Monday, 30 September 2013

Patience Pays Off For Young Duo

Sam Winter hails the patience of Paul Dummett and Sammy Ameobi after the young duo make their mark against Leeds United in the Capital One Cup.

Newcastle United’s 4th round victory over Leeds in the Capital One Cup was notable for a few reasons. A comfortable second-gear win, the game highlighted the squad’s strength in depth if there is a clean bill of health and also saw a much needed notch for goal-shy Papiss Cisse. The most prominent of notable talking points however was the inclusion and performances of two academy graduates who excelled down the left flank at St James’ Park.

In it together: Ameobi and Dummett are emerging at the right time for Newcastle United

Paul Dummett and Sammy Ameobi have been at the club since they were 9 and 14 years old respectively and on Wednesday night showed that they deserve as much as anyone to be vying for places with the more established foreign imports on Tyneside. They slotted in so comfortably alongside the likes of Coloccini, Tiote, and Cisse, and looked like they belonged. There were no moments of inexperience, no questions about their ability or temperament; but stand-out performances in the black and white. Dummett’s perfectly weighted clip down the line and Ameobi’s steaming run and pin-point effortless cross, which Papiss Cisse merely had to walk into to score, was a truly brilliant combination. Ameobi later provided Yoan Gouffran with the platform to superbly add a second but it was the way the two Geordie lads combined down the left all game that was most refreshing. They made Newcastle’s left side the driving force, the creative zone in the assault on the Leeds penalty area. They combined, lapped and overlapped and gave the opposition a torrid first half in particular. Once the result was sealed they showed composure and experience beyond their years to help see out the comfortable 90 minutes.
On a plate: Work from Dummett and Ameobi made Cisse's life easy against Leeds

Too Small a Production Line

To see the two local lads interlink how they did gives real hope to young Newcastle hopefuls who dream of running out at St James’ Park. Newcastle United has been famed for too few top class local players such as Beardsley, Gascoigne, and Shearer (who took the long way round to make it for Newcastle). Of course Tim Krul’s rise has been impressive and well nurtured but the Dutchman is only an adopted Geordie. Only Steven Taylor, Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi (Nigerian birth, I know) have really made it for United in the last 10/12 years as local lads. At 22 years old Dummett’s emergence is perhaps late when you consider that most potential stars are in and around the first team at 18-20 years old in the modern game. If they haven’t made the grade in their teens many are cut loose, or sever the ties themselves so it is somewhat of a relief to see Paul backed by Alan Pardew, and by himself, to eventually make his dreams come true. It shows any youngster in the academy that they can make it themselves; that the hard-work, determination, and use of the loan system, can also get them to the first team picture. Dummett’s patience has been rewarded, and in Pardew Newcastle have a manager who will put faith in the young players if they really strive for it. He has waxed lyrical about Dummett and Ameobi, stressing how there is always a way to the Newcastle first team.
Newcastle have failed to produce more of the likes of Gascoigne and Beardsley

In Sammy Ameobi’s case, the game against Leeds saw a different, developed player that has previously run out at St James’ in the last couple of seasons. Sammy’s directness in the modern technical game was a breath of fresh air when he first appeared, however it was soon apparent that his inexperience was holding him back. I would find myself groaning and bemoaning as Sammy ran down the line until he was tackled or, as I noticed all too often last season before his loan to Middlesbrough, until he himself ran the ball out of play! The lad was too eager to impress in a league where young players don’t get too many chances. He needed to learn when to run with the ball, when to hold back, when to pass, and when to put in that killer ball. Against Leeds United Sammy Ameobi did all of that. He looked like he had come on leaps and bounds and become that player, a player good enough to challenge and overtake the likes of Marveaux and Jonas for first team places.
Sammy Ameobi has come a long way since his debut in 2011

No More "Geordie 11"

The performances of Dummett and Ameobi were much needed in the wake of criticism from FA Chairman Greg Dyke. Dyke blasted Newcastle when referring to the overload of foreign players in the Premier League. I remember tutting and condemning when Arsenal fielded the first all-foreign starting eleven a few years back yet my own team followed suit in the 2-1 victory at Aston Villa earlier this season. Sir John Hall’s vision of “11 Geordies” couldn’t have been further from possible on that day. The leagues over-reliance on foreign players has caused an English decline. The financial implications of each and every league position (particularly the bottom three) has created a fear in football clubs who will spend money on so called “internationals” from all over the world to keep them afloat rather than use their own produce. Only Aston Villa and Southampton have recently really relied on home-grown; a gamble that eventually paid off for Villa last season. Buying from Europe and overseas is also more cost effective, as Newcastle’s French Revolution will testify, and those precarious English talents that remain subsequently have their price tags severely inflated. As a Newcastle fan I sit back and am disappointed about our lack of British players, let alone Geordies. But when it comes down to it, when you need to throw on a Marveaux or a Sammy Ameobi to save a game, I admit that I would plump for the “established” foreign player over the young English hopeful. And that, sadly, is the nature of the Premier League now with so much at stake.
FA blast: Greg Dyke highlighted the plight of English players recently

An Example to Follow

“You’ll win nothing with kids” once declared that Scottish crooner Hansen. Seemingly only Sir Alex Ferguson disagreed with him, which is rather baffling considering how it worked out for him. Many will cite Manchester United’s class of 1992 and will say it will never happen again. But it’s only the nature of modern day football in England that would prevent a repeat. Granted, they were a talented bunch individually but it was the work-ethic and team spirit instilled in them that nurtured their ability. Foreign player limits in Europe also helped, Gary Neville was playing Champions League at 18, and there’s no coincidence that the class of ’92 were in the thick of it in 1999. It’s a rightly celebrated group yet there’s no reason why it couldn’t have happened again elsewhere. Those Manchester United players went right through the ranks together, a togetherness that could aid Dummett and Ameobi at Newcastle. It wasn’t just Paul Dummett in the team with the senior stars, his academy pal Sammy was there alongside him. Granted it’s not quite Neville and Beckham just yet but by forming a relationship in one area of the pitch with another young player (and they certainly have an effective one already) can have a real positive effect on their development. There was a trust between the two, an understanding, and a confidence of having each other. They’re not in there alone, one young star among a team of established seniors. They can progress as a pair. It certainly helps that they play down the same side as two left-footers.
Beckham and Neville could be examples for Ameobi and Dummett to follow

Unfortunately TV and media dominance has created a monster in English football, and any hopes of another “Fergie’s Fledglings” or even a “Geordie 11” are virtually non-existent with the current set-up. Modern football with all its glitz and glamour has dangerously created a new type of football apprentice; a young player who strives to have what senior players’ have OFF the pitch rather than ON it. Clarke Carlisle recently revealed his horror as our own Newcastle prospects climbed aboard the team coach will all their gadgets while Peter Beardsley pushed the trolley of dirty laundry. A sad picture to imagine of course, do any of them know that they could never be as good a player as Pedro was? They should be pushing him around in a trolley made of gold. Sadly this is how it is now in football; there’s no boot cleaning anymore as youngsters enjoy a charmed life while their talents often fall by the wayside.
Taking his chance: Paul Dummett has not let youthful talent go to waste

Paul Dummett is somebody who has NOT let his talent fall by the wayside. He’s proven what it’s really all about – hard work. And at 22 years old he’s finally making the grade with his hometown club and on the brink of being an international. Against Manchester City at Eastlands, Mapou Yanga Mbiwa had a torrid time against Jesus Navas but Dummett largely caged the Spaniard in the second half of a forgettable night for Newcastle; underlining his potential. Sammy Ameobi admitted his failings last year; he wasn’t stubborn or defensive as he recognised that he needed to work harder. Now he, Newcastle United, and England U21’s, are beginning to reap the rewards. He has been the driving force in both Capital One Cup successes with a goal at Morecombe to boot. Newcastle fans have only had Andy Carroll, Shola, and Steven Taylor to be proud of (from a local perspective) in the last 10 years but I really feel that Paul Dummett and Sammy Ameobi can make the grade and live every Geordies dream of running out in the black and white every other week at St James’ Park. Hopefully their performances against Leeds will lead to more opportunities in the Premier League and come May we will be celebrating a successful season for the Academy duo.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Day from Hull: What a Difference Five Years Makes.

As Newcastle United prepare to welcome Hull City back to St James’ Park in the Premier League for the first time since a poignantly fateful clash in September 2008, Sam Winter discusses how life has changed on Tyneside since Marlon King sank the Toon Army that day.

Cockney Mafia Out. Derek Llambias sat alone in the Director’s seats as the rage of a Geordie Nation rained down from the stands at St James’ Park. Mike Ashley and Dennis Wise were unsurprisingly absent. King Kevin had gone, although as I walked up to Gallowgate with thousands of fellow supporters that afternoon there was a faint hope that all might not be lost, that the “Geordie Messiah” may well have been persuaded to reverse his resignation. What was certain as I took my seat that day was that relations between the fans and Mike Ashley’s regime were well and truly broken. The man who had delighted Tyneside with a takeover, stood with fans on away days, picked up bar tabs in town, and quite amazingly appointed Keegan as manager once more, was now well and truly public enemy number one. His sidekick Dennis Wise was brought in over Keegan’s head to oversee a disastrous transfer window and it was the beginning of the end for Newcastle United in the Premier League. As the teams walked out onto the pitch on the 13th September 2008 it was immediately clear that the football played would be a mere sideshow as St James’ Park showed an unwavering support for Keegan, and a united stand against Mike Ashley. As the banner made its way round the ground and resolutely faced the empty directors area the whole ground stood and applauded. The match didn't matter, this is our club. Newcastle players were completely dumbfounded by the off-field events, Hull won a woeful encounter 2-1 and Newcastle United were relegated at the end of the season; ironically a point behind the Tigers.
Events on the pitch on 13th September 2008 were a mere sideshow to a greater battle

Fast-forward to 2013 and Tyneside is once again at odds with Mike Ashley, something I never thought would be apparent as I exited St James’ Park five years previous. However this time the frustration comes on the back of Newcastle being unable to follow up on an outstanding 5th place finish in the 2011/12 Premier League season. In three seasons Newcastle had gone from Championship relegation favourites to the cusp of the Champions League and the biggest surprise of all was that Mike Ashley oversaw the entire renaissance. A complex and silent figure to say the least, Ashley still manages to make almost ridiculous headlines. You only need to mention the letters JFK to understand exactly what I refer to. The Sports Direct Arena, Wonga, Chris Hughton, and Joey Barton - the owner has continued to make the headlines seemingly all about him; and continued to painfully irate the loyal support of Newcastle United. People may hate him (and I give any praise through gritted teeth) but few can deny what Ashley has done for the club, the Londoner has effectively saved Newcastle United financially and made it one of the surest, most stable football clubs in Europe. Fans will never have to worry about the threat of liquidation or debt; Newcastle United’s foundations are forever steadfast under this owner. Exciting players have been brought in under the radar, taking the club forward on the pitch and back into Europe. There’s no doubt the club is now in great shape, but the owner is still as unpopular as that September afternoon in 2008.
Complex figure: 5 years on Ashley remains on Tyneside, popularity still desperately low

Rising From the Ashes

I remember standing on the platform at Newcastle Central Station as a 0-0 draw at home to Portsmouth had slid Newcastle dangerously closer to the relegation trap door in 2009. I phoned my father and uttered the once unthinkable words, “we need to be relegated…we need to start again”. By all means I didn't really want us to go down, the day we did was as painful as any bad day I've ever experienced, but I knew deep down that the only way Newcastle United could become great again was by starting over. I never would have thought that Mike Ashley would be at the helm when we rose again though. An unsuccessful sale pitch to local businessman Barry Moat ensued before the subsequent Championship campaign; Ashley having put the club up for sale at supporters’ “requests”. Newcastle fans were in disarray, awaiting an appointment of Alan Shearer that never came, and the players were embarrassed 6-1 at Leyton Orient in pre-season. My vision of us starting over was crumbling before a competitive ball was kicked. Ashley stayed aboard though, and poured another £20 million into the club to fund a swift return to the Premier League. The likes of Kevin Nolan, Steve Harper, Alan Smith, and Joey Barton grabbed the playing staff by the scruff of the neck and stormed to the Championship title. Suddenly it was fantastic again, 100+ points and a St James’ Park fortress; high earning footballers sweating blood for the shirt – for the fans. Tyneside will never forget the impact of players like Nolan and Barton (you only had to be at Steve Harper’s charity game last week to appreciate that) or the dignified Chris Hughton. They avoided the off-field circus and did the business where it mattered, and they take huge credit for where the club finds itself now in 2013.

Swift return: Newcastle players and staff galvanised the club and stormed to the Championship title

 Ashley in?

Back in the Premier League in 2010 and suddenly there was no reason to complain, no reason to revolt or backlash against the owner. The team smashed Aston Villa 6-0 and sensationally destroyed 5under1and before stunningly winning at the Emirates. Supporters were in dreamland, team spirit was unshakeable and, most importantly, Mike Ashley was silent and nowhere to be seen. As a Newcastle United fan for 20 years I’ve learnt that trouble seems to always be round the corner when things are going swimmingly, particularly under Mike Ashley. Sure enough just weeks after a wonderful set of results Chris Hughton was sacked. It was disgusting treatment of one of the nicest men to grace the game; not only that but a man who had contributed to reviving the club, a man who simply did not warrant losing his job. Ashley had the footballing world in uproar, Tyneside astonished. I wasn't surprised. The swift appointment of Alan Pardew had alarm bells severely ringing and the “Ashley Out” campaign was back in full swing. Looking back now I feel ashamed to have jumped on the anti-Pardew campaign so quickly but it was impossible not to following Ashley’s reason for sacking Hughton being that he wanted a “big-name” manager. The deadline day sale of Andy Carroll a month later certainly didn’t help the cause yet Pardew led Newcastle to a comfortable mid-table finish that finish and Newcastle sanctioned the arrival of Yohan Cabaye early in the summer under the noses of a host of European clubs. Demba Ba also arrived but as the 2011/12 curtain-raiser drew near, the wheels were threatening to come off again as Jose Enrique and Joey Barton publicly criticised the board in the aftermath of the sale of popular skipper Nolan. Fans were also in disbelief and it was hard to see how the board had any ambition with their actions. Ashley’s staunch determination to stay out of the public eye and explain his decisions only fuelled the frustration. Enrique got his wish and left for Anfield, and Barton didn't get his and was shipped to QPR on a free transfer. In the aftermath of the Barton furore, it was clearer than ever that Mike Ashley wanted full control of all things Newcastle United. You only needed to tune in to Barton’s interview on a QPR radio show to astonishingly hear some unfortunately believable home truths. Ashley didn't appreciate the “players committee” that pushed Newcastle to promotion in 2010, and slowly but surely dismantled them over time. Danny Simpson and Steve Harper have also since departed; two more key figures from that season.

Newcastle impressed back in the big-time, but trouble was always round the corner

Surging Forward, Standing Still

Despite the great worries Newcastle delivered on the pitch in unprecedented fashion; a 5th place finish that could have been as high as 3rd going into the final weekend of 2011/12. Some performances were spectacular; swashbuckling football that Geordies had been craving since Sir Bobby Robson. Sir Alex Ferguson held his hands up as the Champions were crushed 3-0, Didier Drogba left applauding as Papiss Cisse conquered Stamford Bridge. Suddenly Newcastle had a side that could push for the top and a Manager of the Year. The summer transfer window couldn't come quickly enough; Graham Carr the mastermind scout would surely uncover more diamonds. Yet excitement became disappointment as only Vurnon Anita was brought in as a senior player and, with early season injuries in the Europa League, the squad was suddenly far too thin in 2012/13. Ashley had stood still, the worst thing to do on the back of promise, and fans could only watch as the side limped through to the January window. It perhaps highlights a naivety and an unwillingness to part with a transfer kitty on Ashley’s behalf that the owner had transfers lined up for the following summer because they would be free transfers, rather than bringing them in before the disastrous campaign. So in rushed the belated French Revolution in January and their contribution meant Newcastle just about stumbled over the survival line at Loftus Road in May with one game to spare.
Papiss Cisse's arrival and a 5th place finish had fans purring, but disappointment was again all too swift to follow

Now it truly was time to move forward and to not stand still. Surely the owner would learn from his mistakes. Pardew was ready to kick on, Llambias right behind him. All the right noises were being made; two new attackers and a centre half would AT LEAST be heading to Tyneside. But then it happened, right out of the blue in true Mike Ashley style, the excruciatingly embarrassing return of Joe Kinnear as Director of Football. Now this is an example of how I just cannot fathom Mike Ashley’s methods. There is no denying that Ashley is a shrewd businessman (he isn't the 15th richest man in the UK for nothing) and as a business he runs Newcastle United well. But as a football CLUB it just seems to be wave after wave of embarrassment and unwanted headlines for the fans. Ashley knew that Kinnear’s appointment would be catastrophic for supporters but he wanted a “football head” in that role, which makes huge sense. However there are hundreds of other football heads that aren't called Joe Kinnear out there yet he still chose to pick the last man Geordies would have wanted. The fact that Kinnear only managed to bring in Loic Remy this summer compounded the misery, but if Remy stays fit he could be the man to fire the side back into the higher echelons of the Premier League.
Joe Kinnear's arrival was madness, but Loic Remy's could be magical

Method to the Madness?

This madness wasn't unique of course; The Sports Direct Arena was another trying time for supporters. The whole “naming rights” spiel is also logical due to the business-like nature of the modern Premier League, however Ashley did not NEED to change St James’ Park to the name of his own business to attract potential sponsors; Newcastle United can do that by itself. Wonga weren't wooed by the “Sports Direct Arena” when they took on sponsorship, as proved by a swift renaming. Despite popular strategies, Wonga has not been a favourable arrangement with the Newcastle faithful from a rightly ethical perspective. The pay-day lenders may well be the clubs biggest ever partnership but once again a Mike Ashley dealing had brought unwanted headlines and upset to the club.
It is difficult to argue against the idea that Mike Ashley does financially viable dealings, yet makes sure he annoys the Newcastle fans at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, the unpopular but astronomical sale of Andy Carroll has helped the club massively in the long run; and the despairing sale of Kevin Nolan has probably been justified by the acquisition of Yohan Cabaye. But with the Hughton/Pardew drama, the renaming of St James’ Park, Wongagate, and the Joe Kinnear debacle, have all been mind-boggling situations that Ashley has conjured. What makes everything all the more testing is the fact that Mike Ashley does not speak publicly about the club or anything going on at the club, ever. The fact that he never comes out and explains some of these huge decisions when he really should only serves to drive Newcastle supporters even further up the wall. I would say that he does himself no favours by remaining in the shadows, but I am also aware that any public declarations would only appease a section of support. The general consensus is that Mike Ashley will never win over Newcastle United fans and will always get the abuse he has got for five years, so why should he talk? It is perhaps far-fetched to conclude that Mike Ashley uses some sort of hatred of Newcastle supporters to drive his running of the club but IF he did, it perhaps boils down to that afternoon in September 2008 when Hull City visited St James’ Park for the very first time in the Premier League. That day was the beginning of the end for Newcastle United in the top flight, and the end of any friendship between Mike Ashley and the Toon Army.

Much has changed since the last St James' meeting between Newcastle and Hull in the Premier League

Different Ball-Game

What we can conclude however, as Tyneside welcomes back the newly promoted Tigers, is that Newcastle United is a completely different animal in fine shape five years on. There’s no squad disharmony or disillusion, there’s backroom stability, financial security, and a wave of positivity in the aftermath of summer difficulties with promising performance on the pitch. Newcastle go into the game with an opportunity to record three wins on the spin, a fine feat early in the campaign. Fans will swarm to St James’ with optimism and expectancy, not despair and anger. Events on the pitch will be the spectacle, not the sideshow. In 2008 Hull took advantage of a wounded animal, this time they should fear one. And perhaps somewhere, wherever he may be, Mike Ashley will look on proceedings with a wry smile. What a difference five years makes. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Rickie Lambert: Restoring Faith in International Football Since 2013

As Rickie Lambert has emerged from the Football League shadows to lead England's attack in Ukraine, Sam Winter looks at the rise of the working-class striker amidst the decline of International football in England.

As a six year old boy I watched wide-eyed with wonderment as Euro 96 fever erupted over the nation; my earliest memory of a major football tournament being played in front of my eyes on television. I can vividly remember watching each England game unfold; the drama, the passion, and the sheer national spirit. This was a time where International football was completely ingrained in our English national identity, still the ultimate honour for any footballer; European and World victory the pinnacle of sport in this country. Here we had the likes of Adams, Shearer, Seaman, Pearce, Gascoigne, and Platt, belting their hearts out as the National Anthem rang around the old Wembley. Euphoria swept England as Scotland, Netherlands, and Spain were put the sword on a march to the semi-finals. Pride in despair descended as the agonising defeat to Germany was confirmed by the unbearable tension of the penalty shootout. Even as a small child I knew that it didn’t get any bigger than playing for England. Yet 17 years on this notion has all but disappeared from the English game and the national mentality. And now on the eve of a crucial World Cup Qualifier in the Ukraine, as England toil in a group with the hosts and Montenegro, would it even be as great a national disappointment as it should be if the team fail to qualify for the 2014 showpiece in Brazil?

The passion displayed in 1996 is a distant memory compared to modern day England

Great Expectancy, Great Decline 

I’ve watched the importance of the national team diminish over the years since that first international experience. Don’t get me wrong I felt in 1998 and 2000 it still really mattered, as vilification of David Beckham and Phil Neville will testify. England’s failings under Kevin Keegan saw positivity drop significantly and the appointment of a first foreign manager questioned the national team identity. But England hit some “heady” heights under Sven Goran Eriksson; a 5-1 victory in Munich and that David Beckham free-kick, an exemplary qualification record for major tournaments and the emergence of the “Golden Generation”. But the fact that a qualification victory and a last-gasp draw against Greece are the celebrated England games of recent times purely underlines England’s continued failures when it really matters. Of course England have no divine right to win major tournaments, but they’ve certainly wasted golden opportunities. Under Sven, England had a core of players that at the time would have walked into any team in world football: Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney, Owen, Ferdinand. On paper England had a capable tournament-winning side, but when it mattered it was the same old Quarter Final misery as before; England limping out when they could have given so much more.
Media scrutiny and national expectation have never helped the cause; England sides have never been able to handle a tag of being favourites unlike the French and the Spanish in more recent years. The infamous “WAG culture” and managerial misdemeanours overshadowed the 2006 World Cup and the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was disastrous for a nation with the pool of players England possessed at the time. Fabio Capello briefly got pulses racing again ahead of South Africa in 2010 but another abject display left national expectancy and enthusiasm at an all-time low. In my time England had never played so poorly on the big stage and when Euro 2012 came around, there was minimal fanfare surrounding the tournament. Customary flags on cars and houses were gone, nobody expected success and nobody was all that bothered or surprised when the Quarter Final’s beckoned another penalty-shootout exit. And here we are approaching 2014, World Cup Qualification in significant limbo.

England were woeful in 2010, compounding how far they have fallen

 England's Own Worst Enemy

The National decline in international football’s interest has many contributing factors that boil down to a core of English football failings. Failure despite hope and expectancy is admittedly a major cause however the explosion of the Premier League in England is the telling factor for multiple reasons. Unquestionably the Premier League has done wonders for English football since its creation; the style of football played, the personalities, the stadiums, the teams, the drama, and the memories, have all contributed to the Premier League becoming a worldwide attraction. However its growth has tilted England’s international prospects into a dangerous slide. The financial incentive of the Premier League and an obsession with Champions League football has seen club become more powerful than country. Players withdraw from playing for England; retire from England, at the advice of their clubs. Playing for England should be the pinnacle of any footballer’s career in this country, yet it is significantly second fiddle to the Premier League. A staggeringly low total of 32% of players in the Premier League are English in 2013, almost a third of what it was at the leagues introduction. Teams have fielded 10 or 11 foreigners from the start of English league games, and those English talents left have seen their price tags inflated due to their now precious existence. England’s coaching system and grass-roots setup is flawed, and the decline of the British manager in the Premier League has not helped coaching development at the top level. The value placed on the Premier League also effectively blocks hopes of a useful winter break ahead of international tournaments, a break that benefits other major international teams. The FA’s obsession with developing Wembley Stadium, despite the success of the touring England side under Eriksson, is also financially hindering footballing development. England were taking football to the fans before Wembley’s rebuild; all across the nation, and the passion and interest was once again sky high. But with the English game as it is now, particularly with the excitement and importance of the Premier League, it is little wonder that support of the International side is so low from a fans perspective.
The Premier League has caused a Club vs. Country divide that has seen a priority shift for the likes of Rio Ferdinand.

 Rickie Lambert's Football Fairy-Tale

English football has too few fairy-tale moments these days. Wayne Rooney scoring the winner against Arsenal as a 16 year old and then riding his bike round the corner to home is a fairy-tale moment. The lifestyle and fame that is handed to emerging talents in 2013 certainly reduces these moments and thus you cannot particularly blame these youngsters from having a lesser interest in playing for their country, or not singing the words to the national anthem when they do play. It is just how the game they came into is now.
Reading my hand-me-down Roy of the Rovers annuals painted the fairy-tale footballers path for me as a young boy: Grafting through the lower leagues, hitting the big time through sheer performance, and walking out at Wembley and scoring for England. This was certainly the dream of former Stockport County striker Rickie Lambert, and the Liverpudlian was on the tip of destiny as he sat on a Wembley bench on the 14th August 2013 at the age of 31. Aside from Lambert’s remarkable story, the fixture between England and Scotland on that night could have significant positive implications for the future of English International football. This was a match-up that was 13 years late, a return of the home nation’s encounter that should once again be played annually. If the England side need a boost or an incentive, particularly before a major tournament, then this needs to be the fixture to provide it. The oldest of football rivalries, both sides showed a fierce determination to get one over their neighbours in a pulsating game. This game showed what it really means to wear the shirt, the three lions on the chest. On this occasion, with the game locked at 2-2,  Roy Hodgson called on his latest substitute.

Rickie Lambert living the England dream

Unfortunately it was easy to write off Rickie Lambert’s international prospects before he even stepped over the white line at Wembley. We’d seen it all before with Kevin Davies, Jay Bothroyd, and Bobby Zamora to name but a few in recent times; strikers playing for England and being found out, never to feature again. But as Lambert crashed home a 70th minute header with his first touch as an England International everything changed, Lambert had delivered for his country and had achieved his dream in truly memorable style. He was the happiest man on earth as he wheeled away across the Wembley turf; you could see in his face that this was the stuff of fairy-tale. Here was a man who had only been a Premier League striker for a year following a career labouring in the lower leagues with Blackpool, Macclesfield, Stockport, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers before being signed for Southampton in 2009. A late bloomer perhaps or maybe a victim of English clubs over-reliance of foreign imports, Lambert had certainly arrived at this moment the hard way. "I have been dreaming of that all my life, it means so much," he said after the game ended with his goal the winner. "I was trying to play it cool this week but deep down I wanted to scream. It was brilliant”. This is exactly what it should be like for all players who play and score for their country. The Southampton striker had grown up dreaming of such a moment; he’d never dreamt of fortune and fame, just playing football and maybe, just maybe one day scoring for England at Wembley. Such passion and enthusiasm for the game is sadly reduced in the modern world of mega-rich Prima Donna footballers. But Rickie Lambert’s emergence may well have come at the perfect time for English International Football. With support for the national team in great need of a boost, the working-class hero from Kirkby may well be the perfect catalyst. The England fans can relate to him, he is one of them, a normal lad who was worked and grafted to get to where he is, never having had anything handed to him. He represents the people, like England strikers of old, playing out their dreams wearing the three lions. Support for Lambert, with everyone talking with intrigue and amazement about his journey to the international stage, can only be good for England.
Lambert can be a hero of the people for England

The New Roy of the Rovers?

Less than a month on from the Scotland game and Rickie Lambert is lining up for his first England start, amidst a striker “crisis”, singing the national anthem in front of the nation ahead of a World Cup Qualifier at Wembley. Lambert leads the line superbly against Moldova, scoring a real striker’s goal from point blank range before twice assisting strike partner Danny Welbeck in a comfortable 4-0 victory. Suddenly the striker is right at home, an England international leading the charge. And now on the eve of a huge night in Kiev, 28 months on from playing in League One, Lambert has the hopes of his nation resting on his shoulders. Much must be done to improve England's international fortunes in the short and long term, but if Rickie Lambert can fire England towards the World Cup, a nation’s faith in International football will surely be close to being fully restored.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Jose and Back Again: The psychology of Roman Abramovich in his pursuit of greatness.

As Jose Mourinho's second coming as Chelsea manager gets underway, Sam Winter looks at how he got there in order to understand the psychology of Russian billionaire and Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich

20th September 2007 and world football was digesting the news that Jose Mourinho had left Chelsea Football Club. The man who led The Blues to their first domestic championship title in 50 years, amassing 95 points and conceding only 15 goals along the way, was gone under a cloud of huge uncertainty amid long-standing rumours of a rift with owner Roman Abramovich. Mourinho was Abramovich’s first managerial appointment since his sensational arrival the previous year, when he arrived from Russia with endless pockets and big ambitions for the London club. The Special One could do no wrong; 2 Premier League crowns in successive seasons, 2 League Cups, and an FA Cup triumph had Chelsea fans in dreamland. Stamford Bridge was unbreakable and European Glory was surely not far away. But then the wheels came off.

Lampard and Terry were key men in Mourinho's assault of the Premier League.

 There was nothing broken at Chelsea, so there was no need to fix anything. However Abramovich tinkering began before a ball had been kicked in 2006/07. Andriy Shevchenko came in above Mourinho’s head and rumblings were evident with Sporting Director Frank Arnesen. Troubles were clearly brewing, Mourinho would admit as much in media interviews. Abramovich became a closed book, Mourinho having to deal with advisor Piet de Visser instead of the owner directly. Relationships were broken, the honeymoon was over, and Sir Alex Ferguson swatted Chelsea away to take the Premier League crown back to Old Trafford.

Just two days before Mourinho left, 3 months into the following season, Chief Executive Peter Kenyon described the Portuguese as “the key to glory” in Chelsea’s hunt for European dominance. But Abramovich had become impatient and relationships were at the point of no return, and it was Mourinho to go.
Less than six years on and Mourinho is back at Stamford Bridge, a sensational return for the special one. Issues seemingly resolved, Mourinho’s return has made Chelsea many people’s favourites for this seasons Premier League crown. Staggeringly, 7 managers have been in the Chelsea hot-seat since Mourinho departed and only Guus Hiddink left on his own terms. Abramovich’s ruthless hiring and firing of household names suggests complete disaster post Mourinho. Yet six major trophies and a community shield were won in that period of managerial merry-go –round; including an impressive regain of the Premier League under Carlo Ancelotti in the double season of 2009-10, and that elusive all-conquering Champions League crown under Roberto Di Matteo. Even the Europa League was won under Rafa Benitez, completing a clean sweep of all available major trophies to Chelsea in the decade of Abramovich.

The way Abramovich has constantly discarded the notion of “giving manager’s time” and spent millions and millions on appointing and sacking big name managers such as Scolari, Villas-Boas, and Ancelotti, has always made me despairingly wonder just what it is that Abramovich wants? What goes through the psychology of the introverted Russian billionaire with the hugely successful football club? What was it he was looking for when he let Mourinho go? And what hasn’t he found that has signalled Mourinho’s return?

Europe or Bust

At first I was convinced Abramovich’s motives were driven by Champions League failings. Mourinho seemingly hadn’t done it in enough time, and only a slip in the rain of Moscow prevented Avram Grant from being the unlikely source of success. Given the unrest over Mourinho’s departure, Grant did a remarkable job with Chelsea that season but he was never the long term solution. So in came Big Phil Scolari, World Cup winner, to turn the tide on Champions League fortune at the Bridge. But from the first negative result Scolari was doomed, with rumours of player unrest not helping his cause, and he was off within half a season. Guus Hiddink steadied the ship with an FA Cup success but wouldn’t continue the poisoned chalice full-time and in came Carlo Ancelotti, who brought the good times back with an impressive double in 2010. Chelsea were lethal again, Drogba and Anelka leading the charge, but Sir Alex Ferguson once again swatted them away in 2011 and Ancelotti was quite unbelievably sacked. This was the clearest indicator that it wasn’t just the Champions League that sacked a Chelsea manager; Ancelotti’s perceived failure to double up on Premier League crown’s had cost him. Abramovich couldn’t stand not being top dog in England let alone Europe, and Ancelotti paid the price.

Carlo Ancelotti brought the good times back for Chelsea but soon was on his way out

A Change in Style...Just Don't Change That.. 

Abramovich suddenly wanted Chelsea to go in a different direction, to play a different way to generate consistent success, and he had no problem in activating an extortionate release clause to bring in Andre Villas-Boas to achieve it. Villas-Boas was the start of a bright future, a long and successful tenure bringing through exciting young players and ousting the old guard; regaining the Premier League and winning the Champions League at long last. But despite such positive statements Villas-Boas found himself out favour for trying to play teams without John Terry, Didier Drogba, and Frank Lampard in. No player should be bigger than a club yet Abramovich has always valued Lampard and Terry above all others and the tactical changes clearly sat unfavourably with the owner. A few poor results and the media frenzy swallowed up player unrest and tactical disagreement, and Abramovich sensationally pulled the trigger again. From wanting his club to do things differently, to build a long term strategy, Abramovich had changed his tune at the first signs of such implementation. 

AVB found himself unable to implement changes at the club.

Di Matteo Delivers the Crown

His impatience is a key factor in understanding his character. If success isn’t immediate then no manager is safe, even Mourinho found that once surrendering the Premier League. Abramovich demands instant success and disregards the possibility that managers and players, tactics and systems, may need time to adjust and settle. His closeness with his senior stars, the ones who brought the initial success to the club, perhaps hinders any Chelsea long term development and his yearning for Champions League glory was also pulling on his patience. The sensational victory over Bayern in Munich therefore had seemingly brought an end to his misery. The searching was over, the solution found. Roberto Di Matteo conquered Europe and took the FA Cup back to the Bridge. He was a bright young managerial talent, the players loved him and the fans worshipped him and most importantly he’d delivered for the owner. The future looked bright, Chelsea started the following campaign in blistering fashion yet a demolition at the hands of Falcao and a bad night in Turin meant it was all over once again. Di Matteo’s dismissal added a new dimension to the confusion over Abramovich. Surely he’d got everything he wanted now? He had the crown, he had the future, and they’d started an assault on the league in fine fashion. All his previous issues were seemingly solved, so what was it that was missing? And then it was clearer than ever. Mourinho.

Problem solved? Di Matteo won it for Abramovich but it wasn't enough.

The Second Coming

Since the day The Special One exited Stamford Bridge he had been linked with a comeback. After each and every managerial dismissal Mourinho was rumoured to be returning to rescue the club. It was clear to me the Mourinho would be back permanently after Di Matteo was sacked, even more so when Benitez was installed as the sensitive “interim”. Abramovich had spent six years trying to move on from Mourinho, to replicate his success with other men. But he couldn’t, what he wanted WAS Mourinho, and only Mourinho. And Chelsea would never have stability without his return. 

Despite the fantastic trophy record in his decade at the helm, Abramovich has attracted copious criticism for his running of the club, his handling of managers and finances. From an ethics perspective, the sheer fortune spent on buy-outs and pay-offs of world-renowned managers, Abramovich’s methods are disappointing and it’s certainly hard to agree with the man. Yet you can’t argue with his trophy cabinet. Perhaps with the Special One back in town all will be forgotten and the drama will simmer down in that respect. But Mourinho will know exactly what is expected of him, and Abramovich won’t be much less lenient now his prized leader is back. A trophy-shy season might get alarm bells ringing but I think it would be tolerated this time around, but only this time. Abramovich deals only in success and not even Mourinho is safe if success isn’t brought to Chelsea. Perhaps the owner will have learned his lesson, bringing Mourinho back when he should never have let him go in the first place. 

There was only ever one man for Chelsea fans

Abramovich has always struck me as someone who wants to control absolutely everything, to be the manager as well as owner, and his interference in the past has probably served only to hinder the club. Certainly such interference would have to be completely eradicated as far as Mourinho is concerned. Here is a man who managed to get himself full control of dealings at Real Madrid, something completely unheard of. The issue of power had owner and manager at loggerheads the first time around, and for the second coming to work at Chelsea, this can never rear its ugly head again. Both men are older and wiser now and hopefully a long-standing, successful era will ensue for the fans of Chelsea Football Club. Or perhaps the merry-go round will just keep on going. You just never ever know in football. Let's just hope Roman doesn't have a thing for Super Cups.