Whilst last season’s Swansea City season preview began in a much more sombre and contemplative mood after yet another managerial change, there is indeed only one way to begin the preview for the 2011-2012 season.
“We Are Premier League say We Are Premier League!!!”
An understatement when I say I could chant that for hours on end, the forthcoming season will be one that will never be forgotten by those fans about to witness Swansea’s maiden Premier League campaign. Whilst the initial unabated furore and ecstasy may have dimmed post-Wembley in the midst of what is seemingly the longest pre-season in history the City and County of Swansea has been slowly building up in its excitement at the coming season. No doubt all of this pent-up impatient at the longevity of pre-season is going to erupt in one big explosion of joy at the first home match against Wigan on August 20th. Pre-season has so far consisted of ticketing worries, queues, new merchandise, transfer targets, wage structures, capacity increases, contracts, relegation worries, money worries, tactic questions and much more. Eager doesn’t quite cover the Swansea fanbase’s feelings towards the first game at Manchester City on August 15th.
So what can we expect from this season? Club wise, Swansea City Association Football Club is arguably in its strongest position ever which is an incredible achievement by both fans and board considering it was under a decade when it seemed all was lost. The club is unrecognisable from the mess at the turn of the last decade be it on the pitch, in the stands or in the bank. The Liberty Stadium (capacity concerns or not) is firmly established as the home fortress of the Jack Army and there is surely not many fans who have not become accustomed to the relatively plush and comfortable surroundings that we now enjoy. A reasonably attractive stadium with good views, facilities and structure is just the first embodiment of the new found success of the club. The board are also still in place and whilst the Premier League may be the home of boardroom squabbles, wars and takeovers by foreign investors Swansea City is the admirable exception. With figurehead Huw Jenkins leading the same group of men whom saved the club in 2002 the Club remains in safe and secure hands with the fans still having a major say via the ever-incredible Swansea Trust. The fans have also played their part and although accounting for some loyal fans missing out due to a plethora of reasons the fact that 16,000 season people have signed up to Season Tickets for this coming season is incredible when one recall’s the dreary nights down the Vetch when barely a few thousand people would be present. Voices of discontent have been raised about the new Season Ticket holders and those accused of jumping onto the promotion bandwagon but from a club perspective new fans equals new streams of revenue and all season tickets sold does essentially mean guaranteed income regardless of performance over the next 38 games. What is important and imperative is that entire fanbase remains united for the coming campaign, both with each other and also behind the team and players. Everyone will have to pull together for Swansea to have a fighting chance of remaining in the league and to this end any targetting of certain players will need to be rethought. Another aspect of crowd behaviour will be the need to transform the Liberty into a fortress, an intimidating arena to pampered Premier League stars visiting for the day in any small attempt to throw the opponents off their stride. Who are we?! Jack Army!
Whilst having stability and support in the boardroom is a positive in establishing firm roots for a successful campaign the most important component of any football club is no doubt the playing staff and the management staff. Somewhat ironic considering the trepidation surrounding the start of last season regarding yet another managerial upheaval, Brendan Rodgers’ 12months in the hot seat has been a unanimous success. Essentially a back-up choice when appointed last summer amidst a plethora of managerial candidates that came and went from the interview room, Brendan has seemingly found the perfect position to display the potential he first showed on the backroom staff during the Jose Mourinho Chelsea era. There have been a few murmurs of disapproval during a couple of games here and there but the vast majority of his maiden campaign was almost flawless in its implementation, two notable but ultimately irrelevant losses being the League Cup exit to Wigan and the home loss to arch rivals Cardiff. Rodgers came with an impressive pedigree only slightly tarnished by a 6-month spell at Reading. With a tactical nous cultivated under the tutelage of Mourinho in his previous guise as Chelsea coach, “Buck” Rodgers has managed to seamlessly blend the attacking qualities of Roberto Martinez to the defensive strength of Paulo Sousa’s style. The football is once again a joy to watch with a generally stern defence adding a secure base from which to launch wave’s of attack via the midfield. With Rodgers’ impressive grounding at Chelsea an obvious advantage, it has also exposed Swansea to his contacts and the opportunity to increase the calibre of transfer targets, imperative to help the club move onto the next level. With Sousa’s European super-pedigree it was a disappointment that his so-called contacts never materialised, Rodgers already proving himself in the acquisition of Scott Sinclair and loanee Fabio Borini. Almost everything Rodgers does at the moment is impressive, including the courteous and personable way he handles the media. Friendly, accessible and even charitable, Rodgers is a manager building his reputation not just as a footballing coach but also as a man the Jack Army are happy to have leading them. A further plus to the Rodgers appointment appears to be his man-management skills, in particular re invigorating peripheral players such as Mark Gower and Alan Tate as well the continued progress of Joe Allen and Neil Taylor. The coming season is no doubt going to see the man from Carnlough in Ireland further cement his burgeoning reputation as a manager on the rise whatever happens and with that first trophy in his repatoire he will undoubtedly be eager to test himself against greats such as Kenny Dalglish, Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. Manager-wise, Swansea are in the best position they can possibly be in my opinion; a manager whom feels at home in the area and respects the local working class mentality, a manager whom understands the fabled “Swansea way” of free flowing and attacking football and finally a manager whom has already been more successful than any other in history in reaching the top division (Toshack withstanding ofcourse and even that wasn’t the treasure chest that is the Premier League).
Moving onto the squad, its a big ask for any team coming into the Premier League from below to instantly have a squad of proven top-level quality and the gulf in class will normally point towards a swift return whence the club came from without substantial outlay. That being said, Swansea’s style is very much based on the overall quality of the team rather than the component parts. Mediocre players elsewhere are transformed when put into the Swansea system and equally seemingly spectacular performers lose their way once transferred out. Looking at the retained basis of the squad first of all, a major plus is the retaining of defensive colossus Ashley Williams. Strong as an ox and a vocal point in the start of Swansea’s passing game out of defence, Welsh international Williams has improved with each season he’s been in a white shirt and has seemingly come into his peak in time with his first opportunity at the top level. Captain Garry Monk and loyal servant Alan Tate remain ever present within the club although playing time this season may be restricted to a rotation and substitute basis which in itself still ensures they remain an integral part of the coming campaign. Either side of the central defence will see Angel Rangel in the right back position he has undoubtedly made his own in the last 5 years whilst the improving Neil Taylor will start on the left. Despite his now fractured relationship with the fans over the flirtation with Newcastle Taylor is a player on the rise and his attacking mentality from the back always adds another facet to the Swans offensive. A minor worry is that cover for the wing backs is scarce and Jazz Richards seems to be MIA under the Rodgers regime whilst other defensive cover will come in the guise of the club’s youngsters such as Daniel Alfei and Joe Walsh. The midfield is undoubtedly the strongest part of the Swans team, normally the section of the squad responsible for the majority of the wins last season. The fulcrum of the team will include the ever impressive Leon Britton who has been a man rejuvenated following his mediocre 6-month spell in Yorkshire last season as well as Joe Allen whom is again progressing into an important homegrown talent that will hopefully be at the heart of Swansea and Wales for years to come. Kemy Agustien has also been impressive in pre-season and there is a hope despite alleged issues with his mentality that this is the season the tank of a Dutchmen fulfils the obvious potential he has, whilst Thomas Butler, Shaun MacDonald, David Cotterill will take a backseat. Regardless of signings there is a feeling that the most important newcomer to the squad this season will be the seemingly fit Ferrie Bodde, returning hopefully for the last time from yet another disastrous knee injury. Epic pre-injury, there has always been a sense that Bodde was always a Premier League quality player trading in leagues below his talent and his comeback could prove to be absolutely vital in adding some steel to a team expected to be in a relegation dogfight. Mark Gower has been retained and whilst age is now beginning to work against him as well as the promotion possibly being one too many the basic usefulness of the utility player (he played 42 games last season) will once again ensure he will be as vital to the match day squad as Tate is to the defence. Coming to the club from League 1 will be Ryan Harley and although clearly a talented player the step up of two divisions may initially prove too big to expect match-winning displays immediately, the substitutes bench possibly becoming a regular haunt for the ex-Exeter man along with Andy Orlandi.
With the attacking third being where Swansea’s patient build up play turns dangerous and manifests itself in relentless punishment, the importance of central attacking midfielder Stephen Dobbie with Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair either side can’t be underestimated. Farmed out on loan two seasons ago to Blackpool, Dobbie has been recreated as an exciting and creative force, the Glaswegian becoming the vital conduit between the ball-winning midfielders and the goal. After last season’s goalscoring exploits and more importantly the Wembley hat-trick Scott Sinclair is the poster boy of the club and the man with all the media attention but for actual displays Nathan Dyer arguably outperformed the former Chelsea trainee last season albeit without the end product, an ongoing issue that is thankfully rendered somewhat irrelevant by sheer chances created. The pure pace and skillful ball control from both will be an important tactic in achieving victories this season, their penetrating runs past confused and humiliated wing backs often the source of Swansea goals. Whilst lacking an out and out goalscorer last season up front was Swansea’s weakness until the inspirational loan signing of Fabio Borini added an extra impetus however he was lost to Parma during the pre season with the Swans unable to clinch the signing of the loanee. Still on the clubs books but looking at reduced playing time this season injuries and suspensions not withstanding are Craig Beattie and Luke Moore, both of whom in my opinion will not offer the goals needed.
Whilst the core of the above squad is in place signings this pre season have also been imperative and if the unreliable national press are to be believe it has been a busy time for Swansea, the board and related agents. Speculation aside there have been a number of new recruits secured, each of whom can expect to be in contention for the first team. One glaring omission from above was the lack of Goalkeepers and this has been the most worrying position. With the shocking defection of Dorus de Vries to Wolverhampton Wanders for no discernible reason other than financial the club have been scouring Europe for a replacement. One signing has been Jose Moreira from Benfica whom comes with an impressive pedigree however if short pre-season outings are anything to go by the Portuguese looks to be a back-up keeper and no more albeit definitely ahead of youngster David Cornell. Not confirmed at time of press, it appears that Swansea’s number one this season will be Dutch international keeper Michel Vorm, a player with an even more impressive resume and whom was part of the Holland World Cup squad whom were beaten finalists in South Africa 12months ago. Coming into defence to slot in next to Ashley Williams is on-loan Steven Caulkner from Tottenham Hotspur, a tall and solid centre back tipped as a potential future England international and looking to get vital Premier League experience in a similar way to Jack Wilshere at Bolton two seasons ago. Although only 19 years old, the 6 ft 3 was considered to be one of the best performers in the Championship last year whilst on loan to Bristol City and has all the credentials to be an impressive performer over the next 38 games. As consistent and dynamic the wingers were last season there was no credible back up or replacement on either flank which has been rectified with the eventual signing of Wayne Routledge from Newcastle. Although never quite living up to early promise at Crystal Palace, the utility winger has still built a solid career at lower Premier League, top Championship level and will clearly contribute a number of goals and assists in the coming season as well as being one of the few players in the squad with valuable top tier experience. With the aforementioned issues up front from last season strikers were also another priority and the early and record signing of Championship top-scorer Danny Graham went some way to establishing the intent of the club to do all they can to retain top flight status next season. £3.5m clinched the signing and with his first goal in the pre-season game against Real Betis showing the lethal finishing that made him head and shoulders above the rest of the Championship last season even in a struggling squad, hopes are high for the North-Easter to make the increasingly difficult step up in class that has been too much for many previous hotshots. Another striker signing from the Championship albeit with Premier League experience is the enthusiastic bundle of energy that is Leroy Lita. Whilst not the most prolific of strikers, a roughly one in two tally throughout his career is enough to qualify Lita as a legitimate threat and he will battle with Graham for the sole striker slot in Rodgers’ formation.
The squad does require fine tuning in certain areas such as wing back but with the goalkeeper situation seemingly resolved the team that will be Wales’ first ever Premier League combatants is now shaped. Fourfourtwo magazine predicted the Swans will finish 17th whilst almost every other preview has them down before the season begins, seemingly comparisons to Blackpool going up and down being enough to satisfy most pundits. This Swansea team is better than last years Blackpool team and whilst I personally think a season of highs, lows and ups and downs will eventually result in a close-fought relegation battle we have as much chance of staying in the league as do around 5 or 6 other teams. One worry is that last season the relegation battle went down to the last few minutes of the season and with that in mind Swansea’s last two games of their maiden Premier League campaign are against Liverpool and Manchester United. A strong start is imperative to build morale but April is going to be a month that will make or break the season. The first 6 games include, amongst Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, three winnable games in Wigan, Sunderland and West Brom and points in these games are a must. As Blackpool established last season winning at the big boys and losing to the perennial struggler’s is by no means a way out of trouble. The free flowing possession game that has become the Swansea way is here to stay however there will be a need for increased doggedness and the ability to grind out results more than ever before. Will the Swans do it? Can they do it? Either way, its going to be an historic and exciting campaign unlike one we may ever experience again.
The Football League Play-Off’s are often described as the height of drama and excitement, of unadulterated joy and unequalled heartbreak. A chance for the nearly men to redeem themselves and gain one more opportunity for promotion and for the rank outsiders to launch a late and unexpected burst of freedom into the exciting confines of a higher league.
As a neutral, they are fantastic to watch, particularly the Championship duel which is regularly stated to be, at £90m, the single biggest game financially in world sport. You tend to see an equal measure of perennial contenders always on the cusp of promotion and the historically lower-league clubs thrown into this volatile end of season lottery, providing irresistible viewing. In recent years for example, there has been a varied mix of clubs such as Birmingham and West Ham reclaim what they may consider their rightful place amongst the elite whilst Burnley, Hull City and Blackpool have spoiled their respective fanbases with excursions to Anfield and Old Trafford via their Wembley play-off victories.
Inaugrated in 1987 after the Football League decided to reduce the sizes of the divisions, the Play-Off’s have in some eyes rejuvenated the last months of a league campaign and ensured that non-title chasing teams still have something to play for as opposed to drifiting into mid-table obscurity with much of the campaign left to play for.
Much like the majority of football fans, when as a neutral I love the concept, and cheering on random ‘smaller’ teams in an effort to see some new blood in the increasingly ring-fenced Premier League. However I also hate them. Hate them for the way my team Swansea fell at the final hurdle in the 2006 League One final by a couple of blundered penalties, a heartbreaking conclusion to an exciting season that lasted well into the next one. I also hate them for how they dropped out of the Championship play-off reckoning with 2 games left of the 46-game season last year to be overtaken by a Blackpool team who eventually went up. With my beloved Swans hanging onto the final spot with their very fingertips at the end of last season, every weekend brought more misery as our place became more unstable and precarious until the inevitable result of our place being usurped.
Are the Play-Offs worth the drama, excitement, heartbreak and unbearable tension in remaining in the 4 vital spots after 46 games and then manoeuvring through 3 more? In the interests of football I would say almost certainly. They offer incredible tension and excitement on par with any of World football’s major events and it’s great to see fans of constantly struggling clubs getting their one day on the big stage that they have perhaps never experience before or will never experience again. As a fan of a club who have secured their place in the end of season lottery (thank god after last season’s bottling!) with two games left and thus with a vested interest in the current season’s outcome as opposed to a neutral, I’ll let you know after the final whistle has rung at Wembley on May 30th. If we fall at the first hurdle or even worse at the national stadium just as we did 5 years ago then you will no doubt know my feelings surrounding this sporting import from across the Atlantic. And should we be victorious and our captain climbs the infamous steps to claim the Play-off trophy to raise to the heavens, then I will be the greatest supporter of the Play-off’s in the nation. Fickle, moi? Never.
The bone-rattling cold weather with the odd sprinkling of snow tends to mean one thing to the dedicated football fan; a crammed christmas schedule with fixture upon fixture in short succession, the warm cup of Bovril almost as highly anticipated as the games themselves. The importance of the Christmas schedule also plays a part in the appeal of the fixtures, make-or-break games at the halfway point that can determine the success or failure of the entire campaign.
With games on Boxing Day,two days later on the 28th, New Years Day and the 3rd January, the potential 12 points on offer in such a small period can be vital in determining the eventual league positions of the clubs. It is not unusual to hear managers of relegation-threatened teams lament a poor Christmas period for pulling them deeper into trouble. With the exception of West Brom’s Great Escape, no club bottom at Christmas survives the drop. It is also common for unstoppable title pushes to be launched from a good base created from excelling during the Christmas matches, Arsenal and Manchester United just two teams who have raced to league titles after an impressive festive season.
With this in mind, it seems appropriate to analyse Swansea City’s season to date and ponder over the strengths, weaknesses, successes and failures of the current campaign. In the last decade most seasons have brought intrigue and drama, whether its the sceptre of closure hanging over the club like the Sword of Damocles or the emotional rollercoaster of contesting for promotion. The 2010-2011 season so far has been no different.
As things stand at time of press, the Swans are currently sitting comfortable in 3rd place, equal on points with arch-rivals Cardiff who occupy the 2nd automatic promotion spot behind QPR. Even the most ambitious of fans would have accepted 3rd place at the start of the season amid the almost annual uncertainty of a managerial change. Expectations have changed quickly as the season has progressed however, the way the Swans have performed has almost made being 3rd only acceptable rather than an over achievement. There have been times of poor results and performances yet even in the tightest of leagues a play-off position has always looked to be fairly secure. With the infamous closeness of the league, with up to 10 teams regularly fighting it out for the 4 play-off positions on the final day, the team have to ensure they don’t take their foot of the gas as keep pushing for the automatic places. Tradition dictates the team that finishes 3rd rarely wins the play-off lottery. Verdict; Great start but no place for complacency.
Although previous incumbent Paulo Sousa led Swansea to the cusp of the play-off’s in his only season in the hotseat, it was done with a nonchalant attitude and tremendously boring football. For a squad and fans bred on attacking football with precision Barca-esque passing under Roberto Martinez the change in styles was almost unbearable and a change in manager seemed inevitable. With Sousa jumping ship before possibly being pushed further down the line, in came Brendan Rodgers with a point to prove and an impressive pedigree only slightly tarnished by a 6-month spell at Reading. With a tactical nous cultivated under the tutelage of a certain Jose Mourinho in his previous guise as Chelsea coach, “Buck” Rodgers has manager to seamlessly blend the attacking qualities of Martinez to the defensive strength of Sousa’s style. The football is once again a joy to watch with a generally stern defence adding a secure base from which to launch wave’s of attack via the midfield. With Rodgers’ impressive grounding at Chelsea an obvious advantage, it has also exposed Swansea to his contacts and the opportunity to increase the calibre of transfer targets, imperative to help the club move onto the next level. With Sousa’s European super-pedigree it was a disappointment that his so-called contacts never materialised, Rodgers already proving himself in the acquisition of Scott Sinclair. Almost everything Rodgers does at the moment is impressive, including the courteous and personable way he handles the media. A further plus to the Rodgers appointment appears to be his man-management skills, in particular re invigorating Mark Gower and the continued progress of Joe Allen. Apart from some minor faults such as putting out a reserve team for the Wigan cup game that alienated some of the 4,000 travelling fans or the curious loan signing of Jermaine Easter, Rodgers is quickly establishing himself as a possible Swansea City legend and although things change quickly in football the future looks assured.
As with all clubs, the manager and the set-up can be perfect but if the players are simply not up to the task then everything will ultimately fail. Regardless of Martinez’s defection to Wigan and Sousa’s questionable man-management skills, Rodgers has inherited a squad that has a solid base from which to launch a promotion charge. The Swans squad is far from perfect and although doing well at the moment it would substantial investment if it is going to launch a concerted promotion push come January and onwards. Beginning with the positives, despite a recent drop in form marquee summer signing Scott Sinclair has been a revelation and his hot goal-scoring streak has even earned him an England Under-21 call up. After continuous loan spells away from his Stamford Bridge base, Sinclair is finally settled and looking every bit the potential future England player he was once touted to be. He does have a habit of drifting out of games but when he drifts back in it usually ends with a goal. The same can be said of Nathan Dyer who with some work on his end product can become an even more impressive cog in the Swansea attacking machine. With their attacking strength only enabled from a strong defensive base, it is fair to praise the consistency of the dependable Ashley Williams, Garry Monk and Dorus De Vries. Alan Tate and Angel Rangel also offer decent support although lapses of concentration from all 5 suggest another old-head may help in offering support and advice both on the pitch and in training. The progession of local boy Joe Allen into an all action midfield dynamo is a pleasing aspect of the midfield as is the rebirth of Andrea Orlandi and Mark Gower as central midfielders, holding the fort well in the absence of Ferrie Bodde and contract rebel and out-of-form Darren Pratley.
Whilst the first XI is settled and performing well on the majority of outings, there is still concern at the strength of back up on the bench. Decent squad members but not quite good enough for the push to the Premier League, players such as Gorka Pintado, Albert Serran and Cedric Van Der Gun arguably need to be moved on to free up wage funds for the next generation of Swansea City players. The obvious concern is the lack of goals emanating from the front. With only room for one striker in Rodgers 4-5-1 that lone striker needs to be contributing and so far this season Craig Beattie and Stephen Dobbie amongst others have failed to deliver apart from on occasions. With the proverbial 20-goal a season striker one must wonder if the Swans would be safely in the automatic places by now rather than 3rd. Will the lack of goals be a point to lament come May? All in all, the squad is competing well at the half way point. There is a creeping concern, depending on how optimistic or cynical the person doing the stock take is, over whether the squad is good enough to last 46 games. For now, I will reserve judgement until the Squad Registration window closes on January 31st.
So, plenty to be happy about yet also room for improvement in most aspects but primarily with the playing staff. A strong start with a statement of intent has allowed Swansea to be in a great position at the half way mark, both in the table as well as in attracting potential new signings come January. My Verdict – B+. But then againI’m a pessimist!
Almost every sports and computer-loving male reading this article will agree with my first declaration; Football Manager is more addictive than crack. Not that I’m in the habit of consuming crack cocaine on any basis but I simply can’t see how any substance in the world can sustain a person’s attentions or fulfil its craving needs like Sport Interactive’s marquee game does.
Football Manager replaces. Its basic function is to replace. It replaces wives, kids, jobs, food, sleep, friends, pets, boredom and any other activity you can think of. Until you get sacked. Then its quickly shut off in a temper as you catch up on all the news and family time you’ve neglected until the irresistible urge to select “New Game” inevitable rises deep within your psyche. I first came across the management simulation game when it still operated under its previous incarnation as “Championship Manager”. My father purchased me “CM2″ back in 1997 to go with the first family PC we had. Exciting and Innovative times that unleashed a lifelong addiction in me. Compared to the uber-powerful and detailed offerings of today’s technological era, back then the game was beautiful in its simplicity. Put two attacking wingers up the flank and you were soon securing trophies by the dozen. I recall winging 18-0 with AC Milan in one of my first games and demanding my parents come into the kitchen to see. The mistake of buying me the game soon became evident to my parents as they used to catch me still on the PC long after they had gone to sleep. “Just one more” would be regular cry of desperation.
Whilst the years went by and I grew taller, wider and older one thing remained constant. New and updated versions constantly came out, were purchased and the discs exhausted by relentless usage. Staying awake all night and going straight to school was a way of life. It can be said I came within a few percentage of missing out on a University degree due to the desire to sweep all before me with my young and up-and-coming squads which were always carefully put together in the early hours of each morning.
Is there any better feeling than creating a dynasty at a lower league club and transforming them Brian Clough-style into a dominating force? Or being selected to manage your nation? Perhaps the best feeling is when that teenage striker you took a punt on repays you with continuous 20 goal seasons and quickly becomes your favourite person, both in the virtual world and even the real one. I have often felt more love for those little clustering of stats and goals that represent footballers than I have done for family members. I would even dare say that its possible to fall in love with certain players such is the attachment that can be generated between manager and star!
The flip side of the game can equally be disastrous and can cause genuine disappointment to the player. I have felt worse about some of the sackings I’ve suffered than I ever care about real-life jobs. When you’ve created a squad with a great youth team ready to step in, have reached iconic status in the game and everything looks rosy, in comes the dreaded vote of confidence after an unusual cup exit to some random minnow followed by the sacking. Heartbreaking. Or how about the emptyness you feel inside when said 20 goal a season striker, valued at many millions and a key component to your happiness and success in the game refuses to sign a new contract and leaves on a Bosman free. I feel like crying just thinking about it.
Whilst the game strives to be as realistic as possible and has built up a reputation for its extensive scouting network (rumour has it Chelsea has used their database to check out possible future stars in real life) a cult has built up around superstar players who were sensational in the game and, to put it mildly, shocking in real life. Cherno Samba enjoyed mild fame in reality for the exploits his namesake produced in the game. Another superstar Championship Manager Signing player was Kennedy Bakircioglu, a force that would dominate whatever was in front of him. A personal favourite of mine was 17 year old Alessio Cerci from Roma’s youth team who was guaranteed to score at least 30 goals a season. A particular game I remember is a 10 year stint at AC Milan on Champ Man 03/04 where Cerci had amassed in the region of 240 goals in 250 games. Gerd Muller-esque!. Probably my favourite player of all time was Pablo Piatti from the 2008 incarnation of Football Manager. Available for 50k from Independiente, Pablo would sign for any time that offered him 1k a week. He regularly turned down AC Milan, Barca etc to sign for my League 2 clubs and proceeded to annihilate all statistical records before the inevitable Bosman transfer to a European superpower.
The occasions where a player such as Piatti would desert my team would bring me to almost tears and many a fist was swollen with wall-smacking temper tantrums. But why do we keep coming back after 13 years of sleepness nights and fractured relationships? To paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson; “Football Manager, Bloody Hell!”
10:45. What a ridiculously early time to be leaving my house for a game that doesn’t kick off until 9 hours later. This was what I got myself into when it was instantly decided mere minutes after the League Cup 4th Round draw was made pairing the Swans with ex-manager Roberto Martinez’s new side Wigan that we would have to be present. As a supporter of a club which like a jilted lover felt betrayed at the Spaniard’s defection, to miss this trip would be unforgivable and it was quickly decided despite my protests that I was to be the designated driver.
So, 10.45. Its raining. I’m tired. My car is cold. And away we go. As an ex-student at University of Chester I was very well acquainted with the mid Wales roads that wind their way up to the North West and also aware of the time that could be cut from the long trip by avoiding gridlocked Motorway systems around the Midlands. As a matter of fact we got there to fast, arriving at the DW Stadium so early that the away car park wasn’t even open yet. Having noticed a pub next to the stadium the car was duly dumped in the car park and the Red Robin pub was entered. With a couple of hours to kill before the game, the joys of driving meant I was limited to a pint of shandy and the quiz machine whilst my passengers proceeded to intoxicate themselves. With the pub filling up with Jacks it soon became difficult to move so we proceeded to the stadium just a small walk across a darkened car park at around 7.
The DW stadium has the unusual option for away fans of entering an enclosure called “The Marquee”, which with its fine wooden bar and plush carpets makes it more suited to a Wedding party than a pre-match pint and pie for away fans. With kick off delayed quarter of an hour, there was ample time to savour a steak pie (not bad but didn’t live up to its expectations) before entering the ground proper. A reasonable stadium let down by the lack of home fans, the seats behind the goal offered fantastic views of the action, always made clearer during night games by the floodlights. 4,500 fans had travelled up the M6 and the A483 to give Roberto Martinez the red-hot reception that was expected and the Judas chants intensified when Craig Beattie had the ball in the net within the first 10minutes. The whistle for offside didn’t dampen spirits and the Swans arguably had the better of the first half. The second half became a bit more jittery for the away fans, Premier League class beginning to show as Wigan split the Swans defence for £6m signing Mario Boselli to round Yves Ma-Kalambay and tap the ball into the open net. A lot of the Swans fans weren’t sure why Rodgers had put out a weakened side and with the Scott Sinclair substitution never coming Wigan completed the victory deep into injury time when N’Zogbia dubiously went down from an Angel Rangel challenge and Ben Watson put the resulting penalty into the bottom left corner.
Leaving the ground disappointment was quickly replaced by hunger, the beer boys in the car easily persuaded into a jaunt into Manchester for the infamous “Curry Mile”. After a while trying to find Rusholme and the neon lights of curry house upon curry house, the terrible Bhuna was exactly what was needed before the long drive home. Missing the junction for the M6 on the way home and ending up in Chester, the road needed to get to Birmingham via Telford was closed leading to getting lost on the backroads of rural Shropshire in the early hours. Heart FM full blast, full beam on and pedal to the floor, walking in the door at 5am completed a 500mile, 18 hour trip. There’s always the FA Cup.
Domestic cup football has always been a curious aspect of British football, derided and loved in equal measure for its distraction and romanticism respectively. The higher the position of the club, the higher the feeling of antipathy towards one of the traditional silver jugs tends to be, at least until the later rounds. Further down the leagues the importance of the cups is evident to the triumvirate of the fans, players and owners.
Whether its the fan’s praying to be drawn with a Premier League club as a dream respite from the dreary depths of their usual struggle, the players looking to make a name and gain some exposure to further their careers or the owners aiming to capitalise financially by riding the coattails of the superstar opposition, domestic cup football remains as important as ever to the heartbeat of the game despite popular claims to the contrary.
Aside from the obvious glory ties of drawing an Arsenal or Manchester United, the cups also have the regular occurrence of conjuring up draws between traditional or lapsed rivals, allowing them to renew hostilities that may have lain dormant for a number of years due to differing divisions. Examples of such ties would be the now infamous Battle of Upton Park last year between West Ham United and Millwall, easily the most interesting draw of the round or the equally enthralling Swansea-Cardiff League Cup game a couple of years back.
When the last 16 of this year’s League Cup was drawn last month this was the case for Swansea City, who although no longer the small lower league club they previously were still maintain the lower league mentality of hoping for a bigger club to flex their new found confidence against. The initial disappointment at missing out on a “big four” club was quickly replaced by unadulterated excitement at facing Wigan Athletic, possibly the only fans to be anticipating a trip to the home of the Latics. The reason of course boils down to one particular Spaniard who decided a life at a soulless Lancashire outpost was preferential to building a dynasty on the edge of the Gower Peninsula. Roberto Martinez is considered as a Judas by many fans in the SA postcodes for the way he immediately jumped ship for the unfashionable Wigan and as is always the case those whom were revered tend to suffer the most abuse.
There is a sizeable minority who can overlook Martinez’s defection and applaud the ex-captain who masterminded the League One Championship win and effectively helped transform the club into the comfortable 2nd tier assemble it currently is. However as previously stated, when a player/manager is as loved as Martinez leaves the second another club comes in it is often construed as betrayal and brings the worst, or best, out of the fans. With this in mind, anyone who devalues the domestic cup competition only needs to be one of an estimated 4,000 travelling fans on tuesday night at the JJB stadium to witness the atmosphere that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without such a tournament. The cup may not be the priority of the big four, but you can not underestimate how seriously it will be taken come midweek and that is the magic of the cup…bringing together two teams in what would otherwise be an unlikely scenario and offer up a raft of emotions.
Premier League survival may be Roberto Martinez’s main concern as opposed to the League Cup, but the Spaniard had better be prepared for a plethora of abuse and vitriol from the away fans, otherwise it is going to be a long night. And it is for unlikely duel’s such as this one which ensures that domestic cup competition remains as vital today as it ever has done.
The signing of a Premier League reserve player whom has failed to make the breakthrough is not always a guarantee of success when the said player drops down a level to make his name. There is a long list of such players who despite their grounding at the nation’s top academies find the reality of senior football too much and fade away, the high expectations and the dream never realised.
Conversely, some make the grade by getting their heads down and altering the dream, performing diligently at a range of lower level clubs before earning their place amongst the game’s elite. Many of the so-called “lower league” stars who get signed by Premier Leagues clubs tend to really be previous academy cast-offs rather than true lower-league journeymen straight from the building sites, regardless of the inevitable press headlines. Non-league menace Jermaine Beckford for example had lone been touted to complete his unlikely non-league to Premiership journey before completing his multi-million pound move to Everton in the summer. What is overlooked is that the ex-Wealdstone player was reared in the Chelsea academy and had the same schooling as England International Carlton Cole and was therefore far from a raw recruit.
A classic example of one such player being turfed out of a big name club as a teenager only to eventually walk back through the same doors as a millionaire internationally-capped star is Peter Crouch. Released from Tottenham Hotspur in 2000, Crouch worked his way back with show-stealing performances in the Championship with QPR and Portsmouth which earned him moves to the Premier League with Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool and eventually an unlikely return to White Hart Lane. The unusual full-circle and perfect adage to the “never go back” theory unless with the added motive of “prove them wrong”.
At Swansea City in particular there has been a steady flow of Premier League rejects filtering in and out of the Liberty Stadium as they aim to capture a decent talent for free, much in sync with the rest of the football league. Fulham reject Darren Pratley has been an unequivocal success in the Swan’s engine room, his all-action displays ensuring the prospect of a Premier League club swooping for him in the summer when his contract runs out. Other successes through this method include Manchester United outcast and current club icon Alan Tate as well as West Ham’s “Academy of Football” graduate Leon Britton who was revered before his departue this summer. Both players have managed to rack up 300+ appearances each and played key roles in raising the club from the threat of non-league and extinction to comfortable Championship challengers. As already explored previously, this can be equally offset by the failures that have become mere footnotes in the clubs history, passing through without making little or any notice on their tumble from Premiership possibility to lower-league non-entity. Chelsea and Scotland hopeful Steven Watt came with high hopes and left without a whimper, 3 league appearances and injuries to show for his potential. Another prospect was Scott Evans, a local boy returning from the Manchester City academy who was much-vaunted but last seen playing in the League of Wales.
Perhaps the person who bests encapsulates the failure of scouring the market for Premiership cast-offs is Matty Collins. A strong Welsh prospect who was signed by Fulham for £100,000 at the mere age of 15, the player with a lot of promise graduated to become a regular reserve team player…at Swansea. Having joined his local team from Craven Cottage in 2006 having never lived up to his promise, Collins played a handful of games in his 4 year stint at the Liberty Stadium before joining Scott Evans as another top-level reject in the grateful Welsh Premier.
Into this background of optimism tinged with scepticism comes Scott Sinclair, the ex-Chelsea youth product with undoubted and endless ability and potential who has struggled to make the breakthrough in one of the most talented squads in world football. Tiring of being passed around a myriad of football league clubs Sinclair has signed for Swansea for the relatively small fee of £500,000 to gain some stability to nourish his talent. It is fair to say that despite the worry of another Collins-esque signing with the risk of a half-million pound fee being lost, within only a handful of games gone the player is looking every bit the star that he was always expected to become.
Moving to a provincial club with the burden of being heralded as a future England international and the possible piece to take the Swansea jigsaw to the next level is the kind of pressure that can break a young player and lead him to becoming just another “what if?” lamented upon by future generations. Sinclair has shown nothing that makes him seem susceptible to this curse however and apart from the occasional missed game through injury his brief tenure at the Liberty has so far been nothing short of perfect. Swansea’s water-tight defence was crying out for a goal-getter last season, and Sinclair’s Thierry Henry-esque finishing has seen him already exceed the top scorer of the last campaign with the season barely under way. His goal streak and the deadly defence-splitting runs have had the open-mouthed fans in raptures.
The optimistic amongst the fan base are already happy to declare Sinclair a step-above anyone to have performed in the Swans shirt in the last three decades at least whilst the pessimists lament that the fantastic start will soon come to the inevitable end as such form is impossible to maintain. With the Championship a notoriously long and tough campaign it is unreasonable to state that Sinclair’s signing is an unqualified success, a position the Swans found themselves in a few years ago. In 2006 Liverpool’s Paul Anderson joined on loan and “David Beckham’s long-term successor” had an equally breathtaking beginning to his Swans career before fading out.
Whilst taking such warnings aboard, Scott’s form is definitly something to become excited about however, and many are already day dreaming about how they can tell future fans how they “saw Scott play”. Having scored 4 goals in 2 League Cup wins over Tranmere and Peterborough and gunning for ex-loan employers Wigan in the next round, the 21-year-old has also made his mark in the league. His winner was crucial in the victory of recently relegated Burnley as well as his instant impact in the 3-2 triumph away at Watford. With league goals in wins against Coventry and Scunthorpe in between, Sinclair’s perfect 8 goals from 8 games is a great achievement in new surroundings.
Scott Sinclair has no guarantee of returning to the top flight and gracing the country’s largest grounds, as the aforementioned failures clearly imply. His explosive start however has given him the impetus to build on solid foundations and we could be in the midst of a future Premier League and International star. Not that the lad needs more pressure.
A fantastic hot day unfortunately brought a poor and dull match in the last-ever game to be played at the infamous Vetch Field, watched by 11,469 people. The famous ground, which has seen such legends as Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Sir Matt Busby and a whole array of the game’s famous sons is replaced next season by the wonderful out-of-city White Rock Stadium, although it appears unlikely that the £30m arena will keep the same fervour that the North Bank generates at every home game.
The wonderful “Bank” and its amazing support brightened up a day in which actual sporting activities were somewhat lacking. Although the anti-English and anti-Cardiff chants should be frowned upon, the North Bank will be sadly missed by all who live in and around the “ugly pretty city”.
Prior to the game, legendary Welsh comedian Max Boyce led the crowd in the singing of the national anthem, following a comic marriage between the home team’s two mascots. Shrewsbury Town were simply turning up for the day for this game, already having secured League football next year, whereas Swansea City were aiming for the automatic promotion places with a win, not to mention a win for the memory of the old ground.
The game started with an unbelievable roar from the Swansea faithful on what was a big day for them, and the cheer that reverberated around the ground on the eight minute mark must surely have shaken the Gower Peninsula. £100,000 signing Kevin McLeod picked the ball up on the left hand side and produced an excellent through ball for Adrian Forbes who showed great composure to loft the ball over the keeper and, after what seemed an age as the crowd held their breath, fell wonderfully in to the bottom corner. Cue eruptions of delight from all four sides of the ground.
A great start that promised an afternoon goal glut that was unfortunately not lived up to. The game from there on remained dull and un inventive. Swansea were relatively poor with even the normally great Lee Trundle having a quiet game, “Magic Daps” man marked out of the game bt a Shrewsbury defence on top of their game. Shrewsbury were having a great first half, three wonderful chances all saved by the City keeper Willy Gueret, the big Frenchman having a brilliant first half, all three saves enough for him to secure the man-of-the-match award.
Swansea right-back Andy Gurney had a nightmare and was unsurprisingly replaced at half time by the eager Kevin Austin, with new Welsh international Sam Ricketts reverting to his familiar right back position. The half time team talk was of no use, manager Kenny Jackett obviously angry at the sight of his team with no fight in them as Shrewsbury continuously pushed for an equaliser, with livewire Luke Rodgers on top form. A Shrews header right at the death was disappointingly headed straight into the grateful arms of Gueret, who clutched onto it with relief.
Two minutes into injury time came the comic plea from the announcer for all fans to stay off the pitch, even though half of the North Bank were already over the barriers and standing beside the linesman, who was looking on with understandable worry in his eyes. The final whistle ended the illustrious 93-year life of the Vetch Field and unleashed a torrent of fans all across the pitch, straight towards the players.
The party atmosphere was certainly intensified as the players, in full kit, made their way out into the director’s box to the happiness of the Jack Army faithful. Boots, shirts and shin pads all made their way into the waiting mob, cheering and chanting surely heard for miles around. The actual game may have been forgetful, but thanks to the fans the day was anything but.
For any fans of football clubs who have had the please/displeasure of Leon Knight wearing the sacred shirt, you will already be aware of his baggage and controversial persona. For those who have never had Leon on your books, you are no doubt aware of the stories and rumours that surround the man who has the ability to terrorise lower league defences like no other. At least when capable of getting another club.
An ex-Chelsea trainee and promising goal-getter, Knightie’s career has taken an almost continuous downward spiral since his debut and has ended up as far away from the Premier League dream as possible. With each passing season another club is seemingly added to his rapsheet. With the popular adage of no smoke without fire, Knight’s undoubted pedigree has been hampered by suspected attitude issues. But does this mean that the latest controversy he finds himself embroiled in his automatically his fault?
After getting his career back on track with some explosive goals and performances from 2003-2007 at both Brighton and Swansea, Knight’s been a short term visitor at various lower league clubs after departing the Liberty Stadium taking in stops at Barnsley, MK Dons, Wycombe Wanderers and then Rushden & Diamonds where his current predicament arises. Despite having signed a contract that was due to expire at the end of the 2009-10 Season (with the option for a one year extension) Knight was sacked 4 months into his deal due to alleged continual breaches of the agreement. As the sacking was due to breaking the contract and not mutual consent the FA confirmed that Knight was unable to be registered with another FA club as Rushden retained his rights.
Seeking to continue his career with clubs under different jurisdictions whilst running down his contract, Knight had unsuccessful stints for Greek club Thrasivoulos Filis and Scottish teams Hamilton Academicals and Queen of the South. With the 2009-10 season concluded Knight began mentioning on social networking site his excitement at being able to make a comeback in English football and sign for Darlington. Rushden & Diamonds however have re entered the scene and blocked the transfer, demanded a £30,000 transfer fee and invoked the automatic one year contract extension leaving Knight in footballing purgatory. Thus came the now infamous explosion of Knight on his Twitter page at the ridiculous, yet legal, actions of Rushden.
What has followed has been extraordinary revealations from an angry and outspoken Knight seemingly exposing the shady world of Football club Ownership. Knight has mentioned how the club gifted him two Merc’s then had his father arrested when they wanted them back, gave him money which they have now demanded back and also issuing an apparent death threat. Knight is also adamant that he has documents and bank statements to back his outrageous claims, adding weight to his allegations and for once helping put him in an underdog role as opposed to the bad guy role he has become accustomed to. The club are essentially restricting him from plying his trade after he willingly sat out the two years of his initial contract by invoking the extra year clause. This is a man who has two children to feed and despite the man’s personality it seems petty to restrict him from playing for yet another year in what is already a short career. Having threatened to go to the press in a bid to find a solution to the situation, Knight’s aim to kick-start his career doesn’t look too promising. It is a shame that such an undoubted talent is now being crippled through innocuous and unreasonable red tape.
UPDATE: 5 months have since past since I wrote that article and the good news is that Leon is playing again, albeit temporarily outside England. After Rushden and Diamonds ruthlessly refused to budge in their demands for the cash payment Leon was forced to seek employment elsewhere to support his family and opted for the Northern Irish Premiership club Coleraine FC. Knight got off to a great start at his new club and showcasing the talent for which he has always been known he scored twice on his debut against Glenavon on October 16th 2010. Since then the dimunitive number 9 has scored 8 in 12 which has again led to a clamouring for his services back across the water. Signing a new contract towards the end of the recent transfer window is perhaps an indicator that Leon has found a club he is appreciated at and who’s fans will be hoping he will stay for a while to come. As stated by Coleraine chairman Hugh Waide “Leon is very happy here, he is an excellent player and we are delighted he is staying”. Leaving the last word with Leon himself, as he stated on his twitter after signing his new extended contract “i agreed a deal here late last night for 18 months…i cud have came back but i love this town, they love me, im happy & the deal is great”. Thank you Coleraine for letting the man play!
Football is a sport which, especially within the UK, is built upon pride, determination and passion. These three qualities are the minimum requirements from most British fans for the players who represent their teams. If a player is terrible, they will still respect him if he is a grafter and a trier. And vice versa, an enigmatic superstar who remains aloof and lazy can find himself at the mercy of the fans despite the undoubted quality he may bring to the squad.
When the focus is transferred from clubs to the international arena, another aspect comes into play in the minds of the fans. Patriotism. Essentially an uncontrollable and dominating combination of the aforementioned pride and passion, representing your country is seen as the pinnacle of a career and something to cherish. Therefore it is galling and even insulting to the majority of fans when a player decides to opt out of representing his nation in the guise of taking “international retirement”.
To the average patriot in the street rejecting the chance to belt out your nation’s anthem and live the dreams of millions is unthinkable. To reject the opportunity to become a hero to millions of school children and wear the nation’s hallowed badge is unforgivable. Yet it is becoming a more popular course of action by the modern player, to retire before their natural time and dismiss any overture to return. The issue has once again exploded into the public mind with a sudden and unexpected plethora of retirements just before the first international games of the 2010/11 season. Whilst smaller nations tend to see retirements from their bigger stars, i.e. Dmitar Berbatov from Bulgaria, it has come as an unwelcome surprise to England fans to see utility squad members Wes Brown and Paul Robinson duck out from representing their country whilst still being top-level performers. What is perhaps most insulting is that, at the ages of barely 30, both still have much to add to the squad rather than being brittle, broken-down pro’s. In recent times the other home nations have also been a victim of this new modern phenomenon of retiring early.
Whilst Ryan Giggs might be one of the greatest players this game has seen on a club level, for Wales the ex-captain often flattered to deceive before bringing his 17-year career to an end to “prolong his club career”. And prolong it he has, continuing to play into his late 30′s to a higher level than most players a decade younger. Extending his Manchester United career is of no concern to the Welsh fans however, or to any other international fan who’s player has retired for this dubious motive. Paul Scholes; Alan Shearer; Jamie Carragher; Simon Davies; Barry Ferguson; Damien Johnson; just some of the British names to abandon their nations prematurely. Is this a valid reason? I dare say in the fan’s eyes it is paramount to treason. If playing for a country, representing your fellow people even, is the greatest honour in a sportsman’s short career then how can these people turn their back on it? What evidence is there so support this stance. Granted, Giggs and Shearer have played on a lot longer at the higher level than expected, yet so did Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and most of the Italian team, all of whom went to the 2006 World Cup Final.
The other aspect of international retirement is the players who take it for personal reason’s not connected to on-field activities. Once again, referring back to the dreamer in the pub who never had the talent or drive to make it to the top, is spurring the chance to inspire fellow citizens and represent them in the modern gladiator arena of sport just because of personal reasons simply elevating one’s importance above that of the nation. It may have shades of communist ideologies about it but placing yourself above the needs of your state is not something agreeable with the average football fan who wants players to sweat and bleed for the flag. Steven Ireland is his country’s most talented player yet is missing out on his prime as he doesn’t like fellow pro’s making fun of his hair. Robbie Savage ended his career in his peak due to a personal grudge against an admittedly difficult manager as did Roy Keane. Duncan Ferguson wished to spite the SFA and Wayne Bridge wanted away from the tabloid speculation and John Terry’s face.
International football can be tiresome, mentally extenuating and even pointless at times yet it is something that unites divided countries behind one anthem, one flag and one badge. To see those privileged few reject this chance is disgraceful and should not be something that enters your mind. A player should always be available for selection as David Beckham as endeavoured to do despite the obvious difficulties he has had to overcome to keep up with his hectic travel schedule. He believes in the badge on his shirt and despite his multi-million pound fortune has not forgotten what it means to the people on the building sites in his East London working class roots. To end, a much used quote from JFK. “Ask not what your country can do for you…but what you can do for your country”. It seems the modern, rich footballer has lost his sense of duty to his fellow citizen and has much to learn in what it is to be a true patriot.