Archive for the ‘Originally Posted at The Guardian’ Category
Strange as it sounds, from a journalist’s point of view a stinkingly poor game can be quite fun to write about. This from The Guardian on Monday 8 October 2012.
Wasps edge Worcester but quality is in short supply at Adams Park
• London Wasps 10–6 Worcester
• Simon McIntyre try proves decisive in error-strewn scrap
It was entirely appropriate that a final two minutes of tension as Worcester battered away at the Wasps line in search of a winning try should have come to an end when Blair Cowan spilled the ball forward in the tackle. In perfect conditions the error count in this match was almost grotesque.
Knock-ons, fumbles, possession coughed-up in the opposition 22, missed kicks to touch and at the posts, stupid penalties conceded, ridiculous forward passes, own lineouts lost, this game had the lot, and in sizeable quantity.
Finding positives, then, was not an easy task for either coach. Wasps’ Dai Young at least had the comfort of having come out on top, though as he acknowledged, his side would have beaten very few other teams with such a performance.
“We showed a lot of heart to keep them out at the end but our kicking game was second best, our ball retention was downright poor and, in the second half especially, our set piece fell apart,” Young said. “We found a way to win but we have to be better than that.”
The Wasps flanker Joe Launchbury — man of the match almost by default after playing something resembling his usual mobile game – did come in for a word of praise. “People talk about him as a star of the future but he’s already a top-quality player,” said Young of the 20-year-old. “I think England see his long-term future as a second row and that’s how I see it because being still young and maturing he’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Worcester’s Richard Hill began his assessment with an apology. “Sorry to have subjected everybody to that,” he said. “It was a shocker. Neither team played well but we played marginally worse. Credit to Wasps for holding out at the end, we might have sneaked it but I’m not sure we deserved to,” said the Warriors’ head coach
“Both teams tried hard, but there were so many individual errors. Our lineout just did not function, especially in attacking positions. Apart from the first two minutes, when Wasps scored their try, it was pretty dour.” That first few minutes saw Launchbury’s charge to within a few feet of the Worcester line give the Wasps’ drive a momentum that ended in the prop Simon McIntyre crossing from short range for his first try for the club.
Stephen Jones converted and went on to kick a penalty on the quarter hour, a deserved return for Wasps’ territorial superiority but from then on the game became what a shambles, not helped by a fussy referee.
Worcester should have been level at the break but Andy Goode hit the post with a simple penalty and the full-back Chris Pennell, with one man to beat and a team-mate screaming for the inside pass, unaccountably attempted a chip kick that went straight into touch.
Jones, who came into this game having kicked 15 goals from 15 attempts since joining Wasps, duly missed twice, and though Goode dropped an extraordinary goal from the half-way line, the experienced stand-off otherwise had the sort of game that could see him waking sweating in the night for weeks to come.
Asked why highly trained professionals sometimes play that badlyto explain the poor display from both sides, Hill shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know why players made uncharacteristic individual errors. Both teams got into the opposition 22 and had opportunities, but couldn’t capitalise because of errors. You have to turn pressure into points.
“We just couldn’t hold on to the ball almost until that final passage of play when they defended superbly to keep us out. It’s particularly frustrating because we saw it as an opportunity to win three consecutive Premiership games – London Irish last week, Wasps today and Sale when they come to Worcester in a couple of weeks.”
On this evidence, he could not be confident of Worcester beating Sale under-15s. Mind you, neither could Wasps.
Wasps Southwell; Varndell, Masi (Daly 61), Bell, Wade; Jones, Simpson; McIntyre (Swainston 74), Lindsay, Taulafo, Palmer (Poff 54), Wentzel, Launchbury, Haskell (Johnson 66), Vunipola.
Try McIntyre. Con Jones. Pen Jones.
Worcester Pennell (Carlisle 66); Clarke, Grove, Matavesi (Fatiaki 52), Lemi; Goode, Arr (Hodgson 66); Mullan (Jones 74), Lutui (Hayes 74), Andress (Currie 74), Percival, Schofield (Gillies 61), Jones, Betty, Kvesic (Cowan 61).
Pen Goode. Drop-goal Goode.
Referee L Geraint-Roberts. Attendance 5,232
Originally published in The Guardian
Watching the Surrey players last night was to be reminded that those who believe that in the greater scheme of things sport doesn’t matter are misguided. It sounds trite to say they played for their lost team-mate, but they did, and in that context the result was an irrelevance, but the fact they were there, and doing what they do best, was not.
Big-hitter Tim Phillips sees Essex to last-ball victory over Surrey
• Surrey 144–9 Essex 145–7. Essex won by three wickets
The clouds over this game could hardly have been heavier but for both these counties it was important that it was played, and if possible, played well. It was, going down to the very last ball, off which Essex needed to score to win: they did so, but as the Surrey team director Chris Adams pointed out beforehand, stepping back into routine will have gone some way towards giving his grieving players a sense of returning normality following the death of their brilliant and hugely likeable young team-mate Tom Maynard.
“It’s been a desperately difficult week for them – I don’t think any of us expected not to be highly emotional today,” said Adams, who revealed that at the end of the game he had received a text from Tom Maynard’s father, the former Glamorgan and England Test cricketer Matthew, saying how proud the family were of Surrey’s efforts.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the lads, they’ve shown amazing character. Just turning up today was enough for me, but they nearly won a game. To get so close gives me a lot of heart.
“We came back into The Oval for the first time yesterday, back into the changing room, the first time the lads will have seen Tom’s locker, and there were some very sombre and quiet moments.”
The emotion was evident on their faces during the minute’s silence before the game, the first played by Surrey since the tragedy occurred. Several were visibly distressed, and it took the opening batsmen Jason Roy and Steve Davies a couple of minutes to compose themselves before following the Essex team on to the field. The Essex players, several of whom had been in England performance squads with Tom Maynard, were also clearly affected.
In such circumstances, the razzmatazz and bursts of music which accompany t20 cricket might for once have been dispensed with. The sell-out crowd was initially understandably subdued, at least by the standards of a Friday floodlit game at Chelmsford. It might also have had something to do with the news that Danish Kaneria had been banned from the game for life, and Mervyn Westfield for five years, for “spot-fixing” when they were playing for Essex, but the mood lightened as the game got under way.
In that respect it helped that Surrey struggled after Gareth Batty – standing in for usual captain Rory Hamilton-Brown, who shared a house with Tom Maynard, and remains on compassionate leave – won the toss and chose to bat.
Roy and Davies began well enough, but the brake went on after Davies clipped a Reece Topley delivery straight to Graham Napier at midwicket, and two balls later Murali Kartik was smartly run out by the same player. Thereafter wickets fell regularly enough to prevent any serious acceleration, and once Roy had gone, caught on the midwicket boundary for 36 hit off just 20 balls, only Matt Spriegel’s bustling 35 off 33 deliveries enabled Surrey to close on 144–9.
The score looked under par on the tight Chelmsford ground, but with their bowling attack strengthened by Stuart Meaker having made the long journey down from Headingley after England’s one-day international against the West Indies was abandoned, Surrey put the pressure on the Essex batsmen from the start.
It paid off as Mark Pettini went first ball, well caught low down by Rory Burns in the covers, Greg Smith mishit Dirk Nannes gently to Meaker at mid-off, and Ryan ten Doeschate cut Chris Tremlett’s first delivery high into Batty’s hands at backward point. Tremlett was making his first first-team appearance of the season after recovering from surgery to repair the long-standing back injury that reoccurred during England’s first Test against Pakistan last January.
The tall fast bowler’s first over was understandably delivered at less than full pace, but not so Meaker: the yorker which removed James Foster at a stage when the Essex captain, together with James Franklin, was threatening to put the game beyond their opponents, was decidedly slippery.
Tremlett then took two wickets in two balls, knocking out Adam Wheater’s middle stump and then having Napier caught at mid-on. Franklin remained unbeaten however, the New Zealander going on to score 63 off 51 balls, and in Tim Phillips he found a partner of his own mettle. Needing 15 off the final over, bowled by Nannes, Phillips hit the first ball for six to set up a third successive victory for his county.
When you get to watch a lot of football over a long period of time, you do learn something, even if it’s only what you like. Watching Wigan at Carrow Road on Sunday was a really enjoyable experience.
Norwich City 1 Wigan Athletic 1: Victor Moses saves a point for wasteful Wigan Athletic at Norwich City
One of the top five managers in this country. Fact.
Richard Rae at Carrow Road
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 11 March 2012 18.10 GMT
This was a match Wigan Athletic probably had to win, and it is a match they unquestionably should have won. That they did not do so, despite dominating for long periods, is likely to prove terminal to their chances of remaining in the Premier League, because included among their next six opponents are Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
At the same time their performance summed up why Roberto Martínez’s side appear destined for the Championship. Taking only one of at least six outstanding chances represented profligacy of an almost unforgivable order, though having publicly questioned his manager’s selection policy following the poor performance in defeat against Swansea City last week the Wigan owner, Dave Whelan, is likely to be more sympathetically disposed at this week’s meeting.
“It’s been a difficult week, we’ve been a little bit out there in the media, but in the Premier League every week is difficult,” Martínez said. “We were disappointed that we lost the game at home but we had been travelling all over the world and the players were put in a position where they couldn’t compete.”
To go on and describe the pugnacious Whelan as “a joy”, as Martínez did, may have been over-egging it a little, but there is little doubt the relationship between them remains strong, and is likely to remain so even if the Latics do go down, not least because if they play like this in the Championship they will surely come straight back up.
The manner in which they fell behind in itself spoke volumes. Instead of hoofing a backpass back upfield, the Wigan goalkeeper, Ali al-Habsi, was trying to pick out one of his players when he side-footed the ball into touch. Norwich then simply reacted more urgently than their opponents, Simeon Jackson running on to Adam Drury’s quickly taken throw-in and crossing for Wes Hoolahan, having got in front of his marker Gary Caldwell, to somehow steer the ball over the desperately reaching Habsi.
Wigan’s reaction was impressive, and as always under Martínez, measured. At times their passing had Norwich chasing shadows and they created enough shooting opportunities to have drawn level well before the break. Jean Beausejour shot straight at John Ruddy, as did Hugo Rodallega soon afterwards, and Emmerson Boyce saw a cross deflected on to the Norwich bar. Rodallega’s miss two minutes before the break was a bad one. Ruddy could not hold Jordi Gómez’s shot but although Rodallega was first to the rebound, the Colombian spooned his attempt to turn the ball past the men on the line high over the bar.
The visitors continued to pile on the pressure in the second half and, with just over 20 minutes remaining, it told. The man who made the difference was a substitute, Shaun Maloney, whose threaded ball between the Norwich centre-halves put Victor Moses clear. The former Crystal Palace winger dribbled around Ruddy and turned the ball into the empty net.
Both sides then had great chances to win the game, Wigan twice through Mohamed Diamé, Norwich twice through Steve Morison. Diamé missed the target both times, once from no more than six yards, while Morison at least forced Habsi to make one outstanding save.
“It was always going to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest game, because of the expectancy,” said the relieved Norwich manager, Paul Lambert, whose starting XI included nine of the players who started the Championship game against Portsmouth last season which secured them promotion.
“I’ve always thought that if you can’t win a game, don’t lose it. We showed great resilience and we had to, but it’s another point towards safety. I don’t think you can switch off. The league is too big, too demanding. Until someone shows you are mathematically safe you keep going.”
That sought-after status may already have been secured. Most managers seem to think that 36 points will be enough this season, and Norwich, in 12th, have already amassed that total. Wigan, on 21 points, remain at the foot of the table.
“The belief is always there that we can stay up,” Martínez said. “From the outside the first team to go down is always Wigan Athletic but that’s never affected us, you learn to live with that.
“We are bottom of the league but we don’t play like a team at the bottom of the league. That makes me very proud and there are 30 points still to play for. We are ready for the rest of the season.”
Man of the match James McCarthy (Wigan Athletic)
Nigel Pearson smiling. A relatively rare sight if you’re a member of the press.
This, to my mind, is an awful, boring headline, and as such rather unlike The Guardian, whose subs are usually a lot more imaginative. At least he or she didn’t change the copy, on the website anyway — in the paper it got cut back by a good 200 words, dammit.
Leicester win can be a springboard for play-offs, says Nigel Pearson
Richard Rae at Carrow Road
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 19 February 2012 23.00 GMT
• There’s been a few false dawns, admits Leicester manager
• Norwich’s Paul Lambert says Premier League comes first
According to the former Manchester United player Roy Keane, he and his high-achieving team-mates were not inclined to congratulate lower league teams which performed above themselves when taking on the Reds in a cup competition. For Keane, it actually made them less worthy of respect, his reasoning being that if they could lift their game against United, not doing so week in week out against lesser clubs meant that in his words, they were basically cheating their manager.
It was tempting to wonder if similar thoughts crossed the mind of any of the Leicester City players as they celebrated in front of their supporters at Carrow Road on Saturday. Position for position, most cost Leicester more to buy than their opposite number cost Norwich City — in some cases, a lot more. In many respects it is not the fact that Leicester, lying 13th in the Championship, beat Norwich, lying eighth in the Premier League, which is remarkable: it is that they are in those positions in the first place.
In the circumstances it would be churlish to criticise the Norwich manager, Paul Lambert, for resting four top performers in Grant Holt, John Ruddy, Andrew Surman and Kyle Naughton, though with 13 league games remaining to secure the three or four points that should end any threat of relegation, such caution seemed excessive. So much so that just perhaps the Europa League is in the back of his mind, though you would have to put the Scot on the rack before he would admit to entertaining such a prospect.
“I picked a team I thought would win, so we’re disappointed, but the main thing is the Premier League,” he said. “I’m pretty sure people wouldn’t thank me if we got to the semi-finals, got knocked out, and got relegated — I don’t think they would be patting me on the back.”
Whether Leicester City’s big-spending Thai owners will pat Nigel Pearson on the back if he guides the Foxes to an FA Cup final but not into the promotion play-offs is an interesting question. The manager’s pleasure in a performance which combined effort and quality in equal measure was tempered by frustration that his team does not consistently attain a similar level in the Championship. “I’m very pleased for the players and for the fans, and I hope it can be a springboard for us to get into the play-offs but it’s been said a few times this season and there’s been a few false dawns in that regard,” said Pearson, dryly.
It may not have been a complete coincidence that Leicester’s two best players on Saturday, Lloyd Dyer and Neil Danns, arrived at the club on free transfers, but the whole team applied themselves. They had to, because while Norwich had been deprived of some of their usual quality, they worked hard and had most of the luck that was going.
In fact when Leicester’s goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was adjudged to have fouled Elliott Bennett in the box, a harsh decision in itself, and then brilliantly saved Wes Hoolahan’s spot-kick only for the same player to turn in the rebound, it did not look as though it was going to be Leicester’s day. The more so when Wes Morgan’s attempt was kept out by Elliott Ward’s chest when the defender clearly had both feet a long way behind the goalline. But having taken the lead through Sean St Ledger’s early header, the visitors kept believing, and thoroughly deserved David Nugent’s well taken second-half winner.
When it was pointed out to Pearson that Leicester won at Norwich on their way to the 1963 Cup Final, he smiled. “The year I was born. When you get to the quarter-finals people start dreaming and there are some big teams no longer in the competition, but we have an awful lot of hard work to do in the league to try and rectify the position we find ourselves in first,” he said.
Man of the Match Lloyd Dyer (Leicester City)
Originally published by The Guardian
Leicester City 3 Crystal Palace 0
Nigel Pearson. Manager of Hull City a week ago.
Richard Rae at King Power Stadium
For the best part of an hour on Sunday, nothing had changed. As had so often been the case under the previous manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Leicester City were looking nervous and disjointed and in consequence were being put under increasing pressure by Dougie Freedman’s Crystal Palace, a side assembled at a fraction of the cost.
Nineteen minutes and three goals later the Foxes were in control, the match transformed by one quick counterattack, finished by Jermaine Beckford, and two wonderful long-distance strikes by Paul Gallagher. If Nigel Pearson is going to be this fortunate in his second spell as manager of the club, perhaps Leicester’s supporters will come to hold him in a similar sort of affection to that in which their Palace counterparts hold Freedman.
“I’m really pleased with the players and for the players, because they applied themselves really well,” said Pearson, not unnaturally inclined to concentrate on the positives. “The important thing is they enjoyed themselves, while working exceptionally hard against a side which has had a lot of success on the road.
“The bottom line is we have to be more consistent, start picking up points when others don’t. I need a bit more time to assess the character and chemistry of the squad, but I know my remit is to get the club out of this division.”
On a freezing day the welcome afforded to Pearson had been cordial rather than euphoric, although the atmosphere would have improved had David Nugent’s swinging boot not completely failed to connect with Lee Peltier’s low cross in the opening minute.
A rumbustious start by the home team was only to be expected, but Palace were not inclined to panic. Their best start to a season for 10 years had included a club-record stretch of 619 minutes without conceding, and while scoring has dried up in recent games, they have continued to look solid at the back. It was indicative that the nearest Leicester came to breaking through was Gallagher’s low shot from 25 yards, forcing the Palace goalkeeper Julián Speroni to make a top-drawer save.
It did not help Leicester’s cause that Beckford, selected up front alongside Nugent in the 4–4-2 formation that Pearson always prefers, was showing all the touch of a Sunday league player: left unmarked and needing only to bring down a long ball to be clean through, his close control was embarrassingly clumsy.
At the other end the Palace threat was intermittent but by no means negligible, for all that Glenn Murray was sometimes finding himself isolated up front. Even so, the former Brighton striker almost got on the end of Mile Jedinak’s cross before thumping a 22-yard drive just over Kasper Schmeichel’s bar.
All that changed after the break was that Palace felt sufficiently comfortable to begin to come forward in greater numbers. Jedinak glanced Wilfried Zaha’s cross close to Schmeichel’s right-hand post, and Kagisho Dikgacoi saw a shot deflected just over the bar.
In so doing, however, the visitors began to leave more space at the back, and they paid a heavy price. Paul Konchesky broke and passed inside to Richie Wellens, who slipped the ball into the penalty area for Beckford to beat Speroni.
Beckford should have made it two within moments, running clear on to a through ball only to poke his shot gently to the goalkeeper, and the chances kept coming. First Dikgacoi, under pressure, side-footed the ball over from close range, and then Chris Martin’s first touch as a substitute was to volley wastefully wide.
The striker, signed by Freedman on loan from Norwich City, then headed straight at Schmeichel when he seemed certain to score, and Palace must have known fate was not on their side when Gallagher first curled home a fine shot from around 22 yards, and two minutes later hit a drive past Speroni from nearer 30. “It could have gone in the stand, but I didn’t feel the ball against my boot, which is usually a good sign,” said Gallagher.
“We were more than comfortable for an hour, coping fantastically well with the occasion, but we were caught on a counter, which is my fault,” said Freedman. “Even then we had great chances to equalise, and it took two wonderful strikes to win the game for them. People keep pointing out we’re struggling for goals, but I’m not worried because we’re creating chances.”
Originally published in The Guardian
Ipswich Town 1 Norwich City 5
Looking out on Portman Road approximately one minute after the final whistle
Richard Rae at Portman Road
Norwich City moved back into the second automatic promotion place last night with a victory which, while it will not rank amongst their finest performances this season, will undoubtedly be among their most
But as the Ipswich fans filing out of a sold-out Portman Road well before the final whistle tacitly acknowledged, the visitors did not have to be at their best. Odd though it sounds given the scoreline,
the Canaries even looked a touch weary at times, but they were far sharper and more creative than their opponents when they had to be, not to mention more organised and comfortable with their diamond
midfield system. It was more than enough to take the three points which sees them leap-frog Cardiff City.
Understandably, City manager Paul Lambert had nothing but praise for his players.
“We were up against a side that has been on fire recently, with a vibrant crowd behind them, but my team seem to be playing without fear,” said the former Celtic midfielder. “The way they’re going is extraordinary, it really is.”
The game’s first shot, a Grant Holt volley that went out for a throw, was hardly propitious, setting the tone for a disjointed and often clumsy start to the game. The lack of quality on the ball was marked, and it was not entirely surprising then that the opener should stem from a mistake. Andrew Surman’s pass gave Wes Hoolahan the chance to cross low from the left, but Ipswich goalkeeper Arran Lee-Barrett was not under pressure when he decided to try and intercept the ball’s passage across his goalmouth. All he succeeded in doing was diverting the ball nicely into the path of Surman, who having continued his run into the penalty area, had only to drive the ball past the defender on the line.
Josh Carson volleyed wide for Ipswich, but the sense that Norwich already had the game in hand was quickly confirmed. Good work by Simeon Jackson won a corner on the left, and the resulting delivery from David Fox was diverted into the net by Town defender Gareth McAuley.
Jimmy Bullard, always Ipswich’s likeliest source of a goal, volleyed just wide at the start of the second half as Ipswich did their best to put the visitors under pressure. With Norwich happy enough to play on the break the home team had plenty of possession, but created little or nothing before watching in resignation as the lively Simeon Jackson turned in Holt’s cross with 15 minutes remaining.
There was some consolation for Ipswich when Bullard finally hit the target from a good 25 yards, but two breaks saw first Russell Martin and then substitute Daniel Pacheco restore an appropriate differential.
Cardiff, now two points behind Norwich but with a game in hand, must beat league leaders Queens Park Rangers at home on Saturday to re-take second.
“It puts the pressure back on them to an extent, but Cardiff are still in the driving seat even though they have a tough game coming up,” insisted Lambert.
Originally published in The Guardian
Norwich City 3 Bristol City 1
Looking out from Carrow Road press box at hotel with best views in England.
Richard Rae at Carrow Road
Norwich City moved into the second promotion place, three points clear of Swansea City, but this was nearly a chance missed by the Canaries, who took until almost stoppage time to finish off well organised and determined opponents.
Not that their supporters gave up hope. Goals scored in the last 10 minutes have now secured 20 points for Norwich, a record which goes a long way towards explaining their achievement in rising to the top of the pack of clubs who are chasing Queens Park Rangers. It has been a remarkable effort. After promotion from League One last season, signing the likes of the midfielders Andrew Crofts (from Brighton) and David Fox (from Colchester) did not suggest that their ambition stretched to much more than consolidation, but while the other so-called big clubs in the Championship wait for the Canaries’ form to tail off, Norwich have kept on picking up results.
Or not so quietly. Just over 30 seconds had elapsed here when Simeon Jackson chested the ball to Wes Hoolahan. The midfielder dribbled into the Bristol City box and Liam Fontaine’s challenge left him on the floor. Grant Holt drove the penalty powerfully past David James.
The visitors refused to panic, however, and in the rest of the half chances were at a premium. Jackson missed his kick at Russell Martin’s low cross when it looked easier to score and Bristol City’s Albert Adomah brought a decent save from the Norwich goalkeeper, John Ruddy.
Jackson went close soon after the break but City retained their occasional threat. Norwich could not say they had not been warned when a counter attack saw Jamal Campbell-Ryce slip the ball through for Adomah to knock it past Ruddy.
It took until a minute from time for Norwich to produce their usual barnstorming finish. Played in by Hoolahan, the substitute Henri Lansbury beat James with an acrobatic close-range volley before Andrew Surman made the points safe by slipping the ball under the goalkeeper as he came out to narrow the angle.
“This is a monumental result but it doesn’t tell me anything about my players I didn’t know before,” said Norwich’s manager, Paul Lambert. “We have footballers who can create, which means we always have a chance. But nine games left means there is a long, long way to go.”
Originally published in The Guardian
Stoke City 2 (Higginbotham 37, Etherington (pen) 63) Bolton Wanderers 0
Sweet that not many people outside Turkey are particularly fond of. Including, possibly, Tony Pulis.
Richard Rae at Britannia Stadium
It has been 37 years since Stoke City last played European football, when, after finishing fifth in Division One, a Potters team featuring Alan Hudson, Jimmy Greenhoff, Denis Smith and Mike Pejic were unlucky to be knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Ajax on away goals.
Whether the Boothen End will one day talk about Kenwyne Jones, Matthew Etherington, Ryan Shawcross and Rory Delap in the same reverential tones remains to be seen, but there is a solidity about this team’s organisation, and a sense of collective will, that suggests Europa League qualification is not beyond them. Even the ever-pragmatic manager, Tony Pulis, while continuing to insist that City’s sole goal remains Premier League survival, sounded as though he cannot help wondering.
“There’s a lot of people going to be looking over their shoulders this year. The table is such an unusual table, not just at the bottom but at the top as well. It’s going to be interesting, really interesting,” said the Welshman, after a scrambled goal from Danny Higginbotham and an Etherington penalty lifted his side on to 30 points.
Just how interesting may depend on any comings and goings at the Britannia Stadium over the next fortnight before the transfer window closes. Having confirmed the proposed purchase of the Senegal international striker Demba Ba from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim for £7.1m had fallen through because the 25-year-old had failed a medical, Pulis hinted the move was not beyond resurrection.
Knowing the likes of Tuncay Sanli and Abdoulaye Faye are not happy with the occasional appearance from the bench, and may ask to leave during the transfer window, must add to the manager’s determination to add to his squad. The Turkish striker Tuncay has made his point on and off the field in recent games, the last three of which he has started in the absence of the injured Ricardo Fuller.
Posting footage of his 10 best goals on a social networking site can be laughed off, but his stand-out efforts in setting up both City’s goals could make several managers think about an approach.
Pulis’s praise for a player whose name was regularly chanted by the Stoke supporters has always been ambivalent, and once again he qualified his words.
“Tunny has all the tools in the box and he’s shown them today. I think he understands the ethos of the team and the club now, he’s getting what the squad is all about. Sometimes it is difficult for players to come in here and understand what it is about and how hard they work, and I think now that is something he is trying to embrace,” he said.
Bolton are also on 30 points but the manager, Owen Coyle, acknowledged there was a worrying lack of sharpness about his side as they fell to a fifth successive away defeat. An already thin squad could ill afford to lose Gary Cahill, but Coyle insisted speculation surrounding the centre-half’s immediate future remains no more than that.
Originally published at The Guardian.
Second in the table and unbeaten in their last nine matches, Simon Grayson’s side finally seem to be pulling together. Richard Rae reports from Elland Road.
THERE was much talk about levels of expectation at Elland Road on Saturday, and to be sure, they are considerable.
Not necessarily of quality, as anyone who witnessed the numbers of garden gnomes in club colours being carried proudly to the tills in the heaving superstore would attest. But in beating Championship leaders Queens Park Rangers, extending an unbeaten run to nine matches and moving into second in the table, it is fair to say Leeds United are exceeding the expectations of the most gnomic of their notoriously partisan supporters.
Not least because, as a group of still slightly wide-eyed fans in the train back from the previous week’s remarkable comeback at Burnley pointed out, it is essentially the same team that only just secured automatic promotion from the League One. Or even a weaker team, given top scorer Jermaine Beckford moved to Everton on a free transfer over the summer.
It certainly looked that way at the end of October, when Cardiff City came to West Yorkshire and ripped Leeds to shreds on live television. That made it four defeats in five games for Simon Grayson’s side, and the turnaround since is as much a testament to their young manager as it undoubtedly is to the players.
Firstly, he acted to improve his defence by bringing in the experienced centre-half Andy O’Brien on loan from Bolton. A local boy still living in nearby Harrogate, O’Brien has played with the commitment of one who would very much like to sign the permanent deal which by all accounts Leeds intend to offer him next month.
Secondly, helped by the return to fitness of the hugely talented Scottish wide midfielder Robert Snodgrass, Grayson changed the way the team was playing from 4–4-2 to 4–2-3–1. With O’Brien a calming organisational influence at the back, and Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny as the holding players, inspirational young captain Jonathan Howson has licence to drive forward with Snodgrass and the Ivorian Max-Alain Gradel on either side of him, creating chances for both themselves as a trio and the lone centre-forward Luciano Becchio.
While far from perfect — the absence of O’Brien through injury saw Leeds revert to their former defensively suspect ways in the first half against Burnley before Grayson got hold of them at half-time — the system seems to suit the players.
“When we conceding a lot of goals and struggling to keep clean sheets earlier in the season, it wasn’t necessarily the back four that was the problem: they were making a few mistakes, but individuals in front of them weren’t doing their jobs, and now we’re defending as a group” said Grayson as a crowd of almost 30,000 departed happily.
“You can sense they’re enjoying what they’re doing at the moment, and that’s a big factor. But the reality in a tight division is all we’ve done is give ourselves an opportunity. We hope to build on it, but we can also still get relegated — you can lose a few games and confidence can dwindle away. Our first aim was consolidation, making sure we would stay in the division, and that hasn’t changed.”
The time to take stock, he insisted, would be after the Christmas period.
Not all in the gnome-filled garden is rosy. The issue of who or what actually owns the club remains unresolved, and chairman Ken Bates’ tight hold on the club’s purse-strings could result in several out-of-contract players leaving next month. One, the increasingly impressive young Argentine striker Becchio, signed a new five year deal on Saturday, but the future of Johnson and Kilkenny in particular remains uncertain.
Grayson is phlegmatic. “We have players who will be out of contract , and we hope to try and resolve those issues, but I don’t think given where we are in the league attracting new players will be too difficult — if I decide it’s the right thing to do. We’ve got a group of players who have done well, and when that happens sometimes you have to stay loyal to them.
This Thursday marks two years since Grayson was recruited from Blackpool to take over at Leeds, then going nowhere in League One under Gary McAllister. Whatever the general opinion on Bates’s stewardship, that at least is an appointment for which the former Chelsea owner continues to gain considerable credit.
The club at a glance
Ground: Elland Road, 39,460.
Average attendance: (league, 11 matches) 25,957
Manager: Simon Grayson; first-team coaches Ian Miller, Glynn Snodin
Owner: Refuse to say but deemed fit and proper by the Football league
Chairman: Ken Bates
Turnover (2008–09) £23.5m; Operating loss £1.6m; Total wage bill £12.3m
Debt: Once £103m, now nothing, according to Bates. “We made a profit last year. We don’t owe anybody any money. We have a little bit in the bank, but not much,” he told Sky Sports in November.
Net spend in last transfer window: Unknown; 10 summer signings, seven on frees, three undisclosed
Biggest signing at club: Ross McCormack reported £300,000 (August 2010)
Biggest ever signing: Rio Ferdinand £18m
Originally posted at The Guardian
Northampton 18–14 Castres
Saint Foden wins the day. Just.
Richard Rae at Franklin’s Gardens
A win in the Heineken Cup is not to be undervalued but victory was one of very few positives Northampton could take from a performance which put talk of them being among the favourites to win this competition in painful context.
Castres, aware they were in danger of being overpowered up front, scrapped, spoiled and slowed the game down and, helped immeasurably by Northampton missing five of their eight kicks at goal, were still very much in the game right to the final whistle. “It was a tough game, they played well, very physically, and we didn’t play well, but we did win,” said the Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder.
“You want to get on the front foot but out lineout didn’t function. We made a lot of breaks in the first half but we didn’t finish them and that and our poor goal-kicking kept the game tight. The goal-kicking was frustrating.”
Just as in Northampton’s opening Heineken Cup fixture last season, a memorable home victory against Munster, it did not take long for Courtney Lawes to make his presence felt. The manner in which the England lock brushed aside Daniel Saayman’s attempted tackle after five minutes suggested the Northampton pack should be the game’s dominant influence, an impression confirmed when they destroyed the Castres scrum to win a penalty that Bruce Reihana pulled left. When he missed another, anxiety crept around the ground, with good cause.
Castres, on the rare occasions they had been in possession, had already shown their attack possessed a dangerous edge and they opened the scoring after some 25 minutes with a try that resulted from swift handling down the right involving Pierre Bernard and Ibrahim Diarra before Joe Tekori drove over from close range.
The atmosphere was not improved when Reihana missed for a third time, this time from within the Castres 22, but five minutes before half-time the veteran New Zealander went some way towards redeeming himself with an angled run back to the blind side of a set scrum which wrong-footed the Castres defence to such an extent that no one laid a finger on him before he grounded the ball. Inevitably he missed the conversion and the Castres stand-off Cameron McIntyre showed him the way with a low but accurate drop goal to ensure the French club were still in the lead at half-time.
Whatever Mallinder said at half-time, within seconds of the restart Shane Geraghty’s darting blind-side run and Phil Dowson’s inside pass gave Ben Foden the chance to sprint in from 22 yards. It was in keeping with the game’s unpredictability that Geraghty converted from close to the touchline. Foden later left the field with an ankle injury that Mallinder suggested was no more than a sprain.
Those who hoped the burst of competence presaged an improved second period for the home side were to be disappointed, however. If anything it was Castres who found an attacking rhythm and Anton Peikrishvili was unfortunate when he was denied a try for a questionable knock-on after Foden spilled a high ball.
Geraghty’s successful penalty midway through the half was desperately needed. With 10 minutes left, though,Bernard brought Castres back to within a point before Stephen Myler, a replacement, landed a penalty off the post to afford Saints a modicum of breathing space.
It was they who were attacking when the final whistle was blown, knowing only too well that bonus points, whether achieved in victory or defeat, matter in this competition.
Northampton Foden (Ansbro, 70); Ashton, Clarke, Downey, Reihana; Geraghty (Myler, 68), Dickson; Tonga’uiha, Hartley (capt), Mujati (Murray, 68), Lawes, Clark (Sorenson, 72), Dowson, Wood, Wilson.
Tries Reihana, Foden Conversion Geraghty Penalties Geraghty, Myler.
Castres Bernard; Martial (Andreu, 63), Garcia (Sanchou, 79), Cabannes (Bai, 49), Inigo; McIntyre, Tillous-Borde; Forestier (Coetzee, 68), Bonello (Kayser, 63), Saayman (Peikrishvili, 56), S Murray (Rolland, 70), Tekori, Diarra (Bornman, 72), Caballero (Kayser, 39–44), Masoe (capt).
Sin-bin Bonello 36.
Try Tekori Penalties Bernard 2 Drop goal McIntyre.
Referee J Lacey (Ireland)
Originally published in The Guardian