Thursday 19 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Changing times have Man United in a spin'

‘A Champions League spot next season is also crucial for Spurs’ future. Without it, it’s hard to see Pochettino staying on’ Photo: Reuters/Andrew Yates
‘A Champions League spot next season is also crucial for Spurs’ future. Without it, it’s hard to see Pochettino staying on’ Photo: Reuters/Andrew Yates
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Bob Dylan wrote many wise words, but perhaps none wiser than those in The Times They Are A Changin’, “Don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin/And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’/For the loser now will be later to win.’

That’s particularly sound advice for anyone following the ebb and flow of a sporting season but it can be difficult to follow when events are coming at you thick and fast. We’re all susceptible to drawing premature conclusions.

When Jose Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United in December, Zinedine Zidane was the bookies’ favourite to succeed him. But the smart money was on United appointing a caretaker manager to see things through to the end of the season before they enticed Mauricio Pochettino away from Spurs.

The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as caretaker seemed irrelevant to the question of long-term succession. His credibility damaged by a disastrous spell at Cardiff City and a three-season spell without a league title at FK Molde, the Norwegian seemed a mere stopgap.

Yet as he engineered a remarkable run which brought United back into the hunt for a Champions League place and inspired a miraculous defeat of Paris Saint-Germain, Solskjaer came to seem like the man for the job. Three weeks ago, after ten wins, two draws and a loss in 13 Premier League games, he was appointed successor to Mourinho.

It was an overwhelmingly popular choice. The claims of dream candidate Pochettino had receded. One-time title contenders Spurs had fallen dramatically away since the turn of the year. They’ve won just six and lost eight of their last 15 games.

On St Stephen’s Day, Spurs were a point ahead of Manchester City and 13 clear of United. Today they’re 19 points behind the former and just three clear of the latter who have a game in hand. Some even wondered if Pochettino might not be slightly over-rated.

United’s 1-0 win over Spurs on January 13 at Wembley symbolised the changing fortunes of the two managers. A rejuvenated Paul Pogba was outstanding as United seemed to disprove Mourinho’s complaints about the sub-standard nature of his players.

But now the pendulum has swung again. On Tuesday, a supine performance saw United lose 3-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou. United hardly raised a gallop over the two legs and the win over PSG suddenly seemed a glorious fluke.

There was talk of how the players weren’t good enough, of how a clear-out was needed, of how the manager had to be provided with a war chest and how patience would be needed as he presided over a period of transition.

'Smith (pictured) subjected a young Liverpool player Howard Gayle to racist abuse and years later told an interviewer that he had no problem with black people but would move house if one moved next door to him.' Photo: Getty
'Smith (pictured) subjected a young Liverpool player Howard Gayle to racist abuse and years later told an interviewer that he had no problem with black people but would move house if one moved next door to him.' Photo: Getty

This was familiar stuff, we heard it at the start of the reigns of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho and at the end of those reigns too. There was something ominous about its re-emergence at a club where all had been optimism a month earlier.

The big problem with the ‘How can United be expected to give Barcelona a game with a team like that’ argument is that, on the very same night, Ajax followed up their victory over Real Madrid by knocking out Juventus. That Ajax have a weaker squad than United is hardly debatable and is neatly illustrated by the presence in their defence of Daley Blind, once regarded at Old Trafford as the type of player who’d have to be jettisoned were the club to rejoin the elite.

Twenty-four hours later, Spurs’ advance at the expense of Manchester City with a depleted team made United’s excuses look weaker still. The Barcelona defeat and the fact that since Solksjaer was appointed to the job United have lost three of their five games, can not be simply waved away.

The more pessimistic United fan might even wonder if Solksjaer simply benefited from an elongated version of the sometimes misleading bounce clubs often get from the appointment of a new manager.

He was, for example, highly praised for persuading Paul Pogba to play to his full potential. Yet against Barcelona Pogba was the same lacklustre and apathetic figure who’d contributed so heavily to Mourinho’s sacking. The talk once more is of the Frenchman leaving Old Trafford.

You wonder sometimes if playing for a Juventus team which won four Serie A titles on the trot gave Pogba a taste for performing on sides which are so dominant he can be an ornament rather than an inspiration. There was a striking difference in hunger between him and Lionel Messi who is almost six years older, has achieved a lot more, yet seems compelled to try and prove himself anew every time he takes the field.

Solksjaer has proved no more successful than Mourinho in getting the best out of £52m man Fred, from Alexis Sanchez who increasingly looks one of the worst signings in Premier League history, or from Juan Mata who’s remained a largely peripheral figure. That massively underachieving trio command enormous wages, which hardly tallies with claims that United have been starved of funds by penny-pinching owners.

It would be absurd to read too much into a couple of defeats but Solksjaer is now under pressure to secure a top-four spot. With Spurs and Arsenal currently in the top four and Chelsea favourites to win the Europa League, there’s a distinct possibility that United might be the sole member of the big six without Champions League football next season. That would make attracting top-class players to the club much more difficult.

Spurs’ defeat of Manchester City was one of the outstanding Champions League achievements of recent years. It was also a reminder that Mauricio Pochettino is one of the best managers in the world, something easy to forget as the constraints on his limited squad saw Spurs struggle in recent months.

Anyone predicting that Spurs victory would have added the proviso, “Everything will have go to right for them”. Instead a good deal went wrong. The loss of Harry Kane through injury in the first game was an enormous blow. Then they had to plan for the second game without the injured midfield duo of Eric Dier and Harry Winks.

This situation was exacerbated when Erik Lamela suffered a hamstring injury in the warm-up and made worse still when Moussa Sissoko limped off in the 41st minute. Shorn of options, Pochettino brought on striker Fernando Llorente for Sissoko with Son Heung-Min deputised to drop back and help out.

The result was that Kevin De Bruyne ran riot in midfield and when he set Sergio Aguero up to make it 4-2 in the 59th minute, a 5-2, 6-2 or even 7-2 result looked more likely than a Spurs recovery. Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero looked super sharp and, as if to rub Pochettino’s nose in it, Pep Guardiola was able to bring on the world-class Fernandinho to firm up City’s midfield.

Yet Spurs hung in there and then hung on after Llorente’s 73rd-minute goal. Llorente, a 34-year-old who came to Spurs from Swansea City and has scored two Premier League goals in two seasons, was an unlikely hero, but he was all Pochettino had. The Argentinian has always excelled in getting the best out of the players available.

The great example is Son Heung-Min who was so disenchanted three years ago after a poor debut season that he asked to leave Spurs. Pochettino counselled patience and determination. Player and manager have been richly rewarded.

Son had already enjoyed a superb season but the two games against City have propelled him to folk-hero status. With Kane gone, the South Korean put the team up on his back with three goals.

City had looked unstoppable of late with nine Premier League wins in a row and 26 goals from eight Champions League games. Schalke 04, defeated 10-2 on aggregate in the previous Champions League round, seemed, like many others, mesmerised by the aura of invincibility surrounding Guardiola’s team.

Spurs, on the other hand, retained their self-belief in the most testing of circumstances. To score three times at the Etihad was an extraordinary achievement when most teams go there with few attacking ambitions.

Pochettino’s side have battled the odds all through this campaign. Group stage elimination beckoned when their first three games yielded one point but they scraped through on the last day thanks to Lucas Moura’s equaliser five minutes from time against Barcelona and Inter Milan’s failure to beat PSV Eindhoven at home. Now they’re just two games from a first ever Champions League final.

A Champions League spot next season is also crucial for Spurs’ future. Without it, it’s hard to see Pochettino staying on. But if he does, this year’s run will surely persuade the owners to loosen the purse strings so their brilliant boss can finally compete on a level playing ground.

The one sure thing is that he won’t be going to Old Trafford this summer. Will United regret that in the long run? Time will tell. The wheel’s still in spin.

Smith thrived in a time when Cloggers would inflict maximum damage with minimum class

The death of Tommy Smith last week made me think about the unique tribe to which the former Liverpool great belonged. They were the 1970s defensive hard men, or to use the colloquial term, the Cloggers.

Players like Smith, Peter Storey, Ron Harris and Norman Hunter were the dark counterparts to the long-haired flair merchants of the day. In fact, they were often specifically tasked with keeping the likes of George Best, Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Tony Currie quiet.

Some features of games from that era seem utterly alien when you watch them now. There are the jam-packed crowds swaying in unison on the terraces and the pitches largely bereft of grass during the winter. And then there are the tackles, ferocious assaults which these days would bring a red card and a lengthy suspension but those days were merely punished by a free kick, if even that.

In a ruthless era, the Clogger was the most ruthless of all. He was, as Ron Harris dubbed Peter Storey, "the bastard's bastard," and the most potent weapon in his armoury was the tackle from behind, a scything manoeuvre which swept away the legs of the opponent and often left him writhing in utter agony at a time when feigning injury wasn't a thing.

Nobody in their right mind lamented the demise of the Clogger, whose presence diminished as the game entered the 1980s until eventually he joined the ice hockey 'goon' in the dustbin of history. They shortened careers and made the life of ball-players an utter misery. There are those who feel that the constant cruel physical punishment inflicted on Best played a part in his going off the rails.

Yet the Clogger was regarded with great affection by his own fans. Witness the affectionate nicknames bestowed upon Norman 'Bites Your Legs' Hunter or Ron 'Chopper' Harris. At an extraordinarily atavistic time on the terraces, supporters admired a bit of the old ultra-violence on the pitch.

The Clogger could be a match-winner. In the drawn 1970 FA Cup final between Leeds United and Chelsea, Leeds winger Eddie Gray gave one of the greatest final performances in history. Eight minutes into the replay, Ron Harris caught him with a vicious late tackle from behind which slowed Gray down significantly. Chelsea won 2-1 and Harris's contribution was probably as vital as the goals by Peter Houseman and David Webb.

Hard men like Billy Bremner, Graeme Souness and even Roy Keane don't qualify as Cloggers because they were very good footballers. The Clogger's primary purpose, on the other hand, was to clog. Despite their fearsome reputation they often weren't particularly big men, Smith was only five foot 10 and Storey an inch lower than that. The Clogger needed to be mobile enough to follow opponents around and get into Clogging position before the ball arrived.

The mystique surrounding them sometimes derived from the suspicion that their nature off the pitch might not be too different. Storey served a number of prison terms for such offences as counterfeiting, brothel-keeping and attempting to smuggle hardcore porn into England.

Smith subjected a young Liverpool player Howard Gayle to racist abuse and years later told an interviewer that he had no problem with black people but would move house if one moved next door to him. The Anfield legend was not one of life's intellectuals; a journalist once observed that a Scrabble match he'd seen between Smith and his University-educated Liverpool team-mate Brian Hall might have been the most uneven sporting contest in the history of the world.

You suspected there was a personal as well as a professional animus to the enmity exhibited by the Clogger towards the ball-player. One former Liverpool player told of nutmegging Ron Yeats, Smith's predecessor as club enforcer, at training and being told afterwards he'd have his neck broken if he ever tried anything like that again.

Life had been easy for the football artists, they'd been running rings around people and scoring great goals since they were kids, hogging all the praise and the glamour. The Clogger's virtues were of a more basic variety and he made the most of them. Before becoming a professional, Yeats had worked in a slaughterhouse and the fear of ending up somewhere like that must have preyed upon the minds of guys who weren't blessed with natural gifts.

After leaving Liverpool, Tommy Smith signed for Swansea where he came up against Osvaldo Ardiles, playing one of his first games for Spurs after his high-profile move from Argentina. Smith put him out of the game with a typical tackle and was unrepentant afterwards, snarling, "I think he's a waste of time."

The Clogger knew who he was. He knew that someone had to wear the villain's hat. I retain a certain fondness for the mad bastards. But that's probably because I never had to play against them.

Folau isn’t the only one on the high horse

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Israel Folau had specifically targeted gay people in the statement which should get him kicked out of Australian rugby. In fact, homosexuals were just one of the groups the Awful Aussie considers to be hell-bound.

“Drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters,” are the other groups apparently destined for the eternal sauna. (Is it me or is it getting hot in here?) I can’t help thinking that had Folau stuck to these targets he might have had quite a bit of support from people who’ve been energetically decrying his comments.

I’m going by the reaction of those concerned souls who, in the wake of Tiger Woods’ magnificent Masters victory, felt it important to remind us that the golfer was A Very Bad Man because he’d had affairs when he was married.

This pack of creeping Jesuses would do well in this case, and in the case of the rower James Cracknell, to remember the observation of the great novelist Anthony Powell that nothing is as unknowable as the workings of someone else’s marriage. Not everyone’s life resembles a TV mortgage ad. And not everything that happens needs to be accompanied by performative displays of moral outrage and superiority.

* * * * *

Recent events should make us wary of claiming a share in the achievements of English sports stars with Irish parentage. But I think we’re entitled to make an exception in the case of Alice Kinsella whose father Mark was one of the most wholehearted footballers ever to wear the Irish jersey.

Last weekend in Poland young Kinsella, who’s a member of the Park Wrekin club in Telford, became the first British gymnast to win European Championship gold in the balance beam. Still just 18, she won the same event at last year’s Commonwealth Games and is one to watch at next year’s Olympics.

Her older brother Liam is a former Ireland under 21 international who’s currently helping one of his father’s old clubs, Walsall, in a League One relegation battle. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

* * * * *

racing fans were looking forward to seeing Too Darn Hot, touted as a potential Frankel-type wonder horse, do his thing in the 2,000 Guineas on May 4. But our hopes have been dashed after his trainer John Gosden decided that he would not be able to get his colt fit in time, following an injury to a splint bone which caused him to miss his seasonal debut in the Greenham Stakes at Newbury 10 days ago.

The picture was muddied further last weekend at Newmarket’s Craven Stakes when the fancied Godolphin pair of Royal Marine and Zakouski finished well down the field. Craven winner Skardu, trained by William Haggas, French raider Persian King and the Aidan O’Brien duo of Magna Grecia and Ten Sovereigns look best placed to pick up the pieces now that Too Darn Hot has been ruled out.

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