Our brave England heroes helped a nation believe again

For a moment we dared to dream. It seemed as though the unthinkable was unfolding right before our eyes. Everyone couldn’t help but feel it, believe it and become embroiled in it. Millions of people stretched across the country didn’t dare let their attention slip even for a brief second, in fear of missing a moment to remember for a lifetime. The rawness of football is painful and the emotions that blasted us like a gush of hot air will now feel like a blur. Ecstasy, anger and sorrow all flashed into one.

But the inescapable fact is that England have been knocked out the World Cup. The journey is over and it’s time to return to normality, perhaps with a slightly wearier, heavier head than usual.

This summer threatened to be mundane and toxic, with the nation teetering on the brink of unavoidable disaster. England national sides hold a tendency to complicate matters. South Africa, Brazil, France. Wayne Rooney barking into a television camera as he trudged off the field following a drab goalless draw. Frank Lampard’s strike against Germany clearly bouncing over the line but not being given. The sheer dullness and acceptance of defeat against Iceland. We have become accustomed to these moments, they are regular occurrences during tournaments. We wait for the countless years of hurt to finally stop but they never do. They pull at us, and we warn ourselves not to get dragged in, not to believe.

It is part of the parcel of being an England fan, hanging on to the hope that the impossible could happen. This summer, even though it has once again come painfully crashing down, felt like a new beginning. It provides hope for the future, and we are clinging onto it with all we have.

The build-up before the game stirred feelings we haven’t felt before, perhaps in our lifetimes. But with a delicate swing of the boot and an unerring finish under pressure, everything was over.

Gareth Southgate and his squad of fresh-faced pioneers had plotted a course into uncharted territory, a place the nation hasn’t set foot in since 1990. For a little while they took to their challenge magnificently. They circulated possession intelligently, never afraid to roll the ball back to Jordan Pickford and start anew. And when Kieran Tripper curled a wonderful free-kick beyond Danijel Subasic, England suddenly had one foot in the World Cup final after just five minutes.

But as the clock menacingly continued to drive forward, and the Russian sunset slowly sunk beneath the rim of the Luzhniki Stadium, Croatia took control. The tables had turned, and they were ruthless in their finishing. Six key chances: a strike off the post and the rebound into the grateful arms of Pickford. A couple more fired straight at the England stopper. The other two, however, flashed into the back of the Three Lions’ net. Cue the chants of ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, as the travelling faithful attempted to understand what had just happened. They had, after all, held the dream that 28 other nations had yearned for in the palm of their hands, only to have it ripped away from them deep into extra time.

There was a ghostly silence from the pocket of England fans that greeted the full-time whistle, before the usual chants coughed themselves back into life. They were forced to watch on, like a horror film you can’t avert your eyes from, as the Croatians in the stadium rightly erupted in celebration.

It all could have been so different though. From the first moments England emerged from the tunnel and lined up for the national anthems they were the definition of composure. In the opening stages they were in complete control, spurred on by a foul on Dele Alli on the outskirts of the penalty area. Trippier and Ashley Young stood poised over the free-kick, and the former stepped up to curl a wonderful effort over the Croatian wall and into the far corner. England had taken the lead, and the resultant celebrations in Russia and back home will surely be remembered for many years to come.

There were even chances to double their lead. Harry Maguire twice came close with headers as England continued to threaten from set pieces. Jesse Lingard was teed up 25 yards out, but narrowly curled wide of Subasic’s far post. The clearest opening fell to the usually-reliable Harry Kane.

The Tottenham talisman has been a picture of composure at this tournament, boasting a formidable scoring record and a sure-fire bid to win the Golden Boot. But for a while he cut an isolated figure, waiting for a chance to unleash a strike at goal. It came after Lingard deftly weighted a ball through the Croatian defence, but Kane could only fire a tame effort into the body of Subasic. As the rebound pinged towards the skipper he couldn’t sort his footing out, temporarily resembling an off-balance animal in its early stages of learning how to walk. The follow-up attempt struck the base of the post, and somehow conspired to not nestle inside the net for two-nil.

The miss seemed to shake the Croatians into awareness. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, both passing masters in their own right, seized control of the game. In a sea of uncertainty they stood tall as beacons of calm and serenity, and began to pick apart the beleaguered England ranks at will.

Croatia emerged from the half-time interval a changed team. They had refocused and began an excruciating period for England supporters, raining crosses into the box and always managing to feed Modric, even with the Real Madrid metronome operating in the tightest of pockets.

They finally got their reward, sound in the knowledge that constant pressure at international level often will pay off. Sime Vrsaljko found space on the flank and arched a ball into the Three Lions’ penalty area. Ivan Perisic ghosted away from Kyle Walker and Trippier before flicking cleverly beyond Pickford. Suddenly the complexion of the tie had switched in that fateful second and the Croatians sensed their opponents’ fatigue, many of them clearly already running off fumes. England clung on until extra-time.

As the referee restarted the game, England projected that all-too familiar sense of false hope. They lulled Croatia into dropping the ramparts at points – John Stones’ goal bound header was cleared off the line by pantomime villain Vrsaljko and Lingard, the much-maligned Raheem Sterling and Alli began to link up together again. But with England there is always heartbreak lurking right around the corner.

The hulking presence of Mario Mandzukic began to cause problems, and eventually eliminated England from the competition. He fired a warning shot across the Three Lions’ bows, a close-range toe poke that was smothered spectacularly by Pickford. But his second effort would painfully sneak beyond the shot stopper minutes later.

He was alert to the danger inside a congested penalty area when Trippier and Perisic challenged for a header. As the ball dropped inside the box, Maguire and Stones were caught sleeping and Mandzukic tucked beyond Pickford and darted away towards the touchline. He wiped out a photographer in a bizarre display of footballing collateral damage, which distracted from the fact that England had tried to resume play despite the Croatian starting players, substitutes and coaching staff all being tangled in a bundle near the corner flag. It was a feeble but respectable last push.

There would be no way back for England, who had tried so hard from the first minute to the last. They now play Belgium on Saturday to decide who will finish in third place, still an incredibly admirable achievement. Perhaps that will be one final chance to make new memories in Russia, to be proudly placed alongside the others that have thrilled and captivated a nation.

Kane’s last minute winner against Tunisia, the rout against Panama, the first ever penalty shootout victory, Maguire’s opener in the quarter final – these are all moments that will forever be cherished because of the extreme emotions they stirred. For a month we were able to forget about all the nonsense and rediscover our love for the beautiful game. For that, we can only thank Southgate and his brave squad of Lions.


The Mutiny of Les Bleus – how France capitulated at the 2010 World Cup

The French culture has always been something that carries an enormous weight of respect. The very foundations of the country seem to be built on romance, cuisine, fashion and stunning architecture, and the sprawling City of Lights continues to be a shining pillar in an increasingly unsure continent. The French and football form a pair that simply belongs together – a match most definitely made in heaven.

Former legends, such as Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry have pirouetted their way into football history books, grabbing the sport by the scruff of its neck and truly giving it the title of ‘the beautiful game.’

However, in one fateful South African summer seven years ago, that elegance noticeably lost its beauty, and relationships between the French and football rapidly turned sour. The country’s football team seemed to spectacularly embarrass itself at every twist and turn. Le Foot had been thrown into disrepute.

France travelled to the 2010 World Cup with heightened expectations, after their failures at the Euros just two years before. Les Bleus suffered a nightmare tournament as they fell at the first hurdle, by not progressing from their group. Their manager, Raymond Domenech, somehow clung onto his job by the skin of his teeth and led the team to South Africa under the scrutiny of a doubtful nation.

Before the squad had even qualified for football’s greatest competition, French national football had been caught up in controversy. Their route to the World Cup hadn’t been an easy one, as they laboured through their qualification group in second place. A disappointing defeat to Austria on Matchday 1 set the tone, and further points were dropped against minnows Romania and Serbia. This meant that Les Bleus had to face a play-off against the Republic of Ireland, if they were to reach the World Cup finals.

That tie will go down in history as one of the most controversial in the history of the beautiful game, and created a collective anger so large that calls for extra officials and video technology began to be debated by the sport’s main organising bodies. The people of the Republic of Ireland will still be bitter about the events of the second showdown to this day, and understandably so.

The first leg in Croke Park had finished in a 1-0 win for the French, and the Irish needed a breakthrough at the Stade de France if they were to reach South Africa. The dream was very much alive for the men in green, as Kevin Kilbane fed a ball to Damien Duff, who chased the pass to the byline. There he looked up, and saw the talismanic figure of Robbie Keane in the box. He pulled the pass back perfectly, allowing the striker to slot home.

However, as the game entered extra time poised on a knife edge, and ticked agonisingly towards its conclusion, Florent Malouda found himself poised over a set piece.

He lofted it forwards to Thierry Henry, who had made a run to Shay Given’s near post. As the delivery bounced upwards, Henry clearly handled the ball twice to prevent it from going out of play, before he played it across the face of goal for William Gallas to nod home, sending his country to South Africa. The now infamous scenes saw the French consumed in a mire of protests and anger, as the Irish demanded that a replay take place.

However, no such thing happened, and France found themselves on the plane to the World Cup.

Raymond Domenech’s selections for his 23-man party caused confusion back in his home country. Notable figures such as Patrick Viera, Samir Nasri and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema missed out on the journey, whereas Yann M’Vila and Mathieu Valbuena both made the cut, despite neither earning recognition on the senior international stage.

The palpable tensions and uncertainly in the camp was sure to burst into anger at some point; it just needed a match to be struck first. And just 24 hours before their opening game of the tournament, the first of many bust-ups unfolded spectacularly. Florent Malouda had to held back by his captain, Patrice Evra, after he had squared up to Domenech following a training ground disagreement. The manager believed Malouda had been acting in an aggressive manner, and benched him for their first game.

With a growing feeling of insecurity creeping into the French camp, Les Bleus kicked off the tournament with the dullest of stalemates, drawing 0-0 with Uruguay. The game never exploded into life, and France found themselves struggling to make any form of impact against a compact opponent. Jeremy Toulalan was booked for a heavy tackle, and a heated exchange followed that saw Domenech come onto the pitch to calm the situation. This was to be the second moment of the tournament where the puzzling French manager found himself in an uncomfortable situation.

It certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Following the draw, French legend and former captain Zinedine Zidane, said he believed Domenech had lost control of the team, and that he was ‘not a coach.’ The controversial icon had captained his country at the 2006 World Cup after coming out of retirement, and the weight of his comments may have affected his former team mates more than he had intended.

The second match in South Africa saw France succumb to Mexico 2-0, and tensions in the camp started to flare up again on an even larger scale. The Mexicans struggled to find a way past Hugo Lloris, but broke through just after the hour-mark as Javier Hernandez slotted into the net to give his country the lead. And after this, Mexico continued to mount the pressure and came away relatively comfortable 2-0 victors. The poor result left the French rooted to the bottom of their table with only one point gained, and no real indication that performances were going to improve.

At half-time, Domenech had replaced the ineffectual Nicolas Anelka with Andre-Pierre Gignac, and it wasn’t until the full time whistle had sounded that the real reason for the change rose to the surface.

Deep in the bowels of the Peter Mokaba stadium, the Chelsea striker had a blazing row with his manager at half time, which he refused to apologise for when prompted to by French Football President Jean-Pierre Escalettes. This meant that the hit-man was rapidly packing his bags, before being sent home from the tournament.

The following day, Domenech’s impotence to deal with his squad of egos was fully realised in spectacular fashion.

Following the decision to send Anelka home, the rest of the squad protested by refusing to take part in training. The session started off like any other, and was open for fans to spectate. The French squad began by signing autographs, and the sombre mood that surrounded the camp seemed to have been temporarily lifted. However, as the players took to the pitch, Patrice Evra could be seen having a row with the fitness coach, Robert Duverne. The confrontation ended as Domenech was forced to pull the two Frenchmen apart.

Evra stormed off to the team bus, and he was promptly followed by the rest of his colleagues – who pulled the curtains closed for good measure. And when the rebellious squad eventually emerged, they were clutching a letter, which it fell to Domenech to read out.

“All of the players without exception want to declare their opposition to the decision taken by the FFF to exclude Nicolas Anelka from the squad.” The manager said, in what has been described by many as the darkest hour for Les Blues. “At the request of the squad, the player in question attempted to have dialogue but his approach was ignored.”

As the players and FFF frantically began to contradict themselves, the country’s hopes for qualification became only a disturbing fever dream. In the final group game against the tournament hosts France fell to a 2-1 defeat, meaning they finished rooted to the bottom of their group without gaining a single win.

Finally, the embarrassment was over. Just as quickly as they had landed in South Africa, the French squad found themselves packing their bags to leave. This time they would take with them an all too familiar feeling of shame, and the weight of a nation’s disappointment weighing heavily on their backs.

As for Domenech, he was effectively a dead man walking before the tournament had even begun. He was to be replaced by former French stalwart Laurent Blanc, and bowed out of his tenure after one last example of his pettiness. After the final group-stage defeat, Domenech refused to shake the hand of the South African manager; making it his final action before being replaced – and perhaps going some way to set out his poor future reputation.

Even though the manager’s job was done, the spotlight was still firmly fixated on the players. The French people demanded answers. As the squad flew back in economy class, Laurent Blanc was already coming up with some big ideas to start his reign. Subsequently. the entire World Cup squad were banned from their country’s next fixture, and the five key players in the mutiny were named and shamed, before being given bans depending on their level of involvement.

When the disciplinary committees finished, the country gradually moved on. And thankfully for Les Bleus, the next few tournaments showed remarkable signs of improvement. Euro 2012 saw the French reach the quarter-finals, before being knocked out by Spain, who would go on to be eventual champions. The 2014 World Cup saw the French struggle to improve on their previous effort, as they could only reach the last eight once again.

However, the most noticeable change came just last year, during Euro 2016. The French topped their group, and comfortably saw off the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and then Germany on their route to the final. Portugal were their last obstacle to reaching finally reaching glory again, but an extra-time strike from Eder broke the hearts of Les Bleus, surely by now an agonisingly familiar feeling.

With a promising new generation of footballers on the cusp of bringing a trophy back to the land of romance, the debacle of the 2010 World Cup may now only seem like a far-away nightmare for the French people. But there is no denying what happened, and it is certain to forever remain the darkest moment in French football – a shady, vulgar blot in an otherwise sparkling and rich history.

They say that romance never dies – but in this case, football proved to be its real killer.






The fall of La Masia – is Barcelona’s dominance in Spain coming to an end?

La Masia is the former home of the legendary FC Barcelona youth academy, where the club’s future prodigies would live together, and develop their budding football abilities under the beating fury of the Catalonian sun.

From the outside, one of the most prestigious schools of football seems to be a typically quaint farmhouse, made out of stone worn away during the building’s historic existence. It was built in 1702, but it wasn’t until 1979 that it was first used by the club to house its young footballers who lived far away from Barcelona. And from that year, until the relocation of the academy in 2011, La Masia steadily built the foundations and philosophies that the Catalonian based club still follow to the present day.

Barcelona’s game against Levante in 2012 saw the team reach a significant milestone – as for the first time in the club’s rich history, every member of the first team on that day had graduated through La Masia. The club went on to win the league title that season, and it would be their 22nd.

The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta have gone on to become typical household names, and cemented themselves in their positions as some of the best players to grace a football pitch.

But one name from that team sheet against Levante stands above the rest, and that is, of course, Lionel Messi. There is no doubt the diminutive Argentinian has gone on to become one of the world’s greatest footballers; and could very well be the best despite his constant rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo.

As recent seasons have gone by, Barcelona’s arguably biggest rivals, Real Madrid, have secured themselves three Champions League trophies in their last four attempts, and they also wrestled La Liga away from Catalonia last season. Despite the big name departures of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria, Los Blancos appear to have adequately replaced them through their Galactico policy, securing the signings of Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos.

In stark contrast, Barcelona’s transfer policy has been severely questioned over their last few campaigns. The 2013-14 transfer window proved to bring about radical change for the club, as the emphasis on La Masia youth products slowly started to be eased away. The naturally gifted Thiago, seen as the natural heir to Xavi and Iniesta, followed the outgoing Pep Guardiola to Bayern Munich for just shy of 30m euros. Despite the expected decline of Barcelona’s senior midfield pairing, Thiago incredibly still had concerns about a lack of playing time.

The drama surrounding Neymar’s switch to Barcelona saw the Blaugrana’s summer get even worse, as they found themselves hit with a transfer ban that prevented them from registering or fielding new transfers until early 2016. To counter this, Barcelona thought ahead, and brought in the likes of Luis Suarez, Rakitic, Mathieu and shot-stopper Claudio Bravo.

These transfers saw more La Masia products being moved on. Cesc Fabregas made the switch to Chelsea, and other talented first-teamers such as Denis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu also moved away from the Spanish club. The further departures of long-standing servants Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol surely added to the instability surrounding the Catalan giants.

The increasing pressure to follow the free-spending precedent set by Real Madrid may be proving too much for Barcelona’s famed academy, and Los Blancos’ domestic and Champions League successes last season will have shaken the very foundations of FC Barcelona.

The succession of club president Joan Laporta by Sandro Rosell in 2010 may be a key factor in this eventual decline of La Masia. It would be a valid argument to suggest that Rosell had sanctioned the sale of his club’s youth products to pursue a similar Galactico policy that has helped bring recent success to rivals Real Madrid. However, many have accused him of breaking apart the very philosophies and essence that made La Masia one of the most famed youth academies in football history.

And to add to the growing sense of danger, Barcelona’s B team, formerly competing in the Segunda, have struggled to rise back up through the system after relegation to Spain’s third-tier in 2015. However, the main concern for Barcelona may not have been the relegation, but rather the obvious lack of players ready to make the jump into the first team set-up.

The controversy surrounding current Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has also contributed to the feeling of uncertainty surrounding the Blaugrana. Many fans want him to leave his post, but as it appears he will retain control of his position once again, there are now concerns the club won’t be able to prevent the recent failings of La Masia for the foreseeable future.

Barcelona have been linked with puzzling targets in the current transfer market, and with the potential addition of Tottenham Hotspur failure Paulinho in process, it does appear that the focus on the production of young talent at the club has well and truly come to an end.






Bridging the gap – UEFA president suggests salary caps for Europe’s biggest clubs

Under the relentless sunshine alighting the sky’s vivid blues and whites, stands one of Los Angeles’ finest holiday homes. The exterior is a smart blend of bleached white stone and tinted blue panes, each reflecting the never ending rolling hills beyond the horizon. And around a shimmering pool stands a film crew, with their attention fully fixated on one man: Manchester United’s newest box office signing.

Romelu Lukaku is only one of football’s most prestigious transfers, but as he puts pen to paper to pledge his foreseeable future to the Red Devils, he will be earning around £200,000 a week. In comparison, the Belgian front man had been earning £75,000 at his previous club; a measly figure when compared to what he is receiving now at Old Trafford.

UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, has recently been putting forward his case for bringing in salary caps for Europe’s biggest clubs, and the Slovenian may see this newest blockbuster move as another statistic to add to his ongoing argument. Ceferin has recently had an interview published in one of his home country’s most respected political magazines, Mladina.

He told the publication that UEFA would have to “take into serious consideration the possibility of limiting clubs’ budgets for players’ wages”, before he argued that the introduction of a salary cap would force clubs ‘to be more rational.’

The Slovenian’s concept will have the purpose of bridging the gap between Europe’s largest clubs and their smaller competitors, who will be earning a significant amount less in revenue. And it’s clear to see why Ceferin believes this is a necessary move.

There are examples in the largest leagues around Europe of the same teams earning substantial amounts of money, and then increasing this figure through certain other dealings and sponsorships. Familiar faces end up lifting the trophies at the end of the season the majority of the time, with the biggest clubs being able to show off their supremacy more with the addition of big names and sky-high wages. Meanwhile, rooted to mid-table obscurity or worse, are teams that simply don’t generate as much revenue, and are forced to aim for players of a potentially lower standard, in an attempt to achieve the impossible.

The largest teams are consistently generating more revenue than any others in their respective leagues, due to their continued successes. With success comes more sponsorship deals and furthered attraction for top-class players. And it’s a constant cycle; one which Ceferin believes should be brought down to a fairer level, so that every team is enabled to be competitive. The idea is that every club is imposed with a strict figure for wages, that shouldn’t be exceeded. It is hoped that this could allow smaller teams to have a chance of securing bigger name players, and without the danger of overspending on wages, could use their healthier finances to invest in winning more trophies.

A similar initiative was put in place in 2012, when UEFA introduced the Financial Fair Play system. This was meant to prevent clubs from spending above what they generated in revenue, but has so far been met with mixed results.

Both Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have received substantial fines for breaching FFP guidelines, but don’t appear to have been affected in the way they are carrying out their transfer business, with more big signings expected to be made by both clubs this summer.

However, as the Financial Fair Play system doesn’t seem to be effective at points, there may be no guarantee that Ceferin’s salary cap would force change instead.

For many supporters, a salary cap has seemed like a goal which needs to be achieved, but may not be possible. The idea of simply implementing a salary cap system to the biggest clubs would be met with fierce resistance, something that the UEFA president himself has acknowledged. The idea of clubs becoming more financially secure, and potentially having a chance to becoming champions of their leagues, is certainly a tantalising one.

The idea is almost certain to be shot down by both clubs and sponsors alike, as both will wonder why they should give up an advantage over their rival teams which they would have been working towards for years.

It seems like it can only go two ways. Either a salary cap is introduced and Europe’s biggest clubs are forced to sell some of their superstar players to meet the required figures, or nothing changes – and football is continued to be hounded by suggestions to level the playing field for smaller teams.

Whether Ceferin is capable of introducing a salary cap is a completely different question, and one answered by some critics of the idea as the Slovenian simply pandering to the press of his home country. However, others may see his vision as one which will change the face of the beautiful game forever and could be the much needed way that allows smaller teams to possibly achieve their greatest dreams.












No room for failure – pressure mounting on Pep Guardiola after summer spending

An underwhelming first season for much-lauded manager Pep Guardiola’s first season in England, saw Manchester City fail to mount a Premier League title challenge, and early elimination from the Champions League. Following this summer’s spending, there is sure to be no room for disappointment again.

With a summer spending spree estimated to total around £200 million, the transformation of the Citizens into Guardiola’s vision has well and truly begun. The Spaniard has been successful everywhere he has managed, winning titles for both Barcelona and Bayern Munich, as well as twice securing the coveted Champions League trophy for the Catalan giants.

However, with an array of talent available to him everywhere he has coached, including the likes of Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski, it is hard to argue against the fact Guardiola has never yet managed a team not blessed with a superbly gifted squad of players. The same applies to Manchester City, as over the years the blue side of Manchester have overtaken their city rivals in terms of dominance.

Some of last season’s displays showed the qualities of Guardiola’s roster of players, with positive performances against their rivals for European qualification, Arsenal and Manchester United. However, all too often the team would slip up against an opponent they would be expecting to comfortably overcome, as an uncertain defence shipped far too many goals to mount a serious title challenge.

Guardiola has now had time to evaluate the team available to him, and has already analysed their strengths and weaknesses. The Spaniard has assessed the need for another option on the wing after the release of Jesus Navas, and the £42 million signing of the talented Bernardo Silva provides him with just that. Benfica shot-stopper Ederson has also been recruited too, after the release of Willy Caballero and the shortcomings of first choice keeper Claudio Bravo last campaign.

The manager also has targets to solve the full-back situation, after the release of long-term servants Paulo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy. City appear to be locked in negotiations with several players, with Guardiola wishing to complete the signings of Kyle Walker from Tottenham, veteran Dani Alves and left-back Benjamin Mendy.

All of these targets have been chosen carefully. The addition of Bernardo Silva to an already incredibly potent attack, including the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, has added further competition for a starting XI place, leaving their coach with plenty of choice for rotation across what is sure to be a gruelling campaign of demanding fixtures.

Dani Alves has played under Pep Guardiola before at Barcelona, and the Brazilian is sure to bring a winning mentality to the squad. With several La Liga titles under his belt, and three Champions League trophies, the veteran full back will compete closely with Kyle Walker for the berth at right back. The added bonus of the potential addition of the two players is Guardiola’s demands for versatility from his full backs. They are often expected to tuck into the centre of the pitch and bring an entirely new dynamic to Guardiola’s team going forward – and both full backs will offer this attacking threat.

Pep Guardiola will have been made fully aware of the heightened expectations for the forthcoming season. The Manchester City board have invested significantly in the Spaniard’s project, and will demand a significant improvement on a third place domestic finish and early elimination from Europe’s top competition.

But the biggest pressure will come from Guardiola himself. The Spaniard is a winner wherever he goes, be it a player or a manager. He has conquered at Barcelona and also succeeded at Bayern Munich, despite not being able to deliver a Champions League trophy to the Allianz Arena.

This new challenge at Manchester City is now in its second year of development. The first year could be viewed as a failure, or potentially a vital first stepping stone in securing Manchester City’s renewed dominance in England’s top division. Either way Pep Guardiola will be expecting to gain as many trophies as possible in the upcoming season, and further prove he truly is one of the elite managers in world football.




Farewell to a legend – the end of an era for Wayne Rooney

13 years. 559 games. 253 goals – and a club goal scoring record to boot. Wayne Rooney’s time at Manchester United has come to an end – and has now been officially confirmed as an Everton player once again.

Following the announcement came an outpouring of gratitude and memories, as people all around the world fondly allowed themselves to reminisce over some of Rooney’s most magical moments.

The overhead kick against Manchester City, which even saw Sir Alex Ferguson nearly jumping for joy, the hat-trick against Fenerbache on his Old Trafford debut; despite some seeing him only as a self-assured kid with too much attitude. But others saw him as England’s next big thing – and someone who could play a large part in leading them to glory once again.

Wayne Rooney has always been a figure that has divided many people. But it would be difficult to find a single person who doesn’t believe that he is truly a footballing legend.

And his career is far from over. As he shifts from red to blue, he has returned to his boyhood club, where he first explosively announced himself onto the footballing stage and seized the eyes of the sporting world. It is a fitting final chapter for Rooney, you would think, if he were to end his career in the very same fashion from which it started.

However, the back end of his time at United demonstrated Rooney far from his best. A general lack of sharpness affected him in the biggest of games and he struggled to make an impact under the demanding managerial philosophy of Louis van Gaal. He also found himself slowly being phased out of games last season under Jose Mourinho.

So it is easy to see why Rooney has made this move. It isn’t a brave decision, or one he should take with a heavy heart – as he has achieved everything at Manchester United and departs as a true great.

After all, last season saw him overtake Sir Bobby Charlton as the Red Devils’ all-time record goal scorer, and it’s a record that no one will beat for many decades to come. In a world where players come and go more than ever before, Rooney’s loyalty to the red half of Manchester has seen him achieve these records and leave with the majority of fans sure to be wishing him well in the next chapter of his career.

Now Wayne Rooney stands proud in his first photographs wearing the new Everton jersey. It is hard to miss the unmistakable glint in his eye; a hunger to succeed and do the best for his club. Ambition is certainly one of the attributes that Rooney has never lost.

But there are a couple of ways to view this transfer. Everton are certain to see this move as a financially sound acquisition of a former fan-favourite, and someone who has achieved everything available to him in the world of football. They will see his experience of winning as being invaluable, and hope Rooney can inspire the club to achieve a European finish.

However, despite it clearly being a shared dream between club and player to reunite once again, have Everton signed Rooney as his ability visibly begins to slip away?

The 2009-10 season for Wayne Rooney is his joint-best in the red shirt of Manchester United, as Sir Alex Ferguson used him at the very top of his attack and he appeared to flourish – hitting the back of the net 34 times. The 2011-12 season matched this figure, with Rooney once again being used as a key focal point for the Red Devils’ attack.

However, it is after this that Rooney’s drop is form is worrying.

In 2014-15, Rooney only scored 14 goals, then 15 the next season. And in his final campaign at Old Trafford, he converted just 8 chances, albeit beating Sir Bobby Charlton’s record with an effort away at Stoke City.

Football experts and fans would have a valid point if they were to pin the blame for this decline on Rooney’s positioning on the pitch – as he found himself deeper and deeper in the heart of United’s midfield as the years rolled by. But it is still an alarming drop in form for someone who was certainly still a key component to the Red Devils’ attack.

Despite this, the Everton faithful will be hopeful that Rooney can inspire his new team, and grab himself plenty more goals in the process. An expectation of around 15 goals could be a realistic one if the team allow him to flourish, and provide him with the right kind of service. What Everton have lost in Romelu Lukaku’s transfer to Manchester United may not be easily replaced, but the acquisition of Rooney could certainly be a step in the right direction.

With a new home allowing him to push forward and continue to challenge himself at football’s highest level, Wayne Rooney has almost certainly left Manchester United a legend, rather than the boy he was when he joined.

Have England’s Young Lions finally turned a corner?

There are two ways to view this summer’s action involving the England international youth teams – as a glimmer of hope among years of poor performances and a painful lack of consistency, or as another failure to win a major international tournament despite the Young Lions fielding teams full of promising talent.

Rather surprisingly, it appears the overwhelming majority are looking at the positives; that England’s youth teams did themselves proud in their respective tournaments stretching out over the course of this summer. It is with a jarring feeling of unease too, as England’s international teams have long since been associated with all too familiar failings in key tournaments.

It is difficult to exactly place when England’s failings in key tournaments began to become the worst form of consistency. Every major tournament has its own unshakable precursor – the insurmountable feeling of excitement and optimism, before it is ruthlessly crushed by a poor performance and the overwhelming cloud of pessimism and assumed future failings inevitably returns.

The injustice of the 2010 World Cup, where the England team visibly struggled in the staunching South African heat and limped through the group stage, could have been the starting point. The look of fleeting panic from Robert Green as he fumbles a simple save over his own goal line, and the sheer agony of Frank Lampard’s shot thundering over the line off the crossbar but not being given, will still haunt every faithful England fan as they close their eyes at night. Euro 2012 could also have been a point where the English people turned to apathy over genuinely taking an interest in how their national teams performed, as the Three Lions once again succumbed to a penalty shootout defeat.

However, five years on, and after the development of an entirely new format of how England national teams are coached, there are noticeable differences in the performances and philosophies within the country’s international youth teams.

Once again, people are starting to shake off their apathy and are taking a genuine interest in how they perform.

England’s under-17’s team came agonisingly close to winning the European Championship, but lost on penalties to Spain in the final, after conceding an equaliser six minutes into stoppage time. Some could argue that this is an all-too familiar outcome for an English international team, and that the suited figures throughout the Wembley boardrooms had once again failed the talent produced by the country. However, it is also possible to side with a feeling of surprised optimism – as after all the under-17’s team have only progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the competition twice within the last six years.

This increased feeling of optimism carried itself into June, where England successfully retained the Toulon tournament trophy after winning a penalty shootout. Despite there being only 12 teams in the competition, and England being the defending champions, it is still an impressive feat to finish top of the group in the first stage, beat rivals Scotland in the semi-finals and then defeat a talented Ivory Coast squad to retain the trophy. The crossover with the u-20’s world cup also reduced the quality of the Young Lions on display, but they still came out as victors.

The U20’s World Cup was entirely expected to be another tournament of failure for England’s youngsters, with certain players being moved into the next age category above, and the usual dense, unshakeable knowledge of prior failure sure to be weighing heavily on the minds of the squad. However, the Young Lions spectacularly proved their doubters wrong and progressed through the whole tournament unbeaten, before defeating Venezuela 1-0 at the final hurdle to claim their first ever title for this tournament.

And it appears this increased optimism found its way to the u-21’s European Championships, where England reached the semi-finals of the competition for the first time in almost a decade. Despite a penalty shootout defeat against eventual victors Germany marring what was almost certainly a successful summer for the squad, the tangible difference in performances across the board for all Young Lions team is inescapable.

And so, with the senior team hurtling towards a World Cup they look woefully unprepared for, and a country-wide uncertainty about the appointment of Gareth Southgate, an opportunity has presented itself for the Young Lions to further progress in their careers. With senior players certain to be phased out of the England set-up slowly but surely by the management team, there remains ample opportunity for the likes of Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham, Will Hughes and others to stake a claim for themselves and secure their future in the senior England setup for the foreseeable future.

If the talent on show adorning the Young Lions colours at various tournaments across the summer can find their way into their respective club’s first teams, or find a place where they can settle and will be guaranteed regular playing time, then it would be very questionable if Gareth Southgate were to ignore them.


Image credit: FIFA.com