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. Read More

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.

T’is The Season…

assistant trainer Jose Mourinho (L),Coach Louis van Gaal (R) of Barcelona during the season 1997/1998 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
assistant trainer Jose Mourinho (L),Coach Louis van Gaal (R) of Barcelona during the season 1997/1998 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

This past week has seen constant speculation about the future of Louis van Gaal as Manchester United manager and I have to say it’s brought out the worst of British football in my eyes.

There has been non-stop speculation about the future of a few coaches – I’m sure you need to introduction to the identities of the men I’m talking about – and it seemed that it was either only a matter of time, or one domino falling, to start a chain reaction.

That domino was Jose Mourinho who was sacked from his job at Chelsea, though I can’t say that I think he’s particularly unhappy about it. Forget the reported £40m payout, there was a guy who gave off the impression of being uninterested in the job he was doing. He was never going to walk when there was such a hefty compensation payout waiting for him but he made his own position untenable by the things he was saying and the things he was doing.

Part of me thinks he was doing that intentionally to put the pressure on the Chelsea owner at a time when he saw that Louis van Gaal’s own future at Manchester United was in doubt. Put aside my concern about the Dutchman at Old Trafford, I think it’s absolutely disgusting to see managers do this to their peers – especially when you consider the pair once worked together in Barcelona. And now Jorge Mendes is coming out adding fuel to the fire.

It looked for all the world that Van Gaal would be sacked before the Stoke game, and then it was reported that he only had the Stoke and Chelsea games to turn it around. Make no mistake, Van Gaal has looked like a man showing signs of the pressure he is obviously under, but his reaction has been somewhat understandable when you look at the nonsense that has been written.

So, the press don’t appear to have a clue what’s going on, but can you blame them when they are being cajoled into this by the likes of Pep Guardiola; Guardiola, at a club that is just as much an institution in Germany as Manchester United are in England, has told Bayern Munich he’s leaving at the end of the season. How’s that for stability? Undermining his own work and doing it at a crucial point. You think that’s bad, then think about the obvious consequence – he will be linked with all the top jobs, even though his destination seems to be Manchester City. What an absolute disgrace that is for Manuel Pellegrini, who now has to work under contract with one of football’s worst secrets hanging over him, and pretend like it doesn’t exist.

At Manchester United it’s already seeming as if people are talking about the next man in charge and it’s the usual suspects. Mourinho’s conduct at Chelsea this season underlines why I didn’t want him when he was available in 2013 and I still don’t want him now. So, who else is there?

Well, the most popular answer I seem to be hearing is Ryan Giggs. He has no experience and seems to be named purely because of how much he apparently loves the club. Well, so do I! I said on the RetroUnited.com podcast recently that if the board take that action then they would do worse than appointing someone like Roy Keane to help with the discipline and leadership that clearly seems to be lacking in the United dressing room. If you can’t find leaders, you can create them, and who better than Roy Keane? Yes, it’s a controversial suggestion, but if you are putting Giggs forward then I think it’s a logical thing to add.

In all of this I find it difficult to comprehend that there are only a few names being mentioned. It’s disturbing just how much everyone has been salivating over Mourinho – look at what he did at Chelsea. They are in a right mess. But because he’s the only ‘big’ name apparently left available out there. You might find that if Mourinho’s the only choice then Ed Woodward might be telling the Glazer’s that it’s better the devil you know.

Maybe the experience of hiring David Moyes has put off United going after someone who has worked their way up through the ranks but look at Mark Hughes’ work at Chelsea. Here is a man who probably has now earned the right at a big job – no disrespect to Stoke – but he won’t because the tendency is to go for a supposed big name and a foreign one.

I look at Steve Bruce who is doing a capable job at Hull City; yes, they have been relegated, but they are looking as if they might come straight back up. In such a difficult league as the Championship, I believe that’s a testament to Bruce’s ability which is sometimes under-rated. And even Glenn Hoddle, a visionary of the game who has been out of a managerial job for far too long.

And yet when a good job comes up, ie the Aston Villa position, then who gets hired?

Remi Garde! A man who, with all due respect, made little impression at Arsenal as a player and hasn’t made any notable impression as a manager. Tim Sherwood may not be a man universally loved in the press but it seems like that was his biggest crime; the Aston Villa job looks a very difficult one and before long they’ll be getting rid of Garde because everyone can see that what is happening at Villa Park.

Villa were quick to pull the trigger and fall into the same trap we’ve seen other clubs suffer. I don’t feel sorry for the owners but I do for the fans who don’t deserve this short term chase of pounds that is severely damaging the long term stability of these once-great clubs of ours.

It’s going to take a change in how football clubs are run at boardroom level but how likely is that when the people getting involved these days have no history or knowledge of the game?

Sweet FA

jamie-vardy-leicesterAs we head into the final international break of 2015 I found myself disturbed and appalled to read some statistics about the Premier League’s attitude to youth player development.

If you’ve listened to me on the RetroUnited.com podcast, Talksport, or even visited this website as I wrote about this very subject last year, you’ll know my concerns about the future of English football.

I’m going to share a couple of pieces of that article.

‘If you’ve read my columns or listened to me talk in recent years then you know one of my biggest concerns is the lack of English players in the top flight. The last relevant study showed that only approximately 33% of players picked on a regular basis in the Premier League were eligible for selection for England. I’ve noticed a worrying trend over the season that is only going to make matters worse in the long term.’

‘…15 British and one Irish player took to the pitch – that was 16 out of 26, with plenty of British players left as unused subs. Against Hull, Arsene Wenger used 2 British players (Aaron Ramsey, who made the difference, and Oxlade-Chamberlain), while Steve Bruce had nine of his starting line up British or Irish. Are you beginning to notice a trend?
People talk about addressing the game at grass roots level and that’s all well and good. I agree with the idea even if I squirm when I see the way they’re going about it. But it’s the same old story with English football – address one problem and ignore the others. At the top level, foreign managers will continue to bring in foreign players to instantly solve problems because let’s face it – football chairman live in the here and now, not the long term, and that means there’s no real opportunity for kids breaking through.
Pundits seem to be dismissive of it, and make sweeping statements like the foreign input has been great for the game. Yes, it has, to an extent, but it’s like all good things isn’t it – if it’s not done in moderation it will spoil everything. Clubs are suffering through mismanagement at the highest level and the cycle will probably continue with Fulham or Cardiff going down, sacking their foreign managers, reverting to a British manager who will do some great work and get them promoted, only to find themselves sacked within a couple of months.
While people observe the damage done to proud clubs (the way Fulham and Cardiff in particular have been run this season has been nothing short of farcical) the more acute damage comes to the game itself, with fewer opportunities for young players to prove themselves. And while I understand the benefits of some of the foreign players to have played in England, I don’t think foreign managers have made such a profound impact on our game to justify there being eight out of the twenty top flight clubs being coached by someone from overseas.
And so the problem grows and continues. Next time I see a stat pertaining to English players playing in the Premier League, it wouldn’t surprise me if it dropped to 25%. It’s not the English Premier League any more, is it? It’s the World Premier League that just happens to be based in England, and if some of the top dogs had their way, with that ridiculous ‘39th game’ idea, they would probably prefer to use it as a travelling circus, going around the world. How far away are we from that happening? Once the integrity goes, there ain’t much left.’

That 33% figure dropped to around 30% this year. It was recently revealed that less than 8% of Premier League minutes have been played by what the Premier League determine to be ‘home grown’ players (a quota that even includes players like Adnan Januzaj, for example, foreign-born players who aren’t eligible to play for England). It was said to me that around half of the players in the Premier League who are eligible to play for England have been capped. Half!

There has been a recent clamour for Jamie Vardy to be an England starter in time for the European Championships. Jamie had a good season for Leicester last year and is having an excellent year this time around – he should be commended for his form. And, looking at the players available, then it doesn’t seem an unreasonable shout. But that only highlights the problem that is now plaguing the English game.

Let’s go back to the 1998 World Cup squad – Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham, Les Ferdinand and Michael Owen were the strikers. In 2006 it was Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, and Peter Crouch. Now Jamie Vardy is a serious contender to wear the number 9 or number 10 shirt in France next year. I’m sorry, but that to me is a prime indicator of how rapidly and worryingly our standards have dropped over the last 15 years.

The worst, or most concerning part of it all, is that this could have been so easily avoided. It can be fixed, if the FA take the strong action it should. But it won’t, because it prefers to hire yes men and concentrate on getting money in.

But, with all due respect again to Jamie, if that is the standard we are expecting of our England team, it won’t be long until the England national team is the Leicester City of international football. Only occasionally qualifying for the major competition, and expected to get a pummeling once there. We aren’t far off that now.

To be fair to Jamie it must be said he is one of the best performing English players in the league. In August 2013 the Daily Mail reported that just 68 English players were expected to play in the Premier League’s opening weekend. That was in a World Cup year! The number is even less now, and from that, a squad of 23 has to be picked. As recently as a couple of years ago you had a one in 3 chance of being picked for England, now it’s about one in two. It won’t be long at all – and this is not an over-reaction – before every English player in the Premier League is an international.

What will it take for the FA to start addressing these very real problems that are infesting the game? Because the way it’s going, I worry that they would be happy to have a Championship level team representing us at international level. And I’m sorry, but the Three Lions mean a hell of a lot more to some of us than that.