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All Things Footie | Monday, October 25 | Jordan

Balance of power

Nearly six years ago, I remember Marc Overmars bursting clear of the United defence to score the winning goal at Old Trafford on the way to Arsenal’s first league and cup double in 30 years. I remember the game so vividly because United had such a stranglehold on the domestic game at that point in history that three points at their place felt more like ten. United were the best team in the country, they were unbeatable (well, figuratively speaking). It’s a measure of how things have changed in the short half a decade or so since then that three points at home to Arsenal feels like winning the cup final. For United fans. Yesterday I saw fans who didn’t look this happy when their team won the European Cup. There’s no doubt that Arsenal are streaks ahead in the footballing stakes, the not insignificant record of 49 games unbeaten is testimnony to that, but the lingering inferiority complex that fans of the London club have felt over the last five or six years has finally evaporated.

It’s going to be very difficult to write the rest of this article without resorting to petty name calling, bilious rants or general petty-mindedness; can I just assure everyone that it is merely frustration, not bitterness that fuels everything I say from hereon in. I’m not going to try and be clever, I shan’t dress things up, I’m going to be as straight faced as I can.

Firstly there’s the ref. Now, Graham Poll—allegedly our country’s leading match official—was orignially scheduled to referee this much-hyped, high-stakes, high perssure game. I don’t like Poll, neither does Arsène Wenger, neither does Alex Ferguson, but that shouldn’t matter a jot, it’s got nothing to do with any of us. Despite this decision, made some time ago, the match official was changed mid-week to Mike Riley. Mr Riley has seen fit to award a penalty to Manchester United on every one of his previous visits to Old Trafford, all eight of them. That could be an understandable statistic if Riley had a penchant for awarding spot-kicks indiscrimitaely, but he doesn’t. In fact, I think he’s only awarded one other penalty in his Premiership career. Every time he visits Old Trafford he awards United a penalty (most of them very debateable too), this is a widely known statistic, so why on earth would anyone chose to appoint him as a match official? It’s asking for trouble, it’s once again drawing attention to the referee rather than the players and the game, and it’s downright stupid.

Unsurprisingly to everyone, Riley failed to send off Rio Ferdinand for a clear—it really could not have been clearer—foul on Freddie Ljungberg as the Swede broke through the United defence and outpaced the United captain. Even more unsurprisingly, he failed to control Gary and Phil Neville as they continually kicked at José Antonio Reyes, only showing cards after the sixth or seventh cowardly lunge by them. More unsurprisingly still, he failed to censure Ruud van Nistelrooij for an all too typical stud raking, knee-high challenge on Ashley Cole, an offence for which van Nistelrooij will no doubt escape any kind of video panel punishment for some obscure loophole—not being able to view incidents committed by dutchmen on the fourth Sunday of the month or something. The most unsurprising of all his errs however was the awarding of a penalty to United after a pitiful dive from the new golden boy of English football (ensuring he’ll escape any kind of criticism). Times have changed, certain teams have gone unbeaten for unprecedented runs of 49 games, but it’s same-old, same-old at Old Trafford.

I hate having to talk about referees like this. It spoils what would otherwise have been a fascinating encounter. As it was, the sense of injustice was just too strong to be able to enjoy anything. Until Riley’s penalty, United and Arsenal were as evenly matched as everyone expected, neither team looked like winning, neither team desereved to, but matches change on moments. Way back in the mists of time, Arsenal were playing Portsmouth and it was a similar story, when much to the annoyance (to put it mildly) Arsenal were awarded a Penalty after Robert Pires went down after minimal contact from a Pompey defender (shame on me for not remembering who). Arsenal won the game courtesy of the subsequent penalty, and the next forty-something games are history. The fact that Mike Riley is a corrupt, match fixing waste of space and disgrace to the game is besides the point, a shitty decision went against Arsenal, who weren’t able on the day to come back on the day. They didn’t deserve to lose, but on a few occasions over the last eighteen months of invincibility they’ve not deserved to win.

As a great philosopher once said, shit happens. Rooney’s penalty wasn’t a foul, but United should have got one later on from Ronaldo (I’m guessing Riley thought two pens would have been taking the piss, or spoiling the aesthetics of his penalties-per-visit average). The now traditional push and shove, kick and stamp tactics of United were nothing new and plenty of teams this season (and last) have stopped Arsenal playing their cut-and-thrust football this way. United did well to get all three points, even if the way they went about it was ugly and a little suspicious. Ferguson’s tactics were sound and the team applied itself well.

The fact remains however, that there is a long way to go before United can claim to have anything over Arsenal in the footballing stakes. Last season’s heated scenes and sense of injustice at Old Trafford spurred Arsenal on to an unbeaten season, and I for one wouldn’t be surprised if the similar sense of injustice the players must feel at yesterday’s result has a similar effect. Anyone who’s seen Arsenal’s last few games may agree with me that the team was beginning to look a little complacent—a little lacking in motivation. Now they have something to prove again, it’ll be interesting to see Arsenal’s next few performances to see if they can hang on to their lead above Chelsea at the top of the table. United on the other hand, can look forward to attempting to catch up with Bolton and Everton. As Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph so eloquently put this morning:

“In their delirium today, United’s supporters will not stop to award points for artistic merit. If they do, Arsenal are still miles out in front. It is a measure of their brilliance that they have turned the richest club in the country into an ensemble of guerrillas, scrapping and goading to protect their fading dominance when the Islington canon rumbles into town. Deep into this toxic collision of north and south, Mancunian and cockney, United’s players must have been haunted by a voice from deep within. It was the sound of their souls crying out against Arsenal’s superior poise and composure. Arsenal sweep and stroke the ball these days. United poke and prod. The inner voice told the home XI that Arsenal are the better, and not just the more successful, Premiership side. `More successful’ speaks only of statistics on the page. `Better’ is a more piercing, confidence-sapping word.”

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All Things Footie | Tuesday, October 19 | Jordan

Newsflash: United ARE for $ale

Sorry to break this (obvious) news to the legions on Manchester United fans who are protesting otherwise, as well as those that have gone to the trouble of making lovely banners and disrupting reserve games, but contrary to your assertations: Manchester United ARE actually for sale. LOOK, or call your broker, either way, you (as well as Malcolm Glazer) can buy a litte (or large) piece of your football club. A little history lesson for you all:

Way back in the merry mists of time (well, 1878), the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company (LYR) funded the creation of a football team called Newton Heath (or, Newton Heath LYR to be strictly accurate). After twelve years of doing rather well, the club went private in 1890, and a further dozen years down the line in 1902 nearly went bankrupt. Ditching the financial support of the LYR in favour of profiteering as a private company looked like bad move; that was until the Managing Director of Manchester Breweries—a gentleman by the name of John Henry Davies—stepped in with a consortium of local businessmen to clear the debts on the condition that the new consortium would take over the club and change the name. Manchester United was formed on the 28 April 1902.

The team became rather successful, and within a decade of being on the brink of bankruptcy had won both the league and the FA Cup. The consortium took out a big loan to move the club from Clayton and build a shiny new stadium in a slightly more salubrious area of Old Trafford. The (relative) success continued after the move in 1910, and another league championship was added to the trophy cabinet.

Alas, following the death of the club’s saviour Davies in 1927 and nearly 20 years of living beyond their means, trouble loomed again. In 1931 United were heavily in debt and unable to pay players’ wages when James W. Gibson, another wealthy local businessman, took charge of the club, paid the players and paid some of the club’s creditors, but it wasn’t enough. In order to bring United back to solvency and the path of success, Gibson issued a number of shares for sale to fans and businessmen raising £20,000 for the club. Gibson was the Chairman and major shareholder of the private company who owned Manchester United right up until his death in 1951 (he was also the man who approved the appointment of Sir Matt Busby).

Following Gibson’s death, Harold Hardman took over the Chairman’s position, but the running of the club was soon delegated to the Director Louis Edwards (a surname all United fans will be familiar with) shortly after elected shortly after the Munich air disaster. Edwards became chairman in 1964 following the death of Hardman and began the financial revolution at Manchester United. Driven by a desire to turn Old Trafford into the country’s best stadium, Edwards masterminded a huge (and highly controversial) share issue, increasing the number of shareholders by a factor of 20 (taking the number of people with a vested financial interest in the club from 90 to 2000 people). It raised over £1m, and took the club to a new level financially, but at the expense of board and shareholder freedom. With the company still being private however, shares were not openly traded, and it was not possible for just anyone to buy in, and certainly not possible for anyone to take control of the club without the agreement of the MD.

Despite the financial windfall that the share issue provided, United enjoyed relatively little success with Louis, and the same was to follow later (from 1980 when Louis Edwards passed away) with his son Martin, at the helm. In 1984, Robert Maxwell tried (and failed) to buy United for £10m, and in 1989 Michael Knighton attempted a takeover that also failed (with a little help from a bitter Robert Maxewell).

Manchester United Football Club became Manchester United PLC on May 31 1991. The conversion of the club from a privately owned business with only itself to care about to a publicly owned company that has a legal responsibility to maximise profit for it’s 2,597,404 unvetoed shareholders, earned the company £10m to spend on developing the stadium and buying players. It’s no coincidence that this windfall, and this change in the way the club is run and owned, could not coincide more perfectly with the upturn in fortunes of Manchester United. Alex Ferguson joined the club in 1986, yet it took him until 1993—after the shares windfall—before they won the league. Of course Ferguson played a huge part in United’s success in the nineties, but so did the conversion of the company from a privately owned business with it’s own interests at it’s heart, to a publicly run company with profits for shareholders it’s raison d’être.

Now we’re seeing the dark side of PLCs, takeovers by shady, ginger, American milloinaires who’ve never seen United play. But I didn’t hear any fans complaining about the state of affairs when United were winning trophies and when they’re spending £20m a year on players off the backs of shareholder investment. No. Manchester United is a PUBLIC limited company, it IS for sale, to anyone with a stockbroker and some money. As it is, nearly 15% is owned by an Arsenal supporting Irish horse racing magnate who’s fallen out with the boss; how is that any better than a rich American TV/sports mogul? One thing Glazer has on his side, and what no amount of daft protests will put asunder, is that whoever owns Manchester United, wherever they play, and however well they’re doing—people will still pay money to watch them and buy the replica shirts, because us football fans are stupid like that. United took a gamble when they formed a PLC, a gamble with significant short term gains, and possibly equally significant long-term losses. The only way out of the situation would be for someone to buy out all the shareholders and reform a private company, but that just doesn’t happen, because to some people—money is more important than anything.

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All Things Footie | Monday, October 18 | Jordan

‘It’s the worst thing I’ve seen in football’

The thing people don’t realise is that Alex Ferguson has been quoted hopelessly out of context, poor lamb. What he was actually saying was after spending a large percentage of the national debt of ethopia on granny shagging forwards, doped up centre halves, Olympic hopefulls and second rate Brazillian/Cameroonian journeymen, the way they can’t beat Birmingham on an off day is ‘the worst thing’ he’s seen in football. When asked about the ‘brawl’ at Old Trafford last season, what he actually said was:

‘Well, it was just handbags really. I’ve seen bigger scuffles in training—I don’t know what all the fuss was about. I mean, my captain deliberately ended a players career a couple of seasons ago with a vile, malicious, thigh-high challenge; a few years before that, my mad star-player was on his way off the pitch when he sent a studs-up kung-fu kick into the crowd assaulting a fan and nearly getting locked up, and about ten years ago there was a full blown punch up between my boys and Arsenal. No, that nonsense last year was—though thoroughly uncalled for—all part of the game’

Or did I just dream that the desperate, semi-senile old has-been talked some sense?

Saturday saw Arsenal rack up number 49 on their unbeaten trail, and it’s getting to the point where we’ll stop applauding each victory and just give each in an olé like just another pass in a seemingly endless move. And just as when your team’s strung 49 passes together, each touch accompanied by the customary cheers, When they do finally lose the ball it doesn’t make much difference: you know they’ll get hold of it again soon. Arsenal are at that point now; they’ve proved their point, made their statement, it may be possible that the astonishing record that’s re-set each weekend will start overwhelming the greater achievement that is to get a side playing the way they do. I’ve never seen a side play with such unnerving swagger and confidence as Arsenal do, and I’ve never seen a 17 year old newcomer epitomise that swagger in the way that young Cesc Fabregas does in Arsenal’s midfield. Central midfielders—as Alex Ferguson is finding out—are one of the most difficult players to find. Ones who can dictate a game the way Roy Keane used to, the way Steven Gerrard and Patrick Vieira do now, not just stelly warriors but subtle users of the ball, clever passers who read the game as well as they play it. Unlike the position of striker or goalkeeper for instance, being able to do this in a side surrounded by great players is more difficult—they demand more. I’ve never seen anyone under 24 come close to being able to fill the role; Fabregas is a freak of nature.

Liverpool pulled off a fine comeback in difficult circumstances to beat Fulham 4-2 on Saturday too. I’ve got a lot of time for Fulham, and they looked completely in control at 2-0 up before a lucky (or unlucky if you’re Chris Coleman) deflection sent a speculative Milan Baros shot looping over Edwin van der Saar. From then on, there was only one team in it. I’ve been very impressed this season with the attitude Rafa Benitez has brought to the Liverpool side, and I’ve been particularly impressed with the flying winger Luis Garcia. For five or six seasons now, Liverpool have desperately needed a wide man, someone to hug the touchline, run with the ball, cut in, give them a bit of width. Berger was their ideal solution but Houllier never used him; other than that it was converted forwards/central midfielders trying to play wide roles. As soon as Benitez shook off this width-phobia and Owen-obsession Liverpool have matured into a decent side. Surprised? Not me.

I think everyone in the country is guilty of misjudging Everton. It’s still early doors, but I—along with a few others I hasten to add—had written the Toffees off at the start of the season as no-hopers, but as in his first season there, with little expectation on the team David Moyes has seen his side blossom. And with the sale of Rooney, the bank balance too. Pats on the back all round at Goodison Park.

I like Jose Mourinho. I’m in a minority I think, but he tickles me. I like his arrogance, I like his myopia, I like the way he lays into journalists or just refuses to speak to them. I like him even more when his side’s just lost. He’s like the grumpy old grandad of the Premiership (despite being one of the younger bossess). Chin up Jose.

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All Things Footie | Thursday, October 14 | Jordan

England held

A blustery, cold and wet night in Baku saw England held to a 1-0 win against Azerbaijan. Sure, we can blame the weather for a dire showing, but a one goal return with three strikers on the pitch says something isn’t working properly. A well organised, fit Sunday-League team would have given the Azeris a game, I don’t mean to be disrespectuful, but on that showing they’re one of the worst International teams I’ve ever seen. They could barely pass it straight, I won’t mention the finishing (I was reminded of the old Fantasy Football sketch where Jason Lee had his own specially shaped goal) and yet England still nearly conceded on two occasions.

Only Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard emerged from the game with anything to shout about. Sure, Owen converted a great wind-assisted cross while entirely unmarked six yards from the centre of the goal with the keeper in no-man’s land, but if he’d have missed that chance then … well … yes. Rooney was poor, very wasteful, poor decision making, loose passing—he looked more like a 17 year old in a mans game yesterday than ever before. Perhaps he’s bringing some of the club-form inconsistency that many frustrated Everton fans will tell you about to the International stage. Has the novelty worn off now there’s more pressure on him? For England’s sake I hope not.

Jermaine Jenas was a surprise choice for inclusion in the starting eleven, and he didn’t do much to justify his place. He didn’t make any glaring errors, but he didn’t do anything to make him stand out either. I can only assume that Eriksson didn’t want to play the effervescent Shaun Wright-Phillips becasue it would unbalance his midfield three, but given that I’m surprised Owen Hargreaves didn’t get the nod ahead of Jenas. Butt was dull, Neville had one of ‘those’ games, and Robinson looked a bit nervy punching a few balls and misjudging crosses (though one has to put some of that down to the awful conditions). Jermaine Defoe looked like a bit of an Owen clone yesterday—while we all know he’s got a better touch than the Madrid man, I was surprised to see him taking an Owen-esque several touches before having the ball under control. Maybe it was nerves, maybe the weather, but he was the same against Wales.

Ashley Cole was again excellent—lively, dilligent, mature—and both Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand reinforced their claim as one of the best central defensive pairings in the World (though Campbell did make a hash of one challenge that against a better pub side would probably have led to a goal).

Having had a bit more time to think about it, I have much to say about Beckham’s stupidity (yes David, not cleverness, stupidity); mainly that he could easily have gotten himself booked without risking injury to himself or Thatcher. He’d just scored for God’s sake, he could just have removed his shirt. I bet he wouldn’t be admitting how clever he was if Thatcher had jumped and broken Beckham’s ankle in the challenge. Roy Keane was chastised and punished for deliberately fouling someone, and Beckham should be too. How likely is that? I’d sooner bet on Alan Green getting the Cameroon coaching job.

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All Things Footie | Monday, October 11 | Jordan

Ashamed

If you want a reason why I can’t support England anymore—why when Frank Lampard and later David Beckham scored I didn’t even let out a modest ‘Yelp!’ of excitement—look no further than those England fans who first booed the Welsh National Anthem, and then couldn’t keep their big, stupid, flabby mouths shut for just sixty seconds while Ken Bigley was remembered. only a cynic would suggest that with the venue being in Manchester and with the late Mr Bigley being from the regional rival city of Liverpool, disrespect was to be expected. That said, and cynic that I am, I’m afraid to say that I do not think this was the case. I simply think it was typical behaviour of the kind of drum banging, two World-Wars and one World Cup singing, lager-fuelled moron that follows England—the kind that we are constantly told is the ‘minority spoiling it for good, honest fans’, but quite frankly I’m beginning to wonder. They’re one loud and numerous minority that’s for sure.

The game itself was largely dull (not nearly as entertaining as Ireland’s splendid 0-0 draw with France in Paris), illuminated by the odd moment of class from Rooney, but little else. It was a solid defensive showing, with Campbell as solid as ever, and both Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole impressing in particular. Ferdinand was calm and composed at the back, and while he did lose position a few times as he went a-wanderin’ (reminiscent of the excursions Sol Campbell used to embark on every now and then in his younger days), his distribution and composure under pressure made him look almost as good as many expected when he was a promising young defender under Harry Redknapp at West Ham. Ashley Cole handled a relentlessly lively Craig Bellamy well for the entire game, not giving the Newcastle forward an inch of space and ensuring that not once did he get past him. This maturity on the back of his outstanding string of performances in Euro 2004 confirms Cole as one of the World’s brightest full backs, and the fact that he is omitted from the FIFA World Player of the Year nominations while both Roberto Carlos and Cafu have their names in despite both having a less than impressive 12 months says more about the corrupt, cash-motivated, ego-caressing dung-heap that is the beautiful game’s supreme governing body than mere words could. God help us all.

Talking of the nominations, it’s a bit of a tricky year really, like last year. With Greece winning Euro 2004 and just about every major nation disappointing, and Porto winning the Champions League (while, similar to Euro 2004, all the ‘big’ clubs went out reasonably early), it’s not just a case of picking the best player from the best team. Looking at exploits at club level and all the qualities you’d ask for in a ‘player of the …’ award it’s between Ronaldinho, Andrej Shevchenko, Thierry Henry and Kakà as far as I’m concerned. All attacking players, yes, but that’s just the way these things swing isn’t it? No prizes for guessing where my vote would go, no-one can touch Thierry Henry at the moment, and couldn’t last year either (where he was robbed in the same award ceremony). No doubt it’ll end up going to one of the darlings though: Zidane, big fat Ronaldo, Figo, Carlos, Beckham, Owen.

How can Owen get nominated? Because Madrid signed him? How about Baros and Rooney? Who despite impressive Euro 2004’s had very poor league seasons. And Theo Zagorakis? Cristiano Ronaldo? Are you taking the proverbial FIFA? Oh you are! Sorry.

More rubbish Internationals in the week, this time England travel to the mighty Azerbaijan, whose biggest claim to fame is being the birthplace of the linesman who allowed Geoff Hurst’s goal in the 1966 World Cup Final (maybe this nugget of topical information will stop all the stupid ‘Russian linesman’ gags that John Motson is so fond of). I read a charming interview with the late Tofig Bakhramov’s son in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday; despite his father (who the Azeri national football stadium is named after) being a national hero he’s still living in his home country, unemployed and not exactly living a life of Luxury. I’m certain every Azerbaijani player appreciates the honour of playing for his country, and I doubt any of them (let alone the captain) will be deliberately picking up bookings to avoid the long trip to England.

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m secretly hoping for an Azeri win. I do love to support the underdog every now and then (particularly if it facilitates the ousting of Eriksson, whom I dislike more every day).

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All Things Footie | Sunday, October 3 | Jordan

Time and time again

Yes, it’s been a long time (again) since I last updated. My excuse is simple—I’m on holiday. But here are a few quick, badly composed and not very well considered words.

A lot has gone on since my last post shortly after Cloughie bowed out. I went to the Manchester City vs. Arsenal game and was given one of the strangest freebies I’ve ever had before kick-off. Given the high profile nature and general unplesantness of fans throwing things at players, it beggars belief that outside the city of manchester stadium there were scores of people handing out free Manchester City branded lighters to passing fans—home and away. If it didn’t represent such a nasty side to the game it’d be hilarious.

In football, the big news (and one that even surprised me) was Wayne Rooney’s sensational debut for Manchester United in the Champions league. There’s no doubt it was breathtaking, there’s a lot of doubt about whether Fenerbahçe are anything more than an awful, awful side however. I mean, David Bellion scored for Clough’s sake. Rooney’s influence couldn’t help Manchester United today however, as they dropped another two points at home to Middlesbrough and now lie nine behind Arsenal after just eight games. The fans may have to wit a little longer for the new dawn they were (are?) expecting—I’ve said it before, but it’s a midfielder that United need, not a fifth forward.

Winning the league is rarely about being able to win 6-0 three or four times a season, it’s about being able to scrap out 1-0 wins on days when everything doesn’t go right—something that the United of Giggs, Keane, Scholes and Beckham could do with ease, but that the current line up is struggling to do because of varying combinations of age, permanent loss of form and lack of quality. At the moment, their strikers are doing all they can to ensure that they don’t keep dropping three points—grabbing last minute goals and scapping for points (in the Premiership anyway), but more often than not, midfields win you leagues. Overmars, Petit, Vieira, Parlour; Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Beckham; Pires, Vieira, Gilberto, Ljungberg. Of the current crop, only Ronaldo looks good enough to bring United any closer to their goal.

Chelsea look solid, but while they have a strong defence and a potent attack, they lack a real cohesion in midfield. Tiago is new, Joe Cole is inconsistent; they’ll need more to ensure they’re always picking up points.

So long as Arsenal keep playing they way they are right now though (and so long as they have thierry Henry), it’s all looking bleak for the rest of the league. I’ve seen some pretty impressive and outrageous goals in my time—Van Basten, Bergkamp, Ibrahimovich, Henry, Di Canio—but Henry’s backheel yesterday was just out of this world. Up there with any of them. Football’s so much more fun when there are players like him around.

Must dash now, I never feel quite comfortable in Internet cafés; don’t know why, must be all the old nerds on Dungeons and Dragons sites….

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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