Sergio Agüero threatens to be the Premier League’s best goal-scoring foreign import

When all is said and done, there may be very few who would argue that Sergio Agüero has not done enough to be the very best from outside of England.

Football over the years has always created debate among frenetic followers who believe that their opinion is correct, that the statistics always back up the argument and there’s no other way to compare. That’s why when the best players have their names cast on the debate table, there’s usually no definitive answer.

It’s also why sitting here typing this, it was difficult to ignore the sheer numbers that give Sergio Agüero a worthwhile mention. The Argentine is continually leaving his mark on a league that can’t seem to wrap its head around how he can be stopped, or where he sits in the conversation of the best players to have graced the Premier League.

Such has been Agüero’s rise from his debut against Swansea in 2011 that the numbers are hard to look away from. In Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the Eithad Stadium, Aguero scored his 155th, 156th 157th Premier League goals in only his 227th appearance. He now has 14 goals this season, and also registered his 10th league hat-trick, now only second to Alan Shearer who ended on 11, and sits 8th on the all-time goal scorers’ list.

All hail King Kun, arguably the best goal-scoring foreign import the Premier League has ever seen, and the best piece of business under the trophy-laden City juggernaut that launched over a decade ago. He has been a model of consistency for such a long time, it’s difficult to see how he hasn’t found himself donning the white of Real Madrid or the stripes of FC Barcelona.

But that’s just it – he hasn’t had to make such moves to prove he is the real deal. City have had the pleasure of seeing his supreme qualities since that  £38-million move from Atletico Madrid.

That figure seems so miniscule in the current inflated market, as of to say his was a bargain of some sorts, the kind of money you spend to get a Lamborghini Gallardo at a cut price.

And as he found himself in similar positions for his three-goal haul against Arsenal, the flickering memories began to roll in the mind – that chest and volley from Thierry Henry against Manchester United, or Luis Suarez’s mesmerizing performance against Norwich City, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick against Portsmouth.

“City have had the pleasure of seeing his supreme qualities since that  £38-million move from Atletico Madrid.”

Because these are the caliber of players that Agüero is threatening at the very top, if not surpassing year by year, goal by goal, in his quest to become the outright best.

Under three different managers in Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola, Agüero has shown us, time and time again, that he is the real deal. All have won titles with him as their main man, and may not have won the rave reviews they’ve had if he wasn’t around.

And to the betterment of City’s journey to becoming an all-round European elite, it’s also been good for the league to have such world class talent in its ranks, to boast and brim with joy at the quality of a player who hasn’t lost his step, even when injuries threaten to derail him.

This is where it gets tricky. In as much as he has been able to work towards being the supreme centre forward of his time in Manchester, how can we ignore the exploits of aforementioned Suarez, Henry and Ronaldo?

All brought something to the table – Suarez’s all-round forward play, Henry’s world-class finishing and Ronaldo’s invention. In as much as statistics can point you in one direction, there are also those glittering moments of magic that leave you wanting more.

So, what we see is just as important as what we can put in numbers. Agüero will not sit at 8th forever, and his goal scoring won’t, presumably, suddenly vanish. But how many of his appearances really take your breath away and make you sit up to attention?

This is probably where Suarez, Henry and Ronaldo flourish  The numbers are there for them, too. Agüero would definitely fit in a “Top Five Best Foreign Players” list somewhere, but when will be confident enough to say that he, indeed, is the very best the league has seen?

At 30 years of age, he won’t be around forever, but when all is said and done, who could argue that he wasn’t the outstanding foreign import to have laid those Puma boots on the slick grass of the Etihad, or any other ground for that matter, in the entirety of the league’s existence?

He’ll continue on his merry way with an way trip to Everton, and then a decisive home tie against Chelsea, and then 11 games after that. With a bit of silver in his hair, Agüero will leave a trail of destruction until its time to say goodbye.

Maybe then, we’ll close the book on this, never needing to debate it again as we speak with pride of his undeniable pedigree as the one who stands above them all.

Old heads Fernandinho and Kompany rise to save Manchester City’s title challenge

Both Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho put on a splendid show of men that have been here before, bringing Liverpool to their knees in the face of City’s determined performance.

Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany. With time, you may have thought that these two would have been slowly lost in Pep Guardiola’s masterplan, quietly removed from the equation as they find their reserved spots at the old age home on the Manchester City bench.

Then, you see the way they operate in matches such as the one against Liverpool, and remember that football is all about ability and thought, to be able to conduct the manager’s instructions to the book, and execute them without fault, regardless of age.

And although Kompany’s own performance wasn’t faultless, his leadership on the field of play at the Etihad Stadium cemented an important 2-1 victory against the league leaders, emboldened by their own narratives of unbeaten seasons and bravery, but brought firmly back down to earth by the excellence of City’s display.

In the middle of the park, space was hard to find, but Fernandinho escaped those harsh conditions to deliver a midfield masterclass of sheer determination and love for the more robust side of Guardiola’s thoughts. Without him, City have been the nervous, brittle wreck of Guardiola’s Fernandinho-less team that lost to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, still learning how to play when he’s not around.

Here, the Brazilian was the lead orchestrator for the likes of David and Bernardo Silva, Sergio Agüero and Leroy Sané to go and park themselves in the opposition’s half, to cause havoc in those uncomfortable areas where opposing Liverpool defenders didn’t want to be. Without him, this win may not have been possible. He goes about his job with no fuss or sparkle, his twinkling demolition acts sometimes going unnoticed.

This spectacle had it all – fine margins, technical brilliance and robust booting of the ball into the stands in the final minutes. It may have all been so different had Sadio Mané converted his early chance in the first half, but such is the concept of the game that the top teams need, maybe even summon, Lady Luck more often than not – John Stones and Ederson knowing her better than most.

Without that goal-line clearance, Agüero wouldn’t have put City in the lead. He showed his unquestionable brilliance with a close-range finish of devilish precision, this his 37th goal against the other self-proclaimed ‘Big Six’ sides since 2011/2012. He, like Kompany and Fernandinho, has been around for the glowing years of City’s rise, a title-winning centre forward seemingly unnerved by any doubts that may follow him.

And when Liverpool seemed to wrestle the initiative back in their favour with Roberto Firmino’s not so “no-look” header in the 64th minute, the sense of a shift in power was clear – City had hardly been switched on after the break, and Jurgen Klopp’s move to bring on Fabinho for James Milner had stifled City’s job.

Before this, Kompany had performed a double clearing act, first with his head and then with a heaving swing of his left foot, being in the right place at the right time like he so often is, this 32-year-old Belgian brute of a man, unerring in his utterances towards Mohamed Salah when he had lunged to bring the Egyptian to his haunches.

And as Elisabeth Elliot once said: “Maturity starts with the willingness to give oneself”, the kind of unselfish acts of nature that allow the rest of the team to flourish. This is where Kompany and Fernandinho excel, the former a handyman of those first days in 2008 when City were still dreaming, and the latter an added piece of protection for the younger ones, the Johns and Aymerics of the world.

These are the fruits of old age, the nous that comes from hard graft and selflessness, successful title triumphs and faltering title challenges. Fernandinho contorted his body in ways that brought cheers from the City fans and thumbs-up from Guardiola. He started moves and stifled others, never missing a beat.

He is no Jorginho or N’Golo Kanté – indeed, these seem to be the variations of the modern-day defensive linchpin – but his longevity and willingness to learn and improve at the ripe old age of 33 make him arguably one of the best in his position.

And although he didn’t provide the assist for Sané’s winning strike – a finish that made you wonder what would’ve have happened if we still had rectangular goal posts – his name should be stitched into a banner and hung up alongside Kompany’s. “Fernandinho and Kompany: the men behind the scenes”, it should read.

For Liverpool, this can only be taken as a learning curve as they come to grips with their own dizzying reality. They are the league leaders, and with it comes great pressure from those chasing them down. There are those that seem to enjoy their long suffering and wait for a Premier League title, the first to remind us of those Lovren comments or Virgil van Dijk comparisons.

It’s telling that Agüero’s goal came from Lovren’s side, and for all of Liverpool’s defensive improvement with Van Dijk in the team, there’s still a weakness with Lovren there, a little switched off when all his senses should have been in overdrive with Agüero around.

Such were the margins, those microseconds that turn out to be the most important. For City, the gap has been reduced, and in times like these, the so-called “fossils” stand up and bring that experience to the table.

Kompany and Fernandinho will be long gone in a few years, but for now, their chiseled old nature is just what Guardiola will need for the months ahead.

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.

Raheem Sterling stands tall when all seems forgotten

The Manchester City winger was the alleged victim of racial abuse from a set of Chelsea supporters over the weekend, a theme that has gone on unresolved even after his performances at the World Cup.

In this year’s FIFA World Cup, Raheem Sterling was donning the white of England as they progressed to the semi-finals to play Croatia. And amidst the glum of England’s recent performances in past tournaments, this was a grand achievement created on the backdrop of Gareth Southgate’s mantras of progression and evolution, becoming a real international threat to the superpowers of Brazil, France, Germany.

In the tournament, Sterling didn’t score, had one assist – he set up Jesse Lingard for England’s third goal in their 6-1 triumph against Panama –  but played the supporting role to Harry Kane’s goal scoring spree like a director behind the scenes of the bigger picture: Kane receiving the accolades, Sterling quietly going about his day-to-day job, a darling of the team. To the fans that sang songs of praise to Southgate’s men, Sterling was just a part of the greater spectacle, a man of importance in England’s quest for meaning on the international scene.

When Sterling was playing for Manchester City in their 2-0 loss to Chelsea this past weekend, football’s not-so-endearing side reared its head in the shape of a few supporters who seemed to have forgotten which country he had represented in the summer. For a moment, it wasn’t Sterling the English player who went to retrieve the ball to the jeers of the home fans in the corner. This was Sterling, the mischievous player of colour who had a gun tattoo on his leg, who was known for walking to the shops with a harmful pair of car keys in his pocket.

Indeed, there seems to be two versions here: Sterling, the starlet for England, and Sterling the bad boy for City – the same person, but two different people, like a shape shifter who can be in two places at the same time.

As Sterling pointed out in his latest Instagram post, reactions such as the ones seen at Stamford Bridge are fueled by media outlets that allow stories to be published which paint an unwanted picture on players of colour that follow a series of stereotypes – expensive tastes in material possessions, quizzical haircuts and hard-to-control temperament.

Malcolm X may have been onto something when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Being a Zimbabwean of colour myself, who was given the privilege to attend one of the more affluent secondary schools in the country, I have experienced what it’s like to be in an environment where you want to feel like you belong, but having the same itchy feeling that in some alternate universe, this isn’t where you were supposed to be. It’s the reality that a number of people like Sterling have to face more often than they may like, more often than should be allowed.

It makes you wonder, even writing this piece, whether or not a potential employer or casual reader would create their opinions of my writing based on the colour of my skin, or the quality. What about the aspiring doctor or accountant or coach? Sol Campbell became the 8th black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) manager of the 92 teams in the Football League when he was appointed by Macclesfield Town. Where do we put this in the wider picture?

The opportunities for betterment and a chance to become more than just a statistic or questionable headline are there on paper, but the reality on the ground tells its own narrative.

And for all the narratives that are created in the life of Sterling, this season he has contributed eight goals and six assists so far, a handy return for a player who was written off before Pep Guardiola had his chance to sprinkle his magic dust and wave his wand. The touch has improved, the dribbling has more of a punch and the finishing and appreciation for players around him portrays a man feeling at home in Guardiola’s immediate plans at the Etihad Stadium.

For him, this is all that matters. His life has meaning, direction, a sense of purpose to become the best version of himself at a time when others may want to portray his worst.

Sterling’s reaction to the alleged abuse was something of a kick in the teeth for those that turn a blind eye to what matters most – a cheeky, glistening smile of fortitude rather than fear, a reaction many of colour would have appreciated or empathized with in the face of adversities and prejudice. Would the media twist this against him, too?

Because for those that strive to look beyond what’s in front of them, they realize that the energetic pre-Guardiola Raheem has worked hard to fine tune his game to become one of the very best that the Premier League, and England, has to offer at the moment. The same Raheem whose step-overs in the corner against Manchester United may not have received the same reaction if he was someone else.

And, here’s something to think about: if he or any other player of colour scores the winning goal or penalty kick that gifts England that yearned-for crowning instant in front of the watching world, at a World Cup or European Championship, then what? Do the English fans revel in his success, or forget that he is one of their own?

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. 

Eddie Howe and Bournemouth: A true love affair

After a season away from Bournemouth, Eddie Howe returned to impart his own ambitious touch that has led to steady growth over the years.

Eddie Howe looked into AFC Bournemouth’s eyes with a little sadness. His own playing career had come to a cruel and abrupt end, injury hampering his progress, so he was not ready to lose someone else to the cruel perils of football.

Bournemouth lay there, almost on borrowed time, a sense of uncertainty in the air. Howe could not let go; he could not just stand there and watch. He had to do something. “I’m not letting you give up on me that easily,” he said, clutching at Bournemouth’s right hand. “We’ll get you back on your feet, don’t you worry about that.”

It was January of 2009. Bournemouth had been forced into administration, with an accumulation of debt hovering around £4 million, starting the League Two season on -17 points. At the age of 31, Howe was the youngest manager in the Football League. He was Bournemouth through and through, having joined them at the age of 10, and it would have been heartbreaking to be the man who took the club to the Conference Division.

In their final home game of the season, to save their Football League existence, Bournemouth secured their survival by beating Grimsby Town 2-1 through a Steve Fletcher goal ten minutes from time. Sheer delirium and wild celebrations greeted the players as fans raced onto the pitch like a swarm of bees. It was the beginning of a brimming romance between Bournemouth and Howe, the sort of story that had you wondering how far this could last.

“Thank you, Eddie,” Bournemouth whispered, laying its head on Howe’s shoulder. “Without you, I don’t know where I’d be.”

They enjoyed a wonderful two-year period together, achieving promotion to League One in 2010 when many thought that stability would suffice. Nothing could stop them now. But, one night, something did not seem right. Howe seemed distant. “Is everything alright, Eddie?” There was no twinkle in his eyes, no endearing smile; just a plain face. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” he began, “but I have decided to join Burnley.”

Silence.

This was not a bad dream, or a bad joke. This was true. Howe was unveiled as the new Burnley manager in January 2011, an unexpected end to a flourishing relationship. But, even with the promise of a Burnley team moulded in the image of Howe, something just did not feel real. It was not what Howe wanted. He sat in his office a year on, a picture of Bournemouth in his hands. A tear fell from his face. He had to go back.

Howe Burnley
Eddie Howe during his short stint with Burnley.

They rekindled their spark after Howe left Burnley in 2011 amidst a feeling of emptiness. Bournemouth embraced Howe, scars still fresh but willing to give him another chance to prove his worth. Hard work, perseverance and most importantly, trust allowed Bournemouth to find themselves where they are today. “Pinch me,” Howe said, looking around the Vitality Stadium for their first game in the Premier League in 2015, “because this can’t be real.”

They lost the game 1-0 to Aston Villa, but that does not seem to matter anymore. It must still feel like a dream that many Bournemouth supporters would rather not wake up from.

The dismantling of Watford last weekend was their fifth win of the season so far. Their first goal, coming from a quick counter attack from deep within their own half, showed a level of attacking intent that embodies Howe’s philosophy to a tee: a fast breakaway, like a jet ripping through the baby blue sky, disturbing the peace and parting the clouds. Callum Wilson should have scored after a lung-busting run. David Brooks saved his blushes.

Bournemouth are now becoming an established Premier League side. Currently sitting in sixth place on the log, it is has been an extraordinary romantic drama filled with ebbs and flows, and the Howe-Bournemouth relationship now looks like a match made in heaven.

They have been well worth their lofty position so far, and under the guidance of a man who once said, “I wouldn’t want to be a manager if I changed what I believe in”, how ambitious are Bournemouth willing to be? After Burnley’s exploits last season in qualifying for the Europa League playoffs, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see Howe lead his team to a level of success that may not have been realistic a decade ago.

He leads the way for the new generation of English coaches trying to establish themselves in an environment that needs fresh ideas. Teams tend to look abroad for managerial quality, be it Spanish flair, Italian steel or German efficiency, when the solutions could be closer to home. It seems to be a risk to appoint someone from the pool of English coaches available, yet their philosophies may be as effective as the ones being brought in by their foreign counterparts.

When the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp decide to call it a night on their duties, where will the top teams look? With every appointment, success is not guaranteed. The idea that a manager needs trophies in his curriculum vitae to ensure progress is outdated thinking.

Looking over the town, on a warm spring night, Howe points out a shooting star. “Make a wish,” he pushes Bournemouth, a nervous smile evident as the star leaves a light trail. Could they not just stay in this moment forever?

Howe will not be getting carried away anytime soon, his sights firmly set on constantly improving. Time will tell if an elite club will be able to make the brave decision to appoint him, but for now, the honeymoon period on the south coast seems to be ongoing, and, in Bournemouth’s eyes, long may it continue.

Mohamed Salah’s exploits give hope to Africa’s youth

Following the Egyptian’s nomination for The Best FIFA Football Awards, the next African superstar lies in wait and dreams of a better life away from the continent.

On a sunny Monday morning at Belgravia Sports Club in Harare, grass glistening from the sun’s intense rays hitting the remaining dew drops that kissed the surface so delicately, a hundred or so youth players gathered for what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Word had spread that West Bromwich Albion would be sending one of their youth team coaches for a week-long programme that could potentially see a few of these players receiving the chance to impress on a bigger stage at the Hawthorns. Occasions like this do not come by often, so the mandate was clear: perform well and be noticed.

For many, especially those between the ages of 14 and 19, the journey here has been a difficult one. Waking up at 5:00am is imperative to ensure that they beat the early morning traffic that greets the streets of the Harare central business district. Spending just a dollar for transport almost feels like a selfish act, their parents or guardians struggling to earn a basic salary, but they too understand the importance of this occasion. The potential life that their son could have, living abroad, could be brighter than the beaming sunshine that greeted them on that very day.

There are also those that do not meet the criteria for the programme, above the recommended age of 19, who know that the window of opportunity is closing, and this could be their last chance at a new beginning for themselves and their families. Speaking to one of these players, who plays in the under-23 side for one of the top teams in the Zimbabwean league, you could sense the anxiety in his voice. “I know that my chances are slim here, but why not try and see what happens? Playing at my current club almost feels pointless. The coach rarely watches us, and most of the time, the club resorts to signing ready-made players because we are deemed unprepared for the first team.”

I noticed that he was wearing a Tottenham Hotspur jersey. “It was a gift from my uncle. I’ve supported them for a few years now. It would be wonderful to play for them one day.”

The connection between the African continent and the glitz and glam of the Premier League is a religious one. The colours of the top teams, with some interesting variants of green for Chelsea or yellow for Manchester United, are brandished by fans at the local bars or on the dust pitch. For some, the Premier League is all they know; mention Didier Drogba or Michael Essien and see the sparkle in their eyes, like a proud parent.

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Didier Drogba after winning the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea. Image: Wikimedia

The Premier League is a welcome escape from the ongoing harsh economic climate that seems to eat away at a better future for many. Currently, poverty in Africa is an illness that cannot be cured, and unfortunately, a blind eye is cast to what has become the norm for the greater population, a population brimming with potential.

For those that do not receive the opportunity to attend university and graduate to increase their chances at a better standard of living, or have wealthy parents that can support their endeavours, football is their last resort and hope. The development and growth of African football has largely been unsuccessful, with revenue streams from television rights and advertising almost at a pittance. Playing locally is not enough; the potential earnings that the players could receive are almost laughable compared to what they could earn from playing abroad.

This coming week, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah will be vying for the top spot against Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric at The Best FIFA Football Awards. Being recognised in the same breath as superstars such as Ronaldo and Modric is enough for the African continent to feel a sense of pride irrespective of the result. Who would have thought that the man struggling to break into Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side between 2014 and 2016 would be a shining beacon for African excellence in the hustle and bustle of the English game?

Salah’s season was a joy to behold. With a tally of 42 goals, a Champions League runners-up medal and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award, the Egyptian showed his undeniable qualities in every match more often than not, and was a vital part of Liverpool’s energetic attacking fluency. For those that still harbour the hopes of playing in the Premier League, his achievements still give them the belief that they, too, could be standing tall with the very best that the world can produce.

Stories of youth players taken abroad by unscrupulous agents are never too far from the news. The human trafficking of these players is made easier due to the naivety and desperation of these youths, most of them blinded by the bright lights that greet their hopeful eyes from the persuasive words of dubious middlemen. They are told that life abroad comes with well-paid contracts, fast cars and lavish lifestyles, but all they experience is heartbreak and broken promises.

To these agents, I ask you: have you no shame or semblance of emotion?

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Mohamed Salah in action for Liverpool. Image: Wikimedia

From the slums of Nepal to the heat of Turkey, the journey to the Premier League can be a gruelling and unforgiving affair. Many do not make it, left to fend for themselves, some resorting to a life of winning prize money in small knockout tournaments. Or worse, crime. With no hope of achieving their lifelong dream, they would rather re-apply yearly for their visas than make the journey back home where they could be ridiculed for not achieving what they set out to do.

That is why success stories such as Salah’s allow us to celebrate the positive side of the foreign experience for African footballers; all is not doom and gloom. The African continent wants its people to be seen as more than just a commodity, their humanness embraced and acknowledged. For the desperate African child who has suffered at the hands of inequality, who cries at the thought of another day without food or running water, Salah has shown us that there is indeed an escape from the harsh realities. The Premier League player market is saturated with footballers from across the globe, and many African youth players are not afforded the opportunity to showcase their talents so when one of Africa’s finest are recognised, the continent ululates and cheers them on.

Walking away from Belgravia Sports Club after the week-long programme in Harare, the sun setting as players from different walks of life smile and embrace the common language of football, it was a shame that many of them had to return to a life that they wish was not their own. At least they have Salah to be their symbol of aspiration for a better tomorrow.

Tottenham and Liverpool require crowning moments

Tottenham and Liverpool have become consistent, progressive sides under their current managers, but that may all prove futile if they cannot win major titles.

Giorgio Chiellini, chest puffed out and a hard night’s work visible from the sweat beaming from his forehead, made a very interesting point when speaking after their 2-1 victory against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last season. “It’s the history of Tottenham. They always create many chances and score so much but, in the end, they miss always something to arrive at the end.” Referring to the tie between Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain, in which Madrid won, he then stated that in competitions such as these, “the history it’s important and the experience is important.”

Mauricio Pochettino has received many plaudits, and rightfully so, for his ability to build a team that could be competitive and challenge for major honours. From being the outsider peering in from the wilderness to becoming a top four regular, Tottenham have made significant strides with minimal investment in their squad, compared to the other teams in the upper tier of the Premier League. For all of their attacking verve and industrious work rate, the most important takeaway for this team may be the experience gained, having endured a number of frustrating occasions where, with a little more big-game persona and know-how, they could have removed the “maybe men” monkey from their backs.

After their semi-final defeat at the hands of Manchester United in the FA Cup in April, their closest chance of collecting silverware in a season where they finished third and were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the early stages, questions still remain on their mental toughness in situations where successful teams like Juventus and Madrid thrive.

For them, ultimate success culminates in the addition of major honours season in, season out. In the modern age, success can also be seen in the development and improvement of players, as well as maintaining or growing revenue streams, platforms that allow the very top teams to compete on all fronts. However, when we compare the top sides, how much emphasis should we put on winning trophies and individual accolades as compared to, say, improving the style of play?

Pep Guardiola has been able to bring a clear identity to Manchester City as well as being triumphant in adding silverware to the growing trophy cabinet at the Etihad Stadium. Kyle Walker, a former Tottenham player, will be remembered as one of the players that improved under his guidance and is now a Premier League winner. Jose Mourinho, although criticised for his style of play and lack of player development, is a serial winner, and having added the Europa League and EFL Cup to United’s impressive trophy haul, would feel justified for performing better at his job in the face of those that would seem to suggest otherwise.

In football, those that come second become an after-thought, a co-star who plays a supporting role, whilst the main actor, the team that wins, soaks up all the applause and recognition.

This weekend, Liverpool are the visitors to Wembley Stadium and they, like Tottenham, are looking for that moment that will finally allow them to add some much-needed silverware to a project that has taken them to the final of the Champions League and the EFL Cup under Jurgen Klopp. The loss to Madrid, especially, would have been a bitter pill to swallow in a match where the footballing gods seemed to go against them, and if it was not for Mohamed Salah’s injury and Loris Karius’ mistakes, then Liverpool could be singing to a different tune.

As we enter the fifth game week of the season, this match already has the feel of a season-defining battle. Tottenham seemed to be laying down a marker after their win at Old Trafford, but for all of that hard work and ruthless finishing, the loss to Watford at Vicarage Road gave Pochettino’s critics the opportunity to remind us of his team’s occasional mental blockages.

Momentum is very important when setting the tone for the season, something that Liverpool have done with a 100% start, winning the sort of matches that might have derailed them in the past. The attacking potential in the team is frightening, having seen it in full thrust against a hapless West Ham United team, and for now, showing a grit and determination to grind out results whilst the team continues to gel can only bode well for them going forward.

For all of the improvements that both teams have made over the past four or so years, ultimately the cream of the crop are judged on their ability to grab the headlines and not just challenge for major trophies, but win them. What either of these teams can achieve this season is anyone’s prediction, and with the potential that each squad of players possesses, it is not unrealistic to expect one of them, at least, to have their name engraved in one of the numerous trophies that are on offer. No team wants to be remembered for their potential. Guardiola and Mourinho’s players have winning medals in their armoury; how many players at Tottenham or Liverpool can boast the same?

There must be a return on the investment and faith that has been placed on both these managers. The match at Wembley has all the ingredients to be an exciting affair. A win for either side might push them in the direction that could lead to a crowning moment that they so badly need.

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