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All Things Footie | Thursday, August 26 | Jordan

The GOAT?

Was I going to be able to go through today and NOT say something about a certain record that was torn to shreds last night? Unlikely. Can I hold back the patheticly gushing admiration I have for Arsenal, Arsène Wenger and the players that achieved this remarkable feat? Again, unlikely.

Wenger is special. There are some wonderful players at Arsenal, but beating Nottingham Forest’s record is more to do with the man in charge than anything else. More than Arsenal. More than Thierry Henry. More than Patrick Vieira. More than David Dein. True, without Dein—and without the others mentioned—we wouldn’t be witnessing this incredible turn of events, and Wenger would undoubtably be bestowing his gifts on a club in another country (for no English Chairman would have taken the punt that Dein took on an unknown foreign intellectual). It’s all about the man in charge; his methods, his players, his team. To say Arsenal were shrewd in signing up the little-known and very un-English Frenchman would perhaps be the biggest understatement in the history of British football. He’s transformed the club, and more importantly, the face of the game in it’s country of origin for ever.

How significant is the achievement of going 43 games unbeaten, including one full league season? Who knows? Numbers are just numbers after all, and people will remember the team far more vividly than any statistic. So lets put the achievement in perspective. Is the league stronger now than in the sixties, seventies, eighties or nineties? Well, while there is certainly less uncertainty about the top three than there has been—perhaps ever—before, the remaining 17 teams are, in my opinion, far stronger than those in pervious years. More money, more talent and more glamour is associated with clubs that languish in the bottom half of the table than ever before. Teams like Bolton have players like Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro and Jay Jay Okotcha. Man City have the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Shaun Wright-Phillips. Southampton have a glut of international footballers, as do Aston Villa—and even Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace can boast a few International players. Like it or not, thanks mostly to Rupert Murdoch and the kind of influences that most true fans loathe in football, The top league in England is better than it’s ever been. Better players, more internationals, more evenly spread about the clubs, more uncertain (beyond the top three or four) than ever before.

Upsets are more common. We don’t see points records being beaten every season, teams getting relegated are picking up more points than ever before, there’s often no more than five points between ten places in the table. The top teams are not regularly going on long unbeaten runs. Apart from one.

Arsenal’s achievement in going 43 games without defeat in the Premiership—playing every side at least twice—marks them down as the greatest side ever to grace the league. In the history of English football, with all the clubs, all the successful spells, all the domination by different teams, no club have ever achieved this before. With all due respect to Clough’s side of the 70s (and I do stress the with respect—I’m a huge admirer of Clough and his teams), Arsenal had already surpassed that side in football terms before reaching the 43rd game. It’s an admirable quality to have a side determined to not lose, as was the modus operandi of Clough’s Nottingham Forest, but Arsenal have gone a step further in being a side determined to—and able to—win every game. Even the most cynical Arsenal hating pundit (James Lawton, you hapless, pathetic, bitter little runt, I’m looking at you) must admit that they’ve done it in some considerable style. 94 goals in those 43 games (and an amazing twelve in the last three) have cemeted a style of play, an attacking vigour and a swashbuckling joi de vivre on anyone who’s had the considerable pleasure of watching them.

Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Dennis Bergkamp—some of the best players to grace the 12 years of the Premiership, and all of them playing in one team. Not to mention Francesc Fabregas and José Reyes, who are making their marks as we speak.

It’s a pleasure and an honour to have seen this team strut their stuff as often as I have, and as often as even the most casual football fan will have caught them. Anyone having a whinge, or talking about trophies missed or matches not-won should wash their eyes out with battery acid—to not apperciate the quality and achievements of this side is to deny yourself the simple pleasure of watching football played as you never thought it could be.

Footnote If one player must be singled out for praise, it’s worth bearing in mind that in three games so far this season, Thierry Henry has scored three goals, and set up six. He’s quite, quite remarkable.

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All Things Footie | Sunday, August 22 | Jordan

Super Sunday

There was an allegation last year that Sundays on Sky Sports no longer deserved the ‘Super’ prefix. Statistically, the most likely score for a game shown live on Sky Sports on a Sunday was 1-1 or 0-0. In that case, yesterday’s 4.05pm result really upset the applecart. At one-nil up, Arsenal looked to be cruising towards the record equalling 42-game unbeaten run; even Joseph Desire-Job’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time simply looked like all would do would mean Arsenal had to break a sweat in the second half.

Then along came one of the most peculiar passages of play you’ll see all season. With Middlesbrough scoring two thunderbolt goals (from Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink and Franck Queudrue) in the space of a few minutes, and putting arsenal two goals behind for the first time in 42 league games. For Middlesbrough fans who’d watched their team pummelled for 50 miuntes, amazing, for Arsenal fans; sickening flashbacks of missed chances and sloppy box-play. The next ten minutes were a phenomenal show of determination not to get beaten, and audacious attacking talent all clicking into place. Three goals later, Arsenal’s lead was restored. Boro looked shellshocked—as well they might—and even the unflappably confident Wenger was dancing up and down the touchline like Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford.

The fifteen minute spell from 50-65 minutes in that game will go down as one of the most thrilling quarter-of-an-hour passages of play in Premiership history, and it’s significance (in ensuring Arsenal match Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 games unbeaten) was not let down by the spectacle. It took my breath away. I’m beginning to wonder if there’ll be a game this season when Arsenal don’t score three or more goals.

Arsenal won. United won. Chelsea won. Arsenal set-records. Same as last season really. Will someone tell me what they’ve done with the real Brian Clough?

In other news, we also have a new rant from our columist Bill Urban:

Dyer: beaten with the stupid stick

In an era where overpaid, pampered athletes develop a profound sense of entitlement upon receiving their first bloated paycheck, it was somehow comforting to watch the dual-act farce involving the Champion of Prat at the Riverside last weekend, and his home St. James’ Park last night. The comfort arose from the certain realization that the debate over the most arrogant, clueless, and spoiled-beyond-belief Premiership footballer was wrapped up by the actions and attitude of Kieron Dyer.

Read on …

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All Things Footie | Monday, August 16 | Jordan

The waiting is over

To paraphrase the mighty Barney Rubble: Oh Boy! Oh Boy! Oh Boy! Oh Boy! Ain’t it great to have real football back? And isn’t it just as great to have Match of the day back? No Matt Smith. No Andy Townsend. No Clive Allen. No Robbie sodding Earle. If it wasn’t for Mark Lawrenson it’d be just heavenly. It’s so refreshing to just have match highlights and a bit of discussion—no adverts, no ‘tactics-truck’, no ‘Champange Moment’, no gimmicky rubbish designed to cover up just how little the presenter and the panel know about football and how poor they are at expressing the one or two vaguely insightful thoughts they do have to offer.

I caught a bit of Sunday night’s ‘Match of the Day 2’ last night as well, and I think Adrian Chiles is my new favourite sports presenter. He asked Gordon Strachan and Gerard Houllier some really interesting and (in the case of Houllier) probing questions while staying interesting, on-topic and entertaining. I may even have warmed a little to old boggly-eyes after his honesty and humility talking about going back to Liverpool as a pundit. Nice work BBC, I’m looking forward to more of the same.

What about the actual football? Normally, a raft of 1-1 draws would bore me to tears, but I think I was just so glad to see it back I didn’t mind. Jay-Jay Okocha gave everyone a masterclass in how to celebrate your birthday, with two goals and an assist in Bolton’s 4-1 demolition of Charlton. I was surprised how poor Charlton were actually, and Alan Curbishley’s honesty in admitting they were lucky to only concede four should be commended. He’s going to have to work double-time to pull the team around now.

I wasn’t surprised with Aston Villa’s excellent 2-0 win over Southampton, nor was I surprised that Carlton Cole got his name on the scoresheet, he’s a really top player as far as I’m concerned. A good team performance, a good result, some fine individual performances (including Gareth Barry, who must be wondering why—as a talented, hard-working and creative left-footed player—he’s having so much trouble getting into the England squad when no-mark never-were’s like Jamie Carragher and bench warmers like Scott Parker and Joe Cole waltz in). Sven’s an idiot. Have I said that before?

I don’t know what to say about Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink’s scandalous handballed goal, the first time I saw it I was convinced it was a good header. After seeing a replay it was blindingly obvious (even at full speed) that he handballed it in. I can understand how the ref didn’t spot it, but the linesman must just have been asleep. It was quite funny really, unless you’re Bobby Robson.

Only one team managed an away win, but it was no surprise to see the Champions take apart a sorry looking Everton side. If there was a surprise, it was in how assuredly seventeen year-old Francesc Fabregas handled himself in a … shall we say ‘combative’ ... midfield of Thomas Gravesen and Lee Carsley. Confident, crisp, economical and intelligent distribution, tough-tackling, great awareness intercepting opposition balls and great positional sense. He was unlucky not to come away with two goals too. Did I mention he was seventeen? Ljungberg looked sharp and far more like his former danger-man self than he looked last season; Reyes seems to simply not tire; Touré has simply picked up where he left off last season; and I simply refuse to believe that Dennis Bergkamp is 35 and in the last year of his contract, a magnificent performance from the veteran. People say Henry was poor/quiet, but bearing in mind he’s nowhere near match fit (this is only his second game after the summer, including the Community Shield) he still did well to get himself two assists and one semi-assist (his shot parried by Martyn that led to Arsenal’s fourth). Having a striker who contributes so much when he’s not scoring goals is such an underappreciated plus-point.

It’s so difficult to judge how good Everton are after that match—great sides always make their opponents look rubbish. Given that nugget of knowledge, you have to concede that both Manchester United and Chelsea are great sides, as they both looked rubbish yesterday. There was an awful lot of long-balls, an awful lot of wasted posession, and an awful lack of sharpness from the attacking players. If United have ever had a full-back who’s worse than Quinton Fortune, it passed me by, and Liam Miller looked like a child playing a man’s game. I have no-idea what’s happened to John O’Shea, who just two seasons ago was awesome for United, and a key player as they snatched the title from Arsenal, but now seems to have forgotton how to play with the assurance he demonstrated in 02/03. Djemba-Djemba, Bellion, Forlan, Fortune—not good enough I’m afraid.

The poorness wasn’t all one-sided though. Chelsea, while they grafted and ran a lot, looked very uninspiring as an attacking force. Lonely dribbles from the half way line and big punts for Drogba to knock down seemed to be all they had to offer. Makelele, Lampard, Geremi and Smertin simply didn’t seem to have any ideas how to break down a pretty toothless United resistance; either that, or they couldn’t be bothered. I wasn’t impressed. Gudjonsen is a good striker, he’s dangerous in and around the box, and he scores goals; but he has no guile, no nous. So many times Chelsea tried to break, two on one, two on two, staring with Gudjonsen. But when he had to make his decision, pick his pass, he hesitated or misjudged the ball. Drogba and Kezman play higher up the pitch, and can’t fill this much needed role for Chelsea. They need a Zola, a Bergkamp; someone to pick the lock and release the talents of Drogba and Kezman (who, when on the pitch, made some smart runs and looked potentially dangerous). After Chelsea scored, the game degenerated into two back lines hoofing and heading the ball into midfield, where a couple of misplaced passes and crunching challenges later is popped out and scurried towards one or the other of the goals. Very nearly sent me to sleep.

You can’t read too much into anything this early in the season of course, a lot of players are injured, and most players are not match fit. I have to say though that—a little lack of sharpness aside—I think Arsenal and Aston Villa have prepared for the season very well, the teams looked fit, fired up, and ready fo action, whereas every other team looked as though they were struggling to get out of first gear.

One thing before I go, Jose Mourinho. What a guy. If you didn’t see Saturday’s interview, where a journalist dared to offer the opinion that he had an easier job preparing for Sunday than Ferguson as his opponent had nine key players out, then you missed a treat.

“NINE. KEY. PLAYERS? Nine? Is Howard playing? Is Gary Neville playing? How about Silvestre? O’Shea? Keane? Giggs? Smith? ... How can they have nine key players and those seven? So they have SIXTEEN key players do they? How do they all play? ... Heinze? What? A key player? He’s never played for them, how can he be a key player? Come on! tell me! TELL ME!”

Cracked me up.

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All Things Footie | Friday, August 13 | Jordan

Owen | Pre-season predictions

News

As part of the ongoing overhaul of all things footie you may have noticed that at the bottom of the page you now get a list of the ten most recent articles, we hope it comes in useful. The rants section is also getting a slight re-jig, primarily because we have a new writer on board, the enigmatic Bill Urban talks about Michael Owen:

Owen: a Golden Boy no more

Two contradictory images of club icons from the Champions League qualifier between Liverpool and Graz AK painted a clear picture of the Rafael Benitez revolution at Anfield.

Michael Owen, rumored Real Madrid transfer target, sat on the bench with his hands folded, bent forward comfortably over his knees, whilst Steven Gerrard, the man who turned down a move to Chelsea to stay at Liverpool, raced about the pitch until his lungs screamed at him to stop, finishing the match drenched in sweat, having dominated Graz and all but ensured Liverpool’s qualification for the Champions League proper.

Read on …

And now, as promised, my annual pre-season predictions:

Retrospective

Looking back at last year’s predictions, I see some hits, and some misses. The most notable being my predicting a Wayne Rooney inspired Everton to romp to 6th place, when in fact they only just avoided relegation. We’ll forget about that one shall we? Along with my prediction of Bolton’s relegation, when they stormed home to a comfortable 8th position. My bold prediction of Leeds to go down came true—along with my equally bold prediction that Portsmouth would retain their Premiership status—though my somewhat bolder prediction of Wolves to stay up (at the expence of Bolton Wanderers) was, in hindsight, foolish from the ouset. I’ll take no kudos from my prediction of Leicester’s demise. Spurs outdid themselves, finishing four places lower than their usual tenth, and Southapton failed to respond to their FA Cup Final place with sufficient aplomb and finished a full five places lower than the 7th I predicted.

There were successes though, I got Blackburn spot on in 15th, Liverpool and Newcastle in 4th/5th, Middlesbrough spot on in 11th, and Villa/Charlton’s 6th/7th weren’t a million miles away from my predicted 8th/9th places. I got Chelsea and Manchester United the wrong way around (again), but it’s hardly difficult to predict the top three placed teams is it? My greatest shame lies in failing to predict the unbeaten season for Arsenal—I should have know really. In summary:

I overestimated: Manchester United, Everton (considerably!), Southampton, Tottenham, Manchester City, Wolves, Leeds United. I underestimated: Chelsea, Aston villa, Charlton, Bolton (considerably!), Fulham, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Wolverhapton Wanderers. And of course, everyone underestimated Arsenal.

I didn’t fare too well on the player predictions either. Lets all have a guess who I said this about:

“I think Steve Bruce has found an absolute diamond here … he’ll get 25/30 goals this season, you mark my words.”

Luciano Figueroa, you let me down big time. I even predicted that he would settle easier than most South Americans because he brought his whole family with him—so much for that idea.

I consider myself unlucky with Joleon Lescott. I did introduce a caveat into that prediction though, with the crucial phrase “providing he recovers from his knee surgery and stays free of injury”. Well, he might have! I similarly injury struck prediction was that of Arsenal’s Swiss International Phillipe Sendoros, who spent almost all season sidelined. Few Portsmouth fans would argue that Patrik Berger wasn’t crucial to their staying up, so I’m reasonably happy with that one, though predicting Ayegbeni Yakubu’s rise would have been better. The less said about Tony Hibbert the better.

Looking forward

I’ve already spoken about the big teams: I think Chelsea have bought well, but will not have the consistency or team spirit you need to win the league; I think United have the most fragile squad of the top sides, and lack the real depth that Championships need; particularly in midfield; I think Arsenal have bought cleverly, and Patrick Vieira or no Patrick Vieira, have two players for every position, most of whom know each other’s games inside out. They have the most experience, arguably the most talent, and the best chance of taking the Premiership title.

I think Liverpool have also bought well, particularly if the manage to acquire Xabi Alonso, and if they manage to offload Michael Owen for substatial cash, the biggest losers will be Real Madrid—who’ll be getting a player who wouldn’t hack it in La Liga if he had 20 years to aclimatise. Benitez is a canny coach, and he may just coax some good performances out of Liverpool, provided their strikers remain fit and on form. Newcastle have good players, but not a good team; Kluivert was a wonderful player, but I suspect after a bright start, he’ll fade into Premiership obscurity. David O’Leary has done a stirling job at Aston Villa, and once again bought very well this summer, I fully expect Villa to establish themselves as a top-six side this season.

At the other end of the table, West Bromwich Albion have bought well and may just avoid relegation; Everton have bought like a side expecting to go down, and I fear boardroom wrangles will see one of the top division’s oldest members drop out like a stone through a wet paper bag. Crystal Palace have an excellent manager, a supportive board, and a settled team; I’d really like to see them stay up, but I fear for any team that relies on battle and tenacity. There’s not quite enough spark in the squad to keep them comfortable, and I suspect they won’t know their fate until very late on in the season. Norwich City will surprise everyone by staying up—they’ve bought well, have great support and have some genuine class in their team.

The rest: Steve McLaren’s ridiculous transfer policy will see another unsettled squad of lazy gits and time-wasters finish mid-table—again—with the Worthington Cup once more their only hope. Bolton will do OK, but certainly not better their 8th place from last year. Man City will be typical City, and if they lose Shaun Wright-Phillips to Liverpool (or any other team), worse than regular Man City; first managerial casualty of the season will be Kevin Keegan. I predict Chris Coleman’s Fulham will do well again, he’s been very intelligent in the transfer market, signing exactly the players they need, and I can see Radzinski/Cole striking up a prolific partnership. Fulham are very lucky to have Coleman, and the board deserve the respect and support of the Craven Cottage crowds for having the courage to appoint him manager, and show such faith in his methods. Alan Curbishley’s Charlton will do well again, and may sneak that extra place or two up the ladder towards Europe. With the exception of Heskey, Steve Bruce’s Birmingham have been shrewd in the transfer market, and I don’t see them slipping down the table any time soon.

Players

Keep an eye out for:

Denoument

  1. Arsenal
  2. Chelsea
  3. Liverpool
  4. Manchester United
  5. Newcastle United
  6. Aston Villa
  7. Charlton Athletic
  8. Fulham
  9. Birmingham City
  10. Middlesbrough
  11. Bolton Wanderers
  12. Southampton
  13. Portsmouth
  14. Blackburn
  15. Tottenham Hotspur
  16. Norwich City
  17. Manchester City
  18. Crystal Palace
  19. Everton
  20. West Bromwich Albion

So there you go. Roll on tomorrow, and roll on The Premiership 2004/05!

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All Things Footie | Tuesday, August 10 | Jordan

Something old, something new

Yep, it’s been a while again, but what can I say? I’m a busy man!

Firstly, you may have noticed a slight change to the navigation on the right as well as a new section. Following on from the rebranding of the first division to ‘the Championship’, the old ‘stuff’ section has now become ‘downloads’. Amazing eh? In a slightly more exciting addition (though I emphasise ‘slightly’), a brand spanking new Resources section has been added. The idea of this area of the site is to collect information that may be of use to us, the fans.

The first inclusion in the Resources section is a route planner—for those of us who make the arduous journey to strange new towns regularly. After typing in your postcode and selecting the club you’re travelling to, one click of a button magically whisks you away to the RAC Route Planner with all the relevant fields filled in for you. It’s not the most groundbreaking piece of software conceived in the 21st Century, but we hope someone finds it useful. There are a few planned additions to this page soon, but at all things footie we always welcome any suggestions for anything you, the fans, would find useful to have pooled in one place. Leave a message in the comments below of contact us using our feedback form with any ideas you have. Maps of each stadium? Nearest train stations? Pubs? What do you want to see? Thanks in advance.

So, on to football. Sunday’s charity shield was probably the most open and enjoyable charity shield for as long as I can remember; end to end football, countless goalscoring opportunities, four goals, and a chance to see some up-and-coming players on both sides. I don’t think I can be accused of bias if I say that Arsenal were by far the more impressive side on display, in particular the Spanish pair of José-Antonio Reyes and Fracesc Fabregas. I’ve been saying for weeks that Reyes will be a revelation in 04/05—one for the fantasy football teams—I think he’ll outscore Henry and be Arsenal’s ‘main man’ this season. You mark my words.

Fabregas on the other hand is an altogether more surprising proposition. Despite having only recently turned seventeen years old, he’s played an unusually large amount of football for Arsenal—both last year and in pre-season—beating off competition from more established youth players at the club, as well as recent signings such as Mathieu Flamini. I think it may be the Rooney syndrome that David Moyes knows only too well; where the manager doesn’t want to rush a player into the first team at such a young age, but where ability and performances make it inexcusable to do otherwise.

On Sunday afternoon, against big opponents, in a showpiece game, ‘Cesc’ Fabregas demonstrated remarkable composure and efficiency on the ball coupled with an instinctive tenaciousness and ability to time a tackle. He outshone Djemba-Djemba and Roy Keane in the middle of the park, and one could detect the formation of an real understanding with Gilberto. It’s not a one-off either, last year in the Carling Cup he bossed a midfield containing Paul Ince and Alex Rae in a five-nil win over Wolves, and he’s been composed and sharp throughout pre-season. I believe he’s a very special player.

It wasn’t all one-sided of course, I was impressed by Alan Smith’s contribution for United, and his goal was as sweet as the proverbial nut. Tim Howard made a couple of exceptional stops and Djemba-Djemba impressed in spells; Paul Scholes looked pretty sharp too. I still have no idea what was going through Alex Ferguson’s head when he signed David Bellion, and Forlan really is nowhere near Manchester United class. Mikael Silvestre is a liability at centre-half, not bad as a recovery player, but far too easily torn to pieces when a player runs at him. The Nevilles were characteristically dodgy when really pushed for answers to questions asked by Jermaine Pennant and José Reyes.

The biggest gulf between the two sides from this author’s point of view, was the quality of the younger players. Where Arsenal had Fabregas, Reyes, Pennant, the electic-eel-like Ashley Cole clone Gael Clichy, Justin Hoyte, Robin van Persie and unused sub Phillipe Sendoros; United had Chris Eagles, Jon Spector, Darren Fletcher and Kieron Richardson. In my eyes—and maybe they’re skewed ones—Arsenal’s youngsters were and have been infinitely more impressive.

I’ll put together my usual prediction roundup later this week, so don’t forget to check back thursday or Friday.

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  1. Punishment should fit the crime
  2. Ouch
  3. Tevez and Mascherano madness
  4. Predictions
  5. Warming up
  6. The World Cup II
  7. The World Cup
  8. Thought for the day
  9. Ready children? Then let's begin
  10. Don't say I never give you anything