, once implored the Rovers Return regulars to “get a lifeboat” for Tommy Harris “before he drowns in self-pity”. Fortunately for Nottingham Forest, the puncture-ridden dinghy’s of Burnley, Luton Town and Sheffield United ensured they kept afloat.

The four points deducted for FFP breaches wasn’t the driver for the babyish displays of paranoia that deflected from some promise during the season. They gave Arsenal a fright at The Emirates on the opening day of the season, would have drawn 0-0 at home to Liverpool had it not been for the visitors reaping ‘good process’ karma in the 99th minute and had the chances to get a result against Manchester City (comments by Guardiola that Forest would have scored had it not been for the dry pitch were sad and petty.)

Not so good was the legal talk following Ivan Toney repositioning the ball at a free kick and the owner taking to Twitter to blame ungiven penalties at Everton on the VAR operator, Stuart Atwell, being a Luton fan. Employing ex ref Mark Clattenburg as Director of Refereeing Against Us wasn’t exactly a gladiatorial move either. Maybe it was all to generate an us against them mentality, maybe they don’t care how they come across? 

Dismissing Steve Ovett for Nuno EspĆ­rito Santo was a surprising move a couple of years after Spurs have given up on the ghost after just three months there, his last impression in the Premier League. He did slightly better than Ovett, though seemed quite smug about achieving survival at the end of the season. 

18th: Luton Town (26 points)

If you’d have told me at the beginning of the season that Luton Town would be relegated…well, yeah, most would have believed you. That it seemed at one point in the season that they might have the resolve and the guile to stay up is a big compliment to them. They had both of those things, but sadly, and understandably, not the squad depth. Injuries at the turn of the year piled up, and of course they had all the emotion of dealing with captain Tom Lockyear’s heart-related collapse at Bournemouth.  

The Hatters gave the ‘big boys’ something to think about, only losing to the last header of the game, 4-3, at home to Arsenal, drew 1-1 with Liverpool and, also at Kenilworth Road, narrowly lost to Man City. There was also a stirring 4-4 comeback at Newcastle. Ross Barkley, in a deeper lying position, reminded of us his quality, 30 years old and displaying consistency that was always said to be his downfall. The fans’ song for him, Ain’t Nobody Like Ross Barkley, is one of the best we’ve heard for years. 

Adebayo up front was building a reputation as a striker to be feared before becoming one of the injury victims, but without that regular/semi-regular goalscorer on top of the many absences, even a manager as cool as Rob Edwards couldn’t turn the tide. They will be back in the same division as their local rivals (albeit not in the same county) Watford next season, but the regard for those two clubs should be contrasting. Edwards, like most managers, has recently been Head Coach at Vicarage Road, and also like most of them was given only a couple of months to prove himself. Watford will delight in their drop, just as they had dropped from the Prem the season before, but Luton’s spiralling down the league and out of it, and then surge all the way back up it (a bit like Watford in the eighties) should only be applauded. 

19th: Burnley (24 points)

101 points last season in The Champ under Vincent Kompany, just 24 for the non-Dyche-Prem team this, scoring half the number of goals. Perhaps the best thing you can say about this Burnley side is that it is not a Sean Dyche Burnley. Not that that's a bad thing of course -  sometimes there's beauty in dealing with harsh realities. But the evolution has begun and they are on the right track, which sounds like a Dychian thing to say, but we can assume that the adjustment will continue under whoever replaces Kompany, who has gone to Bayern Munchen, which may suggest that the curse of Kane will not be lifted any time soon, but that's not Burnley's problem, and in any case it's actually nice to see a huge club taking a bit of a risk on potential (it worked for Chelsea with Villas-Boas due to sacking him and giving the job to Roberto Di Matteo, who won the Champions League and was then himself sacked the following season, a situation that was replicated with Thomas Tuchel, who then went to Bayern Munchen and has now been replaced by Kompany...what a fun merry-go-round we live in.) 

If I'm honest, I'm struggling to think of any Burnley players other than James Trafford (the goalie who ended the season in reserve), Jay Rodriguez and Aaron Ramsey (and I only know of him because I thought it was the Arsenal one for a while.)

Good luck The Clarets next season!   

20th Sheffield United (16 points)

What’s the record for lowest ever points total; Derby with 8? Watford 15? Sunderland 15? Either way, it’s a good job Sheff are prudent with their FFP business. They conceded 104 goals, 4 more than the famous Swindon achievement of 100 goals in 93-94. Or maybe that was more than a century, ‘over a hundred goals’? Does it even matter? Man City have won 7 out of 8 Premier Leagues and that doesn’t mean anything. 

Sheff were one of only three Prem teams to sack their manager this season, when normally it’s into double-figures, although Watford being in the division below could explain that, as well as the cost of compensating managers as FFP began to show some balls. Chris Heckingbottom was replaced by the man he replaced, Chris Wilder, who doesn’t seem likely to hit anywhere the heights of 19-20. Accusing a fourth official of eating a sandwich reminded me of the time Phil Brown of Hull City whinged to journalists about the suspended or injured Cesc Fabregas wearing a leather jacket and jeans. 

Coming up from the Champ for next season are Leicester City, Ipswich Town and Southampton, two of whom were in the Prem last season, so perhaps Sheff could be back the season after next, along with at least one other of the two in front of them. Or maybe the series of Right Hammerings - 8-0 at home to Newcastle, 6-1 at home to Arsenal, a 2-1 embarrassment at Spurs - will encourage a season or two of transition before they are ready, in common parlance, to ‘go again’.

Monday 27 May 2024

Premier League review, club by club Part 1 - 1st-10th

‘You’ll never win the raffle if you don’t buy a ticket’, somebody once said. I don’t know who, but it was first heard pre-National Lottery, or at least when the National Lottery was in its infancy, or relative infancy; these days people would most likely replace ‘raffle’ with ‘lottery’.

This isn’t to say raffles are moribund, like the Pools and Bob Carolgees. The school disco, for one, is a guaranteed source of despair for hundreds of primary age children when their number/s don’t come up, denying them a Little Miss colouring book to justify the £1-a-strip outlay. For a number of consecutive years, my first son would greet the end of a winless raffle by growling while ripping up every one of his unsuccessful tickets, oblivious to the bewildered audience looking his way as I laughed through the mortification. 

By now you may have directed your eyes back to the title of this piece, to confirm that you are actually reading about a review of the outgoing Premier league season, club by club. Don’t worry, we’ll get onto it, I just wanted to talk about losing raffle tickets to explain, in a very Peter Beagrie way, why I haven’t seen even one Premier League match this season (while still insisting I have the credibility to judge all the teams in it.) In my privileged position as an Arsenal Red member, I entered all the ballots for tickets for my friend and I that fell outside of the Category A ‘big games’ (you’d actually have had to have to won the lottery to be able to afford those); that’s 14 ballots. Every time came that dreaded ‘unfortunately…’ email. ‘We recommend that you continue to enter the ballot for future games’. Quite. Otherwise there would be 0 chance, right? I haven’t actually seen a Premier League game since April 9th 2022, when Arsenal lost to  Brighton & Hove Albion managed by Graham Potter. This is the only time I’ve seen Leandro Trossard score at The Emirates. 

Still, I’ve watched MOTD (most weeks, though often not all of it) and there’s been a few live games on terrestrial telly, so I’m at least as qualified as Dion Dublin to make public opinions. 

Ok, let’s do it in order of Prem finishing places…

Champions: Manchester City (91 points)

One day, someone as obviously intelligent as Kevin De Bruyne might realise to his horror that he gave all the best years of his talent and soul to a club owned by people who marginalise women and imprison gays and pollute the air with fossil fuels. “This beautiful club” proclaimed KDB after a milestone goal this season, as beautiful as an institution can be if you turn a blind eye to its foundations. Perhaps he might be lucky enough to get to Pep Guardiola’s age and still stay blissfully ignorant. PG, after all, hasn’t worn that yellow ribbon in support of oppressed Catalans for some years now. 

2nd: Arsenal (89 points)

Runners up two years in a row, and will be a decent bet to make it a third, just like Arsene Wenger’s trio of next besters between 98-99 and 00-01. Wenger’s team eventually won the league and FA Cup double in 01-02, and perhaps this awaits Mikel Arteta’s clinical beasts in 25-26 if PG announces his retirement at the end of the season or something. I wrote them off as early as August after dropping points at home to Fulham. It was an odd time, back when Gabriel was on the bench and Thomas Partey at right back, prompting one of those many wizened BBC Sport followers to declare that Arteta was “trying to be too clever.” A comment that came from ‘Scooby Stu’. Other home London derbies cost them, drawing with Spurs (again 2-2) and losing to West Ham 2-0, Moyes’ men having three shots, one a saved penalty. The three-act awarded goal at Newcastle was another blow, though the Villa defeat at The Emirates in March felt like the killer. It came after the CL quarter final against Bayern Munich, while that weekend City played Luton at home, dropped KDB, Foden and Silva and won 5-1. The initiative was back with them and it wasn’t being relinquished, obviously. 

Undefeated against 1st and 3rd, winning both at home and enough points gained to have won half of the Premier League titles, yet, in the cold light of day, not enough enough. 

3rd: Liverpool (82)

I didn’t want Liverpool to win the league (as much as I don’t want anyone to other than my own team) or for Klopp to have a fairytale end to his Anfield story, even though I like Klopp, simply because I didn’t think they were worthy. It’s perhaps a nonsensical point, no team wins the league by accident, not even Leeds in 91-92. They were always going to organically drop off eventually if they weren’t up to it. It is also perhaps an unfair view. Surely a title in Klopp’s last season with one of his weaker sides would have been a David Pleat poetic justice-type event considering the seasons they amassed over 450 points and still came 2nd. One measly defeat, courtesy of one ball a millimetre shy of crossing the line not sufficient to take the trophy in 19-20. This time out, up until the African Nations Cup, Salah was in typically sensational form but returned with an injury and barely a shadow of himself, culminating in a touchline row with Klopp while about to come on at West Ham. Jota and Gakpo and Nunez threatened to keep the momentum going but, two seasons in, the £64 million Uruguayan still hasn’t broken out of the erratic finishing that Salah himself and before him, Luis Suarez, quickly overcome with dramatic results. Perhaps he still will, though in his best days he is generously labelled an ‘agent of chaos’, which is spin for ‘couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo’. Except for at Newcastle in August, where the Reds’ 10 men came from behind to win, which was an early highlight of the season. Has been nice to see Klopp smiling again of late. The charm and charisma and whole-face belly laugh had seemingly been drained of all life by the darkness of City, but his legend is secured. More points gained than Leicester City in 15-16.

4th: Aston Villa (68)

I was a little surprised when Unai Emery’s arrival at Villa Park in January 2023 was greeted with such optimism by the supporters, as shown on MOTD 2; had they not seen how his tenure had unravelled so bleakly at Arsenal? Well, clearly they knew better. Or perhaps there was a sense that anything but Steven Gerrard was a level up, sitting as they were one point above the relegation zone. Of course, in between times, Emery had won a fourth Europa League, adding to the three with Sevilla, and by the end of that half season in Birmingham, Villa bagged a top seven finish to enter the Europa Straw Hat, Bean bag, Whoops Mrs Miggins Where’s My Trousers League (as won by West Ham, therefore adding to the lustre.) True, an opening day 5-1 pasting at Sandro Tonali’s Newcastle might have had many betting that the vampiric Patridge had reached another early Premier League peak, but sadly this proved unfounded. With the inexhaustible Ollie Watkins coming good on the previous season’s promise to actually hit the ball at the goal occasionally, the ferocious team ethic had a cutting edge that kept them clear of a Tottenham side who are in transition (again.) For me, the question mark over Emery is how he deals with it when things take a turn.

5th: Tottenham Hotspur (66)

The last two ‘previews’ have seen me witter on about the managers, one in his first full season, another in his last. In this entry, I’ll start with Ange Postecoglou, who arrived in the summer at Spurs as an anti-appointment to the previous trophy-hoarders (at other clubs), Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. At least, that isn’t quite the truth, seeing as Ange had just won the league and cup with Celtic, it was just that that seemed almost like not winning a trophy. An Australian with experience only in his homeland, Greece and the Scottish league, one theory was that Daniel Levy had run out of money paying off Pochettino and Nuno EspĆ­rito Santo and Mourinho and Conte. But Spurs didn’t lose their first game at Brentford, then beat an already unravelling Man U 2-0, and when a Maddison-Son inspired jolly at Burnley saw them hit top spot on Match of the Day, an otherwise respected Guardian columnist mentioned the league title in the same sentence as his team/one of his teams. Another respected Guardian writer cited Maddison as potentially the signing of the season. Highlights of their rise to the top of the table after 10 games included a 2-2 draw at Arsenal, a 113th minute winner at home to Sheffield United and another last-gasper at home to Liverpool thanks to “good process”.

Then came the inevitable medium-term injury to Maddison, and one to Bentacaur (caused by Matt Cash’s calculated late lunge, resulting in a yellow for the offender and weeks out for the victim) following on from two senseless red cards at home to Chelsea for the otherwise cool-headed operators Romero and Udogie, seeing them lose for the first time. The magic box of Spursiness was opened up, treating onlookers to the latest unravelling delights as they gradually slid down the table. But not too far. Even if, in the same sense that Arsenal’s pursuit of City was just a trick of the light, Spurs ran into a false wall whenever the chance to catch or pass Villa was offered up, 5th and Europa League under a manager who has traditional Spurs principles, and speaks well with sound values (among them a distaste for VAR and the potential for referee announcements of decisions “Oh my God!”) puts them in a far better world than in recent seasons. Not that you’d know that speaking to some of their Romero-headed fans. 

6th: Chelsea (63)

Feeling instant disbelief at a Chelsea manager being sacked seems a bit like one of those unhelpfully ingrained preconceptions in childhood that, as an adult, you  have to shove aside to let common sense in. Chelsea only lost three games from January-May under Mauricio Pochettino, who guided a mish-mash (but not Poch-botch) piƱata-selected  squad through a much-mocked, oft-hilarious season to a top six finish and European qualification (albeit for - thanks to Man United’s FA Cup Final win -  the Europa Straw Hat, Bean Bag, Whoops Mrs Miggins Where’s my Trousers, Itsy Bitsy, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini Vase); amidst the rubble, there were signs of hope: 4-4 and 3-3 draws against Man City, 2-2 at home to Arsenal, 6-0 at home to Everton, an assertive performance and unfortunate late defeat to City in the Cup semi final and, of course, the stellar season from the delightful Cole Palmer, 22 goals and all. So of course Chelsea sacked Poch in a bid to start all over again with someone else. How often does this have to happen before it’s no longer a shock reflex?

7th: Newcastle United (60)

Never will someone like Keiron Trippier realise that there was anything wrong with giving the last few years of his career to people who specialise in executing people and imprisoning women for promoting equal rights.

8th: Manchester United (60)

Ah, there you are! Why so far away, I never thought I’d find you?!

Eighth is the lowest United have finished in the Premier League, although they ended lower under Sir Alex Ferguson, 11th in 89-90 when they won the FA Cup in his third season, as Ten Hag has won it in his second. At the time of writing, Ten Hag is still the manager but we live in different times now. A kamikaze season has followed Ten Hag’s first campaign, when two defeats in the opening two games was followed by a win against Liverpool and, further down the road, a successful ousting of Ronaldo, a League Cup Final win, a third place finish and the resurgence of Marcus Rashford. The worthiest successor to SAF had apparently arrived (I’m putting the phone down, Jose.)

Then this season happened. There had been snapshots of disaster even in the previous season, 4-0 at Brentford, 7-0 at Liverpool, and though they escaped Anfield this time with a 0-0 despite absorbing 30 shots at their goal - a sign of things to come without always the clean sheet - there were home defeats to Bournemouth, West Ham and Fulham and a 4-0 drubbing at Crystal Palace. There were 14 defeats in all, with a -1 goal difference. No stand-out league triumph to stem the blood flow this time, although they were perhaps hard done by at Arsenal in September, Alejandro Garnacho’s injury time  ‘winner’ ruled out for the most borderline of offsides and then Declan Rice and Gabriel Jesus scoring twice in quick succession. Perhaps that’s how these things turn, which seems to have been the point Ten Hag has repeatedly been making, although strangely through the prism of a nondescript penalty area challenge on Rasmus Hojlund rather than the Garnacho moment. That and the injuries. You have to consider the injuries but personally I double-down here because Arsene Wenger was never allowed that excuse, it was always his fault when half the squad was injured. In fairness to Ten Hag, he doesn’t seem to have been allowed it either. Is it the style of play causing the injuries or the injuries determining the style of play? My Arsenal fan experience kicks in too, when I read the criticism and mocking they get, which is phenomenal. Ten Hag does his best to deflect, looking every inch in his roll-neck the 70’s crime boss, claiming that his mob’s total massacre was part of the plan, that letting Championship side Coventry City come back from 0-3 to 3-3 and then, it seemed 3-4 until the VAR overturned a Garnacho-esque offside was just how he saw it pan out in his mind. I have to say they provided so much entertainment in the Cup though; aside from the Coventry semi and the uplifting defeat of City in the Final, the game plan of allowing Liverpool unlimited space and possession in the quarter final finally worked (somehow) with a last minute 4-3 win. I was delighted to see it, as I was the win against City, which perhaps says where United are right now. Another last-minute 4-3 came shortly after the semi, losing at Chelsea thanks to Subbuteo defending. They have good young players, Garnacho, Mainoo, Rashford on his day; Fernandes is the talisman. Hojlund didn’t quite take the league by storm, as he threatened he might midway through the season. “Another injury”, Ten Hag would argue. Perhaps he deserves another go next season.

9th: West Ham United (52)

There is no such doubt about the aforementioned Moyes’ Weat Ham future, he is out, ten years after being out at Old Trafford, to be replaced by Julian Lopetegui, formerly of Spain, Real Madrid and Wolves. Moyes will be pleased with his contribution to the East Londoners, relegation avoidance in his first spell, and in the second, 7th place and a European trophy in the Miggins thing. The fans seem pleased too, to see him go. A top half finish isn’t enough, there just wasn’t enough of the academy about Moyes’ philosophy, leaning as it does more towards the Allardyce way of thinking. There have been glimpses of excitement when Kudas, Paqueta and Bowen have combined, although given some of the footage of Paqueta’s yellow cards, we may have seen the end of that budding trio. Bowen’s 22 goals is the stand out achievement, will be interesting to see if it garners interest or, as with Son Hoeng Min at Spurs, he is destined to produce the numbers for the same upper middling London club.

10th: Crystal Palace (49)

Where would Vieira’s Palace be right now? As good as bang mid-table? Steve Parrish will consider that uncertainty vindication of the route that has led to Oliver Glasner’s arrival from Eintracht Frankfurt. Parrish will be hoping that Glasner can some day repeat his Europa League success with Frankfurt at Selhurst Park. Not that Parrish gave Europe much consideration before. Roy Hodgson’s ill-health worked out well for him and Palace. It also coincided with the return to fitness and form of Eze and Olise, and an entirely unexpected monster run of form from Jean-Phillipe Mateta, who ended up with 16 goals and setting up 5 compared to half the amount of goals in his previous three seasons. A freak anomaly or a sign of things to come? 11 years now, Palace have played consecutive seasons in the Premier League. 

This concludes Part 1 of the AFONI’s Premier League review, club by club.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Any Given Season

 In the Match of the Day (2) studio, following defeats for both Liverpool (1-0 at home to Crystal Palace) and Arsenal (2-0 at home to Aston Villa) on a possibly fatal Sunday for the ‘three horse’ title race, ex Manchester City goalie Shay Given declares a “special mention to Manchester City” for being six games away from a fourth league crown in five seasons.

Arsenal’s 31 points from 36 since the turn of the year will become merely a footnote, just like Liverpool’s one defeat in 2018-19 and their 54 points from 57 in 21-22. These expressions of rage against the machine aren’t enough to topple it. You have to hand it to the dominant beast for using their resources super efficiently, and Given is well within his rights to applaud them. Perhaps we don’t show enough appreciation to those that have the means and ways to rule so relentlessly. But tell you what, let’s do something about that right here! Yes, seeing as City’s latest domestic prize is being celebrated before its even been won, let’s give some “special mentions” to their equivalents: stand up for the Jeff Bezos as Amazon Prime look set to close down yet another independent bookstore; three cheers, please, for Vladimir Putin, odds on to continue his reign of terror whenever the next election will be; and big up that Doctor Marten boot about to crush those ants.

By now, you may have detected that this post has taken on a somewhat passive-aggressive tone, and special mention to you if you have, because it has. But of course, like most, I am not a fitting lecturer. Given’s praise for City will have gone down well with many because it is around this time of year that the Blue Moon brigade suddenly start to became popular, standing (alone) in the way of way of clubs with more developed hate-bases trying to wrestle the title from them. This season, for instance (and purely accepting Given’s medal-handing as a guide), people won’t have to suffer the over-celebrations of the Arsenal players and supporters who it has been so much more fun to routinely mock over the last decade or two; and others won’t have to endure all those ex Liverpool players smugly pontificating over another This Means More triumph while their self-entitled fans reach new unbearable levels. Manchester City can’t bring out the intense emotions in people that others can, but they are reliable like a hush-hush, wink-wink local MP getting you off a speeding ticket. 

But as I say, I’m not one to talk. Did I enjoy Newcastle United beating Spurs 4-0 on Saturday? Yes, I did. I would be a better person if I didn’t, but I’m not. Going much further back, ten seasons ago in 2013-14, did I want Liverpool, at the expense of City, to end their unexpected charge towards to the league title by securing the one trophy for Steven Gerrard that had eluded him? No. Was I relieved that he fell over the ball against Chelsea in the third last game of the season to bring City - and Mourinho’s Chelsea - back in? Yes. My thinking back then was that if anyone was going to win the league other than the Oligarch or Abu Dhabi lot, then it was Arsenal’s right, having run them the closest since the post-Highbury thrift era had been ushered in alongside the new money elsewhere. 

I am no more than a part of the problem. My disappointment and confusion over Manchester United fans being happy about City beating Arsenal to the title last season was misplaced. I am no better than them. I can boycott as many tournaments as I like, but when it comes down to it, it’s my own interests that rule.

So special mention to the human condition.

‘One more’ lonely night: Spain 2 England 1. Euro ‘24 Final

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