Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Talent Ready For The Step Up?

Today I was drawn to a tweet from fellow Blade and Guardian football journalist John Ashdown, which mentioned that he was judging the Football League Awards 2011. It set me thinking as to where my votes would go.

The awards were established in 2006 and cover a wide variety of categories rewarding fans, community programmes, matchday programmes, stadia, sponsorship, sportsmanship as well as the players. Awards are given to the best player in each division, the best young player and the best apprentices in each division.

Success has often been an acknowledgement that the player concerned is ready for the step up in division. The first Championship Player of the Year, Phil Jagielka, has since gone on to Everton and international recognition. The Young Player of the Year in 2007 was the much touted Gareth Bale. And the 2008 League 1 and 2 players of the year Jermaine Beckford (then of Leeds) and Keith Andrews (then playing for a South Midlands franchise) now find themselves at Premier League clubs. Some struggle to have an impact when their team steps up a level, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake the 2009 winner being a good example. Others were realistically Premier League quality players who remained loyal as their club went down; Kevin Nolan (2010 winner) and Kevin Phillips (2008).

So, who would I choose? I have limited my choice to the Championship, it has taken me long enough to narrow down my list as it is. I also find things like this difficult to assess often because of when they take place. Do you include performances in the latter part of last season, or just this season to date? If you included the early part of 2010, a player who would be up for consideration as Championship Player of the Season would be Darren Ambrose. His dynamic goalscoring performances were a key factor in Crystal Palace's survival, yet this season he has made just 10 starts due to injury. So, to keep this as simple as possible, my candidates listed below are based on this season to date.

Championship Player of the Season

Below I have selected my top three. It wasn't easy and I have based it on live performances and TV viewing. Before explaining why I selected each one I have a few honourable mentions.

Ashley Williams (Swansea) - a rock in the centre of their defence and shows a level of maturity and leadership beyond his 26 years.

Danny Graham (Watford) - Made a decent transition from League 1 with Carlisle to Championship last season, with 14 league goals. Already exceeded that total this and formed a great partnership with Marvin Sordell.

John Oster (Doncaster) - In an attacking Doncaster line up alongside Hayter, Sharp, Stock and Coppinger, he has stood out due to a combination of work rate, skill and a demand to have the ball and take responsibility.

Adam Hammill (Barnsley) - Now in the Premiership with Wolves, he successfully built on his previous loan spell at Oakwell with commanding performances in midfield, a good eye for goal and a cracking shot. It will be interesting to see how Barnsley cope without him and how he settles into a struggling Premier League side.

Luciano Becchio (Leeds) - I remember Leeds supporting colleagues telling me last season, "Forget Beckford, Becchio is the one we are worried about losing". Now I can see why and he is well on his way to exceeding the 17 goals scored in League 1 last season.

So my top 3:
Jay Bothroyd (Cardiff)

I have to admit to having little positive to say about Jay Bothroyd prior to this season and although he has certainly improved his all round game, I feel his England cap was more due to the dearth of English forwards, than Bothroyd's international capabilities.

Where he has proved to be more than capable is in the Championship and for a striker who could legitimately be described as a journeyman at 28 and whose previous best season comprised 13 goals he has been in a rich vein of form. 14 league goals to date, in just 18 starts, and he suddenly looks much more incisive in front of goal. Whereas once he would look for the spectacular, only to see it fired high and wide, he is now finding the net. Certainly playing alongside Bellamy and Chopra and a supply line from Whittingham, Rae, Burke et al helps his cause, but the fact that he has outscored Bellamy and Chopra combined says a lot for his achievement. Never short of self belief that to me seemed to belie his abilities, maybe the increase in quality around him has made him a little more grounded?

Jamie Mackie (QPR)
Following his move from Plymouth in May, Mackie made an instant impact at Loftus Road. When seen in the green of Argyle he never looked the most skillful player, nor was he a prolific goalscorer. For what was an anticipated seven figure fee, QPR fans would have been right to be concerned as to what kind of striker they were signing.

What they got was a hard working, committed striker who, when surrounded by better players at big-spending Rangers, hit the most prolific period of his career in the early part of the season. Although the scoring run did dry up a little, he continued to play a key role in maintaining Rangers' position at the head of the table and had gained his first Scotland cap, before he suffered a double leg fracture and a gobful of bile from El Hadji Diouf in the cup tie at Blackburn in January.

Sometimes the stats say it all. Top scorer with 13 goals, top of the assists table with 11. Adel has played a part in over half of QPR's 45 goals.

Probably the most exciting player in the Championship he captivates and frustrates in equal measure. His goalscoring record created by 97 shots, proving the old adage - if you don't buy a ticket, you don't win the raffle. Just as likely to try the hardest of three passes when the simplest would suffice, yet when it works the results are stupendous. Take his through ball for Wayne Routledge's winning goal vs Coventry. Tight on the left touchline, just over halfway, with a Coventry player tight to him. He dug out a ball with the outside of his right boot that swerved, dipped and landed on Routledge's boot on the edge of the box. One touch and swept past the on-rushing keeper.Magic.

Players like Taraabt can often be accused of drifting in and out of games, yet QPR can accept that when he still contributes at the key moments, as the stats show. But when in the mood, as he was at Bramall Lane on 14th August, he can take control of a game and tease you and torment you. He scored a penalty, QPR's third goal, on 23 minutes. He was pulling all the strings to the extent that QPR were able to bring him off after 68 minutes. Proof Neil Warnock does have a sympathetic side.

Taraabt, for me, is the best player in the Championship.

Young Player of the Year

The Young Player of the Season is much harder to judge. The Championship is wash with young loanees from the Premier League, it feels like the proportion is increasing year on year. Many of these players have impressed me when I have seen them this season.

Cameron Stewart (19) of Hull City (Manchester United) looks a raw prospect with plenty of pace. If anything it's his final ball which lets him down, but the speed of footwork as much as his athleticism causes a handful for opposition defences.

Josh King (19) of Preston North End (again Manchester United) looked a great prospect, in his first spell away from Old Trafford, but in a struggling side his 7 appearances brought a nil return, but not without a great deal of effort and application.

I have made my views on Kyle Walker (Spurs player loaned to QPR) known elsewhere on this site, but it's clear that his arrival on loan enhanced an already rock-steady R's defence.

The award is not aimed at loanees however and focusing on players owned, rather than loaned, by Championship clubs, there are two candidates that immediately spring to mind.

Marvin Sordell (19 years old, Watford)

Although Danny Graham is taking a  majority of the goalscoring plaudits at Watford and rightly so; the impact of Sordell, given his first real run in the first team, is hard to ignore. One of several Vicarage Road academy products breaking through, he had spells on loan at Wealdstone and then Tranmere before getting his League chance at the end of last season.

13 league and cup goals from 22 starts this season is reward for a player who has formed a great strike partnership with Graham and helped his club be the division's highest scorers and taken them to the brink of the play offs. He runs the channels very well and works hard for his team and strike partner. 

Equally comfortable shooting from outside the box as close in, it was a high stretch of the leg and a controlled finish from close in that saw him seal a win for Watford at Bramall Lane in October.

If he continues to apply himself and works hard to improve, as Malky Mackay acknowledged he did in the Summer he has a future in the Premier League.

Scott Sinclair (21 years old, Swansea)

After many spells out on loan and after displaying quality forward play in most of them, I found it surprising to see his permanent move out of Chelsea was to end in the Championship. An initial £500,000 seemed like a bargain fee for a player who, on his day, can tear teams apart with quick feet and quality wing play, yet can play down the middle and finish opportunities with great composure.

The fact that his old academy boss at Chelsea, Brendan Rogers, was in charge aided Swansea's cause and he has seen his former charge net 12 league goals (17 including cup) so far this season. Not bad for a player classed as a midfielder. Yet it's Rogers decision to play him on the left side of an attacking trio in a 4-3-3 formation that is paying dividends. His first England Under 21 cap was picked up in November and you cannot help but feel that Premiership football will follow shortly, either with Swansea or elsewhere.

It would be difficult for me to pick between the two. Sinclair was much more of a known talent and for that reason I will go for Sordell given the impact he has made.

These are just my opinions and based on what I have seen of the players this season. Those of you have seen more of these players than me may have a different opinion and, if you do, please share it below. It would also be great to hear opinions on League 1 and League 2 as well, I feel less qualified to comment on those. We will then have to wait until the winners are revealed to see how accurate our assessments are.

Monday, 17 January 2011

For the Love of Football

Football commentary always seemed like a great job when I was younger. You get to travel the country, the world, watching the game you love. You visit great stadiums, meet great players, the great managers. Immerse yourself in the culture of the game. Oh and you get paid for it. I could never see the downsides, apart from not getting to watch my beloved Blades? As BBC commentator Guy Mowbray told me this week, the downsides are few and far between, although a stomach upset, a TV gantry and 90 minutes of football isn't a great combination.

Fresh from a double header weekend of commentary and ahead of his presenting return on Late Kick Off Yorkshire & Lincolnshire, Guy kindly took the time to tell me a bit about his career, what drove him to make the career decision I would have loved to have made when I was younger and what is left to achieve for a man who has already commentated on two World Cup Finals.

Like many of us reading this, Guy was football obsessed as a kid;  "I was playing, listening, watching, and absorbing every bit of information there was." Dreaming of wearing the number 9 shirt for his beloved York City, watching his team at a time when they were achieving giantkilling exploits against Arsenal in 1985 and a draw against Liverpool at Bootham Crescent the following year. Yet it was wise words from his Dad that set the ball rolling."Having exited my teens still thinking about what I'd like to do with my life, one sentence set the ball rolling. "If you can't get paid for playing football, why don't you try getting a job watching it?" 

A Bootham football education

Interestingly though, when many broadcasters list the names and voices that inspired them, Guy's heroes were firmly on the pitch. "My idols weren't broadcasters, the stars will always be the players."

Despite this he admits that, like most of us of a certain age, hearing any archive of the late, great Peter Jones (Voice of BBC radio football from 1966-90) and  Brian Moore (ITV) always brings back fantastic childhood memories. For those of you too young to remember, there is a link to some of Peter's commentaries in this article from the Guardian - enjoy.

Peter Jones
Spurred on by his dad, Guy started writing as many letters to as many broadcast and reporting outlets as he could, outlining his knowledge of and love for the game. "Clubcall's northern co-ordinator John Temple responded some weeks (may have been months) later and invited me to shadow him at a match. The following week I was on my own! We both took a lucky punt basically."  

Guy's subsequent move to radio saw him in football commentating heaven. His first full time radio job was covering City games for Minster FM, York's independent local station. However when the station bought Wear FM in Sunderland (now Sun FM) and bought the rights to commentate on Sunderland's matches, Guy moved up the divisions and away from the Bootham press box. Guy still makes time for watching York, getting to every home game he possibly can and at least a couple away in a season.  

Sunderland had its attractions though, "There's something about the Mackems' passion that hooks you in and so to be honest that more than compensated for not getting to watch City quite so much. I only hated it once - when commentating on a routine 2-0 Liverpool win over Sunderland in the League Cup on the same night York beat Man Utd 3-0 at Old Trafford!" Despite resting players, the United team that September evening included Beckham, McClair, Giggs, Neville, Pallister and Irwin. Only the introduction of Steve Bruce from the bench helped to stem the York tide. A special night indeed and a disappointing one to miss, but less than three years later Guy's achievements would more than compensate.

As the radio work developed, Guy was making his first forays into television. Although the transition between radio and television commentating is not straightforward. "It takes time - and if I heard my early TV commentaries back now I'd probably cringe more than usual. When I started in TV with Eurosport I was working for Metro Radio in the North East at the same time so I had to consciously think about which medium I was broadcasting on as I flicked between the two. That can be troublesome, but for me I think it helped." 

It certainly didn't do Guy any harm, earning a 1999 Sony award for his presenting, commentary and production of his Saturday show from Sunderland, including the epic play off final against Charlton. But he was not only recognised for his radio work that year, also picking up a RTS Award as the Best Newcomer in TV Sport. One of the reasons for that award might surprise many who didn't have satellite television at that time. Eurosport had coverage of the 1998 World Cup in France and Guy, at the age of 26, became the youngest commentator to cover a World Cup final. 

So how did his first final compare with the experience of commentating for the largest terrestrial audience this year? "Commentating on the final in South Africa was fantastic - except the '98 final I covered for Eurosport was a better game with a better atmosphere. Given the fact France won on home soil it would be."

The African World Cup experience made up for the disappointment of the England performances and the quality of some of the matches. "I loved everything about the South Africa World Cup though. A great experience and the final was a wonderful occasion - if not a tremendous football match. I'm glad I was there and want to be at every one in the future, Qatar included!" 

During the World Cup, Guy covered England's live games on the BBC including the defeat by Germany. Added to his previous experience of commentating on his own team I wondered if he ever let his neutrality slip. "I don't think I have - others may disagree. I think covering the England games it's fair enough to make clear who you 'want' to win without letting it cloud your judgement of calling decisions or assessing the game. I should point out that I would do that for any of the home nations in a major tournament, and for British teams in European games. You have to know and relate to your audience."

Guy knew from February-March that he had the final "gig", but tried to forget it as much as possible in the build up and once the tournament started. "If you thought about anything other than your next game you'd soon make a mess of things and see the big ones given to someone else." With the BBC presenting a strong commentating line-up including Steve Wilson and Jonathan Pearce, Guy is kept him on his toes and it's important that he doesn't let anything slip. Something that, with 15-20 hours of preparation for each game, he tries to avoid.

Social media and fan sites make it much easier for fans to comment on all aspects of football, including the way it's broadcast and the people who present it. Not least when you commentate on the big matches and the contentious decisions. It poses an interesting quandary, "You do pay attention - but try not to. What you must remember is that a lot of the comments - good and bad - are made by people who have never worked in the industry and have no experience or knowledge of how it works or why something has happened the way it has." 

"A friend of mine put it quite well - like overhearing a conversation in a pub between people who don't know you, but they've got an opinion anyway. The anonymity of the internet unfortunately can make some people 'braver' than they'd normally be. It doesn't really affect the way I commentate, but sometimes I read things that trigger a "oh yes, I do do that don't I?" thought in me - and I might think more carefully next time." 

Taking away the sense of occasion of a World Cup final, choosing the most enjoyable match to have commentated on proves tricky. "Too many to pick one out. Can I say this weekend just gone? I had 2 great Premier League games - Man City 4-3 Wolves, and the Wear-Tyne derby which is always a game that I enjoy." And a return to the city where his commentating journey really built up steam.

Guy's career in radio, with Eurosport, with ITV and now BBC have taken him all over the world to some long gone grounds and to some of the most innovative designed stadia in the world. Whereas some fans look on some of the world's newest stadia with a sense of wonder and some long for the traditional grounds of old the best stadium to visit from a commentators perspective is a practical one. 

"Most of the positions we get would be worthy of the highest priced ticket in the ground. I usually have far too many notes with me (safety blanket / paranoia sheet!) so anywhere I can easily space them out and secure them is always a winner with me. Newcastle springs to mind because there's loads of room and a nice big table!"  

Commentating has so many highs, but there are difficult times as well, often because you are so high. "There was one match at Nottingham Forest when I had tummy trouble. The gantry at Forest has no facilities, is a long way up, and highly visible to spectators. It was a 0-0 draw v Wolves so the game did little to make my mind off my problems! There wasn't an accident of any kind, but the pain I was in at the end was just horrid."     

Talking of painful, I had to ask how he copes with Lawro's "gags"?  "I think they're great. Ok, not all of them - but I do like the way he lightens the mood sometimes. We can sometimes forget it's a game of football and sport is meant to be entertainment to the viewing public. I play the role of groaning viewer from time to time (for effect!) but I love working with him. The perfect travelling companion - relaxed, funny, grounded, and he doesn't half know his football."

Having commentated on World Cup finals, travelled the world watching England, Champions League matches it would be easy to assume that Guy's future commentating ambitions are limited. Not so "I want to do more World Cup finals - and generally just to keep on doing this for as long as people think I'm good enough to do so."

Despite appearing very comfortable in front of the camera on Late Kick Off, it is not where he expects his career to develop. "Do I? Goodness me I'm not. No, it's not really where I want to go, it's the commentary gantry for me all day long. I was flattered to be asked and enjoy the programmes and their content but I feel like a complete novice really. It's something I do to gain more experience on a 'just in case' basis - but no, I'm not a presenter."  

Guy is a great example of what can happen when you set your heart on something, apply some dogged determination to get your break and grasp the opportunity when it arrives. But what if you want to follow in his footsteps? Guy has some wise words;

"Don't do it just to get onto television or the radio. You'll be found out if your number one interest is yourself."

"Do it because you love football".

Many thanks to Guy for his time. Unlike some of those he commentates on, Guy is still allowed on twitter and can be followed at @Guymowbray Go follow.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

"He'll play for England I tell thee"

A familiar sight in a few years? Picture courtesy

Every so often, if you support a club outside the Premier League and if you are lucky, you see your club unearth a real talent. One that has fans turning to each other and saying, "he'll play for England one day". Unfortunately, they usually they have to leave you to achieve it.

Sometimes they do play for England - Phil Jagielka, now Everton and (probably should be first choice) England centre back.

Phil Jagielka - Completed transition to international football

And sometimes they don't - star left back Wayne Quinn left for Newcastle, played a further 62 professional games (including a return on loan), before playing for Hayle in Cornwall. Now aged 34 he is player/manager for Penzance AFC.

Wayne Quinn in action for Hayle c

And sometimes their career takes a completely different path - Curtis Woodhouse, professional boxer

Curtis Woodhouse - Light Welterweight

Two seasons ago, Sheffield United were lucky to see two such players breakthrough in the same season, both local lads and, amazingly, both played in the same position.

To those who didn't watch the reserves, little was known of 19 year old right back Kyle Naughton when he made his debut against Watford back in late September 2008. A spell in the Borders on loan at Gretna the previous season had seemingly made the Sheffield born boy into a man. Blades fans immediately took to him, with his whippet like pace and confidence to push forward - knowing his pace would allow him to recover if he lost the ball. Added to which his timing of a tackle bordered on the impeccable. You could watch him slide into a challenge inside the box with your head out of your hands, as there was little chance of a penalty being given away.

Kyle 1 - the boy Naughton after scoring his 1st goal for the Blades

He quickly formed a great partnership with Greg Halford which saw the constant interchange  and overlapping runs a joy to watch. Even being placed behind the defensively frail David Cotterill did little to curb his enthusiastic runs, whilst still posing little threat to the Blades conceding.

Around the time Naughton was breaking into the Blades first team, Kyle Walker was earning rave reviews on loan at Northampton. Walker was also a Blades fan and even lived in Sharrow, the area of Sheffield that is home to Bramall Lane. Viewed as potentially a better player by Academy watchers, the 18 year old was already gaining England U-19 caps. After returning to the Blades, his chance was to come in a re-arranged FA Cup game at Leyton Orient, playing at right back in a 4-1 victory.

A further appearance in the cup replay defeat at Hull followed, but it wasn't until April that Walker got his first league start, replacing Naughton at right back at home to Swansea, with the older Kyle moving over to left back to cover the injured Gary Naysmith. He looked instantly comfortable, more conservative in his play than Naughton, but generally stronger on the ball and in the tackle. Probably reflecting his stockier build and the fact that he played centre back for academy and reserves.

Kyle 2 - Back in a Blades shirt for a second spell

Naughton, playing "on the wrong side" hardly put a foot wrong. So many full backs switching to play on their "wrong" side get caught out, but in those 4 remaining games prior to the Play Off Final against Burnley Naughton was rarely troubled and neither was Walker.

Prior to the Play Off Final Naughton had picked up the Supporters' and Sponsors' Player of the Year Awards, the Powerade Player of the Month for April, an England U21 cap and had made the PFA Team of the Season. All on the back of 43 starts and 3 goals in his debut season. Fans feared that if the Blades failed to make the Premier League, a big club would come knocking for Naughton. The only compensating factor was the emergence of Walker, with just 5 appearances,prior to the final, to his name he wouldn't be going anywhere and was a ready-made replacement.

Seeing both Sheffield born lads laid out in despair on the Wembley pitch, following another big match failure, was gutting. As was the realisation that was probably the last time we would see them both together in the red and white stripes. We knew the Blades were bound to cash in over the Summer months. We didn't expect it to be on both of them.

Several clubs were linked with moves, predominantly Everton, Spurs and Villa. Naughton was strongly linked with Everton and a £5m deal was reportedly on, before Tottenham stepped in with a bid for both and Everton responded. It was never really clear what went on in the latter stages of the deal being agreed. With them both being local lads, the frenzy of stories from "In the Know" posters on the message boards increased. Eventually a deal worth a reported £10m for the pair was agreed with Tottenham.

The motives for the move were not clear, with Spurs already boasting 6 full backs and plenty of flexible defensive cover in their squad, the more sensible move and the one that might have accelerated their development was possibly Everton.

Despite making his debut against Barcelona in a pre-season tournament and an early season defensive crisis at White Hart Lane, Naughton struggled to break through. By the January 2010 transfer window he had made just one 94th minute substitute appearance during the season and it was decided a loan was needed to get some games.

Naughton was signed by Gordon Strachan for Middlesbrough and, although he filled a number of positions during his 15 game loan spell, he left a positive impression. Boro fan Mark Forster takes up the story;

"He looked like a good prospect when we got him on loan and had a few good games but seemed to drop out of Strachan's plans pretty quickly for some reason. He's a typical modern full back for me, good at supporting the midfield but a bit suspect at the defensive side of his game. Overall though, he is a good pacy player who will do well. It was just a shame we played him out of position a lot."

At the start of this season, back at Spurs, with seemingly no likelihood of first team action, Kyle moved out on loan again. Again it was to the Championship, but this time to Leicester City.  David Bevan of football league website is suitably enthused, even more so as Kyle's loan was set to be to Portsmouth, but fell through due to Pompey's financial uncertainty.

"When he instead pitched up at the Walkers Stadium. Leicester City fans were delighted. We desperately needed pace throughout the side and here, falling right into our lap, was the Championship's Daniel Alves... 
Well, perhaps not but two goals from open play in the space of three months or so - Naughton's tally in a Leicester shirt so far - is unheard of for most right-backs at this level. A superb counter-attacking goal at home to Doncaster has been his highlight to date, complete with somersault and air guitar celebration, while the slip that allowed Max Gradel to open the scoring in the recent 2-2 draw with Leeds was his worst moment." 

"It was a defensive aberration, the like of which we have seen on a few occasions from Naughton, but his attacking play, enthusiasm and all-round athleticism has been a joy to behold and I can only hope, along with most City fans, that we can keep him on a permanent basis when his season-long loan runs out."

With six first team appearances in the Championship, alongside a brief loan at Northampton, Walker was always going to be loaned out by Spurs to build up experience. Thankfully, as part of the deal that saw him leave, he was to return to Bramall Lane on a season long loan...or so we thought.

On his return Walker continued to impress in a red and white shirt, despite playing as part of an ever changing back four in an inconsistently performing team, that was propped up by a number of short term loans. Then, with fifty minutes of the January loan window remaining, with Harry Redknapp having let Naughton and Hutton leave on loan and with Walker travelling with the Blades squad for a match at Watford, Walker was recalled. Redknapp made play of a defensive crisis, although that was surely of his own making? The circumstances behind the recall have never been revealed, but it is clear from comments made since that it left a bitter taste in the mouth of management and directors at Bramall Lane.

Despite the urgency of the recall, it was the end of March before he made his Tottenham debut, one of three appearances in the remainder of the season. And again he started this season outside of the reckoning. A short term defensive crisis saw him join Championship leaders QPR, initially for a month in September, but this was extended to January a month later.

QPR fans were more than impressed with what they saw. Comments such as :
"Kyle was class, he oozed it. Pacy, skillful and clever, he will be in the full national side by the end of the year, a starlet he's exciting to watch and a genuine international star in the making."
"Kyle was almost too good for us, he needed to be in the Premier League. He was an amazing player though."
"Kyle was absolutely superb. So much pace and strength. Definitely a future England international."
"He was fab. Quick, smart and able to get back whilst not be scared to go forward. Gutted that he's gone."

And gone he was. The quality of his play for the R's was duly noted at White Hart Lane and a decision was made to find a temporary Premier League home for Kyle. A move to Villa materialised and within 24 hours he returned to Bramall Lane. Slotting in well alongside the experience of Dunne and Cuellar, Kyle reminded us of what we briefly saw in his time at Bramall Lane. Within 6 minutes he had gathered the ball on the halfway line, rounded Jamie Ward and driven at a back tracking defence, before confidently tucking the ball past Steve Simonsen. His lack of goal celebration was noted by Blades fans (and should be noted by a fat lad from Sheffield). His defensive play was near faultless throughout the match and another driving run in injury time was a key contribution to Petrov's goal, Villa's third.

The end of the match saw Walker take acclaim from all sides of the ground in a calm, respectful manner. The boy seems well grounded and  that will hold in in good stead until the end of the season.

Kyle Walker makes a successful return to Bramall Lane

So what might the future hold for the two Kyles? Naughton is now 22, but still has time on his side. If he continues to impress at Leicester, then a permanent move could be in the offing. Particularly if the Foxes achieve promotion. He could also tempt a lower half Premier League club, if the Foxes remain in the Championship. From their, with his skill, attitude and work ethic he can still progress. Unfortunately, I don't think he has a future at Spurs and I think the reason for that is his younger namesake.

If Walker, now 20, takes his chance at Villa, and nothing he has done to date suggests he will do otherwise, I can see him forcing his way into the reckoning at Spurs and from there....? There is a dearth of decent right backs in England. Glen Johnson divides opinion, Micah Richards has never really progressed and fulfilled promise, Jagielka could play there, but is much better in the middle. Who else stands out? As I said here the opportunities for good quality youngsters to progress are dependent upon getting experience at Premier League clubs and Walker is now achieving that.

I honestly believe that Walker will play for England in the next 3 years. There I have said it. In fact I think I sat on the Kop at Bramall Lane 2 years ago and said he would achieve it within 5 years. And if I am wrong and if this blog is still here in 3 years time, you can come and tell me. I might be accused of bias, but I honestly don't think I will be.

Thanks to David Bevan, Mark Forster, @TrickyTredder (Trevor Abbo) @lucyshambles (Lucy Amos) @JLQPR  (Jawad Laouira) @Jane010879 (Jane Simons) for their input into this article. It was much appreciated.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Appraising the Scapegoats

Yesterday Richard Bevan, Chief Executive of the League Managers Association called for the scapegoating of football managers to stop. He called for appraisals of manager performance where "the strengths and weaknesses of how the football-side of the club is performing might be assessed against realistic expectations and previously, mutually agreed goals.

Richard Bevan c Mirror

"In any other sector, there is a recognition that the highest performing organizations are those who build winning organizational culture - shared beliefs, goals and ways of behaving - coupled with a long-term vision." Fair enough, so what would this mean for some of those Bevan represents?

When Roy Hodgson joined Liverpool in the summer, he was employed by different owners, Gillet and Hicks and a Chief Executive, Christian Purslow, who is yet to be replaced. He joined on the back of their worst season for a decade, the LMA Manager of the Year stating, “I'm here for the long haul and to do the job that needs to be done, hopefully winning trophies very quickly." So what were the expectations and objectives when he took over? Did they change with new ownership? And do any new objectives take account of the changes above him?

By stating an aim for trophies and quickly he has personally set an objective that, as things stand, he is still on to achieve. You have to assume that such statements are made in line with directors' expectations. Trophies are not won in January and Liverpool remains in both the Europa League and the FA Cup - okay so they only join the latter on Sunday! 

Hodgson's shock as objectives revealed c Mirror

With an inadequate squad and limited funds to change things, could he realistically be expected to improve on 7th and a 23 point deficit on Champions Chelsea? To be fair, at the very least, he should have been capable of maintaining the status quo. With Liverpool sitting 12th, 19 points behind Manchester United and with 9 defeats to their name (just 2 less than the number over the whole of last season), it could be said that Roy has failed, to date. Yet does he not need more time to impose his ways, to sign more of his own his own players? Neutrals and the few Liverpool fans in the Paul Konchesky Fan Club might suggest so; an increasingly vocal majority at Anfield would not. 

Carlo Ancelloti is being talked of in some quarters as at risk. Unfounded rumours swept the country yesterday that both he and Roy were heading for the exit door. The reigning champions sit 5th. 9 points off top spot, having won less than half of their games and having suffered 6 defeats - as many as they suffered in the whole of last season. On paper - Carlo is not achieving objectives, but should other factors come into play. With an ageing and injury riddled squad this season it has not been easy. Some of the more flexible squad members left in the Summer, with few replacements brought in, and youngsters, like McEachran, Sturridge and Bruma, have been blooded, probably more readily than the manager might have anticipated.

You would think that given last season and the enforced turnover within the playing squad he will be given n the chance to re-group and re-challenge. But this is football, where there is an expectation level to be maintained, firmly in the public eye.

A more cut and dried case perhaps is that of Roy Keane at Ipswich. Having splashed around £9m of Marcus Evans' cash around on players who failed to make an impact, with, since dismissed, rumours of unrest with star prospect Connor Wickham and Damien Delaney (amongst others) and a plummet down the table to 19th, 3 points above the relegation places, Keane can hardly claim to have met expectations. However, on his departure he expressed "a genuine belief that we were making progress".  Unfortunately for Roy his objectives were league based and, however nice a Carling Cup semi-final appearance is, the progress the club made was downwards.

More time to walk the dog c SkySports

At the end of the day football is a results business, unless you are an Arsenal fan and watching aesthetically pleasing football from both sides also appears to be required. (Mind you when you are paying close to a £100 per ticket, it is probably a not unreasonable request). Results = points. And we all know what points make............

Well it should be trophies, a place in the record books. That is how it would have been previously, but with significant money on offer for an improvement of just one league place in today's game the pressure for points intensifies. Bevan states that a manager's average tenure during the 2009-10 campaign was one year and four months, compared to three and a half years in 1992, yet football has changed tremendously in that time. The rewards for improving results are greater but the risks that clubs are willing to take are much smaller.

There is always someone else ready to take on the challenge and the cost of change is much less than the potential financial impact of failure. There are 79 "available" managers listed on the LMA website. I looked at the list, prior to the Blades appointing Micky Adams, and what an un-inspiring list it is. Aside from Martin O'Neill , maybe Rafa Benitez, who would you want at your club. Take a look. Why not comment your choice for your club below. I doubt we will see a great deal of variety.

However uninspiring they are, they are LMA members looking for work. If average tenures increase, then the longer these managers and others like them will be redundant. As respected journalist Gabriele Marcotti tweeted on Thursday night it is "funny how LMA worry about sacked managers more than out-of-work ones who might seize opportunity of job opening." Bevan is acting like most union officials, looking after those in jobs, but does he not owe a bit more to those who are awaiting a new opportunity, aside from giving them advice on their statements to the media following their last departure.

Football takes much more of a short-term view than other businesses, probably due to the propensity of stakeholders involved, opinions given and the media spotlight. Managers will have objectives and they will know how they are performing against those objectives. With the odd notable exception, Chris Hughton for instance, can many managers really be that surprised by the sack? Well, maybe Roy Keane. But as we know and as Louise Taylor so wonderfully states in this article in the Guardian, young Roy doesn't take constructive criticism very well.

We as fans might not like some of the changes to the game in recent years; I made my feelings known here. Richard Bevan might not like the impact it is having on its members, but in a world where so many people's jobs are at risk, where often it is nothing to do with their own personal performance, where decisions are made regardless of achievement of objectives and where they earn a wage much lower than the average manager, I'll give him an objective. Keep calm, keep quiet and carry on with your job.