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Monday, May 24, 2004

FA Cup | ATF Awards 2004

I was going to wait until after the FA Cup Final to write this, but decided on doing it early. You—dear readers—were meant to be getting this piece last week. It’s taken me so long to put it together the Cup Final has come and gone, so I better say a few words about it; and a few words is all it deserves. I didnt think the Cup Final could get worse than last year, but Dennis Wise and Milwall managed to make it so. One up front? A holding midfielder? When you’re a division below your opponents and playing a one-off, winner takes all game?

We all know that Dennis Wise’s surname is just a cruel irony, but I didn’t think he was that stupid. After watching his pathetic attempts to look the hard-man in front of the Milwall fans like a baby playing up to his parents—look Mummy! look what I can do! I’m grabbing Paul Scholes face! Look Mummy!—I have to say I wasnt sad to see Milwall lose. Before the game, I’d have swapped an unbeated run for a Lions victory, but by 60 minutes I really couldn’t care less. The only thing that made watching the final even slightly bearable was seeing Cristiano Ronaldo taking the mickey out of vastly inferior opposition. When you’re that kind of player, it must be so fun to play against no-marks who fall for every stepover, trick, flick and shimmy. Ineffective to begin with, Ronaldo’s really beginning to get a bit of direction with his trickery—I’ll be watching him carefully next season (though I think Ferguson’s boast about him being the best player in Europe in a couple of years is naïve at best).

Enough of that anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the fourth annual All Things FOotie Awards:

ATF Player of the Year:
Thierry Henry

Because he really is, that good.

How could I disagree with both the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Association of Football Writers? More so, how could I disagree with what I’ve seen of Thierry Henry. The Premiership has certainly never seen anything like him, and neither has most of the World. There’s nothing he can’t do, nothing he won’t try, he’s an entertainer, but one that’s become only the fourth Premiership player to score 30 goals in the league (that’s just over four goals every five games). So much for him not being a natural goalscorer. On top of that he’s lined up at least four or five potential goals of the season and he’s got an assists record into double figures.

And he’s getting better, his goal tallys, the effectiveness of his tricks and flicks, he’s getting faster. I wouldn’t be surprised if in twelve months, the awards are being handed out to him again, and all of us fans have simply run out of superlatives. What more can you say about him that hasn’t already been said?

Thierry Henry is everything you want from a footballer; but as well as his exceptional ability on the pitch, he’s also a well liked guy amongst his teammates, he’s intelligent, witty and a genuinely nice guy. When was the last time you saw him photographed coming out of a drunken party late on a Saturday night. The way football is agressively marketed, and the way it’s stars are held up as role models, there are plenty of worse people for kids to model themselves on than Monsieur Henry.

Honourable mentions: Frank Lampard, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard, Robert Pires, John Terry, Kolo Touré, Alan Shearer, Juan-Pablo Angel.

ATF Outstanding Young Player:
Kolo Touré

A difficult one this year, and no doubt I’ll be accused of bias in what I regard as a straight choice between two outstanding young centre halves—Kolo Touré and John Terry. If it wasn’t against the ancient, sacred laws of all things footie, I’d make it a joint award, but as it is I have to choose, and my choice is Kolo. Let me explain.

Both players have been key members of the top two teams in the country; the term ‘key player’ gets thrown about a lot without much thought, but you find me an Arsenal fan who says that he could imagine 2003/04 without Touré and I’ll find you a Chelsea fan who says Terry is a bit part player. Without Kolo Touré, Arsenal would have been in serious defensive trouble, with Touré, they’ve gone a whole league season unbeaten and have the best defensive record in the league. ‘Arsenal’s defence is shaky’ proclaimed the press last summer, ‘they won’t win the league without another World Class centre half’, ‘Wenger must spend big’.

Kolo Touré has been the most consistent performer in Arsenal’s defence this season, even more so than the colossal Sol Campbell. Likewise, Terry has been Chelsea’s best defender, but over the course of the season he’s had a couple of very poor performances. Just a couple mind, but Touré has had no bad games, no performances he’d rather forget—even in the defeat at home to Inter, Touré made three or four World Class challenges that prevented an even more embarassing night for Arsenal. When called upon, Kolo has not let Wenger down. Not once. And that is the fine line by which he wins this award, but it would be wrong not to applaud the efforts of John Terry while I’m here.

Honourable mentions: John Terry, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Thomas Hizelsperger, Scott Parker, Wayne Bridge, J’Lloyd Samuel, Shola Ameobi.

ATF Outstanding Senior Player:
Alan Shearer

An elder statesman of the Premiership now, and the league’s top goalscorer, at 33 he’s still approaching the top of the goalscoring charts. If it wasn’t for Alan Shearer, Newcastle’s attempt to reach the Champions League would have been over in January rather than April. As close to indispensible as they get, it’s stating the obvious, but when Shearer finally retires Newcastle are going to have a hell of a job replacing him. I’d go as far as saying that it could see the club slip into the mediocrity they are desperate to avoid.

It’s interesting to ponder whether Shearer’s prominence in these twilight years has anything to do with his retirement from International football. No doubt the man himself would tell you that quitting at 30 has extended his career—or at least the peak of his career—by a few years, but I can’t imagine it making as much difference as it seems to have made. I wonder how much stronger England would be going into Euro 2004 if (9) Shearer was on the teamsheet instead of (with the exception of Owen) young, inexperienced or just plain talentless centre-forwards.

Honourable mentions: Dennis Bergkamp, Les Ferdinand, Paul Ince, Edwin Van Der Saar.

ATF Manager of the Year:
Arsène Wenger

Another tricky one, and one which I’ll no doubt be accused of bias again (despite the League Managers Association agreeing with me), but it has to be Arsène.

David O’Leary has done marvellously well at Aston Villa—arguably making the signing of the season in Nolberto Solano, and as I write, striking a superb deal for AC Milan’s Matrin Laursen, a snip at £3m. Alan Curbishley and Sam Allardyce have done brilliantly for Charlton and Bolton too, particularly given that Curbishley had to sell his best player in January. Chris Coleman has surprised many with his excellent management of a difficult squad at Fulham; also having to cope with selling his top scorer (though not their best player, Steed Malbranque) and doing marvellously. Steve Bruce has done a great job at Birmingham, taking them comfortably into mid-table in only their second season in the Premiership and lets not forget Harry Redknapp’s magnificent season either. Beating Manchester United and Liverpool, two draws with the Champions, and most importantly keeping Pompey in the Premiership without too many nailbiting afternoons for the fans.

You all know I love Claudio to bits too, Champions League Semi-Final and second place is a mighty big achievement. At least, it would be for anyone but Mr Abramovich.

Given all of that, I still ask how can you argue with a man who spent less than any of the aforementioned managers last summer and then proceeded to go the entire season unbeaten? The man who, when calls rang out for Nesta, Cannavaro, Stam, Woodgate et al, took a 22 year old Ivory Coast International and built the meanest defence in the league. The man who every single player in his squad respects and trusts without question, and who’s achieved the unacheiveable just 12 months after being soundly ridiculed for saying the same thing early in the previous season (well, misquoted as saying). you simply cannot argue with Arsène.

The Djimi Traore Award:
Leeds United

Much as I’d like to give this award to Djimi again, he’s not really embarassed himself enough this season (by his standards)—Leeds United on the other hand, are a pitiful laughing stock. From Champions League Semi-Final to the Nationwide in less than five years, how? The ludicrously overrated wide-boy wannabe Terry Venables; the ludicrously overrated hardman wannabe Peter Reid; the ‘mortgage the house to buy a new boat’, so financially inept he should never be given a chequebook again chairman Peter Ridsdale and finally, poor old out of his depth Eddie Gray.

The truth is, that thinking they can buy their way to success shot them in the foot, and that’s no bad thing. The more examples like Leeds United, the more prudent, sensible and well managed clubs like Charlton Athletic and Aston Villa we’ll see. Yes, that’s right, I said Aston Villa. If Doug Ellis was at the helm at Elland Road, do you think they’d be on their way to bankrupcy and playing in the first division now? Not a chance. They may not have seen their side in a Champions League Semi-Final, but how many Leeds fans would swap that for a place in the Premiership now?

I’m not sad to see Leeds drop, because they’ve had it coming, that’s what happens when you let idiots take over, and football needs some big examples for clubs to take notice.

ATF Team of the Season

It would be easy to pick XI Arsenal players here. Very easy. But that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the team of the season. So here goes:

Touré Campbell Terry Cole
Gerrard Lampard Vieira Pires
  Henry Shearer  
Subs: Kiely (GK), Bridge, Angel, Van Nistelrooij, Gallas, Edu

I wanted to put Wayne Bridge in at left back, but how could I split up Cole and Pires? I wanted to put Touré in at centre half, but how could I drop Campbell or Terry? Liverpool fans will be dismayed to see Steven Gerrard on the right flank, but I couldn’t push Frank Lampard—who’s been excellent for the team finishing in second place (rather than fourth) and played excellently in Champions League Quarter and Semi-Finals this year—out wide.

United fans will want to know why Tim Howard isn’t in there, as he is in the official Premiship XI. Howlers, that’s why. You can count the number of mistakes Niemi has made this season on one fingerless hand, Howard on the other hand has made some big mistakes, in big games. Much like Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann—who for all the stick he’s taken this year has played more games and conceeded fewer goals than any other Premiership ‘keeper—Howard has been excellent for 99% of the season but made a few blunders; we judge goalkeepers harshly, and both Howards and Lehmann’s errors are counting against them here.

A strike partner for Henry was the most difficult decision, seeing as there have been so many excellent displays by frontmen this season. Ruud Van Nistelrooij would be the wimps choice, he’s had an indifferednt season at United but still scored a lot of goals—not enough for me. Juan-Pablo Angel has had an excellent season at Villa and is looking like a snip at however many million Doug Ellis paid for him. Louis Saha has settled in at United very well—very quickly too—and it didn’t take him long to start adding to his tally of goals that he brought with him from Fulham. Alan Shearer has just been immense this season; making Newcastle more of a one-man team than Arsenal/Henry or Liverpool/Gerrard.

And that’s it. 2003/2004 all over with. All that’s to come now is the European Cup Final—which should be fascinating but will probably be tiresome—and a month of Internationals before the new season. Bring on August.

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

It's not possible. Is it?

Going the whole season unbeaten? Nonsense. Arrogant, ignorant, conceited. What a load of rubbish.

Thinking about all those people that mocked a misquoted Arsène Wenger twelve months ago is what makes 2003/04 all the sweeter for fans of Arsenal football club. To expect an unbeaten season would be ridiculous, but for anyone who has seen Arsenal perform this year it’s surely less of a surprise. In games where their unique brand of outrageously cavalier, fluid and devastating football hasn’t destroyed the opposition before they’d finished doing up their boots, they’ve had all the collective spirit, grit and determination to grind out unlikely results too.

So who do we laud? Runaway retainer of the PFA and Football Writers player of the year Thierry Henry? The man who consistently makes Steven Gerrard and Roy Keane look like schoolboys, Patrick Vieira? The imperious, mercurial talent that is Robert Pires? How about the meanest defence in the league? The answer is of course, all of them, but I’m reserving special praise for one man in particular.

Ten years ago, Arsenal were in decline; the George Graham bung scandal, best defender and most creative player addicted to everything an affluent young man can be addicted to, a youth system in disarray, best years very much looking behind them. Then, after a couple of years of purgatory, and thanks to a frankly visionary leap of faith by vice-chairman David Dein, along came Arsène Wenger. In seven years, the affable, intelligent and football obsessed Frenchman has turned Arsenal into the best club in the land by such a margin that from August to May, in thirty-eight games, home and away, no team has been able to beat them. A team who in the last three years have won four out of six domestic trophies. A team with the best player in the world—whether you measure by entertainment value, talent, audacity, drive or success—committed to the club as if he was born on the steps of Higbury’s famous marble halls.

Wenger has not done this by spending countless millions on players, he’s not done it by being fortunate in having a clutch of obscenely talented young players arrive on his doorstep, he’s not done it over 20 years. In seven years, using nothing but his own passion for the game and his philosophies on what it takes to be a footballer, he’s taken an ailing football club by the scruff of the neck and transformed the entire business into a model of everything a football club should be. Beyond that, beyond two doubles, beyond three FA Cups, he’s done with a team something that no other side in 115 years has managed. If zero in the losses column does not make a great side, if the champions league is the only way to be called great, then how come NO side in over a century—including the years when opposition was weaker, when there were less teams to play, less extraneous competitions to sap energy—has managed to go unbeaten for a whole season.

Not one side.

Not the ‘Busby Babes’, not Bill Shankley or Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, not Herbert Chapman or George Graham’s (notoriously hard to beat) Arsenal, not Don Revie’s Leeds, not either of Brian Clough’s East Midlanders, not Bill Nicholson’s Spurs, not even Alex Ferguson’s treble winners. None—not even through blind luck, in 115 years—have managed to go unbeaten for a whole season. If that’s not the kind of achievement that makes a team and their manager immortal, then I really don’t know what does. Belittle the achievement next to consecutive European Cups, trebles, or whatever you like, but until someone finds me a better barometer for greatness than being unbeatable, I will forever consider the Arsenal side of 2003/04 one of the greatest teams ever to have graced a football pitch in this country.

So here’s to Monsieur Wenger, and the most entertaining football team I’ve ever seen. Here’s to creating that from next to nothing in less than a decade on a shoestring budget. Here’s to raising the bar for every football team that contests the league in this country any time in the future. Here’s to doing it with style.

Here’s to Arsenal.

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