There are many things about modern football that are infuriating: inflated ticket prices, jobsworth stewarding, diving, greed and a distinct lack of loyalty from players who live in their own bubble, refusing to acknowledge those who idolise them.
What grates the most, though, is the abhorrent idea of there being such a thing as a ‘true’ fan.
The ‘true’ fan, they would have you believe, is somebody who gives their club unwavering support no matter what. However, such idiocy lacks fundamental logic. Clearly, everything cannot be rosy within the garden of your club all of the time. There are problems which cannot be brushed under the carpet without so much as a passing glance or a flicker of worry.
Put simply, the ‘true’ fan either has their head stuck in the clouds or buried in the sand, leaving the manager and players immune from criticism and anyone who dares to say a bad word about either might as well not bother supporting the club. You could try and get them started on people who boo the team but they can’t hear you from their place atop the moral high ground.
The most vital quality of the ‘true’ fan is, undoubtedly, attendance at matches. Going to the game is, more often than not, dictated by circumstance – for some, is a necessity; for others, it is a luxury. Times are hard and, given the aforementioned hike in ticket prices, football will have had to take a back seat for some people.
By the same token, are those who are exiled in places like Korea, Australia and America for family or work any less of a fan than those who live a stone’s throw away from the ground because they don’t manage to get to the game? Of course not, and to suggest that this is the case is utter lunacy. It still happens, mind.
The internet has also given a new platform for the ‘true’ fan to lord themselves over the rest of us, the plastics. Thanks to Twitter, the ‘true’ fans can tell the players that they’re going to games. It is of the utmost important not to forget that a trip to an away game is not valid unless you’ve told every member of the playing squad on Twitter that you were there: “RT for me and the boys travelling down to Bournemouth? #banter #yolo #truefan” is something you see every week, repeated ad nauseam. This nonsense must stop but it shows no sign of abating.
Merchandising, too, has become compulsory for the ‘true’ fans. Thus, their conspicuous consumption is something which clubs invariably take advantage of, bringing out a new kit each year is guaranteed to reel in a few thousand people. It’s akin to a feeding frenzy: give them something fresh and the ‘true’ fans will be snapping it up faster than you can blink. Alarm clock? Got it. Garden gnome? Got one. Car mats? You betcha. The list is close to incessant and the ‘true’ fans have got it all, because the more merchandise you own, the bigger a fan you are, right?
You can make a case for Sky having to take a great deal of responsibility for the birth of the ‘true’ fan. After all, it is they who paint the picture of an adult sat in their seat wearing their replica shirt, hat, scarf and coat whilst eating a half-cooked pie and drinking warm Coke. Perhaps this is the case in their utopian world but the reality couldn’t be further away from the grotesque monster that they depict.
In essence, going to more shit games than the person sat next to you doesn’t make you a better fan. Having the club badge or motto tattooed onto you doesn’t make you a better fan. Owning more official club merchandise doesn’t make you a better fan. No supporter is better than another and no amount of attempted one-upmanship will be dissuasive otherwise.
Ultimately, all of the griping is futile, for an idiot will forever be just that: an idiot. The ‘true’ fans will always deem themselves to be superfans and we, those less fortunate, are left to wallow in our own self-pity for not making that journey to Yeovil to see a 2-0 defeat without registering a shot on target.
Maybe, belatedly, we will one day realise that the best solution is to not support a team at all…
Since Wayne Hennessey ruptured his cruciate ligament in April whilst playing for Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Welsh national team has had a selection problem when it comes to goalkeepers. However, the answer has always been there, tucked away in a small pocket of the North West at Tranmere Rovers.
Capped at every level for Wales from under-17 to under-21, Owain fon Williams is the first-choice goalkeeper for the best defence in League One and one of the best defences in the country. The Whites sit at the top of League One with just six goals conceded from their opening eleven games; fon Williams, an ever-present, has kept six clean sheets.
Last season he kept fifteen in forty games and was unlucky to break a hand during a training session, leaving him out of action for two months. If any goalkeeper is fully deserving of a chance to prove himself for the international team whilst Hennessey is recovering, it has to be the Tranmere man.
Of the three goalkeepers in the squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Scotland and Croatia, fon Williams is the only one without a senior cap for his country but he is the only regular starter for his club.
Lewis Price has only been used by his club, Crystal Palace, in the Capitol One Cup whilst the third goalkeeper, Jason Brown, is yet to make an appearance for Aberdeen this season. Both have made appearances for the national side since Coleman took charge of the squad in January.
In previous qualifiers – defeats to Belgium and Serbia – Coleman preferred to use Boaz Myhill despite the 29 year-old being the reserve goalkeeper at West Bromwich Albion; his only appearance so far this season is in a 4-2 win at Yeovil Town in the second round of the Capitol One Cup.
Having been an unused substitute in the summer friendlies with Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina and with Myhill now out with an injury, fon Williams is hoping to take advantage of the opportunity to earn his first cap for his country – something which would make him immensely proud.
On the prospect of playing for Wales, he said: “I’m hoping I’m going to play because ever since I was a young boy, growing up in North Wales, I wanted to play for my country. It will be a massive thing for me if I do.”
The 25 year-old has been knocking around the lower leagues for a while now, probably for too long. A rumoured move to Ipswich Town whilst at Stockport County in 2009 never came to fruition and the highest level that fon Williams has played at remains League One.
With such impressive form in recent seasons following excellent work with Tranmere’s goalkeeping coach Dave Timmins, the Crewe academy graduate is ready for the step up. Should Tranmere’s excellent start to the season falter and they fail to gain promotion, management and fans alike will fear losing one of the best goalkeepers that Prenton Park has seen in years.
Fon Williams fondly remembers travelling to national team games as a youngster with his father, travelling south from Penygroes, Gwynedd in North Wales. To play in the national team would be the ultimate honour and, if he were to make his full debut, you would not back against him keeping yet another clean sheet.
The term “golden generation” is a dangerous label to give to a team – just ask England. Being a part of a golden generation is akin to having the metaphorical albatross slung around your neck; the pressure it brings can be crippling, paralysing one with fear; the expectation too much to handle.
Belgium have already had a golden generation; the class of 1986, who came 4th at the World Cup in Mexico, are considered to be the stick by which the current crop is to be measured.
The national team last qualified for a major tournament in 2002 and were unfortunate to be knocked out of the World Cup by the eventual champions, Brazil, in the last sixteen having seen a legitimate goal ruled out for a non-existent foul by the man who captained the side then and manages it now, Marc Wilmots. A decade on, he is looking to lead them back onto the biggest stage in international football.
After years of build-up, hype and expectation, this campaign is expected to be the campaign for Belgium to finally show the world that they mean business. That Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen has said that nothing less than maximum points from their two opening games – Wales away, which they won 2-0, and Croatia at home – is good enough shows the standards to which the Red Devils must now reach.
The quality that runs through the current Belgium squad is frightening and belies their FIFA ranking of 41st in the world, behind the likes of Libya, Mali and Algeria. A 4-2 victory over the Netherlands in a recent friendly suggests that the potential within the squad is finally being released into ability but the real tests lie ahead in the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup.
They certainly have the personnel to help get them there.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, has a burgeoning reputation having kept 23 clean sheets for Atlético Madrid last season, helping them to win the Europa League in the process. His impressive development could soon see him challenging Petr Cech for the first-team spot at his parent club, Chelsea, and add to his three caps.
Stopping the opposition from getting to Courtois are two outstanding centre-halves in Vincent Kompany, the captain, and Thomas Vermaelen. Whilst Vermaelen is prone to venturing forward and leaving space in behind, Kompany will, more often than not, be their to clear up the mess. The pair seem to be a perfect match: Kompany is the more cautious of the two, an assured, rolls-royce type whilst Vermaelen is more of a roamer but equally comfortable on the ball.
It is the form of those two which means that Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Lombaerts, two quality centre-backs in their own right, are forced to play out of position. Vertonghen will hope that joining Tottenham can help him to force his way into the centre of defence, should he out-perform either of his colleagues in the Premier League.
If choosing a back four was difficult for Wilmots then the competition for places really hots up in midfield, which is arguably where the bulk of the Belgian talent lies.
The former axis of the Standard Liege midfield, Steven Defour, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini has been split up for a while at club level; all three have moved on to bigger and better things. Witsel, particularly, after his eye-watering €40m move to Zenit St Petersburg from Benfica. The volatile midfielder is perhaps best-known for his infamous horror tackle on Marcin Wasilewski, for which he received an eight-match ban but he seems to have settled into a domineering midfield role.
Meanwhile Defour, who was once courted by Manchester United, moved to Porto and has become a regular in the heart of the midfield. He performed admirably in the recent friendly with the Netherlands, succeeding in keeping Wesley Sneijder quiet for the evening.
It all gives Wilmots a huge headache with regards to selection, particularly with Fellaini being in imperious form for Everton at the start of the season with goals against Manchester United and Aston Villa in two commanding performances from the towering midfielder. In addition, Mousa Dembélé’s decision to solely be deployed as a central midfielder rather than as a forward has seen his game improve tenfold and earned him a move to Tottenham.
The real star of the team is Chelsea newcomer Eden Hazard. A player who impressed Zinedine Zidane so much that the Real Madrid icon said he would take the playmaker to the Bernabéu with his eyes closed, the 21-year old is seen as the current poster-boy of Belgian football. He has continued the form that saw him win the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award for two seasons in a row and made an immediate impact on the Premier League with a goal and six assists to his name after just three games. If he plays well, so do Belgium.
Another player who could be starring for one of Europe’s elite in the future is the fleet-footed PSV Eindhoven winger, Dries Mertens. His name has been mentioned with regards to Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in recent months and with good reason: 24 goals last season helped to cement a place in the national side and he notched his first international goal and set up two others in the friendly win over the Netherlands.
All of these flair players provide ammunition for the likes of Everton’s recent acquisition Kevin Mirallas, top scorer in last year’s Greek league with 20 goals and Christan Benteke of Aston Villa, one of the top scorers in the 2011/12 Belgian season.
The main hope, as he has been for the last four years, is still Romelu Lukaku. The powerful frontman, who has been likened to Didier Drogba, top-scored in his debut season in the Belgian league after an incredible few years in the Anderlecht youth team, where he scored 131 goals in just 93 games.
A move to Chelsea starved him of first-team football and, thus, hampered his development but the early signs of a loan to West Bromwich Albion indicate that an excellent player might yet be made of the man who is expected to spearhead the Belgian attack for the foreseeable future.
Some Belgians think that the happenings of 2002 still haunt the national side despite there being only two players left from that tournament – Daniel van Buyten and Timmy Simons. The current crop have an excellent chance to exorcise such ghosts and perhaps even eclipse the accomplishments of the Wilmots-skippered side.
Greece showed in 2004 that you do not necessarily have to be the best side to win an international tournament and, should the likes of Kompany, Mertens and Hazard collectively bring their club form to the international stage, there is no reason why Belgium cannot dream of not just making it to Brazil in 2014 but having a real impact upon that tournament and beyond.
They brought high hopes and expectations when they arrived. They were the missing pieces of the jigsaw. They were going to help Liverpool reclaim their place amongst England’s elite after a prolonged absence.
Unfortunately for Alberto Aquilani and Joe Cole, it didn’t quite work out as planned for them at Anfield; both men found themselves loaned out only a year after signing for the Reds.
Aquilani, who joined from Roma in the summer of 2009 for a fee of £20m, has spent the last two seasons on loan to Juventus and then AC Milan. However, both clubs declined the option to sign the Italian international on a permanent basis. Juventus first decided that £13m was too much to pay for the midfielder before AC Milan gave him 24 games during his loan spell; they were only a game away from triggering a clause which meant that they would have to sign him for £6.4m.
The move to Milan was a surprise as the manager at the time, Kenny Dalglish, made comments which implied that Aquilani had a future at Anfield under his tenure. Indeed, he starred in pre-season games and looked to be in contention for a regular first-team place under the Scot until he was sent back to his homeland for another season. Dalglish later claimed that the Italian would not fit into the system he was looking to play at Anfield.
The chance to salvage a career on Merseyside may yet be offered to Aquilani with the club under new management in Brendan Rodgers. Although he is not the deep-lying playmaker that Xabi Alonso was, he fits into Rodgers’ philosophy as someone who likes to pass the ball and retain possession. A quick glance at his statistics shows that he is not a great goalscorer but offers more of a creative influence on the team – a stylish upgrade on both Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, perhaps?
If Rodgers is to give Aquilani a second chance, he would have to hope that the midfielder is not hampered by the same injury problems which were so prevalent during his first year in England. He arrived with an ankle injury, which had been operated on at Roma, but Rafael Benitez said that he was fully aware of the problem and was willing to wait for Aquilani to recover, buying him anyway.
Since joining Liverpool, Aquilani has made only 28 appearances for the club with 2 goals to his name. He was restricted by injuries and poor fitness, which meant that he rarely completed ninety minutes under Benitez. He impressed in flashes, winning a series of man of the match awards for some sparkling displays but he didn’t even feature in half of the club’s league fixtures.
Aquilani’s agent has claimed that the injury problems are “a thing of the past” and, at 28, he should be coming into his prime as a midfielder. With only two years left of a five-year contract, Liverpool need to decide whether to give him a second chance or to take a cut-price fee and rid themselves of him. Rodgers has said that Aquilani is “a good guy” who things haven’t worked out for at Anfield but, nonetheless, he is “a player with the qualities, in terms of technical and tactical ability, to play”.
Similarly, Joe Cole could make the most of his second chance at Anfield to really make his mark after a disappointing debut season for the Reds.
A free transfer from Chelsea, the 30 year-old came to Merseyside with a reputation as a player of real quality who represented a coup for Liverpool but, as the fans soon found out, that was far from the truth.
A red card on his league debut at home to Arsenal for a lunge at Laurent Koscielny was followed by a penalty miss against Trabzonspor in the Europa League qualifying rounds; not the ideal start to life at his new club. It didn’t get much better as it took him until January to score his first league goal – a last-minute winner against Bolton. His first season at Anfield totalled 32 games, only 9 of them starts, with 3 goals.
French champions Lille arranged a loan deal with Liverpool for Cole and he joined the club for the duration of the 2011/12 season. They were so impressed with him during the loan spell that they wished to make it a permanent move but accepted that he would be in the plans of new manager Rodgers. Linking up with the dangerous Eden Hazard seemed to spark the England international into life as he scored 9 goals in 42 appearances which gives encouragement to Liverpool fans and suggests that he could make a positive contribution if given the opportunities upon his return to Anfield.
Much like Aquilani, Cole is a player who could fit into Rodgers’ 4-3-3 system as he has experience of playing as a wide player in that formation under José Mourinho whilst at Chelsea. This was where Cole was at his most devastating, being almost unplayable at times whilst frequently switching wings with Arjen Robben. Again, there are similarities with Aquilani in that he could be seen as an upgrade on another flop, Stewart Downing; only if the Joe Cole of Chelsea can be rediscovered, that is.
The problem with both Aquilani and Cole is that they are amongst the top earners at the club. This may not sit too kindly with Fenway Sports Group, the owners of the club, and they may look to sell one, or both, to free up some extra money. Despite loaning the pair out last season, the club subsidised a portion of the wages – particularly Cole’s rumoured £90k/week package – and would not want to waste money in such a manner again, particularly with the implementation of Financial Fair Play. If both players are not viewed as valuable members of the first team squad, they will leave.
Rodgers has come out in the press saying that there will be no spending spree at Liverpool over the course of this summer as the club “don’t have a wheelbarrow load of money”. Frankly, there isn’t much need to spend the ludicrous amounts that Kenny Dalglish did as two potential solutions to Liverpool’s problems are right under the manager’s nose. It’s down to him whether he chooses to use them or not.
When the news broke, the backlash was on the coat-tails. As we learnt that David Beckham had not been selected in Stuart Pearce’s Team GB squad for the Olympic Games, the widespread disbelief became more and more palpable by the minute.
How could they do this to him? This is David Beckham OBE we’re talking about: the man who has been the face of Team GB since London won the right to host the Olympics. He was there when it was announced that London would host the games, he was there when the flame was passed over, he was supposed to be there when Team GB took to the field in their first game against Senegal on July 26th. Team GB has only ever been about Beckham; a massage of his ego. The squad was going to be him and 22 irrelevant others, wasn’t it?
It’s all horribly similar to the furore over Roy Hodgson getting the England job when it was expected that the job was Harry Redknapp’s to turn down. The reaction, particularly from a lot of journalists, is similar. They have their favourites and now two of them have been done over in quick succession. For David Beckham, read Harry Redknapp.
Beckham’s exclusion from the squad represents a bitter heartlessness to some, but sound logic to others. After all, he is 37 and the Olympics is a good chance to give young players a chance to progress and prove themselves. On the other hand, he has served his country so well for the past 20 years, when he started out as an u18 international before moving on to the u21’s and then the full national side, which he captained over 50 times. His experience could be invaluable for those youngsters looking to take their first steps into the international game.
As much as it is said that Beckham would still be able to do a job on-field for Team GB, the likelihood is that he was there as a brand more than a player. He would be wheeled out to attract people to buy tickets for the football and then make a cameo appearance or two to keep the paying customers satisfied.
Other nations take football at the Olympics very seriously; most particularly the South American nations. Indeed, Uruguay have selected Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in their squad as two overage players in a bid to bring home a gold medal. Meanwhile, the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi all trotted out for gold medal winners Argentina in 2008 with bronze medalists Brazil giving minutes on the pitch to Thiago Silva, Alex Pato and Ramires.
The Olympics is not a place for has-beens. It is a test of athletes who are supposed to be at their peak. The idea of restricting each side to three players over the age of 23 is to allow youngsters to develop their game and have the experience of playing in an international tournament. This does not excuse the inclusion of Ryan Giggs either; a man who has not played in an international tournament but, at the same time, has turned his back on his country more times than some Welshmen care to remember.
Of course, playing at the Olympics would be a great honour for any player and none more so than Beckham, who has enjoyed a glittering career at some of the biggest clubs in world football – and Preston. However, there is no room for sentimentality in sport and Beckham’s exclusion should be welcomed as a chance for the future to be showcased.
After yet another England failure at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, the opportunity for vindication in the form of an Olympic gold medal should not be passed up for sentimental reasons. Team GB should go into the tournament with the intention and belief that they are good enough to win the gold medal.
If England are to realistically challenge for international honours in years to come, there would be no better starting point to bed some of the stars of the future into international football than at the Olympics. The likes of Jack Butland, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Daniel Sturridge – if all are selected- would benefit from the tournament with or without Beckham there to guide them along the way.
The news that Mark van Bommel has retired from kicking people at international level so that he can prolong the habit at club level will be welcomed by one man more than most.
PSV Eindhoven’s Kevin Strootman, a reported target for Manchester United, will see van Bommel’s retirement as his opportunity to become a regular for the Oranje. Following on from a Euro 2012 campaign that can only be described as an unmitigated disaster, Holland need new faces, a new generation. Strootman, at 22, can hold down a place as the lynchpin in the centre of the Dutch midfield for the next decade.
Holland’s penetration, or lack thereof, in Poland and Ukraine was put down to slowness in getting the ball forward, according to the iconic Johan Cruyff. He claimed that having both van Bommel and Nigel de Jong starting in holding roles in front of the defence was a hindrance to Holland’s style of play as they were seeing “too much of the ball” and made their attacking transitions too slow to be able to counter effectively. One holding midfielder was considered to be more than enough; the De Jong-Van Bommel axis was tired and tested rather than tried and tested.
However, even when taking out van Bommel for the final group game against Portugal and replacing him with Rafael van der Vaart, Bert van Marwijk’s side were painfully slow in possession and horribly exposed in midfield. De Jong was left alone to support either the inexperienced, 18 year-old Jetro Willems against Nani on the left or Ajax’s Gregory van der Wiel against Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite side.
Van der Vaart’s inclusion left Holland open without the ball and Portugal took full advantage; their attacking transitions were fluidly swift and led to numerous chances for A Selecção as Holland struggled to contain the onslaught. Cristiano Ronaldo hit the post, Nani forced Maarten Stekelenburg into a fantastic save though he really should have scored, and Ronaldo’s second goal – the winning goal – came from a quick counter-attack.
There were cries before the tournament for Strootman to be given time on the pitch but this was ignored by van Marwijk and he was given a grand total of zero. After a disastrous tournament, though, the contract extension that the manager signed to take him past the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and 2016 European Championships in France could well be torn up.
If, indeed, this turns out to be the case, the new man has to integrate Strootman into the team as quickly as possible. He has the vision, passing range and energy to bring some equilibrium to the national team as a compromise of both a holder and a creator, something that he excelled at in the early stages of his career when playing behind the striker as a trequartista before moving back to become a deep-lying playmaker.
In a side that seems so imbalanced – the front four are often reluctant to track back – Strootman seems like the perfect replacement for van Bommel to allow Holland to progress as a team. They haven’t progressed since Euro 2008, in which they fielded Orlando Engelaar alongside de Jong in the holding role before bringing van Bommel back for the World Cup in 2010 to play with de Jong.
The system has become stale; it is the same outcome, just with different personnel. It is time for change and the change needs to happen now with Strootman at the forefront of it all. Whilst his involvement will not change everything, it would be a start and that, for Holland, would be better than nothing.
It doesn’t threaten to be one of the long-running transfer sagas of the summer, but it does.
The conundrum of Eden Hazard’s next move shouldn’t be that complicated. All of the hints have been dropped to suggest that he will be turning out for the Premier League champions of last season and this, Manchester’s United and City. Hazard said at an awards gala that he would be “going to Manchester” but has since become open to the idea of joining Chelsea.
All of this came after months of suggestions that the Belgian could turn out for Barcelona, Inter Milan, Manchester United, Arsenal and even Tottenham. Zinedine Zidane recommended the 21 year-old to his former club, Real Madrid, stating that he would take him to the club “with his eyes closed”.
If Zidane had kept his eyes open, he would have seen the Lille star advertise himself to every European giant possible in January, shortly before the end of the transfer window through a YouTube video. Uploaded by Belgium’s branch of Nike, the winger was shown to be looking at the names of teams on cards (which face away from the camera for obvious reason) and giving his opinion on each. The video concludes with Hazard saying “For the moment I play at Lille” and asking what he should do next.
What he should have done is show much more respect to his current employers rather than showing a bit of leg to potential future employers. Then again, how foolish to expect a modern-day footballer to show such class and integrity. Evidently, the most important thing to Eden Hazard is Eden Hazard.
That said, he did stick with Lille despite interest in him starting after he starred in the U17 European Championship of 2007. Whilst other squad members like Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Moussa Sow left, Hazard stayed and signed a new contract which has ensured that Lille will get a premium price for their superstar. For that, he deserves some credit.
The longer this goes on, though, the more boring it gets. Hazard remains linked to both Manchester clubs and he would, undoubtedly, improve both. The real impact, though, would come if he were to show up at Old Trafford. Manchester United are in need of quality in the midfield; not particularly in the wide areas, per se, but Ashley Young has failed to live up to the promise that he showed in the early months of his career after moving from Aston Villa last summer.
If Hazard were to be played through the middle, it could help to reinvigorate Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and give them a new dimension; the nineteen goals he has scored this season far surpass the eight of Manchester United’s top-scoring midfielder, Nani and he has more assists than Antonio Valencia, United’s chief creator (16-13). Indeed, when Ferguson sent a scout to the north of France to watch Hazard play against Paris Saint-Germain, he came back having saw him convert a penalty before providing the assist for the winning goal with a delicious rabona cross.
Across the city at the Etihad, he would merely expand the pool of talent and give an extra option to Roberto Mancini. David Silva was clearly running on empty at times in the middle of the season yet City still relied on him to produce. Other members of the squad struggled to share the burden – Samir Nasri has done an adequate job, but hasn’t been outstanding and Adam Johnson has found his role to be bit-part as Mancini does not trust him within the system he uses. There may well be room for Hazard in the City midfield as it is expected that Johnson, like Hazard, will be moving on to pastures new over the course of the summer.
Hazard is an excellent player and the Premier League could only benefit from playing host to someone of such talent; that cannot be argued. All of the talk surrounding him, on the other hand, has become extremely mundane. So, we beseech you, Eden: shut your mouth and make your move.