Saturday, July 17, 2010

Origin....Does it matter to you?

For many years, the great North v South rivalry has been ongoing. Stereo types like ‘Southern softies’ and ‘shandy drinkers’ have been the comeback to endless amounts of abuse aimed at the ‘rough arse’ northerners who don’t wash and still wear flat caps and walk whippits.

Of course, most of it is said in jest and is a way of entering into friendly banter with people from differing regions of England. I used to think that things were no different in Australia. That is until I started to learn more about the rugby league tradition that is ‘State of Origin’. It is quite simply awesome.

Rugby league in itself, has grown on me. It’s a working class game with real men trading hit after hit, but never getting out of control. The players show absolute respect for the game and the officials (similar to pretty much every sport barring football) and it’s a great spectator experience. The NRL(National Rugby League) is a brilliant product, and is only surpassed by the Barclays Premier League for it’s excitement.

State of Origin is more than that though. It involves the best players that were born in New South Wales state taking on their Queensland counterparts in a three match series over nine weeks. Game one is usually in Sydney (NSW), then it’s up to Brisbane (QLD) for the Game two and back down to Sydney for the third (although it has in the past been taken to a neutral venue and the NRL are trying to do this on a regular basis.). NSW is the real heart of NRL as out of the sixteen teams in the league, ten are from that area.

So you can imagine the humiliation that residents of NSW are experiencing at the moment, having just lost a record fifth series in a row. The Telegraph newspaper declared ‘This is what it feels like to be dead’. They are devastated by the state of affairs.

The games themselves, are quicker and more intense than anything that you see week in week out in the NRL. Far more passion too it seems. It’s defending the honour of your state. Fighting for your people. And it usually boils over into brawls and scrapes. Brilliant to watch. And the best thing is that the fighting is completely confined to the pitch. Fans of both sides can sit side by side and take the piss out of each other without any aggro. It really is quite refreshing.

It got me to thinking of whether it could work in England. The North of England v South of England based on where the players were born or raised. Obviously the fact that players are on such high salaries that clubs would refuse to allow the players to play. So it’s all hypothetical. The fact is that within two minutes of me bringing the topic up with a couple of fellow ‘poms’ we were at war as to who would win.

Where is the line that divides us? Birmingham? Where would it be played? Who would pick the teams? Would anybody care?

All these questions were raised when ‘Origin’ was first talked about over thirty years ago. And now it’s THE event of the Rugby League calendar. Ahead of international tournaments and domestic honours. I’d love to see it introduced back home and whilst I can’t argue that the South would have the better team on paper…… I just think that ‘good old northern grit’ might prevail.

What do you think?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Salary cap, anyone?

With the current situation in English football being that the Premier League seems to split into a top tier and the also-rans, I would like to raise a notion that I have become all too familiar with during my time in Australia. A salary cap.

Now I’m not saying for one second that I believe it will or should happen. All I intend to do is to put forward a case so that people can see both sides of the argument.

The salary cap, in effect, is the best way to get everybody playing on a level playing field. It will benefit the league as a competition and also reward shrewd management and superior coaching.

In Australia, the best example of the cap is in the NRL (National Rugby League). Each club has got a budget of $4.2m per season to spend on it’s squad. If you averaged it out over a 25 man squad, it equates to around $160,000 per man.

Of course, that is never going to happen. Most of the NRL clubs will target two or three of the top players as ‘marquee’ players and bolster the rest of the squad with solid, if unspectacular squad players. Brisbane Broncos for example, boast Darren Lockyer and Israel Folau in their ranks and both command well over $350,000 per year each. The rest of their squad are paid accordingly.

The cap, in my opinion, benefits the NRL in three ways.

Firstly, that every club at the start of the season genuinely believes that they have a chance to win the league. Obviously it doesn’t often happen, but they are not facing financial barriers like the lesser clubs in England do every August when the Premier League kicks off. There is no target of simply surviving. Everybody sets off with a fairly realistic aim of competing for the main prize.

More importantly, the fans have these expectations too. Can you imagine a Blackpool fan this year thinking that a top four finish is not out of the question? No……That’s because it is so far out of the question, that I’m sorry I brought it up! Not in NRL. In fact, last year’s ‘Wooden spoon’ side (Sydney Roosters) enjoyed a superb start to the season, and are genuine contenders for a finals place.

The second benefit to the NRL is almost a contradiction to the first point. In as much as that, by taking my first point literally, you would think that the league table completely changes from year to year. It doesn’t. And this is one of the reasons that I believe a salary cap ‘could’ work in the Premier League.

The same teams are usually at the top of the table come the end of the season every year. Not because of the financial power, but because the best coaches (managers if you like) usually get the best results. It’s no surprise that St. George Illawara are currently the top dogs in NRL. Their head coach, Wayne Bennett won 6 Premierships with Brisbane Broncos, before moving on to start another dynasty in Sydney. Another top coach is Craig Bellamy (not the hideous Welshman, this one is a hideous Australian) and his Melbourne storm side have won three out of the last five Premierships.

Top coaches win things. The world over. That’s why they get the best jobs. That won’t change. Nor will the fact that the top players will also want to play for the top clubs. Clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal will still attract the better players. Only this way, the ‘smaller’ clubs will have a chance to outbid them and create their own squad to challenge the elite.

Finally, the financial management of clubs will almost become as important as the coaching. Never before will ‘balancing the books’ have been more important. Decisions are often made in the NRL where top players are forced to move on due to the cap. Imagine the scenario…..Chelsea need to bring in a couple of players but in order to do so, must let Didier Drogba go to free up the cash to do it. Decisions must be made on what best suits the club, the coach and the squad.

To be honest, when I first came out here, I wasn’t a fan of the system. But having seen the amount of top players playing for the less fashionable clubs, I think it’s an idea that is certainly worth looking at.

Obviously the size of the cap would be far, far higher than that of the NRL. And another major stumbling block would be the fact that unless the Italian and Spanish leagues followed suit, that the best players would move on to foreign clubs and that the likes of United, Chelsea and now City would move to speeden up the inevitable European League.

Like I said at the start, it’s not what I believe to be ‘the answer’. But I genuinely think that if the rules were ironed out properly, it can work in some small way to stop the likes of Manchester City throwing their considerable financial weight about to buy the League and Europe. United and Chelsea have done it down the years and now City look like taking the next step.

One such rule could involve any home-grown players being exempt from the cap. Meaning that if Wayne Rooney had come through the junior ranks at Everton, they would not be restricted in terms of what they could offer him. Therefore, he may have never left the club he supported as a boy. One can only imagine the side that West Ham could have today had such a ruling been in place years ago.

So another benefit is producing your own talent. Put the work in with a kid when he is learning the game and you will reap the rewards years down the line.

Anyway, I hope you have found these points interesting…….if not perhaps a tad unrealistic.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Real-life Losers Make Worthy Winners

Chelsea completed an historic victory on Saturday to land the first League and FA Cup double in the club’s history. And only the most biased supporters of other clubs could argue that they fully merit the label ‘Champions of England’.

Their efficiency, power and strength throughout the entire squad must surely be viewed enviously from the north of London, where Monsieur Wenger’s brittle yet skilful adolescents once again lick their wounds after yet another trophy-less season. I see Wenger as a wily old lion who is no longer the top cat, and all he can do is watch from afar, waiting to see if any scraps are left by the more dominant cats after a kill.

This year’s scraps went to Manchester United, but the League cup is not enough to satisfy the belly of a club the size of United. Their fans, deep down, realise that, had the unthinkable happened on the last day of the season and Wigan had managed to secure a fourth successive title for the Old Trafford club, it would have been the most unwarranted of all of Sir Alex Ferguson’s league titles.

Quite simply put, Chelsea are the best team in England.

On the pitch.

Off it, they have to be the most disliked champions on record. From the very top to the very bottom. Their owner, Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich is about as likeable as a bout of swine flu. Who can honestly say that they don’t love watching the now annual ‘Chelsea out of europe’ party and seeing Abramovich looking like a young child who didn’t get what he asked Santa for? Priceless.

They have even managed to turn Ray Wilkins from a ‘thoroughly nice chap’ that used to accompany messrs Souness, Gullitt, Redknapp Jnr and Keys on a Wednesday night in the Sky studios, to star as the modern day version of Phil Neal’s perfect portrayal of ‘Yes man’ (it should be said that Neal’s performance was far more compelling however).

Next on the list is none other than Captain Bullshit himself….John Terry. Or JT as he prefers to be known. Just Terrible……as a human being, a husband and a friend.

Fortunately for Terry, he is a very good footballer as he has nothing else going for him. From his ‘bastard’ haircut to his notion that pulling socks above your knees as a central defender is a good thing, the guy has got no class.

The whole Wayne Bridge saga is even more alarming when you consider two things. Firstly, that Bridge was his best friend (and the two couples used to holiday together) and secondly that Terry is alleged to have told close pals just hours before his meeting with Fabio Capello regarding the captaincy that ‘it’ll be a slap on the wrist and I’ll still be captain tonight’. No John, you won’t be. You are a twat.

Which brings us swiftly on to his partner in cwime…..Fwank Lampard. Do we really need to see the pair of them hugging each other without their shirts on any more? Now that Lampard’s wife has left him, I suppose the feeling of a large mammary rubbing up against his chest is a comfort thing. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t have cheated on his wife and child. Of course, that doesn’t concern Fwank…. As long as he can shoot from 40 yards and then catch a glimpse of himself on the big screen at Stamford Bridge to see the replay, he is fine.

Ashley Cole…… What were you thinking? Not once, but five times (that we know about). You had one of Britain’s most attractive girls as your wife (albeit with the most annoying accent on record), yet chose to jump onto the nearest mobile phone – literally (allegedly) and cavort with a hairdresser from the local shops, a female bus driver and three other wannabe WAG’s. Never the most likeable to start with, Ashley was given the chance to redeem his public image with an interview before the FA Cup final last week. When asked what would mean more to him ‘World cup with England or Double with Chelsea?’, he claimed that domestic honours mean more to him than winning the biggest prize in football. Just another reason why nobody likes you mate.

Didier Drogba is a fabulous footballer. One of the best all round centre forwards I’ve seen in real life. But he feels the need to throw himself to the floor at the slightest hint that somebody is going to touch him. And always rolls about. His disgraceful on-screen rant last year after the unjust but hugely enjoyable Champions League semi final just about summed him up. A total berk.

I’ll finish off with Joe Cole. I don’t think Cole is as disliked as the others mentioned, but he should be. The horrible little pikey shit is a scumbag just like JT. Brought up in the east end, he should be thankful to football for robbing him the chance to walk the streets of Peckham all day with a suitcase full of hookie gear and an almost certain ‘scruffy tash’. Every time I look at the lad, I just want somebody to give him a bloody good wash. He is disgusting.

That being said, Chelsea are a great football team and I take my hat off to them for this season’s achievements. I’m hoping that the English contingent take their form into the World cup with them…….but I highly doubt it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Will Fabio make a 'Bent' decision?

So Fabio Capello has named his provisional squad of 30 for this year’s World Cup after weeks of speculation. Most of which has eminated from the red and white striped section of the north east of England, with the locals all clamouring for the inclusion of a certain Darren Bent (or ‘The scorer of Sunderland’s first goal…..Daaaarrrrreeeen Beeennnnt! as he is often announced on a Saturday afternoon).

There is no questioning Bent’s goalscoring credentials. In no way, shape or form can this season be put down as a ‘one off’. Bent has been putting the ball into the back of opposition nets for several years now without any real recognition at the highest level. Five appearances (only two starts) have yielded no goals and no indication of him re-producing his club form in an England shirt.

It has encouraged his ‘followers’ on the terraces and also social networking sites, to bleat and moan that his limited chances are purely down to him not playing for a more established Premier League club. ‘It was the same with Kevin Phillips’ they’ll say or ‘Capello doesn’t go north of London’.

The real problem that Bent has got is his style of play. His hold up play is decent, but no better than that. His big asset is his ability to get beyond the last man and finish chances. Unfortunately, these chances don’t come along too often in International football. So to be a success in International football, a forward must tick more than one or two boxes. He needs to tick several more.

Better forwards than Darren Bent have been overlooked down the years. Robbie Fowler and Andrew Cole to name two. They may have been involved in more squads and played a few more games, but in reality they were never considered to be genuine contenders when the big tournaments rolled around.

Having thought about Bent’s success in recent years, most of his goals have come with him playing in teams that play around to his strengths and he has been a focal point for these sides with lesser players in their ranks. I’m afraid that this is not going to happen for England.

Wayne Rooney is England’s focal point. And a world class one at that. Jermaine Defoe gives a more potent threat in and around a target man than Bent does. Both Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey are target men that England have used to great effect in recent times. These four reasons, along with Theo Walcott’s seemingly uncanny hold over all England managers will put an end to Bent’s hopes of boarding the plane to South Africa.

I won’t lose any sleep over it, and I don’t think Sunderland fans should either. Bent will be fresh at the start of another huge season for the club having had the summer off and one can only imagine he will come roaring back with a point to prove to the national selection committee.

For his efforts this season, he deserves to be in the final 23…….but in harsh reality of what is best for the national side, he simply doesn’t quite have that extra special something that is needed for the top level.

Along came Terry

I’ll never forget the summer of the 93-94 season. It is probably, more than anything else, the period that prepared me, and countless other teens for the years to come. The false dawns. The fading hope. The horrendous away performances that would become only too familiar.

It had been a couple of years since my father had passed away and being at that awful age when the last thing you want is to be considered ‘different’ by your peers, I was experiencing a lot of problems at school. Nobody knew really, apart from my family. I didn’t talk about the tremendous sense of loss that I’d suffered or how affected I was. But the problem was there.

Counselling didn’t cut it. Nor did the unconditional love and support from my family. I was lost and it was not uncommon for me to cry myself to sleep. I needed something to cling to. A focus. A distraction from my painful existence.

And then along came Terry.

Butcher that is. Having signed for Sunderland under the reign of Malcolm Crosby, he was appointed to replace the permed one in February 93 (after a month or two of the most cringe-worthy antics ever seen – waving and getting the crowd going after games) and was in charge as we stumbled to safety that season.

But the pre-season that followed was what I needed. The expectation that things were going to be different. Butcher brought in new signings and a new backroom staff. It seemed that all Butcher needed was a clean slate. A summer to get his own boys in and start building an empire. A new target every night in the Echo and for once, no mention of Iain Wilson, the swimmer who for years had taken up the back pages ahead of transfer speculation!

I threw myself into football….and all things Sunderland AFC. Every day of the school holidays started with an alarm to wake me nice and early. I’d get my paper round out of the way (after a thorough check of all the tabloids for SAFC related news) and then head home to prepare for the next, and most important part of the day.

Myself, Michael, Johnson and James would meet on Sea Road and get on the number 6 ‘Catch-a-bus’ service to South Shields. It took just ten minutes and cost only 15p. We would then exit the bus in a council estate in Whitburn and make the sometimes frightening walk to The Charlie Hurley centre to watch our heroes train. Michael, being a couple of years older, would often try to mingle with the old blokes to obtain news or rumour regarding transfers. Back then, rumour was enough to keep you going for a good week or so.

Myself, Johnson and James would wait patiently for news whilst watching messrs Ball, Goodman, Rogan and co. perform their magic just a few yards away from us.

All the noises Butcher made were positive. His signings even more so. Phil Gray, in particular had been attracting numerous top-flight clubs thanks to his impressive form for Luton Town. Midfield playmaker Derek Ferguson, of whom his agent said ‘In two years time, Derek will make Sunderland a healthy profit’ turned heads north of the border when he signed from Hearts. Highly rated centre back, Andy Melville from Oxford Utd was another that was courted by many but chose Butcher’s revolution. Things were looking good.

The free transfer signing of Alec Chamberlain to replace the ageing Tony Norman was also thought to be a shrewd move and snapping up Ian Rodgerson on a tribunal from Birmingham City was considered ‘great business’ by coach Iain Atkins who said that Rodgerson was the ‘best crosser in the league’.

Everything was heading in the right direction. Sunderland were back. And Championship Manager had just become a huge part of our lives. Straight from training to Michael and James’ house to spend roughly eight hours pretending to be a transfer maestro like Butcher. Happy days.

Then, on the eve of the season that promised so much…..Derek Ferguson managed to mistake Sunderland for the United States of America and drove his car around a round-a-bout the wrong way, causing a nasty crash. The main problem being that four of Butcher’s five summer signings were in his car at the time. Phil Gray and Ian Rodgerson would not play for months (Rodgerson seemingly losing the ability to cross a ball as well) and Butcher’s plans left in tatters as Lee Howey and Shaun Cunnington were required to stay in the side.

Things didn’t really pick up again after that incident, and Butcher was relieved of his duties later that year with the club once again battling relegation in the second tier of English football. A far cry from the expectation of the summer, when it seemed that the Premier League was only a year away.

It would be fair to say that the summer of 93 helped me to cope with my dad’s passing as it gave me optimism and something to focus my passion on. Something that I had not had in the year or so before. So for that, Terry, I have two words for you. Thank you.

For Ian Rodgerson and Derek Ferguson…..I have another two.

The Unacceptables

So it’s 4am in the morning and jet lag has kicked in. My recent trip back home (as good as it was to see family and friends), has now got me wide-eyed and restless. It’s also got me thinking nostalgically. To be more specific, it’s got me thinking of the players down the years that for some reason, no matter what they did, how hard they tried and how much effort they put in for the club and it’s supporters…. They were simply not accepted.

Being 31yrs old, my regular attendance at Roker Park began about 23 years ago and coincided with the tail end of a relegation season under Lawrie MacMenemy and the birth of a cult hero the following season when Marco Gabbiadini fired the club out of the third tier of English football. Of course, Marco wasn’t the only reason we bounced back that year. Denis smith had put together a very good side, albeit in a poor division. That side contained the first of my ‘Unacceptables’ list.

Gordon Armstrong was a lad who came through the youth team at Sunderland and who was never shown any love at all by the fans. He managed to play just under 400 games for the club under seven different managers and seemingly always one of the first names on the team sheet. He always gave 100% for his boyhood idols so why was he often castigated by the Roker faithful? Maybe it was his Tyneside roots or simply his shit perm that infuriated us? His uncanny knack of hitting the wall with every free kick he ever took? Or possibly…and this used to irk me…the notion that he was a long throw specialist? Now for those readers too young to remember anything pre-Delap, Armstrong would often run forty yards to take a throw in as if it was a secret weapon. It wasn’t. He barely got it over the 18yd box!

Regardless of all these small irritations (the perm being by far the worst), I’d like to think that the fans can look back in hindsight with a tinge of regret for the utter contempt that we showed to a lad, desperate to do well for the club he loved. I know I do. And let’s face it, who can forget ‘that’ header in 1992.

Armstrong’s presence at the club protected some awful footballers (in profession only) from being the ‘pantomime villains’ for years. And I hope that Paul Lemon, John Cornforth and Tony Cullen give Gordon an annual phone call to thank him for taking the brunt for their undoubted high levels of shite.

The next ‘Unacceptable’ is someone who, like Armstrong, never gave anything less than 100% for the club but who never the less was abused from all and sundry every time he crossed the white line. I think it’s fair to say that Kevin Kilbane’s signing was largely well received when he made the move from West Bromwich Albion for 2.5million in December 99’. We were flying high in the Premier League under Peter Reid and on the crest of a wave. His past performances against us had been quality and he seemed a perfect replacement for the out of favour Allan Johnston down the left hand side. And all looked rosy when Kilbane crossed for Kevin Phillips on debut to seal a comfortable 2-0 win at home to Southampton.

Unfortunately for everyone though, that would be Sunderland’s last win for 3 months as we went on a terrible run that would see us slide slowly down the table. Kilbane was quickly singled out as the reason for the downturn in fortunes and he never recovered from it. By all accounts, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, maybe ‘Killa’ was too nice and his confidence was shot. You could see it in his play. Afraid to try and beat a man and always opting for the easy ball back to Micky Gray. Despite his lack of confidence, he worked tirelessly up and down the left hand side and was a real team player during the two years that followed when things went from bad to worse as Howard Wilkinson and latterly Mick McCarthy took us down with just 19 points. Quite often during that time, Kilbane was Sunderland’s best player but the locals wouldn’t see it. They just didn’t like him. And that was that.

His days were numbered when, on a pre season match against KAA Gent, the abuse got too much for quiet Kevin and he flicked the V’ sign to the loyal lads and lasses who’d made the trip to Belgium.

Although he never handed a transfer request in, he ended up moving to Everton in the summer of 2003 and managed to play over 100 times for the Toffees before moving to Wigan and more recently Hull City.

I’ll always remember Kilbane for being a hard working and honest lad during his time at Sunderland. Sure, he wasn’t a world beater, but he always did his best and even if that was sometimes not great…. It’s good enough for me.

And to the final ‘Unnaceptable’.(I can think of many more, but this jet lag thing is wearing out and I could quite fancy an hour’s kip). I’m going to go with the a current example. George McCartney.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the fans never took to George in his first spell. That may sound silly when you consider he won a Supporter’s vote for Player of the Year 04/05. What I mean is that he was never one of the players who was fans cheered loudly for when his name was read out before a game, or chanted about etc. He was just a solid and consistent performer that fans took for granted. His transfer to West Ham was a bit of a shock, having missed the majority of the 15 point season, but proof nonetheless that McCartney was a Premier League player that was sorely missed that season. He went on to come runner up for West Ham’s player of the year award and was OPTA’s 3rd best full back in the Premier league, behind Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole.

Since his return however, he has been made a scapegoat for some poor team performances. I had an argument with one lad in a bar in Brisbane this year about him. ‘McCartney…Ya shite!’ he shouted at the big screen following a McCartney cross had been deflected for a corner. I asked him how he’s come to that conclusion. He told me that whilst defensively, George was reliable and solid, he is useless in the final third. Me personally, I’ll take a full back like that all day.