Friday, 8 June 2012

Euro fever


Dimitris Salpingidis changed the game for Greece

I’ve well and truly been taken down by European Championship fever.

You know you’ve got it bad when Poland vs Greece – a fixture you wouldn’t usually pay any attention to whatsoever- takes on Champions League final-like significance. When your non-football loving friends ask you how you’re spending your Friday night you look at them as if it’s the stupidest question on the planet.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been starved of football for two weeks. Suddenly questions like, ‘Will Polish striker Robert Lewandowski justify being linked to Manchester United?’ Or, ‘Is the Greek defence – which conceded just five goals in qualifying – good enough to help them repeat their shock win in 2004’, have taken upmost precedent in my mind.

Football – or to be more specific – a major international tournament can do this to you. Spotting the ‘next big thing’ is too tempting, ensuring you do your best to watch every minute of every game, even it means sneaking out of work half an hour early to make sure you make the 5pm kick off times.

Most eyes were on Lewandowski during the opening game of the Championships. He certainly looks the part. His movement and touch make it clear to see how he’s scored 30 goals for his club, German champions Borussia Dortmund this season. His goal against Greece showed a striking instinct but the game also highlighted, like most strikers, he relies heavily on service. He is not the sort of striker to fathom something out of nothing and the 23-year-old went missing for long periods when his side needed him most. One thing is for certain the hosts will need him at his best if they are to progress to the quarter-finals.

Perhaps the power of the Euros is best summed up by the fact that Dimitris Salpingidis is now a household name. Before the match the PAOK forward was an unknown, now he could be a possible transfer target for half the Premier League after changing the game following his introduction at half-time to see the Greeks come from behind to draw 1-1.

I’d better get off and prepare for Russia vs Czech Republic. Why? To see if Russia’s Alan Dzagoev is the real deal and whether Andrey Arshavin has really rediscovered his Arsenal form of his first season. Why else? 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ruud hails time at United


Former Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy has described his time at Old Trafford as like ‘living a dream’.

For the Dutchman, goalscoring wasn’t just a habit it was a necessity. Van Nistelrooy struck 150 goals in five seasons for United making him the club’s 11th all-time top scorer.

However, it wasn’t just his awesome record in front of goal that endeared him to United fans. The sheer passion with which he celebrated each time he hit the back of the net struck a chord with Red Devils fan across the world.

Now plying his trade for Spanish Primera League side Malaga, after spells with Real Madrid and Hamburg, Van Nistelrooy still looks back on his time at the Theatre of Dreams with fondness.

“It was a fantastic five years,” he told Inside United. “It was crazy, all the games we played in the league and in the Champions League. As a football player, playing for United at Old Trafford, it was something crazy and it felt like a dream at the time. Now, looking back, it is even more special because it was really successful and exceptional.”

Having won Premier League, FA Cup and Carling Cup titles at United it is perhaps no surprise Van Nistelrooy enjoyed his time at the club but he does admit to one regret.

“My relationship with the fans was really special,” he added. “From the first day I signed it was there and it just gives you that extra 10 to 20 per cent on the pitch home and away. My relationship with the fans was special and that’s why leaving in the way I did was, and still is, a real shame for me because I couldn’t really say goodbye to them. It was my only regret that it went like that and it’s a real shame that it happened, particularly for the fans as I saw the players and the people at the club before I left but I never got a chance to properly say goodbye to the fans.”

Despite being in the twilight of his career Van Nistelrooy is still doing what he does best – scoring goals. The 35-year-old has scored twice in his last three games to keep mega-rich Malaga well and truly in the hunt for a Champions League place. Unsurprisingly Van Nistelrooy is making the most of every kick at this late stage of his career.

“Malaga is the perfect place for me to be at the moment,” he said. “I am enjoying every moment here and I am enjoying the project (Malaga were bought by a member of the Qatari Royal family in 2010, with plans to bring UCL football to the Spanish club), the club and the young squad that we have, so yes, I am enjoying every moment of it.”

For the full interview buy a copy of this month’s Inside United magazine.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Spent force?


Fast-forward to Saturday 1 September 2012. Having failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League the previous season, the transfer window has slammed shut with Arsenal’s captain and talisman Robin Van Persie hot footing it to Barcelona, after a drawn out transfer saga that has lasted much of the summer, leaving the Gunners with little or no time to sign a replacement.
   Back to the present day and Arsenal still possess an outside chance of finishing fourth. But Van Persie, with just one more year left on his contract, is more likely to fancy his chances of winning silverware at the Nou Camp or fellow admirers Manchester City after eight, mostly pot-less, years at the Emirates.
   If, and it is still an ‘if’, Van Persie leaves it will no doubt fuel Gunners fans to ring up any radio phone-in show that will listen to label the move as further proof of the club’s falling stock in English football. But would the North London club be as worse off as first feared without the deadly Dutchman?
   In Jack Wilshere they have a player in which to mould a team around. The loss of Wilshere, to injury for the whole season, has arguably hit the team harder than the sales of both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last summer. The young midfielder has proven he is more than comfortable playing at the highest level, having not looked out of place amongst pass-masters Xavi and Andres Iniesta as Arsenal beat Barcelona 2-1 in the last-16 of last season’s Champions League. Wilshere has also made his mark on the international stage, so much so that experts are still, optimistically, hopeful that the 20-year-old will play some part in this summer’s European Championships.
   Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another who has shown, in just a handful of first-team appearances, that he is the real deal. The former Southampton trainee is reminiscent of a young Wayne Rooney, not just in his broad physique, but also for the way that he tramples over more experienced opponents’ reputations with little or no regard. Not too much should be read into the forward’s brace against an inexperienced Blackburn backline at the weekend but his performance against Manchester United’s Patrice Evra seven days previously prove that the Englishman is ready for regular first-team football.
   Add Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain to an already strong spine of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, centre-backs Thomas Vermaelen and the ever improving Laurent Koscienlny and the outstanding Alexandre Song and you have the makings of a strong team capable of, at least, qualifying for a top four place.
   Of course if Van Persie does leave the capital the Gunners will need to replace his goals. Oxlade-Chamberlain will chip in with his fair share but with Theo Walcott showing no signs of growing out of his infuriatingly inconsistent form Wenger knows Van Persie will have to be replaced. A target man such as Fernando Llorente would fit the bill perfectly while Porto’s Hulk could be another option and both wouldn’t have to break the bank – a fact that will most please Wenger.
   Granted, Wenger will need to strengthen in key areas if they are to end their six-year wait for a trophy but the Gunners have more than enough in their ranks to be a force once more even if Van Persie decides the grass is greener in Catalonia or Manchester. The bigger question will be whether Wenger is given even more time to construct another great side or if the disgruntled voices of a possible Van Persie sale will persuade him to try his hand at managing elsewhere…. the Bernabeu perhaps?  

Friday, 20 January 2012

Patience is a virtue


It’s a sad state of affairs when a youngster with just three first team games to his name won’t sign a contract for anything less than a reported £30k a week.

It’s even worse when you consider the club - Manchester United - and the manager – Sir Alex Ferguson – has one of the best reputations for bringing through youngsters in the last 20 years. In simple terms arguably only Barcelona have a better record at producing players for the first team. However, all of that doesn’t seem good enough for 18-year-old Ravel Morrison.

Morrison denies making such - to use Ferguson’s own words - ‘unrealistic’ claims insisting, via his private Twitter account, that any offer, let alone one for 30k a week, is yet to be forthcoming.

Newspapers claim that United have offered the troublesome teenager a meagre £12k a week but for a club that has stood by Morrison through some dark times surely the attacking midfielder should be asking ‘where do I sign’ rather than questioning the amount on the table. 

Contract issues aside if Morrison is to be as good as people in the know will have you believe it should only be a matter of time before he begins to stamp his authority on the first team. After all the likes of Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney had all established themselves at United and Everton respectively by the time they had reached Morrison’s age. If Morrison is to live up to his billing – and that is a big ‘IF’ – and be considered in the same class as the likes of Giggs and Rooney he will surely be paid what he deserves sooner rather than later. However, it seems patience is a virtue that is lost on the younger generation.

If Morrison is to be believed and no contract has even been tabled it begs the question as to whether United are using the ‘contract negotiations’ as a smokescreen and washing their hands of the youngster once and for all.  

Despite his lack of first team football Red Devils fans got more than a glimpse of the England youth international in United’s recent Carling Cup exit against Crystal Palace. Morrison came off the bench at half-time with the score at 0-0 and despite the odd flick here and there did little to influence the outcome of the game during the second period and subsequent extra time. Harsh? Maybe but would a young, upcoming Giggs, Scholes or Rooney have made a positive impact on the same game? Almost certainly.

Morrison’s chances of making it at United now look slim to none but what is almost certain is that the youngster will end up making millions out of the game, probably moving from one club to another with each new manager believing they can be the one to curb his off-pitch antics. The saddest thing is that Morrison will probably deem that a success when he could have earned something far more valuable by becoming a hero at Old Trafford.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Selection Madness


While Paul Scholes may have turned down Fabio Capello’s last ditch attempt to get the Manchester United wizard to come out of international retirement ahead of the World Cup some of the games top names have not even had the satisfaction of even being asked.

National team managers of the 32 teams competing in South Africa this summer have been busy scratching their heads with the unenviable task of sorting the definites from the maybes to the no hopers as each selects their preliminary squads for the showcase event.

However there appears to be some glaring omissions…..

2006 runners-up France will be heading south without Karim Benzema or Patrick Vieira while Brazil – many peoples clear favourites for the tournament – have a squad that looks, in all honesty, distinctly average after Dunga decided to leave Alexandre Pato, Ronaldinho and Adriano at home in favour of strikers Luis Fabiano (Sevilla), Nilmar (Villarreal), Robinho (Man City/Santos) and Grafite (Wolfsburg) – all talented but not likely to put the fear of god into defenders like a Romario, Rivaldo or Ronaldo.

Holland must be confident the likes of red-hot Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt can magic some goals up from somewhere after leaving experienced frontman Ruud Van Nistelrooy at home. The former Manchester United and Real Madrid man has 34 goals in 64 international appearances while Babel and Kuyt have a combined tally of errrrrrr…….17 strikes in 86 games. We’re sure Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk has his reasons.

Many have ridiculed Argentina’s chances this summer with the erratic Diego Maradona at the helm. El Diego used over 100 players in qualifying with Argentina scraping through by the skin of their teeth. However any side that possesses the attacking quality of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero cannot be written off….. that was until Maradona tried his best to mess things up again when he named his provisional squad.

Included in the squad were household names such as Ariel Garce, Juan Manuel Insaurralde, Clemente Rodriguez and keeper Diego Pozo (don’t worry I haven’t heard of any of them either) while Inter duo Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Real Madrid’s Fernando Gago were left out.

To think that Zanetti and Cambiasso have been key components of Jose Mourinho’s Inter side that are still on for an historic treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League this season makes Maradona’s decision even more laughable.

However there is some good news to come out of all this selection madness…..it surely increases England’s chances of winning the trophy for the first time since 1966 with or without the ginger magician – although Spain may have something to say about that!!!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Britain has never been renowned for consistently exporting players around the world. In fact ever since Ian Rush allegedly described his struggles at Juventus in the late 1980s as ‘like living in a foreign country’ overseas clubs have steered well clear of British talent – until now.

While Englishmen such as David Beckham, Matt Derbyshire and Darius Vassell light up the top leagues in Italy, Greece and Turkey respectively delve a little deeper and you discover that more and more British youngsters are trying their luck abroad.

Most have suffered similar experiences. Having been rejected by Premier League clubs a large number of players, not content with slipping down the Football League ladder, are now looking to broaden their horizons overseas.

But while the 1980s saw British talent join the elite leagues in Italy, Spain and Germany nowadays youngsters from these shores are making waves in the likes of Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

“I just fancied a change,” says ex-Chelsea youngster Sam Tillen, now in his third year with Icelandic side Fram Reykjavik.

“I was only 22 and I was a bit disillusioned and I wanted to try something different and I am extremely glad that I did. It is a great place to live and things have gone really well.”

Having joined Brentford, then in League One, in 2005 Tillen quickly fell out of love with the game in England: “In my first year at the club we should have got promotion and we missed out on the last day and we got beat in the play-offs, then in the second year Martin Allen, our manager, left and I ended up having six managers in the next 18 months and that’s when I decided to leave.”

Despite league crowds averaging just over 1000 and the Icelandic league boasting no more then 12 foreigners - including Tillen and his younger brother Joe, who has joined him at Fram - the left–back insists the standard of football is similar to what he was used to at Griffin Park.

“The standard of football is good compared to the lower leagues in England,” he added. “They play more football over here and I would say the top four or five teams could play in League One and definitely League Two and the top half of teams are of a very good standard.”

24-year-old defender Mark Howard went down a different route. Despite having a year still to run on his contract with Manchester United the centre-half took the plunge and joined his former reserve team boss Rene Meulensteen at Brondby in Denmark in summer 2006.

Experience

“My reserve team manager Rene Meulensteen had just left to become the manager of Brondby and one day I got a phone call in the summer and he said ‘would you like to come over?’ I didn’t really fancy it but I went there for two days to train and I liked it. The guys all spoke English which was a bonus so I came home and had a good think about it and felt I may as well give it a go and I signed a three-year contract.

“I spoke to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he said I would enjoy it and that Copenhagen was a nice place to live and the football would be good.

“I was a regular at 20 playing all the time. When you play all the time you learn different things. At first I got a stupid red card and I was young and na├»ve but you learn so quickly and you gain so much experience as well.”

However Meulensteen lasted just six months in Denmark before returning to Old Trafford with Brondby sitting seventh in the league. But rather than curse his misfortune and return to England Howard knuckled down and began to make a name for himself in Scandinavia.

“(Meulensteen) left in December and it was difficult, I was thinking ‘what do I do now?’ He recalled.

“I spoke to the new management and they told me they would be happy for me to stay and they didn’t want me to leave. In a way it was a release of pressure because I was the guy that Meulensteen brought in and now I had nothing to lose and things went really well from there.”

A Player of the Year award in 2007 was proof of his progression but after contract negotiations turned sour Howard soon discovered the harsher side to football abroad.

“I had been at Brondby for two years and we were in talks to sign a new deal in my last year but things went on and I didn’t agree with the sports chief and things turned sour,” he pointed out.

“I was Player of the Year in 2007 I didn’t agree on the contract and the sport chief at the time was the chairman’s son. I was playing all the time I established myself but I ended up signing for AGF.”

Calum Angus is another Englishman who has recently experienced the down side to forging a football career abroad. The 23-year-old was offered the chance to join Swedish top flight side GAIS last summer after spending four years playing and gaining a degree at Saint Louis University in America following his release from Portsmouth.

Having established himself in the first-team last season Angus broke a bone in his foot during pre-season (the Swedish campaign runs from March to October) keeping him sidelined for three months.

Injury

“This is the only time I have struggled out here. I broke a bone in my foot and I have been out for three months. Pre-season is really long, it goes on for months and I am still a couple of weeks from training properly.” he stated.

“That’s the one thing I have really struggled with while being away from home, I’m over here to play football so if I’m not able to do that it’s really depressing.

“I have been really homesick and every opportunity I have to go home I have taken it but it is mainly due to me not playing.”

Despite his recent struggles Angus admits he is in no rush to come home: “The hardest thing is not being close to home and the family. Don’t get me wrong I like it over here but that would be the only reason why I would come back. But I wouldn’t come back and play in League One or League Two if I was to come back it would have to be in as high a league as possible.”

Howard, who has also just recovered from ankle surgery himself, agrees and insists he would only consider returning to England if the right club came in for him.

“I suppose it would have to be the right team because in the Premier League and the Championship and the other leagues everyone is firing their managers. It’s weird over here everything is a little more stable with the structure and everything.

“Obviously I am going to come home at some point but I am in no rush. I have just signed with AGF and if everyone is fit we have a great team.”

Meanwhile Tillen has already come to the conclusion that he has played his last game in England’s lower leagues.

“I have no regrets about coming here,” he declared. “I don’t miss England at all my girlfriend has come over with me and that obviously helps having someone there with me all the time.

“The only way I would come back is if a Championship club or Premier League club came in for me and that’s not going to happen, I don’t want to play in the lower leagues again I just didn’t enjoy it really.”

Perhaps the biggest perk of plying your trade abroad is the chance to play in European competition. To date Howard has featured nine times in the Europa League but Tillen was left somewhat disappointed with his foray into European football.

“I think playing in European competition is the best thing, playing in League One or League Two you have got no chance of playing in Europe but ironically the first game we played was against a Welsh team TNS,” he stated.

“We could have gone ended up anywhere and I end up going back to Wales.”

Despite the advantages of playing overseas so few English players actually take the plunge and leave the comforts of home much to Angus’ bewilderment.

No brainer

“For me personally it is a no brainer to play in a better league abroad. There are so many players in England who are good enough to play over here. I am surprised there aren’t a lot more not just in Sweden but in Scandinavia and Germany,” he mused.

Howard agrees: “I think they are just comfy living at home with family and friends around them. I was lucky really because my family were encouraging really and my girlfriend moved over with me so everything worked out well. People are afraid to experience something different. It was a big risk but I think it has been worth it and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Football agent Brian Humphreys, who works on behalf of a number of foreign clubs, says that European teams are now distancing themselves from British talent because of how they are now perceived on the continent.

“If you take a British player abroad they don’t really want to do it, they don’t really want to travel,” he explained.

“To be honest I just think they are in a comfort zone, they have the best of everything. In general a lot of players don’t want to go to a different country. If they did, the level of football would definitely go up because the players of the European clubs are more professional.

“The European clubs know that English players don’t want to travel and a lot don’t even try and get them. I think it has always been like that.”

One thing is for certain the growing number of footballers now looking to forge a career abroad are slowly changing people’s perceptions of British footballers.

On loan Stockport County striker Jabo Ibehre has refused to rule out the possibility of making his move permanent at the end of the season.

The 27-year-old is on loan from fellow League One side MK Dons until the end of the campaign and is highly thought of by Hatters manager Gary Ablett.

The burly frontman has scored twice in 10 games since arriving at Edgeley Park in January and remains upbeat about the team’s chances of survival despite County taking just one point from a possible 12 following Tuesday nights 1-0 defeat to fellow strugglers Oldham, leaving them 13 points adrift at the bottom.

However the club’s position has not stopped Ibehre from enjoying his football and he is determined to keep his options open come the summer.

“I take each day as it comes,” he said.

“I hope to do well and put myself in a strong position in the summer. I’m enjoying it here at the moment. I’m getting my fitness back and I would be over the moon if I could score some more goals as well, that is in the back of my mind.

“Hopefully we can get some good results.”

With takeover talks continuing to stumble County look no nearer to exiting administration but Ibehre insists that the situation has not affected the player’s performances.

“I ignore what goes on behind the scenes,” he stated.

“I am here to play football and do the best I can on the pitch. What goes on off the pitch is nothing to do with us and sometimes it is used as an excuse for players.

“We can take care of matters on the pitch but not the financial side off it so I don’t get too concerned about it.”

The former Leyton Orient ace admits he has settled well to life in the North West and added that the club had gone out of their way to make all the loanees feel welcome.

“When I was told about joining Stockport I was told I would be playing a game just a few days later so things happen quickly,” he pointed out.

“I have enjoyed it and settled down pretty quickly to be fair so I have been able to concentrate on my football.

“The club have been paying for our accommodation and they have been really good to us. I am enjoying playing football at the moment and it has been a pleasure.”