Sunday, March 10, 2019

Enter the Big Guns

The Round of 16 Second Legs this week offer some tasty morsels

The Round of 16 Second Legs this week offer some tasty morsels

Who will win this season's UEFA Champions League?

All we know for sure so far is that Real Madrid will not make it four in a row.

Los Blancos' submission before an ebullient Ajax was a death long foretold, with the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane in the close season and the cack-handed hiring and firing of Julen Lopetegui sure signs of a listing ship about to keel over.

Four teams have already made it to the quarter-finals but none were among the pre-season favourites: Ajax, Manchester United, Porto and Tottenham Hotspur. 

This week we will know the other eight, with bigger cannons being rolled out on deck. If the second legs throw up no shocks then Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City will be in the hat as well.

Atleti have the incentive of the final this year being played at their new home ground, the Wanda Metropolitano, and looked imperious in the first leg, winning 2-0. However, it is too early to write off the runaway Serie A leaders, Ronaldo and the cauldron of the Juventus stadium hauling back two goals. Los Colchoneros are favourites but this tie is far from over.

The same night, Tuesday, Manchester City host Schalke 3-2 up from the first leg. It is hard to see Pep Guardiola's team squandering three away goals but the fact Schalke breached their defence twice in Gelsenkirchen will keep them on their toes. A strange rumour surfaced last week that the Catalan will swap the Etihad for Juve next season. But if he captures an unprecedented four cups in a season..?

Barcelona and Bayern both drew their away legs 0-0, the lack of away goals rendering their goalless draws less an advantage than they might appear. While the Camp Nou should prove too much for Lyon, the Bayern v Liverpool clash on Wednesday should be a real cracker.

Jurgen Klopp has plenty of history with the Bavarians, not least the 2013 final with Borussia Dortmund. His rejuvenated Liverpool were beaten finalists too last season and are hungry for success this season domestically as well as in Europe. Bayern however are seemingly perennial inhabitants of the last four of the Champions League and at home must start as favourites.

While Real failed to match their five straight European Cups from the 1950s, Spanish league teams have won the last five Champions Leagues. A win in 2019 for Atletico Madrid or Barcelona would equal England's six in a row streak between 1977 and 1982.

After Spurs and Man Utd's unlikely advances last week, the possibility remains of half the last eight coming from one country.

Now Real's latest golden age is over, if Atleti or Barca are not to keep La Liga's flag flying at the summit of Europe, then it could be the start of another English reign.

Tuesday 12th March

Manchester City (3) v (2) Schalke 04
Juventus (0) v (2) Atletico Madrid

Wednesday 13th March

Barcelona (0) v (0) Lyon
Bayern Munich (0) v (0) Liverpool

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, March 4, 2019

Remembering the Dynamic Duo


First published in 1980, "With Clough by Taylor" is a frank and fascinating insight into English football's most famous managerial partnership and has just been reissued by Biteback Publishing.

To recall, Brian Clough & Peter Taylor took two provincial teams from the East Midlands, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, from the English Second Division to the heights of European football in the 1970's, an unprecedented and unmatched achievement.

Remembering the Dynamic Duo
With Clough By Taylor
Both clubs became league champions under their tutelage, Derby reached the semi-finals of the European Cup and Forest won it twice.

The pair, who had played together at Middlesbrough, found their contrasting personalities formed an electrifying cocktail in management across five teams. Their partnership was possibly football's finest, a famous male bonding commemorated in the film version of David Peace's dark and wonderful novel 'The Damned United'.

While Clough stole the limelight with his mesmerising personality and need to tell the world what he thought about everyone and everything, it was Taylor's diligence in the shadows that was fuelling that famous chutzpah.

As his partner reveals, Clough had endured spells of serious self-doubt such as when his playing career was cut short by injury, or when he was sacked by Derby, Hartlepool and Leeds.

Clough was an expert at tying up transfers, often talking his way into prospective players' houses and befriending their parents, but Taylor had a hawk's eye for spotting talent  in the first place, particularly ageing or overlooked players.

Their capture of 30-something Roy McFarland was instrumental in taking Derby to the top while they managed to turn a number of apparent journeymen at Forest into European champions.

Equally astute as their hiring was their firing - dismissing players at their peak before their transfer value dipped, a policy Taylor explains was the same as trading shares on the stock market.

He is disarmingly frank in his explanation of his methods, admitting the pair would tell new signings they would be moved on as soon as their form dipped and a better player became available. And yet they also forged great team spirits, as their results show.

Taylor put much stock in a player's character and for him the most important football skill was being able to pass well under pressure.

His way of assessing players ultimately was quite similar to the Ajax TIPS system - measuring technique, intelligence, personality and speed. The Dutch giants, along with Barcelona, actually came calling for the pair, leaving us to only wonder how Cloughie would have dealt with Diego Maradona.

Forest ironically was the biggest job the most talented managerial duo ever had. Despite overwhelming public support, Clough (and presumably he would have brought his wing man) was passed over for the national team, so in the book Taylor relishes demolishing Ron Greenwood's England selections.

Some of their methods are unthinkable today - Cloughie asking a difficult player to punch him, or the pair handing out beers on the bus to a big match to calm their nerves, but their results did the talking.

They were not perfect - Taylor admits to misjudging Asa Hartford and spurning the chance to sign a young Kevin Keegan, but their formula was mostly a winning one.

"The basic element is togetherness," he explained. "We're always picking up each other's thoughts and finishing each other's sentences - we're a twosome speaking as one."

What is also fascinating from the book is how different their characters were. Taylor explains how Clough needed company while he preferred solitude and how Clough was a monk pre-match and a talking head afterwards and he was the opposite.

As it happened, the apparently inseparable pair who had flourished together at five clubs finally fell out and did not speak for the last seven years of Taylor's life.

Apparently Clough had no idea Taylor was writing this book and did not take kindly to it either. The pair parted definitively when Taylor, then Derby boss, signed a Forest player behind Clough's back in 1983, causing Clough to denounce him as a snake in the press.

Football's strongest partnership, the Achilles and Patroclus of the East Midlands in the 1970s, was suddenly no more and would never be again.

But nevertheless Taylor's long-term football partner dedicated his autobiography, which is far less interesting a read by the way, to his old pal thus:

"To Peter, still miss you badly...You were right."

Buy this book from Amazon: USA | UK | Japan

Clough Related

Nottingham honours its sheriff

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kepa's Last Stand


It was the most unexpected spectacle.


An otherwise lethargic League Cup Final sprung unexpectedly into life when Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to leave the field while being substituted at the end of extra-time.

Nobody watching could recall from their years of watching the game, a player refuse outright to go off when substituted. Kepa's refusal to leave the field will go down in football history.
As penalty specialist Willy Caballero waited patiently on the touchline to replace the Spaniard and take on his former Manchester City teammates from 12 yards, Kepa gestured angrily towards the bench, shouting "No!" repeatedly at his manager Maurizio Sarri and assistant Gianfranco Zola.

As Kepa kept his ground and refused point-blank to budge, an exasperated Sarri almost walked out of Wembley, sensationally.

Kepa then saved one City spot-kick but teammates Jorginho and David Luiz missed theirs, handing the Cup to Pep Guardiola's side, an almost forgotten footnote in the aftermath.

So in failing to make way for Caballero, Kepa had made a rod for his own back should Chelsea have gone on to lose the shootout. In disobeying orders, he only piled more pressure onto his already beleaguered manager, whose authority was already in ubiquitous question.

Only recently Sarri had lamented his players were proving difficult to motivate and today they failed him by not rushing to urge Kepa to leave the field and back their boss in the process.

Luiz was the only colleague who spoke to his goalkeeper during his two minutes of madness; skipper Cesar Azpilicueta was nowhere to be seen.

Any manager will tell you that the loneliest and lowest feeling is when they feel they have lost the dressing room.

The referee spoke to both parties but could do little as the rules dictate a player can refuse to come off.

Post match Kepa and Sarri insisted it was all a misunderstanding of a couple of incidents of cramp in the lead-up to the substitution, but caught on camera with millions watching, the footballer's defiance of his manager, whatever was the motive behind the change, was plain to see.

It cannot be right when hierarchical control disintegrates unless that rule is particularly unfair and counterproductive, but Sarri was perfectly within his rights to substitute Kepa.

Moreover, English football uses the word manager for what most languages call a coach or trainer for a reason and so when that authority is undermined, a team cannot be directed anymore.

Since no organisation can function without a chain of command and universal acceptance of the rules. Kepa's blatant disobeying of his boss must not go unpunished.

The 24 year-old's future at Stamford Bridge looks in question all of a sudden, but Sarri will probably walk the plank first.

Despite grabbing a sack of trophies in the last decade including the Champions League and Europa League, Chelsea are a ship adrift in early 2019.

The Blues seem unable to keep a manager respected for more than a season, have seen an ambitious stadium redevelopment stalled and are set to lose their best player Eden Hazard to Real Madrid in the summer.

Days before the final, FIFA announced a two-window transfer ban to make matters worse as punishment for signing underage players.

Their current manager is stuck in a rut and gloom is enveloping his reign in only its first season but the club has ridden a merry-go-round of coaches in recent seasons.

Perhaps worst of all is their current form - four defeats in seven games has unsurprisingly seen the side slip down to sixth spot and in real danger of missing out on the Champions League next season.

For a club which a decade ago looked like dominating European club competition for some time, this is suddenly becoming a dark chapter in Chelsea's history.

Player power saw Sarri's predecessors Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte leave their jobs prematurely and it looks like claiming a third victim.

If Chelsea are looking for a cure for their latest malaise, they could start by stopping the children from running the school.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Goalkeeper With Magic


"I was ready to celebrate, but then this man Banks appeared in my sight like a kind of blue phantom."

Even Pele was stopped in his tracks by Gordon Banks, the world's best goalkeeper in his day, who has died aged 81.

A World Cup winner with England in 1966, he is perhaps best remembered for his wonder save from Pele four years later in Mexico, a stop often dubbed the greatest in football history.

Almost half a century later, Banks' diving flip to deny the world's best player is still astonishing in its athleticism, snatching victory from certain defeat, an almost extra-terrestrial action on the football field.

A Goalkeeper With Magic

His nonchalant trot back head down across his goalmouth to defend the ensuing corner shows the other side of his character - a decent, modest yeoman warrior not given to blowing his own trumpet loudly.

In both tournaments Banks was in imperious form and might have won a second Jules Rimet trophy had he not mysteriously gone down with food poisoning on the eve of England's quarter-final against West Germany.

The fact he was the only player to fall ill, from a suspected contaminated beer, and he was England's mighty guardian, was very suspicious.

"Of all the players to lose, we had to lose him," rued manager Alf Ramsey.

To this day no proof of foul play has come forth but rumours abound that the CIA wanted England out so that Brazil would win the World Cup and in its elation the country would not fall to the communists.

Banks was the unlucky hero whose beer was duly poisoned as part of a political game, so the theory goes, but other bizarre events accompanied England in that tournament, which give weight to the conspiracy theorists.

The fourth of England's 1966 side to die, following Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson, Banks was along with Moore and Bobby Charlton, one of the three players in the side who was genuinely world class.

The boys of '66 have attained a sacred status in England because the Three Lions have failed to win anything before or since so the loss of another of that heavenly eleven is the shining light of a star going out for good.

So the tributes have been pouring in from the likes of fellow custodians like Peter Shilton, who followed Banks path to England and the World Cup via Leicester and Stoke.

"I'm devastated," said Shilton. "Today I've lost my hero."

"One of my inspiration, a winner and a true gentleman," opined Peter Schmeichel.

"I am one of the many who built their dreams on your perfect save!" tweeted Gianluigi Buffon.

"Definitely England's greatest goalkeeper," said Ray Clemence.

Growing up I was taught England made the best goalkeepers and that tradition surely started with Gordon Banks' tenure between the sticks.

Goalkeeping demands a range of skills -  agility, elasticity, anticipation, presence, strength, communication, handling and distribution for starters.

But Banks' letter to journalist Lee Marlow, much shared on the web today, shows the Sheffield-born shot-stopper knew his craft like an old master.

"Always know where you are in the goal," he wrote, "narrow the angles down and make it as hard as possible for the striker to score...the more you play your eyes will get better at spotting the angles. You will begin to know where the ball will go..the eyes pick up the direction of the ball, how it floats through the air and send messages to your brain and then to your games like table tennis. That will sharpen your with a smaller have to be brave to come out for crosses or dive at the feet of a centre-forward...and be brave too if you lose or make a mistake."

Shilton noted that Banks put in extra training to hone his art when it was standard practice to go home at lunchtime.

Banks played a total of 558 league matches - 23 for Chesterfield, 293 for Leicester, 194 for Stoke as well as 73 for England.

In 1972 he had a head-on collision in his Ford Consul with an Austin A60 van and lost the sight in his right eye. He never played again in England but five years later turned out for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the USA and was voted goalkeeper of the NASL season to boot.

If Lev Yashin was the world's best custodian in '66 and Dino Zoff was in 1974, for that period in between until 1972 it was the mild-mannered Yorkshireman who never played for a big club who was the best in the world at his job.

When he went back to football having lost an eye he became truly heroic.

What everyone agrees on beyond his goalkeeping prowess was how pleasant a man Banks was off-field, an immediately likeable and trustworthy chap.

"A fierce opponent and a good man. Rest in peace Gordon Banks", tweeted the German Football Association today.

The last words go to Pele, who was denied a famous goal by magic hands which instead made a famous save, the best-known in football's long history:

"He was a kind and warm man who gave so much to people," the Brazilian legend wrote on his Facebook page today.

"So I am glad he saved my header - because the act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure...Yes you were a goalkeeper with magic. But you were also so much more. You were a fine human being."

Gordon Banks 1937-2019.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fifa World Rankings February 2019

Fifa World Rankings February 2019

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for February 2019 were published on February 7 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

In the first rankings for 2019 there is no change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, runners-up Croatia, beaten semi-finalists England and Portugal.

The full top ten is Belgium, France, Brazil, Croatia, England, Portugal, Uruguay, Switzerland, Spain and Denmark.

Senegal start the year as the top African team in 24 place. England remain in 5th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 27th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 38th in the list. The USA are in 25th. Scotland are 40th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 34th place, Northern Ireland are 36th.

1 Belgium
2 France
3 Brazil
4 Croatia
5 England
6 Portugal
7 Uruguay
8 Switzerland
9 Spain
10 Denmark
11 Argentina
12 Colombia
13 Chile
14 Sweden
14 The Netherlands
16 Germany
17 Mexico
18 Italy
19 Wales
20 Poland

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Wednesday, February 6, 2019



Ramon Vega will not be challenging Gianni Infantino for the FIFA Presidency this summer.

The former Celtic and Tottenham player failed to collect the minimum five nominations required from member nations by midnight last night, leaving his three-year campaign dead in the water and his Swiss compatriot free to carry on as the most powerful man in football after June's FIFA Congress.

Anti-Fifa Graffiti in Portugal
While any change had been welcome following Sepp Blatter's scandal-strewn reign, complaints are increasing about Infantino, particularly his authoritarian style of management and distribution of TV rights.

His desire to expand the already bloated World Cup to a colossal 48 teams as early as 2022 in Qatar shows he has lost little of his predecessor's megalomania.

In Switzerland, an investigation has been launched into FIFA hospitality offered by Infantino to Swiss prosecutors and other local bigwigs, confirming there has not been a completely new broom at FIFA HQ.

I wished Vega luck but could not help wondering why yet the only alternative choice for the head of world football after Blatter was another Swiss man, a monied banker to boot.

For some time I have been wishing FIFA to leave its snowy eyrie for pastures new.

Despite starting off in Paris in 1904, FIFA chose the Alpine nation for its HQ around a century ago when a number of international sporting bodies followed the lead of the League of Nations, which had set up shop in Geneva in 1920.

The International Olympic Committee and Court for Arbitration in Sport established themselves in Lausanne for instance while UEFA built a base in Basel.

Switzerland is a beautiful country which enjoys a high standard of living and quality of life of course and is perfectly sited between the three major continental nations of France, Germany and Italy.

Fifa HQ
Fifa HQ in Zurich, Switzerland
But crucially it is a neutral country which has a laissez-faire attitude to international money and no interest in flexing its political muscles on the world stage.

It asks few questions and imposes fewer laws, hence the proliferation of foreign financial institutions, which has given the phrase 'Swiss bank account' a shadowy connotation.

Bodies based within Swiss borders can effectively do what they want as there is no requirement for their accounts to be registered and scrutinized by the state for any illegality.

European Union membership it is needless to say has never been on the agenda for Switzerland.

This was perfect for FIFA as the millions accrued in sponsorship and TV rights poured in and the fat cats on the Executive Committee helped themselves to the cream.

Fifa Strasse
Fifa Strasse
The tsunami of corruption which drenched the reigns of Joao Havelange and Blatter tainted the FIFA brand, possibly forever but at least Blatter and his cronies - Grondona, Leoz and Jack 'Pirate of the Caribbean' Warner, have been turfed out.

Along with a major change of personnel, FIFA really needs a change of venue too. The Swiss location is too closely aligned with a whiff of malfeasance or at least having something to hide. With a lack of government oversight, the temptation to mishandle the money will always be there.

Fifa HQ Interior
Fifa HQ Interior

A move to a new and transparent country would send all the right messages.

So where could they move? A relocation to a big football nation like Germany might smack of bias to that country, but then again FIFA began in Paris and staying in France would not have been problematic.

Really FIFA should be based in London as that is the game's homeland but England missed its chance in the early 1900's to govern the game on a global basis, allowing the French and others to step in.

Luxembourg or Belgium, already home to multinational institutions like the EU and NATO, well connected and with a recent history of humility on the world stage, might best replicate the Swiss model.

But the chances of any truly radical change at FIFA are always remote and frankly wishful thinking.

How bizarre that such an insular and private little country indirectly wields so much power and that its citizens have been in charge of such a global concern for over twenty years now, or even longer if you count Blatter's ascendance to the role of General Secretary in 1981.

Isn't it time for FIFA to quit Switzerland?

From The Archives

Independent Ethics Committee bans Joseph S. Blatter and Michel Platini

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sala is lost but never gone


Gofundme page for Emiliano Sala
Gofundme page for Emiliano Sala ©

"Like looking for a needle in a haystack, when you don't even know where the haystack is."

The words of the former harbour master of Guernsey regarding the task of finding Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala were stark.

"I've been in football management now for 40 years and it's by far the most difficult week in my career by an absolute mile," stuttered the wizened and normally pugnacious Neil Warnock, the Bluebirds' manager.

The vanishing of the Argentine striker en route from Nantes to Cardiff a week ago, somewhere near the Channel Island of Guernsey, has transcended a mundane tale of a crashed light aircraft and turned into something of huge spiritual importance to the global football family.

For despite the manifest hopelessness, hope is refusing to quit. Against all logic, the search for Sala goes on, buoyed by a social media campaign which has yielded €300,000 in donations, including some from famous players like Kylian Mbappe, enough to procure the use of a submarine and surface vessels.

The quest for the missing footballer has become an affirmation of shared faith from a sport sometimes dismissed by outsiders as lacking profundity. Maybe it usually does, but the reaction to Sala's disappearance makes perfect sense to those in the know.

"Deep down in the bottom of my heart I know that Emiliano - who is a fighter - is still alive," said his sister Romina at a press conference four days ago, having jetted hastily and tearfully to Britain.

As long as we believe Sala is out there somewhere in the Channel we will keep looking for him because he was one of us and we look after each other in times like these. Ask anyone who has been in the military - you leave no man behind.

As children we all dreamed of being goalscorers like him, players with the privilege of pressing the ecstasy button of hitting the ball into the net. This tragedy has tapped into something from our childhoods, put simply the love of football.

His family has faith in finding him and faith matters to fans. As long as we have faith we will keep on going to watch losing teams, which most are. What unites us is not a belief in the cold and rational truth but a deeper human instinct:

To belong together.

The need to feel tribal is innate and intrinsic to this sport's following.  Win or lose we all take the same journey. Take that drug away and football folk will seek it elsewhere; it is a fire which cannot be dowsed.

Romina's determination to keep the flame burning therefore makes perfect sense.

Sala's unexpected vanishing struck a sudden chord across the soccer world. Radamel Falcao, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and the Argentine President Mauricio Macri amongst others tweeted pleas for divine intervention or a renewed search of the English Channel.

In a supposedly secular age, Twitter resembled a book of prayer intentions with the hashtag #NoDejenDeBuscar  - Don't stop searching.

In Nantes, the city Sala had departed after four happy years, Place Royale became a shrine overnight to the lost hero of Les Canaris, full of candlelit vigils.

Outside the Cardiff City stadium too, fans who had never seen Sala play and never will draped votive offerings of scarves, flags and daffodils to their eternal Bluebird. Football as religion? It sure looked like it.

The French and Welsh cities are twinned anyway through a shared Celtic heritage. It is hoped that Sala will bring their football teams closer together in future, perhaps through a regular charity match and fan association, the human symbol of their fraternity.

And as for the man at the centre of this devotion, will he ever know his fame, the cult his mysterious disappearance has engendered? One minute he was a footnote in the January transfer window en route to a relegation-threatened struggler, the next he was of the world's best-known players.

No black armbands were worn at the weekend despite the probability to the contrary so in challenging the laws of physics, the missing plane has assumed a Bermuda Triangles-esque character, open to magical interpretation.

Tonight at Arsenal, Cardiff City's team sheet included Sala's name at the bottom of its list of substitutes, a spirit player no plane crash could stop.

Gunners skipper Laurent Koscielny duly kept the faith in his programme notes:

"I am very happy that the searches are now continuing," he wrote.

It is still a deeply sad story, but tragedies bring out the best of humanity in those who react with love and solidarity.

What a strange and infathomable thing fate is and what an emotional and sacred thing football can be.

No Dejen de Buscar.

Emiliano Sala forever.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, January 21, 2019



'Spygate' has for my money been the biggest story so far this season in England and it has not been in the Premier League.

Marcelo Bielsa has been one of the most renowned coaches in the world for some years so there was some excitement last summer when it was announced that the Argentine was coming to England, albeit to the second flight, his seventh national workplace if you include his two crazy days at Lazio.

Leeds FC

So far so good as Leeds United are top of the league, but if the media throng around the Premier League had only glimpsed Bielsa out of the corner of their eye, the news that one of his staff had been stopped by police with a pair of binoculars watching rivals Derby County's training session from an adjacent hill certainly woke everyone in English football up.

As the mist has cleared, more people are realising there is a canny cat out there amongst the staid old pigeons. With a little research it would have been clear Bielsa is probably the most meticulous manager in the game, a fanatic football man who at 63 is not about to slow down.

In Argentina he drove around 9,000Km in his car to scout signings for Newell's Old Boys and embraces player analysis like an eager addict, spending hours and hours analysing, categorising and classifying his opponents down to each player. No wonder he has built a bedroom extension to his office.

Former players of his such as Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone as well as coaches like Jorge Sampaoli sing his praises while Pep Guardiola no less has called him the best in the world.

Gabriel Batistuta's testimony is priceless, saying it was Bielsa "who taught me how to train on rainy days." He is certainly one of the first names on our lips when we talk about influential coaches. His alumni have become disciples.

But has Bielsa erred in not studying England's football culture and traditions? Some feathers were ruffled by the revelation of covert surveillance of Derby training. According to Bielsa, when Derby manager Frank Lampard spoke to him about the event, "He told me I didn't respect the fair play rules."

Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown has called for a points deduction from Leeds for instance.

"It's the wrong thing to do. Poking around and skulking around a training ground is not part of the game," he told the BBC.

While apparently unsportsmanlike, there is unlikely to be any sanction as no rule appears to have been broken.

The idea that Leeds, who won the resulting match between the sides, would have gained some killer advantage by watching the Rams in training beforehand, is also hard to believe given the treasury of information available to all clubs in 2019 through advanced computer programs like Opta, Prozone and Wyscout.

These performance analysis apps tell you everything you need to know about a side's behaviour and style of play and their players' abilities, leaving no surprises when it comes to match day.

You can easily focus on a particular player and bring up videos of all the headers he has made that season for instance. Statistics will inform you what phases of the 90 minutes teams tend to score, attack and defend etc so it is hard to see what having spies in situ can do.

As the furore died down, Bielsa to his credit defended his actions, inviting journalists into Elland Road last week for a Powerpoint presentation on his analytical methods, which are common practice in the professional game, albeit largely invisible to the watching public.

"We observed all the rivals we played against and watched all the training sessions of the opponents before we played against them," he confirmed, revealing the spying was routine. "I've been using this kind of practice since the World Cup qualifiers with Argentina."

He went on that he watched opponents because "it is not illegal" and "even if it is not useful it gives me peace of mind."

He then said they watched every game their forthcoming opponent played the previous season (using aforementioned software programs) and that each match analysis took four hours. For Derby last season that entailed Leeds doing 204 hours of study, covering 51 different games.

What a far cry from Brian Clough's "Let them worry about us" mantra.

It worked in the sense that Leeds beat Derby and top the Championship. If all clubs are using the same computer analysis it makes sense to keep up with the Jones but was watching training necessary? Surely all the hours of matchday evidence is enough to form one's plan of attack.

On the other hand, Leeds have lost four of their last five games, three in the league and one F.A. Cup tie, so how useful has the spying and statistics really been?

After 200 hours' work of video analysis, watching your side then lose to a lesser opponent must be galling.

Leeds might have observed Derby practising a particular set piece routine for which they could have prepared countermeasures, but the possible advantage was surely a slim one. Maybe they were rather trying to spot which players were not training i.e. who was resting or carrying injuries.

Clubs can often give out false information about the fitness status of players in the run up to big games to throw their opponents onto a false trail so there is an argument that advantages, however slim, can be gained by surveillance. Whether it is cricket or not is another question, one harder to answer.

It seems Bielsa was genuine when he says he never expected this furore. Pep Guardiola concurred.

"In other countries everyone does it," the Manchester City manager said. "In other countries they (training grounds) are open. In Munich there were people with cameras watching what we do."

Pochettino also backed his old boss:

"Here maybe it is a little bit weird," he said, "but...that happened 30 years ago in is not a big issue or a big deal."

Some years ago I was living in Italy and would watch one of the best sides in Europe at the time, Parma - Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Faustino Asprilla et al, training openly in the city's Cittadella park once a week before signing autographs for fans.

That season Arsenal went on to beat them in the European Cup-Winners Cup Final in Copenhagen. Master tactician George Graham probably did not need my insider knowledge anyway.

Liverpool's Melwood training ground is famously so open that Colombian university student Juan Carlos Osorio rented a room in an adjoining house to observe their methods. The same man went on to coach Mexico at last summer's World Cup where they beat holders Germany and is now manager of Paraguay.

Jurgen Klopp however said the last two training sessions before a match should be kept private.

"You change a lot of things, you train on the set-pieces, you use the players available for the weekend, it's not for anybody else" he said, sentiments echoed by Crystal Palace's Roy Hodgson.

Swansea coach Graham Potter on the other hand disagreed. "I have no problem with it," he admitted "It's not something I am too bothered about."

"Watching teams on the sly is nothing new in football," agreed Alan Shearer, who said he deliberately placed penalties in the wrong places while training before overseas away fixtures in the host stadium because he was sure someone was watching him.

The Newcastle legend however drew a distinction between accessible training sessions and deliberately breaching or looking over erected privacy barriers, as happened at Derby.

Yet the revelation of Bielsa's practices does shine a little torchlight upon the hidden face of the sport, one of many practices which go on in the shadows and are not discussed in public. For that reason the reaction from those inside the game, ex-players and managers, has not been one of hysterical condemnation or demands for punishment.

The general consensus is that a man with binoculars on a hill was not quite within the spirit of the game and that someone should have a quiet word with Bielsa. At at the same time we ruefully acknowledge as Hull manager Nigel Adkins said, that "You can't keep secrets in football anymore."

From the tapping up of players to top stars sitting out cup games or mysteriously withdrawing from international duty, agents enticing managers to field their men, clubs tipping off loyal journalists in order to fulfil their ghastly media strategies or worst of all players accepting money from betting syndicates to influence outcomes, there are many things which happen in the shadows that the public simply does not witness.

For that reason alone, Spygate is the story of the season, a reminder that the game we think we know inside and out is not all that it appears to be.

Bielsa must be believed when he admits he is shocked by the reaction to his methods.

He should be commended for his honesty, although perhaps not his cultural sensitivity. Since the Derby revelation, 11 sides in the Championship have complained about spying by Leeds.

If we are all to accept this as part of the English game, there remains some convincing to be done, even if as universally accepted, no law has been transgressed.

If Leeds are playing Premier League football next season, the precious clubs of England's top division will doubtless be on the lookout for Bielsa's men and already heightening their walls, creating no-fly zones and planning to spike the Argentinian's covert operations with their own special forces.

Breaching the defences surrounding Manchester United's Carrington training complex will be like an attack on the Death Star, but be sure that Bielsa, like the young Luke Skywalker, will be up for the challenge.

In this age of cellphones, drones and the internet it is hard to believe there are any big secrets clubs can conceal in closed training sessions anyway. As Guardiola confirmed,

"Everyone is spying on everyone, on the personal lives of this man or woman. Everywhere is like this."

I actually do not live too far from Chelsea's training ground, and know the environs as I once did a junior coaching course there while it still belonged to the Surrey F.A.

If the weather is nice maybe I will pop down tomorrow with my bird-watching binoculars and see if I can figure out why Maurizio Sarri is playing Eden Hazard out of position and cannot motivate his team.

Bielsa has led the way again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Five Leagues and a World Apart


Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

My home town team Woking were the smallest club left in the F.A. Cup but we could not manage to beat the odds and make it to the fourth round, losing 2-0 at home to Watford yesterday.

Woking and Watford are similar towns in size and distance from the capital and their football clubs are of similar age, but today they play five divisions apart.

This salient fact makes the scoreline complement the Cardinals of the sixth-tier National League South, who pluckily took on a crack Premier League outfit. In reality we never threatened an upset, forcing Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes into only one save and missing one half-chance to score in the second half.

Watford meanwhile forged a string of occasions to score in the first half, only thwarted by last-ditch lunges and Woking goalie Craig Ross.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Their goals came in cruise control.

Will Hughes, slippery as an eel, had the luxury of no markers so could meet a corner kick first time to whip his shot into the far corner in the 13th minute.

Troy Deeney, who was playing with a smile on his face as if in a charity match, had an easy tap-in from close range an hour later after Woking's defence let a cross shockingly slip past them. "Sloppy mistakes", the Cards boss Alan Dowson rued later.

Watford boss Javi Gracia might have made 11 changes from their previous match but could still field ten nationalities including current or ex-internationals of Brazil, England, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Venezuela and former players of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Woking's players were all English with the exception of Jamar Loza, who has made three friendly appearances for Jamaica, and none earned more than £400 per week as the club is only semi-professional.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Against these odds, Jake Hyde's determined forward runs and substitute Armani Little's dogged attacking were worthy of medals for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

Woking's manager had spoken of an imminent cricket score beforehand, deliberately dowsing any euphoria or inebriated optimism.

The Cards motored away, thrusting at a superior foe who always seemed to have two or three players to close down our runners. We tried yet never came close to the prize, a universal truth recognised by the sustained applause at the final whistle, which was more like that of a classical concert, the managers' embrace and the relaxed player handshakes.

An annual narrative is how the F.A. Cup is not what it was, but for clubs like Woking it is still our only sip of ambrosia, a fleeting and infrequent moment in the limelight and a chance to slay Goliaths.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Giant-slaying is getting harder despite the fielding of B-teams by the big boys. Fitness levels and tactical preparation have advanced in the professional game and without the money, the Davids cannot keep up.

Gaps between divisions have widened so how on earth could anyone expect a club five divisions beneath the Premier League to have won through?

Our previous exploits against Everton, Coventry, Millwall, Brighton and Swindon are jewels in our crown, peaks we conquered or almost reached. The Koh-I-Noor for us will always be our 4-2 win at West Bromwich Albion in the 3rd Round in 1991, a day so blissful for our little team and town.

We will always have the Hawthorns. We just hope it was not our last moment in the sun.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Real Crisis


With almost half the season gone in La Liga, it is fair to say Real Madrid are in crisis.

That word is routinely abused by the Spanish press who band it about every week, normally on a Monday in the aftermath of a defeat or draw for Los Merengues, yet this time they might have a point.

A Real Crisis
Change is needed at the Bernabeu

Today the World Club Cup holders lost 0-2 at home to lowly Real Sociedad, despite fielding nine of those who won the Champions League against Liverpool in Kiev last May.

Europe's top side for the last three seasons now sit a woeful fifth after 18 matches, a full ten points behind eternal rivals Barcelona and even trailing Deportivo Alaves, one point outside the qualification spots for the Champions League, the competition they have won four out of the last five seasons.

On Wednesday Real host Leganes in the first leg of their last 16 Copa del Rey tie. Even though the competition is minor, only a win will do for a beleaguered club and its unexpected manager Santiago Solari, who was handed the reins on a temporary basis in the wake of the Julen Lopetegui mess.

Real's brazen capture of Lopetegui from the Spanish Football Federation saw the national team sack their coach on the eve of the World Cup in Russia amid a climate of insanity. Lopetegui was fired himself by Real three and a half months later and the club have still to find stability this season.

Second spot in La Primera is never enough for the insatiable Real directors, supporters and Real-obsessed Spanish football dailies AS and Marca, but European success makes up for a lot. The fact Real have won the last three Champions League in a row has handed the club precious bragging rights over the more stable Barca.

Florentino Perez, the man behind the badge, is holding out for a new leader in the summer. After raiding White Hart Lane for Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, he is keen to haul Mauricio Pocchetino and Christian Eriksen to Madrid as well.

If Solari is fired in the summer as is probable in favour of a big-name coach, he can at least point to his capture of the FIFA World Club Cup in December.

The Argentine was a logical choice given he had been coaching behind the scenes at youth and reserve level at the Bernabeu since 2013.

His insider connection should keep him in place until the end of the season, but if a resurgent Ajax should humiliate his side in next month's Champions League and qualification for next season be thrown into doubt by domestic stumbling, expect Perez to appoint his third coach since Zinedine Zidane called it a day in May last year.

Zidane had cited a "need for change" at the club when he surprisingly resigned, interpreted as foreseeing with foreboding the rocky road of rebuilding the spine of the side beyond the BBC attack and thirty-somethings Marcelo, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos.

The Cristiano Ronaldo era ended soon afterwards too, bookending nine amazing years in Madrid but leaving a hole in an eleven devoted to maximising his forward thrusts and a void in the club's identity.

Youth team talents hailed as future stars have not filtered into the first team while recent signings such as Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior (both €45 million), Alvaro Odriozola (€30 million) and Mariano Diaz (€21 million) have not won starting spots.

The long-mooted plan to redevelop the Bernabeu has also been put on the back burner again given the on-field chaos.

After half a year of chaos, the Frenchman's swift exit looks increasingly to have been a stroke of genius as change at the Bernabeu stays beyond the horizon.

Necessary reconstruction of the world's biggest club is no small-scale engineering project but nobody is ready to push the painful start button.

In the meantime, Real fans are thinking of 2020 already.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile