Not for all the tea in China…

This summer has proven to be long and anguishing for Evertonians the world over. The “will he, won’t he” transfer saga of one John Stones (to either Chelsea, or now also the Man’s Citteh and United) has dragged on for three months, first with Jose Mourinho’s 20 million pound bid, which was followed two weeks later by one for 25 million, and then another for 30 million. As mentioned, this elevated amount of interest has drawn the two Manchester behemoths into the mix (blood in the water will do that), and it is more and more turning into a matter of not if but when (and to whom) the young former Barnsley academy grad will head up stream to greener pastures.

That Stones is destined to move on to a club larger (and more profitable) than Everton is a forgone conclusion in the minds of many. Manager Roberto Martinez is not one of those, plainly indicating his vision for the player: a center pillar in his plan to build up a new generation of Evertonian greats, future Everton captain, perhaps even the same role for England.

The eyes of the footballing world (or at least England) are on this young man who has had such a meteoric rise from Barnsley’s academy.

And then, just now, we hear that the young man has handed in a transfer request. Many Evertonians will be letting out howls of despair, clenching their teeth in anger and wondering what it’s going to take to be able to hold onto their prized assets.

As a Toffeeman myself, I feel annoyed and somewhat ambivalent. I can understand the boy wants to play for Chelsea. It’s regular Champions League appearances, Premier League titles, yearly runs at the FA Cup… I mean, wouldn’t you? So it’s not a matter of not being able to see it from his side.

To his credit, Stones has not once in the three games he’s played looked like an unsettled player or that his role at Everton is somehow beneath him. No, it has been much the opposite: he has been a model professional, playing extremely well all three times. So this transfer request is simply a young player who, understanding his brand is hot right now, will attempt to leverage the attention being lavished upon him to force through a move to a bigger club. The reasons are good, and beyond those stated above, any promising professional would want to be surrounded by the very best in his chosen field.

It’s not that Stones is in the wrong. It’s just that his request should be utterly ignored, bottom drawered, and he must be made to honor his contract if that is what the owner of it, namely, Everton Football Club, deign necessary.

Football is an odd profession. You have these binding contracts that players sign and are not allowed to simply walk away from. I work a job in a call center. If I get offered a better job with better pay, I put in my two weeks notice and walk away. My employer cannot force me to stay here. But John Stones, as much as he has a right to want to play at a bigger club, has signed a binding contract that he must honor unless the club releases him of that responsibility. The only way that will happen is if they get a silly money offer. But I have a feeling even that won’t be enough.

Odds are pretty good Stones will get his move. But Martinez now needs to make a difficult decision: does he try to put Chelsea over the proverbial barrel and extract a record fee for the youngster? Does he then turn it around to pick up two defensive reinforcements and a few other coveted players? Or does he dig in his heels and say no, not under any circumstances, and just ride this one out with a player who will likely become unsettled and unhappy with the turn of events? Either way, he must act immediately. You get the sense that it is now too late in the day to get adequate cover.

For my money, Stones is too important to the cause. And so, even if he rides the bench for a few weeks, Stones must be made to stay. He will get his move. Just not this window.

Furthermore, Everton must throw down the gauntlet here. There is something to be said about the nakedly provocative nature of Chelsea’s pursuit of the youngster. Comments by Mourinho, Chelsea captain John Terry and backline partner Gary Cahill cannot be seen as anything other than tapping a player up through the press. The London aristocrats should be made pay for their impudence by not only missing out on their number one summer target, but be made to watch their coveted prize sold to another club. Everton should make arrangements for Stones to be offered to the likes of Manchester United or even a club on the continent, such as Bayern Munich. You get the sense Stones would profit greatly (as would the Three Lions) from having played in Spain or Germany. At this stage, with so few cards to play, Everton must not sell Stones to Chelsea merely on principle.

that last bit there is a bit of my own spleen-venting. I’d rather loan him to Liverpool at this stage. Chelsea can go spontaneously explode for all I care.

Not that this is going to happen. The most likely scenario is Mourinho and Co. will come back with 32 million quid and a smug grin, and a deal will be hammered out. Chelsea will be in Goodison on 12 September, the first game back after the international break, and you can expect a mutinous atmosphere at the Old Lady. If I were Mourinho, I’d pick up a nasty cold or something and simply not show, so hot will the hatred be in the place for him. Stones would be advised to stay in London. And it will be an ugly, card-littered affair.

Even if the Toffees prevail in holding on to their star defender, you get the sense that Chelsea’s next turnout at Goodison will be an acrimonious one. If they lose him… it will color their meetings for years. David Moyes took immense personal satisfaction in beating Manchester City in the years following their successful luring of centerback Joleon Lescott. You get the sense that dynamic would be present again.

Martinez has spoken of his desire to build a team, and is recruiting younger players to do just that. There were six players on the pitch under the age of 22 in the last two games, and you get the sense Martinez has been prioritizing youth in this transfer window. At 21, Stones is central to his plans. As Everton’s legendary ‘keeper Neville Southall recently stated, what sort of message would selling Stones send out to the other young players in the team?

It’s a fair point. Here’s a counterpoint: holding onto Stones for the sake of it might be a bit of hubris.

I think, in the balance, it’s important that Everton hang onto Stones for this window and then reward him with improved terms on his contract. He has proven that he can be a professional and do the job even when his head’s been turned. He’s young, he can hang in for another year or two. It’s no train smash in his career if he stays a bit longer as he is so young now.

His very youth might be a card to play in this particular game. As good as he is, he he has a lot about his game to improve and he will have a greater chance to do so playing regularly every week. While Terry has seen his performances questioned in his last two outings (substituted in one and red-carded in the other), there is no guarantee that the old soldier is going to roll over and allow a callow youngster such as Stones to usurp his spot in the starting eleven. The far more likely scenario is Stones will find himself on the bench for the remainder of this season. That would likely mean he would have to prove his worth all over again to England manager Roy Hodgson, who will not select him if he is not playing.

If Stones has already thought this one through and he is insistent enough, then perhaps Martinez will have to just accept the inevitable. But the carrot of a starting berth in the Three Lions in next summer’s Euros and the promise of a move in the next summer transfer window could just be enough to keep the young man put, for now. Here’s hoping he stays…

Winners and losers… Week 1 of the Prem

At long last, the arduous wait is over and the new season has started. Week 1 provided it’s share of surprises, especially if you’re a Gooner. Much has been made of Arsene Wenger’s men, and I’ve got them winning the league, but not on the evidence of this performance. With over 62% of the possession, it’s not as though the Arse didn’t have a chance to set up the goal. Thirteen shots with six on target and five corners… the North London club had their chances. Wenger puts the loss down to defensive lapses, and indeed, the Hammers ensured their defense held firm to hit the Gunners on the break, and so the backline that gives is the backline that gets blamed. Petr Cech was at fault for the first goal, but then his central defense crapped the proverbial bed. It had poor Arsene with head in hands.

Manchester United got out of the gate with a win but failed to look convincing in it. Chelsea endured  a torrid opening day drawing 2 -2 with Swansea and seeing ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois sent off for a last-ditch challenge on Bafetimbi Gomis. While Mourinho struggles to add players to his ranks this year, it was Swansea new boy Andre Ayew who made himself at home, notching the first of his new club’s goals on the afternoon. He’s not the only Swans newcomer making his mark, with Jefferson Montero earning man of the match plaudits. While “only” a draw, you have to seriously consider the South Wales club as a serious top-eight contender (even if I have them finishing at 11th…)

As for other big clubs… the ‘Pool squeaked out a victory on some last-minute magic from Brazilian midfield schemer Filipe Countinho, a real screamer of a shot. As for the other half of Merseyside, an uninspiriting and probably underserved draw for the Toffees, as they held of the challenge to Premier League newcomers Watford. Quique Sanchez Flores’ newly assembled group of mercenaries professionals put in a creditable display and, on the balance, might be a bit more to handle than once thought. The only positives to take from the match for the Toffeemen will be the menacing form of Ross Barkley. If the Blue half of the Mersey are to perform this year, he will need to be at his best.

This weekend did produce one goalfest, in the shape of Leicester’s four goal drubbing on Sunderland. A brace from midfield maestro Riyad Mahrez and one each for Jamie Vardy and Marc Albrighton (all of them, incidentally, scored before the 60th, with Sunderland pinging two consolations in the 66 and 70th minutes), it was a comfortable display. Black Cats manager Dick Advocaat brought in defensive reinforcements in the last two months and it does not appear, on the evidence, that it made any impact. The eye catching stat here is 15 shots by the Foxes against just nine from the Black Cats, six corners to Leicester, who, incidentally, had the lesser of possession with 44%. That is impressive. Goes to show that Ranieri’s boys know what to do with the ball even if they don’t have it most of the time. The Barcodes took on Southampton on Saturday, which ended in a 2 – 2 draw.

Other results saw Villa edge Bournemouth in their home opener. The Cherries had a number of chances but were unable to capitalize, which proved costly when Rudy Gestede came off the bench to net for the visitors. Other newcomers Norwich got a cold welcome back to the top flight with a 3-1 beating handed to them by Crystal Palace.

In all, an exciting first weekend. Man City have West Brom as their opener on Monday afternoon, and we will be well and truly underway. The Prem is back, kids!

 

Season Preview: West Ham United

West Ham United, co-owned by long time business partners, the David’s Gold and Sullivan, are in their last year at the historic Boleyn Ground before their move to the Olympic Stadium. For Gold and Sullivan, there is only one goal in mind: Premier League survival. That’s it. Proof of this is West Ham’s capitulation in the Europa League, losing to Astra Giurgiu in the qualification stage of the competition. New manager Slavan Bilic fielded a side full of newcomers and youngsters in the second leg of the showdown and they were unable to turn the tie in their favor. Bilic made all the right noises about how the competition is important to him, but really, he’s thinking about the League. Europe can wait, they have bigger fish to fry.

Bilic’s appointment raised some eyebrows in the footballing world. Gold and Sullivan made it abundantly clear that former manager Sam Allardyce was nowhere near sexy enough for them, and fair enough, the guy is a long-ball merchant and a known quantity. His old school approach was probably fine for Bolton and Blackburn, but the Hammers want the return of the golden era of  Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore. They want swagger, sexy, saucy. Allardyce, while always reliable for a hilarious quote, was never going to win over the Boleyn Ground faithful. So Bilic comes in, and he’s a bit of a local legend. He didn’t play long for the club, but in his year and some change there, he made an impression on the fans for his unflinching commitment to the cause.

As a manager, Bilic led Croatia for six years, spent time at Lokomotiv Moscow and most recently Besiktas. In both instances at club level, Bilic was sacked due to inability to fulfill the club hierarchy’s ambitions. In the latter’s case, he took over arguably the biggest club in Turkey, with the mandate to win the title there and failed to do so. It’s a tall order for any manager to lead a championship squad but the short of it is there has not been vast evidence of this being a supremely capable manager. He led the national team for his home country for six years, where they qualified for two European tournaments. He never led them to a World Cup. He failed at Lokomotiv. He failed at Besiktas.

There is no real indication that this appointment is anything other than a place holder, in my mind. The David’s Gold and Sullivan both openly courted former Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, if for nothing other than to show the fans they were looking for that caliber of manager. Klopp decided to take a year’s sabattical, but it’s not like there aren’t other big-names available. The appointment of Bilic is strange and seems to be a bit of a publicity stunt on their part while they do a deeper search for a proper next-level manager.

You might have noticed how little I’ve spoken about transfers in this one. They have brought in some quality reinforcements in the window, even pipping Everton to the signature of Angelo Ogbonna from Juventus. Dimitri Payet is another decent addition to the squad, and you have to feel that these additions should solidify an already decent enough team. But I have a feeling there is an air of edginess about the leadership at the club and Bilic could very easily play conservative, ensure he does not tarnish his reputation any further by being fired for a poor run of results, and he will fulfill the David’s demand of keeping the Hammers in the top flight going into their new, dubiously acquired digs at the Olympic Stadium. Everything else is just details…

Season Preview: West Bromwich Albion

Tony Pulis is a man regarded in some circles as a dead-on certainty to maintain any give club’s Premier League survival. With the Baggies penchant of yoyoing between the Prem and the Championship, and the new bumper TV rights deal, you can forgive chairman Jeremy Peace for going for a sure thing, if a bit cynical and boring to watch. Pulis is not pretty but he is efficient. If he hangs around then the Baggies could eventually consolidate their Premier League status to such a degree that they can chance a slightly more ambitious manager. This is the route Stoke took, and once they had felt they were sufficiently well ensconced in the top flight, shook Pulis’s hand and said adios. There is room for a manager like Tony Pulis in the League, and there are teams willing to pay quite a bit to ensure they stay among the top 20 every year.

Pulis wants to make sure he’s got a big man up front to nod in the goals. To this end, he has recruited Liverpool failure Rickie Lambert. Lambert will have the added motivation of putting his career back on track, since he arguably wasted a year on the ‘Pool bench when he was a hero at Southampton. The man can score goals, but at 33 he has a short shelf life remaining, so this is the year to make a mark. Whatever that might be. He will be the big ‘un to Saido Behrahino’s little ‘un.

Honestly, what’s to say here? The Baggies will be compact. They will be hard to beat. They will hit their opponents on the counter and they will look to go long as often as possible. It’s a Tony Pulis squad. If they had a long throw-in specialist, it would be textbook. I predict 15th place and never really looking over their shoulder’s too concernedly.

Season Preview: Watford

At the end of last season, the Vicarage Road faithful saw their beloved Hornets promoted to the Premier League for the first time in nearly a decade, comfortably getting over the line in second place. Manager Slaviša Jokanović, the fourth manager for the club that season, was hailed as a genius but left the club almost immediately afterward once he’d failed to agree to terms with the club’s owners, the Pozzo family. Spanish manager Quique Sanchez-Flores, who has managed the likes of Valencia, Ateltico de Madrid and Getafe, is now in charge at Hertfordshire club. He is a very able tactician, this appointment should be exciting.

It’s just…. four managers. In one season. That’s not just bad luck, that’s chaos. The Pozzo’s appears to be this season’s early contenders for “villainous owner of the year,” an honor shared by Assem Allam of Hull and Cardiff’s Vincent Tan last season.

Not that they haven’t banked Flores: he has brought in an entire first team’s worth of talent in the off season. It’s nothing short of a slap in the face of the group that got them there, and it will be interesting to see how the Hornets fare. I have them going down dead last, the same as the two other times they were in the league. The club earned promotion by scoring bags of goals last term, but it won’t be as easy to do so in the big leagues. It’s a shame as Flores is a manager I’d be willing to watch regularly. Not that he’s likely to survive: it’s just as likely that he’d be the season’s first managerial casualty if the Pozzo’s track record is anything to go by.