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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.

Premier League’s alternative Team of the Year

April 18, 2011 4 comments

“I’d rather be the underdogs. I’d rather people not know my name when I come out and do this stuff. Then they’ll say ‘Who was that?'”

Yesterday the PFA Team of the Year was announced. Whilst the team conjured up is an acknowledgement of the very best, this Premier League season has featured plenty of underdogs coming to the fore. The PFA Team of the Year consists entirely of players the league’s top five clubs. This alternative team doesn’t feature any players from those teams. Furthermore, those who’ve received plenty of praise, such as Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Andy Carroll and Leighton Baines, are excluded. So here are the unsung heroes, those who’ve quietly impressed:

Goalkeeper: Ben Foster (Birmingham City)

This season could have gone very differently for Ben Foster. He may have continued to play understudy to Edwin Van der Sar before being passed the baton at Manchester United this August. Instead, Foster opted for Birmingham City. The Midlands club have had a difficult year in the league but Foster has slotted in well behind Alex McLeish’s typically sturdy defence. He was also pivotal to Birmingham’s Carling Cup success.

Huth and Foster have impressed in league and cup

Left Back: José Enrique (Newcastle United)

José Enrique has been virtually ever-present in Newcastle’s team this year and has featured in every one of their eight clean sheets. Newcastle have had plenty of defensive troubles over the year but they seem to have found a very solid full-back in José Enrique. That may be about to change though as his name continues to be heavily linked with a move to Anfield this summer.

Centre Back: Robert Huth (Stoke City)

Huth may not be a popular player but he has excelled at Stoke this year. They’ve garnered a reputation as a difficult team to score against ever since they won promotion and Huth has enhanced their status. But he has also proved a legitimate threat at the other end of the pitch too. Huth’s bagged six goals in the league making him Stoke’s joint highest scorer.

Centre Back: Gary Cahill (Bolton Wanderers)

Speak to those who regularly go to the Reebok this year and they’ll tell you how good Cahill has been. Owen Coyle has transformed the ethos of Bolton Wanderers and the classy Cahill has flourished in the new style. He started the season with his first England cap and has ended it with his first England start. Expect him to remain very much in Fabio Capello’s thoughts in the future.

Right Back: Stephen Carr (Birmingham City)

Stephen Carr’s played in every minute of the nine clean sheets Birmingham have forged out. In fact, Carr has only missed 47 of the 2880 minutes Birmingham have played this year. Not bad for a 34-year-old man who announced his retirement in 2008. He has been somewhat of an unsung hero but pundits rightly cooed over his Carling Cup final performance against Arsenal.

Left Wing: Matthew Etherington (Stoke City)

It must be hard for a crafty, clever midfield technician to shine at Stoke City but Etherington continues to impress. Stoke’s long, missile balls can often bypass their midfield but Etherington does plenty of good work from wide positions. He remains a vital cog for Stoke with his deliveries from corners and free-kicks. Matt Jarvis could also be considered for this position after a bright season at Wolves.

Centre Midfield: Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United)

Last year Nolan was award the Championship Player of the Year award and he’s carried that form with him as Newcastle look set to cement their Premier League status. He’s helped himself to 12 league goals making him the division’s highest scoring midfielder. Newcastle have recorded several goal gluts and Nolan has been inspired in all of them. His finest hour was a hat-trick in the 5-0 drubbing of local rivals Sunderland. Honourable mentions for this position must go to Nolan’s Newcastle teammates Joey Barton and Chiek Tioté.

Centre Midfield: Lucas Leiva (Liverpool)

Lucas was derided for so long by football fans in this country but his turnaround this year has been magnificent. Finally we’ve started to see why he has merited inclusion for both Liverpool and Brazil. In a tough season for Liverpool, he has been their most consistent performer. Lucas saved his best performances for the bigger games with typically destructive outings in wins against Chelsea and Manchester United.

Right Wing: Clint Dempsey (Fulham)

This season was always going to be a dull one for Fulham after their heroics last year. An early injury to Bobby Zamora only confirmed that. But Dempsey has had a steady season which has gone largely under the radar. He’s weighed in with a respectable ten goals with only Kevin Nolan bagging more from midfield.

Forward: D.J. Campbell (Blackpool)

So many strikers have failed to make the colossal leap up to the top tier of football so reaching double figures for the season is a great achievement for Campbell. He had an unsuccessful crack at the big time before with Birmingham but looks to have found his feet at Blackpool. Campbell has scored against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham proving he steps up against the league’s best.

Forward: Peter Odemwingie (West Bromwich Albion)

West Brom’s inability to stay in the Premier League in previous years had been blamed on the absence of a renowned goal scorer. In Peter Odemwingie, they now have a man to provide a finishing touch to their midfield guile. No side have scored more goals in the bottom half of the league. In his first season in English football, Odemwingie has bagged 12 goals and he also has eight assists. If West Brom stay up, he may be the signing of the season.

You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.

Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Let me know in the comments section.

Ryan Babel’s Howard Webb Tweet Nothing but Innocent Banter

January 10, 2011 3 comments

“And they call him one of the best referees. That’s a joke”

It had a certain sense of inevitability. Here we had competitive players suddenly equipped with an addictive toy which they could utilise with emotions still running high.

As cricket players and American footballers already know to their cost, the forum of Twitter can easily land you in trouble. It was only a matter of time before one of the growing football contingent found the hot water. Step forward Liverpool’s Ryan Babel. The Dutchman was the first recipient of an F.A. charge after posting a picture of Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt.

The picture of Webb which featured on Babel's page

In today’s society, where humour and fun are often suppressed, Babel’s tweet was seen as out of line. The F.A. no doubt believed his artistic licence made a mockery of their much vaunted Respect campaign. But does a tongue-in-cheek picture really cause more damage to that campaign than the vile abuse referees suffer every weekend?

Are this country’s kids more likely to respond to a controversial decision on a Sunday morning with a barrage of swear words or are they more likely to go home and put their Photoshop skills to the test?

Twitter is a fantastic tool and we should enjoy the fact sportsmen have embraced it. Not only does it (sometimes) provide an excellent insight into footballer’s lives and day-to-day musings, it also allows fans to interact with their heroes. The days of footballers mingling with supporters are way behind us and if Twitter bridges the gap, surely this can only be a good thing?

My fear is that Babel’s charge will now kick-start a precedence which could see many others reprimanded for their views. In recent weeks Rio Ferdinand, Jack Wilshire and Wojciech Sczcesny have all tweeted varying degrees of outrage at referee’s decisions. If opinions aren’t tolerated then the players won’t see the purpose of Twitter and managers and owners will simply enforce social networking bans.

Without it, we will rely on the all too cushy press officer-controlled environments which we feed off now. Where footballers transform into monotonous drones and glide through interviews armed with press-bites and suitable clichés. It makes footballers appear stupid and it weakens post-match analysis to a mind-numbingly boring level.

Twitter can be dangerous but it also offers footballers a chance to be more expressive. Babel’s picture was merely a playful jibe and I sincerely hope it does not fuel the end of footballers on Twitter.

Premier League Predictions 2010/2011

August 13, 2010 3 comments

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”

On the eve of the forthcoming Premier League season I have, like many others, foolishly left myself open to mockery and abuse by predicting this season’s big winners and losers. Still given the dominance of the ‘Big Four’ and the belief that it’ll be the usual names in the usual places, it should be easy, right? Maybe I should have used this quote to open instead:

“The groundhog is like most prophets; it delivers its prediction then disappears”

If you don’t hear from me come May you’ll know why…

CHAMPIONS = CHELSEA

Last time around the pitfalls appeared greater. January’s African Cup of Nations was supposed to upset the applecart and if that didn’t Michael Essien’s injury looked set to. But they soldiered on and when the title race really got going, Carlo Ancelotti’s men found the extra gear first. Their form at the end of the season was sublime and it bodes well for this season too. Ricardo Carvalho’s loss won’t be felt particularly hard with the excellent Branislav Ivanović a more than adequate replacement. Essien’s return only strengthens the league’s best midfield which won’t lose its aura even with Joe Cole and Michael Ballack’s departures. Ballack’s performances were steadily declining and Ancelotti has never taken a shine to Cole. Ramires will surely be an upgrade on Jon Obi Mikel and look for Daniel Strurridge to push on this year too; he has all the raw attributes to be a great player.

Chelsea fans could be treated to more of the same

The interesting situation will arise at right back. Ancelotti’s diamond formation does hinge on the production of his two full backs and José Bosingwa’s return from a serious injury will be something to monitor. Question marks remain about his defensive capabilties but Ivanović has proved adept in that slot too should Bosingwa fail to make an impression.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACES = MANCHESTER UNITED, ARSENAL, MANCHESTER CITY

Chelsea’s challengers remain strong but are still half a step behind. It is United who look likely to be their closest threat once more. For all their positives they did look frail and toothless when Wayne Rooney was out of the side last year. The hype around Chicarito is intoxicating but Dimitar Berbatov needs to finally justify his hefty price tag. Sir Alex Ferguson has done little to strength the midfield which may be their downfall. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot play every week and Owen Hargreaves’ continued absence meant Ferguson really needed to purchase an attacking midfielder and/or a strong anchorman. I expect Nani to really excel this year and some predictions indicating that they will fall outside of the top four are wide of the mark. 

Arsène Wenger has addressed a glaring weakness by getting Marouane Chamakh and IF Robin van Persie can stay fit, they could be Chelsea’s biggest contenders. However I still have question marks about their ability to beat the big sides. They can’t win games ugly, they are susceptible to counter-attacking football and the naivety which has haunted them in the past shows no signs of leaving just yet. United, Chelsea and Barcelona all tore them to shreds last year. They remain a young, inexperienced team and even though they have kept hold of Cesc Fàbregas they still lack the leadership and know-how of Wenger’s previous title winning teams. The purists would love them to be crowned champions but they lack a steely resolve to beat the very best.

Preseason predictions and Premier League discussions never seem to veer far away from Manchester City. Few seem to be tipping them for the title but there are plenty predicting they can break into the top four and cause serious problems for the very best. I am among the believers. They have surpassed Aston Villa and Everton (taking some of their best players in the process) and now they have bigger fish to fry. City simply have too much money and too much talent to miss out on the Champions League again. After missing out on Kaka, Roberto Mancini has rightly targeted the next tier of quality players. Jérôme Boateng, Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov are all young talents with blossoming reputations. Yaya Touré and David Silva, along with Balotelli, have been around extremely successful teams and know what it takes to win trophies. Time will be the biggest obstacle in Mancini’s path because it is a luxury he isn’t afforded. The owners have proved they are willing to pull the trigger quickly and Mancini needs to make sure he’s in prime position by Christmas or he could endure the same fate as Mark Hughes.

Mancini and Mario are back together again

EUROPA LEAGUE = LIVERPOOL, TOTTENHAM, EVERTON

Liverpool will be better under Roy Hodgson but this may be more of a rebuilding year as Hodgson clears the deadwood. Spurs have done little to improve on last year’s team and you have to think City will overtake them particularly with Tottenham enjoying Champions League football and all its trimmings. Everton could do even better than 7th with Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka back this year. Goals may be a problem though, Louis Saha has persistent injury problems, Yakubu blows hot and cold and I’m not sure Jermaine Beckford is Premier League quality. The uncertainty of both player personnel and the next managerial appointment at Aston Villa should result in a drop in performance.

SURPRISE PACKAGE = BOLTON WANDERERS 

Bolton are always a tricky team to beat and they have a good nucleus. Jussi Jääskeläinen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies represent a strong core and manager Owen Coyle looks destined for big things. Matthew Taylor had a superb season last year and the free signing of Martin Petrov adds some real creativity and an attacking threat. There’s little chance Bolton can achieve European qualification but a top half finish looks very achievable. Of the group of those who dodged relegation last season they look most likely to make the next step up. Coyle is certainly a shrewd operator and I believe Petrov could well go on to be the best bit of business a Premier League side did this summer.

RELEGATION = BLACKPOOL, WEST BROM, WIGAN

The critics are unanimous in their belief that Blackpool are merely on a sight-seeing tour of the top tier. Some sides, like Hull and Wigan, have stayed up and defied the odds but Blackpool’s squad possesses no Premier League experience (excluding Jason Euell) and their manager is a novice here too. Ian Holloway will ensure they are plucky and fight in each game but I don’t expect them to spring any surprises.

Playing great football and earning all the plaudits, West Brom will lure us all into a sense of déjà vu as they head straight back down again. Roberto Di Matteo’s squad is packed full of players who look like world beaters in the Championship but fail to make the step up. It would be nice to see them buck the trend but they are still miles behind West Ham, Fulham and Birmingham and Mick McCarthy has enough knowledge of relegation dog fights to ensure Wolves don’t get dragged under again this time around. Once again West Brom will live up to their yo-yo tag and cash in those all too familiar parachute payments. Of course they’ll be back in 12 months with the same crop of players, the same style and the same results.

Wigan really look like relegation fodder this time around. I stated last year that I believed they would be one of the more fascinating teams to watch due to Roberto Martínez’s arrival. Wigan over-performed under Steve Bruce and without Amr Zaki, Antonio Valencia, Emily Heskey and Wilson Palacios; I thought Martínez faced an uphill struggle. He did well to keep the team up but they were wildly unpredictable. They lost 9-1 to Spurs, 8-0 to Chelsea and 5-0 to United despite beating Arsenal and Chelsea at home. They also had the worst defensive record of a team ever to stay up in the Premier League. Had it not been for Portsmouth’s financial issues they may well have joined Burnley and Hull City in the Championship this year. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have more foreigners in their squad than Wigan right now, an issue they must resolve before September swings around. Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner, both regulars last term, are gone. Meanwhile Charles N’Zogbia has applied the stamp and is licking the envelope which contains his transfer request. Even if they manage to keep hold of Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa, they look likely to drop out of the league.

So there you have it, my tips for the top, the bottom and the surprising package in-between. It’s always interesting to see just how wrong you are when May comes around and these predictions make you look rather foolish. So I’m off to put money on Wigan sneaking a Europa League place and Bolton imploding on their way to the Championship. There’s nothing quite like hedging your bets.

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