Time up for negative Moyes

There was a moment in Manchester United’s abject defeat to Olympiakos on Tuesday night which summed up all that is wrong with David Moyes’ reign as manager.

Ashley Young got the ball in the centre of the pitch about 30 yards from goal, instead of trying to thread a pass through the opposition defence or even having a shot, he inexplicably turned away and headed for the wing.

This frustrating and completely unimaginative decision was symptomatic of the obsession of playing down the flanks which has become a symbol of Moyes’ dull and rigid tactical approach.

Surely Shinji Kagawa, who was again wasting away on the bench, or Adnan Januzaj – who was bizarrely omitted from the squad entirely – would have gone for the jugular in such a promising position.

But this is the thing with Moyes, he’s too cautious, he doesn’t trust creative players. Instead he prefers workmanlike performers who make life difficult for the opposition.

Despite Young and Antonia Valencia being short of the quality required to be United players they have been hopelessly out of form, yet Moyes has continued to pick them because he fears the alternatives to 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1.

Of course wingers still have a place in the modern game but they have to be adaptable and be able to come inside and play. It also helps if they can beat a man and put in a decent cross. Young and Valencia have seemed incapable of both this season but Moyes persists with them because they fit his tried and tested, outdated system.

Time and again on Tuesday night they ran down the line, checked and passed it backwards. It’s predictable play, ineffective and easy to defend against.

The performance in Piraeus was about as bad as it gets, not just from Young and Valencia but from everyone.

Wayne Rooney, again masquerading as an effective number 10, did nothing to justify his £300,000 per week wages. Robin Van Persie bereft of any kind of service looked completely disillusioned with life under Moyes. The midfield was non-existent again and the less said about Rio Ferdinand’s performance the better.

It was a new low; worse than the pathetic performances at the Etihad and Anfield. Worse than the two Capital Cup semi-final games against Sunderland and worse than the home defeats to Newcastle and West Brom.

Surely this is the end for Moyes. He looks way out of his depth and the players are playing as if they have little belief in his methods or any interest in taking them on board.

And who can blame them? A team of champions who would have expected a man equally as successful to lead them into a new era have found themselves taking orders from a mid-table manager who has never won a trophy.

His appointment was negligence of the highest order by the United board who instead of targeting the best in the business went for mediocrity in Moyes and have been rewarded with mediocre performances from a squad who were capable of winning the Premier League title by 11 points the season before.

It was an irresponsible decision, akin to putting the paperboy in charge of News International.

There have been absolutely no signs of progress under Moyes and there is no hint of him developing a philosophy or style of play which can give the fans hope for the future.

The thought of Moyes being given £200m to spend in the summer doesn’t bear thinking about. What happens if he spends the cash and continues to serve up the boring, backwards football he is at the moment?

Do the board sack him at Christmas and then give his successor another £200m to sort out his mess?

He should go now. United should conduct a proper recruitment process and identify a manager with a clear football philosophy and the personality to take the club forward.

The fear is that we are stuck with Moyes for the foreseeable future. It is highly unlikely that Sir Alex Ferguson will admit that choosing him was a huge mistake and will no doubt fight his corner in the boardroom where he has a great deal of influence.

But for the good of the club Ferguson has to swallow his pride before this mess becomes unsalvageable. If things continue the way they are, attracting players will become extremely difficult, especially without Champions League football and with a manager bearing a reputation for negative, one-dimensional football.

The time to act is now, before it’s too late.

Ferguson must share blame for United mess

When Sir Alex Ferguson stood on the pitch and addressed Old Trafford after his final home game in charge of Manchester United, he urged the fans to get behind David Moyes, the man he had chosen as his replacement.

It was a plea to back his judgement; after all, he had handpicked Moyes as his successor ahead of a number of far more successful, far better qualified managers than the Everton boss.

Jose Mourinho, a winner of two European cups and league titles in four different countries was available after leaving Real Madrid and it was common knowledge that he was desperate for the job. Although he had now agreed to join Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola was still available when Ferguson had made his decision to retire the previous Christmas.

Surely Jurgen Klopp who had just taken his exciting, attacking Bourissa Dortmund team to the Champions League final came into the reckoning along with other top European coaches like Louis Van Gaal or Marcello Lippi.

But for reasons only he knows – there has never been an explanation – Ferguson went for Moyes and we were duty-bound to back him.

No matter that Moyes had never won a trophy. No matter that his hard-working, uninspiring style of play had never seen his Everton team win a game against the top four away from home in his 11 years in charge at Goodison Park.

Another major question mark over the appointment of Moyes is what process did the club go through to decide that he was the right man to replace the most successful British manager of all time?

Did they draw up a list of potential candidates based on the best managers in the world and their achievements? Did they interview the best men for the job and choose the standout applicant?

Or, as the story goes, in his last demonstration of power, did Ferguson decide on Moyes on a whim and summon him to his house to offer him the job without so much as an interview?

It is not unreasonable to question Ferguson’s judgment after some of the decisions he made during his final years in charge at Old Trafford. In previous years he wouldn’t have signed Bebe for £7m on the recommendation of an agent without ever seeing him play. He would have spotted the weakness in United’s midfield and sorted it out long before it became a major problem. Given the obvious weakness in that area he would have handled the Paul Pogba situation better, blooding him in the team and making him feel valued and wanted by the club.  

Six months into Moyes’ reign it is even more obvious that he is not the right man for the job and questions over the wisdom of his appointment remain.

It is fair to say that Ferguson left Moyes with a squad in need of some pretty hefty rebuilding work. However, this is the same group of players which won the league by 11 points last season and were unlucky to be knocked out of the Champions League by Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the second round.

They are nowhere near as bad as Moyes is making them out to be and his assertion that ‘there is an urgent need to sign players’ looks like a smokescreen for his own inability to get the best out of a squad which still boats the talents of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Adnan Januzaj, David de Gea, Nemanja Vidic, Shinji Kagawa, Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and Javier Hernandez – all players who would be welcome at every Premier League club.

The problem is Moyes and his old-school philosophy. Getting the ball wide and launching crosses into the box doesn’t cut it at the top level, especially when your wingers are as poor as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. United have been outplayed in a lot of games this season by teams who are prepared to keep possession and put them under pressure when they have the ball.

The lack of a top-class midfielder or two has again been glaringly obvious, but would new signings necessarily be the answer, when Moyes’ style of play is so primitive and outdated? Any potential signings who have watched United this season won’t be jumping at the chance to play Moyes’ one-dimensional football.

Moyes has his supporters and many people are calling for him to be given time, but how much time does he need? He’s had a whole pre-season and half of a Premier League campaign to get things right and still United look like a mid-table team, bereft of ideas and inspiration.

In contrast, Roberto Martinez has turned the Everton team Moyes left behind into a real force, who look far more likely to be in the top four at the end of the season than United do.

Martinez has turned Everton into a modern, attacking, flexible team in the same amount of time it has taken Moyes to turn the champions into a slow, one paced, predictable bunch of misfits.

Giving a manager time is all well and good if he is up to the job and you can see what he is trying to do and what direction is taking the team in.

None of this is apparent with Moyes. While the last few years under Ferguson wasn’t particularly inspiring, what Moyes’ team is serving up is utter dross. Swansea won while playing within themselves as they knocked United out of the FA Cup on Sunday and looked by far the more accomplished team.

If you could see signs of a shift to a more attractive style of play it would be easier to give Moyes time but there’s nothing there, no cause for optimism, other than the hope that the board will be big enough to realise that being ‘cut from the same cloth’ as Ferguson is not enough to qualify him for the task of succeeding him.

It isn’t Moyes’ fault that he had the impossible job thrust upon him, but he was never the right man and there is no reason to believe he ever will be.

Moyes out.

Moke pays for lack of patience

Amidst the frantic madness of transfer deadline day one signing will have gone largely unnoticed to everyone except York City fans.

This particular move wasn’t an earth-shattering transfer, or one of ‘Arry Redknapp’s last-minute panic buys, but a signing which showed that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Following York City’s double Wembley triumph last season, Adriano Moke turned down the offer of a new contract and left the club for Cambridge United, citing his desire for regular first team football as his reason for leaving Bootham Crescent.

His decision came as something of a surprise and most fans were sad to see a popular player leave the club, with the opportunity to play league football for the first time within his reach.

Manager Gary Mills had signed Moke – a pacy, tricky winger – from the Glenn Hoddle Academy and given him the chance to play professional football. He was by no means a regular but he played a part in the Minstermen’s promotion to League Two and their FA Trophy win last season and he showed glimpses of talent which suggested he could develop into an important player in the future.

Sticking with the Minstermen would have given Moke the opportunity to learn from Mills whose open, attacking, possession-based approach to football, using two wide forwards to support a lone striker, seemed a perfect environment for him to learn and improve.

He would certainly have had his chances in the first team this season with all of City’s wide players either struggling with injury or consistency at some point in the campaign.

However, Moke took the decision to stay in the Blue Square Premier and has now dropped further down the divisions, signing for Halifax Town on a non-contract basis, after being released by Cambridge. He is probably regretting not giving it another season at Bootham Crescent now, as his old team mates show they can more than hold their own at League Two level.

Moke isn’t the first player to find that there is only one way to go after leaving York City and he is unlikely to be the last.

Take Richard Brodie for example; although most fans will vigorously deny it now, he was a hero at City scoring 54 goals in his 94 league games, before moving to CrawleyTown for more money, and to be fair to him, the chance to play at higher level at a club who were on the up.

To the great delight of the City faithful, his big move didn’t quite go to plan and he went on loan to Fleetwood before finding himself back in non-league football with Grimsby Town.

Mills apparently toyed with the idea of bringing him back to Bootham Crescent earlier this season but fortunately for Brodie he was spared a reunion with the David Longhurst stand when the manager decided against it.

Another player who left in search of the big time was Alex Lawless, who forced through a move to Luton Town mid-way the 2010/11 season with both clubs chasing promotion.

Lawless clearly thought he had a better chance of promotion with the Hatters and Mills let him go rather than keep a player who wanted to be somewhere else.

At Wembley the following year, Mills was the man drinking from the promotion cup after City beat Luton in the play-off final, while Lawless drowned his sorrows and contemplated another season in the Blue Square Premier.

While it isn’t unusual for football players to move clubs in search of first team football or fatter, longer contracts, staying put can be equally as rewarding.

Goalkeeper Michael Ingham and long-serving defenders David McGurk and Danny Parslow have been at Bootham Crescent for many years and have managed to stick it out under some decent managers and some pretty useless ones. When City were lumping it long to Michael Rankine they would have been forgiven for looking elsewhere but they stayed loyal and have been rewarded by two Wembley appearances in one season and the chance to work under one of the best managers in the lower leagues.

York City’s grass is greener than anybody’s at the moment – just ask Adriano Moke.

Leaderless United need an enforcer

It wasn’t supposed to begin like this.

The pre-season optimism bludgeoned away at Everton by giant Belgian Marouane Fellaini, who bullied Manchester United into submission.

After the summer signings of Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie, United fans were beginning to believe that the pain of last May would be swept away in a flood of goals and attacking intent.

However, there was still that nagging doubt about the midfield, with most learned observers baffled by yet another transfer window passing by without Fergie even feigning an interest in bulking up the engine room.

Roy Keane has never been replaced after leaving for Celtic in 2005 and how United could have done with him at Goodison Park on Monday night.

No way, not in his wildest dreams, would Keane have stood by and let Fellaini do as he pleased, pulling balls out of the sky as if he was up against a team of ballet dancers.

Keane would have done something about it. It might not have been legal but he would have done something about it.

He might have put Fellaini in the stands, clattered him after the ball had gone, anything to put the Belgian, who had the freedom of the pitch, off his game.

Leaders like Keane don’t just stand by and watch when his team are being overrun, they take responsibility and find a solution.

United lacked a leader on Monday night.

There was some pretty football but that wasn’t getting the job done, they needed to fight and they didn’t.

Nobody stood up to Fellaini, not even Vidic, and that is what United fans have been getting at for the last few years. We need a new Roy Keane.

On a positive note, Kagawa looked like the player United have been crying out for; all movement, craft and skill.

Cleverley also looked like he can help move United closer to Barcelona’s planet with his touch, awareness and passing but they need a base to play from, someone to look after them and ensure they don’t have to worry about what’s happening behind them.

Paul Scholes is one of United’s greats but as he showed at Goodison, as his legs begin to slow once he gets a yellow card he is out of the game as a defensive force – one more mistimed tackle and he’s gone.

Michael Carrick, who was playing as an emergency defender, is a fine passer of the ball but he can’t drag the team through a game, like Keane could.

A midfielder who makes winning a game a personal crusade with a win at all costs attitude is what is required and until Fergie sees the light and buys an enforcer, retiring in a blaze of glory may be an unattainable dream.

Not a Nigel Jong, who is basically a criminal, but a Sergio Busquets, a Yaya Toure or a Javi Martinez who are aggressive and artful in equal measure.

United’s stable of attacking talent is the envy of most of Europe but without a leader to fight for their right to play it could be another trophy-less season.

Knives already out for Roy

In today’s Guardian there was a job advert from a Middle Eastern Government attempting to recruit a Torturer.

 It turns out it was all a marketing ploy by an organisation who support victims of torture, to get people interested in working for them.

Freedom from Torture can probably expect a call from Roy Hodgson in the not-too-distant future when the endless abuse and negativity surrounding the England Manager’s job all gets too much for him.

 Poor old Roy hasn’t even been allocated an office at Soho Square yet and already he’s the wrong man for the job.

 Here lies the problem with English football; if the popular choice doesn’t get chosen, it’s the wrong choice. What happened to giving people a chance? Hodgson, a respected coach throughout World football – apart from in England it seems – has certainly earned his shot at the top job.

 If the FA wanted an English manager, then nobody is better qualified than Hodgson. Not Harry Redknapp, not Alan Pardew and certainly not Stuart Pearce.

 Hodgson has broad horizons. He began his managerial career in Sweden where he won seven league titles and two Swedish cups with Halmstad and Malmo. A spell in Denmark brought more success with Hodgson guiding FC Copenhagen to a league and cup double in 2001.

 Some might say the Scandinavian leagues aren’t the strongest in the world. They aren’t, but you’ve got to start somewhere and Hodgson must be commended for starting out in unfamiliar surroundings and winning a lot of trophies to boot.

 He still had to build championship winning teams which he did on a regular basis before moving up the football food chain.

 Hodgson is highly regarded in Italy after winning more than half his games while in charge of Inter Milan – a big club with big-name players. He has also managed Udinese in Serie A. Why would prestigious clubs like these hire Hodgson if he is the mug the English public make him out to be?

 Hodgson deserves respect for somehow saving Fulham when they looked doomed to relegation and turning them into a top ten club. Not only that, he later guided them to the UEFA cup final beating Juventus and Wolfsburg along the way only to be pipped at the post by a good Athletico Madrid team.

 Liverpool noted Hodgson’s achievements and gave him the chance he deserved at one of the top clubs in his home country, finally his qualities had been recognised by his compatriots.

 Unfortunately, his big break was destined to fail thanks to the Liverpool fans, whose unhealthy fixation with anything Kenny Dalglish meant that Hodgson never got the time or the backing he needed to be a success.

Crucially, Hodgson already has experience of international football to call on, which will be vital with under two months to prepare the England squad for the European Championships.

He has managed at the World Cup with Switzerland and that ready made international experience will surely benefit him in the England job. He knows what to expect, he knows what is expected of him and the players and his vast experience of football across the globe surely makes him a stand-out candidate.

 The popular choice of course is Redknapp and it’s easy to make a case for him too. His teams play attractive, attacking football which we all want to see but he doesn’t have a magic wand.

 The England job is unique, better managers than Redknapp have tried and failed and maybe the obvious choice isn’t the route to take. Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were highly successful managers but couldn’t deliver what the fans expected, which suggests that the big name, big money formula doesn’t work.

Hodgson has earned his opportunity and England fans owe it to him and themselves to give him the chance to make it work.

Stay off the boos

Rational thinking is not a common trait amongst football fans.

Disappointment, elation, frustration and glory do not help to form reasoned, balanced opinions especially during or at the end of 90 minutes of emotional turmoil.

Fans pay their money every week and are, of course, entitled to express their opinions, but sometimes a little bit of reflection is required before indulging in irrational knee-jerk reactions.

After York City’s one nil victory over Luton on Saturday in the semi-final first leg of the FA Trophy, some fans booed the team as they left the Bootham Crescent pitch. Granted, The Minstermen only scored once against their nine-man opponents but they go into the second leg with a one goal advantage and managed to avoid conceding a dreaded away goal.

Clearly a two or three goal cushion would have made the return leg a lot more comfortable viewing, but if City score at Kenilworth Road, which they are more than capable of, a Wembley final beckons.

This is a crucial stage of the season, a stage of the season where the pressure intensifies and the players need the support of the fans. If the supporters are on their backs it is an extra pressure that they could do without and performances will suffer as a result.

It has to be remembered that this is the best City team for some time. Ok, they haven’t reached the heights of their early-season form recently but they haven’t turned into a team of Michael Rankines overnight.

Gary Mills is a fantastic manager and we must not forget that this is his first full season in charge. He had success quickly but every team in every league in the world have dips in form. City were conceding too many goals a few months ago, but Mills has addressed the problem and they have racked up four clean sheets in row.

Sometimes defensive stability has to come at the expense of some attacking vigour and until Mills can get the balance right he has to make locking the back door his priority. If City can maintain their league position by winning every game one nil until the end of the season, nobody will complain about a play-off trip to Wembley.

We all want to be entertained, of course we do, but as the season reaches its climax points not performances are the priority.

Manchester United fans have not been happy with the team’s performances for a couple of seasons now. The swift attacking verve that has been the club’s trademark in previous years has fallen by the wayside and a patchy more pragmatic style of play has taken over, but the fan’s know they have to trust Sir Alex Ferguson and although it might not be won in the manner the Old Trafford faithful would like, another title beckons.

Arsenal fans have long enjoyed their team’s pretty passing football but have become restless after their recent trophy drought and some are questioning Arsene Wenger’s philosophy.

The point is: you can’t be brilliant and successful all the time. Sometimes you can be brilliant and sometimes you can be successful, the difficult bit is managing to do both at the same time.

City have been brilliant at times this season, at the moment they aren’t that brilliant but are on the verge of success. Mills seems to be taking a slightly more cautious approach to ensure that his team makes it over the line and into the play-offs and a cup final.

Trust Mills. Support the team. Buy your Wembley tickets. Twice.

Capello deserves respect

Make no mistake, yesterday was a sad day for English football.

When news of Fabio Capello’s resignation as England manager was broadcast, there was no sense of disappointment, in fact, the reaction was completely the opposite.

The FA’s decision to strip John Terry of the captaincy without consulting Capello completely undermined the Italian’s authority and left him with little choice but to walk away.

But nobody seemed bothered by the governing body’s treatment of a manager whose record at the highest level of European football is second to none.

Capello was never really accepted by the media or the English public, which is baffling given his pedigree and the regard in which he is held within the game.

Success has followed Capello wherever he has been. He has more medals to his name then any England manager in history and considerably more than anyone in the frame to replace him.

He won the Scudetto with Milan, Roma and Juventus. He won La Liga in his first season with Real Madrid and he is a European Cup winner.

If that record doesn’t warrant respect, then what does?

As he is now, Harry Redknapp was the popular choice when Steve McClaren was sacked in 2007 but the FA, and Brian Barwick in particular, only had one man in mind and that was Capello.

Unfortunately for Capello, Barwick stepped down from his post as the FA’s Chief Executive shortly afterwards and the Italian had lost his main ally within Soho Square.

Right from the beginning of his reign as England manager, Capello had a number of obstacles to overcome. One was the language barrier – he vowed to learn English within four months – which he did but not as fluently as some would have liked.

The other barriers he had to surmount were a sad reflection of the insular small-minded nature of the English game and its followers; he was not English and he was not Harry Redknapp – the overwhelming choice of the media.

In short, Capello had to win the World Cup to stand any chance of being accepted.

We all know what happened in South Africa and it wasn’t pretty. Granted, Capello made mistakes but many of the players have to shoulder a share of the blame for the shambolic mess which culminated in a thrashing at the hands of Germany in the last 16.

Ironically the man at the centre of a public players’ revolt in the middle of the tournament was Terry, the very man who Capello stood up for and lost his job because of it.

The poor World Cup showing was a blow to Capello and his reputation, but he rolled his sleeves up, got on with the job and successfully guided his England squad through the qualifying group for this summer’s European Championships.

More importantly, he seemed to have realised that the so-called ‘golden generation’ were no longer the way forward and he was making positive changes to rejuvenate the squad with young, talented players.

There was a wave of optimism after the friendly matches against Spain and Sweden at Wembley in November, thanks to promising performances from Phil Jones, Jack Rodwell, Chris Smalling, Kyle Walker and Danny Wellbeck. Add that to the accomplished displays of Jack Wilshere at international level and the promise of Tom Cleverley and Daniel Sturridge and the future was looking bright.

Now, with the European Championships just five months away, England have gone from having one of the most decorated managers in European football at the helm to having Stuart Pearce in temporary charge.

If the FA want an Englishman as their next manager then the unfortunate truth is there isn’t an Englishman that can hold a torch to Capello.

Harry Redknapp is the people’s choice and would certainly be the best of the home grown candidates but it is a shame that we couldn’t embrace the talents of Capello who deserved more respect from a nation who claim to be the home of football.

Unfortunately the England job has descended from being the pinnacle of a manager’s career into a poisoned chalice. The man in the dugout is a sitting duck who gets mercilessly hammerred at the first sign of trouble.

Capello’s win rate of 67% is better than any of the last five England managers but, sadly, the job will be seen as a blemish on his CV.

Hopefully in the years to come England will appreciate Capello and respect his achievements.

As the old saying goes, ‘you don’t know what you’ve lost until it has gone’.

City slickers on the up

Just over fifteen months ago York City were in freefall, confidence was low and the club were in grave danger of slipping out of the Blue Square Premier.

Manager Martin Foyle who, after a promising start to his City career had overseen a dramatic slump in form which he couldn’t even begin to reverse, resigned with his team lying sixteenth in the league.

What followed was a masterstroke. After sifting through numerous letters of application the club’s Chairman, Jason McGill , made the best decision of his life and appointed Tamworth manager Gary Mills.

There was an immediate upturn in fortunes as Mills slowly and steadily steered the ailing ship to safety. He somehow coaxed some belief back into Foyle’s flops and City ended the season in eighth place.

The quality of football improved, gradually at first, as Mills sifted through the wreckage that Foyle had left behind. The dry land of the close season couldn’t come soon enough and when it did, Mills got to work; clearing out the dead wood and bringing his own players in.

The results this season are testament to Mills’ ability in the transfer market and on the training ground, with some fans already calling him the best manager the Minstermen have ever had.

He has turned City into Yorkshire’s Barcelona. The Nou York Camp.

Mills began his football career at Nottingham Forest under the great Brian Clough and by the age of 18 he was already in possession of a European Cup winners’ medal, after playing in the 1-0 win against Hamburg in the Bernabeu stadium, Madrid.

Mills’ playing career never quite hit those heights again and he became something of a journeyman, carting his boots around to Derby, Notts County and Leicester. However, the influence of Clough clearly had an effect on him.

Clough once said: “If god wanted us to play football in the clouds, he would have put grass up there.”

Mills is obviously a great believer in that very sentiment and that is borne out in the patient, possession-focused passing game he has introduced at Bootham Crescent.

Seasoned observers will know that this was no easy task. A significant number of the squad didn’t possess the basic technical skills required to fit into Mills’ blueprint.

Out went Michael Rankine, a lumbering brute of a centre forward, who had a touch like a baby elephant and a tendency to fall over the ball with alarming regularity. Peter Till a fairly talented and pacy winger but one who drifted out of games for long periods of time was also shipped out along with a host of other players who weren’t up to the standard Mills required.

Mills was looking for players who were comfortable on the ball, as well as being brave and technically proficient in possession. His philosophy is built on players who want the ball and are confident enough to play when they get it.

In came talented and hungry players in the shape of Jason Walker, Scott Kerr, Paddy McCloughlin and Ashley Chambers who, amongst other Mills signings, are perfectly suited to the way he wants his team to play.

Walker in particular has been a revelation, scoring 15 league goals and offering City the kind of threat up front which makes promotion back to the football league a real possibility.

There have been slight dips in form but overall Gary Mills’ City are on the up. They will almost certainly make the play-offs this season and have realistic hopes of promotion.

Mills’ revolution has been smooth, well planned, brilliantly executed and, above all, has been quicker than anyone expected.

These are exciting times for City’s long suffering fans. Yorkshire’s Barcelona are on the march.

Rooney falters as greatness beckons

One of the greatest tragedies in football is that of a talent unfulfilled.

There is something ruefully heartbreaking when the gifts of a player who promised so much slowly ebb away with the sands of time.

Eventually there is the sad realisation that everything we had imagined and hoped for will never happen as the end of a career forlornly arrives and the dream is over.

Many players have flirted with greatness over the years and for whatever reason have not quite scaled the heights that were seemingly mapped out for them.

Injury, off-field distractions, loss of
confidence or form, a lack of application, and mental fragility are all contributing factors when potential never quite evolves as it should.

Too many players have let their shot at greatness pass them by, some have made more of their gifts than others but it takes a special effort to touch the stars; artistry is nothing without application.

Wayne Rooney is a man for whom greatness beckons but he too is running out of time.

The Manchester United forward is 26 now, an age where a player of his considerable talent should be consistently dominating matches at the highest level and pushing himself into the company of the game’s all time greats.

All the tools are there, Rooney is a born footballer; he can pass, head, dribble, shoot; he is imaginative, technically brilliant and, like all top players he always finds space and the ball always finds him.

So, where’s the problem? What is stopping Rooney from ending his career deserving of a mention alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Johann Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane and Lionel Messi?

The problem is Rooney himself. There is no question that he is a born winner, his will to win is obvious, but like all geniuses his life is never straightforward.

Off the field troubles have punctuated his career; sleeping with geriatric prostitutes, unauthorised nights out, the taste for a crafty cigarette; not really hobbies which refine the mind and body of a top class athlete.

His most recent bust up with Alex Ferguson, over a night out on Boxing Day, which resulted in him being dropped for a home defeat to Blackburn showed that although he isn’t as professional as he could be, his value to the team is unquestionable.

Having said that, there are on the field problems too. He is prone to inconsistency, long scoring runs are overshadowed by frustrating barren spells and when things are bad for Rooney, things are awful. His touch is off, his passing radar is out and his violent temper bubbles menacingly under the surface.

To reach the heights he must scale in order to stand tall amongst the true icons of the game, he needs to achieve a constant level of excellence for the remainder of his career.

He is capable of a sustained period of brilliance, as he showed in the 2009/10 season when he displayed a potency in front of goal which made him the most feared forward in Europe.

He scored 35 goals that year before an ankle injury sustained in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final against Bayern Munich as good as ruined his season.

Such was the level he was performing at, United rushed him back for the second leg. He clearly wasn’t fit. Bayern won the game at Old Trafford and went through to the semi finals. Rooney wasn’t the same for the rest of the season and the injury contributed to a miserable display in the World Cup finals in South Africa.

The previous World Cup was no better for him. A metatarsal injury had put his place in the squad in doubt but he won the race against time to make the tournament only to be sent off in the quarter finals against Portugal.

Ironically, Portugal was witness to his best tournament performance. Euro 2004 saw the 18-year-old Rooney at his rampaging best, scoring four goals before injury stopped him and England in their tracks.

He has to hit those heights again in the two, maybe three international tournaments he has left. He also needs to rediscover the form he showed in that prolific season for United if he is to truly make the most of his rare talent.

Rooney’s hat trick against Fenerbache on his Champions League debut was one of the great entrances to the big time ever.

We were entitled to believe that we had witnessed the first coming of one of football’s greats. Sadly, his march to greatness has stuttered but the flashes of genius remain.

There is still time for Rooney, if he can find it within himself to confront the level of expectation he has to live with.

Greatness is within his reach, so near, yet so far away.

Beautiful Barcelona

Some people spend their whole lives searching for a moment of revelation which brings meaning and clarity to their world.

As football fans on that very same quest to make sense of life’s trials and tribulations, 2011 was confirmation that we have seen the light; we have found what we have been looking for ever since the game first touched our hearts.

When Barcelona thrashed the best South America has to offer on the way to winning the World Club Championship in Yokohama in December, it was the affirmation of what we have suspected for a couple of years now: Barcelona are the best team ever.

Santos, led by Brazil’s answer to Lionel Messi, mercurial forward Neymar, were given a complete footballing lesson by this enchanting Barcelona side.

It was billed as a shootout between the best two forwards in the world. In reality, it was a no-contest. Messi was at his brilliant, bewitching best, scoring twice, the first a deft lob that can only be executed by the divinely gifted.

Xavi, the great midfield playmaker scored a quite brilliant goal made possible thanks to a sumptuous first touch, and Cesc Fabregas put the gloss on a spectacular performance, stabbing home the fourth and final goal of a 4-0 win.

Now South America can see that we aren’t making this up, Barca really are that good, better even than the iconic Brazilian World Cup winning team of 1970.

Ganso, Santos’ beaten midfielder and one of Brazil’s brightest prospects said after the game: “I have no great aspirations to play for Barcelona, but I would give anything to play just one game for them.”

The evidence that bears out Barcelona’s credentials as the best team ever is beyond reasonable doubt.

The football that Pep Guardiola’s team play makes them one of the wonders of the modern world; a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that we should cherish while we can. We are witnessing football that has never been seen before, a style of play that is beyond reproach and out of the reach of mere mortals. This is football from another planet.

Since they outclassed a very good Manchester United team in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome the Catalans have been consistently brilliant.

The game in the Stadio Olimpico was a graphic illustration of what Barca are all about.

Cristiano Ronaldo, in his last game for United, tried in vain to win the game on his own, his selfish performance in stark contrast to Barca’s relentless team ethic.

Their team is full of superstars yet there are no heroes. Each and every player knows his place in the team and works tirelessly to ensure the philosophy functions to perfection.

Their tireless pressing game forces the opposition to make mistakes deep in their own half ensuring that Barca are nearly always on the front foot. Their non-stop workrate also ensures that the man in possession always, always has at least one option allowing them to play the beautiful passing game that has become their trademark.

Since Guardiola replaced Frank Rijkaard as manager in June 2008, Barca have cleaned up, they have enjoyed almost constant success.

He stepped up from coaching Barcelona B to take charge of the first team at the end of a season which saw the Catalan giants finish third in La Liga, 14 points behind bitter rivals Real Madrid.

Guardiola led his team to the treble in his first season in charge, becoming the youngest manager ever to win the Champions League.

The following year they retained their league title but were surprisingly knocked out of the Champions League by ultra-defensive eventual winners Inter Milan managed by Jose Mourinho.

In 2011 Barca won their third league title in a row and regained their rightful title as kings of Europe.

Although the volume of trophies Barca have won in such a short space of time is staggering, it’s the way they have won them that is important.

Catalan-born Guardiola, a graduate of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy and a key member of Johann Cruyff’s dream team which won the club’s first European Cup in 1992, is a disciple of the total football model that the Dutchman introduced during his eight years at the Camp Nou.

Guardiola has remained true to Barcelona’s values and traditions and his faith in the La Masia way is reflected in his team’s unrivalled style of play. Many of his team are also graduates of the club’s academy which is gloriously evident in their commitment to playing football the right way.

Xavi, Messi, Andres Iniesta and co have turned keeping posession into an art form, it is simple but beautifully executed and enthralling to watch. Their speed of thought and fleet of foot mean that they can retain the ball almost effortlessly for long periods of a match, choosing the right moment to attack with purpose and deadly intent.

It is difficult to identify another team in the history of the game who can hold a torch to the style and majesty of Barcelona’s game. Some might say that Guardiola has got lucky with the pure brilliance of the players available to him at one time and it is unlikely that he could replicate his philosophy elsewhere with a different, less talented group of players.

That is a different argument for another day, instead we should enjoy this great team while we can; we are seeing history created before our very eyes and for that we should be eternally grateful.