Friday, 30 May 2014

The 10 best names at the World Cup

Once I had the idea to write this piece, I was dismayed to see that Bwin had already beaten me to it. They've got a couple of the obvious ones, such as Carlo Costly and the gloriously monikered Yeltsin Tejada. However, in my opinion there were some pretty key omissions from their list, so here's an alternative Top 10 Best-Named Players at Brazil 2014.
Costa Rica and Alajuelense
You genuinely cannot beat a reserve goalie from an exotic nation who sounds like he has every chance of being cast as the next Dr Who. Or, as suggested by @GavHutchinson: "Right Arm, Fast (Vauxhall End)". That is also spot on. Patrick Pemberton: the most dashing, debonair name at Brazil 2014.

2) Frickson Erazo 
Ecuador and Flamengo
Wow! A name that is as satisfying to say as it is wonderful to gawp at. Frickson Erazo. FRICKSON Erazo. Frickson ERAZO. He sounds like man in a Vic & Bob sketch, perhaps a visiting cousin of Vic's from the Tropics, who keeps a bread-stick behind his ear for no apparent reason and carries a bright green tree-frog around in a Tupperware box with air holes. 
USA and Rosenborg
Notoriously debauched Scandinavian hard house DJ, best known for releasing a banging compilation CD every summer.
Bosnia and Elazigspor
I'm refusing to call him anything other than "Onion Bhajis". Just you try and stop me.

5) Serey Die 
Ivory Coast and Basel
An appealing figure, during his career he has: 1) cancelled his own contract; 2) been sent home from his new club after the president saw him in action and assumed they'd hired the wrong man; 3) been suspected of match-fixing; 4) slapped a 13-year-old ballboy in the face resulting in an eight-match ban. I like him already. He's also a midfield enforcer called Die. 

- "Hi, looks like you'll be marking me today, what's your name?" 
- "Die!"
- "Hey, take it easy pal, game's not even started yet... Jeez, this guy's a loony."
Ghana and Esperance
You just know the poor sod's going to score a calamitous own goal and have endless "awful" and (for those trying to be more original) "offal" puns made on his name. I'm hoping, like his Indiana Jones namesake, he runs as if being chased by a massive runaway boulder.

7) Waylon Francis 
Costa Rica and Columbus Crew
Easily the most 'hick' name at the tournament, how delicious it would be if the boy Waylon becomes one of its surprise stars. It could only be better if he was called Cletus. The name Waylon also makes me think of Steve Earle's character in The Wire, so bonus points there.

8) Fred 
Brazil and Fluminense
- "Hi, I'm the main striker for host nation Brazil. I am, essentially, a figurehead for a troubled nation's hopes."
- "Wow, you must have a really exotic name like Rivelino, Ronaldinho and all those other brilliant -inhos, right?"
- "Well, not so much."
- "Oh. Well I assume you're blessed with astonishingly silky skills then?"
- "Nope. I'm pretty functional to be honest."
- "I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty underwhelmed by this conversation. What is your name then?"
- "Fred."
- "Fredinho?"
- "It's just Fred."

9) Mohamed Lamine Zemmamouche 
Algeria and USM Alger
Zemmamouche! Zemmamouche! Will you do the fandango?

10) Mehrdad Pooladi 
Iran and Persepolis
Look, I've resisted including Miguel Angel Ponce in this list. I've avoided the temptation to chuck assorted Bums, Suks and Dongs from the South Korea squad in here, but I'm not so mature that I can resist a man called Pooladi. Plenty of great jokes start with a "poo" and so does his name. His name is sometimes spelt "Pouladi" with a "u". If you spell it that way then you are just the worst. Unless the BBC and various others have deliberately misspelt it for a giggle, in which case we are just the worst. Either way: "Pooladi woah-oh-oh, Pooladi woah-oh-oh..."

Monday, 3 March 2014

England appoint Aidy Boothroyd U20s boss. Hope springs eternal, eh?

Aidy Boothroyd.
Boothroyd: new Eng U20 boss. This is not a joke.
Well, that's debatable actually...

Some days you wonder if anybody even turns up for work at the FA. I have visions of a solitary, fusty chap in his eighties steadfastly manning the ship – replying to letters, making a few decisions, pottering away quite happily in a small office in Soho Square. We'll call him George...

[dream sequence]

George quietly bumbles about his business undisturbed most days. Occasionally Trevor Brooking pops in with a ham and mustard sandwich, scratches his head as if not knowing what to do, before leaving again with a baffled expression an hour later. That's unless there's a showpiece game coming up, when a load of haircuts in fancy suits suddenly rock up claiming they've been "working from home".

But most days George is on his tod. He's been told he can bring in an office temp if he wants, but he doesn't like to be a bother, plus that would mean fixing that new-fangled computer whatchamacallit. The old thing hasn't worked since 1997. A dusty Encarta CD-Rom lies next to it, long since repurposed as a drinks mat and covered in coffee rings.

Recently a letter arrived from Gareth Southgate's agent, which George opened, in which it became apparent that Southgate wanted to appoint a new manager for England's Under-20 side. "Under-20s?" thought George? "I don't think we have an Under-20 side. Perhaps he means Under-21s. I'd best give him a quick tinkle and check."

The phone rings and goes through to Southgate's agent, Ashley Woolfe.

"Good afternoon Mr Woolfe. I'm calling with regards to your letter about Gareth wanting to appoint a new member of coaching staff. I just wanted to check if there'd been an administrative error. Your letter discusses the matter of Gareth appointing a manager for the Under-20 side. But we don't have an Under-20s, as far as I'm aware."

"Actually George, turns out you do. I must admit it came as a surprise to Gareth when he found out about it last week. It would appear that other countries have been focusing on this age group for some time now and we've been a tad left behind. Can't the FA find somebody who'd be willing to give it a bash?"

"Well, it's just me in the office today. It's just me in the office most days actually. I try and pass things up the chain of command, but unless it's to do with a sponsorship deal I don't generally hear anything back."

"I see. Well, since this appointment is rather small beans, perhaps you could arrange something yourself, George? I'm sure a man of your experience has a wealth of contacts."

"I suppose I could see if Phil Neal's free. Although saying that, I think he's got rather a lot of after-dinner work on at the moment, wouldn't want to overload the chap. Tell you what, I'll have a look into who else is out of work and see what I can do. Stay on line, I'm getting my book."

And so George reaches to a shelf on the wall. There, next to some signed photos of Tim Flowers and a dusty old box of Terry Venables' The Manager board game, sits a tatty old contacts book. George's pride and joy. He flicks to the pages marked '2013/14 Managerial Departures' and thumbs down the list.

"Still there Ashley? Right... hmmm... let's see.... Sean O'Driscoll? Too much of a fancy-dan for my liking. I don't like watching his teams play. You'd think they'd never heard of hitting the big man up top. Tony Mowbray? Personally I can't understand a word the man says, and again, his teams are a bit tippy tappy aren't they. Nobody ever won anything playing football like ballet, did they? Ah, now then, Aidy Boothroyd's available. There's a hot young coach with a bright future. I had him earmarked for the top job a few years back. Not sure why the hell he's out of work, poor chap. I'll offer him the job, it'll get him out of the house. Cheerio then."

[dream sequence fades to black]


So that's that. If you're still reading, sorry it wasn't very exciting. But now that I've created an ambiance of measured calm (read: boredom) with that gently paced opening scene, hopefully it affords the following highly considered and cerebral observation the necessary space to breathe. What I'd like to say, as eloquently as possible, is:

Aidy Boothroyd?! FOR F***'S SAKE, FA!!

*downs bottle of bleach*




Deep breath. I feel mildly better now, but Jesus H Batman On Stilts, what are the FA playing at in appointing Boothroyd? Answers on a postcard.

Have they ever watched a Boothroyd team play football? It's an absolute abomination. A relic harking back to the early 1980s – all high tempo, put 'em under, let 'em know you're there, game management and all that guff.

When the news broke and one or two choice words were aired on Twitter, Northampton Town fan Ben Trasler had the following to say. (Boothroyd of course having recently been let go from Northampton for turning them into an incompetent shower of ugly hatred that was – and may still be – on course to drop out of the Football League).

"When winning, it's ugly. When losing, it's barbaric," said Trasler. "God, it was awful. He's the reason we're in the poo*".
(*Not the actual word he used.)

I can't really better those sentiments. There are a few unscrupulous types managing in the lower leagues, but there can be none more steadfastly committed to winning ugly than Boothroyd. To watch a Boothroyd side is to willingly torture your own eyeballs. Seriously, my corneas would rather take a direct spray from a can of Lynx Java followed by a plunge into a heavily over-chlorinated swimming pool, than watch a Boothroyd side close out a 2-1 win. The closing minutes of a narrow Boothroyd win are football's equivalent of trolling. 

Every time I've seen his teams play, I come away a little sickened. It's as if he spends serious time on the training ground teaching his players how to master little niggly fouls that aren't quite worth a yellow, how to charge down clearances with your studs up so your opponent might smash his toes to smithereens on the follow-through, how to spend 40 seconds getting ready for every throw-in when protecting a lead, how to pump the ball into the channels so it plops just short of the corner flag and both defence and attack then embark on a sprint race to get there first, before all getting there at roughly the same time, the ball almost an irrelevance as they inevitably crash into each other. It's a dispiriting experience.

And this is how we want England's promising Under-20s to be taught how to play? Our mentality in England is that, if you're a gifted teenager, we'll bung you straight into the Under-21s anyway. Or even the full squad. So who goes in the Under-20s? The slightly less capable teenagers and 20-year-olds, I guess. The ones who need working on if they're ever going to make the step up.

And Boothroyd will work on them, alright. You can take that as read. But in this age of pristine pitches in which highly technical sides like Spain and Germany dominate (while the England national side consistently founder), what good is Boothroyd going to do with our young nearly-good-enoughs that aren't quite the real deal?

He's probably going to make them play like grotty little sh*ts, isn't he. That's going to win us future World Cups for sure. Hey Sepp, maybe just give us all the trophies now to save time, eh?

*slow hand clap*

Well done, FA. Top marks.

Boothroyd: not a good thing.
But I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Stuart Pearce and Peter Taylor were hardly names to make us think the FA were going to propel this technically semi-talented crop of young English players into something that might make us proud. 

A key driving force behind this appointment would presumably have been FA 'director of elite development' Dan Ashworth. Indeed, he is quoted as saying: "I’m delighted with the appointment of Aidy, he’s an outstanding coach of younger players and has a fantastic record of developing youth."

Wasn't Ashworth supposed to be a progressive appointment by the FA? I seem to remember some people being quite pleased when they prised him away from West Brom with the prospect of more than doubling his £200k annual salary. And yet apparently Dan Ashworth is "delighted" with Boothroyd. This ought to trouble anyone hoping for England to "do something" at any international tournament at any level in the future. And, frankly, if the Under-20s won the 2015 Toulon Tournament by playing to a Boothroyd template, it would give me very little encouragement for the future, because that way of playing is thoroughly old hat at the highest level. I know football tactics can move in phases, and maybe there's just a chance that kick-and-rush will have it's day again in the future, but we can't be planning for it on the off chance that a direct and heavy-handed brand of football has an elite resurgence.

A couple of years ago Zonal Marking editor Michael Cox tweeted this clip of England Under-21s training under Stuart Pearce. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to have a look (it's less than two minutes long). 

The squad are playing a game of 'two touch'. It's both hilarious and heart-breaking as the young players, limited to two touches, resort to raining shots in from anywhere rather than rely on their technique and movement to craft something better.

The FA put this video ON ITS OWN WEBSITE, as if it's something to be proud about. "Check out how much our young boys like smashing the heck out of footballs, folks! Brilliant eh?"

Listen carefully and you'll note at one point a distant voice incongruously yells: "Is anybody there?" 

Sometimes I ask the very same question about the FA. The lights are on but nobody's in.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bournemouth v Liverpool this Saturday lunchtime could be an FA Cup cracker

Saturday's early kick-off in the FA Cup Fourth Round sees AFC Bournemouth host Liverpool, in what should hopefully be an easy-on-the-eye encounter. Two talented young managers with similarly attractive playing philosophies  it might just be the perfect way to start your weekend

These two sides have met twice before, both in the FA Cup, both times Bournemouth were the hosts, and on both occasions they played out hard-fought draws before being given a hiding at Anfield in the replay. But given those ties took place in 1927 and 1968, it's probably about time the two teams were drawn against each other again.

Bournemouth have been so impressive in recent seasons over the course of Eddie Howe's two spells at the club (though the less said of Paul Groves' lacklustre tenure in the middle, the better). When Howe first took the job in 2009, he inherited a team languishing at the foot of League Two, a 17-point deduction hanging over their heads. He kept them up against all the odds, but bigger surprises were to follow. The following season he got them promoted under extremely trying circumstances  the club were under a transfer embargo for virtually the whole season and frequently failed to list a full complement of substitutes on their teamsheet. On one occasion teen striker Jayden Stockley was hauled out of his GCSE exams to make up the numbers on the bench. Slim pickings indeed. In short, Howe was a miracle worker right from the off.

After 100 games at the helm, Howe was lured away in January 2011 to Championship football and Burnley. But he and his family struggled to settle, and by October 2012 he had made the difficult decision to drop back down to League One and return to Bournemouth. It proved to be a wise move all round, with Bournemouth rocketing up the table and clinching another ahead-of-schedule promotion, while Burnley have also improved markedly since Sean Dyche took over from Howe. Win-win situation.

Eddie Howe 
Bournemouth have spent quite a bit of money to get to where they are now (bottom half of the Championship, but looking good enough to stay up). It's very possible to argue some of that money was badly spent, with the two biggest signings  Matt Tubbs and Tokelo Rantie  thus far not offering sufficient return on investment. But for the most part Bournemouth have signed talented, technical footballers with a strong work rate. Howe has a way of playing and it requires good technical ability and lots of graft. Most of his signings have bought into this ethos.

Howe's methods are not wildly different to those of Brendan Rodgers. Indeed, Bournemouth captain Tommy Elphick used the press conference ahead of the game to praise Rodgers and speak in glowing tones about how he tries to get Bournemouth playing in a similar way. "We aspire to be like Liverpool so it's a good time to play them to see how far off we are," said Elphick. "There's a lot to learn from a team like Liverpool and a manager like Brendan Rodgers. The key is having no fear. If you give them too much respect they will hurt you."

In terms of similarities, both managers will shift between a single striker and two up front depending on the fixture and/or if the temperature of the game demands it. And both Rodgers and Howe like to have good technical players in central midfield that are constantly on the move, with a wide range of passing. For Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva at Liverpool, read Harry Arter and Eunan O'Kane at Bournemouth.

Both managers like to play the ball out from the back too, so hopefully Saturday's encounter will be an elegant game with plenty of good technique on show. If you've only just crawled out of bed with a stonking hangover, there are worse ways to nurse yourself into the weekend.

The aforementioned O'Kane is in a rich vein of form. The diminutive central midfielder is the sort of player for whom one's appreciation creeps up the more you see of him. His build is not particularly athletic, but he's constantly near the play, knows when to keep it simple, and is excellent at positioning himself in such a way that he either intercepts the pass or dissuades the opponent from releasing the ball at all.

Harry Arter is in a similar mould, with but more bite to his play, a greater range of passing and a bit more of a goal threat too. A cousin of Scott Parker, you can see similar tenacity in his game at times, though too many of his all-too-regular yellow cards come from his inability to stay out of the referee's ear.

Eunan O'Kane. [Photo: Mick Cunningham]
At right back, Simon Francis is the most dependable player in the team. When needed, he'll be up and down the touchline all game, and must get through a tremendous amount of running over 90 minutes. When he gets to the byline, he's capable of whipping in dangerous crosses.

Honorable mentions to: attacking workhorse Lewis Grabban, who has scored some invaluable goals this season and never stops running; classy wide midfielder Matt Ritchie, whose shots from range are as dangerous as his haircut is daft; and goalkeeper Lee Camp, who has proved to be an excellent shot-stopper and has recently made his loan move from West Brom permanent.

Of course, along with Camp, Bournemouth's busiest players on Saturday could well be their centre-backs. Particularly if Luis Suarez sees some pitch time. The club are fortunate to have three good ones. Elphick and Elliott Ward have been getting the nod over Steve Cook of late, but whichever pairing Howe opts for, they are all capable and competent. The worry is whether capable and competent will be enough.

Finally, if tiny right winger Ryan Fraser sees any time on the pitch, I'd like to see him in a race with Cissokho. Fraser is seriously rapid once he's got some open space in front of him.

Anything's possible and it's not a bad time to be playing Liverpool. After their strong start in the Premier League, their recent points haul has been somewhat more modest, and they may be starting to prioritise finishing fourth over cup competitions. They will surely have half an eye on their huge game with Everton at Anfield on Tuesday evening.

They have some key men missing too. It's unlikely that any of Lucas, Johnson, Agger, Sakho, Flanagan or Luis Enrique will see any time on the pitch this weekend, so it's clear to see that it's in defence where they might be a little stretched. That said, they still have good options in Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho and Kelly. But will they really want to play all four when the same back four might be needed in the Merseyside derby three days later? Perhaps the likes of Aussie left-back Brad Smith will get a rare start?

If Suarez starts and is paired with Sturridge, you fear for Bournemouth's chances. But if Rodgers opts to keep them in reserve for Tuesday then Bournemouth must look to grab the initiative first half before Liverpool potentially introduce reinforcements later on.

Bournemouth don't have masses of cup upset pedigree, but they did knock Manchester United out in the 1980s and narrowly lost to them 2-1 in the 1950s. They would have knocked them out twice in the 1980s, had Steve Bruce not cynically trodden on Luther Blissett's heel in 1989 when he was about to score a late winner. The referee hadn't kept up with play and missed the foul. Predictably, United won the replay. With apologies to Worksop, Heybridge Swifts et al, the Liverpool game this weekend is unquestionably Bournemouth's biggest game in the FA Cup since that day 24 years ago.

If Suarez and Sturridge both start, Liverpool to be leading at half-time and full-time looks reasonable odds at 19/20 (BetVictor). If neither starts, I'd be tempted by the draw at 9/2 (various), but of course those odds could plummet fast once teamsheets are confirmed, so be poised and ready to bet around 60-90 minutes before kick-off if you're getting on that one.

Harry Arter's customary yellow card may well make an appearance, but 8/1 (Betfred) on him being the first player booked is not really value, so wait for Betfair odds nearer to kick-off. I prefer 31/10 on Victor Moses to score anytime (Unibet). The Nigerian has had hardly any game time since early December, but would seem likely to get a run-out here.

Victor Moses: a good anytime goalscorer bet?
The final word goes to Eddie Howe, ahead of what will hopefully be the game of the round. "It's a great challenge. It's a rare opportunity to pit our wits against one of the best teams in the world. This is a really special game. Not just for us as players but as fans, and the buzz around the town. We don't want to show Liverpool too much respect and freeze on the occasion."

"Better managers and players have tried to keep Suarez quiet and failed. It's one of the biggest challenges in world football."

AFC Bournemouth v Liverpool, Saturday 12.45pm, ITV1