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The Puma King has long been regarded by many as the best football boot on the market, and is the choice of large numbers of professional footballers. The traditional design and lack of top-play endorsement have seen the King fall behind other boots which sell on image rather than quality. However, for the serious players the boot has excelled as it is the most comfortable on the market. With the increased money in boot development, the latest Puma King has increased competition to retain its reputation.
The Puma King is one of the classic boot designs and has changed little over the years with the distinctive black boot an white side panels and tongue., giving it a clean, striking look. The boot is now also available in white/red and silver/black although the original black/white remains the best.
The boot is made of ultra-thin Pittards leather to make them lightweight, comfortable, flexible and to reduce water uptake. They have a Duoflex dole design to provide support (bending only where the foot should flex to prevent stress injury to the foot) and flexibility (to provide comfort). The boot has standard front lacing and is relatively narrow in design.
The boot is available in three different soles. The Puma King Pro (#80) has a standard 6 screw-in stud configuration for soft ground. The Puma King FG (#80) comes with a moulded sole for firmer beginning and end of season pitches. A new concept is the Puma King SL Di Mixsole boot (#100) which is adjustable dependent on the surface. The sole has a standard 6 screw-in stud arrangement, but has additional rubber studs that can be added to enhance pressure distribution on firmer surfaces. Most players would usually have both studs and moulded boots, so this is an interesting concept, although not really a money saving idea as the boot will need replacing more often than if you have two pairs.
The Puma King has never been available with a bladed sole. Blades are an attempted hybrid offering the pressure distribution of moulded soles with the increased grip of stud but largely fail to do this, and very few professional players ever wear them. They dont offer sufficient grip on bad pitches and, as such, are only practical on firm pitches where moulded soles are more comfortable.
The life-span of the boot depends largely on amount of usage. It is regarded as one of the most durable and well made boots on the market. The insole is firm enough to prevent the studs coming through, and only prolonged use on hard ground should cause damage to the insole.
The Nike Mecurial Vapor is the most expensive boot on the market at #140. It is the lightest boot currently available, but, as a result offers little protection for the foot or heel. It is made of synthetic material which prevent water retention but doesnt offer the same comfort and flexibility as a leather boot.
The Nike Air Zoom Total 90 (#120) has a wider fitting than the Mecurial Vapor and offers more protection for the foot. The boot is also more comfortable to wear, although is slightly heavier. However, in my opinion, the design of the boot is grotesque.
The Adidas Predator (#120) is the leading top of the range boot. It has a clean and distinctive design, high manufacturing quality and great comfort. The leather is comfortable and flexible and the insole makes the boot easy to wear.
The recently launched Adidas f50 (#100) is a comfortable and well designed boot. It is cheaper than the Predator, but features the same quality of materials and manufacture. However, the hideous black and blue design ruins what would otherwise be a good boot.
The Reebok Baleni (#120) is the worst boot at this end of the market. Personally, I find side fastening boots far inferior to standard laces. The boot is overly narrow and uncomfortable and the design is characteristically poor.
The Umbro XAI at #120 is a solid boot, but not as comfortable as the King or the Predator. The lacing is more difficult and the design less impressive. The boot has a wide fitting and generally feels heavier and more cumbersome than other boots.
Of all these boots, and the current time the best are the Puma King and the Adidas Predator. Both are unbeatable in terms of quality comfort and design. I personally find the Puma King marginally more comfortable providing support and flexibility that no other boot can match, although the Predator has a wider fitting which may suit other foot shapes. At #80 the King is the cheapest boot at the top end of the market. By virtue of not paying top players significant sums of money to endorse the product, the Puma King remains the best pried boot at this end of the market.
The Puma King delivers the best boot on the market for the most competitive price. In a market where image often prevails over quality, the lack of advertising and sponsored top players may cost market share. However, for those interested in buying the best product, the Puma King is undoubtedly the best there is.
Amid the fallout from Roy Keane’s literary efforts, the controversy surrounding Old Traffords last would be author remains unclear. Although Manchester United have rightfully suggested that no player will now be allowed permission to write an autobiography whilst at the club, the situation surrounding the sale of Jaap Stam has yet to be resolved. A number of different explanations were offered at the time, but the fans are still unclear as to why the club sold their based defender at such short notice, without a reasonable explanation for such an abrupt transfer. The first explanation, provided by the club, is that Stam had failed to recover sufficiently from an operation on his achilles tendon, and was no longer playing at the level the club expected of him. Laurent Blanc, persistently pursued by the club, had recently become available, and with the progress of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, Stam would no longer be a first choice, and the chance to recoup £15m to offset the cost of the summer transfers was seen as good business. However, the timing of the transfer makes this explanation seem unlikely. If the club really had intended to replace Stam, then it would have made sense to conduct the transfer before the season started, not rushing to beat the European transfer deadline. Suggesting that Stam was sold because he was no longer needed at the club is about as credible as the argument that Rio Ferdiand was signed by Leeds as a stop-gap. The second explanation is one constructed from various sources within the club, which suggest Stam’s sale may have been the result of a serious of misunderstandings. After media attention surrounding his book, Stam believed he may have damaged his relationship with the club, so instructed his agent to investigate possible moves away from England if the situation became worse. The United board soon found out that an agent acting for Stam had been touting possible interest in his client, and
mistakenly believed that Stam wanted a move away from the club. The board decided that is Stam was to leave, it would be on their terms, and also began to investigate possible moves. Having recently signed Veron form Lazio, United had a good relationship with the Italian club, and soon agreed a transfer, which Stam had little chance of rejecting. As an explanation, this has credibility, as misunderstandings between players, agents and clubs are common. However, it is unlikely both that Stam would have believed his comments would force him to leave the club, and that United would transfer a player before verifying rumours of him looking to leave the club. The third explanation, provided by the media, is that comments made in Stam’s autobiography caused concern within the club, and the decision was made to offload the player. Comments concerning team mates were insulting, but light hearted. However, comments regarding European opposition, and a suggestion that Manchester United made an illegal approach for him whilst at PSV, were potentially damaging and hence the club were forced to transfer him. As the timing between the release of his book, and his transfer were coincident, it was the easy option to conclude that the book was the course of the dispute. However, it seems highly unlikely that Manchester United would offload their best defender simply for a few out of place remarks. Although a simple explanation, it seems that it lacks any real substance. The fourth possible explanation, and possibly the most credible, came to light after the transfer had been completed, and Stam had begun his career at Lazio. After a routine drug test, Stam was found to have taken nandralone, and was subsequently banned for 6 months. This was one a series of bans, mostly Dutch players, for taking banned substances. Allegations has been made that The Holland squad for Euro 2000 had been taking dietary supplements that may have contained banned sub
stances. Following bans for Davids and DeBoer, many clubs instructed their medical staff to test any Dutch players in their squad. It has become apparent that Manchester United probably tested both Van Nistlerooy and Stam, although the results were withheld. It is now suggested that Manchester United, on discovering that Stam tested positive, were aware that it was only a matter of time before the player was officially tested, and given a lengthy ban. The decision was taken that a replacement for Stam would have to be found, and that Laurent Blanc could lead the defence until a younger replacement was found. This relies on the assumption that Lazio didn’t conduct their own medical tests, although the proximity of the transfer deadline may have forced the club to perform a medical quickly. If this is the explanation why Stam was transferred to Lazio, and initially it is highly plausible, it is obvious that the club would look to withhold the information, and suggest alternative reasons for the move. The controversy over Jaap’s book may have helped the club conceal the truth surrounding the deal, which may have damaged the club’s reputation. The impact of Stam’s sale on the Manchester United defence caused much interest within the football world. Stam was undoubtedly the based individual defender in the squad, and one of the best centre backs in the world. However, legitimate doubts were raised over his ability to play within a defensive unit, and to provide leadership to the younger members of the defence. Laurent Blanc was seen as a vastly experienced defender who could organise the defence for a season before a younger defender could be brought in to build to the defence around. However, to suggest that the sale of Stam was the reason why Manchester United failed to retain the Premiership title is both inaccurate and unfounded. Firstly, although of the top 6 sides, only Newcastle conceded more goals, it was United’
s failure to score goals that cost them the title. United failed to secure a record fourth successive title because they lost 6 games at home, failing to score in all six games, and losing five of them 1-0. Arsenal won the title because they scored in every game, home and away, not because they had a better defensive record. Equally, the claim that keeping Stam at the club would have improved that defensive record are inaccurate. Blanc had an excellent season, providing the leadership that had previously been missed. United conceded goals because of injuries that made it impossible to get a settled defence, with 17 different centre back pairings over the course of the season, and the attacking style of play which provides little cover for the defence. Ultimately, it is still unclear why Jaap Stam’s career at Old Trafford was abruptly ended. If the club were aware that Stam would test positive if he was officially sampled, then it is in their best interests not to disclose that they offloaded a player knowing he would test positive for a banned substance. United have moved on, brining in Blanc who had an excellent first season, and subsequently signing one of the most promising centre backs in the world in Rio Ferdinand. Stam has struggled in the unsettled atmosphere of Lazio amid financial difficulties and his drugs ban. The real explanation for Stam’s sale to Lazio, along with the £15m owed to Manchester United, is uncertain.
Now the hype that usually surrounds England’s progress at a major tournament has dies down, it is time to asses the state of the national side, and examine whether England really have a chance of bringing home an international trophy. After much optimism, England’s campaign ended in a dismal second half performance against Brazil, rightly described as players who looked more like individuals waiting to swap shirts, than a team with the belief to win the game. The manager will have to rebuild his squad, showing he has learnt from the mistakes made in Japan and Korea. Much of the personal remain the same, although the mental attitude will have to change. As England begin the process of qualification for Euro 2004 they must prove that they are capable of sustaining a serious challenge for international honours. The goalkeeping situation is one which England need to urgently address. Seaman is past his best, his reactions have slowed down, and he has lost a lot of agility, and is no longer the consistent keeper he once was. However, no one has established themselves as a tangible replacement. David James has developed his outstanding ability, but doubts remain over his credibility as an international performer. Richard Wright has progressed little since his first inclusion with the England squad under Keegan. Paul Robinson has replaced Martyn at Leeds, and impressed many with his experience and maturity, but may not be ready yet to hold down a regular place with England. If England are to seriously challenge at Euro 2004, they will have to find a new first choice keeper, and ensure he goes into the tournament with sufficient international experience. Sven looks to be relying on Seaman to make the decision to retire from international football, but if he leaves it any longer, the England manager will have to make his mind up for him. Seaman’s experience may be used to guide England through some of the more difficult qualifying, b
ut England will have to have placed their faith in a new keeper by summer 2004. England’s recent form has been based on tight defending. Rio Ferdinand is one of the best centre backs in the world, and Gary Neville and Sol Campbell are both consistent performers at international level. Mills and Southgate are effective replacements, and Terry and Woodgate have shown the potential to play international football. England still have problems finding an international quality left back. Ashley Cole has ability going forward, but has substantial defensive weaknesses, which undermine his ability to play as a left back. Jamie Carragher and Phil Neville are consistent, but lack international ability. Wayne Bridge is yet to convince, showing potential, but little performance. England look settled playing four at the back, although playing wing backs would be better suited with the lack of left sided players. Defensively, England have pace, strength and experience, and a settled line up who are still relatively young, and will develop into one of the best defences in world football. England have one of the most talented midfields of any team in the world, but too many are yet to produce in an England shirt. Scholes and Beckham are world class players, and England depend heavily on them to create goals. Butt had an excellent world cup, showing his ability as an international defensive midfielder, and Sinclair has proved capable of filling in on the left. However, players such as Dyer, Gerard and Joe Cole receive constant plaudits, but have yet to produce anything in an England shirt, and can’t rely on being carried by the rest of the team any longer. England’s main weaknesses have been in the middle of the park. Too often the midfield loses its shape, with Beckham and Gerard constantly getting out of position. None of the midfield have seemed willing to carry the ball forward, resorting too often to long balls that get send strai
ght back. The midfielders don’t support the strikers often enough, and only Scholes has an acceptable goal scoring return. However, the midfield is young by international standards, and may develop, providing the contribution England expect. Upfront, England have the biggest problems. Owen has achieved success at international level, but he has, partly due to the way Liverpool play, developed too much of a one dimensional game. He will never have height or strength which is an obvious, if unavoidable weakness. However, he has become to rely on the opposition defending a line high up the pitch, giving him space to run in on goal, and even then his finishing is erratic, badly effected by confidence. Heskey’s strength and pace can’t disguise his lack of quality. He simply doesn’t have the ability to be successful at international level. Smith has an aggression and directness which England lack, but needs to prove he can score goals regularly. With Shearer, Cole and Sheringham, the most prolific English strikers, all retired, and the top teams relying on foreign strikers, there is a lack of young English strikers around at the present. Joe Cole could be employed behind Owen in a support role, but since Sheringham and Shearer, England have been unable to find a partnership which regularly produces goals. Following Kevin Keegan’s pathetic time in charge of England, Sven Goran Eriksson was always going to be judged as a success in comparison. However, his initial progress went beyond anything that could be hoped for, culminating in the 5 v 1 defeat of Germany. However, for the first time, questions are being asked of the England manager, as expectations of one of the most talented ever England squads continue to rise. Areas of his team selection, such as his continued faith in Emile Heskey, have come under scrutiny. England have become more negative, especially in failing to commit men going forward. Mos
t worryingly, England have exhibited a lack of motivation or conviction that became most evident in the second half against Brazil. The lack of a leader on the field is problematic, but the managers inability to inspire the team was highlighted by the players as a key reason for under performance. Sven exhibits the characteristics of a manager who is used to dealing with squads of mixed nationalities, where communication is difficult. Either he needs to develop the motivational abilities that the likes of Alex Ferguson and Booby Robson have built success on, or add a coach to his team who can do the job for him. Sven will have to start producing what he initially promised. The main problem with the current England team is the lack of character, influence and belief within the squad. The German team has less talent than England, but personalities like Oliver Khan motivated the side to performing far beyond its collective talent. A squad with David Beckham and Michael Owen as the chosen captains instantly indicates a total lack of leadership qualities within the team. There simply isn’t enough influence within the team to motivate players to perform to the best of their ability. The other problem is the lack of goals England look capable of scoring. Only Owen and Scholes have been able to get goals on a consistent basis, and when they are out of form no one else seems able to contribute sufficiently. The lack of a second striker, with Heskey’s return of 4 goals from 24 games appalling at this level, is a problem. The lack of goals from midfield is a problem, that the inclusion of Lee Bowyer will look to address. England concede few goals, but if they are unable to score any, they are going to struggle to go the distance in a major tournament. In recent weeks the England manager has been advocating the implementation of a winter break as the only way the national side can achieve success at a major tournament. However, arguin
g for a winter break has simply become a way of removing the blame for under performance away from the manager. In all sports, it has become popular to argue that players are playing too many games when they start playing badly, rather than simply blame the players for playing badly, and in turn the manger blaming themselves for allowing them to play badly. Certain stress related injuries can be attributed to the amount of football being played. However, to argue that a few weeks off after Christmas will refresh players and allow them to perform at a higher level is wishful thinking. Lower league players often fit in an enforced winter break around Christmas at the new year, by ensuring they get enough bookings to be suspended over the festive period. Taking a few weeks out of the season will condense the fixture list into a shorter space of time, increasing demands on players, and require an intensive training regime after the break to bring the players back to match fitness which is more likely to caused injuries and tiredness. The only way to reduce demands on players is too pay less games. However, the clubs need the current fixture schedule to meet the players wage demands, and unless they agree to take pay cuts, the current number of fixtures must be maintained. The England manager will always have to face facts, that the club game is more important than the national team, and that a players first loyalty always has to be to the club who ultimately give him a living. The excuse that footballers play too many games was made even less credible by Brazil and Germany who got to the World Cup final, despite their players playing more games than any other teams. Realistically, this years world cup may have represented England’s best chance of repeating the success of 1966. Although no European nation has ever won the World Cup outside of Europe, the relative weakness of a number of leading nations, combined with the strength of the Engl
and side their opportunity. England’s lack of belief and character against Brazil ended that opportunity, but lessons must be learnt, as this is a side that has time to develop. This is still a very young side, that will remain largely intact until at least 2006. If a new keeper is found, and more goals are contributed from midfield, the 2006 World Cup on European soil may see the trophy brought back to England, 40 years after the original success.
Last season was inevitably going to be a disappointing season for Bristol Rovers. The club have never been in the bottom division of the football league before. Even if the team had finished as clear champions, it would have represented the clubs lowest ever league finish. Most fans expected promotion at the very least from a side who a couple of seasons ago had looked on the brink of promotion to the first division. Having spend a lot of time in Bristol lately, I picked a bad year to become a season ticket holder. Instead of promotion, what actually happened was an awful season, where Rovers were only saved from relegation to the Conference by the ineptitude of Halifax. According to the fans the chairman wasn’t fit to run the club, the manager wasn’t fit to pick the team and the players weren’t fit to wear the shirt. Most people who have been watching Rovers longer than I have believe this is the weakest ever team the club have put out. The home attendance’s were lower than the number of season tickets sold and the club were facing financial insecurity. With a change of manager and a significant change of squad the club will be hoping for slightly better fortunes this season, and start as one of the favourites to win promotion this season. The clubs financial position was looking unstable as the clubs financial structure was based on playing football at a higher level. The biggest problem was a £3.5m annual wage bill. Many players were on contracts signed when the club looked likely to be playing first division football. Having taken a reversal in fortunes, the wage structure was unsustainable. Luckily, around 2/3 of the senior squad were out of contract this summer, allowing the club to release a number of players. At one stage the club could boast just 12 senior players, 2 of whom were goalkeepers. With the general financial situation in the Football League following the collapse of ITV Digital, most clubs have spe
nt the summer cutting squad numbers and releasing players. Consequently, Rovers have been able to sign a number of released players on free transfers, and on reduced wages. Rovers are financially better off than most clubs in the third division, and the squad changes over the summer ensure that the club is in little danger of going bankrupt. Most clubs are learning that is untenable to invest in the playing staff as a way of increasing revenue to make that investment sustainable. With clubs cutting squad numbers, players are being forced to accept lower wages, reducing club running costs. Ultimately, the financial panic created by ITV Digital has made clubs assess their financial situation, and may actually have made clubs financially securer by reducing the expectation and reliance on TV money. The current squad is smaller than the previous season, with the board recognising a smaller first team squad, supplemented with promising youth team players is the only way to make the club financially viable. Last year Scott Howie was solid in goal, but there were problems in every other area of the pitch. The defence was incapable of playing well individually or as a unit. Steve Foster is a big loss as he is talented centre half, but Mark Foran is useless and is lucky to have played football at a professional level. The midfield lack work rate, creativity and were regularly dominated in all departments. Up front Nathan Ellington was sharp, the highlight of the season being his hatrick at Derby. However, the club weren’t in a position to retain him, and he was sold to Wigan at the end of last season. Generally, the failure of the midfield to link up and support the strikers lead to a shortage of goals. Rovers had too little possession and created too few chances to compete in many games. Many fans suggested that there was insufficient commitment from many players. A considerable change of the playing personnel will provide the necessary
impetus to mount a sustained promotion challenge. The new singings are on short term deals, and will have to prove successful should they wish to remain in employment. How good the new players actually are will be tested over the coming months, but the 3-2 defeat of West Brom was encouraging and is a step in the right direction after last seasons disappointment. The Memorial Ground is hardly one of Europe’s finest football stadiums, but by Third Division standards is adequate. The ground has a capacity around 12,000, with around 8,000 accommodate in mainly uncovered terracing. The Centenary Terrace is the main area of fans, with a small seated tier, and a terrace running the length of the pitch. Only a small section of the terrace is covered and the facilities are basic, especially in the away enclosure which is situated at the south end of the terrace. The West Stand running down the other side of the pitch is the most modern and impressive stand, containing a terraced paddock, executive boxes and the family enclosure. The Blackthorn Terrace is the area of the best support. Behind it is a decent bar and catering facilities and is also the cheapest place to sit. The South Stand is a temporary stand with covered seating which appears to have been taken down over the close season, but should be back up in time for the new season. The Memorial Ground is very basic, having developed little since Rovers took it over from the Bristol Rugby Club. The pitch is awful, suffering from being used for both football and rugby. The ground isn’t in the most desirable area of Bristol, car parking is a problem, but bus links to the ground aren’t bad. Any development is unlikely as the club have no money, and at the current time a bigger ground is unnecessary. There has been rumours of Rovers combining with City to share a new joint ground with a seated capacity upwards of 20,000, but with the current financial situation in the football l
eague, ground redevelopment isn’t a major priority. The club has seen a substantial change in the management and personnel who performed so poorly during the previous season. The club are again one of the bookies favourites to win promotion back to the second division, and with Bristol City pushing for promotion to division one last season, the supporters will expect Rovers to be one of the four promoted teams come the end of the season. The expectation around the club is high, although the arrogance of last season, believing the club was too big for the third division, must be avoided. Bristol is a relatively big city, and if the club started performing at a higher level the support would increase. The team will quickly have to gel as a unit, and the arrival of so many new playing staff may cause difficulties at the beginning of the season. The players will be under pressure to perform and, unless they are playing second division football next season, may be forced to find alternative employment.
The sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio for £15m was one of the more unexpected transfers in recent years. Although only a handful of people will ever know why Stam left, it was clear Manchester United would have to replace him with someone of similar stature. His replacement, Laurent Blanc, the foremost centre back of his generation, was signed from Inter Milan on a free transfer on a one year contract. For Inter Milan, it was an opportunity to remove one of the biggest wage earners from a club massively in debt and struggling financially. From the start, it was always clear that Blanc would face a difficult time from the media. Many were critical of the decision to sell Stam, and the best way to criticise this decision was to claim that his replacement was under performing. However, despite an excellent season, especially during the second half of the year after he had settled when he was impeccable, Blanc was criticised by some for costing Manchester United the league title, at the heart of a supposedly weak defence. However, to those who formed an opinion on him through watching him play for a season, rather than through comments in a newspaper or 15 seconds coverage on the television, it is clear that ever at 37, Blanc is still one of the best centre backs around. On coming to Old Trafford, Blanc brought with him a record as one of the best centre backs in the history of the game. He achieved considerable club success, most notably at Marseille, Bareclona and Inter Milan, and won the World Cup and European Championship with France. Laurent is the most technically gifted centre back of his generation. He has a clam, elegant, relaxed style which betrays someone with an impeccable reading of the game who rarely gets caught out of position. Supreme in the air, and composed on the deck, his defensive excellence and composure gives him the authority and stature to build a defence around. His tackles and interceptions are a perfect example of how defendin
g can be made to look effortless by stopping an attack before it has the chance to develop. Having started his career as a midfielder, Blanc is also confident on the ball, and distributes the ball well from defence. He also brings the confidence and leadership of a born winner. His signing was seen as a way of adding experience to a young defence lacking leadership and organisation. Blanc was intended to develop the younger defenders within the side, and ensure a group of talented individuals developed as a defensive unit. Those who criticise Blanc for his lack of pace, claiming it undermines his game and that he is ‘past it,’ show an ignorance both of the man and defending in general. Firstly, Laurent Blanc is one of the greatest defenders football has ever seen yet he has never had any real pace. To claim his pace is now a weakness shows an ignorance of his career. Secondly, pace isn’t an attribute fundamental to top class defensive play. Pace allows a defender to recover having made a mistake or lapse in concentration. Quality defenders rely on excellent positional play and a clear reading of the game. As a centre back you must be aware of your own position in relation to the striker, be aware of your position within the defensive unit and have quick and decisive decision making. It is how fast you make your decisions, not how fast you run that makes a top class defender. Bobby Moore is England’s greatest ever centre back, despite a significant lack of pace. Pace can often disguises defensive flaws which latter become apparent and exploited. Suggesting Blanc’s lack of speed undermines his defending may be a fine discussion down the pub but not many managers will take this as a credible argument when preparing a team to face Manchester United. Blanc has been wrongly blamed by certain people for Manchester United’s failure to secure a fourth successive league title. Some saw the replacement
of Jaap Stam with Laurent Blanc as the reason for Unuted’s worst league position in a decade. Despite Stam’s obvious ability as a world class centre back his main failing was in his inability to form an effective partnership at the back, and to organise the defence as a unit. Blanc has proved himself as, if not more, effective than Stam as an individual defender. However, his ability as a leader and organiser was the main reason for brining him in. Blanc found it difficult to adjust to the style of English football, and the language difficulties, but in the second half of the season was immense. Blanc has also brought a goal threat from corners to the Manchester United team. Stam, Silvestre and Brown haven’t managed a single headed goal between them. Blanc was also brought in to help younger players like Silvestre, Brown and O’Shea develop, learning from the experience of one of the best defenders in the game. Blanc added strength to a defence of talented individuals. Unfortunately, frequent injuries in the defence forced Fergusson to use 15 different centre back pairings over the season, which made playing as a unit difficult and lead to individual mistakes. At Liverpool, Henchoz and Hypia missed only one game all season between them due to injury. Had they been forced to use 15 different combinations in defence, their record would have been awful. Since his arrival, Liverpool have only once kept a clean sheet at the back without Hypia in the team. The defence failed to settle because of constant changes, and having Stam around would have made no difference. Blanc was also heavily blamed for the, in my opinion mistaken, view that the Manchester United defence was weak and conceded too many goals. Suggesting United have a weak defence is easy for a tabloid journalist who needs to finish his hundred word article for the week before going to the pub. However, looking at it properly, it is harder to substantiate this cl
aim. The main reason why United failed to win the league this season was losing 6 games at home. Of these 6 games, Manchester United failed to score in 5 of them. It was United’s failure to score in ¼ of their home fixtures, and difficulty to break down defensive sides, that resulted in the relatively poor home form. Arsenal won the league because they managed to score in every league game they played. You don’t win the league by having a tight defence. You win the league by consistently scoring more goals than you let in. Also, conceding goals doesn’t mean a defence is weak. In this instance it is a sign of a side who play attacking football, and where the midfielders have a limited defensive role. A side playing defensive tactics such as Liverpool where the midfield play deep and effectively as a second back four in front of the defence will inevitably concede less goals than a side looking to push forward. The Manchester United defence is neither weaker than any other in the league, or the reason why the club finished without any major trophies for the first time since 97/98. This result was due to the collective failings of the entire squad, not the defence or anyone player within it. Having signed a one year extension to his contract at Old Trafford, Blanc will have one last go at winning the Champions League, the one major honour that he has failed to win. Despite reaching the age of 37 Blanc has proved that he can still star at the highest level and having made 45 full appearances last season proved he is as fit as anyone in the squad. Most Manchester United fans wish that Ferguson had been successful in bringing Blanc to Old Trafford on one of his previous attempts, but even after one season Laurent has proved he is one of the best centre backs ever to play for the club. Ultimately, there are too types of footballer that a large number of English football fans will always dislike; Frenchmen and Manchester United pl
ayers. Anyone who has the misfortune to fit into both categories will always be criticised no matter how well they play.
In Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United have signed one of the most promising centre backs in Europe. Following an exceptional world cup, his reputation has grown as a potentially world class centre half. He is one of a new generation of English centre backs who combine aggression and competitiveness with genuine footballing ability. The combination of pace, size, strength and an impeccable reading of the game, make him one of the most natural talented defenders in the game. Since moving to Leeds he has developed his concentration and general football awareness that undermined his reputation at West Ham, and developed as a leader and an organiser at the back. The chance to play alongside Laurent Blanc will further develop the defensive ability of a man viewed as the best English centre back since Booby Moore. The deal satisfied the immediate interests of both clubs. Leeds United needed to clear some of the £77m debt they have accumulated, and the sale of Rio should keep the bailiffs away from Elland Road for the conceivable future. Presumably, the club may also be able to keep Bowyer and Dacourt, and Venables will have some money with which to rebuild his squad. Manchester United needed a defender after Irwin and Johnson opted to leave the club over the summer. However, the view that the defence is weak, and is the reason why Manchester United failed to reclaim the Premiership title is inaccurate. In 5 of the 6 home defeats United failed to score. It was the failure to score goals in key games that cost United the title. The criticism of the individuals in the defence was inaccurate for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is inevitable that a team who look to be aggressive, and get midfielders and often defenders to support the strikers in attack will concede goals. A defensive team like Liverpool, who play a flat back four with four defensive midfielders holding deep, and often one striker dropping back and hit on the counter, will inevitably conc
ede less goals. Secondly, due to a number of factors the defence was ever changing, with 15 different pairings in the centre of defence over the season. Solid defending is based on playing well as an organised unit, and a team who constantly have to change at the back due to injuries will concede more goals than team like Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea who managed a settled defence. Thirdly, when looking to criticise a good side, it is much easier to criticise the defenders than the forwards. Even the best strikers make many mistakes in a game, but when a defender or goalkeeper makes a mistake it will regularly lead to a goal. People always like to criticise successful sides and Manchester United, similar to Real Madrid and Brazil, are criticised for weak defending because people can’t find any other way of putting them down. The transfer for Rio has shown how modern transfer negotiations are subject to intense media speculation. Changes to the transfer system mean that players can simply walk way from a club at the end of their contracts, forcing clubs to sell players near the end of contracts for less than they are worth so they at least get some money for the players. Proposed, new changes to the transfer system mean that players would only have to honour their contracts for 2-3 years and then would be free to walk away to any club they chose. However, the claim by some that Leeds had to sell Rio because he wanted to leave is inaccurate. Leeds always intended to sell Rio long before the media began reporting his transfer, realising that a substantial offer would have to be accepted considering the current financial situation. A Plc Like Leeds United will always have to sell players when heavily in debt. The unique way Leeds borrowed the money which took them into European football is costing the club now they can no longer sustain the investment they have made. Leeds will have to replace their captain and organiser at the b
ack before the new season begins. Woodgate has showed promise, but lacks the leadership or stature to replace Rio. Radebe has to prove his fitness, and the club demand a higher level of performance than when he was last a regular in the side. Matteo would make a good captain to replace Rio, but lacks his composure and natural ability. How much Venables will see of the £30m depends on further departures from Elland Road. The collapse of the Bowyer transfer may mean most of the Rio cash will be used to pay of debt, leaving the manager with little funds to bring in a new defender. Stam and Ayala have been suggested as replacements, but with a month until the start of the season, Leeds will have to move quickly. However, the sale of Ferdinand can only be seen as a backward step for Leeds. Failure to qualify for the Champions League made the transfer budget and wage structure unsustainable, and the club’s most consistent performer was sold due to failing if his team mates. Personally, Manchester United paid over the odds for Ferdinand. They have a vastly talented defender who, at 23, can be a fixture at the centre of the defence for the next decade. However, the transfer fee is far above the price tag of more established defenders. Rio’s trophy cabinet is as limited as Alan Shearer’s personality. He had an exceptional world cup, but has yet to prove himself a consistent performer. Players like Hofland, Thuram and Ayala would have been better value, likely to cost half of the £30m paid for Ferdinand. Having said that, Fergie may have signed the player who will bring the Premiership crown back to Old Trafford. Blanc and Ferdinand are the most naturally gifted centre back pairing in the league with the combination of pace and experience. With Gary Neville and Silvestre at fullback, and the ever improving Brown and O’Shea on the bench, United have a defence individually as good as any in the Premiership. It remains to be s
een that, unlike last year, the defence play well as an organised unit, and eradicate the individual mistakes that proved costly last season. Having lost Irwin and Johnson, United had to strengthen the defence, and Rio should be seen as an investment for the club. The fee is large, but Rio can play at least 10 years at the highest level, and less than £3m a year for a defender who could become one of the best in the world could be good business. Arguably though, the signing goes against what has taken the club to where it is today. Young talent has always been preferred to expensive imports, and the singing of Ferdinand will restrict the progress of Wes Brown and John O’Shea. One person who came out of the whole affair with no credit is Peter Risdale. He acted as if he brought Ferdinand to Leeds out of pure generosity, and that Rio therefore had an obligation to remain at Leeds. Rio more than repaid the debt he owed Leeds, captaining the team, playing the best football of his career, and not collecting a single booking in 18 months. The truth is Risdale has to deflect the fan’s anger away from the club after selling their best player to their most hated revivals. Long before Ferdinand’s agent handed in Rio’s transfer request, the decision had been made by the board to sell him if a suitable offer came in, and O’Leary’s departure was largely over this decision by the board. By claiming Rio let the club down by failing to honour his contract, Risdale sought to remove any of the anger that may have been directed towards him. He lied to the fans when he said that no bid had been received for Rio, and he lied when he said Rio wasn’t up for sale. The truth is Risdale always intended to sell Rio as a way of removing some of the debt he had allowed the club to get into. After the effect Eric Cantona had when he crossed the Pennines in ’92, Risdale is worried the sale of Rio may have a simil
ar effect, had has lied and deceived as a way of exonerating himself of any backlash from the Leeds United supporters. Rio Ferdiand is a quality addition to what is still a young Manchester United side. Fergussson has not only ensured that during his finally years in charge he has every chance to build on the record that has made him the most successful manager in the history of British football, but that the team will continue to be a dominant force in English and European football for years to come. Terry Venables has to find a replacement for Rio soon, and hope that he doesn’t need time to settle in at Leeds. The departure of Rio has clearly angered Leeds fans, and a failure to replace him will be unacceptable. The most documented transfer saga of the summer, largely due to the inactivity of a large number of clubs, it seems that the English centre back on one side of the Pennines will have more effect than the £30m on the other.
Last season the Premiership confirmed it status as second only to Spain in world domestic football. During the ‘70’s and ‘80’s English football was the weakest and least entertaining it had ever been. However, the development of better domestic players along with the acquisition of world class foreign players has seen English football arguably as strong as any time in its history. The league has never been harder to win and only teams with quality, commitment and luck can sustain a serious title challenge. Manchester United (5/4) Critics may argue last season was a disappointment for Manchester United, but they still finished third in the league and as one of the top four sides in Europe. Injuries and loss of form at key times, as well as six defeats at home cost United a record fourth championship in a row. The summer will see Ferguson create the last great side of his tenure with Irwin, Johnson, Van der Gouw, Rachubka and Wallwork on the way out, and May and Yorke set to join them. As the treble winning team begins to break up, it will be up to new players to take the club back to the pinnacle of domestic and European competition. Barthez took as much criticism as anyone, but by the end of the season his class had shone through. Individual mistakes proved costly in a defence that was constantly changed due to injury. Blanc, Gary Neville and Silvstre are top draw, and O’Shea and Brown are vastly talented, and must now fulfil their potential. Blanc took time to settle, but is the best defender at the club during Fergie’s time in charge and the defence will be based around his experience and leadership. The midfield is as good as any in Europe, although Beckham and Scholes had poor seasons and Veron was inconsistent. VanNistlerooy and Solskjear were the most effective forward partnership in the Premiership, although Forlan has yet to score, and Yorke is on his way out to Blackburn. Luke Steel
e is a long term signing in goal. The signing of one top quality centre half is imminent, with Ferdinand, Ayala, Hofland or Nesta looking the most likely targets. Yorke may be replaced up front, with cash strapped Fiorentina and Lazio looking to offload Nuno Gomez and Hernan Crespo respectively. It’s a measure of Ferguson’s success as a manager that last season was viewed as a disappointment. The last time United ended a season without a trophy, they went on to win the treble. There is no doubting the talent and desire of the players, and a few new faces may provide the catalyst for a fresh assault on the domestic and European competitions. Many players have to answer their critics, and there is no better way to do that than proving them wrong. Arsenal (13/8) Wenger has to face the fact that no Arsenal team has ever managed a period of sustained dominance. Arsenal were deserved champions last year, losing only 3 games in the league, undefeated away from home, and scoring in every game. However, Wenger faces a struggle to keep his squad together. Dixon has retired, with Adams, Keown and Seaman tipped to follow him. Luzchny is out of contract, and Veria is constantly tipped to leave the club. Wenger has turned Arsenal into one of the more entertaining teams in the division, proving a triumph for attacking football over the negative attritional tactics of Liverpool. Arsenal’s goalkeeping situation is unclear, with Seaman past his best and Wright not yet good enough to be first choice. Campbell, Lauren and Cole all impressed in the defence, but Arsenal look short of cover and need to sign one quality defender. In midfield, Veria, Ljundberg and Pires are class, but the likes of Parlour are nothing more than average, and there is a lack of depth in the squad. The sale of Petit left a gap in the centre of the park which is yet to be filled. Up front Henry is world class, but he needs support. B
ergkamp is on his way down, Jeffers and Wiltord are yet to perform consistently and Kanu isn’t good enough. Arsenal are reportedly interested in a number of players including Hofland, VanBommel, Cygan and Ferdinand, with the priority being the centre of defence and centre midfield. Arsenal’s season will depend on maintaining the consistency of last season. The main weakness in the Arsenal squad is the lack of quality in depth, and they were fortunate that key players such as Veria and Henry remained fit for most of the season. Having to sell key players means Wenger merely changes the personal of his squad rather than adding any depth to it. He will hope the development of Ashburton Grove doesn’t deplete his transfer funds for the coming season. The signing of two quality players may ensure the title stays in north London for another season. Liverpool (3/1) Houllier’s negative, defensive tactics brought the best out of a Liverpool squad which lacks the quality of Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United. A side which produces more than the sum of their individuals, Liverpool rely on getting ten men behind the ball and hitting sides on the break. After winning the plastic treble two seasons ago, Houllier has raised hopes of bringing the big time back to Merseyside. It may be boring to watch, but as long as it brings the prospect of success, Liverpool fans won’t mind. Dudeck has a lot to prove after being the worst goalkeeper at the World Cup Finals. This season will show whether he is a decent keeper, or whether last season he was performing above his ability. Hypia and Babbel are the class acts in a defence that plays well as a unit. However, since his arrival at the club, Liverpool have only once kept a clean sheet without Hypia in the side, and Liverpool have been fortunate that he has avoided injury in recent years, and any period on the side lines would undoubtedly end their season.
Hamman and Gerrard are the key performers in the midfield but they lack support. Murphy, Smicer and Berger aren’t good enough to be anything more than squad players. Owen is vital to the system running into the space behind the defence on the counterattack, but needs a better strike partner. Heskey is poor and Litmanen likely to leave due his lack of appearances. Houlliuer may need to invest this summer if Liverpool’s revival is to continue. Liverpool are too reliant on Hypia, Hamman and Owen, and need to add a couple of class players to the squad. Also, their Wimbledon long ball tactics are less effective against weaker teams who are less willing to commit men forward, so don’t leave the space behind the back four for Owen to run into. If Real Madrid are successful in signing Hamman Liverpool’s season is over before it has started. If not, it remains to be seen if Livepool’s one-dimensional tactics will be as successful as pervious years. Leeds United (16/1) Following O’Leary’s departure, and speculation over the sale of Rio Ferdinand, Leeds are rapidly imploding before the season has even begun. Leeds were guilty of believing the initial success could be built on simply by spending money, and O’Leary was sacked for failing to bring trophies to Ellland Road after £100m of investment. The sale of Ferdinand may be an ideal way of removing some of the club’s £70m of debt. The new manager will also struggle to keep the likes of Dacourt, Viduka, Kwell and Keane in Yorkshire. Leeds are a club who thrive from adversity and have a lot to prove following last seasons obvious disappointment. Leeds are solid in goal with the consistent Martyn and the talented Robinson between the sticks. The defence is based around Ferdinand, with Matteo, Woodgate, Mills, Kelly, Radebe and Harte forming an organised unit. The loss of Ferdinand will test the leadership qualities of the
remaining defenders on the squad. The Leeds midfield shows passion and commitment, but too frequently has insufficient quality to break down the best defences, and a top quality play maker, although necessary, is probably beyond the clubs resources at the current time. Viduka, Keane, Fowler, Smith and Bridges are all top quality forwards, although one of them will probably be sold before the season gets under way. Substantial additions to the squad are unlikely at the present time, although Jaap Stam has been talked of as a replacement for Ferdinand at around £10m. Leeds are struggling to live up to the promise they showed in Europe two seasons ago, and their failure to qualify for the Champions League this season was a major set back. The squad is full of young players who are gradually improving, but at times lacks quality going forward. Venebles urgently needs to begin the process of rebuilding a squad which may be deprived of some of its leading performers. Having gone backwards over the past two season, a change of management may be the impetus for a revival at Elland Road. Chelsea (18/1) For yet another season, Chelsea were consistently inconsistent. At times sublime, more often mediocre. Raneari built his reputation on getting the best out of ordinary players at Valenica. As yet, he has failed to realise the potential of a vastly talented Chelsea squad. Failure to qualify for the Champions League has serious financial implication for the club. As with anything Ken Bates touches, Chelsea Village has been a complete disaster, and the club are under pressure to reduce costs to bring the venture into profit. Chelsea’s financial structure is clearly intended for a club playing European football and further failure on the pitch may leave the current wage structure unsustainable. Cudicini was the best goalkeeper in the Premiership last season, with DeHoey and Bosnich adequate replacements. Chelsea at t
imes had the best defence in the league, based around Desailly, and with the rapidly improving Terry, Melchiot and Gallas outstanding at times. Petit and Lampard were impressive in the centre of the park, but Zenden and Gronkjear failed to produce the consistency expected of them. Hasslebaink and Gudjohnsen were immense all season, and were given support by Zola and Forsell. Chelsea are reportedly under pressure to sell players to clear some of the debt, with the strikers the most likely candidates to balance the books. Any further signings are largely dependent on selling to make the funds available. Dalla Bona has returned to Italy for £1m. Mendieta is a world class player, but talk of him moving to Chelsea may be unfounded. The current squad should be sufficient to take the squad into Europe. Many have doubted the commitment of many of the Chelsea squad who seem insufficiently motivated for games against lesser opposition, which has ended Chelsea’s title ambitions in recent seasons. Chelsea have made much progress in the last decade, but have struggled to sustained a title challenge. This season they must prove they are more than just a successful cup side and challenge for a top four finish. Newcastle United (33/1) After Bobby Robson exceeded expectations last season, Newcastle are again rated as the outsiders. Combining the experience of players such as Dabizas, Given, Speed and Shearer with younger players such as Dyer, Jenas and Bellamy proved an effective combination. Robson has to show his squad is strong enough to cope with both domestic and European football. The emphasis on British players has won Robson many plaudits, but at times leaves the squad one-dimensional in attack, although they finally broke there London jinx with a win at Highbury. Last seasons performance may have raised expectations, but realistically, the squad lacks the quality and depth to win the league. Given is solid
in goal and was in outstanding form last season. Dabizas, Elliot and O’Brian were consistent in defence, although only eight sides conceded more goals in the league last season, and the addition of Bramble should add more class to the back line. The midfield were superb going forward but too often left the defence exposed and need to provide better protection for the back four next season. In attack Newcastle combined the ability of Shearer to hold the ball up with the pace of Bellamy and Dyer running at defences, and only Arsenal and Manchester United scored more goals last season. Cort and Lua Lua still have to prove their ability to play at this level. Stadium developments have left the club more than £60m in debt, leaving Newcastle unable to compete with the transfer funds available to the other top managers although the club may further strengthen the squad to build on the success of the last few seasons. Robson has spent money well and has assembled a young squad who are constantly improving. The team is better than Kegan’s entertainers, and Robson is unlikely to walk away when the pressure gets too much, but the side are faced with much tougher competition than in ’96. When the English league saw its greatest development in years, Newcastle stood still and are only just catching up. There are still insufficient players progressing through the youth system, a legacy of Kegan’s decision to abolish the reserve team at the club. The transformation under Robson has been remarkable, but the club may have reached the limits of its progress under the clubs current resources.
Leeds United is a club which hasn’t been short of difficulties in recent years. Disciplinary problems on and off the field have made running the club increasing difficult. Bowyer, Batty, Smith, Dacourt and Mills are regular visitors to the FA and Bowyer and Woodgate went one better ending up in court. However, the team seemed likely to implode when David O’Learly was sacked as manager of the club. The board realised the mistake in appointing an inexperienced and inadequate manager, but not before the club were left heavily in debt, and without a single trophy to show for £100m of player investment. Terry Venable’s has been left with fans and a board demanding trophies, no money with which to strengthen a squad which is weaker than their nearest rivals, and the prospect of having to sell his best players to reduce significant debt. The two years of his current contract will confirm whether Leeds are one of England’s leading clubs, or whether they will join the likes of Aston Villa who realistically have little chance of competing for major honours. Leeds had one of the most effective defences in the league last season. Goalkeeping hasn’t been a major problem for Leeds with Martyn consistent between the posts, and Robinson showing potential as a future England keeper. Based around Ferdinand, the defence played well as a unit. Rio is class but, as individuals, the rest of the club’s defenders have less natural ability. Leeds may have to start the season without Ferdinand after he submitted a transfer request. Stam and Hofland have been talked of as replacements and, if Rio leaves, a leader in the centre of defence will have to be brought in. Leeds look also set to lose Michael Dubery who has had to cope with tension with Lee Bowyer and a chronic lack of talent. After appearing in a documentary on the effect of foreigners in English football claiming his progress at Chelsea was damaged by foreign defenders,
he has failed to gain a place in the Leeds defence comprising two English centre halves. Without Ferdinand the Leeds defence is a collection of average players who lack genuine class and may struggle to play well as a unit without the organisation and leadership or Rio. The midfield is one of the most competitive in the league. However, it lacks creativity. Dacourt, Batty and Johnson all play well as aggressive holding midfielders, Kewell can run with the ball and Bowyer gets important goals from midfield. However, there is no quality playmaker in the side, and there is little link up play between the midfield and the forwards. Against the stronger defences, Leeds have lacked imagination when the direct approach has failed. Pushing Kelly and Smith into the midfield has often effected the shape of the side. The workrate and commitment is quality but there simply isn’t the natural ability that is needed at the highest level. Bowyer looks set to depart to Liverpool, removing the only consistent goal threat from midfield, Dacourt has been frequently linked with moved to Italy and Batty is well past his best. Leeds have the chance to rebuild the midfield, but the money to bring in the quality players needed may not be available. Leeds have been unable to compete with Manchester United and Arsenal in the league because their midfield is greatly inferior, and any revival under Venables will need a reorganisation in the centre of the park. The forward line is Leeds’ strongest asset with five first team forwards. Viduka and Fowler have worked well as a partnership, and Smith’s aggression can be an asset to the team. Keane has failed to settle at the club and has been linked with a move to Sunderland, and injuries have made Bridges’ future at the club uncertain. Leeds may look to sell at least one forward to bring in revenue to strengthen other areas of the team. However, Leeds don’t have a genuine world class
forward available to them unlike Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea. Fowler has to improve on his all-round game, and too often Viduka puts in average performances. Keane is the most talented forward at the club, but has never been able to score goals consistently at club level, even when playing in Division One. Leeds need a Hasslebaink or a VanNistelrooy to challenge for the title, not Michael Bridges. Arguably Leeds have been overachieving in recent years considering Ferdinand is the only member of the squad who could claim to be world class. Like the Leeds side of the 70’s, passion, commitment and aggression has seen them overcome their deficiency in talent. However, the league is much stronger than it used to be, and to win the league you have to combine aggression with quality. Too many of the Leeds squad are average players who lack the quality needed at the highest level. Arguably the current squad has reached as far as it can under the present playing staff. The money was available to develop the team, and securing Dacourt and Viduka for around £10m was effective use of resources. However, since then a lot of money has been wasted, with Keane and Johnson failing to justify significant transfer fees. Leeds have also been unable to bring the quality players for small fees like Solskjear or Veria, and the youth set up hasn’t produced the quality players that Liverpool and Manchester United have enjoyed. Now the money isn’t available to compete for international players, and Leeds may find more ambitious clubs are stronger than them this season. Unfortunately Leeds have spent £100m on players and failure to qualify for the Champions League has left the club needing to find £60m. Clearly players will have to be sold to make up the shortfall, with Bowyer, Keane, Dacourt and Ferdinand looking the most likely departures from Elland Road. However, selling the team’s main assets will take the club backwards
especially when the money isn’t there to replace them. The board made the mistake of giving a poor and inexperienced manager the budget of a club competing in Europe before entrance could be guaranteed. The decision to build a new stadium may also be a mistake considering the current position of the club. Considering in the mid-90’s attendance’s dropped, the board must be aware that failure to compete for trophies may see a similar decline in support. The Leeds board are obviously ambitious, but have attempted to expand the club too quickly, and the development is currently unsustainable. The club will have to rebuild without the previous resources that were available for O’Leary to waste, and currently they look as far from winning the league as they have been since ’92.
As the world cup looms, and with the current spate of injuries to key England players, it may seem that Sven’s 23 to travel to Japan and Korea will be an automatic choice of the only 23 fit players who qualify to play for England. However, in the hope everyone is fit, this the 23 players who won’t free to make a Rio Ferdinand style ‘I know who you did last summer’ home video in Ayia Napa this summer. Goalkeepers: David Seaman Injury prone and past his best, but the big Yorkshireman is still England’s best hope between the sticks. Will need to prove his fitness, and show consistency until the end of the season, but the lack of credible alternatives will guarantee him the keepers jersey Nigel Martyn Another consistent season has confirmed him as one of the most reliable keepers in the premiership. However, he lacks genuine international class and, like Seaman, is moving towards the end of his career. He may soon be replaced by Paul Robinson both for club and country, but his valuable experience will make him first choice should Seaman’s fitness let him down. David James Since his early days when most people believed he was continuing the Anfield traditional of keepers getting paid to let goals in to fix matches, James’ performances have finally began to match his potential. He is now playing at his peak, has got a lot of practice in this season behind poor West Ham defence, and fully justifies a place in the England set up. Takes his place ahead of young prospects like Kirkland, Wright and Robinson who have spent most of the season on the bench or in the reserves. Its highly unlikely a third keeper will ever play in a world cup anyway, so James might as well pack is Playstation 2 ahead of his keeping gloves. Defenders: Sol Campbell After a shaky start to the season, struggling for form and fitness, Sol has finally settled in a
t Arsenal, and has been one of the best defender in the league this season. England’s best centre back has been the mainstay of the defence for the last few years and should be an automatic choice if fit. Martin Keown Keown continues to defy his age, with unusual speed to add to his experience and vast defensive ability. Injuries have interrupted his season, and the Arsenal defence has been less the impressive at times when he has been playing alongside Campbell. However, he is a proper English centre half, and can be relied upon as a stopper whilst leaving it to others to show the flair. Rio Ferdinand Vastly overpriced at £18m, but O’Dreary has converted some of his massive potential into genuine ability. Still suffers lapses in concentration, but has become more reliable as his career has developed. This may be the tournament when he finally announces himself as an international quality player. Gary Neville One of England’s most senior players, and a potential stand in captain, Neville has been a permanent fixture at right back for his country since Euro 96. His experience in major club and international matches will be invaluable in the big games for England. Wayne Bridge A player who has impressed by his consistency, playing every minute of the last 85 games for his club, Bridge’s impressive debut for England confirmed he has the ability to play international football. Inexperienced at this level is irrelevant considering the lack of naturally left sides players in the England set up and despite the pressure on a player finding his feet in international football, Sven has few realistic alternatives. Phil Neville Despite not being a club regular, his versatility and experience make his a vital component of the England squad. Hopefully Sven won’t need to play him, but if the squad picks up injuries, he is a reliable performer in a number of positions. In tourna
ments with a small squad and a high chance of picking up injuries, players who can cover a number of positions are vital, and there is no better the Neville for Sven to pick from. Gareth Southgate A superb season of Boro will have impressed Sven. He doesn’t have the genuine class of many the of the centre halves England will come up against. However, there a few more reliable defenders in England, and is dependable if called upon. Ashley Cole Much has been made of the fact the Cole possess virtually no defensive ability whatsoever. Ever going forward, he is the best attacking naturally left sided player available to England. His best position could well be on the wing, where his defensive failings would be less exposed. Provides valuable cover in a problem area for England in recent years and should recover in injury in time to be an integral part of England’s summer. Midfielders Paul Scholes The biggest goal threat in the England midfield, and one of only 2 genuine world class players in the England squad. Has hit is top form right at the end of the season after a slow start, which can only be good news for England, and has been rested at the right times to prevent burn out before the world cup. England’s prospects this summer will largely revolve around Scholes’ pivotal role in the middle of the park. David Beckham Sven will hope Beckham’s foot recovers sufficiently for him to lead the side in Japan and Korea. Even is unavailable for the group stages, England should take him in the hope he can play some part should England progress to the knock out phase. England can still put up a respectable showing without him, but the world class ability he possess will be required if England are to have any realistic hope of challenging the later stages. Nicky Butt Injury to Roy Keane has give Butt a final chance to impress Sven before he has to nam
e his squad. England would be wise to take a lesson from a few of Manchester United’s European games where Butt has played a holding role in midfield, sitting on world class playmakers and preventing them from getting into the game. Against sides like Argentina, England may think about playing him alongside Scholes to offer more protection to the back four, than someone like Gerard, who’s ability to play balls into space will be less necessary in games where England are likely to be on the defensive. Steven Gerard A disappointing season for Gerard who, although putting most of his injury trouble behind him, has failed to progress much from the player we saw last season. He has shown an ability to play perfect passes to the front men, and score crucial goals, but his overall contribution to the team and consistency throughout the season are still far below that which many people expected of him. Gerard only has to look at PFA nominess Roy Keane and Patrik Veria to see how far away he is from becoming a world class midfielder. A has great talent, but he really has to start putting in consistent match winning performances to justify the hype around his future. Owen Hargreaves A key performer in the midfield of one of the best club sides in the world should be a certain member of the England squad. Has yet to be given a chance to show what he can do for England, but already has the medals to prove his talent. He is the closest England have to a Keane or a Veria, and is learning alongside one of the best in the world in Effenburg. Keiran Dyer Despite a serious of injuries and a lack of match practice, his versatility and potential will warrant his place on Sven’s plane. He is one of the few England players with the ability to run at defence, and provides a genuine goal threat from behind the front two. His performances for England have been poor, but now Keegan is gone and a proper manager has taken
over, Dyer should perform to his potential, and no longer have to play right back. Joe Cole Has failed to show why so much has been written about him over the last 2 years. 1 deflected goal and 1 assist is a poor season bettered even by me as a half rate centre back. He shows endeavour and great technical ability, but he simply isn’t producing the end product yet. However, he is vastly confident, and will be able to cope with the pressure if Sven has to rely on him at any stage of the tournament David Dunn The fitness problems surrounding Beckham, Dyer and Gerard mean England should take extra midfield cover instead of a 5th striker. Dunn has little experience, and has his own injury problems at the moment. However, he has the potential to be a quality player, won’t let England down if called into action, and even if he doesn’t play, the experience of going to a world cup will come in useful for a player who is bound to be part of the England set up in future years. Strikers: Michael Owen Certain to start up front for England, he is the one quality forward in an England set up which lacks genuine quality front men. Missed 5 easy chances over the 2 quarter final legs of the European Cup, but he may just be pulling back to ensure he is fit for the summer. England will rely on him as the main goals threat against some one the best defenders around. Playing against Ayala and Samuels in the group game against Argentina will be a key contest if England are to make it out of the group stages. Robbie Fowler By far the best natural goal scorer available to Sven, Robbie’s career is back on track after a successful move to Leeds. As long as gets the right service he find the back of the net on a regular basis. Considering teams get few chances at this level, someone who makes sure to convert any chance that come his way is essential. Teddy Sheringham Althoug
h inherently lazy, the hot humid conditions may suit man who would take 3 weeks to finish the London marathon. Will add some intelligence with his link up play, and is suited to playing alongside someone with Owen’s pace. Darius Vassell Despite lacking experience for his country, and goals for his club, Sven would be better taking someone with genuine class like Vassell who may announce himself on the world’s biggest stage, as Owen managed in 98. If called upon, he has the ability to do something special that might just make the difference in an important game. Providing fitness, my England team would line up as follows: GK Seaman RB G.Neville CB Campbell CB Ferdinand LB Bridge RW Beckham CM Butt/Gerard CM Scholes LW Dyer CF Owen CF Fowler Finally, the players who should join the 1,000 suspected hooligans and have their passports confiscated to prevent them going anywhere near Japan or Korea Emile Heskey Unfortunately it seems that Emile may in fact be in the far east this summer. However, anyone who fancies England’s chances this year must seriously consider how a side can expect to do well at international level playing someone up front who exhibits all the skill of a sack of potatoes. Just with less pace. Two comments directed at Geoff Thomas and Carlton Palmer respectively describe Heskey quite adequately. He kicks the ball further when trying to control if than at any other time during his career. It looks like he covers every blade of grass during a game, but that’s only because his first touch is c**p. But if Heskey can play for so can I. There’s a song there somewhere. Greame LeSaux Left leg can kick the ball. Unfortunately that left leg is attached to an petulant, short tempered, objectionable little t**t called LeSaux. Being a complete t**t should keep him away from the England set up,
but lucky injury has made sure he won’t be appearing in an England jersey this summer. Equally, he needs his head kicking in, and there’s more chance of that happening if he stays in England. Jamie Carragher For so long a chronic lack of talent prevented Jamie from representing his country. Unfortunately, as part of the new deal to work initiative, this skilless, talentless scouser was allowed a place in the England squad. A utility player who has mastered playing a number of positions badly, he is a liability, and shouldn’t be in the Liverpool side, let alone the national team. Alan Smith Despite all his enthusiasm, the simple fact is that Smith isn’t an international striker. However, that never stopped Emile Heskey. Unfortunately, his disciplinary record makes him a liability, especially with the ultra strict standards of world cup referring. Alan Shearer Despite making to clear he is retired from international, a few penalties and tap ins for Newcastle this season has left certain sections of the media calling for him to return to play for England. It seems some people have forgotten already just how bad he was at the end of his international career, and how is moods and selfishness brought the rest of the side down. Has successfully brought his complete lack of personality and charisma to football punditry.
First, I have to say this excellent idea for an opinion wasn’t mine. I borrowed it form Martint1983, who selected Banks – Pearce, Moore, Butcher – Gazza, Ball, Beckam, Matthews – Charlton, Linekar, Hurst as the greatest playes ever to wear the three lions. Of course, like most football discussions, we will never agree on what the greatest England side is. Geoff Hurst, who has seen more England teams than most of us picked Banks – Neville, Adams, Moore, Wilson – Finney, Charlton, Robson, Edwards – Shearer, Greaves. My personal opinion is best on a mixture of players I have been lucky to see play, and those masters who had hung up their boots long before I was even born and is as follows: Goalkeepeer - Gordon Banks – Remembered most for his diving save across the goal form Pele’s header in 1970, he was immense between the sticks during what was the most successful period for English football. Not a big man, but with superb agility, bravery, and a save pair of hands his excellence thwarted some of the best strikers there as ever been. Career cut shut by the emergence of Peter Shilton and Leicester, and a car accident at Stoke, but still managed a number of excellent seasons in America playing with sight in only one eye. Right centre back – Duncan Edwards – Remained the youngest player to play for England for over 40 years until Mickey Owen made is debut in 1998, he was a boy against men, playing like a man against boys. The finest player ever to play for Manchester United, and one of the finest ever to play for England, he tragically died at the age of 21. One of the best players in England in any position he choose, he was the best all round player this nation ever produced. Huge in build, fearsome tackler, supreme dribbler and with a powerful shot in either foot, he was a once in a life time player. Would have been 29 in 1966, playing in his prime, and would surely
have captained England in their finest hour. Centre back – Bobby Moore – Lacking any pace, size or strength, Moore didn’t have the makings of one of the greatest centre halfs of all time. However, what he lacked physically, he made up for with a reading of the game that has yet to be surpassed. Rated by Pele as the best defender he ever faced, Moore played at his peak in the finest England team of all time. Left centre back – Tony Adams – Inspirational leader, and passionate footballer who’s lack natural skill was made up for with a no nonsense approach to defending. A true ‘stopper,’ he used his height, strength and excellent reading of the game from a young age to establish himself at the heart of one of the best club defences in the history of English club football. He lacked the ability to distribute the ball effectively, and he had personal problems that derailed his career for a time, but as a defender he was a class act and was unfortunate to peak at a time when England as a team had gone into decline. Left wing – Tom Finney – Similar to Stanley Matthews, he was a vastly talented winger in the days when kicking lumps out of each other was the preferred way to play. Played in the days when footballers played for the love of the game, and so received little financial reward for his genius, unlike today where a mediocrity such as Steve Macmanaman can earn a small fortune. Bagged 30 goals in 76 games, a superb return playing on the wing. Centre midfield – Bryan Robson (c) – One of the finest, most committed, passionate midfielders ever the grace the game, and an inspirational captain. Covered every blade of grass on the field, regularly the last line of defence, and scoring crucial goals with his late runs into the box. One of the fiercest and most courageous tacklers of his generation. Paid for is bravery with regular injuries, and could have
risen to even greater heights than he did. Remains the best player England have ever had controlling at game and, 10 years on, England have yet to find anyone who comes close to filling his boots. Attacking midfield – Bobby Charlton – England’s leading goal scorer of all time with 49 goals in 106 internationals and a top bloke to match. Was said to lack bravery and willingness to tackle, but possessed a great footballing brain and a thunderous shot from distance. Great range of passing, and the ability to find space with ease, he was the perfect link between the midfield and the strikers. Still a great ambassador for the English game today, he could star in any side there ever has, or ever will, play. Centre midfield – Paul Gasscoigne – Career was sadly a case of what might have been and wasted potential, but still one of the finest creative midfielders to have graced the football pitches of England. Immense range of passing, the ability to run at players, and great shooting from range, he had the ability to tear any defence apart. Let down by a desperately flawed personality, he never reached the heights he should have scaled, but still brought enjoyment to many, and should be remembered for what he gave, not how much more he could have given. Right wing – Stanley Matthews – Sublimely talented winger in the days when ridiculously heavy boots, and bog pitches made dribbling near impossible. Immense standards of fitness allowed him to play top level football into his 50’s. Not always the most skilful winger of his generation, but certainly the most effective, if he played today with supremely light boots, bowling green pitches, and protection from referees, he would be unstoppable. Striker – Jimmy Greaves – Arguably the most natural finisher England has ever produced, he was an out and out goal scorer. Like most strikers he was dependent on those around him to
win the ball then create goal scoring opportunities, but when they came he rarely missed. Scored an outstanding 44 goals in just 57 international appearances. Striker – Gary Linekar – England’s most prolific goal poacher, bagging 48 international goals in 80 games. Lacked ability in link up play, and often accused of lack of bravery in his heading, he made up for it with clinical finishing. Pacey, and with the ability to always be in the right place at the right time, he was the ultimate goal poacher. Relied on others to make him chances, and would have been near useless without the likes of Beardsly around him, but England has had no one better to put the ball between the sticks when it came his way. And just to create a bit of an argument, I thought I’d pick the worst XI players to play for England in recent years. Goalkeeper – David James – Liverpool sold calamity James when they realised he was making more mistakes than Grobbelar who was being paid to let in goals. Poor on crosses, useless handling, and no positional ability, he is a master of making the simple things look hard. Right back – Kieron Dyer – Obviously played out of position by King Kev which didn’t help, but Dyer was pathetic in an England shirt. Useless at defending, useless going forward, he took ineptness to a new level. Centre back – Steve Howey – So bad a player, he can’t even star in the City defence. Injuries and a chronic lack of ability ended his England career but, no matter how bad you are, there’s always a place for you at City. A fat, slow, useless lump, he has truly found his sole mate in Richard Dunne. Centre back – Rio Ferdinand –.With Adams, Southgate, Keown and Cambell playing so well England have had few bad centre backs. Rio gets in the side mainly because he is the only English centre back who doesn’t instinctive
ly boot the ball over the strand when it comes to his feet. However, he has a real problem concentrating for more than 30 seconds at a time, and should spent more time working on his career as a film director, where his work is vastly more entertaining than his football. Left back – Ashley Cole – If he moved to the left wing he’d be a top player, with his ability to run at players and whip in crosses. However, lacking any defensive ability is a distinct problem for a left back. A liability who’s dismissal against Majorca was long over due. Right wing – Darren Anderton – Fortunately, injuries have restricted sick note #1 from representing his country on more occasions. Not really gifted with any natural talent, he doesn’t even manage to play to the best of his own limited ability. Centre midfield – Jamie Redknapp – An average club player, who looked lost and confused when thrown into international football. Steven Gerrard has more talent in his left testicle than Jamie has in his entire body, and will deny sick note #2 from every playing for his club again, let along his country. Centre midfield – Dennis Wise – Talentless little runt, liked by few, despised by many. Had the unique ability to disappear for entire games, yet was always at the centre of every argument or fight that broke out. Luckily for fans of football, he was suspended for half his career. Left wing – Steve Macmanaman – Playing in a Real Madrid team full of world class players disguises the fact that Macca is bereft of any footballing ability whatsoever. However, whilst wearing the three lions it is clear just how useless he is. His inclusion in the England squad is merely an FA policy to encourage young kids to become professional footballers. If Macca can earn £80,000 a week and play for England then anyone can. Striker – Dion Dublin – Has a p
roblem with goal scoring which is often a hindrance for a striker. No pace, no skill, clumsy and with poor finishing ability, he has none of the qualities needed for to score goals at international level. Striker – Matt LeTissier – Winning the Southampton annual pie eating contest, and the odd goal of the month contest was the limit of Matt’s ambition. In his few brief England appearances he showed why he was best staying a big, fat, over weight fish, in a small pond.
After UEFA’s recent attempt to nominate the best players in Europe, he is my effort to compile the best team the world has to offer, who are unlikely to ever play in the same side together, and also the worst team the world has been inflicted with, who can in fact be seen playing every week. The best 11 footballers in the world on current form: Goalkeeper – Fabien Barthez (Manchester United and France) – For my money, there are only two truly world class keepers in the world at the moment, Barthez and Oliver Khan, with Barthez just shading it. Prolific short-stopper, and equally competent on crosses, make him the best keeper in the world at the present time. His real selling point is his superb distribution, becoming an key player in starting attacks. Acts as a fifth defender at times, with his speed off his line. A true entertainer, with skill on the ball far beyond most midfielders. The only person thus far to kick a ball over the roof of the new Stretty. Right back – Lillian Thuram (Juventus and France) – Combines the defensive capabilities of top class centre back, along with the skill of a winger. Plays equally well in the centre of defence, although you waste his attacking skill by in this role. Tall, strong and fast, he has a sound reading of the game, is comfortable in possession and running and players, and can cross well. Left back – Bixente Lizarazu (Bayern Munich and France) – Best left back in the world by a long way. Combines the attacking flair of Roberto Carlos with the defensive ability of Paulo Maldini in his prime. In his thirties now, but still has superb pace and stamina which allow him to function as a genuine wing back. Centre back – Roberto Ayala (Valencia and Argentina) – The Argentina defender and captain was voted the best defender in Europe last season. The rock on which one of the tightest defences in European club football has
been built on, he is a class act who’s ability on the ball is better than most centre halfs. Valencia have put a £36m price tag on his head and, if Buffon can go for that much money, then Ayala is a bargain. At the age of 26, his best years should still be ahead of him. Centre back – Jaap Stam (Lazio and Holland) – Time will tell whether his ‘legs have gone,’ but at full fitness there is non better. Europe’s best defender for 2 of the last 3 years, he is the hardest defender to play against in European football. Huge, strong, a quick turn of pace and an outstanding reading of the game make him able to deal with any opponent. Centre midfield – Roy Keane (c) (Manchester United and Ireland) – The best player in the premiership, and one of the best in the world. No where is there a more passionate or committed player. Crunching tackles, sound range of passing, and the ability to carry the ball make him a vital component of any side. Inspirational leader and captain who is unrivalled in his ability to lift and motivate sides. Centre midfield - Juan Sebestian Veron (Manchester United and Argentina) – One of the few players in the world who can combine creativity with aggression at the highest level. His skill alone is worth the entrance money to see, he is one of the best play makers around, shoots well from range, and can mix it with anyone in the middle of the park. Centre midfield – Zineadine Zidane (Real Madrid and France) - Best player in the world at the moment, although Real paid over the odds for him considering his age and the number of seasons they will get out of him. Brilliant play maker who has the ability to find space like no body else, through his sublime range of passing and excellent movement. Goes missing when the tackles start flying, but, with Veron and Keane in the team, no body will notice. Attacking midfield – Rivaldo (
Barcelona and Brazil) – One of the few players worthy of wearing the Barce and Brazil shirts, in what is a comparatively lean time for club and country. Tremendously skilful player, with an immense scoring rate playing behind the strikers, and the ability to create goals for others. His passion and commitment can be questioned, and you are unlikely to see him getting stuck in very often, but he brings creativity and flair to any side. Also the best free kick taker in the world right now, with his perfectly placed swinging left footers near-impossible to keep out. Attacking midfield – Luis Figo (Real Madrid and Portugal) – His ability to carry the ball and run at players brings a new dimension to any side. He has a decent goal scoring record finishing off his runs, real pace and skill to get past players. Tears defences apart and creates chances for colleagues he is one of the most attack minded players in world football, and one of the most effective. Striker – Patrick Kluviert (Holland and Barcelona) – Not the most clinical finisher around right now, but easily the most complete striker. His height and strength make him effective in the air. He can shoot with either foot, has pace, and can score goals both inside and outside the box. At the age of 25 he still has a lot to learn, and is becoming a more prolific goal scorer all the time. The best man to put away the plethora of chances this side would create. And, remarkably similar to my worst team in last seasons premiership, here are the current players I consider the worst to ever or never grace the international scene. Manager – ***king kev (Manchester City) – With a CV which includes total ineptitude at domestic and international level its good to know that Stockport’s finest are in safe hands. 1) Nicky Weaver (Manchester City and England) – What more can be said about the fat reject from W
estlife. It would be hard to blame all City’s failure on him, but then its almost impossible to make the mistakes he made. 2) Laurent Chavert (Manchester City and France) – One of the worst players I have ever had the misfortune to see. Bobby Robson must have been laughing when Potatohead agreed to pay money for him. Unbelievably ***king kev hasn’t shown him the door. 3) Stuart Pearce (Manchester City and England) – Signed primarily because he is one of the few current footballers to remember the last time City won owt. Odds would be against him ever seeing City win owt again. Was past it in the days when Martin Buchan was busy ending Colin Bell’s career. He’s still a better left back than Ashely Cole will ever be though. 4) Spencer Prior (ex-Manchester City and England) – Big-name deadline day signing last season. Achieved consistent levels of mediocrity and ineptitude throughout a distinguished career of getting his team relegated. Recently moved to Cardiff to pursue a career in football hooliganism, something he is vastly more suited to then playing premier league football. 5) Richard Dunne (Manchester City and England) – Although cunningly disguised as a Sunday league playing brick layer, Dunne is in fact a top class defender to base your entire defence around. Or at least according to Potatohead. Any wonder they went down? 6) Alf Inge Haland (c) (Manchester City and Norway) – A bitter, half-rate useless carthorse who can play equally ineptly in either defence or midfield . Who better to captain the side? 7) The Goat (Manchester City and Bermuda) – Quite possibly Bermuda’s most famous footballer. Quite clearly division one’s least talented footballer. At least he has his looks to fall back on. 8) Jeff Whitley (Manchester City and England) – Most decent central midfielders have either flair or aggression. Jeff
has neither. Was fundamental in establishing the drink ethic within the side, making City the best pub side in England though. 9) Shaun Wright-Philips (Manchester City and England) – Shaun is the new Pele according to City fans. Just a shame this clinical finisher hasn’t been able to find the net yet in what is approaching his third season as a City player. 10) Danny Tiato (Manchester City and Australia) – Completely bereft of any footballing ability whatsoever. A dirty, objectionable little runt as well. 11) Paul Dickov (Manchester City and Scotland) – Despite having the strike rate of a goalkeeper, Paul has indeed spent his entire career playing as a striker. It was funny when he got send off last season for being assaulted by Pistone though.
Of the current squad no one epitomises the spirit of Manchester United more than Paul Scholes. The ultimate professional, dedicated, passionate and committed, he is the type of player who makes a managers life easy. Committed to the red cause, and vastly gifted, and always working to improve his game he is one of the most popular players at the club. Strangely, his future was not always at Old Trafford. Back in 1995 when Scholesy was still playing as a striker, Fergie offered him in a player plus money deal to bring Wolves defender Dean Richards to Manchester. Luckily Wolves turned the deal down, and the two players have seen their careers go in vastly opposite directions. He is now one of the most valuable and coveted midfielders in Europe with a price tag in excess of £30m. Besides his vast talent, he is also a supremely modest man who lets his football do the talking. He is easily the most complete English midfielder around right, and one of the best in his position in Europe. Of past players, he is most like Bobby Charlton in his style of play, and attitude to the game. He started life as a striker, but a lack of size and no real searing pace saw him fall back into the centre of midfield where the departure of Charlie and Robbo gave him the perfect opportunity to make a name for himself alongside Keano. He has great stamina to cover every blade of grass on the pitch, the ability to carry the ball well, and a superb range of passing. He is a passionate and frequent, although not always clinical, tackler, able to mix it with anyone in the middle of the park. Further up the field, he hits blistering drives from the edge of the area, and is the scorer of many superb goals. As a shy and modest man, he doesn’t get the respect his talent deserves, and it is only recently that people have started to notice that Scholesy is one of the best in the game. As the most complete midfielder in England he has few flaws. The main weakn
ess in his game his is over-exuberant tackling which can get out of hand, giving away free kicks in dangerous areas. Its hard to berate a player for his passion and commitment, but he does go over the top, picking up needless bookings. The other problem is that it is impossible to know where to play him. Playing him in a forward position get the maximum goal return, but you lose out on his runs from deep, and range of passing. Playing him in the holding role allows him more possession, but less chances on goal. He isn’t a vocal player, isn’t a potential captain, and needs to play in a team with the likes of Roy Keane who can motivate the side when things aren’t going well. However, it is churlish to even begin to criticise his game. Although not the corner stone of the Manchester United side, he has been a vital member of the team for the past 5 years, and should play a crucial role for the next 5 years. Having built his career as a midfielder dominating the middle of the park, the arrival of Juan Sebestian Veron may seem him progress further up the park. Having started football as a striker, he has vastly more goal scoring talent than his returns would suggest. Playing in the ‘hole’ behind the striker, providing a link from midfield may prove to be his most effective position. Taking on the role Cantona played for the club, and a position occupied by the likes of Rivaldo and Zidane could see Scholesy lads game develop to a new level. It will allow him to use his full range of passing, make runs from deep, shoot from the edge of the box, and get into the area for close range efforts. His talents are rather wasted having to play a holding role in midfield, and this new role may seem him progress to the ranks of the very best players in the world. He has been England’s best and most consistent player since the ‘98 world cup when he was given greater responsibility in midfield. His 13 internationa
l goals represents a superb return for a player in his position, and he joins an elite group of players who have bagged an international hat trick at Wembley. If England are to develop further under Erkison, it will be up to Scholes, along with Beckham and Gerrard, to take them there. England have a wealth of midfield talent, and Scholes may eventually push forward where options are more limited, in the same role he is playing for his club. Whatever position he plays, he is vital to England as the attacking lynchpin and if he stays free from injury could join the few England greats with over 100 caps for their country. It is inconceivable that Scholsey would play his club football anywhere other than Old Trafford. Part of what makes this club so good is that Manchester lads like Schoes, Brown, Butt, Giggs and the Nevilles, who love this club as much as anyone on the terraces, are the nucleus of the side. Manchester United Football Club runs through Scholesy’s veins, and it would be impossible to get rid of him even if you wanted to. He is already part of the most successful side in the clubs history, and has every chance of adding to his already enviable medal collection. Like Roy Keane, he missed the European Cup final in the Nou Camp, and privately he has admitted that he won’t be satisfied until he gets to play in another final. Scholesy has the talent to be one of the games greats as one of the best players in Europe as he approaches his prime. The impression you get up Paul Scholes is an incredibly content and happy man. He is doing a job he loves at the club he loves in front of the people who love him. He recently signed a new contract that will keep him at Old Trafford to the end of his career, is married to a beautiful woman who recently have birth to his second child, and he has ample time to work on his handicap. The desire is still there to win medals though, especially the European Cup which he missed out on in
’99, so there is no danger of complacency setting in. With a desire burning as brightly as ever, and part of one of the most talented squads in Europe, he may win more medals in the second half of his career than he managed in his first. To sum up Paul Scholes perfectly, I have to lift a quote from opta.co.uk. “While the TV camera's focus on the Beckhams', the microphones are pushed under the noses of the Owens' and the Ginolas' of the world rush off to do another hair advert, there are a number of players plying their trade who simply get on with the job.” Nuff said.
Looking back on the last decade of English cricket there is very little to be proud of. However, one of the few consolations to the English cricket fan has been the service Michael Atherton has given to the international game. After captaining Manchester Grammar School for 3 years and playing for Lancashire since 1987, he made is test debut in 1989, a few months after leaving Cambridge. Since then he has been the mainstay of the England batting line up his position at the top of the innings jeopardised only by injury. His test record stands him as statistically one of the greatest test players of all time. Few players can claim to have been more important to their side than Atherton is to England. As he comes to the end of his career he lives a large void at the top of the innings which will take some replacing. In world cricket, Atherton has been one of the most gifted and technically correct batsman of the last decade. As well as his natural ability, he also has immense powers of determination, concentration and graft that allow him to maximise his potential. He is the only current England batsman who puts the highest possible price on his wicket, forcing bowlers to get him out, as opposed to getting himself out, as is the case for every other English batsman. He began as an aggressive shot playing batsman, but playing in a succession of mediocre sides has forced him to become a defensive accumulator of runs. His innings lack the flair of Lara or Tendulka but, like Steve Waugh, he more than makes up for it in technique and determination. He is equally comfortable against pace or spin, plays well on both sides of the wicket and through the V, and deals comfortably with full of short pitched bowling. Athers possess the incredible bravery and bottle needed to open the innings against aggressive fast bowlers bowling at upwards of 90 mph. He has no obvious weakness to his game, other than a fallibility to full balls in the corridor of uncertainty
outside the off stump that are angled but hold their line, which are unplayable by any batsman. Athers is also an exceptionally gifted slip fielder, and was a promising leg spinner in the early years of his career. What stands him out from any other English batsman is that he has worked at his game to refine his technique and has applied himself to make the best use of his natural ability. He is also a great captain in a sport where leadership qualities are more important than most. He has captained England in 54 test matches, more than any other player. Athers is more of a thinking captain than an openly motivational one. His overall record as captain is hardly enviable, and he eventually stepped down as captain after media pressure following poor performances. However, it must be remembered that he has had the misfortune to captain some of the worst test sides England has ever produced. The fact that England managed to win as many test as they did is a testament to the way Athers has made use of the limited resources available to him. Without doubt, Athers has been the best English batsman on the 1990’s, and the only one who deserves any credit after 1995 when Graham Gooch retired. He has 7625 test runs, making him the 4th highest English test run scorer, and the 10th highest run scorer of all time. He has 16 test hundreds and 46 fifties. His average of 38.31 is nothing special, but doesn’t show his importance to England. For much of the 90’s, a good England total depended on Atherton making a big score at the top of the innings. His finest hour was his unbeaten 185 versus SA at Johannesburg in 1995, batting for 643 minutes against the pace and aggression of Donald and Pollock in the 4th longest innings in test history and the longest ever rearguard action by and English batsman. His duels with some of the games great fast bowlers such as Walsh, Ambrose, Donald and McGrath are the most memorable moments from w
hat has been a poor decade for English cricket. In sharp contrast, Athers from wearing the red rose of Lancashire has been hugely disappointing. Making his debut in 1987, and receiving his county cap in 1989, he has been part of the successful one-day team that could never put a consistent run of form together in the county championship. He has over 10,000 county championship runs at an average of 44.73 with a top score of 268*, and took 61 wickets at 38.67 a piece until a back injury ended his career as a leg spinner. However, he has never really replicated the intensity of international his level in the domestic game. He has made no attempt to disguise his contempt for country cricket, claiming that it “served no purpose.” He arrogantly chooses to bat for Lancashire wearing the three lions of England rather than the red rose, an act which is was rightly reported for against Yorkshire. To a player of Michael’s level, domestic cricket simply holds no lure anymore. Personally, I don’t see him extending his career past the current Ashes series. An hereditary back condition has blighted him throughout his career, and the time has come where I can’t see that the continuing pain is worth the effort. A tour to India and New Zealand during the winter hardly has the lure of South Africa or the West Indies, and he will probably join Alec Stewart in staying at home this winter. Without international cricket, Athers will certainly not continue playing county cricket, even though never having won the championship will annoy him. 33 is a very young age for a batsman to consider retiring, but I don’t see him playing any competitive cricket again after this summer. More than anything, there is more money to be made off the field these days for a player of Athers stature than there is on it. Athers is a great batsman who deserved to play in a much better team than he did. Being forced to open with useless
mediocrity’s as Nick Knight, Mark Ramprakrash and Mark Butcher, he could have been forgiven for quitting the game a lot earlier. The next two test against Australia will be memorable since it will probably be the last time we get to see this great batsman at the crease. Along with Darren Gough he is the one player to emerge blameless in what has been a terrible decade in English test history, and England will need a lot more batsman in the Atherton mould if they are to again become a force in international cricket.
The English league is second only to Spain in European football. With players such as Veron, Van Nistlerooy, Petit and Zenden joining the likes of Henry, Veria, Keane, Stam, Barthez, Deailly and Hasslebaink, the league is blessed with world class players. The combination of flair and passion makes the Premiership the most watched league in the world. The winner will almost certainly be one form the big 5 of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Leeds. The relegation battle is more open, with a number of teams struggling to compete with the teams at the top. With the season a week away, here’s my guide of who to shove your money on this season. At 8/11, the bookies obvious favourites are Manchester United. At those odds you’d see a better return investing the money unless you fancy 50/1 for us to do the League (worth s tenner of anyone’s money), Cup and European treble, or 250/1 for the European Grandslam. Manc had very little challenge last season, have seen no departures, and in Veron and Van Nistlerooy, have made the best singings this summer. In Barthez, Stam, Keane and Veron, we have 4 players who are amongst the very best in the world. The defensive is the best in the league, the midfield is as good as any club side in the world, and the strikers outscore everyone else by a long way. The biggest problem last season was the lack of a play maker to break down well negative well organised sides like Liverpool, but Sebbie should fill that void. Europe is the key this season, and league form may suffer, but Manc are one of the top three sides in Europe right now, and it is difficult to see anyone being able take the winners pot away from Old Trafford right now. Arsenal are still the second best team in England, and at 9/2 will probably be the strongest challengers. In Terry Henry and Paddy Veria, the gooners have 2 exceptional players. Wright, Von Bronkhurst, Jeffers and Campbell all strengthen what wa
s already a good side. Wrenger is a top class manager who has got the best out of his ageing players, and effectively introduced younger players. The future of the defence remains a problem, although there is enough cover this season, and there is still a failure to get youth team players into the side in a way Manchester and Liverpool have. The midfield is strong, Jeffers will be an effective partner with Henry, and there is considerable depth to the squad. Arsenal aren’t the side they were in 1998, but they are still are strong team with the talent and experience to win the league. Although they never seem to live up to pre-season expectations, I see Chelsea mounting a serious challenge this year and their odds are a little long at 10/1. They have brought well, signing Lampard, Petit and Zenden, who will form a formidable partnership in the middle of the park. Desailly is one of the best defenders in the world, and Hasslebaink is a top class finisher. Their biggest problem has been motivation for smaller games, and the temperamental nature of many of their players. Selling Wise was a mistake, but they have a top manager who makes good singings and gets the most out of players. Its time for such a talented squad to achieve, and this may be the year they final fulfil some of their potential as a side. Liverpool are priced at 9/2, but I can’t see them mounting a serious challenge. Under Houllier, Liverpool have become well organised and able to beat teams that are better than them. However, they have become an incredibly boring negative side who struggle against weak teams who aren’t prepared to come at them. They simply aren’t consistent enough to win the league yet. There isn’t a single world class player at Anfield right now. Upfront and in midfield they have a number of options and Hypia and Babbel are top defenders, but the scousers need a settled left back and, besides his keeping skills,
Henchoz is a clumsy and talentless lump. Westerveld is a sound shot stopper, but struggles on crossing and kicking, and can be a liability. If Liverpool wanted to challenge for the title they really needed to sign a class play maker. Giving the old golden b******s a polish seems to be working at the moment, but the scousers have used up around 30 years worth of luck last season alone. Houiller has done a great job turning the YSB’s into a difficult side to beat, even if they are the most boring side in the league, but the finishing touches to the squad are needed. Leeds are outsiders at 8/1, and it is unlikely you will get any money backing the sheep molesters this season. The squad is strong, with two top keepers, Radebe and Harte at the back, Bowyer and Kwell in midfield and Viduka upfront. Whatever you may think of them, you can only admire the passion and commitment with which Bowyer, Batty, Dacourt and Smith play their football. However, most people are getting fed up of O’Dreary’s incessant moaning. Its time he started coming up with the goods. Every team has injuries, and it’s the managers fault for assembling such a paper thin squad. Leeds haven’t spent well. Ferdinand has potential, but was ridiculously overpriced considering you could have got Stam, Silvestre, Desailly and Hypia for less money. Robbie Keane is yet to prove himself as a consistent goal scorer, and Inter must have been relieved to recoup money for the poor mans Keano. However, basing the current team on the style of the great Leeds teams of the 70’s may prove effective. Sending out 11 objectionable aggressive thugs onto the pitch can unsettle inexperienced teams. Like the scousers, Leeds lack a genuine world class player in the squad. In a few years time they will be a better side, but for te time being they are a long way from the finished article. The relegation battle is more open that the championship race. At 8/1
5, Bolton are most people’s favourites to go back down again. Unlike Fulham and Blackburn, Wanderers have little money to bring in quality players, and a squad based almost entirely on Nationwide quality players are near certainties to go back to where they belong. Derby are 6/5 to join them. Between the sticks, Poom is a top keeper, Powell is a decent player in the middle of the park and Christie is getting better as a poacher in the box. However, there is a genuine lack of quality and team spirit and the Rams should go down this season. It might be worth spread betting on how many games Ravenelli lasts at Pride Park. With Coventry gone, the mantle of jammy-useless-side-who-hang-on-each-year passes to Southampton. Hoddle managed to get the best out of bad players, but Paul Jones and Dean Richards are decent players, but they lack creativity and scoring goals is a definite problem. The move to the new ground will not help their attempts to survive and they are 2/1 for the drop. The Dell was a difficult place to travel, and they survived mainly on grinding out results at home. The likes of Everton, Newcastle, Charlton and Leicester may well get dragged into the relegation fight. Not particularly good odds considering the number of candidates for the drop, but an accumulator picking all three will give a good return. From a betting point of view, the league isn’t as exciting as the FA cup, since the chances of an outsider taking the title is unlikely. Its going to be a race between Manc and Arsenal for the title again, with Chelsea Liverpool and Leeds fighting for the remaining two Champions league places. Bolton, Derby and Southampton are my pick for the drop, although there are a number of teams bad enough to go down. The odds aren’t particularly on single, and your best chance of a decent pay out is to put money on an accumulator and hope your golden b******s are shinning brightly come may. Drink drink we
ever you may be, we are the drunk and disorderly, And we don’t give a **** and we don’t give a **** cos we’re coming home with the Championship.
The Champions League continues to enhance its reputation as the premier club competition in the world. The best players in the world will contest the most valuable and coveted pot in club football. The change of format from the knock out European Cup to the bigger structured Champions League has disadvantaged smaller clubs, but has made the competition much stronger and significantly harder to win. Clubs must play 17 games to win the competition compared to 9 under the old format. Stronger leagues such as England, Spain have multiple entrants, keeping out weaker teams, so increasing the overall standard of the entrants. With the worlds biggest clubs going head to head, here’s who I think will be celebrating in Glasgow next May. At 7/2, the clear favourites are Real Madrid. After a £200m backhander from the Spanish government, the bailiffs have been kept away for another few years, and Zinedine Zidane, for my money the best player in the world, has been added to the squad. With their 1950’s formations, and all-out attacking style of play they are the most aggressive and entertaining team in Europe. However, they have severe defence frailties and any team who gets stuck into them and puts the defence under pressure always has a chance. They are strong at home, but can come unstuck away. Their ability to score goals makes them favourites for the bookies, although I reckon they may get knocked out by a smaller club like Galatasary who have nothing to lose and who take them on at their own game. The 1999 winners, Manchester United, are second favourites at 6/1. The 1999 side has remained largely intact, with the quality additions of Silvestre, Barthez, Veron and Van Nistlerooy. Keane, Stam and Barthez are the most inspirational players and success depends a lot on these three staying fit. Manc are the most rounded team, containing a strong defence and a powerful attack. They have a superb recent record in European football,
a vastly experienced team and the ability to beat anyone. The main fault has been tactics and style of play. They have been too aggressive in away games, and need to play more on the counterattack. A draw away from home is good enough, so there is no need to play attacking football. My heart and my head tell me to put my money on the Reds this year. Last years winners Bayern Munich are competitive at 7/1. The team is based around the two outstanding personalities of Oliver Khan and Stefan Effenburg. Khan is the most commanding keeper in the world right now, and Effenburg is one of the most inspirational and motivated midfielders. Bayern are the best organised team in Europe, with a superb defence and fast counterattacking football. They are a strong home side, so any team looking to beat them in the knock out stages has to put in a good performance in their home leg. Their one weakness is they find it hard to chase a game since they are better suited to defending. Bayern’s squad is largely unchanged from last season, and they have a good chance of regaining their European crown. The four Italian entrants, Roma Lazio Juve and Parma are placed around the 10/1 level. To be honest, you would be wasting your money betting on an Italian team at the moment. The league has declined both in strength and entertainment since the early 90’s and the record of Italian teams in Europe has been poor in the last 5 years. All four sides have quality players, but they don’t travel well, lack commitment and have defensive flaws against physical and aggressive strikers. Maybe worth seeing what odds you can get on no Italian team to make it past the first group stages. For an outside bet, Depotivo La Coruna are worth a tenner at 14/1. Winning the Spanish league which is officially the strongest league in Europe according to UEFA, finishing ahead of the likes of Real, Barce and Valencia shows Depotivo are a class act. The
squad aren’t as experienced at this level as other clubs, and could easily come unstuck in the group stages but with a bit of luck could reach the final. It is also worth putting a few quid on Galatasary at 50/1. Istanbul is one of the hardest places to travel to in European football, and young inexperienced teams will struggle in the hostile atmosphere. The Turks play a fast aggressive style of football, and have a superb recent record in European competitions. They may not have the strength to go all the way, but at those odds who can complain. I would be surprised if the eventual winner isn’t one of Real, Manchester or Bayern. In the final I would back Manchester or Bayern to beat Real purely on superior defensive ability, better organisation and the ability to counterattack at Real’s weak defence. A final between Bayern and Manchester would be too close to call, and would depend on who has the better form and least injuries going into the game. The desire to give Fergie a proper send off by winning the European Cup in his home town of Glasgow may be enough to swing that balance in Manc’s favour. The £20 I have on the Reds at 6/1 should mean a decent night in Glasgow if we do bring the coveted pot back to Old Trafford. Drink drink we ever you may be, we are the drunk and disorderly, And we don’t give a **** and we don’t give a **** cos we’re coming home with the European Cup