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