Category Archives: The View From The Top Tier

Ronaldinho’s Resurgence

Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, or Ronaldinho to most of us, is arguably one the 21st century’s greatest players. A player who innovated the game as we know it today; a player who was influential in creating the current dominance by Barcelona in European football and a player who can boast two FIFA World Player of the Year awards to his list of achievements. He is a player who is synonymous for lighting up stadiums with his magician-like feet and playing football with an ear to ear smile. If you had to picture the ultimate Brazilian footballer, Ronaldinho would tick every box; skill, pace, power, flair, balance, agility and the natural born ability to play the beautiful game beautifully. Why then has a player at only 31, with such undoubted talent and with two FIFA World Player of the Year awards to his name, only played six international games in three years and was failed to be picked for the 2010 World Cup? Equally why is a player of such ability and importance to European sides in recent history, now applying his trade in a league where most of his team mates dream of the opportunity to move across the Atlantic to one of Europe’s top leagues?

Ronaldinho like many of his South American counterparts could not get to Europe quick enough in his younger years, but now in 2011, those who came over in such vast numbers are frantically seeking a one way ticket home. It has been an ever growing problem across Europe in recent years, particularly with Brazilian players, who are prone to having disagreements with staff and teammates alike. Couple this with the pressure of stardom and the benefits that come with the footballer’s lifestyle, many a player can lose their focus on the game and in turn see their performances and relationships at clubs degrade. For Ronaldinho after reaching the pinnacle of the game in 2004 and 2005, where he received the FIFA World Player of the Year award in consecutive years, the expectation upon him was crippling. After his performances began to slip from the impeccable standards of past seasons, the 2008 Barcelona season provided us with a view of Ronaldinho we were unaware existed. Not only had the smile left the Brazilian’s face, but he seemed to lack confidence and looked petulant on the pitch. Off the field there were reports that the once keen trainer had begun turning up late for training and had been seen in Barcelona clubs and bars in the early hours. It appeared the one they called “El Gaucho” had lost his love for the game and after a premature end to his 2008 season due to injury, Barcelona chairman Joan Laporta claimed Ronaldinho needed a new challenge and shipped him to AC Milan for £14.5million.

The Italian challenge was a breath of fresh air for the Brazilian and shades of the old Ronaldinho began to ooze out of his performances. With a record of 29 goals in 116 games, it was a far cry from his heyday, but an improvement none the less. However, after with battles with fitness and fluctuations in on field performances and with his weight (an on running problem since his Barcelona days), rumours began to circle that AC Milan wanted to offload Ronaldinho and his colossal drain on the wage bill. In January of 2011 Ronaldinho joined Brazilian club Flamengo after reaching an agreement with AC Milan to terminate his contract. Ronaldinho’s European show had come to an end, and in turn provided him with another chance to reinvent himself back in his homeland. Many have followed suit, the likes of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima (Ronaldo), Luis Fabiano, Fred, Adriano and Robinho (temporarily on loan) among overs, have all made the switch back to Brazil in search of a new start for their career. Similarly to Ronaldinho, disagreements at clubs, off field accusations and dips in form have all forced the choice. However, why is this case? Even at the ripe old age of 35 Spaniard Michel Salgado is applying his trade for Blackburn in the Premier League, while Ryan Giggs in the 2010-2011 season was influential in Manchester United’s trophy successes at the age of 37. So why not the Brazilians?

One recurring trend in the decision for Brazilian’s to move home is a fall in fame or importance. When playing in Brazil the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Robinho were the stars of the show and the key men in their respective sides. Similarly when Ronaldinho moved initially to PSG (France) in 2001, he was soon a fan favourite, which gained him a move to the Catalan club Barcelona in the first place. After his move to Spain his success was phenomenal and he managed to take Spain and Europe by storm, again becoming a club’s prized possession and rightly was awarded the individual accolades in response. However, after dips in form and the rise of other sensational players in Barcelona’s ranks, the focus began to derive away from the Brazilian. In the 2007-2008 campaign the Lionel Messi whirlwind was gaining momentum and the necessary plaudits. Coupled with Ronaldinho’s dip in form, the fans at the Camp Nou had a new favourite, a new star, and for Ronaldinho he could not cope. It was the first time he was not a club’s main man. Similarly, after Robinho’s move to City he was faced with an influx of new players and fell down the pecking order after lackluster performances. Brazilian’s know though, that a move back to their homeland will bring them the same level of fan devotion as they had in their prime years and in turn will bring their career back in line with what they are used to.

It has certainly seemed profitable for Ronaldinho. At his unveiling in Flamengo 22,000 fans celebrated his arrival at the Maracanã and a level of support more akin to his glory days was apparent. Since January, Ronaldinho has scored 12 goals in 18 games for the Rio de Janeiro side and has become one of the stand out players in the league. Similarly, the famous buck-toothed smile is visible every time he steps out on to the pitch and his fitness is commendable. The rapid improvement has brought plaudits from all levels, but most significantly from Brazil manager Mano Menezes who has awarded “Gaucho” with only his second cap since 2009, where he will face Ghana in a friendly tonight (5th September).

The contrast in player from before and after the move is gargantuan and there seemingly appears some logic in the Brazilians’ decision to return home way before their years. It’s a mystery which many fail to understand; why players of such undoubted talent decide to give up the opportunity of playing in the world’s best leagues to have the easy life at home? However, by only looking at Ronaldinho’s face the happiness seems to be back in his football, which in turn produces the kind of performances which captivate fans in their thousands and influences so many young footballers. To not see Ronaldinho playing in the Champions League or in a World Cup is a travesty, but at the rate of improvement he is enjoying at Flamengo, all he needs is an impressive performance against Ghana at Craven Cottage, along with the support of Mano Menezes and that could all change. After all the World Cup is in Brazil in 2014, the country he finds both success and happiness in and it would be a fool to suggest we might not have a Brazilian version of Ryan Giggs terrorizing European and International defences come 2014.

David P Harrison


The Mystery of Transfer Deadline Day

31st of August and 31st January are two days each year which could easily gain national holiday status. Across the country men and women of all ages are gripped from the minute they wake up till the minute they go to sleep by the transfer deadline day saga. All PCs, televisions and phones are tuned into Sky Sports News showing live updates with a dramatic aura. It is a rollercoaster of emotions for the fans, managers and the chairman, with the constant “will he won’t he” creating a sense of uncertainty. It is a baffling situation where clubs of all sizes and backgrounds get the opportunity to finish their business in the transfer market until the next window. However, why is there such a mad rush? Clubs have had since July in the summer window to begin dealing in the market, yet in many cases clubs “miss out” on the last day due to a lack of time before dealing closes. Deadline day is stressful for all; managers are locked in rooms frantically calling agents, clubs and players; players are dashing up and down the country in all modes of transport; while fans are sat nervously in front of their television sets hoping, wishing and demanding that they get their man. The 2011 summer transfer deadline day provided drama and excitement of epic proportions, but who has gained and who has lost out in the day etched into all football fans’ diaries?

The clubs most involved on the final day were Stoke, Queens Park Rangers and Arsenal. Remarkably Arsenal had gone through much of the transfer window without delving into the transfer market considerably. It was glaringly obvious to neutrals and Arsenal fans alike that the Gunners were weak at the back and needed significant investment. However, it took an 8 – 2 drumming by Manchester United for Wenger to see that reality. Only on the last day did the usually tight-fisted Frenchman sense the urgency to bolster his squad. With the money made from the Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri departures, Arsenal welcomed German centre-back Per Mertesacker, Brazilian left-back Andre Santos, South Korean striker Park Chu-Young, Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun and dramatically in the last hour Spanish centre-midfielder Mikel Arteta. It is unheard for Wenger to spend so freely, but it will certainly provide Arsenal fans with a little more reassurance going into the rest of the season after torrid first month. As the case with most transfers these days, they were all completed for an undisclosed fee. But as Arsenal fans across the country wake up with a sense of relief after their day’s dealings, there will be another set of fans waking up in despair, those from the blue side of Merseyside.

With an hour to go before the end of the window, a reasonably quiet day for Everton FC due to their current financial constraints was coming to an end, with Real Madrid midfielder Royston Drenthe looking set to be the only capture of real significance. By 11:15pm the mood had changed around Liverpool, as it was confirmed that star player Mikel Arteta would be joining Arsenal on a four-year-deal. The Arteta deal was a coup for Arsenal, who needed a creative midfielder to replace Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, however, for Everton it was tragic. Everton were able to spend precious little over the summer months due to the financial constraints which were upon them, but the one thing that provided a little joy for the Toffees was (what they thought) the understanding that they would keep hold of all key players. Unfortunately this was not the case, and it now leaves David Moyes in the tragic position where he has lost his key man and left a matter of minutes to find a replacement, which is impossible.

Transfer deadline day has winners and losers, Everton clearly in the summer of 2011 are the ones who have lost out, however, Arsenal are by no means the only club to have a successful last day of trading. As with the Arsenal dealings, I am baffled by the sudden spending power shown by Stoke City. Like Arsenal they had been rather quiet throughout the majority of the transfer window, with a steady stream of free transfers being the only new arrivals at the Britannia stadium. Similarly to Arsenal though, Stoke manager Tony Pulis thrived under the pressure of a clock ticking and managed to complete some of the most impressive deals of the day. New arrivals included England international Peter Crouch, former Birmingham striker Cameron Jerome and Honduran centre-midfielder Wilson Palacios. All experienced Premier League players, with the former’s signature smashing Stoke’s transfer record at £10million. Clearly good business by Pulis, however, the question has to be raised, where on earth was this money previously? Why did it take the last day to realise the club has money in the bank and we should strengthen? It’s one of the mysteries of transfer deadline day, only the clubs will know.

Crouch and Palacios moved to Stoke as part of a max-exodus from Tottenham Hotspur. Others leaving the club included Jermaine Jenas, David Bentley and Alan Hutton. With the influx of funds made by sales, you would imagine the usually busy manager on deadline day Harry Redknapp, would make a few astute buys himself. Harry Redknapp and transfer deadline day come as a pair, every year the North London club release information of a big name transfer with only minutes to go. However, remarkably it was a very quiet day for Spurs with Scott Parker the only player to join the club, with business being tied up earlier in the day. Transfer deadline day is riddled with rumours and speculation, with Spurs usually being at the centre of gossip. With an hour to go in the window, Sky Sports News (SSN) was reporting that Brazilian international Kaka was set to sign for Tottenham. What I fail to understand is where do reporters gain such information from? Harry Redknapp only minutes later confirmed the rumour was false. It is just another mad aspect a mad day, where the reality and rumour are hard to distinguish.

Queens Park Rangers have gone a considerable way to strengthening their chances of avoiding relegation. QPR had already been rather busy in the transfer market up until the 31st, but made a further statement under the new guidance of new chairman Tony Fernandes, signing Anton Ferdinand, Shaun Wright-Philips, Luke Young and Jason Puncheon. Before the 31st it was clear that QPR could be struggling in a relegation dog-fight come May. This all may have changed in one day of frantic business, with scenes of players running into Loftus Road stadium with only minutes to complete deals. Similarly frantic to QPR’s deals was the news that Liverpool’s Portugese centre-midfielder Raul Meireles had handed in a transfer request at 10pm, before the 11pm closure and somehow managed to negotiate a deal to move to Chelsea.

Transfer deadline day is a day of mystery, with players plagued by injury like Owen Hargreaves making moves to big spending giants City after leaving the club’s rivals; a day where helicopters are toing and froing between cities transporting players; a day where at the final hour a club could attempt to hi-jack your deal as in the case of Ruiz to Fulham/Newcastle; a day where clubs suddenly have bottomless pits of cash after months of inactivity and finally a day of stress, sadness, joy and excitement which few of us will understand but few will take their eyes off. See you on the 31st January.

David P Harrison



The Life Of The Not So Rich And Not So Famous

Cannes, one of the shining jewels on the French Riviera or the Cote D’Azur as it is known locally. The millionaire’s playground most famous for its annual world renowned film festival is a city which attracts celebrities and tourists in their hordes. Catching a glimpse of a mega yacht, a Ferrari or a celebrity is common place as you walk along the seafront or down the never ending rows of designer boutiques. A city which attracts such high levels of wealth and such vast numbers of people surely has a football club at the pinnacle of French football, recording weekly sell-out crowds and attracting some of the world’s most exciting players to the French coast. Not quite. You could be forgiven for not noticing AS Cannes as you scanned the French leagues, they are currently languishing in the French fourth tier, known as the Championnat de National amateur (CFA). The CFA is comprised of a mixture of semi-pro clubs, but mainly amateur clubs, who are vying in four regional leagues to gain promotion to the French third tier the Championnat National. After a little research you would notice that AS Cannes finished fifth in the National in the 2010-11 season, only two positions from promotion to Ligue 2, the equivalent of the Championship in England. Why has the club that finished 11 places and 25 points above the relegation zone, found themselves applying their trade in the 2011-12 season in an amateur league?

AS Cannes are not accustomed to playing in the French fourth tier; in the 1997-98 season the South coast club were plying their trade with the French elite in Ligue 1, against the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille. In fact AS Cannes were one of the founding members of the professional French Divison One in 1932. With their stadium, the Stade Pierre de Coubertin, boasting a capacity of 16,000, why are the side only recording an average gate receipt of 1,869 in the 2010-11? Similarly, how is a club that can proudly claim having world renowned names such as Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Gael Clichy on their books in recent history, be struggling so dramatically? The answer is money. Ironically, a football club in one of Europe’s richest locations is struggling drastically financially. During the summer of 2011 there have been rather contentious and dramatic court cases taking place across the lower leagues in France, forcing Cannes amongst other clubs to be humiliated to relegation.

The Direction Nationale du Contrôle de Gestion (DNCG) is the organization responsible for monitoring and overseeing the accounts of professional association football clubs in France. On 26th May 2011, following a preliminary review of each club’s financial and administrative accounts in the National, the DNCG ruled that Strasbourg, Pacy Vallée-d’Eure,  Grenoble,  Gap and Cannes would be relegated to the CFA after the organization came to the conclusion that the clubs were enduring financial difficulties. The organization also excluded Toulon from participating in the CFA and relegated both Agde and Chambéry to the fifth division. On 19th July 2011 Cannes had an appeal to remain in the National rejected and had to wait till the 4th August 2011 for its re-appeal hearing. On the 4th August, a day before their season either in the National or the CFA was about to begin, the Football Federation re-affirmed its decision to relegate Cannes to the CFA using the DNCG’s evidence. 

It seems impossible for a club who share the same wealthy coastal stretch with successful clubs such as Marseille, Nice and Monaco could fall into the depths of despair and become entangled in the financial difficulties that have forced them into one of the darkest periods of the club’s history. As stated above, the situation is not purely a Cannes problem. Far from it in fact, an alarming number of French clubs, some more notable than others, have had to accept relegation due to poor fiscal control. RC Strasbourg for example, is a club playing in the sixth biggest city in France, who reached the last sixteen of the 2005-2006 UEFA Cup due to winning the 2004-2005 French League Cup and as recent as 2007 were playing in Ligue 1, but are now a club in liquidation and resigned to playing in the French fifth division. One comparison that is glaringly obvious between the Strasbourg and Cannes situation, is the fact that both clubs were spending beyond their means. This is a worrying trend which has become apparent not only in France but across Europe.

I would never wish the day of tragedy many fans have faced in recent years, where the word dissolution of precedes and the club’s name. However, it is happening at an alarming rate. One only has to look in England and the recent dissolution of Rushden & Diamonds or the ending of one of England’s oldest clubs Scarborough to notice the reality of the situation even in our own country. Even the larger clubs are not safe, some of England’s historically biggest clubs such as Leeds and Southampton have had severe financial troubles, the former going into liquidation in 2007 and the latter going into administration in 2009. The recent situation in Spain has emphasised how substantial the financial difficulties in football are becoming, especially in the current world economic climate. The Spanish top division La Liga had the first game of the new season postponed due to strike action by the Association of Spanish Footballers, after disputes over pay, with many clubs being unable to play their players for a number of months.

There are distinct flaws in our game, where clubs seem to have endless pits of money and rise to success from nowhere due to substantial cash injections. Flooding a club with money is a dangerous game, because if the investors pull out you suddenly owe a lot of players a lot of money. Equally, if the money is injected via loans, suddenly the debt sharks are looking for their money back, and if it cannot be paid, it could be the end of many a football club. Football clubs such as Crawley Town should take note of the situation in France, where clubs who are of a much greater stature to themselves fell from grace due to financial difficultly. If a club in a city like Cannes, on one of the world’s richest coast lines, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year and a club who have produced some of France’s best players, can go into administration, then what hope does a big spending team from West Sussex with only one year in the football league have?

David P Harrison


Fernando Torres – The Dormant Star

On 31st January 2011 the British transfer record was smashed by Chelsea, signing Fernando Torres for £50million on a five-and-a-half year contract. That same day Andy Carroll’s move from Newcastle to Liverpool for £35million made him the most expensive British footballer in the game. At first glance Chelsea had signed one of the world’s most prolific goal scorers for only £15million more than Liverpool’s deal for a young unproven 22 year old striker. Carroll’s inexperience is illustrated by the fact that he had only one season of Premiership experience.

It certainly appeared a brilliant piece of business by the London club, with Fernando scoring 147 goals in 316 games at his previous to clubs, Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, a ratio of a goal ever 2.14 games, with 27 goals in 82 games for the Spanish national side. Seven months down the line, however, the Chelsea faithful could be excused for thinking they had been conned into signing Sergio Torres from Crawley Town not the player labelled as one of the best finishers in world football. By Chelsea’s first game of the 2011/2012 Premier League season, Torres had managed one goal in 15 games and a string of lacklustre, out of character performances. Many over the summer months have questioned his commitment to the game; have doubted whether he still has the same desire which brought him so much success in Spain and on Merseyside; and whether cashing in on the £50million flop would be the best for Chelsea Football Club.

What has happened to Fernando? Does he have a future at Chelsea? And will he find his feet again at one of Europe’s top clubs?

Torres has always been his manager’s first name on the team sheet since his days at Atletico Madrid. During his days in the Spanish capital, Sergio Aguero was only at the tender age of 19 and Diego Forlan was yet to join the club as Fernando’s replacement. Similarly, after his £20million move to Liverpool, unless injured, he could guarantee his place in the starting eleven ahead of Peter Crouch, Ryan Babel, Andrey Voronin and Dirk Kuyt. However, on arrival at Stamford Bridge, for the first time since establishing himself as a regular at the Vicente Calderon, the Spaniard was faced with a completely fresh challenge, one which could explain the difficulties he’s had in the London. Fernando had moved to a club who had two of the Premier League’s most established player’s in its ranks, in the shape of Ivorian Didier Drogba and Frenchman Nicholas Anelka. Drogba’s 98 Premier League goals in 202 games for Chelsea since joining from Marseillie in the summer of 2004, had made him a cult hero at the West London club. Similarly, experienced Frenchman Anelka had an impressive record of 123 goals in 343 Premier League games, making him a strong option to lead Chelsea’s front-line. Couple Fernando’s competition for places, with the fans and media’s expectation of a £50million super-star destined to succeed, it made the pressure immense. If he were not to make the impact he had at his previous club Liverpool, his reputation would seemingly become tarnished.

Certainly the pressure seemed to be getting to the once prolific goal scorer. In the 2010/2011 season for Chelsea, Torres’ goals to shot ratio was 0.11, the lowest of any Chelsea’s strikers or attacking midfielders. Equally poor were his mannerisms shown on the pitch, by a previously confident striker, whose name would once give Premier League and La Liga defences nightmares prior to a match. From February to May, we were given the impression that we were watching a player facing a challenge too great for him, a player who would complain incessantly towards referees, would look dejected on the field and spend more time on the floor than with the ball. Football fans across the world were all thinking the same thing, had we lost the Fernando Torres we’ve all grown to love or hate for the same reason, for his outstanding footballing ability? Torres certainly showed fatigue in the 2010/2011 season at Chelsea, and one can respect this after having five years without a summer break due to international commitments. So what would the 2011/2012 season bring after a summer break and a time of reflection on his poor start in the Chelsea blue?

On 14st August we were provided with a noticeably different Fernando Torres. His performance in Chelsea’s opening 0 – 0 draw against Stoke in the Premier League, gained him the man of the match award. Gone was the dejected, at times lazy Torres, we had seen in the previous season, and back were the explosive runs to beat and terrorize defenders. Fernando’s desire to win the ball and take shots on goal seemed to be back, and he gained plaudits across the board for his performance. All that was lacking was the elusive goal. However, one must ask the question, is one decent performance clouding a large majority’s judgement of the larger picture? Sure, Torres looked a completely different player to the one on display in the 2010/11 season, but his performance certainly was not game changing, and instead the title contenders had to settle for a 0 – 0 draw. What we must realise is that Torres upped his game from dismal displays last season to a merely decent display against Stoke, but by no means outstanding. He had certainly improved greatly, but he by no means has he justified his price tag of £50million. Torres will be treating the 2011/12 season as if it is his debut season for Chelsea, and if so his debut performance was commendable, but one has to only look at Sergio Aguero to see how a real debutant performs. The Argentine kicked off his English career, with two goals and an assist after coming on as a 59th minute substitute against newly promoted Swansea, and costing £12million less than Torres. An immediate return for City owner Sheikh Mansour bins Zayed Al Nahyan.

Torres has a long way to go before he’ll manage to win over the Chelsea faithful and an even greater task of keeping the confidence of Chelsea’s new manager, Andre Villas-Boas. Should Fernando’s performances begin to slide, he not only has Nicholas Anelka and fan favourite Didier Drogba on his heels, but two more challengers. England under 21s international Daniel Sturridge re-joins Chelsea from his successful loan spell at Bolton, where he scored 8 goals in 12 Premier League starts, a considerable amount more than Torres. Also joining the Blues is Romelu Lukaku for between £15-£20million from Anderlecht, an 18 year-old Belgian starlet tipped to be one of Europe’s top players. Torres certainly has a tough challenge ahead of him, he has the world’s media questioning his every run, pass and shot, he has a new manager to impress, has four top strikers breathing down his neck for a starting jersey & finally a packed Stamford Bridge to win over with his performances.

It would be a brave man to bet against Torres regaining his goal scoring prowess and the early indications of Fernando Torres in the 2011/12 season give a sense of a player refreshed, a player who has settled his mind and is ready to prove he is worth the money paid for him. He has been given a golden opportunity by his new manager to prove his worth at Chelsea. However, if Villas-Boas faith is not repaid, it is unlikely that man educated by the Jose Mourinho school of management, is likely to give him too many chances to get it right. In recent history we have seen extraordinary footballing talents fall from the pinnacle of football due to the pressure and stardom breaking their confidence. One only has to look at Ronaldinho and his fall from being FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, to now playing for Flamengo in his native Brazil. The picture painted by Torres and his mannerisms in the first six months of his Chelsea career draw stark comparisons to the Ronaldinho playing for Barcelona in the 2007/2008 season. Both periods gave an appearance of a player who had lost their way, who had lost confidence in the game and their ability. The pressure has cracked many a fine footballer in the past and it would be a catastrophe if we never again see the true quality that we know Torres can possess. This is the most challenging ten months of the Spaniards career. Come the month of May we will either be congratulating a player on turning his Chelsea career around or speculating which club may be daft enough to spend an extortionate fee for Torres, as Chelsea cut their losses. It would be unwise to write Fernando off though, as the natural talent he possesses cannot be questioned. The old notion “form is temporary, class is permanent” comes to mind.

David P Harrison


Arsenal At A Cross Roads

Arsenal FC, a club who have been at the pinnacle of English and European football for over twenty years, a club who have harboured some of the Premier League’s most talented players and have one of the most decorated youth set-ups in Europe. Arsenal FC, a club who have been without silverware for six seasons, who are ever becoming a feeder club for more successful sides and a club whose long standing manager Arsene Wenger’s philosophy of sleek fast flowing attractive football and putting faith in his youth ranks, is now being questioned. Arsenal are at a cross roads in their history, long gone are the days of the 1997/1998 Premier League and FA Cup double win, as are the heroes who brought that glory. Arsenal is now a club that is seemingly falling behind its rivals, both in terms of success, stature in the transfer market and in credibility. Where does the problem lie? Who’s to blame? And what’s the solution to repair Arsenal’s slight decline?

It is only August and already Arsenal’s future for the next footballing season is in question. After a torrid summer regarding transfer sagas and a dismal opening performance against Newcastle in the Premier League marred by indiscipline, they now face an almighty challenge on the 16th and 24th of the month. European football has become an expectation at Arsenal after thirteen consecutive appearances in the European top flight since the 1998-99 season. However, the Gunners now face a difficult two-legged challenge to qualify for the 2011/2012 Champions League against Serie A’s fourth placed side Udinese. This is a side that finished ahead of Italian giants Juventus, Roma and Lazio in their domestic league and have the likes of Italian veteran striker Antonio Di Natale and Chilean starlet Mauricio Isla in their ranks. The challenge is made even more strenuous for Wenger who has to secure a safe passage without arguably three of the Premier League’s best players in the 2010/2011 season, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and the injured Jack Wilshere. Should Arsenal fail to secure European qualification in the coming weeks the pressure is likely to build upon Mr Wenger’s shoulders.

The veteran French manager’s philosophy has begun to be questioned and his future placed in doubt, largely due to his transfer policy. It has become a common sight every 31st August on transfer deadline day, to see hordes of dejected Arsenal fans on Sky Sports News trying to come to grips with losing yet another star man over the summer and bringing in only a hand full of prospects for the future. Wenger promotes installing youth players in the first team and his youth academy is the envy of many a manager, however, Wenger’s stubbornness to leave his philosophy has meant a decline in Arsenal’s league standings. For every top European side, if you lose a key man in the transfer window you replace him with a top player; if you earn £30million by selling a player you reinvest it by strengthening the squad. Wenger on the other hand has failed to follow this model set by other high achieving clubs, to the anger of Arsenal fans.

To many rivals amusement Arsenal have recently been labelled a feeder club to bigger and better sides, and one can see truth to this. Since the summer of 2006/2007 Arsenal have sold Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Gilberto Silva, Alexander Helb, Mattiheu Flamini, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy and Cesc Fabregas, with Samir Nasri set to be leaving later this week, to Champions League rivals for a total of £116.8million. In return Wenger has continually disappointed fans by not replacing Arsenal’s key players with like-for-like signings, but instead investing in young players or players of a sub-standard to those recently departed. The summer of 2011 emphasises this with unknown quantity Gervinho signed for £10.6million from French Champions Lille and 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin from Southampton for £12million, while Cesc Fabregas has left to European Champions Barcelona for 34million euros with a further 5million euros in variables, and Samir Nasri is rumoured to be nearing the competition of his move to Manchester City for £22million.

Wenger’s transfer policy would not be left open to such widespread criticism had his replacements for his key men brought success, but these problems have been extenuated by not recording results with the existing players. Rather, Arsenal’s famous fast flowing passing football although a joy to watch has not brought the necessary results needed to challenge for the Premier League title, leaving them 12 points away from champions Manchester United in the 2010/2011 campaign and losing out at their only chance of silverware against Birmingham City in the 2010/2011 Carling Cup Final. There are calls for upheaval at the helm of Arsenal, with many suggesting ousting Wenger would bring a breath of fresh air to the club who are stuck in a rut over the past three seasons, never being closer than ten points to the crowd champions. Wenger’s trust in youth is becoming a spent philosophy to many and it would appear that Wenger has taken Arsenal as far as he can. Long gone are the glory days of the late 90s and early 2000s, the days of Arsenal’s “invincibles” who were unbeaten for all 38 Premier League games.

So what now for Arsenal? The 2011/2012 campaign will be one of the most important in Wenger’s career and close attention will particularly be paid to what movements he makes in the final weeks of the summer transfer window. Wenger certainly needs to have a rethink of this mentality to leading Arsenal. For the past three summers Wenger has neglected the necessity to strengthen Arsenal from the back and to fill the void left by Sol Campbell’s and Kolo Toure’s departures. Attacking wise if Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (whose departure is imminent) are not replaced, the Gunners will lack a vast proportion of their goals and creativity. It will be incredibly hard to replace a player like Fabregas whose record is played 303, scored 57 and 100 assists without substantial investment, a trait Wenger rarely likes to show. Equally Wenger needs to question if his attacking style of five yard passing football will always succeed, and rather showcase another model of football in case his long trusted tactics do not provide the results needed.

The jury is out on Arsene Wenger by the fans and media alike, and unless the serious changes demanded and needed are provided, it could be the last season we are given the pleasure of watching Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. He is without a doubt one the most tactically brilliant manager’s to grace the English Premier League, one of the most impressive managers at nurturing and sculpting young players into world class stars and has led Arsenal to play some of the most beautiful football the pitches of England have ever seen. Wenger has overcome many great challenges in his 15 years at Arsenal, but could this be one challenge too great for the Frenchman? 

David Philip Harrison


Which Mario Balotelli Will Win?

Mario Balotelli, the twenty year-old Italian starlet of Ghanaian decent, portrayed by many as football’s answer to a pantomime villain, undoubtedly talented but making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Characters of Balotelli’s mould are not uncommon to English football, Eric Cantona and Stan Collymore both had their fair share of controversy while applying their trade in the Premier League. An outstanding footballer, the cause of a manager’s headache, a teammate and fan’s nightmare, but the media’s dream. Which Baltoelli will prevail?

His journey began in Palermo, Italy where he was born to Ghanaian immigrants, but after suffering from life-threatening health problems in his early years and living in cramped conditions, his biological family agreed to entrust him to the Balotelli family of Brescia. His football career would begin at a club currently in Italy’s Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Lumezzane. After gaining his initial first team appearance at the tender age of fifteen, he would shortly attract the attention of Italian powerhouses Inter Milan. Mario’s life was soon to take a dramatic twist, and he would soon make national headlines after being pivotal in a dramatic 3 -2 away victory for Inter, scoring twice against Turn giants Juventus in a Copa Italia quarter-final.

Balotelli would soon become the jewel of Italian football, becoming the youngest Inter Milan player to score in the Champions League and scoring further important goals for the Milan side in the Serie A. The plaudits he received across the Italian media were also met with opposition, some of which became apparent in April 2009, where after scoring an equalizing goal in a 1 – 1 draw again against Juventus, racist chanting was directed towards him from sections of the Juventus crowd. Just as the Balotelli media storm for his outstanding ability with a football was gathering pace, at the same time another more sinister picture was being portrayed by the Italian media. Italian football has been plagued by racism for a number of years, but this time it was directed at a player who was due to play for the Italian national side known as the Azzurri. To further ignite the media storm surrounding Balotelli, was a legal battle caused by his biological parents asking to regain his custody. The reply from Balotelli would be that his biological parents were purely “glory hunting” and only gained interest in him after his success and coverage due to football.

The pressure of performing on the pitch, while dealing with constant headlines involving racism and his family life, had become what appeared too much for the budding wonderkid. From this point on, Balotelli’s footballing life in Milan, would be plagued with headlines and for all the wrong reasons. The striker’s relationship with no nonsense manager Jose Mourinho would become increasingly strained, leading to Mario being excluded from the first team in the second half of January 2010 due to an apparent refusal to give appropriate effort in training sessions. These actions would see a backlash from experienced team members such as Luis Figo and Javier Zanetti, and would increasingly strain the status-quo in the Inter Milan dressing room. Once back on the pitch Balotelli would yet again face a tirade of racist abuse from Juventus supporters and would involve himself in persistent cases of miss-conduct with opponents, culminating in being given a zero rating by manager Jose Mourinho for feigning an injured face after Juventus midfielder Felipe Melo elbowed him in the chest.

Balotelli’s antics on and off the field were becoming more and more erratic. If Balotelli’s days at Inter were not already numbered, his decision to publically wear Inter rivals AC Milan’s jersey on an Italian television show confirmed he had to exit for the Inter faithful. In the following month, further persistent displays of disobedience towards manager and team-mates alike, including throwing the Inter shirt to the floor in response to booing from his own supporters in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, would signal the end for Mario Balotelli’s Inter Milan career. On the 10th August 2010 big spending Manchester City would sign the young Italian for an estimated £24million.

So what do we make of Balotelli today? I sit here reflecting on exactly twelve months since Mario Balotelli arrived on English shores and the argument of spoilt kid or a rough diamond waiting to explode on to the Premier League is still rife in the British media. The talent that Balotelli has is undoubted and he was rewarded for that by receiving the Golden Boy Award in December 2010, making him the best under 21 player in Europe. However, like in Italy his name is surrounded by controversy. In Italy you can at times have excused Balotelli’s actions due to the pressure he had to handle as a teenager with the world of football at his feet and the torment he faced from consistent racist abuse. However, now at twenty the childish antics he has become infamous for are unacceptable. In the past twelve months he has been investigated by Manchester City for throwing darts at youth team players at City’s Carrington training academy, has been exposed in the media for openly slating the city he plays in and makes constant headlines for jibes at opposition players and managers alike. More worrying for Manchester City manager Mancini, his antics have begun to creep into his on field displays, including sparking a brawl after the 2011 FA Cup semi-final against rivals Manchester United and more recently being hauled off the pitch during a pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy. Mancini suggested Balotelli was not taking the game serious enough following a failed attempted showboat rather than scoring for the Manchester side.

All this and Roberto Mancini still shows faith in him. The picture we are starting to get is one of Mancini seeing himself as a father figure; a figure who can tame the beast as so to speak. Balotelli has the potential to make a real impression on English and European football, the whole country can see that, but one gets the impression that Mancini’s patience is running thinning. Mancini’s handling of Balotelli’s petulance in the pre-season game in the USA, was a powerful message that no individual is more important than the team. Couple this with the arrival of Sergio Aguero from Atletico Madrid for £38million and it could be the well needed wakeup call Mario needs.

This is a turning point for Balotelli. If he takes heed of his manager’s warning and under guidance from Mancini starts to do his talking on the pitch with his feet, rather than becoming famous for the controversy he creates, he could become one of Italy’s most important players in coming years. If not, he could be faced with the same reaction that Jose Mourinho gave him at Inter Milan and Balotelli could soon be off to pastures new. It’s infuriating for a manager and fans to see a player with the world at his feet, who has an opportunity to live the life of a successful European footballer, a dream which thousands of youths ever fail to experience, only to throw it all away. The real question is, ten years along the line will we be viewing Balotelli as the talent that could have been? Or will be congratulating a player for fighting his demons and celebrating his achievements on the field? Will he become City’s Eric Cantona? Or will he fall into the history books as a troubled player who disappears into the abyss of “nearly” players? Only time will tell if Mancini’s faith in Batotelli is repaid, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s was in Cantona.

David Philip Harrison



Blackpool FC – A Dream Crushed And A New Challenge

It is fair to say that Blackpool Football Club’s 124 year history has endured the kind of ups and downs you would expect to see on the pleasure beach which the city has become famous for. There has been little to cheer about on the Lancashire Coast since the seasiders relegation from the old First Division in the 1970-71 season and the glory days of the “Matthews Final” FA Cup win in 1953 were a thing of legend to the young Blackpool fans coming through the ranks; success of such a level could only be dreamt of by many. The footballing idols of the past Stanley Matthews, Alan Ball, Stan Mortensen and Jimmy Armfield had long gone and the attendances at Bloomfield Road had plummeted from a high of 38,000 plus in 1955 to the highest recorded since 2002 being 16,116.

An air of optimism has swept over the seaside resort in the past eighteen months. Under the leadership of the ever enthusiastic, eccentric and captivating West Country manager Ian Holloway, the fight and passion has been ignited back into the hearts of Blackpool fans. In the 2009-2010 season the tangerines managed to finished sixth in the Championship and thus making the playoffs. Against all odds the all attacking attractive playing side reached the Wembley final against a well-equipped Cardiff side. Blackpool fans of old, who have been through the highs and but mainly lows of the past fourty years, will state without question that the achievements of Holloway and his squad on the 22nd May 2010 will go down in club history, beating Cardiff City 3 – 2 to gain promotion to the dizzy heights of the Premier League.

Blackpool, its fans, its players and the manager were delving into the unknown. It’s fairy tale style story for a club where half the city’s population could fit into Manchester United’s stadium, where half of Manchester City’s players earn more per week than the whole of Blackpool’s player and coaching staff in the same amount of time. Every man, women, child, dog and any other family pet wrote Blackpool and its set of hard working players off. The seasiders, however, had obviously not read the same script as everyone else in the footballing world. By the turn of the year the set of players who were still washing their own kit, had won seven, drawn four and lost six. Quite the achievement for a set of players who were expected by media and opposition fans alike to not score a goal never mind getting a point.

The dreaded turn of the year was upon Blackpool though, a period which can make or break a newly promoted club, and has claimed the name of many clubs before. A period where the physical fitness of the new timers is challenged, the tactical ability of the manager is continually pressed and where the stature of the star players is questioned. Blackpool could not meet this challenge, after a steady string of losses between January and April, the club slipped down the league and found themselves on the last day being drawn into a relegation dog fight, with the final fixture being Champions Manchester United. This day summed up Blackpool’s season. Holloway’s ethos of swift, attacking, attractive football was essentially the making and breaking of Blackpool’s Premier League ambitions. After going 1 – 0 down early on, Blackpool utilising their gung-ho full attack mentality went ahead in the game through goals from star man Charlie Adam and Gary Taylor-Fletcher. This would be a short lived dream and come-back kings Manchester United went on to win the game 4 – 2.

 

 

The rollercoaster ride had come to an end for Blackpool FC in the Premier League. What Blackpool did achieve though, was captivating a nation. Rarely before had an underdog attacked the world’s best league with such vigour, and rarely before had a group of players shown such togetherness. Never before had a group of players, many of whom had come from the Conference only years before, stood up to the footballing heavy weights and on occasions won. The crowning achievement of Blackpool’s ten months in the Premier League was undoubted securing the double over five time European Cup winners Liverpool. Blackpool FC were a breath of fresh air to the Premier League, with a straight talking manager and no nonsense attitude to the game, he won plaudits from across the footballing world, both fans and professionals alike.

The show, however, must go on for Blackpool FC and what they face now is a daunting prospect. As in seasons past, Blackpool have lost their star men. Charlie Adam, David Vaughan and DJ Campbell had all attracted attention from the Premier League, and have departed for pastures new. It is now a pivotal period in Blackpool’s history, and how they cope with the upset of relegation and the loss of players with such pedigree only time will tell. Teams in the past have crumbled facing this task, you only have to look at the examples of Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Bradford City to realise how easy it is to slowly slip down the football leagues, with the Premier League becoming a distant memory. What is important for Holloway and his players is to learn from the experiences of the Premier League. Although Holloway’s attacking football was admired and respected, there were distinct flaws in this mentality, and had more tactical sense been used at times, Blackpool may have not dropped points which looked destined to be taken back to Bloomfield Road. 

It is ever becoming that money will bring you success in football. With parachute payments made available to Blackpool, and the revenue earned from the sales of the likes of Charlie Adam, it is imperative that Blackpool bolster their squad with like-for-like players. This, however, could be the major stumbling block for Holloway, as although Blackpool’s owner Karl Oysten brings economic stability to the club, his unwillingness to dip into his pocket could see Blackpool enduring a long number of years yo-yoing between the middle positions in the Championship.

You would imagine though that under the leadership of Holloway and with the core of Blackpool’s determined squad still together, they are likely to be challenging to taste the delights of the Premier League again once more, and with the right investments we could once again be able to jump back on Blackpool’s roller-coaster in the Premier League in the coming years.

David Philip Harrison