Football is as fickle a business as they come. Already this season we have seen fans on social media outlets ludicrously question Ronald Koeman’s position as manager after a shaky start, and as crazy as it seems now, the instantaneous medium that the likes of twitter offer means football’s fickleness is at it’s peak.
If anyone had seriously doubted Ronald’s credentials, it would be interesting to know on what grounds. It can’t be results, in that department he has surely exceeded expectations. It can’t be the standard of football, Saints on their day are as exciting as anyone in the league in terms of their approach. So perhaps it is signings? Wrong again, and that brings me neatly to the subject of this blog.
Nothing epitomises the Dutchman’s success in the transfer market than Graziano Pellè. If we are talking about kneejerk reactions, the Italian striker has suffered every type. Initially written off as not being good enough, then revered, before being written off again on the back of a lean spell in front of goal. Even during his run in the goals last season there were many who weren’t taken by Pellè and perhaps have allowed those initial thoughts to form into a stubborn prejudice that now refuses to acknowledge his contribution.
The reality is, Pellè has been a revelation. A bone fide fantastic signing. You might often hear people say that he doesn’t score ‘enough goals’, but given his all round contribution to the way the team plays I would argue that isn’t a disaster. Having said that 23 in 56 appearances isn’t bad in this day and age anyway. It is actually an almost identical goal ratio in English football to Romelu Lukaku for instance.
Over the Summer many Saints fans (myself included) were insistent that the club should be looking at other strikers. The likes of Charlie Austin were long talked about and perhaps we had all got a little carried away with ourselves and the now traditional Southampton need for constant improvement. So far this season Pelle has been fantastic. Sure, when the early season form was poor from the team as a unit, he suffered as he was getting little to no service at times, but as the team began to click so did the Italian, and he has been almost unplayable since.
Recent performances against Manchester United and Chelsea particularly highlighted his importance, and why Ronald Koeman has complete faith in him. Superb in the air, never letting the centre halves have a moments rest, setting up chance after chance with his back to goal before burying one himself. Mix all that up with the odd unnecessary flick or back heel and that is Graziano Pellè in a nutshell. I read a tweet (but I can no longer find it unfortunately to credit the author) that described Pellè as the ideal mix of old school English striker and fancy dan foreigner. Perfect.
After the rout of MK Dons, for which Pellè was rested I was amazed to see some fans complain that the Italian might be brought straight back into the team. The fact that he has 7 goals and 5 assists against much tougher opposition escaping those whose prejudice has long been formed. As much as we all want Jay Rodriguez to return to the force he had become, it has to be as part of a team alongside Pellè, he could certainly benefit from the Italian’s expert hold up play, much as Sadio Mane has.
If that wasn’t enough evidence of his greatness, it is worth pointing out that at the age of 29 he received his first call up to the Azzurri last season and has been a regular ever since. As he joins up with them this week his record to date is 3 goals in 6 games, a pretty good start at international level. Italy manager Antonio Conte recently said that he hopes ‘Pellè can be an example for other players to follow’.
If goals, assists and all round impressive play at all levels aren’t your cup of tea though, what about passion? Since arriving at St. Mary’s Pellè has really seemed to embrace being at the club and his reaction to scoring is always like it’s his first ever goal. For me he is part of the furniture now and has the potential to join other strikers like Rickie Lambert, Marian Pahars and James Beattie (another who suffered the odd barren spell) as cult heroes at the club.
I guess my point at the end of all this is simply that Graziano Pellè is certainly a player you’d rather have with you than against you. Is he the most natural player in the world, perhaps not, but he produces the goods on a fairly regular basis. Scoring goals is an art form, and while not everyone can do it with the constant grace of a Messi or a Ronaldo, simply doing it is enough.
Pellè is Southampton’s and Southampton is Pellè’s.
In Saturday’s 8-0 hammering of Sunderland, our very own Dušan Tadić made history after breaking the weekly points record on European fantasy football game Oulala.
With a points matrix sourced from Opta the midfielder picked up a remarkable 151 points thanks to an excellent performance that included a goal, four assists, creating three big chances and supplying five successful crosses. The record was previously held by Carlos Vela who netted four goals for Real Sociedad last season in a 4-3 victory over Celta Vigo.
To sum up just how special Tadić’s performance was, Ronaldo’s top score this season was 140 points after scoring four goals against Elche in a 5-1 win and Lionel Messi scored 130 points when he scored two and assisted two in a 6-0 win over Granada. That’s some company our new signing is mixing with.
Oulala is a free to play, weekly European fantasy football game offering cool prizes to it’s top three managers every week. Oulala offers unique features such as a diverse scoring matrix and live in-play substitutions making it the closest fantasy football has ever got to reality. To register click here https://www.oulala.com/en/register
In a rare break from the Saints related subject matter, I was delighted to catch up with newly promoted Sheffield Wednesday star Lewis Buxton. I am lucky enough to have known Lewis and his family for many years and have watched his career with interest.
Having learnt his trade on the Isle of Wight, a place where not many young kids make the grade Lewis is now enjoying a fruitful career with one of the countries biggest clubs in Sheffield Wednesday. Sealing promotion to the Championship under new boss Dave Jones, Lewis is looking forward to another spell at the higher level, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the Islander….
As one of the few pros to come out of the game on the Island, do you feel that it is a disadvantage for kids here?
LB “It’s a disadvantage, everyones knows that the Island has a low population so competition isn’t as intense as the big cities. To get the best out of anyone in sport you need to be competing against the best opposition, every week from an early age, the last thing you want is a team winning 14-0 for most of the season. I don’t know what the kids leagues are like now but if they don’t already then it would give the kids a better chance with a structure that has all the current sides feeding one team playing in the Southampton league and one in the Portsmouth league which take all the best players from the existing teams. Kids develop at different rates so some would be dropped out of the teams playing in the mainland leagues and others promoted to them. This would progress the talented kids quicker and give them the best chance to get scouted for professional clubs at a young age. They would then receive the top quality coaching which they need to move onto the next level .
There was however a very good bunch of players in my age group in the Island league at the top 3 or 4 teams. We also played regularly in tournaments against mainland sides at school level, and for East Cowes from an early age we played in the national indoor final at Aston Villa. We won a Hampshire tournament at the Dell, and played at Fratton Park in a similar tournament. We were one game away from Wembley in another. We were entered into these school tournament’s by a very good P.E teacher Mr. McArther so he gave us the opportunity to progress against top opposition as young players.
The stretch of water does make even the the most dedicated kids doubt if it’s all worth it. Travelling over the water from the age of 14 three times a week leaving home at half 4 and getting in 6 hours later for an hour/hour and a half of training straight after school is not much fun. I personally did not enjoy the travelling and the waiting around for hours and contemplated giving up on numerous occasions. You go from playing in your local team with all your best mates and really enjoying it, to joining a new team that all know each other because they play in the top 2 or 3 local sides in Pompey. That is difficult as a young kid and my football struggled at this stage but again I was lucky we had a strong group from the Island that would go over to play for Portsmouth schoolboys together. On top of that, Portsmouth didn’t pay for your travel and the majority of the time you were not getting picked up as the coaches had to train the younger age groups before our age group. It was a joint taxi or the bus, and If the lads you travelled with were ill it would mean getting the bus on your own.”
How did you get involved with Pompey?
LB “I got scouted by Roger North playing for the school. He invited me and my best mate Adam Howarth to train at his soccer school in Sandown where we progressed to his side at Portsmouth’s centre of Excellence. Without the work of Roger, Andrew and Shaun North I wouldn’t have become a professional footballer.”
How big was the skill gap between playing in the Island youth teams and then being amongst the young lads at a pro club?
LB “There was a slight gap but we had a good bunch of players on the Island at that age. The best players on the Island at that time competed with Portsmouth’s best but there were just a lot of good players at Pompey.”
Having been a regular at Fratton Park, you found yourself loaned out to Exeter and Bournemouth once Harry Redknapp came in? Do you think this enhanced your career or held you back?
LB “It held me back, I had played 30 games for Pompey in the Championship, and before one game Ted Buxton (not my uncle, as I’ve been told he must have been when telling this story) told me he was trying to get me into the England youth set up and was feeling I could do anything, then I was being farmed out to Exeter a team near the bottom of the football league and low on confidence.
Bournemouth was a good grounding for me though and I had a lot to thank then manager Sean O’Driscoll for. It gave me a good platform for my career in a strong passing side. It was a great club with great staff. Portsmouth had moved on too quickly for me and Harry had turned a struggling Championship side into a Premiership side in no time. Playing in a reserve team and not training with the first team for long periods I lost my way and my focus, I lacked guidance and developed a bad attitude because I felt hard done by.”
After a decent spell with Stoke City, you now find yourself settled with Sheffield Wednesday. It must be brilliant to play for such a big club?
LB “Sheffield Wednesday is a massive club and after a bit of a struggle initially, I worked extremely hard and I’ve played well this season. We came with a strong late run to beat our local rivals to the 2nd spot. We beat them in the derby at Hillsborough in front of around 35,000, the atmosphere was electric, for players playing in the third tier of English football it’s unbelievable and all the players should be proud to play in such a game that means the world to both sets of supporters. In the last game of this season we beat Wycombe in front of nearly 40,000 fans, it was a great feeling but the club belongs in the next league up and in the next few years I hope we’ll get there.”
Who influenced your career in Island Football?
LB “I would say initially my mum and dad and the friends in East Cowes who I hung around with. Mike Parkman who gave up a lot of his time to manage our East Cowes side which was no easy task. Then obviously Roger, Sean and Andrew North for bringing me through at Portsmouth. As a kid I knew Lee Bradbury had become a pro footballer and so had Gary Rowett. Our PE teacher Mr. Reynolds would always go on about them and how Gary had won the Hampshire Cup (we made it to the final and lostl). They both went to my school so although I didn’t know them I knew it was possible to make it.”
You played for a successful East Cowes youth side. Did you expect others from that team to make it?
LB “We had a very talented group of players who were all good friends at East Cowes, we then brought in better players from Sandown such as Sam Dye and Micky Sherry who had the talent, but again were at a disadvantage being from the Island. The main one though would be one of my best mates, Adam Howarth, we were both from East Cowes and in the Isle of Wight schools sides, Hampshire and Portsmouth kids sides together, always battling to be better than each other so he could have made it given a chance at YTS level. Shaun Cooper another of my best mates who plays for Bournemouth was in the same Pompey kids team as us and was another we played against at school.”
You’ve played under a few different managers, who have you enjoyed playing for the most?
LB “I enjoyed playing for Graham Rix, as a 17 year old, he and my youth team coach Mark O’Connor gave me great confidence, I was gutted when he got sacked.
What advice would you give a young Island footballer with hopes of going pro?
LB “I would say:-
1. Move to Southampton or Portsmouth, the Island is a nice and safe place to live but if you want to be a professional footballer you are up against it. If you can’t move I would say the kids that are the best at a young age need to play for the year above to begin with. This is something Shaun Cooper and I did.
2. Work as hard as possible, if someone says your not good enough then work harder. One of the lads at Wednesday (Jose Semedo) was in the same year of the Sporting Lisbon Academy as Ronaldo and is good friends with him still. He said that the hardest working player he ever played with was Ronaldo, it is no coincidence he is the best. Well second best behind the greatest of all time (Messi). I was told the same thing about Ronaldo by the former fitness coach of Manchester United too.
3. Start sprint training early you can make it with less quality if your faster than everyone else.
4. Watch the best players in the world as much as possible.
5. Learn to be comfortable using every part of your body to control and manipulate the ball.”
Thanks to Lewis for his time.
p.s. If you have enjoyed reading the blog over the past year, why not vote for us in the “Club Specific” category at the Football Blogging Awards? Either via Facebook here. Or, tweet the following:- @TheFBAs @crstig #Club
22nd April 2005, approximately 21:58. Fifteen year old Edward Upson hits the ball first time from twenty five yards. Andrew McNeill is helpless in the Southampton net. Goal Ipswich Town.
A heartbreaking end to a memorable season for the Saints youngsters, losing the FA Youth Cup final with just two minutes of extra time left to be played.
The first leg had been played at St. Mary’s four days earlier, Saints leading through David McGoldrick before being pegged back by a double from Irishman Cathal Lordan, Leon Best netting the equaliser that kept the tie on a knife edge. The second leg had remained goalless despite Saints dominance, Ipswich thankful to keeper Shane Supple that it got to extra time. Seemingly heading for penalties, substitute Upson was the youngest player on the pitch when he stole the headlines, and the silverware for the Suffolk side.
For young lads with the world at their feet, it must have been difficult to take. For some it was to be their career highlight, for others, just the beginning. Football is a cruel world, and as is commonplace, despite being the cream of the crop as young players not all would be destined for the top.
Actually in this instance it was the losers who have fared better, the Saints squad boast four current Premier League players, the Ipswich squad none. While the Saints players have commanded massive transfer fees between them and gained many international caps, the Ipswich team have not. Having said that, not all of the Saints squad has achieved all of their footballing aims.
I decided to find out where they are now, and how different the careers of these players now hitting their peak age of 24/25 have fared.
Andrew McNeil – The Scottish keeper left Saints in January 2006, returning to his native Edinburgh with SPL side Hibernian, he forced his way into the first team at Easter Road, including playing in the 2007 League Cup final win. He was later replaced in the side and released in 2009. He spent a season in the third division with Montrose before signing for First Division Raith Rovers in 2010. He was released by Raith this summer and signed for Livingston where he is currently first choice.
Craig Richards – Local lad Richards was released by Saints in the summer of 2006. He was picked up by Conference side Salisbury City in 2007. Spells at Eastleigh, Bognor Regis Town and Winchester City followed. He now plays for Whitehawk FC in the Ryman League Division One South.
Sebastian Wallis-Tayler – The frenchman left Saints the summer after the Cup Final and signed for Havant & Waterlooville before playing for Bognor Regis Town and Lewes. He is now back in his native France playing for non-league outfit CA Lisieux.
Sean Rudd – After being released by Saints, Rudd had an unsuccessful trial with former club Oxford United before sadly retiring through injury. Now works for a Sports Shoe company.
Martin Cranie – Had already played first team football on loan at Bournemouth and Premier League football for Saints at the time of the Youth Cup final. He played in the Premier League under Harry Redknapp, before finding chances limited under George Burley in the Championship. Cranie had two spells on loan at Yeovil Town before reuniting with Redknapp at Portsmouth for the 2007 season. Spent time at QPR and Charlton on loan before joining Coventry City in 2009 where he is still a regular for the Championship outfit. Has gained caps for England at U21 level.
Lloyd James – The Welsh utility man earned a professional contract with Saints in 2006, and made over seventy first team appearances in the Championship and League One before his somewhat surprise release (having been a regular in the team) in 2010. He soon signed for Colchester United and is now an established member of the U’s first team. A Welsh U21 international.
Tim Sparv – Finnish midfielder Sparv left Saints in 2007 to sign for Swedish club Halmstads BK, he is now playing in the Dutch first division with FC Groningen via a loan spell in his home country. He has been capped fifteen times by Finland.
Nathan Dyer – The tiny winger made his first team debut for Saints at the start of the season following the final. He was loaned to Burnley before coming back and getting more regular gametime at St. Mary’s. He went on loan again to Sheffield United in 2008, before really flourishing at Swansea City, firstly on loan before joining permanently in 2009 and he is now a regular in their Premier League side.
Theo Walcott – Made his first team debut at sixteen and was soon turning heads at a higher level. Chelsea had already shown an interest in him, but it was Arsenal who paid £5 million with a potential outcome of £12 million (although that is seemingly no longer the case) for him in 2006. He has now played over one hundred times for the Gunners. He became the youngest ever full England international in 2006 and was the surprise inclusion in Sven Goran Erikssons’s World Cup Squad of 2006. He has now played eighteen times for his country.
Leon Best – The Irish striker had already played in the Premier League for Saints by the time of the final, and also spent a period on loan with QPR. Further loans with Sheffield Wednesday, Bournemouth and Yeovil Town followed before he rejected a new contract with Saints in 2007 and joined Coventry City, the tribunal setting the fee at £650k. His performances for the Sky Blues were enough to persuade Newcastle United to move for him and is now a first team player with the Toon in the Premier League. He has represented Ireland at senior level.
David McGoldrick – McGoldrick was handed a first team debut in the September following the match at Portman Road, but it would take him another three years and loan spells at Notts County, Bournemouth and Port Vale before he would be considered a regular. He was an ever present in the Saints team that dropped out of the Championship, scoring twelve goals and left for Nottingham Forest for £1 million the following summer.
Kyle Critchell – Defender Critchell was hampered by a serious injury in 2005 and was eventually loaned out to Torquay United in 2006. He was released the following summer and joined Chesterfield. He joined Weymouth in June 2007 before signing for Wrexham the following season, injuries again stunted his progression and he was loaned to York City before rejoining the Terras. He currently plays for hometown club Dorchester Town in the Blue Square South division who he signed for in 2009.
Ashlee Jones – Sub keeper Jones was released in the summer of 2005 and signed for Rushden & Diamonds, he has played for an array of clubs since and eventually made his football league debut for Darlington in 2009, he now plays for Braintree Town in the Blue Square Premier division.
Adam Lallana – The only member of the squad still at St. Mary’s, the creative midfielder is now a lynchpin in Nigel Adkins side and has made one hundred and thirty appearances for the club, now catching the eye of Premier League suitors he has been capped at U21 level by England.
Feliciano Condesso – Portuguese midfielder Condesso left Saints in 2007 without playing for the first team, somewhat surprisingly he joined La Liga side Villarreal but couldn’t break into the first team setup there either. He played for their ‘B’ side in the Spanish third tier before joining UD Logrones and now plays for Ontinyent CF.
Gareth Bale – The youngest member of the Saints squad, aged fifteen, Bale made his first team debut in 2006 and played forty times that season as Saints made it to the Championship play offs. Hot property, the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United were said to be interested, but it was Spurs who signed the Welshman for an initial fee of £5 million that rose to £7 million and Tommy Forescast. Bale struggled to make an impact at White Hart Lane to start with, but is now considered one of the best players in the world. A notable hat trick in the Champions League against Inter at the San Siro propelling him to super stardom. He has played thirty times for Wales.
Josh Dutton-Black – Winger Dutton-Black left Saints in 2007 and signed for AFC Totton. He has since had spells at Salisbury, Kidderminster, Eastleigh, Bognor Regis Town and Didcot Town. He now plays for North Leigh in the Southern League Division One South & West.
Shane Supple – Retired. Now a Gaelic Football player.
Michael Synott – Released by League of Ireland side Dundalk in the summer of 2010.
James Krause – Now playing for Cambridge City in the Southern League Premier division.
Chris Casement – Now playing for Linfield in the IFA Premiership. Capped by Northern Ireland.
Aidan Collins – Now playing for the University of London FC.
Sammy Moore – Now playing for AFC Wimbledon in League Two.
Cathal Lordan – Now playing for Cork City in the League of Ireland First division.
Liam Trotter – Now playing for Millwall in the Championship.
Owen Garvan – Now playing for Crystal Palace in the Championship. Eire U21 international.
Liam Craig – Now playing for St. Johnstone in the Scottish Premier League.
Daryl Knights – Now playing for Newport County in the Blue Square Premier League.
Danny Haynes – Now playing for Barnsley in the Championship.
Blair Hammond – Now playing for Ipswich Wanderers in the Eastern Counties League division one.
Charlie Sheringham – Now playing for Dartford in the Blue Square South.
Ed Upson – Now playing for Yeovil Town in League One.
Andy Reynolds – Now playing for Lowestoft Town in the Ryman Premier divsion.
Stuart Ainsley – Now playing for Lowestoft Town in the Ryman Premier divsion.
It is clear to see that the losing Saints squad have, on the whole fared better than their Ipswich counterparts. Although it is staggering to see that of the thirty four players involved, fifteen of them are now playing at non-league level.
This isn’t a fate exclusive to these young finalists either, of the 2007 Liverpool winning side, only two players have since played for the first team, and only one (Jay Spearing) is still on the fringe. Their defeated opponents that day Manchester United fielded Danny Welbeck who has now become a first team player, the rest of the names are less familiar. In fact if you were to go through the lineups of all the previous finals, you would find only a handful of players plying their trade at the top of the footballing tree. Another case of foreigners ruining the English game? Hardly. These days half the youth teams are foreign players as clubs look to invest abroad as early as possible, all hoping to discover the next Lionel Messi. The fact is the standard required gets higher every season and more are likely to fall by the wayside with every intake. Also, I always wonder how much difference in ability there is between some players playing non-league and those in the lower echelons of the professional game. Not that much I would wager, and in reality we could probably fill another four divisions of professional clubs if it were possible.
Either way, the differing fortunes of some of these young players is a harsh reminder that the career of a footballer is a privilege to be treasured.
I love watching the MLS. The American pro “soccer” league is blossoming. A renaissance that started with the signing of David Beckham and continues to build with a somewhat rare mix. It is a league that gives opportunity to those who may be struggling in the more established professional leagues while at the same time attracts big name stars at the end of their careers.
This can lead to some interesting and somewhat unlikely team lineups. I was first fascinated by the LA Galaxy elevens containing both Beckham and former English lower league winger Chris Birchall, but this season the New York Red Bulls have produced an even unlikelier pairing.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau were the original odd couple, where the differing lifestyles of two friends are at constant loggerheads. In footballing terms, the contrasting lifestyles of the Red Bulls forward line is as drastic.
Thierry Henry is football royalty. The Frenchman is as popular a man as he is revered as a player, highly decorated and having played for some of the worlds biggest clubs, he can boast Lionel Messi as a former teammate and is a World Cup winner.
Luke Rodgers is football proletariat. The Englishman has earned a reputation as a troublemaker and a bad boy while plying his trade in the lower echelons of the English professional game. He can boast the likes of Lee Hughes as a former teammate and is a League Two winner.
There is a saying when something extraordinary happens Stateside “Only in America”, and only in the MLS could these two form a successful partnership.
Henry’s career began in Monaco and the glamourous setting of the French Riviera in 1994. By 1997, it was already clear that his future lay away from Ligue 1, having already secured a league title and a French Young Footballer of the Year award. By January 1999, Henry was a World Cup winner with his country and a £10 million man, on his way to the Stadio Delle Alpi and Italy’s “Old Lady” Juventus. The summer before, Luke Rodgers was starting his career, with Shrewsbury Town in the English Third Division. His spell at the Shrews was successful on a personal front, goals coming with relative ease, but as a club the Gay Meadow side dropped into the conference and non-league football.
It wasn’t all rosy for Henry either. His spell in Italy lasted just seven months, unsuited to the Italian style of play he made an £11 million move to Arsenal and the English Premier League that summer. Henry’s eight seasons for the Gunners are well documented. Premier League titles and FA Cups were joined by unbeaten seasons and being named the PFA player of the year. Twice. Not to mention a European Championship title with his country. In the same time, Rodgers had a achieved a Conference play-off win and a move to League One with Crewe Alexandra.
In the summer of 2007, with heavy heart, Thierry left Arsenal and headed for the Nou Camp in a £20 million deal, in the previous January Port Vale had splashed out £30k for Rodgers services. Henry added the Champions League to his collection of honours in 2009, surrounded by two La Liga titles. While he celebrated the the second of those titles, Rodgers was celebrating his only career trophy, having won League Two with Notts County(the only club where the two shared a former teammate in Sol Campbell, all be it for only one game).
Henry headed to the MLS in July 2010, and was joined by Rodgers in January of this year, their careers couldn’t be more different, but actually in the land of opportunity, Rodgers is taking his. The pair have struck up a potent partnership, and the New York Red Bulls are currently top of the Eastern Conference. Rodgers career may not be glamourous, but he has always been a goalscorer, and one that gives the teams he plays for a good return. He already has five this term for the Red Bull arena side and several assists for his more cultured partner. Henry has seven himself and the New York side look like they will be certain play-off challengers with the combination of the traditional aggressive striker in Rodgers and the tricky ball player up front.
This doesn’t happen anywhere else, perhaps the AFL to a lesser extent, but just think what we could see from the MLS in years to come? Messi & Dean Bowditch? Long may it continue.
Well yesterday they did, and what a cup final it was! While I am neither a supporter of Arsenal or Birmingham City, I did find myself favouring the team in blue. Why? Well the terrible decision by the linesman early on instantly made me get behind them, but also the contrasting styles of the teams.
What we had was a clear case of War Horses versus Show Ponies, and I have always been a War Horse fan. Maybe it says something about my own natural lack of footballing talent, that while other kids were being Gazza and Chris Waddle, I was always Stuart Pearce or Terry Butcher on the hallowed concrete of the playground. I tried being Matt Le Tissier a couple of times, but I knew I wasn’t doing him justice so went back to being Glenn Cockerill, in case I somehow did the reputation of the mercurial Saints weaver some unintentional damage.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a bit of skill, I like the odd stepover, the odd back heel, but like everything in life you need balance and for me watching a “water carrier” like Claude Makalele or Didier Deschamps control the play in midfield with simplicity, energy and efficiency is every bit as majestic as a Messi or a Ronaldo cutting in and sending one home. The importance of the “water carrier” was not lost on the great Eric Cantona who himself coined the phrase based on the influence of Deschamps on the success of the late 90’s French team. Cantona is perhaps one example of a player who managed to be both show pony and war horse!
When I talk about “War Horses” though, I don’t just mean the efficient holding midfielder, but also the do or die player, the man who would put his head where a “Show Pony” wouldn’t put their feet. Is there anything more inspirational to an England fan than the infamous sight of Terry Butcher smothered in his own claret, or Stuart Pearce screaming at the Wembley crowd in Euro 96? Men that lead by example, that inspire confidence in their team-mates and grab the bull by the horns.
This is where the two sides differed on Sunday. Arsenal are the epitome of a show pony side. Full of talent and flair, the likes of Nasri and Arshavin light up the Premier League on a regular basis, and of course recently out-Barca’d Barcelona, the ultimate show ponies. But perhaps what they lack is War Horses, or even a War Horse. It is no surprise to me, that in a game like that, the best player in an Arsenal shirt was Jack Wilshire, a lad who looks to me like finally being the man to fill Bryan Robson’s boots in an England shirt and certainly the closest thing they have to a war horse at the moment.
In comparison, look at the Birmingham team. Nothing shows the contrast more than the names Bowyer and Ferguson in the Blues midfield. Combative and committed to the end these two are unlikely to shy any challenge, especially in a cup final. Alex McLeish has built up a side that works hard and is extremely efficient with the ball. They would never have competed with Arsenal if they tried to play like Arsenal, but by constantly pressing and never saying die, they showed that the gap in skill level could be overcome.
Is it a coincidence that Arsenal haven’t won anything since Patrick Vieira left? A man who is without a doubt a war horse. While Arsenal play breathtaking football at times, even the flair riddled Barcelona line up with a Carlos Puyol at the back, is there anyone taking on that role for Arsenal?
All the truly great sides have a balance of players types. AC Milan in the 80’s owed as much to Franco Baresi as they did to Marco Van Basten, even the Brazilians have relied on a Dunga and what might have been in 1966 without a Nobby Stiles?
The game has certainly changed over the years that I have watched it, but it was refreshing to see that there is still a role to play for the combative battler alongside the pretty ball jugglers.
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