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15 Aug 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

It’s that time of year again. It’s the moment a humble scribbler places his or her neck on the executioner’s block and hopes that not too much blood will flow. Here is my guide to the new season’s winners and losers, with a special mention of a team to watch in all four divisions.

Premier League predictions:

Top four (in order): Manchester City (champions), Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United

Relegated: West Brom, West Ham, Southampton

Team to watch: Arsenal

It’s payback time. Arsenal fans, who never tire of reminding us they pay top dollar, deserve a trophy for their patience. Arsène Wenger has bought well in the transfer market, retaining his equilibrium despite being held to ransom by Robin van Persie. The promotion of Steve Bould to first-team coach should improve defensive discipline, but the prevalence of injuries remains a worry. Third again in the league, but a cup to compensate.

Championship predictions:

Promoted (in order): Bolton (champions), Middlesbrough, Cardiff

Relegated: Crystal Palace, Charlton, Barnsley

Team to watch: Blackburn

The lunatics are still running the asylum at Blackburn. Money seems to be no object – new signings on £30,000 a week are apparently the norm – but class and common sense cannot be purchased. The farce that led to so-called global adviser Shebby Singh, a former TV pundit, apologising to manager Steve Kean and the “past his sell-by date” Morten Gamst Pedersen does not augur well.

League One predictions:

Promoted (in order): Preston (champions), Swindon, Bournemouth

Relegated: Walsall, Portsmouth, Bury, Hartlepool

Team to watch: Preston

Graham Westley has stolen My Way from Frank Sinatra as his signature song. He has decimated last season’s squad, which baulked at his distinctive 9-5 training regime. Unwanted stragglers are training on their own, excluded from a group of 13 new players signed by the end of May. There’s no middle ground: it could be a disaster, but might very well be one of the success stories of the season.

League Two predictions:

Promoted: Rotherham (champions), Gillingham, Chesterfield, Bradford

Relegated: Burton, Morecambe

Team to watch: Barnet

Barnet are the club that refuses to die, having survived on the final day of the season for the past three years. Martin Allen and his pet pooch have relocated to Gillingham. New manager Mark Robson is an exceptional young coach, with great contacts at youth level in the Premier League. He plays the game the right way. Not a promotion season, but they will be on the fringe of the play-offs. That’s progress.

24 Jul 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

Hello all. Back from brief break – here’s today’s blog:

So long then, Tim Cahill. Everton have taken the pragmatic option of trading in a totemic player for the relative pittance of £1m. He will become one of the stars of Major League Soccer, with the New York Red Bulls, as much for his qualities as a man as his abilities as a midfielder.

Cahill has given Everton eight years, but needs to be judged over his 14 years in England. He may be 32, but he remains, at heart, the gritty, grounded teenager who left his parents in Sydney to undergo a successful trial at Millwall. He lived in digs with an uncle, on £200 a week.

“I’d have accepted £20,” he told me earlier this summer. “I was a kid, chasing the dream. I’d found another family.” That sort of attitude explains the reverence in which he is held by Everton and Millwall fans alike. He’s a proper footballer, a credit to a profession defined by a minority of ungrateful wretches.

Cahill’s inspirational nature is reflected by his charity work and support for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. It is expressed by the relentlessness of his ambition and the purity of his passion. His impact may have declined at Everton over the past year, but his level of commitment has never dipped.

David Moyes has taken a hard decision on a personal level. His respect for Cahill’s character, work rate, versatility and opportunism in front of goal is absolute. He could have squeezed another Premier League season out of him, but on a professional level Cahill’s departure offers the Everton manager scope to recycle his squad.

Cahill readily acknowledges the similarities between his two English clubs. Neither attracts plastic fans. They are demanding but supportive, and recognise honesty and hard work. It’s no surprise to learn the Australian has Millwall and Everton timeline tattoos on his left arm.

We will miss the goal celebrations – the ritual punching of the corner flag – and his transparent joy in getting paid a lot of money for something he’d do for very little reward. He will quickly become a media darling in New York, because they, too, love a trier who speaks from the heart.

Good luck, mate. You deserve it.

10 Jul 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

Here’s the latest IoS column :

What makes a winner? Which qualities define a champion? On this day of days, when the matrons of Middle England will light a candle for Andy Murray, and say a silent prayer for his salvation, such questions are loaded with an almost mystical relevance.
There’s no God Particle in sport, no Higgs bosun effect on the Centre Court. This isn’t a Eureka Moment for British tennis, whatever the LTA’s opportunists and apologists claim. It’s a man at work.
There’s a huge contrast between the twee rituals of Wimbledon and the elemental individualism of Murray’s sport. His closed character, which encourages perceptions of surliness and self-absorption, is an asset. Generations of ideal son-in-laws have been found wanting in such a gladiatorial environment.
Recurrent controversies, a reflection of the moral ambivalence of modern sport, tell us virtue is not necessarily rewarded with victory. No one can win 16 Grand Slams, as Roger Federer has done, by being as innocent as a country curate.
The Swiss is where he is, because of who he is. He embodies the six Cs – character, commitment, competitiveness, composure, consistency and confidence – found in the DNA spiral of successful elite athletes.
He is the finished article, graceful, lithe, popular and powerful. He presents the perfect image, manages to disguise the aggressive narcissism which has been channelled into his attempt to return to number one.
To match him, and end the genuflection before the legend of Fred Perry, Murray must reach a higher state of consciousness, play with forensic intelligence, and a controlled fury. He must channel a pathological hatred of failure into positive energy, ignoring the distraction of a supportive crowd while remaining open to its benefits.
Winners are exceptionally driven individuals. Academic studies show they share an acute attention to detail, an acknowledgement of their accountability, and an obsession with marginal improvement. Will tends to be more important than skill.
The best play in a vacuum, blocking out random chance and human error. A momentary lapse in concentration – such as that, at the start of the third set, which threatened Murray in his semi final against Jo Wilfried Tsonga – can leave an athlete flat, and fragile. It is vital to refocus quickly.
Only at the point of victory, can Murray succumb to humanity. The demons will be chirping in his ear this morning, seeking self doubt. Steve Peters calls it the phenomenon of the Inner Chimp.
We first met before the Athens Olympics, when his day job was as a clinical psychologist, at Rampton high security hospital. He’s now sport’s mind mechanic of choice, working wonders with Olympic champions, like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. The England rugby team is his new pet project.
Intriguingly, given his experience of peeling away the layers of a mass murderer’s personality, Peters highlights the mildly psychopathic tendencies of many elite athletes. They are ruthless, strategic in their behaviour. They take tough decisions with little remorse, become conditioned to manipulating those around them, and ignore anxiety, in stressful situations.
Those traits are a reflection of supreme self-confidence. Winners have a deep-seated belief in their ability to prevail, which can manifest itself as arrogance. It does not necessarily make for an easy life. Roy Keane, for example, needed to win, but was contemptuous of the concept of heroism, and personal glory.
Some, like Ayrton Senna before his premature death in 1994, seek spiritual solace, a Divine dimension to their work. Others retain an emotional connection with their childhood.
Wayne Gretsky, ice hockey’s biggest icon, skated endlessly on a rink built by his father and illuminated by lights, strung on a wire from a neighbours’ garage. He says, simply: “The feelings of that backyard never left me.”
Murray’s journey began in the Scottish border town of Dunblane, which has as much in common with Wimbledon as Ulan Bator. Is it too much to hope it will be completed today, in suburbia’s sacred temple?
Keep Calm, and Carry On, Constance.

* * *

Groundhog Day starred yet another badge-kissing, soundbite-spewing footballer, using ambition as a masking agent for avarice.
Robin Van Persie’s poison-pen letter to Arsenal was particularly smug, painfully transparent. But its unintended consequence was mildly amusing.
Enter, stage left, Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek billionaire, who has the charm and physical characteristics of Jabba the Hut.
He railed against the discreet greed of old school types, like Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, who made £116m from her inherited Arsenal shares.
Peter Hill-Wood, Arsenal’s Old Etonian chairman, gallantly rushed to her defence, before admitting his windfall, a mere £5.5m, was “nice”.
Usmanov’s criticism of the club’s strategy was opportunist, but, in a wider sense, he had a point.
Boardroom warriors won’t get out of bed for less than eight figures, when it comes to selling the family silver.
Martin Edwards took £120million out of Manchester United. David Moores left Liverpool with a heavy heart, and £88m.
John Hall, self-styled father of the Geordie Nation, sold his interests in Newcastle United for £95m. Freddie Shepherd, his chum, had to make do with £50m.
They retain airs and graces, and presume a right to speak down to the masses. Give me a good old grasping footballer, any day.
* * *

Danny Dyer, as every aficionado of car-crash cinema knows, is pwopa nawty.
He drops aitches like atom bombs, and has been plugging Saturday’s pub brawl between David Haye and Dereck Chisora.
I’m told to expect more violence outside the ring than inside it at Upton Park. Stay safe, geezah.

2 Jul 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

Remiss of me : I’ve been failing to upload my IoS columns.
Here is yesterday’s:

Christian Gross infamously arrived at White Hart Lane brandishing a tube ticket from Heathrow. Should he be unveiled as Tottenham manager this week, Andre Vilas Boas will require a more convincing image of himself as a man of the people.
His audience will be sceptical, resolutely tribal, and conditioned to regard him as a Chelsea reject. To many Tottenham fans, this gives him the social status of dog faeces, encased in a perfumed plastic bag.
Mildly offensive, deeply unattractive, and best held at arms length.
Any protests will miss the point. Vilas-Boas is a middle manager, employed by an institution that is 85% owned by a Bahamas-based investment company. In the great scheme of things, he is of limited relevance.
He will be portrayed as the Gaffer, a description which hints at football’s feudalism. The reality is that, helped by the influential figure of Tim Sherwood, he will follow a meticulously prepared, heavily monitored, business strategy.
To prove the point, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy has just signed Gareth Bale, sold Vedran Corluka, and started horse trading over Luka Modric.
He may even surprise everyone and go elsewhere, if AVB has ideas above his station.

Chris Hegarty is the first player to sign for Rangers, without knowing the club’s fate.
I knew him as an apprentice at Millwall. He was rejected, but persisted, and captains Northern Ireland’s Under 21 team.
A young man of promise and principle, he deserves to make himself a life.

28 May 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

For some, the season couldn’t end quickly enough. It was a catalogue of disasters, a wince-inducing, stomach-churning ordeal. Reputations have been shredded and careers have been put on hold.

Fans with a nervous disposition should look away now, as we unveil the top 10 zeroes who once supposed they were heroes. To spread the misery, in outlining the worst players of 2011-12, we have restricted ourselves – no club deserves the shame of having more than one entry. Here they are, from 10 to one:

Wilson Palacios (Stoke City): Surely, an ideal Tony Pulis signing: a strong, combative, energetic, midfield player. Not so. He’s a £6million wardrobe whose wheels have come off. The signs of decline, subtle in his final months at Tottenham, have been emphasised by a long-term knee injury. Pulis is banking on an intensive pre-season fitness programme.

Kolo Toure (Manchester City): He can’t blame his wife’s diet pills for this one. At times, during a splintered season, he has appeared to play from memory. Lacks sharpness, awareness and gratitude for City’s support in trying times. He will not be missed if he shuffles off to enjoy one last pay-day elsewhere.

Charles N’Zogbia (Aston Villa): Money is too tight to mention at Villa Park, but Alex McLeish wasted £10million on this symbol of self-regard. Insomnia, as he was scornfully known at Newcastle, will no doubt have selective amnesia about how little he has given to a club in dire need of a clear-out.

David Goodwillie (Blackburn): Fought off strong competition, from the likes of Radosav Petrovic, Simon Vuckevic and Anthony Modeste, to take the Blackburn booby prize. The Scottish striker is sponsored by a company which makes doors; he’s unable to hit any of their products with a banjo.

Park Chu-Young (Arsenal): So Arsene knows, does he? Not on the evidence of this £5million panic buy from last summer’s transfer window. He’s gone missing after being dropped by South Korea for deferring his compulsory national service. Someone at Arsenal should be shot for suggesting he was worth stealing from under the noses of Lille.

Sébastien Bassong (Tottenham): QPR coveted him, but had a lucky escape. Harry Redknapp chose Wolves as mug punters, allowing the Cameroon defender to leave in the final minutes of the January transfer window. He was unremittingly awful, but, like any self-delusional footballer, chose to divert the blame by accusing temporary teammates of being unprofessional.

Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea): He blames AVB for his failure to make an impact at Chelsea, following his £18million move from Anderlecht. The Betrayed One, who left him out of his 25-man Champions League squad, got it spot on. I’ve seen League Two strikers with better touch and awareness than the supposed New Drogba.

Roger Johnson (Wolves): Where to start with Captain Clueless? The slack defending? The lack of moral courage and physical stamina? The lack of discipline, which resulted in a scuffle with his goalkeeper? Or simply the “refuelling” issues that surfaced at training? Answers to Mick McCarthy c/o the Wolverhampton Job Centre.

Stewart Downing (Liverpool): No goals. No assists. No credibility, confidence or courage, and certainly no value. £20million? You’d struggle to justify spending £20 on Liverpool’s most consistent under-achiever, despite the bewildering faith shown in him by Roy Hodgson. Selling Downing was Randy Lerner’s solitary consolation this season.

Joey Barton (QPR): A 12-game ban. A career at the crossroads. Oh dear. What a pity. Never mind. To use one of his favourite hashtags: #nugget.

22 May 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

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The news for Tottenham is bad, and likely to get worse. There’s a black hole in the budget, a sudden surge of pessimism, and an understanding that no one, and nothing, is safe. Life at White Hart Lane changed irrevocably with Didier Drogba’s last kick for Chelsea, which removed Spurs from next season’s Champions League.

Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, wasted no time in embellishing his reputation as football’s fiercest negotiator by writing formally to covetous clubs like Barcelona, informing them that Gareth Bale is not for sale. That’s the equivalent of telling a pickpocket not to bother stealing a wallet, because it contains no cash or credit cards. Nice try, chum. It won’t work.

Tottenham must brace themselves for similar overtures involving Luka Modric, who tends to become unusually chatty when he reports for duty with the Croatian national squad. Expect a slew of reports highlighting his ambition to move to a club with appropriate opportunities. They won’t all be products of a translator with a vivid imagination.

Most intriguingly, rumours about the future of Harry Redknapp are starting to surface. Roberto Di Matteo’s squad had barely sobered up, on their return from Munich, before the Tottenham manager was being linked with a shock move to Stamford Bridge. Given his intuitive understanding of the modern media, this might not have come entirely as a surprise.

Whispers linking him to Liverpool’s shortlist, which is turning into the War and Peace of wish lists, might be fanciful, since Ronald McDonald and Bob the Builder are also getting mentions. However, nothing should surprise us as football’s silly season gathers momentum. Idle minds will get busy. Theories will be stretched, logic will be defied.

Fortunes can change with terrifying speed. Gold tarnishes very quickly. Even before this self-inflicted setback, there was a sense that Redknapp’s star was on the wane. It was as if Tottenham’s fans, and Levy, had accepted the inevitability of his accession to the England manager’s job. They were ready to move on.

Gratitude, like loyalty, is in short supply. Some of the more extreme critics are labelling Redknapp as tactically naive. More measured observers, who detect fault lines in the relationship between manager and chairman, cite Tim Sherwood as a growing influence at White Hart Lane.

Redknapp is not the type to hang around if he is not wanted. This could get messy. Very messy.

22 May 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

Only one man at Chelsea deserved to lift the Champions League trophy, and his name is not John Terry. Frank Lampard is The Man, the player who embodies the key elements of the most unlikely victory since David gave Goliath a good kicking.

Since I don’t want to appear hypocritical, I’ll admit I didn’t want Chelsea to win in Munich. My reasons, expressed here on Friday, remain valid, in my mind at least. But it would be churlish to refuse to recognise the values Lampard represents.

We’ve agreed to disagree, loudly, in the past, but found common ground on one issue, best expressed by legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi. His famous observation – “The strength of the group is the strength of the leaders” – could have been crafted for Chelsea.

Lombardi would have loathed Terry’s self-conscious celebration at the Allianz Arena. Chelsea fans will not care a jot, but I suspect I was not the only neutral to wince, and feel ever so slightly queasy, when he couldn’t wait to rip off his tracksuit and reveal the full kit underneath.

He was living out the fantasy of his ‘JT: Captain, Leader, Legend’ banner at Stamford Bridge. By rights, they should change the initials to FL, by the start of next season. Lampard is the heart and soul of a club that, for all its faults, deserves to savour an incredible achievement.

Although Terry sees himself as a future Chelsea manager, Lampard is a more compelling candidate. He is intelligent, driven and infinitely more subtle in his appreciation of power, and its application. He is more than a one-dimensional macho man.

His personality is suited to modern management: he is ruthless yet approachable, hard yet sensitive. His gesture, in seeking out a TV camera to send a message to his daughter, would have made hearts melt. Although his influence as a player is on the wane, the force of his will and the strength of his personality make him an asset to any team.

He never hides, never shirks responsibility. His tactical awareness, honed over time, still allows him to read play quickly and efficiently. He may not need football, because he has enough money for several lifetimes, but it needs him.

Respect, Frank. You’ve earned it.

8 May 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

If Chelsea really wanted to make a point, they’d take the FA Cup to Anfield tonight, and place it in the goal at the Kop end during the warm-ups. They’re not there for a game of football but as participants in a punishment of which the Marquis de Sade would be proud. Kenny Dalglish, and Liverpool fans, would rather be anywhere else.

The last home game of any season is a time for selective amnesia, an occasion for reflective optimism. The protestations of loyalty will doubtless be long, and loud, but they will be unable to drown out uncomfortable, unanswered questions. Liverpool have a trophy – the Carling Cup – to parade but a lot to hide.

Dalglish insists he will play a full role in the inquest into a season that has highlighted the schizophrenia of a club that cannot balance historic principles with modern priorities. The Liverpool to which he has devoted his life – an institution with a spirit of independence and an easily defined identity – no longer exists.

As the season has unfolded, and Dalglish has unravelled, the initial reticence of the American owners to appoint him as manager has been thrown into sharp relief. John W Henry may not know the words to The Fields Of Anfield Road, but he understands who, or more precisely what, he is dealing with.

The power of legend.

Sooner or later he will have to treat Dalglish on his merits, as an employee rather than a saint. He will have to alienate his customer base and find a manager without baggage, or an accessible power base. The inevitable convulsion will shake Liverpool to its core.

Dalglish is an old-school football man, even if he lacks the intellectual dexterity of Sir Alex Ferguson. His distaste for the modern media circus is admirable, but Henry’s desire to globalise his football “brand” leaves him uniquely vulnerable.

It is not as if results offer an effective alibi. Only five home wins in the Premier League represents a dereliction of duty. Strategic failings in selection, and team shape, led to defeat in the FA Cup final. The struggle of his signings to justify their transfer fees strips Dalglish of credibility in the market place.

Watching him in isolation, on the Wembley touchline, it was impossible to avoid the impression that he was a man out of his time. The question remains: does Kenny Dalglish love Liverpool enough to walk away?

4 May 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

When the mood at Anfield darkens and the search for scapegoats begins, the name of Andy Carroll tends to be taken in vain. The lank-haired striker is an easy target, despite scoring the goal which took Liverpool to Saturday’s FA Cup final. There are 35 million reasons to disbelieve.

Carroll cannot help his transfer fee, but has hardly helped himself. Some critics coyly question supposed “lifestyle issues”. Others are more direct. They wonder if he realises his responsibility to Liverpool, club and city. He’s an ordinary kid, asked to play Superman.

It isn’t going to happen, and it misses the point by the length of the Mersey Tunnel. If any player has to be the fall guy for Liverpool’s schizophrenic season – and given the current climate there is no avoiding the indignity – then Stewart Downing fits the bill.

No one needs a better final – assuming he is selected, of course – than the winger who has defined diffidence. Damien Comolli is doing the media rounds next week, to prove there is life after his sacking by Liverpool, and it would be no surprise if he confirms Downing’s name was on his P45. If he is worth £20million, a third-hand Fiat Punto is a bargain at £200,000.

Downing fails any test you’d like to mention, objective or subjective. He has yet to score a goal this season, or provide a solitary assist, in the Premier League. He has scored just twice, against Oldham and Stoke in the FA Cup.

His modus operandi – a dribble, followed by a poor cross or an abject attempt to cut inside – is as predictable as a tabloid exposé involving Simon Cowell. He simply doesn’t look like a player with his CV. His body language screams indifference.

Downing has pace, but so does Kauto Star. He has an England career, but so did the chronically unreliable Glen Johnson until Roy Hodgson, his least favourite manager, was anointed by the Football Association. He has heart, but it requires a microscope to find it.

It takes courage to play for a club of Liverpool’s size and status. It requires character to pull on that red shirt, especially at Wembley. Luis Suarez has it. Stewart Downing does not. The jury is out on Andy Carroll, but he does not deserve to stand alone in the dock.

3 May 2012

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Author: michaelcalvin | Filed under: Blog

Here’s one I made earlier, following City’s win over United :

Er, is that it? Did we really need a fading rock star, a refugee from an overblown Beatles tribute band, to lecture us on Manchester City’s greatness? Did Sir Alex Ferguson really think dropping a few F-bombs on Roberto Mancini would disguise his betrayal of Manchester United’s traditions?

Of course not, but when Liam Gallagher and Ji-Sung Park are signature figures on the evening the self-proclaimed Greatest League In The World is decided, something is wrong. If Man City’s victory was unmissable, to use Sky’s endlessly recycled buzzword, English football really is unspeakable.

It is a triumph of emotional incontinence over rational analysis, of blind faith over sweet reason, of grim functionality over a sense of adventure. It amplifies the blathering of keyboard warriors and the simpering of an army of apologists. Don’t believe the hype.

City deserved to win a game of unremitting mediocrity. They should win the title, ahead of schedule, but their achievement will be defined by the weakness of their local rivals. United succumbed because of a failure of nerve and the traumas of transition.

Questioning Sir Alex Ferguson is a big call. He averages 2.15 points per game in the Premier League era, and will be dangerously inconsolable this morning. Yet he blinked first. He chose a team designed not to lose. He gave United the option of dying on their knees.

His trust in Park, who started for the first time since January, was misplaced. The Korean is a Duracell bunny whose battery has died. The manager had no choice to ignore, for now, the steep decline in Patrice Evra’s performance. The naivety of the new generation, exemplified by Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, was costly.

Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes couldn’t influence events from their diamond-encrusted Zimmer frames. Dimitar Berbatov wasn’t allowed to. Somewhere, deep in cyberspace, a hologram answering to the name of Michael Owen is promising to be ready for the run-in.

All pretty depressing, all told. Honestly, I don’t resent City their relief and exultation after 44 years of hurt and all that. But let’s have a sense of perspective. Football will soon eat itself, and it will not be pretty when the regurgitation starts.