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.
“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.
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.
This week a gentleman who I got to know on a personal level sadly passed away. On numerous occasions I met Dai Davies, the former Wales international goalkeeper, who played his club football for Everton, Swansea, Wrexham and Bangor City – and yes, there are many stories to tell.
I first saw Wales play back in 1973. It was at the Racecourse ground against Scotland, where Gary Sprake was in goal. Dai made his debut away against Hungary in April 1975 before going on to achieve 20 clean sheets in 52 appearances. Dai would only miss six out of the next 57 Wales matches.
By the time of the World Cup qualifier against the USSR at the Racecourse in 1980, I was old enough to attend the match by myself having also been to some friendlies against Northern Ireland and West Germany the previous year. Dai played in the USSR match, whilst another game I attended in which he played was the ill-fated floodlight failure match against Iceland at the Vetch in October 81. We drew 2-2 after being two-up before the floodlights went out. Dai retired from international football in 1982.
I can’t remember the exact year, but I was still in school and attended a football competition at Eirias Park, Colwyn Bay. Dai was in attendance doing some coaching. If you weren’t trying or interested he’d tell you in no uncertain terms. Later on I read his book called ‘Never Say Dai’, it was a great book; honest and funny and you came to the conclusion that he was a very determined character.
Despite his excellent displays at international level, he was sometimes criticised at club level unfairly in some quarters by dropping some crosses and was called Dai the drop but he always overcame the sceptical ones.
I then met Dai in a hotel in Villa Real, Portugal after the Wales friendly in Chaves. All the players and media were present and I was steaming to say the least. I introduced Dai to my friend as Dai the drop and to put it mildly he went ballistic. I made a hasty retreat.
Our paths crossed again when I was called to be a studio guest on the S4C football show ‘Sgorio’ alongside – yes, you’ve guessed it – Dai Davies.
He was already in the make-up room when I had to sit next to him to get my make-up done. He offered his big hand out to say hello and he said “have we met before?”. I said yes but I don’t want to tell you where, he smiled and said “oh, go on” – I preceded to say “nah, forget it”, he said “go on, I won’t bite you..”
I was thinking to myself “do I tell him?”, the whole night could then be a disaster, he could go ballistic, I then plucked up some courage and said “I called you Dai the drop in Portugal.”
It’s at this point he stopped the make-up woman, got up and gave me a big smile, laughed and shook my hand, “at least you told me to my face” he laughed.
Before, during and after the show he was the ultimate gentleman by guiding me through the night and telling me anytime you want some help or advice to just ask. That night summed him up – gwr bonheddig, a true gentleman.
We met on numerous occasions after that at Welsh Premier League games and he was an FAW guest at Cefn Druids when they started touring the country to meet fans; he was an excellent guest and had many a story to tell.
Sadly, the last time I saw him was a chance meeting in Llangollen. I’d stopped on a cycle ride in a shop and brought my bike inside the store. Dai was inside shopping and we greeted each other, but things took a turn for the worse when a shop assistant got angry about my bike being in the shop.
He came to my defence told me take my bike out and he duly paid for my goods, we then had a sit down outside putting the world to right. He asked if I wanted anything as I was far from home.. That is the final time I saw him and as usual he was a true gentleman.
“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.
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!”
“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.”
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.
“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!”
Chelsea Football Club over the last few years have had a nasty habit of sacking managers at a whim, but their latest sacking of fans favourite and club legend Frank Lampard seems very harsh.
This is especially the case when fans of other clubs leave you messages such as “madness”, “brutal” and “out of order”, it’s at this point you realise that the club make such decisions without even thinking about fan opinion – the ruthless truth being that football is now sadly but a business.
Looking back in time, another excellent manager in the making, Eddie Mcreadie, left the club in 1977 and fans were also seething back then, and to be honest the club didn’t recover until the arrival of probably our best manager (not the most successful) John Neal in May 1981.
Things didn’t start well for Neal. We nearly got relegated to the then Third Division until a Clive Walker goal at Bolton Wanderers gave us a 1-0 win to save us the heartache. Then to his credit, then Chairman Ken Bates backed Neal in the summer of ‘83 with some superb signings bringing in Pat Nevin, Joe McLaughlin and Nigel Spackman, all relative unknowns at the time, whilst also adding Welsh Goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki and Kerry Dixon.
Neal had an eye for talent and the 1983/84 season was the beginning of our revival and, for some of a certain age, probably our best season ever culminating in gaining promotion to the 1st Division. Sadly Neal had to step aside in the summer of 1985 due to illness and again the club took a long time to recover – oh what might have been.
The arrival of Glenn Hoddle revitalised the club but he left to take the England job in 1996 – since then our managers have rarely lasted more than a few seasons, with Ranieri nearly completing four.
Chelsea fans thought they got the real deal when 18 months ago we appointed Frank Lampard. Enough was enough of the managerial merry go round, and this was the appointment where we could settle down and surely give a club legend, who had been learning his trade at Derby County, that word which does not resonate in a Chelsea boardroom – time.
I’d really like to get into that boardroom and find out what they really want from a manager say season by season. There’s the League Cup, FA Cup, possibly a European trophy and the Premier League, whilst not forgetting the all-important Top 4. There’s not much to go around is there!
Some fans want to win trophies, with some thinking this is a must or they’ll desert the club, whilst some want to see entertaining football. Others want runs in the European competitions, whilst some are content just to support the club whatever they achieve.
Therefore in his first season in charge, Frank Lampard achieves a top 4 finish and an FA Cup final without being able to sign players, he then gets handed a lot of money, splashes the cash and come December we’re top of the Premier League and still in Europe.
A month later we’re ninth, some of his big money singings have been poor to say the least but we’re still in Europe and the FA Cup with a manager who’s still learning the job, so what exactly do the board want?
Whilst manager of Derby County, he took Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori on loan and in his first season at Chelsea had to play youngsters due to the transfer ban imposed on the club. This is what the fans wanted to see, academy players coming through the system and thriving; Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Callum Hudson–Odoi.
Things haven’t since turned out well for Fikayo Tomori after such a promising start. He recently joined AC Milan on loan but Mason Mount has excelled under Lampard and was handed the captaincy on Sunday against Luton Town in the FA Cup. Maybe Lampard was being sentimental in giving Mount the armband, maybe he knew his time was up.
Personally I want someone who identifies with the club, Jose Mourinho did the first time and Antonio Conte did briefly. Fans disliked Rafa Benitez because of his Liverpool links and things he’d said, Maurizio Sarri was just Sarri, no charisma no interest in gaining a rapport with the fans. However, Frank was our man.
Who can forget how he celebrated at Tottenham. Jurgen Klopp has entrenched and endeared himself with the Liverpool way. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a Manchester United legend and currently the club seem happy with him. Mikel Arteta was toast before Christmas but has since turned things around to a degree, whilst Pep Guardiola is still comfortable at the Etihad despite failing to win the UEFA Champions League.
Now confirmed as our new manager is former Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and PSG coach Thomas Tuchel who according to some reports won’t take orders from above and is a control freak – that augurs well for the future, although I wish him all the best.
Fans are fickle and no manager, player, boardroom member is bigger than the club so fans will move on. At the end of the day there’ll be a split – some will not accept Tuchel due to their loyalty to Lampard, whilst others won’t accept him as he possibly won’t buy into the club. Some won’t care as long as he wins those coveted trophies – but what if he doesn’t?
It’s just a shame that currently fans aren’t allowed in the ground as things could be hostile towards our beloved board members.
I wish the board would be open and honest with us the fans, being clear as to the bare minimum he has to achieve. I wonder if, say, in another 18-months, we still haven’t lifted the Premier League or Champions League, which Tuchel has failed to do thus far – what fate then awaits him?
As football continues to be played behind closed doors, Tommie Collins looks into whether the special connection between us football fans, our teams and the beloved game is slowly being lost, or was it in fact already lost some time ago..
Do you remember the very first time you attended a football match in the flesh? Was it a relative who took you or were you old enough to go on your own?
In the early seventies, I remember my uncle taking me down the Traeth to see Porthmadog in pre-season friendlies against Tranmere Rovers and Stoke City. He also took to my first ever Wales game at the Racecourse circa ’73, then to see Chelsea for the first time at Hereford circa ‘76.
These are all good memories since replicated with my kids. Taking my daughter aged two to Villa Park for the last game of the season which Chelsea drew, I remember holding her hand walking up the steps through the tunnel. When witnessing the vast stadium, she stopped and kneeled down seemingly in awe at the stadium. I then took my two boys to their first games at Torquay and Blackburn Rovers respectively. Another highlight for me was taking my eldest lad, then age six, to Marseille circa ’99. That I tell you was an experience and a half.
He also came with me aged 10 to the Parc des Princes to see PSG V Chelsea. These games made my kids the fans of today, going to Wales away matches and the occasional Chelsea match.
Yet why the ‘occasional’ match I hear you ask. Well, time has since seen the experience change with the abundance of live televised games. The odd live game here and there was all well and good. Then with the creation of the Premier League in 1992 came higher ticket prices which prompted the loyal travelling fan to question whether he could afford going, especially with the way it has since developed with silly kick-off times on any day of the week.
Many fans soon realised that they weren’t worthy pundits no more and that the game was in fact being turned into a TV event for the armchair fan, where pubs would be packed to the rafters.
Then with social media since coming into play it really has gone global. We all remember your club having a supporter’s branch in Wales, Ireland, Australia and the USA. Now any person in any country is blessed with a platform to give their own wonderful insight worldwide. Everyone has something to say and an opportunity to be heard which leads to outrage on social media sites.
The old school supporter who got priced out of the game still supports their club and will still go when finances and transport allow. However, the global fan who might be based on the other side of the globe will do nothing but decry the old fan. They spout they are as much of a fan due to getting up at a god forsaken time to complain or lament a manager who possibly won the league the previous May, or who might be a club legend (i.e. Frank Lampard) but according to them he is already burnt toast.
Looking ahead to this upcoming summer’s Euro 2020/21 Championships, currently planned to take place across 12 different countries, this despite being in the midst of a global pandemic.
On 5 March, an announcement will be made on how many fans can attend or whether they will be held behind closed doors – actually, let’s just call it football without fans. Only last week UEFA offered to refund supporters if they didn’t/couldn’t attend this year, but why now? Why not wait until after 5 March to see what that announcement brings, or leave it until April even, where the vaccine situation could have changed things dramatically.
The pandemic has led to enough games being played in empty stadiums worldwide. Being at a live game allows you to criticise loudly, support and go ballistic when your team scores. One of my most recent games before the pandemic was Tottenham away at the their excellent new stadium. Chelsea came out on top and, even at my age, it meant something to be present.
“The game was made for supporters to attend, not for a watching TV audience which sadly it has since become.”
The train journey down, socialising pre-match, the buzz entering the ground, jumping like a madman when we scored, even at home watching Wales or Chelsea I could get emotional with a crowd there, but now I like many others sit there unattached, hardly watching the game.
Additionally, for years now there’s been a live game almost every night – it has been saturated to the point where I rarely watch a live game unless it involves Wales or Chelsea. But to the armchair fan, it’s sheer bliss and for UEFA to even contemplate playing the Euros without fans is nothing short of scandalous.
Ah but you might say ‘they’ve already cancelled it once remember therefore needs be’, so what – why won’t they cancel it again until 2022, then move the Qatar World Cup (another thorny issue in my backside) back another year. The game was made for supporters to attend, not for a watching TV audience which sadly it has since become.
When UEFA’s inevitable ‘behind closed doors’ announcement comes on 5 March, I will then reluctantly watch the televised games at the Euros. However, I already know I just won’t be able to celebrate the same as if I was there.
Is it just me? Is it my age? Is it that I was brought up in the pre-live game era? Whatever it is, it’s currently a dismally soulless experience
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.
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.
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.
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.
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