Monday, 27 April 2009

Ryan Giggs - Deserving Player of the Year?

Ryan Giggs, who has collected every single major honour there is to collect in football in his 799 appearances for Manchester United, tonight, picked up the one honour that has eluded him in his 18 years in football; The Professional Football Association Player of the Year. 

The majority would agree that Giggs is a deserving winner of the award, recognition for his years of service and his level of consistency over nearly two decades at United, but there are some people who feel that Giggs isnt't deserving of the award, especially considering that he has only started 12 Premier League games this season, scoring just once, against West Ham United in February. 

When you look at the stats for the season though, and all seven competitions that Giggs and United have competed in, the 36 year old Welshman's contribution has been useful at the very least. 

Despite his lack of league starts this season, Giggs has played some part in 24 league games, eight Champions League ties, four League Cup ties, two FA Cup ties and in the Community Shield, a total of 38 matches, not bad for a player, who Sir Alex Ferguson said, would be used as a bit part player this season, in the twilight years of his career. 

Not to take anything away from Giggs, as a Manchester United fan I am doubly proud of him and his achievement, but you may want to take into consideration when the PFA vote was February; When did Giggs score his one and only league goal of the February, catch my drift?!

Out of the hundreds of players from top to bottom of the football league, there must have been a few who had Giggs', then recent goal, against West Ham, fresh in the memory banks, and thought I'll vote for him. 

The Welsh Wizard, who has terrorized defences for 18 years, scored in every single Premier League season, won 21 major honours at club level and made the most appearances for Manchester United in the club's history, is undoubtedly one of the best players to ever grace the Premier League. 

As for being player of the season, I have my reservations, but if there is anyone who deserves it based on what they have brought to the game as a whole, then Ryan Giggs's name is certainly worth a shout. 

Whether he does or doesn't make his 800th appearance for Manchester United in Wednesdays Champions League Semi Final tie against Arsenal remains to be seen, what is certain is that he will surpass that milestone and continue to extend his record for at least another year at Old Trafford. 

For now though, this is a chance for all of us to salute a magnificent servant of British football, and congratulate him on winning the PFA Player of the Year Award, whatever the reasons may be. 

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Tractor Boy Keane

In the last few hours it was announced that former Sunderland Manager, and former Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and Celtic midfielder, Roy Keane, is to be the new manager at Championship side Ipswich Town.

The appointment comes less than 24 hours after Jim Magilton was shown the door at Portman Road and the owner of the club, Marcus Evans, is sure that the appointment of Keane is what the club needs to gain promotion to the Premier League next season, after missing out on a playoff place this time around. 

Evans said that "he (Keane) has extensive contacts in the game and is a proven winner."

Proven winner is certainly one way of describing the Irishmen, who, as a player, won 13 major honours during his time at Manchester United, and two further honours during his brief stint at Celtic. 

His managerial record in the Championship, also, commands respect. 

Sunderland, at the time of Keane's appointment, were second bottom of the Championship after losing four of their first five games of the season, but Keane managed to propell the Black Cat's to the Championship Title that season, his first in management. 

Sunderland and Ipswich Town though are two contrasting teams. Sunderland are surrounded by massive sports teams and have a core following of fans that fill their 40,000 plus stadium every week. 

Sunderland had also just come down from the Premier League the season before, so had a squad that was always going to challenge at Championship level, and with the parachute payments to boot. 

Ipswich have been in the Championship now since they were relegated from the Premier League back in 2002, the parachute payments have dried up, but in the shape of their new owner Evans, they have a man who is willing to support his manager financially, if required. 

Roy Keane's task, which is ulitmately to take Ipswich back into the Premier League, is far from a straight forward bet. Ipswich will certainly not be in the top two in the betting stakes next season when deciding who may go up. 

In Ipswich though, Keane has a club that will back their manager financially, has a good infastructure and a decent set of players that the manager can work with. Having money to hand though hasnt always proved profitable under a Keane regime.

Before departing Sunderland this season, Keane had spent millions on players like Craig Gordon and Anton Ferdinand with little effect, and Queens Park Rangers are a proven case that money cant always buy you success in the Championship, although whats going on there is more a kin to a scene from the Italian version of Eastenders. 

Keane will certainly galvanise the club and the players, and with the season yet to finish he also has the luxury of looking at his current crop of players before deciding who he wants to keep for next season, and with 15 players' contracts up for renewel at the end of the season it's not going to be too difficult to trim the squad if Keane feels the need to. 

The appointment of Keane is a massive coup for Ipswich Town and there is no doubting his credentials as a manager, having taken Sunderland up to the Premier League and keeping them there, but with the Championship getting tougher by the season will Ipswich be able to wriggle their way into the Championship race, with the likes of West Brom, Middlesbrough (potentially) and Newcastle United (potentially) all fighting for their place back amongst the elite?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

14 Irishmen, 13 Welshmen, 8 Englishmen and 2 Scots. The British and Irish Lions

Today the squad for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, which starts next month, was announced, and it wasnt much of a surprise that the Irish and Welsh were most represented in the squad of 37, picked by Wasps director of rugby Ian McGeechan.

With memories of 1997 and Jeremy Guscott's vital drop goal in South Africa still fresh for most, especially the captain on that occasion, England Coach Martin Johnson, it may surprise you somewhat that that was the last Lions tour victory, a staggering 12 years ago. 

As mentioned it was no surprise that the grand slam champions, from this year’s Six Nations and last year's, provided the majority of the squad, with Irish second rower Paul O'Connell being given the honour of captaining the side out in South Africa. 

Naturally, when facing the current World Champions, there are many questions that can be asked of the Lions squad, but the one that keeps cropping up the most is the question of whether the team are strong enough to out muscle the spring boks, who's main threats come from the likes of Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger. 

Lions coach, Graham Rowntree, certainly believes that the squad is a physical one, saying that "it's important we took some physical animals, because that’s what South Africa are."

Another question is whether this group of players can gel and play together as a unit in time to not only compete with the world champions, but try and beat them in their own back yard.

The players have seven weeks before the start of the tour, and will be playing a host of warm up matches before going into the three match series with South Africa, but can O’Connell, McGeechan and his men come together to produce a performance ala 97?

Being called up as a Lion is one of the biggest honours that could be bestowed on a rugby player, and with all these players playing alongside each other in league and international action, gelling and knowing how one another plays shouldn’t be an issue, but as we have seen in football, knowing each other inside and out isn’t always what’s required when playing alongside each other, just look at Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard for England.

Tour manager Gerald Davies was confident in his summation of the situation when he said that "they might hail from four different countries but on tour they will play for the one jersey, one philosophy, one style and have one ambition: to return home as winners."

There is no doubting that the 37 face a gargantuan task taking on the spring boks in South Africa, but the group of players selected are the best of British and hope to once again come back victorious, for the first time in over a decade.

The tour starts on Saturday 30th May with a match against Highveld XV at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, North West Province, finishing off on Saturday 4th July with the third and final test match against South Africa at Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg. 

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Manchester United's Wembley Jinx

As a Manchester United fan and a fan of a good old stat, it was quite easy to figure out that Manchester United aren't very good at putting the ball in the back of the net at the new Wembley. 

Question is, why?

In five visits to the new 'home of football' United have scored just once, against Chelsea in the Community Shield in 2007 (Finished 1-1, United winning 3-0 on penalties). 

But in their four other visits, against Chelsea (FA Cup Final - Lost 0-1), Portsmouth (Community Shield 2008 - Won 3-1 on penalties), Tottenham (League Cup Final - Drew 0-0 AET, won 4-1 on penalties) and in today's FA Cup Semi Final defeat to Everton (Finished 0-0 AET, Everton won 4-2 on penalties) they havent been able to register a single goal in any of those outtings. 

You would have thought that for a team littered with star studed players, that have played on the biggest stages all over the world, in the worlds biggest competitions, that playing at Wembley would be right up their street.

That philosophy may not have applied so much to the team that faced the Toffee's this afternoon, as Manchester United were far from full strength, but take nothing away from Everton, as you can only beat what's put in front of you. 

But why does a club the stature of Manchester United seem the falter under the pressure put on them of the new Wembley?

The problem with that is that there is no real answer, you can look at things like the state of the pitch, maybe something as simple as the big occasion being too much for the men in red?!

The state of the pitch has quite often been at the forefront of managers press conferences the days leading up to matches at Wembley, and Arsene Wenger was very quick to bemoan the state of the hallowed turf after his Arsenal side fell to defeat, in the other Semi Final, against Chelsea.

I don't want to sound bitter through that previous statement, so to make it fair, he did comment on it before the game also.  

By all accounts Manchester United have a decent record at Wembley, winning 3 times in 5 visits, but its the one goal scored that is a red light that will certainly be flashing in my mind the next time United step out at Wembley, which wont be on May 30th. 

For now though it's going to be an all blue final, and Im going to take this opportunity to wish both Everton and Chelsea good luck and hope that they can make it an FA Cup Final to remember. 

As for the question I've posed here, if there is anyone out there who has an idea as to why the Red Devils are scared of the Wembley nets, please, let me know. 

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Wembley Semi Finals?

This weekend see's the FA Cup come to the Semi Final stage with Arsenal taking on Chelsea and Manchester United taking on Everton, but these matches will be being played at Wembley, which many view as taking away some of the glamour of reaching the Final itself. 

In days gone by Arsenal and Chelsea would be playing at Old Trafford, and Manchester United and Everton would be playing at Villa Park. 

At this stage of the competition its only right that the games are played at neutral venues, but playing them at Wembley surely diminishes the prize of reaching a Wembley final?

Reaching Wembley and playing in an FA Cup final at the spiritual home of football used to be the be all and end all for millions of football players, not just in England, but from all over the world, and in recent years the passion and the glory of the FA Cup has been in question as teams prioritise their league status over a good cup run. 

There are plenty of top quality stadia that could be used as neutral venues and the games themeselves would be just as good a showpeice at places like The Emirates, Old Trafford, Anfield, St James Park and so on. For the FA though none of these venues have the moentary potential that Wembley has, as more seats means more tickets and more money. 

There is no doubt that it is a good day out at Wembley, but for fans of Manchester United and Everton in particular a long trip down to London when they could be playing in Birmingham is not always going to be preferred. 

Arsene Wenger a few years back complained that by having their Semi Final at a smaller venue than Wembley, meant that fewer fans were able to get tickets, which is a valid point, but there are big enough venues all over the country that can catter for big matches like these, and you can bet your life on the fact that these 'smaller' venues would not have a third of their seats being taken my corporate big wigs. 

Which ever way you cut it, with Wembley giving a third of their tickets to corporations, wherever the Semi Finals are played the maximum amount of fans for each side is going to be around the 30,000 mark, so why not save Wembley for the bigger occasion, and make a Wembley final a special occasion for all?

Friday, 17 April 2009

Transition Time: Murray on Clay

Today's 7-6(11) 6-4 win over Fabio Fognini for the British number one, wouldnt of sent that many shockwaves throughout British tennis, but for Andy Murray himself, it was one of the few things that the Scot hasnt yet achieved so far in his career. 

By beating the 108th ranked Italian, Murray reached the Quarter Finals of a clay court event, for the first time in his career. 

Clay is by far and away Murray's weakest surface, which is somewhat of a surprise considering the years spent at the Sanchez Casal academy that were spent while in his primiative years. 

Though he is likely to come unstuck in his Quarter Final against Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, Murray can still be pleased with his progress at Monte Carlo, in a pivotal part of his season if he is to push up the rankings and make a challenge towards the top two. 

Murray had an indifferent clay court season last year, and its because of this that means that any decent performances will still count for a lot, as the man directly above him in the rankings, Novak Djokovic has a fair few more points to defend, and you would expect that it is only a matter of time before we have a Brit inside the top three of the mens rankings, for the first time in the open era.  

The clay court season is a long and ardous one, and if your of the mind set that Murray has a chance of winning in Paris at the end of next month, think again. 

Nadal will win the French Open (providing he doesnt go and break his leg, even then I would still fancy him against most), he's looked unstopable and even the best of the best on clay have been made to bow down to the mercurial Nadal on the red stuff. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Murray will one day win a grand slam, it may even be as soon as July at Wimbledon, but on the clay of Roland Garros a 4th round showing or even a repeat of his performance last year where he reached the 3rd round will still be a good showing for the Brit, in this transition stage of the season, where results are not going to reflect his massive improvement or his ranking, but the results he does manage to pick up will make a massive difference in rankings terms at the very least.