Friday, 30 October 2009

Grimsby v Accrington: a far cry from the elite

While the usual arguments carry on at the top of the Premier League about too many games, referees, rumours and jealousy, others in the lower reaches continue to ply their trade against a backdrop of a few thousand fans, (relatively) low wages and the threat of relegation to the Blue Square Premier.

Tonight Grimsby Town take on Accrington Stanley at Blundell Park in a League Two fixture.

Grimsby sit in 23rd position - a relegation place - with only 10 points from 14 games, and they've lost their last five league games. Their last point came on 26 September when they drew at home with Darlington - the only team below them in the Football League. They have already sacked Mike Newell this season and now Neil Woods is in charge.

Opponents Accrington Stanley lie comfortably in 14th with 19 points. They have won their last two games. Although they have less problems on the field, Stanley were facing a winding up order, brought by HM Revenue and Customs, over an unpaid bill of £308,000, but have been granted more time to repay the outstanding bill. Boss John Coleman says that off-field problems are overshadowing their on-field achievements.

Crowds at Blundell Park have held up remarkably well at around 3,500 - 4,000 during the season to date, so they'll be hoping for 3,500 this evening.

A cold, wet evening is likely.

It's a far cry from the points, crowds and money that the elite enjoy, but it's strange how you hear more moans and complaints from the top than you do at the bottom. Without these clubs, English football wouldn't have the strength it does.

Good luck to both teams tonight.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Rumours abound but Phil Brown remains at Hull City

I hope we haven’t reached the stage where managers get sacked on rumours.

Yesterday Hull City were compelled to deny the rumours circulating the media and internet world that boss Phil Brown was about to be sacked.

Nevertheless, it is understood that meetings at the club will continue into Thursday to discuss the future of Brown as well as club chairman Paul Duffen.

Hull City fans booed Brown during last Saturday’s tame 0-0 draw with bottom club Portsmouth, and the Tigers remain in the bottom three.

How quickly they all forget.

It was Brown who got Hull City promoted to the Premier League via the play-offs in 2008, and the team clung on to their top status last season, finishing one place above the relegation places. Brown has been in full charge since January 2007.

Relegation could be bad for the club. According to accountants Deloitte the club needs £23m to meet its liabilities, and relegation would cost the club £7m for losing top-flight status. However, many clubs have come through this sort of problem before.

Brown’s “crime” has been over-achievement – getting the club to the Premier League too soon. It was only in 2004 that the club emerged from the lowest tier of the Football League.

It seems to me that some clubs, fans and directors don’t know when they’re well off.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Footballers told not to spit

It's taken the threat of catching swine flu for footballers to be told to stop spitting.

The warning has come after two Premier League clubs reported outbreaks of the H1N1 virus: Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.

The spokesman at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said that the habit could result in the infection being passed on further, and football clubs should encourage their players to stop spitting.

The spokesman said: "Spitting is disgusting at all times. It's unhygienic and unhealthy, particularly if you spit close to other people. Footballers, like the rest of us, wouldn't spit indoors so they shouldn't do it on the football pitch."

A Premier League spokesman said it would follow guidelines from health experts in handling the issue.

Even worse than players is the habit of some mangers who spit in the dug-out. What's that about? There's no excuse!

It's about time spitting was banned. This disgusting habit should be a bookable offence!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

McClaren gets his contract extended at Twente

I have criticised Steve McClaren in this blog for his tenure of the England team.

However, I can’t deny that he seems to be doing a splendid job in his current role as coach of Dutch side Twente Enschede. They are currently top of the Dutch Eredivisie after 11 games, ahead of the big three: PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, by two, three and six points respectively.

He has been rewarded with a one-year extension to his contract which will keep him at the club until 2011. McClaren joined Twente in June 2008 and guided them to second place in the league and a place in the Dutch Cup final, losing only on penalties.

He said: “It is an ambitious club as we have shown. It's a pleasure to work with a management team and players who want to achieve something.”

Chairman of Twente, Joop Munsterman, said: “It goes without saying that FC Twente are delighted Steve has decided to extend his contract. Both parties are very keen for the technical policy of the club to be continued. Steve McClaren is ambitious, FC Twente are ambitious so it fits.”

Monday, 26 October 2009

Strachan is new Middlesbrough boss

The worst kept secret in football was revealed today as Gordon Strachan was named as manager of Middlesbrough.

The news follows the sacking of Gareth Southgate last Wednesday, a few hours after Middlesbrough had beaten Derby County 2-0 to trail leaders Newcastle United by a single point.

Whereas the unfortunate Southgate has confessed to being surprised by the decision to sack him, it can have come as no surprise to Strachan who had been in discussion with 'Boro chairman Steve Gibson weeks before the axe finally fell on Southgate.

Gibson says that he doubted Southgate's ability to get Middlesbrough back into the Premier League. Another factor were the falling crowds at the Riverside. Only 17,000 saw the win over Derby.

Middlesbrough headed Preston twice before drawing 2-2 on Saturday. They remain fourth in the table, but are now three points behind the leaders.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Chelsea appeal to delay the transfer ban

Chelsea were banned by Fifa for two transfer windows from signing new players after they were found guilty of illegally luring French teenager Gael Kakuta from Lens in 2007. The ban would mean that could not sign players for the whole of 2010 – being banned from the January and August transfer windows.

Now, in an attempt to escape the ban, Chelsea have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas), wanting the transfer ban suspended until a decision on their appeal has been made.

For some reason appeals take an inordinate length of time to be heard (why?) which is part of the Chelsea delaying strategy.

"A decision concerning the request (to suspend the ban) is likely to be issued at the beginning of November," said a statement on the Cas website.

If Cas agrees to the suspension, Chelsea will be free to sign players in January 2010.

It is my forecast that Chelsea will never serve any part of this transfer ban, despite precedents being set for other clubs who have broken the rules in just the same way.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Manchester United and Chelsea show Liverpool how it's done

While Liverpool suffer from the woes of four defeats in a row and will struggle to make the knock-out phase of the Champtions League, Manchester United and Chelsea sail serenely onward, and have both almost secured qualification for the next round.

United travelled to Moscow and, despite the potential trip-hazard of the plastic pitch, managed to silence the home crowd and quell the enthusiasm of the home team before eventually coming up with an 86th minute Antonio Valenica winner to head Group B with maximum nine points. Wolfsburg, in second, have only four points.

Chelsea welcomed visitors Atletico Madrid (and on Madrid's performance last night, Chelsea would welcome them again!), and won convincingly, 4-0, in front of a 40,000 crowd. Goals from Kalou (2), Lampard and a Perea own goal put Cheslea on top of Group D, with nine points; Porto are the nearest challengers with six points, but Apoel Nicosia and Atletico have only one point each.

Both United and Chelsea can relax into the second half of the group games. Only the most amazing slip-up would see them fail to qualify from their current positions.

For Liverpool, it's a whole different story. In Group E, they have three points and lie third, behind Lyon and Fiorentina, having lost to both of them. It would seem that only three wins from two away games (at Lyon and Debrecen) and a home game will be enough for them to qualify. A Europa League consolation spot from third place looks much more likely.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Middlesbrough sack Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate has been sacked as manager of Middlesbrough.

He was dismissed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, after Boro had beaten Derby County 2-0 at home in a league game.

Chairman Steve Gibson said: "This has been the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in football."

Thirty-nine year-old Southgate was appointed in June 2006 and survived last season’s relegation. Middlesbrough are currently fourth in the Championship table, only one point behind leaders West Brom. Before last night’s win, Boro had lost three home games in a row.

Gibson said: "Gareth has given Boro magnificent service as a skipper and, in very difficult circumstances, as manager.

"I appointed Gareth in a situation that was greatly unfavourable to him. He is a good man and has all the qualities and integrity that we wanted in a manager.

"However, the time is right for change and that change has had to be made. Gareth will always be welcome at our football club. English football needs people of his stature and we feel certain that this experience will serve him well.

"Gareth deserves another opportunity once he has had the chance to rest and refresh himself."

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Republic of Ireland get tough play-off draw

As Shay Given and the rest of the Republic of Ireland team must have feared, it's a tough draw for them in the World Cup European qualifier play-offs. The Republic have drawn former world champions France in the seeded draw.

Given complained before the draw about the way seeding had been introduced late in the day for the European qualifiers.

The matches will take place on Saturday 14 November and Wednesday 18 November to decide who goes through to the final tournament in South Africa next summer.

Republic of Ireland  manager Giovanni Trapattoni was said to be "quite relaxed" about the draw. France manager Raymond Domenech said: "They're a team who have not lost in qualifying, who drew with Italy in their last game after conceding a late goal. We know they're tough, but so are we."

The rest of the draw is:

Portugal v Bosnia-Herzegovina
Greece v Ukraine
Russia v Slovenia 

Monday, 19 October 2009

Liverpool's championship hopes look beached

And what of Liverpool?

Here we are, nine games into the season, and Liverpool sit in eight position, seven points behind leaders Manchester United. Perhaps more significantly, Liverpool have lost four of their nine games so far this season.

In a season when (yet again) they were tipped for the top, it is a desperately disappointing start and, no club since 1964 has won the League having had so many defeats after nine games (that club was ... Liverpool, of course!).

Indeed, with the likes of Tottenham and Manchester City threatening to break into the top four, it is entirely conceivable that the mighty reds may fail to finish in the top four, thereby missing out on the Champions League next season.

The beach ball goal by Sunderland that defeated Liverpool on Saturday should not be held up as an excuse, and to be fair to manager Rafa Benitez, he did not try to do so. Without both Ferndando Torres and Steven Gerrard on Saturday, Liverpool's shortcomings were exposed, and Jamie Carragher said they would be "back to the training ground to get ready" for the next game against Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday.

And next up in the league? Manchester United, at home, next Sunday.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Fifa rankings

The new Fifa world rankings were announced today.

Brazil remain number one, with Spain close on their heels. Similarly, Holland and Italy stay third and fourth. Germany, who were equal with Italy, have slipped back and now trail Italy by 54 points.

Despite a disappointing qualifying campaign, Argentina have actually leapfrogged England to take sixth place, but England remain in seventh, because Russia slipped from sixth to 12th.

Despite not qualifying for the World Cup, Croatia are up to eighth, and two other European teams who only made the play-offs are at ninth and tenth: France and Portugal.

Looking at the European play-off qualifiers, France and Portugal are at nine and ten, Russia 12, Greece 16 - these will be the seeds - and Ukraine (22), Slovakia (33), Republic of Ireland (34) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (42) will be the non-seeds.

The biggest riser is Cameroon, up 15 to 14.

As for the other home nations, Northern Ireland are 30th, Scotland 46th and Wales 78th.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Twenty-three World Cup qualifiers

We now have 23 nations through to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Four more countries were added to the list yesterday.

Switzerland only needed a point to qualify, and duly got it in a 0-0 draw with Israel.

Slovakia made it through to their first final tournament with 1-0 win in Poland  to clinch their group ahead of Slovenia.

Having struggled for much of the qualifying competition, Argentina clinched their spot with a 1-0 win in Uruguay, who face a play-off.

Honduras made it through to the finals with a 1-0 over El Salvador.

Countries in the European play-offs will be: Russia, France, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republic or Ireland.

The other 19 are:

Ivory Coast
United States
South Africa
South Korea
North Korea

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Late World Cup seeding is unfair on small countries

Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given has complained about the seeding of countries for the European World Cup play-offs, and he is right to do so.

Seeding for the play-offs was not part of the original qualifications rules, and was only announced on 29 September.

It seems that with some big countries - who were seeded in the original group draw - about to fall into a play-off lottery, Fifa decided to give them the best possible chance of qualifying for South Africa next year. Examples are France and Portugal, and, until Saturday, even Germany were looking at the possibility of a play-off spot.

Thus, in the current Fifa rankings (with an update this Friday), the likely seeded group runners-up will be Russia (6th in the rankings), France (10), Greece (12) and Portugal (17), leaving Ukraine (25), Republic or Ireland (38), Bosnia-Herzegovina (46) and Slovakia (45) or Slovenia (54) (one of these two will win group three) unseeded. It leaves the unseeded teams looking at very tough play-off games, which could leave eighteen months' hard work all wasted.

Even these late changes cannot rescue the countries that were seeded to finish in at least the top two places, but have failed: Sweden, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria - all of whom will not be going to South Africa in 2010 - barring some very odd results tonight!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Ferguson referee row lingers on

 wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson is regretting his outburst about referee Alan Wiley’s fitness after his side’s stumbling 2-2 draw with Sunderland on 3 October (see this blog, dated 7 October).

The row goes on.

Sir Alex apologised to Alan Wiley, but was asked to explain his comments to the FA. Apparently, he will be writing a letter of apology to the FA, as well as his explanation.

The Manchester United manager could still face FA charges of improper conduct, and might receive a touchline ban if found guilty.

It is understood that his explanation will admit that he was wrong to “personally embarrass” referee Wiley about his fitness levels. It has since been shown that Wiley covered more yardage than many of the players in that game.

Meanwhile, Alan Leighton, national secretary of the Prospect union, has called for Ferguson to be punished unless he retracts the accusations level against Wiley.

“I think the punishment should be a Uefa-type coaching ban,” said Leighton. “Referees are very fit. They have sports scientists who test them regularly throughout the season. They don’t just pass a fitness test at the start of the season.”

Monday, 12 October 2009

Nineteen qualifiers for the World Cup

Now nineteen nations have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Eight nations were added to the list over the weekend.

The latest qualifiers are:
Ivory Coast clinched their place with a Didier Drogba equaliser against Malawi.
No mistakes by Germany, who beat Russia 1-0 to condemn the Russians to a play-off place.
Denmark won European Group One, ahead of Sweden (whom they beat 1-0 on Saturday) and Portugal, who are still fighting it out for a play-off place.
Serbia smashed Romania 5-0, which means that France have to face the play-off nightmare.
A last-minute equaliser by Alberto Gilardino (2-2) against Republic of Ireland means that Italy won their group.
Chile qualified in South America by virtue of a 4-2 win over Colombia.
Perennial qualifiers Mexico will be there again, after a 4-1 clincher against El Salvador.
The United States qualified with a game to sapre after a 3-2 against Honduras.

The other 11 are:
South Africa
South Korea
North Korea

Friday, 9 October 2009

Tranmere sack Barnes and McAteer

This can come as little surprise to anyone who's been watching results in League One:

Tranmere Rovers have sacked manager John Barnes and his number two Jason McAteer.

Tranmere have had a shocking start to the League One season, winning only two games, and losing eight out of 11. They sit 22nd out of 24, in a relegation place, with only seven points.

Patience had been wearing thin with the supporters, and now the board, and losing 2-1 at Bury in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy on Tuesday was the last straw.

Barnes and McAteer were appointed over the summer, but have failed to make any headway with Tranmere, who finished seventh in League One last season.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

World Cup: European qualification groups five to nine

As we come to the last pair of qualifying games in the European groups, there are still some fascinating possibilities. Here we look at groups five to nine.

In group five Spain have already qualified with eight wins out of eight. It looks as though Bosnia-Herzegovina will take the runners-up spot at the expense of Turkey.

England have won group six, also with eight straight wins. Ukraine will be favourites for runners-up spot if they beat England on Saturday; otherwise it will be Croatia for the play-offs.

In group seven Serbia are favourites, as they sit top, four points ahead of France. It is possible, but unlikely, that Austria could pip the French for a play-off place.

Italy are not guaranteed to win group eight, but only need a draw against the Republic of Ireland or a win against Cyprus to be sure. Bulgaria are the only team that could nudge the Republic out of a play-off place.

Group nine is finished. Holland have already won it, and Norway are likely to miss out on the play-offs with the worst runners-up record.

My forecasts:
Qualifiers as group winners: Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, Holland.

Play-offs: Portugal, Greece, Czech Republic, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Republic of Ireland.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

World Cup: European qualification groups one to four

As we come to the last pair of qualifying games in the European groups, there are still some fascinating possibilities. Here we look at groups one to four.

In group one Denmark head the table and only need two draws to win it. One of Sweden, Portugal and Hungary will have to settle for a play-off spot, and two will miss out entirely.

Group two is just as open, with Switzerland leading by three points and an opportunity to almost clinch it when they visit Luxembourg on Saturday. Greece (most likely), Latvia and Israel will probably be looking at a play-off place at best.

In group three the surprise has been the failure of the Czech Republic to dominate the group. Instead, close neighbours Slovakia lead the way by five points and are almost there, but have to play Slovenia (home) and Poland (away). The Czechs are battling for second place along with Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Poland.

Group four has the amazing possibility that Germany may have to settle for a play-off spot. They lead Russia by one point, but have to travel to Russia on Saturday. If the Russians win they are likely to win the group as they only then have bottom-placed Azerbaijan to face when the Germans play Finland on Wednesday. There are no other contenders for qualification from this group. Imagine it...

We look at groups five to nine tomorrow.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ferguson's rant deflects criticism from United's shortcomings

Sir Alex Ferguson has been called upon by the Football Association to explain his amazing outburst against referee Alan Wiley after Saturday's 2-2 draw at home to Sunderland.

After his team had claimed a point with an injury-time own goal, Ferguson could barely contain himself: "There should have been another 30 seconds of added time, but he [Wiley] was walking up the pitch after the goal, needing a rest. He just was not fit enough for a game of that stature. The fitness of the players, the pace of the game, demanded a referee who was fit. He is not fit. It's an indictment of our game that we see referees from abroad who are as fit as butchers' dogs. We have got some good referees in our country who are fit, but he was not. He was taking 30 seconds to book a player as he was taking a rest."

Forty-nine year-old Wiley is said to be "very upset" by the comments. He has an impressive fitness record, and has been shown to run 11.5km during a game.

It is my belief that Ferguson's rant has more to do with deflecting criticism away from himself and his team's shortcomings than a real feeling that Alan Wiley is not fit enough. Manchester United were poor and petulant and got away with a lucky point when Sunderland probably deserved to win.

Ferguson is no fool. He knew saturday's team selection and performance might come under scrutiny. He has enough experience and is wily (ha!) enough to take the heat off himself when required.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Ukraine v England not on TV

People in England will not be able to watch England on TV for the first time, when England play in Ukraine on Saturday.

There are only two ways to watch the game:
1. By paying £4.99 to watch it on the Internet.
2. By watching it at an Odeon cinema.

The game was originally bought from Kentaro – an international agency appointed by the Ukrainian Football Federation –
by Setanta, which has since collapsed.

Now, Perform – a digital sport specialist – has been appointed to stream the match online.

There is some anger among England fans, and one can only imagine it would have been much worse if the game was not a “dead rubber”, as England have already qualified for the 2010 World Cup.

Peter Silverstone, managing director of Kentaro, told BBC Sport: "You will watch as you would any other streaming on the internet, like YouTube or the BBC iPlayer - there will be a pop-up player that will show the match in a very good quality stream."

The £4.99 price is only available until Wednesday midnight. It then goes up to £9.99, and then £11.99 on Saturday.

Silverstone claimed the project is commercially viable and that it had “strategic long-term value” and wasn’t a one-off.

England fans, however, will be hoping it is.

Friday, 2 October 2009

What's the Europa League all about?

The bloated new Europa League limps on. Starting with an unbelievable 162 clubs from every corner of Europe, it has now been reduced to 48 clubs, grouped in 12 groups of four. Only two games into the six-game groups, it's already tiring even the most avid football-watchers.

After the group stages the 12 winners and 12 runners-up will be joined by the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League to create a final 32. This farce of adding some form of "best losers" from another competition only serves to devalue the Europa Cup further. Why stop at the third-placed teams from the Champions League groups? Surely the losers from the round of 16, the quarter-finals or semi-finals are more deserving of a place? Why not just put the losing Champions League finalists straight into the Europa League final? I'm being silly? Hey, UEFA started it!

Nor do I quite understand the apparent obsessive desire of English clubs to get into Europe when many of them then do their best to get straight out again! Aston Villa managed it in the qualifying rounds this year, having frustratingly qualified out of their group last season (luckily, they got knocked out in the first knock-out stage by playing a weakened team in Moscow!).

Last night Fulham made five changes and Everton were "without" 10 first-teamers.

What's the point?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Latest injury is a big blow to Michael Owen

It was a great shame to see Manchester United's Michael Owen leave the field after just 20 minutes of last night's Champions League clash with Wolfsburg.

The striker could be out of action for up to three weeks after injuring his groin in the early part of the game.

It will have done his chances of returning to the England squad no good at all, despite being watched by England manager Fabio Capello. The injury will sideline Owen for at least three weeks.

"His fitness levels are good so we shouldn't need to worry too much about it. We will treat it as a normal groin injury," said United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

Owen has spent too much of the last few years on the injured list. Now 29, he must still hope he can return to fitness and form in time for next year's World Cup. He had a big boost a week and a half ago when he scored United's winner in the 4-3 victory over rivals City.

Sadly, time is running out.