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Swimming to Safety

Swansea City have looked destined for relegation for most of this season, with some fans already writing them off before Christmas when Paul Clement was sacked after winning just three games.

Then in stepped Carlos Carvalhal. The Portuguese manager has taken charge of 17 clubs since 1999, in an interesting career that reflects the man himself.

“If you do not play to win, then you can’t win and you can’t draw. All the time, even when I was with very small teams and we played the very strong teams, we always thought we could win and I prepared my teams to go and win,” he says. That’s why I love his approach, because you should always try to go down as a brave man rather than one that turned up without having a real go to win the game. And that’s exactly the approach Swansea have taken under his guidance.

The Swans have taken 14 points from seven games since Carvalhal took over, including wins against Liverpool and Arsenal, rising from rock-bottom up to 15th in the table.

A new face always seems to help Premier League clubs as they breathe new life into their squads. “He is a gentleman and he is witty. Sometimes he tells us the stories and makes us laugh, they are very funny… When we have a laugh, we laugh, but when we work, we have to concentrate. I want to keep this happy atmosphere and we will stay up,” says Ki Sung-yueng. Aside from his tactics and positive football philosophy, Carvalhal’s character has been a big hit in Wales.

He’s been spotted riding his bike around Swansea by fans, and treated the press to his homemade tarts last week. But it’s his colourful analogies that make his press conferences some of the most entertaining.

He’s compared subbing Tammy Abraham and Andre Ayew on to ‘putting all the meat on the barbeque’, said he would be looking for sea bass and lobster but might have to settle for sardines in the transfer market, and compared Liverpool to a Formula 1 car stuck in London traffic. But his latest remark after the 1-0 win over Burnley sums up the current situation at Swansea:

“When I arrived we were deep in the ocean, where it is very dark and just stones, no fishes. We couldn’t see anything. After we started winning, after the big games against Arsenal and Liverpool, we had only just got our noses out of the water to breathe. Last week was the first time we smelled the fresh air. In this moment we are maybe starting to swim a little. We can now look to the coast, we know the direction to swim to achieve what we want.”

You rarely see a Premier League team that throws in the towel, and I’m am sure if they keep their momentum going and the focus doesn’t dip they will definitely be the team that came from rock-bottom and survived the battle of staying up.


Reuniting with Old Friends

Last month I had one of those weeks where you sit and reminisce about your career. It occured to me that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Clarence Seedorf for a long time, so one of my Fox Sport colleagues gave me his number and I decided to give him a call.

He answered the call and said “who is this?”

I just said what’s up (in Dutch) and he immediately started laughing so loud. It was one of the funniest things, because without either of us saying anything more, neither of us could stop laughing for about a minute until he was like “yes” and I was like “yes finally.”

“10 years it’s been since I heard my bro Mario’s voice,” he said.

The last time we had seen each other was when we both played for the Dutch national team, and he was playing in front of me against Luxembourg.

We spoke quickly on the phone and he told me he was coming to LA in a couple of weeks.

Last week we met at the Fox studio for a quick interview. We both agreed that whatever happens, we have to meet up again. Not long after he text me in the evening asking where I was and I said I’m heading out with some friends and he was let me know where and I meet you there. It was one of those dinners where we were lucky that we had a nice group, so everyone was deep in conversation with each other and we could talk about the good old times.

One story came up, about the time we both got picked by Ajax on the same day when I was 9 and he was 10. I remember back then I was skinny and he already had a six-pack, so we would all ask if we could punch him in the stomach. He was shy at first because nobody knew each other, but we just kept asking until he had no choice but to stand there and take it. (I am sure you know who was trying to punch the hardest.)

We laughed some more about the crazy thing we both had with our football boots. We talked about how we struggled to keep playing with the old boots that were so broken we had to tape them up, and later one of us found glue to stick them together, because it wasn’t cheap for our parents to keep buying us new boots.

I think he was one of the earlier players to wear boots with a colorful strip on them. Back then we killed him for wearing them, but today it has changed and nearly all boots are colourful (and the players don’t have to worry about glue because they get them for free before they become pro).

Later we started talking about how he wanted to be a coach, and he said he was waiting for a call from the Spanish team Deportivo, but we had to keep quiet about it. And yesterday I woke up and texted him after seeing the great news. My bro did it!

I wish you the best and I’ll see you soon, because it certainly won’t be another 10 years before we speak again.


Taking Premier League Scalps

I had the pleasure of watching my first live Wigan game of this season, this weekend. It’s been a fantastic season for the Tics so far, and now that we get closer to the business end of each competition it’s great to see that confidence is sky high.

Wigan are now 15 games without defeat, sitting at the top of League One and through to the 5th round of the FA Cup having lost only five games all season in all competitions. And on top of that the boys have conceded just 13 goals in 27 league games (less than 0.5 per game).

This weekend’s game against West Ham shows you just how focused the club is on moving forward and getting back to the Premier League. I was really impressed with how they still stick to the way of playing that I experienced during my days at the club. They kept their cool knowing they are facing a Premier League, which on paper should have been much better.

I know people will say West Ham were down to 10-men (that incident was very disrespectful by Masuaku and thoroughly deserved a red) and that did make it easier for Wigan, but they had already done the hard work of going 1-0 up. They got pushed back sometimes but never really looked like they were in real trouble. West Ham didn’t even manage a shot on target as Christian Walton earned his 10th clean sheet in 14 games.

Will Grigg was the star of the show, grabbing both goals, but Nick Powell was also excellent and the whole team put in performances to be proud of.

“We don’t mind who we get next. Obviously, it would be nice to get one of the big boys but we’ll play anyone,” said Grigg in his post-match interview. And as it turns out the Tics do have one of the big boys as they welcome Pep Guardiola’s Man City in the 5th round.

It will be the third time the two sides have met in five years, after beating City in the final in 2013 to lift the FA Cup trophy and then beating them again the following year in the quarter-final. Wigan have the opportunity to make it a hat-trick in February. This Man City side is one of the best to ever play in the Premier League, but Wigan have to look at it like any other game and not be daunted by their task.

Grigg said they don’t mind who they face, and they will need to take that fearlessness with them into the game. They’ve already knocked out two Premier League teams, and beaten Man City twice in their last two meetings – it just comes down to 90 minutes of football.

Paul Cook’s philosophy as manager has had a big impact on how they set up and take the game to their opponents, whoever they are. “As a fan, I don’t really enjoy seeing people sit off and park the bus. We didn’t do it. For a Wigan fan you want to see your team have a go. Our lads deserve a lot of credit for how they’ve played,” he said after beating West Ham.

“We’ll always engage in a good game, whoever we play.”

They have nothing to lose in the FA Cup, so that’s exactly the kind of spirit they need and fans want to see.

Guardiola is still chasing a quadruple this season, but next he has to get past a Wigan side that doesn’t fear anyone. And history shows that can be a nightmare for Premier League giants.


The Alexis Sanchez Saga

I still don’t understand why you would let your best player go to your direct competitors. This is even more puzzling when you’re in the process of rebuilding your team.

Alexis Sanchez was getting close to the end of his contract, and it is fair that he would have wanted to leave Arsenal, but I’m sure it was not only Premier League clubs that were interested in his services.

I’ve always liked Sanchez because he’s a real force and a threat in any game. He scored 80 goals and got 46 assists in 166 games for the Gunners, and will the first Chilean to represent Manchester United’s first team after leading his country to win Copa America in 2015, their first major title. When a player has that much ability and mental strength to lead a team, you just have to make sure you keep him motivated.

That motivation is the one thing he’s looking for from his club, and who is better at giving a top player the feeling that he can win trophies and go to the very top of his game, than Mourinho?

Jose would have told Alexis things like: “If you want to win trophies and make the Sanchez brand bigger, then come and play at the biggest club in the world, with the biggest manager that has won big trophies, and always wants to add more to his collection. And as a bonus, I’ll match the amount any big team has offered you including a starting position in my team.”

I can’t blame Sanchez himself for choosing United. Robin Van Persie made a similar move back in 2012, and that turned out to be a transfer-defining switch. RVP was Arsenal’s top player and went on to win the Premier League the following season at United. That will also be Sanchez’ goal. City are 12 points clear at the top with 14 games to play, and the way they are playing makes you have to admit that the title is within their grasp. But Sanchez knows that in the long term he will have just as much chance of winning the PL with United as they continue to build and gel as a team.

I can’t blame Mourinho for being smart in making his direct competitors weaker by taking away their star player. He will fit right into Mourinho’s system because Sanchez is a great goal scoring threat, especially when it comes to fast counterattacks and running at players with high energy. The only thing I’m not sure about is if he will start him from the left, with Rashford and Martial already battling in healthy competition for that spot.

One thing is for sure though. Man Utd are bringing in more firepower and it’s clear they’re trying to bring the PL trophy back to Old Trafford next season.


King Kazu

Last week in Tokyo, a Japanese player known as Kazuyoshi Miuri put pen to paper for a contract extension with Yokohama FC, a club that plays in Japan’s second tier. Kazuyoshi only made 12 appearances last season, scoring just the one goal, which makes the announcement seem very ordinary.

But the new deal made headlines all around the world, because Kazuyoshi, also known as King Kazu, will be playing his 33rd season of Professional football. The veteran striker turns 51 next month, and despite becoming the world’s oldest footballer in 2015, is still playing the beautiful game in his native country at a top level.

Kazu’s career began back in 1986 when he was 19-years-old (that means he had already been playing professionally for twelve years when Kylian Mbappe was born), at Santos in the Brazilian League. That year Liverpool won the Premier League under Kenny Dalglish, Mike Tyson was the World Heavyweight Champion, Alex Ferguson was appointed as the new manager of Manchester United, and it was the year I was mesmerized and became a fan of the legendary Diego Maradona.

Since then Kazu has played for 12 different clubs across South America, Asia, Australia and Europe, before signing for his current team Yokahoma in 2005. He is hailed by many as the first football superstar in Japan, scoring 55 goals in 89 appearances for his country, and leading ‘The Blue Samurais’ to their first ever World Cup Finals in 1998 after scoring 14 goals in qualifying.

His website claims that he’s played 36932 minutes of football, which is around 25 and a half days of solid football. Some of his teammates are now more than 30 years younger than Kazuyoshi. He even became the J-League’s top scorer and MVP in its inaugural season in 1993, despite competition from Gary Lineker and Zico.

His career and longevity has been remarkable, especially when you consider most players retire before they hit 35, much like myself. Stanley Mathews is famous for his long career in England, playing for Stoke and Blackpool for 33 seasons in total. It was more common for players to continue to play into their 40’s in that era, but King Kazu has shown that it is still possible to compete with the super fit pros in their twenties, today.

Most pros like to hang up their boots on a high when they are still at the highest level – but maybe a lot can be learned from Kazuyoshi as he has lived and played through so many different changes to the game (when he started the back pass rule had not yet been introduced).

Amazingly, he says he still wishes to improve as a player. “I will always play with the football with all my might and hope to grow as a player,” he said when his contract extension was announced.

But he summed up his attitude best back in 2015 when he became the oldest player to ever feature in a professional match: “As long as I’m enjoying my football, I’ll keep going.”


3rd Round Romance

The 3rd round of the FA Cup is always one of the biggest days in England’s football Calendar. The chance for fans from smaller teams all over the country to see top clubs in action and hope for an upset. For neutrals, it also brings so much excitement as the non-league and lower-league clubs do everything they can to topple the giants of English football. Anything can happen in the Cup!

This weekend we saw many great examples of this. Wigan earned a replay against Bournemouth with a 2-2 draw at Dean Court, and now have the advantage going into that game on their home turf next Wednesday. Norwich also managed to hold out for a goalless draw against Chelsea, and Wolves showed us that they look ready for the Premier League with a dominant performance against Swansea which ended 0-0.

But the real magic of the cup was shared by the likes of Newport, Coventry and Notts County, who all knocked out teams a few league’s above them in the football pyramid. Coventry’s win over Stoke was the result of the day on Saturday. Mark Hughes was sacked after the game, after also losing five games out of seven in the Premier League, but the Sky blues deserved the win and it was a welcomed success for the fans who have been through some tough times lately.

Leeds United suffered another shock exit after their defeat to Sutton last season. This time around it was Newport who managed to come back from a goal down to win 2-1 with a late goal from Shaun McCoulsky. The goal took Newport into the FA Cup fourth round for the first time since 1979, before the club’s manager Michael Flynn was even born. The dramatic finish was exactly what the neutral wanted to see, with wild scenes in the home end and a frustrated atmosphere in the Leeds camp. It was a classic FA Cup 3rd round story.

Notts County are the world’s oldest club still playing at professional level, now in League Two under the management of Kevin Nolan. They travelled to Brentford who are two tiers above them in the Football League, and through a curling left-footed strike from Jon Stead, became the 1-0 victors.

It didn’t end there though, and Fleetwood Town and Shrewsbury both earned replays against Premier League opposition. For these clubs a replay is sometimes better than a win because of the finances the fixtures and TV money bring. Now they have to focus on getting the job done, and with nothing to lose the pressure and expectation will be on their opponents. That will allow them to play with freedom and for the players, it’s an opportunity to show their individual abilities in front of all the watching eyes.

The FA Cup draw has thrown up some more opportunities for giant killings too, with Newport facing Spurs at home and Yeovil hosting Manchester United.

We all know who the favourites will be in these games, but the beauty of the FA Cup is that anything can happen, and the big clubs might be in for an uncomfortable ride. The smaller, bumpy pitches, and tight dressing rooms can all work in the lower club’s favor on matchday. Ultimately it’s 11 against 11, and the team who wants it the most will come out on top.


Travelling with King George

In life we all meet people that do extraordinary things.

Growing up I saw the great AC Milan excel a lot on TV because they had the Dutch legends Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard playing there.

One day a truly great Milan player caught my eye. It was Arsene Wenger that brought George Weah to Europe when he was the manager of Monaco. Weah won the French Cup at Monaco before moving to PSG and winning the French League, and then onto AC Milan in 1995. That year he was the best player in the world, winning the Ballon d’Or and Serie A title.

The next thing I knew I was making my professional debut and was playing against the legendary George Weah. Sometimes we don’t realise what a small world we live in, but not too long after that, King George (as we liked to call him) moved to Chelsea. It was when he was sat next to me in the dressing room that I had that ‘oh my god’ moment.

Not long after that George asked me to come over to his home. I got to his house and found him relaxing, but I was so in-awe that I could not stop talking about how great I thought he was and how much I enjoyed watching him on TV. He asked me what I wanted to drink (maybe because I was taking so much) and I asked for a Coca-Cola. He pointed to the fridge, so I grabbed one, cracked it open and sipped away like one of their famous commercials.

The next visit to his home was similar. He asked me what I wanted to drink and the story repeated itself. I grabbed a coke and continued to talk so much because I was still not over the idea of hanging out with King George. Next it was visit three, and again he asked the same question, and again my answer was Coca-Cola. But this time I got a different response.

He pointed at the cabinet and said grab a glass and get some water from the water dispenser.

At that time I was 21 years old and thought water was boring. He told me water was one of the best fuels for your body, so learn to love it if you want to have a long career. I took his advice and to this day water is one of my go-to drinks, and I learned to dislike fizzy, sugary drinks.

But that was just the start and some of the biggest advice he gave me was that I needed to visit and learn about more countries. So we scheduled my first trip to Paris. I felt like a little kid going to the candy store with his big brother as he showed me around. Going to places like L’Avenue and Hotel Costes for the first time.

Then I was introduced to African dance and culture. Man, we danced for hours and King George kept telling me “I don’t want to see you sit in a chair, you dance and dance just like on the field. When you stand still you’re easy to play against.”

My mouth stopped talking but my feet kept going.

The next trip was Miami and after that New York, both for my first time. In Miami we just hung out at his home with his family, and when we moved on to New York we did the Staten Island where my brother almost got robbed. He turned up at a liquor store but then the crooks got told he was with the great George Weah and they left him alone. Later we had a huge barbecue in the middle of the street, played basketball and chatted with some locals of Liberian-descent. That is where he told me about wanting to be President of his country, because his people loved him all over the world.

When I thought I was done with traveling, he told me he had to pick up an award from ESPN and asked me if I wanted to go with him to Washington DC. At the awards night they showed interviews of people talking about George. The clip of this 16-year-old kid is still present in my mind. He stood with a machine gun and his own army of grown men behind him. He said, “I love George Weah and he is the only man in the world that my army and I will put our guns down for.”

My eyes were big and wide, just like the first day I met George. And just like when I saw the news reports this week that he is now the president of Liberia.

My big bro, the legend, King George – I wish you the very best in your life’s new beautiful chapter, and thank you for giving so many beautiful memories. Long live my glasses of water!


Festive Football Predictions

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and for football fans it’s that little bit better with four rounds of matches to entertain us over Christmas and New year. The festive schedule is busy and we might hear some complaints from managers, but as a fan we couldn’t ask for more!

Leicester have got the toughest schedule, with four games in the space of less than 9 days. But of the leading teams it Man United who have the most congested Christmas fixture list. Mourinho might have a few things to say about that as he has some catching up to do with their Manchester rivals sitting 11 points clear at the top of the tree. Man City have an extra 30 hours between their first and last fixture compared to United, but both will have their strength in depth tested.

City have already broken many records this season, but there’s no sign of them slowing down with another rampant performance against Spurs at the weekend. They face Bournemouth, Newcastle, Palace and Watford. Roy Hodgson’s side have shown a resurgence lately and look like they might have turned their season around, but few will fancy them to topple the league-leaders.

As for Newcastle, Bournemouth and Watford, none have won any of their previous 5 games. You wouldn’t be surprised if Man City won all four games by 3+ goal margins, and they surely have the squad and quality needed to put in the great performances that are needed.

United have got to face Leicester, Burnley, Southampton and Everton over 9 days, and a few of those results could go either way. Burnley have been a bogey team this season and are currently sat above Spurs in the table. Sean Dyche and the Clarets are having an amazing season so far! They’re a tough team to beat, and while you’d expect United to beat Southampton at home, Leicester and Everton are both in fine form, each winning four of their last five games.

Rooney would love a goal at Old Trafford, even if he wouldn’t celebrate it, and everyone knows Big Sam loves to cause an upset. Keeping a team fit to play in the Premier League gets you instant performances and dedication so you can plan to get more results from there.

If Mourinho gets his tactics right it could be a clean sweep for United, but he always keeps his games tight, and if a few players need resting they might not get the results they need. When his teams are winning he likes to stick with his starting 11. But if he’s not careful a few players could burn out or get injured.

Chelsea have got Everton, Brighton, Stoke and Arsenal. Again, Big Sam will be looking to continue Everton’s form and it could be a tough game at Goodison Park like it always has been, but you’d fancy the blues’ chances against Stoke and Brighton. Arsenal is the big game that everyone will have their eyes on.

It finished 0-0 in September but hopefully there’ll be plenty of goals at the Emirates. Arsenal have only beaten Chelsea once in the Premier League since 2011 (W7 D4 L1) and Conte will looking to make up some ground on the Manchester clubs.

Arsenal’s other fixtures are Liverpool, Palace and West Brom. The Baggies have been struggling lately and Wenger will look to get a confidence boost there ahead of the Chelsea game. The trip to Selhurst Park might not be so straightforward but most people would back the Gunners to take all three points there.

But it’s the Liverpool game that will also be interesting. If Wenger takes all 12 points from the four games he’d be extremely happy, but it would be a shock to most fans.

Liverpool are either quite poor or very good and score goals for fun. There seems to be no in-between and Klopp will of course be hoping for the latter over the next couple of weeks. After Arsenal they face Swansea, Leicester and Burnley. As with United, Leicester and Burnley could both be tough matches, but if the Reds are at their best you’d expect them to take at least 7 points from those three fixtures because there’s not a lot that can stop them when they’re on form.

One thing I know for sure is that after December I don’t see Man City slowing down and losing their comfort at the top of the table, with the way they are bossing the league at the moment. But the rest will be battling for second spot as Man United look far from comfortable.


Friendly Rivals

It has been both great and painful having friends who all support different football teams. And now writing this blog, it makes me realise that’s why our dynamic is so interesting.

Every weekend it’s the same. I either watch the football games with them or we discuss the action together over text message. Whenever Chelsea play and lose I get abuse from my friends. It has now reached the stage where if I don’t get any messages during the big games I’d worry that there must be something wrong with my friends.

They would come in with comments asking me how, with all that money, the blues can’t beat a struggling West Ham. And now since drawing Barcelona in the Champions League everyone is already sending me texts with skulls, crossbones and smiles. They are saying Messi has never scored against Chelsea in eight attempts, and that he will be out to redeem himself and get revenge.

I know they are going to be tough games, and we also have Man United and Man City to play between each leg. But isn’t one of the greatest things about football, or life in general, beating the odds?

But back to the Premier League because I’ve got an interesting group of friends, with some supporting Tottenham, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Those rivalries are some of the biggest in football and sometimes fans get as much satisfaction from seeing their rivals lose than seeing their own team win. And unless your a Man City fan, you will have had your turn to get the abuse this season. But the strangest thing is when a friend hasn’t watched their team and you will get a text saying “don’t tell me the score because I have recorded it.”

When I was a kid, a player, and even as a pundit, I would always watch a game back to learn more and prepare. Now that I’m a fan of the game I can’t really enjoy watching it when it’s not live on TV. I do love the highlights, but nothing compares to watching the action unfold in real-time for 90 minutes. Sometimes it can be torture but they all say if you don’t know the score it must be a live game. They make a good point! Most of the excitement comes from not knowing how the story will conclude.

Watching it and discussing it with friends that support other teams is what really makes the game so exciting though. This week it was Mr Liverpool’s time for the taunts because the Reds failed to beat Everton. When Lovren conceded the penalty my phone was on fire. I won’t be sharing all the messages but I’ll give you an idea of what my phone goes through.

Mr Liverpool: How we didn’t win this game is beyond me! The ref is a professional W***** #fact”
Me: Haha
Mr Liverpool: The ref definitely took money
Me: Easy now tiger

And then it was my turn to get it.

“The dutch mafia bought the ref! #fact”, knowing that he has a Dutch international, Wijnaldum in his side.

I’m sure fans all across the world love giving their friends stick when they don’t get the results they expect. I love this game, but the passion of friends make it that extra bit more interesting.


Pushing For Promotion

Wigan are back at the top of League One as we approach the halfway point in the season. Their 3-1 win over Rotherham two weekends ago was enough to swap places with Shrewsbury after they slipped up against Bradford.

It’s tight at the top of league one with seven points separating the top six, and the Christmas period will be a crucial period for Wigan to keep their form and cement their position as league leaders. If they can start the new year in pole position it will give them the belief needed to keep winning.

Will Grigg scored his 40th goal for the Latics goal on his 100th appearance and looks to be getting back to his goalscoring best from the bench. This season he has some tough competition up front with Nick Powell, Gavin Massey, Ivan Toney and Ryan Colclough all firing, and that healthy competition has seen Wigan score 36 goals so far this season, the most in the league.

They’ve also conceded the fewest number of goals with some very solid defensive performances, particularly from Dan Burn. He was suspended for the game against Rotherham but traveled to the game to show support for his teammates. That shows the togetherness and team spirit that will be key for the Latics success in these tough leagues.

“Dan came with us off his own back to show his support for the lads which shows how good the spirit is inside the dressing room. They all enjoy working together and training together, and I think that shows out there on the pitch,” said first team coach Anthony Barry.

Their record at the back and up top shows they deserve to be at the summit of the table and I’m confident the lads can continue to deliver the goods for the remainder of the season.