Illustration by Sam Taylor
The Passion of Raheem Continues
As thousands of dads across the UK go untelephoned by their sons for fear of getting into a relationship-ruining conversation about Raheem Sterling, the man with the most high-profile bout of listlessness since Pope Benedict XVI is likely to return to action against his former club, Queens Park Rangers.
While the whole affair looks like it could have been generated as a conspiracy purely to amass TalkSPORT phone-in costs, it’s hard to see where the anger is actually coming from. England shouldn’t be dependent on a 19-year-old to get past teams made up of PE teachers and Icelandic league benchwarmers. Young players get tired easily, and Roy Hodgson couldn’t really do much else other than tell the truth – at least out of self-interest. In fact, can you imagine Roy Hodgson telling a lie? Say what you like about him as a manager, but he does have the air of a man who would take a £10 note into a police station if he found one on the street.
Sure, it’s maybe slightly suspect for a player to not want to play, but not if it’s a club ruse, as seems likely. He was defended by top pro Ryan Giggs, after all, who had a long-standing habit of feeling a little bit woozy or tight around the hamstring whenever a Wales friendly came up. So, apparently all we have to learn from this is that England are now about as exciting as Wales in the mid-90s – and we knew that already.
Considering all that, combined with the former club effect, it’s pretty much nailed on that Sterling is going to score a hat-trick and be named man of the match against Harry Redknapp’s curiously incompetent, Pirates of the Caribbean-esque band of rogues so that the whole thing can drag itself out for another week. Tedious narratives alone might not be enough to win you games, but Dejan Lovren is injured, too, so the omens for a Liverpool win are many.
Everton fans booing David Moyes as he arrived at Goodison Park in April of this year as Man Utd manager
The Ghost of David Moyes Still Haunts Goodison
There are a few contenders for the worst thing about being an Everton fan. The fact your inter-city rivals are world renowned and you're not is an obvious one, as must be the team’s desire to collect the Gareth Barrys and Phil Nevilles of the world, with Football Manager imports like Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and John Heitinga flopping massively. To say nothing of the endless new stadium fiasco and the “So, Liverpool are the Protestant team and Everton are the Catholic team, right?” messageboard debates. But above all, it must be the extent to which their fortunes are linked to their rivals.
Liverpool have had some pretty hilarious misfortune in recent years, if you’re minded to dislike them. And Everton seem joined to them by a pretty tight leash. The Hodgson and late Benitez years couldn't be fully celebrated, with Everton getting off to the traditional Moyesian disastrous start. Last season’s feelgood fantasy football was marred by Liverpool stealing the headlines, and now their rivals have had a series of brutal reality checks Everton are balanced just above the relegation zone.
Injuries have played a role, but, unfortunately, so have transfers. Loaning Barry was an inspired move – signing him was idiotic. The other player brought in to comprise the midfield was Muhamed Besic, whose scouting report seems to mirror your own drunken, half-bewildered haze after staying up late to watch Bosnia in the World Cup, typing, “That lad in the middle looks good, Pulis/Hughes/Redknapp should sign him,” into GChat. And then there’s Romelu Lukaku. On loan, an obvious coup. At the price he signed for, a massive risk that doesn't seem to have paid off.
Besides, would anyone actually buy a player off José Mourinho if they weren’t desperate? His previous two big sales were Juan Mata and David Luiz for astronomical sums, both of whom have completely failed to improve their new sides. Knowing when to get rid of a player is an underrated skill – it held back Wenger (always too soon) and Ferguson (always too late), but Mourinho seems to have an almost creepy sixth sense in spotting those whose wheels are about to fall off. Perhaps the real gift for a manager isn’t spotting a 17-year-old who’s going to be a world-beater, but spotting a highly-paid star who’s secretly shit.
Man City Vs Spurs Is the Fury Vs Chisora of Football
The biggest tie of the weekend is the first one, as Manchester City and Spurs prepare to duke it out at lunchtime on Saturday. However, it’s only a big game in name – it’s hard to get excited about what amounts to two teams with no identity, comprised of a bunch of journeymen, that looks like a “Where Are They Now” under-21s Team of the Tournament from eight years ago, playing desperately average football. The match-up resembles a heavyweight title fight between a Dunlop-waisted old-timer who keeps beating just enough stumble-bums to get a shot at the big time, and a young, gauche champion who's only got the title because nobody else seemed to want it that much.
Mauricio Pochettino seems like the last roll of the dice for Spurs, a club who seem to have banked their future success on finally unearthing a genius for the manager’s seat. We’ve had experienced continental imports (Martin Jol – a tragic failure; Juande Ramos – an unmitigated disaster; Jacques Santini – just fucking weird), an exciting young manager with trophies and big-club experience (Andre Villas-Boas – failed) and throwback cockneys (Tim Sherwood – hilariously incompetent; Harry Redknapp – the man who ended up being the best of this sorry bunch).
Now we come to Pochettino, who appeared to combine foreign forward-thinking with experience of the grit of the Premier League. And it looks like being much the same, with the team lacking creativity, giving away daft goals and Adebayor reverting to his depressed Mr Hyde form. Where can they go from here? The only two managerial clichés yet untested are the Calvinist Glaswegian sadist and the no-nonsense northerner, but it’s hard to see Alex McLeish or Mick McCarthy dining with Daniel Levy at a Hampstead bistro any time soon.
We might be in a mini-golden age of football, but there is a fear for the future. If this era dies, it will be by its worst traits – the boring footballers and lacklustre foreign imports. What keeps football fans sweating at night is the thought that teams like Spurs and Manchester City will prevail – not the clubs, but that this kind of outfit is the future, a collection of bland Danish playmakers, aloof Brazilian midfielders, average English utility men and verbose but dull-as-fuck Belgian centre backs. We’re not going into a Gary Neville rant about foreigners, but can’t someone at least get arrested for glassing a bouncer every once in a while?
Sam Allardyce standing in front of the West Ham United bench in 2012 (Photo via)
Sam Allardyce's Redemption Song
Speaking of no-nonsense northerners, it’s about time Sam Allardyce had a round of applause. At first he appeared to react with disdain at the notion his team should be trying to occasionally pass or dribble, like he almost seemed tempted to tell his fullbacks to cross the halfway line and enjoy his side’s relegation as a result.
But no! This is a new era for West Ham, and Enner Valencia is looking exciting, Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Cresswell are providing adventure, and Diafra Sakho looks like a potential gem. And that’s without the team’s two biggest mavericks, Mauro Zarate and Ravel Morrison, both of whom Allardyce allegedly didn’t fancy playing.
A strange man is Big Sam – we spoke of his Canary Wharf existence, and perhaps that really does tell a story about him. His "Allardici" comments give away his ambition. But while we might have thought his strange, simmering hatred of Arsene Wenger was an indication that he wished to achieve his goals by laughing as his team fouled another dainty playmaker to launch a counter-attack that saw Big Andy clamber over a £30 million defender to knock it down for Kev Nolan, it might not be true.
This is, after all, the man who brought showboating and legends to Bolton Wanderers (as well as Radhi Jaidi elbowing goalkeepers). Maybe, given time, he really could build a great team. At West Ham he appears to not only be getting the backing but also, crucially, the support from the boardroom. It’s been a long time coming, but his radical vision for football could at last be implemented. Presumably just in time for Louis van Gaal’s retirement opening up a decent job opportunity, too.
The SPL Is the New Bundesliga
Look, I know Scotland gets a disproportionate amount of time in this column, but it’s the most underappreciated league in Europe. The Power League wankers have had their time in La Liga and Germany, but they’ll never take Caledonia, because there’s something pure, something real, here. Where else are you going to get a title clash between a team that hasn’t won the league since 1985 and a newly-promoted side that has never won so much as a league cup? And what the fuck else is happening this weekend in the way of interesting games?
Yeah, Celtic will probably either find their form or sack Ronny Deila and appoint someone competent and come back to win the title. But there’s a sense that they might not, and once we accept that nervousness, we can go all the way and treat Hamilton versus Aberdeen like the showdown it deserves to be. The upstarts getting off to a ridiculous start playing glorious football versus the awakening giant still rubbing the sleep from its eyes, trying to again capitalise on a lack of competition.
Aberdeen were the side everybody was banking on providing some semblance of a challenge to Celtic, but there’d be no more worthy winner of any league in the world than a side from Lanarkshire winning in Scotland. Talk about the Highland spirit, of Glasgow’s darkness and Edinburgh’s history. But from Irvine Welsh to Robert Burns, everybody looking to find the real Scotland has ended up in Lanarkshire. It would be the equivalent of Northampton, the real soul of England, winning the Premier League.
It’s still too early, but we can pretend. And if one of these sides does end up doing it, you’ll be able to say: "I was there. I paid attention." The eyes of the world might now be rolling in their sockets after gazing on Scotland before the no vote in the referendum, but football never loses its ability to make us forget about the bigger picture. It will always be there. We will always have it. And up the Accies.
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