Posted in Football

A commander within the Toon Army: Cheick Tiote 1986-2017.

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Tiote smiling whilst training with Newcastle last year. (Image Credit: CHRONICLE LIVE Via. http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/all-about/cheick-tiote.

This afternoon, the footballing world found out the tragic news that former Twente and Newcastle midfielder Cheick Tiote had collapsed during a training session in Beijing and died at the age of just 30.

The Ivorian, who made 52 appearances for his country, had only signed for second-tier Chinese club Beijing Enterprises four months ago. He made just 11 appearances for the Asian outfit.

His career took off at Anderlecht, where he won two Belgian titles and a Belgian super cup. He then moved to Holland, where he played for both Roda and Twente. There, Tiote won the domestic double in 2010 with the latter under Steve McLaren.

He then moved to Newcastle United and made 156 appearances for the Magpies during his six-and-a-half-year stay on Tyneside.

When he took to the field, he didn’t light up the stadia with fancy footwork and tricks. Instead he was the man in the middle doing the dirty work: intercepting passes and making crucial challenges for his side.

He was without doubt the commander within the Toon Army. He was a player that dictated any game he was involved in.

Newcastle are one of the country’s leading clubs, with a fantastic fanbase. He galvanised their love for the game on the pitch. He was Newcastle through and through and It’s no wonder he was adored by their supporters.

Tiote wasn’t a prolific goalscorer either. In fact, the Ivorian only netted once for Newcastle, although it was a goal that will live long in the memory of most fans.

His strike secured a remarkable point for the Magpies as they came back from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 with Arsenal at St.James’s Park in 2011.

The central midfielder represented his country at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in South Africa and Brazil respectively. He was also part of the Ivory Coast side that won the 2015 African Cup of Nations.

An underrated footballer taken from us all way too early.

RIP Cheick.

 

 

 

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Posted in Football

Whoever comes in at Swansea has a major job on their hands.

Bob Bradley’s ill-fated tenure at Swansea City ended on Tuesday night following a 4-1 home defeat to West Ham United on boxing day. 

The 58-year old became the first ever American to manage in the Premier League, but he only lasted 11 games and 85 days at the Liberty Stadium.

Swansea won just twice during Bradley’s brief spell, with the team conceding 29 goals in that time.

Once again, pundits and fans alike have questioned the mentality of the Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins and American owners Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien.

Ever since Brendan Rodgers left south wales for Liverpool in 2012, the club have sacked four managers in four years- Michael Laudrup, Garry Monk, Francesco Guidolin and Bradley. As a result, the constant change in management has slowly affected the Swans’ league stature.

After five seasons of mid-table stability, the club now faces a major battle to avoid relegation to the Championship.

So who should take over the managerial reigns at a club short of confidence and lacking Premier League quality.

Wales boss and former Swansea player Chris Coleman (left) is thought to be one of the front-runners, along with Bayern Munich assistant manager Paul Clement (centre) and unemployed Gary Rowett (right).

Ryan Giggs is not being considered for the job, according to BBC Sport.

Of the three listed above only Chris Coleman has Premier League experience as a manager.

The 46-year old previously managed Fulham in the top flight between 2003-07, winning 61 of his 171 matches.

Clement and Rowett have proven their worth in the Championship, with both unlucky to lose their jobs at Derby County and Birmingham City respectively.

Clement was assistant to Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea between 2009-2011, during which the west London club won the Premier League in 2010.

Rowett is yet to coach in the top flight, and considering the job that needs to be done at Swansea, he would be a major gamble.

The club needs a man with experience and knowledge of the league. Sam Allardyce would have been a good fit, but he was snatched up by Crystal Palace last week.

He replaced Alan Pardew, and if he is looking for a quick return to management, then he should consider the Swansea job should he be approached.

The owners have money they can give him to buy better players, especially in defence, and his work at Newcastle United and Palace (pre-2016) has proved his worth in this division.

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Alan Curtis has taken over as Caretaker Manager for the match v Bournemouth this weekend. (Image Credit: telegraph.co.uk)

What we definitely know is that Alan Curtis will take charge of Swansea’s home match against Bournemouth on Saturday, with the club hoping to have their new manager installed before the crucial six-pointer at Palace (Even more incentive for Pardew you’d think) on Tuesday.

Following that is an FA third round match at fellow Premier League strugglers Hull City, before tough fixtures against Arsenal (H), Liverpool (A) and Southampton (H) to end the month.

The new manager will need to improve a fragile defence that has only kept three clean sheets all season and struggled to defend set-pieces.

Ashley Williams has not been replaced since he departed for Everton in the pre-season, and the club needs to try and buy a central defender who will be vocal and command the defensive line.

Barnsley’s Marc Roberts and Leeds’ Pontus Jansson are two players that have impressed in the Championship this season, but could they make the jump up to the Premier League? Would buying from the league below show a lack of ambition?

Perhaps a loan move for Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho would be better?  We are really pulling at strings here. There aren’t too many defenders in England available that have good Premier League expereince.

The team has also been heavily reliant on Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurðsson. The 27-year old is Swansea’s most influential player with five goals and five assists this season.

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Gylfi Sigurdsson has been a rare shining light in South Wales this season. Will they keep hold of him in January? (image credit: talksport.com)

Striker Fernando Llorente hasn’t lived up to the expectation many had of him, and club-record signing Borja Bastón still needs to adapt to English football since his summer move from Atletico Madrid.

A proven goalscorer is needed to help the club at the top end of the pitch.

Chelsea pair Marco Van Ginkel and Kenedy  could be good loan signings for the club, if they can afford their wages.

These are some suggestions, as its been proven that players from other leagues in Europe aren’t always the best solution short-term, just look at how Aston Villa turned out last year.

Whoever comes in, they really do have a job on their hands.

 

 

Posted in BHAFC, Football

BHAFC: Fringe and youth players leave Chris Hughton with early selection headache.

Albion Analysis: #2 Colchester United, 9th August 2016

Brighton and Hove Albion progressed to the second round of the EFL Cup with a convincing 4-0 victory over Colchester United at the Amex on Tuesday night.

Manager Chris Hughton made 11 changes from the side that drew at Derby at the weekend, with three Under 23 players making their senior debuts for the club.

Ben White, who signed his first professional contract this summer, made the biggest claim to start against Nottingham Forest on Friday with a fantastic performance.

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Ben White (Above) clearing the ball out of danger. (Image Credit: Paul Hazlewood, http://www.seagulls.co.uk)

His defensive positioning and commandment of the air was clear to see, and it limited Colchester to any worthwhile chances during the whole 90 minutes.

Hughton could only praise him during his post match interviews, and there would be no harm in giving him another opportunity so early into the season.

It would also allow Bruno to return to his best position at right back, although White would need to form a very quick partnership with Lewis Dunk at the heart of Brighton’s backline against far better opponents.

Fellow under 23 players Rob Hunt and Sam Adekugbe also played the full game at right and left back respectively. They both worked extremely hard up and down the flanks to provide an option going forward and then track the Colchester wingers back.

The quality of all three’s performances just how far the youth side has progressed under Simon Rusk.

Perhaps allowing the youngsters to play in the recently revamped EFL Trophy isn’t such a bad idea, as it will provide them with the opportunity to play more fixtures against opponents of Colchester’s level, as well as prepare them better for the first team.

Ahead of the defence, Albion fans were treated to see new signing Oliver Norwood make his debut for the Seagulls in centre midfield.

The Northern Irish man made a decent start to his Albion career as he was involved in most of the Albion chances in the first half.

His set piece and passing ability was on show occasionally, as he came close twice to assisting Brighton’s opener.

He also had an effort just before half time fizz just wide of the post from 20 yards.

But for me, he still remains a little rusty after helping Northern Ireland reach the last 16 of the Euros this summer; and it paved dividend in the second half as he faded out of the game and became less influential.

However, he could easily slot in alongside Beram Kayal in place of Steve Sidwell against Forest in order to give more match time with his new team mates and allow them to gel further.

Hughton’s biggest selection test for Friday however, remains to be the wingers.

Kazenga LuaLua and Jamie Murphy were Albion’s dynamic duo, as they tore the Colchester defence to pieces in the final 25 minutes.

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Jamie Murphy scores Albion’s second goal of the evening. (Image Credit: Paul Hazlewood, http://www.seagulls.co.uk)

Murphy scored twice, including a very fine solo effort, whilst LuaLua assisted in two of Albion’s goals.

Most will say Anthony Knockaert is a certainty for the right wing position, and I would probably go with that, seeing as he is our most creative player and can change a game in an instant.

That therefore leaves three wingers fighting out for the left side of midfield; Murphy, LuaLua and Jiri Skalek.

Whilst Skalek provides the biggest threat offensively with his delivery ability, one cannot simply ignore the performances by both Murphy and LuaLua last night, even if it was against Colchester.

All three will be confident going into Friday’s match, and I reckon Chris will be constantly changing his mind right up to game day.

Even the Albion strikers last night made claims for a starting position after both found the target.

Sam Baldock and Elvis Manu scored their first goals of the campaign respectively, and with Tomer Hemed and Glenn Murray firing blanks at Derby, would it be worth bringing in the pace of either Baldock or Manu to freshen up the side?

Baldock in particular impressed with an energetic performance. Last night’s stand in captain opened the scoring with a lovely curled effort into the top right corner and will be as eager as anyone to do the same against Forest.

Some will read this and think hang on, we played extremely well up at Derby so why change it?

I completely agree, we did play well, and we have no need to change the side from last weekend for the Forest match, but the cup game last night showed us how competitive this squad is now.

Where we have failed ever so slightly with our team up to now is squad depth. Whilst some may think we still don’t have enough and need to bring more in, I think we have raw quality coming through the youth sides nowadays compared to five or six years ago. For me, they deserve an opportunity to show us and the manager just how good they are on the biggest of stages.

We have a healthy competition for places, and that can only do more good than harm.

The joys of being a manager, eh Chris?

Posted in BHAFC, Football

BHAFC: Oliver Norwood signing a clever bit of business by Chris Hughton.

Brighton and Hove Albion’s new signing Oliver Norwood shouldn’t take too long to adapt at the south coast club, as he is a player who fits the mould of manager Chris Hughton’s way of playing perfectly.

The Northern Ireland international signed from Championship rivals Reading on a three-year deal, and could make his debut for the Seagulls against Derby County in this weekend’s Championship opener.

Norwood, 25, is a defensive midfielder who likes to dictate the play and spring the forwards into counter attacks through his vast range of passing.

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Oliver Norwood was part of the Northern Ireland team that competed at Euro 2016. (Image Credit: football.co.uk)

The former Manchester United youngster is also a fine set piece taker, and his deliveries from corners and free kicks could offer something different for Brighton going into the new season.

Some see this move as a bad omen, and feel that the consequence of this signing will be the departure of Dale Stephens. The box-to-box midfielder has been on Burnley’s  wishlist all summer but there is no reason why Norwood, Stephens and Beram Kayal can’t all play in the same team.

Hughton may decide to switch from his traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 formation. This would allow Norwood and Kayal to play alongside each other, with Stephens in a more advanced position.

In his first interview with the Argus, Norwood insisted that it was Chairman Tony Bloom and his determination to keep all of Albion’s in demand players at the club was key to him signing the contract.

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Chairman Tony Bloom has made his ambitions clear by rejecting all bids for star players this summer. (Image Credit: seagulls.co.uk)

This is positive news to hear, after the most recent speculation linked Anthony Knockaert with a move north to Newcastle United.

Bloom, like the manager and players, is as determined as ever to finally get this club into the Premier League, and keeping the star players during the transfer windows is the first little step towards that.

He may not be an Alex Pritchard, nor an attacking midfielder who will score 10+ goals for us this season, but Norwood didn’t cost eight million pounds to buy, and with just under 200 appearances in this league, he knows the Championship like the back of his hand.

With just under four weeks to go before the transfer window slams shut, fans will be hoping to see more new faces come through the doors in the coming days.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Football

Russia not solely to blame for hooliganism at Euro 2016

Euro 2016 has been quite a slow burner on the pitch. After 28 matches, the tournament has produced just 51 goals, an average of just 1.82 goals a game. It hasn’t been as exhilarating as Brazil’s group phase two years ago, but off the pitch it has been far from being boring, all for the wrong reasons.

With security tightened up, many were fearing that a terrorist threat or attack could potentially ruin the footballing spectacle. No one was quite ready for the mess that was about to unfold in the streets and stadia from Eastern European Nationalists.

Why have they decided to bring violence across to France when the nation is already on red alert? Because it is a place where they feel they have a voice. The Croatians and Russians have been the leading forces both in the stadiums and in the streets, proclaiming that “UEFA is poisoned by fraud and corruption.”

If that’s so why don’t your national teams agree? The fact they are taking part in the competition must mean they are content with how it has been governed.

It may well be that internal affairs in their own countries have led to the outburst of violence, or that they just enjoy the hooligan lifestyle- maybe they have all watched Green Street one too many times.

Too many England fans felt like they were as hard as Vinnie Jones and Danny Dyer when squaring up to the Russians, but they were in fact just adding to the mixing pot of sour tasting stew these hooligans had already conjured up.

Are the French and UEFA right to have part of the blame thrown towards them? Of course they are. The segregation at all stadiums is not policed enough, meaning a repeat of the events at Marseille could well happen again.

Marseille is where it all began, where English and Russian fans collided for three solid days.

Following the two nations’ 1-1 draw at the Stade Velodrome 10 days ago, Russian “supporters” lit flares, a passive way of signalling their troops to get ready to charge. The referee’s whistle was like a starting gun used at an 100m final, as at the very moment the whistle touched his lips, the Russians sprinted towards the England fans.

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England fans trying to escape the oncoming Russians. (aljazeera.com)

Many of the Three Lions supporters, especially the ones with children, jumped over barriers at least 10ft high to avoid the inevitable violence that was about to erupt.

Russia were given a pre-determined disqualification by UEFA, should their fans cause any more trouble inside the grounds, the only place that Europe’s football governing body could control.

Outside the grounds, it was the French police who had to deal with the violence out in the streets. Water cannons and tear gas have been used frequently in an attempt to stop the fighting, with mixed results.

Russian fans again were the centre of attention in Lille when they came up against the England and Welsh fans last Wednesday, before more than 10 Russians were kicked out the country by the time they faced Wales in their must-win clash last night. They lost 3-0.

During Croatia’s match with the Czech Republic in Saint-Etienne, Croatian fans threw flares and firecrackers onto the pitch, with one set of firecrackers exploding right next to a steward. Within the Croatian stand, fighting broke out between themselves.

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Croatia players Mario Mandzukic and Vedran Corluka try to stop the Croatian fans. (goal.com)

The Croatian national team manager described them as “hooligans, not fans, hooligans who don’t deserve a place in any society.”

The incidents seemed to unsettle the Croatian players on the field, as they let their 2-1 lead slip to the Czech Republic as the game ended 2-2.

Four Poland fans were today arrested ahead of their match with Ukraine, who themselves have caused trouble over the last ten or so days.

With Marseille once again the battleground, police used pepper spray and batons to try and end the fighting, to no avail.

With Russia and Ukraine exiting the competition, one would think the violence should calm down.

But things aren’t that simple. With the recent scenes of violence that have occurred in France, it makes one wonder with trepidation that in two years time, the World will be travelling to Russia for the FIFA World Cup.

With fierce cities like Kazan, Sochi and St.Petersburg hosting matches throughout the tournament, is it right for them to host such a mega event that tries to make the world feel together and safe. In doing so that includes equality for all genders, race and sexuality.

UEFA and FIFA will need to re-examine the videos of the Russian mob, and make a decision quick, with threats of boycotting the World Cup already being voiced over by African countries and players.

 

 

Posted in Football

7K to MK: A look back at a huge win for Brighton and Hove Albion

When the away support makes up one third of the match attendance, it can really spur a team on. That could not have been more evident than at the Stadium:MK yesterday, where Brighton and Hove Albion held on to win 2-1 against MK Dons.

With over 7,000 albion fans making the trip up to Buckinghamshire, there was a sense of optimism in the air. The recent drop in form for promotion rivals Middlesbrough, Derby County and Hull City have coincided with the Seagull’s regaining there early season momentum.

It was just one defeat in 11 prior to yesterday’s vital clash, and Chris Hughton’s men knew that a win was a must ahead of a tricky looking April.

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Stadium: MK ahead of MK Dons vs Brighton and Hove Albion.

It was a first visit for me to Stadium:MK and what a lovely ground it is. It’s just a shame it wasn’t filled to it’s maximum capacity of 30,500 as the place would have been absolutely rocking.

It was certainly a party atmosphere in the away end- compared to the subdued home MK Dons supporters. Balloons and confetti  were being thrown about as if the fans were already celebrating what has been a magnificent season for the Seagulls.

With such a carnival like build-up, the first half of the match was an anti-climax. The game was very stop start, with the referee blowing for a foul every time a player went down.

The ground went from party central to a rather loud silence within those opening 45 minutes- something had to give the place a bit of noise again.

Step up Gully and the team mascots. As part of the MK Dons family fun day, the mascots had a race from one side of the pitch to the other (Watch here). Forget Usain Bolt, this was the 100m race that we all wanted to see!

Gully flew out the blocks and by the time he crossed the halfway line he was in the lead. I’d like to say he won, but I think it was too close to call with the chicken on the outside who came out of nowhere!

With the feel-good factor back, Brighton went on the offensive early in the second half. Tomer Hemed came on to replace Sam Baldock, who went straight down the tunnel, and the Israeli striker made an instant impact.

Brighton’s number 10 won and then converted a penalty to give the Seagulls the lead. Six minutes later, he latched onto Jiri Skalek’s cross to head home powerfully for his 13th goal of the season.

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Brighton and Hove Albion’s Tomer Hemed celebrates after scoring from the penalty spot. (Image Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk)

The crowd were going crazy. 2-0 up and controlling the match, it looked like it was going to comfortably be a fourth win in six games.

James Wilson came close to making it 3-0 but his first time effort was saved brilliantly by Cody Cropper.

But, as many Brighton supporters will know, the Seagulls never make life easy for themselves. Bruno, who usually is superb at the back, gave away a cheap free kick, and MK Dons scored from the resulting set piece to get back into the game.

Hemed was again involved in Kyle McFadzean’s red card with fifteen minutes left. The MK Dons defender appeared to elbow the albion striker in the face, resulting in an early bath.

The striker could have gained his hattrick when the ball fell to his feet 10 yards from goal, but he hit the ball wide of the post.

He did guide the ball into the net eventually with a couple of minutes to go, but he was ruled offside by the linesman.

Then the controversy started. Dons swung a corner in which hit Tomer Hemed in the face. However the referee adjourned the ball hit his arm and gave a penalty in stoppage time. Incensed, half the Brighton team got booked for complaining and time wasting.

The albion fans’ hearts were in their mouths. Shocked, they knew if this went in it would be a huge blow to their promotion charge.

Carl Baker stepped up for the hosts…and missed the target to send the Seagulls’ players, coaches and supporters into raptures.

The coaches were jumping around the touchline in delight at the miss, they knew how much this game meant, and when the full time whistle blew, the fans had a belief this was their year.

The Brighton players also celebrated passionately at the final whistle in front of the travelling support, with Chris Hughton applauding the fans for a good two minutes.

The chanting began. “WE ARE GOING UP! SAY WE ARE GOING UP!” The noise was deafening. Fans jumping around, celebrating, some with tears of delight. They had been through it all in those last 20 minutes, and in the last few seasons they would arguably have seen their team draw that game. They just sense it’s their time.

The coach journey home was a quiet one. A majority of the fans slept, others trying to soak up what had just happened.

But one thing’s for sure. This club is together, and the good run keeps going. You just sense this could finally be the year Brighton break into the top flight for the first time in 36 years.

Posted in Football

After being promoted to the Premier League, do AFC Bournemouth and Watford have what it takes to stay in the division next season?

Bournemouth’s 3-0 win at Charlton earlier today meant that they have now been officially promoted to the Barclays Premier League. To further sweeten what has been a very successful season for the South coast club, they became Champions, as Watford could only draw 1-1 against Sheffield Wednesday.

Eddie Howe’s team weren’t a club many predicted to take the league by storm, however with the attractive attacking football that the team has produced, they have fully deserved to finish the season top of the pile.

They piped Watford to the Championship summit, but the Hornets shouldn’t be too disappointed, after achieving promotion back to the top division in English football last week at Brighton. It has been eight years since Watford were in the Premier League, but similarly to Bournemouth, they have a destructive offense, which makes them very difficult to beat.

Both teams defined the odds to achieve automatic promotion, but have they got what it takes to survive with the big boys of English football?

Firstly, they will have to rebuild their respective back lines to stand any chance. In the Championship, they both overcame teams merely due to scoring more than their opponents. 4-3s and 5-4s aren’t as easy to come by in the Premier League, once a team goes behind it must work its socks off to equalise.

Bournemouth conceded just 45 goals in their 46 Championship games this season. But the problem they face is that none of their defence has any Premier League experience. They need to recruit some players that know the league, and what it takes to remain in it.

Watford conceded 5 goals more than the Cherries, but similarly they don’t have anyone within their ranks with any experience of Premier League football.

Another hurdle both teams will need to jump is the pressure of bigger clubs coming in for their star assets. Ten Premier League clubs are reportedly monitoring Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson. The striker, who joined the Cherries for £3m from Coventry City last summer, has scored 23 goals for Howe’s team this season. Watford captain Troy Deeney scored 21 goals this term and once again is linked with a move to a more established Premier League side.

It’s hard to see why both players would want to leave their respective clubs. Both have an opportunity to show there worth exactly where they are. However football is a strange game and with the ludicrous amount of money players earn nowadays it is easy to twist the minds of the modern day footballer. Look at Raheem Sterling. He plays for one of the biggest clubs in the world (Liverpool) yet he won’t sign a new contract with a six-figure salary.

Wilson and Deeney both need to be tied down with new contracts, as they will both be key in the two team’s survival bids next season.

The future does looks promising for the two teams though, and I do believe that a number of factors will see the teams compete well in the top flight.

Bournemouth’s stadium only has a capacity of approximately 12,000, making it the smallest stadium in the league next year. But the Cherries can use that to their advantage and create a very intimidating atmosphere, like when a team draws a non-league side in the FA Cup away from home. The fans will have a huge bearing on the team next year, as they need to provide the ground with such an atmosphere that it evokes nervousness into their opposition.

Crystal Palace are a good example of this. They don’t have the biggest stadium in the league but the fans make so much noise that it stops the fluency of the opposition. Manchester City (this season) and Liverpool fans (last season) know what that feels like, seeing their teams lose at Selhurst Park at crucial times of the season.

Bournemouth scored an incredible 98 goals this season, making them the top goal scorers of any of the top four divisions in the country. Their army of offensive players have eradicated all defences they have faced this campaign. Leading Lieutenants Harry Artur, Matt Richie, Yann Kermogant and Calum Wilson have provided General Howe with nothing but goals, goals and more goals.

Teams will fear the Bournemouth forward line next season due to the sheer power that is at Howe’s disposal. The team shouldn’t change their philosophy now they are in the top league. Instead they should focus on adapting their current style. More wing play and more direct attacking football. They will defiantly get results the way they play.

Both Bournemouth and Watford have very good home records this term, which must be replicated next season. Both teams obtained 46 points at their home grounds (bettered only by Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough). Home form is crucial for promoted teams in the Premier League as away wins are difficult to come by. QPR this season only have two away wins to their name since being promoted back to the top flight last May.

With Bournemouth’s secret weapon being their atmosphere, Watford’s greatest asset is their connection with Italian club Udinese. Matej Vydra, Fernando Forestieri and Almen Abdi are all players that Watford have either signed or loaned from the Serie A side in order to gain promotion.

With Premier League status now achieved, it could be possible that Udinese send over even better players. Players that are more physical and more technical, which can only boost the teams’ survival chances.

So do I think that both teams will stay up next season? Yes. I think both have a great chance. Both team’s philosophies are to play sexy, attacking football and for me it’s the best way to achieve results. I can’t see either team hitting mid table but 15th and 16th? That’s a realistic target I think both teams can hit. The transfer market will be key. Both clubs need to sign good strong centre backs and perhaps a known goal scorer in the division. Going by what I have seen this season of the current bottom seven clubs in the Premier League, Bournemouth and Watford will defiantly compete. Can they turn their competiveness and determination into results? We will have to wait and see.

Posted in Football

The Pros and Cons of the Athletic Bilbao Cantera Policy.

Athletic Bilbao have produced some great footballing talent in the past. Fernando Llorente, Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera to name just a few. The secret behind Bilbaos excellent young talent is through their Cantera policy. The club is unique in the way it only uses players from the Basque region of Spain. They recruit the hottest prospects that the Basque region has to offer and bring them through the ranks before they move on to bigger and better things.

This policy began back in 1912, however it has had to tackle opposition in order to still function today. During the reign of General Franco between 1939-1975, the Basque people suffered terrible oppression; their unique language, culture, customs and style were all banned because they didn’t fit in with the ideal of a one-nation Spain. Support for Bilbao from the Basque region was a vote against Franco.

The fans of the club adore the Cantera policy. A poll in the 1990s revealed 75% of the supporters would rather see the club relegated than abandon the policy. It brings the club its identity. The fans own Athletic, making that link between the team and the supporters that even more special. Los Leones has never been relegated from La Liga (one of only four teams in Spain to hold such a record). This must mean that the Cantera policy works and it makes the side more successful, surely? Top European clubs import foreign players in order to gain success- but somehow Bilbao still fight strong in arguably the best quality league in the world. They finished 2013-14 in fourth position and made it to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.

But as more plaudits come in to praise the system, it also has its critics. As the club only uses regional players, it is believed that this hijacks their chances of success. They haven’t won a league or cup competition since 1984 when they won both La Liga and the Copa del Rey.

Some of the players to have played for Athletic have caused a stir. The policy of using players that were born and raised in Basque country has seemingly loosened up on occasion. Former Centre back Fernando Amorebieta was born in Venezuela but was eligible to play for Athletic because he grew up in the Basque Country as well as his parents being from the area.

Enric Saborit, now 22 years old, was signed by Athletic in 2008. The unusual thing was that Saborit was born in Barcelona. However, his mother is Basque, and that seemingly gave Athletic the right to pursue the player.

Ander Herrera is another who raises doubts to whether Los Leones kept to their ‘strict’ policy. He grew up in Zaragoza and played in Real Zaragoza’s youth system before playing for the senior squad. He could be signed by Athletic because he was simply born in Bilbao.

What does this say about the club? Do they actually deserve the plaudits of sticking to a system that through this evidence has it’s own loopholes? The game is growing each year, meaning more foreign exports are being driven into the major European leagues, including Spain. Can Athletic therefore keep their policy going?

With Real Madrid and Barcelona splashing out ridiculous sums of money for players, (Madrid spent £85 million on Gareth Bale and Barcelona spent £75 million for Luis Suarez), it seems that the Cantera will not be able to provide Los Leones with a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge. Fans will therefore need to make a choice. Do they want a team that wins trophies? Or do they want a team that keeps to their tradition, their identity and their pride in sticking with the Cantera?

They haven’t been able to keep hold of their prized assets either. Big money moves have come in for star players. Yes, Athletic need the money as the economics surrounding La Liga means that the lesser teams need to bring in as much income as possible through transfers, merchandise and ticket prices. But this means they start each season back at square one. It’s like a cycle. Over three to four seasons they bring up the talent from the Basque country, finish strongly in the league, and then sell their best players.

Ernesto Valverde for me is an underrated coach. He has a clear philosophy and is taking Athletic forward with clear direction and ambition. Currently the side is on a five match-winning run in La Liga. However the club are eighth in the table, ten points behind Villarreal, who occupy the last European place. Had the players Athletic natured in the past stayed in Bilbao, Valverde would possibly have a competitive team up there with Barcelona, Madrid and Atletico Madrid. They would not just be in the fight for Champions League qualification, but genuine title contenders.

So lets look five maybe ten years down the line. Will Athletic start looking down the table rather than up? It’s hard to tell but personally I don’t think much will change regarding their status. They will still produce the class of players that can play at Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid etc. It’s a system that has worked for the club for over 100 years. Nobody can scrap a tradition that’s lasted as long as this. The Cantera has been the heart and soul of Athletic Bilbao. It has produced talents for decades and will continue to do so. Yes they will have a tougher battle with the economics and so called ‘globalisation’ of the game, but the supporters are behind the team and the club will fight to continue their excellent standard of bringing up the best from the Basque country. As I mentioned before they have never been relegated from La Liga. That record speaks for itself.

Could English clubs benefit from this? I believe so. Greg Dyke is always moaning not enough home grown players are playing in the Premier League. There are even talks of reducing the amount of foreign payers in a squad down to 13. If a team such as Southampton kept to a policy like the Cantera then they would be a force to reckon with. They have one of if not the best youth system in the country. Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw are all players to have come from the academy. Had they all been in the same team we would definitely have Champions League football at ST. Marys.

I for one would be proud to be a Los Leones supporter. I love the way the club goes about things and hope that the Cantera system remains to be successful. It for me is how football clubs should approach the game- with the addition of four maybe five foreign players to boost their chances for success in league and cup competitions.

Keep it up Bilbao!

Posted in Football, Sport

CAN AJAX EVER REPEAT THE FEATS OF THEIR PAST?

Amsterdam is flooded with history. Stroll through the Dutch capital, and you will come across famous landmarks that really do represent the country’s culture. The iconic Dam Square, the flowing canals, the illustrious Magere Brug and the buzzing Red Light District all play their part in the epicentre of Holland’s major city.

But no history is found to be more prestigious in the capital than at their football club. Ajax are the most successful Dutch team in history. 33 Eredivsie titles, 18 KNVP cups, 8 Johann Cruijff shields, 4 European cups, 1 Uefa Cup, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 2 Intercontinental cups and 1 European cup winner’s cup fill the illustrious trophy cabinet.

Throughout time since their establishment in 1900, Ajax Amsterdam have had teams that have ruled domestic, continental and world football. With three nicknames, “de Godenzonen” (Sons of the Gods), “de Joden” (the Jews) and “I Lancieri “(The Lancers), they were named joint 5th best club of the 20th century alongside Santos.

The current Dutch champions have never been relegated from the Eredivsie, and are one of only four clubs to have won all three major European competitions.

Since 1996 they have been playing at the Amsterdam Arena found in the southeast of the city. With a capacity of over 50,000 it is the largest stadium in all of Holland- seems about right for the most renowned team in the country.

The youth setup in Amsterdam has always been breath taking. The club have produced many of Holland’s finest ever players. Johann Cruijff, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Edwin Van Der Sar, Patrick Kluivert, all regarded as legends in Holland, started their careers at the Ajax academy.

Current players Rafael Van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder and Nigel de Jong also have come from the academy.

It’s not just this that has brought them such success, scouts in Europe look for the new uprising starlets from neighbouring countries too. Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Christian Eriksen all moved to Amsterdam as teenagers.

For Ajax, their supremacy started in the late 1960s going into the 70s. They were named European Team of the year 4 times between 1969-1973. They won the European cups three years on the bounce between 1971-73.

This was at the time Johann Cruijff was without doubt the best player on the planet. His ‘new’ turn, which is used by pretty much every footballer today, baffled defences. He was the man every Ajax fan went to see during his time there.

In the 1980s they won 8 domestic league and cups, with the likes of Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and current Southampton manager Ronald Koeman in the side.

But the best team ever produced by Ajax was that of 1995. That same year they were named the world’s best team and you could understand why. Their starting XI made up the national side. Van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank de Boer, Marc Overmars, and Patrick Kluivert. The list could go on.

They won the European cup in 94/95 as well as the Intercontinental cup and the Super cup. Throughout the 90s they won 6 domestic league and cups.

Recent times haven’t been as illustrious though. 1995 was the last time they won a European trophy. The club still has produced players like Klass-Jan Huntelaar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez, who have gone on to bigger and better things, but they couldn’t help Ajax become the force they once were.

Frank de Boer, the current manager of the club, has seen them win four domestic titles since taking charge in 2010. But that next step on the European stage proves illusive.

Every season they make it to the Champions League group stage, and each year they seem to fail to progress. This season they finished third in their group behind Barcelona and PSG, and will enter the Europa League as a result.

What’s changed then? Well the game certainly has since the 60s and even 90s. Billionaires are becoming more common in the game, and compared to Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Chelsea and PSG, Ajax just cannot afford the big players.

The best Dutch players don’t stick around either. In the 90s, most of the Ajax team were the main core of the national side. Nowadays, most of the squad play their trade abroad. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillissen, and defenders Daley Blind and Joel Veltman were the only Ajax players to feature in Holland’s 23-man squad for last summer’s World Cup in Brazil. Blind has since moved to Manchester United.

The club are a team that are well regarded in Holland, but for the world to acknowledge them, they need to at least get as far as the last 8 of the Champions League.

They remind me of Celtic. Again, the Glasgow club are constantly in Europe’s elite competition, but they also fail to stamp their mark.

Ajax are a club that is proud of it’s history- who wouldn’t be? But the question is, do they want to be remembered for back then, or remembered for the now?

Posted in Football

The MLS: League Growing in Stature or Exile For Past Greats?

So, good old Frank Lampard is the latest to move across to the states as he signs for New York City FC. The sister club to Manchester City. But will NYCFC be able to dominate their domestic league as much as City have over the past few years (2 league titles in 3 seasons)? It all depends on transfers, squad morale and ultimately results.

Having to wait until 2015 for their debut season in the MLS, New York are currently building a team they believe can challenge to go all the way in the big apples’ maiden campaign. However, it’s more big name signings rather than players in their prime.

Don’t get me wrong. David Villa and Frank Lampard are quality players. But they are well beyond their best. Villa was the main man at Valencia and in his early Barcelona days before the terrible leg break in 2011. He didn’t have the hugest impact at Atletico Madrid last season and hopes for a fresh start in NYC. If he can be as prolific as before his injury, New York will do well next season.

Frank Lampard has been Chelsea’s best player of the past 10 years. He constantly hit 20 goals a season and became Chelsea’s all time leading goal scorer last season with a couple of strikes at Aston Villa. In the past few seasons though he has been restricted to fewer appearances at Stamford Bridge then he would of like. Lampard is 36 years of age and is nearing the finishing line of a glorious and successful career, a MLS title with NYC will top it all off.

Compared to sister club city, they don’t spend big and don’t buy the big name stars of today. Manchester City have splashed out on Aguero, Yaya Toure and Jesus Navas in the past few years. They have had successful managers like Roberto Mancini and current boss Manuel Pellegrini. NYC have a rather unknown boss.

Away from Manchester City and New York, another big name will be playing in the MLS next season. Kaka has joined Orlando, again another star who has gone past his prime years. He was player of the year in 2007 when he helped AC Milan win the Champions League, which earned him a big summer switch to Real Madrid in 2009. Similar to Villa, serious knee injuries made his career at the Bernabeu a tough time, and when he rejoined Milan, he failed to make a similar impact to his first stint in Italy.

I guess what I’m trying to get to here is that the MLS is growing and becoming much more recognisable. However, the stars which will embrace the states over the next year or so are older, and much more experienced. Henry, Defoe, Donavan, Kaka, Villa and Lampard have all had their prime years behind them and although they are good players, better players are still playing in the much better leagues on the planet. The Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A and the Eredivisie are all leagues that compared to the MLS have more quality, and it may still be a few years before the MLS can be considered one of the best leagues in the world.