Category Archives: Up in the stands

Hargreaves can’t be the King yet

Mark Hughes has set about business quite sensibly at QPR following their hare’em scare’em relegation avoidance in the last-day madness of the triumphant Etihad, so far bashfully turning down owner Manuel Fernandes’ offer of a fruitful expenditure in favour of the settled summer that fatefully evaded Neil Warnock last year.

The Welshman has utilised his links with Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United to acquire the midfield energy and experience of Park Ji-Sung and the youthful quality of left-back Fabio, Junior Hoilett brings his skilful wing-play from Blackburn, Samba Diakhite has built on his impressive loan spell towards the end of last season by making his move permanent, while striker Andy Johnson, goalkeeper Robert Green and defender Ryan Nelson will all contribute to a top-level familiar spine.

Arguably against the logic that Hughes has surveyed so far however, is the news that the club has handed the treatment-table regular Kieron Dyer, a player who has completed just one game in two seasons, a new one year extension to his contract. Dyer managed just 3 minutes against Bolton Wanderers on the opening day of last season before he was ruled out for the rest of the campaign with injury, but Hughes’s faith in the seemingly finished midfielder has shown no sign of dying out, especially with his continued presence in a squad containing nine strikers, facing a stiff whittling down to fit in the 25-man regulations.

If Hughes can find room in the squad for 33 year-old Dyer who brings experience to the fore if not a reliable degree of fitness, he played just 33 times in 4 years for West Ham, then he may be tempted to pluck a hole for the Manchester cast-off Owen Hargreaves, the forgotten man of English football following his own abysmal record with injuries, a place in the squad after a short spell training with the Loftus Road squad. Hargreaves was a surprise signing for eventual champions Manchester City last summer after neighbours United’s patience with his constant problems with tendonitis, a condition that saw him make just four appearances in 3 years following an impressive debut year, ebbed away to a bitter conclusion.

The combative midfielder made just two appearances in his one year stint at Eastlands after impressing Roberto Mancini and the City management team with a series of gymnasium rehabilitation videos, but he will have a chance to convince Hughes with a more orthodox method of one-to-one training in order to prove that he is worth just one more chance in the Premier League to finally realise the potential he promised as England’s player of the year during the Germany World Cup season of 2006.

 There will a very small minority of people who begrudge such an honest, laborious individual like Hargreaves one last shot at what the natural progression of his career promised, but the more rational conclusion would be to urge Hargreaves to finally realise that his legs simply cannot stand the demands of professional football and that the natural solution would be to familiarise himself with retirement, just like Tottenham’s Ledley King who has recently buckled to the weakness of his knees, no matter how sad that might be.

Hargreaves is not in the position of King however, he does not have the cult-hero status or the legacy the English defender picked up during an eleven year stint at Tottenham Hotspur which sometimes saw him play beyond the demands of everyday training.  Hargreaves is the forgotten man of English football, unlike King who has resonated in Premier League diction as a consummate defender for as far as the mind can stretch back. In contrast, Hargreaves is the perma-crock, the constantly injured midfielder, just like Dyer, and he is unlikely to hang his boots up until he can make a significant impact on that perception.

It is Mark Hughes’ remit to make a competitive squad at QPR in order to make a better fist of the Premier League campaign, and he is doing that slowly with a stream of sensible signings, yet dabbling with Hargreaves and Dyer represents two huge gambles and one that will suit the player more than anything, they have one final chance to turn themselves into something resembling the King.

McCammon breaks latest barrier on player power

In another caveat to the argument that players have too much power in the modern game that has been underlined by the contract disputes involving Wayne Rooney and currently Arsenal’s overly-ambitious Robin Van Persie, coming to the party is a player and a club with far less razzmatazz than Arsene Wenger’s annual wrangling with a trophy-wanting player, for Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie who value medals and cups above loyalty, add ex-Gillingham striker Mark McCammon in the one-sided fight that is ensuring power is firmly on the side of the player.

McCammon’s case is entirely different to that of Arsenal’s list of mercenaries of course, for the 33 year old striker saw fit to take one of his ex-clubs to court on accusation of racism, that he was isolated in treatment as opposed to the rest of the squad on a basis that discriminated against the colour of his skin. On Monday, the tribunal court found in favour of McCammon who, in his delighted reaction to the verdict, hoped it would open the floodgates for more professional players to speak out against any case of discrimination at a club.

Gillingham’s reaction was inevitably entirely different, calling it “staggering”, for they, as a League-club shaped pillar of Kent are tied to a duty to set a viable example to the fans and the community, they will refute any accusation of racism or as McCammon outlined, they would embark on a personal agenda to sabotage the career of a player just because he is black.

One notable inclusion in Gillingham’s response led by Chairman Paul Scally, whose 17 year reign has been sprinkled with varying degrees of controversy, was an implication that McCammon’s evidence was without foundation. When surveying the different incidents that the striker used to colour his allegation, one may tend to agree with Scally’s complaints of malice. Focussing around his spell with injuries, the Barbados international accuses Gillingham of using his rehabilitation to marginalise him from the rest of the squad, a long list of such incidents that came to a head with a heated first-hand dispute with then manager Andy Hessenthaler which eventually saw him sacked from the club.

This was all part of a covert discriminatory practice by Hessenthaler and co. according to McCammon, yet he severely overlooks the fact that he was appointed as the club’s highest paid player upon signing his original contract, raising the most pertinent question of the whole affair; why would Gillingham hand their juiciest contract to a man with the intention that they would ruin him?  Furthermore, in return for his reputed £2,500 a week wage, McCammon gave 5 goals in 52 appearances, a shocking record at any level and such a hard-line treatment and marginalisation from the rest of the squad seemed warranted when the player was not producing the goods he was paid handsomely for.

McCammon’s career record is a paltry 46 goals from 259 appearances in a run that has spanned 13 clubs, most latterly Braintree Town and Lincoln of the Conference and Sheffield F.C of the Northern Premier League, it has been a below-average journey through the back-areas of professional football for the 33 year old Barbadian who is now without a club. Yet, the club who installed the greatest degree of faith in him lie tarred with imputations of racism whilst Mark McCammon voices his hopes that he has pushed back yet another boundary in the constant fight for universal player power at the expense of League Two’s Gillingham. The employment tribunal are well within their rights to land on the side of the player if his evidence registers with them, but without any concrete evidence to push it beyond the foundation-less accusation made by Paul Scally, it remains a hollow victory for the striker who scored just 5 from 52 games.

Time for Richards to prove himself

One man who can empathise with David Beckham’s surprising omission from the Team GB Olympic football squad which came in a display of sensible footballing logic by coach Stuart Pearce, is Micah Richards, who has seen his name inconspicuous by its absence from national selection too many times to count. He is however, included in the void vacated by the Beckham fanfare for this August’s unique jolly in London, partnered with a chance to finally remove the everlasting stigma that has annulled his natural progression into regular international footballer.

Richards’ seven year-long professional career has so far been somewhat synonymous with Stuart Pearce having made his Manchester City breakthrough when the former England left-back coached, and then later managed, at the club, and also having been made the England under-21 captain by the now Team GB coach.

It is an on-going relationship that has defied the distinct marginalisation of Richards by other managers involved in the national team. Despite establishing himself as a full international under Steve McClaren in making eleven appearances, successor Fabio Capello played him only once in four years, as a substitute against France in November 2010, despite continuous clamour for his inclusion. Roy Hodgson was the latest to sign up to the fictional Richards disapproval movement by overlooking his selection for his fast-tracked Euro 2012 squad, sandwiched between the two eras that saw no place for Richards, came just his 13th cap, the 2-3 February defeat to Netherlands at Wembley, played under the caretaking eye of, you guessed it, Stuart Pearce.

But here was a highly physical, dynamic defender who could power down the flank with force, see his performance against Russia at Wembley in the McClaren era for proof of that claim, and furthermore, he is a transient part of the Manchester City squad that has undergone the utmost of successful transitions from also-rans to Premier League winners, so why is he not treated with the same approval when elevated to the national set-up? Roy Hodgson had all of two weeks to piece together his squad to travel to Poland and Ukraine back in June, but Richards, despite coming off the back of two seasons that have garnered him FA Cup and Premier League winner medals, wasn’t amongst the 23.

He was offered a place amongst the stand-in contingent by Hodgson but subsequently dismissed it in the admittedly incorrect self-entitled belief that he should be selected ahead of the likes of the previously uncapped Martin Kelly or Liverpool’s Glen Johnson who had struggled for form at Liverpool, but now Richards has the chance to render all conjecture to the point of irrelevance and finally prove that he is international class after all. The Olympics for Richards, past all point of enthusiastic diplomacy, can be used as a platform to make himself the vital part of the set-up that he threatened to blossom into as one of the few shining lights of the McClaren years.

One of the accusations that Capello held against Richards was a penchant for rash positioning that came as a result of his constant desire to burst forward as an attacking full-back. His inept showing against Franck Ribery in Manchester City’s Champions League exposal last season was the embodiment of the high risk approach that entails Richards’ naivety and brashness. It was a feeling that club manager Roberto Mancini, in his true pragmatic roots, flirted with towards the end of last season as he preferred the more disciplined Pablo Zabaleta to the high pressure situation of the title race. Richards could be the victim of his own youthful ambition, to burst forward as the flying physical full-back despite the necessity to rigidly stay in position highlighted by Roy Hodgson’s heavily disciplined approach to this summer’s European Championships.


In the notable absence of Beckham, Richards can look to one of the other over-23 players named by Pearce in the squad, the captain, the evergreen Ryan Giggs, for inspiration of how to develop as both a player and a character after the Manchester United man underwent numerous transitions, most significantly that of roaming, free-flying left winger to clever, nimble central midfielder during his ultra-long career, together with the impressive self-discipline that has defined his longevity. It must have registered in Richards’ that continuous rejection has been the product of his refusal to acknowledge that a high-risk approach is of detriment to the team, so now is the time to change his game, something that a constantly rejuvenating Giggs knows even better than most of his exclusive group of peers.

There is a degree of familiarity for the 24 year old Richards here; taking part in an international tournament, again under the guidance of his father-like figure Stuart Pearce, but that was only relevant to the under-21 European Championships of 2009 in which Richards was entrusted to the armband. Here he will play the role of a mere squad player under the sage-like wisdom of elder-statesman Giggs, but more importantly, a senior squad player in a tournament that is primarily aimed at under 23s. It is time then, for Richards to grow up and realise the potential he was showing when he could qualify for this tournament legitimately and more importantly, for him to show the Richards disapproval movement, current leader Roy Hodgson, that they were wrong all along.



Villas Boas can start again at Spurs

In a matter of just nine months, Andre Villas Boas had seen his star fall at a rate of knots that could have left his name languishing in the forgotten world of the footballing ether such is the speed that football moves on from failure.

His rise was quick, the former advisor to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Inter Milan was entrusted to the manager’s job at Porto via just one year at the struggling Academica De Coimbra, and a season later an undefeated treble was secured by the head of Radamel Falcao in Dublin. Villas Boas was regarded as the shining light of European football management; it was an incomparable success at the youth of 33 years of age and he was beginning to threaten the potential usurping of his mentor, now at Real Madrid, from whom he’d so evidently been influenced in his sophisticated, exotically Portuguese managerial demeanour.

Roman Abramovich immediately bought into the comparison having ruthlessly just sacked Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea in his relentless search for a manager that characterised the charisma and quiet assurance of Mourinho, the “special one” who still provides the bench-mark to any manager to take the Stamford Bridge hot-seat. On the back of his treble, Villas Boas was hoisted to the lofty heights of unyielding expectation that comes with the territory of Chelsea boss, perhaps prematurely, at the tender age of 33.

This was, according to the fanfare that surrounded Villas Boas at the time, Mourinho mark II, an ambitious, successful, driven manager that had youthful looks and exuberance in abundance. His year-long juggernaut at Porto was based on the type of adventurous, expansive football that Abramovich had yearned for, to move Chelsea away from the rigid, typically Italian style that was beginning to fester under Ancelotti and Villas Boas was the obvious choice, a clamour that was given further momentum by the fact he played such a telling part as advisor to Mourinho’s successful Chelsea era. Abramovich, beginning to urge a period of thrift in South London at the risk of falling on the wrong side of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, forked out in excess of £13 million in compensation for his services such was his desperation to land him.

With the task of enveloping a period of transition to Chelsea, involving the gradual injection of younger talent into a side that still contained the backbone of 30-somethings Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba; this wasn’t going to be the easiest of assignments for a coach that, despite the success, didn’t have reputation or experience on his side. Yet, nobody could predict the extent of disaster that encapsulated Villas Boas’ time at Chelsea, stranded in 5th to the ever-louder tune of dressing room mutiny, with the threat of failure to qualify for the Champions League growing larger with every set-back, his era reached a unassailable nadir with a spectacular European defeat away to Napoli that pushed his side to the edge of elimination in the second round, and a 1-0 defeat to West Brom the following Saturday that drained Abramovich’s patience to an empty tank. Villas Boas was a goner on March 4th following just 13 wins from 27 matches and the memory of his spell at Porto, where he had painted his self-portrait of infallible managerial wonder, was burnt to a regretful crisp.

His successor at Chelsea, his Stamford Bridge assistant Roberto Di Matteo, put the foot further into the Villas Boas reputation by duly calming the burgeoning crisis enough to deliver the FA Cup and, most incredibly, the owner’s holy-grail of the Champions League trophy. Di Matteo, with even less first-hand managerial experience than Villas Boas, had proven utmost successful with the same players and staff that the Portuguese had failed with and within 12 months, the AVB story had gone full circle; from unbeatable champion with Porto, to the forgotten, almost irrelevant man in Chelsea’s own champion season and at 34, still so callow for a football manager, he is faced with the task of rebuilding his stock.

He will do that back in London, and back in the unforgiving surroundings of the Premier League with Tottenham as Daniel Levy saw enough potential to justify the replacement of Harry Redknapp, who had somehow managed to master a fall from grace with greater velocity than what Villas Boas managed, with a promising stint at the title at Christmas time turning into a Europa League place with a series of poor results in the second half of the season.

The Portuguese is seen to fit the Spurs philosophy with even more ease than he did at Chelsea, he will be an advocate of the offensive style that has become synonymous with Tottenham over the years and he will be in no place to implement the same type of drastic revolution, epitomised by the immediate jettisoning of Nicolas Anelka and Alex in January, that was at the heart of his downfall at Stamford Bridge. The majestic Gareth Bale has committed his future by signing a four year deal whilst midfield lynch-pin Luka Modric, subject to intense speculation over a possible departure, is expected to do the same. Spurs are also in possession of the productive youth system that Villas Boas pined for at Chelsea, with Danny Rose and Jake Livermore both emerging through in recent years and Steven Caulker, on the back of a largely successful loan spell with Swansea, due to return to the squad.

Perhaps a benefit will be seen from the current state of a thin squad at White Hart Lane in that Villas Boas will be charged with addressing the reduced number of options at centre-half and in attack, following the departures of Ledley King, Emmanuel Adebayor and the suggested unrest of Benoit Assou-Ekotto. With the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Joao Moutinho, Villas Boas’ trusted integral midfield force at Porto, linked with moves, it may give the Portuguese boss a chance to insert his own identity in the squad with an influx of his own players. In an inviting contrast to Chelsea’s close-knit squad that had aged together through sustained success, the squad at Spurs may contain more margin for change than Villas Boas encountered in South London.

An innovative student of the game, it would be incredibly naïve to think that Villas Boas would not have harboured any lessons from his failure at Chelsea, but the reassuring factor will come from the realisation that those mistakes were made in the totally different surroundings of heightened expectation and an impenetrable squad that ultimately proved too difficult for Villas Boas to imprint his ideas for the long-term. Daniel Levy will manage expectation levels cautiously at White Hart Lane and they will be already reduced, to some extent, by Villas Boas’ own failure with his sole experience of the English game to date.

Long term revolution and high short term expectancy levels don’t mix in the battlegrounds of the Premier League and Villas Boas found that out in the most harrowing manner, but now is his chance to eradicate those memories in the calmer waters of Spurs. Villas Boas is no longer the new Mourinho, but it’s the perfect chance for him to create the new Villas Boas.


De Boer destined for top job

The volatile nature of football in which competition moves on like no other, reared its head in dramatic fashion again this week as the latest cycle of European footballing dominance, Pep Guardiola’s Harlem-Globetrotter-esque band of technical wizardry at Barcelona, began to come crumbling down around the imposing structure of the Camp Nou. Like Fabio Capello’s AC Milan and the Galacticos of Real Madrid before it, rivalry caught up with their all-encompassing idea and the notion that what nearly everybody argued to be the greatest club side to grace the European stage was suddenly seen to be fallible.


Guardiola had achieved a zenith of footballing brilliance in Catalonia and many had fallen in the journey to topple it. Alex Ferguson failed twice with Manchester United, Arsene Wenger with Arsenal while Jose Mourinho, by consensus the embodiment of modern managerial genius, compromised his reputation time and time again to get the better of Barcelona’s passing carrousel of the generation-defining group of Lionel Messi and co. he found the answer once with Inter Milan in 2010, a performance of dogged defensive discipline in the second-leg summoned accusations of anti-football against Mourinho, claims he has had to face since joining Real Madrid when up against his nemesis, the puppet-mastery of Guardiola.


Since arriving in 2010, Mourinho has won one meeting with Guardiola, a 1-0 Copa Del Rey triumph last April, whilst Guardiola had won out in five of the ten meetings, including a 5-0 humiliation in the Nou Camp in Mourinho’s first Clasico, that was up until last Saturday, when Madrid won 1-2 in Catalonia to move seven points clear with four games later. The power had shifted, the La Liga title was moving across the country and occurring four days after questions were asked of Dani Alves, Xavi’s declining midfield influence and Lionel Messi’s over-exhaustion as they came unstuck in a Champions League semi-final first leg at Chelsea, it was clear all was not well on the sporting plateau that Guardiola had constructed himself over recent years. Coasting at 2-0 up and with Chelsea a man down in the second leg, it looked as though the blip had been eradicated in true Barcelona fashion, but Chelsea battled back heroically and they crashed out of a second competition, another they had locked in their glistening trophy cabinet, with the new phenomenon laid bare; Barcelona were beatable and their cycle at the pinnacle of European club football had duly ended.


In the aftermath of shock that took probably a couple of days to submerge given the outlandish nature of Chelsea’s aggregate win, Guardiola, forever operating on short-term contracts, took the calculated decision to step down from his post. Rumours were abound of his feelings on Thursday and many were quick to nominate a successor, Marcelo Bielsa, the charismatic coach of Europa League wonders Atletic Bilbao, Luis Enrique, the ex-Barcelona star in charge at Roma, Rafael Benitez, Andre Villas Boas and Ernesto Valverde, the Greek league winning manager of Olympiakos, were all mentioned, but on Friday when the 41 year old manager confirmed his intentions to quit, it was a completely different candidate who got the role. Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s assistant and student of La Masia, with his recent experience being immersed in the methods of Guardiola from day-to-day, was handed the role in a move that encapsulated logic; it was the nearest thing to keeping Guardiola and just like his partner, he is to be promoted from within the club.


All punditry lists and speculation would be quickly tossed away and consigned to the ether, but on many lists, bizarrely, saw a name omitted that would have a better case than many about taking the role at the Catalan club. On the verge of winning a second successive Dutch league title with Ajax as they lead by six points, Frank De Boer sits in a position often marginalised by more illustrious clubs throughout Europe as Ajax’s decline from mid-90’s European Cup winners saw them hit the down-trodden backwaters of the Europa League, but De Boer’s philosophy, at a club so heavily influenced by the spectacularly innovative hand of Johann Cruyff is impossible to resist.


A fluent tactical shape derived from the basic 4-3-3, driven by a prodigious young talent in an attacking role, the 20 year old Dane Christian Eriksen in this case, does indeed sound familiar when it is considered he has been in constant contact with Pep Guardiola and is a keen student of the methods used across the continent in Catalonia. They have stormed through the EreDivisie this season, hitting 86 goals and only conceding 34 in the process, with goals flowing from right across the team; there are nine players with at least six goals for I lancieri this year. They have been in devilish form since January, winning eleven straight games on a run that sees them a game away from landing De Boer’s second league title and they have done it conceding just 1 goal in their past seven matches, including a 6-0 thrashing of Heracles, that De Boer envisaged as being the marker for what he wanted his Ajax team to be.


The similarities to Guardiola are prescient; both were Barcelona legends, both were promoted from within their respective clubs’ reserve system and they both preach a philosophy of the most attacking, free-flowing nature. Both are advocates of youth promotion too, taking advantage of a gold-mine of talent produced from underneath the club. Guardiola had the never-ending conveyor belt of La Masia from which to pluck his next generation of players, whilst De Boer’s twin brother Ronald oversees the emergence of the under 19 Ajax team, that reached the final of the inaugural Next Gen series to lose on penalties to Inter Milan. Results along the way included a 6-0 hammering of Liverpool and a 3-0 win over, of all clubs, Barcelona. Davy Klaassen, the captain of the under 19 team, has been given Champions League experience already this season and played a role in the full-team’s narrow Europa League defeat to Manchester United. The lucrative resource of Ajax’s youth are being tapped into, following on from an illustrious list of Clarence Seedorf, Aaron Winter, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Cruyff himself, and De Boer, like Guardiola at Barcelona, will reap full benefit in the future.


This may not be the time for the ex-Barcelona left-back to take over from the anchoring-midfielder at the Nou Camp; this is the time of Vilanova, coming from the relative unknown to take the job. At the moment, so does De Boer as he achieves success under the radar. One may predict he may not go unnoticed for much longer if he continues in this vain.


Adam Gray

For more Football Blogs and opinion from football fans around the world

John Still going to show value of loyalty

In news that may have gone unnoticed, the 61 year old John Still celebrated eight years in charge of Dagenham and Redbridge of League Two on Wednesday, a stint that has seen Still take the club from the humble surroundings of Conference mid-table obscurity, achieving an 11th and 10th placed finish before gaining promotion to the Football League in Still’s third year of stewardship. From there, the club has gone from scrapping relegation in their debut year in 20th, narrowly missing the play-offs in 8th the following year, before sneaking into the top seven in 2010 where a trip to Wembley saw them beat Rotherham to reach the unprecedented lands of League One.

The fact they only lasted one year in the third tier before finding themselves fighting relegation in the Football League’s basement division once more, a late surge has pulled them up to 19th after spending the majority of the campaign propping up the table, is irrelevant when it is considered the instability he inherited from Gary Hill back in 2004. His first job was to steer the Dagenham ship back onto calmer waters, but nobody could imagine the level of success Still has experienced with the tiny club from Barking in the years following.

The success of his stint however, in which he sees himself as illogical when it is accounted the lack of resources he has had at his disposal over the years played out in front of gates of just over 3,000, is not the most eye-catching fact of his reign. For Still is quite easily, by a margin of three years over Exeter’s five-year serving Paul Tisdale, the longest serving manager in the Football League and the fourth longest-serving boss in the whole domestic league system, with only Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes bettering his longitude, whilst Stoke’s Tony Pulis out-does Tisdale by 12 days.

Still has endured a hellish campaign, blighted by injury problems that have decimated an already thin squad, but he admits such turbulence is the drug that keeps drawing him back to the Victoria Road dugout, but more importantly he is allowed to remain there as the fans and board remain appreciative of the seismic job he has done over a period few clubs can even dream of holding a manager for.

Despite the culture of immediacy that Still’s reign survives through and the multiple passages into silly sacking season, to put the longevity of the West Ham born manager’s leadership into context, only six managers other than Ferguson, Wenger, Moyes, Tisdale, Pulis and Still have managed longer than a three year stint. Huddersfield sacked Lee Clark with the club fourth in League One, Gary Megson was withdrawn from his position at Sheffield Wednesday with his team third, whilst Still remained with his team rock bottom of the whole league, but is now showing, with his team on the verge of competing in League Two for another season, common sense entrusted in loyalty usually prevails.

It is a whole different World from Chelsea that the Daggers inhabit, but the eight managers their fellow Londoners have gone through without any hint of remorse from the trigger happy Roman Abramovich, is in complete obscenity when it is contrasted to the solitary one Dagenham have possessed since 2004. Andre Villas Boas was afforded not even the tiniest fragment of the patience Still was given in his early days in East London and was sacked, in a move called an embarrassment by the LMA, in early March with his Chelsea team in the distant universe of fifth position in the Premier League, where it seems any sensible decision making is thrown out the window. In a damning indictment of just how rare Still’s story is in the modern age, there are 46 managers out of the 92 clubs currently employed in the top four divisions in their debut year as manager and 19 of those haven’t passed the 100 day mark.

Even at lower league level, clubs tear through managers like there is no tomorrow, Paolo Di Canio is Swindon’s eighth coach in the duration of Still’s reign, Barnet have been through nine bosses in those eight years, Torquay have been through seven and Shrewsbury five, as clubs know no bounds when it comes to ensuring a quick fix. 20 clubs have seen managerial changes in the four months of 2012 as we approach the end of April while the largely unheralded Still plugged away in the basement of League Two in a year of transition for the Daggers as a fresh nucleus had to be built following relegation from League Two and the departures of top scorer Romain Vincelot and the midfielders Charlie Allen and Danny Green.

John Still will prepare for this weekend’s game with Crawley and the newest manager in the Football League of Craig Brewster, following Steve Evans’ departure to Rotherham which again highlights the slow dissolution of loyalty in the modern game, Sir Alex Ferguson continues to rack up the days past the mark of 25 years, one more than Dario Gradi who lasted 24 years at Crewe between 1983 and 2007 before coming back for two further caretaker spells. The days of men like them and Still only survive through their peerless devotion and it is clear the novelty of the long-serving management stalwart has ceased in a game where everybody seeks immediate reward. Any talk of plaudits or achievement in longevity won’t affect Still however, who will mark the passing of his eight years by focussing on ensuring Dagenham are in League Two, in a healthier league position, for the passing of his ninth and however far in the future he wants to continue at his beloved Dagenham.


Olympiakos title sealed by rioting rivals

Olympiakos may have grabbed a 0-1 win in Panetolikos on Sunday night to extend their lead at the summit of the Greek Super league to ten points, but the destination of the title was given the trivial fate of being decided in the courtroom as bitter rivals Panthinaikos failed with a bid to overturn a punishment for crowd violence in the Athens derby in March. The match was abandoned after 81 minutes following a 45 minute delay as Panathinaikos fans pelted police with Molotov cocktails and flares in the Olympic Stadium and the Greek authorities got tough. In fact the toughest ever sanction in Greek Super league history as Panathinaikos were docked three points and their rivals awarded the three point win, meaning an unassailable ten point lead in favour of Olympiakos with three matches remaining.

Panathinaikos were also given a fine of £212 euros and have been ordered to play three home matches behind closed doors. Punishment will also extend to next season with the Greens beginning their next Super League campaign with a deficit of two points. The Hellenic Football Federation (HFF) were not to be light on this subject following new ruling designed to clamp down on football violence, in a climate where citizens are disillusioned by serious economic unrest. The cost to the fans will be expensive and hurtful enough, being forced to watch their bitter rivals collect a seventh league title in eight years, this time at a canter of a ten point margin. Olympiakos fans have gone as far as to organise a fiesta for their final home game with Corfu.

Nobody can deny Olympiakos were worthy winners of their second successive title; they are unbeaten in their Karaiskakis Stadium home and have only lost two games away from home. Only thirteen points have been dropped on a run of twenty-seven games that has only seen 16 goals conceded. 64 goals have been hit, 19 more than second placed Panathinaikos and only a Europa League defeat at home to Metalist Kharkiv that saw them eliminated on away goals, has disrupted a twelve match winning streak. They were 1-0 up in the Olympic Stadium with nine minutes remaining so would not have needed the assistance of some lunatic fans. It has been a campaign of unbridled dominance that seems slightly disvalued having not been sealed by, say a 7-2 battering of Asteras Tripolis, but by a courtroom judge.

Ernesto Valverde, the Spanish manager of Olympiakos, won’t be arguing with a third Greek Super League in succession as boss of the club however, a run suspended only by a brief spell in charge of Villareal in 2009. His sabbatical from the Greek capital saw a bizarre year in which Olympiakos went through five managers, including ex-Newcastle midfielder Temuri Ketsbaia and Brazilian legend Zico. That year the Green side of Athens won the title, so Valverde, an ex-Cup Winner’s Cup winner with Barcelona, returned in the autumn of 2010 to deliver two more titles on the spin. Fittingly referred to in Greek as the Kokkini, The Reds in familiar parlance, Olympiakos have seen Manchester United style dominance under Valverde and the forgotten names of Jose Segura, Takis Lemonis and Trond Sollied before him that initiated a fantastic run of success. Panathinaikos face a massive fight to wrestle the spell of dominance from their neighbours, even before their fans start taking the battleground off the pitch and into the stands.

Valverde has forged a decent side in Athens, one that triumphed over Arsenal (3-1), Marseille (0-1) and Borussia Dortmund (3-1) as they scraped nine points to finish third in their difficult Champions’ League group. Three defeats on the other hand meant they were edged out of qualification by Arsenal and Marseille by a single point, only conceding 6 goals, including a very narrow 2-1 defeat on a trip to the Emirates. Their back-line is founded on solid ground, the ex-Aston Villa captain Olof Mellberg stands alongside experienced Frenchman Francois Modesto. Ex-Manchester United Roy Caroll has also been added to the squad following an impressive spell with OFI Crete, becoming an instant hero with a penalty save in a Europa League tie with Rubin Kazan.

On top of an impregnable back-line that has only shipped 24 goals from 37 games in all competitions, Valverde added the calm, neat passing of Jean Makoun after his short spell with Aston Villa whilst £2.6 million was spent on bringing defensive midfielder Ljunomir Fejsa from Partizan Belgrade with £2.2 million on St Etienne’s Kevin Mirillas, who has become top scorer with 19 goals. Marko Pantelic and Rafik Djebbour provide them with fire-power already in place, scoring ten goals each. Ariel Ibagaza, Pablo Orbaiz and David Fuster provide a stiff-backbone with some continental creativity and it is a Greek cocktail of quality that coasted to the Super League title before the technicalities were sorted in the courtroom.

The fiesta against second to bottom Kerkyra will be the most apt way to conclude a season that has bordered on a procession in the mythological city of Athens. Their green neighbours provided something resembling a competition until their fight died out with score of flying flares in the Olympic Stadium, but the rulings were irrelevant. Olympiakos deserved their second successive Super League and no appeal could deny them that.

Written by Adam Gray; @AdamGray1250

European “competition” highlights the financial gap

With the proposition of UEFA’s big, bad Financial Fair Play ruling looming on the horizon, there was no better time than European cup quarter-final week to expose the various pitfalls and loopholes that the European footballing authorities should encounter when implementing rigid measures into place in the summer of 2013, to ensure European Clubs spend within their means. UEFA have put such a plan in place to create a supposed level playing field, to prevent the modernistic dream of a mid-rate club being seized by an oil-rich oligarch who can spend his way to the top table.

This week however, the chasm between those at the highest echelon of the European game and those fighting to compete at the bottom, can be seen more obviously than ever, to a degree that UEFA may find it impossible to achieve their sought after Holy Grail of a footballing “level-playing field”. On Tuesday night, Real Madrid were rather comfortably negotiating a tie with APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus with a squad that cost over £460 million Euros to bring to assembly. Their opposition are restricted to an annual budget of £10 million Euros and £1 million of that was spent on the club-record signing of Brazilian striker Ailton. Real Madrid’s record-signing is the £80 million lavished on Cristiano Ronaldo. The minnows of Nicosia earned plaudits for keeping the score-line blank until the 74th minute when it was breached by Karim Benzema; all £35 million Euros of him, to open the floodgates for a 0-3 away win.

That expected victory puts Real Madrid all but in the semi-finals and the APOEL fairy-tale is over, they had achieved an almighty story just to get here they said, but this was a firm rejection of the competitive notion that UEFA want to implement. This was a European Champions League quarter-final, supposed to be a highly competitive occasion, and instead we got a David vs. Goliath story in which the bigger guy not only won, but steamrollered his opposition to the brink where only a miracle and then some would bring them back. When you also factor in Madrid’s second round opposition were CSKA Moscow, given their biggest signing this year was £4.4 million on Ahmed Musa, Real Madrid and their summer expenditure of £48.4 million Euros, have not faced a significant tie until a date with Bayern Munich, who were making light-work of their own quarter-final a night later, winning 0-2 in Marseille.

Here is a situation in which the elite are rampaging through Europe to become the same familiar faces competing for the European Cup year on year. Barcelona have won the competition twice in the last three years through a combination of mesmeric football orchestrated by a frightening budget. They are favourites to return to European football’s showpiece event again this year in Munich, though a 0-0 draw with AC Milan may have halted preparations somewhat, against fellow Spaniards and bitter rivals Madrid.

It is these two Spanish clubs however, who distort the financial outlook so much that Michel Platini will have to do far more than utter threats of stringent punishment to bring these clubs into line; with the Spanish economy teetering on the edge of a bail-out, to the tune of £123 billion Euros, at the hands of the European Union, the top two of La Liga have a combined total of £534 million Euros worth of debts, with £48 million of that being owed to the tax man. Yet, with such debts, factored into the gigantic total of £625 million Euros that Spanish football owes to the taxman; both clubs run straight across the continent spearheaded by the phenomenal talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who are paid respective amounts of £11 million and £9.5 million a year for the privilege.

Spanish football, with five clubs in the quarter finals of the two European competitions, are showing that such over-spending does correlate to success, but this happens to be the same business model that Platini an UEFA are seemingly determined to stamp out. Of the £625 million total, £353 million of that is from the top division, with Real Sociedad, Getafe, Villareal, suffering the ignominy of 14th, 9th and 16th place in La Liga, as well as eleventh placed Athletic Bilbao who taught Manchester United a severe lesson in the last 16 of the Europa League, being the only clubs who do not have a penny of outstanding debt. They are all unlikely to qualify for Europe next season, whilst it is Valencia (owing £6 million to the Spanish public) and Malaga, who have sneaked in just under the FFP radar to splash £50 million last summer on their Qatari billionaire-funded spending spree.

Valencia will meet AZ Alkmaar in the quarter finals of the Europa League whilst Athletic Bilbao have been drawn against Schalke 04, but it is in the other Spanish club match that sees the wealthiest gap. Athletico Madrid, the severest case in the country with £128 million owing to the Spanish taxman, faces Hannover 96. Athletico spent a total of £61 million in last summer’s transfer window despite having to hand the £50 million Euros from the sale of Sergio Aguero to Manchester City straight to the Spanish authorities. A £35 million deal for Porto’s Radamel Falcao was funded by sponsorship deals whilst Hannover, spending a grand total of £4.5 million, landed their marquee signing of Miram Biram Diouf from Manchester United for little over £1 million.

There have been repeated calls for Spanish clubs to be placed under the same regulation as the Italian Serie A which prevents clubs with huge tax debts from competing in the league, whilst clubs like Athletico are swimming in dangerous waters knowing the storm threatening to eclipse them should the Spanish tax authorities suddenly decide to pull the plug. It is an eye-watering generosity that has eclipsed football in antipathy to those who have lost their homes and businesses as the Spanish economy has hit such turbulent times, but it shows no signs of slowing down and neither does the unfair dominance of Barcelona and Madrid. So much for a “level playing field”.

Written by Adam Gray; @AdamGray1250