Why is our refereeing so bad?

Published: Monday, 26 October 2020

I don’t want to spend too much time on this - I’m bored with the whole thing but I repeat what I said on BeINSPORTS this weekend - we’ve got to hold Mike Riley and the PGMOL to account. It’s really important that we do. So here goes - again.

Somehow referees have elevated themselves to being the most talked about element of a football match these days. Why? How? I’ve said this before as well - do you remember when we used to say ‘the ref had a good game today - I hardly noticed him’. As Mourinho might say ‘not anymore’!

When is somebody going to do something about the ever declining standard of our refereeing? It can’t go on. Please. Please - for goodness sake. Help us. We’re becoming a laughing stock.

Did you see what Mario van der Ende said last week? ‘Who?’ I can hear you ask. He’s a retired Dutch ref that went to two World Cups during a glorious 15-year career. He was always regarded by those in the know as one of the very best.

He said he was ‘astonished’ to see Michael Oliver allow Jordan Pickford to ‘escape without sanction’ in the derby game. He added that he can only believe it’s because English referees ‘apply the laws of the game differently at home and abroad’.

‘When English referees go to the continent they stick to the laws of football. But as soon as they go back to their own island they use their own rules’. he said. Note the distinction between the reference to ‘laws’ and ‘rules’. He’s right. We have our own ‘rules’ in the PL - on our island.

Van der Ende again ‘when I saw how Michael Oliver refereed the game between Italy and Holland he was astonishingly good. But they make different decisions in England’.

At last. It’s not just me - or Keith Hackett or Mark Halsey - the only two genuinely honest X-refs who comment on the game. What they see must drive them mad.

One last quote from Van der Ende. ‘We used to call what Pickford did a “foul with contempt of death”. I can’t believe Oliver didn’t show a red card.

‘And I have no idea why VAR didn’t step in. There was all the time in the world with Van Dijk on the floor injured’. Quite.

I’d love to know what Mr Van der Ende made of Harry Maguire’s head lock on Cesar Azpilequeta. My goodness - was there ever a more obvious penalty? This time the man in VAR was Stuart Attwell - who gave Michy Batshuayi a significantly softer pen at Palace the weekend before. The inconsistency is staggering.

Why was Arsenal’s goal v Leicester disallowed? It shouldn’t have been. No-one was interfering with Schmeichel. The keeper knew it. His defence knew it. No-one complained. Why didn’t Michail Antonio get a pen when he had his legs taken away clean through on goal v Man City?

Why are refs not being asked to look at monitors in situations like these? How can Attwell make two such starkly different decisions one week after the other? Why hasn’t a ref visited a monitor and stood by his original decision?

Is it because Mike Riley is still making all the decisions remotely? He lost the battle on sending refs to monitors - so is he trying to have the last laugh? Is he telling refs what their decisions should be as they approach a monitor?  I believe he is. Prove me wrong Mr Riley. Like Australia’s ‘A’ League - let us listen to your conversations. Why not? I’ve argued this before. What have you got to hide? Help us. Educate us. Let us all listen in to the decision making process - broadcasters and fans alike. Why are you scared? Or have I already answered my own question?

Enough. Let’s talk football.

I’m so pleased to see David Moyes smiling again. Here’s a man that’s been beaten black and blue since leaving Everton. It’s all history now so there’s no point dwelling on it. Moyes is a good man. An honest man - a good footballing man. He’s right when he says he’s now got a club now that might just be the last with genuine potential to make a significant impact in the PL. That is if the owners - and Karen - back him and let him get on with the job. Up until now they’ve always thought they knew better than anyone that they’ve employed. They didn’t. They don’t. Oh - and let Moyes do the buying.

In conclusion - a word about one of the very best broadcasters the U.K. has ever seen. I wonder what Frank Bough would make of the eulogies I’m reading following his passing this weekend?

I didn’t know him - but I used to watch him - in awe - when I worked on Grandstand in the late 70’s. He was good - very very good.

His career ended prematurely. We all know the story but as Frank himself said ‘I’m not a wicked man, nor do I mean any harm or evil to people. I’ve made mistakes but everyone is entitled to do that’. Sadly, he wasn’t. I never wavered in my admiration for Frank as a broadcaster - so I find it galling now to see so many crawling out of the woodwork saying so many nice things about him. It’s too late guys. Where were you when he needed you?

One of his crimes, of course, was the use of cocaine in an era when it was frowned upon. These days it’s almost a required ‘must’ in LE, print journalism and in tv sports departments. There’s another irony.

RIP Frank. You truly were one of the greats. You - Coleman, Davies, Moore - what an era. None was perfect - but all were brilliant.

PGMOL dig another hole.

Published: Monday, 19 October 2020

I’ll get round to the PGMOL’s latest self inflicted mess in a moment - but first - a far more pressing issue for the PL.

It’s something that’s been creeping up on all of us - without anybody realising - thank goodness.

Am I the only person that looks forward to Monday’s PL reflections from Conor Moore and Darren Farley far more than listening to the guff that the real guys trot out post match? Here - listen for yourself to Moore’s      latest observations. 

How good is that? Klopp - brilliant ‘for sure’. Ole - ‘we’re backkkkk’. Lampard is like Charles Jolly’s Laughing Policeman and Jose - ‘reeespect’ Conor. Farley’s Brendan Rodgers is sensational. Shut your eyes and listen and it really could be him - ‘he’s a beautiful human being’.

I love it. Honestly, I’d rather listen to it because you know it’s what the guys are really thinking. The real thing is so anaemic now that it’s hardly worth bothering. And that certainly is the case pre-match. Those interviews are even worse. It’s not all the fault of the guys asking the questions ‘you’ve made 2 changes - what’s your thinking?’ - it’s as much the fault of the FA who jump on the coaches/managers the minute anyone says anything that’s worth hearing. Why can’t managers tell us what they really think? Viewers pay a tidy sum to access the game - even more now in Covid U.K. - and yet you’re not allowed to hear what your coach really thinks, because he’ll be hit with a disrepute charge. It’s nonsense. The people bringing the game into disrepute are those that stop us being a part of an honest debate - one that fans have a right to access.

It’s the same with the PGMOL. What a mess they’ve made of the incident at Goodison. I haven’t wavered from my view - Pickford’s challenge was a disgrace - and it merited a red card. I said as much on BeINSPORTS the moment I saw it. Any player that lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball from the front, from the side or from behind using one or both legs - and here’s the critical bit - with excessive force or endangers the safety of an opponent - is committing an act of serious foul play. Never mind that Van Dijk may have been off-side - which he wasn’t - that’s a smoke screen.

That Michael Oliver saw it - and we are asked to believe he did because there will he no retrospective action - is bad enough. That the assistant and the fourth did nothing is a disgrace. That David Coote at Stockley Park didn’t view it borders on negligence. And that the PGMOL have tried to cover up their incompetence again is pathetic. Coote used the words ‘check complete’ when only checking to see if Van Dijk was off-side. Incredible. Stop digging guys.

There’s one simple way round all this - let us listen to the conversations that are being had. I’ve argued this before. Why not? What have they got to hide? It happens in Rugby and Cricket. We were told that’s why VAR was needed - because it worked so well in those sports - so let’s use it as they do.

I’ll tell you why not.  My guess is that although refs are now looking at monitors - they’re being told what decision to make as they jog across to the touch line. There still hasn’t been an incident of a ref standing by his original decision when checking the monitor. Again - why not? If I’m wrong - prove it Mike Riley. Let us listen in - all of us - fans and broadcasters. It’ll help educate us. It’s no good sending out pasty’s like Mssrs Foy, Walton and Gallagher to try and cover up the incompetence. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - things won’t get any better and until Riley is removed from his post.

Was Mane off-side? Was he hell. Again. Incompetence. As I’ve said from day 1 - it depends which frame you use to decide. Do you use the one as the ball arrives at the passers’ feet - is controlled - is leaving - or has left in a blur? Bin the lines. If it’s not obvious with the naked eye - then it’s not offside.

There is one interesting piece of news I’ll share with you. I’m told that technology is catching up and next season we’ll know ‘automatically’ if a player is off. It’s a system that Collina and Wenger have been working on and it’s all but ready to go. But - next will come the argument over what exactly is off-side. We all know Wenger wants to change the law so that any part of a forward level with a defender - ie - his trailing foot - is onside. That really would be a dramatic change - giving forwards at least a metre advantage in a chase.

Of course, all this in the pursuit of perfection - which isn’t possible. We don’t want perfection. We’re happy with ‘grey’.

What we want is honesty. So - Mr Riley - let us hear your conversations - and if a coach or manager has something to say that adds to the viewing experience, let’s hear that. Why not? I can’t think of any good reason. In the meantime we’ll have to rely on Moore and Farley. And you’re doing a fantastic job guys.

My take on Project Big Picture.

Published: Tuesday, 13 October 2020

It’s another of those stories where it’s difficult to know how to start. It’s also annoying because I like to go my own way with a blog - but I can’t ignore this.

English football is up in arms. And so is the Tory Govt. Actually, let’s start there. Get back in your box Oliver Dowden. How dare you? Whatever the debate right now it has absolutely nothing to do with you.

Dowden is a chancer. As Culture Secretary he represents a Govt that believes in free trade - a free market - and all that is good in liberal conservatism - whatever that is. To be honest, I’ve no idea, but I hear a lot about it when it suits people like the Culture Secretary to lecture us on it.

Is this the same Oliver Dowden that was doing all he could over the summer to desperately wave through a certain football takeover, despite the prospective purchasers stealing billions of pounds of commercial rights of the UK creatives industries for over 3 years. Funny that….


Is this the same Mr Dowden whose Government over recent months has been patronising and insulting everyone in arts and culture to re-train into IT? Funny that…after an IT error meant 16,000 coronavirus cases were missed in the Government’s daily figures.

Is this the same Mr Dowden that has been demanding over recent weeks that the PL share their riches with the pyramid? Yep. Well that’s funny…because that’s the idea here, Mr Dowden.


You know the thing about age is that it brings with it a whole lot of experience and perspective. We’ve been here before you know. I’m reading all the same things that I was in 1991 - when setting up the PL was being discussed and, with it, a pending Doomsday. The world didn’t quite end - but for the majority football writers back then it was apparently about to if the ‘big boys’ set up on their own. Well? Exactly. Oh - most of writers are saying exactly the same things again! And live football on tv didn’t kill the game. And Sky didn’t fold after 6 months. And we did attract the biggest names on the planet into the English game. And the Premier League is perhaps one of this country’s greatest ever exports.

So even though it seems to be the only way people operate on Twitter these days, how about we stop the blind incessant outrage over Project Big Picture and actually pause to see if there’s anything in it that could be useful.

The first thing I’d say is that football has to evolve. Evolution might sound like revolution to some – those in the ‘if it ain’t broke’ camp. But it’s not, it’s simply evolution – if you wait until something is broke to fix it, au revoir. And in any event most of the things in United/Liverpool’s wish list have been discussed many times.

An 18 team PL? That was the original idea. We got down from the initial 22 - but there’s room for another reduction isn’t there? Why not?

Two up from the Championship - with teams finishing third, fourth and fifth entering a play off series with the 16th placed PL team. That’s almost how it used to work. More drama and tension – sounds good to me.   

The abolition of the League Cup and Community Shield? I’m ok with that. No-one takes the LC seriously anyway.

The abolition of parachute payments? Absolutely. It’s outrageous that a team finishing 20th right now can go down with a bigger prize for failing than the team winning the Champions League. The money also distorts the Championship and I agree that it would discourage clubs from gambling recklessly on promotion.

Instead there’s a 25 per cent revenue share on offer. We’ve been here before as well. The last time this was discussed the Football League clubs turned down 20 per cent. They’ve regretted it every day since.

Also suggested - the capping of away tickets at £20 and subsidised travel. That’s a ‘yes’ from me. Safe standing? As someone close to the Hillsboro disaster - I’m uneasy about that.

A later PL start? Yep. Ok. This allows for more lucrative friendlies. Well, it’s either that or even more discussions about a Euro Super League.

I don’t have an issue with suggested player loan regulations. Again - what’s the better idea - that or ‘B’ teams being operated by PL clubs?

FFP regulations in line with UEFA. That’s a big ‘yes’.

The creation of a new women’s league independent of the FA and PL. Why not – let’s at least explore it – as long as it’s properly funded which is critical?

I do have a problem with the big six needing only six votes to make changes. I’m not a fan of Ken Bates, but in fairness, he more than anyone, fought for the one club one vote system back in ‘91. I’d be sorry to see ALL the power shift - but I suspect it’s coming anyway.

It’s too late for us to start complaining about what foreign club owners want to do with our game. We opened that door a long time ago. The X PL Chief Exec Richard Scudamore didn’t care too much who owned what - as long as the tv rights kept going up. I feel sorry for Richard Masters - who’s inherited his mess.

The question was never really ‘why are these guys buying our clubs?’ Surely it had to be ‘what do they intend to do with them?’

Please don’t tell me that the Glazers were long time United fans. Nor that John Henry grew up supporting Liverpool. The Fenway Sports Group have done a fantastic job at Anfield - but why? Have they done it so they could hold the CL trophy? Of course not - they’re businessmen. They bought Liverpool to make money. All the foreign owners have bought in order to make money. And there aren’t too many more ways to make it from the domestic pot. They’ve got to go bigger. They’ve got to think ‘world’. That’s where the money is now. That’s why they want the pre-season tournaments and friendlies. That’s why they want a more lucrative CL.

Ironically the 39th game might have satisfied some of them - but even that idea seems outdated now.

How long, I wonder, before games are being played all over the world on a Friday night - Real Madrid v Liverpool in China? Barcelona v Utd in Qatar? Juventus v City in New York? Paris v Bayern in India? This is where it’s going you know. Just ask the NFL fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Wembley last year, or the NBA fans in Paris this January. There’ll be a Super League playing live games for the highest bidders.

I know it sounds fanciful and I’ve heard the argument - ‘what about the fans?’. Well - what about them? These clubs now have more ‘fans’ all over the world than pack into their grounds on a weekly basis. Owners will argue that they’re taking their teams to ‘see their fans’.

I’m not suggesting this will happen anytime soon - but we will ‘evolve’ there. It’s inevitable. In the meantime - I believe we should look to embrace the best change that we can get from the latest proposals – rather than lynching. I made the mistake back in ‘91 of believing a PL would only be ‘Division One’ in disguise. Rick Parry and others assured me it wouldn’t, that a PL would look very different. The rest is history - and Parry is back on the scene to help guide more change. If only we’re ready to listen for a moment, not immediately lynch.

 
 

Who’d bet on Pep staying?

Published: Monday, 05 October 2020

Well that caused a bit of a stir didn’t it? The reaction was extra-ordinary. I’ll share it with you.

I’m not talking about the spanking United took - which could easily have happened at Brighton the week before - or the seven that Liverpool somehow shipped at Villa. No - I’m talking about my throw away line that Guardiola could do with asking Big Sam how to get his team to defend properly. I actually added ‘or Roy Hodgson - somebody that knows what they’re doing’.

I was talking with Andy on beINSPORTS. Oh - the Podcast is back by the way - and available on whatever platform you download yours from. As ever - my mind wonders as I write and I digress. But check it out.

So. Guardiola. My point to Andy was simple - and I’ve made it here before. How can any coach spend £400m on defenders - largely centre-backs - and not make any of them better? None of them. Some aren’t even at the club now - and half those that are I’m sure they like to give away. It’s been one failure after another. And Guardiola is supposed to be a ‘super-coach’. In any other business - profligate waste like that would see a line manager sacked. Maybe even a line of managers all the way to the top of the company. It’s scandalous.

Guardiola gets away with it because he’s surrounded by all the people he would wish to be at City - and because there’s no doubt he’s delivered some beautiful football for us to watch. What he hasn’t done - in either Munich or Manchester - is deliver the one trophy he was employed to win. You can refer back to previous blogs for more on that!

Right now City look a bit of a mess. Guardiola was buying more centre backs right up to the time the window shut - whilst leaving others, that he bought in the summer, on the sidelines at Leeds. My mind is wondering off the subject again -another question - how can a club that’s spent billions be short of a centre forward? And why isn’t there one coming through the ranks?

At different times this season City will rip teams apart. But will they still do it to the big teams? That’s how we judge a side - or an individual - on what they do in the big games. James Rodriguez has had a very good start at Everton - but they haven’t played anybody yet. I’d ‘expect’ a player like him to make an impact in the sunshine against second rate opposition. For me - the jury is still out. I’ve been more impressed with Allan. I hope you’re taking notes Mr Reade. I trust you’re also enjoying this blog - and thanks for the mention.

Anyway - Guardiola and defending. Or rather - his inability to make a defender better - or his team ‘solid’.  I couldn’t believe it when what I’d said started trending on Twitter. Of course, a comment like that is always going to stir the die-hards up so the inevitable abuse was going to follow. But - it was when I started getting messages from PL managers - including a late night whats app from across the pond - that I realised I’d hit on something. It seems half the PL have been thinking the way I do. The most common message was ‘spot on’ - time and again.

As much as Guardiola has been able to able to impress those of us who write - those of us who watch - he hasn’t been able to persuade a whole host of his fellow coaches that he invented football.

No-one has ever doubted that City have been a delight to watch at times. The way they held Liverpool off in their last title season was incredible - but they had Vincent Kompany in that side. A player Guardiola didn’t buy.

‘Ah, but he didn’t play in many games’ you’ll hear people say. True. Just the big ones - and he settled those. Same with David Silva last season. Again - I refer you to previous blogs on Guardiola and his spending. I don’t want to get too deeply into it all here.

Another question - why hasn’t Guardiola signed a new contract? I don’t usually stick my neck out with predictions unless I’ve heard something. This is genuinely just a hunch. I don’t believe he’s going to. If he was going to stay - again I ask - why hasn’t he signed a new deal? It can’t be because the financials don’t work. He’s already the highest paid coach in English football history. It can’t be because he hasn’t been allowed to sign players. It certainly isn’t ‘because I have to earn it’ as he said recently. What does that mean? Is he saying he’s so far failed in the job that he was brought in to do? If so - that makes me right again. No - it can’t be for any of the usual reasons. So sign Pep.

My guess is he walks at the end of the season and turns up some little time later in Paris. I’m amazed that Thomas Tuchel is still in charge there. I thought he’d get the sack after the CL final. If he doesn’t start winning a few games soon he still might - but it makes sense to me to keep Tuchel in the job until the owners can make the change that they have always dreamt of.

I could be very wrong. I remember the whole world telling me how wrong I was when I announced that Guardiola was next in line at City a full 18 months before he took the job.  I had good information then so I knew it was going to happen - I repeat - this time it’s just a hunch.

What a weekend it turned out to be. Absolutely incredible. There hasn’t been one like it. There never will be another like it.

The game at Villa Park was a one-off. I was delighted for Villa mind you. Jurgen Klopp spoke really well on the whistle. He didn’t make excuses - he was honest and he took it like a man. Good on him.

But the result At Old Trafford should frighten the life out of United fans. Just as I said Mr Reade as Fergie retired ‘United are eight short’. Again - I got hammered. But they were. Van Persie’s goals covered up a multitude of sins and proved that one player can win a title. Fergie went at the right time and so did David Gill - and David Moyes inherited a mess - top to bottom.

The demise at United reminds me so much of the pain Liverpool inflicted on themselves post Dalglish in 1990. They just kept getting it wrong - throwing bad money after bad. United are making all the same mistakes - and more.

I’m sorry - but step one in any recovery HAS to be to appoint a manager that will tempt big names to join United again. The former manager of Molde and Cardiff isn’t going to do that. Solskjaer looks lost in headlights every time I see him. His appointment was wrong - as I said at the time Mr Reade. Another present. You’re welcome my friend.

How many of the current United team can get better? Rashford can. Fernandes as well. And Wan-Bissaka. Anymore? No. That’s it. The rest are already at their peak or past it. That’s really concerning.

More surgery is required - and this time it’s got to include Mr Ed. He’s way beyond his sell by date. Do you know who I’d put in? Gary Neville. Gary knows the club. He knows how business works and he’s realised that he isn’t a coach. So why not? He really couldn’t do any worse. If United don’t make some serious changes there’s only one way they’re going now. This time it’s critical.

Football isn’t science - it’s art.

Published: Monday, 28 September 2020

What a mess. What an absolute mess. All in the pursuit of perfection. And that’s impossible. It simply isn’t achievable.

I’ve never known a time when football ‘people’ have been so unified. The new handball interpretations are a nonsense. So say Glenn Hoddle, Alan Shearer, Steve Bruce, Jose Mourinho, Roy Hodgson Andy Gray, Mark Halsey - if I named them all I’d be here all day.

Who should we blame? Well certainly not the guys in the middle. They’re just following instructions. They don’t like what’s happening either. How do I know? Look at their body language when they leave the pitch. They’re as bemused as the rest of us and we even have an example of a ref saying as much this weekend.

Kevin Friend awarded Everton the penalty that eventually won the match at Palace. From impeccable sources I’m told that he shared his views with the Palace coaching staff after the game. He didn’t think it was a pen - but having been invited to the monitor to have a look - he gave it.

Now. There’s two things here. Based on the nonsense that we’ve been enduring he was correct. But - he didn’t think it was. So what changed his mind. Is there something more sinister at work here? I’m beginning to think there is.

A season of pressure - mainly from us at beINSPORTS - led to a change in the way we use VAR in the PL. Refs are now asked to look at pitchside monitors when there are ‘subjective’ decisions to be made. Quite right too. The ‘match day’ ref HAS to have the final decision on these things.

Initially I bought into this - not thinking for a moment that Stockley Park were still interfering. Can you think of a ref that’s been invited to a monitor actually standing by his original decision? No. You can’t - because it hasn’t happened. Why? Well - based on what Friend said - I can only think that refs are still being told from the bunker what they should be doing. If so - this is outrageous. Based on what we know of their guv’nor Mike Riley’s ‘control freak’ personality I wouldn’t put it past him.

Why did Chris Kavanagh overturn his decision to give Brighton a pen when Pogba clearly brought Aaron Connolly down? Because Simon Hooper, who was watching in the bunker, told Kavanagh that Conolly had ‘initiated the contact and that it was a dive’. Really? I don’t think so. And what if he had ‘initiated’ the contact? That’s his job in that situation - to get across a defender in the box. Had Kavanagh made a ‘clear and obvious error’? No. He hadn’t. So why was he asked to look at it again? And if it wasn’t a pen - why then did Michael Oliver give Leicester two at City that were identical? Of course it was a pen. Kavanagh should’ve stood his ground. Or was he told to change his mind?

I’m certain the PGMOL will argue to the contrary - but I’m not convinced. Of course, there’s one very easy way for us to be sure - that is to air the conversation that’s taking place. Why not? It happens in other sports. We’ve got VAR for that reason. Let us ALL hear what’s being said - not just sneaky broadcasters who are listening in. You know who you are...🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️ 

I’ve never wavered from this view - football didn’t need VAR. I know we’ve got it and I know it isn’t going away - but our game didn’t need it. Football is art - it’s not a science and we shouldn’t try to make it so. There are grey areas. There always should be grey areas.

We were told that we needed technology because too much is at stake now. Nonsense. Villa are only with us this season because technology - goal line technology and VAR - failed. The point they got against Sheffield United was the very point that kept them up. It’s not their fault - and I know they got 8 more after that game - but what happened is no different to the example I’m always hearing ‘Bolton went in 1997 because a ‘goal’ they got against Everton wasn’t given’. They eventually went on goal difference but would’ve stayed up had they got a point at Chelsea on the last day of the season. To add insult to injury - Everton stayed up. Had Gerry Taggart’s goal against them in the September been given the roles would be been reversed. We can’t cut it both ways.

The madness we’re watching at the moment is an extension of the lawmakers desire to deliver something that’s not achievable - perfection. I repeat - that simply isn’t possible. Even with technology we’re still arguing about decisions - the Brighton pen being a very good example. That’s how it should be - so why do we need VAR?

Another development on that front this week was the news that Pierluigi Collina and Arsene Wenger are close to perfecting a technique that will allow technology to call offside decisions. How do I know that? Because David Dein, one of the arch exponents of VAR, said as much in a presentation to SoccerEx. Heaven help us.

But let’s finish how we started. Who do we blame for the mess that the new handball regulations have inflicted on us? David Roland Elleray is the answer - X PL ref and the current Technical Director of IFAB. The same ref that gave Sky three different reasons for disallowing a Chesterfield goal at Old Trafford in the FA Cup semi-final against Middlesboro. Three reasons - all before he left the ground - and not one of them stood up to examination. The decision almost certainly cost Chesterfield a once in a lifetime chance to play at Wembley. 

Elleray hated tv and refused to ever to talk us again. He made a fool of himself That day and he’s doing it all over again. Stop it. Stop him. Please - this has all gone too far.

PL is full of good players now

Published: Tuesday, 22 September 2020

I really enjoyed Ian Herbert’s piece in The Mail today (Tuesday) on the number of goals being scored in the PL.  It was very well researched and quite thought provoking.

It’s raining goals at the moment. Before the Wolves/City game Herbert told us that right now we’re seeing 3.71 goals per game compared with 2.7 for the entirety of last season. Let’s enjoy it while we can, but that’s not to say the first figure won’t change dramatically during the season. It’s very early days.

The over-riding conclusion is that it’s because the ‘fear factor’ has gone. Because there aren’t any crowds players don’t feel intimidated. The article goes on to tell us that 16% of goals in the opening two weeks have come in the first 10 minutes. No crowd? No problem.  Players are far more relaxed. Well - some players.

I was having a conversation about this very thing with Nigel de Jong on BeINSPORTS. How many times down the years have you heard people say ‘you know, he looks world class in training - but he can’t do it on match days’?

Nigel’s point was that there are players making an impact in games that you might not usually expect to see. They’re now full on ‘Monday to Saturday’ players. This isn’t something that we want to see long term mind you. Top players thrive on crowds - and that’s why we need crowds back - although I fully understand that won’t be any time soon. It’s the top players we go to see. We want them inspired to perform for us. The other lads can go back to doing it ‘Monday to Friday’!

I hate the empty stadiums. I hate the canned crowd noise. I know why it’s there - in case we hear a player or a coach swear. Heaven forbid. Wouldn’t that be awful - especially on a sports channel? When it happens broadcasters go into meltdown - immediately offering apologies. Why? I’m watching a sports channel. That’s exactly where I would expect to hear colourful language.

Any UK show with Jonathan Ross on will be full of ‘f***s’. The word passes for humour in the light entertainment world it seems. It’s the same with any Keith Lemon/Leigh Francis show. And you can hear it across Dave any time of the night and day in dozens of repeats. I couldn’t believe it the other week when Lemon’s Celebrity Juice show was headlining the fact that Philip Schofield used the word c**t. Honestly. I was staggered. So it’s ok for LE - but not sport?

As usual - I digress! I thought the Chelsea game desperately needed a crowd. Liverpool were good - but a full house at The Bridge would’ve helped Chelsea.

It’s not only players relaxing in their new environment. Does anyone think Martin Atkinson would’ve awarded that penalty at Old Trafford had 76,000 been screaming down his neck? I suspect not. Not that he should’ve done - there is no way in the world it was handball.

That’s something we’ve got to sort out. I pointed out last week that Michael Oliver’s award at Anfield was ‘wrong’ in law. I was correct. Why the PGMOL don’t just admit to mistakes I don’t know. By defending Oliver they went on to have to make further errors - but Oliver wasn’t going to get caught twice - which is why he correctly turned down West Ham’s appeals for a pen. The one given to Southampton was a joke. So was Palace’s. And Chris Wood’s goal should never have been given.

On the credit side - I’m delighted to see ‘match’ officials being invited to monitors and making the final decision on subjective matters. This is all we were asking for last season. Mike Riley could easily have changed his mind about the way we were operating but he was too arrogant and VAR was a shambles as a result. It’s better now. Thank you FIFA. What we need next is for our officials to start making correct decisions.

It’s no secret that I don’t like VAR. We didn’t need it - but I’ve always understood that it isn’t going away. It was never going to deliver a game where every decision was agreed by us all. It’s just changed the things we argue about. Chris Wilder was furious after two big calls went against his team at Villa. I happened to agree with Graham Scott on the Egan sending off - but I thought Targett should’ve gone when he conceded the pen. There’s no way he tried to ‘play the ball’ so double jeopardy shouldn’t have applied. See - it’s not possible for VAR to deliver Utopia and get everything right. Thank goodness. We don’t want to watch a game sanitised by technology.

One final point. There’s nothing worse than a broadcaster forgetting he/she is in front of a mic who starts screaming about a perceived injustice to ‘his/her’ team. De Gea moved off his line before he saved Ayew’s pen. Ok - it was only a couple of inches - but if a forward strayed that far off-side he’d expect to be pulled up. I’m afraid that’s the law - and VAR did it’s job on this occasion. No amount of partisan shouting was going to change that.

Who’s paying Jose?

Published: Tuesday, 15 September 2020

I was watching the weekend football thinking about the blog I wrote ahead of the season and wondering how wrong I might end up being about my predictions.

Arsenal won comfortably at ‘nice’ Fulham. It’s too early to draw too many conclusions but it was 90 minutes that gives us an idea of how Fulham’s season could very easily map out. Arsenal won’t have it that easy every week - but the outcome wasn’t a surprise to me.

Leicester’s win at The Hawthorns was all too easy as well. Again. Predictable. But how well did Leeds do at Anfield? What a brilliant marker to lay down. I think Bielsa spooked Klopp. I thought Liverpool looked nervy - but as Champions do - they got the job done. If Leeds don’t run out of steam they‘re going to excite us.

What did I say about Palace? In trouble without Zaha because he’s so often the difference. He was. And Hodgson’s team proved again how difficult they are to break down.

I thought Newcastle looked really good. Steve Bruce has bought well. He said he wanted ‘PL players’ - well he’s got them. It was a dream start for Wilson and Hendrick. I’m not saying that they can gate crash the top four - but perhaps they can the top 6? They could easily be this season’s surprise. I hope so too.

West Ham’s problems were obvious to everybody. I don’t blame David Moyes - he’s working for an impossible trio who always believe they know best and who’ve broken promises to the West Ham faithful time and again. I haven’t been too popular in the East End when I’ve suggested that Hammers’ fans should temper expectations - but perhaps now it’s becoming clearer why I’ve always said that? I defend the right of the owners to run the club as they see fit - but they shouldn’t be making promises they can’t deliver. And they have no intention of delivering.  Champions League? You’re having a laugh.

Everton looked good. James Rodriquez will become a firm favourite at Goodison. He was neat and tidy but I don’t think he affected a great deal. That’s what I expect most weeks. Allan, on the other hand, did Peter Reid’s old jersey justice. He was fantastic. His type are a dying breed, but Ancelotti has found a good one there. And what a good goal from Calvert-Lewin. I’ve said before - there’s something about him that I really like.

Of all the teams I saw at the weekend, it’s Spurs that worry me most. They looked slow, flat - almost dis-interested. I can’t believe that they’ve downed tools so early into Mourinho’s reign, but it certainly looked that way. It’s to be hoped it’s a one-off, but it was concerning.

I heard a whisper the other day that Amazon have been contributing to Mourinho’s wages - that they might even be paying them during the time that the documentary was being made and now aired. Would that surprise us? It would certainly explain why he was so happy to get involved with the project.  I’ve really enjoyed it but there’s no doubt who the star is. Mourinho is box office. I can’t imagine it being as successful had Pocchetino been at Tottenham when it was made. Would that also explain why he was dumped so quickly last season? I don’t know, but I can see the argument. In a world where kit manufacturers now get deals done for clubs - why not? We need somebody with more resources than me on the case to find out more.

What I do know is this. Unless there is a dramatic and fast improvement then Mourinho won’t see Christmas. Well - that is unless Daniel Levy is prepared to turn round eight or nine of that squad and back his man. But he can’t afford to do that. That billion pound stadium is fantastic, but it weighs heavily around Levy’s neck. Do you remember Arsene Wenger explaining how it took Arsenal a decade to acclimatise to their new home? And how it nearly bankrupt them? Whatever happens I can’t see Harry Kane being at Spurs this time next year, so my suggestion that they could be knocking on the door of the top four again could easily be wide of the mark!

Wolves blew Mourinho’s excuses about Spurs being unfit and not ready out of the water. To be clear - he also said his team were ‘lazy in the press’ - not lazy. There’s a huge difference there.

Wolves only reported back to work on Sept 1 and the game at Bramhall Lane was their first of the season. They were great. Questions about ‘second season syndrome’ won’t be long in coming if Sheff United aren’t better next time out.

I loved watching Timo Werner. What a good player he looks. He was sharp, fast, full of running and mischief and he looked worth every penny Chelsea have paid for him. Admittedly, he wasn’t so good 2nd half, but he’d made an impact by then. So no surprises from Chelsea.

And none from Brighton either. Graham Potter wants his team to ‘play the right way’. Good luck to him, but there’s a time and a place. Playing blind square passes on the edge of your own box isn’t it.

Already I’m looking forward to seeing United and City next weekend. We’ll discuss both before they play.

Chelsea will run the Champions closest

Published: Thursday, 10 September 2020

This is never an easy task - but it’s fun. So here goes.

Before I discuss what might happen it’s worth looking back on what I said last time round isn’t it? Yes. It is, because I did well!

I got two out of the bottom three correct. Norwich never had a chance. Bournemouth was an easy call as well. The decline there started a good 18 months before the trap door shut. The form had been awful and they left the PL having made a little piece of unwanted history - becoming the first team to concede 60+ goals in five successive seasons.

I’m not at all surprised that Eddie Howe walked. I was surprised that they appointed Jason Tindall. He’s ‘mini ‘me’. They needed a new direction. A new voice around the club. I fear they could slip straight through the Championship if they’re not careful.

I didn’t get Watford right. If you remember I thought they’d go the year before - a call that didn’t impress Watford fans at the time, but the rot there has been setting in for some time as well. I’m glad they went. I can’t pretend differently. What they did to Nigel Pearson was a disgrace. I said at the time - Graham Taylor would be spinning in his grave. Taylor was a class act and would’ve been ashamed of his club.

I expected either Brighton or Palace to go. I wasn’t far wrong. Both struggled. Palace ended the season losing seven in a row and could easily have gone if they hadn’t collected enough points before the lockdown.

They’re one of my three to go this season - with the same rider as last time - if they don’t hang onto Zaha. He makes the difference. You can’t relax when he’s about - even if he’s having a bad day. It only takes a second to turn a match - and he’s got the ability to do that. Not many have, which is why I expect that he will leave Selhurst before the window closes. Everton and Newcastle could be likely venues for him - if he doesn’t go abroad.

The other thing that might save Palace is that they’re hard to beat. You can’t say that of Brighton. Far too many times last season they were ‘nice’ to play against. They’ll be the same this time. I admire Graham Potter in many ways - but his insistence that his team are ‘City light’ is mis-guided.

I don’t fancy Fulham. They’re also too ‘nice’ to play against. That’s ok if you’ve also got a little bit of ‘devil’ in the team, but they haven’t - although it’ll be interesting to see if Mitrovic can at last cut it in the big league. He likes a fight but they need more than that Twice his goals have got teams out of the Championship, but he’s never been given a fair run at the higher level. It would be good to see him prove one or two people wrong.

I think the Baggies will struggle as well. I’m not convinced that we can judge a team on what has been spent anymore because to some extent the spending has dried during Covid - except at Chelsea of course! But, they look frail in so many areas. I like Bilic and it’s good to have him back, but I fear it won’t be for long. And if they start badly the chances are he won’t make Christmas. They’re not shy when it comes to sacking a manager at The Hawthorns.

Unlike many I fancied Sheffield United to settle. They’ve done good business again in the summer - albeit limited. They’ll have to be aware of ‘second season syndrome’, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be ok again. Chris Wilder has got something special going on there. Re-signing Phil Jagielka was clever. His ‘type’ are in short supply these days.

After their big spend I wasn’t expecting Villa to struggle as they did. A lack of goals was a major problem. Ollie Watkins should help in that respect, but I still think they’re short. Perhaps they should go again and get Josh King?

I mentioned those two before Leeds because they both proved you can stay. After 16 years away it’s great to have Leeds back. It’s not Leeds as we knew it, but I do wish them well. In a normal season I’d suggest the Elland Road crowd would be worth a half dozen points to them - but, with no-one in the stadiums for at least 4-6 weeks, they haven’t got they advantage initially.

I like Newcastle’s business. It’s not the superstars that Geordies were hoping for, but I’m not convinced it ever would’ve been. Callum Wilson is solid. Ryan Fraser will be desperate to prove he’s a good player. Joelinton has got to have a better season surely? I’d say top half.  Steve Bruce would become a legend if he could deliver a trophy. And he just might. 

Southampton, Burnley and Leicester will be fine although I’m not convinced Leicester can repeat what they did last time out. If you analyse their season you’ll find that VAR was very kind to them in the early months. That changed after Christmas and all of a sudden they were losing tight matches on equally tight calls. From a nailed on top four finish they slid dramatically. This season will be a real test for Brendan Rodgers.

I really didn’t expect to see Wolves have such a good season, but it wasn’t a fluke. They were terrific and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t go again.

Everton? Anything other than a top half finish would be a total failure. Having appointed Ancelotti they had to back him, but I’m not convinced by James Rodriguez. If he was top drawer he wouldn’t be signing for Everton, whoever was in charge. I wouldn’t fancy him at Stoke on a wet Tuesday evening in November, but he’ll look great when the Toffees are 2-up at home. For Everton to make an impact, he’s GOT to dominate games. If I was Ancelotti I’d be going after Troy Deeney. That’s what Everton need - Reid and Gray again. Deeney would be fantastic around the club. Like Jagielka, he’s a ‘proper’ bloke.

I hope the Hammers go well. David Moyes is right - they’re the one PL club where you still see huge potential. Again, top half is both a must and achievable.

And so we come to those that should be fighting for a place in the top four.

Admittedly, it didn’t take a genius to predict a Liverpool title win, but I was one of those that thought Klopp would end 30-years of hurt.

They’ve got to be favourites this time, but they won’t run away with it. I’m going with Chelsea to stay the course best with them. Despite the spending, they’re still short defensively, but they might cover that by getting plenty of goals at the other end. I expect Christian Pulisic to be their stand out performer.

United aren’t ready for a title push, not even with Sancho - if they get him. Although why they want him with Greenwood ready now I just don’t know.

I didn’t think I’d be tipping Spurs for the top 4 until I saw All or Nothing. We’ve always known that Mourinho likes a camera and he knows where they are in the documentary! What also comes across strongly is that , he’s a master at getting in players’ heads. They’re probably ‘light’ if the truth be told, but Mourinho will win them games that they used to roll over in.

Having won twice at Wembley this summer a lot is expected of Arteta and Arsenal. Keeping Aubameyang was vital, but there’s still a lot of work to do at The Emirates.

And so to City. Is Nathan Ake the answer to their problems? No. He’s not. Is he better then what they’ve got? No. He’s not. So they’ve got all the same issues at the back. Are they stronger in general? No. They’re not. Losing Silva is a massive blow. Not many are irreplaceable on a football pitch, but he is. Aguero is a year older. Is Jesus ready to play more? Is he good enough? Well he’s not Aguero that’s for sure.

City will win games in a canter at times - but they’ll lose more than they should. I don’t see them finishing in the top two.

So here goes. 1. Liverpool 2. Chelsea 3. City. 4. United.

22. Fulham. 21. West Brom. 20. Palace.

Whatever else - enjoy your season. And if you’re fortunate enough to be able to watch it unfold with us on BeINSPORTS - I’ll see you Saturday. All 380 games are live with us.

Soccer Saturday - a history lesson

Published: Monday, 07 September 2020

I’m in quarantine so this could be a long one. There isn’t much else to do. It’s a great system mind you. I was Covid tested at the airport when I arrived back in Qatar - which took 5 minutes. Immediately I was on my way and the negative result came within 24 hours. Now I lock down for 7 days. What’s not to like Boris? Or is it too simple a system for a shambles of a Tory Govt that’s stumbled from one disaster to the next during Covid?

Anyway. New season predictions will follow later in the week. I know how much you like them! In the meantime let’s discuss Sky’s Soccer Saturday. It’s a brilliant show. It’s been the best of its type for more than 20 years. But it was tired and very predictable when it ended it’s run last season. It needed shaking up.

Sky have been heavily criticised for making changes - but I’d say they’ve come five years too late. Everything changes. It’s only natural. Thommo, Charlie and Le Tiss have done their bit - and in their pomp they were terrific. But it really was time to go time. My only surprise is that Sky didn’t change it all - Merse and Stelling included. Why not?

Is it nose-ist to mention Thommo’s beak? Phil eventually started taking the piss out of himself about his nose - but that wasn’t always the case. He didn’t find it very funny when Robbie Fowler lashed a ball at him - and mentioned the size of it - as they argued one day at Melwood. Thompson was collecting other balls from behind the net as the one Robbie hit nearly smashed into his face! That nose also got me banned as a young radio reporter. 😂.

Ray Clemence was interviewing Kenny Dalglish for his show in the canteen at Anfield. Clem hated interviewing Kenny. He was always nervous. Half way through Thommo came in and stuck his finger up Kenny’s nose. Clem described the scene so as to explain why his interviewee had been temporarily put off. ‘Phil Thompson has just come in and put his finger up Kenny’s nose’, he said. Quick as a flash Kenny retorted ‘aye - he could pick his own with a boxing glove on’. Brilliant. Thommo looked at me and said ‘if you run that you’re banned’. I ran it. 😂😂

Charlie was always a regular on Andy’s golf trips at the end of every season. Andy would pay for everything - flights, accommodation, food, drinks - the lot. I like Charlie but I was disappointed that he didn’t think to call Andy when we left Sky. The silence was deafening. But he wasn’t alone.

And Le Tiss scored one of (sorry Matt, there’s been so many more) my favourite ever goals - the first v Newcastle at The Dell - up, over and round - then tuck it past Mike Hooper. Not many goals have had me out of my seat, but that one did.

So I know the boys well and I can only thank them for what they put in during the time that we all worked together.

Were I still in the U.K. I can’t imagine I’d still be fronting matches for Sky. I’ve said many times - the changes that were made were to be expected - but it was the manner in which we left Sky that was wrong. They sacked Andy.  I quit. Then they set about trying to destroy us.  But that’s for another time. I remember my friend in make-up, Jill Shaylor, saying many times ‘I really don’t know what they’ll do when you’re gone. They rely on you for everything’. My reply was always the same ‘It’ll be fine Jill. No-one is irreplaceable’.

So I have to admit to a little surprise that Jeff Stelling threw his toys out of the pram when the process of change started on Soccer Saturday. He’s older than me. Jobs aren’t easy to come by in our business right now - let alone at our age. Resign? Don’t be so daft. That was never going to happen. And trust me Jeff, the programme will go on anyway.

Soccer Saturday has evolved very nicely from its inception - when Paul Dempsey was the host and the guests were Clive Allen, Frank McLintock and Alan Brazil. The first producer was a friend of mine - Mark Schofield. Reluctant producer I should add.

Mark spent his early tv years at the BBC and played a big part in getting Grandstand to air on a weekly basis. My time at the Beeb was limited to a spell as a stats man - and I wasn’t a very good one! Poor Bob Wilson - to this day I’m not sure I ever really helped him out. I was his ‘mistakes’ man on Football Focus. Find the error - that was my job. What a nice guy by the way. Bob has been a life long friend - a rare beast that’s always thinking about how he can help others.

Anyway - I digress. I told you this could be a long one. I’ve made two cups of tea while tapping away! 

Mark got the job of ‘shaping’ our new Saturday results show because of his experience at the BBC, but he wasn’t happy. He actually said to me ‘we really shouldn’t be going up against Grandstand - it’s an institution’. I said ‘Mark, that’s exactly why we should be going up against it. Our long term aim should be to take it down’.

His first format was never going to work. Those of a certain generation will remember that Grandstand would take phone inserts from reporters at stadiums, but the guys were often in front of cameras at the end of the match. They did this by watching the first half before jumping in a taxi and relying on information about the second-half from someone like me, who would call the studio. They’d work the detail into a 40 second in-vision report.

This was the way Mark worked the early shows. He’d have the guys in the studio - send them behind a screen to do phone reports during the game -and have them back in their seats on the final whistle. Why? I told him ‘leave the guys where they are. Keep them in vision  We know they’re in the studio - we’ve seen them at five to three and at five past you’re trying to pretend they’re at a game’. His turn - ‘why?’ he said. ‘Because it’s daft’ I replied. Mark didn’t get time to make that change - he left us soon after.

So I put the same idea to his successor, Andrew ‘Buzz’ Hornet. He looked at me blankly and asked the same question Mark had. ‘I don’t know’, I said. ‘Who knows? It could create a really good atmosphere’. That’s literally how it happened, but success has many fathers - only failure is a bastard. The rest is history - and Buzz went on to describe himself in many future job interviews as the ‘greatest producer of his generation’.

Faces continued to change. George Best was drafted in. So was Rodney Marsh. To be fair to our former Head of Sport, Vic Wakeling, always said George would have a job with us until he died. He did. And he was great value. So was Rodney.

Vic’s deputy, Andy Melvin, wanted me to host the show on an occasion when Stelling had taken more time off. Jeff had a habit of doing that a lot in those days. We didn’t holiday in the football season and he had to come into line to keep his job.  Vic blocked it ‘I’m not having you fill in for anybody’ he told me. I wasn’t sure whether I was flattered! I’d have loved a go at it. You couldn’t really get it wrong. The stats guys are the real heroes. Sir David Frost wouldn’t ever wear an ear piece - but he’d have been sunk presenting that show without one!

So Soccer Saturday has evolved. It will continue to do so like everything else. It did end up taking down Grandstand - but not before giants like Peter Dimmock, David Coleman. Frank Bough and Des Lynam had all come and gone. It’s what happens. It has to happen. I wouldn’t be making too many more noises about resigning if I were the current host. Rich men don’t talk about doing deals - they announce them when they’re done. Never talk about resigning - unless you intend to.

I can't see Messi at City

Published: Thursday, 27 August 2020

I might be wrong. Occasionally I am! But I really can’t see Lionel Messi at Manchester City.

There are a number of very good reasons - all of which could be overcome if all parties really want to make the deal - but I’m not convinced.

I understand that Messi is deeply pissed off right now, but he has no right to be. Barcelona have been fantastic to him. He’s earned trillions whilst enjoying privilege at the club that no player in history ever has. He’s run the place for 15 years. Granted - he’s delivered. I watched him single handedly destroy Arsenal one evening at the Camp Nou. It was an individual performance the likes of which I’d never seen - and haven’t seen since. He can do things with a football that leave you breathless. He’s a genius - but, he’s an ageing genius.

He’s 33 now and can’t dominate individuals, games or teams like he once did. It’s always been the case that if you had Messi (or similar if such a thing exists) then somebody else in your team is going to have to put the work of two men into 90 minutes. Or, as a collective, the rest have got to put in an extra shift. That’s why he liked playing with Neymar so much - if he was walking about for 10 minutes a little disinterested, then Neymar would come alive. They worked well together. And Busquets did the dirty bits.

But as Messi has aged so too have Barca. As a collective they’re not the force they once were. That’s painfully obvious. Messi cuts a lonely and frustrated figure. He knows his powers are waning.

Messi doesn’t speak English. Not an insurmountable problem, but an issue. And whatever you read or hear - he doesn’t like Guardiola and Guardiola doesn’t like him. It is well known within football circles that Guardiola realised it was time to leave Barca when Messi told him ‘never do that to me again’ after he’d been subbed. Messi’s power are the club exceeded that of Guardiola.

So why would they want to get it back on now?  As I’ve said, Messi is a fading force. Does he really fancy his chances in the PL at 33? Gonzalo Higuain went back to Italy complaining PL defenders are ‘built like wardrobes and kick the shit out of you’. Our league is a whole lot more intense than any other in Europe.

We don’t yet know if Messi will win a fight to leave Barca. They claim a release clause of something like €680m - he says he can leave on a free because last season ran past May and finished in August - so he’s into his last year and the clause has lapsed.

Guardiola demands work from his teams. Do you remember how many times he’d go after Aguero in the early days of their relationship? Aguero was scoring goals - but not working. Guardiola left him out until he got the message. So where would that put Messi?

Serious question - would any City fan drop De Bruyne to fit him in? No chance.

Messi is class. But he also needs class around him. That’s why he’s failed to cut it at international level. Players representing Argentina weren’t as good as those at Barca.

If - and I still believe it’s if - Messi leaves Barca I can’t see any other sensible destination for him than Italy. Ibra is still getting away with it in that league approaching 40. Messi would tear it up in a very different way to Ronaldo.

Ronald Koeman has set his stall out. A big piece of me understands that he wants to make an impression. I remember Terry Venables going in at Barca and doing the same. He sold Maradona - which shook football at the time - but we found out why. He had issues that the whole world has since become aware of.

Koeman has decided to go looking for trouble. Big mistake. Don’t go looking - there’s plenty that will find you. A fight with Messi will have exactly that - a messi ending - and right now I can’t see any winners.