Month November 2011

Month November 2011

Blatter enters, and then fuels, race debate

November 16, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 21 comments

Race, it seems, is top of the editorial agenda after (insert obligatory ‘alleged’ here) incidents involving Luis Suarez and John Terry in the past month. Each is seemingly a sad indictment of the English game, where racism it appears, still thrives. Suarez, claims Patrice Evra, called the defender a “n*gger” at “least ten times” during Manchester United’s visit to Anfield in September. Meanwhile, Terry was caught on camera calling Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand a “black c*nt”. The only debate is whether Terry’s excuse of context (“No I didn’t call you a…”) is genuine or not. Ferdinand, and his big brother Rio, have been deafening with their silence on the matter.

Disturbing though the incidents are it says much for our lack of progress in combating racism that the clubs and supporters involved have divided largely along partisan lines. To Liverpool’s management, Suarez’ innocence was never in doubt. So much so, that manager Kenny Dalglish has repeatedly called for “the accuser” Evra to face sanction. Meanwhile, Liverpool supporters have engaged in an orchestrated smear campaign against Evra with erroneous ‘evidence’ of the Frenchman repeatedly ‘playing the race card’ distributed liberally by more vocal Scousers.

On Wednesday the FA charged Suarez with using “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra contrary to FA rules.”

Similarly, Chelsea and the club’s supporters have unilaterally backed Terry’s claim of misunderstanding. Indeed, Chelsea fans were audibly chanting anti-Ferdinand slogans as the Londoners met Genk in the Champions League. Would United supporters behave differently if, hypothetically speaking, Wayne Rooney faced a similar charge? It is a question that supporters should honestly ask and answer.

In fact the controversies of recent weeks have unveiled the shroud of denial about racism in the game. One need only peruse popular social media sites to discover a tsunami of bigotry among match-going fans. Ferdinand was subjected to the worse kind of racist abuse on his own account, from the very supporters defending Terry.

No wonder, with denial coming from the very top: Sepp Blatter, who claimed in an interview with CNN that racism does not exist in football.

“I would deny it. There is no racism,” Blatter told the news station.

“There is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that. He should say that ‘this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen’, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.

“I think the whole world is aware of the efforts we are making against racism and discrimination. And on the field of play sometimes you say something that is not very correct, but then at the end of the game, the game is over and you have the next game where you can behave better.”

Blatter apes the views of more than one prominent pundit, with racist language justified on the basis of ‘banter’ or ‘high emotions’. It says much for the neanderthal element still present in our game. Indeed, the Daily Mail ran a bigoted ‘opinion’ editorial urging black players to “just ignore it” when subjected to racism and be “thankful” for the apparent progress made.

True, gone are the universal ‘monkey chanting’ and banana throwing of 1980s crowds. Racism has gone underground. Yet, surely, race should not be a matter for partisan support. Offence, if the accusations against Suarez and Terry are true, should be universal. That it is not says something for the road football has travelled, but more for the distance yet to go.

There is also a devastating charge of complacency to be levelled against the football community and, perhaps, the Football Association too. Certainly, the governing body’s dithering over both cases does not reflect well on the FA. That a number of prominent black players genuinely considered boycotting the Kick It Out campaign because of the perceived FA governance of the body (it is part financed but not governed by the FA) says much for the frustration felt within the game.

After all, racism is institutionalised in football, with so few administrators and coaches coming from the ethnic minorities, despite black players making up around 25 per cent of professionals in England. Fans of all colours should be ashamed of this.

Perhaps failure to eliminate racism in England is the result of a top top-down culture that embraces discrimination at its very core? After all women and homosexuals also face an institutionalised glass ceiling, and administrators not willing to work hard enough to eliminate discrimination. It is an industry that celebrates the macho and aggressive, and one wonders whether the football community – fans, players, administrators – will ever accept a player for what he is, and not his sexual orientation, background or race. Recent events have brought this into question.

More than 30 years since Justin Fashanu – the first gay professional to come out – was driven to his suicide football has seemingly achieved little. There is little serious attempt to do so from within the game, save for an FA sponsored video last year. That the governing body was unable to attract leading footballers to take part in the video paints just as vivid a picture. Gordon Taylor, president of the Professional Footballers Association, admitted last year that tackling homophobia is simply “not very high on the agenda,” while homophobic language is endemic throughout the football community.

The community’s reaction to the latest turn of events suggests that there is some way to go when it comes to racial equality too. While a presumption of innocence is enshrined in our legal system, there is little reason to believe that Evra is lying – the FA charge suggests the body believes his account too – or that Ferdinand uncertain about what he did (or apparently did not) say to Terry.

The FA is likely to set a very high bar for proof, keen as the body is to avoid all controversy. It takes genuine strength of will an authority to sit in judgement; something the governing body has long since lost. But now, more than ever, is the time for the body to truly govern our game.

Reds’ boom goes on but the Glazer drain continues

November 15, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 11 comments

“There is only one Manchester United,” said Richard Arnold, the Reds’ Commercial Director last month. Indeed, the club’s first quarter results, published Tuesday, once again demonstrated the cash generating monster it has become, with yet another quarter of increased turnover posted. Thanks in part to an aggressive regionalised commercial strategy, the club is generating more income than ever before. Yet amid the Old Trafford back-slapping the truly eye-watering waste enforced on United by the Glazer regime is once again revealed.

United’s financial year Q1 results showed a 17 per cent year-on-year (YoY) increase in revenues to £73.8 million in the quarter, with matchday income up nine per cent, largely thanks to the bigger US tour conducted this past summer. Meanwhile, higher Champions League pool payments led to a 17 per cent YoY increase in media income, with a 22 per cent increase in commercial income over the same period. The latter is largely thanks to the continued aggressive commercialisation of the United brand, including a £40 million four-year deal struck with DHL to sponsor the Reds’ training kit.

Amid the positive news, there are also plenty of negatives for the Glazers’ bean counters to ponder. Staff costs grew by 12.2 per cent YoY, with player remuneration increasing despite several senior squad members leaving in the summer. New contracts awarded to Park Ji-Sung, Javier Hernández, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley demonstrate that wage inflation is continuing unabated in football no matter the financial chaos in the wider economy.

All this adds up to a strong EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, deductions and amortisation) of £19.2 million for the quarter, increasing 30 per cent on the previous year, with a margin of more than 26 per cent.

Meanwhile, United’s cash position, which is typically very cyclical, was down significantly from £151 million at the end of the last financial year in June, to £65 million in Q1. United’s cash balance is always highest during the summer, while heavy spending on transfers and debt reduced the pile. The club spent £47.1 million on player transfers during the last window, £21 million on interest and £8.2 million buying properties around Old Trafford. The latter increases the amount of land the club now owns around the stadiumd, with no genuine explanation of the strategy forthcoming. They’re certainly very expensive car parks.

Although bond debt is almost £100 million less than at its peak, net debt is actually £3 million higher YoY – something not widely reported. In fact in the three months to 30 September, the club posted a £6.9 million accounting loss, in part due to increased financing costs and forex changes. The cash cow continues to be profitable until debt is factored into the equation.

Leaving all the dry accounting speak aside, United is a very strong business, with a balance sheet ruined by debt. Although the Glazer family continues to spend United’s cash buying back bonds, and paying themselves ‘management fees’ (more than £16 million in the final quarter of the last financial year), the hyper-commercialisation of the club continues unabated. United’s appeal is global in scope, with brands keen to leverage United’s reach to the reported 330 million fans worldwide. That DHL is spending so much to sponsor the club’s training kit underlines the transformation of the club’s commercial strategy under the Glazer regime.

Yet, the cost to the club of having the Glazers as owners continues to rise. Including interest spent, management fees paid, and debt repayments made, the family has now cost the club around £580 million in aggregate over six years, according to blogger Andersred. It’s a story of staggering waste – paid for, in large part, by the fans through higher ticket prices. And it is a picture unlikely to change in the near future, with the mooted Asian IPO on hold while global financial markets remain in turmoil.

And while the Glazer family draws praise for the aggressive and largely successful commercial strategy, criticism is certainly due elsewhere. The logic of swapping bank debt, at great cost, for bond debt that earns a higher yield has never been explained Unless, of course, the plan was to take a very large dividend, before the Glazers were spooked by the ‘Green & Gold’ movement. Securing seven-year bond debt, and buying large chunks back within two years, is equally inexplicable as a coherent financial strategy.

It will come as no surprise then that the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) reacted with anger to the latest set of results.

“Revenue continues to grow building on the platform laid down by Sir Alex Ferguson over 25 years of unparalleled success,” MUST ceo Duncan Drasdo told the Mirror.

“However a key concern for supporters is that on top of the hundreds of millions lost in interest and fees resulting from the Glazers’ ownership we are now seeing huge amounts of additional money being paid out of the club’s cash reserves being spent on buying the bond debt incurred by the Glazers. That is the Glazers’ debt, that they dumped on our debt-free club and they are now using club funds to pay for it. A sum exceeding ‘The Ronaldo money’ they claimed would remain available for transfers has now been spent and this is on top of the £100s of millions in interest and fees already wasted.”

Even taking into account the approximate £100 million in Corportation Tax saved during the Glazer era, the damaging effect of debt is clear. That United is financially strong enough to survive more than half-a-billion pounds wasted is one thing. The moral, financial and strategic legitimacy of the waste is quite another.

Moreover, in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, when United will no longer be able to draw on the Scot’s brilliance, the club will face a plethora of challenges on and off the pitch. Rival clubs will mirror the Glazers’ commercial strategy, potentially eating into United’s market share, while the Reds cannot compete with the external wealth brought to Manchester City and Chelsea, let alone the TV revenue secure by European rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona.

This is a truism that many supporters will have to face in the years ahead.

International round-up

November 13, 2011 Tags: Opinion 2 comments

You know the score. Sir Alex Ferguson sends his troops out into the big bad world of international football – the vast majority of which is meaningless, boring, friendlies – and hopes they come back without injury, or too knackered to perform next weekend. With this week’s international break designated for Euro 2012 play-off fixtures, only Nani and Antonio Valencia will actually play competitive football before United takes on Swansea next weekend. Plus ça change cynics might add. Still, with only eight of Ferguson’s squad in action this week, the Scot will at least welcome a relatively fresh squad back at Carrington next Wednesday.

Fabio da Silva – Gabon 0-2 Brazil, Stade de l’Amitie, Libreville
It’s two caps for Fabio and none for twin brother Rafael after this comfortable victory for Mano Menezes’ Brazilians in the Gabonese port city. Fabio may be finding it difficult to make the United side at the moment, but he has now featured in the past three national squads, debuting against Costa Rica in October and playing the first 45 against Gabon on Friday night. Alex Sandro and Hernanes scored the goals as Brazil opened the brand new Stade de l’Amitie, which will host the Africa Cup of Nations in January 2012.

Darren Fletcher – Cyprus 1-2 Scotland, Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium, Larnaca
Scottish captain Fletcher played an hour as Scotland won on the road thanks to goals from Kenny Miller and returning broken leg victim Jamie Mackie. In an otherwise unspectacular performance from the Scots, two fine goals provided victory for Craig Levein’s men, who missed out on Euro 2012 qualification. Scotland will face Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales in World Cup 2014 qualification, beginning next autumn.

Nani – Bosnia & Herzegovina 0-0 Portugal, Bilino Polje, Zenica
An insipid draw places under-performing Portugal in a decent position to qualify for Euro 2012 when the sides meet in Lisbon next week. It is one of the mysteries of European football that a side containing Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Quaresma and João Moutinho, among many others, did not qualify by right, although that should be corrected next week. Safet Sušić’s side wasted the best chances of a tight game through Vedad Ibišević and Edin Džeko, although United’s Nani was a consistent threat in Zenica. On this evidence it is hard to see the Bosnians recording a positive result at Estádio da Luz on Tuesday night.

Javier Hernández – Mexico 2-0 Serbia, Estadio La Corregidora, Santiago de Querétaro
He scores goals galore, he scores goals, he scores goals galore, he scores goals, er… Javier Hernández, he scores goals. The striker scored a 23rd goal for the national team in just 33 games, with an 88th minute penalty against Nemanja Vidic-less Serbia on Friday night. The 2-0 victory was the first win of new coach Jose Manuel de la Torre’s reign, with Hernández having a major role to play in both Mexican goals. Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov saw red for two bookable offences in Querétaro.

Antonio Valencia – Paraguay 2-1 Ecuador, Estadio Defensores del Chaco, Asunción
United winger Valencia ended on the losing side as Ecuador recorded a disappointing result during World Cup 2014 qualification in Asunción. Cristian Riveros and Darío Verón scored the Paraguay goals that handed victory to the hosts, and leaves Ecuador with three points from from the opening two games of qualification. With Brazil hosting World Cup 2014 just nine sides are taking part in the qualification tournament, from which Valencia’s team is not expected to proceed.

Mame Biram Diouf – Guinea 1-4 Senegal, Mantes-la-Ville, Paris
United bench-warmer Diouf scored as the Lions of Teranga recorded a comprehensive friendly win ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins in late January. Tougher challenges will come for Amara Traoré’s side – not least a friendly with Cote D’Ivoire in Paris next Tuesday – but the win is a timely boost for country, and Diouf, ahead of the tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Senegal did not qualify for 2010 tournament.

Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck – England 1-0 Spain, Wembley, London
Fabio Capello’s outfit scored a remarkable victory at Wembley, even if the Spaniards secured more than 70 per cent of possession in the FA’s prestige friendly. Capello got the tactics about spot on though, seeking to stifle Spain with blanket defence, with United’s defender Jones playing an hour in a midifled holding role. Spain should have equalised through David Villa and substitute Cesc Fabregas late on, but the Italian’s side held on for a victory over last year’s World Champions.

Upcoming fixtures…
Brazil v Egypt, Qatar, 14 November 2011
Portugal v Boznia & Herzegovina, Lisbon, 15 November 2011
Ecuador v Peru, Quito, 15 November 2011
Senegal v Cote D’Ivoire, Paris, 15 November 2011
England v Sweden, London, 15 November 2011

Where football ends, Gill begins

November 11, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 13 comments

It has become a truism that international breaks are dull, and there are far too many of them. That FIFA bigwigs, holed up in their Zürich glass box, deigned yet another one take place this November – the third of the current season – is testament to the battle raging in football between the club and international formats of the game. Any international football, even the most pointless, underscores FIFA’s importance in the body’s collective mind.

And so while Euro 2012 Play Offs take place this week, the Football Association has arranged two utterly meaningless friendlies at Wembley. Manufactured arguments between the FA and FIFA about symbolic Poppies aside, Fabio Capello will gain little from England’s thrashing by Spain on Saturday, or the bore draw with Sweden in the coming week. Capello’s side is little better than average, a fact no friendly double-header is likely to alter. Meanwhile, there’s a large bill to pay on Wembley’s development, and the bumper crowd ensured by World Champions’ visit has the FA’s bean counters grinning all the way to their stadium office.

FA board member David Gill presumably approves. Indeed, international week is also the time Gill predictably tunes into MUTV to update the masses with the latest from camp Glazer. This week Gill pledged that whomever follows Sir Alex Ferguson into the Old Trafford hotseat must adhere to a club policy of investing in youth. The chief executive didn’t state that Fergie’s successor must understand the phrase “there’s no value in the market,” but he wasn’t far short. Like England’s prestige friendly with Spain, it’s all about heritage and tradition, you see.

“We are a great club whose values go back in history to our heritage to the ’50s and ’60s and the last 25 years with Alex,” Gill told MUTV, forgetting the 70 years of history before Sir Matt Busby took charge of the club in 1948.

“To continue with that, the new manager needs to understand those values and the vision for the club and must buy into that. The important point to make is the new manager, whenever that may be and whomever that may be, will be taking over a great, great club, in a great, great sport and Alex, in particular, will want to make sure he inherits a great squad. That’s our goal – to make sure when the new manager comes in he does have a great squad to work with in terms of age and profile.

“Alex’s legacy to United is to my mind very clear – delivering an unprecedented period of success in the Manchester United way. By that, I mean attractive football using young players – both homegrown and buying players when necessary like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, but actually developing our own players. That record is there for everyone to see and that legacy is very clear also.”

In that Gill presumably means a commitment to the current policy of acquiring only younger, cheaper, players in the transfer market, while eschewing fees spent on those over 26. It is a policy that, guided by Ferguson’s genius, has allowed the Glazer family to taste success despite largely starving the club of transfer funds. The ‘Ronaldo money is available’ you see, but the market is ‘so over-heated that only young players will do.’ In any case ‘United’s tradition is to focus on youth’, forgetting the six occasions on which the club has broken the British transfer record during Ferguson’s early reign.

Whitewashing of history aside, Ferguson’s successor will bring no similar guarantee of success with the same policy. After all, the Scot has squeezed more out of his relatively limited squad over the past five years than any mere mortal could expect to. It is a period in which Ferguson’s true worth has genuinely shone through. Without the deluge of talent the class of 1992 brought, or the relative wealth of the early 2000s, Ferguson has still delivered a succession of major trophies. In this week that club, supporters and manager have been celebrating Ferguson’s 25 years in charge at Old Trafford, this is worth noting.

“I believe in young people,” Ferguson told his favourite media outlet Sirius XM this week. “You need a foundation at a football club and that is vital. You can build a first team, but you really do need the back-up and the foundation to make it a football club.

“With all the young players that come to us in their formative years, you have got a job to make them good footballers but also to show them how to grow up the right way. Cristiano came to us at 18, just a young lad from Portugal who didn’t know the country. But he learned the language, adapted very well and he has turned out fantastically as a human being, just as was the case with the Nevilles, Scholes, Beckhams, Giggs and all those lads.”

Ferguson’s selflessness in building a squad for the future is relevant, although there is, of course, strong evidence that the Scot has little choice. With money released this summer largely down to retiring stars removing themselves from the wage bill, Ferguson’s successor may well begin life with a serious financial handicap.

Indeed, of the leading candidates to replace Ferguson none – save perhaps for Pep Guardiola – has a history of building teams based on home-grown talent. In that the Spaniard has benefited hugely from Barcelona’s very long-term policy of investing in La Masia, together with some very deep pockets for expensive acquisitions. Meanwhile, José Mourinho has largely built a youthful-looking Real Madrid team in the transfer market, while Laurent Blanc, David Moyes, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have no such heritage at all.

It all adds up, says Gill, to a “difficult” choice in replacing Ferguson, when the Scot retires at some point over the next three years. It probably doesn’t require a FIFA-sized committee to work that one out.

How to lose fans and alienate your manager

November 8, 2011 Tags: Opinion 36 comments

Poor Tomasz Kuszczak. Not only is his name nigh on unspellable, at least without Wikipedia’s aid, but the Polish goalkeeper has become a last bastion of a modern-day slavery. Trafficked from his place of birth in Krosno Odrzańskie, Poland to Old Trafford, Kuszczak has been asked, no, compelled to play for the world’s most supported football club, Manchester United, on no less than 61 occasions.

That Kuszczak has endured this horror five seasons long, comforted only – for what little comfort money can bring – with compensation of £25,000 per week only adds to the indignity of it all. No wonder that it proved all too much for the Pole, who has finally cracked after being denied a loan move to Leeds United.

“I’ve become a slave to Manchester. I’m frustrated but I don’t want to slander or criticise Ferguson,” said the 29-year-old stopper, before criticising and then slandering Sir Alex Ferguson.

“It’s not my style. I’ve talked to Ferguson recently. I asked him to let me leave the club now, before the January transfer window. I told him I want to play and get back into the national team, because Euro 2012 is just around the corner – but it seems he doesn’t care. The possibility of a two-month loan to Leeds United came up two weeks later. The club blocked it. It was a glimmer of hope for me. It would have reminded the Poland manager about me – but I didn’t get the club’s approval. I have respect for Ferguson because, for me, he’s a great manager, but I hope he will let me go in January.”

Fortunately for Kuszczak, whose contract runs to June 2012, there is almost nobody at Old Trafford – fans, players, coaching staff, manager or tea lady – that wants any different for the big-mouthed Pole, who has become increasingly vocal in his failure to land a more permanent role at United. Five years after joining the Reds from West Bromwich Albion, Kuszczak’s inability to land the number on spot in Ferguson’s side has surprised few. Save for a brief spell two years ago, when Edwin van der Sar took time off to spend with his sick wife, Kuszczak has rarely looked a man with United-calibre talents.

Moreover, now relegated to fourth choice behind David de Gea, Anders Lindegaard and Ben Amos, Kuszczak’s bizarre decision to self-publicise a desired move to Leeds is unlikely ingratiate the ‘keeper with anybody at the club. Least of all his manager, who has never reacted well to being embarrassed in the media. It is a fact Jaap Stam will recall well.

Yet, this is a sad end for a stopper whose talent was good enough to take him to Old Trafford, but not to propel the former Hertha Berlin player ahead of van der Sar in the pecking order. Ferguson’s decision to recruit first Lindegaard, and then De Gea, was the final nail in Kuszczak’s United career. In that there is some sympathy; United reportedly asked for £4 million in the past summer. It is a fee that would have represented a profit on a player, who has never been more than a reserve, and less than a year to run on his contract.

However, with three Premier League winners’ medals – each via special dispensation – two League Cups, three FA Community Shields, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup, Kuszczak will carry away more silverware than a man of his limited talents would normally. It is a good haul, especially for a player who has completed just one full season in an entire career, and that was just 28 games.

At international level Kuszczak was selected by coach Franciszek Smuda for friendly matches against Romania and Canada last year, but is considered far from first choice. Indeed, the player’s 10 caps have been spread over eight years. With Arsenal duo Wojciech Szczęsny and Łukasz Fabiański available, it is unlikely Kuszczak was ever going to start Poland’s attempt to win Euro 2012 when it kicks off in Warsaw on 8 June 2012, even had a move to Leeds materialised.

Having insulted club and manager, Kuszczak’s fate is now out of his own hands. At least until his contract runs down and the 29-year-old can negotiate a free transfer away from his personal hell.

Tomasz Kuszczak Facts

Hertha BSC – 2001–2004 – 0 appearances
West Bromwich Albion – 2004–2006 – 35 appearances
Manchester United – 2007– present 61 appearances
Poland national team – 2003-present – 10 appearances

DFB-Ligapokal: 2001, 2002
Premier League: 2007, 2008, 2011
League Cup: 2009, 2010
FA Community Shield: 2007, 2008, 2010
UEFA Champions League: 2008
FIFA Club World Cup: 2008

Reds welcome Andreas Hoelgebaum Pereira

November 7, 2011 Tags: , , Shorts 21 comments

Manchester United supporters might be forgiven for welcoming yet another highly rated youth prospect to Old Trafford with a grudging nod. After all, while United’s policy of hoovering up the very finest youth talent, especially creative midfielders, is a prudent one, the here-and-now also matters such is the shambles of the Reds’ central midfield at times in the past two seasons. Yet, another ‘prospect’ it is, with confirmation that Brazilian-born Belgian teenager Andreas Hoelgebaum Pereira will join the club 1 January 2012, the day he turns 16.

Pereira, an attacking playmaker who can be deployed in midfield or as a shadow striker, will join from PSV Jugend, Eindhoven’s academy side, for nominal compensation. The player has agreed a three-and-a-half year deal with United.

Starting out at KVSK Lommel in Belgium before moving to PSV aged nine, Pereira has developed a reputation as one of Europe’s finest youth talents. He has been reportedly contacted by most of Europe’s leading clubs and played in the Nike Manchester Premier Cup this summer.

“I am an offensive midfielder, a real 10,” Pereira told De Telegraaf.

“Setting up my team mates, scoring and a good shot are my qualities. PSV knew that I was talking with some clubs and they respected my choice. I had some doubts but at the end Manchester United is my dream team to play for.  I have been a few times to Manchester United to have a look. I got a tour and spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson. Being a 15-year-old, to talk with such a man was great.”

The 15-year-old is the son of Marcos Pereira, a retired Brazilian striker who played in Europe for BSC Young Boys, Mechelen, Sint-Truidense and Royal Antwerp. Indeed, Pereira senior appeared alongside Phil Bardsley, Eddie Johnson, Souleymane Mamam and Dong Fangzhuo for Antwerp in the 2003-4 season.

Junior’s team-mate Zakaria Bakkali was recent linked with move to Manchester City, although his signature is equally sought-after. Bakkali won this year’s Manchester United Premier Cup ‘Most Valuable Player’ award. It was a tournament whose final was played at Old Trafford of all places.

Pereira will join a growing Belgian youth international contingent in Manchester, Marnick Vermijl, Charni Ekangamene and Adnan Januzaj at the club. Meanwhile, United has previously raided Holland for Dutch youth winger Gyliano van Velzen, who stared in the Academy’s run to FA Youth Cup victory last season. United have previously signed Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam and Park Ji-sung from PSV Eindhoven.

Here’s some video of Pereira doing stepovers!

Andreas Hoelgebaum Pereira

Poll: Who should eventually replace Ferguson?

November 6, 2011 Tags: , Polls 53 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 25th anniversary in charge of Manchester United on Sunday 6 November. In a remarkable period, Ferguson has overseen United’s triumph in 36 trophies. But, turning 70 in December, Ferguson’s clock is ticking towards its inevitable end. The great Scot says that, health permitting, he’ll last another three seasons, but who should replace Fergie when he finally calls it a day?

Back in 2002 when Ferguson ‘retired’ for the first time, United’s board was set to appoint Swede Sven Goran Eriksson. It was a dodged bullet. Current favourites for the post include, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and former Red Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Who should eventually replace Sir Alex Ferguson?

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Fergie then and now

November 6, 2011 Tags: Opinion 1 comment

“I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past,” said Alex Ferguson in his first programme notes as manager of his new club in 1986. “I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward.”

If by that Ferguson meant winning 36 major honours in 25 years, then he has indeed taken the club ‘forward’. For United, with the Scot in the dugout, glory is almost always assured even before a ball has been kicked. And although the Scot might never have envisaged achieving such a feat, there is still the feeling that, remarkably, he wants more.

Ferguson has no plans to retire, he tells us this annually, with the sound of a man fed up of hearing, and then answering, the same old question. And yet, you can hardly blame people for asking it. It’s inconceivable, unimaginable even, in the modern footballing world that anyone can hold onto to their managerial post for so long and still, somehow, be able to dumbfound and succeed in equal measure.

This is especially true in the modern climate, where unforgiving men in suits ruthlessly wield the metaphorical axe in the direction of the person they once entrusted to guide their team to glory. After all, the average tenure for a coach is about two years and since Sir Alex took charge of United all those years ago well over a 1,000 managers have come and gone.

And so with all this considered, you would forgive anyone in his position for getting ahead of themselves. But Sir Alex doesn’t work like that. Ferguson remains driven: the same fiery character he was when he had first started, because it still matters to him.

“I don’t doubt the stories that if sufficiently angry he will throw boots and teacups across the dressing room,” wrote David Meek in the first issue of United Review after Ferguson was appointed. This was a time before the Scot was affectionately called ‘Sir’. David Beckham has no doubts, either. Meek also noted that here: “lies a manager of great determination” and even now, that observation is still evident.

Back then, Ferguson’s aim was to knock Liverpool off its pedestal. The claim was laughed off, but a 19th League title last May proved the doubters wrong, and made the achievement all the more special because of it. Now that’s he done, Fergie can afford to put his feet up. But, no, the Scot wants to win another Premier League title, another European Cup – he feels he hasn’t won it enough – and will not rest until he does so.

Yet, Ferguson’s flirtation with retirement in 2002 goes some way in creating the counterargument; that he was, in fact, not all that determined to emulate Liverpool if he was ready to call it quits. It is an unfair observation. Ferguson was well within his rights to leave it all behind. He had a family, and at 60, had already achieved more than most. The glorious treble winning season of 1998-99 could not be topped – and Ferguson’s legacy was protected, no question. And although, back in 2002, Liverpool still had more English league titles to their name the power had long shifted in United’s favour.

In that sense, Ferguson had achieved what he set out to do: United was a force again, and rivals were left to chase their tails. Since the infamous u-turn Ferguson has given the impression that he’s glad he hadn’t called it a day. And today there isn’t a United fan in the world that wants to see the back of the Scotsman.

Longevity isn’t the only thing Ferguson is blessed with. Team-building is another of the manager’s great assets; perhaps so good that even the great Dutch manager Rinus Michels, who knew all about constructing a winning team, would be a little envious. Even now, United is building towards a new generation, investing both time and money in youth in a bid to avoid a repeat of the brilliant United side of 2007-2009, which was potentially one of the best, yet short-lived because of over reliance on individuals.

Although still in its early days, there seems to be more of a focus on being a collective in Ferguson’s latest incarnation. This is exactly what Fergie set out do in 1986, when he spoke of the importance of collectivism. Football isn’t a game of individuals. It is about the club and its fans.

“It’s very easy to change in football, to let a little success carry you away, become bigheaded and uncaring about people. The game is for the ordinary supporter,” said Ferguson before his first home game against Queens Park Rangers.

“The players should have time and concern for people, and maintain a sense of proportion.” And, sounding as if he was talking about himself, he added that: “I have always felt that the ultimate accolade for a successful man is if it can be said that he didn’t change… he didn’t get carried away.”

If you were to present Ferguson with these quotes today, would he regard himself a ‘successful man’? Amusingly, he perhaps would not, as one of the qualities he most admires is modesty: “humility is what you fall back on at the end of the day.”

Fergie has seen his team dominate for two decades and yet isn’t complacent about it. He is, in fact, always wary. Aware that he isn’t flawless. And, it is not being perfect, that makes him perfect.

Zack Hann can be found at the excellent ManUtd24 blog – This article first appeared in Rant Monthly November.

Reds welcome Black Cats for Fergie celebration

November 5, 2011 Tags: , Matches 81 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will celebrate 25 years in charge of Manchester United this weekend, and it is perhaps fitting that Sunderland arrives for the fixture. After all, the Wearsiders have developed something of an affinity with United in recent years. Manager Steve Bruce acquired John O’Shea and Wes Brown last summer, while Danny Wellbeck and Jonny Evans are both recent Black Cat loanees. Add Sunderland squad players Kieron Richardson, Phil Bardsley, and Fraizer Campbell into the mix, and there is more than a little co-dependency between the clubs.

Bruce was United’s captain when the Reds secured a first Premier League title in 1993, ending a 26-year wait to become English champions, but is yet to beat his mentor in 17 attempts as manager of Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland.

The return of so many former players ensures an outstanding atmospheric on what should be a party weekend.

“We’ve had so many ex-players at Sunderland over the last few years, it’s been quite interesting,” said Ferguson, who marks his 25th anniversary on Sunday.

“We had Jonny Evans up there, we had Danny Welbeck up there on loan, Phil Bardsley, Kieran Richardson and now Wes and John have joined Brucey. It’s quite a connection. And of course they’ll get a good reception at Old Trafford. In Wes Brown and John O’Shea, you couldn’t have asked for two more loyal players at United in my time. They were fantastic characters too.

“It was one of these difficult situations when you’re starting to make changes and bring in young players, like Chris Smalling last season and then Phil Jones this summer. The last thing you want to do is have players like Wes and John continually just sitting and watching the games. They’re better than that and they deserve to have good careers elsewhere.”

Manchester United v Sunderland, Old Trafford, 5 November 2011Yet, Ferguson will be without as many as seven players on Saturday, with United’s injury list growing ever longer this week. Tom Cleverley will not be risked, while Ashley Young’s sore toe is being rested until after the international break. Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva is not ready to make his first team return and Chris Smalling is out with a broken bone in his foot until December. Adding to the headache, Ryan Giggs has a hamstring problem and Michael Owen could be out until the new year with a thigh strain picked up in midweek.

Michael Carrick could be ready for the game having missed United’s last three matches but there is a fitness doubt concerning dysfunctional midfielder Anderson.

“Vidic will be back but maybe Anderson is the one player who picked up an injury last night,” added Ferguson.

“We’ll see what he’s like. He could be doubtful. There will be no returns for Young, Smalling or Cleverley though. Michael [Owen] injured his thigh when he made the run across the front post for the first goal. It’s a killer for him. He started the season well, he’s been training terrifically. His two performances in the League Cup have been great. He made the goal last night, no doubt about that. I hope he’s not out for too long. We’ve assessed him this morning, he’s had a scan but we don’t have any results from that yet.”

Injuries are not helping Ferguson’s search for greater fluency. The Reds scored 21 times in the in first five Premier League matches this season, but only six in the past five. Cleverley’s ankle injury disrupted United’s midfield at an inopportune time, especially with Carrick and Anderson so out of form over the past two months.

The Scot also has a tough decision to make in defence, with Vidic back after missing the Otelul Galati game in midweek. Ferguson will choose between Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans to partner the Serbian. While Evans has seemingly moved ahead of the 33-year-old Ferdinand, repeated mistakes in recent matches has placed the Northern Irishman under pressure. Indeed, much as Evans progressed in two separate loan spells with Sunderland, he took a step backwards last season.

Yet, despite oft-voiced criticism, Evans has started the majority of United’s matches this season, and could well do so against his former employers.

“Sunderland have had a bit of a slow start this season but I think Steve Bruce has bought a lot of new players and it’s taken some of them a while to gel,” said Evans.

“But they’ve had a draw and a win in their last two games so they’ll be coming here wanting to put in a big performance. Steve Bruce’s teams always seem to do well in the Premier League and he’s a good manager. I’ve got a lot of fond memories from my time at Sunderland but I’ll be looking to do a job on Saturday and get three points before the international break.”

Sunderland, meanwhile, will be without former United players O’Shea and Campbell through injury. David Vaughan could also miss out. Lee Cattermole may come back into the side, but ‘keeper Simon Mignolet is out for two months. Whatever the personnel, Sunderland, having won just once in the last 20 meetings with United, is unlikely to spoil Ferguson’s celebratory victory weekend. It’s a good job, losing to his former players is said to irritate the Scot more than anything else.

“Thankfully Pally [Pallister] got it more than me,” recalled Bruce of the infamous ‘hairdryer’.

“In the early days we knew it was coming because Archie [Knox] had a way of telling us when we were going up the tunnel at Old Trafford. He’d tap you on the shoulder and tell you to get ready, it’s coming. If you couldn’t stand up to that you were no use to him. If you couldn’t stand up to him and his demands, and many a player couldn’t, then you couldn’t play for Man U.”

Bruce certainly could, but he wouldn’t dare spoil the party. Would he?

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Sunderland, Premier League, Old Trafford, Saturday 5 November 2011, 3pm

Likely Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Park, Fletcher, Nani; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Pogba, Ferdinand, Fryers, Carrick, Berbatov, Welbeck, Diouf.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; Bardsley, Turner, Brown, Richardson; Larsson, Cattermole, Colback, Sessegnon; Wickham, Bendtner. Subs from: Carson, Laing, Elmohamady, Gardner, Meyler, Ji, McClean, Cook.

United: DWLWWW
Sunderland: WLDLWD

Performance stats

  • Having conceded six goals to Manchester City in, United set out to secure a clean sheet at Everton last week, with Javier Hernández scoring the only goal of the game. The Mexican has scored four Premier League goals in 443 minutes of football this season, from just 11 attempts at goal, taking him to 51st place in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.
  • Wayne Rooney made the Ballon D’Or shortlist this week and remains top of the Index. Rooney covered more ground than any other player in the match against his old club, recording 12.6km during the game
  • Sunderland came from behind twice to earn a 2-2 draw against Aston Villa at the weekend, with Sebastian Larsson providing the assist for Stephane Sessegnon’s late equaliser. Larsson is now ranked 12th in the Index having scored three goals and provided four assists, and has contributed 30 crosses.

Referee: Lee Mason (Bolton)
Assistant referees: J Collin, M McDonough

Twenty-five years later

November 4, 2011 Tags: Opinion 22 comments

There is, of course, so much that has already been written about Sir Alex Ferguson. In this week when Ferguson’s tenure in charge at Old Trafford reaches 25 years the column inches will again be filled, mostly, with praise for a remarkable quarter-century in Manchester. Ferguson reaches the landmark having secured thirty six trophies, used more than 200 players, issued countless bollockings, and spent millions in the transfer market.

It is a milestone reached amid a lifetime of memories, and one that few could have predicted on 6 November 1986 – the day Ron Atkinson was sacked, and Ferguson hired as his replacement. There was little hope that Ferguson would last five years at a club that had sought glory, but singularly failed to deliver in more than a generation. It has been one of the most remarkable tenures in the history of the game.

But then Ferguson is one of the most remarkable men to have graced the game. The force majeure personality, control freak tendencies, and the ability to cajole, bully and inspire have each contributed to Ferguson’s success. As has luck. Barrel loads of it. But then, as Lefty Gomez, the post-war American baseball pitcher famously said: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Ferguson is both and modern United owes his much for it.

None of this could have been foreseen when chairman Martin Edwards and the United board appointed Ferguson 25 years ago. True, Fergie had achieved success in Scotland, breaking the Auld Firm duopoly and taking Aberdeen, the provincial outpost of Scottish football, to European glory too. Yet, United, as Ferguson was to learn, is nothing like Aberdeen, and the expectation of success has always been different, even if it had been rarely achieved since Sir Matt Busby’s heyday in the late 1960s.

It has long been said that Ferguson’s mission on joining United was to “knock Liverpool off their perch.” In truth that came much later. United, on its knees after Atkinson’s dismissal, had far more modest ambitions. The club’s final position of second in the old First Division at the end of Ferguson’s first full season in charge was entirely false. Becoming competitive with, not beating, Liverpool was the imperative, everything else a bonus.

After all Ferguson joined a club decaying to its core: a decrepit, dirty stadium, empty bank account, dysfunctional youth system and ‘cup team’ mentality. At Liverpool they said ‘winning is winning and second is nowhere’. United was nowhere at best. Most destructively, Ferguson inherited a booze culture among a clique of senior, and mostly average, pros. All of this would prove a test for any incoming manager.

That Ferguson set about systematically re-engineering the club, and ultimately succeeding, is testament to the enduring influence the Scot has brought to bear on what is now a billion pound institution. And he did it all in Busby’s shadow.

Ferguson began the process from the ground up, ripping apart United’s youth system – a decision that would prove fruitful nearly a decade later – and laying the foundations for squad changes ahead. By the end of the campaign Ferguson had released, sold or accepted the retirements of seven players. Within two years Ferguson had overseen the departures of a rash of star names, including Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, and Paul McGrath.

This, however, is United and progressive change, no matter the club’s state in the mid to late 1980s, was never an acceptable outcome. By the turn of the decade Ferguson was under pressure from within, although says Sir Bobby Charlton, one of few at the club to precede the Scot, dismissal was not discussed. This may not have been the media or supporter opinion however, with many openly calling for or anticipating Ferguson’s departure.

Following a run of six defeats in eight games during late 1989 the now infamous banner, unfurled on the Scot’s third anniversary read: “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie.” Ferguson would later describe the period as “the darkest [he had] ever suffered in the game.”

If there was a turning point in Ferguson’s tenure then United’s FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in January 1990 is often held as such. It has become a Ferguson cliché, but whatever the truth, the pressure to dismiss the Scot had United not secured the cup, after a replay win over Crystal Palace, may well have become insurmountable. Victory also provided Ferguson and his team with genuine confidence.

The cup win was, crucially, never enough for the Scot, whose assessment that United had become a ‘cup team club’ was spot on.  It didn’t mean that Ferguson had yet built a team ready to rid the club of this mentality though.

Success in Europe came during the 1990-91 season with a remarkable, and thoroughly unexpected, run in the Cup Winners’ Cup, triumphing 2-1 in the final against Barcelona. It would not be the last time Ferguson would meet the Catalans in European competition. But, once again, United failed to put up a genuine challenge for the First Division title.

Not until narrow failure a year later, with Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel signed that summer, adding to the growing influence of youngsters Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, did United genuinely challenge for English supremacy. In truth it was the first time in 25 years that the club had done so.

The Holy Grail was found another year on, amid the late late drama, and praise sent towards the heavens, of Steve Bruce’s unforgettable headed-double against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. Champions of England at last and Ferguson had made it happen.

The deluge started then. The double came in 1994, with the hardest team modern United has known. “So many of them, real tough bastards,” Ferguson would later note. The ‘double double’ followed two years later under the magnificent influence of Ferguson’s finest signing, Eric Cantona. By 1999 United had become Europe’s best, driven not by expensive acquisitions alone but by the youthful revolution Ferguson had instigated 13 years earlier.

United may have been lucky that remarkable night at Camp Nou but it was Ferguson’s due, having revived the club, root and branch, from a generation-long malaise.

Ferguson has never been a coach alone. Whether United’s board truly understood this in 1986 is unlikely, but it was a decision that transformed a football club. The Scot’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment has ensured that the club has continually met new challenges, both domestically and in Europe. Ferguson has changed for the modern era by entrusting an ever increasing sphere of influence to an army of coaching, fitness, health and science professionals.

It has been a golden era that supporters cannot expect to continue as a right in the post-Ferguson era. Indeed, United has faced up to the prospect once already, with the Scot announcing his retirement, prematurely as it turned out, in 2002. One day it will happen for real.

There are failures though. Ferguson’s ability to succeed in the market has often been mixed. Cantona, Schmeichel, Bruce, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Denis Irwin were each for bought for a song. But the Scot wasted money on a plethora of average signings from overseas, particularly as the 1990s gave way to a new millennium. The Scot’s scattergun transfer policy still unearths rare gems, such Mexican sensation Javier Hernández, but mediocrity is all too common as well.

Then there are the personality failings: Ferguson’s requirement for total control has seen Paul Ince, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam leave in acrimony, arguably, before each had passed their peak. The Scot has, too often with embarrassing results, picked fights with the Football Association, media, referees, fellow managers, coaches and, eventually, United’s supporters. Much of this was counter-productive.

“Sometimes I lose my temper,” noted Ferguson. “If someone argues with me I have to win the argument. That’s where the hairdryer comes in. I can’t lose an argument. The manager can never lose an argument.”

And no mention of Ferguson’s failings can come without an honest assessment in his role over the past six years. The Scot’s acquiescence to the Glazer takeover, and decision to ‘look after his staff’, rather than pay heed to the bigger picture has, for many, tainted Ferguson’s legacy.

Certainly, Ferguson’s decision to repeatedly, and vocally, support a regime at the height of supporter protest was unnecessarily divisive. With the Glazers having sucked more than £500 million out of the club, Ferguson’s refusal to acknowledge even the basis for supporter concern was an error. Fans cannot, as Ferguson once urged a travelling supporter, simply “f*ck off and support Chelsea.”

Yet, the bitter aftertaste of Ferguson’s loyalty to the Glazer family – to, some might say, his personal needs – will fade long before memories of the glory will. There has been a generation of United supporters that have known nothing else but Ferguson, good and bad. Often those supporters have experience little else but unbridled success.

It has been a wonderful ride.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 of Rant Monthly, the high quality PDF magazine from United Rant.