From Blog

It’s Coming Home

It’s now one of the most famous scenes in World Cup history. It was the summer of 1990 in Turin and England were facing West Germany in the World Cup semi-finals. It was the closest the Three Lions had been to World Cup glory since 1966 and Bobby Robson’s side had captured the hearts of the crowds in their home country.

Germany have always been one of the best sides in World Football, and always a tricky opponent for England. It was the Germans who took the lead in Turin, with the scoreline at 1-0 until the 80th minute when Gary Lineker equalised to take the match to extra time. It was in the first period that the now infamous moment took place. Paul Gascoigne was booked, and would therefore miss the final if England made it through. Gazza was just 23 years old and couldn’t contain his emotion. He couldn’t hold back the tears on the pitch, but in the end it was the Germans who went through after a tense penalty shootout.

After that World Cup exit, you won’t need me to tell you that there were a series of disappointments on the big stage for England. They had disappointed at Major tournament after major tournament and some fans had lost all hope.

But now England are in the World Cup semi-finals again, for the first time in 28 years.

Gareth Southgate has achieved what Hoddle, Erikson, Capello, Hodgson and McClaren couldn’t despite only having three years of top-flight experience under his belt. His leadership and attitude has helped the team stay composed and focused which is hugely important in a knockout tournament. After beating Tunisia and Panama, Southgate knew they were through so fielded a much-changed side against Belgium. They knew a defeat would give them a more favourable route to the final, and that meant there was no pressure to win the game.

In the end Belgium won which left England with Colombia in the last 16. Colombia knew their gameplan and were tough with England, It was a busy night for the referee and even though England looked in control, an injury-time equaliser from Colombia took the game to extra time and penalties. England had never won a World Cup shootout, but Southgate told his players to concentrate on what they had been working on in training, and after another dramatic shootout the result came this time, thanks in part to a great save from Jordan Pickford who has been a star man for England.

Next up it was Sweden, who had knocked out Italy and the Netherlands to get to the finals, and then made it out of a group with Germany, Mexico and South Korea. On paper England were stronger but Sweden are no pushover and shouldn’t be underestimated, as you can see by their record. Sweden played deep but Harry Maguire broke the deadlock and Dele Alli made it 2-0 after half-time. It was around that point that England fans started to believe they could really go all the way.

Now they’re in the final four and Croatia stand between them and their first final since ’66. This will be the toughest test so far as Croatia line-up with the likes of Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic, but England will know their game plan and they have the quality, especially in from set pieces, to grab a goal even in the tightest of games. Harry Kane is also chasing the Golden Boot and will be desperate to get on the scoresheet.

England can only be beaten by a tactical mistake because that’s what it’s coming down to. Croatia is as worried about England’s quality and both coaches will have to be their best. They will be thinking about different scenarios – how do I set up my team? What do I do if I go down a goal or up?

For me, the best way for England to approach the game would be to stick to how they have been playing and respect the opponent. It will kill Croatia’s momentum if they do. The four teams left in the tournament got this far because they play and work like a team with one objective: to bring the dream home.

Do I think England can win it? Of course they can!


World Cup Roundup: Week 2

It’s crunch time in the World Cup group stages as we look towards the knockout rounds, and there has already been so much drama in Russia. Germany, the reigning World Champions, were on the brink of being eliminated after losing their opening game to Mexico and trailing Sweden 1-0 at half-time. Marco Reus pulled it back early into the second half, but even though Germany were on the attack for most of the remainder, they couldn’t seem to break Sweden’s defence a second time. It got worse for Germany when Jerome Boateng received a second yellow, but when a free-kick was awarded just outside the box in the 94th minute, you just knew it.

Toni Kroos was the hero, curling the ball into the top corner to set off the celebrations for Germany. It was the last chance, and Kroos took it to keep the Germans in it. Now they will progress to the last 16 if they get a win against South Korea. If the first two rounds have shown us anything, it’s that there are no guarantees, but Germany will be relieved that they still have the chance to become the first nation to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962.

Argentina were dismantled by Croatia last week and are now in a desperate position at the bottom of Group D. The 3-0 defeat was their heaviest in the World Cup group stages for 60 years, putting Croatia into the last 16. Argentina now need a win against Nigeria, and hope that Iceland fail to beat Croatia. Messi is the man they will look to for the magic, but the little magician has looked stressed with so much pressure on his shoulders and he has not been able to perform at his best yet.

It would be a shame for football if Messi was to bow out of the competition at this early stage, but it would be a victory for the neutral supporter if underdogs Iceland or Nigeria advanced instead. Argentinians are some of the most passionate football fans in the world, and their team is one of the weakest since before Diego Maradona’s era, so it’s time for Messi show us why he is possibly the greatest player of all time.

Brazil are another team that are not guaranteed a place in the knockout stages. It took two very late goals from Coutinho and Neymar to get the win against Costa Rica, and not they will just need a draw against Serbia to progress, but the Serbians will be fighting for a win to put themselves in the last 16. Brazil still haven’t lived up to their pre-tournament hype but will be hoping to hit their stride and make up for the disappointment of the last World Cup. They have a point to prove.

Two teams that are through are England and Belgium, from Group G. England put six goals past Panama with a Harry Kane hat-trick putting the captain in the lead in the race for the Golden Boot. That secured their spot in the next round, while Belgium’s 5-2 win over Tunisia put them through. The two will face each other to fight for top spot on Thursday and it could be one of the games of the group stage. A lot of the players know each other from the Premier League, and it could be an exciting game with plenty of goals as Lukaku and Kane race for the Golden Boot.

Another two sides that made it through after their final group games are Spain and Portugal. For a moment it looked like Spain might be crashing out of the competition, with late goals and drama in both games from Group B. Two VAR decisions at all most the exact same time were deciding the fate of the group. Iran had a penalty call against Portugal and Spain’s equaliser was being contested for offside. The penalty was given to Iran and Spain’s goal was ruled onside. Now Iran had a few minutes to steal a win against Portugal and progress instead of their opponents but the game ended 1-1 and the Ronaldo show will continue.

Before the tournament, it was not clear if VAR was going to cause issues, delays and more controversy, but for the most part it has done its job at the World Cup. Important decisions have been corrected and it has added to the excitement rather than taken from it, but it sometimes it just takes too long before the ref goes to check the replays. If refs aren’t sure they should be quick to check and make a decision or it will slow down the game, and it can take some time to get back up to the entertaining speed again.


World Cup Roundup: Week 1

I enjoyed the first half of England’s World Cup opener. They came out and looked in control in Volgograd. They created a few clear chances in the opening 10 minutes and could have killed the game off if they were sharper in front of goal.

They showed a lot of maturity for such a young squad in the opening 45 minutes, but that started to fade after the break. They allowed Tunisia to lift their confidence by giving them more time on the ball. The tactic was probably used so they could capitalise on the space behind the defenders when they pushed up the field, but it didn’t happen for Southgate’s men for most of the second half.

The game went a bit limp for most of the second half and as time ticked on it was looking like Tunisia were going to snatch a point. Bringing on Rashford and Loftus-Cheek was a great move though, and it gave the game the intensity it had lost. When they came on you could see they wanted to do business.

This is what they really missed because to beat a team you have to have some players that can beat the opponents with a dribble and a pass. The passes were there in the first half but not many players were beating their man with the ball. Having Rashford who plays with such confidence makes a big difference. These players perform like they want to prove a point.

But so far everyone knows the star of the show in Russia is the man who scored a hat-trick, Cristiano Ronaldo. He was at his best again. A Penalty, a left-footed strike and then an amazing free-kick to finish off and earn a point for Portugal against Spain. Some people say he can’t do it against big teams but they don’t come any bigger than Spain at the World Cup, so that should silence the critics.

Sometimes I listen to the comparisons of Ronaldo and Messi and think Cristiano must really love the competition because it drives both to become better players. When you are that good you always want to come out on top. That’s why I didn’t like it when I saw the little magician miss his penalty against Iceland – if he has a great game we know Ronaldo will push for an even greater one. At this point Ronaldo is on top and he is feeding off both the fans who love him and the ones who don’t. It looks like the more people go against his way of thinking the better he performs.

Now my eyes are on Neymar because he should be stealing this World Cup show. After being out for so long he should be full of energy and ready to take the tournament by storm. He had an ok game against Switzerand but we haven’t seen him play the way we love to watch yet. Regardless of him being kicked so much, it does not help him when he goes down so easily. He is an amazing player and his team needs him to be focused on getting them the wins.

England and France are the only two big nations to get off to a winning start so the second round of games will be very interesting with the pressure on!


My Favourite World Cup Moments

Football’s biggest stage opens again next week with 32 nations fighting for that famous trophy in Russia, watched by hundreds of millions of fans around the world. The World Cup never fails to provide dramatic and exciting moments. There are moments of pure brilliance, controversy and emotion that all go down in the history books.

One of the moments that stands out for me is Maradona’s performance against England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Two of football’s most famous goals were scored in this match, both by Diego Maradona, which cemented the Argentinian’s status as one of the greatest – and most controversial – players of all time.

I remember watching that game through the window of a guy in my neighborhood when I was 10 years old. Me and the friends I grew up with wanted to see the game but also play football when it went to a break, so we watched from the street. With the score goalless in Mexico, two bad touches, one from an Argentinian forward and the second from an opponent, saw the ball loop up into the air towards the England goal. It was a 50/50 aerial challenge between England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Diego Maradona. At first it wasn’t clear how, but a 5’6 Maradona knocked the ball past 6’1 Shilton and into the back of the net.

If you watch that back even today, it’s not clear what happened until the second replay, where you can see Maradona’s uplifted arm punched the ball into the net.

The Hand of God, as it later became known, had given Argentina the advantage, but England equalised and the score was 1-1. Nobody can take anything away from Maradona’s second goal, where he picked the ball up in his own half, danced around two England players and began his run towards goal. He skipped past another two defenders before taking on the keeper and slotting the ball into the net. For many, this is the greatest individual goal ever scored, and it helped Argentina go on to lift the World Cup.

Another World Cup moment that sticks with me is from the World Cup final in 1982. Italy faced West Germany and with the score at 1-0 to Italy, Tardelli shot from inside the box after some great build-up play, and the ball rippled the back of the net. Tardelli started to run as if he was never going to stop, releasing all of his emotion with his arms outstretched, shaking his head in euphoria. It was such an emotional moment and it gives me goosebumps every time I see it. It’s one of those moments you can show people if they say football is just a game. Italy went on to win 3-1 and lift their third World Cup.

Another moment that will always be remembered is Zidane’s performance in the 1998 World Cup final. I had been following him closely after he took us apart in the semi-final of the Champions League when I was at Ajax and he was at Juve. Zidane bagged two headers to give France a 2-0 lead before half-time, before Petit put the icing on the cake with a third in the last minute of the game. It was France’s first World Cup win and Zidane of course went on to become one of the greatest players of his generation, and possibly France’s greatest player of all time.

Bergkamp’s goal against Argentina was also next level. The Control against, at that time, one of the best defenders in the world is sensational. The way he brings the ball down and then finishes was a big moment for Dutch fans, as you can tell by the commentary of the goal by Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder.

My final favourite moment from World Cup history is Roger Milla at the 1990 World Cup. He kept on providing the magic, scoring and dancing by the corner flag in celebration as he helped Cameroon become the first African team to reach the last eight of a World Cup. How could you not love that man!?

I want this World Cup to bring as much as excitement as previous tournaments. I do believe Neymar has a great chance to make this his World Cup, like Maradona, Zidane and many other stars have in the past. He was injured for a long time so now he will be more rested then the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.

Or will the German machine still be so powerful that no one can dismantle them? One thing is for sure: if you can leave Sané at home you have the confidence that you have enough in the team to win it again.


The Long Goodbye

In the early 2000’s I remember hearing about this great, talented player that could dribble past you in a phone booth and make the difficult things look easy on the field.

Shortly after hearing the stories, I watched this young player coming on for Barcelona, and he was already full of confidence. He was little and agile, able to turn and change direction like we all wish we could. I thought that was what all the hype was about, but I was wrong. He had the vision and the dribbling sense that you would usually see an experienced player possess at the end of their playing days.

But this guy was fast and his game looked to have it all, just like a genius would. When he came through the youth Academy and arrived at Barcelona first-team training, then-captain Pep Guardiola famously said: “This lad is going to retire us all.”

His name was Andres Iniesta, and he went on to become one of Barcelona’s greatest players. He has won La Liga nine times with Barcelona in just 14 seasons, and his trophy cabinet also boasts six Copa Del Reys, four Champions Leagues, and not least a World Cup winners medal.

Iniesta scored the only goal in Spain’s 1-0 win over Holland in the 2010 World Cup final. He won man of the match and earned Spain its first ever World Cup. Normally when a country loses in the world cup because of player they don’t like him, but that wasn’t the case in Holland, and that shows you how well respected he was.

He will leave a big hole in the Barca team. First it was Xavi, and now the last link in one of the world’s greatest ever midfields is leaving. A great player and a nightmare to play against because he was unstoppable.

A goalkeepers career is always different to careers of players in any other position. They tend to last longer, but one man from Italy took it even further because having a longer career doesn’t always mean you can keep up with the best out there.

Buffon has shown the world that he could keep going, and even when some asked when is he going to stop, he kept delivering the good for his team at the top level.

This season it all came to an end and one of Italy’s great goalkeepers said it was enough. The great part was that up until his last game for Juve, he still had everything in control. If he wanted to keep playing for Juve and the Italian national team he could. But he said it’s enough and the world will miss a goalkeeper that all the defenders, myself included, would love to have behind them. He is always focused and the most important thing is that he is a match-winner. Normally we say that about the man that scores you the goals, but a goalkeeper of Buffon’s quality has just as much impact by keeping the other team out.

Buffon has been at Juventus since 2001, playing over 500 games for the Old Lady and lifting nine Serie A titles and four Copa Italia trophies. Buffon is also a World Cup winner and won the UEFA Cup with Parma in 1999. The Champions League was the only major trophy that evaded him, largely thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo, who somehow scored 10 Champions League goals against Buffon.

All great things come to an end, as they say. It will be hard to see them go on to bigger and better things after such great careers.


Seeking FA Cup Salvation

It’s a crucial time at the Bridge and this is a season that needs to end with a trophy.

There has been a lot of talk recently about players leaving and new players coming in, but that should be put on the hold for now because the Conte situation needs to be fixed first. Is he staying or is he going? There has been speculation about Antonio’s future at the club for months. The club would never give us an update right before a final but it’s the big question everyone is waiting for the answer to.

Saturday is an enormous game for the Blues. Man Utd is the team that wants to beat Chelsea more then anyone, with Mourinho preparing like this is the game of his life. He will be at training all week telling his players to fight for their lives, and I am sure he will be trying to come up with a trick to surprise Chelsea. We need to be ready and I hope Conte will be masking his disappointment at the board so we can have a cracking final. We need Conte to be the focused and resilient manager he was during his first season.

There is a lot at stake and whichever manager fails to win the final will see it is a massive disappointment. And they would be right – when you are at a club like Chelsea or United you need to win something every season, and when you don’t you haven’t progressed. The manager, players, board and fans of one of the clubs will be gutted. But whatever the result, please come out with the news after the game is over so that Conte knows what’s next and we know as fans, so preparations can begin for next season.

United haven’t found the net in two of their last three finals, while Chelsea haven’t scored more than two goals in their last seven finals, regardless of the result. That stat combined with Mourinho’s philosophy suggests a big goal might be all that’s needed from either side. The last time the sides met in the final was 2007, when Mourinho led Chelsea to a 1-0 victory after extra time. He will be in the opposite dugout this time, and if he is the victor it will silence some of the fans that have criticised his playing style at Old Trafford this season.

United have been in City’s shadow all season, but have had a good season winning 81 points in the league. That’s the same number of points Leicester earned to win the title last season, and it would have been enough to win the title six seasons out of the 16 since the PL began.

Chelsea have missed out on the Champions League for the second time in three seasons, but adding some silverware would salvage the season a little bit for Conte.

Big games need big players, so the Blues need to step it up, and the big players need to show up and make things happen.


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.