Friday, August 12, 2011

The more things change the more they stay the same

Premier League Preview 2011/12...

Talk of fate and destiny is all too commonplace in the world of sport but there was a certain irony in Manchester City finally ending their thirty odd year wait for a trophy within hours of their more illustrious neighbours securing a record breaking nineteenth league title. Having had this barren period continually rammed down their throats by United fans it was almost inevitable that their celebrations at finally capturing a major trophy were somewhat tempered by the record breaking exploits of United. But in many ways it has always been thus. Although City were for certain spells before the war perceived as the 'bigger club' of Manchester the arrival of Matt Busby and his revolutionising of United cast a long shadow over the blue half of the city. Busby's holy grail as United manager was of course the European Champions Cup and upon finally reaching his summit and leading his side to glory he secured their place in the annals of history as the first English club to win the biggest prize in club football. But once again City's feats found themselves overlooked as despite becoming English League Champions for the first time in over thirty years their achievement paled in comparison to that of their local rivals.

But now over forty years later with City having endured year after painful year in the background as United swept all before them it seems that thanks to the dollars, pounds and roubles of some mysterious benevolent Arabs the noisy neighbours may finally be ready to step out of the shadows. Thanks to a level of investment scarcely seen before in the English game Manchester City find themselves installed as third favourites for the ultimate prize behind United and another team not shy of splashing some unearned cash Chelsea. Much is expected of Mancini's men having had a bedding in period which yielded the prize of a place amongst Europe's elite in the Champions League, but for those behind the scenes at Eastlands this is what they believe to be just the beginning of a period of glory unprecedented in the club's history. With a squad starting to look like a cohesive unit of athletes rather than an assorted bunch of misfits, mercenaries and morons they seem well placed to make a concerted tilt at toppling United from the top of the pile.

However just as all seemed rosy at City so a spanner is thrown in the works. Although their talismanic captain Carlos Tevez is still officially a City player and a replacement in Sergio Aguero has been procured it's difficult to surmise how much of an impact the inevitable departure of the want away Argentine will have. A City side which, up until now, has performed in a manner best described as perfunctory may find that they suddenly have to express themselves and go out and win games rather than simply play to avoid defeat. This is particularly true of their approach to games against the traditional big four where City will have to learn that self preservation is simply not enough and that victories in these games are crucial towards league success. So with the blues of Manchester seemingly ready to break into the elite what of the other sides that have made the top four spots their own in recent years.

In securing United's nineteenth league title Sir Alex Ferguson finally made good on his claim of knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch but where to next for a man about to enter his eighth decade on this earth. Following their humbling at the hands of Barcelona in the Champions League final Fergie could have been forgiven for thinking that his most imperative task was assembling a side capable of toppling the Catalan maestros but he would do well to take heed of the growing threat from his 'noisy neighbours'. In the aftermath of that Wembley humiliation and the subsequent retirement of Paul Scholes it was clear to even the most narrow sighted United fan that one area of the team in particular needed immediate surgery. That we now sit here on eve of a new season and United have thus far failed to embellish their midfield options may be down to a multitude of reasons but if Ferguson wishes to fend off the challenges on the domestic front and overcome the obstacles he faces in Europe then it's imperative he land Wesley Sneijder or a similarly capable midfield general.

Aside from his midfield dilemma Sir Alex has spent wisely with the only question mark hovering over new goalkeeper David de Gea following a less than steady debut against City in the Community Shield. However Ferguson's relative problems pale into comparison when put up against some of his contemporaries. Over the last trophy-less 6 years Arsene Wenger has gradually begun to resemble a man slowly but quite steadily heading towards severe dementia. Having seen his young team capitulate on more occasions than a child taking it's first steps, culminating in an embarrassing Carling Cup Final defeat to relegated Birmingham, Wenger has spent this summer fending off the inevitable interest in not only his captain, Cesc Fabregas, but also the gifted young Frenchman Samir Nasri. With the likelihood being that he will eventually lose both of these crucially important players before the transfer window closes pressure will be at an all time high for a manager second only to Ferguson in Premier League longevity. For some time now it has seemed almost disingenuous to suggest that Wenger could ever be sacked but depending on the state of his squad come the 1st of September and the early displays of a team shorn

Across London Chelsea have never been shy in tearing up the script and starting all over again and their latest change in management sees Portuguese rookie (sound familiar?) Andre Villas Boas take the helm. At just 33 Villas Boas becomes the youngest boss in the league, rather ironic when you consider that the team he inherits is one that has been gradually aging together for some time now. After a stirring start to the season the West Londoners ended their campaign rather tamely bowing to United in both Europe and at home. For many it seemed like the end of an era as long standing lynch pins Terry, Lampard and Drogba seemed to be playing only from memory such was their inability to affect things in the manner we'd become accustomed to seeing. All of this pointed to a busy summer at Stamford Bridge with some wondering whether a complete overhaul was required if Roman Abramovich was ever to fulfil his dream of winning the Champions League. But save for a couple of low key signings and their continual, fruitless pursuit of Luka Modric Chelsea appear content to stay with what they have and rely on their new young manager to wring one last season out of those declining legs.

Having welcomed back their very own messiah in January of this year Liverpool embarked on a run that saw them shoot up the table and qualify for Europe when at one point relegation had been mentioned in dispatches. A large part of this strong finish to the season was the form of recently acquired Uruguayan Luis Suarez who has proved something of a revelation and is already looking a bargain at the price of £22 million. This summer Dalglish has chosen to stay closer to home with his signings and although Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam are not the kind of names to striker fear into Europe's elite the Merseysiders have every right to believe that a return to the Champions League is a realistic target for the season. Having excelled in their first taste with Europe's elite Harry Redknapp's Tottenham found the dual tasks of competing with the very best in midweek and maintaining a challenge on the domestic front too much to handle and ended up having to settle for a place in the Europa League by finishing fifth. Redknapp, usually so active in the transfer market, has bullishly rejected Chelsea's advances towards Modric but with time running out and neither club willing to budge he will be braced for ever more desperate measures as Chelsea aim to bolster their squad. Redknapp being Redknapp will surely have contingency plans in place should he lose the vivacious Croatian and if there's one place to be on the eve of August 31st then it's surely White Hart Lane.

Of the clubs hoping to threaten the supremacy of the coterie quickly becoming known as the Big Six only Sunderland have shown any real ambition in improving on last year's performances. The loss of Darren Bent saw Steve Bruce's men go into freefall having at one point looked odds on to secure a European spot and with Danny Welbeck returning to his parent club, Manchester United, it was up to Bruce to begin something of an overhaul at the Wearside club. Having brought in enough players to field an entire new starting eleven his main challenge will be ensuring harmony and unity in the dressing room. Everton who have so often relied upon David Moyes to work the oracle with little or no resources are once again entering a new season without any notable new recruits and you have to wonder just how long Moyes can continue to deliver this level of consistency under such trying circumstances. Aston Villa, so often the League's underachievers, looked like a team heading in the right direction towards the tail end of last season. In Darren Bent they had one of the League's most reliable goalscorers and a promising young squad looked ready to blossom together once the right man could be found to lead them. It's fair to say that most Villa fans didn't consider Alex McCleish to be that man but when have the fan's opinions ever been considered? The sales of wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing did little to appease the grumbling masses but the astute snaring of Charles N'Zogbia and Shay Given means that already Villa look to be in a position where manager and support can pull in the same direction.

Every Premier League season has a crisis club and this year that unwanted title looks like heading to the North East and Newcastle in particular. With home favourite, Andy Carroll, long departed and the funds for that transfer seemingly vanished the Geordie's must have thought things couldn't have gotten any worse. Wrong. The sale of captain Kevin Nolan to Championship side West Ham United was galling enough but as Luis Enrique and Joey Barton look set to follow him out the door it's hard to imagine anything other than a relegation battle for the Tynesiders. Alongside them are likely to be the usual suspects with both Wigan and Wolves preparing themselves for another hard year of scrapping tooth and nail for every available point. Ordinarily the promoted clubs are predicted to have a brief stay in the top flight but this season QPR will hope to buck that trend given the way they swept all before them in the Championship. Holding on to Adel Taarabt will be crucial to any success the one time founder members of the Premier League will have but most fans will be glad to see the return of one of English football's most atmospheric grounds, Loftus Road, if nothing else. Joining them from the Championship are Norwich City, another Premier League founder member, and first timers Swansea City. With squads consisting of players largely untried at this level it could be a long hard season for two clubs who pride themselves on playing the game in the right way, they would do well to take heed of Blackpool's example who also boasted such purist beliefs.

And what of the rest? The clubs who may occasionally flirt will relegation throughout the season and at their most giddy moments believe Europe is a certainty. Fulham will continue to be the League's most inoffensive team and more than likely blitz the opposition at home while meekly surrendering on their travels. West Brom look poised to do the unthinkable and establish themselves as a Premier League club following years of occasional visits, with a manager well versed in controlling mid size teams and a forward line looking increasingly menacing following Shane Long's arrival things are looking rosy at the Hawthorns. Stoke are the antithesis of Fulham in that barely a week goes by without someone complaining about the over eagerness of Tony Pulis' men, this is unlikely to change this season and The Brittania will continue to be a visit endured rather than enjoyed. Bolton Wanderers, under Owen Coyle, have undergone something of a transformation in recent years and now exhibit the kind of football implausible under Big Sam's reign. The big fear for Wanderers at this moment in time must be holding onto a manager whose stock has risen immeasurably over the past twelve months. Blackburn Rovers have reverted to type following a spell when bids for the likes of Ronaldinho had us all guffawing in disbelief and signings more in keeping with a club of their stature should ensure another season of mid table security for the Lancashire side.

So there you have it a season which promises much and one that Sky will have you believe will be the bestest most exciting one ever is almost upon us. Despite proclaiming throughout the summer that I for one wasn't really looking forward to it all that much and I could take it or leave it, I now have that giddy feeling in the pit of my stomach which can only mean one thing, the roller coaster is about to start all over again. Whatever does happen I can assure you that when I read back on this article come the middle of May I will have a wry smile as each and every prediction contained within will in all likelihood have proven way wide of the mark. But when all's said and done isn't that why we love the game?

My Premier League table for 2011/12

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Liverpool
5. Arsenal 
6. Tottenham
7. Sunderland
8. West Bromich Albion
9. Stoke City
10. Aston Villa
11. Bolton
12. Blackburn Rovers
13. Queens Park Rangers
14. Everton
15. Fulham
16. Norwich City
17. Wolves
18. Newcastle United
19. Swansea City
20. Wigan Athletic

Monday, August 8, 2011

We don't need another hero

Oooh he's setting a terrible example there...

“So are we going to the match today then or not Dad”, “It depends Son, it depends”. “Depends on what?! Kick off is less than a hour away!!”, Got to see the starting eleven first lad and if 'he's' playing then you know your Mam won't let you go”. The matriarch of the household appears from the living room with the news this football mad child dreads, “Just heard that the filthy, rotten sex addict is going to start so I'm afraid your Dad is going to have to go to the match alone today Jimmy”. The distraught boy runs to the refuge of his room and once he's certain that no change of heart is forthcoming he carefully procures the signed picture of his icon, the only picture he's got left after all his others were torched on that fateful Sunday afternoon, looks Ryan Giggs in the eye and says “I don't care what they say Giggsy you're still the greatest no matter what”.

To suggest that the off field exploits of Giggs have forced concerned parents into such extreme actions is perhaps facetious but with media intrusion at an all time high it's inevitable that those elevated to the post of 'perfect role model' for children will have that unwanted mantle snatched away from them by those ever hungry for salacious gossip. However when deciding who and who isn't suitable role model material for our poor, delicate offspring there is certain criteria that must be filled. Obviously the said individual must have a certain degree of talent otherwise what child in their right mind is going to take even half an interest in such a wastrel. But the other more defining factors are the ones that must always be adhered to no matter what degree of ability they may possess. Behaviour in public is the biggie, the hopeful candidate must always conduct themselves in manner liable to make the elderly coo softly to themselves in approval whilst ensuring that a certain level of charisma, but not arrogance, is displayed in the process. This criterion is quite often beyond the reach of many of the planet's most famous denizens as they mumble and stutter their way through public appearances or worse still launch into self absorbed soliloquies about just how great they are. Tutting parents hastily turn the volume down and thank the Lord they sent Junior to bed a little early tonight.

In those all too rare occasions when a person is 'taken to the nation's hearts' through a combination of excellency in their field and a personality brimming with humility and deference they must from that point forth be expected to forgo further examination before they can even think of progressing to the level of 'national treasure'. Family life, past and present, must be publicly palatable or this love in will come to a crashing conclusion before it's even begun. A working class background is preferable but not essential and the proud parents must find themselves in a long and lasting union or else the jive's up. Siblings and the family at large had better not have any skeletons clanking around their closets, if so they run the risk of curtailing our heroes chances completely. Any hint of a wrong un' in the gene pool will have the public at large questioning whether that 'dear little boy' may end up corrupted beyond repair.

So having proved themselves to be paragons of virtue it's left to these superior beings to ensure they keep their collective noses clean and not find front page scandals dedicated to their extra curricular activities. With the News of the World now sadly departed many misbehaving celebs breathed a heavy sigh of relief and resumed their drug fuelled sado masochism sessions safe in the knowledge that pictures of them bound and gagged wouldn't be beamed around the world the next day. But for many it was a case of the horse bolting after the gate was locked. The NOTW took it upon themselves to 'expose' as many celebrities as they saw fit. The fact that most of their revelations were brought about through entrapment or that the average man in the street didn't give a toss about [insert random celeb's name here] DRUG SHAME!!! mattered not as they revelled in increasingly tawdry tales until the whole thing came crashing around them much to the delight of anyone with a modicum of sense.

But amidst all this talk of 'setting an example to the children' and 'being a role model to millions' there seems to be one group of people who have as of yet not been consulted. No not The Scientologists, the children themselves. When I was a kid growing up the level of media intrusion was nothing like what it is today but even then the people I chose to base my childhood dreams upon were not without controversy. Anyone that supported Manchester United during the 1980's will be well aware of the club's reputation as a veritable drinking club during that time. Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside will be forever remembered as footballer's who bore the wrath of Sir Alex and in the process found themselves heading towards the first exit door due to an apparent lack of discipline. But what history doesn't tell you is that amongst all the hardcore semi alcoholic footballer's at the club during that time one man reigned supreme. That that man also reigned supreme on the football pitch no matter how much he'd imbibed was his saving grace however and to an eight year old boy Bryan Robson could do no wrong.

United's number seven and right up until his death in 2009 he would have been considered someone whom children would be well advised to steer clear of. Michael Jackson's life was shrouded with intrigue and discord from almost the very start but events only took a sinister turn in the early 1990's when sordid stories regarding his personal life begun to circulate in the media. If ever there was an example of a squeaky clean pop star suddenly 'turning bad' this was it and I'm sure many horrified parents took drastic measures to ensure their children weren't influenced by the music of this monster. But again from a child's perspective I was largely oblivious to these scurrilous rumours surrounding the King of Pop. The only way Jackson had ever influenced me was by scaring the bejesus out of me with his Thriller video and prompting many a night of failed moonwalk attempts.

So do children really care all that much about the private lives of those they aspire to be? At a young age they are more likely to be solely fixated on the public image served up to them and will pick and choose their favourites in the whimsical nature expected of them. Indeed on many an occasion a child will take it upon themselves to select the more unsavoury characters as those they look up to. Wayne Rooney has courted his fair share of tabloid scandals over the years and has been labelled everything from a thug to a granny shagging sex fiend. Definitely not role model material as decreed by the British media but as someone who gives his utmost every time he walks onto the pitch he already has a head start on most of those deemed more suitable for a place in our children's affections. What it comes down to is that kids, despite being seen as impressionable morons incapable of forming their own opinion, have a remarkable ability to separate the wheat from the chaff and decide for themselves who's worthy of their utmost affection. When cameras close in on the histrionics of Cristiano Ronaldo or foul mouthed rants of Ashley Cole we're immediately treated to the well worn line of how they're setting a terrible example to the children as if they plan on immediately heading outside to recreate the scenes they're witnessing. Not only is this is an insult to the children of today but it also casts aspersion on the ability of their parents to tell their offspring what's right or wrong.

As a child progresses through life and treks down the road to becoming a well rounded adult the chances are that those who heavily influenced their pre-pubescent life will become nothing more than a distant memory. Sure they'll still have their sporting, musical, political heroes but with growing maturity comes the realisation that the real role models aren't those that perform their feats to millions of adoring fans. The nurse who maintains an air of cheery stoicism despite being surrounded by those with horrific ailments,, the local shop owner who has had his premises broken into on numerous occasions but refuses to bow to the mindless thugs, the man who steps in when no one else does to stop a group of bullies taunting an elderly woman and perhaps even those that brought them into this world and cared for them every step of the way Because whether they realise it or not their real heroes are those whose lives seem painfully ordinary and mundane but whose exploits are no less spectacular than anyone you care to mention. Not every parent will provide the kind of positive influence that a child needs in their life but many will try their utmost, regardless of the sacrifices involved, and in the process become the most unwittingly effective role model a child could ever have.