VAR is a mess. Here’s the reason - and the cure.

Published: Monday, 03 January 2022

Now we are at crisis point. It’s all so sad but not a surprise. Time and again in this blog I’ve warned that we were on a run-away train to this point.

Let me state this clearly - no ref operating in the PL sets out to ‘fix’ a result. Not now. Not ever. Nor will it ever happen. That might not be true in other league’s - but ours is clean.

But - we’re in dangerous territory now - because fans are beginning to believe that matches are being fixed.

I can tell you why it’s happened - and what the answer is, so read on.

It’s happened because Mike Riley has brought up a generation of refs who simply aren’t good enough. I feel for them. I really do. They lack confidence, belief, courage and in too many cases - ability. For the umpteenth time I repeat - Riley is responsible for the current mess and should go. I no longer care if they don’t sack him - do what the BBC has always done with the un-wanted - put him ‘upstairs’ in an empty office and a phone and leave him to stew.

For some (not me) VAR was supposed to deliver correct decisions 99 per cent of the time. It was going to remove doubt. It was going to make football black and white. There weren’t going to be anymore arguments about decisions.

No it wasn’t. It couldn’t - and I said so from day 1. It’s not possible to do that with our game. ‘Fact’ becomes ‘opinion’ in the blink of an eye. All it’s done is to highlight the poor standard of refereeing that we’ve got in the PL.

Week after week we’re seeing games ruined and pathetic excuses - often lies - being trotted out from the match day centre to cover up mistakes. They never admit to mistakes - unless you’ve got a good memory and you hound them on a weekly basis.

Remember Jota at Spurs? ‘No pen’ said Paul Tierney. VAR covered up for him. We all know it was. Of course it was. At Goodison on Sunday Anthony   Gordon stepped into a challenge and VAR decided it should be a pen. ‘Why?’ We asked the match day centre - reminding them of the Jota incident. ‘Ah’, they said. ‘Yes, we learned from that incident. That one probably should’ve been a pen’. Should’ve? Of course it’s should’ve by the way - have you apologised to Jurgen Klopp and Jota? Of course you haven’t - you simply hushed up an other error and moved on. Well I’m sorry guys, all this seasons ‘excuses’ will comeback to bite you.

One other thing - what on earth were the PGMOL doing when they scheduled Tierney to take charge of VAR for Chelsea v Liverpool. Liverpool fans rightly went mad - and before long they moved him! They gave him Leeds v Burnley - but wouldn’t tell anyone why. Don’t worry lads - I think we know why.

Anyone remember a pen that West Ham should’ve had at Villa - when Ashley Young grabs hold of Kurt Zouma’s shirt? Here’s the exact conversation our producer had with the match day centre (prompted by the studio 😂)

‘Hi Danny, yep he did see it, and clearly says no pen, VAR did look at it and didn't feel there was enough to overturn. He does hold the shirt but let's go quickly, not a sustained pull is Dermot's view in match centre... higher tolerance for penalties this season. That said... if it's given on-field, decision would probably stand, but not a clear error for VAR’.

So - we followed up….

‘Ok thank-you. Just to confirm that you can pull someone’s shirt in the box but as long as you let go quickly enough that’s ok as it is not a sustained pull?’

The reply was even more confusing…..

‘Well it depends on the situation doesn't it? There's often holding in the area at corners... and if it's given on-field, the decision would remain, but referee didn't give it on-field and the VAR has to determine if that's a clear error, which is a subjective decision’.

You couldn’t make it up.

At Arsenal we got proof that holding a shirt IS an offence because VAR gave Silva a pen after Xhaka tugged his shirt. We asked, of course. Guess what? No answer this time. All this is because Riley wants to present massaged figures at the end of the season which he hopes will fool everyone into believing how well his guys have done. No they won’t Mike. That game is up.

So. Get rid of Mike Riley, please - before he causes anymore damage.

We MUST be allowed to listen to the conversation at the monitor so that we’re certain the ref is making the final call - and not the match day centre - which is what’s happening right now. No? Prove it. Let us listen.

We also need full time VAR operators - not guys that have been in the middle one afternoon before taking a seat in the bunker the next. That’s wrong. And junior men won’t correct senior officials. Was Darren England likely to tell Antony Taylor that Mane had to go? No chance. Of course he wasn’t. Taylor would’ve eaten him alive at the next refs meeting. It’s the same with Atkinson and Oliver. These guys believe themselves to be untouchable. Full-time VAR operators wouldn’t care who they upset.

So there we have it. The cause - Riley. And the answer. It’s only going the get worse until this happens.

In the meantime - what a roller coaster of a day at Goodison, where the aforementioned Gordon was terrific. I do like this kid. There’s a lot of Steven Gerrard about him at this stage - all legs with a lot to learn - but what a terrific attitude. Sadly for him - he left like every other Evertonian - angry.

Still - the good news is Everton have a new left back - who’s been bought to replace - er, one of the best left-backs in the league. How exciting. Benitez finally gets to spend some money and he does it on a player Everton clearly don’t need. This is just one reason why he should never, ever be in control of transfers and especially budgets. Do Everton really need a new left-back? I think it’s fairly clear their problems are elsewhere. Fact. Benitez is the main one. Fact.

Don’t blame VAR. Blame ineptitude this time.

Published: Monday, 20 December 2021

So there we have it. Definitive proof that football can never be black and white - and it’s pointless expecting VAR to make it so.

I’m nearly out of things to say about VAR - but not quite. I refer you to last week’s blog for much of it. No - to the first blog I ever wrote on the subject, getting on for years ago. I don’t like it. I won’t ever like it. But I accept that it’s here to stay. So - let’s use it correctly.

A big part of that being the case requires us to have competent officials. I’m afraid we don’t in the PL. This is also something I’ve argued almost to the point of exhaustion. As long as Mike Riley remains in his job we never will have.

Is there anybody on the planet that didn’t believe Harry Kane should’ve have been sent off? Other than Paul Tierney and the equally inept Chris Kavanagh. As Jurgen Klopp rightly said - btw, the more I hear the guy talk the more I like him - Kane’s challenge was a ‘leg breaker’. As it happened I was out of my seat shouting ‘red’. Replays weren’t needed - but Kavanagh had the luxury of viewing them all. What didn’t he see that the rest of us did? If neither Tierney nor Kavanagh didn’t believe that Kane should’ve been sent off then neither should ever referee a top flight game again. They’re incompetent. It’s as simple as that. They’re also a danger to professional footballers.

It’s their boss who should be held responsible. Why wasn’t Riley doing the rounds Monday morning apologising? Why does he always hide behind his patsies? He’s in charge. He should lead. He should take responsibility. It’s our game - not his. Not referees. OURS. They owe us. And if they can’t do the job - quit. Which is exactly what Riley should do.

He was a bad appointment by Richard Scudamore. Why? Because he is a weak man. He’s a ‘yes’ man and was more likely to do as he was told than his predecessor - the very principled Keith Hackett.

Hackett’s crime was not persuading Steve Bennett to overturn a second yellow that saw Tim Cahill sent off at City. You might remember - Cahill lifted his shirt above his head after scoring for Everton - didn’t take it off - but Bennett booked him. It was a second yellow so Cahill had to go. Scudamore didn’t like the decision and told Hackett to have a word. It was in the days when you could appeal a second yellow. Bennett refused to alter his decision.  He was stood down from the elite list and Hackett was eventually ‘retired’. Scudamore got his ‘yes’ man in Riley.

Back to Tottenham. Did you hear what Tierney told Klopp about as to why he didn’t give a pen when Jota was cleaned out? ‘He stopped running to draw the foul’ said Tierney. First - he didn’t. Second - so what if he had? It’s not for Tierney to judge ‘football’ matters. He’s there to apply the laws of the game. It was a pen.

I read this morning that Jamie Redknapp was screaming ‘get an opinion from VAR’. Oh Jamie. Still getting it wrong. That’s not how it works.

It makes me smile every time he says anything. As my old boss at Sky, Vic Wakeling, once said ‘if ever his brain and mouth engaged at the same time he might have something interesting to say’.

We were having a conversation about whether to retain Redknapp. Vic had decided not to renew his contract. I went to war with him - to the point where I thought I’d overdone it and cost myself my own job. Later that same day he text me the message ‘thank you for my bollocking’. He’d changed his mind. It didn’t stop Redknapp leaving a new deal unsigned for 5 months while he touted for work everywhere else - but eventually he put pen to paper.

When we initially signed him his agent told us ‘good luck’. I had no idea what he meant. I thought it was sour grapes because we’d poached him from the BBC. How right he was. It was a mistake. A huge mistake. Vic was also right.  If you listen to the K&G podcasts I’ll eventually get round to telling you how his dad almost had me and Andy in jail. True story.

One last thing on VAR. Surely it’s now impossible for Riley and co to resist my demand that we be allowed to hear the conversation at the monitor? Why not? What have they got to hide? Help us. Educate us. Or is it because refs are still being told what decision to make as they go to the monitor? No? Prove it. Let’s us listen. 

What a job Steve Copper is doing at Forest. He replaced Chris Hughton - a very good mate of mine - so I wasn’t too pleased initially. Neither was Ian Holloway on Quest’s FL programme. Goodness - he laced him - making the point that Cooper had only ever previously managed a club with ‘parachute payments and an £80,000/week centre forward’. Well - what do you think now Ian?

It’s one defeat in 15 and 30 points from those games. Forest are now seventh. What a run.

Regulars know there isn’t a manager in the country I’d rather have at Coventry than Mark Robins, but he’s just one of some really good guys in the Championship. Good luck to Tony Mowbray - another of the game’s gentlemen. I like Mark Warburton and what he’s doing at QPR, although I fear a lack of numbers will eventually cost them - and Coventry. Keep your eyes on Boro now that Chris Wilder is there. It’s a good league and ‘pure’.

Clear and obvious nonsense.

Published: Monday, 13 December 2021

I would think it’s ‘clear and obvious’ to everybody now that this ridiculous catch all, cop out phrase must be dropped. After a weekend of one mistake on top of another - excused by the PGMOL’s pathetic scrambling to find a slew of excuses - it’s time to think again. And while we’re at it - what is the point of Peter Walton, Dermot Gallagher and Chris Foy? It’s a question I’ve asked before and I pose again. They are patsies for Mike Riley and his crew. They never offer a word of criticism, conflict or objectivity. They’d be better employed by Boris Johnson’s govt. They’d fit in well. You can’t believe a word they say. They simply cover up and trot out excuses - after being heavily briefed.

The only opinions I value are the two independent refs (not on the PGMOL payroll) Mark Clattenburg and Mark Halsey. I don’t always agree with them, but at least they offer an honest view.

Let’s start with the award at Man City. It wasn’t a pen. Why wasn’t Jon Moss asked to go and check his decision? As Andy Marriner looked at one angle after another - for almost three minutes - Moss waited patiently for the real ref to decide what his call was going to be. In the end Marriner shit it - apparently there wasn’t an angle that could prove Moss had made a ‘clear and obvious’ error. Yes there was. We all saw them - and I mean ‘them’. One after another proved that the ball had hit Moutinho’s body - underneath his arm. It wasn’t a difficult call. Moss had clearly made a mistake. 

In the time Marriner wasted Moss could’ve been at the monitor. We’ve got the damned technology - so use it. Let the on-field ref have a look - and don’t tell him what decision to make. This is still happening. When did you last see a ref look at a monitor and stick with his original decision? The PGMOL deny it. But ‘they would wouldn’t they’? Of course they will. That’s why we need to hear the conversation when a ref goes to the monitor. Not for one moment do I believe the conspiracy theorists that claim matches are being fixed by VAR - but we need transparency. If there’s nothing to hide - why can’t we listen to those exchanges?

What happened to the early season Instruction that there has to be ‘more than contact’ for a ref to award a penalty? Was there ‘more than contact’ when Salah went down? I don’t think so. If Stuart Attwell had been given the chance to see it again he might’ve agreed. VAR made the ultimate decision because there wasn’t a ‘clear and obvious’ error. There was when Allison brought down Danny Ings - so why wasn’t that referred?

I’ve no issue with United’s pen - but what about Chelsea’s first? If ‘clear and obvious’ is the barometer why was it even referred? Why not go with the on-field decision? You see, they tie themselves in knots. It was subjective - with or without a review.

Why didn’t West Ham get a pen at Burnley. Dawson was halved from behind - it was a worse challenge than the one that resulted in Chelsea’s first. ‘Clear and obvious’? It was to everybody except Jon Moss in VAR. Am I surprised? Not a bit. 

And if anyone seriously thinks Maddison’s acrobatics deserved a pen, then as Graeme Souness said ‘there is no future for the game’. ‘Clear and obvious’ dive? You bet. 

And I don’t believe you should get a pen if you stand on a defenders leg - but Brentford did. ‘Clear and obvious’? Yes - when you saw it again. 

I saw one at Arsenal that didn’t get a mention anywhere. Gabriel assaulted Tella, literally pulled him to the ground - it was so clearly a pen I was astounded Jarred Gillett wasn’t asked to look at it. A pen and a denial. Gabriel would’ve had to go. If Saints get that pen at 2-0 and score - it’s a different game. Instead Gabriel gets Arsenal’s third some little time later.

I didn’t want VAR. Football isn’t black and white. It never will be - even with technology - but I accept it isn’t going away. So what we have to do is use it honestly - stop making excuses - and stop hiding - or those that believe VAR is the best way to fix a game will start to be heard.

Here’s a sequence that’s interesting - frightening if you’re an Evertonian. The Toffees have picked up 5 points from their last 30 available. In the same time Watford have 6/30. Newcastle 7/30. Brighton 8/30. Burnley 10/30. Can anyone guess the likely outcome if that continues? I’ve nothing else to add on the subject this week. 

Rangchester.

Published: Monday, 06 December 2021

My verdict? A very encouraging start. And I hope it continues. Our league needs a strong Manchester United. Even those that disagree with that statement surely accept that the United faithful have been through enough post-Fergie? There’s been enough pay-back for the glory years.

Granted - most of it has been self inflicted pain and it needn’t have been as bad as it got. Solskjaer was a massive mistake. Some of us pointed that out immediately the decision was made so I’m not being clever after the event.

Mourinho didn’t get the backing he needed and the Class of ‘92 did for him. Well - some of the noisier ones.

Van Gaal suffered in much the same way. He was never going to be allowed to impose his beliefs on United.

And as we all know - the thoroughly decent man that followed Fergie was undone by bitter sniping from the dressing room, from those whose time at Old Trafford was over. Even I found myself calling for him to be put out of his misery - largely because I couldn’t bear to see him being undermined so badly. Ed Woodward failed David Moyes. United paid a huge price.

So here we go again. Rangnick has impressed in his short time in charge. He speaks well. Whether he can get a tune out of United to match the words we’ll have to wait and see, but the opening 20/30 mins against Palace were encouraging.

There was an energy about United and they were worth the win. Other positives? A clean sheet for sure, but there weren’t many more so let’s not get too carried away.

I still believe that Ronaldo is as much a part of the problem as he is the solution. Yes - he’ll score goals. He’ll easily get 20+, but will they be in big games? At big moments? He has already - but will that continue to be the case? And can he play with Fernandes? If he does - who does their dirty work?

It won’t be Pogba - if he gets back in. And it’s not going to be Rashford - if he can stay in.

Some of my colleagues at beINSPORTS were surprised when I mentioned his poor form recently. Yes - he’s done some wonderful work raising the issue of school meals for the poorest - but he’s been MIA on the pitch now for getting on 18 months. He’s nowhere near his best and it’s got to be a worry for United. They can’t afford to carry another passenger. Right now I’d be starting Greenwood ahead of him. Rashford is way off. My advice? Forget Brand Rashford - and find Marcus Rashford.

I’m also still waiting to see why United paid £80m for Jadon Sancho. He isn’t doing enough. Nowhere near enough.

Rashford and Sancho aren’t the only England internationals whose form has deserted them. When is Jack Grealish going to start looking like a £100m footballer? He’s another one who could do with getting back to basics. His off field activities are in stark contrast to Rashford’s, but they’re obviously affecting his game.

At his best Grealish can be devastating. He’d have been first pick for me at the Euros, but he’s nothing like the player he was at Villa. That might be part of the problem. I’m not convinced that he’ll ever fit into City’s style because he slows things down too much. Already they’re adjusting to fit him in - but it’s not working. He’s going to have to work a lot harder to make himself useful to ‘them’.

I’m pleased to see Villa going so well under Steven Gerrard and Gary Mac. Gerrard has impressed me in his pre and post match interviews. These are usually bland affairs that we can do without (you’ve made 3 changes - what’s your thinking?) but Gerrard is a good listen. He speaks well and sounds like a manager. He’s used his time in Scotland well.

Well done Eddie. Newcastle needed that, but it’s going to get a whole lot more difficult. I also wish I hadn’t seen that picture post match. Beating Burnley 1-0 is nothing to get too excited about. The picture was obviously intended to underline how everyone is pulling together now - but it was also an unnecessary swipe at Brucey. There was no need chaps. If you finish higher than he took you - ok. But now isn't the time. 

I can’t pretend that I’m not worried for Burnley. This might just be the year that catches them out. Their stats aren’t much better than Newcastle’s now. The important one is - just one win. Both need another nine from 23 games. That’s a big ask.

And keep your eyes on Everton. There isn’t a goal in them - and they concede too many. If that isn’t a recipe for relegation I don’t know what is. 

Agent Rafa.

Published: Monday, 29 November 2021

‘The plan remains the same. I get sacked by Christmas yea, big Dunc gets the job and gets H’everton relegated and I take over from Eddie Howe at Newcastle….’

If the above wasn’t so near the truth it would be funny. If you haven’t yet seen Darren Farley’s brilliant impersonation of Agent Rafa after H’everton’s defeat at Brentford - have a look. Here it is. 

Scary eh? It is funny in the round, but it’s a bit too near the truth for my liking.

Of course, no-one is really suggesting that Benitez is running H’everton into the ground on purpose, but this is the blog I knew I’d be writing sooner or later. And it certainly isn’t a self congratulatory ‘I told you so’.

Benitez should never have been given the H’everton job. Wrong man. Wrong club. It was always going to end in tears.

What I wrote when he was appointed didn’t go down well with everybody. I get that. Benitez has got a small army of ‘friends’ in the press (and the odd former player) who he’s managed to con for years and they quickly got to work to support the appointment - rubbishing me and others of the same view. I didn’t mind because I knew time would be his greatest enemy.

I also understood that Evertonians would swallow their guff and get behind Benitez, because whatever else, we all want to see our team do well.

The Rafa-lites also told me I knew nothing about what Evertonians really wanted. Wrong. During my four years in Liverpool I got it to know the club inside out. Many of my closest footballing friends are Evertonians. It’s a club closer to my heart than any other after Coventry. 

Evertonians bought into Rafa because they were drip fed the appointment over weeks - in order that their anger about it would subside -  and because they wanted someone to bring back the glory days. Moshiri promised a safe pair of hands - someone with pedigree. He delivered Benitez, whose hands were covered in Liverpool red. Let’s just say ‘red’.

It was a shameful appointment. Of course, the Rafa-lites were making plenty of noise as they swept to home wins over Southampton, Burnley and Norwich and for a while were almost replicating the start Ancelotti had delivered the previous season. But, inevitably, the wheels came off. It’s now two points from 21.

Benitez is starting to do what he does best - try to blame everybody else. It’s not his fault that he can’t sign players. It’s FFP. He blamed the restrictions for slipping Andros Townsend into Goodison. This guy couldn’t get into an average Crystal Palace team. There’s a reason Damarai Gray was in exile - and then there’s Salomon Rondon. I wonder why he follows Benitez everywhere? It’s certainly nothing to do with talent.

It’s not FFP. Alisher Usmanov has given up. He doesn’t want to spend anymore money. I wrote recently about a friend of mine in this part of the world that was offered H’everton for £500m. That was too much, but the sting in the tale was having to guarantee another £500m for the stadium. £1b? No chance. But trust me. H’everton is available for purchase.

So Benitez can have that one. There isn’t any money, but what I’m not having is his latest excuse to try and disguise the capitulation at Brentford. He reckons the fans should be more understanding of the ‘intensity’ and ‘mentaaality’ of the players, adding that there was a disconnect between fans and players last season, which he wasn’t responsible for. He claims he’s now working at repairing the relationship. No there wasn’t a disconnect . Most of last season passed without fans in the ground. Any ground. So how can he talk of a ‘disconnect’? How does he judge that?

If Everton lose the derby this week Moshiri should sack Benitez the very same evening - and apologise to Evertonians for his error. And it was his error. Bill Kenwright didn’t want Benitez - nor did anyone else at Goodison. Give it to big Dunc. And give Benitez what he really wants - an early conclusion to Agent Rafa’s master-plan.

Here’s why Conte didn’t join United.

Published: Monday, 22 November 2021

I’ve now read virtually every word that’s been written about Ole Gonnar Solskjaer today. As I’m reading I’m thinking ‘I’ve heard all this’. And then I realised ‘I’ve also written all this’ - here - in this blog. I’ve read nothing that I haven’t been saying, so there’s no point in repeating any of it. The outcome was inevitable.

But let me add this - and let’s see how long it takes for this to get regurgitated. Here’s the reason why Antonio Conte is at Spurs and not United. Oh, make no mistake - he wanted the United job, but once senior individuals in the dressing room had been asked their view - one in particular, with strong links to Juventus - Conte wasn’t getting it. This guy had had too many of the same conversations with ‘friends’, who all told the same stories. Conte is tough to be around. Tough and predictable.

John Terry was in our BeINSPORTS studio at the weekend. Telling stories of Conte’s time at Chelsea I heard him use the word ‘boring’. I had to stop him and check I’d heard correctly. I had. Here’s what he said ‘towards the end of that first season the players were finding what he was doing boring’. That first season? That title season? At the end of that - the players were ‘bored’? Wow.

In the interests of balance I’ve got to say that Terry also said he liked working with him. He added that ‘as a defender I enjoyed a lot of the work, but creative mid-field players and forwards didn’t’. There we have it. Those with the most influence at United were having none of it. And, in fairness, United might just have dodged a bullet. They can’t afford to keep making mistakes.

I described Conte recently as Mourinho’s ‘mini-me’. He is. If anyone at Spurs thinks that working with him is going to be preferable to their time with Mourinho - forget it. It won’t.

It will be tough. Already Conte has muttered the words all new coaches use about teams they’ve inherited. ‘They’re not fit enough’ he’s said. Oh come on. You can do better than that Antonio.

First half against Leeds it looked as though he’d been running the bollocks off them. They were flat. They looked tired. It had to get better in the second half.

As Andy said on our programme ‘you can be sure he’s ripped into them’. He was right. Spurs we’re better second half, but what happened was nothing to do with the laughable view expressed elsewhere that Conte is a ‘tactical genius’. Again - as Andy said ‘every good general also needs a huge slice of luck’. Spurs first was a lucky bobbler - the second came as a result of an awful free-kick, that was deflected onto a post. The ball could’ve gone anywhere, but it fell into the path of Reguilon, who was smart enough to be on the move. But how that equates to ‘tactical genius’ I have no idea.

Now the dust has settled - Saudi Arabia has stopped stealing BeINSPORTS output and we’re all friends again - I hope it’s also possible for Geordie fans to understand that I wish their club well. I repeat what I’ve said many times - it’s a great club. I’ve got wonderful memories of games at St James’ Park and I hope there are many more to come. I never had a problem with the ownership changing - IF the Saudi’s stopped pirating our output. Remember - 400 people lost their jobs at our company as a result.  So - good luck to Eddie Howe.

But how many times down the years have I said that Geordies would rather see their team lose in an exciting 5-4 than win a scruffy 1-0? It’s true. Proof is what happened at the weekend.

They had more possession than Brentford. Yes - Brentford, who had lost their previous four. They mustered many more attempts at goal than in recent games, and they got a battling point. They were applauded off - as they crashed to the bottom of the table! You see, I’d rather have seen my team scramble a 1-0, as they might have done under Brucey, and give me belief that we could stay up.

For the record, of the four teams that have failed to win in their opening 11 games, only one team has stayed up - Derby in 2001. The others went down. Newcastle haven’t won in 12. And believe me - as Derby, Reading, Sheffield Weds, QPR and Bournemouth have all found out - profitability and sustainability regulations in the EFL are a whole lot tighter than they are in the PL. Relegation would be a disaster for Newcastle.

Finally this week - Raheem Sterling.

He’s a fabulous talent. I backed his move to City. Others argued he was too young. I felt he’d learn a whole lot more surrounded by better players. I also said if I’d been Real Madrid I’d have signed him before Eden Hazard.

As ever - there’s a but.  Cut out the diving Raheem. That was a shocker on Sunday - admittedly not much worse than the dive v Denmark - but both were cheating.

The big difference is that v Denmark he was in an England jersey, so highly paid England pundits failed to call him out. I didn’t. Danish football didn’t. European football didn’t.

As we waited for the replays Sunday Andy said to me ‘I think it might be you know’. I replied ‘It’s Sterling’. It wasn’t.

Once again there wasn’t a word of condemnation from English sports writers or watchers. Why not? I’ll say it again - its cheating. And when Salah used to do it we were all over him. Go all the way back to Klinsmann - it’s always Johnny Foreigner that we blast. But our boys are as bad - Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and many others have been forgiven because they’ve been wearing England white. And now, it seems, it’s ok for Sterling to do it both in an England jersey and City light blue. Well let me say this - no it’s not ok. Why haven’t the FA charged him retrospectively? He dived. It’s was as clear as day. A ban should follow. Ask Matty Godden about taking a dive. He missed Coventry’s next two games after going over easily v Fulham. He was charged retrospectively. Why hasn’t Sterling been? Oh - hang on - he plays for England and City doesn’t he?

A great week for British coaching - but leave the big boy stuff alone Conor

Published: Monday, 15 November 2021

It’s been a great week for British coaching. How good was it to see three of our brightest taking jobs in the PL?

Welcome back Steven. Although I wish you’d taken a bit more care about the manner in which you accepted the Villa job.

I said this on Twitter last week - and I stand by it. Leaving Rangers like a thief in the night was poor. Everybody at Ibrox deserved better - not least the players - who knew little or nothing about your intentions until they saw pictures of you holding up a Villa shirt - and yes - you looked happy! The ‘daft questions’ came later this time

Why leave like that? Why skulk off after being given your big break by Rangers? You later issued a statement saying ‘in time - I hope people understand’. Well they won’t. If you’d done things the right way I’m sure they might have done.

I don’t see Gerrard taking the job at Villa as a gamble for him. It’s Villa who’ve taken the gamble. Just because Steven played for Liverpool and England doesn’t make him a cast iron certainty to make a success of it. Frank Lampard played for Chelsea and England, but he came up short when he returned to The Bridge. I’m not suggesting Lampard won’t yet make a very good coach, but the jury is out. It’s the same with Gerrard. He’s taken on a massive club and he’s totally unproven in England.

There’s no doubting that the job he did at Rangers was first class. If nothing else - he stopped Celtic making it 10-in-a-row, but this is a step up. The last man to make a similar journey failed. It hurts me to say that because he’s a mate. I’m sorry Graeme.

So we wish Steven good luck, but it won’t be a walk in the Villa Park.

What a whirlwind week it was for his predecessor at Villa. Out of one door and in through another almost without breaking step. I’m delighted for Dean Smith. He’s a good man. He got shafted by Villa and deserved better. So he lost five on the bounce. Thomas Frank has lost four in a row, so if he gets beaten at Newcastle on Eddie Howe’s debut, does that mean he’ll be out of work Monday morning? If you follow Villa’s logic it does.

Norwich have finally woken from their long sleep. I still think it’s too late for them to avoid the drop - but it seems they want to have a go. I’m glad I had a go at them a fortnight ago - specifically Stuart Webster and Delia. I’m not suggesting I’m the reason they fired Danial Farke, but isn’t it funny how the sporting director and owners have a panic-up when they find themselves under pressure? 😂.

And that leads us onto Eddie Howe. It’s a warm welcome back Eddie as well. And I genuinely wish Howe good luck - he too is going to need it. It’s great to have another young Brit back in the PL. But, let’s keep it real.

On the plus side Howe is apparently already a much better manager than he was when he took Bournemouth down. Than he was when he didn’t take to managing in Burnley (Newcastle is a bit further north than Turf Moor) or when he didn’t fancy a crack at Celtic. Or the previous regime at Newcastle chose to ignore him time and again. So that’s all good news.

And I’m sorry - but as the face of the new Saudi ownership at Newcastle - Howe can’t duck questions about that regime as he did at his unveiling. It isn’t just ‘about football’ Eddie.

But I guess you’ll find that out when you try to sign players in January. Forget about the likes of Conor Coady and his England colleagues, who’ll be demanding the FA hold Qatar to task on the subject of human rights as soon as they’ve qualified for the WC finals.

Coady has announced that he and his colleagues will ‘use their platform’ to make a difference to the human rights issues in Qatar. Will you Conor? What exactly do you know about human rights in Qatar? Will you use your platform to highlight abuses in Saudi when Newcastle come calling in January - offering to fatten up your bank account? Have you been in touch with Jamal Khashoggi’s widow? No. I thought not.

You see - this is where it gets complicated when pop stars/footballers and the like start to want to get taken seriously - and they forget about the day job.

Marcus Rashford is also a good example of that. What he did to tackle child hunger was wonderful. But leave it there Marcus. Solskjaer was right - get back to you doing what you’re paid for. There’s a need for massive improvement there.

Rashford has made 183 appearances for United and scored 57 goals - one every 3.21 games. Making 46 appearances for England he’s scored 12 goals - one every 3.83 games. For a striker - is that enough?

His MBE was reward for his campaigning - but why was it hijacked by his management team to help ‘build brand’? There was a GQ article, paid for by Burberry, who designed and clothed him in an outfit so he could collect his gong. How does that sit with campaigning on child poverty?

Just pulling on a big shirt isn’t enough. Yes - where you can do good. Influence for better if possible, but never lose sight of your real job lads and in the case of Coady and his England  colleagues - be careful you don’t cross the line into territory that you’ve no idea about.

One last thought on that subject - who does Coady think built the party playground of Dubai - and the 7star hotels he and his mates are on the first plane to enjoy whenever they can?

The one-eyed snipers can farke off.

Published: Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Until recently, did the name Josh Cavallo mean anything to you? No? I’m not surprised. Few people outside of Adelaide - where he plays his football - had heard of him, until he came out as gay a few days ago.

The first thing to say is good luck to him in every way. He was brave, courageous, selfless; and I’m not the only one who would wish him continued fortitude and every possible success – the prejudice he faces is sadly not over and across all four corners of the world. I hope his decision also leads to anybody and everybody else currently feeling that they have to hide or deny who they are making the same decision.

Sadly I don’t think a Premier League player will come out any time soon. Being gay isn’t a crime in many countries (many less than you’d think), but there’s still a stigma attached even in places where it is not criminalised. And even with today’s more relaxed - and generally supportive - attitudes, I think we all know that a PL player would get a pretty rough ride from a vocal minority of thuggish fans – perhaps the flare-in-backside and drug-taking yobs who ruined the EUROS in London, but who knows. Anyway, change takes time. For tribal football fans this one is still an issue.

Here’s another interesting question - did you know that being a practicing homosexual man in the U.K. was a crime the last time England hosted the World Cup? Amazing eh? The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 started a process whereby attitudes began to thaw, but research suggests that 15,000+ gay men were convicted in the decades that followed the 1967 liberalisation. Between 1885 and 2013 – yes, 2013 – 100,000+ men were arrested for same-sex acts in the U.K. Surely not? In Britain? Yep. In Britain. And let’s fast forward shall we, how about all those lovely holidays to Barbados, the Maldives, Sri Lanka; a safari in Namibia, or a sports tour to Singapore. Forget 2013 in England – being gay is a crime there today; in fact in nearly 70 of the 190 countries on the planet it is. 

Thank goodness social norms are slightly ahead of legal laws, and we’re now at the stage where most people don’t care about two men or women enjoying each other’s company – unless, perhaps, it’s two Premier League or Women’s Super League footballers judging from the current statistics?

Why does any of this matter? Because that’s exactly how it is in the country that I now call home - Qatar - host of the 2022 World Cup. As was the case in England, Qatar will host a WC at a time when being gay is illegal. But do you know what? Few people care. In fact, in my experience, nobody cares. They really don’t. Which is why I found reading this opening paragraph from an article on Josh Cavallo today staggering: ‘The world’s only openly gay top-flight footballer says he would be ‘scared’ to play at the WC tournament in Qatar next year because of the emirate’s harsh ban on homosexuality and legal penalties ranging from flogging to lengthy prison terms and execution’.

What? All of the above is utterly hysterical nonsense – we might as well add eye-gouging and disembowelment to the floggings and executions. And it’s this kind of moronic and sensationalist hyperbole from media that actually denies a proper debate. Much like the “you’ll be banged up for booze at the Qatar WC” – booze will be fully available at WC (and look how booze went down at the EUROS in London – more of that coked-up stadium-storming for the kids to see please, just lovely). Or much like “temperatures will be 50C and players will collapse taking a peno at the Qatar WC Final” – try 25C in peak-day sun in Qatar in a few weeks; and funny how temps approached 40C at the Toyko Olympics but no-one batted an eye lid.

Qatar has already made it be fully and openly known that everybody will be welcome at next year’s WC and at any time - whatever their sexual orientation, colour or beliefs - but that’s an inconvenient fact that blurs the lines of sensational journalism and doesn’t allow for the (most typically) British press to continue to give Qatar a kicking. Often written from a holiday sunbed in Barbados or the Maldives – no comment on the legal systems there – funnily enough.

Nobody pretends life is perfect in Qatar. Where is that the case? How about Rochdale and Rotherham if you want close to home. Or let’s have a look at some of the things Trump incited for four years – leader of the free world, just not for the black community, women, Muslims, or anyone who thinks COVID is real and many who died as a result. There’s a lot of catching up to do in many areas in Qatar - but it’s happening and happening at comparatively lightning speed compared to the West. Change is a process. It can’t happen overnight - 1885-2013 remember for England. The spotlight that’s on Qatar now has brought about many changes and the process will continue. That’s not excusing the past – but let’s not be one-eyed, facts shouldn’t be unequal.

I can partially forgive those that simply regurgitate the same badly researched narrative for clickbait – trying to get a couple more impressions to work up the media ladder. Trump became President of the free world on that ticket, after all. But I do struggle with people like Gary Lineker, who should know better. His classically pious and hypocritical go at David Beckham - whilst promoting himself again - was poacher Lineker at his best. Mr “Squeaky Clean” (ahem) rhetorically asked himself: “Will I do stuff for Qatar in the World Cup? Absolutely not. Whatever they wanted to pay me the answer would be no.” Lineker worked for the Qatari’s for years. He deposited huge sums into his agents’ account at the Queen’s bank Coutts for years. And that’s not including the many promotional gigs that he did – flying Qatar Airways is nice after all.

In fact, had he not tripped himself up with an awful on-air gaff he might still be working with Qatar. This is an area in which I have some experience myself of course. My faux pas never went to air publicly – but one of my colleagues recorded it privately and leaked it to help get rid of another colleague – although that doesn’t make my comments any less crass, which I have the contrition to admit, unlike some. However, fully on-air (not privately) Lineker laughed at a Muslim footballer dropping to his knees and facing Mecca celebrating a goal – something that the likes of Mo Salah does all the time. How hilarious it was to ridicule the individual by suggesting he was “eating grass”. Hmmmmm. You didn’t know about this either? Again, some facts seem to be unequal, or maybe it’s just carefully SEO-managed reputations. Mr Squeaky Clean was told to record an apology - which he did. He was lucky that he had the chance to apologise swiftly - Sky stopped news of my apology becoming public for days, after which point their mission had already been accomplished. Anyway – Lineker’s contract wasn’t renewed.

Is that what motivates Lineker’s anger now? I don’t know – but the one-eyed sniping and hypocrisy just gets exhausting. Qatar won a WC, the English were farked off - as a result of a mixture of incompetence and complete arrogance by those presenting the bid - which was later found to have ‘compromised’ regulations. Another inconvenient truth. What did the Garcia report say about the English World Cup bid, Gary, or the Russia bid or the Australia bid – or let’s only focus on Qatar??

Anyway, none of us are untouchable. If we have opinions we should expect to be questioned – and Gary should be grateful he’s barely questioned, never mind abused online.

As an aside, I’m told the excellent Jake Humphrey is doing a terrific job back home. Good on him – of course he is, he’s a good pro. Curious to see if he’ll be commenting on Newcastle v Sunderland next year – I’ll leave that there for the one-eyed trolls……

Happy international break – take three.

Is the balance of power shifting in London?

Published: Monday, 01 November 2021

The noisy neighbours did it. It cost them trillions, but they did shift the balance of power in Manchester. It got me wondering last night if West Ham might be doing it in London?

They haven’t got the same resources as City. Few have. But what West Ham have got is priceless. They appear to have a team spirit and work ethic that is second to none. And I’m delighted for the man who’s making it happen - David Moyes.

Moyes has found a new home. Somewhere that he feels really comfortable. His players obviously love working with him and everybody in East London is enjoying the ride of their Premier League lives.

Unlike City - this is despite the owners - not because of them. How many times have Mssrs Sullivan and Gold got it wrong? And Ms Brady has made one bad call after another - hiding behind allegations of sexism every time I, or anyone else, pointed it out. No Karen - we’re all responsible for decisions we make - whatever gender we are.

In fairness - the three of them had the good sense to re-employ Moyes after their disastrous decision to replace him with Manuel Pelligrini. ‘He won the title - he must know what he’s doing’ they thought.  Er - no. The only surprise is that they didn’t bring in Ranieri as his assistant.

Moyes is a good man. I’ve sat for hours with him here in Qatar discussing what happened at United. He was broken after that experience. Working in Spain was a good idea - but the practicalities were different to the reality.

He knew he’d taken a bad one at Sunderland. Day 1 he text me to say ‘you’re about to see the worst PL team of all time’. How right he was - but Norwich have since returned to the PL!

It took some balls and a lot of self belief for Moyes to give it another go. The Hammers are benefitting big time from his determination. It does make you wonder how much pain United could’ve saved themselves had Mr Ed had bigger balls and a bit more patience.

You could see how much fun Moyes Boys are having every time they scored at Villa. They celebrated together. They smiled together. They hugged together. They’re a unit and something to be reckoned with.

What’s happening in East London is in stark contrast to the turmoil the North London teams have been (and in Spurs’ case still are) experiencing. Nuno has gone. Driven out in double quick time by player power. Or maybe it was more simple than that - an H-bomb. Harry isn’t happy. He’s making that very clear. He’s wearing the jersey but doing little more than putting it on. He’s stinking the place out. Would Spurs have been better off taking City’s £75m in the summer? Right now I don’t think they’d get anything like that for him.

I’m not sure it matters too much who gets the managers job. Levy has tried everything. Perhaps like Mr Ed with Moyes- he’s thinking that he pulled the rug out on Mourinho a bit too quickly?

I’ve said before on this platform - there’s a whole lot of pain still to come for Spurs. They’ve got a wonderful stadium - but no team. Arsenal had a decade just like it after leaving Highbury.

There are signs that Arteta is making things happen. The win at Leicester was a good one. They played well. I hope it comes good. The PL needs a strong Arsenal, but The Hammers are better. Is there a gentle shift of power going on - or can Moyes make it permanent? It’s doing to be fun watching.

I notice that a lot of what’s happening at Arsenal is being credited to their specialist set-piece coach. Honestly. You couldn’t make this up. I mentioned it recently - a long throw or a set-piece at Burnley is old fashioned. When Big Sam or Tony Pulis pointed out the importance of set-pieces they were called dinosaurs. Arteta brings in Nicolas Jover, who used to work at City, and he’a being hailed as a genius.

‘It’s a crucial part of the game nowadays’ says Arteta. Nowadays? Please. It always has been. What he probably means is ‘it’s clever if you have a specialist’.

Apparently, last season, the total proportion of Arsenal’s expected goals generated from set-pieces was 0.14, the second lowest in the league. Now it’s double that at 0.28. Brilliant.

They’ve taken 19 in-swinging corners. 19 outswingers. And seven straight corners. Apparently this unpredictability makes them harder to defend against. Please. Stop it. My sides are aching.

For the record, Burnley have hit 46 inswingers from 47 corners. Brentford 25 out of 30. Liverpool 57 outswingers from 73. Is your head hurting yet?

It’s always been the same. Good delivery is step one. Then get someone on the end of it. It doesn’t need a specialist coach to work that out.

Oh. West Ham don’t have a specialist coach. They’ve got Moyes - and they scored 16 goals from corners last season - more than anyone else. Before Sunday four of their last five goals had come from set-pieces.

Well done Ole. He took the easy options leaving Rashford and Greenwood out - but his changes worked. As I said last week - he had to find a way to get Cavani in. Not that I think we can judge Solskjaer or United on what we saw at Spurs. They were dreadful. United’s next big test is against City. Will Solskjaer ‘park the bus’ - betraying United’s DNA? Hold on - haven’t we been here before? 😂.

History keeps repeating itself at United.

Published: Monday, 25 October 2021

I watched Busby - the documentary - the other night. It’s terrific. A really good watch.

What a man Sir Matt was. It was an extra-ordinary achievement to win the European Cup only a decade after losing half his team and very nearly his life in Munich. I can’t think of any other sporting achievement that comes even vaguely close.

I got familiar with the disaster when I had to produce a radio documentary, with the late Tim Grundy, on the 25th anniversary of the disaster for (what was then) Piccadilly Radio.

I conducted hours of haunting interviews with survivors. Listened to others from the time and got to understand what it was about Manchester United that made the club special. Why it had such a special place in the hearts of so many.

I’d worked closely with United during Big Ron’s time, so I got to know the club quite intimately. I never tired of asking questions of the legendary Manchester Evening News reporter, David Meek, as we criss-crossed the country covering away games. So I get it. I get what makes United different.

Even so, Busby had me riveted. There it was again. All of it. I repeat - it’s incredible what he achieved. What a man he was.

Fergie got it. He knew. He understood what being manager of Manchester United meant. He embraced the remarkable history of the club. He taught himself about Munich. He became expert on Best, Law and Charlton - and he went onto to replicate so much of what Sir Matt had achieved. The comparisons are incredible. Two demanding Scots. Two totally driven football men. Two men who will forever be ‘special’ to United fans.

But. And this time it’s a big but. Other scary similarities became very evident to me whilst watching the documentary. Neither man could ever really let go. Neither man was ever able to identify a suitable successor. And that theme of ‘history repeating itself’ came back into stark focus again this weekend.

Busby anointed Wilf McGuiness as his immediate successor. Charming Wilf. A good guy. A funny guy - but a guy hopelessly out of his depth in the job. Sound familiar?

Frank O’Farrell had a go, but couldn’t escape Busby’s shadow or influence. Dave Sexton was somebody else’s choice, but The Doc was Busby’s. Big Ron got as close to getting it right as anyone - before Fergie, but they all had Busby in the background. Poor old Frank even found him in the manager’s office on his first day at The Cliff. He had the balls the kick him out - and Sir Matt took up residency half way down the corridor on the way to ‘the manager’s office’

Fergie, of course, chose David Moyes - and chose to go missing when Moyes needed his backing. LVG and Mourinho were Mr Ed’s, who wanted to prove he could make big decisions without Fergie. By the way, I’m sorry Gary - but to say Mourinho was a failure at United is ridiculous. He finished 2nd with a bang ordinary squad and delivered two trophies. I’d say being run out of Spain after 6 months was failure.

Anyway, we all know who chose Solskjaer - ‘new’ Wilf McGuiness. I looked at him on the touch line Sunday and saw an affable guy drowning. Poor fella hasn’t got a clue.

I said recently that it was obvious that none of that side was listening to him They’re playing for themselves - if you could describe Sunday’s humiliation as ‘playing’. What a shambles. Even in the darkest of times I have never seen people streaming away from OT - in their thousands - at half time. Not even the day they got relegated in 1974. By the way - yesterday’s capitulation must’ve hurt long standing United fans more than that ignominy.

Sunday has been coming for weeks. Maybe even months. You can’t keep going to the well and finding water. Time and again United have saved themselves with late rallies. It wasn’t going to keep happening. It couldn’t keep happening.

Ronaldo? Anyone agree with me now? Fernandes? Unless United have got a free-kick or a pen this guy is a luxury. How long before others start saying the same? Pogba? What he did was scandalous. I would go so far as to suggest he wanted to get sent off. He’s a petulant disgrace. And Harry Maguire? A man described by my beINSPORTS colleague Nigel de Jong as ‘the most overrated centre-back in the league’. It’s hard to disagree. It’s no good apologising Harry. You’ll be doing it every week at this rate.

United’s best player was again de Gea - what a save that was from Alexander-Arnold. That one moment elevated him above the rest.

New Wilf McGuiness didn’t know what to do. He spoke afterwards about ‘telling people what to do at half-time’. Half-time? How about trying that at the start of a match Wilf?

No. I’m sorry. Solskjaer, the former manager of relelgated Cardiff and Molde, will never be able to manage Manchester United.

I started the season believing that they had all the component parts to mount a challenge. Wilf says they’re ‘so close’ that he doesn’t want to walk away. Close to what? Close to what should be the sack I would suggest.

Well done Watford. After my harsh words last week I was pleased to see them rally at Everton. Now - more of the same please. As for Norwich - well. What else is there to say?