Dale delirium: Rochdale folklore in front of my own eyes

Dale


I’m writing this two days on.
I apologise for the lateness, Sunday was a fluorescent blur after 18:00, engulfed
with celebrations and alcohol. Monday was a sentence to the festivities of a pulsating
evening that will never leave the memory.

I have followed Rochdale for over a decade. Formerly a Manchester United fan, a Rene Howe hat trick stemmed my admiration for my hometown team that has created a terminal love. There is no treatment to supporting Rochdale. The odds – alike to surrounding teams such as Bury and Oldham – are stacked against you. Two behemoth giants in City and United less than 15 miles down the road heavily deter any Greater Mancunian team’s progress. We operate on a minuscule budget and that is putting it lightly. But we support our teams whatever happens. I follow Rochdale for local pride and proper football. I do not lust for my team winning trophies or signing £100m footballers.

Keith Hill is our best ever manager, assembling squads that have taken us along two promotions (2010 and 2014), a trip to Wembley for the Play-Offs in 2008 and cupsets against the likes of Leeds and Nottingham Forest. He produces miracle upon miracle and with him at helm and long-term Chris Dunphy in the boardroom anything is possible. We even bought our ground – Spotland – back, an astronomical achievement in securing our future. I love Spotland, a proper working class football ground. Close to the pitch, intimidating in atmosphere when at capacity and the best pies to boot.

Wigan’s triumph in the spotlight in the 2013 (and now again this year) cup shock against Manchester City and Oldham’s victory over Liverpool earlier in that year’s competition sparked celebrations amongst Dale, Shaker and obviously Latics fans alike. It was a breakthrough moment that whatever your finances or history – large or small – at the end of the day it’s 11 v 11, nothing else. The FA Cup is made for the unexpected…

I stood there on Sunday on the Sandy Lane terrace with a mate who’s been going to Dale since he was a kid and two relatives who had ventured from Devon in hope of the greatest of shocks. Rochdale, bottom of League One with 5 wins in the league, against Tottenham Hotspur – FA Cup royalty – fresh from a vintage away performance against Juventus and 5th in the top flight. This was David versus Goliath, except Goliath had the world’s best striker on the bench in Harry Kane to boot. No chance, not a chance. The ground was flow, burgeoning to overflowing towards the left-hand side of Sandy Lane where we stood. After all the smears and animosity Rochdale as a town has faced in recent years, this was our time to showcase what Rochdale Association Football Club and its supporters are about. And boy did the club and fans do the town proud.

I watched the match bemused. For most of the first half we were tactically astute with a ravishing passing game coupled with intense pressing of the opposition. Tottenham had left big stars like Harry Kane and Dele on the bench but still had a side which should have done the job – Son Heung-Min alone had contributed 37 goals and assists in 88 Premier League games. Plaudits have to go to the Dale midfield; Camps, Cannon and Kitching – young bodies with streetwise heads. They made supposed superstars quiver. And it was Kitching’s meticulous interception from England international Harry Winks which gave me and everyone in the ground a moment to last a lifetime.

Slickly playing in Andy Cannon, Cannon lifted his head to see Ian Henderson in space. Now bearing in mind Henderson had spurned two incredible opportunities already in the game, most strikers would have taken an extra touch, dilly-dallied or pass away responsibility. Not Ian. This man to me is the best player to play for Rochdale, mesmerising technique for somebody at third tier level and the scorer of iconic goals – Youtube his efforts against Leeds, Chesterfield and Cheltenham, outstanding. He finished first time aplomb, a low crisp finish giving Vorm no chance. Pandemonium ensues. The goal celebrations on Sunday didn’t really have a pattern or a shout like ‘GET-IN!’ to support the finish. I just screamed like a deranged beaver in truth. I couldn’t believe it. A wave of Dale fans leaping for uncontrollable joy on the terrace – the best feeling – for now. If you watch the goal back, there’s laughter. It’s probably a supporter down a Match of the Day microphone set up near the stand, flabbergasted like us all. Rochdale scoring against Tottenham and leading at half-time was frankly ridiculous.

The half-time whistle was met by a roar from three sides of Spotland and rightly so. Probably the best Dale performance I had seen. Stop the game now. We were prepared for a Tottenham onslaught and were sure of stars been brought on from the bench but for now, let us dream. Let us f***ing dream.

The second half started as expected. Pressure never-ending, Mauricio Pochettino’s men suffocating the Pearl Street end. Our defence and goalkeeper Josh Lillis were fantastic, but you can only hold for so long against Premier League calibre. Lucas Moura – making his first start for Spurs – lofted a delightful yet heartbreaking finish with his left foot over Lillis to equalise. I say heartbreaking, but at this point a replay guarantee’s a trip to Wembley, such a conundrum a win-win for everyone.

Except Tottenham obviously. They had the return leg against Juventus at Wembley less than 3 weeks away and engulfed in a pulsating race for the Champions League places in the league. They had to go for it. Dele and Harry Kane both entered proceedings – Kane on to make his first appearance at Spotland since his professional debut. It was fate for him to score.

The clock was approaching 90 minutes. Wave after wave of Tottenham attacks, like the herpes that would never go away (I don’t have herpes). A run was made by the energetic Danny Rose and a loose ball had made its way to Dele. Harrison McGahey had been excellent, assured at the back with Jim McNulty creating a stalwart effort. But McGahey was beaten by Dele’s burst of pace. Contact to the right knee, penalty. F***!

I have seen last minute trauma being a Dale fan. But I’d have rather been kicked in the balls than Kane score the oncoming penalty. But this is Harry Kane, the top-scoring striker in Europe last year for 12 yards. Karius produced a miracle to save one penalty for Liverpool against him, but this Kane effort was unstoppable. Buried low and hard to Lillis’ right, in my head Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’ starts to play, ever so woundingly. I must applaud Rose’s and the Tottenham fans for singing Ryan Mason’s name, apt and necessary after traumatising news that he’ll never play again after sustaining a fractured skull against Chelsea last year; one of their own. A heart-warming moment in a moment of turmoil for Dale fans. I can’t fault Tottenham fans, they and Dalians alike created an outstanding atmosphere. However, the decibel reading was about to go off the scale.

At 17:50 approximately, I think my soul left my body. Not in death but delirium. This for me was the stand-out moment in my journey supporting Rochdale – all the pain of relegation at Chesterfield and torture at Hartlepool forgotten in an instant. Matty Done like counterpart Joe Rafferty had phenomenal games at full back, Steve Davies laid off the ball to Done before bursting into the box. Now where we were stood our view was compromised, but Done’s devilish cross skimmed Toby Alderweireld’s majestic haircut, I knew the ball had reached Davies. A journeyman Scouser was set for the big moment. I had to rely on the crowd reaction to tell if we had struck gold. We did. It still sends shivers.

The scenes on television lived up to the hype. Ecstasy like I hadn’t ever seen live in person. The promotion campaigns of 2010 and 2014 were incredible, but nothing lives up to this – this was the best feeling. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, but it’ll probably beat that too. The entire Dale team piling on in the corner, supporters didn’t know what to do. My reaction consisted of hugs and amazement, as mentioned blur-like, out of body experience. We were going to Wembley. Oh my f***ing God. But perhaps Keith Hill’s celebration optimised it all. Looking ravishing in Peaky Blinder attire and sporting the best beard in the game, a roar projected to the home crowd like no other. Keith Hill brought the club up from relegation to Non-League certainties to a last minute equalizer against Champions League ability and England internationals. This was pure Carlsberg in terms of fairytale – the magic of the Cup which showcases why it can never die.

https://twitter.com/campscal/status/965294378989301760

Focus will obviously shift on to the league campaign and trying to rectify our precarious position. We might be ‘cut-adrift’ on paper, but our trump card is the four games in hand. Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas were left dazed about how we were bottom of English football’s third-tier. It is our bread and butter and who knows if the ending will be happy. But this performance and drama united a struggling town. It brought community together shown by the wide-ranging demographic in the crowd. Rochdale was put firmly on the global map, reaching #1 trend worldwide in the aftermath of the game. Rochdale got its moment in the sun; I can only thank Keith and every single player who contributed on that incredible day. Now, where’s Keith’s statue?

Super Bowl LII Preview: New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles

Superbowl 18


Let’s play a game.

Except in this one, 110 million people will be watching, 1.3 billion chicken wings will be engulfed by the viewers and Justin Timberlake is going to rock up at half time and perform a gig.

Super Bowl, baby! *Inserts American accent*

The staple of American Football, Sunday’s meeting in Minnesota promises to tantalise the taste buds and I’m not just referring to the chicken wings. On paper it shouldn’t be close. The Patriots have made it to 8 Super Bowls, winning 5. The Eagles have only been victorious in 2 NFL Championships – being triumphant most recently in 1960, therefore never winning an actual Super Bowl. A re-run of Super Bowl XXXIX, where New England defeated Philadelphia by a score of 24-21. But this game has no regards for norm, ask Atlanta Falcons – who surrendered a 25 point lead to the Patriots last year – for that.

So who, at the end of Sunday, will be the side to produce the NSync performance to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy in victory?

New England, same story?

The Head Coach of the Patriots, Bill Belichick, has created a dynasty. In charge for 18 years, he’s established a winning formula unlikely to be replicated for generations to come. With the mesmeric talents of legendary quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski – they possess the offence and experience the Eagles crave.

However, Belichick has been given a headache – literally – through the concussion of Gronkowski in the AFC Championship clash against the Jacksonville Jaguars two weeks ago. On top of this, Brady’s right hand is still strapped in tape – with Belichick in press conferences hardly calming nerves about his fitness for the game.

Gronkowski is expected to recover and despite Brady’s injury, he was still able to find a mesmeric pass for Danny Amendola to score his 19th touchdown of the season to claw the game away from the Jaguars. It is also commendable to mention James White, who scored three touchdowns in last years Super Bowl and has 6 scores in his past 3 play-off matches.

The Old Master, is always able to find the way.

And if you wanted anymore certainty of a Patriots win, Acara the Orangutan from Salt Lake City Zoo and April the Giraffe from the Animal Adventure Centre in New York have backed Belichick’s side. Paul the Octopus will be turning in his grave if those predictions are right…

Can the Eagles soar?

History certainly is not on Philadelphia’s side. But their fans do not care. In fact in the playoffs Eagles supporters donned dog masks to emphasise their tag as underdogs.

It doesn’t help that the Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings to deny the latter a chance to perform at their home Super Bowl. They’re heavily reminded of this; Eagles players were booed at a media conference with Vikings fans in attendance and safety Chris Maragos tweeted about being banned from a Minnesota restaurant. Not ideal preparation. They should expect a frosty reception, not just for the sub-zero temperature expected in the city.

If you want a fairytale, Philadelphia is your team. In the playoffs The Eagles were ruthless, crushing the Vikings by 38 points to 7. With a tight defensive unit spearheaded by Fletcher Cox – they will put up a stern resistance to the Brady weapon.

But it is perhaps the story of quarterback Nick Foles that should intrigue you the most. A back up to the injured Carston Wentz, Foles has only appeared in 3 regular season matches. He exploded into life with an assured performance against the Vikings to guide his team to the championship game. Two quarterbacks have got the Super Bowl with less appearances than Foles, both won. An omen?

Head Coach Doug Pederson is a character within the game. Unlike the strict professionalism in place with Belichick, he wants his side to go and enjoy the Super Bowl experience – however tough the locals try to make it. In recent press conferences we’ve managed to delve more into the character of Pederson, with a resounding confession of his love for ice cream. A promising quarterback in his youth, he’ll be hoping his side have don’t give in to reputation and head back to Philadelphia with their heads in the clouds. It is always sunny in Philly, after all…


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Premier League Review Round 15: Superb Silva, dominant De Gea and safe Sam

Prem 2017


Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to December. Welcome to the feasts, festivities and the family feuds. Most importantly, welcome to the football. On this final month of 2017, the Premier League will delve into 6 rounds of tantalising drama. Apologies for the lack of PL Review for the previous match day; December can be one of the most busy as well as most wonderful times of the year. But fear not, this week we reflect on a round of fixtures which arguably produced the crowning battle of the season thus far…

Superb Silva

This was the weekend we look to the top of the tree. Manchester City were victorious (*systematically repeats) against David Moyes’ West Ham United. The Citizens have now recorded 13 straight victories in the league, matching the feat of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea last season, ironically who went on to lift the trophy in May. 8 points clear already going into December, they obtain a fantastic team-spirit, work-ethic and the resoluteness required to triumph in May. Another City comeback was required, quite the hallmark these days. Nicolas Otamendi equalised, but one player stood out amongst the talent.

Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports produced a bold statement. In spite of the magnificent Kevin De Bruyne and City’s prowling forward line, he singled out David Silva – the match winner – as the man for Pep’s side. Carragher claimed that Silva was Manchester City’s all-time greatest player. Frankly, no one can begrudge him of such accolade. There are an array of legends to choose from; Summerbee, Bell, Aguero, Toure, Goater. But Silva has been the linchpin in the most decorated era of City’s history. Since his arrival from Valencia in 2010, Silva has consistently showcased such a claim; look at his passing, his vision, the way he can weave between midfield and defence and how, on many an occasion, he has bamboozled opposition defences contributing goals and assists aplenty. His winner against West Ham, a sumptuous flick past a star-jumping Adrian after a superb burst onto a De Bruyne assist, demonstrates his willingness to work and synergy with fellow maestros. Carragher’s claim is a rightful one. Just look at Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Silva penning a new deal to 2020 this week, shaking his hand mid-signing. Guardiola like all of us see’s how vital Silva is to City’s interchanging fluidity, but also realises how lucky City and ultimately we are, to have him in the Premier League. The City faithful label him El Mago – the Magician. He is producing the spells that could lead City to the pinnacle, heights even Dumbledore himself dare dream of, a treble?

Some appreciation must be paid to West Ham and Moyes as well. They came to The Etihad and didn’t just park, they had a plan to prey on City’s chinks in armour. Dealing with balls into the box is becoming a bit of an issue for Guardiola, Southampton should have scored twice from corners in midweek and Angelo Ogbonna netted with a bullet header on the stroke of halftime. The energy of the side to get into Manchester City’s faces, plus better defensive organisation and counter attacking instinct can help Moyes to lift his side from a sombre defeat. Adrian was mesmeric between the sticks, providing a generous headache for Moyes on his goalkeeper selection for the upcoming London Derby against Chelsea. It was a display which hinted that The Hammers could have the iron to drag themselves away from trouble. However, as displayed at Everton, they can’t show a soft underbelly when falling behind, like they have on oh so many an occasion already.

Dominant De Gea

Arsenal versus Manchester United. Last season, it was fair to say this classic didn’t live up to the heights of the previous battles of old adversaries. But this season, oh my. An absolutely sensational game, the best of the season. The 3-1 defeat was unlucky on Arsene Wenger’s side. In attack they were slick and opened up Mourinho’s United rearguard on many an occasion. With 33 attempts on goal to United’s 8, Wenger can be right to feel aggrieved. He stated that United rode their luck at times, but acknowledged United’s counter-attacking ruthlessness, spearheaded by two goals from a rejuvenated Jesse Lingard, himself off the back of a mesmeric solo effort against Watford on Tuesday. There was one thing – for once – that Wenger and Mourinho could agree upon; the brilliance of David De Gea.

The Red Devils and Spanish Number 1 was bewilderingly excellent. He made a joint Premier League record of 14 saves in a game. The tagline ‘Dave saves’ could never be more appropriate. His performance in the view of his manager was ‘a world’s best’ and that’s hard to dispute. I’m unsure of De Gea’s ancestry, but with those reflexes a cat of some sort must be in there. There are too many masterpieces to select from, but his double save from the brilliant Alexandre Lacazette, palming away a firmly struck low effort with one strong wrist before sticking a foot out to deny Alexis Sanchez’s certain rebound was the pick of the best. He had no right to save the follow up, but De Gea simply has no regard for the norm. A truly awesome goalkeeper, worthy of being in the same ilk as Peter Schmeichel. It was vital for United to gain 3 points, it provides a glimmer of hope in their title aspirations. But their biggest test is to come, in a mouth-watering Manchester Derby at Old Trafford on Sunday. The dismissal of Paul Pogba was a dampener for Mourinho’s delight under the North London lights.

For Arsenal, Saturday’s defeat no matter how harsh was their 5th out of 15 league games. Despite the performance, they now have lost to Liverpool, United and City and drew at Stamford Bridge, taking 1 point against the current Top 4. For all attacking flair defensive frailties and – with dilly-dallying from Shkodran Mustafi which led to the second goal – arrogance was there for all to see. There was one example on Antonio Valencia’s opener in which 5 Arsenal defenders are drawn to the ball leaving Valencia in acres to drill home. I don’t understand how – with the defensive rock Steve Bould was in his playing days as Wenger’s assistant – Arsenal seem so unorganised. The form of Alexis Sanchez must also worry Gunners fans, his all round play wasn’t up to his exceptionally high standards and showcases a mind wondering elsewhere. The appreciation between Mesut Ozil and Jose Mourinho also reasserts being a matter of when, not if, the former Real player and manager will be reunited at United. A successful season for Arsenal must be either the Top 4 or Europa League and a Cup, the league even in December looks long gone.

Safe with Sam

Big Sam. Win on a Saturday, clean sheet, pint of vino, repeat. Did we expect anything different with Sam Allardyce returning to management? In the week he returned to Everton, The Toffees have scored 6 times and conceded no goals. An upturn in the form of Wayne Rooney – on the back of an inspired hattrick and an utterly stupendous halfway line effort against former gaffer Moyes – Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (both of whom netted against The Terriers) has helped to fill the supposed void left by Romelu Lukaku. At the back; in Jordan Pickford The Blues have an outstanding goalkeeping talent on their hands, one that should surely protect the English goal come the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Everton are still a way off where they want to be, considering the expenditure spent in the summer, but this is a start. Now in the Top 10 and looking upwards rather than below, they can go into Sunday’s Merseyside Derby with hope.

For David Wagner’s Huddersfield, it was another defeat on the road. I mentioned in the last review how in awe I was of the togetherness of the club and the energy and willingness displayed by the players, but ultimately they need to start showing ruthlessness in front of goal to prolong their Premier League fairytale. They have scored 9 times this season, nowhere near enough to survive, a lot of faith in The Terriers surviving will go on a stalwart defense. But if the opposition score first, Town haven’t shown much character or threat in getting back in the game, especially away from The John Smith’s Stadium. Huddersfield already have a ‘six-pointer’ coming up at home to Brighton on Saturday. Chris Hughton’s side also tasted a Merseyside masterclass from a ruthless Liverpool on Saturday, they like Town will be vying for revenge. If Wagner wins over Hughton, Huddersfield will be on 18 points, not a bad return approaching the halfway point. They need to capitalise, a defeat will leave Town fans feeling humbug rather than jolly coming into a packed festive calendar.


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Premier League Review Round 13: Hornet’s sting, Terrier torment and Hughton’s (near) Heroics

Prem 2017


In this week’s Premier League Review, we analyse how the newly-promoted sides are fairing amongst English football’s elite. Despite a weekend where all three lost, is there reason for optimism running into the Christmas calendar, or is this year’s festivities already looking a lost cause?

A Silva-lining for the Toon?

On Saturday, Newcastle United welcomed Marco Silva’s Watford to St. James’ Park. Described by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle as ‘Pygmies in a land of Giants’, Watford were looking to inflict a detrimental defeat against Rafael Benitez’s Magpies. This fixture stuck strictly to the form book; Watford have now won four consecutive games in the league on the bounce; whilst the Geordies are now firmly overlooking their shoulders, precarious of being sucked into the mire of the relegation zone.

Watford possess a setup that Newcastle fans must envy. Fluid, attacking vigour coupled with astute signings and an aspirational young coach. Will Hughes is seemingly starting to fulfill his prodigy status in the midfield, scoring in back-to-back games for the first time in his career. Through watching the game, you see in Richarlison and Marvin Zeegelaar that the Hornets now have the quality and pace up top to sting sides at their will; netting 22 times, the 6th highest total and only 18 off last season’s entire tally. They look like a side only likely to improve, given the youthful acquisitions and finally, a sense of stability at the club. They deserve the plaudits.

For Newcastle the return of captain Jamaal Lascelles and the mesmeric Mikel Merino is essential. Rafa is a coach with the nous to drag them away from trouble, but he needs the support from the boardroom. With a bid of £300m being tabled to Mike Ashley this week from PCP Capital Partners (headed by Amanda Staveley, who also helped ADUG to purchase Manchester City in 2008), a solution to the ownership requires a solution promptly. The side in front of goal obviously lacks Premier League quality. Transfers are a necessity, for the gates Newcastle receive, being the 5th lowest spenders before the season seemed bemusing. The determination to complete the takeover is the only merry news in a sobering month for Newcastle.

When City came to Town

When you looked at this fixture before Sunday, only one outcome was possible. Huddersfield were coming off the back of a 4-0 annihilation at the hands of a resurgent Bournemouth, whilst Manchester City were on a run of 10 consecutive league wins. It seemed a case of how many, rather than the result.

However, with that fanbase, David Wagner’s Terriers are always going to pose a threat at the John Smith’s Stadium. Town have only lost twice at home this season, to last year’s runners-up Tottenham and to City on Sunday. Two things impressed me; firstly the raucous atmosphere engineered by the Huddersfield faithful. With that intensity from the stands it is always likely to be reciprocated by the players on the pitch, producing shocks like the famous win over Mourinho’s United last month. The second asset to catch the eye is the defensive set up; organised and assured, they certainly at the back look stable, keeping five clean sheets in the process. Such exploits have even lead to muted calls for an international call-up for German and last year’s Championship Play-Off hero Christopher Schindler. I hope Town survive, it’s a spectacle to see how united the club is; from the chairman to the fans. The club’s tag is ‘The Pride of Yorkshire’, they are certainly endearing themselves to such a claim.

For Manchester City, in the words of Benjamin Mendy, ‘they keep eating’. They are the first side to win 11 consecutive matches in the league, but Sunday’s triumph could be a defining moment in the Citizen’s season. It was the first occasion since 1995 in which City came behind from a Premier League match at half-time to claim victory. Raheem Sterling produced another remarkable display; his work with Pep Guardiola over the summer is reaping rewards. With 12 goals in all competitions he has already usurped his career-best tally and on Sunday, he ran the Terriers ragged, winning a penalty before a fluky but deserved goal in the dying embers. City are not the full package yet, tests will surface over the packed Christmas fixture list and when injuries start to accumulate. But if it was Christmas Day with people dwelling on the feast, Manchester City would be the turkey, the showpiece with various combinations and an audience vying for more. They keep eating.

A Bright result to take forward

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho reserved significant praise for Chris Hughton’s Brighton and Hove Albion in his post-match interview. He claimed that Albion were United’s ‘hardest match’ of the season thus far; and that they ‘probably’ deserved more than the result they were inflicted. The press unanimously supported Mourinho’s interpretation, with good reason. Brighton were organised but were intent on causing the Red Devils food for thought, with Anthony Knockaert being unlucky in flashing an effort across the face of David De Gea’s goal. Summer signing Pascal Gross was a constant threat. Hughton’s Brighton side, unlike his former employers Newcastle, have defensive stability and an attacking threat to boot. Out of the three promoted sides, to me Brighton look like they have jelled the most within the Premier League, I don’t expect to see the Seagulls sinking come May.

For United, it took a deflected Ashley Young effort to produce a nervous three points. The goal was eventually credited to the unfortunate Lewis Dunk, a player who has scored own goals versus both Manchester side’s this season. Romelu Lukaku seems bereft of confidence and they attacking impetus, like in Basel, seemed limited. But it is another victory, to keep a waning title race alive, for now. United welcome City in a mouthwatering proposition at Old Trafford on December 10th. With 11 straight wins at home, coupled with only letting in 6 goals this term, they stand a chance of narrowing the 8 point gap. But a return to potency up front is a must, otherwise the moon over Mancunia will be beaming blue come the holiday’s.


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Premier League Review (Gameweek 12)

Prem 2017


Welcome to S57 on Sport’s inaugural Premier League Review. Throughout the course of the remainder of the season, we promise to provide a concise and informative reflection on the weekend’s talking points. Minus Garth Crooks, his pretentious analysis, and 24 years worth of experience as a professional footballer.


Wenger keeps North London Gunning for more

At 14:30 on Saturday afternoon I was completely perplexed. It was not because the form book was flung from The Emirates window, it was the manner of Arsenal’s performance. I had not expected The Gunners to compress Tottenham’s supposed dominance and excerpt themselves in a top-of-the-table clash. In counteraction to their inept display against seemingly champions-elect Manchester City, Arsene Wenger produced a tactical masterclass which bewildered the Lilywhites.

Look at Alan Shearer’s synopsis on Match of the Day. Arsenal pressed in packs; buoyancy from a scintillating forward line of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette gives hope that this season can bear fruits for the red of North London. Defender Shkodran Mustafi’s return shored up a frail-looking defence, but it was Ozil who was undoubtedly Arsenal’s star.

Ozil has come under considerable criticism in his time in England since his £42 million switch from Real Madrid 3 years ago, but this was debatably his finest hour in an Arsenal shirt. Pulling the strings from midfield and dissecting Spurs backline at ease, it was the German’s tenacity in helping his side press and run Tottenham into committing an array of errors which impressed me, condescending critics views that he does not ‘graft’ enough for his side. His weight of delivery, albeit from a controversially awarded free-kick, was a joy for Mustafi to plant his head onto giving his side what would become an unassailable lead. It was his 45th assist in 4 years in England, more than any other player.  Genius underappreciated.

As for Tottenham, it is another heavyweight clash where they have fallen short away from home. Already this term, they have lost to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal and they hold one victory at the Emirates Stadium in 10 seasons. Tottenham need to show signs of progress and begin the deliver, otherwise Pochettino’s men, for all their credit, will be looked back on as the ‘what if’ side.


Pogba supplying Mourinho’s va-va-voom

If Ozil’s genius is under-appreciated, their can be no denying Paul Pogba’s influence on this Manchester United side. With the game etching in Newcastle’s favour, it was Pogba with the addition of shimy and cross who found Anthony Martial inside the penalty area to nod home and ignite a comeback. The Frenchman also added a goal to his performance after an astute head down from Marcus Rashford. But it is Pogba, and his sharpened red locks who will rightfully steal the limelight. In each of the 3 matches United have comeback to win under Jose Mourinho, Pogba has either assisted or scored in every one of them, signifying his importance in riling up his side for the fights that will ensue throughout a busy festive calendar.

The return of the charismatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as Romelu Lukaku’s first goal in seven games, has returned a sense of optimism to the Theatre of Dreams, especially after a compounding defeat to Chelsea before the international break. The performance echoed the confidence displayed by the Red Devils at the season’s opening, conveniently whilst Pogba was pulling the strings.

For Rafa Benitez, he can be inspired by his team’s first-half performance. An impressive showing from £10m signing Jacob Murphy demonstrates reasons to be cheerful, but the second half collapse was concerning. The Geordie fanbase was probably the highlight of Newcastle’s evening under the floodlights; the 3,100 travelling army provided rapturous support. They realise their side, considerably lacking in Premier League quality, will need all the help to preserve their Premier League status come May. A takeover and a transfer kitty may be done for January, the Magpies need it, quickly.


Pulis put out of his misery

It surfaced on Monday afternoon that Tony Pulis had been dismissed of his managerial duties at West Bromwich Albion. The appearance of the club’s Chinese owners symbolised unrest within the hierarchy, now they require a replacement. Assistant coach Gary Megson will take charge of affairs until a new appointment is made. After Saturday’s performance, it’s an understatement to say whoever comes in has an almighty task to hand.

Chelsea battered The Baggies. Despite feeble attempts to suppress the talent of Eden Hazard and co, it eventually showed. Hazard bagged a brace, coupled with Alvaro Morata’s 8th goal in 11 league games for The Blues and a Marcos Alonso effort which consigned Pulis’ fate. But is the manner of Alonso’s finish, in acres of space from a Fabregas delivery, which showcased defensive frailties unreciprocal of Pulis’ ethos. There was no effort to save the manager’s skin, although no win in 10 games is a statistic that can’t be saved.

Pulis will find work, with his nous of never being relegated as a manager, don’t be surprised of seeing his at a Premier League struggler soon. Heck, West Brom would do with help at the moment. With fixtures away to Tottenham and Liverpool and Manchester United visiting The Hawthorns in the next 6 matches, don’t expect a miraculous upturn in fortunes anytime soon. Worrying times for Albion fans, but at least you don’t support West Ham.


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England 30-6 Australia: Jones’ England have Australia at Cheik-mate

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England ensured their 100% record in the Autumn Internationals continued through a flattering 30-6 defeat of Australia, denting hopes Down Under of usurping the English to 2nd in the World Rankings.

The victory for Eddie Jones’ men is their biggest winning margin against the Wallabies, but Michael Cheika’s team will feel aggrieved by the Television Match Official (TMO) decisions.

Tries for Jonny May, Jonathon Joseph, Danny Care and Elliot Daly secured the win, but the scoreline did not reflect the ferocity of the contest. Three quarters into the match, despite a couple of sin bins to captain Michael Hooper and Kurtley Beale, the Aussies were firm on England’s heels. Eddie Jones said after the match, naively, that it wasn’t as close a contest, but had TMO decisions gone in Australia’s favour, we could be looking at a very different story.

The first try to be rescinded occurred late into the first half. Excellent intricacy by the Australians led to a grubber kick by Tevita Kuridrani, intended for Marika Koroibete, but finished by Hooper. Unfortunately for the away side, Hooper was offside when the grubber was kicked, an outcome correctly ruled, but gaining sarcastic applause from the Australian coaching staff.

Another try was chalked off in far more contentious circumstances in the second half. With England leading 13-6, an excellent break from Koroibete, with a swift interchange from Bernard Foley before Koroibete grounded the ball looked to have levelled the affair. However, Stephen Moore was judged to have obstructed Chris Robshaw in his efforts to make a last ditch tackle. The TMO in ruling out the points irked Cheika profoundly, even leading to a confrontation with a support.

Before that, two penalties from Owen Farrell and one by Reece Hodge had left the contest finely balanced. In drizzly conditions, the kicking contest was going to be essential. In the scrum Australia countered English size with tenacity, making duels between the forwards enthralling. Both sides showcased excellent try saving defences, but mid-way into the second half the tide significantly turned.

A majestic break between the lines by Samu Kerevi almost led to Australia being a shoe-in for 5 points, but his pass could not find a supporting Kuridrani. As England swept up, a hopeful punt to touch by George Ford trickled agonisingly close to touch. Inept covering by Beale, who starred for Wasps last season, let the pace of Daly steal a march, prodding it towards the tryline to score. TMO again judged in England’s favour. Farrell converted.

At 13-6, even after the disallowed try, the Wallabies had a chance to resurrecting their cause through a penalty. But inexplicably they chose to go for touch, losing ball in the resulting phase. With 15 men on the field, those in green and gold were playing some fantastic phases of ball-in-hand rugby. But strength-in-depth in replacements handed England an unmountable lead.

Two excellent kicks behind the Australian wave by replacement scrum-half Danny Care provided opportunities for Joseph and May to score respectively. May, fresh from already scoring 10 tries for his new side Leicester, then picked up a loose pass before galloping downfield. Stopped just short, he returned the favour to Care to make the final score 30-6. The English were tested, but excellent game management and resources from the bench provided Jones’ 5th straight win over Cheika’s side. A sweet start to potential English dominance over the Aussies in sport this winter.

England and Australia both finish their Autumn campaigns next weekend, at home to Samoa and away to Scotland respectively.


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Is it time for hope to turn into glory?

Rugby Lge


On Friday, Rugby League’s signature international tournament reignites, the World Cup. The showpiece event will consist of 28 matches, with 14 sides battling to hoist aloft the Paul Barriere Trophy. Barriere was the President of the French Federation of Rugby League and the driving force of the maiden League World Cup, the first of either code, in 1954. With a trio of host nations – Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – entwined with the sport, it promises to be a scintillating spectacle. But has the time arrived where England are expected to deliver?

Rugby World Cup 2017

Format

As mentioned the World Cup will consist of 28 matches split between the three hosts. Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, with a capacity of 52,000 will host the opening fixture of Australia and England as well as the final. Groups A and B possess 4 teams in which 3 can progress; whilst Groups C and D obtain 3 sides, where only the winners qualify for the quarter-finals. The final on December 2nd is followed by the Women’s World Cup final, an admirable motive to promote the women’s game. You’ll have to be an early-bird to catch the action, kick off times range from 4-10am GMT. The 2017 showpiece has a hard act to follow; the 2013 World Cup which took place in England, Wales, Ireland and France attracted the largest audience in the history of the event – 458.483 – compared with the 293,442 which attended the 2008 tournament Down Under. In England and Australia’s Group A, it is advisable that you finish first, as both the semi-final and final take place in Brisbane. The runner up has the possibility of having to battle New Zealand, in their own backyard in the semi’s.

Is this England’s time?

Luke Gale
Super League’s Man of Steel Luke Gale is expected to partner Gareth Widdop for England

England’s captain Sam Burgess seems hysterical about the tournament. “How can you not be excited by this opportunity”, he told The Guardian. Surprising rhetoric, considering Australia have won 10 out of 14 editions of the tournament. However, England’s strength in-depth has provoked coach Wayne Bennett to omit Sam Tomkins from selection. Burgess heads a contingent of English players in Australia’s National Rugby League – where Gareth Widdop was this season’s second highest points scorer. Castleford’s Luke Gale was the top points scorer in Super League and assisted 20 tries, culminating in being named Super League’s Man of Steel for 2017. Considering Wigan and Warrington also triumphed in the 2017 World Club Series, now more than ever it seems possible that England can topple Australian dominance.

England have never been victorious as a sole nation in a World Cup. In fact the last time a side from these Isles won was Great Britain, 45 years ago. England have not beaten Australia since 2006. If England are to become Rugby League’s international pinnacle, they will need to build lessons on the heartbreaking 2013 semi-final last gasp defeat to New Zealand, as well as the embarrassment of not making the final of last year’s Four Nations on home soil.

The Kangaroo King

Kangaroos
Australia celebrate a colossal victory in the 2013 World Cup

If you bet with your head over your heart, Australia are the overwhelming favourites for the tournament. Reigning World Champions after annihilating New Zealand 34-2, as well as victory in the 2016 Four Nations against the same opponent puts the Aussies on a gold and green pedestal above all contestants. Swansongs of legends like Billy Slater (winner of the Clive Churchill medal in Melbourne’s 2017 NRL Grand Final victory), coupled with the vigorous Australian talent such as top NRL point scorer Nathan Cleary, promises to omit emotionally-charged performances by the hosts, which could project the Kangaroos to another gear. Frightening.

Australia haven’t always had the World Cup their own way. In 2008, Australia were again the host, but New Zealand turned up, put the Foster’s on hold on took home the trophy. The Kiwis, like England are a dark horse trying to shorten the lengths between themselves and the Australian steed. Half-back Shaun Johnson will be ladened with the dreams of a nation, though being 2014 World Player of the Year, he has the pedigree. Tonga have propelled in an upward trajectory on the international stage due to a change in eligibility rules allowing them to gain another nation’s talent, such as Kiwi Jason Taumalolo. Home Nations Wales and Scotland have also been tipped for improved performances.

After their abhorrent display at last year’s Four Nations, England coach Wayne Bennett laid into his side, stating that there is a lot more to come of his squad. However Bennett, an Australian himself will see difficulty in usurping his homeland to the title. The world is expecting Mal Meninga’s Kangaroos to deliver an early Christmas present. England will do all they can to become this year’s Scrooge.


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