Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Leeds United: The ongoing circus

Leeds United president Massimo Cellino took control of the club on April 5th 2014, with his company, Eleonora Sport Limited, purchasing 75% of the clubs shares. 

Ever since then, this once great football club has become a media circus and a laughing stock for opposing supporters.

However, there might finally be light at the end of this very dark tunnel. Rumours have been circulating these past few days that the owner is looking to sell to the fans.

The first chapter in this story was the underwhelming and hugely surprising appointment of ex Forest Green Rovers manager Dave Hockaday. Here was a man with no football league coaching experience and with a relegation under his belt from the Conference in his first season at the New Lawn.

He did manage a top 10 finish with Rovers but this was hardly going to inspire confidence in the fans considering the rich history and tradition of the club.

It was a bold move by the Italian and against the sign of the times, showing that there was someone out there who had some faith in lower league managers after all.

Unsurprisingly his stay didn't last long and a record of win in the opening month of the season was enough for Cellino to give him the boot after just 70 days.

Next in the hot-seat was Slovenian Darko Milanic, who was brought in from Austrian side Sturm Graz and had won nine trophies at Maribor in his homeland. To say his stay at Elland Road was short would be an understatement. He was sacked in October 2015 and lasted just 32 days after failing to win any of his 6 games in charge.

A week later another new man was at the helm, this time Cellino decided to promote from within and ex Barnsley and Charlton midfielder Neil Redfearn was given the reigns on the 1st November 2015 until the end of the season whilst also being given assurances that if it did not work out he would be able to go back to his old job at the academy.

Redfearn managed to steady the ship but mid table was as good as it got and his position wasn't helped by the fact that he was under pressure not to select top scorer Mirko Antenucci due to a clause in his contract if he reached the 12 goal mark.

To make matters worse, on the 18th April 2015 a collection of Cellino signings including Antenucci, Guiseppe Bellusci, Souleymane Doukara and Marco Silvestri controversially pulled out of the match day squad to face Charlton Athletic due to "injury", which they duly lost 2-1.

His position was further undermined when the owner went public on the 16th May 2015 in an interview with the Sunday Mirror with his assertions that Redfearn was "weak" and a baby".

The writing was on the wall and on 20th May 2015 ex-Wigan and Brentford manager Uwe Rosler was announced as Head Coach of Leeds United football club and this was announced before Redfearn had even been publicly fired.

Rosler lasted 12 games after winning just 2 of those in charge, leaving the Whites in 18th place. The same day another new man came in to the hot-seat.

Ex-Rotherham boss Steve Evans has been tasked as the latest man to try and bring success to this once great football club. How long he lasts is open to debate. But one thing's for sure if the club remains under current ownership it won't be for long.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Tranmere Rovers: Fall into the abyss of Non-League football

The 25th April 2015 will go down as the darkest day in the history of Tranmere Rovers football club. A 3-2 defeat to Plymouth Argyle at Home Park meant back-to-back relegation's and put an end to a 94 year stay in the football league. 

For a club which finished as League Cup runners-up as recently as 2000 and was on the verge of Premier League football in the mid 90's it is a shocking fall from grace. So where did it all go wrong?

As usual fans will point to the board but it has been a mixture of factors which has contributed to the club's decline.

Long term under-investment is a key factor. Back in 2009 then chairman Peter Johnson cut costs which was introduced to try and save the club £1 million a year.

Manager Ronnie Moore was fired and became the first casualty of the cost cutting, this was after guiding the club to a 7th placed finish the previous season in 2008/09 campaign. A heavily cut budget for the playing squad was next.

The sacking of Moore was surely a mistake as it is him who has led Hartlepool United to the great escape this season and kept their place in the football league at the expense of Tranmere. The irony!

Before suffering relegation from League One last season, Tranmere were competing with one of the lowest budgets in the division over the last five years so it was always inevitable that the club would sink to the basement division sooner or later.

Although to everyone's surprise in February 2013 Rovers were leading the pack top of League One until fallen away and finishing outside the play-off positions. Ever since then, the club's fall has been staggering.

Lack of support has been another key factor and one which has always plagued the club. Huge clubs such as Everton and Liverpool are right on Tranmere's doorstep and this will always make it difficult for the club to attract fans to Prenton Park.

A club is always going to struggle to make ends meet when their outgoings are more than their income and Rovers have been fighting debt for quite some time.

There have also been murmurings that the players bought into the club found it difficult to handle playing for a "big fish in a small pond" so to speak.

Tranmere are seen as a big club in the choppy waters of the third and fourth tiers and the fact they will be playing non-league next season puts it into perspective.

Another reason for their decline is the high turnover of manager's. They have never seemed to have continuity and consistency and constant upheaval at any football club is never a good sign.

It is paramount the club get it right next season in the conference (to be known as the national league next season) and a coach with non-league experience seems the right way to go,

Gary Mills, who has done such a fantastic job at Gateshead is being linked with the position and this could very well be the perfect appointment such is his know-how of the league having managed various clubs in the division throughout the years.

Now the club is going to have to get used to going to such places as Dover Athletic, Altrincham and Braintree Town. A far cry from trips to Portsmouth and Plymouth Argyle.

Lessons will need to be learnt from this disastrous turn of events and the sooner Rovers get back to the football league, the better.

However, as other former football league clubs who have moved the drop into the conference have found out, gaining promotion back is no easy task.

Since being relegated, Wrexham, Grimsby Town and Lincoln City have spent numerous campaigns in non-league and the conference is a notoriously hard division to get out of such is the quality of clubs in it.

At the end of the day the longer Tranmere Rovers take to get back up the harder it will be. It promises to be an intriguing story whatever happens.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Klopp to move on to pastures new

BVB Borussia Dortmund head coach Jurgen Klopp has today announced he will leave the club this summer.

It is not a huge shock taking into consideration the club's fall from grace this season where they currently sit 10th in the standings. Rumours have been rife that Klopp felt he had taken the german giants as far as he could and that he was looking for a new challenge,

It seems a good fit for both parties. BVB have had fantastic success ever since Klopp took the reigns in 2008. They have won two Bundesliga titles back-to-back, a German cup and were Champions League runners-up in 2013.

The former Mainz coach transformed the club from mid table also-rans to german champions in a few short years and his legacy will live long in the memory.

He is currently odd's on to be given the reigns at Manchester City once the Etihad hierarchy dispense of Manuel Pellegrini's services.

If he does get the job at Manchester City, he will be looking at a major overhaul of an ageing squad. The likes of Yaya Toure, Martin Demichelis, Vinceent Kompany, Edin Dzeko, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy are all looking past there sell by date and all have been key players over the past few seasons. James Milner is another who looks almost certain to be on his way out and Klopp will have a major job of reconstructing this squad. Others such as Fernando and Jesus Navas haven't exactly set the world alight and will also be moved on for knockdown fees.

However, there is also money on him taking over from Luis Enrique at the Camp Nou this summer. Real Madrid could be another possible destination with Carlo Ancelotti's future less than certain. Laurent Blanc's time in the french capital could also be coming to an end if they fail to retain their Ligue 1 title and the Parc Des Princes is another possible option for him.

The Barcelona option is surely more appealing as the squad is a good age and has bags of ability from back to front. Add to the fact the club can resume buying and selling players in january 2016 to add to talent such as Messi, Neymar,Suarez, Iniesta and Rakitic and you would think Klopp would be hard pushed to say no to an offer from the catalan giants.

Real Madrid is a similar challenge of course with a squad much the same level as Barca's but some would say there is that little bit more pressure to win trophies with a certain style of play at Real rather than at Barca, despite there being huge pressure at both clubs.

The fact that Ancelotti's job is under pressure after winning "La Decima" last season, especially after numerous high calibre manager's had tried and failed over the years speaks volumes.

Clubs such as Real and Barca are always looking at where the next trophy is coming from rather than living off of old successes and this is something Klopp must be able to handle if he ends up at Bernabeu or Camp Nou.

The PSG challenge is a slightly easier task than the City, Barca and Real jobs. Only Marseille, Monaco or Lyon are capable of challenging the parisian giants for the league title and all three clubs have nowhere near the resources as PSG. Looking at the squads in Ligue 1, on paper PSG should be walking the league title every season.

But as we know football is not settled on paper but whatever way you look at it Klopp would be almost guaranteed success in the french capital should he take on this project.

Whatever happens, it seems Klopp is destined to end up at one of europe's elite clubs and after his success in his seven years at Westfalenstadion it will be richly deserved.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Talent Scout: Luke Garbutt

Born in Harrogate and having come through the ranks at Leeds United, Everton snapped up Garbutt as a raw 17 year old and he has taken his time to make his mark having signed a contract back in 2011.

Over the last six weeks or so, thanks to injury to first choice left back and star man Leighton Baines, Garbutt has been a first team regular and seems to of grabbed his opportunity with both hands.

But with everybody fit, he is Everton's third choice left-back, but that is a moniker that is already sounding a bit daft as his recent performances are more than good enough to earn a starting place in most premier league team's starting eleven.

Having already made 8 starts for the Toffee's this season, his reputation is growing with every passing week and if it were not for Leighton Baines being at the club, there is no doubt he would have made this left back spot his own.

A supremely gifted crosser off the ball, like Baines, he is also a set piece expert and has come agonizingly close a couple of times to netting his first goal for the club. He is also fast, a pre-requisite for any full back worth his salt and hoping to make the grade at the top level. Simply, he has all the qualities required to make a splash at premier league and international level.

He has represented England at U-16, U-17, U-18 and U-19 level and it is only a matter of time before he earns an U-21 appearance. But with the way he has been playing there is every possibility he may be fast tracked straight to the national squad such has been the level of his performances.

However with his contract due to expire in just 3 months time, supporters are starting to get nervous that he may well decide his future lies away from Goodison Park if he is demoted to the bench once Baines returns (which is what happened against Newcastle last Sunday). It is imperative Everton tie this one up as quickly as possible as there will be other club's sniffing around and hoping to nick the young Englishmen on a pre-contract.

Left back is the position where Everton are arguably strongest. Baines is undoubted first choice at the moment, whilst it is looking like Garbutt has usurped the Costa Rican Bryan Oviedo. There are doubts whether Oviedo will take kindly to being third choice left back and it is almost inevitable that either Oviedo or Garbutt will move on at the end of the season.

Whatever happens from now to the end of the current campaign, Garbutt has put himself in the shop window and shown he is a very talented left back with a big future ahead of him.

Whether that is at Everton or elsewhere remains to be seen.

Should the club and player not come to an agreement, there will certainly be be no shortage of takers.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Analysis: Same old problems at Grass-roots level

For some years now, English football has had a big problem at grass-roots level. The influx of Foreign talent in the mid nineties effectively put a stop to local talent breaking through into clubs first team's and since then the problem has got worse year-by-year. It's not just the players either.

Foreign tycoons have been arriving on British shores now on a regular basis ever since Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich began the trend back in 2003, which meant buying a football club, using it as their toy and doing with it whatever they see fit, usually without any prior knowledge of the game and ending with dire consequences.

However, there is no doubt that Sky, who changed football for ever in 1992 and which has pumped billions of pounds into the Premier League transforming it into the world's finest, has had the biggest impact on the rest of football, hitting clubs lower down the ladder with a domino-like effect which continues like an Avalanche sweeping all before it.

Lower league and grass-roots football has been hit hardest, as UEFA “A” Licence holder and former Barnsley and Plymouth Argyle Head of Youth Development Officer Stuart Gibson explains: “It's a disgrace. Everyone knows there is a lack of facilities and coaches. There is no incentive for coaches to make careers at Youth and Schoolboy Level”.

Gibson, who can boast a plethora of Youth Development and coaching roles at clubs such as Darlington, Plymouth Argyle, Barnsley, various clubs scattered across Scandinavia and has a close contact in the form of ex-Premier League manager Paul Sturrock, knows what he is talking about.

From the outside looking in, the average football fan on the street knows that youth development is the lifeblood of football and every single football club, whether your based in Barnsley or Bermuda it does not matter. Stuart Gibson explains what it takes to produce young players and what is needed to enable them to reach their full potential: “You have to create an environment where the players can develop and grow, with good staff and a solid backing of the manager and the board.”

However, the F.A have started making waves and look to find a solution to the problem as they are all too aware of English football's biggest problem. So much so that they decided to build a brand new State-Of-The-Art Football Centre at St George's Park in Burton-Upon-Trent in Staffordshire in 2012, (at an original cost of £80 million which ended up spiraling towards £105 million) with the facilities primarily being used as the focal point for the FA's coaching and development work.

It is a step in the right direction but you get the feeling this has should of happened twenty years ago. Whilst Spain and Germany have won major trophies such as the World Cup and European Championship thanks to their excellent facilities and focus on youth development, England have been left behind, with only a Quarter Final defeat to Brazil at the 2002 World Cup the best they could muster on the international stage.

As English football fans, we can only hope that the FA's St George's Park facility and new found focus on Youth Development breeds England's own Xavi or Bastian Schweinsteiger in the not so distant future.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

RB Leipzig: The New Force in German Football

RasenBallsport Leipzig, to give the club it's full name, was founded as recently as 2009, after Energy drinks manufacturer Red Bull bought out German fifth tier club SSV Markranstadt with the long term goal of playing top flight football within ten years.

The energy drinks giant, who owns Leipzig and owns five other clubs on six continents, are an enterprise worth an estimated £2.58 billion pounds.

It is this kind of financial muscle which has transformed this small provincial club from East German minnows to the up and coming power in German football and on the verge of Bundesliga football for the first time.

Ever since the former club of SSV Markranstadt changed hands back in 2009, the rise has been meteoric.

Playing in the backwaters of the German fifth tier when Red Bull took the reigns, they stormed to the title at the first time of asking and were promoted to the Regionalliga Nord in their first full season.

It took three years of consolidating at that level before gaining a further promotion up the ladder to the third tier. Just one season in 3. Liga, finishing as runners-up, was all it took to get to their current level.

Their first year in 2. Bundesliga has been one of consolidation and they look well set to finish in a mid table position at the very least. 8 points off the automatic promotion places with 13 games left, they could yet well make a push for promotion this season. Though, having spent almost £15 million in the summer, dwarfing every other club's spending power in the league, a tilt at the top three shouldn't be too far out of reach.


Despite only being in existence for 6 years, with the backing of Red Bull, the club clearly has enormous potential.

This is backed up by Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who talks about the possibility of the club challenging Bayern Munich in the future and winning a Bundesliga championship. 

When your football club is backed by one of the world's leading brands and that brand comfortably makes it into Forbes rich list on an annual basis, anything is possible.

To add weight to claims regarding Die Bullen's potential, the owners of Red Bull have openly admitted that RB Leipzig are now their priority and not Red Bull Salzburg, as has been the case previously when it comes to their sporting ambitions.

There are a few important reasons for this. Firstly the club continues to dominate the Austrian Bundesliga (they have won five of the last 8 league titles) but also continues to lose it's best players.

Secondly, the dream of Red Bull Salzburg reaching the promised land of the Champions League group stages is yet to come to fruition.

Thirdly, there seems to be a feeling that the ceiling has been reached and the club has gone as far as it can go, despite regularly qualifying for the Europa League. 

This of course is good news for fans of RB Leipzig. With the amount of money that has already been pumped into the club when the owners were treating this as secondary to the Salzburg project, one can only feel that we have only seen the start of what is going to possibly become one of the biggest transformations of a football club in modern times.

Every successful football club needs a good structure in place, right down from the President to the Head Physio. RB Leipzig have this in abundance.

They have a solid structure in place with a lot of experience in high places. Former France and Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier is the current Global Sports Director. 

Former Schalke manager Ralf Ragnick (who splits his time between Salzburg and Leipzig) is the club's Sports Director whilst Hans-Jurgen Kreische, who had a spell managing Dynamo Dresden in the mid 90's and has 50 caps for the former East Germany, is Chief Scout.

The fact that Ragnick is to end his alliance with Salzburg and concentrate fully on his job at Leipzig at the end of this season, is further proof the owners at Red Bull are serious about their ambitions in making the club one of the heavyweights of German football.

Red Bull Arena

Die Bullen (The Bulls) have an impressive stadium to call home too. Shortly after the Energy Drink consumers takeover, the club moved into the Red Bull Arena (formerly known as Zentralstadion), a 44,000 capacity stadium which is also used to host other events such as music concerts. 

It has since been upgraded with the club's logo on the arena's roof exterior, new seating installed, executive boxes and re-modeled VIP area. 
It has recently been ranked 17th best in the country based on safety, number of events and attendance. An impressive statistic when you keep in mind this is a club which has never played in German football's top flight.

Final Word

There is only one place RB Leipzig are heading and that is to the higher echelons and maybe the very top of German football. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Nurturing Talent: The Crewe Alexandra Academy

Mention the name "Crewe Alexandra" to your average football fan and chances are the words "Youth Academy" would be mentioned in their reply.

Crewe's Training and Youth Facilities (known as Reaseheath) are well and truly above the standard for clubs in League's 1 and 2.

The training ground has recently been improved with a new classroom and new physiotherapy rooms which is typical of the club's desire to keep progressing.

The idea of the Academy is for young players to focus on technical excellence, as Gradi likes his teams to play attractive, sexy football.

Since the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) came into play, every football club in England running a Youth Academy is now graded from Category 1 to 4 (1 being the highest).

As it stands, The Railwaymen have been awarded Category 2 licence which has them at the same level as clubs such as Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Premier League clubs Swansea City, Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers. Quite an achievement for a club with a stadium capacity of just 10,000 and an urban population of just 67,000.

Down the years numerous talents have come off of the Crewe conveyor belt. Names such as ex-England midfielder David Platt, ex-Celtic midfielder Neil Lennon, ex-Leicester midfielder Robbie Savage and ex-Liverpool man Danny Murphy have all come through the Youth Academy.

To be fair, David Platt actually started his career at Manchester United as an apprentice but he had the majority of his development at Crewe before moving on to Aston Villa 3 years later.

Other players of note to of forged somewhat of a successful career having come through the Crewe Academy are ex-Leeds and Derby man Seth Johnson, ex-England striker Dean Ashton (who's career was cruelly cut short by injury), ex-Wolves midfielder Geoff Thomas, ex-Middlesbrough man Craig Hignett and ex-Liverpool right back Rob Jones, who also managed to pick up 8 caps for England.

The majority of these players went on to enjoy highly successful careers, gaining international recognition and playing most of their career's in the top flight.

Of course, there are many others who have made it after graduating from the Academy, making a good career for themselves at Championship level e.g. Nicky Maynard.

This speaks volumes of the hard work put in by the staff at Crewe and none more so than Crewe Alexandra legend Dario Gradi.

A Local Legend

"Legend" is a word banded about all too often in today's society. But Dario Gradi is just that. What he has done at Crewe in his near 32 years at the Alexandra Stadium is quite remarkable.

From 1983 to 2007, Gradi was manager of this tiny club and took it from being regular wooden spoon artists at the bottom of the league to a club other club's looked on with envy due to major restructuring of the club from top to bottom.

When he took over way back in 1983, they were regularly finishing at the bottom of the old Fourth Division and had been forced to apply for re-election on several occasions in order to stop dropping down to the Football Conference and Northern Premier League before that.

He has transformed the club and it's reputation over the years and now Crewe are known as a club with the most famous and most successful Youth Academy in all of lower league football. 

He is the main factor and reason why the club has produced and continues to produce top class footballer's good enough for the top level. 

The focus of the Academy has always been to produce players for the first team and possible transfer of players in the future. 

It is a model which is highly respected throughout football. However, it doesn't always work out as current manager Steve Davis explains: "You have to give these boys a chance. Sometimes they take you down, sometimes they get you promoted. You have to add a bit of experience to the team to help them along the way. But you have to be brave and courageous in playing them."

Brave and courageous - they certainly are that. Approximately 75 former youth players have made it into the first team, a number not to be sniffed at and a number envied throughout the English leagues and indeed Europe. 

He also managed to take The Railway Men to the dizzy heights of the 2nd tier, playing at Championship level for 5 consecutive years between 1997 and 2002, on a club income most clubs wouldn't be able to survive on. 

They also enjoyed two years back at this level between 2003 and 2005, before again getting relegated to the 3rd tier - a level which they have failed to return to.

A brief 2 year hiatus from club management between 2007 and 2009 was in store when Gradi took up the reigns of Technical Director at the Alexandra Stadium.

He would return to management in 2009 for a further 2 years before resuming his Technical Director role, where he remains today at the age of 73.

Due to his amazing achievements, he has been awarded the PFA Merit Award (in 2004) for his services to football, a much deserving recognition of his nurturing of young talent. 

The same year he was also inducted into the English Hall of Fame due to his managerial achievements in the lower leagues.

In 2011 he was again honored for his work at Crewe with the accolade "Outstanding Contribution to League Football".

A Dream come true

Dario Gradi's wish to see Crewe field a team of 11 Academy graduates finally came true when in April 2013 manager Steve Davis did just that, naming a starting 11 who were all Crewe Academy graduates.

An outstanding achievement in today's football world of foreign mercenaries and highly paid journeyman.

It is a feat quite unbelievable in the modern era and no one could deny Dario Gradi that satisfaction after 32 years of good old fashioned hard work.