Jose Bordalas and Valencia enter the unknown

José Bordalás took Getafe to the promised land, yet tougher tasks and higher expectations lie await at Valencia.

When Valencia fell to a 3-2 defeat against Barcelona in early May it saw them drop to within six points of the La Liga relegation zone with four matches to play.

The result was quickly followed by the sacking of former Watford boss Javi Gracia having won just eight games all season. The six-time Spanish champions once again called on assistant manager Salvador Gonzalez ‘Voro’ to temporarily lead the first team.

Voro guided Valencia to two wins and a draw from the remaining four matches – with emphatic 3-0 and 4-1 home wins against Valladolid and Eibar helping ensure safety.

Five days after the season came to a close, Voro once again stepped into the shadows. The time had come for another permanent figure to lead the ship as Jose Bordalas was called upon.

José Bordalas had taken minnows Getafe to the promised land by scaling lofty heights and just missing out on Champions League qualification. All of which seemed unimaginable when he took over a team facing relegation from the Segunda.

As soon as Valencia’s interest became known, Bordalas asked Getafe’s president Angel Torres to terminate his contract with a year remaining so Valencia could avoid paying his release clause.

However, word got around that Torres felt a change could be best for all parties following an underwhelming final 2020/21 season which saw their side finish in the bottom half and post the league’s lowest goalscoring record.

All of which brought together the new marriage of Valencia and Bordalas.

Bordalas is known for his love of football’s dark arts. He prefers his sides to sit off teams, awaiting a mistake before hitting on the counter, opting for a 4-4-2 with combative midfielders and high-pressing strikers.

Like Diego Simeone, Bordalas is a rather conflicting character in a Spain which is revered throughout football for technical ability and on-the-ball talent. Though if their methods gains results, as Simeone did once again with Atletí last season, is there anyone who can really call against them?

Nevertheless the pressure and task awaiting Bordalas at Valencia is an entirely different beast.

When Marcelino triumphantly brought the Copa Del Rey back to the Mestalla in 2019, who would have thought he would be sacked from his role three months later? The events that have run course since has shocked the club to its core.

Marcelino was quickly replaced by Albert Celades, who was then sacked due to poor results, while sporting director César Sanchez resigned that same season. That made it six different managers and another six sporting directors by 2020 for Valencia’s erratic owner, Peter Lim.

Lim, the son of a fishmonger and a former stockbroker with links to third-party agreements in players, as well as a stake in Salford City FC, hasn’t made many friends in and around Valencia.

Lim appointed Javi Gracia for the 2020/21 season only to quickly tarnish whatever aspirations they held. Lim insisted on a fire sale of the first team squad – with Dani Parejo and Ferran Torres among the likes sold for less than half their official market values.

This close season the squad has seen only one newcomer, Omar Alderete on a loan from Hertha Berlin. Much pressure lies on the shoulders of the likes of Jose Gaya, Carlos Soler, Gabriel Paulista and Maxi Gomez as they approach the new season, whilst Kang-in Lee and Yunus Musah will hope to scale further heights.

Their long-awaited plans for Nou Mestalla remain on long-term hold. Having started on the building in the summer of 2007, construction was stopped two years later as funding ran out and the project was suspended. The stadium’s shell has now fallen into a state of disrepair with no maintenance in over a decade since.

Current state of Nou Mestalla. Ravave on WikiMedia.

“They’re trying to make sure we don’t sell the club to anyone other than them,” Peter Lim said recently in an interview with the Financial Times with comments then published by Marca.

“These people argue, ‘we’re Valencianos, we know the club’, but with the Valencianos they went bankrupt, right? I don’t want to belittle the club, it’s 102 years old. They’ve never won the Champions League and want to win it at all costs. They’ve got birds in their heads.”

Such comments will do nothing to adhere him to the Valencia faithful.

Whilst five wins from six pre-season matches offers some promise for Jose Bordalas and his Valencia tenure, he would be wise to remember that much tougher tests lie ahead once the season is officially underway – both on the field and in the boardroom.


AZ Alkmaar summer exodus continues

The unfortunate yearly draining of talent from the Dutch Eredivisie has continued in fine form this summer. Though no club is grimacing as much as AZ Alkmaar.

The unfortunate yearly draining of talent from the Dutch Eredivisie has continued in fine form this summer. Though no club is grimacing as much as AZ Alkmaar.

Despite AZ head coach Pascal Jensen insisting in early July that his side would not entertain any bids from Eredivisie rivals, that hasn’t stopped them welcoming bids from elsewhere on the continent.

Whilst the past month has seen them recoup over €40million in transfer fees, the income is hardly positive.

The outgoings included two very highly-rated homegrown departures to French Ligue 1. The latest departure was Myron Boadu leaving for Monaco earlier this week. The speedy 20-year-old forward had tallied 88 appearances for AZ, scoring an impressive 33 goals.

His exit follows a recent trend having also seen Calvin Stengs leave for Ligue 1 outfit Nice, with the winger having accumulated 32 goal involvements across 77 Eredivisie appearances.

Both Stengs and Boadu, not only very promising members but already key parts of the AZ Alkmaar squad, will find their presence sorely missed.

Other departures include first-choice goalkeeper Marco Bizot to Stade Brest 29 and Norwegian full-back Jonas Svensson to Adana Demirspor.

However, worst might yet come for AZ fans.

Talk is ongoing regarding the future of another homegrown product and vital club captain Teun Koopmeiners. The industrious central midfielder is rumoured to be attracting interest from Jose Mourinho’s Roma having seen their initial target Granit Xhaka opt to sign a new contract at Arsenal.

Koopmeiners has also been linked with Roma’s Serie A rivals Atalanta and French Ligue 1’s Stade Rennes.

Add to this the constant noise around the future of exciting wing-back Owen Wijndal, who featured for Netherlands at the delayed Euro 2020, and the AZ fans may find themselves in a bit of a pickle this coming season.

Any incomings have done nothing to calm any worries with Vangelis Pavlidis being the only forward addition thus far – though an interesting acquisition nonetheless having scored 12 goals for Willem II last season.

It all begs the question of how clubs like AZ Alkmaar might pose a future challenge to not only domestic rivals but also continental sides. Are they now happy to only be a feeder club for the bigger fish?

Surely you can afford to sell one, maybe two, highly rated academy products each season for a profit. However, their model as seen this summer pose more questions than answers.

Recall Louis van Gaal’s triumphant side of 2008/09. An AZ Alkmaar team with the likes of Myron Boadu, Calvin Stengs, Teun Koopmeiners and Owen Wijndal had potential to challenge the recent Ajax Eredivisie domination as van Gaal successfully did back then.

Now all we have is the romantic speculation of what might have been for Pascal Jansen and this once promising AZ squad.

Safe Standing Roadshow lead talks football stadiums, fans’ future and his beloved Union Berlin

Jon Darch, Safe Standing Roadshow lead operator, talks exclusively to Football Foyer about stadiums, fans’ future and his beloved Union Berlin.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

“Safe standing offers equality with fans of other sports,” says Jon Darch, a leading football safe standing campaigner, in an interview with Football Foyer.

“It will remove the illogical discrimination that says it’s safe to stand, for example, at rugby, but not at football. The ban never made any logical sense. It was always based on a discriminatory view of all football fans as hooligans that was rife in political circles in the 1980s. It was an ill-founded view then and is an anachronism now.

“Safe standing will also, of course, give all fans choice. For those who like to stand, it gives them a dedicated area in which to do so, configured in accordance with strict safety criteria. And for those who want to sit, or simply can’t stand for 90 minutes, it gives them the peace of mind of knowing that all the fans around them will be of a like mind and will also prefer to stay seated. Everyone wins!”

A former radio industry executive, Jon Darch (seen left in the main image) makes his living these days by translating German to English and acting as an agent for a manufacturer of stadium seats, whilst his connection to football has been deeply entrenched from a young age.

“I’ve been a supporter of Bristol City since 1967 and of Union Berlin since 2008,” he starts to explain. “I’ve also been a member of the Football Supporters Federation (now Association) for many years and a card-carrying member in absentia of Wrexham Supporters Trust, owners until any day now of Wrexham FC, having worked in Wrexham in the late eighties and developed a soft spot for the club.”

He recounts his first football memory as hearing on the radio that John Galley had scored a hat-trick on his debut for Bristol City at Huddersfield Town. That was back on 16 December 1967, whilst Jon was at a Bristol Grammar School event with his father. He recalls both being thrilled by their new centre-forward’s instant impact.

On a visit to Hannover.

Jon is the face of the Safe Standing Roadshow campaign spearheading the push for it to be introduced at all levels in English football. His passion for safe standing can be traced right back to when he used to stand on the uncovered terrace at Ashton Gate.

“That goes back to those early days of going to football with my dad,” he says. “We used to stand on the ‘Open End’ at Ashton Gate (i.e., an uncovered terrace). He made a wooden stool for me to stand on so that I could see over the heads of the men in front.

“As a teenager, I then stood on the ‘East End’ with my mates. Twenty years later, when I was taking my nephews to games in what by then was an all-seater stadium, I thought it was a great shame that they couldn’t experience that same rite of passage. And I thought that the standing ban was illogical. And I hate things that are illogical!”

Good examples of safe standing can be seen on the continent, with German football being the prime example, whilst Celtic introduced their own safe standing section in 2016. In the higher-levels of the English pyramid, however, the story is different.

“The Thatcherite all-seater policy is still in force,” he says. “It stipulates that currently some 70-odd grounds must provide only seated accommodation. Since the end of 2018, clubs governed by the policy have been allowed to install “seats incorporating barriers” as a means of enhancing safety in areas where they have an issue with persistent standing, but they are not allowed to operate such areas as formal standing areas.

“The current Government won the last election on a manifesto that included a pledge to bring in safe standing. Had it not been for Covid, that would probably have happened by now. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too much longer. In fact, what better way for Boris and co. to show their commitment to this than to say now that safe standing will be allowed from as soon as we can have capacity crowds again.

“The safety sector is persuaded of the fact that rail seats have a “positive impact on spectator safety” and have told the Government so. It now just needs the Government to amend the all-seater policy, or permit a more nuanced interpretation of it, for clubs to be allowed to operate formally approved safe standing areas in line with safety guidelines that are ready to be put in place.”

Rail seating concept.

He hopes that as soon as fans are able to return to stadia at full capacity, clubs will be given the green light introduce safe standing. Better still, if they are told now that this will be the case, the clubs can plan ahead so that they are ready for the change.

“There is no team that doesn’t want it,” he states. “Many are actively making plans even now during the pandemic. Once the crowds are back and we’ve got the green light from Westminster, the vast majority will go ahead.

“Spurs have already installed seats incorporating barriers and Manchester United announced their intention last year to do the same. However, until the rules change, neither club is allowed to operate any area of their ground as safe standing. When the rules do change, the areas concerned will also need to be checked for compliance with any new safety regulations for standing areas that may come in.”

The situation at European competition level is slightly different. When clubs play in Europe there has to be a seat available for every fan. UEFA do not stipulate, however, that the fans must sit down.

Yet, are UEFA for or against the concept?

“Agnostic, I guess,” he starts to explain, “Rail seats were invented to satisfy their requirement that their matches be played in all-seater stadia. Rail seats do that, while enabling the areas concerned to be operated as standing areas for domestic games.

“UEFA – and FIFA too for that matter – have had no problem with this and regularly pick stadia with rail seats for some of their most prestigious games. Hamburg, Dortmund, Nuremberg, Hannover and Stuttgart, for example, were all World Cup 2006 venues and all of those grounds have rail seats.”

“Safe standing allows fans a choice,” he goes on to state. “And takes away the stain on our reputation placed there by a standing ban based on the false narrative created around the cause of Hillsborough.

“Five years from now, I would hope that by then there is no longer any such safe standing movement because it has become the accepted norm that all grounds provide a mix of seated and standing accommodation.”

Away from the safe standing campaign, Jon’s beloved Union Berlin are performing above expectation in the Bundesliga, currently placed eighth. Union gained promotion to the German top flight for the first time in the club’s history in time for the 2019–20 season.

“In short, Union’s forerunner club was founded in 1906,” he tells when asked about the history of the club.

“In its current guise, it was founded as the ‘civilian’ club in GDR East Berlin 1966; many years of unfair competition followed against the Stasi-backed other club in the east of the city (who won the league title ten years on the bounce). Then several financial crises happened post reunification, that were followed up with rescue acts by the fans; rebuilding of the stadium by the fans; rise from the 4th tier to the top flight; and next? “International”, perhaps!”

Last year saw the 100th anniversary of the club playing on the site of the current ground. The name of the stadium can be translated as ‘The Stadium next to the Old Forester’s Lodge’, and the ground is indeed on the edge of suburban woodlands, which mean that the walk to the stadium is along a muddy track through a tunnel of dark, overhanging trees.

Having previously visited the Stadion An der Alten Försterei back in 2018, I have some personal knowledge of the club, and the hard work that’s gone on behind the scenes to lift this club to the top-flight.

“Fans came to the rescue and around 2,000 individuals gave some 150,000 hours of free labour to help bring the stadium up to scratch.”

“Until 2009, the stadium was open terracing on three sides, with a puny little grandstand for about 2,000,” he describes. “Weeds were growing up through the terrace concrete, which in turn was crumbling. It was deemed inadequate for the second tier, let alone the Bundesliga.

“So, Union asked the fans – the members – what they wanted from a ‘modernised’ stadium. They said ‘standing’! So, plans were drawn up to tidy up the three terraces, give them a roof and, as phase two, to upgrade the main grandstand.”

Still there was a hitch. The club was once again short of cash. Therefore the fans came to the rescue and around 2,000 individuals gave some 150,000 hours of free labour to help bring the stadium up to scratch.

“Now we have a beautiful ground with three covered terraces and, since phase 2 was completed, a spanking new main stand. Capacity is 22,000-ish, 18,000-ish standing, and – pre-Covid – it was always sold out, so expansion is on the cards. A planning application has been submitted to expand to 37,000, with an upper tier above the three terraces. Again, largely standing. In all, in future it will be 8,000-ish seats and 28,500-ish standing – more even than at the Westfalenstadion!!”

Throughout Germany football fans are well known for achieving change in their domestic game, from kick-off times to the 50+1 rule. Might there be anything UK fans could learn from their equivalents on the continent?

“Organise, organise, organise!” he remarks. “The walk-out in protest against ticket prices on 77 minutes at Anfield a few years back organised by Spirit of Shankly and Spion Kop 1906 shows that fans do have power. But only if they organise themselves and work in unity. That’s what the German fans are so good at, and definitely what we can learn from them.

“Spouting off as a keyboard warrior is futile. Tens of thousands of fans voting with their feet in the real world, however, can move mountains!”

Find out more about Jon’s work with the Safe Standing Roadshow.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer silences critics as Manchester United go top of Premier League ahead of Liverpool clash at Anfield

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United side have seen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Their latest win at Burnley made it a year unbeaten on the road with 12 wins out of 15, an incredible 33-point swing in United’s favour that now sees them sitting three-points clear of Liverpool.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United side have seen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. Their latest win at Burnley made it a year unbeaten on the road with 12 wins out of 15. To top it all off, Paul Pogba’s winning goal at Turf Moor completed an incredible 33-point swing in United’s favour that now sees them sitting three-points clear of Liverpool.

Who thought such a turnaround was possible this time last year? Actually, who thought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United would have been anywhere near the top when beaten 6-1 at home by Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the campaign.

I for one certainly had my doubts.

In my last piece in October 2019, I argued that Solskjaer required more time and patience to make Manchester United a success. I stressed that whilst he might not end up being the long-term solution, he deserved more than the one transfer window as permanent manager to cure this squad of the ills left over by previous managers.

Up to that point his three summer signings (Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James) had been positive on the whole, and that more along those lines over the following two windows might mean a half-decent squad in the making.

Since then, Ole oversaw a surge in form once the Premier League got back underway after the Covid-related pause. His free-flowing Manchester United side surged up the table, breaking at pace through Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, whilst bolstered with the Cantona-esque signing of the Portuguese magnifico, Bruno Fernandes.

They fell at the semi-final stage of the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Europa League. Promising signs for some, yet a worrying sign of a lack of killer instinct to others.

Ahead of this season the squad was bolstered with the arrival of Ajax’s Donny van de Beek, Porto’s Alex Telles and veteran Uruguayan Edinson Cavani – all of which were league title winners with their previous clubs. Although the off-season will forever be remembered for their failed pursuit of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.

As the season’s start approached, clouds hung around from that failed pursuit of Sancho whilst the lack of pre-season preparation caused angst for the coaching team.

This saw United lose their opener at home to Crystal Palace and fail to win any of their opening three league matches at Old Trafford. Only their fine away form ensured they stayed above the relegation zone.

Whilst I wasn’t panicking at this point given the early stage with which the season found itself, there were definitely worrying signs the off-season transfer struggles were once again hampering their on-field performance. Nevertheless, Ole managed to ride the wave of criticism as he already had many times in his still-young Manchester United managerial career.

When his side faced Paris Saint-Germain knowing that a point would ensure qualification, the wheels came loose once again. An initially impressive return to Champions League football soon turned on its head as they were beaten at home by Paris Saint-Germain and then at RB Leipzig.

It was during the home defeat to Paris Saint-Germain that my doubts over Ole’s ability to truly turn the United ship around reached maximum levels.

I found his decision to keep Fred on the pitch, despite a first-half yellow card that may well have been a red, to be blind at best. It felt obvious to all that his next challenge, be it in the 46th or 70th minute (as actually happened), would result in a second yellow card. Yet Solskjaer kept Fred on and later saw him sent-off in a decision that proved the catalyst to United falling into the Europa League once again.

The following week saw me rant at anyone willing or unwilling to hear my ramblings – with my barber definitely getting the brunt end of it. Unfortunately, I had decided once and for all that Solskjaer wasn’t the answer, and whilst the thought of him taking United back to the top was akin to the perfect fairy-tale, like most fairy-tales it never had a chance of happening.

Now I sit here having gladly eaten my words of late. Emphatically he has since turned the United ship around again to see them rock up this coming weekend at Anfield with Jurgen Klopp’s reigning champions now playing catch-up.

Football fans are renowned for being fickle – especially when it comes to their own team and I’m certainly no different. Just as that decision to keep Fred on against PSG was infuriating, his half-time substitutions at Southampton and then West Ham saw Manchester United turn both matches around and provide crucial wins.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer certainly deserves enormous credit for the turnaround and change in squad character since his arrival. His decisions and signings look shrewd on the whole, and whilst the squad isn’t perfect by any stretch, it’s definitely the best and most energetic since Sir Alex Ferguson departed.

His tenure so far has seen highs followed by all too predictable lows, with no sign of the consistency required to truly challenge the top sides. Now it seems as though something is clicking. It’s unlike anything experienced under his predecessors David Moyes, Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho.

Whilst this Sunday’s trip to Anfield won’t ultimately decide where the title is heading, it will certainly show whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United are closer to finding their perch once again. Another Manchester United away victory would send shivers through Merseyside and start cementing fears that the Stretford End is arising.

P.S. The return of fans to grounds can’t come quick enough, hence the featured image.

Groundhopper: Athletic Club, San Mamés Stadium

It was match day in Bilbao as the red and white of Athletic Club was proudly on display throughout the city.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Me and my partner crossed the Nervión river before approaching the Guggenheim Museum. This stunning piece of modern architecture epitomises the structural essence of Bilbao; a stunning blend of both old and new, having opened in 1997 and helped turn a then struggling industrial town into a cultural metropolis. We carried on along the Nervíon, where we approached a maze of green spaces – providing both a relaxing setting and recreational outlet for locals within the concrete jungle of a city.

We chatted between each other as we looked back on our first three days of a five-night stay in the Basque Country. Our time there had seen us indulge pretty heavily in the local cuisine (mainly cerveza, vino tinto and pintxos), whilst the Friday night had seen us celebrate our engagement in a traditional Basque restaurant in the Casco Viejo (Old Town) district.

Yet on this particular day, and slightly different to our first two days in the city, there was a certain sense of anticipation in the air. Flags adorned balconies throughout each and every side street. It was match day in Bilbao as the red and white of Athletic Club was proudly on display in preparation for the visit of Getafe.

This was my second visit to the city. I first visited back in 2012, when Manchester United were completely outplayed over two legs against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic in a UEFA Europa League last-16 tie. The city and its inhabitants certainly left its mark on me back then, so much so that I always insisted on heading back there one day – especially with a new stadium to be ticked off.

The Old San Mamés that I visited back then, also known as La Catedral, has since been replaced by a rather futuristic modern-build version San Mamés. As impressive as it is, when we first approached the stadium on our second day, I couldn’t help but yearn for the romanticism of the old one. Nonetheless I was still satisfied to have been lucky enough to attend a match before its demolition in June 2013.

We reached the stadium’s surrounding streets a couple of hours before kick-off. Desperate for a beverage, we made a beeline to a bar called Bar Swansea. Now, this isn’t a British bar or nothing like that, it’s a traditional bar which serves a great choice of pintxos and alcohol. According to the bar manager, the name is thought to come from the original owner of the bar who came to adore Swansea following a holiday there.

Having finished our drinks and pintxos, we made our way from Bar Swansea towards the ground itself, where around ten different bars, accompanied by the odd souvenir shop, creates a passageway to the San Mamés. Again, we stopped along the way, ensuring that we weren’t missing out on any local delicacies.

We headed for our seats around 45 minutes before kick-off. Stopping for the obligatory photo outside of the stadium, we took in the view – a stadium resembling a spacecraft, with aluminium-looking spears pointing downwards towards the unknowing fans as they search for their turnstile.

It had none of the essence of the Old San Mamés, although in truth, how could this new-build ever come close to the soul and history of La Catedral?

Seated in the heavens, we had quite the view of the internal organs of the stadium, although if I’m being honest I opted for the cheapest tickets (€45) available to us from the ticket booth the day prior the match. Yet none of that seemed to bother us. It’s all about being part of the wider sense of the match; the camaraderie, singing and enjoyment.

There was to be very little of the latter. Getafe, despite conceding the majority of possession to Athletic (71%-29%), were much more potent in attack. They sat back, absorbed and nullified Athletic’s blunt forward line, before countering and displaying a killer instinct that has seen them rise to lofty heights in La Liga.

Getafe took the lead when Damian Suarez broke forward and sliced the Athletic back-line open like a hot knife through butter, before his well-placed shot beat Unai Simon in the Athletic goal. This was Damian Suarez’s first of the season and he was rightly overjoyed.

The goal did nothing to awaken a sleepy San Mamés crowd. The atmosphere had been pretty subdued from the off. We were relatively surprised at the low-key nature of the home fans, with the team’s woeful performance dampening it even further.

Athletic went in at half-time 1-0 down. Their manager, Gaizka Garitano, undoubtedly did his best to generate some sort of reaction. Nevertheless, just five minutes into the second half the game was pushed out of reach as a VAR awarded penalty saw Jaime Mata power one home to the bottom-right corner of Unai Simon’s goal.

Athletic did their utmost to garner a comeback with a triple substitution on the hour mark. Aritz Aduriz, the legendary and soon to be leaving striker, replaced his long-term replacement Asier Villalibre up-front, Ibai Gomez came on for Unai Lopez on the wing, whilst Ander Capa replaced Ivan Lekue at full-back. This, however, failed to kick-start a flailing Athletic.

Gaizka Garitano appeared flat on the touchline compared to Getafe’s Pepe Bordales. This wasn’t helped as VAR struck again by disallowing a goal for Athletic on 80mins. This was quickly followed by Ibai Gomez’s shot hitting the bar on 84mins, before Aritz Aduriz shot wide on 90mins.

A strong finish on the whole by Athletic, where one goal could easily have seen the match turn on its head. However, Getafe had more quality overall and rightly saw the match out to the dismay of the home fans.

The standard on show from both sides wasn’t the best, yet neither was the atmosphere. Perhaps I expected too much following my previous visit to the Old San Mamés. New grounds tend to take time to build that affinity with the home fans. As years go by, memories are created and unforgettable nights are experienced – none more so than Athletic’s subsequent home match resulting in a 1-0 Copa del Rey quarter final victory against Barcelona.

Athletic have since guaranteed their place in the final where they will face arch rivals Real Sociedad in Sevilla. This will be their fourth cup final in 11 years, quite the feat as they continue to follow their La Cantera policy of only fielding Basque heritage players. I’ll once again be keeping a close eye on their final, quietly cheering on this special side.

Solskjaer requires more time and patience to make Manchester United a success

By Danny Wyn Griffith

“We can’t change the whole squad but it’s one step at a time. I’m going to be successful here and there are players there that won’t be part of that successful team, but there are many of them that do have it.”

These were the words stressed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer following a 4-0 humbling to Everton back in April. The summer transfer window has since been and gone. Out went Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian. In came Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James.

Manchester United thumped Chelsea on the opening day. Smiles were spread around Old Trafford. Spirits were high. Expectations had been raised. What has since followed has seen Solskjaer’s Manchester United limp to a lowly 12th place after eight games. They now sit two points above the relegation zone.

“Ole out!” cries have been aired on various social media platforms.

“Back him to the hill!” the hardened reply.

“Ed Woodward, specialist in failure!” they justly shout.

“Focus on the Glazers and the £1billion taken out of the club!” they rightly lament.

Manchester United are approaching a cliff edge. This is a squad short on quality, numbers and confidence. A recipe for disaster is quickly being concocted.

The shortage in numbers has been underlined by the growing number of injuries to key players. This week, David de Gea was the latest to be struck down whilst on international duty with Spain. He joins Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Diogo Dalot and Eric Bailly on the ever-growing injury list.

In true Manchester United fashion, the squad has been bolstered by a quartet of youngsters. Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Brendon Williams may one day make it in a Manchester United shirt. Yet to expect them to thrive in this floundering Manchester United side is delusional. They might have talent in abundance, but now is not the time to throw them to the wolves. Mooted January loan moves would be the correct call.

In the stands and online, the fan-base is quickly fracturing. Match-going supporters are ready to back the manager and squad through any further turbulence which awaits. The growing number of supporters who tend to voice their opinion online without ever setting foot in the stadium would happily push the eject button on Ole.  

Liverpool awaits this Sunday. The current European Champions and Premier League leaders. They visit Old Trafford striving to stretch their perfect start to nine games as they continue their search for that first league title since 1989/90.

“That’s a perfect game for us.” Solskjaer told the BBC following the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle.

It remains to be seen whether he believes this or whether he stubbornly kept a confident front when fronted by the media. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain, Solskjaer requires time to make his Manchester United managerial career a success.

He had a dream start. That night in Paris will live long in the memory of many supporters. It’s all been downhill since, yet not all should be doom and gloom.

Despite the results, he has shown some promise to his thinking. Ridding the club of the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez took some bottle, especially given the high probability that the board’s incompetence would result in them not being adequately replaced. This squad is made up of players from five different managers. It’s not ideal that some deadwood remain. Still this is a process we’re not even a year into.

David Moyes started his own process when Sir Alex Ferguson retired. That ended in heartache for the Scot, who was clearly out of his depth from the moment he left Merseyside and entered Greater Manchester.

Louis van Gaal brought promise and an FA Cup win. His record in matches against Liverpool was second to none, although dire football towards the latter half of his tenure saw José Mourinho sensing blood.

The Portuguese terrier quickly set about moulding the side into one he could call his own. He brought the League Cup and Europa League in his first season, a second-place finish followed in 2017-18, before the typical third-season Mourinho slump arrived as his vindictive attitude poisoned the club.

Ole now sits at the wheel. He deserves time to see out the job he started over the summer. He might not end up being the long-term solution, but he deserves more than the one transfer window as permanent manager to cure this squad of the ills left over by previous managers.

The switch in thinking back to young British talent bodes well. The three summer signings have been positive on the whole. More along those lines over the next two windows and there might be a half-decent squad in the making.

If not, it’s at that point that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will rightly be questioned. For now though, he deserves to remain. He will remain the manager of Manchester United no matter what the result may be on Sunday. A manager with a behemoth job on his hands.

A job I do not envy.

José Mourinho’s departure heralds a new dawn for Manchester United

On a wintery mid-December day at Carrington, José Mourinho’s reign as Manchester United manager reached an abrupt end in all too Mourinho-esque manner.

Most call it his renowned third season syndrome; the campaign where the constant stream of little and not so subtle digs catch up with the snarling Portuguese terrier. In his trail, he leaves an underachieving Manchester United side sitting 19-points adrift of league leaders Liverpool and a staggering 11-points behind fourth placed Chelsea. A beleaguered squad that had the kitchen sink and more thrown at them numerous times during his tenure – sometimes deservedly so, other times not so much – lay in wait with hope the next manager brings new methods and fresh ideas. Ed Woodward’s track record as Manchester United chief executive rightly takes another bashing, especially given the new three-year contract only gifted to Mourinho this time last year. On top of all this, José walks away having accumulated just the mere £358.8m on player transfers and a £537k hotel bill as the cake topper.

The remarkable thing is deep down we all knew this matrimony would end in tears. José Mourinho’s track record suggested as much, but the deeper issues rooted in this sporting titan that is Manchester United require further emphasising.

As previously mentioned, this is a club currently too ill-equipped to be truly successful. This is a club still playing catch-up since Sir Alex Ferguson brought his trophy-laden spell to an end in 2013. Having over-relied on his ability to oversee each and every aspect of the club, they soon got found out upon his departure. As rivals all across Europe were pushing the boundaries and finally coming to terms with the structure required of sporting sides in modern day football, Manchester United played the wrong hand on more than one occasion. First with David Moyes, then with Louis van Gaal and lastly with José Mourinho. As a result, Manchester United’s reputation as one of the most respected footballing sides across the globe has since taken a battering. Still with each downfall comes an opportunity to get up and learn from past mistakes. This opportunity has once again offered itself to Manchester United.

The penny finally dropped. Enough was enough with Mourinho’s antics. He had clearly lost the majority of the dressing room, with matters having threatened to turn toxic for the best part of the past year. Despite not being renowned for fluent football, all would agree that watching his Manchester United side had been painstaking on the whole. The negative demeanour adopted on the opening day of pre-season brought matters to a head for many as he downplayed fan expectations. Stubbornly playing central midfielders instead of centre-backs against West Ham United bore sense of an arsonist on the prowl, eagerly searching for the next fuse to light.

This week’s thrilling 4-3 FA Youth Cup victory over Chelsea gave sense of a club with real talent coming through the system. Still, with José Mourinho in charge, what chance would they realistically have of graduating into the first team? Evidence sits in the expected UEFA Champions League dead-rubber at Valencia. With everyone anticipating a Juventus trouncing of Young Boys, Mourinho’s bench included young starlets Mason Greenwood and James Garner, only for him to instead introduce Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. This would not have gone unnoticed in the Manchester United boardroom.

The hierarchy will also have undoubtedly seen what effect the right structure in terms of having a Director of Football or Sporting Director can have on the playing aspects, just by looking down the road to the Etihad or along the M62 towards Liverpool. And with this, came another reason to abort mission and start anew without José Mourinho. By installing a stop-gap manager until the end of the season, it allows the United board an opportunity to appoint their favoured candidate to the Director of Football or Sporting Director role and, with this, give both him and the new manager a clean slate to write their chapter upon in the 2019/20 season.

One can only imagine and speculate who will be the man in charge next summer. Might Mauricio Pochettino be grasped from Daniel Levy’s claws and be joined by his trusted ally Paul Mitchell as Director of Football? Could Diego Simeone be lured from Atletico Madrid? Might a lauded former player such as Michael Carrick, Nicky Butt or current Wales manager, Ryan Giggs, be trusted with the task in hand? Or might the board take risk on one of the vast choice of raw managerial talent found throughout Europe?

For the time being, however, the next five and a half months offers opportunity. Opportunity for whoever the stop-gap manager may be, opportunity for the players to make their mark before the new guard takes control and opportunity for the fans to get some enjoyment back in their system.

The lack of progress at Old Trafford is exasperating

Looking back at previously written articles with the hope of finding inspiration for a new one isn’t something I’d normally waste my time in doing. Nevertheless, the current state of affairs at Manchester United is a different story.

Manchester United. This is a club without direction. Blind leading the blind. Helpless led by the clueless. They are hamstrung by parasitical owners, who are interested in the bottom line and only ever worried about the on-pitch performance when it subsequently hampers their dear old bottom line. Footballing operations are orchestrated by an investment banker by trade, seemingly unwilling to hand over any duties to men with the acquired knowhow of running the on-pitch performance of such a sporting behemoth. José Mourinho is and will always be a modern day great, yet he seems so at odds with everyone apart from his own reflection, that the club’s already poisonous concoction becomes even more venomous.

Back in March 2016, I aired some grievances regarding the then situation engulfing Old Trafford in Red News. At the time, Manchester United had Louis van Gaal in charge, his compatriot Daley Blind orchestrating the back-four, France’s finest Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield and an evergreen Wayne Rooney up top.

I wrote about how it was abundantly clear that Manchester United desperately required a Sporting Director or Director of Football; a figurehead to perform the glue-like role in between Ed Woodward, as Executive Vice Chairman, and then manager, Louis van Gaal.

I grumbled about the utter footballing disorganisation that had been allowed to infest the club since Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill left in 2013 and how it was glaringly obvious they desperately required restructuring from top to bottom.

I stressed that modern day managers required a go-to man who was allowed to focus on tasks that arose outside first team matters, especially given the amount of commercial tasks that was put their way. That would then provide the correct structure for a modern day football club to thrive and, if complimented with some financial clout and a focused view on where they want to go, and how they want to do it, could take the club a very long way to reaching their end-goal.

I emphasised the need for Manchester United to go back to the tried and tested methods of club philosophy in terms of recruitment, youth development and playing style that didn’t end up with a manager so at odds with the club’s historical trends.

I moaned about how the club approached each summer transfer window in overconfident fashion, only to be outmanoeuvred and made a laughing stock amongst their rivals, before ultimately adopting a scattergun-like approach come the end of August.

I spoke with unease of the goings on over at the Etihad; how Manchester City had shown United the way forward, by employing former Barcelona kingpins Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain to head their footballing programme, which then resulted in Pep Guardiola joining the club.

I groaned about the fact it should be no bombshell whatsoever that the footballing side of the club was in such disarray, given the man in charge (Ed Woodward) specialised in investment banking, commercial operations and qualified as a Chartered Accountant from PricewaterhouseCoopers in 1997 after receiving a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics at Bristol University in 1993.

“Now tell me, what exactly has any of that got to do with Football?”

I finished by calling on everyone to forget the conundrum regarding the United Kingdom’s position within the European Union – bear in mind the dreaded vote wasn’t for another three months – since Manchester United and Old Trafford required reform first and foremost.

As you’ve probably realised by now, not much has since changed.

It is still clear as day that Manchester United are in need of a Sporting Director or Director of Football. This was emphasised in the summer transfer window when José Mourinho insisted on a centre-back only for Ed Woodward to veto all his suggested targets, before a last-minute scattergun approach was adopted on transfer deadline day.

The lack of footballing persona at the highest echelons of the club remains an issue. The gaps left by the departures of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill are still being filled, all this whilst rival opposition such as Manchester City, Liverpool and now Arsenal are constantly pushing the boundaries of what was once found to be the norm with regards to staff setup. 

The commercial aspect of modern day football remains a conundrum for the current setup. José Mourinho bemoaned the effect PR activity had on their pre-season preparation, and as recently as October, several squad members were known to have refused to carry out activities with sponsors in a dressing room protest.

Despite having in place a manager with surreal track record and the right level of ambition in José Mourinho, you need to remember this is not a man who embodies what Manchester United is all about. All the occasions he downplayed expectations, dampened moods on the first day of pre-season, created rifts with players, turned the rare highlights of his tenure into sequels of The José Mourinho Saga – it has since reached the point of no return. His first season proved a success, last season’s trophy-less campaign wasn’t the disaster some made it out to be, but this season he really should be doing better with the players at his disposal. Believe it or not, there is some real talent in the squad, and the inability to coax better than eighth position and 17 points adrift of the leaders after 15-games has to ultimately land at José Mourinho’s door.

True, improvements has since been made to the youth and scouting setup, still you can’t help but feel Manchester United are playing catch-up instead of leading the way. And lastly, what now of the UK and the EU? The less said about that the better.

The last two and a half years have posed more questions than answers for Manchester United. Where they go from here and how they finally find long-term progression clearly remains unanswered. 

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