Monthly Archives: February 2013

Wolves players need to take responsibility for their predicament

There’s no avoiding it, and it has to be discussed; Wolves are in trouble, and Dean Saunders needs to turn things around quickly if they are to stay up this season.

Wolves fans suffered a nightmare season last year as they were relegated from the Premier League with a measly 25 points. But having retained most of their players, and acquired a new, highly commended, intelligent manager in Ståle Solbakken, they were confident of pushing for an instant return to the top flight.

Saunders needs sort things out quickly.

But after a solid start to the season, Wolves have steadily dropped down the league, and after an embarrassing FA Cup defeat away at Blue Square Premier side Luton, Solbakken was shown the door. This was undoubtedly the correct decision as Solbakken clearly wasn’t inspiring the players, and the players found it difficult to adapt to his continental style of play.

Dean Saunders was appointed after a great first half of the season at League 1 Doncaster, but a quick look at Saunders’s CV may have suggested he was not the man for the job.

Saunders was given his first managerial post at Wrexham in 2008 after working as a coach for several years in John Toshack’s Wales set-up. Saunders struggled at first to find a rhythm at Wrexham and there were serious questions asked about his managerial ability. But he slowly turned things around at Wrexham and built a formidable, attacking machine, which looked set to challenge seriously for the Championship, until he was snapped up by Doncaster in September 2011.

He took over a Doncaster team which looked doomed to relegation, but Saunders was well backed with high-profile loan and short-term signings. But even the likes of El-Hadji Diouf couldn’t save Doncaster, and they were relegated at the end of the season, with Saunders’ managerial ability questioned once again.

Saunders revamped the Doncaster squad and got them competing seriously for promotion back to the Championship, this season, before he was snapped up by Wolves, with the aim of resurrecting their fading play-off hopes. Instead, he has not won any of his first six games and their latest defeat against in-form Barnsley has seen them fall into the bottom three.

Saunders is a long-term option for a club who desperately need a short-term solution. The question is, can Saunders change things quickly enough to keep Wolves up?

Wolves’s squad isn’t the most exciting, but there are good players in there who are underperforming badly. The likes of Roger Johnson, Kevin Doyle, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Adam Hammill are proven players at Championship level, but they’re simply not contributing enough, and haven’t done so for a while.

The team still haven’t recovered from the loss of confidence last season, and in hindsight, the board probably missed a golden opportunity to revamp the squad in the summer. At the time, keeping the majority of the squad together looked to be a big achievement for the board, but after such a poor season it would probably have been better to get rid of some of their biggest underperformers.

Some football pundits have said sacking Mick McCarthy was Wolves’s biggest error, but they have conveniently forgotten the team’s abysmal form at the time of his departure.

McCarthy had enjoyed some wonderful times at Wolves, guiding them to promotion and keeping the Black Country club in the Premier League for three seasons. But the time had come for McCarthy to leave. Wolves were playing poorly, with deteriorating confidence, and their performance in the embarrassing 5-1 home defeat to local rivals, West Brom, was possibly among the worst ever seen in the Premier League.

Those who claim the Wolves board was wrong to get rid of McCarthy are looking through rose-tinted glasses, and conveniently forgetting the state of the team when he left. McCarthy will always be loved at Molineux, but keeping McCarthy certainly wouldn’t have kept them up, and they probably would have reacted similarly to relegation under the former Irish international.

Wolves have 13 games left to save themselves from returning to the third tier for the first time since 1989, starting with Sunday’s clash with table-toppers, Cardiff.

They desperately need to get their house in order, and halt what has become a deeply distressing malaise.

Now isn’t the time for players to feel sorry for themselves, and Dean Saunders has to step up to the mark to prove he is capable of being a Championship manager.

With matches against fellow relegation candidates, Birmingham, Millwall, Bristol City, Huddersfield and Bolton, there’s no reason why Wolves can’t drag themselves out of their current predicament. But for this to happen the players need to stop the pouting and take responsibility for their terrible performances.

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Would you want Paolo Di Canio at your club?

The most controversial and entertaining manager in the Football League has quit his job, so what next for Paolo Di Canio?

The flamboyant Italian left his post at Swindon Town after getting frustrated with the League 1 club’s troubling finances, and the effects they were having on his preparations. He is already being linked with Leeds United, where Neil Warnock doesn’t seem to be enjoying life, but there are a few factors chairmen need to consider before giving Di Canio a job.

 

Football genius or troublesome fascist?

Football genius or troublesome fascist?

Di Canio was a very unlikely manager, and big questions were asked when Swindon appointed him in 2011.

As a player he was capable of spectacular skill and breath-taking goals, not least his beautiful bicycle volley against Wimbledon for West Ham in 2000, which is still considered one of the greatest goals of the Premier League era. But he was also an unpredictable personality, who could implode at any time.

In 1993 he left Juventus after falling out with legendary manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, and in 1996 he repeated the trick at Milan by quarrelling with Fabio Capello. In a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal, Di Canio pushed the referee to the ground, and received an 11 game ban which ultimately signalled the end of his tenure in the Steel City.

In England he is best remembered for his time at West Ham, but even there, where he is still adored by supporters, he was considered as stable as a tower of jelly. Tantrums and fallouts were commonplace and he barely played in his final season at the club because of a spat with manager, Glenn Roeder.

He had a comparatively problem-free time at Charlton, before returning to his childhood club, Lazio. Back in Rome, he wound up opposing fans, fraternised with right-wing ultras and regularly gave supporters a fascist salute.

His former manager, Harry Redknapp recently claimed he never once believed Di Canio could be a manager.

But his record at Swindon is quite remarkable. In his first season in charge at the County Ground he led Swindon to the League 2 title, and the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

He leaves Swindon in the League 1 play-off spots, and just three points off the top of the league. They are unbeaten in their last 11 league games, and have a great chance of going up this season, either automatically or through the play-offs.

Di Canio has left as a result of the poor state of the club’s finances, and in his statement to the press he cited the sale of playmaker, Matt Richie, to Bournemouth, as a major reason for his departure. Ritchie, who has excelled under Di Canio, was sold behind the manager’s back in the January transfer window, and since then relations between the manager and the boardroom have been strained.

But Swindon’s financial crisis is down in no small measure to Di Canio and his spending.

Di Canio was given hundreds of thousands to spend on players in order to manufacture a squad capable of storming up the leagues, and in an aesthetically pleasing style. Swindon spent more on agent fees over the past year and a half than any other club in League 2 and League 1, such was the club’s commitment to getting the players Di Canio wanted.

The Roman has expensive tastes, and any chairman who chooses to employ him must be prepared for arguments over transfer funds, unless they want to overspend and encounter the kind of problems which are currently crippling Swindon. Di Canio has an eye for talent, but it comes at a cost, and it’s still unclear whether he could work within a strict budget, or even whether he would be willing to try such a strategy. It appears he was looking to leave Swindon as soon as the cheque book was put back in the drawer.

Whichever club picks up the fiery Di Canio will also have to put up with his bizarre personality.

At Swindon, Di Canio’s passionate press conferences and tempestuous touchline antics entertained the masses, but he was sometimes guilty of bringing negative attention upon the club.

Di Canio’s fallout with Leon Clarke was damaging, but accusations of racism by French striker, Jonathan Tehoué were very difficult to deal with. Di Canio is a self-confessed fascist and a Mussolini sympathiser, so accusations of racism are likely to stick, and no club wants this kind of bad publicity.

Jekyll and Hyde

He’s a brilliant, passionate lover of the sport, whose Swindon team played gorgeous, entertaining football as they climbed from League 2 to the verge of the Championship. He understands football better than almost any other manager in the Football League and he will always strive to win, but in a style befitting his perfectionist streak.

However this Jekyll and Hyde character comes with a reputation and a troublemaking tendency, which will always cause problems for clubs. His departure from Swindon with the club so close to the top of League 1 shows Di Canio’s unpredictability and spontaneity.

Wherever Di Canio ends up next, fans, and more importantly chairmen, must prepare for a rollercoaster ride, which will inevitably consist of great football and controversy. It’s up to them to decide whether the Italian stallion is worth the hassle.

Rogers coming out leaves questions unanswered

Yesterday, US international and former Leeds and Stevenage player, Robbie Rogers, posted an emotional blog post in which he declared he was gay and intended to retire from football.

Robbie Rogers in one of his rare Leeds United appearances.

Robbie Rogers in one of his rare Leeds United appearances.

It marked another chapter in the very slow-moving history of homosexuality in football, but Rogers’s announcement has left more questions unanswered than answered. Should football be proud of Rogers’ ability to come out, or ashamed he had to wait until he was 25 and retired before revealing his secret?

Rogers is the first professional footballer to come out in Britain since Justin Fashanu in 1990.

Like Rogers, Fashanu’s football career was stagnating by the time he revealed to the Sun he was world’s first openly-gay footballer, but his announcement caused a storm even he couldn’t have expected. Fashanu found himself excluded and alienated by his teammates, fans and even members of his own family.

Clubs refused to hire him and he dropped further and further down the football ladder. In 1998, after accusations of a sexual assault against a 17-year-old man in the States, Fashanu flew back to London where he was found hanged in an abandoned garage.

Remembering Justin Fashanu’s tragic story, it’s not difficult to see why footballers fear coming out.

Rogers’s early-morning blog post makes him just the second ever British-based openly-gay footballer. There have long been calls for a brave player to make the big step forward and reveal they were gay but will Rogers’ announcement satisfy those calls, and has Rogers actually done anything to help any footballers who feel scared to reveal their sexuality?

Without wishing to disrespect Rogers, many would have hoped for a player with a higher profile to come out. In his homeland he is reasonably well-known among football fans, but on this side of the Atlantic, it’s unlikely anybody would have heard of Rogers unless they supported either Leeds or Stevenage.

In the handful of games he actually played for Leeds (one start and three substitute appearances) and Stevenage (five matches) he looked pretty unremarkable, and his time in English football was hampered by injuries. Even though he has played Olympic football and won 18 caps for the US, he could hardly be considered anything more than an average footballer.

He is unattached after his Leeds contract was terminated in January, and his sporting career looked to be directionless after a disappointing stint in England. It’s fair to say he wasn’t the high-profile name equal-rights campaigners were hoping for.

Far more worrying than his low profile is the fact he had to retire from the game, aged 25, before he felt he could disclose his secret.

The news of his retirement took up just a paragraph in his blog post, and his reasons for quitting the game are very unclear. Even though he doesn’t say his sexuality had anything to do with his decision to retire, he clearly implies he was not comfortable revealing his sexuality while playing.

Rogers’s retirement suggests footballers still believe the sport is too backwards to accept homosexuality.

But there’s no doubt Rogers coming out will make it easier for other gay footballers to follow suit in future.

Reassuringly, following his announcement, Rogers’s twitter feed was flooded with supportive messages from players, fans and friends from outside football. Leeds United forums were full of well-wishing messages, which far out-weighted the tiny, homophobic minority.

Rogers has proved football has moved on.

The nature of his announcement shows there is still work to do to make it easier for footballers to come out. But the reaction of the football world shows British football has moved on from the shameful days of Justin Fashanu, and is now in a position where it can accept homosexuality.

Rogers has laid the foundation for more gay footballers to reveal their sexuality, should they wish to do so.

Zola deserves praise, not scorn

Crystal Palace manager, Ian Holloway, has been critical of Watford’s exploitation of the loan system, which allowed them to bring 11 players in on loan.

Palace had gone two goals down before resiliently clawing back to draw the match 2-2, but Holloway felt aggrieved his opponents were allowed to field seven loan players. Cassetti, Chalobah, Abdi, Pudil and Vydra all started for the Hornets, while Battacchino and Forestieri came off the bench, meaning over half the players who featured for Watford were borrowed from other clubs.

The FA and the Football League have no rules limiting the amount of players a club can borrow from foreign clubs.

Zola was tipped to struggle at Watford, but he's turned it around. Credit: Illarterate

Zola was tipped to struggle at Watford, but he’s turned it around. Credit: Illarterate

Watford’s connections to Italian club, Udinese, and Spanish side, Grenada, through their new owners, the Pozzo family, have allowed them to bolster their squad with loanees.

Holloway was scathing in his criticism of the legal loophole, which made these loans possible, suggesting it gave Watford an unfair advantage.

 

But instead of criticizing the system, Watford deserve praise for turning a catastrophe waiting to happen, into an unexpected promotion push.

The new owners were lambasted for sacking popular manager, Sean Dyche, at the end of last season, and appointing Gianfranco Zola. The former Chelsea legend had an unfairly poor reputation after a mixed tenure as West Ham manager.

The owners then proceeded to borrow wildly, meaning at one point in the summer, Zola had to cope with a squad comprising of over 40 players. The current first team squad has 15 nationalities represented, from Argentinian, Cristian Battocchino, to Swede, Joel Ekstrand, with most of the players still struggling to learn English.

Watford started the season with a brand new squad, a new manager and new owners.

I must confess I predicted a chaotic season, marred by sackings and disaccord.

However I’m very pleased to admit, I was wrong.

Gianfranco Zola, previously labeled “too nice to be a manager,” has brought the most multicultural squad in the Football League together, and turned them into the best footballing side outside the Premier League.

He has taken a gang of individuals, and transformed them into a free-flowing, attack-minded, passing team. Watford are playing the kind of delightful, one-touch, exciting football, all Championship fans want to see from their clubs.

The loanees have stepped up to the mark and brought an extra degree of class to the Championship.

Swiss midfielder, Almen Abdi, is part of an exciting generation of Kosovan-born Swiss internationals, which includes Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka. He’s a skillful, cultured midfielder, who links play brilliantly.

Daniel Pudil is another intelligent footballer, who’s added an extra dimension to Watford’s entertaining midfield.

But the star of the show has been Matěj Vydra. The Czech striker is graceful, strong and fast, but more importantly, he’s a superb footballer, who should be playing at a higher level. His goal-scoring has bordered on the prolific and he oozes class on the ball.

Many Championship clubs have relied heavily on loans in recent years, but very few have done it successfully.

Cardiff City constantly brought in big name loans, only for them to flop. Leeds United have failed to secure and kind of continuity over recent years because they have relied too heavily on quick-fix loans.

But Watford have gone further than any other club, and their success this season is based on loans. As a long-term strategy this is extremely dangerous because it involved huge upheaval every summer, and endangers stability. But in the medium-term, it’s working very well, and this is testimony to Zola’s brilliant management.

It’s very difficult for any manager to integrate several loan players into a side, but Zola has managed it in spectacular fashion. For this he deserves a huge amount of credit. In a short amount of time he’s taken the average Championship squad which existed when he first arrived, combined it with some foreign acquisitions, and created something beautiful.

But can this free-flowing side achieve automatic promotion?

Cardiff look like certainties for promotion. They’re grinding out results, and on the rare occasions they slip up, the chasing pack aren’t punishing them. They’re now 11 points ahead at the top of the Championship, and look to be cruising towards the promised land.

However 2nd place is up for grabs, and with the likes of Leicester, Middlesbrough and Palace constantly dropping points, a solid end to the season would see Watford promoted automatically.

Consistency is a rarity in this league, and this season in particular, it almost seems as if clubs don’t want to go up. But the door is open, and Watford are one of a number of clubs who can go up if they just start stringing wins together.

If they eventually miss out on 2nd place, they’ll fancy their chances in the play-offs, where nobody will want to face Zola and his borrowed stars

Oxford risk their image by employing a convicted killer

On Saturday Oxford’s new keeper, Luke McCormick, played his first Football League game since 2008, and his transfer from Truro has provoked fierce debate.

The signing of convicted killer, Luke McCormick, has provoked outrage among Oxford's fans

McCormick was jailed in 2008 for causing death by dangerous driving for crashing his Range Rover into the car of a Manchester family and killing two young brothers. McCormick was impressing for Plymouth in the Championship at the time, but the deaths of Arron and Ben Peak (10 and eight years old respectively) meant he was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison.

McCormick had been drinking at a wedding before the crash, and had ignored a phone call from a friend who told him to stop driving. CCTV footage showed him swerving across the M6 and travelling at speeds of up to 90 mph before hitting the Peak family car and killing the two young boys, who were on their way, with their father, to Silverstone.

In 2012 he was released from prison and was given a trial at Oxford United’s local rivals, Swindon Town, a move which drew passionate and mixed response from the football community. Swindon decided not to offer McCormick a contract after the dead boys’ mother, Amanda, criticised the club in an interview with the Sun.

She told the Sun: “”Swindon might be a family club, but now they’re hiring a man who has torn my family apart.”

When McCormick was picked up by non-league Truro City in the summer, the club saw attendances drop significantly as loyal fans stated they could not support the club while a convicted killer was playing between the sticks.

Now McCormick is back in the Football League, with League 2 Oxford United, and his transfer has reignited an old debate on the role of clubs in rehabilitating convicts.

McCormick isn’t the first former prisoner to cause furore among fans as they’ve tried to move on with their lives.

Lee Hughes was jailed in 2003 for causing the death of a pensioner by dangerous driving. His £100,000 Mercedes collided with the car of Douglas Graham, before Hughes fled the scene to evade police.

He served six years behind bars for the crime, but when he was released in 2009 he joined League One side, Oldham. The move was hugely controversial and many Oldham fans felt uneasy with a convicted killer on the team.

Hughes was prolific at Oldham, scoring 25 times in 55 appearances, and despite constant jeers from opposing fans, Hughes was able to rebuild his life. Oldham risked their reputation by giving Hughes a chance, but he paid them back in goals.

Hughes has since played at Blackpool and Notts County, and he’s currently scoring for Port Vale in League 2. But wherever Hughes has gone, fans have been hesitant about welcoming him to their club. They are well aware what kind of effect having a former convict at the club can have on reputations.

This is the fear of many Oxford United fans as they welcome McCormick.

Many of United’s fans were hugely critical when Swindon offered McCormick a trial, and fans are now concerned opposition supporters will say the same of them. Fans care deeply about the reputation of their club, and understandably don’t wish for it to be associated with criminals.

But some fans have backed the transfer, arguing McCormick has served his time and should be given the chance to move on with his life. And with the U’s currently suffering an injury crisis in goal, McCormick, who was an England youth international, could give them much-needed security at the back.

Clubs play a risky game when they employ ex-convicts, especially convicted killers like McCormick, with the club’s reputation firmly on the line, as well as the feelings of fans. Some would argue football has a duty to help rehabilitate its fallen stars, while others argue people like McCormick and Hughes don’t deserve a second chance.

Oxford United are traversing and ethical minefield, and employing McCormick was always going to be a contentious move. Over time fans’ anger will soften, and most will learn to accept the goal-keeper at their club, but McCormick will never be a normal player again. He will always have the deaths of Arron and Ben Peak on his conscience, and the nature of football means Oxford fans are unnecessarily having to feel a portion of that guilt themselves, while he is at their club.

There’s no easy answer when it comes to employing ex-convicts as footballers.