Football isn’t science - it’s art.

Published: Monday, 28 September 2020

What a mess. What an absolute mess. All in the pursuit of perfection. And that’s impossible. It simply isn’t achievable.

I’ve never known a time when football ‘people’ have been so unified. The new handball interpretations are a nonsense. So say Glenn Hoddle, Alan Shearer, Steve Bruce, Jose Mourinho, Roy Hodgson Andy Gray, Mark Halsey - if I named them all I’d be here all day.

Who should we blame? Well certainly not the guys in the middle. They’re just following instructions. They don’t like what’s happening either. How do I know? Look at their body language when they leave the pitch. They’re as bemused as the rest of us and we even have an example of a ref saying as much this weekend.

Kevin Friend awarded Everton the penalty that eventually won the match at Palace. From impeccable sources I’m told that he shared his views with the Palace coaching staff after the game. He didn’t think it was a pen - but having been invited to the monitor to have a look - he gave it.

Now. There’s two things here. Based on the nonsense that we’ve been enduring he was correct. But - he didn’t think it was. So what changed his mind. Is there something more sinister at work here? I’m beginning to think there is.

A season of pressure - mainly from us at beINSPORTS - led to a change in the way we use VAR in the PL. Refs are now asked to look at pitchside monitors when there are ‘subjective’ decisions to be made. Quite right too. The ‘match day’ ref HAS to have the final decision on these things.

Initially I bought into this - not thinking for a moment that Stockley Park were still interfering. Can you think of a ref that’s been invited to a monitor actually standing by his original decision? No. You can’t - because it hasn’t happened. Why? Well - based on what Friend said - I can only think that refs are still being told from the bunker what they should be doing. If so - this is outrageous. Based on what we know of their guv’nor Mike Riley’s ‘control freak’ personality I wouldn’t put it past him.

Why did Chris Kavanagh overturn his decision to give Brighton a pen when Pogba clearly brought Aaron Connolly down? Because Simon Hooper, who was watching in the bunker, told Kavanagh that Conolly had ‘initiated the contact and that it was a dive’. Really? I don’t think so. And what if he had ‘initiated’ the contact? That’s his job in that situation - to get across a defender in the box. Had Kavanagh made a ‘clear and obvious error’? No. He hadn’t. So why was he asked to look at it again? And if it wasn’t a pen - why then did Michael Oliver give Leicester two at City that were identical? Of course it was a pen. Kavanagh should’ve stood his ground. Or was he told to change his mind?

I’m certain the PGMOL will argue to the contrary - but I’m not convinced. Of course, there’s one very easy way for us to be sure - that is to air the conversation that’s taking place. Why not? It happens in other sports. We’ve got VAR for that reason. Let us ALL hear what’s being said - not just sneaky broadcasters who are listening in. You know who you are...🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️ 

I’ve never wavered from this view - football didn’t need VAR. I know we’ve got it and I know it isn’t going away - but our game didn’t need it. Football is art - it’s not a science and we shouldn’t try to make it so. There are grey areas. There always should be grey areas.

We were told that we needed technology because too much is at stake now. Nonsense. Villa are only with us this season because technology - goal line technology and VAR - failed. The point they got against Sheffield United was the very point that kept them up. It’s not their fault - and I know they got 8 more after that game - but what happened is no different to the example I’m always hearing ‘Bolton went in 1997 because a ‘goal’ they got against Everton wasn’t given’. They eventually went on goal difference but would’ve stayed up had they got a point at Chelsea on the last day of the season. To add insult to injury - Everton stayed up. Had Gerry Taggart’s goal against them in the September been given the roles would be been reversed. We can’t cut it both ways.

The madness we’re watching at the moment is an extension of the lawmakers desire to deliver something that’s not achievable - perfection. I repeat - that simply isn’t possible. Even with technology we’re still arguing about decisions - the Brighton pen being a very good example. That’s how it should be - so why do we need VAR?

Another development on that front this week was the news that Pierluigi Collina and Arsene Wenger are close to perfecting a technique that will allow technology to call offside decisions. How do I know that? Because David Dein, one of the arch exponents of VAR, said as much in a presentation to SoccerEx. Heaven help us.

But let’s finish how we started. Who do we blame for the mess that the new handball regulations have inflicted on us? David Roland Elleray is the answer - X PL ref and the current Technical Director of IFAB. The same ref that gave Sky three different reasons for disallowing a Chesterfield goal at Old Trafford in the FA Cup semi-final against Middlesboro. Three reasons - all before he left the ground - and not one of them stood up to examination. The decision almost certainly cost Chesterfield a once in a lifetime chance to play at Wembley. 

Elleray hated tv and refused to ever to talk us again. He made a fool of himself That day and he’s doing it all over again. Stop it. Stop him. Please - this has all gone too far.

PL is full of good players now

Published: Tuesday, 22 September 2020

I really enjoyed Ian Herbert’s piece in The Mail today (Tuesday) on the number of goals being scored in the PL.  It was very well researched and quite thought provoking.

It’s raining goals at the moment. Before the Wolves/City game Herbert told us that right now we’re seeing 3.71 goals per game compared with 2.7 for the entirety of last season. Let’s enjoy it while we can, but that’s not to say the first figure won’t change dramatically during the season. It’s very early days.

The over-riding conclusion is that it’s because the ‘fear factor’ has gone. Because there aren’t any crowds players don’t feel intimidated. The article goes on to tell us that 16% of goals in the opening two weeks have come in the first 10 minutes. No crowd? No problem.  Players are far more relaxed. Well - some players.

I was having a conversation about this very thing with Nigel de Jong on BeINSPORTS. How many times down the years have you heard people say ‘you know, he looks world class in training - but he can’t do it on match days’?

Nigel’s point was that there are players making an impact in games that you might not usually expect to see. They’re now full on ‘Monday to Saturday’ players. This isn’t something that we want to see long term mind you. Top players thrive on crowds - and that’s why we need crowds back - although I fully understand that won’t be any time soon. It’s the top players we go to see. We want them inspired to perform for us. The other lads can go back to doing it ‘Monday to Friday’!

I hate the empty stadiums. I hate the canned crowd noise. I know why it’s there - in case we hear a player or a coach swear. Heaven forbid. Wouldn’t that be awful - especially on a sports channel? When it happens broadcasters go into meltdown - immediately offering apologies. Why? I’m watching a sports channel. That’s exactly where I would expect to hear colourful language.

Any UK show with Jonathan Ross on will be full of ‘f***s’. The word passes for humour in the light entertainment world it seems. It’s the same with any Keith Lemon/Leigh Francis show. And you can hear it across Dave any time of the night and day in dozens of repeats. I couldn’t believe it the other week when Lemon’s Celebrity Juice show was headlining the fact that Philip Schofield used the word c**t. Honestly. I was staggered. So it’s ok for LE - but not sport?

As usual - I digress! I thought the Chelsea game desperately needed a crowd. Liverpool were good - but a full house at The Bridge would’ve helped Chelsea.

It’s not only players relaxing in their new environment. Does anyone think Martin Atkinson would’ve awarded that penalty at Old Trafford had 76,000 been screaming down his neck? I suspect not. Not that he should’ve done - there is no way in the world it was handball.

That’s something we’ve got to sort out. I pointed out last week that Michael Oliver’s award at Anfield was ‘wrong’ in law. I was correct. Why the PGMOL don’t just admit to mistakes I don’t know. By defending Oliver they went on to have to make further errors - but Oliver wasn’t going to get caught twice - which is why he correctly turned down West Ham’s appeals for a pen. The one given to Southampton was a joke. So was Palace’s. And Chris Wood’s goal should never have been given.

On the credit side - I’m delighted to see ‘match’ officials being invited to monitors and making the final decision on subjective matters. This is all we were asking for last season. Mike Riley could easily have changed his mind about the way we were operating but he was too arrogant and VAR was a shambles as a result. It’s better now. Thank you FIFA. What we need next is for our officials to start making correct decisions.

It’s no secret that I don’t like VAR. We didn’t need it - but I’ve always understood that it isn’t going away. It was never going to deliver a game where every decision was agreed by us all. It’s just changed the things we argue about. Chris Wilder was furious after two big calls went against his team at Villa. I happened to agree with Graham Scott on the Egan sending off - but I thought Targett should’ve gone when he conceded the pen. There’s no way he tried to ‘play the ball’ so double jeopardy shouldn’t have applied. See - it’s not possible for VAR to deliver Utopia and get everything right. Thank goodness. We don’t want to watch a game sanitised by technology.

One final point. There’s nothing worse than a broadcaster forgetting he/she is in front of a mic who starts screaming about a perceived injustice to ‘his/her’ team. De Gea moved off his line before he saved Ayew’s pen. Ok - it was only a couple of inches - but if a forward strayed that far off-side he’d expect to be pulled up. I’m afraid that’s the law - and VAR did it’s job on this occasion. No amount of partisan shouting was going to change that.

Who’s paying Jose?

Published: Tuesday, 15 September 2020

I was watching the weekend football thinking about the blog I wrote ahead of the season and wondering how wrong I might end up being about my predictions.

Arsenal won comfortably at ‘nice’ Fulham. It’s too early to draw too many conclusions but it was 90 minutes that gives us an idea of how Fulham’s season could very easily map out. Arsenal won’t have it that easy every week - but the outcome wasn’t a surprise to me.

Leicester’s win at The Hawthorns was all too easy as well. Again. Predictable. But how well did Leeds do at Anfield? What a brilliant marker to lay down. I think Bielsa spooked Klopp. I thought Liverpool looked nervy - but as Champions do - they got the job done. If Leeds don’t run out of steam they‘re going to excite us.

What did I say about Palace? In trouble without Zaha because he’s so often the difference. He was. And Hodgson’s team proved again how difficult they are to break down.

I thought Newcastle looked really good. Steve Bruce has bought well. He said he wanted ‘PL players’ - well he’s got them. It was a dream start for Wilson and Hendrick. I’m not saying that they can gate crash the top four - but perhaps they can the top 6? They could easily be this season’s surprise. I hope so too.

West Ham’s problems were obvious to everybody. I don’t blame David Moyes - he’s working for an impossible trio who always believe they know best and who’ve broken promises to the West Ham faithful time and again. I haven’t been too popular in the East End when I’ve suggested that Hammers’ fans should temper expectations - but perhaps now it’s becoming clearer why I’ve always said that? I defend the right of the owners to run the club as they see fit - but they shouldn’t be making promises they can’t deliver. And they have no intention of delivering.  Champions League? You’re having a laugh.

Everton looked good. James Rodriquez will become a firm favourite at Goodison. He was neat and tidy but I don’t think he affected a great deal. That’s what I expect most weeks. Allan, on the other hand, did Peter Reid’s old jersey justice. He was fantastic. His type are a dying breed, but Ancelotti has found a good one there. And what a good goal from Calvert-Lewin. I’ve said before - there’s something about him that I really like.

Of all the teams I saw at the weekend, it’s Spurs that worry me most. They looked slow, flat - almost dis-interested. I can’t believe that they’ve downed tools so early into Mourinho’s reign, but it certainly looked that way. It’s to be hoped it’s a one-off, but it was concerning.

I heard a whisper the other day that Amazon have been contributing to Mourinho’s wages - that they might even be paying them during the time that the documentary was being made and now aired. Would that surprise us? It would certainly explain why he was so happy to get involved with the project.  I’ve really enjoyed it but there’s no doubt who the star is. Mourinho is box office. I can’t imagine it being as successful had Pocchetino been at Tottenham when it was made. Would that also explain why he was dumped so quickly last season? I don’t know, but I can see the argument. In a world where kit manufacturers now get deals done for clubs - why not? We need somebody with more resources than me on the case to find out more.

What I do know is this. Unless there is a dramatic and fast improvement then Mourinho won’t see Christmas. Well - that is unless Daniel Levy is prepared to turn round eight or nine of that squad and back his man. But he can’t afford to do that. That billion pound stadium is fantastic, but it weighs heavily around Levy’s neck. Do you remember Arsene Wenger explaining how it took Arsenal a decade to acclimatise to their new home? And how it nearly bankrupt them? Whatever happens I can’t see Harry Kane being at Spurs this time next year, so my suggestion that they could be knocking on the door of the top four again could easily be wide of the mark!

Wolves blew Mourinho’s excuses about Spurs being unfit and not ready out of the water. To be clear - he also said his team were ‘lazy in the press’ - not lazy. There’s a huge difference there.

Wolves only reported back to work on Sept 1 and the game at Bramhall Lane was their first of the season. They were great. Questions about ‘second season syndrome’ won’t be long in coming if Sheff United aren’t better next time out.

I loved watching Timo Werner. What a good player he looks. He was sharp, fast, full of running and mischief and he looked worth every penny Chelsea have paid for him. Admittedly, he wasn’t so good 2nd half, but he’d made an impact by then. So no surprises from Chelsea.

And none from Brighton either. Graham Potter wants his team to ‘play the right way’. Good luck to him, but there’s a time and a place. Playing blind square passes on the edge of your own box isn’t it.

Already I’m looking forward to seeing United and City next weekend. We’ll discuss both before they play.

Chelsea will run the Champions closest

Published: Thursday, 10 September 2020

This is never an easy task - but it’s fun. So here goes.

Before I discuss what might happen it’s worth looking back on what I said last time round isn’t it? Yes. It is, because I did well!

I got two out of the bottom three correct. Norwich never had a chance. Bournemouth was an easy call as well. The decline there started a good 18 months before the trap door shut. The form had been awful and they left the PL having made a little piece of unwanted history - becoming the first team to concede 60+ goals in five successive seasons.

I’m not at all surprised that Eddie Howe walked. I was surprised that they appointed Jason Tindall. He’s ‘mini ‘me’. They needed a new direction. A new voice around the club. I fear they could slip straight through the Championship if they’re not careful.

I didn’t get Watford right. If you remember I thought they’d go the year before - a call that didn’t impress Watford fans at the time, but the rot there has been setting in for some time as well. I’m glad they went. I can’t pretend differently. What they did to Nigel Pearson was a disgrace. I said at the time - Graham Taylor would be spinning in his grave. Taylor was a class act and would’ve been ashamed of his club.

I expected either Brighton or Palace to go. I wasn’t far wrong. Both struggled. Palace ended the season losing seven in a row and could easily have gone if they hadn’t collected enough points before the lockdown.

They’re one of my three to go this season - with the same rider as last time - if they don’t hang onto Zaha. He makes the difference. You can’t relax when he’s about - even if he’s having a bad day. It only takes a second to turn a match - and he’s got the ability to do that. Not many have, which is why I expect that he will leave Selhurst before the window closes. Everton and Newcastle could be likely venues for him - if he doesn’t go abroad.

The other thing that might save Palace is that they’re hard to beat. You can’t say that of Brighton. Far too many times last season they were ‘nice’ to play against. They’ll be the same this time. I admire Graham Potter in many ways - but his insistence that his team are ‘City light’ is mis-guided.

I don’t fancy Fulham. They’re also too ‘nice’ to play against. That’s ok if you’ve also got a little bit of ‘devil’ in the team, but they haven’t - although it’ll be interesting to see if Mitrovic can at last cut it in the big league. He likes a fight but they need more than that Twice his goals have got teams out of the Championship, but he’s never been given a fair run at the higher level. It would be good to see him prove one or two people wrong.

I think the Baggies will struggle as well. I’m not convinced that we can judge a team on what has been spent anymore because to some extent the spending has dried during Covid - except at Chelsea of course! But, they look frail in so many areas. I like Bilic and it’s good to have him back, but I fear it won’t be for long. And if they start badly the chances are he won’t make Christmas. They’re not shy when it comes to sacking a manager at The Hawthorns.

Unlike many I fancied Sheffield United to settle. They’ve done good business again in the summer - albeit limited. They’ll have to be aware of ‘second season syndrome’, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be ok again. Chris Wilder has got something special going on there. Re-signing Phil Jagielka was clever. His ‘type’ are in short supply these days.

After their big spend I wasn’t expecting Villa to struggle as they did. A lack of goals was a major problem. Ollie Watkins should help in that respect, but I still think they’re short. Perhaps they should go again and get Josh King?

I mentioned those two before Leeds because they both proved you can stay. After 16 years away it’s great to have Leeds back. It’s not Leeds as we knew it, but I do wish them well. In a normal season I’d suggest the Elland Road crowd would be worth a half dozen points to them - but, with no-one in the stadiums for at least 4-6 weeks, they haven’t got they advantage initially.

I like Newcastle’s business. It’s not the superstars that Geordies were hoping for, but I’m not convinced it ever would’ve been. Callum Wilson is solid. Ryan Fraser will be desperate to prove he’s a good player. Joelinton has got to have a better season surely? I’d say top half.  Steve Bruce would become a legend if he could deliver a trophy. And he just might. 

Southampton, Burnley and Leicester will be fine although I’m not convinced Leicester can repeat what they did last time out. If you analyse their season you’ll find that VAR was very kind to them in the early months. That changed after Christmas and all of a sudden they were losing tight matches on equally tight calls. From a nailed on top four finish they slid dramatically. This season will be a real test for Brendan Rodgers.

I really didn’t expect to see Wolves have such a good season, but it wasn’t a fluke. They were terrific and I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t go again.

Everton? Anything other than a top half finish would be a total failure. Having appointed Ancelotti they had to back him, but I’m not convinced by James Rodriguez. If he was top drawer he wouldn’t be signing for Everton, whoever was in charge. I wouldn’t fancy him at Stoke on a wet Tuesday evening in November, but he’ll look great when the Toffees are 2-up at home. For Everton to make an impact, he’s GOT to dominate games. If I was Ancelotti I’d be going after Troy Deeney. That’s what Everton need - Reid and Gray again. Deeney would be fantastic around the club. Like Jagielka, he’s a ‘proper’ bloke.

I hope the Hammers go well. David Moyes is right - they’re the one PL club where you still see huge potential. Again, top half is both a must and achievable.

And so we come to those that should be fighting for a place in the top four.

Admittedly, it didn’t take a genius to predict a Liverpool title win, but I was one of those that thought Klopp would end 30-years of hurt.

They’ve got to be favourites this time, but they won’t run away with it. I’m going with Chelsea to stay the course best with them. Despite the spending, they’re still short defensively, but they might cover that by getting plenty of goals at the other end. I expect Christian Pulisic to be their stand out performer.

United aren’t ready for a title push, not even with Sancho - if they get him. Although why they want him with Greenwood ready now I just don’t know.

I didn’t think I’d be tipping Spurs for the top 4 until I saw All or Nothing. We’ve always known that Mourinho likes a camera and he knows where they are in the documentary! What also comes across strongly is that , he’s a master at getting in players’ heads. They’re probably ‘light’ if the truth be told, but Mourinho will win them games that they used to roll over in.

Having won twice at Wembley this summer a lot is expected of Arteta and Arsenal. Keeping Aubameyang was vital, but there’s still a lot of work to do at The Emirates.

And so to City. Is Nathan Ake the answer to their problems? No. He’s not. Is he better then what they’ve got? No. He’s not. So they’ve got all the same issues at the back. Are they stronger in general? No. They’re not. Losing Silva is a massive blow. Not many are irreplaceable on a football pitch, but he is. Aguero is a year older. Is Jesus ready to play more? Is he good enough? Well he’s not Aguero that’s for sure.

City will win games in a canter at times - but they’ll lose more than they should. I don’t see them finishing in the top two.

So here goes. 1. Liverpool 2. Chelsea 3. City. 4. United.

22. Fulham. 21. West Brom. 20. Palace.

Whatever else - enjoy your season. And if you’re fortunate enough to be able to watch it unfold with us on BeINSPORTS - I’ll see you Saturday. All 380 games are live with us.

Soccer Saturday - a history lesson

Published: Monday, 07 September 2020

I’m in quarantine so this could be a long one. There isn’t much else to do. It’s a great system mind you. I was Covid tested at the airport when I arrived back in Qatar - which took 5 minutes. Immediately I was on my way and the negative result came within 24 hours. Now I lock down for 7 days. What’s not to like Boris? Or is it too simple a system for a shambles of a Tory Govt that’s stumbled from one disaster to the next during Covid?

Anyway. New season predictions will follow later in the week. I know how much you like them! In the meantime let’s discuss Sky’s Soccer Saturday. It’s a brilliant show. It’s been the best of its type for more than 20 years. But it was tired and very predictable when it ended it’s run last season. It needed shaking up.

Sky have been heavily criticised for making changes - but I’d say they’ve come five years too late. Everything changes. It’s only natural. Thommo, Charlie and Le Tiss have done their bit - and in their pomp they were terrific. But it really was time to go time. My only surprise is that Sky didn’t change it all - Merse and Stelling included. Why not?

Is it nose-ist to mention Thommo’s beak? Phil eventually started taking the piss out of himself about his nose - but that wasn’t always the case. He didn’t find it very funny when Robbie Fowler lashed a ball at him - and mentioned the size of it - as they argued one day at Melwood. Thompson was collecting other balls from behind the net as the one Robbie hit nearly smashed into his face! That nose also got me banned as a young radio reporter. 😂.

Ray Clemence was interviewing Kenny Dalglish for his show in the canteen at Anfield. Clem hated interviewing Kenny. He was always nervous. Half way through Thommo came in and stuck his finger up Kenny’s nose. Clem described the scene so as to explain why his interviewee had been temporarily put off. ‘Phil Thompson has just come in and put his finger up Kenny’s nose’, he said. Quick as a flash Kenny retorted ‘aye - he could pick his own with a boxing glove on’. Brilliant. Thommo looked at me and said ‘if you run that you’re banned’. I ran it. 😂😂

Charlie was always a regular on Andy’s golf trips at the end of every season. Andy would pay for everything - flights, accommodation, food, drinks - the lot. I like Charlie but I was disappointed that he didn’t think to call Andy when we left Sky. The silence was deafening. But he wasn’t alone.

And Le Tiss scored one of (sorry Matt, there’s been so many more) my favourite ever goals - the first v Newcastle at The Dell - up, over and round - then tuck it past Mike Hooper. Not many goals have had me out of my seat, but that one did.

So I know the boys well and I can only thank them for what they put in during the time that we all worked together.

Were I still in the U.K. I can’t imagine I’d still be fronting matches for Sky. I’ve said many times - the changes that were made were to be expected - but it was the manner in which we left Sky that was wrong. They sacked Andy.  I quit. Then they set about trying to destroy us.  But that’s for another time. I remember my friend in make-up, Jill Shaylor, saying many times ‘I really don’t know what they’ll do when you’re gone. They rely on you for everything’. My reply was always the same ‘It’ll be fine Jill. No-one is irreplaceable’.

So I have to admit to a little surprise that Jeff Stelling threw his toys out of the pram when the process of change started on Soccer Saturday. He’s older than me. Jobs aren’t easy to come by in our business right now - let alone at our age. Resign? Don’t be so daft. That was never going to happen. And trust me Jeff, the programme will go on anyway.

Soccer Saturday has evolved very nicely from its inception - when Paul Dempsey was the host and the guests were Clive Allen, Frank McLintock and Alan Brazil. The first producer was a friend of mine - Mark Schofield. Reluctant producer I should add.

Mark spent his early tv years at the BBC and played a big part in getting Grandstand to air on a weekly basis. My time at the Beeb was limited to a spell as a stats man - and I wasn’t a very good one! Poor Bob Wilson - to this day I’m not sure I ever really helped him out. I was his ‘mistakes’ man on Football Focus. Find the error - that was my job. What a nice guy by the way. Bob has been a life long friend - a rare beast that’s always thinking about how he can help others.

Anyway - I digress. I told you this could be a long one. I’ve made two cups of tea while tapping away! 

Mark got the job of ‘shaping’ our new Saturday results show because of his experience at the BBC, but he wasn’t happy. He actually said to me ‘we really shouldn’t be going up against Grandstand - it’s an institution’. I said ‘Mark, that’s exactly why we should be going up against it. Our long term aim should be to take it down’.

His first format was never going to work. Those of a certain generation will remember that Grandstand would take phone inserts from reporters at stadiums, but the guys were often in front of cameras at the end of the match. They did this by watching the first half before jumping in a taxi and relying on information about the second-half from someone like me, who would call the studio. They’d work the detail into a 40 second in-vision report.

This was the way Mark worked the early shows. He’d have the guys in the studio - send them behind a screen to do phone reports during the game -and have them back in their seats on the final whistle. Why? I told him ‘leave the guys where they are. Keep them in vision  We know they’re in the studio - we’ve seen them at five to three and at five past you’re trying to pretend they’re at a game’. His turn - ‘why?’ he said. ‘Because it’s daft’ I replied. Mark didn’t get time to make that change - he left us soon after.

So I put the same idea to his successor, Andrew ‘Buzz’ Hornet. He looked at me blankly and asked the same question Mark had. ‘I don’t know’, I said. ‘Who knows? It could create a really good atmosphere’. That’s literally how it happened, but success has many fathers - only failure is a bastard. The rest is history - and Buzz went on to describe himself in many future job interviews as the ‘greatest producer of his generation’.

Faces continued to change. George Best was drafted in. So was Rodney Marsh. To be fair to our former Head of Sport, Vic Wakeling, always said George would have a job with us until he died. He did. And he was great value. So was Rodney.

Vic’s deputy, Andy Melvin, wanted me to host the show on an occasion when Stelling had taken more time off. Jeff had a habit of doing that a lot in those days. We didn’t holiday in the football season and he had to come into line to keep his job.  Vic blocked it ‘I’m not having you fill in for anybody’ he told me. I wasn’t sure whether I was flattered! I’d have loved a go at it. You couldn’t really get it wrong. The stats guys are the real heroes. Sir David Frost wouldn’t ever wear an ear piece - but he’d have been sunk presenting that show without one!

So Soccer Saturday has evolved. It will continue to do so like everything else. It did end up taking down Grandstand - but not before giants like Peter Dimmock, David Coleman. Frank Bough and Des Lynam had all come and gone. It’s what happens. It has to happen. I wouldn’t be making too many more noises about resigning if I were the current host. Rich men don’t talk about doing deals - they announce them when they’re done. Never talk about resigning - unless you intend to.

I can't see Messi at City

Published: Thursday, 27 August 2020

I might be wrong. Occasionally I am! But I really can’t see Lionel Messi at Manchester City.

There are a number of very good reasons - all of which could be overcome if all parties really want to make the deal - but I’m not convinced.

I understand that Messi is deeply pissed off right now, but he has no right to be. Barcelona have been fantastic to him. He’s earned trillions whilst enjoying privilege at the club that no player in history ever has. He’s run the place for 15 years. Granted - he’s delivered. I watched him single handedly destroy Arsenal one evening at the Camp Nou. It was an individual performance the likes of which I’d never seen - and haven’t seen since. He can do things with a football that leave you breathless. He’s a genius - but, he’s an ageing genius.

He’s 33 now and can’t dominate individuals, games or teams like he once did. It’s always been the case that if you had Messi (or similar if such a thing exists) then somebody else in your team is going to have to put the work of two men into 90 minutes. Or, as a collective, the rest have got to put in an extra shift. That’s why he liked playing with Neymar so much - if he was walking about for 10 minutes a little disinterested, then Neymar would come alive. They worked well together. And Busquets did the dirty bits.

But as Messi has aged so too have Barca. As a collective they’re not the force they once were. That’s painfully obvious. Messi cuts a lonely and frustrated figure. He knows his powers are waning.

Messi doesn’t speak English. Not an insurmountable problem, but an issue. And whatever you read or hear - he doesn’t like Guardiola and Guardiola doesn’t like him. It is well known within football circles that Guardiola realised it was time to leave Barca when Messi told him ‘never do that to me again’ after he’d been subbed. Messi’s power are the club exceeded that of Guardiola.

So why would they want to get it back on now?  As I’ve said, Messi is a fading force. Does he really fancy his chances in the PL at 33? Gonzalo Higuain went back to Italy complaining PL defenders are ‘built like wardrobes and kick the shit out of you’. Our league is a whole lot more intense than any other in Europe.

We don’t yet know if Messi will win a fight to leave Barca. They claim a release clause of something like €680m - he says he can leave on a free because last season ran past May and finished in August - so he’s into his last year and the clause has lapsed.

Guardiola demands work from his teams. Do you remember how many times he’d go after Aguero in the early days of their relationship? Aguero was scoring goals - but not working. Guardiola left him out until he got the message. So where would that put Messi?

Serious question - would any City fan drop De Bruyne to fit him in? No chance.

Messi is class. But he also needs class around him. That’s why he’s failed to cut it at international level. Players representing Argentina weren’t as good as those at Barca.

If - and I still believe it’s if - Messi leaves Barca I can’t see any other sensible destination for him than Italy. Ibra is still getting away with it in that league approaching 40. Messi would tear it up in a very different way to Ronaldo.

Ronald Koeman has set his stall out. A big piece of me understands that he wants to make an impression. I remember Terry Venables going in at Barca and doing the same. He sold Maradona - which shook football at the time - but we found out why. He had issues that the whole world has since become aware of.

Koeman has decided to go looking for trouble. Big mistake. Don’t go looking - there’s plenty that will find you. A fight with Messi will have exactly that - a messi ending - and right now I can’t see any winners.

Mancini would’ve won it by now

Published: Monday, 17 August 2020

The first thing to say is ‘we’ll never know’. The following is purely speculative - but I’m going to make the case that if City hadn’t sacked Mancini they almost certainly would’ve won the CL by now - and for a whole lot less than Guardiola has spent. A whole lot less.

Let’s deal first with what Guardiola has done at City. He’s produced the English games’s first domestic treble. But - this In a decade when it’s been done in Spain twice. It’s been done in Germany for the first time - and in Italy. It’s been done in France three times in four years. Oh, and we’ve seen a club win the CL three times in a row for the first time in 43 years. So - there’s a trend - the few spending money are generally bossing the many - with the exception of Leicester’s title win. I’m not decrying Guardiola’s treble - I’m simply arguing that it wasn’t unique in modern  European football.

Ok. He broke the 100 point barrier. But, so what? It doesn’t matter if you win the league with 55 points as long as it’s one more than the team finishing 2nd. It is worth pointing out that it’s also been done in Spain and Italy - by the usual suspects, which further supports my argument above. The Italian League, like Portugal and Scotland, has also produced its first invincibles. Some of the football City played in that treble that season was beautiful to watch - as lovely as it was clinical - but when you take into account what was happening elsewhere in Europe - was it unique or following a trend?

Guardiola’s domestic success has come during an era when United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been in decline. Spurs have joined the big six and Liverpool have arrived back on the scene - but has the competition for trophies been as intense as it was when Mancini was at City? Not a chance. No, it hasn’t.

The City boss is credited with making Sterling a better player. Perhaps he has, but I’d argue that Sterling was always going to get better at City. Did Guardiola turn Stones into the world class defender that we expected to see? No. He didn’t. In fact, he’s spent the best part of £320m on defenders and only Laporte has ever looked decent. Think about that and consider how he went in against Lyon - and the personnel he used. It’s staggering. I’ve often asked the question ‘how is it that a super-coach can’t teach individuals - or a team - how to defend?’ 

Only once in four seasons have City had the best defensive record in the premier league. It is worth pointing out that in Mancini's three seasons they were the best and in his first season Mancini's team also won by four goals or more on eight occasions. 

So, other than ordinary central defenders what has Guardiola added? Walker has been terrific. So too Fernandinho when he played in central midfield. De Bruyne has been enormous. I tweeted the other day asking ‘how much longer can they keep hold of him?’ Surely consistent CL failure isn’t good enough for him?

Jesus might yet prove to be decent and if you want a goalkeeper who can pass Ederson is that man (I prefer mine to be able to make saves like Alisson) but the backbone of Guardiola’s success was of Mancini’s making - Kompany, Silva, initially YaYa and Aguero.

You’re getting the impression that Guardiola isn’t my favourite aren’t you? You’d be right! Yes, his Barca side were untouchable - but it was a Barca side built by Rijkaard that had already started winning. He really couldn’t fail with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. But fail he did in Germany. The team he inherited at Bayern won the treble the year before he took charge. Yea, he won three successive titles, but they were three of eight in succession won the by Germans. His job was the same as it is at City - win the CL - but he didn’t. He hasn’t. In fact, he didn’t get close at Bayern and it’s three successive 1/4-final failures at City. I’d expect him to be winning the things he has with the teams he’s had. It was the big one he was asked to win in Germany and Manchester.

Would he ever consider building as Mourinho has got to at Spurs? I doubt it. Klopp has had a more dramatic effect on Liverpool than Guardiola has on City - yet still he looks down his nose at inquisitors dismissing their right to ask questions of him. No matter what he or his disciples believe, Guardiola did not invent football.

It was Mancini that invented modern day City. There’s no question about that. He took over a ‘nearly’ team. The team that Francis Lee once said of ‘if there was a cup for cock-ups then City would win it every year’. Mancini had to change everything - but his biggest challenge was to make City ‘believe’ - just as Klopp has done at Liverpool. Get City over the line. And boy, didn’t he do just that? Aguerooooooo. Apart from their recent win at CAS - that has to be City’s greatest moment in this era. Oh - and Mancini taking his team to Old Trafford and spanking United 6-1!

Talk to those who were at the club at the time and they’ll tell you that Mancini was elusive, difficult, abrasive and demanding - all of the things that make winners. He didn’t care if he was liked. He wanted people to want to prove him wrong - to fight with him - to go the extra yard and not settle for indifference or second best. It worked didn’t it?

I’ve seen it argued that he lost his appetite the year after City won the title. Nonsense. His players did. Even being five per cent off the pace is enough when the rest are chasing. That’s why they always say winning a second successive title is more difficult. It was avoidable as well. Mancini wanted to add players that summer - the likes of Hazard and Van Persie. I’ve heard Di Rossi’s name mentioned - as well as Cavani’s. The hierarchy didn’t back him. Imagine the injection of just two or three of those. Everybody would’ve been on their toes. If you don’t get better when you come first - you don’t just stand still - you go backwards. That’s what happened.

The following summer Mancini’s players downed tools and played him out by losing the Cup Final to Wigan. It wasn’t just players either - it was staff, who couldn’t wait to see the back of him. By now Garry Cook had gone and the Spanish were moving in - with one long term objective - get Guardiola. His philosophy has never changed - defend by attacking. That’s all very well, but not against the very best. Mancini is Italian. Defend first. It’s impossible for me to think he wouldn’t have won the CL by now. Incidentally, I haven’t mentioned Pellegrini because he won a title with Mancini’s team. He was simply a stop-gap.

So what next at City? Guardiola has 10 months left on his contract. Do City trust him and watch him waste more money? If there’s change should there also be change behind the scenes? Is the Spanish era over? Is it Fraudiola or genius? Super-coach or myth? And who could possibly follow? My vote - Roberto Mancini, but sadly that ship has sailed. And so have City’s chances of ever winning the CL under Guardiola.

2 out of 3 ain’t bad

Published: Tuesday, 28 July 2020

It was Bruce Gyngell, who I’ve spoken of in previous posts, that taught me to remind people of the things you get right. Your achievements, if you like. Bruce was the Aussie genius that saved TV-am from going bust in the 80’s - although the Rat got the credit!

Bruce couldn’t understand why we Brits were always so shy about a success. His thinking was ‘if you don’t enjoy it and remind people - what’s the point?’ He was correct. So here goes!

Two out of three ain’t bad. And I was 12 months out with the other. I’ll come back to that.  Regulars know exactly what I’m talking about - relegation. 

Norwich were certainties. Their policy was evident from the outset - enjoy it and don’t bankrupt the club. Daniel Farke has admitted as much. He’s been criticised for saying it, but, I don’t have a problem with that philosophy. Norwich will never be able to compete with the big boys so what’s wrong with bouncing about between the Championship and the PL? There were some great moments this season - beating City for one - but they’ll enjoy next season just as much if they’re winning games and pushing at the top again. There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your team to win. To get up next year they’ll have to do it excess of 25 times. Brilliant. Good luck to them. There could be many more enjoyable weekends to come rather than the long hard winter they’ve endured.

Bournemouth were also certainties for me. The decline at The Vitality started the season before last. They’ve been poor since around about Christmas 2019. They simply don’t win enough games doing things ‘the right way’ - whatever that is. They’re too ‘nice’ - just like their manager. It would be good for both parties if they went their separate ways now.

Howe did a wonderful job saving the club from relegation out the Football League - and then driving them to the PL - in two separate spells let’s not forget. But he spent a fortune doing it. They were fined for breaking FFP regulations after going up to the PL and they’ve continued to spend - the vast majority of it on bad players - which is the main reason they’ve been relegated.

At one time Howe was being touted as a future England/Arsenal manager. He needs to challenge himself again and prove to us that he knows what he’s doing. And Bournemouth need a fresh face at the helm.

I predicted Brighton would go - or Palace, if they couldn’t hold onto Zaha. Had they not got points on the board before lockdown they would’ve been in trouble - even with him. I love Roy - but I suspect there’s change coming at Palace as well. Oh - well done Graham Potter. I was wrong about Brighton.

I was 12 months out with my prediction Watford would go. Watford fans were furious when I said they were heading for the drop - but I wasn’t wrong - my timing was. You can’t run a club like the Pozzo’s do and expect success. Their primary objective is to make money for themselves - not worry about Watford, or any of the others clubs that they own The clubs are cash cows. You can’t keep going to the well as they do and not find it dry one day. I don’t like their business model. Watford deserve better. It’s a family club with higher principles than the Pozzo’s and their ‘yes’ man Scott Duxbury display. Sacking Nigel Pearson as they did was a disgrace. I’m glad I pointed out one of the reasons that they may have done it - to avoid paying him a bonus if they stayed up. That notion disgusted people - and quite rightly. They got what they deserved - relegation. Some of the goings on at that club must have Graham Taylor spinning in his grave. Now there was a principled man.

As pleased as I am to see Watford go - I’m equally so that Villa survived, although as a Coventry fan I know I shouldn’t say that!  But I am. Villa is a proper club. Magnificent stadium. Fabulous training facilities - and all of it thanks to the late Doug Ellis.

They too spent big - largely on a collection of rubbish from Belgium. Who was responsible for that? I suspect we’ll find out in the next few days. My next question would then be - why? I’ve been given a few answers -  but I can’t share them.

Dean Smith deserves another go at it, but he’s got to be solely in charge of recruitment now.

It might surprise you to here I’m glad West Ham survived as well. I’m chuffed to bits for Moysey. He too must now be in charge of buying. Time to take a step back Mssrs Sullivan and Silkman.

The Newcastle saga rumbles on, and it’s good to see one or two of the Nationals catching up with what I’ve been telling them about the deal. Here’s the latest. The Saudi’s will try again after shooting themselves in both feet. I originally said one foot - but it was both. Hiring Phillip Hammond to lobby is part of the new strategy although why they’ve chosen him I don’t know. He’s about as popular in the Tory party as I am in Newcastle! I still can’t work that out mind you - all I’ve ever done is tell you all the truth and I’m the only one prepared to do that. Surely you can see that now?

Henry Mauriss is still at the table. If he wants it - it’s an open goal. Ashley is a willing seller - Mauriss has to get his deal done. Simple. There you go. As your beloved Rafa might say ‘facts’.

The Saudi’s shot themselves in the foot

Published: Tuesday, 21 July 2020

It was Harold Wilson who famously uttered the words ‘A week is a long time in politics’. Historians continue to argue whether Harold Macmillan ever actually used the phrase ‘Events, dear boy, events’ when asked what was most likely to knock governments off course, but for now we’ll take it that he did.

Both apply to the ongoing saga of the Saudi government’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United. And yes – however you look at it, however they try to disguise themselves….it is the Saudi State – their sovereign wealth fund, entirely owned and controlled by the Saudi Arabian State and which executes Saudi state policy – who submitted a bid to buy Newcastle; not anyone else. Another hint is perhaps in the word “sovereign” – have a look at that word in the dictionary. I’m reminded of another Saudi word – “be-out-Q”, although maybe that’s Cuban (let me ask FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League what they think about that). 

A week ago when I sat down to write my blog I was convinced that the deal would somehow – by hook or by crook – get done. After 15 weeks, perhaps I’d started to believe the briefings and the bots. The relentless “no red flags”, the supreme confidence, the alternative facts. But a week is a long time in politics (sorry Harold) – everything has changed. That’s not to say that Mike Ashley won’t finally sell, but I would now be surprised if it is to Saudi Arabia.

So what changed? Simple. The Saudi’s:- who’ve spent 3 years stealing from Sky, BBC, beIN, every broadcaster in world sport; who’ve blocked legal cases 9 times; who’ve said the Premier League sent their complaints to the wrong Saudi email address; who said they won the WTO case (only for the WTO to say ‘read the judgment’)… Well, they really shot themselves in the foot last Tuesday – just as we’d all got sucked into their alternative reality. They permanently banned the Premier League’s broadcast partner from broadcasting in Saudi Arabia.

Why does this matter? Why was it so significant? Because beIN is the partner of the Premier League across the Middle East and North Africa and often in other territories around the world too. While some Newcastle fans may wilfully choose to ignore this – beIN is one of the biggest investors in Newcastle football club; we celebrate and promote their product, their players, their culture and history all around the world and have done for years. We also help pay their bills - enormously. So let’s follow the Saudi’s latest move to its natural conclusion – they’re looking to join the best league in the world, but ban anyone from watching that league, and the very club they’re trying to own. And it’s not just PL football affected by this decision – it’s all of UK sport, from the Six Nations to the Ashes, the EFL to the Scottish league, Wimbledon to our great male and female athletes at the OIympics next year. All these sports bodies want to see their product grow, all of them protect their broadcaster partners and their IP above all else. Remove the broadcaster in Saudi – all you’re left with is piracy. At a time when Saudi is trying to pass – essentially – a piracy test. That’s some middle finger to the PL.

Not surprisingly the holders of all these rights sat up – their business models are based on TV money, almost exclusively and especially in this COVID lockdown world. Not even the British govt. could turn a blind eye now – sport is one of their greatest exports.

I understand Geordie desperation to see their club sold. Don’t panic guys. Trust me - Mike Ashley is as keen to sell as you are to see him gone. All is not lost in that respect.

I’ve been privileged to have had a front row seat during this saga. When I first spoke about it in what we called ‘The Gray Lounge’ - Andy’s front room during lockdown - I had no idea about the enormity of the reaction it would stir. I’ve been pilloried by Geordies. I’ve had death threats - only from one side in the argument – but I won’t be silenced. That’s what the Saudi’s do, we know that. As a journalist it’s my job to ask awkward questions and to expose wrongdoing. The Saudi deal was never going to fail on moral grounds – which is a scandal in of itself. But legally the deal was wrong – if you steal the product you’re trying to buy, what do you think the security guard will say at the automatic doors?

One quick aside that’s puzzled me for 15 weeks – anyone, and I mean anyone, who flags legitimate concerns about the deal is lynched. MPs, broadcasters, other buyers, the Premier League, other clubs, Hatice Cengiz, Amnesty, anyone. Rather than lynch us all, I wonder why the cheerleaders don’t focus – just for a second – on the buyers. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve got some questions to answer – and I’m not talking about the weather in Cuba.

I repeat what I’ve always said. Newcastle is a fantastic football club. I told you Brucey would do a job for you – even if your ambitions are sky high (which they should be), he’s done an honest job in challenging times. You didn’t want to hear that because Rafa had somehow managed to convince everybody he was the only man that could manage the club.

I wish the club and its many fair minded supporters nothing but success. I’d love to see Brucey given the tools to deliver that success – by owners that see Newcastle as a family football club, not PR. He knows what silverware would mean. It’s his priority - not finishing high enough in the league to trigger personal bonuses as his predecessor did.  Cue a mountain of abuse.

When the dust settles on this saga, you may see that this current bid never added up – from the beginning. And if someone else takes the reigns - and I told you right at outset that Henry Mauriss wanted it - although I couldn’t name him - it’ll be better for the club.

I conclude where I started. ‘A week is a long time in politics’, so who knows? I said some time ago ‘don’t be surprised if there a surprise somewhere along the line before this gets done’ - but as of now you’re up to date with as much information as I can share.

Come on Clive...

Published: Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Just for a minute I thought something really serious had happened. There was my mate Clive Tyldesley - sitting at what looked like his breakfast table - with a glorious backdrop of green grass and fir trees - full of emotion. What was he about to tell us? Was somebody in the family a Covid victim? Did he have a terminal illness? No. It was worse than that - he was being replaced as ITV’s lead commentator. Not sacked. Replaced. Kept on as No. 2 - a job he’s previously had. No-one was trashing him - his work or his reputation. Replaced. And replaced by a dammed good operator.

Come on Clive. You’ve had a wonderful run. Of course I know how you feel. It hurts. But it happens.

Try leaving a company for good - watching them drip feed nonsense into the media and then calling your prospective employee to a meeting to threaten them with financial penalties if they continued with their plans to employ you. ‘We thought we’d buried them. We don’t want this’ three senior Sky executives told the commercial manager of talkSPORT - summoned to a meeting at Gillette Corner. Oh, there’s so much more, but that’s for another time.

I mention that only because I too was emotional about my decision to leave Sky. It wouldn’t have been such a problem had it been left there - but it wasn’t. So I’ve rattled back at times.

This is different. This is like moving an important piece on the chess board. Not having it taken. Just moving it   You’re still on the board Clive.

I’ve known Clove since we were both babies. We grew up together at Radio City in Liverpool. He was a brilliant operator. He was the best. He was better than anything national radio had at the time and he knew it, although it didn’t help that he told the bosses at the BBC that his ‘grandmother was a better commentator’ than they had!! And this was at a job interview!! He returned from London to a Birkenhead pub for drinks with me and Bob Paisley. He never applied to radio sport again!!

But I repeat - he was good. Very good. I had ideas of making it as a commentator as well - but I wasn’t anywhere near as good as he was. After four years working together I left to take charge of the sports dept at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester. I was always going to be No 2 had I stayed. No 2!

Clive is a nice guy. He’s deeply thoughtful and cares. He cares about so many people and he’s always the first to show if you’ve got a problem - although I haven’t heard anything from him these past five years. I don’t know why? 🤷‍♂️ That’s how I know ITV’s decision will have cut him to the core. But it isn’t terminal Clive. It isn’t over. Far from it.

I have to say I’m chuffed to bits for Sam Matterface. Like me and Clive - and so many more down the years - he’s done his time and he deserves his chance. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him at TalkSPORT. He’s a top pro.

Sam took a big risk when he left Sky to join TalkSPORT. His gamble has paid off handsomely.

Clive has years left in him yet. There’s a big world outside the borders of the U.K. Clive. Like me, you could always try you hand on the radio again. You were brilliant on the radio.

At beINSPORTS we’re lucky enough to have Peter Drury and Andy Townsend to listen to. Without question this pair are now the unrivalled kings of the mic. They’re the best in the business. Andy is the rightful successor to Andy Gray. He’s calm. Thoughtful. Doesn’t pretend everything matters - and he’s unique because he tells me something I haven’t seen - just like my mate used to. That’s the art of co-comm - tell me ‘why’. Don’t just talk over pictures that I can see.

So many these days talk for the sake of it and bury you in stats. TV has pictures. Let them tell their own tale - ‘names and numbers’ as I was once told. You don’t have to talk for 90 minutes - or try and work a game out after two.

I digress. It’s not the end of the world Clive, although I know it feels like it right now. It’s the end of an era. Sam is a good call. Enjoy it mate. Oh - watch out Martin!!!!