Season review 2013/14 – Sheffield Wednesday

While most neutrals will have seen the cup exploits of their Steel City neighbours this season, events at Hillsborough have largely gone under the radar other than Dave Jones’s removal. Wednesdayite Neil Piper gives his take on what exactly has happened to Sheffield Wednesday this season.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster? 

‘Poor, good, average.’ Those were the words Head Coach (not Manager) Stuart Gray used when asked to describe the season in three words at a recent Hillsborough fan event. It is hard to disagree with this honest assessment. The start of the season was perhaps a little more than poor, given that it took until 2nd November for Wednesday to register their first win. To put this stat in even starker terms, the game was the Owls’ fourteenth of the season in all competitions. Most Wednesday fans hoped that a similar pattern to last season would follow; that the 5-2 thrashing of playoff contenders Reading, delivering the first victory, would be a springboard to greater things. However the result was merely a ray of sunshine in a rainy autumn as three consecutive defeats followed – a run that resulted in the removal of Dave Jones on 1st December.

Under Gray, the Owls secured safety with three games to spare, which considering they were six points adrift and bereft of confidence on his appointment is quite an achievement. In terms of the quality of football on display, Gray’s three words above are perhaps the best assessment I can give. There have been some excellent performances, such as the 4-1 home defeat of Birmingham and the 3-0 win over ‘Arry’s QPR. These have been interspersed with some shockers – the 2-1 home defeat to Charlton in the FA Cup with a quarter final date against Sheffield United beckoning, was particularly tough to take. Overall, we finished two places higher than last season but with less points gleaned. Average seems about right then.

Who’s been this season’s hero? 

It would be difficult to lay this accolade at one player’s door, so I’m going to go with Stuart Gray. At the time of his appointment he was considered a placeholder for a bigger name and I believe he has done as well as, if not better, than any of the names (Ian Holloway, Steve Evans, even Neil Warnock) bandied around at the time would have done.

And the villain?

Llerror-prone – the Spaniard’s leaves Hillsborough following a patchy year

It’s probably too easy to give this one to Dave Jones, although I’m sure a large number of Wednesday fans would. In recent games, the error-prone ‘defending’ of Miguel Llera has been reason for a number of goals conceded so sadly, as great a servant and fan favourite as he has been, I’m going to have to give it to the departing Spaniard.

Manager’s report

After a difficult start to the season, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Dave Jones. Jones is very much a manager in the true sense of the word, leaving the majority of the training ground work to his coaches and seeing himself as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ in the transfer market. Results on the pitch were awful and other than a couple of exceptions, the performances even worse. It does make you wonder exactly what he spent his time doing considering the turnaround his successor achieved in such a short space of time. Where Jones can be given some credit is in the development of the football side of the club off the field. The introduction of the development squad and the expansion of our previously threadbare scouting staff were areas of progress that the Liverpudlian played a hand in. It’s just a shame that he didn’t spend more time focusing on the primary objective of any football team – winning first-team football matches.

As above, I think Stuart Gray has done an excellent job with limited resources. He has played our most intelligent footballers and brought in some useful loan players. After announcing the release of eight players earlier this week, it will be interesting to see how the career-assistant /interim manager will handle building his own squad.

Best signing

There were a number of players who joined on loan or short-term deals that contributed to the Wednesday cause over the season: Connor Wickham, Matty Fryatt, Leon Best, Glenn Loovens to name a few. But I’m actually going to cheat a little here and say our best signing was Chris Maguire. Although signed under Dave Jones in the summer of 2012, Maguire saw little to no playing time in his first season at Hillsborough and under Gray he has been arguably like a new player and our best performer, chipping in with vital goals and finishing top of the scoring charts with ten goals from an unfamiliar midfield position. If he continues to develop next season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him earn a place in the Scotland squad.

Worst signing 

If you’d have polled Wednesday fans on this question at the turn of the year, it would have been Atdhe Nuhiu. The 6ft 6inch striker struggled to adapt in the early stages of the season but he has gradually won fans over and at the age of twenty-four, he could play a big role next season. So, perhaps by default, I will have to go with Kamil Zayatte. The ex-Hull defender showed promise in pre-season to earn a two year deal but was at the heart of a leaky defence in the early stages of the season before spending the final few months injured.

Rising star

Liam Palmer won the Owls Player of the Year award and his versatility and maturity beyond his years, should be valuable assets for years to come. But I’m going to go with Caolan Lavery. An early-season loan to Plymouth gave the young striker the opportunity to play league football and his goal-scoring and general play were highly praised. He returned to Hillsborough, scored twice in the 6-0 drubbing of Leeds and hasn’t looked back.

Highlight of the season

Jubilation following Maguire’s injury time winner in the Yorkshire derby (Photo: Sheffield Star)

I hate to mention that win over Leeds again and whilst that was particularly enjoyable, it wasn’t my personal highlight. Chris Maguire’s 97th minute winner over local rivals Barnsley brings back great memories not least for the celebrations that followed. The sight of the afore-mentioned Nuhiu sprinting from the substitutes bench (he had been taken off earlier having missed numerous chances) down the Hillsborough side line to slide in celebration in front of the Kop was both fantastic and hilarious to watch.

Low point of the season

The one nil defeat to Doncaster Rovers at home in late September. We had dominated the game and a quick break away led to the only goal of the match. After that result, it was hard to see where our first win of the season was going to come from, or if it ever would.

I’ll remember this season for…

…being eerily similar to last season, with a little more breathing room at the end. There are some encouraging signs at Hillsborough. Milan Mandaric’s investment at academy level is starting to prove beneficial and the cull of out-of-contract players raises optimism that one year stop-gap solutions won’t be sought as readily as they were last season. With three or four quality-over-quantity signings, we could be challenging for a top half finish, but it wouldn’t surprise me if history repeated itself for a third season in a row.

Season review 2013/14 – Liverpool

With Brendan Rodgers’s spell as David Brent in Being Liverpool a distant memory following the progress made across the previous season, expectations at Anfield were already high last August. We asked Nick Moss (@dnsandnick) for his take on their eventful season. 

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?

One prong on the Liverpool trident (Photo: PA)

This barely needs to be covered! Watching Liverpool stream forwards – the trident of Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge – was so thrilling for their movement, pace, and incisiveness. And because, like any good action film, disaster was only just around the corner. Or more accurately, at the other end.

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Suarez, then Sturridge, then Gerrard, then Sterling as the season went on. Underpinned by Henderson’s persistence.

And the villain?
Sad to say it but Sakho gives everyone the jitters. Mignolet does nothing to calm them, then Skrtel finds himself in a desperate situation. That trio kept one clean sheet in eighteen games. But ‘villian’ might be too strong. Moses probably takes that, for his missed open goals at crucial times.

Manager’s report
Well, as a manager might say, Brodgers has ‘done fantastic’. He tweaked and moved things around all season until the diamond shone through (anyone remember the 3-5-2?). Gerrard’s move to deep playmaker, or the ‘quarterback’ as it’s uncomfortably described, was the most publicised example of this.

Best signing
Securing Suarez on a long-term contract is the banal answer. Er, looking at other signings….it’s still Suarez.

Worst signing
Aspas? Moses? Cissokho for me, even on loan. Poor lad. Not only did he look uncomfortable playing left-back, he looked uncomfortable playing football.

Rising star

A big season for Sterling, who’s grown at some rate over the year (Photo: Metro)

Clearly Sterling. It was only at Christmas I was bemoaning his utter lack of composure in or around the box. How fickle we are! But it was the unlikely move to a more a central role that has seen him flourish. The option of going left or right, in space, with his zip, has really worked (it makes me wonder, perhaps foolishly, what Lennon may have done if freed from the right at 19). Honourable mention to Flanagan. Strange year for Coutinho – surely more to come from him next year.

Highlight of the season
Beating Man City. Even the most cautious Liverpool fans began to whisper ‘what if?’, even the most neutral fans began to say ‘why not?’.

Low point of the season
Chelsea.

I’ll remember this season for…
For the whopping 101 goals scored. And a shocking 50 conceded. For Gerrard’s chest pumping speech. And his heartbreaking slip. For Hillsborough. For making Anfield dream.

Season review 2013/14 – Chelsea

Jose Mourinho’s first season back with Chelsea certainly frustrated a lot of neutrals, but what’s the fans’ perspective? We asked Dan Northcote-Smith (@dnsandnick) for his views on the season.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – victories at Anfield and the Etihad, plus not losing to any of the big five, makes the supporters happy. Have we played (as Ruud Gullit would call it) ‘sexy football’? The answer is a resounding no.

Chelsea's hero and villain for 2013/14

Chelsea’s hero and villain for 2013/14

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Jose Mourinho. Without a doubt he’s brought solidity to the back four, he’s got the team playing as a unit, he’s made John Terry into the best centre back in the league again. Three of our back four could have easily made it into the team of the year.

And the villain?
Jose Mourinho. He’s got big performances out of the players but his big mouth has made us into the least popular team in the country. Mind games are one thing but throwing unprovoked attacks at Wenger just makes us look unprofessional. And throwing your toys from the pram after losing to Sunderland was simply ungraceful.

Manager’s report
As above, but I think next season will be different. A couple of big signings will help the team play the way he wants and hopefully Jose will let the football do the talking.

Best signing
Hard to pick between Willian and Matic. The Brazilian works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen on a football pitch and has a great touch and shot, but I think Matic takes the prize. He is everything a modern defensive midfielder should be – strong, equally good in the air and on the ground, calm on the ball and can play a forward pass. If he adds a goal or five to his repertoire he could take the title back to the Bridge next year.

Worst signing
Less of the signing, more of a departure. Mata had to go apparently. No place is Chelsea’s robust, hard working eleven. I can see the thinking and £45 million is a decent return but given the shut outs we’ve been on the receiving end of to teams nearer the bottom the prem, the little Spanish trequartista could have been the man to unlock a stubborn rearguard.

Rising star
Mohammed Salah. Snatched right out from under the nose of Liverpool at Christmas. He had recently scored his second goal for Basle against Chelsea in successive years. The 21 year old Egyptian has phenomenal pace and a great touch, he can beat a player and has shown good finishing skills, scoring in successive matches. He’s a team player, not afraid of tracking his fullback. This is a requirement at Chelsea at the moment and with Hazard receiving criticism from Jose for this very matter, Salah could see a lot more game time over the next few years.

Highlight of the season
Sorry Liverpool fans but it has to be the shut out at Anfield. The win at the Etihad was a better performance but because of the significance of the game and the ‘weakened’ team we put out this has been the moment for me.

Low point of the season
Losing our unbeaten home record to Sunderland. I never believed we could win the league but losing a 77 game unbeaten streak hurt more than anything else.

I’ll remember this season for…
…Demba Ba bundling in the last minute goal against PSG – a vintage European night.

Ba bundles home (credit: NDTV)

Season review 2013/14 – Sheffield United

A third successive year in League 1, it’s been an interesting one at Bramall Lane. Co-editor Joe looks back at the season.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
Such a crazy and unexpected season at Bramall Lane. There was mild optimism in the summer that David Weir would bring a new style and better fortune to a club that had failed in the League 1 playoffs two seasons running. This evaporated from the second game in. Attempts to remedy the poor start by strengthening the team at the end of August (the result of Saudi businessman Prince Abdullah becoming a co-owner of the club) only seemed to make things worse. With the Prince no doubt concerned to see his new investment spiralling towards League 2, Weir was removed.

Clough has now repaired the damage caused by David Weir's first managerial job

Nigel Clough has now repaired the damage caused by David Weir’s first few months in charge

Nigel Clough began a difficult process of completely remoulding the style of a team that was low on confidence, leaking goals, and ineffective going forward. And it’s taken some perseverance at times – even on Feb 1st the club was 23rd, but thereafter the team has been a joy to watch, unrecognisable from the group Weir managed. The cup run, for a League 1 club battling relegation, was superb – with at last the club putting in a decent performance at Wembley. Rising to 7th, the season’s ended too quickly for us in the end.

What started off as a club entering difficult financial times under an untested manager with a long-suffering and despondent following has really been transformed. The club appears to have the right people off the field, and an excellent manager that’s playing exciting football at a positive Bramall Lane. It’s the worst league position the club’s finished a season in since 1982/83. And yet, it’s the most optimistic I’ve been at the end of a season since we were promoted from the Championship 8 years ago.

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Harry Maguire. The third season in a row where he’s been in League 1’s team of the year, and at Christmas he was still the club’s top goalscorer. Not bad for a player that only turned 21 in March. You suspect the club may have to fend off bids this summer – a big test for the new owners.

And the villain?
David Weir by default, though by freeing up the job in October he helped enable the club to get the then-out-of-work Clough, who wasn’t available in the summer. I think most won’t therefore hold a grudge against the guy.

Manager’s report
David Weir – on paper, he should have been great. In reality it was a disaster. Not at all helped by the sale of Kevin McDonald, who he’d appeared to base his entire system around, but there was a sense he tried to change too much too quickly, bringing in the wrong people and shattering the confidence of existing players. His sacking, criticised as rash in the media, couldn’t have been better timed.

Nigel Clough – he’s surpassed all expectations. Watching some of his early unsuccessful games, I was concerned we might have made a wrong choice. I needn’t have been. Once he had re-coached the players in some basic necessities (primarily reminding them how to defend), he added some serious quality in January (John Brayford, Bob Harris, Stefan Scougall) and brought the best out of existing talent (Ryan Flynn, Jamie Murphy, Conor Coady). Above all, he’s brought back optimism to the club. With a good pre-season, and the addition of one or two players that meet Clough’s quality & character criteria (particularly up front), next season could be great.

Best signing
Stefan Scougall. I’m not sure how we’ve managed to sign Wee Scougs – his acceleration, heart, and footballing brain suggest he could be a huge player for us.

Worst signing
Marlon King. A symbol of just how desperate things got under David Weir that he signed an unfit striker, with a history of off-the-field baggage, that nobody else would touch with a barge pole. Mercifully released by Clough in December.

Rising star
Connor Dimaio. He’s made his debut and pushed ahead of other youngsters to get first team experience in the middle of midfield – the signs are Clough will use him more next season.

Highlight of the season
Chris Porter’s late double to complete the comeback against Notts Forest in the cup.

Low point of the season
On February 1st we lost 3-0 away at fellow strugglers Crewe, dropping us to 23rd. A low point, but also a turning point for the team – they haven’t looked back since.

I’ll remember this season for…
…John Brayford’s beard.

The Brayford Beard in full flight.

Written by Joseph Clift (@josephclift)

Season review 2013/14 – Tottenham Hotspur

In the first of our end-of-season reviews, 1FITG Co-Editor and Founder Roberto digests 2013/14 at White Hart Lane. The fact it can be written before the season officially finishes perhaps sums it up.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
Mostly very difficult to watch. Apparently we sold Elvis and bought the Beatles. But it turns out we bought N-Sync, there could be one star between them. It started with defensive resolution but too much this season we’ve lacked any fluidity and cohesion, both up front and any kind of defensive organisation apart from the first 11 games. Pepper that with a variety of humiliating defeats against decent sides (Chelsea & Liverpool) and some awful sides (West Ham 3 times, need to say more). It will be remembered for Andre’s sacking and Tim’s rise and inevitable fall. It was, in essence, the most Tottenham of seasons. Hope at the start, off the rails in the middle, token sacking with no plan and now the end of the season – hope again. Rinse and repeat. Until we die.

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Eriksen has probably been the stand out performer, certainly towards the end of the season. Hugo Lloris has had far too much work to do and you can see why he looks so fed up. Kyle Walker had a decent start, after a season of inconsistency the year before. Adebayor’s redemption and leadership qualities (no, really) came through when he was brought back from the cold. But no real consistency. No real leaders.

And the villain?
At any point different players have been poor. Naughton (especially) has not been good enough even in his natural position. Rose has not been as good as we’d hoped and seems to lose concentration far too often. Kaboul is back to the player we first bought rather than one of our best players from 2 years ago, Dawson’s pace lets him down time and time again. But for the true villain we must look potentially at the Club generally who seemingly sacked Andre Villas Boas which I can understand, broke promises and even worse didn’t have a real plan, other than transition. The Goose chase for another manager begins.

Manager’s report
Andre Villas Boas – it all seemed to go wrong so early. Another summer of players a manager wanted not being bought in, with people perhaps he didn’t want taking their place (as with the summer before, Moutinho anyone?). He seemingly got bored of it all, with PSG having flirted with him perhaps he had his head swayed, I don’t know. He probably thought he’d have more say. But alas. He didn’t.

Tim Sherwood – Tottenham’s best manager in the PL era. He won’t let you forget. He has brought goals and a barrow boy spirit to the Club. But what really changed? We got hammered like we did with AVB with seemingly no game plan against the top Clubs. His demeanour has been that of a work experience boy trying to show he’s hard. An English Mourinho – brash and funny in press conferences, but unlike Mourinho lacking in any substance or experience. Having watched him with the U-21s the year before I cannot say I am surprised. People suggest AVB could not get his players playing and alienated some and that Sherwood bringing Adebayor back shows he’s inclusive. A few players may disagree, especially Club linchpin Sandro, Lamela, Capoue and more.

Best signing
Eriksen. Guile, technique and crossing to die for.

Worst signing
Very harsh but difficult season for Lamela. I thought he would be fantastic at Spurs and I still think he may be. But at the price and the lack of appearances it’s hard to look past him. People may point to Soldado but his goals have won us more points than any other player (it wasn’t a high bar).

Rising star
Bentaleb. Unfairly criticised by some. But the boy has quality and is still playing slightly out of position. Tom Carroll served a good apprenticeship at QPR and should come back into the first team squad next year.

Highlight of the season
The day before the start of the season was good. Ledley King’s testimonial will probably be it. Beating United at Old Trafford again was nice.

Oh this last night may have been it, for so many reasons, the awful tweet in the first place (human error, get over it) to the even worse handling (lies?) of the aftermath.

 

Low point of the season
Too many to mention, not even getting close to Arsenal in 3 ties, losing three times to West Ham, being spanked by City and Liverpool twice.

I’ll remember this season for…
…being another definition of Tottenham. Hope. Sackings. Repeat.

Written by Roberto Kusabbi (@rktweets)

Crossing the Atlantic – an MLS XI

Off the back of our last piece on the continued rise of MLS, there are a number of players from the English leagues that you thought you’d forgotten about – all seeking success in the MLS. You could probably make up a complete XI from them…

1. Julio Cesar (Toronto FC – base salary $192,000 in 2014)

The signing of Julio Cesar at QPR looks on reflection to be highly symptomatic of what went wrong at Loftus Road. Signed to a long-term deal on good money from Inter (reported as £100k/week), it was a position they had decent options for going into that summer – in contrast to other areas of the pitch in desperate need of investment if QPR were to avoid the drop.

Nevertheless, Cesar impressed in his first season but his heroics weren’t enough to keep QPR up. Keen to trim the wage bill, he was unsuccessfully offered to clubs last summer. But rather than use his talent, Harry Redknapp bizarrely decided to freeze the Brazilian out of the squad. He joined Toronto on loan earlier this year, and you have to feel his time at QPR, regardless of whether they gain promotion, is over. This, for a player who may captain Brazil at the World Cup this summer. It’s remarkable Toronto have him at the club.

2. Bradley Orr (Toronto FC – base salary $75,000 in 2014)

The former Bristol City legend joined Cesar on loan from Blackburn this year, linking up with former team-mate Ryan Nelson, Toronto’s head coach. After initial early success at Neil Warnock’s Championship-winning QPR, Orr fell out of favour in the Premiership and was packed off to Steve Kean’s Blackburn, featuring regularly in the terrible side that was relegated two years ago.

After a couple of loan spells in the Championship, the versatile defender has been called upon to play in the middle due to injuries in the Toronto squad. He’s already looking at making the move permanent, and is hoping that by the end of his career he’ll no longer be best known as the player that got a red card for head butting teammate Louis Carey while at Ashton Gate.

3. Jordan Stewart (San Jose Earthquakes – base salary $140,000 in 2014)

Jordan Stewart: still playing, still running somewhere down the left

It’s fair to say that Stewart has been around a bit. It’s easy to forget that he also played in the Premiership, for the relegated Leicester City and relegated Watford. Following that, each of his moves seemed to be downward, with an unsuccessful spell in Greece mixed in, before he headed for the MLS last season.

Stewart’s always been a bit of an odd footballer, often average but with the out-of-the-blue occasional screamer. His Wikipedia page describes him as “either a left-back or left-winger, and if required, can play at centre-back.” I saw him play for Sheffield United mid-career-decline down the left-hand side, and he was quite possibly one of the worst left-backs/left-wingers I have seen for the club. His versatility seems to stem from the fact he is equally poor in both positions – he looked like a winger forced to play full-back, or a full-back forced to play on the wing, depending on his position at the time. Good luck to him at San Jose.

4. Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps – base salary $184,000 in 2014)

Of all the current MLS players that have made the move from across the Atlantic, the star of ‘Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story’ stands out as perhaps the most successful. The long-serving Watford centre-half has used his limited ability well over the years, scoring in the 2006 playoff final for the Hornets, playing in the Premiership, and even putting in a decent shift for the USA at the last World Cup despite being released by Watford.

When the Whitecaps gained their MLS status, DeMerit was recruited to be their captain and the focus of the team to be built around him. He was, and still is, on all of their promotional material. The MLS All-Star enjoys a celebrity status at the club that should give hope to any centre-half with moderate success in the English leagues – come to the MLS where you can be the lynchpin of the team, live in a great city, and marry an Olympian.

5. Andy O’Brien (Vancouver Whitecaps – base salary $250,000 in 2014)

A trademark tackle from O’Brien on Robbie Keane earlier this month (Photo: The Canadian Press)

DeMerit’s other partner is the former Bolton and Ireland centre-half, who perhaps seeing the Jay DeMerit story thought he could replicate it. Unfortunately for him, he’s picked a team already with one central defensive late-developing star, so he’s having to settle for being “the other centre-half”, albeit the one being paid somewhat more.

O’Brien had a bit of a rough time at his previous club Leeds – suffering from depression at a time when the club was doing poorly. 35 in June, contract up in December, the tough-tackling O’Brien is looking to bounce back and end his career on a high. Two things were noticeable when watching him recently against LA – he’s as rough a play as ever, and he’d never get away wearing orange boots in Bolton.

6. Steven Caldwell (Toronto FC – base salary $325,000 in 2014)

The other Caldwell is another of the UK contingent in Toronto, currently captaining the side after joining from Birmingham last season. Best known for his time with Sunderland and Burnley, the former Scottish international is enjoying his football after an excellent first season in the MLS.

What Caldwell may have lost in pace in recent years is made up for by his whole-hearted attitude to defending, which saw the MLS retrospectively given a ban after this vicious tackle against Real Salt Lake this month. A tackle he described as “not looking good”.

7. Nigel Reo-Coker (Vancouver Whitecaps – base salary $400,000 in 2014)

Where did it all go wrong for Nigel Reo-Coker? He captained a West Ham side to promotion and an FA Cup final before even turning 22, and despite his form dropping off in 2006-07, Aston Villa were still prepared to pay a whopping £8.5 million to secure his signature.

His time at Villa was mixed, shifted by Martin O’Neill into a number of positions to accommodate him. At times he captained the side – at others, he had major failings out with the club, including a training ground bust-up with O’Neill. He joined Bolton on a free in 2011, ditched them the following summer after relegation, and played half a season at Ipswich before heading to Vancouver.

The Whitecaps were willing to part with their 2nd round SuperDraft picks for 2014 and 2015 to get Reo-Coker. And after initial success, he’s struggled to even get a game so far under Carl Robinson. Again it may be off-the-field where the problems lie – troublesome contract talks before the start of the season, tripping over a bike rack (giving him concussion) and now a mysterious illness keeping him out of the squad. On issues with him in training, Robinson stated that “he just needs to show a willingness”. Ominous signs as to his future at the Whitecaps, particularly considering he’s the highest paid of this XI by some margin.

8. Lloyd Sam (New York Red Bulls – base salary $136,500 in 2014)

While Sam suffered two relegations at The Valley, I always felt he was an underrated player that would eventually get snapped up by a bigger team. Decent speed, comfortable on the ball, and a good eye for goal – all desirable attributes for a winger.

But it never really happened for him after Charlton had to part company with him due to the financial reality of life in League 1. Early promise at Leeds was followed with a series of niggling injuries, before his release in 2012. And after injury followed him in his first season with the Red Bulls, he bounced back last season and has started this season well – currently tied with Obafemi Martins for the number of assists and scoring a late-winner recently against Philadelphia. Encouragingly, he also survived being speared by Tim Cahill amidst the goal celebrations, as Cahill momentarily forgot how injury-prone Sam has been.

9. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls – base salary $330,000 in 2014)

Sam is joined at the Red Bulls by the other Wright-Phillips. Bradley made history at the weekend by becoming the first Englishman to score a hat-trick in the MLS, coming in a 4-0 thrashing of Houston.

Wright-Phillips is another that has had an odd career. Early promise at Man City was followed with off-the-field issues at Southampton. But he rebuilt his career at Plymouth and then had a superb season at Charlton as they won League 1, in no small part due to his 22 goals. But then he disappeared without a trace again. So deadly the previous year, he had a poor season in the Championship to the extent he was released at the end of last season.

In a contrast of fortunes, he’s now on decent money, playing up front alongside Thierry Henry. 5 in 8 already this season – he’s off to a flyer.

10. Luke Moore (Chivas USA – base salary $120,000 in 2014)

Once a promising forward at Aston Villa after winning the FA Youth Cup alongside brother Stefan, Moore has been blighted with injury throughout his career. Despite West Brom paying £3 million for him in 2008, but ultimately had a fairly fruitless time in front of goal. He failed to regain his form sufficiently at Swansea, and Michael Laudrup released him last summer.

A failed spell in Turkey, where he failed to score in 17 appearances at Elazığspor, was cut short and this is his first season in the MLS. No goals in his 5 appearances just yet, and no goals now for over a year.

11. Giles Barnes (Houston Dynamo – base salary $230,000 in 2014)

Giles Barnes – enjoying his football again

Giles Barnes really had a real buzz about him when he broke through at Derby aged 17. Lots of energy to his game – a really exciting player to watch, who became a key part of their promotion to the Premiership. But following injuries in the years that followed, Barnes’s career took a different path – with disappointment towards the end of his time at Derby followed by further woe at West Brom. By the time he reached Doncaster Rovers in 2011, he was only worth a 6-month deal before being released.

Barnes moved to Houston in 2012, and has since relaunched his career. He had an impressive season last year where he stayed largely free of injury, scored a few crackers, and appears to be enjoying life again. At still only 25, perhaps an English team may be tempted to bring him back for one last go in the top tier.

MLS prospects rising as lucrative expansion beckons

This blog in the past has tended not to dip too much into Major League Soccer, but with one of the editors relocating across the Atlantic what better time to give the MLS a closer look…

It’s an exciting time in the MLS. The league continues to attract a growing number of established players from Europe, most notably with the return to MLS of Clint Dempsey in Seattle and the surprise big money move of Jermaine Defoe to Toronto. Added to existing converts Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, it’s becoming harder to simply ignore the league as it becomes more lucrative for decent players.

The latest star to head to the MLS (credit: Guardian)

It’s easy to forget just how young MLS still is. As the Football League comes to the end of its 125th anniversary celebrations, the MLS enters just its 18th season. And as the league continues to grow in reputation, so too it grows in number. In the last five years it’s added five new teams – two of which are based in Canada – bringing the league up to 19 teams. That’s still short of the total in just the top league in many European countries, but relatively speaking it’s still in its infancy.

Expansion

Plans are also afoot to expand further, raising the total up to 24 teams by 2020. Next season we’ll see the league return to Florida with Orlando City joining – the first Florida team since teams in Miami and Tampa Bay folded in 2001. Their Head Coach will be pint-sized ex Everton player and former Burnley and Sheffield United boss Adrian Heath, who has been managing in the United Soccer League, the Conference equivalent to MLS, since 2008.

Inner circle courtesy of the Yankees, outer Man City

Inner circle courtesy of the Yankees, outer courtesy of Man City

Orlando will be joined by New York City FC – the most visible result of the partnership between Man City and the New York Yankees. With ex City and US player Claudio Reyna as Director of Football, NYC FC will play at Yankee Stadium until an alternative ground is sorted. In March they announced their official club badge – which looks like the Man City digital team have simply played around a bit with the Yankees’ logo. Season tickets are already on sale for anyone willing to gamble on a club that doesn’t have a full set of staff yet.

Last week, MLS announced they will be joined in 2017 by a new team in Atlanta – currently the biggest market in a North America without a team. And, assuming the club can find a stadium, a new team in Miami will join them. If David Beckham’s contract with MLS hadn’t already been pretty rewarding, he had an option written in the deal that brought him to LA Galaxy that he could buy an expansion team, worth $25m. And while there are local concerns over building a new stadium in Miami (not to mention the memory of failed franchise Miami Fusion), you feel that this is the project that Beckham will personally invest his time and energy in for the foreseeable future to ensure its success.

Challenges

I saw my first live MLS match in 2011 when then new team Vancouver Whitecaps lost 1-0 to the Portland Timbers in what was one of the worst games of football I’d seen in years. To say it was bloody awful would be a big understatement. The stadium (the then newly renovated BC Place) felt dead, with the lack of quality matched by a lack of passion in the stands. Needless to say, my first impressions of MLS were therefore not exactly filling me with a strong desire to return any time soon. It could have been an off-day for both clubs, but both sets of players while ok with the basics seemed clueless about what to do in the final third. Creating space, where to run, what to do when near the box, how and when to cross – these concepts all seemed alien to to two teams on display.

Three seasons on, and following a move to Vancouver (undisclosed fee), I’ve now taken in a few more Whitecaps games and the improvement in quality and atmosphere was immediately clear. In fairness, it is a completely different team – only two of the XI that started that first game remain. It’s a new coach (former Wolves and Wales midfielder Carl Robinson), a better tactical sense in the team, and a set of fans that seem more comfortable with their new surroundings. The Whitecaps, though celebrating their 40th anniversary as a club, have only been in the MLS since 2011. The difference between that team and the current one is perhaps an indicator to the new expansion teams that establishing themselves as viable teams will take time.

The key challenge for MLS as a whole though remains attracting people to the sport in a highly competitive sports market. Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight recently crunched the numbers on comparative popularity among North American teams across sports based on Google searches. The challenge for MLS is plain to see – you have to scroll down quite a way before the LA Galaxy, top of the league’s teams, comes up. That’s a challenge that can only be taken on over a long stretch of time, if indeed it’s even possible. Success for the MLS in the short term is continuing to gradually build up interest, both among the public, players, and increasingly media attention from abroad. It’s tempting to look at team names like Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City – names which make the Hull City Tigers seem inoffensive in comparison – and mock the overall league. But those looking at the league from the outside need to look past this sort of oddity and past the stereotypes of how North American fans view the sport (brilliantly parodied by NBC last summer) and watch this league increasingly finding its feet.

If the MLS can use the expansion of the league to increase their fan base, and can continue to increase the quality of the league at the same time, there’s a huge potential here waiting to be unearthed.

Written by @josephclift

Mid table marvels – five bosses worthy of praise

There have been several managers that deserve praise for Herculean efforts this season. Sean Dyche’s remarkable season with Burnley, Russell Slade making Leyton Orient genuine automatic contenders, and Tony Pulis turning a doomed Palace side overnight into a viable Premiership survivor to mention but a few.

But what of those that have perhaps had less attention due to their mid-table status, in itself an impressive season given their club’s situation? A season of ‘mid-table mediocrity’ when avoiding a damaging relegation battle isn’t something to be taken lightly, but often gets lost in the excitement of the action at both ends of the table. Those that have quietly had a pretty decent year, despite what expectation levels of some of their own fans may have been.

Here are five managers sitting safely who fit the bill.

1. Eddie Howe
Steady Eddie returned to Bournemouth last season with them in a complete mess. But with a rapid turnaround and remarkable run Howe steered them from relegation battlers to a surprising automatic promotion. It’s only 5 years ago that they clung on for dear life in League 2.
21st would have been a great achievement for a club that hadn’t been at that level since 1990. But with some shrewd signings like Elliott Ward and Yann Kermorgant added last summer, Bournemouth haven’t really looked like relegation fodder at any stage of the season. Which is a huge credit to Howe, who’s been rewarded with a contract extension to 2018.
2. Paul Cox
Mansfield’s promotion from the Conference ended five seasons out of the Football League. In the process, Paul Cox started appearing on the promising manager radar. Avoiding relegation was the minimum expected from Stags fans, and all began well. In October Mansfield were around the playoff zone, with Cox being linked to the then vacant jobs at Notts County and Sheffield United.

That purple patch was followed by the doom and despair of three winless months. No wins in 13 saw the Stags drop to within a point of the relegation zone – with fans’ patience at a low. But Cox has turned them back round in 2014 – last week’s impressive 4-2 win at Hartlepool highlighting their revival. Mansfield now sit in 12th, practically safe. That would have been a decent achievement at the start of the season – bearing in mind their position at the turn of the year, Cox has done really well. His promising reputation duly saved.

3. Micky Adams

A 5-0 thrashing by Bristol City last week, where Adams was subjected to abuse from some of the Vale fans – the suggestion that Adams deserves big praise might raise an eyebrow. But like Bournemouth, having gained an impressive promotion last season the key factor was to stay up – and they too have been comfortably out of what’s a highly competitive battle at the bottom of League 1.

Unlike Bournemouth, they are all over the place off the pitch. The chairman has this season banned the main local paper from the club, told a number of football agents in December that the club was temporarily unable to pay money owed to them, and has even struggled to pay policing bills for Vale Park. And last week, as Adams prepared to get an emergency goalkeeping loan in, he discovered Vale were under a transfer embargo. Sitting 11th, 11 points off the drop zone, with the resources available to him, Adams has perhaps been the only reliable thing at Vale this season.

4. Stuart Gray

Put simply, Stuart Gray shouldn’t be in the driving seat at Hillsborough. Milan Mandaric hurled him the keys after Dave Jones’s sacking last December, with a very clear intention at the time that this would be temporary. After all, while a loyal assistant in his career (mainly to Jones), his brief disappointing spell managing Southampton and his disastrous spell at Northampton didn’t give Gray a great managerial CV.

But while Neil Warnock dithered over the job, Gray began to impress in his caretaker role. With no other candidates meeting Mandaric’s standards (or with no decent candidates willing to work with Mandaric), Gray earned himself a full time contract to 2016. So far he’s brought much-needed stability and led a turnaround in form. Whereas the managerial changes at Barnsley, Blackpool, Charlton, and Millwall haven’t significantly impacted on league position, Gray has lifted the club from 23rd to currently 14th. And he’s managed not to incur the wrath of Mandaric – an achievement in itself.

5. Mark Hughes

It may raise a few eyebrows that Hughes completes this list – not least in Stoke itself where there seems to be something of a divide among some sections of the Britannia. Many were fond of Pulis, and will no doubt be looking at his transformation of Palace as further justification he shouldn’t have been moved on.

Wherever Hughes has gone he’s never seemed to gain complete support. But Stoke fans need to look at this as quite an encouraging building year for the club. Hughes has overnight steered the club in a completely different footballing direction – and often, that sort of drastic change can create resistance. It wouldn’t have been at all surprising to have seen Stoke at this stage in the midst of a relegation battle, rather than effectively safe in 10th. And for that alone, it’s success for Sparky.

Davies axed as SOS sent to Warnock

Saturday’s embarrassing 5-0 loss to local & promotion rivals Derby County led to an abrupt end, again, to Billy Davies’s time at the City Ground. The loss saw Forest fall out of the playoff zone and continues a winless run that’s now up to 8 games.

What a difference a month makes. Just over five weeks ago, Forest were 1-0 up at half time at Bramall Lane, unbeaten in 16 games, looking good for the playoffs and a potential semi final appearance given the kind FA Cup draw. That disappointing loss though shouldn’t have necessarily had repercussions in the league – and for long periods of their next league game against a strong Leicester side they were in control. But with a late equaliser for the ten men of City, the wheels appeared to fall off.

Billy Davies, likely appealing against one of the conspiracies against him (photo: Telegraph)

Hammered at home to Wigan, beaten at the impressive promotion-bound Burnley, and by dismal relegation-bound Barnsley, with draws against beatable Middlesbrough and Donny Rovers – the Derby game continues what is a terrible run at the worst possible time of the season. Owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi has today decided to act.

Some may be sympathetic to Billy Davies, the manager. Forest are, after all, sitting just two points from the playoff zone with 9 games to go – 5 of which are against teams in the lower half, with only QPR to play in the top 6. With that set of games, they have a great chance to finish in the top 6.

But most will find it tough to be sympathetic to Davies, the person. His refusal to deal with certain parts of the media certainly didn’t help matters, and the post-match interviews he’d give were often unbearable. Most recently he was handed a 5-match ban for abusive language towards the ref in the Leicester game. His abrasive personality has often annoyed fans of other clubs, but his character was tolerable provided the results were delivered.

In a surprise twist, this may be the first job that Neil Warnock is appointed to where he’s actually considered to be more likeable in the game than his predecessor. In what would appear to be the shortest of short-term appointments, “One Last Challenge” Warnock is being heavily linked as the man that will be handed the task of quickly steering Forest back on course. His record of high initial impact is decent – turning around the form of Sheffield United, Crystal Palace and QPR overnight when all three were relegation-threatened and all over the place off-the-pitch.

Coming into a promotion-chasing side though, the expectations are quite different. And his record in that situation, coming into a club in a decent with relative stability, is not quite as impressive. It’s not too dissimilar to the situation when he was appointed at Leeds. Impatient for promotion, Simon Grayson was sacked with Leeds sitting in 10th, 3 points off the playoffs. Warnock’s impact-appointment saw him move the team 4 places in the table. Sadly for him, this was downwards – finishing in 14th place, and 14 points off the playoffs.

“Ah, but he has an impressive playoff record” I hear in the distance. And by distance, I mean the distant past – 1996 to be precise. While Warnock has tasted success of promotion via the playoffs with Notts County (twice), Huddersfield Town and Plymouth Argyle, you have to go back to a time when Forest finished 9th in the Premier League – yes, it must feel like another lifetime ago.

Neil Warnock – playoff genius, but not since 1996

His greatest playoff success since then was probably Sheffield United’s pulsating 4-3 victory over, ironically, Forest in the 2002-03 playoff semi-finals. But that was followed with an abject display in the final against Wolves – a game where tactically he got it completely wrong. And at Palace, the season fell away in the semi finals. He has had impressive promotions automatically since then, with Sheffield United and QPR, but both teams he’d built up himself.

His Notts County connections may be an issue for Forest fans, but given the thick skin most will have had to develop to cope with Davies you’d expect Warnock to be tolerated until the summer at least. And for Warnock himself, in semi-retirement since leaving Leeds, it’s a completely risk-free job for him. He’ll be saying all the right things as he always does when he joins a new club – expect him to talk about his past conversations with Brian Clough, his love of the City Ground and the “great set of fans” at the club, not to mention the “great bunch of lads” he’d be managing. And with zero pressure on him to really succeed, coupled with the fixtures before him, it might be a smart “Save Our Season” appointment. But for this to work, he’ll need to lift a team already fairly high up – and if he does, it’ll be a unique moment in his managerial career.

Written by @josephclift

Technology: Time for football to upgrade

It’s astonishing to compare what is possible in the 21st century compared to how it used to be. For instance, the way we view television is remarkable.

The advent of interactive digital technology means the home viewer can select, augment and interact with what they watch in an entirely new way, and not just at home but on the move on a range of devices. It is actually possible, during a live game and whilst sitting on a bus, to turn off the sound of Andy Townsend. Slim mobile phones are now also computers, video screens, TVs, audio systems, cameras, navigation tools and much more. As technology continues to advance at a pace unimaginable even 10 years ago, the application of it in sport hasn’t quite kept up.

Some sports were quick to adopt and adapt technology that already existed, such as TV replays, and some technology is even driven by the needs of sports – take Hawkeye for example. The attitudes towards applying innovation in both technology and laws of the game varies widely though, depending on the sport. If sports were mobile phone users, you’d probably say the NFL is an early adopter owning the latest iPhone or Android version – sleek, slick and used constantly. This is partly due to the stop-start nature of the game but nonetheless, the fact that a free NFL app can provide fans with real-time stats and play-by-play analysis is pretty impressive.

More striking is that American football has been miking up the refs and providing them with video assistance since as early as 1986. You’d probably then say that sports like tennis and cricket, supposedly run by old school fuddy-duddy blazers, are also smartphone users. With Hawkeye, video replays, hotspots and so on, they’re firmly iPhone 4S users, possibly even iPhone 5 or a snazzy Samsung. Even both codes of rugby have seen some element of innovation whether it be instant replays or even simply putting players ‘on report’ in rugby league. Technology in rugby is probably the equivalent of using an early iPhone or HTC.

Then there’s football. No video replays for key decisions like offsides, penalties or red cards. Confusing rules on retrospective punishment, and no allowance for post-match reviews to punish simulation or other instances of cheating and foul play. Having just introduced goal-line technology, something that will probably get used half a dozen times a season at best, football has just upgraded to one of the early Motorola flip phones and is smugly patting itself on the back at the nice ‘clacking’ sound it makes. Worryingly, football seems to cherish its status as a laggard in the world of sports. Any debate on the subject rapidly elicits a common set of views (or misconceptions) on how technology and innovation would impact the game:

  • “It would slow the game down”
  • “It would undermine the referees on the pitch”
  • “Football’s about people, not technology”
  • “It would take away the talking points from the game”

Each of these views on closer inspection is nonsense but they remain barriers to change because there is yet to be any sensible and comprehensive debate on technology by the FA, UEFA or FIFA. Would it slow the game down? Only if you assume that every decision is subject to some form of review. With the game being so free-flowing, technology could not be employed in a blanket approach and without some amendments to the laws of the game.

A pragmatic and sensible approach would see, for instance, only certain decisions being video reviewed and only where the officials are sufficiently unsure but can let play continue – offsides, penalty decisions, tackles preventing goalscoring opportunities. Would it undermine referees? Surely what undermines referees is that every weekend, their decisions are scrutinised by pundits and journalists, and endlessly replayed in super slow-motion from numerous angles, whilst they only get the benefit of seeing it once, in real-time. Look no further than the recent furore over post-match comments by Brendan Rodgers and David Moyes, comments that came with the benefit of instant replays and slow-motion footage. Referees make mistakes, they always will because they’re human. But technology coupled with changes in the laws can minimise those mistakes.

Where referees are unsure of a big decision, rather than force them to go one way or the other, why not allow them the benefit of a video official reviewing a replay? Or where an incident happens off the ball or in the periphery of the ref’s vision, why not allow him to put the players involved on report and be dealt with in a post-match review? And lastly, if players are punished retrospectively, for say, diving, would that not drastically decrease how often it happens rather than undermine the ref? Surely even Ashley Young will rethink a dive if he’s fined or banned.

Yes, football is about people and not technology but those people are the fans and the players, both of whom generally have a vested interest in knowing that the decisions being made are correct. The same applies for the argument that technology would remove talking points. Who can honestly say they’ve gone to a game and heard someone say “Ooh, I can’t wait to see this ref today, I’m really looking forward to his performance”? The referee and assistants are not the participants. They are simply there to enforce the laws of the game – in an ideal world, they’re invisible and never make an error. Really, the only question that needs answering is this: is it reasonable to expect a referee and two assistants to spot everything that happens between twenty-two players moving at high-speed, some of whom may seek to cheat the officials? So why not give them as much help as possible. There’s plenty of other talking points on the pitch, incorrect decisions don’t need to be part of them.

Yet, astonishingly, modern football still clings to a world where portly middle-aged blokes can make decisions that mean billion-pound professional football clubs can win or lose a trophy. Much like the reaction when today’s teenagers see the early brick-sized mobile phones, in 20 years time, hopefully we’ll also be wondering how things ever worked this way.

Written by @JindyMann
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