Why Steve Bruce was right to take Newcastle

Published: Thursday, 18 July 2019
My goodness. There are some angry people in the world. Not just angry - plain rude as well. Experts in everything  who actually know nothing about the subject they’re mouthing  off about. I refer to my private life. I will not dignify the scandalous bullying and character assassination by commenting beyond saying I am a father and husband that gave everything and more to his family. Not once did I come up short. Ever.
Now. Let’s get round to the original reason for breaking my summer holiday promise that I wouldn’t blog again until the season started - Steve Bruce. Good on you Brucey. It takes a ‘man’ to step into the chaos and abuse you’re now getting - simply for fulfilling a lifetimes ambition. After previously saying ‘no’ - he’s now got the job he grew up dreaming of. Just like Bobby Robson. Do you all remember when Bob took it - at a time when Newcastle were owned by another vilified owner - the late Freddy Shepherd? Remember him? Poor fella. He got pelters for doing his best at St James’ Park. Some people have got very short memories eh? I remember saying when Mike Ashley ripped the club from beneath his hospital bed that some time soon Newcastle fans would look back on the ‘Shepherd Years’ with affection. Guess what? Yep. I got hammered then as well.
Bruce is the right man for the job now. He knows the club. He knows what the supporters want. They want to be entertained and have fun when they watch their team play. Oh for Keegan’s wonderful entertainers.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t issues at Newcastle. Of course there are - but back a man like Mike Ashley into a corner and you’re only making things worse. Benitez did that - and played poker with a poor hand.
None of us wants to be beaten up Ashley constantly is. I’m equally sure he meant it a couple of years ago when he said he wasn’t going anywhere until Newcastle won something. Fingers crossed if you’re a Newcastle fan - Brucey might just make that happen!
‘Sell it’ Geordie fans scream. That club has been for sale for 5 years. The question is ‘why won’t it sell’? Is it because it’s toxic? I refer again to the late Freddy Shepherd. He couldn’t escape brutal criticism - even when he went deeply into personal debt to fund the club. Nor could Sir John Hall. And he gave the Geordies their club back - and Keegan. I ask you - what’s the ‘up’ side to owning Newcastle? I’m sorry - but it’s true.
Bruce is apparently a ‘dinosaur’. Funny that. We used to call a guy like him ‘experienced’. All his life he’s been working toward this. There have been highs and lows in his career.  On the upside - 4 promotions with bang ordinary teams. He gave Wigan their highest ever PL finish. He was the last man to finish in the top 10 with Sunderland, before being sacked because he couldn’t deny his heart really lay at St James’. He’s managed in a mad house at Hull. He laid the foundations for Villa to go up last season - and that’s in no way a slight on Dean Smith. Dean did a fantastic job to get it over the line. No, Bruce has a vast library of experiences to call on in a situation like this.
He was apparently little more than 11th choice for the job. Nonsense. That story came from China via a Spanish football ‘expert’. A British broadcaster ran with it - newspapers repeated it. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Sloppy lazy journalism. When I started in this line of work my first editor told me ‘check - check it again. And then check it again’. No-one could’ve checked that fairy tale.
I’ve tweeted on the subject of Benitez. I’ve blogged. I’ve said he deserved great credit for staying and getting them back after relegation - but he did have the biggest budget in the C’ship and being able to sign 18 players helped. 18 players for £102m. Fact Rafa. Chris Hughton did the same job on relatively buttons.
Which brings me to Alan Shearer’s comments saying he told Bruce not to take it. Why? They spent most of the summer together. Alan knew how it was all unfolding. Why not back his mate publicly and get Geordies on his side? I know Alan has issues with Ashley. The owner was wrong to turn Shearer’s bar into the ‘No 9’ bar. Alan is a legend at St James’ - but he forgive Ashley for turfing him out after he took them down. I remember the time well. I remember my little mate Ray Wilkins telling me after Chelsea had played them - in Alan’s first game I think - ‘Keysie, he’ll suffocate them. It won’t work’. How right was he? I must say Alan’s strange choice of assistant didn’t help. Iain Dowie didn’t do him any favours - certainly not the night I sat with him having dinner in Newcastle and he told me ‘it’s not my team yet’. ‘Yet’? Ffs. I’ll never forget that. Not quite the No2 you want covering your backside eh?
At the start of the following season Alan was in turmoil because he couldn’t nail the job. It was obviously a money issue. I called and said ‘Do it for nothing. You don’t need the money. Tell Ashley to pay you at the end of the season when you’ve got them up. You’ll cement your legendary status in concrete. He can’t turn an offer like that down’. Chris Hughton got the job. Come on Al. Give Brucey your public backing. At the end of the day - it’s Newcastle. It’s not Ashley.
Ashley will eventually leave. There been at least two bidders in the data room all summer - but still no resolution. Let’s hope for all our sakes there is soon, but if Newcastle fans want an example of bad owners look at Bolton. At Coventry. At Bury. At Blackpool. I could go on.
Newcastle are a PL team. Of course they could go down - but I don’t believe they will. If Bruce has got a deal like his predecessors then his bonuses will click in if he finishes 10th or better. Is that why Rafa always tossed off the Cup competitions? Steve Bruce is a proud Geordie. Managing Newcastle won’t mean as much to anyone else working in the game. My message to him would be ‘Good luck - and now go and win something’. Brucey knows better than anyone that it’s time someone did that at St James’ Park.

Our top 2 are also Europe’s best

Published: Monday, 03 June 2019

So now we know. The top 2 clubs in England are also the best in Europe. And by some distance.

The only debate left is which of the two of them is No.1? I don’t have an answer to that. There’s a strong case for both.

What City did this season was sensational. Never before had a team won all three domestic trophies - and but for a VAR mistake in the 2nd leg of their CL 1/4 final against Spurs - who knows - they could’ve gone on and made it four.

That’s why we always judge a team by what it does in the league. It’s a much fairer way to assess - across a ‘marathon’ and not a short Cup ‘sprint’. Winning a Cup competition often involves a huge chunk of luck - good fortune that United had in Paris for example. That Spurs had in Amsterdam. That Liverpool had against Barcelona. To win a title takes consistency across the best part of nine months and 38 games. But Liverpool had that this season too. How can you lose just one league game - pick up 97 points and yet still not win the title? Because City were one point better - that’s all. How often do we talk about tiny margins in football?

Over the last third, time and again Liverpool asked a question of City. Every time they responded. It was an incredible run-in. City still had enough left in the tank to go and spank Watford - only to see Liverpool top that and win in Madrid. The two of them - incredible teams.

Every time Klopp’s response was ‘I’ll see you - and raise you’.

I know winning the title is the benchmark - I’ve just said that - but do you know what - I’ve got a sneaky feeling Guardiola would’ve given it up to win the CL. And for sure Klopp would swap.

Why do I say that? Because Guardiola knows that he’s consistently failed in Europe since leaving Barcelona. Or to put that another way - he’s failed to win the CL without Messi. That irritates him.

We don’t know how long he’ll stay at City. It wouldn’t surprise me if next season was his last. Unlike the time I knew he’d take the job and said so 18 months before he did - I have no knowledge to support that thought. It’s just a hunch. If I’m right - he’ll definitely want to win it next season and if he does - what else is there to achieve at City?

I know any kind of Liverpool success is hard to swallow for the neutrals. I get it. It’s not because we don’t like Klopp or we don’t admire his team - we do. I’d rather watch them play their ‘rock and roll’ football any day of the week than City’s ‘precision’ game. So it’s a question for their supporters - why is there this deep dislike of Liverpool? It’s a wonderful club, with a fabulous history.

Let me put it like this. I remember an era when every opposition ‘keeper would be roundly applauded at The Kop End. I watched a YouTube video recently in which Don Revie was gushing in his praise of Anfield in general. This was after a Monday night goalless draw at Liverpool - a result that secured his Leeds team the title, Billy Bremner and his mates edged towards The Kop on the final whistle - to be greeted with the raucous cry of ‘Champions....Champions’. Liverpool finished that season second. Class. Absolute class. I couldn’t see that kind of thing happening today. It’s a shame. I’ve been a victim of modern day Liverpool fans’ vicious trolling - and doubtless I will be again for having the temerity to point this out.

Anyway, let alone the rest of the PL, what can Europe’s best now do to stop the English dominance? Let’s not forget that the Europe League final was also fought out between two English teams.

My guess is that they will get their way with a re-vamped CL. It’s the Juve Chairman Andrea Agnelli who’s proposing a ‘pyramidal Pan European League System’ that includes promotion and relegation - the latter only for the few. The big boys would be protected. They’ll win this battle with UEFA.

And how long before these games are being played on a Friday night all over the world? ‘Globalisation’ is coming. Believe me. We’ll be watching Real v United in New York as City play against Juve in Beijing. It’ll be Milan v Bayern in Doha. PSG v Liverpool in Delhi. Trust me - it’s coming. American owners of PL clubs will see the sense in this. So too the Chinese. And City’s Arab masters.

There’s no more TV money for PL clubs under the current structure. Playing in front of your ‘fans’ all round the world is a very good way of expanding the market. And charge what - £9.99 let’s say - pay per view? Imagine the revenues then, with the competition in the hands of one broadcaster. It’s a giant leap from Richard Scudamore’s 39th game, but every big league has got a version of that now - except the PL. Looking back, how right was Scudamore?

It won’t happen at the next round of negotiations - but a format like this, or similar, won’t be far away. In my view - it’ll happen certainly within the next decade. Before you dismiss the idea entirely, never underestimate the modern day football club owner. None of them is in it to make losses. And who would’ve ever thought we’d see our game refereed by tv technicians in slow-mo? That’s what we’ll be watching next season.

The Greatest Title Race....?

Published: Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Was it really The Greatest Title Race in history? I’m not sure. 1967 wasn’t bad with Coventry and Wolves going nip and tuck to get out of the old Second Division!! I jest - of course!

My verdict on what we’ve just witnessed? Fascinating. Engaging. Invigorating. Dramatic. Breathtaking. Fill in the gap with your own thoughts...............! I loved every minute of it.

The best? I’m still not sure. But I am certain of this - both teams deserve huge credit. When it got serious neither blinked. I kept waiting for someone to slip but neither did. As good as City were recovering from their dramatic CL exit - so were Liverpool in going toe to toe with them. And Jurgen Klopp has returned The Reds to the top table of European football. Once again we can describe them as one of the ‘super-powers’. City have had a seat at the same table for a while now - but what they did this season was confirm that the balance of power has now truly shifted in Manchester. Next season their big game won’t be the derby - it’ll be against Liverpool - just as it used to be for United.

On the basis of what we saw this season the top two are light years ahead of United at the moment. And before you start the abuse about my obsession with United - let me point out that for 25 years they’ve been the benchmark - so it’s only natural to draw those comparisons.

It’ll be tough on Liverpool if their season ends without a trophy, but I’ve got to admit a soft spot for Spurs in the upcoming CL Final. Daniel Levy has taken so much stick down the years for his stewardship of that club, but he’s delivered hasn’t he? So has Poch.

Of course, it’s not inconceivable that both Euro trophies could end up in North London. Wouldn’t that be quite something? It’s not as dramatic as in Manchester - but Spurs have now tilted the power balance away from Arsenal.

It’s got to be said that Mauricio Sarri had a really good season. Two Cup Finals and a top 4 finish. Did we really think that was possible last August? But his real test will come if UEFA are able to enforce the transfer embargo.

I’m confused by all that. It’s something we’ve discussed a lot on Keys&Gray on #beINSPORTS this year. How can football’s authorities react to information revealed by hacking whilst the founder of Football Leaks sits in jail in Portugal awaiting trial for doing just that? Rui Pinto, a Portuguese citizen, dribbled embarrassing info on Benfica Sporting Lisbon and Porto into the public domain and its for those ‘crimes’ that he’ll go on trial. He’s alleged to have been behind many more leaks - not least allegations of third party ownership at Twente. We should be grateful to him. Meanwhile UEFA uses hundreds of leaked emails to prosecute some of the biggest clubs in the world for alleged irregularities. We can’t have it both ways.

Back to United. I smiled today when I read the Solskjaer is going to be handed a £125m war chest to re-build at Old Trafford. Really? That won’t but you one top player these days. Nothing short of the best part of another billion will be enough. And Solskjaer shouldn’t be the man spending it. He’s the wrong man, as I argued here days after he was confirmed in the job. What nonsense we heard from the ‘circle of Ferguson’ about him being ‘at the wheel’. The right man is at Tottenham. I ask again - which other PL club would’ve appointed the X-manager of Molde to their hot seat? None of them would. Simply none. It was madness. Ed Woodward should step aside now and let somebody else appoint Solskjear’s successor whilst getting on with re-structuring the club. Right now United won’t finish in the top 6 next season.

I’m hugely disappointed that Brighton sacked Chris Hughton. I like the Bloom brothers. The club is lucky to be in the ownership of a ‘fan’ - Tony Bloom. It’s rare these days. But come on Tony - what didn’t Chris do this season that suggested you’d progressed again? He was a whisker from an FA Cup Final. He delivered that experience and kept you up. What else can a club of Brighton’s stature expect? I’m bemused, but I’ll retain an affection for the club! I know this as well though - somebody is going to get a really good man when they appoint Hughton.

I got two of the bottom 3 right. I was wrong about Watford. They’ve had another fantastic year - whatever happens next Saturday at Wembley.

Marco Silva didn’t better Big Sam’s finish, but Everton ended the season well. It’s to be hoped they push on again next time round.

Wolves were terrific. It was a pleasure watching them.

Well done West Ham - although I’m not sure finishing three places better then they did last season justified a £100m spend.

Eddie Howe and Bournemouth have big decisions to make. If they hadn’t had such a bright start they’d have been in real trouble. Has Howe taken them as far as he can? Perhaps it’s time for both to look elsewhere?

Ralf Hassenhutl did his job. And did it very well. And what about Dychey? Brilliant again. No nonsense. No frills. He ground out a comfortable finish after the flirtation with Europe had got Burnley into terrible trouble. There’s a lesson there for the smaller clubs.

I’m finishing by returning to my original question. Was it the best title race in history? It was good. It was very very good. But the best? I would say ‘one of...’

Why is van Dijk PoY?

Published: Monday, 29 April 2019

In April 1860 the Pony Express, in operation for only 18 months, set a new record of travelling the 1800 miles from St. Joseph Missouri, to Sacramento California, in just 10 days. This was ground-breaking stuff.

I got to wondering this week if the PFA still collect votes for their Player of the Year nominations the same way? I couldn’t think of another sensible reason why - in the age of the interweb thingy and many other modern communication methods - they announce their man/woman two weeks before the end of the season.

The PFA say they need time to ‘collect the votes’. Are they serious? Time to collect votes....? I’m writing this blog - and you’ll be reading it less than 10 seconds after I publish. Time to collect votes....? This is hilarious. The night the season ends everybody with a vote should hit a button with their decision. Technology would give us a decision almost immediately. What kind of world do the PFA live in? Have they even got phones and electrickery at their HQ?

Virgil van Dijk has had a fabulous season - but we don’t know yet if he’ll be topping it off with one, two or no medals at all. What if Raheem Sterling steers City over the line with two hat-tricks on the next two weekends? And I have to say, as good as Van Dijk has been so has Aymeric Laporte at the heart of City’s defence. I don’t understand how the PFA can make their awards before the season has ended. And as for Paul Pogba in the PL team of the year? Most United fans wouldn’t even have him in their team. It’s nonsense. Absolute nonsense. If the PFA really are undergoing ‘root and branch’ change - then this is one area that they need to sort out before next season.

In the same spirit I tweeted my Manager of the Year over the weekend. I wondered what reaction I’d get. It’s too early to decide of course, but I do genuinely think Chris Wilder has to be a contender. What a job he’s done at Bramall Lane. And not just there. He took Northampton out of League 2 with 100 points plus. He got The Blades out of League 1 touching that same number. And now he’s landed PL football - on a budget of nearly nothing.

Daniel Farke deserves a special mention. He’s done a brilliant job at Norwich. And for going from zero to hero Marcelo Bielsa should always have a special place in the history of our game - no matter what happens to Leeds now. What a fantastic gesture he made at the weekend. There was no need to do it. Leeds hadn’t done anything wrong. There’s nothing in the laws of the game says you have to put the ball out if a player is injured. Nothing. But watching I felt the reputation of Bielsa’a club was on the line in that fractious 60 seconds. His decision was honourable - but I have to ask - if Leeds had been just two points behind Sheffield United would Bielsa have made the same decision? It could’ve been a £100m call and I’m not sure the money-men at Leeds would’ve been too happy about that! Anyway - let’s just revel in one of the game’s greatest acts of sportsmanship - ever.

So back to the Manager of the Year. It would be impossible to deny Guardiola that accolade if he ends up with three trophies. Impossible to deny Klopp if he won the League and maybe CL. But right now we just don’t know do we?

What if Neil Warnock keeps Cardiff up? It’s unlikely I know - but it would be an extra-ordinary achievement.

Every time I mention Sol Campbell I get hammered. Why? What a wonderful job he’s done at Macclesfield. It’s not yet complete - and if he gets over the line it will adversely affect Notts County - a fine club - but Campbell has nearly completed his great escape act.

The Cowley brothers have to get a mention. Lincoln have been on fire. Justin Edinburgh has got every Londoners second favourite club - Leyton Orient - back in the league. And have a look at who finished second in the National League - Solihull Moors - managed by Tim Flowers. It’s incredible what Tim
has done there. They were bottom
of that league when he took over. They and Orient resisted big spending Salford. And we like it when the big boys get a bloody nose don’t we?

I’ve got to give Mark Robins a mention. In an absolute madhouse of an atmosphere, he’s twice taken Coventry to Wembley in recent seasons - got promoted from League 2 and missed out on a League 1 play-off place by a whisker.

I’m so happy about these ‘British’ achievements. Not because I don’t like foreign coaches. That allegation is churlish, but sits with a whole lot more ill-informed nonsense that the keyboard cowards chuck in my direction. I revel in these successes because there HAS to be a place for our boys further up the pyramid. We all need targets. We all need reward. There’s no such thing as a secret foreign coaching manual. Our guys are good and we should back them.

What about Sean Dyche? His Burnley were on 12 pts after 19 games at Christmas. No wonder he was laughing as Guardiola put on his fourth centre-back at Turf Moor and was screaming for City to get the ball in the corners. Perhaps he’s learned something from our boys? 😂😂.

Meanwhile Rafa has performed his pre-season prediction that he would ‘need a miracle’ to keep Newcastle up. Now he wants another £400m to compete with the teams that challenge for 10th-7th. Teams like Bournemouth, Southampton, Watford, Burnley, Swansea, Stoke, Palace, West Ham and West Brom - to name but a few - all of whom have finished 10th or better in recent seasons.

Alan Pardew had The Toon 5th, admittedly playing what was described as ‘turgid football’ by the Newcastle Chronicle - before a 16th place finish the following season (alongside a Europa League challenge) and a 10th place finish the season after that. And I’m pretty sure Mike Ashley owned the club back then as well!  Ah well - back in the saddle....

What next at Old Trafford?

Published: Monday, 22 April 2019

Where on earth do Manchester United go now? £744m pounds spent - and four managers appointed - since Sir Alex Ferguson quit and they’re light years behind the top two in English football. And that puts them at least the same distance - perhaps a little bit more - behind some of Europe’s elite clubs, as we saw in both Paris and Barcelona. Never mind that they got past Paris (with an incorrect VAR decision) they were played off the park by them for 180 minutes - and Barca did the same whilst in cruise control.

The win in Paris only served to ramp up the hysteria surrounding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ed Woodward must be thinking ‘Why? Why? Why did I listen to them again?’ As we’ve discussed here - it was the wrong decision.

I watched Liverpool scrambling about post-Dalglish. Graeme Souness tried to change things and move from the ‘Boot Room’ culture. It didn’t suit a lot of people then. He tried too hard and moved too quickly. I was a critic - but he was right. He couldn’t take people with him and was sacked. Liverpool turned to Roy Evans - another disciple of the ‘Boot Room’. Outcome - more wastes years. Eventually they changed direction and Gerard Houllier - the man behind the Clairefontaine Academy in France, laid the foundations for Rafa’s success.

Do you know, had United stuck with David Moyes post Fergie his contract still wouldn’t have expired! Imagine what he could’ve done with £744m - stability and backing.

I was one of those that said early that he wasn’t going to succeed - largely because he couldn’t steer the club his own way. The shadow of Fergie was too long and too fresh. Out he went - for Ryan Giggs.

Van Gaal’s football didn’t suit. Out he went. Mourinho couldn’t take it his way. Out he went. Again, I have to admit that I lost patience with his whining - but was he right? Was finishing 2nd with this group one of his greatest achievements? On the basis of what we witnessed yesterday I’d say definitely. Mourinho was smart. He saw the writing on the wall and worked his way out. Talking to him about what happened since was illuminating. He saw all this.

How often has it been said that ‘a man’s greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness’? The same applies in many walks of life. So too at football clubs.

Perhaps Ibra is right. Perhaps United have to get over Ferguson - the circle of Ferguson - and carve a new era. Why do United pay Fergie £3m a year? For advice like he’s just given? Solskjaer was his idea. The appointment was welcomed by almost all his disciples. They’re a lot quieter now.

As for selling this current lot - who to? Who will buy? Wages are huge. Reputations are in tatters. Can they afford to change Managers again? Woodward can’t. He’ll have to go if he tries that. Cue Gary Neville for the top job. That would be a popular appointment with United punters, but it still wouldn’t cut the ties with Fergie.

I’ve had plenty of stick down the years for my views on his departure. I said when he left United were eight players short. I’ll repeat again that van Persie’s goals papered over all sorts of cracks.

It’s only fools that don’t learn the lessons of history. How long did United try to hang onto Sir Matt Busby’s legacy? How long did Liverpool believe the only way was the ‘Boot Room’? It’s happening all over again. Question - what other PL club would’ve appointed Solskjaer? Question 2 - what top European side would’ve appointed Solskjaer? Good luck Ole - you’re going to need it.

On another matter - how bad is the standard of refereeing in the PL now? I’ve mentioned this often enough recently as well. I’ll never understand the thinking with appointments either. Why has Martin Atkinson been given City or Liverpool in six of his last nine games? Is there an argument that when that happens an individual gets overly familiar with players? Cardiff will certainly think so.

In Cup ties we continue to be the only

country in the world ignoring IFAB protocol by not offering the ref a pitchside monitor to check decisions.i repeat - this is wrong. A match ref must have responsibility for the final decision. This is what IFAB regulations state ‘the referee is the only person that can make the final decision; the VAR has the same status as other match officials and can only assist the referee’. That’s pretty clear to me. So why are our match refs being told the decisions they should make from a bunker just outside Heathrow - by officials not as competent as they are? Mike Riley, the man in charge of dubious appointments and falling standards, has got to change this. I’m hearing that if he doesn’t then UEFA and FIFA will not be using our refs in major competitions next season - thereby denying them the chance to officiate properly - and arguably - get better at what they do. Right now this would affect Antony Taylor and Michael Oliver.

And what about the future Mike? Nine of our elite refs are 46 and over! Roger East is 54!! Come on. This can’t be right. Riley has had his time - and someone else should be given a chance now.

‘Best League in the world - with the worst officials’.

Published: Monday, 01 April 2019

Neil Warnock is right. There’s something I didn’t think I’d ever write. 😂. I jest. I like him, although I understand that he’s not everybody’s favourite. How I wish he’d gone to Coventry when we were still a Championship club. They decided he was too expensive - but as I told them - not as expensive as life in the lower leagues is going to be.

Anyway, he’s right. We’ve got the best league in the world, with the worst officials. How did Eddie Smart get it so wrong at Cardiff? I sit 3500 miles from PL games now - and I saw that Azpilicueta was off-side from here in Qatar. It’s the most basic requirement of an Assistant - to call off-side correctly. When the ball is in front of you - and so is the play - it’s not hard. It really isn’t.

‘VAR will sort everything out’, I can hear you say. No. It won’t. And I’ll come back to that.

Granted, it would’ve been useful on Sunday - but for something as basic as that call, we shouldn’t need VAR. It was shoddy work on Smart’s behalf. And I’ve no problem in naming him. That information is available to everybody. He fucked up. Simple.

But he’ll move onto the next job - while Warnock and his team now scramble for their very futures in the PL. And it’s no good arguing that the second goal buried them - as we all know, the chances are Chelsea wouldn’t have got the second if they hadn't got their tales up.

I haven’t got the time to mention all the big calls that have been incorrect this season. It’s far too many, but Mike Riley, the head of the PGMOL, will come out with the same nonsense that he always does come the end of the season - trying to convince us that they’ve got 97/98% of the decisions they’ve made this season correct. I’m told he stands up at LMA meetings and delivers the same nonsense. It’s laughable. And managers laugh!

Officials should get the majority of the decisions they make correct. Most are easy for experts. It’s the percentage of the ‘big’ decisions that matter. And they get nowhere near enough of those correct.

Riley was appointed - and subsequently protected - by Richard Scudamore - the ‘slowly’ retiring boss of the PL. While Scudamore was in position, Riley was as safe as houses. But Scudamore has gone now - so somebody has got to call Riley to account - sooner rather than later.

Here’s one very good reason why VAR won’t help us next season - because the planning is a shambles.

Tell me - why is it - that contrary to IFAB protocol - our refs won’t be allowed to check decisions at a pitch side monitor? I’ve been banging on about this all season because there haven’t been pitchside monitors used in either of the Cup competitions that have been trialling VAR. No other league on the world operates like this. If we’re to introduce VAR then the match ref MUST have the final decision. If not - the true ref is sitting in front of a bank of monitors in West London making decisions in slow motion. Again, I’m told that at a recent refs meeting Martin Atkinson was furious that his decision to show Victor Lindelof red (in the Fa Cup toe at Wolves) was overturned by Chris Kavanagh, a ref he considers junior to himself. And he’s right - Kavanagh has only been on the elite list two seasons. Atkinson didn’t get the chance to look at his decision again. He was simply told from VAR HQ that he was wrong! Its incredible. If he had - Atkinson has said he would’ve correctly stood by his original decision. Incidentally, I still don’t know why it was referred to VAR. Did Atkinson make a ‘clear and obvious’ error? No. It’s madness, but it gets worse.

Because there aren’t enough refs on that elite list, Championship refs will be making decisions in the VAR bunker. That’s right - refs not deemed good enough for the PL - but good enough, it seems, to analyse decisions of better officials than themselves and have the final say on them. THIS CAN NOT BE RIGHT.

I don’t like VAR. Football is not a game that it sits well with. Where are the natural breaks that occur in cricket, rugby or tennis? There aren’t any. And when it’s been used has it cleared confusion or created it? In the WC Final they managed to get every big decision wrong. In the recent CL game in Paris, again involving United, they again got it wrong. Why was the decision ever referred anyway? Are we talking about that handball being a matter of fact - or opinion? That’s right - it was a matter of opinion. The same at Atkinson’s decision to send off Lindelof. Matters of fact become a matter of opinion in the blink of an eye - and NEVER should a game be reffed in slow-mo.  

I know it’s coming. But if it’s coming we HAVE to be better at the implementation. And officials like Eddie Smart have to be better than they are now.

I do have sympathy for officials. None of them sets out to make mistakes - but there are too many of them. I’m actually arguing on their behalf. If any of them were allowed to comment, trust me, they’d tell you I’m right. Mike Riley has strangled the life out of them with mechanical demands and crushing punishments. They’re scared. And that will be the case to a far greater degree next year when decisions will be made in the ‘office’ - not on the field of play.

Riley was a weak ref. He was never cut out to be a leader. He shouldn’t be a leader. With Scudamore gone Riley should go now too before things get even worse.

It was negligent in the extreme that Riley lost both Howard Webb - a WC final ref and Mark Clattenburg - a CL and Euro Championship ref. Ask yourself why they left. Ask yourself why we didn’t have any officials at the last WC. The answer is that our officials aren’t good enough. And the man to blame for that is Mike Riley. As Neil Warnock said ‘it’s the best league in the world, with the worst officials’.

Solskjær - ‘an unavoidable mistake’

Published: Friday, 29 March 2019

This is why I couldn’t ever be a columnist - I’m not regular enough! Anyway - it’s nice to be back - again.

‘An unavoidable mistake’ Simon Jordan called it. He was talking about the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at United. I’m probably in the minority here - but I like Simon. He’s calls it the way he believes it is. As someone who’s invested the best part of £38m of his own money in a football club - and subsequently lost the lot - I think he’s allowed an opinion. And he’s a good deal better informed about many aspects of the game than many.

I think it was ‘avoidable’. I would’ve avoided it. I wish Ole all the luck in the world and I desperately hope it’s the right decision - but I wouldn’t have made it. I certainly wouldn’t have made it now. Why? What is there to gain?

Solskjaer has been terrific in his role as ‘temporary’ manager - no-one can deny that. But he’s been as lucky at times as he has been refreshing. Nothing wrong with that mind you - as Napoleon once said ‘give me a lucky general rather than a good one’.

Let me explain. I heard a lot of nonsense about ‘game plans’ when United went to Wembley and beat Spurs 1-0 in the league. Game plan? Come on. I don’t doubt that United had worked on nicking the ball back from Spurs high up the pitch - and the way they executed that plan was first class. Pogba’s ball was terrific - and what a finish from Rashford. But that’s where the ‘plan’ ended - or had Solskjær ‘planned’ for United to get blown away 2nd half and have to rely on de Gea making five world class saves? United could - and should have been buried under an avalanche of goals.

Discussing this with Andy the other day - he was right when he said that United were twice played off the park by PSG In the Champions League. They lost comfortably at Old Trafford and won in Paris courtesy of two of the worst goals conceded in that competition this season - and a VAR penalty that they should never have had. Having said that - full marks to Rashford for the way he tucked it away.

They were taken apart at Arsenal and all too easily beaten at Wolves in the FA Cup. So, what’s the sum total of what Solskjær has done?

He’s got players smiling. He’s got fans smiling. He’s got both believing, which is worth its weight in gold. But as we start again this weekend, United are still outside the top 4 and we know they’re not going to win the champions league. What if the season ends like that? What sort of success has Solskjær been then?

That’s why I would’ve waited - and then appointed Mauricio Pochettino. No matter how popular Solskjaer is with United fans, does his appointment frighten anybody else in the Premier League - or beyond. I can’t imagine they’re too bothered in Madrid. They’ve got a 3-times CL winner back in Zidane. Are Barca worried? Or Juve? Or Paris even? Are City? Or Liverpool? I think not.

I keep being told ‘there would’ve been a riot’ had Solskjær not been given the job. No there wouldn’t. United fans would have turned up as usual for the opening game of next season - and Solskjær would’ve been forgotten when Harry Kane cracked in their first goal of the new campaign - applauded by Pochettino. Now that would’ve frightened a few clubs.

All Solskjaer’s problems are ahead of him. What’s he going to do about Pogba? He’s uncontrollable - and flirting with Madrid again. What now Solskjaer has now got to start upsetting players? What’s he going to do - leave Pogba out? He can’t. And Pogba knows it. So he’s got the run of the place - exactly as it was put to me recently try by a United ‘insider’ 😂. (I’ll let you work out who it was!) I was told that Pogba was fine when big Ibra controlled the dressing room - but once he’d gone and Pogba took over - that’s when the trouble started. All the young players gravitated towards him - and instead of talking football the conversation was all about haircuts, clothes and cars.

On the subject of Ibra - I know the Class of ‘92 didn’t take kindly to his comments recently - but I’m with him. I strongly believe United should’ve gone another route - and broken ‘the circle of Ferguson’ as Ibra put it. There’s an argument they’ve tried - but Pochettino would’ve been the right choice to continue down that path. Fergie’s time has come and gone. He casts a long shadow over the club - just as Busby did - and it was only when United broke free of his influence that they got it right. Let’s never forget that, although Fergie won a title in his last season, he left a team desperately in need of surgery. At the time I said they were eight players short - and I got hammered. But they were. Van Persie’s goals papered over a lot of cracks in Fergie’s last season. The Class of ‘92 have United right where they want them and they’ve been falling over themselves to congratulate Solskjaer - and take the credit for his appointment. Next - the Chief Exec’s office. You watch.....

Anyway - Solskjaer it is. And I genuinely wish him well, because our league needs a strong United. But it was ‘an avoidable mistake’.

I’m ‘special’ - and ‘player power’ got me sacked.

Published: Saturday, 16 February 2019

Before you read on - watch the following.  Watch it all and listen to it carefully. Listen to Cloughie tell us he’s ‘special’ - and how neither he nor Don Revie disputed the suggestion that ‘player power’ cost Cloughie his job at Leeds back in 1974.....  

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iTiIdbDBmZc 

Fantastic isn’t it? And what about the end when Austin Mitchell asks Clough ‘who would touch you with a barge pole now?’.  As we all know - Forest did, where Clough created both a dynasty and went on to fulfil his ambition of winning the European Cup - twice. 

Jimmy Armfield replaced Clough at Leeds. He was a popular choice with the players and he was in charge as they made their way to the European Cup Final in 1975. I’ve phrased it that way on purpose. He was ‘popular’ but he was only nominally in charge. The very same dressing room that had seen Clough off was now playing for ‘itself’. Giles, Bremner, Hunter, Lorimer - they were doing what came naturally under Revie. Anyone with a memory of the 1975 final knows they were robbed - but let’s concentrate on domestic matters. 

Leeds finished 9th that season. A pattern of disappointment followed - 5th, 10th, 9th, 5th 11th, 9th - and finally relegation. All this as Clough took charge at Forest and started to break up the old order again. He got them out of League 2 - won the First Division title the following season - seemed to win the League Cup every season - and the European Cup twice. 

Why does any of this matter now? Because history has a habit of repeating itself and I can see it doing so at Manchester United. 

To be fair - Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done a fantastic job since taking over from Mourinho. No-one can dispute that. But - the Spurs game aside - if he could’ve hand picked his own fixtures he wouldn’t have chosen much differently. Then came last Tuesday night - when United were blown away - at Old Trafford - by a team so much better than they were - and a team missing two of its star names. 

It was embarrassing. At the very least it was a reality check for United fans. How do I know?  Because my son is one! 

It underlined how far away United are from the top table now. Isn’t this what Mourinho had been saying? Look - like everyone else I’d tired of his games at United and I was amongst those advocating change so I can’t argue differently now. He master-minded his exit brilliantly. Do you remember me saying that months ago and my ‘friends’ at the Daily Mail jumping all over me? I said Mourinho was asking to get the sack. Anyone disagree now? It was funny how the down table subs at The Mail changed their tune when their top writers started saying the same thing 😂🤷‍♂️

Mourinho was with us at beINSPORTS some little time after United sacked him. He was great company. He took criticism as well as demanding acclaim! Mind you, I do wish that I’d had the freedom that Austin Mitchell enjoyed with Clough and Revie - in an era when no-one had thought about ‘gagging orders’. There was a lot Mourinho told us that I can’t share with you - which is a shame. A great shame. 

But as I watched the other night I started to think about what he’d said regarding that second-placed finish the season before - ‘one of my greatest achievements with that group’ he’s argued. More and more I think he’s right. The truth is United aren’t very good are they? And without the talisman from the previous season - Ibrahimovic - there wasn’t a big enough character at the club to demand dressing room discipline. 

Solskjaer might yet deliver top 4. He could even deliver a trophy (at the time of writing they haven’t played Chelsea) but is he going to be the right man to take United forward from here? Can he attract the big names required to make them better? Is he strong enough to upset his big stars - something that he hasn’t had to do yet? 

I’m not for a moment suggesting United are in the same kind of terminal decline that Leeds found themselves in - but the days when their fans could expect a trophy or two from every season are gone. Their era of total dominance is over. 

Chief Exec Ed Woodward has got a massive decision to make now - and it could end up being his last. If he gets it wrong again he’ll have to go and there are plenty of candidates circling wanting his job - van der Sar, Schmeichel and inevitably Gary Neville. 

These are fascinating times at Old Trafford. Before you start tweeting your aggressive replies to the above - pause. Lay aside your deep bias. Just think for a moment. Consider this. What is it that history can teach us? Correct - that we should never forget the lessons that history can teach us. 

Why Graeme Souness was correct....

Published: Tuesday, 05 February 2019

Have you seen this? I posted it on Twitter and Instagram....

Click Here

Brilliant eh? Just hearing his voice sends shivers down my spine. He was why Liverpool were always my 2nd favourite team as I grew up. Listen to it again before you read on....

Other than that razor sharp, gravelly, mesmerising Scottish accent - do you know the best thing about it? Correct - it’s simplicity. He’s right. Absolutely right.

Football is a very simple game - largely unchanged. The goals are the same size. The pitches are better, but largely the same size. The ball is better, but the same size. And here’s another fact, no matter what era , the successful football teams will always have had the best players.

It isn’t about 4-2-3-1’s. 4-4-2’s. 4-3-3’s. 4-1-2-3’s. My goodness, listening to today’s modern co-comms makes my head hurt. Within 3 minutes of a game starting they’re explaining game plans, telling us what’s going wrong - who’s ‘isolated’ and why. It’s nonsense. I’m forever grateful that I live and work in a part of the world where I can enjoy listening to the excellent Andy Townsend and Jim Beglin. They’re both quality - keeping things simple.

Before I go on, let’s get all the abuse out of the way from the keyboard cowards - who aren’t going to like much else in this column. ‘W****r’. ‘Sexist’. ‘Hairy prick’. ‘Adulterer’. And ‘disgraced’ - that one is especially for my friends at the Daily Mail. There we are. Done. Now maybe we can have a sensible debate.

That’s the thing about football - it inspires debate. We all have an opinion. We’re all allowed to have an opinion. There’s nothing better than listening to a ‘debate’ about football - or in my case - steering one. I’m so lucky that I’ve done it for an awful long time now.

That’s why I was really sad to see my mate Graeme Souness in trouble at the weekend. His crime was to question Alex Scott - an excellent contributor by the way, about her use of the phrase ‘low block’. I’ve done it. I’ve laughed in studios about guests use of this phrase. It means ‘defending deep’ as Graeme pointed out. He’d have done the same if he’d heard it used by anyone - male or female.

I repeat what I said earlier. Football is a simple game - and simple usesge of words should be associated with it. Have you ever walked into a pub and heard someone say ‘Aguero got a brace today’? No. Nor me. You’d more likely hear ‘Aguero got 2’. What is a ‘lateral free-kick hit with tension’? You’ll hear modern coaches - male and female - say that. What is it? As Reidy would say ‘it’s a good diag’. What about ‘percussive vertical football’? I’m lost here. I have absolutely no idea - but I keep hearing it. ‘Inverted full-backs’. ‘False 9’s’. ‘Gegen press’? I know that - it’s winning the ball back high up the pitch. Liverpool always did it. Ian Rush would trigger their press. If he closed a full-back or centre half Souness and Dalglish would pounce. If they were too stretched Rush would be told not to go. What about ‘abstract reasoning’ and ‘perceptual intelligence’? ‘Synchronicity and geometric movement’. Honestly - I’ve no idea. ‘Playing through zone 14’ - I know that one - they mean ‘the edge of the box’.

Ask yourself - how many times have you used any of those phrases when you’ve played at the weekends? I know the answer - never. And how much has the game you play today changed as a result of what we’re told has ‘moved on’ on tv. Answer? Nothing.

That Liverpool side I refereed to is the best team I’ve ever seen play football - ‘control, pass, move’ that was the mantra. ‘Get it, give it, go’. Does that sound familiar? Correct - Guardiola’s Barcelona - and now City - do it. There’s nothing new. What about Bill Nicholson’s ‘push and run’ Spurs? Catterick’s ‘School of Science’? Greenwood’s ‘Academy’? It’s all been done before.

All Graeme did was ask - ‘please justify what you’re saying’. The whole idea of a tv studio is to spark debate around a football match and it shouldn’t matter what gender a guest is. If you make a statement - justify it. If we can’t have a debate we’ll soon be like the US - where everybody gets a timed 30 seconds and we all move on.

I’ve said many times before - I don’t understand why everything these days has to be hammered. I don’t know why domestic broadcasters pay millions for football rights and then destroy the product every weekend. Cherish it. Care for it. Love it. We all need it.

Let me finish by saying this - next to Andy Gray - Graeme Souness is the best ‘expert’ working in tv - and by a million miles. He talks - we all listen (well, I don’t. There’s little I like more than winding him up!) He’s won everything as a player and manager. He’s got an opinion that’s worth listening to. He can justify anything he says. He’s been there. He’s done it all. He’s bossed games - he’s stood in technical areas - he scrapped with the best on and off a pitch.

I have no problem with tv evolving as it has. So it should. That’s something that can change. I’ve changed it. But studios are to be mixed gender that shouldn’t mean a man is frightened to offer an opinion because he’ll be branded as ‘sexist’. What nonsense. We can all have an opinion. The keyboard cowards aren’t right because they make the most noise. My science teacher always told me that it’s the ‘empty vessels that make the most noise’. That hasn’t changed either.

At last Rafa - something to shout about

Published: Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Let’s try one last time to have a sensible conversation with you Geordies.

I’ll start by repeating what I’ve always said - great club - terrific supporters. Both are unique in many ways. When we first started the Premier League project there was little we liked more than a trip to Newcastle. Again - I’ve said all this before - we were treated wonderfully well by Sir John Hall. We’d always have dinner the night before at Wynyard Hall talking football, philosophy and as the night wore on - complete nonsense with King Kev, Sir John and the 2 Freddie’s - Fletcher and Shepherd. It was brilliant.

You knew what you’d get on match day as well - a vibrant, exciting afternoon watching football that would ebb and flow, keeping you on the edge of your seat until the final whistle.

Keegan’s teams played with all the enthusiasm that he exuded as an individual. It was fun. It was a wonderful era and it deserved a better ending.

Sir John was at the heart of it all. He loved it - but as the wheels came off the project his reputation and ideals were trashed - as so often is the case. Few, of any, ever liked Freddie Shepherd. Fred was a really good friend of mine. He died having never recovered from what he believed to be the treachery of the sale to Mike Ashley. He was on a hospital bed - fighting for his life - when the deal went through. But let’s not forget how he was treated by Newcastle fans. Nothing was ever enough, despite the millions that he invested and once he’d sacked Sir Bob - well that really was the end. I loved Bob. We got on well, but Freddie was right - it was time - for many reasons that never became public - and nor should they.

I remember the relief when Mike Ashley took over. Now - let me say again - other than one trip on his plane from Newcastle to London - when he told me he was going to give Alan Shearer the manager’s job - and one evening in a Newcastle pub with the then chairman Chris Mort - I don’t know Ashley. I don’t approve of many of the things he’s done at the club - but the bottom line is - it’s his club and he can do as he wants. He can run it as he wants. It’s his.

I don’t like the owners at Coventry. They’ve ruined our club. We’re only a handful of games from not having a stadium to play in again. We play in League One. We played in League Two last season. We don’t know what Mark Robins feels about SISU because he never complains. He gets on with his job - doing his best in really trying circumstances. Lee Bowyer does the same at Charlton. There are deep problems at Sheffield United - but Chris Wilder simply gets on with his job. It’s the same at Wednesday. Gary Monk has got his hands tied at Birmingham, but what a good job he’s doing. It’s been chaos at QPR for years. How about Swansea? Cardiff? Wigan? The list is endless. There are problems for managers all over the country. What about what McCoist went through at Rangers?

I don’t read about the guys managing these and many other clubs ‘threatening to walk’ every 10 minutes. They simply do the job they’ve got to the best of their ability. They all know the rules - you really can walk if you’re unhappy - unless you’ve got to pay the owner £6m to get out of your contract - an owner that picked you up after you’d been sacked after 6 months in your last two jobs.

Newcastle are not going to compete with the top 6 in the PL any time soon - no matter who the owner is. The ‘big 6’ have gone away from the rest now. Do you remember the Venky’s taking over at Blackburn promising Champions League football in exchange for a £5m investment? It was laughable. Oh, and there’s another manager getting on with his job - Tony Mowbray - and look what he’s got to put up with.

Unless a ‘country’ buys Newcastle their supporters can forget about the Keegan/Dalglish/Robson year’s. They’re over. And let’s once again point out - Ashley has had Newcastle for sale for years now, but no-one wants to buy it. (yet!)

So what can Newcastle fans expect? Indeed - demand? I’d say a Cup run - minimum. That would excite everybody. Why not? For goodness sake - Newcastle aren’t going down, so why did Benitez make 11 changes at Watford and toss off another campaign? That isn’t Ashley’s fault. If he interfered with team selection and demanded a Cup run all hell would let loose. By the way, Palace are still in the Cup. They’ll expect to win at Doncaster - then a 1/4-final beckons. Their supporters will be on fire at that prospect. Why not Newcastle? It’s a disgrace that they’re out. There’s no reason they should be out. King Kev would never have allowed that. A Cup run won’t see Palace relegated. The momentum they get from it could easily see them finish top half.

Rafa wants money. He’s had money. He had £102m and the biggest budget in the Championship to get Newcastle back into the PL. Chris Hughton had nothing like his funds but got Brighton up - as he did Newcastle when he was in charge.

Spending money isn’t the answer to PL success. Are West Ham any better this season after a £100m spend last summer? Are Bournemouth?

Mike Ashley won’t ever win any popularity contests in Newcastle. Nor will I. For some reason Benitez continues to weave spells that have the locals transfixed by some of his nonsense. Now he doesn’t have to pay Ashley £6m to walk - he can do just that - or serve up a few more nights like Tuesday’s against City and return Newcastle to the days when James’ Park was jumping every week.

It’s too late for a Cup run this season. Next time round winning silverware should be the priority - whoever owns the club and whoever is managing the club. It’s too good a club for one man to try and convince us all that it would collapse without him. No it wouldn’t. No it wouldn’t.