Kick Off

Bilic Back at the Boleyn
Rob Shepherd charts his journey back to Upton Park

by Rob Shepherd.

Bilic the boss.

Bilic the boss.

Slaven Bilic has been West Ham’s manager in waiting not for the past few weeks but for nine years.

Not long after they had bought the club in 2006 the east London club’s previous Icelandic owners opted to sack Alan Pardew just a few months after the club had lost to Liverpool on penalties.

Bilic was in the frame but at the time he had just graduated from managing Croatia’s under-21 team to taking charge of the senior side and with a deep sense of loyalty to his country could not even be tempted to talk.

So Alan Curbishley took the reins. After his unfortunate departure Bilic was again mentioned in dispatches but the former Hammers hierarchy were seduced by the idea Gianfranco Zola could sprinkle stardust.

After David Gold and David Sullivan rescued the club from going to the wall and concluded that Zola the manager was never going to be Zola the player, Bilic was in the frame again but they opted for what they thought were the safe hands of Avram Grant.

When it came to replacing Grant after relegation, Bilic was still entrenched with the Croatia national team and also felt he needed more miles on the clock in club football before taking a big job in the Premier League or Bundesliga.

Those miles have been stacked up with a rough time at Lokomotiv Moscow and successful stint with Besiktas in Turkey.

So when he quit Besiktas last month it seemed he a was shoo-in to take over from Sam Allardyce.

Indeed there is little doubt Bilic would have been sounded-out by third parties some months ago when it was clear the Allardyce era would be over this summer.

But in football always beware the phrase ‘done deal’ and the machinations of myriads of agents trying to hustle a move or a new deal for their client.

Suddenly managers with better CV’s than Bilic’s were either available or being touted around.

Jurgen Klopp, Rafa Benitez, Frank de Boer, Marcelo Bielsa, Unai Emery… all seemed better than Bilic when it came to ‘going foreign’.

Then there were the cases for the young bright English managers such as Eddie Howe and Gary Monk. Or David Moyes. The idea of bringing Harry Redknapp back was even discussed.

The over riding factor was: Which manager would make sure the team stays in the Premier League for their move to the Olympic Stadium in 2017..?

Bilic was a big hit at West Ham

Bilic was a big hit at West Ham

For the past month or so David Sullivan has agonized with all the options and attempted to get full approval of co-owner David Gold and vice-chairman Karren Brady.

It has not been easy to task.

Benitez was the one they thought ticked most of the boxes but when Real Madrid came calling then a decision between the Bernebau and the Bolyen was an obvious one for the Spaniard.

Moyes made it clear he would carry on rebuilding his career at Real Socidead and didn’t fancy stepping into the shoes of his pal Big Sam.

Then as the process spun out there became a nagging feeling that maybe some of those on the ‘long list’, or at least their advisors, were using West Ham’s situation as a way of filling their boots with new contracts at their existing clubs.

All the while Bilic remained an option despite reservations that he had not managed a club in one of the ‘big leagues’.

Bilic could easily have taken umbridge that the club was on a recruitment carousel and jumped off.

Instead he sealed himself off holidaying with his family back near his home in Split. He refused to comment publicly or even take calls. He just viewed the situation phlegmatically.

Why wouldn’t a club making such a big decision go through their options..?

And as they did the realization set in that no one could possibly tick all the boxes and that Bilic ticked most. He also wanted the job, not just the money.

He knows the English scene, he is tactically astute if not innovative, and most of all he is a strong commanding character that gets players playing for him and the cause.

And Bilic is big on causes – as I first found out not long after Redknapp signed him from German club Karlsruhe in 1996.

Redknapp signed Bilic from German side Karlsruhe

Redknapp signed Bilic from German side Karlsruhe

I had arranged to do an interview with Bilic at West Ham’s Chadwell Heath training ground. But Bilic didn’t want to do it there. He wanted more relaxed surrounds and wanted to find out what an old fashioned ‘normal’ British pub was like.

So I took him a few miles down the road to the Moby Dick just off the A12.

I walked in and asked him what he wanted: “A pint of milk,” he replied.

“Pardon ?”

“Oh I don’t drink. I just wanted to see what a pub looks like.”

He didn’t drink but boy did he smoke back then. In the hour or so we chatted he puffed his way through half a pack of Marlboro Red!

As he did so his passion for a cause became clear as he discussed his fierce patriotism for Croatia at a time when the bitter turmoil of civil war as a consequence of the break-up of Yugoslavia was still a recent painful memory.

Bilic took his passion on to the pitch for the Hammers and a year later when Everton agreed to sign him in March (the days before the transfer window) he insisted he stay on and play for West Ham until they pulled themselves away from relegation battle.

When he moved into management with his home town club of Hadjuk Split after his career was cut short by injury there always seemed a sense of destiny that Bilic would one day return to West Ham as manager.

It has been a long time coming, and the process in recent weeks was starting to become exhausting, but in the end the Hammers have a new manager who will not only promote more expansive football but will demand the players perform with pride and passion or in other words restore the “West Ham” way.

@Shep_62

Good Luck Greavsie
Rob Shepherd on what Jimmy Greaves means to him

by Rob Shepherd.

Jimmy-GreavesThere have been so many fine words written about Jimmy Greaves in the last few days since it was revealed he had been admitted into hospital following a severe stroke. The most recent reports say Greavsie is making a spirited recovery. Let’s hope so.

Of all the fine words, the best piece was by Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail.

As ever it was a finely crafted piece by Martin but had an added edge, since for several years Martin ghosted Jimmy Greaves’s column in The Sun.

Despite being from a younger generation than 75 year-old Greaves, 51 year-old Martin knew the man better than most in many ways.

For a generation growing up in the Sixties he was a legend who transcended club loyalties. In an era when it was still the People’s Game, Jimmy Greaves was the People’s Player.

So while many can spin out all the statistics, and in some cases re-write the Wikipedia potted history, few were able to hone in on what really made Jimmy special like Martin.

It’s worth a read (click here) but from my perspective here is a short snap-shot of what Jimmy Greaves was all about.

As great a player as he was, Greaves retained the humility of a boy who grew up in East London’s Dagenham council estate in the charterer building post war years.

When he rebuilt his life (after his playing career ended and, for a while, descended into a battle against the bottle) as a TV pundit and presenter, Greaves’ catchphrase was: ‘It’s a funny old game.’

And that is how Greaves saw football… and still does.

He scored for fun and feels the game should still be fun for all the financial trappings.

It is why he finds it hard to warm to the modern game, driven as it is by money, corporate concerns and play-acting players. Often given the choice Greaves would rather watch a rugby international or Test match over a pot of tea in his living room than a Premier League match or even an England international.

Would Greaves have thrived in the modern game..? It depends;

As a free scoring forward? Of course he would. Harry Redknapp recently remarked that for those seeking a contemporary comparison with Greaves then they should think Lionel Messi.

Indeed Greaves’ overall club record of 422 goals in 602, for Chelsea, AC Milan, Tottenham and West Ham is still better than that of Messi’s as it stands. For England his record of 44 goals in 57 games works out at around a goal every 117 minutes.

But as a football celebrity and sponsor’s show pony..? Probably not.

GreavesEngland

Greaves scored 44 times for England

Even though Greaves enjoyed a successful TV and media career after he pieced his life back together the day after he had his last alcoholic drink (February 28 1978), he shunned many of the things that went with his new found fame, especially the showbiz soiree’s. He didn’t like all the fuss and also felt the need to avoid temptation.

Greaves actually took more pride in the success of his media career than that of his phenomenal playing days because he had to work hard at the former and modestly felt he was simply a ‘natural footballer’ – a point he reaffirmed at an after-dinner speech he made recently.

There are so many tales that can be told about Greaves.

And many have in recent days, not least correcting the myth that he hit the bottle after missing out on playing in England’s World Cup winning team because of injury. The heavy drinking problems hit in the twilight of his career, around the turn of the seventies when he reluctantly moved from Tottenham to West Ham.

For me though there is one tale which sums up Greaves, the brilliant footballer and diamond geezer.

220 goals for Spurs

220 goals for Spurs

It was told to me by former England manager Terry Venables who played with Greaves at both Chelsea and Spurs.

Venables, three years younger than Greaves, had just broken into the Chelsea first team. It was 1960. Like Greaves, Venables had been brought up in Dagenham.

By now Greaves was living in the slightly more salubrious East London suburb of Gants Hill. Eager to look after the teenage Venables he told him to meet him in a café in Gants Hill on the morning of a game against West Bromwich Albion.

Venables takes up the tale: “I got two buses and met up with Jimmy in this café just after midday.

“Back then there was no such thing as a team pre-match meal let alone an overnight stay. You made your own way to the ground. Jimmy had a car – a Ford Poplar – and took me under his wing insisting I get a lift rather than take the long journey on the District line.

“But he insisted we have something to eat ahead of the match. Even back then I was conscious of what to eat, so I just had some grilled chicken, a few boiled potatoes and a cup of tea. A light meal, not a million miles from what players would have today, although maybe not so close to kick-off.

Venables celebrates with Greaves

Venables celebrates with Greaves

“Then the waiter turned to Jimmy. To my astonishment he ordered a full roast! The works; roast beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pud and lots of gravy and a cuppa.

“He whoofed that down. I thought we would get on the road since it was getting close to 1pm. But now Jimmy insisted on having some apple crumble and custard plus another cuppa.

“Now back then the roads were so clear that the drive from Gants Hill – which could take up to an hour and a half these days – was done in under an hour so we were in the dressing room comfortably for the allotted 2pm.

“Even so I felt Jimmy had eaten rather a lot before a big game. But it was December it was cold and Jimmy explained he needed some ‘fuel’ inside him.

“He obviously knew what he was doing. We beat West Brom 7-1 that day and Jimmy scored the first FIVE.”

Funny old game indeed.

Good luck Greavsie.

@iLShep

Scholes Take Note: Cup Football Is No Measuring Stick For League Quality

by Rob Shepherd.

ScholesMedia2

Paul Scholes rarely spoke to the press when he played for Manchester United or England.

He didn’t seem to like or trust the media at all.

Ironically, he now earns a living from the industry in print and on TV, he can’t stop making sweeping statements or acerbic critiques of individuals.

Often, it makes the very sort of engaging copy he once apparently despised.

But one of the reasons to employ an ex-pro player is that they offer insight and perspective. Or at least it’s supposed to be.

Last week, though, Scholes jumped on the knee-jerk bandwagon of demeaning the standard of English football on the basis the three remaining Premier League teams were knocked out of the Champions League.

The hyperbole suggested the Premier League game is falling behind the rest of Europe in terms of quality.

I hear the argument that the Premier League is over hyped….but let’s just have a reality check here.

Chelsea and Arsenal were eliminated on the basis of the antiquated away goals rule. Manchester City lost to an outstanding Barcelona team who continue to be inspired by the astonishing Messi.

Put Messi into the City team and they would have won the tie.

And another thing – when it comes to knockout football there are game changing moments which often boil down to luck or fortune. Had Arsenal scored a third in the closing minutes in Monaco to win 3-0 and so go through – and they came agonisingly close – the narrative would be a tad different.

Let’s not forget the decisive away goal in the first leg that took Monaco through was scored because of a silly individual error by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had inspired Arsenal back into the game at the Emirates.

Agreed, there may be something deeper about Arsene Wenger’s approach having failed at this stage of the CL for five successive seasons.

But that should not be a slight on the standard of the Premier League, which by the way has a pretty strong cosmopolitan influence.

In Chelsea’s case, they were outdone by a PSG team who don’t suffer much stress week-to-week in the French League.

Indeed perhaps one of the main reasons four (the maximum thus the best allowance) English teams have all gone out of the Champions League before the quarter-finals is they may have been drained by the demands of the Premier League, which is certainly more competitive from top to bottom than any other league in the world.

Scholes should know that.

He should know that in knockout football sometimes shit happens. Like in 2004, when United had a goal wrongly disallowed at Old Trafford and then in stoppage time Francisco Costinha notched a goal that took Porto into the quarter finals just when it seemed United would prevail on away goals.

It was, you might recall, the night a certain Jose Mourinho announced himself to the world with his touchline celebration.

Porto went on to beat Monaco in the final. And a previously unknown Mourinho..?

Well, you know that story. But what if Scholes’s goal had stood.

The point..?

Over the course of a 38 game season Chelsea are better than PSG, Arsenal are better than Monaco and, yes, when Messi plays, Barca are better than City.

But in cup football form goes out of the window – the FA Cup taught us that a century ago.

There is also the aspect that the knockout stage of the Champions League comes just at a time when the Premier League is hitting critical mass.

After all how many BIG games do Monaco, PSG or Barcelona face in a season?

So the real debate, especially from the people who are meant to know – ie, ex-pros like Scholes – is should the Premier League introduce a two-week winter break?

That would surely help the cause of English clubs in Europe and the England national team.

Oh, and by the way, Scholes’ latest statement is that Real Madrid would win the Premier League by 10-15 points.

It would be great to put it to the test but as it stands such a statement is just another soundbyte guesstimate.

@iLShep

Allardyce: Scrap Yellow Cards & Introduce Sin-Bins Instead!

Continue reading “Allardyce: Scrap Yellow Cards & Introduce Sin-Bins Instead!” »

LVG Bailed Out By Blind!
United Look Lost Tactically As Rooney is Wasted Out Wide

by Rob Shepherd.

louis-van-gaal

Louis van Gaal was left scratching his head at Upton Park

Louis van Gaal had the look of the emperor with new clothes as West Ham outplayed, outfought and out-thought Manchester United – until, that was, the final minutes when he was bailed out by Daley Blind.

United had been bereft of any attacking ideas despite what had seemed, on the face of it, fielding a team of offensive possibilities. At times it was a bit like the blind leading blind until Blind’s intervention.

But just when it seemed the Hammers had done enough to earn a deserved victory – they had indeed wasted a couple of late chances to seal it – Blind picked up the pieces of a half-cleared free-kick and did what none of the United forwards had managed all afternoon by producing an emphatic finish.

On the evidence of this though Van Gaal needs to get back to his whiteboard, and whatever other tools he uses, and find a formation that works. More to the point, one that doesn’t waste Wayne Rooney.

A couple of weeks ago, Van Gaal declared that playing 4-4-2 gave him a twitchy ‘a***’, saying that he felt more secure with a 3-5-2 or a variant of it. It was certainly a squeaky-bum afternoon for the United manager.

It was a turn-up for the books when Van Gaal fielded an unchanged team from their previous Premier League match; last week’s 3-1 home win over Leicester.

And it was once again 4-4-2 with a twist… the midfield was set out in a diamond shape. In that respect, you could describe the formation as 4-1-2-1-2.

Blind operated as the anchor man ahead of a back four, Rooney played towards the right, Adnan Januzaj to the left, with Angel di Maria roaming in the hole behind two front-runners Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao.

It is seen as a way of of getting all of United’s best attackers in the same team but as the game started to take shape it didn’t work that way, and Rooney looked lost most of the time.

The England captain found himself shuttling up and down, somewhere between right-midfield and and inside-right, and often embroiled in a battle with West Ham skipper Kevin Nolan.

If Rooney is deployed in a deeper role surely it should be more advanced, in the hole. Indeed it wasn’t long before it appeared United would have been better served had Rooney and Di Maria swapped roles. After all, Di Maria is naturally a wide player who thrives when he has space ahead of him to exploit his pace and trickery running at defenders.

As it was, the Argentine found it hard to find space, constantly crowded out by West Ham’s busy midfield and a direct pathway to Van Persie and Falcao was usually blocked by Alex Song who played the holding role for the Hammers. It meant United’s two strikers were starved of service not least because of a lack of width.

Rooney was reluctant to go wide, and his passing was too often square and safe. Januzaj just couldn’t get into the game.

Rooney looked lost played out wide

Rooney looked lost played out wide

Nor did the front two do much to help themselves. Both Van Persie and and Falcao were too static, making it easy for James Tomkins and make-shift centre-back Cheikhou Kouyate to keep them under wraps.

What, on paper, seemed to be a team full of attacking possibilities could not even get close to opening up the West Ham defence in the first half; keeper Adrian only having to make one save of note from a speculative Di Maria shot.

In contrast, West Ham’s similar diamond system was more fluid and full of possibilities. That was because West Ham’s two strikers Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho offered much more movement, as did Stewart Downing who operated as the tip of the diamond

While Di Maria was bogged down in the middle, Downing roamed around with menace and flitted from wing to wing.

Injury to Andy Carroll meant that Valencia and Sakho started together for the first time since the beginning of the season when Carroll wasn’t fit. Their pace, energy and finishing was one of the main reasons the Hammers got off to such a good start.

And there was a good case to argue that Carroll’s absence was a blessing of sorts. Without the long high-ball option into the big centre-forward, West Ham played a much slicker passing game, and the two strikers were a constant threat.

Kouyate-goal

Kouyate fired West Ham ahead

While United’s defence looks far more sound and settled than it was at the start of the campaign – ironically with a back four that Van Gaal does not favour – there were still several alarms in the first half; West Ham just lacked a precise final ball or finish.

But that changed just four minutes after the break. Indecision in United’s defence from a set-piece, and weak work by Rooney, allowed Cheikhou Kouyate to bring the ball down from a free-kick, before swivelling to lash home. It was an exciting finish, but it was poor defending.

United responded by upping their tempo – but only a bit. It was still too predictable, lacking in pace and nous. And Van Gaal offered nothing in any inspiration from the sidelines. He just sat in his seat on the bench and stared blankly. His only idea to change things was to take off Januzaj and bring on Marouane Fellaini.

Van Gaal claimed the introduction of Fellaini was a ‘plan B’ but all it amounted to was United hitting more long balls. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce couldn’t resist smirking at the irony of that .

In the end the only way he could see United getting back into the game was to go route one.

So much for the tactical genius of the supposed Dutch master.

@iLShep

 

Louis van Gaal can Forget Winning the Title at Manchester United with 3-5-2

by Rob Shepherd.

Louis van Gaal insists the way forward for Manchester United is to ditch the 4-4-2 formation.

If that is the case then it would seem unlikely United will ever win the English league title under their Dutch manager.

Why..? Just take the Premier League years for a start.

Since its inception in 1992 every title winner – Manchester United, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – have played with four at the back.

Mostly their formations have been 4-4-2, with variations on that theme.

In recent seasons there has been a move to 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 and twists to those basic shapes often in the guise of an anchor midfielder. But the bedrock has been the same: four at the back.

And, prior to that, no team that won the old First Division did so playing with three at the back on a regular basis.

There were occasions in the Eighties and Nineties when Liverpool –Lawrenson. Hansen, Gillespie – and Arsenal – Bould, O’Leary, Adams (and later Keown) did play 3-5-2 on their way to titles, although in the case of the Gunners under George Graham it was more like 5-3-2. 

This five at the back line-up was at times akin to the famous catenaccio tactic favoured in Italy for decades until AC Milan swept all before them with 4-4-2.

24FB81D000000578-2923481-image-a-32_1422022605482But essentially you would have to go back to the 1950s to see when three at back was the rule rather than the exception in England as the old ‘W-M’ formation evolved into what became the accepted shape of a team numbered one to 11 (pictured right).

1 Goalkeeper, 2 Right back, 3 Left back, 4 Right half, 5 Centre half, 6 Left half, 7 Right winger, 8 Inside right, 9 Centre forward, 10 Inside left, 11 Left winger.

This was 2-3-2-3 or 3-2-2-3 depending how deep the centre half sat.

It was under Ron Greenwood at West Ham at the start of the Sixties that 4-4-2 was really born in England when he withdrew his No 6 (a certain Bobby Moore) to play alongside the centre half in the role of attacking centre back rather than defensive midfielder.

Four at the back then became de rigueur. Most teams played 4-2-4, which is 4-4-2 with attacking wingers. But after ditching his during England’s 1966 World Cup win, Alf Ramsey and his ‘wingless wonders’ defined for some time the English way.

Van Gaal has said this system makes his ‘ass twitch’ because it unbalances his Manchester United team, even though they have won more games this season playing that way than in any other shape. 

Although Van Gaal never played a senior match for Ajax he was brought up in the Sixties and Seventies at the club which became famed for creating Total Football. It was essentially a fluid 3-4-3 which came to the fore with Holland at the 1974 World Cup finals.

The great irony is that the man who would have created Van Gaal’s mistrust in the English way was, well, English.

The guru of Total Football – according to the kingpin of Ajax and Holland at the time, Johann Cruyff – was Victor Frederick Buckingham who was born in London in 1915.

Buckingham played as a wing half for Tottenham between the wars. In 1959 he quit as West Bromwich Albion manager to take over at Ajax for two seasons. He returned for another spell in 1964 setting down the Total Football template.

soc_g_germanyholland_sy_576

Holland’s formation in the World Cup of 1974 was a fluid 3-4-3 with Cruyff the star man up front

While Cruyff dismisses Van Gaal as a control freak he eulogises about Buckingham, who at the start of the Seventies was manager of Barcelona (yes, really), the club where Cruyff would star as a player then a coach, laying down the foundations of the mighty team we have seen in recent years.

But Barca even in this ‘modern era’ (as if men like Buckingham were not ‘modern’ in their day ) play four at the back, although their shape like great rivals Real Madrid is a 4-3-3.

In short it’s the surest way of defending across the width of the pitch. If you have attacking full backs in that system then you have to have one or perhaps two midfielders who are prepared to hold. That’s also known as flexibility.

Of course it is naive to label and pigeon-hole formations. At any given time of a game you will see one shape morphing into another. But even the best teams need a starting shape. 

Essentially the great Brazil team of 1970 was 4-4-2. But with so many great players and great movement the front six was more a carousel than a system.

There is another irony here: at international tournaments since 1966 England have performed better when ditching 4-4-2.

In 1990 under Bobby Robson and then France 98 under Glenn Hoddle England played with 3-5-2 sweeper system, more like Germany of those days, and did well.

Although Terry Venables’s ‘christmas tree’ system at Euro 96 had a back four it was a long way from rigid straight lines of 4-4-2 that can limit a team and even promote the long ball as it did in Graham Taylor’s England.

But, as wise managers will say, the bottom line is identifying what shape suits your players best. Generally the better players a manager has, the better his team will be.

Glenn-Hoddle-001

Hoddle was a regular user of the 3-5-2.

For a while at Swindon and then Chelsea, Hoddle saw some success with 3-5-2. Harry Redknapp has used the system with various teams from time to time. Howard Wilkinson did so at Notts County and then Sheffield Wednesday. But they are exceptions and not the rule.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United enjoyed season after season of success using 4-4-2, often with a twist, which usually saw the second striker operate as a No 10.

The rest of Fergie’s tactics were pretty straightforward: a back four, two central midfielders working in tandem (one ‘sticks’ if the other ‘twists’), two attacking wide men, an ‘inside forward’ and a centre forward.

Yet 4-4-2 gives Van Gaal a twitchy ass?

The Dutchman says it affects the balance of the team. Perhaps that’s because he has got the balance of his squad wrong. Either 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 just doesn’t seem to get the best of the talent he has at his disposal. As Gary Neville says it slows the team down too much.

The only time Fergie said he had a ‘twitchy ass’ – aka ‘squeaky bum time’ – was during the run-in for the title.

It’s a position clipboard-toting Van Gaal won’t be in this season. Whether he likes it or not, history proves that four at the back is the key to success in the Premier League.

@iLShep

 

Figo: “Ballon d’Or Must Go To Ronaldo, Not Neuer!”

by Rob Shepherd.

Luis Figo insists Cristiano Ronaldo should lift FIFA’s Ballon d ‘Or in Zurich today.

Ronaldo is the bookies favourite with German keeper Manuel Neuer behind him and Lionel Messi likely to come third.

There is though a late groundswell of support for World Cup winner Neuer to become the first goalkeeper to win the award since Russian Lev Yashin in 1963.

Neuer was outstanding at the World Cup and has take the role of the modern “sweeper-keeper” to a new level with some astonishing examples of Ronaldo-esque fancy footwork outside the box for Bayern Munich this season.

But Figo, who now heads up a website called Network 90, which is football version of Linekedin where people in all aspects of the football industry can keep in touch across the globe and find work, believes it should still still be Ronaldo.

FIGO

Former Portuguese, Barcelona and Real Madrid star Figo, 42, accepts that Ronaldo and Portugal disappointed at the World Cup finals in Brazil last summer.

But Figo feels the phenomenal year Ronaldo enjoyed, highlighted by leading Real Madrid to Le Decima in Lisbon (their 10th Champions League triumph) means the award should be his.

Figo who was twice won the Fifa player of year/Ballon d’Or says: “I know Germany won the World Cup and there are those who think Neuer, who is such a great keeper and was a big part of their success, should be recognised while the World Cup wasn’t so good for Cristiano,”

“But for me it has to be Cristiano. He’s had a fantastic year all the way through for Real. You look at all the goals, just incredible…”

That leads to the obvious question; Who does Figo, who played for both Barcelona and then Real Madrid following one of the most bitter and controversial transfer in the history of world football, think is the better player: Ronaldo or Messi?

“It’s the impossible question. They are both so good. It’s like comparing caviar and truffle” Figo smiled.

“But I would say this. Back when I was playing and before, there were usually ten strong contenders every year. I think the overall level of top players was stronger. In recent years it has pretty much been a question of Ronaldo OR Messi.”

Figo’s team of 2014 is:
(4-3-3)

Manuel Neuer;
Lahm
Sergio Ramos
Godín
Alaba;
Kroos
Robben
Neymar;
Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo
Ibrahimovic

@iLShep

Hammers in Dreamland!
West Ham Legend Tony Gale on Big Sam’s Great Achievement

Tony Gale in action in 1984 (Photo: David Cannon/Allsport)

Tony Gale in action in 1984 (Photo: David Cannon/Allsport)

by Rob Shepherd.

West Ham for the Champions League..? You’re ‘Aving a laugh! That’s some sort of surreal Russell Brand joke, right..?!?

But with over a third of the season gone the Hammers moved up into third place in the Premier League after their 3-1 romp over Swansea.

No doubt Hammers fan – comedian cum political agent provocateur Brand- will seize the situation and proclaim West Ham are on mission to stir revolution and break into the top four elite come the end of the season and move into Europe.

That might sound as fanciful a thinking as some of Brand’s recent rants about society. Indeed former Hammers star Tony Gale thinks so.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see West Ham kick-on from here and really set the cat amongst the pigeons. I’m sure many fans around the country would like to see a team like West Ham break into top four and get into the Champions League. It would be great for the game, but if my heart wants it my head says; no,” said Gale.

“I just think as the season wears on then teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool will come and get stronger. Possibly Tottenham and Everton too. Then there are other teams who are up there like Southampton and Newcastle. And of course suddenly it doesn’t look like Chelsea will walk away with the title. That’s not just going to inspire Manchester City.”

“It’s a very big ask for West Ham. Then again, they have got where they are so far and it’s fair to say that its by this stage that the season really starts to take a proper shape. Nothing is impossible…”

Gale was an ever present when West Ham finished third in the old First Division in the 1985-86 season. The Hammers finished two points behind Everton and four off Double winners Liverpool. It is West Ham’s best ever top flight finish.

Interestingly after 15 games that season West Ham had accumulated 26 points and were in sixth place.

Thus far 15 games this season has brought one point point more; the Hammers lying third on Monday morning on 27 points, nine behind leaders Chelsea and six behind Man City.

Back then it was a 42 game season and 15 matches had been completed by early November.

By the second week of December the Hammers had raced onto 38 points from 19 games and had moved into third.

“Those are interesting stats,” admitted Gale.

“I remember back then we went on an a great run of wins just before Christmas and suddenly we found ourselves right up there.

“The confidence then kicked in and we just kept going. But because some games were postponed because of bad weather we had a pile up of fixtures during the run in and it caught up on us in the end.

“But we went very, very, very close. As well as the team are now playing I just can’t see them matching that. The fact is there is a group of teams who because of their financial power are just much stronger than the rest, more so than back then… although don’t forget the Liverpool side that season was one of their best and won the Double.

Vindicated

“Sam Allardyce understandably feels vindicated after the criticism he suffered during the last season and given all the speculation that he could be sacked shortly into this season.

“I hear him argue that nothing has changed in his approach nor the way the team play. But I have to disagree there. I think Big Sam has reacted to the feelings of the fans and what the board wanted to see on the pitch.

“There is no doubt West Ham are playing much more free flowing attacking football this season. Sam was under pressure to do that that. He has and look at the results.

“I think it’s also fair to say that those at the club responsible for the recruitment of the players during the summer need to take a lot of credit. The signings of Valancia, Sakho, Kouyate and getting Song on loan have been inspired. I have also been impressed with Cresswell. Getting Jenkinson on loan was clever.

“Yes there have been games when they’ve had to ‘dog it out’ as they did in the recent wins over Newcastle and then at West Brom. But if you are going to be up there that’s what you are going to have to do.

“I was in the Blackburn team that won the title in 1995. Kenny Dalglish’s assistant [the late] Ray Harford would tell us that even over a great season a team might only play really well over the 90 minutes for eight or so games.

“The rest of the time you would have good periods but then have to dig deep. In that respect West Ham have shown the ability to do so. Especially in the 3-1 over Swansea. It could have all gone flat when they went behind but they bounced back in style then showed character. It goes without saying it was great to see Andy Carroll not only looking to getting back to his best but also scoring goals.

Depth

Carroll

Carroll: Back from injury and scoring goals

“In that respect West Ham now have options upfront. In our season Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee – who played virtually every game – could not stop scoring. It goes without saying when you have goals in the team you are going to have a chance against anyone. And with Carroll back West Ham have him, Valencia, Sakho and of course Nolan all of whom are scorers. That’s good strength in depth.”

Enough options and strength of depth to sneak into the top four..? Or at least equal their highest ever Premier League finish, which was fifth in 1999 under Harry Redknapp…??

Gale comments “I’ve been hearing the fans singing ‘We’re gonna win the League’. That’s all a bit tongue in cheek. As I say top four is a very tall order but maybe this season fourth place could be up for grabs, so the way the team are playing I would say it’s not impossoble but it’s a very tall order.

“To finish fifth and qualify for Europe would be fantastic. In fact, to even to be talking in these terms right now is an achievement in itself.”

Those Hammers supporters of a certain generation who had the mythical Alf Garnett as their big celebrity fan will recall one of his quips about West Ham, and not get too carried away just yet about their current position;

“They are just like these bleeding Christmas decorations… always starting to come down after Boxing Day!”

Next up for the Hammers it a trip to Sunderland followed by a home match against Leicester. Then on Boxing Day they travel to Chelsea and two days later it is at home to Arsenal.

@iLShep

Battle of the Bluffers
First Time in 25 Years Arsenal v United Has No Title Ramifications

by Roy Dalley.

Roy Keane’s dog will be well advised to steer clear when his master settles in front of the telly on Saturday night. Listen carefully and you might well hear the growls as Welbeck accepts manhugs, handslaps, best wishes and perhaps even a kiss on the cheek from his old Manchester United team-mates before the late kick-off at Arsenal.

It wasn’t always this lovey-dovey in the tunnel before and after this particular fixture, as Keane would bluntly testify. Once upon a time it was the prelude to Premier League titles, FA fines and suspensions, effing and blinding, pushing and shoving and the odd toss the pizza competition.

Vieira gets down with Roy Keane.

Vieira gets down with Roy Keane.

Last month was the 10th anniversary of a game so fondly recalled it has been awarded not one but two sobriquets: Pizzagate and Battle of the Buffet. It’s not just supporters who are still going on about it, the protagonists from both sides are also queuing up to reminisce to the media.

There’s now little doubt Fabregas was responsible for adding a few more autumnal colours to Sir Alex Ferguson’s features when a food fight broke out in the tunnel at Old Trafford. The flying pizza was the highlight in the aftermath of a defeat that brought to an end Arsenal’s unbeaten record of 49 matches (that, of course, had encompassed the entire previous season).

Wenger also ended up with egg on his face, at least metaphorically speaking, when he was fined £15,000 for calling Van Nistelrooy a cheat, and Reyes soon trooped back to Spain calling it the toughest game he’s ever known.

What makes the event even more remarkable is the fact Keane wasn’t even at Old Trafford that afternoon. He was nursing a stomach injury that was only compounded when news came through, as he recalled in his book: “I was gutted I missed the game, and all the fighting that went on in the tunnel afterwards.”

Quite.

Now though the rivalry means something very different; little more than a side note concerning who will make up the numbers in the Champions League places for next season. Indeed it’s now more a Battle of the Bluffers; Arsenal’s Wenger has already put on his best Gallic shrug and conceded the title, while United’s van Gaal wore a poker face while bravely insisting they can still overcome Chelsea at the top of the League.

To be fair to the Deluded Dutchman he made that declaration before last week’s international break, during which De Gea, Carrick and Blind all added their names to United’s injury list. Certainly Welbeck will greet his former colleagues with a huge smile, feeling very confident of extending his goalscoring run of form for new club and country.

He could also lend more weight to the thought United seriously blundered when they allowed the blossoming England striker to take his talents to Arsenal at the end of the last transfer window.

“Not at the required level,” was van Gaal’s cold assessment.

Words that could reverberate if United return to Manchester on Saturday night 16 points behind Chelsea…

@RoyDalley

 

“Nothing compares to Scotland v England” Alex Montgomery on the next installment of the oldest rivalry

AlexMontgomeryby Alex Montgomery.

It is the intensity of the build-up, the anticipation of facing the Auld Enemy in Glasgow that I have always found so compelling as an obsessive follower of football reared in a football obsessed city.

We were indoctrinated from an early age. When it came to brainwashing the Scottish media were in a league of their own particularly in the austere post war years of my youth. What they wrote, volumes of it, was designed to make us believe that somehow Scotland were all but certainties to win anywhere, anytime and particularly against England.

The approach these days is far more sophisticated based on reality (our natural optimism was knocked into shape by defeats –remember 9-3 and 7-2 – that were national humiliations) though the desire to put one over the Auld Enemy remains. I hanker for the old approach where the only talk in town was the big match, where pubs were packed and much strong drink was consumed without guilt. The City, the Dear Green Place, would then be geared up and ready for action.

There was no chance of a ticket for a boy at Hampden. The alternative was to soak up the pre-match atmosphere; that would do until I was older. My father would even drive me into the city centre on the Friday night before the match to experience the chaos on the streets. It would be spot the Englishman as they toured the bars and restaurants – the Horseshoe Bar and the Rogano Bar and Restaurant (both still serving) being two favourite haunts within walking distance of the Central Railway Station. There would be a few thousand who would travel from England, nowhere near the 30,000 Scots who’d save two bob a week to clog up London every two years. Those who did travel north all looked so big to me, big men in their trench coats with a white rose in their lapel.

EngSco1977

Scots fans enjoy themselves at Wembley in 1977

It was passionate for sure and patriotic without being nationalistic, not back then. The ‘chippy’ Scot, as the English saw him, was ever present but my recollection of these matches in the late fifties and early sixties was of benign antagonism not the vile hatred from a minority we would reel from decades later.

The welcome, because that’s what it was, came disguised behind anti-England chants and risqué songs aimed at England’s finest – Bobby Moore was a prime target but so was Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves and before them Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews and others. Only the very best warranted a song.

For me having spent the past fifty years travelling to report matches in the most passionate football cities in the world, whatever the outcome nothing internationally, but nothing, compares to this the most unique of occasions.

Alex Montgomery is a former Chief Football Writer for The Sun and a leading football writer at many publications over the years including Today and The News of World.