By Mario Melchiot

What next for Darren Moore?

West Brom’s eight year stay in the Premier League is over. Their fate looked to have been sealed back in April, when the Baggies had lost eight consecutive games and had won just three games all season – two of those being their opening two games.

It was clear something had change, and Pardew was sacked as manager. Pardew had been appointed in November after Pulis’ departure, which came about when they had lost 10 games on the bounce. Pardew came in but could only manage one win in 18 games, leaving West Brom ten points from safety with six games to play. Talk at the club was probably already about the long road back to the Premier League after their inevitable relegation. The board gave former defender Darren Moore, who was part of Pardew’s backroom staff, the job.

“We need to get the unity back among everyone – the players, the staff, the fans, everyone connected with Albion, because that is the only way forward,” said Moore when he took charge. And that’s exactly what he was able to do.

His first task was to host fellow strugglers Swansea, and even though they didn’t know it at the time, if they had held onto their 1-0 lead they could have been fighting for Premier League survival this weekend. The end result was 1-1, but it was a morale booster after losing the previous eight.

Their next four fixtures were Man United, Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs. You’d have been surprised to see the Baggies take more than a point from that run of fixtures, but Moore refused to rule out a miraculous escape act and got a 1-0 win against United at Old Trafford. That result clinched the title for Man City and gave West Brom the slightest thread of hope.

The Baggies came from two behind to draw 2-2 with Liverpool and next up was Newcastle and another 1-0 away win for Moore. Their chances were slim, but people were starting to feel like the great escape was on the cards. Next they beat Spurs with a last-minute goal at the Hawthornes and you could see how much it meant to the fans. They would be relegated unless Swansea and Southampton drew the following Tuesday, but they were mathematically in with a chance of survival.

Southampton won that game and all but guaranteed their survival, sending West Brom down to the Championship. The almost impossible task of keeping West Brom up hadn’t come off, but it took Moore just five games to win as many games as Pulis and Pardew had collectively managed in 32 games. Moore was rightly awarded manager of the month the same day his side were relegated. It’s a tale of what could have been for West Brom if he had been given the opportunity earlier.

I thoroughly believe Moore is the right person for West Brom and has the knowledge to lead by example. Bringing someone else in to do the job without giving Moore the chance to prove himself from the start of next season would be criminal.

A new manager wouldn’t know the players and would want to bring in his own recruits, which means it would also be expensive. But you have a coach like Darren who has been with the club and knows who has been giving 100% throughout the whole season, and who hasn’t been pulling their weight. A little tweaking is all that’s needed and he is ready to bring the focus and desire they have been playing with the last couple of games, into the new season.

Don’t follow the trend but stick with a coach that loves the club!


The Journey Back

It’s been the ‘perfect’ season for Wigan said David Sharpe, after the 4-0 win at Fleetwood Town on Saturday. The victory confirmed promotion and a return to the Championship for the Latics, who are three points clear at the top of League One with three games to play.

It’s not easy picking yourself up after a relegation and fighting for promotion. A quick look at Sunderland’s current position will show you that – the Black Cats have been relegated twice in two seasons and sit rock bottom in the Championship. That shows how much of a wonderful job Paul Cook has done to get the players’ morale up, bringing in new recruits and getting the team to gel.

It had been common for me to see the chairman over the summer and it made me feel like a player again as I asked a lot of questions about his vision and his plans for achieving the goals.

He made it clear that Wigan would be up for it from the opening day of the season. The hunger to be promoted was there and they were out of the blocks with three straight wins. The attitude has been all about having a go and taking the game to the opponents, no matter who they were. That philosophy helped Wigan take the scalps of Bournemouth and West Ham in the FA Cup, as well as the newly crowned Premier League champions Man City. Only five teams have beaten pep’s City this season in all competitions; Liverpool, Man Utd, Shakhtar Donetsk, Basel and the Tics.

“The players deserve to get 100 points this season with the type of football we’ve played all season,” said Sharpe. “That is the aim now, we’ve achieved the first goal and now we want to get to that 100-point mark if we can and then win the league.”

Wigan need two wins and a draw to reach 100 points, and then the attention will turn to summer preparations ahead of the new Championship season. Getting back to the Premier League is the next goal, and even though the Championship is more competitive than ever, if anyone knows about back-to-back promotion it is Wigan.

In 2002 Wigan finished 10th in League One. The following season they won the league and were promoted to the Championship, where they finished 7th, just missing out on a spot in the playoffs. The season after that they did reach the Premier League after finishing 2nd in the table.

Wigan have scored more goals and conceded fewer goals than every other team in the league this season. Four players – Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Nick Powell and Will Grigg – were all named in the PFA League One Team of the Year too, capping off a great year. The record speaks for itself and Wigan have been the best team in the league. Let’s just see how far they can go next season, and if I see Mr Sharpe again this summer I will be asking about his plans again.


Wolves Return to the Top Flight

Wolves are officially back in the Premier League next season, and it’s a wonderful time for a club that I have played against a number of times.

It’s not easy to go and win at the Molineux, especially on a cold evening, and I know a lot of teams come away scratching their heads. For some reason they are always so strong and play with a lot of belief even when the chips are stacked against them.

My last experience was when I travelled there with Wigan and broke my nose during a header in the last minute of the game. That hurt me so bad that i think I was out for a couple of seconds and our team doctor walked me off the field. I remember getting up and wanting to continue but he wasn’t having any of it and walked me to the dressing room. He then tried to put my nose straight and when he said it’s good I walked to the mirror.

“Are you blind?” I said, “you’ve got to be kidding, I look like my coach,” who was Steve Bruce at the time.

The doctor had a second go at it and you could hear the noise of him adjusting my nose to the right place. I checked, and the smile was back until the adrenaline wore off and the real pain kicked back in.

We won that game 2-0 but Wolves managed to hang on and survived the drop in 17th place that season. They were relegated to the Championship the following season though, and went straight down to League One the year after. They did come straight back up to the Championship, and then had a few mediocre seasons. They’ve been through six managers in the six years since they were relegated from the PL, but this season Nuno Esperito Santo has build one of the strongest teams the second tier has seen.

They have been a class above every other team in the league, clinching automatic promotion with four games to spare. Nuno played as a back-up goalkeeper under Jose Mourinho at Porto and says the experience helped him learn a lot.

He brought in former Porto captain Ruben Nevez who has scored some amazing goals this season and looks like he should be playing in the Premier League. And they’re not just there to take part next season.

“We are going into the Premier League to compete and compete hard,” said Laurie Dalrymple, the club’s managing director. “We don’t just want to be one of the 20 teams that is there to make up the numbers. There shouldn’t be any limits to what we can achieve as a club.”

Former Wolves player and record goalscorer Steve Bull has said they can finish in the top 10 next season. “We played Manchester City in the Carabao Cup earlier in the season. We had four one-on-ones, we didn’t put them away but we got a draw out of it and lost on penalties and I think if we can do that against Man City we can get up there,” he said.

If they build on their current squad they will be a team to keep an eye on next season. As long as they make sure they start well and get some points on the board early, they should be fine. When you come up and aim for the 10th position anything after that is bonus! #mmlove

Master Tactician

The Premier League fight for survival is heating up with just a handful of games left to play. West Brom are all but confirmed for the drop, but there is a tight battle for the remaining spots. Some clubs look more likely than others to go down, but as we have seen in the past anything can happen in the final stretch and that is one of the reasons why we call it the beautiful game.

One team who looks to have just secured their survival though, is Newcastle. The Mags were in a very precarious position just two weeks ago, but three consecutive wins against Southampton, Huddersfield and Leicester has lifted them into the top half of the table and put a 10 point gap between themselves and the relegation zone with six games to play.

Newcastle is a club that belongs in the Premier League. They have some of the best fans in the country and the prestige of the club is up there with the best, but they have had difficult times in recent years, both on and off the field. That’s why Rafa Benitez’ work this season has been so brilliant.

Newcastle were promoted back to the Premier League las season and invested little in new talent in the summer. The club’s net spend was significantly less than Huddersfield and Brighton’s who both joined them in promotion, so you could argue that Rafa has secured safety in the Premier League with a Championship quality side.

Much of that is down to the Spaniard’s philosophy of teaching his players. After the win against the Foxes he described himself as a PE teacher with young pupils who are eager to learn.

“We don’t just coach, we try to teach players. They are learning what they have to do. It is not just about this season, it is for the rest of their lives,” he said.

That approach has helped his team grow in quality without bringing in too many new recruits.

But there is still a lot of work to do at Newcastle before they reach the success that they experienced in the 90’s. And holding onto Rafa will be a key part of that. His work this season with limited resources will have been noted by many clubs around Europe who will want to tempt him away from the North East. He has been loyal so far, but unless the board give him more funding and more ambitious plans for growing the club’s position, Rafa won’t stick around for long.


RIP Ray Wilkins

Wow, I’m in shock about Ray Wilkins passing away. My thoughts and blessings go to his family and others that loved him dearly.

You were the person I will always be grateful for because I could not have received better advice. A man that guided me to understand the Premier League from day one.

The day of my Chelsea debut, Gianco Vialli said to me “you’re coming on” and I was pumped to get on the field. Then you walked up to me and pulled me to the side, looked me right in my eyes and said: “play like a winner every minute. Only stay down if you’re really in pain, if not get up and use your qualities that we wanted you for and that the fans will love forever.”

I will be forever grateful for your great advice.

After my debut you would stay out and train me on all the scenarios I could face in the upcoming games. We laughed a lot too, because you have always been a joker, but when it was business time you were tough. That came as a big surprise at first because if you didn’t know you would think you had two personalities that could switch in a flash, but it wasn’t that.

You could just change right then and there before we would go out on the field. Your last word before a match would always be “enjoy every minute because then you know you’re playing well and don’t need my advice.”

In the late 70’s you were handed the captaincy at Chelsea at just 18 years old, helping a youthful team earn promotion back to the first division, before your transfer to Man United.

Last year I came to London and walked into the studio, and who do I see? My trainer, the legend, Ray Wilkins. The happiness on your face was so incredible that it almost made me feel shy. The respect and fun times that I had that day were just like my early days at Chelsea.

Go up there trainer, keep your head up and make them smile just like you did for us. You will be missed.

Blessings #mmlove

From a Different Planet

The crazy times of football have started this weekend with Zlatan leading the way. How better could he have written his own script for his arrival in the USA? He landed in LA with a lot of passionate and happy fans waiting for him. LA Galaxy’s slogan for his arrival ‘You wanted Zlatan so we gave you Zlatan’ says a lot.

“I would not have had the energy to run with the ball, so I thought let’s just hit it,” he said after the match. And how did he strike that ball!? We all know how good he is as a player and have seen some amazing goals over his career. He’s known for scoring wonder goals, and he struck the ball perfectly to get his team’s equalizer.

And then he goes and tops it with the match-winning header. That was actually offside after seeing the replay, but even the linesman got so caught up in the Zlatan hype that he forgot he was at work, not witnessing a dream but reality. Zlatan did it again just like he had been doing at so many of Europe’s top clubs, scoring important and spectacular goals, and grabbing the headlines.

Now that would have been enough for one week, but across the globe in Europe we have another player who has been doing things like Zlatan and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in football even further, to scary levels. Yes, Ronaldo did it again by scoring against the top goalkeeper Buffon. Not a lot of players have done that or can do it. There are always mixed feelings about Ronaldo but the more you have them the better he performs.

This guy is a genius and sometimes just mouthwatering to watch. He has it all. The speed, the build, the engine and the beautiful goals. We all get to that age where you are young and try to learn the bicycle kick, hoping you get the right moment to do it in a game.

Everyone who has tried will know how technically difficult it can be, especially in front of 60,000 fans in a Champions League Quarter Final, but Ronaldo has a habit of making things look so easy. This one was special because it was against a legend that we have seen do incredible things in goal over the years for club and country. When he couldn’t stop Ronaldo you know it was pure class. Look how high he jumped, and what he did with that ball that was behind him, challenging him to see if he could be creative. The answer was, of course, he could.

Now that we have seen it all we are waiting for the other magic man to answer. He already did something special last weekend by coming on and changing the game in a short period of time, but Messi could not get the win for Barca. But now it’s his time against Rome and we will have a chance to see if he can top what these two world-class gentlemen have done.

If there is anyone in the world who can do the same or even better, it’s Messi. The battle between Ronaldo and Messi is out of this world and we might not witness anything like it anytime soon.


Crisis in the Greek Game

The same weekend that West Ham made the headlines for fan trouble at the London Stadium, there were much crazier scenes unfolding in the Greek Superleague.

PAOK were playing league leaders AEK with the score tied at 0-0. PAOK defender Fernando Varela put the ball in the back of the net, but the referee seemed to rule the goal offside. When the confusion spread to the touchline PAOK president Ivan Savvidis stormed onto the pitch, with a handgun in his holster and surrounded by bodyguards, to confront the referee.

It was a shocking moment that led to AEK players leaving the field and the match being quickly abandoned.

The Greek government then decided to suspend the league while FIFA warned that Greek clubs would be banned from international competitions unless authorities took action.

It was the final straw in a long list of corruption and violence in Greek football. Olympiakos and Nottingham forest owner Evangelos Marinakis is being investigated for alleged drug trafficking, and he was at the centre of a match-fixing scandal that has just seen his name cleared, but has lead to 58 jail sentences. Olympiakos has even asked for foreign referees to be flown in for key matches due to the distrust of match officials.

In 2016 the Greek Cup was also canceled after crowd chaos, which saw fans storm the pitch hurling flares before riot police ushered them off the pitch.

Attendances average just 4,300 in Greece’s top tier and many fans say it is because of the tolerance for corruption and the predictability of the league (Olympiakos have won the title 19 times in the last 21 seasons).

The fans are very passionate and it’s never been easy for any team from outside Greece to go and win there.

That’s why it’s a sad story for Greek football after their amazing success at Euro 2004 against the odds. The whole country fell in love with football that summer.

“The target at the start was to win a game,” said Tsiartas, a midfielder who was used as a sub throughout the finals. “Just one game. It was something none of the national teams had been able to do at a major finals. That would have counted as a success: winning just once.”

They accomplished that feat in their opening game with a 2-1 win over hosts Portugal, before drawing with Spain, and progressing as runners-up. Next they faced France in the quarterfinals, a team which included Zidane and Henry in their primes. Greece won that 1-0 and progressed to the semis. That’s when they started to believe anything was possible.

Another 1-0 win against Czech Republic saw them reach the final, where they would face Portugal again. They had already beaten them once, and everyone knows what happened next.

“We did not have a Zidane, or Simao, or Cristiano Ronaldo. We only had hard work, sacrifice, determination and that family spirit.” said Takis Fyssas, who played in defence.

The league ban has now been lifted after all 16 clubs agreed to a list of government demands, including point deductions and potential relegation for violence. Hopefully it is the first step towards making Greek football the beautiful game it should be, so that it can be properly enjoyed by fans like it was in 2004.


Manager Merry-Go-Round

The Premier League Merry-Go-Round has never been so apparent. Southampton sacked Mauricio Pellegrino after just one win in 17 league games saw them sit just one point adrift from safety. With eight games to go, it was important to find the right man to keep them up.

Enter Mark Hughes, the man who had just been sacked by Stoke City after winning just five of his opening 22 games of the season and exiting the FA Cup with defeat to League Two’s Coventry City. Stoke City sacked Hughes because they had been sucked into a relegation battle, and looked to be heading in only one direction. Not an inspiring choice of manager for Southampton, who are in a similar position to the one Hughes had left Stoke in.

Mark Hughes has done great things at Blackburn and Stoke (up until this season) but that is partly the point here. Southampton don’t expect Mark Hughes to take them to new heights and European glory as a long-term manager. They just want survival, but it’s not as if Hughes is a survival specialist. He was also sacked by QPR before Christmas in 2012 when they inevitably went down, and Stoke have never been involved in any serious relegation fights under the Welshman.

He could be the man to keep Southampton up, but there’s a broader point to make: English football’s managerial merry-go-round is in full swing. It seems like managers such as Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Alan Pardew, David Moyes and Tony Pulis are hired by struggling Premier League clubs, sacked when results don’t go their way, and then hired again by other struggling teams in a never-ending cycle.

I can’t imagine they love to be at a team that is at the bottom of the table because they already showed all of us they are good at turning the corner and bringing teams up to mid-table (or higher) status. The best football I have seen their teams play is also when they are mid-table or above.

When a club near the bottom of the table hires one of these guys its a sign that they’re just hoping for survival.

Some people argue that too many foreign managers come to the Premier League and don’t give home-grown leaders the chance. But the reality is that some of the British guys who have been in the business for decades are monopolizing all of the opportunity.

Craig Shakespeare was given his chance at Leicester and turned things around for the Foxes to keep them up, but was then abruptly sacked after a poor start to the following season, and now he’s in a coaching role at Everton under Big Sam.

Young managers are like young players. If you want to build something successful for a long period you need to take a calculated risk. Find out what makes them a great candidate because now I see a lot of managers getting turned down because they aren’t well-connected with the right person at the club. Football is based on results, but it’s also about growing the club to bigger success and status than it has already.

Today the game is largely about money so boards don’t like taking unnecessary risks. But sometimes playing it safe is the biggest risk of all.


‘Sold a Dream Given a Nightmare’

I can understand the reaction of West Ham fans. There were some quite shocking scenes at the London Stadium on Saturday, and much of it was unnecessary and unjust.

The fan who placed the corner flag in the centre of the pitch was not just performing a random act anger, but a nod to 1992. In February that year a fan walked on the pitch and placed a corner flag in the centre spot before sitting with his legs crossed. Players tried to persuade the fan to leave, but hoards more fans came and sat down in protest of the club’s board, who had proposed to make fans buy a bond before they could buy a season ticket.

The protest was successful and the bond scheme was quickly scrapped – and the fans will fee just as hard done by today.

They have been waiting for so long to bring some glory back to that club. The move to the London Stadium was supposed to be a step in the right direction, showing ambition that the Hammers were chasing European football. Instead though, the move has been full of problems. Fans have complained that they are sat too far away from the action, the open nature means there is no atmosphere in the ground, and many say they feel like the club has lost its identity. You even see fans write ‘RIP West Ham’ on Twitter.

Besides the issues with the new stadium, West Ham are in 16th place, just three points clear of the relegation zone, which is a million miles from the European football they were promised.

I’ve worked under the same board when I was at Birmingham City and their objectives were clear even if they didn’t always succeed. They are business minded people who focus on bringing their club to the next stage, just like every business person who owns a club.

But you have to remember that you won’t get as much time as you need in the world of football now. I do feel their strategy isn’t always the best in terms of who they select to lead their teams. It’s always the same – fighting for relegation should stop being a regular thing, maybe just an occasional circumstance due to a miscalculation. When it happens consistently you need to question your advisor and their philosophy.

The fans have had their fair share of bad times and don’t want to go down again. The fans were promised Champions League football in exchange for the move away from the Boleyn Ground. ‘Sold a dream given a nightmare’ read a banner at the stadium on Saturday.

Some fans see how much the players earn and think they don’t care about the club, but trust me I am a million percent sure they hate being in this situation. I’ve been there myself.

I don’t condone fans getting on the pitch and going after the owners with such aggression, and the club will get sanctions which doesn’t help anyone and should not be part of football.

They have enough experience as football club owners to weather the storm, and they should get through it. They need to be strong and shift focus to working with the right people that have the best interest in getting the most out of the West Ham project.

They need to fix the issues fast or the fan behaviour will only escalate.


Farewell Davide

“O captain, my captain. Why did you not come down to have breakfast with us all? Why did you not pick up your shoes from outside of Marco’s room and then drink your orange juice, as usual?

Now they’ll tell us that life goes on, that we must look forward and pick ourselves up, but what will your absence feel like? Who will arrive every morning in the cafeteria, warming up everyone with his smile? Who will ask us about what we did the previous night and have a laugh about it? Who will nurture the youngsters and give a sense of responsibility to the veterans? Who will form the circle to work on our ‘two-touch play’ and who will demolish Marco on the PlayStation?

With whom will we debate about Masterchef, Florence’s restaurants, TV series or games played? Who will I lean on at lunch after a tiring training session? Come on, come back. You still need to finish watching LaLaLand to analyse like you did with all new movies.

In life there are people you’ve known forever but have never bonded with, and then there are the ‘Davides’, who warm to you immediately with a simple ‘welcome to Florence, Ricky’. Wherever you are now, keep on defending our goal and enlighten the right path for us from the backline.

Oh captain, my captain. Forever, my captain.”

That was the moving message posted by Davide Astori’s teammate Riccardo Saponara following the sudden and tragic passing of the Italian international. The messages have poured out for Davide since the news shocked the world of football. Antonio Conte and Gianluigi Buffon described him as a “fantastic guy” and “a perfect person”, and it’s clear that he touched so many lives in such a positive way.

It is devastating that such a young man has left behind his wife and daughter, and the entire football family has been sent into a state of mourning.

Astori started his career at AC Milan’s youth team before representing Cagliari and Roma in Serie A. He was loaned to Fiorentina before signing on a permanent basis and becoming captain in 2016. He also made 14 caps for the Azzurri, scoring in the 2013 Confederations Cup third-place playoff to help them beat Uruguay.

The whole world says the same thing in these situations, but I can relate to Saponara’s message because I have experienced something similar that will be with me forever.

RIP Davide. #mmlove