Hello again, dear reader. My apologies for such a substantial delay in posting, I’m pleased to see my good friend Mr Mantle has kept this place ticking over, but it’s about time I played my part.

Now there have been a few interesting topics since I’ve been away: Capello and England, Danny Murphy’s mouth, Marlon King’s return to the game and Arsene Wenger’s ‘war on tackles’ to name just a few. However, in this week there is only one place I can start: Wayne Rooney, and Manchester United.

I see Mr Mantle has posted on the topic already this week, clearly taken in by the idea that Rooney was away to pastures new. Now I never totally accepted that idea, and the reason why was Fergie himself. Normally when a player crosses the manager at United he is out the door in less time than it takes Rio Ferdinand to say “drugs test”. However, the key was in Ol’ Red Nose’s language: “my door is always open”.

Let’s be honest here. If this whole argument was about money, there’s no way Rooney would have wanted to leave. Manchester United, no matter how much debt they are in, can and will match anybody in the world as far as wages for top players go. Anybody. And that includes both Manchester City and Chelsea, as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona. When this is considered, you have to assume that there is something else in this whole stance.

It is easy to say (indeed many already have) that Rooney has disrespected the fans and the club by his stance. Perhaps my views are because I’m not a United fan, but I entirely disagree with Hayward and his ilk. I think Rooney’s stance showed him to be at one with the United support, positioning himself with the green and gold campaign seen in Old Trafford each and every week.

“But Mike, he asked to leave…” I hear you ask. Indeed, that he did. But what better way to criticise the club’s owners by demanding a transfer, even when you don’t actually want to leave? If that isn’t a big “we’re going backwards” type of statement, when the best player at the club publicly questions the ambitions of the country’s biggest club, I don’t know what is.

This time last year, Rooney made a public statement which said that he wanted to stay at United for the duration of his career. Had that really changed in just  12 short months? Of course not, and despite the off-field activities of ‘Shrek’, United was as good for him as he was for them.

So now United fans feel let down by Rooney. What I have to ask is ‘why’? Because he questioned where United were going? Because he felt United couldn’t sign the kind of player that’d take another European Cup to Old Trafford? Because he questioned whether United could attract the best players in the city of Manchester, let alone England? Where have we heard this before? At last, one of your biggest players has come out and said exactly the same message as you have all been giving out for years.

Much like Liverpool under Hicks and Gillette, the debt at United is gradually strangling the club. The money that is generated through the turnstiles, the TV revenue and merchandise is now being spent on servicing the ridiculous-near BILLION pound debt acquired by Mr Glazer, rather than being reinvested into the squad or (heaven forbid) reducing ticket prices so ordinary fans can turn Old Trafford into the cauldron of noise it should be (think Celtic Park on a European night.)

I’d suggest United fans should use this as a springboard to continue the campaign to rid the club of the Glazer family. Continue to question the ambition of the club under the Americans. Continue to ask why Fergie isn’t given the kind of cash to match your “noisy neighbours”, especially when you consider how much is made by the United ‘brand’ (I now feel very dirty, thanks.) And continue to ask how you can replace Cristiano Ronaldo with Nani.

Although I do have to be honest here and admit that I find the state of United quite amusing. It’s almost like Fergie is playing a real life game of Football Manager, selling all his best players and signing Steve Guppy in their place. As to whether this is good for English football though is certainly open to debate…

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I just had to comment on the big story of the week so far. Javier Mascherano, the captain of Argentina and an integral part of the Liverpool midfield decided he ‘didn’t want to play’ against Manchester City on Monday night. He decided that the club who pay his wages, his team mates, and the fans that idolised him weren’t worth his time and effort. What an utter disgrace.

I had liked Mascherano since he moved to England. He is ideal for the Premier League, strong in the tackle, fairly quick, and above all, he has ability on the ball. Yes, he can be a bit of a hothead, but all the best players have that ‘nasty’ streak (with the exception of Gianfranco Zola, clearly. I’m thinking Bergkamp, Cantona, Keane, Viera, Scholes etc).

However, he had seemed to learn from his red card at Old Trafford against Manchester United in 2008, and was one of Liverpool’s better players in a poor year last season. But all respect I had for him has gone following his show of complete disrespect to all around him. Firstly, he is disrespecting his fellow professionals. Players like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, Liverpool boys who have dedicated their career to the one club.

Now normally, I’m not overly concerned about players being disrespected. I don’t care too much when we see the Press criticising players for their actions (or lack of) both on the field and off. However, these circumstances are entirely different.

Secondly, he is disrespecting the club. That same club who has given him the platform to play at the highest level, in the Champions League, and in the upper echelons of the Premier League. The club that pay him millions of pounds a year to do something that many of us would do for nothing.

And thirdly, he has disrespected the people who matter most to the game, without whom, football wouldn’t exist. Of course, I’m talking about the fans. Football managers of the past would regularly talk about the privilege of the players, reminding their players that supporters, especially in traditional working-class areas such as Liverpool, had worked hard all week in order to be able to go to football, and that the players had a duty to entertain them. Supporters deserved to see their teams give every ounce of effort they could muster, and if players weren’t prepared to do that, they should accept their fate in the reserves for weeks to come.

Can you imagine then what a Shankly, Stein, Busby or Clough would say to Mascherano? In excess of £50,000 a week, a good portion of that coming out of the pocket of the fans through their tickets, yet he has decided against playing for them? I think the first thing Shankly would have said would be “Tommy, break his legs” towards the legendary Liverpool skipper Tommy Smith the moment Mascherano walked back into training.

And of course, Mascherano is not on his own. Charles N’Zogbia is trying to force a move from Wigan through to Birmingham, and Asmir Begovic (who?) is another who refused to play for his club. This is just utterly wrong. To me, it’s like putting in a miserly bid for a house which is rejected, and then camping on their lawn until they accept the same miserly offer. It’s just not on.

Cesc Fabregas was in a similar position. He clearly wanted to leave Arsenal to return to his boyhood idols, Barcelona. However, he also understood that in order for him to do that, the two clubs had to agree a fee. As the two clubs couldn’t agree on a price, he had to stay at Arsenal. Did he go on strike and throw his toys from the pram? No, he has buckled down, worked hard, and prepared for the new season.

I hope that the managers of Liverpool, Wigan and Stoke are successful in acquiring players who actually want to play for their clubs rather than these mercenaries, but if not, I’d love to see all of them simply rot in the reserves for an entire season. Cases like this have to make Jimmy Hill wonder if forcing the game to end the ‘Maximum Wage’ law was really a good idea after all.

Of course, you have to ask how and why this can happen, and the answer is simple: the players have been ‘tapped up’. Now we all know that tapping up is against FIFA’s laws, so why are clubs who do it not brought to justice? Why are contracts not worth the paper they’re written on? We are going to see more and more strikes until FIFA take action to put the power back in the hands of the clubs.

Where’s a Bill Shankly when you need one?

So the issue of the final Champions League spot has once again raised it’s head today. The Premier League are said to be considering the option of introducing a play-off to decide who gets the fourth slot, and with it, the millions of pounds that qualification provides. And it would seem from early reports that it has the backing of 16 clubs. I’ll bet it has!

Surprise, surprise, the four who are against the proposal are the so-called ‘big 4’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Now, I’m no supporter of these clubs, and have been crying out for a change in the status quo, so I’m quite vociferously behind any side who can break this stranglehold. However, despite my original excitement at the prospect, I’m not convinced I’m behind the idea.

Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but this feels very much like a money-making scheme, and I’m sure Sky will have pound-signs in their eyes at the prospect. Whilst the idea provides additional excitement, and stops games from being a non-entity in the middle of the table, I’m not convinced it’s for the good of the game.

A friend of mine has already suggested that this is a slippery slope, and to a degree I agree with him. After all, if this is a success what comes next? A relegation play-off? Maybe a Super League-esque Grand Final to decide who wins the Championship?

And what about in international years? This means that at the end of the season, the players from 4 clubs have further risks of getting injured, which ultimately does not benefit the national game. Imagine in a World Cup year, just a few weeks before the tournament begins, Steven Gerrard breaks his leg? Or Wayne Rooney? Particularly as the Play-Off involves 4 sides, there will be at least three more matches (going by the basis of a two-legged semi final, with home and away fixtures and a one-off final match at Wembley) that’s a lot of risk to take with players.

However, I have a proposal which both shakes up the Premier League and is only one extra match. Now I’ve long supported the idea of the FA Cup winners getting the final spot, which will completely revolutionise the competition. Indeed, this idea has the backing of many, including Platini and former England striker Gary Lineker. However, I’d suggest the Premier League are less than keen.

Despite that, a play-off between the Cup winners and the fourth-placed team would be my proposal. I’d like to see this as a one-off match, played at Wembley or Old Trafford, and thus reducing the risk of injury to players. This way, it would ensure that sides field a full-strength 11 and breathe a new lease of life into the FA Cup. And at the same time, would provide an opportunity to shake up the status quo.

Who knows, it may even provide some of the smaller clubs with a European adventure, and gradually erode the stranglehold the ‘Sky Four’ have on the English game.

As always, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Apologies in advance, I feel a rant coming on as my nerves have been jangling for weeks now over the future of Notts County, and the facade of the Munto Finance era. Fortunately, it looks like the club has been rescued after Ray Trew’s investment, although our grand plan has to be culled.

Whilst some of us feel disappointed, angry or just plain broken-hearted over the whole affair, most of us are at least relieved that the club will live on. But Notts are by no way unique in their plight, and it is only a matter of time before one of the 92 clubs is officially wound up. But just how has it got so bad?

Well, the birth of the Premier League brought about a new era, with a bold ambition of becoming the ‘greatest league in the world’. Some would argue the aim was achieved (coincidentally, I wouldn’t. La Liga all day for me, but I can see the merits of both arguments) but at what price? The Premier League was to have more television coverage than ever before, more cameras, and ultimately, more money. And with it, the game officially moved from a sport into a business.

Now I’ve argued with people for years that football is more than a business. Indeed, I truly believe in the romance of the game. The idea that a tiny club can climb the leagues and survive with the big boys, or maybe sneak a cup win here or there, that fans of every club will one day have their day in the sun. Fortunately, there are some that agree with me. Others call me naïve or an idealist at best, or something I’ll not publish in a family friendly blog at worst.

I’ve had rants before about football ‘no longer being the game of the people’. Ticket prices in this country are getting to the point where they are simply disgusting, but that’s true in most sports. Indeed, I was quoted £120 for a Six Nations ticket recently, so it isn’t football alone. But now, the clubs themselves are truly suffering, and the recent court cases truly illustrate that.

Now the big issue here is that clubs are riddled with debt. Indeed, Manchester United, the biggest club on Earth, have a total debt of £716m. This is quite simply because when the Glazers bought United, they were able to buy them with borrowed money, which was financed against the club. As a result, the most profitable club of them all is hemorrhaging money. It is little wonder that United fans are so unhappy.

And then there is Liverpool. A club like United, purchased by American owners. Greedy American owners, at that. Another great institution of the English game, saddled with horrendous debt. Clubs like these though will never go under because there will always be somebody who wants to own them. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with the less fashionable clubs.

Indeed, as well as Notts, Portsmouth, Southend and Cardiff are all finding themselves going through her majesty’s courts at the moment, and Crystal Palace may find themselves heading that way in the not-too-distant future. Now I hope that these clubs are rescued, I really do, as the last thing I want is for any club to go out of business. But we need to stand back and look at the game, and take off the rose-tinted specs Sky have so kindly given us.

I know this next sentence will get pelters but I really don’t care, so here goes. Platini is right. There, I said it. (Although if Platini was consistent then I think all of us would have more respect for him. What about Real Madrid’s debt, for example? But that’s for another time, let’s worry about English football for now.) I would actually support sanctions against clubs who spend too much of their annual turnover. Platini has suggested an idea that clubs should be banned from European football if they overspend. It is certainly worth considering if applied consistently.

I’d also suggest that the Football League and Premier League work together to drive debts down. It is fair to say that now the only way clubs can succeed is if they have a ‘sugar daddy’, especially if you think about small clubs. Gone are the days when clubs could work their way up the leagues on footballing ability alone. And this in itself is sad.

Indeed, we have managers in today’s game who would rather finish 3rd or 4th than win the FA Cup. I find this preposterous, but it is of course the entry into the Champions League and all it’s riches. But the ownership here has to be questioned. The Football League, Premier League and the FA need to ask potential owners what their intentions are when they come into the game. Are they there to make money (the Glazers) or do they wish to stabilise clubs and win trophies? Owners who come in with the intention of making cash, and without any real interest in the game should not be able to buy football clubs. Indeed, had there been a better ownership system, Manchester United would never have been bought. I do like to contrast United and Liverpool with Aston Villa, who have a fabulous owner. But I digress.

In summary, this ultra-capitalist era of English football will undoubtedly have casualties, but the powers-that-be need to act to minimise these casualties. It is time for a change in ethos, a time to ensure the future of the game, and a time for football to become a sport again, and not solely a cash-cow. In the process, they might attract the working man back to the ground, and stop the steady switch of the man in the street to becoming an ‘egg chaser’.

I never want to see my club in court again. I’m sure fans of Pompey, Cardiff, Southend and Palace feel the same way. We need action to ensure that’s the case.

As always, I’d appreciate your feedback.

So here’s a first on my blog. Wait for it….I agree with Arsene Wenger. There, I said it. Wenger has frustrated me greatly this season, but his comments surrounding Mick McCarthy’s team selection against Manchester United were spot on.

Wenger claimed that Arsenal were competing against United over only 37 games now, not the whole 38, and I don’t care how you look at it, the view is very solid. For those unsure what I’m talking about, manager Mick McCarthy changed his entire out-field 10 for the trip, leaving out every player who had played in the win at White Hart Lane. The 3-0 defeat then was somewhat inevitable.

Of course, there are some who will argue that McCarthy can pick any team he likes for the match. I’d like to see you argue that point to the 3,000 or so Wolves fans who made the trip north.”42 quid to watch the reserves” was belted out by most in that number, many of whom will have put a trip to Old Trafford in their diaries from the moment the fixtures were announced.

Whilst I understand McCarthy’s  thinking behind this move, wanting to give his players a break in a long, hard season, his actions are flawed at best. The beauty of the Premiership is that no side is invincible, yet McCarthy’s actions seemed very much like he was taking his side up there to lay down and get ran all over.

This league is supposed to have sides competing to the very best of their ability. Wolves proved they have that ability by winning at Tottenham on Saturday, a feat not too many sides will manage this year. Manchester United had also been beaten at home, proving that if a side showed some ambition, a victory was possible.

McCarthy’s attitudes reek of defeatism, and I would hate to see other managers follow his lead. How many would decide ‘Old Trafford? No chance, let’s send the kids up there’ I wonder? I’d like to think not many, but I’d implore the Premier League to act fast and fine McCarthy, with a suspended points deduction if he decides on a similar act when Wolves have to visit Chelsea or Arsenal.

However, the one biggest surprise for me here is Wenger actually saw the team list. It’s not like he sees anything else, is it?