The Wrong Direction

So it’s back to winning ways for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. It’s always good to get those wins, that’s the aim of the game, but as we know, that’s not all that matters at United.<!–more–>

The pressure is on Mourinho and you may well know my view on the manager. I am still not convinced. There is the suggestion that the penny has dropped and he is starting to play attacking football. I will need more evidence for that I’m afraid. But he has to change, otherwise he will be gone.

It is a new game he has to play and learn, to please the United fans who expect their team to play exciting football and attacking football. We will see.

It was good to see United get off to winning ways in Europe but, I’m sorry to say yet again, the number of foreign players in the United team just as all English teams worries me. The number of English players in the league went under 33% a couple of years ago and hasn’t improved.

United had Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford last night – 3 from 11, even lower than 33%.

People are raving about Diogo Dalot at right back, another foreign import. They hope he will do what Matteo Darmian couldn’t do and dislodge another foreign right back, Antonio Valencia.

Meanwhile, the impressive Ethan Laird, who has started the season so well for the academy, will have all three of those in front of him and probably won’t even get a chance in the League Cup next week. It’s the same up front for Mason Greenwood. Don’t get me wrong, United do it better than most, and I wouldn’t <em>especially</em> criticise Jose Mourinho for this as he’s no different to any other manager with this, but in years gone past those exciting players would be given a chance against Derby.

I think that this is very destroying to our game, and the future of young players, when you see young players from other countries coming in and being bought by clubs which leaves our players not getting a look in. They have to look at the Championship, or lower leagues, to get game time.

Gareth Southgate is making the right noises when he says he is looking at the situation. I look at the games very closely and in my opinion around half of the foreign players are not good enough — and by that, I mean, they’re not good enough to justify blocking the pathway of so many young homegrown players — but, in some cases, the manager had them at their clubs abroad and so brings them in because they’re familiar.

The Premier League is just about money. That’s not new. Richard Scudamore is a joke. Our national teams at a younger age are doing great — world champions in two age brackets — but these players never get to see first team football because of the foreign players.

We should be capitalising on the good mood from the World Cup to build for a better future.

What A Summer!

Well, what an interesting summer of football it was. It was a brilliant World Cup in Russia made better for me by England’s unexpected progress.

Like everyone else I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gareth Southgate’s team. It’s no secret that I have concerns about the growing number of foreign players in the Premier League so I was wondering how that would effect England’s performance, considering their weak showings in recent tournaments. Continue reading

Rebuilding US Soccer

Many of you may know I recently moved from Florida to Seattle; just like in the UK, the North West is a real hotbed of soccer.

Despite their problems, and I’ve gone on record many times to say what I think they are, England qualified for the World Cup next year. The United States, however, did not.

There is no doubting that the US have had a generation of very good players; the likes of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard made household names of themselves.

However, just like in the UK, I have long aired my thoughts and concerns about the future of US soccer and it brings me no pleasure to see the national team fail to qualify for Russia. Make no mistake about it – the ‘team’, if you could call it that, was comprised of individuals who were overly reliant on senior players and that is not a strategy that is sustainable.

It’s a huge shame, but the US has to take a thorough approach in its rebuilding and it needs to take a long and hard look at the things it needs to overhaul. Working as I do with young footballers of differing ages, I’m noticing more and more that these are good athletes – that’s all well and good, but I don’t want athletes, I want to see footballers.

I’ve said it for many years, the US have suffered by trying to fabricate this illusion of a culture of excellence. They have learned the hard way that you can’t just pretend. There is no quick and easy route to the top and you cannot afford to rest on your laurels. Perhaps the powers that be saw the US as constant qualifiers for the World Cup and hoped that one day they would put in a performance to get to the semi-finals or further; but you cannot plan on hope alone.

I keep going back to the same things but the organisation at youth level leaves a lot to be desired. It is a game for the elite and it should be a game for everybody. They have all the facilities in place but their attitude to youth development has been behind the times for a number of years. It was only a matter of time before it caught up with them.

I only hope that moving forward, these problems are addressed, instead of doing what they do in England, where they try and jump on the latest fad instead of returning to the core strengths of what is traditionally good about England teams. Then again, with the number of English players available to choose from in the top flight continuing to hit record lows, I don’t see that improving any time soon. But that’s a different kettle of fish.

England used to be the home of great wingers. It’s a dying art; but all things in football go and come around again, and the next time a team comes through with proper right and left wingers, they will surprise everyone. Hopefully that will inspire a generation to follow suit, because there is no better sight in football than a winger taking on a defender and whipping a ball in.

At Manchester United Frank Blunstone, a former winger himself, would relentlessly tell us about the importance of crossing and would have us going at it for ages. “We only need one on Saturday, Gordy,” he would say. Nowadays you have specialised coaching for every area of the team but wingers, and it’s no surprise to see that the standard of crossing is so poor.

All you need is a blank page to start working on these sort of ideas. And the United States have it. Whether or not they will address what needs to be addressed, well, I suppose we’ll only find out in four years.

Don’t Know Why, Don’t Know How

roy-hodgson-martin-glenn_3492115Well what can we say about the recent European Championships with  England? It was a farce from top to bottom. Only England can go into a tournament with no expectations and still come out disappointed.

I’ve been around the block too many times to get excited about England at a major tournament but of course when it comes to kick off I want them to do well. I want them to win it, even though I know they won’t.

If you’ve been following my thoughts over the last few years you will have heard and read a few times that I am dismayed about how the country has gone about its national team. So I don’t need to really go into detail how ridiculous it to see the number of players available for
England in the Premier League drop from 40% to 33%, and then even lower than that for last season. I dread to think what the number will be next season. On the first weekend of the Premier League season there were just thirteen foreign (non-British) players playing across the entire division. We’ve certainly come a long way alright.

So was it really a big surprise that two of England’s best hopes in Euro 2016 were players that were playing lower league football and had to come up through the ranks. Jamie Vardy’s story has been a fairytale, while Dele Alli joined MK Dons when he was 11 – in 2007, when the problem with foreign players in England was already a big one. How many Dele Alli’s have been discouraged from choosing football as a career because the scouts at top level teams look abroad?

Mind you, you wouldn’t exactly be encouraged if you saw what happened at top level international football with England. The management wasn’t spectacular, was it? Roy Hodgson had Harry Kane taking corners. A lot was made of Kane’s lack of goals, and the fact he looked tired. I don’t think the manager helped him.

It is unforgivable to go into a major tournament and not know what your best team is for any game, to constantly make the wrong selections, the wrong substitutions and be too hesitant with the right ones. England lost against Iceland and that exposed plenty; one of the darkest days in the country’s history, and Hodgson paid the ultimate price, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for a revolution.

Because as disappointing as the defeat against Iceland was, how poor was the press conference the day after? Hodgson says ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’ – sorry Roy, you’re very experienced in the sport, you should know. And Martin Glenn tells us all he’s not a football expert. This is the man who is responsible for finding our next England manager,
which is now confirmed as Sam Allardyce.

I’ll reserve judgement on Sam (out of the candidates available, he was probably the best choice) but I don’t hold out much hope for the issues that plague our game to be resolved with someone like Glenn in charge.

It’s not practical to go scouring the lower leagues for the likes of Alli and Vardy because these are incredible stories of triumph in adversity and they stand out because of their rarity. Yes, they were forced into lower leagues because of the problems that have been caused
by the influx of mediocre foreign players clogging up squads and denying opportunities. But you can’t just go out and find them because they might have had the confidence knocked out of them. Plenty will have dropped out of the game altogether.

With a radical overhaul in terms of academies and attitude to home-grown development, nothing will change. And you hear people talk change, and they talk it well, but gradually the problem has got worse. People are encouraged by Alli and Vardy and don’t get me wrong, I think they’re both great, but they highlight the problem in the first place. And what a shambles it has been for England, relying on them and an 18 year old who only made his senior debut at the back end of last season.

It was a gamble which suggested there was no preparation and also that there would be no cohesion in the squad. That proved to be the case, but I always thought that in Hodgson, the FA had employed someone who they thought would just say yes to them.

There has been concern about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union because of the economic uncertainty which followed it. I don’t want to get involved with the political side of it, but from a purely football point of view, could this eventually provide the shake up we
need for our talented youngsters – and they are out there – to finally be given the proper opportunities they need to develop?

My thoughts on the season so far

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 08.12.21It sums up the mood at Man Utd this season that they won on Saturday and still left Old Trafford as disgruntled in their own way as Aston Villa fans were with the state of affairs at their own club – and they’d just been relegated!

So speculation continues to rage about the future of Louis van Gaal, even after they won against Crystal Palace last night to close in on the top four.

We seem to talk, and be asked, about it every week on the Retro United podcast, and I can only repeat what I’ve said on there. It all seems a bit of a lost cause. He hasn’t changed or adapted since he arrived; he’s ruled with discipline, and been bullish in the face of criticism. It’s good to have conviction and belief in your system but when it hasn’t been working, that stubbornness has backfired, which has led to doubts all over the club.

Regardless of your opinion about which players have done well, the injuries United have suffered this season only served to highlight the thin squad that Van Gaal has. And, with four transfer windows gone in his time at the club, that’s not good enough.

I was back in England recently and attended the Liverpool Europa League game at Old Trafford. Normally when I return, if United are doing well, the pleasantries on arrival usually consist of things like ‘great to see you Gordon’, or ‘remember those goals against Derby!’ – the last couple of years it’s been more like ‘have you brought your boots?’ and ‘we could do with you out there!’

I know those comments are made with tongue in cheek but the point is they wouldn’t be made at all if the fans were happy with what they’re seeing. In the main, anyway. Of course there is excitement from players like Marcus Rashford, who continued his fine start with the winner against Villa – but is it just a coincidence that he, like the other young players, have been a breath of fresh air? They’re untested, relatively new to being around Van Gaal, and allowed to play with more freedom than senior players.

So there’s a split in the camp, with fans willing to give the kids a break and show them patience. Maybe if Van Gaal had thrown them in earlier, he’d be getting a little more patience from the supporters, but the time for the manager to ask for patience is long gone. It seems more like accident than design, but that’s United’s selection policy all season long – it’s resembled a jamboree bag, and you don’t know what you’re going to get from one game to the next.

This last week has been the perfect example. They got thumped at Spurs, exposing some players who are simply not capable of producing the standard United need to be where they were five or six years ago. Then, they pull out an unlikely win at West Ham in the FA Cup, and against an extremely poor Aston Villa side, they struggle to even get a goal. And they were hanging on at the end.

Wins at Liverpool and Manchester City leave you scratching your head with what United are capable of but, looking at the league this season, very few conclusions can be achieved from studying their form. The only thing to note is that change is very evidently needed and probably not just on the management side.

Which of United’s players can hold their head up high and say they’ve justified their price tag or wage packet?

It’s been a tremendous disappointment and it hurts to say that because one thing that you could never say about United once upon a time is that they were lacking in commitment and drive. Look at Leicester City, embodied by Jamie Vardy – a player I can relate to in terms of where he came from, the lower leagues, the school of hard knocks he graduated from. Dele Alli at Tottenham is another. These are players whose energy levels have made all the difference and look like being key individuals for England in the European Championships this summer. Players who are the heartbeat of their team.

Players United were once famed for having – it’s what they’re missing, and it’s obvious in its absence.

Rebuilding Foundations

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 13.02.41After all those years of Arsenal and Manchester United competing for the highest honours it was interesting to see their differing fortunes in Europe this week as they prepare to face each other today.

A lot was made about Arsenal making all those changes against Hull in the Cup only to then get beat easily by Barcelona. Louis van Gaal didn’t have the same luxury with his injury hit squad for their Cup games.

Arsenal were light years behind Barcelona. And United’s problems are even greater. Watching them struggle as they have this season has been painful as a former player who did his best to play for that badge, the shirt. The best I did to entertain. It’s not only seeing the struggles in the results, but the way they are playing is alien to me.

As much as I agree that Louis van Gaal’s time is probably up – and has been for some months – I worry about those who think a change of manager is suddenly the fix to the many problems Manchester United have. And don’t even get me started on Jose Mourinho, who I am still not convinced is the right man. But I’ve made those comments on a regular basis and this is about the problems at United.

I see United play with no flair and more worryingly no heart and I think the main problem is due to a lack of home grown players who are good enough. It’s a problem through the English game, it isn’t restricted to United.

I know the club have given chances to many kids, but it’s been sink or swim for so many of them; this isn’t the classic case of one kid coming in and getting his opportunity, it’s a case of injuries meaning so many are getting a chance before they’re ready or, more often than not, after we know that they aren’t. The most impressive for me has probably been Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, but I look at his promise and I compare it to the likes of Arthur Albiston and Jimmy Nicholl who were breaking through when I was at the club and I’m sorry but I don’t see the same quality. I want to see it, more than anyone, but I can’t lie – there are some players at the club who are millions of miles away from what it takes to be a Manchester United player, and I’m not just saying this about the kids.

We have fallen into the trap of over-spending on average foreign players; Memphis Depay has so much to prove and it may not be the most popular opinion but for me the jury is still out on Anthony Martial. Perhaps you can say my standards are too high, maybe if there were better players around him he would be better, but I still expect more from him. I am worried that because standards are so low at Old Trafford at the moment, people are starting to accept less than what Manchester United are renowned for, and to me that is a very, very dangerous trap to fall into.

We only need to look at Arsenal and how they have flattered to deceive over the last 10-12 years. They look like they’re on the right track, but how many times have we said that over the last few years only to see them cruelly exposed as so far behind the top European teams.

I’m convinced that this is all traced back to the age old problem – and I make no excuses for bringing it up again – about the influx of cheap and average foreign players. It has not only ruined the English game but it has damaged the identity of great football clubs. We are witnessing it at United and it hurts and frustrates me. People complain about the lack of heart, the lack of fight, that old United teams used to fight to the death, and they’re right, but the problem is so obvious and it isn’t being addressed.

I’ve been talking about this problem for years and it hurts to see the figure of players available for England drop from 50% to under a third. 50% is still way too low. It is criminally low. Yes, I will agree that to some extent, there was a time when the introduction of foreign players did mix it up a bit, and added something to the game, but somewhere along the line, the balance was lost and now it is gone it is difficult to get back.

What we’re witnessing at Old Trafford goes far beyond the manager, it is a moment of transition which threatens the identity of the club at a time when it may be impossible to reclaim it. Is this an over-reaction? You may think so, but I disagree. Arsenal are a great example, as United prepare to face them, but look at Liverpool, who fell from grace and are yet to get back to what they were.

I have recently released more copies of my autobiography. You can get copies here.