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32 Things We’ve Learnt From the World Cup – Part 3

20. Goals that cross the line via the underside of the crossbar are infinitely better than those that don’t



32 Things We’ve Learnt From the World Cup – Part 2

11. It’s possible to be a World Cup ‘find’ having been part of a €45m transfer 12 months earlier

That’s right, chaps. According to the expert pundits, largely Lee Dixon and Ian Wright, ITV have to offer, James Rodriguez has been the ‘find’ of this World Cup. Normally, a find is a player who plays in an obscure country and for an obscure nation, not one who has played in the Champions League, been involved in a multi-million pound transfer and plays for the nation ranked 8th in the world before the tournament got underway.

Not to belittle Rodriguez’s performance at the World Cup at all, which is absolutely outstanding and worthy as any other of winning the Golden Ball, but surely former pros who are paid to talk about football were aware that this lad from Monaco was quite good at kicking a ball around before June 2014? (more…)

32 Things We’ve Learnt From the World Cup – Part 1

To those in denial, the fact that the 2014 World Cup is over finally hit home when, upon opening their Twitter the morning after the night before, they realised that hashflags were no longer working. There were cries for them to be brought back; symbolic cries that really meant they wanted to enjoy the month long carnival of football all over again.

Alas, the best World Cup of our lifetime is over. But what made it so great?

Over the course of three blog posts, I’ll look at 32 things that made this World Cup the great spectacle it was. (more…)

Roy the Right Man to Take England Forward

I remember the feeling of anger, and the unstoppable tears that followed, as England capitulated to a hapless defeat to Germany in the World Cup of 2010. It was embarrassing, as were the performances in the three games prior to it, against poor opposition, in the group stage.

In 2006, with a squad full of players that will go down as some of England’s best at their peak, I endured the pain of the penalty shoot-out defeat to Portugal. The performances in that World Cup weren’t particularly disappointing, but that a squad capable of achieving so much underachieved so emphatically hurt a great deal.

There have also been the European Championships in 2004 and 2012, not to mention the failed attempt to qualify in 2008. 2004, with an inform Wayne Rooney, was a similar story to the World Cup of 2006; 2012, although a write off, a reminder of how far off England were from Europe’s elite.

And in 2014, England have dished out yet more heartbreak to their supporters. Although the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay doesn’t completely condemn Roy Hodgson’s side to an early World Cup exit, they’re relying on other results, swings in goal difference and themselves picking up a convincing victory over Costa Rica to become the first side in World Cup history to progress after losing their first two group games. (more…)

If You’re All Going To Wrexham Clap Your Hands

It’s not the richest and it’s not the most watched, but there’s certainly an argument to be made for the Conference North/South play-off finals being as important as any other game in England’s league structure.

The gap between the sixth and the fifth tier is as big as they come. The Conference is littered with former established league clubs and professional outfits, whilst the North and South are largely full of semi-professional sides. For the winner in the Conference South play-off final between Ebbsfleet United and Dover Athleitc, there would be Bristol Rovers, Wrexham and Grimsby; for the loser, there would be Basingstoke, Wealdstone and Concord Rangers. An all or nothing scenario if ever there was one. (more…)

It’s Just Like Watching Charlton – Southampton Disappoint But Show What Could Have Been for the Addicks

Charlton Athletic and Southampton have a great deal in common. On the one hand, both clubs churn out promising academy graduates on a regular basis; on the other, both have had to endure Alan Pardew managing their club and Dan Seaborne wearing their colours.

But the biggest factor these two clubs have in common is that, after years of Premier League stability, they’ve both recently been rather large fishes in League One’s small pond. In fact, Charlton and Southampton were relegated together from the Championship in 2009; the Saints entering administration and the Addicks on the borderline of financial meltdown throughout their time in England’s third tier.

Whilst both clubs, Southampton in two and Charlton in three, escaped those dreaded trips to Carlisle, Oldham and Tranmere, the way in which they’ve progressed thereafter is where the similarities end.

Charlton’s inability to build upon Chris Powell’s impressive first two seasons in charge can be placed almost totally at a lack of investment. With Powell unable to recruit the players needed to bolster his side at the start of this campaign, a relegation battle was always likely.

But when that investment finally came through Roland Duchatelet, the Belgian owner split the club’s fans with his decisions to sell key players and latterly sack the popular Powell for non-footballing reasons. With the signings, largely from Duchatelet’s other clubs, unable to drastically improve the side, new Charlton boss Jose Riga still faces a fight to keep his side safe from the threat of relegation.

By contrast, with sustained investment on hand from Nicola Cortese and the Liebherr family’s millions to support Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton were promoted from the Championship at the first attempt and followed it up with a respectable first season in the Premier League.

Under the guidance of Pochettino, the Saints have become the darlings of English football. Their style of play, the results they’ve achieved and the crop of young English talent at their disposal has brought about admirers and created an incredible buzz around the South Coast side.

They’re also respected for the way the club has been run; a recent boardroom reshuffle that saw Cortese depart and Ralph Krueger appointed chairman has left the majority of Southampton supporters feeling a lot more positive than their Charlton counterparts.

So maybe that’s why I have something of a soft spot for the Saints; I look at them and think what might have been. Not too long ago, we were equals; now Charlton could hardly be further behind the club they followed out of League One hoping, although not expecting, to emulate. In a parallel universe, Yann Kermorgant is Rickie Lambert, Chris Solly is Luke Shaw and the multi-million pound signings Southampton have made are Addicks.

But, in this cruel world where I’m forced to watch Marvin Sordell and his fellow strikers fail the Trade Description Act, the only way I could get a glimpse of that parallel universe was by taking time out of Charlton’s struggles and submerging myself in a day with the Saints at Villa Park.

The opportunity to ‘be in that number’ arose after Charlton’s game with Bolton Wanderers was put back to Good Friday; a predictably frustrating 0-0 that left me craving Premier League, and Southampton’s, quality football more than I probably should have done.

In fact, this was the first time I would be attending a top flight fixture since 7 May 2007; a night that ended in tears with Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Charlton confirming the Addicks’ relegation to the Championship. I was expecting a lot better than the day before, and probably a goal or two to celebrate, but I would have settled for leaving the ground without tears streaming down my face.

I was, however, feeling relatively confident that the Saints would come away from Villa Park with all three points.

But none of the Southampton fans I spoke to before kick-off were confident enough to predict victory. You would think that going into a game against a side in turmoil that have lost ten times at home this season, and four consecutive games on the spin, there would be belief from a set of supporters who have seen their club record more away wins this season that in any other Premier League campaign.

Of course, there’s always apprehension from fans before a game, predicting victory is almost considered to be a sin, but these seemed to be very real anxieties. Not only were the creative forces in Southampton’s side, Jay Rodriguez and Gaston Ramirez, injured, but the Saints have won just seven of their last 22 league games. With a disappointing FA Cup exit also in that run, this season has curtailed rather disappointingly for some supporters.

Nonetheless, an eighth place finish is likely to be theirs; the best of the rest in the Premier League. To an outsider like myself, and to the majority of level headed Saints supporters, that’s quite an achievement for a club who were in League One not too long ago. But those who want more are not be mocked; this a club on the up and they have every right to feel ambitious.

And how can you not feel ambitious when you have the likes of Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana in your side? The Brazil bound pair started brightly and not long after the first rendition of ‘when the Saints go marching in’, Shaw’s pace and drive down the left hand side created the game’s first opening. His testing cross picked out another man hoping to be representing England this summer, Rickie Lambert, but the forward’s header lacked the power needed to beat Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.

After Morgan Schneiderlin, anchoring Southampton’s midfield alongside Victor Wanyama, played a delightful ball over the top into the path of Steven Davis, his cross created another opening for the Saints with less than five minutes played. Lambert was on the end of the delivery, but a crucial intervention from Nathan Baker saw the ball deflected wide.

This was a bright start by Pochettino’s men, shown by the 87% possession they had with ten minutes played, and the vocal away supporters were keen to sing the name of the manager who has instilled such a manner of play in this Southampton side. Those cries of ‘we sign Pochettino’ have surely only been enhanced in recent weeks with rumours surrounding his future and Saints supporters desperate for the Argentine to stay in charge.

However, despite that complete dominance of possession, there were few ways through for Southampton after Lambert’s early chances. Already you could tell they desperately missed a creative influence as patient passing moves all too often lacked that final killer ball. It was almost like being back at The Valley, but that would be doing a disservice to Southampton’s clear quality.

It was now easy to see why there was a lack of strong confidence before kick-off, but credit must also be given to Villa. They were equally patient in midfield and at the back, holding their lines and closing down avenues that the away side attempted to exploit.

And with pace up top, not least through Gabby Agbonlahor, the hosts were always likely to be a danger on the break. In what was their first meaningful foray forward, the former England international appeared to have a clear route to goal from a Villa counter, but a superbly timed tackle by Jose Fonte kept Agbonlahor at bay.

Although gradually coming under more pressure from Villa’s forwards, Southampton continued to control the game without being able to break through the opposition’s defensive line. With every misplaced forward pass or failure from a player to take on their man, the away following grew more restless.

With chances now few and far between, the one created by the Saints just beyond the half hour mark really had to be taken. An excellent cross from James Ward-Prowse picked out Lambert, who set the ball back to an unmarked Davis. But, to dismay and anguish in the Doug Ellis stand, the former Villa man failed to get his shot away cleanly and Guzan pulled off a stunning save to keep the scores level.

That miss almost proved costly has half time approached, with a low Villa cross from the left causing havoc in Southampton’s penalty area and a combination of Artur Boruc and Dejan Lovren just about deflecting the ball behind. The first corner was dealt with, put behind by the impressive Wanyama, and the second appeared to be, but Villa managed to carve out one more chance with the ball only half cleared. Thankfully for Southampton, Marc Albrighton’s cross couldn’t be converted by Karim El Ahmadi.

With Lee Mason’s half-time whistle blowing shortly after, the Saints were applauded off but more in encouragement than appreciation. They were certainly controlling the game, but rarely did they look like turning that possession into a clear cut opening.

But the restart saw the hosts race into life, and they really should have taken the lead three minutes into the half. The booed El Ahmadi, who had made some rather robust challenges in the first half, broke into the box, faked to shoot to clear Fonte out of his sight of goal, but could only scuff an effort that was easily saved by Boruc. The frustration, however, was continuing to grow amongst the visiting supporters.

If the Saints were going to score, it was almost certainly going to come via a move down the left. Shaw, living up to his billing, was solid at the back and impressive going forward. One such move saw Davis send the England international free, but his cross was just behind Lallana, who surely would have finished had the delivery been a fraction further forward.

With that missed opportunity, I began to believe I’d brought Charlton’s final third curse along with me to Villa Park. It seemed it was having an impact on Villa’s goal scoring hopes too, as a number of half chances for the home side failed to test Boruc in Southampton’s goal.

I finally had the pleasure of seeing a football pass the white line between the goal posts for the first time this weekend, but Adam Lallana’s strike was ruled out correctly for offside. With a little over 20 minutes to play, I wasn’t banking on such a rare event occurring legitimately.

The goalless scoreline edged ever closer as Victor Wanyama, arguably the best player on the pitch, took a hefty knock with 15 minutes to play. The Kenyan attempted to continue, but the composure he’d possessed prior to it was lacking.

However, before Wanyama could be replaced by Cork, there was a huge penalty shout for the visitors. Clyne, who had been somewhat reluctant to get forward throughout the afternoon, saw his cross blocked by Bertrand by what appeared to be the defender’s hand. Referee Mason wasn’t interested, and for the second day in a row, the side I was supporting could have strong complaints they weren’t awarded a spot-kick in a frustrating 0-0 draw.

So frustrating that there was a smattering of boos from the Saints supporters come full-time. Again, those expectations and ambitions meant Southampton fans wanted more from this game, despite their pre-match worries.

And given the dominance Pochettino’s side had for most of the afternoon, you can’t blame the away fans for feeling somewhat disappointed with the result. It was certainly a better point for Villa; two points dropped for the Saints. Nonetheless, the players were applauded vigorously when they came over to the away end.

Along with the third tier spells, the academy graduates and Pardew, it would also seem Southampton and Charlton share an incredibly frustrating to watch nature without their key creative men. Without Dale Stephens, Yann Kermorgant and, to a lesser extent, Cameron Stewart, an already goal shy Charlton have found it hard to add a killer final ball to their promising overall play.

And without Rodriguez and Ramirez, Southampton were restricted to keep ball without much of a real threat in the final third; not helped by Lallana and Lambert’s below par performances.

Nonetheless, the quality on show at Villa Park was, obviously, at a much higher standard to what was on show at The Valley yesterday. Defensively, Southampton were solid, with Fonte and Lovren looking like a formidable centre back paring.

Schneiderlin and Wanyama were also impressive as a defensive midfield pair, whilst Shaw was Southampton’s only real constant threat and dealt with Villa’s stand out performer, Albrighton, admirably.

Whilst I didn’t get to see the Southampton I’d hope to, the one that had won the hearts of so many this season, I was still relatively impressed with what I saw, although I imagine that has a lot to do with what I see week in, week out watching Charlton.

As I made my journey home, I caught the conversation of a set Southampton fans discussing the result and others in the Premier League today. They laughed that the point, along with Newcastle’s defeat to Swansea, had strengthened their grip on eighth.

But if Southampton are to progress to the next level, they do need strengthening. The bench was rather weak, without a player who could make a real positive impact on the game, and depth is clearly an issue. Obviously losing Rodriguez and Ramirez is huge, but it shouldn’t totally hinder the way they play. With that in mind, wide creative players would be at the top of my wish list, along with a forward or two.

They also desperately need to keep a hold of their star performers, not to mention Pochettino. Just like for Charlton, this summer will be huge for Southampton.

Nonetheless, mocking an eighth place finish in the Premier League; ah what could have been for us Addicks.

Another Appeal: Retain Referees For Retrospective Rulings

The language used changes each time, but almost every day for the past few weeks we’ve been informed the FA’s process of overturning a ban following an ‘incorrect’ dismissal, and issuing a suspension for incidents not picked up by the on-field officials, is flawed.

With the fire already warm from West Ham’s failed crusade to get Andy Carroll’s ban overturned following his red card for striking Swansea’s Chico Flores, the FA’s decision to ban Cardiff City’s Craig Bellamy for his petulant punch on Jonathan de Guzman in the South Wales Derby whilst failing to ban Manchester City’s Yaya Toure for kicking out at Norwich’s Ricky van Wolfswinkel has left many at boiling point.

Unfortunately, I had the displeasure of tuning into Sky Sports News last night just as the topic of debate between the panel of ex-pro pundits turned to the aforementioned disciplinary and appeal system.

Cheered on by his colleagues, Phil Thompson delivered an illogical rant about who should be involved in deciding whether or not retrospective action should be dished out.

That three former referees, who watch a tape on their own and decide objectively what fate the player would have received had they been officiating at the time, are involved was outrageous for ‘Tommo’.

In Thompson’s eyes, former managers and players should be involved in the appeal and retrospective punishment system. Former Premier League referees shouldn’t be anywhere near it.

Not only did those in the studio seem to agree with the former Liverpool defender’s wild concept, but I imagine it’s a view held by several others. However many that several are, it’s too many.

Managers, players and, to some extent, fans do have a clear understanding of most of the laws of the game; it’s not as if football’s manual is full of complex and quirky regulations.

But, despite working in football for their entire lives, managers and players won’t be able to apply the laws as successfully, knowledgably and objectively as qualified and experienced officials.

The best officials can take into account the atmosphere and context of a game, something that was mocked on Match of the Day 2 by Mark Lawrenson several months ago, to oversee an exciting spectacle whilst still sticking to the letter of the law. The most important part of a referee’s armoury is the common sense that allows them to decide when and how a law should be enforced.

Even those who have retired will have that judgement, and will appreciate that certain games, and ever certain players, will require a stricter brand of officiating. It’s no wonder that an incident, which appeared fuelled by anger, occurring in a South Wales Derby has been retrospectively punished, whilst a rather needless kick in a less heated game has gone unpunished.

When considering the Carroll incident, his strike on Cicho doesn’t look pretty. For me, as a rather dubiously qualified referee, I can see why a red card has been given and why it hasn’t been rescinded. There’s nothing to conclusively say it should be overturned; Carroll clearly strikes Cicho in an aggressive manner.

Many have spent too much time looking at the Swansea defender’s reaction, and not enough at Carroll’s actions. Had Cicho reacted in a rational way, I think more would have been of the belief that the dismissal, and subsequent ban, was and is fair.

As a partisan fan or pundit, it’s hard to disconnect yourself from Cicho’s actions, whilst any excuse to lambast officiating is taken up with glee. Referees are rodents, providing no good and plenty of bad.

If players and managers had been involved in those decision making processes, the outcomes would have been different. Toure and Bellamy would have both been banned, in the name of this bizarre concept of consistency which suggests every game and every incident should be officiated in the same manner, whilst Carroll’s red would have been overturned with the fascination on Cicho’s actions clouding judgments.

There’s also clearly a conflict of interests. A former player may well be forced to decide the fate of a former team mate, a friend or a rival. A ‘former’ manager may have ties to several clubs and players, swaying his decision one way or another.

A former, or current, official, who not only has that ability to apply the laws effectively, will view each incident with the objectivity their profession demands.

By no means am I suggesting the appeal process is perfect, and I’m certainly not suggesting referees have been faultless this season.

For starters, that a decision made by Howard Webb wasn’t overturned in a World Cup year is of no surprise. Politics of that nature are rife in the FA’s disciplinary procedures, the nature of which is explained in Mark Halsey’s excellent autobiography, ‘Added Time’. Some referees are given extra support, others are not.

However, I do think that referees, whether former or current, should have power, presence and responsibility in every stage of officiating and discipline. They are the objective controllers of our game. Giving more power to managers and players, whether former or current, would cause chaos.