“You’ve got the Blues” Sunday 15th May
Birmingham City came out of the dressing rooms onto the pitch to do their lap of appreciation for their adoring fans fifteen minutes after the end of the game against Fulham. The song blaring out of the loudspeakers was: “You’ve got the love.”
But they hadn’t.
The stadium was almost deserted. Most of the fans had gone home having witnessed one of the worst performances by any team in the history of the Premier League.
Perhaps I exaggerate. But, trust me, it was awful.
For the first twenty minutes, the Birmingham defence looked no better than many I have seen playing at Conference North level. They have players in their side who are not trying. And others who are not good enough.
They have made some catastrophic signings in the transfer market. For all the effect that Beausejour, Jiranek, Martins, Zigic, Bentley, Davies, Derbyshire and Hleb have had on the season, they should not have bothered.
Today, even the reliable ones were poor. Ferguson, Foster, Carr, Johnson, Larrson and Phillips should all put their week’s wages back in the kitty after that performance.
Alex McLeish said after the game that the Carling Cup and FA Cup runs have had this effect on the squad. It has worn them out, and the injuries have stretched them beyond breaking point.
He is right. But he has signed some players who are not good enough to play in League One, let alone the Premier League.
They should have done what Villa did. Not fritter money away on has-beens and no-hopers. But spend a lot of money on one big striker. While Blues played like amateurs today, the Villa score at The Emirates flashed on the screens. Two more goals from Darren Bent.
Now take a look at the Blues starting line up against Fulham. Total number of goals scored by all of that team this season?
Just four of that starting line-up have managed to put the ball into the net in over nine months of football.
Fulham’s Clint Dempsey (a good, but not an exceptional player) has scored more than all the Birmingham team put together.
Now Alex McLeish is faced with a last match nail-biter, at Spurs.
I offer one grain of hope.
If Spurs win, they will have to play in the Europa League.
Now the shrewd Harry Redknapp would love to play in the Champions League. But to waste your time and energy and resources playing in a cup competition that offers little or nothing in return……… no.
He may not want that.
After all, that’s what got Birmingham into this mess.
Hard to swallow Sunday 8th May
“What’s the wing speed velocity of an American swallow?” asked Mick McCarthy, in his brilliant deadpan style.
It was a great put down to a journalist who had asked him one of those predictable but stupid post-match questions this afternoon. His side had just beaten West Bromwich Albion in a tense Black Country derby. The three points have lifted Wolves out of the relegation zone and given them a real chance of survival.
Mick poured himself a glass of water in the press room, sat back, smiled, and answered a few questions for the journalists before one of them asked him why it is that Wolves can beat the big clubs, but have struggled against some of the mid table and lower clubs.
Mick McCarthy is great company in a press conference. Ask him a sensible question, and he’ll give you some insights into the game at the highest level. He’s a shrewd judge.
But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, does Mick. Ask him a daft question and you’ll get some withering put down. Not bad tempered, like Alex Ferguson, but sarcastic, dry and world weary.
That was the question that sparked his swallow response – a quote from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail film of 1975.
“If I knew the answer to that, I’d not be sitting here panting out answers to you, would I? I’d be in the top four, playing in Europe,” he added.
The other journalists always roar with laughter. They love Mick and his off-the-wall replies… and they love to see one of their own made to look an idiot.
Today’s result makes for a tense last two weeks of the season. Blues are up against it.
But I hope Wolves survive. The Premier League needs more people like Mick McCarthy.
Bentley? More like a Ford Escort
Players who throw tantrums because they don’t get picked are bad for the dressing room. It’s best to get rid of them.
David Bentley threw a sulk before the Wolves game this afternoon, and stormed out of the ground. Alex McLeish said afterwards that he wasn’t the first player ever to do that, and he won’t be the last. Players who storm out usually turn up for training the next day, he told journalists.
Bentley is on loan to Birmingham from Tottenham, and scored an absolute belter of a goal in the FA Cup against Coventry at St Andrews. That apart, he hasn’t made much of a contribution. Injury hasn’t helped him. But neither has his own attitude.
In his younger days, he was often likened to David Beckham. Good looking. Right winger. Good crosser. But there is one ingredient missing. Commitment.
The mathematical equation is simple: Beckham minus work rate = Bentley.
Players who don’t get picked need to learn some patience, and should take a look at the career of the Newcastle ‘keeper, Steve Harper. He joined the Toon in 1993, and has still only played 151 league games for them. So often an understudy to the superb Shay Given, now he’s having to play second fiddle to Tim Krull. Harper is now aged 36, and he hasn’t wasted his time. While he’s been waiting for his chance in the first team, he’s studied hard and got a degree from the Open University. And he’s got himself qualified as a football referee.
But when his manager needs him, he’s there.
No wonder the Toon army love him.
TOP STRIKERS ARE A TEAM’S BEST DEFENDERS 24th April 2011
The photo above shows why Wolves are in trouble. It’s Kevin Doyle, their best player by far, with the talkSport radio headphones on just before 2pm yesterday. Behind him in the empty stand is Paul Berry, the Wolves press officer, and Nigel Pearson from talkSport, along with Bill Hatton, Beacon Radio’s commentator. The Wolves team were getting their kit on ready for the warm-up for the 3pm kick off against Fuham. But Doyle was chatting to the guys in the talkSport studio in London.
His season is over. He was injured in an international game, playing for Ireland three weeks ago. Without him, Wolves are only half a side.
In the three games of his absence to date, Wolves have picked up just a single point. They have scored twice and conceded eight goals.
Sides without a good striker put their own defences under pressure. With Doyle in the team, they clear the ball upfield, and Doyle has the skill to hold onto it until his midfield can get out of defence and support him.
But without him, they only have ordinary players like Fletcher, or Ebanks Blake, who can’t do that job of holding the ball.
So the defence clears it, and within seconds the opposition have it again and force their way back. Eventually, the defence will cave in. Again, and again, and again.
Even Fulham, who have the league’s worst goalscoring record away from home (a pathetic 14 goals) managed to score at Molineux yesterday.
Every one of the bottom three sides has that problem. Wolves, West Ham and Wigan. They don’t have a striker who can hold the ball up. They don’t score many, and they let in plenty.
The bottom three clubs all have something in common. They have all scored fewer than forty goals this season. Their poor strikers have put their own defences under pressure.
Only two other clubs have such a poor strike record. Fulham is one. And the other…..?
Birmingham. Just 34 goals in 34 games.
They are in trouble. Over a long season, their normally stable defence is now worn out. Shattered. Shredded. And that’s because they have not had a decent striker…. for two seasons…. who can hold onto the ball and take the pressure off them.
Kevin Phillips can for about twenty minutes. Then he’s knackered.
Cameron Jerome never could.
As for Zigic – when he’s fit – the ball bounces off him like a pinball back into his own half.
Good strikers cost big money.
If Blues survive this season, they need to take a leaf out of Villa’s book, and spend a fortune on a striker.
I’d go for Kevin Doyle. He’ll be available…… at a price.
Rio Ferdinand is injury prone, John Terry is on his way out. So who should be the next England central defender?
Capello has tried Matthew Upson, but he is very slow. Jagielka, definitely not. Lescott, no way.
The answer, surely, is Birmingham’s Roger Johnson.
Once again he was the outstanding player on the field yesterday. He has springs in his heels, times his tackles perfectly, distributes the ball well and lets no one past him. He has been Birmingham’s best player this season.
So why hasn’t he been picked for England yet?
Because Birmingham are what’s called ‘an unfashionable club.’
If Johnson had been with Spurs, or Liverpool, or even Villa, he’d be an England regular by now.
One of the journalists asked Alex McCleish yesterday in the post-match press conference why Johnson carries on playing even when he’s been injured. He likes the attention, the Birmingham manager quipped. Everyone laughed. Clearly, Johnson is one of the few Premier League players who does not seek attention. Quite the opposite. He just gets on with his job, and does it brilliantly. No fuss.
If he got the newspaper coverage that Terry or Ferdinand gets, maybe the England boss would have taken a bit more notice of him.
I don’t know how often Capello visits St Andrews. He’s regularly seen at all the London grounds (that’s why Upson gets picked), and he seems to have a season ticket at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.
But he, and England, are missing out on a real gem in Johnson, and let’s face it, the central defender options have been a bit thin on the ground recently.
A TALE OF TWO CAPTAINS 10th April 2011
Today’s game at Villa Park was a tale of two captains.
Newcastle’s skipper, Kevin Nolan, was suspended, so for some inexplicable reason, the manager Alan Pardew gave the armband to Joey Barton.
Now Barton is about as steady as the price of petrol. He once stubbed a cigar out on a team mate’s face during a night out. Irresponsible and nasty.
Reformed, he says. And the best midfielder in England, he claimed this week.
He gave away the foul from which Villa scored the only goal of the game. He bickered and argued, stropped and sulked his way through the match. He snapped at his own teammates, and nagged the referee.
Best midfielder in England?
He’s not even the best midfielder in Newcastle.
By contrast, Villa’s skipper Stilyan Petrov is a gem. Before the game, he was presented with a trophy commemorating his 100th appearance last week for his country, Bulgaria. He applauded the fans, accepted the trophy, and gave it to the press officer to look after while he got on with the business of the afternoon. Beating Newcastle.
He doesn’t shout at his players to get their attention. He has their respect because he is professional, intelligent, committed and good. He is fouled, he gets up and gets on with it. Barton is fouled. He shrieks, rolls over a few times, holds his arms to the heavens and chases after the referee demanding his version of justice.
I’ve heard it said that foreign players have done this game no good with their antics.
Well I beg to disagree.
Some of the worst offenders are English.
Some of the best professionals are foreign.
Spitting image 3rd April 2011
BLUES ‘KEEPER Ben Foster pulled off some brilliant saves yesterday and was named man of the match against Bolton. He deserved it.
One other man on the pitch also had an outstanding game.
Michael Oliver – at 26 he’s the youngest referee in the Premier League. He comes from Ashington, in Northumberland. A quarter of the size of Sutton Coldfield, that tiny town is the birthplace of the legendary Jackie Milburn, and the World Cup winning Charlton brothers.
Oliver made his Premier League debut at St Andrews last August, aged 25.
He was impressive then. And yesterday, too, he got the key decisions right. But more than that, he kept the game going. He is fit, and young, and keeps up with play – better than most of the players do. And he has the confidence to wait a second or two after an incident to see whether there’s an advantage to the fouled side. If there is, he plays on.
Not many refs do that. They blow, for safety’s sake, as soon as the foul occurs. It slows the game down, and frustrates everyone.
Howard Webb, the country’s best referee, was watching from the sidelines yesterday as fourth official. He will surely have admired his protegé’s performance. Even though the experts on Match of the Day won’t have noticed it.
The Football Association has, for a long time, been worried about the number of refs at amateur level who quit the game because of the abuse they receive. So three seasons ago they brought in the Respect campaign, designed to improve attitudes of players, managers and spectators to referees.
It hasn’t worked.
Birmingham FA reported a 40% increase in incidents of physical abuse of referees last season.
Mike Fellows, the disciplinary officer, reported an increase in the number of incidents of players spitting into referees’ faces. And a sharp rise in incidents of threatening behaviour.
No other sport in the world would tolerate this appalling behaviour.
Amateur refs have a tough time, and get paid a pittance.
The nineteen Premier League referees are paid well today. They get a basic salary, and a match fee, and will make around £70,000 per year.
They earn their money. High profile, berated by thousands at the match, analysed on television around the world, and subjected to foul-mouthed abuse from players, and to their shame, from managers who ought to be setting an example, not just to their players, but to the millions of youngsters and amateur players whom they influence.
Man Utd boss Sir Alex Ferguson has been the worst offender over a period of years. Currently banned from touchlines for abusing referees, he has established his reputation as a disciplinarian manager who has won many trophies. But that sense of discipline seems not to include self-discipline. Even a knighthood has not bestowed upon him a sense of duty to the spirit of the game that has served him so well. The example he has set in his attitude towards and treatment of match officials has been nothing short of wretched.
Many will remember him as a man who did much damage to the game by his vitriolic and abusive treatment of referees.
Great sportsmen add something positive to the game.
Ferguson is a successful sportsman.
Not a great one.
Capello sucks up to big clubs 27th March 2011
The next seven weeks of Premier League football could be gripping stuff. Once again, the fight for survival will be at least as interesting as the fight for the top places. We could see three Midlands clubs go down. Birmingham are in real trouble and need a win next Saturday at home to Bolton. Villa have looked weak and disorganised recently. Albion seem a bit better off, but Wolves could go right to the wire – they have Blackburn at Molineux on the final day of the season. There’s a lot at stake. Sides that go down will get less television money, less prize money, considerably less money from selling merchandise, and less gate money. Their top players are likely to want to leave.
Fabio Capello, after the Wales match, is letting some of the England players return to their clubs. Rooney, Terry, Lampard, Ashley Cole and Michael Dawson can all go back to concentrate on their club fixtures. That’s a favour to Man Utd, Chelsea and Tottenham. Champions League fixtures are ten days away. But all Premier League clubs are playing within just three days of that Ghana friendly fixture.
And the clubs at the lower end of the league are not getting those favours.
Villa’s key players are in the England squad. And they’ve got to stay for the game against Ghana.
Why is Capello favouring the top clubs?
Either this match against Ghana is important, or it’s not.
If it’s not, let’s admit it, and cancel it. It should never have been organised at this crucial point in the Premier League season anyway.
That was wrong.
But it is far worse to grant favours to the top clubs.
And why let the man whom you just controversially appointed as captain duck out from this game?
That’s a disgrace.
Words of wisdom
“YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING,” jeered the Villa fans in disgust when Gerard Houllier substituted Marc Albrighton against Wolves.
Villa were trailing 1-0, and had been poor for most of the game. Albrighton had been their best player, so it was a dodgy decision.
In the first half, Houllier had replaced Nathan Baker with Fabian Delph at full back after just 30 minutes. It will have dented young Baker’s confidence and was more or less an admission by the manager that he’d got his team selection wrong in the first place. Delph, by the way, is no full back, so that, too was a poor decision.
The Villa fans voiced their disapproval at half time, but at the end of the game you could have heard the boos in Wolverhampton. They were livid with Houllier.
Before the game, some fans had hung a massive banner from the Holte End saying: “Had enough, Houllier out.”
Stewards took the banner down before the Villa manager came out from the tunnel to the dugout.
In the post-match press conferences, Houllier is usually quiet, but firm. He deals with questions from the journalists politely, intelligently, but without any enthusiasm. That’s how he’s been all season.
On this occasion, the journalists were quizzing him about the booing. Had he ever suffered any treatment like that before?
No, he said.
Did it hurt him?
He understood why they were frustrated, he said.
They were more than frustrated, they were hostile, suggested one of the journalists.
He shrugged, as he often does.
It was a meek, quiet performance by a man who seems to have run out of answers.
The journalists were as frustrated by Houllier’s press room performance as the fans were by Villa’s lack of enthusiasm in the game.
Two of his senior players, James Collins and Richard Dunne had got into a heated, some say drunken dispute with one of the coaching staff last week on a team bonding day out.
Houllier has fined them two weeks’ wages. It doesn’t seem like a happy camp at the moment, does Villa.
When their boss Mick McCarthy comes into the press conference, the whole atmosphere changes. Not because Wolves won, but because Mick McCarthy is a witty bloke who gives it to you straight – straight between the eyes.
Did he feel sorry for Houllier when he was being booed?
“I’d prefer it to be aimed at him, and not me, so no, I don’t give a flying flute about it.”
Laughter from the journos.
But do you have any sympathy for Gerard Houllier, one journalist pressed him.
“You know what I think of sympathy,” said Mick. “Look it up in the dictionary. It’s between shite and syphilis.”
The press room roared with laughter.
Wolves play like their manager. Strong, determined, irrepressible.
Villa play like theirs, sadly.
I was at the Blues Bolton FA Quarter Final yesterday. Decent game. Good cup action.
One of my heroes walked into the press room before the game. Not a player. A commentator.
He’s looking older nowadays. He’s 65, in fact. And that sheepskin coat hangs off him now his body has shrunk a little, and his shoulders have sagged with time. It looks a couple of sizes too big for him, but he was wearing it even though the press room at St Andrews is small, crowded and stuffy, and it was one of the warmest days of the season outside.
The sheepskin coat has been Motty’s trademark throughout his long career.
As he shuffled across the room, journalists from all sorts of newspapers greeted him.
A handshake, a smile, a cheery word from Motty. He lightened the place up.
Even the ex-pros, the pundits, want to shake his hand. Big Alan McNally, Chris Waddle, Alan Gowling, they all had a quick chat with the legendary Motty.
The photographers that litter the press room are scruffs who lug boxes of kit noisily around.
The wordsmith journalists vary from casual to office-smart. But beneath Motty’s sheepskin coat is an impeccably dressed man, fit for a wedding.
Black leather shoes, polished to perfection, grey slacks, pressed to a knife edge. Ironed shirt, neat yellow tie, faultlessly knotted. Expensive leather brief case.
His thinning grey hair is brushed back from his florid face, weather-beaten by thousands of hours’ exposure to football’s ice and wind. But no wind has wiped away his smiling eyes and gentle look.
He was working for radio at this game. But he’s most famous for his television work, especially his Match of the Day commentaries.
His footballing knowledge is unsurpassed.
“Bentley can’t play today, he’s cup-tied,” says one of his colleagues as they’re preparing for the match preview.
“That was for the league cup,” Motty informs them gently. “He’s okay to play in the FA Cup, if selected. You might need to check that.”
If Motty said it, that was good enough. A walking google of footballing facts.
He’s a fantastic example of a man who took his big chance when it came to him, and never looked back.
An unknown, he was given a minor FA Cup tie to do for a few minutes on Match of the Day back in 1972. It was non-league Hereford United versus cup giants Newcastle United on a mudpatch pitch, and it turned out to be a match that lives on in FA Cup history.
Underdogs Hereford came back from the dead and substitute Ronnie Radford scored a blistering equaliser. Radford took his chance then, but was destined for obscurity.
The young Motty’s commentary was brilliant. It gave us the joy, the shock, the sensation.
Motty took his chance, and has never looked back. FA Cups, European Cups, World Cups, he’s done them all.
39 years on, he’s still going. Footballing royalty. Everyone wants to shake his hand.
A lovely man in a highly competitive world.
A survivor, though thousands have been after his job year after year.
A decent man, who took his chance.
A dying breed.
There’s only one Deano Sunday 6th March
I went to Molineux today, Wolves v Spurs.
I wanted to pay my respects to Dean Richards. He played for Wolves and Spurs, but his career was cut short by illness, and he died last Saturday morning in a Leeds hospice, aged 36.
Wolves organised a tribute to Dean before kick-off. One person from each of the four clubs he played for, Wolves, Spurs, Southampton and Bradford, held up a club shirt with Dean’s number on, and stood on the edge of the centre circle, flanked by both teams.
They were joined by some of the past players and managers who had been his colleagues at various times. Graham Taylor, Dave Jones, Matt Murray, Ledley King, James Beattie, Don Goodman.
The fans chanted Deano, there’s only one Deano.
Then out onto the pitch walked Dean’s widow, Samantha, with his two young sons, Rio and Jaden. The young boys both wore a gold and black Wolves shirt –both had the Number 5 – their Dad’s number, on the back of their shirt.
It was too moving to sing and chant – the fans just applauded. The boys kept a firm grip on their Mom’s hands, and the older of the two leant in towards his Mom as he walked to the centre circle.
A minute’s applause, said the referee. But after a minute, when the ref walked away, the fans just kept applauding. And then chanting again, Deano, there’s only one Deano, Wolves and Spurs fans together, …they didn’t want it to end there.
The boys must have been brimming with pride and grief.
As Samantha Richards walked off the field, still grasping her children’s hands, you could see that she looked drawn and tight-faced.
She’s been through hell.
Minutes before all this, I asked Robbie Dennison what Dean was like as a team-mate. He joined us as a 19 year-old , said the former Wolves and Irish international. And the thing about him was that he seemed much older. As a teenager, he played with the experience of a 25 year-old. He was immense, said Robbie.
The applause eventually died down, for the game to begin.
I glanced to my left at Robbie. He was drying his eyes.
Come on Fabio, pick some class Saturday 26th Feb
‘GOOD LUCK ARSENAL’ was the message on a banner draped from the Holte End at Villa Park this afternoon. At first I thought that was a bit sick. We should all be supporting Blues tomorrow. But the rivalry between local clubs, so long as it doesn’t get violent, adds spice to the game. It will make Blues play all the better.
Villa had a shocking first half today. They were dreadful. As bad as Blackburn, who are the worst Premier League team I’ve seen this season.
But in the second half, it was back to the good old days of Martin O’Neill, when Villa played for fun, attacked down both wings, and took teams apart. Pires was pretty good, so was Albrighton. And Ashley Young.
But the one class player, streets ahead of all the others, was Stewart Downing. Comfortable on the ball, intelligent, skilful.
Fabio Capello was there, watching from the stands. England have got a massive match against Wales at the end of this month. It’s already a sellout. The Welsh will be baying for blood. It’s a European Championship Qualifier, in Cardiff, and the 100th game between the two countries. It will be passionate, furious, and intense. A bit of class will win it. Come on Fabio.
You watched him this afternoon.
Downing can rise above all the hustle and bustle.
He’s the class you need.
NEXT SUNDAY BLUES PLAY in the Mickey Mouse Cup final at Wembley. Good luck to them, I hope they win. But what’s it worth?
I’ll tell you.
Birmingham City earned more prize money by beating League One side Sheffield Wednesday yesterday in the proper Cup than they will if they beat Arsenal next Sunday at Wembley. Almost twice as much, infact.
Teams that win in Round 5 of the FA Cup get prize money of £180,000.
If you win the final of the FA Cup at Wembley, you get prize money of £1,800,000. Runners-up on the day get half that figure – £900,000.
“So how about the Carling Cup winners?” I hear you ask
The answer: a mere £100,000 for the winners.
(Runners-up -i.e.Blues- get £50,000).
So, you would have to win the Carling Cup Final 18 times to earn the same prize money as one FA Cup Final victory.
And you can see why managers put out their reserves in cup games. Because the league money is worth so much more.
Last season, Blues got £9,600,000 in prize money from the Premier League for finishing 9th. They were ahead of Blackburn (10th) by goal difference. That difference cost Blackburn £800,000 in prize money.
So does every place in the league. And that’s before television and radio money.
The FA Cup is worth it. But the Carling Cup……. it’ll pay the hotel bill, but not the wages.
Good luck, Blues. Concentrate on the League.