The way of all flesh…

guillotine

As is frequently the case, life has a habit of curtailing one’s passions, unless one’s passions are one’s life. As a father of three, husband and all-around working stiff, my passions, such as they are, often get pushed to the curb until such a time as the pile of it gets so… monumental… well, it gets time to pick up the rubbish and dispose of it.

Not that my passions are rubbish. Far from it.

WHAT a crazy season this has been so far in the Prem! Who would have thought Chelsea would be in the predicament in which they find themselves at this moment. Reports surfaced recently that Jose Mourinho is all out of time at Stamford Bridge, that the powers that be are awaiting until the end of the Stoke match this weekend to give the man the boot. This would have given them the international break to install his successor, a la Liverpool. It has since been reported that Mourinho retains the support of Chelsea’s deep-pocketed owner Roman Abramovich, but we all know how much that is worth these days. Chelski lost that game to Stoke, by the way.

This turn of events beggars belief, but is almost understandable given recent controversy surrounding the Portuguese schemer. Everywhere you look, Mourinho seems to be mentioned for all the wrong reasons: everything from the fallout of the Eva Carneiro fiasco to multiple stadium bans and fines, and even reports of a mutiny in the locker room led by everyone’s favorite sourpuss Cesc Fabregas (both deny the allegations). All signs point toward the Special One suddenly going from flavor of the month to something of a toxic asset. Where did it all go so wrong?

The Daily Mail, using its guise as an investigative news outlet, published this piece about all that has gone wrong old Jose. There are some pieces worth noting, though: Mourinho’s father, Felix, is apparently very ill and on his last legs. Mourinho has gone back and forth to Portugal often this season and one can see that the man is taking strain. One gets the feeling that a few misplaced words at the beginning of the season, coupled with the man’s mountain-sized ego and unwillingness to back down have contributed to what is becoming an untenable situation. I wonder if he had simply admitted he’d overreacted to Carneiro’s coming on the field to tend to Eden Hazard, if he’d defused that situation or, better, controlled his tongue and not said anything at all, whether he’d have a better grip on things right now.

Perhaps the problems started a little earlier, during the transfer window. Mourinho’s very public pursuit of Everton defender John Stones ended in futility, much to his embarrassment. How does a seemingly “small” club (when compared to the London giants) bat back such assiduous pursuit of one of their prize assets? Who do they think they are, Mourinho appeared to imply in his blustering comments. His inability to recruit adequate cover in that department, along with the ill-advised decision to allow Petr Cech to join Arsenal, seem to have called in to question his up-to-now unquestionable transfer nous.

How bad is it right now at Stamford Bridge, really? Does it make any sense in the world to sack a man who not six months ago brought home the Prem title at a canter with this same squad? Football is not the province of sense, reason or good taste, and as such the previous statements ought to be laughed off. This club is owned by none other than Roman Abramovich, a man accustomed to having everything he wants, right now, immediately, always. He went to some lengths to bury to hatchet between himself and Mourinho in order to woo the man back into the fold, and it now appears he may very well unearth it and bury the implement firmly in Jose’s back. It is so not beyond him it’s not funny.

The report on Mourinho’s imminent sacking came from a reliable source, and as such could not be discounted. Whether the latest pronouncement from the Bridge is a temporary stay of execution or a vote of confidence is to be seen. One hopes he hangs around, if for no other reason than the Premier League benefits from having a panto villian such as the Portuguese schemer. Still, Mourinho might have made his situation untenable.

It cannot be overstated that the situation with Eva Carneiro is unacceptable. In this day and age, a public figure of Mourinho’s clout cannot come across as a sexist pig, and there is no question that he did. The Football Association carried out an investigation, but never bothered to contact Ms Carneiro, which only further served to exacerbate the situation. How her input on this whole situation was deemed to be immaterial is truly beyond me, but it has now shown that the sexism is not focused simply on an individual, but is systemic. Carneiro was done very wrong in this sad debacle and goes to show that sexism in sport is not going to go away any time soon.

Mourinho’s inability to dislodge John Stones from Everton may have been the only well-publicized bit of transfer failure that we were made aware of. Chelsea did not reinforce their forward line, and Diego Costa showed that he has a niggle or two in him last season. We were all left to scratch our heads with the move for Colombian Radmael Falcão, who failed rather miserably to re-ignite his career at Manchester United last season. The Blues brought in Pedro from Barcelona for a significant outlay, but he has so far failed to make a real impression. We all know Loic Remy is just a backup. So Chelsea’s front line is, amazingly, in kind of a bad way. Perhaps Pedro was expected to hit the ground running. There have been reports that he is unhappy at the Bridge and wish he’d never left the Nou Camp.

Questions must be asked of Chelsea’s recruitment policy, if one indeed exists. The Blues currently have 32 of their players out on loan. That is not a typo. Chelsea have more out on loan than my beloved Toffees have on their books. While that last statement is not exactly true (it would appear the Toffees have 43 players signed up altogether), it does give one pause when you compare the roster of, say, Everton to Chelsea’s. Clearly, both clubs have increased focus on bringing in younger, unproven talent. It’s just that Chelsea have done on a much grander scale, and have sent the equivalent of a squad and its bench out on loan with a view to, potentially, plowing them back into the team.

Some get away. Everton has benefited from this policy, as has Man City (with Kevin De Bruyne, although via Wolfsburg). These aren’t exactly slouches. It would appear Chelsea’s scattershot style of recruiting young talent with great potential is netting results, but not for them. That is because these kids keep leaving due to annoyance at a perceived lack of chances. How many of this current loan crop will wind up back at the Bridge?

There’s a bit of arrogance in this policy: go out and scoop up as much young, raw talent and if they work out, great. At least the competition didn’t get them. The problem lies in whether they will live to rue the day they sold a world beater to a competitor or if they are unable to recoup some of the outlay. It’s a dangerous thing to spend a rich man’s money. If the results are good, then all is forgiven. If not…

That is probably where this is all going. Whether he’s acting like more of an ass than usual because of his father’s illness is neither here nor there. It is not up for debate whether Mourinho is everyone’s cup of tea; the man clearly divides opinion. If he continues to bring home the bacon, then much of his eccentricity can be written off. If not, then no. The Carneiro incident has proven he can be shockingly tone deaf to the mores of the times, while his spending can always lead to an inquest if the outlay does not net results. Pedro has been, so far, a costly mistake, while Falcão’s wages aren’t exactly bargain basement either. Fabregas was unstoppable last season but has not impressed this one. Nemanja Matic has not been at his best. Of course John Terry is slowing down, it’s why Mourinho chased Stones all summer. Expensive players, expensive contracts.

Still… Mourinho is a fan favorite. He is not going to be shown the door so soon. The recent vote of confidence might only be a stay of execution but really, who better is available? Rumors have circulated for what seems like forever that Abramovich’s deepest wish is to install Pep Guardiola as manager, but the Spanish tactician might be given bumper incentive to stay in Bavaria.

After having gone to such lengths to convince Mourinho to come back to the Bridge, perhaps Abramovich’s best bet is to allow this supposed top manager lead this team out of its rut. That being said, Mourinho could do worse than to polish up his public persona. He has always been a complainer, but this season he has managed to take that to new highs (or lows). As has been noted elsewhere, a bit of humility couldn’t hurt. Results are great, but character is better. I wonder if he has it in him?

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…

Season Preview: Chelsea

I have Chelsea finishing 2nd in the Prem, and I should qualify this right off the bat: if they don’t win it all, they’ll lose either by one or two points, or goal difference. And that is it. While I have Arsenal taking the crown this year, it’s a matter of inches. This season could be the most tightly contested Premier League race in the last five years.

Chelsea has loaned out a total of thirteen players to different clubs, sold five (including the aforementioned Petr Cech to Arsenal) and brought in a grand total of two full-time staff, both seemingly as cover. Jose Mourinho has spent more time fussing over brining in John Stones from Everton than I have ever seen him do for another player. His very public courting of the Everton defender (nothing short of tapping up through the media) has noticeably soured relations between the two clubs, but Mourinho will not be bothered by that as he has bigger fish to fry: namely, he must find John Terry’s replacement. Gary Cahill, while a decent center back, does not boast of unquestionable loyalty from Mourinho. Furthermore, Stones is the kind of center back a manager who believes in building his teams from the back dream of: descriptors such as “elegant” and “mature” tend to populate ever column inch devoted to Stones, which is a helluva thing to bandy about when you’re talking about a 21 year kid. Stones with the ball at his foot is a thing to watch. He has the touch of a midfielder, perfectly comfortable on the ball, the sort of nous that you’re born with. His agility and intelligence in defense make him the kind of center back whom you can trust not only to shut the back door but to launch the attack from the back. And not just counter-attack; the man knows how to pick a pass. He sees the game in front of him.

In short, Stones is not your English “safety first,” put-a-boot-through-it-lad kind of defender. Everybody knows it, Mourinho most of all, and he could care less if he infuriates Everton in the process of nabbing him. He must have him. He’s made it clear.

Which is why they’ll likely sign him, and also why they’ve done so little else in the window up to now. The latest press has Mourinho preparing a 30 million pound deal, which would shatter the record for a defender in the Premier League, but you get the sense Everton will hold out until thy get their valuation of 34 million. It’s looking more and more like a transfer deadline deal for a player who will likely be a bit part player in the West London club for a season or two while John Terry teaches him the ropes. But if it goes down to the wire, it does so at the expense of the rest of Mourinho’s first team. He might play it off that he’s set in all other parts of the pitch but he has a striker in Diego Costa who is the dictionary definition of mercurial and has not look good (or happy) in pre-season. The loan signing of Radmael Falcao is an odd one indeed but could prove shrewd if Mourinho can get him playing at his goal poaching best. Still, Falcao has that Fernando Torres funk of a crocked striker who is trying to rediscover his devastating form that abandoned him after a major injury (in both cases, they suffered serious knee injuries). I just don’t see Falcao putting serious pressure on Costa to perform at the top of his game, and Costa always strikes me as a guy who could care less what his manager or others want from him. I’m not sure what motivates the guy. Hate, perhaps?

So the Stones saga has been an unwanted distraction for Chelsea. This is Mourinho’s fault, as he could have (and should have) reinforced his squad, if only to keep his players playing hard, and as such they will drop two points here or there when they should have finished their opponents off. And as such, it will cost the Blues the title.

2014-2015 Year in Review

Last fall I wrote a preview for all the clubs in the English Premier League… and then stopped updating. Oh well, I’m back in the saddle now. Seems right to do a season review, and then see where we go from here!

Below are where teams wound up in the League, with my prediction in brackets. I got it mostly wrong but not by much. Have a look:

CHELSEA 1st (prediction 1st)

What can I say? From start to finish, Chelsea were far and away the dominant club in the Premier League. While they were disappointed with a last-16 exit from the Champions League, Chelski reaped the rewards of a solid summer of spending that saw the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa come in from Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, respectively, and bring the need cutting edge to a very solid team. Kudos to Jose Mourinho, who in the first part of the season saw the Blues playing some impressive attacking football, and then keeping their nerve in the second half and simply seeing out the season with solid team displays. It’s a terrifying prospect what a fit and rested Diego Costa will look like next year – we did not see enough of him during this season. Mourinho’s goal in the offseason will be simply to add depth and consolidate. We should see a more concerted assault at the Champions League next season.

MANCHESTER CITY 2nd (prediction 2nd)

Disappointing by their standards. Manuel Pellegrini is well liked by all at City – from directors to club staff to fans – but the Abu Dhabi group have very deep pockets indeed and will not give the man in the hot seat all of next season to get the formula right. I expect City to recruit aggressively this summer – the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba have been linked to the club. Pellegrini has stated that Yaya Toure will stay at the club, but really, he looked distracted and uninterested for the bulk of the season. At 32, he needs to be put out to pasture and the money reinvested in the likes of Pogba to rebuild the squad around him or a young player of his stature and potential. While I’m no City fan, I’m hoping Pellegrini can do the job. He is a gentleman and a good manager, and given time could build a proper footballing dynasty there.

ARSENAL 3rd (prediction 3rd)

Arsenal came in right where I predicted them to, but you still feel nothing has been achieved. They are in the FA Cup final, and I wonder if they won’t contrive to lose it to Aston Villa. Villa have the wind at their backs having pulled off a great escape from relegation, and even though their form dipped right at the very end, I have a feeling new manager Tim Sherwood can inspire them to pull off a very big win indeed. So Arsene Wenger needs to do something next season. He needs to apply intense, sustained pressure at the top end of the League all season long. He needs to convince everyone that he is either going to win it or is on the trembling edge of it.

I have another idea, though. While Arsenal has a marvelous manager in Wenger, he’s been there too long. It is time to allow him to move elsewhere and try other things. First prize would be for him to ascend into the club’s hierarchy, such as director of football or the like. And I’d urge them to pursue one man for the hot seat: Jurgen Klopp. He’s done at Dortmund, he’s young and exciting and appears the right sort of man to come in and pump some fresh impetus into the club. Wenger is a part of the furniture at the Emirates, and the club owe him a massive debt of gratitude. That said, he has gone an awful long time (a decade now) without winning the League, which is too long for a club of Arsenal’s profile.

MANCHESTER UNITED 4th (prediction 5th)

A season of modest progress for the Red Devils, although with some caveats. Yes, they are back in the hat for next season’s Champions League. They are playing a bit more cohesively and Louis Van Gaal is crafting a style of sorts there. He has yet to dial in his recruiting 100%, though, with Angel de Maria proving a massive disappointment. Many would point to Radmael Falcão as a disastrous choice too, but in fairness he was a loanee and who wouldn’t have given a player of his proven ability over the years a chance? Robin Van Persie appeared to have been heading over the hill already during last season so one can understand Van Gaal’s gamble on the Colombian marksman.

So this will be a very big window for United indeed. What do they need? LVG has spoken often of the team lacking balance, and I think he will begin his rebuild at the back. My namesake Phil Jones, along with Ireland international Johnny Evans could be headed for the exit. I can’t think of who LVG has in mind to bring in, though, as highly coveted center back Mats Humels has already rejected the rumors of moving there himself. I could see Van Gaal also looking for a bit more oomph in midfield, perhaps in the form of Juventus man Arturo Vidal. Still, you feel the Red Devils could use a string-puller, someone in the mold of Andrea Pirlo, but it’s hard to see who that could be when looking at the field of available talent. Also, they need a marksman, as Robin Van Persie is liable to either feature mostly from the bench going forward or will be released altogether. In my estimation, a good turnout in next year’s Champions League (out of the group stages for sure, maybe beyond round of 16) and a top-three finish would represent satisfactory progress. I think United are still three years away from a proper run at the summit of the Prem and a return to their full powers, but then anything can happen in football.

TOTTENHAM 5th (prediction 10th)

I’ll admit that my prediction of a tenth-place finish for Spurs is as much a matter of spite (toward their loathsome chair-creature Daniel Levy) as anything else, so it is with no small measure of revulsion that I complement the North London club on their excellent season. Mauricio Pochetino managed to hang onto his position as manager for the entire season, and began to implement some of his style on the team. You sense there is more to come.
Pochetino will be glad to hear the comments from this season’s standout player Harry Kane that he intends to become a Spurs legend. The Spurs’ boss would do well, then, to double down on those words and build the team around the 21-year old. All signs seem to point toward Kane kicking on from his very impressive season. He is everything an ambitious club could hope for: a local boy, trainee, coming good for the parent club. Kane turned out 53 times in all competitions this last for Tottenham, with a return of 32 goals for his troubles. A hard-working, honest young man with a love for his team and fans, Kane could very well be the face of the club for the next decade. If that is indeed the case, then it is not a matter whether Pochetino builds the club around him but who needs to come in (and leave) in order to do so. It will be worth watching Spurs in the off season: Levy has little patience but is a very cunning dealer in the market, and if he will trust his manager to do right by the club, we could see the top-four going through a rearrangement of sorts next season.

LIVERPOOL 6th (prediction 4th)

Poor Steven Gerrard. As an Evertonian, there is a smallish measure of glee in seeing the Red legend’s final season being such an egregious disappointment. Still, Gerrard deserved better for all his long years of faithful service and commitment to the club. Liverpool, who have one of the most impressive CV’s in all of global football, have for many long years languished in the shadow of their hated arch-rivals Manchester United. All the while they have been forced to watch the inexorable ascent of new usurpers to the throne in the form of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Not once have the Koppites one the Premier League in the 23 years of its existence (they last won the league in 1990).

So I do feel somewhat badly for Stevie G. Now the Reds are going to have to figure out where they go from here and for that manager Brendan Rogers needs to sort out some things in the club’s transfer policy. He could conceivably fund a restructuring of the club if he can command a fee for wantaway winger Raheem Sterling similar to what he got for Luis Suarez. Also, cut loose Rickie Lambert and the human train wreck Mario Balotelli. But I sense things will get worse before they get better – this was a pivotal season. Had Liverpool secured a top-four finish, they might have attracted a better caliber of player. You get the sense, though, that things are stinking to high heaven at Anfield, and top players will avoid the club for a few years. My guess is Rogers won’t get all of next season to right the ship, and we could see him gone as early as October if the club gets off to a bad start.

SOUTHAMPTON 7th (prediction 19th)

Well I got this one horribly wrong. Good for the Saints, though, and good for Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman ably navigated the transfer market and replaced the players lost at the end of last season with equal or better ones. To give an idea, Rickie Lamber, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren (all to Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United) and Callum Chambers (Arsenal), all decent enough players, netted the club roughly 92 million pounds in transfer fees. The total outlay for players Koeman brought in (including outstanding loanee Toby Alderweireld and all-time fastest hat trick scorer Sadio Mane) came to roughly 56 million pounds. This represents a sizeable profit for the club, and gates would have gone up from last season. That and they bettered their placement in the league from last season. This is a club going places. Who knows what could happen next.

SWANSEA 8th (prediction 9th – changed now to 8th)

I made a mistake when making predictions last year and had both Swansea and West Ham finishing ninth. So, given that I prefer Swansea to West Ham, I believe I would have chosen them to finish eighth simply due to my dislike for Sam Allerdyce. So far, four direct hits on 2014-2015 predo’s!

Hats off to manager Garry Monk: he is doing good things at the club. He has shown maturity in not throwing his toys out of the cot when Wilfried Bony moved to Manchester City for a cool 25 million pounds, up to 28 million with add-ons. Not bad for a 12 million pound initial outlay for the player. Monk has combined an exciting passing style of play with defensive steel and looks to be a sure bet to continue building on a solid season. How much farther up the table a club of Swansea’s side can go is debatable, but you have to assume a solid push for the Europa League next term is the goal for the club.

STOKE 9th (prediction 13th)

Often derided as the ultimate in unfashionable clubs, the Potters have kicked on since they made the decision to part with Tony Pulis. They traded the certainty of Premier League footbal that Pulis affords his clubs for a slightly more ambitious, creative boss in Mark Hughes. Credit to ol’ Sparky, Stoke never looked in danger of going down at any point of the season and are now a solid passing team as opposed to the cynical, long-ball (and Rory Delap inspired throw-in) merchants, very capable of scoring from open play instead of slavishly relying on set pieces. Not to talk down on Tony Pulis, who has proven at three clubs now that he can do the job in the League, but if you want something other than merely battling displays, he’s not your man.

Therefore Mark Hughes deserves enormous credit for taking an unsexy team and making them something to watch. If he can build upon this year’s position, they could be fighting for Europa League qualification in a year or two, and Hughes has a well-balanced squad to do that. A bit more depth and you could conceivably see them up there.

CRYSTAL PALACE 10th (prediction 12th)

It’s a rough thing to be a Crystal Palace fan. Firstly, last season’s manager hero Tony Pulis quit the club suddenly just days before the start of the campaign. In a mad rush, co-chairperson Steven Parish appointed the woefully inept Neil Warnock, who lasted only until Christmas.
This is when former Palace player Alan Pardew rode in on his white horse and changed the mood at Selhurst Park. The Eagles won the next ten out of fifteen matches and Pardew was able to get good performances out of Yannick Boalsie and Wilfred Zaha, the latter of who still has the potential of being a world-class player. Pardew seems to have the touch when it comes to the team and they ended up a spot up from where they ended last season. The right signings and faith placed in Pardew, who could hardly ask for more love from the fans (in contrast to his stay at the pointless Newcastle United), Crystal Palace could see a top-ten finish again next term and a decent cup run. Their ground, though, is something of a liability. Selhurst Park, while not the oldest in the country by any stretch of the imagination, is showing signs of wear and has rather modest seating by Premier League standards. The club will need to give serious thought to moving to a ground that would allow this club to kick on to the next level.

EVERTON 11th (prediction 6th)

I love my Blues, and this is not going to be the place where I break down all the bitter disappointment of this past season (I will do so at a later date in its own post). Eleventh place is exactly where Everton should be, as mid-table obscurity adequately reflects the tale of a season that promised so much, and delivered so little.

Fans argue Lukaku did not warrant the 28 million pounds the club ponied up for him. To them I say that without his goals in the League, we would have been fighting for survival on the final day of the season right along with Newcastle. He has been a comparable bright spot.

Everton and Newcastle both had dismal seasons. While the Geordies have owner Mike Ashley to blame, the Toffees need look no further than dapper Spaniard Roberto Martinez for the lack of production on the field. It is true that Everton play better when holding midfielder James McCarthy is in the team. It is true Everton proved a different team once he came back into squad around the festive period following a prolonged spell on the sidelines due to injury. Martinez, though, had the players to forestall the rot that set in from the very first kick of the League. One win from their opening seven games was a sign of things to come, as Everton appeared truly aimless with the ball in possession. Martinez’s mantra is to play attractive, passing football, which is nice but not when it’s all sideways and back passes. With no plan B, Everton went a long way backward before moving forward. Some blamed the heavier schedule as part of the club’s woes, but truth be told is Martinez and the Blues are now a known quantity in the League. Evidence of this is Everton played very well in the Europa League, where they are unknown, and scored stacks of goals in there. They were completely unable to translate that form into the League, as the teams there already knew what to expect from the Toffees.

Bluenoses are hoping Martinez has learned his lesson, as the club began to play a bit more directly after the New Year, and saw off any relegation fears with a good run of four wins in five (including a mauling of Manchester United). Still, one has to wonder just what might have been. It’s hard to see Everton getting back up among the Champions League contenders next season without a bit more guile in their game, but the talent is there. If Martinez can hold on to his more talismanic players (and add one or two to give some depth and competition), then who knows. Nevertheless, this season has been agony for this Everton fan.

WEST HAM 12th (prediction 9th)

Every game has two halves, as does every season. The first half of the season saw West Ham flying high, occupying a top-four position as recently as Boxing Day. The second half of the season was when the other shoe dropped, and the Hammers were only able to contrive two wins from their next ten Premier League matches. All said, West Ham only won three games in the League after the New Year. While they were defensively solid, it’s been the long-held view by all at the Boleyn Ground that Big Sam is the wrong sort of manager for a club of their tradition, therefore he was not invited to prolong his stay after the last game of the season.
Former defender Slavan Bilic is the bookies favorite for the spot, but one wonders if the Hammers shouldn’t shoot a bit higher than him, now that they have entered the qualifier rounds of the Europa League through their FIFA Fair Play standings. A European adventure would suit the West Ham faithful just fine, thank you, bringing back a bit of the Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore halcyon days to the East London club. Owners David Gold and David Sullivan have stated their ambition to see the Hammers return to the top-six before moving from Upton Park to the Olympic Stadium in time for the 2017-2017 season, but the likelihood of this is next to none. If the club can finish in the top-half next year and provide a decent cup run, then you sense excitement for the move to the new stadium (which is able to seat up to 80,000 but is currently configured for 54,000) could springboard the Hammers to a new golden age.

This would be fitting for a proud old club with as rich a history as West Ham, but there are risks involved. It is not entirely clear how much debt was leveraged to secure the 99-year lease for the ground. If things do not go according to plan, the ground itself could become an albatross around the club’s neck. If they should happen to be relegated from the Prem, the money lost from the division’s television rights could put the club upside down. This is no outside chance as West Ham have been in and among the last decades yo-yo teams (along with the likes of Norwich and West Bromwich Albion). The future is unclear on this one!

WEST BROM 13th (prediction 15th)

Chairman Jeremy Peace will be very pleased with his New Year’s Day appointment of Tony Pulis. This is the man Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho claims he’d appoint to any team he were to buy, simply because TP= Premier League survival. It is very hard to argue this logic with him, as Pulis has now taken one egregiously unsexy team (Stoke) into the Premier League and cemented their status as top division stalwarts. He then ensured the comfortable survival of two others (this one and Crystal Palace last term), both of who found themselves either in the relegation spots or just above them when he was appointed manager. How he does it, what combination of enthusiasm, tactics and motivation he possesses is a mystery to me. It makes you wonder if the man wasn’t born charmed or something, so reliable is his appointment-to-survival ration in the League.

In Pulis, Peace appointed just the man to ensure West Brom maintain their Premier League status indefinitely. As the reasoning goes, in order for a club to progress on to bigger and greater things, they must first ensure they are stable in this League. The Baggies are an unfashionable club from a smallish town, and their chunk of the massive television deal the League cut with broadcasters is worth it in itself. Ten seasons in the top flight of patient investment could see this smallish club become something.

While it is entirely likely fans will eventually become itchy for more than what Pulis can provide as far as spectacle is concerned, one expects they have enough about them to see they’ve got a good thing going on here. If they will give him the time to consolidate their position in the team, with some kind of five and ten year plan in place for moving the club forward, then this appointment could move from a stop-gap to a major stepping stone for this club. At 57, Pulis still has plenty of gas in the tank and if he were to up stakes and move on in five years, leaving behind the legacy of a stable, profitable club, then Jeremy Peace would do well to name a stand at The Hawthornes after him.

LEICESTER 14th (prediction 20th)

In my defense, I can’t think of one pundit who had the Foxes staying up. Not one. But stay up they did, and relatively comfortably in the end. Coming out of the gates, Leicester had the look of a club that might pull a surprise on everyone and wind up in the top half of the League come the May 2015. Instead, they went on a woeful skid of 13 games without a win and were dragged down into the relegation places for much of the next three months.

Now, manager Nigel Pearce may very well not be everyone’s favorite conversationalist (the word “sullen” comes to mind, while “hostile” to the press would also fit) but he was able to get the players playing for each other and the shirt at the right time of the season, and they pulled off a run of seven wins in ten right at the business end of the season. So hats off to the Foxes, a proud Midlands club who, hopefully, will grace the League for several more seasons to come.

NEWCASTLE 15th (prediction 7th)

Owner Mike Ashley, among the most reviled in all of England (at least by his own fans), is not going to sell the club until they “win something,” according to the latest press. Geordies from all walks of life throw down theirs pints in disgust, swearing up thunderclouds of imprecations and bemoaning the fate of this grand, old club.

It’s been since 1969 since Newcastle won anything. Wait, I take that back – they won the whatever-it-is-you-win-when-promoted-from-the-Championship trophy thing a few years back.

Newcastle is an oversized stadium full of drunken, unemployed Geordies. It is not a big club. It has no draw outside of the English Northeast. The Barcodes are guaranteed gate receipts for a supposedly lackadaisical owner who knows the dummies will fork out their life savings to sing about the days gone by and boo almost constantly. At least this is how the fans their put it. Reality is somewhat different, though.

Newcastle’s problem is their fans, the so-called Toon Army. They drove away a very capable manager in Alan Pardew because they thought he was a part of Ashley’s “Cockney Mafia” (what they call the London-based businessman’s firm, Sports Direct), claiming he did not have the club’s best in mind and was just the owner’s patsy. This is nonsense, as he’s a professional who understands his reputation is on the line. He did his level best for the club.

Fans perceive a lack of ambition on the part of the owner and Newcastle’s profile is now that of a selling club, which does not sit well. So they boo Ashley at every turn, which is understandable on a level. But Ashley has done the math and understands what the club needs to do is maintain its Premier League status. The appointment of John Carver throws a wrench in this theory, however, as one gets the impression that he was appointed strictly for his local lad pedigree and because he wouldn’t cost too much.

Ashley has been accused of not taking silverware seriously, that he thinks cup competitions are a distraction. I would say he understands his job very well indeed: his number one job is to maintain the club’s Premier League status. Pundits such as Geordie superhero Alan Shearer would do well to temper their myopic opinions with the sobering knowledge of what a few seasons outside of the top flight would do to a club of its size.

Nevertheless, football is not about reasonable arguments and there’s no telling a Geordie that the Barcodes aren’t a proper massive club. So this ill-fated relationship between the fans and Mike Ashley is liable to stumble along like a drunken wrestling match indefinitely. If Ashley is serious on his threat to not sell up until Newcastle land some silverware, then signs point to a long wait indeed. What manager in his right mind would take on this lot? Steve McClaren has been linked. The Wally in the Brolly had been linked to the job soon after Pardew left, but chose instead to stay on at Derby County (for this, he was rewarded with the sack after the Rams failed to qualify for the promotion playoffs). I don’t know if McClaren has the thick skin needed to handle the Toon Army, and I don’t believe they’d embrace him. He’s not one of them, one sense that nothing short of a third return of Kevin Keegan would placate the fans at this stage.

SUNDERLAND 16th (prediction 14th)

Expectations, being what they are, vary from club to club. While Newcastle fans cannot accept that their club has not won the Premier League title every year from 1992 to now, Northeast neighbors Sunderland still seem to have that air of “we’re just happy to be here” about them. Last season was touch and go. One feels for former manager Gus Poyett, who managed to haul the club away from relegation in the 2013-2014 but could not turn that into a successful second campaign in the hot seat.

There was little in the way of consistency – Sunderland spent the majority of the season flirting with relegation, and when Poyett was eventually shown the door in March, the Black Cats were a point above the drop zone. Vastly experienced manager Dick Advocaat was appointed to see out the season and three wins from the remaining nine matches was enough to do the trick. There has been speculation as to whether Advocaat would stay – his family lives in Holland, and the man has now coached 20 different teams. One gets the sense he could turn this down rather easily. The Black Cats are an early contender for relegation next season as far as I can see.

ASTON VILLA 17th (prediction 17th)

There’s a palpable sense of good vibes around Villa Park these days. This could not contrast more sharply than the atmosphere during the first half of the season. Ponderous Scot technician Paul Lambert paid the ultimate price for his continuous insistence on playing cynical, joyless football, but then again his brief was simply to keep the club up at any cost so present owner Randy Lerner could sell this sinking ship on.

Aston Villa are a grand old club with proper history, with silverware collected in the old League One and Europe, as well as the odd League and FA Cups. This week will see them play against Arsenal in the FA Cup final, and I for one will be betting on them to win it all. Some clubs yoyo in and out of the Premier League, while others are a part of the furniture. Villa are a founding member of the Football League, a club of tradition, and belong among the elite.

So it was good to see Paul Lambert finally given his marching orders. The proud Birmingham club deserves better, and while not everyone would have seen the unproven Tim Sherwood as an improvement, he has done enough to both keep them up and give the supporters something to shout about at the close of the season. Sherwood is a young, hungry manager with passion to spare and if he’s able to pull off a miracle against a far superior Arsenal side, then he will indeed be one to watch next season.

Villa will be hard pressed to hold on to some of their prized assets, though. Liverpool are hungrily eyeing star man Christian Benteke. Owner Randy Lerner must resist the urge to sell him on at all costs, seeing the return Sherwood was able to draw out of the striker. Under Lambert, Benteke only managed three goal and appeared sluggish and supremely uninterested in his or the team’s fate. After Lambert’s dismissal in February and Sherwood’s subsequent appointment, Benteke fired in 12 goals in all competitions. This is the importance of the right manager.

What Sherwood lacks in experience he more than makes up for in ability to inspire, which was evidence at the tail end of the 2012-2013 season when he was able to eke performances out a disinterested Emmanuel Adebayor. Sherwood needs a club willing to give him the time in the hot seat to learn the trade well and develop his tactics. I hope Lerner gives him the chance to do that, so as previously stated, next season will be interesting to watch.

HULL 18th (prediction 11th)

Three teams stand out in the mind as having had especially disappointing seasons: Everton, Newcastle, and Hull. While the other two avoided the drop (if only just in Newcastle’s case), Hull have paid the ultimately price. Last summer’s marquee signings (Abel Hernandez, Jake Livermore, as well as loanees Hatem Ben Arfa and Gaston Ramirez) all failed to stand up and be counted. Another two (Robert Snodgrass and Mo Diame) suffered season-ending injuries, and with the ongoing and unwanted distraction of owner Assem Allam’s crusade to change the club’s name from Hull City A.F.C. to Hull Tigers creating deep acrimony between himself and the fans, forlorn manager Steve Bruce was left with a hot mess on his hands to sort out.

The club won their first game of the season and then failed to do so again in the next 16 outings. The Tigers never managed to cobble together anything resembling a run of form and paid for it at the end, needing the admittedly hapless Newcastle to blow their last game against West Ham. Hull, though, never looked like a scoring team in that last outing in the league, even though United failed to put anything in the back of the net. It was all for not as the Toon Army managed to put two past the Hammers, relegating the Tigers no matter how many they could have put past United.

Hull have yoyoed between the Championship and the Prem over the last half decade and Allam has the deep pockets to fire them back up on the first attempt. The question is whether he has the desire to do so seeing how deeply unpopular he is with the fans. Should he depart, it is up for debate whether Hull has the appeal to lure another big-money investor. This unhappy union may need to continue if Tiger fans want to see their club back in among the elite of English football. There will be a clearout this summer, though, and if Bruce is given another bite at the cherry he still might come right.

BURNLEY 19th (prediction 18th)

No other relegated team in any of England’s top four leagues will go down with more honor than little Burnley. A team that brilliantly mirrored its manager’s realism and hunger fought like brave warriors from first kick to last, and you get the sense that had the club invested a decent chunk of change in the squad in the off season that Sean Dyche and the Clarets would be planning for a second season in the top flight. Hind sight is always 20-20, and I will for one hope this little club is able to come back up on the first go.

They will need to find goals from somewhere, though, and now that striker Danny Ings has made it abundantly clear that he will not be pulling on the Burnley shirt next season you wonder where a team that battled as much as they did to find the back of the net will replace his haul of 11 goals in the League (nearly half of the club’s total for the season). No one had the Clarets staying up and it proved to be the case in the end, but they have the neutral’s support for their plucky, honest displays.

QPR 20th (prediction 16th)

Yet another yoyo club heading back down to the Championship. Owner Tony Fernandes, as decent a bloke as he appears to be, needs to stabilize this ship. He has empowered Les Ferdinand as director of football, who will work very closely with now-confirmed manager Chris Ramsey to do just that. This will likely mean a fairly sizeable clearout this summer: QPR’s big signings during the 2014 summer window, such as Rio Ferdinand, Sandro and Leroy Fer are all expected to move along. Just as well as they did not fight for the team. To be fair, Ferdinand had an agonizing time of it what with the loss of his wife Rebecca to breast cancer. My heart goes out to him on that for sure.

They are also liable to lose top scorer Charlie Austin, who scored 18 of the clubs 39 goals. That would be a painful loss, but if he does not have a release clause tied to relegation, they could ship him on to a bigger club for a massive chunk of change. He is valued in the 10 million pound region. Play their cards right and they could sell him to club needing another English player and inflate the asking price to 15 or even 20 million. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that Austin received excellent service from Matt Phillips, who according to the stats is second only to Lionel Messi setting up goals this past term. He’s proven that he can put them away, but he would need adequate service, something he will need to keep in mind from any potential suitors.

I get the sense that it might be two years before QPR are in serious contention for the Premier League, but the club coming back up then will be a tighter ship. Tony Fernandes is an upbeat, vocal but not overly meddlesome owner. He is the right sort of chairman and you sense he truly wants the club to succeed and wants to give the fans something to shout about. He’s stepping back a little and allowing the pro’s to do the job. In Les Ferdinand and Ramsey he has progressive professionals who have a point to prove and they will be champing at the bit to show their worth.

What Fernandes needs to do urgently is right the accounts at the club. FIFA are preparing to dole out heavy fines and sanctions to the club for their violation of Financial Fair Play, so he would do well to make that his main concern. With the club stabilized and cash-positive, you could easily see the Rangers not only back in the Prem within a couple of years, but able to remain there. Watch this space.

Season preview: Chelsea

It must be nice. Chelsea have released a few old timers (Frankie Lampard and Ashley Cole), sold one of their starting center backs (David Luiz – to Paris St. Germain) for a packet and have also dislodged Demba Ba from the bench warmers crowd, and have been able to replace each of them with younger, better players. For Lamps comes in Cesc Fabregas, Cole is replaced by Brazilian Filipe Luis, Demba Ba makes way for another Brazilian (at least until recently) in Diego Costa. That leaves the space vacated by David Luiz, and you sense ol’ Jose Mourinho is ready to pounce on some gifted young center back to patch that hole.

What will be different this season? I saw a Chelsea playing extremely well in patches last season, playing very much like a Mourinho team (although the Special One claims his style has evolved, even if he couldn’t put it into use) but with certain members of the team still adapting to that style of play (such as Oscar). That should not be the case this season, with everyone now on board and ready for a full season, everyone knowing his role.

I think there are a few opportunities here: Manchester United will view this season as one for rebuilding. Liverpool allowed their key man up front go (for a pile of money, granted, but Luis Suarez will be missed at Anfield). There has been little to no movement on the market at the City of Manchester stadium. It appears that the Financial Fair Play stipulations have led to a bit of an enforced hiatus from the transfer window this summer for City. It shouldn’t have the effect of derailing a proper title tilt, but if you don’t strengthen…

This leaves only Arsenal flexing any major muscle and strengthening their ranks. City did not win at a canter last season. This will create opportunity for Arsenal and Chelsea to press for the top spot, and I think of the two Chelsea is in better shape to win it.

The good thing about speculation and guessing is that I can always fall back on it when I am proven totally wrong: it was just a guess. In a perfect world, Everton would win the league, but barring that  I would like for Arsenal to do so. I like how they play and I like the players they have brought in. But Mourinho knows how to win the Premier League, and he is on some kind of mission in this return to Stamford Bridge.

Manchester City were very strong last year, but without them strengthening much during the transfer window (and with Chelsea doing just that), I sense the Blues might have just enough to overtake the Citizens in the league. City are, in fact, their only real, proper rivals. Arsenal have lost the habit of winning, despite having succeeded in the FA Cup. And if winning is a habit, then Chelsea are hooked and have a junkie at the helm. With United rebuilding Liverpool bound to slip some this year, Chelsea are the closest thing to a settled, strengthened squad in the league.

So my guess is this will be Chelsea’s year in the League.