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Archive for May, 2011

Sir Alex Ferguson may not need press conferences but the public do


“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air”

It’s always a little disheartening. As a trainee journalist about to embark on a career I’ve longed for since I could walk, it’s always demoralizing to hear Sir Alex Ferguson has shunned the media once again. The chance to pick the brains of football’s elite has always been one of the added extras so coveted by sports journalists.

The media and press conferences in particular are important to most football managers. Even with the wide variety of sources spouting out news on a regular basis, they still provide managers with a platform to air their views and spread their message to the masses. Fans, who still play a considerable role in deciding a manager’s fate, have an opportunity to read, watch and listen to this and formulate their own opinions as a result. The media plays a considerable part in building a manager up or knocking them down. It remains an instrument which managers can play. Jose Mourinho, Harry Redknapp and Ian Holloway have all greatly enhanced their reputations by charming journalists.

Ferguson has a habit of banning journalists

Of course none of this seems to apply to Ferguson. His lengthy period in charge of Manchester United has rendered the media all but useless to him. He does not need to tell fans his thoughts. He does not need to defend his position. His trophy record and colossal reputation far outweighs any words that a journalist could use to disparage him. And even though he treats their profession with a frankly dismissive attitude, few journalists ever dare question him.

Even so, his decision to try and ban AP’s Rob Harris for a perfectly acceptable question was disappointing. Harris’ question wasn’t loaded, it wasn’t malicious. His job title entitles him to dig a lot further than he did and Ferguson’s ferocious reputation probably dissuaded him from doing so. A simple “no comment” would have sufficed but Ferguson dislikes people questioning his authority. It is probably one of the things which define him as great in the dressing room but it’s another which casts him as rather petulant away from Old Trafford.

Thankfully UEFA implore managers to speak to the press before games so Rob Harris will no doubt be back in front of him come Friday, laptop and all.

If anything Ferguson should consider American sports and the level of access the press are afforded. Interviews take place in locker rooms, on the side of the pitch at half-time and team talks are filmed in a fly on the wall style. Perhaps some of this is too intrusive but it’s most definitely more revealing and fascinating than an interview hosted by an in-house TV company. As sport continues to lurch towards an activity predominantly viewed through a television screen rather than one’s own eyes, perhaps the American model will develop its own permutations on these shores.

The media may need Ferguson more than he needs them but the journalist’s role will continue to flourish. People want more news and more insight especially when it comes to the world’s most popular pastime. Ferguson may not need press conferences but the public do.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.

My Favourite Match – Liverpool 5 v 1 Middlesbrough 14/12/1996. Liverpool.

May 21, 2011 1 comment

By Jack Sumner

We go back 15 years and to Liverpool for the latest in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series. This game belonged to one man. A 21-year-old Robbie Fowler was just two goals shy of his century for Liverpool. ‘God’ went onto surpass the hundred mark in quite emphatic style. He got four as Liverpool pulverised Middlesbrough. You can follow Jack on Twitter @Sumna88 and read more from him and his team at Our Beautiful Game.

One of my earliest memories of a football match, the exact events of which I was recently reminded of after watching a programme entitled Liverpool’s 100 Greatest Premier League Games. It only made number 63 on the list, but for nostalgia and sentimental value it ranks as a good shout for one of my favourites!

I hadn’t expected to be going to Anfield that day. It was the Saturday following my eighth birthday, and after a morning spent playing football in the garden at a friend’s house, trying to re-create my favourite goals and celebrations – I think at the time Gazza’s against Scotland in Euro ’96 was my most prolific, but in that garden I scored hundreds of tap-ins before diving to the ground screaming ‘FOW-LER!’ – I got called inside to speak to someone on the phone. It was my dad asking me what I wanted to do that afternoon. Liverpool were at home to Middlesbrough in the late kick-off, so my plan would most likely have included watching Final Score before listening to the game on the radio. As it happened, my old man had arranged for me to go the game with my uncle.

Fowler is still adored by the Kop now

On the way there in the car, I remember that the talk was of Robbie Fowler needing just two more goals to reach a hundred for Liverpool. To my eight-year-old mind I don’t think it quite sunk in as to how significant that was. Fowler was already a hero at Liverpool by then, and he was my favourite player by a country mile, but looking back now it amazes me to think that he was only 21 at the time. It felt like ‘God’ had been around for years, and I guess really he had, having cemented his place in the first team at the age of 17. To score that many goals for a club at senior level, at that age, is some achievement. Consider that the sensational Lionel Messi scored his hundredth goal for Barcelona last year, at the grand old age of 22.

Sitting in the Kop end before any Liverpool game is special. I may be biased, but I honestly don’t believe there is an atmosphere anywhere that beats Anfield when they play ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off. To hear that crackle over the PA system as everything goes quiet for a second, and then the song kicks in and thousands of fans hold their scarves aloft above their heads and sing along. Even watching it on television it’s spine-tingling, but being there is immense, and although that wasn’t the first game I ever went to, Liverpool at home to Middlesbrough in December 1996 is my most potent early memory of that experience.

What ensued, was not only a good day to be a Liverpool fan, but a great day to be a fan of Robbie Fowler. Middlesbrough took the kick-off and came right out-of-the-traps, ploughing bodies forward into the Liverpool half, but after winning possession on the edge of the 18-yard box Liverpool were abruptly able to turn defence into attack. A swift counter-attack spearheaded by Stan Collymore culminated with the ball falling to Fowler in front of goal, and with just 29 seconds on the clock, God stuck the ball in the back of the net for the 99th time in his professional career. Fowler ran for the corner flag, where he stopped and sarcastically checked his wrist in amazement at the time; Steve McManaman followed suit, the pair shrugged their shoulders and trudged back to the centre circle.

Collymore should have got on the score-sheet shortly thereafter, but events just seemed to conspire in Fowler’s favour. As Collymore’s effort ricocheted back off the inside of the post, Fowler found himself with the ball arriving at his feet again, only this time roughly six-yards out and staring down at an empty net. Despite losing his footing, Liverpool’s cult hero rolled the ball into the open goal with perhaps the easiest finish his fabled left-foot ever had to produce; an ironic way to score your 100th goal for the club, it was as though it was presented to him on a plate. The second goal preceded an equally memorable celebration, as Fowler lifted up his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the words “Job’s A Good ‘Un” written in marker pen, then walking round the pitch in his typical joker fashion spending an entire minute showing the message to his team mates, something that in today’s game would probably warrant a booking. For the record books also, Fowler had achieved his century one game quicker than the club’s all time record goalscorer, Ian Rush.

Before half-time Liverpool grabbed a third. Collymore’s free-kick stung the hands of Boro’ keeper Gary Walsh, and the ball was headed in by Liverpool’s Norwegian full-back Stig Inge Bjornebye.

In the second-half Middlesbrough were to pull a goal back. That came on 75 minutes when Michael Thomas – who as anyone who has ever seen the film Fever Pitch will know, will go down in history for goals he scored against Liverpool – scored at the wrong end by turning in a Craig Hignett set piece. But this was Fowler’s day, and no ex-Arsenal legend was going to spoil it. Two minutes later he latched onto a ball from McManaman, and began a new century of goals by claiming his hat-trick, this one a composed strike to the right of the advancing Walsh.

Then with five minutes left, the result beyond doubt, and Fowler already taking home the match ball, the man with the legendary white nasal strip scored his fourth of the evening. Released by Collymore – who was fantastic on the night himself I must add, being involved in four of the goals – Fowler evaded two Boro defenders and after wrong-footing Walsh with a dummy, dinked the ball over the diving goalkeeper’s head.

Liverpool 5, Middlesbrough 1. Robbie Fowler 4. And he celebrated his fourth goal by taking a bow in front of the Kop.

Brilliant.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.

The contrasting attitudes to reserve football in Sheffield


This article featured in the newspaper The JUS News Journal which was printed last Thursday and Friday. It was written, designed and produced as a collaborative effort by around 25 MA Print Journalism students at the University of Sheffield.

There are many things which separate Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. A division will not be one of those things next year but the use of a reserve team will be.

Gary Megson announced recently that Wednesday would be pulling their reserve team from the league as it heaped too much pressure on his young players.

Youngsters like Maguire need to be ready for first team action

It is not a pioneering decision. Tottenham, Fulham and Stoke City are among the clubs to have withdrawn from reserve leagues in recent years. Kevin Keegan made a similar move during his time at Newcastle and later admitted he regretted the move.

The Owls’ second string finished bottom of the totesport.co.uk Central Division this year after collecting a measly two points. At the other end of the table, United narrowly missed out on securing the title after losing 4-0 to Derby in their title deciding fixture at Bramall Lane.

Megson’s assertion that the makeup of reserve teams has changed to a form of youth football isn’t entirely true.

The Derby side which dispatched a youthful Blades team was made up of several experienced players. Dean Leacock, Miles Addison and Lee Croft have all played in the Premier League and Chris Porter and Ben Davies have plied their respective trades in league football for many years.

United may have been soundly beaten but the experience of pitting their wits against seasoned veterans was invaluable. Youngsters will learn far more playing against players of the calibre of Leacock, Addison and Croft than they would against those in their own age bracket. The competitive nature which league competitions provide should also not be dismissed.

Reserve football continues to be a stepping stone for tomorrow’s talents and a way for returning stars to regain fitness. Simply arranging friendly fixtures which clubs can manipulate to suit them is not ideal preparation for first team football.

The importance of reserve and youth team football was recognised by the Sheffield United board in the aftermath of the senior team’s relegation.

The board said that the rebuilding job would involve “the careful mix of the young players and those in the development squad alongside more experienced players”.

“At the core of this rebuilding will be our Academy and development players, supported by our own experienced players and new signings who will have the success of the club at their hearts,” said director Scott McCabe.

With youngsters such as forward Jordan Slew and centre-back Harry Maguire coming through to the first-team in recent weeks, relegation could provide a few unexpected opportunities for some.

United will be keen to offload many of their highest earners and the reserves will need to be prepared if and when their chances come.

They have a number of talented players coming through their ranks with the academy side reaching the FA Youth Cup final this month. A competitive reserve team is therefore vital to their future fortunes. Wednesday may yet regret their decision to abandon theirs.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.

Why Jack Wilshere should be in the England Under-21 squad this summer


“Don’t waste your youth growing up”

David Bentley’s career has never hits the heights his ego might suggest it has. A friend recently used the credo “if he was half as good as thinks he is, he’d be twice as good as he actually is” to describe Bentley and it seems perfectly applicable.

His current club Tottenham have all but abandoned him and Bentley has left the white flag planted in St Andrews after an unsuccessful loan spell at Birmingham City.

Four years ago, the story was very different. Bentley was at Blackburn Rovers and playing perhaps the best football of his career. Impressive performances at home and in Europe fuelled speculation that a big move was just around the corner.

Wilshere could don an England shirt for the next two summers

That summer he made an interesting decision. Bentley withdrew from England’s Under-21 squad. He had played virtually the entire season at Blackburn, one which included European forays and cup runs. Bentley was on the fringes of the full national team and felt a summer in Holland at the European Under-21 Championships would cause possible burnout. Never one to downplay his aspirations, he was looking further ahead, 12 months on in fact to Euro 2008.

The withdrawal may have been a drop in the ocean for Bentley’s career but the ripples continue to reverberate today. Bentley saw the Under-21s as beneath him. Having sampled life at the top table with England, he wasn’t willing to dine elsewhere. As it materialised, England and Bentley never made Euro 2008.

He started in Fabio Capello’s first game in charge but his name barely warrants a mention when national squads are decided these days. Four years on from his ill-fated decision, Bentley may wish he’d opted to join the Under-21s that summer after all.

Fast forward to the present day and a similar quandary is facing Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.

After a mammoth season which, like Bentley’s, has encompassed European excursions and lengthy cup runs, many feel Wilshere should not join the Under-21s this summer. In many respects, Wilshere’s situation is entirely different. Unlike Bentley, he is central to the senior team’s plans. Unlike Bentley, his attitude does not seem to be tainted by egocentricity. So there are even more excuses for Wilshere should he decide that a summer with the Under-21s is not high on his list of priorities.

And last night, the Guardian’s Paul Hayward, an advocate of a Wilshere withdrawal, tweeted saying the Under-21 squad was nothing more than a “development level”.

Well perhaps it can develop winners. With Wilshere in the team, England stand a far better chance of winning the tournament this summer. The nation is plagued by perennial problems when it comes to masterminding international tournaments and they lack a winning mentality.

The opportunity to nurture English football’s future lynchpin in the art of winning international tournaments should not be overlooked.  

Neither should the chance to build team camaraderie. Andy Carroll, Micah Richards and Kieran Gibbs should also all feature in 12 months time at Euro 2012 and their integration will be made much easier after this summer.

It is also refreshing to see fringe members of the senior squad, which has more than a streak of self-indulgence coursing through it, willing to participate in a tournament which was below Bentley.

Winning the European Under-21 Championships would probably be a drop in the ocean of Jack Wilshere’s career. But the ensuing ripples could continue to reverberate for years to come.

My Favourite Match – Manchester United 7 v 1 A.S. Roma 10/04/2007. Manchester.


By Ollie Jackson

There have been many magical European nights at Old Trafford but few compare with this one from back in 2007. A potent Manchester United decimated a shell shocked Roma on an evening when everything Rooney, Ronaldo et al tried seemed to end up in the back of the net. You can follow Ollie on Twitter @myfootballblog and read more from him and his team at Our Beautiful Game.

‘La Roma non si discute, si ama’. For those of you not familiar with the club from the Eternal City, AS Roma are a football team who pride themselves on adhering to the aforementioned expression, which when translated, reads as follows; Roma is not to be questioned, it is to be loved. Upon interpretation, this is a statement that is designed to ensure that even the most ardent of supporters do not lose faith in their beloved side. For Roma’s Italian supporters remaining devoted is an important quality to possess and no more so than on the 10th April 2007 when the then Roma manger, Luciano Spalletti and his side travelled to Old Trafford, buoyant after conquering the English giants just one week earlier at the Stadio Olympico, in their Champions League quarter final tie.

The highly charged first leg meeting between Roma and Manchester United was witnessed by a capacity crowd of 77,000, who saw their team put two past Sir Alex Ferguson’s men courtesy of Rodrigo Taddei and Mirko Vucinic. Wayne Rooney’s priceless away goal helped ensure the tie remained alive for the second leg which would not involve Paul Scholes after the accomplished midfielder saw red in Rome for two rash tackles.

Despite returning to Manchester defeated, United remained defiant that they could overturn the one goal deficit and secure a place in the Champions League Semi Final.

The Old Trafford scoreboard says it all

Frequent visitors to Old Trafford will know that on a European night under the floodlights, the atmosphere can be so intense, so exhilarating, so emotionally overwhelming that any sign of weakness from the traveling opponents, will be quickly exposed. The United faithful are capable of producing an atmosphere so intimidating that even the most hardened of professionals can quickly be engulfed by the unrepentant waves of vocal support that time and time again inspires the home side to victory.

Prior to the second leg tie on April the 10th 2007, Roma’s notorious supporters clashed with Manchester United fans outside of Old Trafford. It is fair to say that Roma’s fans are not the most popular amongst English supporters, just ask Arsenal, Liverpool and even Middlesborough fans who have all  been targeted by Roma’s Ultras, a well known group of fans intent on causing disruption be it through violence, racist propaganda or political ideologies.

Despite the rising animosity between Manchester United and AS Roma fans prior to kick off, the unrest only served to spur the home support on in a bid to extinguish any confidence that the Italian club might hold heading into the game.

As a devoted Manchester United season ticket holder, I travelled to the game with a great deal of anticipation, knowing that I along with 70,000 home supporters would be needed in order to inspire the team. So, with my scarf in hand I took my seat in the North Stand and unbeknown to me at that moment, I was about to witness one of the finest English displays in Europe.

Knowing that an early goal would unsettle Spaelletti’s side, United began with such intent that many were struggling to keep pace with the action. Much maligned midfielder Michael Carrick opened his Champions League account, scoring with a stunning effort after taking up possession following Cristiano Ronaldo’s infield pass. Upon scoring the first goal there was a real sense of belief amongst the capacity crowd that United would overcome the Italian side. So when Gabriel Heinze proceeded to slip the ball to the feet of Ryan Giggs who in turn produced a wonderfully lofted first time cross to Alan Smith who slotted in United’s second of the game, Old Trafford was in raptures, the sound of unparalleled joy echoed around the stadium. “Magical Manchester United” were the words used by ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley as Wayne Rooney made it 3-0 inside 20 minutes. Safe in the knowledge that his side were going to progress, Sir Alex Ferguson looked on as his side scored another four goals. Ronaldo followed Rooney’s effort with two goals either side of half time, the first of which was a sublime solo effort that beat the helpless Doni at his near post. His second of the game came courtesy of Ryan Giggs who played a magnificent ball that alluded the Roma defence and allowed Ronaldo to secure United’s fifth. Manchester United’s sixth goal was scored by Carrick who surpassed his earlier effort with a quite incredible strike from a distance.

Not even a 69th minute goal from Roma talisman Daniele De Rossi could spare the Italians a humiliating night at the hands of the Red Devils. As if to add insult to injury, Patrice Evra, not known for his goal scoring prowess completed the rout and made it Manchester United 7-1 AS Roma.

On a night whereby Europe’s elite looked on in awe as Manchester United demolished any lingering integrity that the unpopular club once held, attention quickly turned to how in just 90 minutes Ferguson’s side had all but erased the reputation of Serie A. Despite failing to progress to the final after being defeated by AC Milan in the semi final, there was growing confidence around the club that United would soon add to the two European Cups previously acquired in 1968 and 1999. That expectation has been proven right as currently, United are in pole position to compete in their third Champions League final in just four years, after claiming the prestigious crown in 2008, one year on from their captivating performance against Roma at Old Trafford.

I leave you with this, and it is in reference to my opening sentence. ‘La Roma non si discute, si ama’ – On that memorable night in Manchester, United single handedly nullified any lasting significance behind Roma’s cherished motto. It is easy to love a football club, but it is nigh on impossible to not question the ability of your side after suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of one of the most successful domestic clubs to have ever of graced the European stage.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.