Month: May 2012

Cole Uses Champions League to Pronounce World Class Quality

Ashley Cole is a player who has often been in the headlines. Whether it was for his personal relationship and its breakdown, his on-the-pitch exploits, his training ground air rifle incident, being banned from driving or his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006 he has often dominated front and back pages of the national newspapers.

He burst onto the scene as a professional footballer with Arsenal in the 2000/2001 season, profiting from an injury to Silvinho to show his promise in the Gunners’ first team. He made 228 appearances for Arsenal before eventually signing for Chelsea in August 2006, after a drawn-out affair that involved a ‘tapping-up’ meeting with Chelsea officials in January 2005.

England

He has been a regular in the England set-up since his debut in 2001 and has virtually been an automatic pick for most of the last 11 years. His time with England has also had its ups and downs for Cole. At one time he was booed by England fans at a few home matches at Wembley. And comments that came out in the media quoting Cole as saying “I hate England and the people” didn’t help his cause in 2010. But he has always performed fairly well for England. Perhaps giving his best performances in recent years as he has grown and improved as a player. His athleticism was always strength of his as a youngster, but now he has fused that with excellent positioning, one-on-one defending and timing of his tackles.

Medals

After winning 5 major trophies (excluding the Community Shield) in his 6 full seasons at Arsenal, he has surpassed that in his first 6 seasons at Chelsea with the Champions League winners triumph on Saturday being the 7th major competition’s winners medal he has picked up in that time. Whilst surprisingly he won more Premier League winners medals at Arsenal than he has thus far with Chelsea (two to one), the Champions League victory and the fact that Arsenal haven’t won a single trophy since he left should eliminate any doubt that he made the right decision to switch from North London to West London 6 years ago.

Improvement

There is also no question that Cole has improved as a player as a result of his time at Chelsea. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger are said to spend very limited time working on defending in training, which can only be to the detriment of young defenders like Cole was at the time. At Chelsea he has worked under Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink – all known for being fantastic coaches and all known for having well-organised defences. Cole has reaped the rewards of this and has obviously been keen to improve. The young marauding left-back we saw at Arsenal is now a solid, reliable left-back who is rarely beaten, both in the air and on the ground. He still gets forward to support attacks but chooses the time to do it more effectively to ensure it doesn’t imbalance the team or leave them too exposed at the back. He has come up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben and Theo Walcott, all offering different problems, and has not been outclassed in any of those battles.

Champions League Stage for Excellence

The 2011/2012 season has been a dramatic one for Cole. Chelsea struggled for form under previous manager Andre Villas-Boas in the first half of the season. Cole found himself out of the team as Villas-Boas seemed to want to re-build the Chelsea team with younger players. A key match for Cole was the Champions League second round 1st leg away to Napoli. Cole was left on the bench, along with other experienced players, but was called upon just 12 minutes in when Jose Bosingwa limped off injured. Chelsea went down 3-1 that night in Naples but Cole made a crucial goal-line clearance to keep the score at 3-1. By the time the second leg came around, Villas-Boas had been replaced as manager by interim boss Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian restored faith in the senior professionals and they all starred in a brilliant 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge to ensure progress to the quarter finals.

Two brilliant defensive performances against Benfica in the quarter-finals were followed by two world class performances against Barcelona in a dramatic two-legged semi-final. Cole was exceptional at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea defeated the holders 1-0 thanks to Didier Drogba’s goal. He was then faultless in the Nou Camp as ten-man Chelsea fought off wave after wave of Barcelona pressure to draw 2-2 and make the final.

In front of a worldwide audience in the UEFA Champions League Final of 2012, Ashley Cole confirmed his standing as a truly world class left-back with another master class performance at full-back. Facing the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lahm, Cole was rarely beaten, made another key goal-line clearance and was fantastic as Chelsea soaked up almost constant pressure from Bayern Munich to take the game to a penalty shoot-out. Cole showed nerves of steel to score a penalty in the shoot-out and help his side on the way to the trophy that has eluded them since Roman Abramovich began to plough his millions into the club in 2003. Whilst he is not perfect and could improve on his delivery into the box when in good positions to cross, he has developed over the years to the point where he can now be considered one of the best left-backs in world football.

Picture courtesy of fansfc.com.

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Vardy Transfer Shows Continued Growth of Non-League Football

Jamie Vardy’s £1million transfer from Fleetwood Town to Leicester City this week emphasises the growth and development of non-league football in England. More and more players are successfully making the step up from non-league and this is a credit to how non-league football, and in particular the Blue Square Bet Premier Division, is improving. The fact that an increasing number of Football League clubs are paying large transfer fees to sign these players is evidence that the clubs in the Football League are fully aware of it too.

Vardy (above) is the latest non-league player to move for big-money after several deals in the last few years, although this eclipses all of those in terms of the transfer fee. Although Fleetwood finished the season as Champions of the Blue Square Bet Premier Division, Vardy is a player who has previously only played at non-league level. The pacey 26 year old was only signed by Fleetwood in August 2011 for an initial fee of around £150,000 from FC Halifax. Now, after scoring 34 goals in 40 games in a fantastic season, he steps up to the Championship with Leicester in a deal that not only rises to £1.7million with add-ons, it will also see his former club Halifax profit to the tune of another £200,000-plus after bonus add-ons and a sell-on clause in the deal that took him to Fleetwood a year ago.

So now we take a look at other players that have been involved in expensive transfers from non-league clubs in the last few years.

When Crawley Town signed Richard Brodie from York City for £275,000 in August 2010, it set the record for the highest transfer fee paid between non-league clubs. Brodie had just come off the back of a magnificent season for York in which he hit 34 goals as York made the play-offs, where they would eventually lose to Oxford. Brodie never completely settled at Crawley and was in and out of the team, but did manage 11 goals as they marched towards the Blue Square Bet Premier Division title that season. The following season he was loaned out to Fleetwood Town. At Fleetwood he appeared from the substitutes bench more times than he started, as he found himself to be second choice to the prolific Vardy and the impressive Andy Mangan. He did manage 9 goals to contribute to Fleetwood’s successful title-winning season, but it is unknown what his future holds.

Crawley also paid £100,000 to Alfreton Town before the start of the 2010/2011 season, for the services of centre-back Kyle McFadzean. McFadzean was a key figure in Crawley’s promotion and remained an integral part of the team that won a second successive promotion to earn a place in League One.

That wasn’t the only significant transfer income that Alfreton received that season. In January 2011, Swindon Town paid Alfreton, then of the Blue Square Bet North Division, a fee of around £150,000 for defender Aden Flint. Flint struggled to break into the Swindon team immediately as they fought a relegation battle in League One. He was loaned back to Alfreton in March and captained the side as they were crowned Champions to earn promotion the Blue Square Bet Premier Division for the first time in their history. Flint has since become a regular in the Swindon side that finished as Champions of League Two, meaning he will now play in League One for the first time in his career next season.

When Flint arrived back at Swindon for pre-season training in July 2011, he was joined by another player that Swindon plucked from non-league. This time it was Grimsby Town striker Alan Connell. Connell (below) had previously played in the Football League for Bournemouth, Brentford, Hereford and Torquay. But he had the best goalscoring season of his career for Grimsby, scoring 29 goals in all competitions for a side that finished 11th in the league. Swindon boss Paolo Di Canio paid the Mariners a fee believed to be £150,000 to add him to a healthy choice of strikers that meant Connell wasn’t the automatic pick that he had been at Grimsby. He did manage to score 13 goals to play his part in the title-winning season that means he will once again play at League One level.

Wrexham’s season-long battle with Fleetwood at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier Division was interrupted in the January transfer window when Premier League Swansea City lodged a bid for Curtis Obeng. Swansea paid around £200,000 for the defender, who has yet to make an appearance at the Liberty Stadium. But at the age of 23 he has time on his side in his quest to become a regular fixture in the Swansea team.

Newport County received £200,000 from two separate transfers within 6 months of each other in 2011. In the January of that year, Stevenage paid £100,000 for striker Craig Reid. Reid had enjoyed a blistering start to the season that saw him score 18 goals in his 29 league game for County. He only scored twice for Stevenage during the rest of the season but managed 7 goals in his 29 games the following season in League One. Newport received their second £100,000 windfall when Blackpool signed defender Paul Bignot in July 2011. Bignot is yet to make an appearance for Blackpool and was loaned out to Plymouth during the season.

Stevenage’s capture of Craig Reid was their second signing from non-league in recent seasons. In May 2010 they paid Ebbsfleet United £100,000 for defender Darius Charles. Charles had famously signed for Ebbsfleet after his release from Brentford in 2009, when the community-owned club’s members raised the £25,000 compensation fee and voted in favour of him signing – the first transfer of this nature. Charles has made 56 appearances in his two years at Stevenage and played in the League Two play-off final at Old Trafford in his first season with The Boro, which secured promotion to League One.

One player has been involved in two decent-sized transfers from non-league clubs in recent years is George Donnelly. The striker, now playing at Rochdale, signed for Fleetwood in January 2011 for a fee of £50,000. He scored 5 goals in his 25 appearances for Fleetwood, but soon found himself behind new arrivals Jamie Vardy, Andy Mangan, Richard Brodie as well as Magno Vieira in the pecking order at The Highbury Stadium. Donnelly was initially loaned out to Macclesfield and was later bought by the League Two side for £75,000, who will ironically now pass his former side on the way down to non-league after their relegation to the Blue Square Bet Premier Division.

Two players that left the non-league scene for sizeable transfer fees in 2011 were Tom Naylor and Alex Rodman. Defender Naylor joined Derby County, initially on loan with a view to a permanent deal. Derby boss Nigel Clough liked what he saw of the youngster and The Rams eventually paid Mansfield a fee thought to be £100,000 in January 2012. Tamworth forward Rodman joined League Two side Aldershot Town for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £75,000. The versatile midfielder/striker scored a hat-trick for Tamworth in a 3-2 win against Newport on the 11th of January, 2011. The following day, Newport Manager Dean Holdsworth left to take over as Manager of Aldershot and had obviously been impressed by Rodman’s hat-trick exploits as he signed just two weeks after taking over as manager of The Shots.

Now to a player perhaps more commonly recognised than some of the names above – Lee Novak. Novak (above) signed for Huddersfield from Gateshead in January 2009 for an initial fee of £50,000 after scoring an incredible 16 goals in the first 18 games of the season. The arrangement of the transfer saw Novak loaned back to Gateshead where he took his total for the season to 26 goals in 32 games as The Heed finished in 2nd place in the Blue Square Bet North Division and won promotion via the play-offs to the Blue Square Bet Premier Division. His subsequent number of appearances for Huddersfield have seen another £100,000 go Gateshead’s way in the form of appearance-related add-ons, taking the total transfer value to £150,000. Novak isn’t quite as prolific in League One with Huddersfield, but his strength is important to Huddersfield and he helps the likes of Jordan Rhodes to shine.

Another player who has played for a few league clubs, including Peterborough at Championship level, since rising from non-league, is Exodus Geohaghon. Geohaghon was signed by Peterborough in January 2010. After playing under Mark Cooper at Kettering for 15 months, Cooper had left Kettering in November 2009 to take over at Peterborough. Two weeks after taking the reins at Peterborough, Cooper moved to sign Geohaghon on loan from his former club, with a view to a permanent deal in the transfer window. Sure enough, in the January transfer window of 2010, Geohaghon signed for The Posh for a fee of around £150,000. He then had several loan spells after falling out of favour at Peterborough following Cooper’s departure. He left Peterborough in 2011, had spells at Barnet and Darlington (again under Mark Cooper, before he was sacked as manager) before finishing the season on loan at Mansfield. He is now a free agent.

Finally, I think it is necessary to give an honorary mention to Matt Tubbs. Whilst Tubbs (below) wasn’t signed from non-league to get his chance in the Football League, he had only been out of non-league for 6 months by the time he was signed by Bournemouth for a massive £800,000 fee. He was a prolific goalscorer for Salisbury City before Crawley paid £55,000 for him to join their promotion challenge in 2010. By the end of the 2010/2011 season Tubbs had hit an amazing 40 goals in 48 matches to fire Crawley into League Two as Champions of the Blue Square Bet Premier Division. Then half-way through his first ever season out of non-league, by which time he had already bagged 18 goals in 31 games, Bournemouth swooped in and smashed their transfer record to sign the 27 year old striker.

Pictures courtesy of dailymail.co.uk, examiner.co.uk and bestofthebets.com. 

Puyol Puts English Stars to Shame by Valuing Team before Ego

Recent days have seen Barcelona Captain Carlos Puyol rule himself out of contention for Spain’s Euro 2012 campaign. And whilst most people won’t think anything more of it, the Spaniard’s thought process here should be a lesson to England and some of their star players’ attitudes in previous years.

Firstly, Puyol is injured. He picked up a knee injury in a recent game against Espanyol and has been advised he will be out of action for six weeks. It may seem common sense that he would miss out on this summer’s international tournament. But when you think back to England’s World Cup campaign in 2002 it was a different story when one of the supposed “Golden Generation” picked up an injury in the months leading up to the tournament. When an Aldo Duscher (then of Deportivo La Coruna) tackle caused injury to David Beckham’s metatarsal bone in his foot, there was no suggestion in England that it might be better for a player in first-class condition to go to the tournament in his place.

Instead, the next couple of months of British media was dominated by the embarrassing long drawn-out saga of whether Beckham would be fit in time, reporting his every visit to a physio and front page headlines in tabloid newspapers wishing for his foot to recover in time. This could lead to another debate of how the British media consistently over-hype and build up players into “stars”, which then contributes to the “disaster” story of one of them being injured. But sticking with the topic, Beckham fought hard to get himself fit for the tournament. There is no criticism for this in itself, as you would expect any professional to do the same. What you would also expect though, when the time comes for the tournament squad to be announced, is that there would be a bigger emphasis placed on the team as a whole, a bit more honesty and a lot more common sense. Beckham went to Japan and South Korea and captained the squad despite being no-where near fully fit. It showed in his performances. He earned praise for scoring a penalty against Argentina in the Group Stage but bottled a challenge in the build-up to Brazil’s equalising goal against England in the Quarter-Final.

Beckham isn’t alone in terms of English players that have gone to a tournament without being 100% fit. Wayne Rooney suffered a foot injury in a match for Manchester United against Chelsea prior to the World Cup in 2006. There was a similar obsession in the media of whether he would be fit in time. In reality, it should have been obvious all along that he would go to the tournament whether he was fit or not. After being treated with new methods such as the now famous oxygen tent, he was declared in a suitable enough condition to travel and take part. Sure enough he came on as a substitute in England’s second match in the group stage and started the three games that followed. As with Beckham four years earlier, Rooney was not fit and it showed. He put in performances well below that of the level expected of him and failed to score in the tournament. He ended his tournament on an especially sour note as he was sent off during the Quarter-Final defeat to Portugal for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho.

Both players took places in the squads in these tournaments when they would have been better filled with players in good form and fitness. They were both rushed back to full health and had no time to build up any match-fitness, which shouldn’t be confused with general fitness. Some blame should be apportioned to the manager for picking the players as well. In both cases the England Manager was Sven Goran Eriksson, who was maybe influenced by the media’s inference that the campaign would have been a failure without these individuals involved in the team. Putting so much focus on individuals rather than the team as a collective has been a big part of England’s lack of progress in the last 10 years – from selecting players on past reputation and standing in the media, to taking injured players to tournaments, and players attempting too many 60-yard ‘Hollywood’ passes in games to impress rather than retaining possession.

A quote from Carlos Puyol reads as follows:

“I think it’s impossible because when you come out of an operation there is a recovery period and I believe that those who are in better shape should go.”

He went on to clarify that he is not retiring from international football. He is just putting the team first and recognising that the Spanish team will perform better with eleven fit and able players on the pitch, rather than ten players carrying an injured player whose ego outweighs the wish for the team to succeed.

There is no suggestion that England would have gone on to win either of the tournaments in 2002 or 2006, but they would surely have performed better and stood a better chance of progressing further with a fully fit squad. Puyol should be praised for his unselfish attitude. Whilst in England, passion is praised when someone kisses the badge after scoring or throws their body into a full-blooded challenge, Puyol has shown in Spain that passion for his country to do well in ways that we may not see in England until many, many attitudes are changed.

Photograph: Halden Krog/EPA