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Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

February 14, 2017 in Interviews

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

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Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

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Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

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The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

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Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”

Goss won’t rush after year-long injury nightmare

December 8, 2016 in Interviews

Manchester United’s Sean Goss remains content to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho.

The central midfielder, 20, has been at United since signing from Exeter City as a 16 year-old and despite being named in previous match day squads for the first team, is still yet to make his competitive debut.

But having recovered from a serious back injury that sidelined him for almost 12 months, Goss is focused first and foremost on regaining his fitness, before pushing for a place in Mourinho’s thinking.

“I’ve only just got back fit, I’ve been out for a year and I’m still on the road to recovery,” Goss told Elephant Sport.

“I had two fractures in my back and I’ve been out since last December. I played my first match [a few weeks ago], so I’m just concentrating on getting a few games under my belt and see where it takes me from there.”

Frustration

A footballer’s lifestyle might not often be described as ‘back-breaking’, however an accumulation of stresses and strains will soon mount up for a top-level athlete.

As is often the case, the road to recovery can be a long and arduous one.

“Van Gaal really helped my game and pushed me forward”

Describing his frustration at the injury Goss explained: “[The fractures] happened over time.

“I woke up and could hardly move, so I had tests, and then three months where I wasn’t allowed to do anything, I just had to recover. No gym, no swimming, no training or anything, which is hard, as you don’t know what to do with yourself.

“You’re watching games and you just want to be playing, so that was another big test. I had the time off and then when I got back I had to slowly build up with injections and that kind of thing.

“Hopefully now that’s the end of it.”

Youthful

Prior to his ill-timed injury, the Devon-born youngster had made big strides towards staking a claim for a spot within United’s first team.

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Goss is hoping to make his breakthrough in 2017

Having signed whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was in his final years at the helm, Goss had seen David Moyes come and swiftly leave before Louis Van Gaal arrived.

Fresh from leading the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final, Van Gaal set about building a competitive, yet youthful Manchester United team.

The Dutchman’s move from orange to red proved fruitful for Goss who feels that the former Barcelona manager helped to raise the levels of his game nearer to that of a Manchester United first team player.

“Obviously I was younger when Sir Alex Ferguson was here. You’d see him around, as you would all the managers.

“But the main one when I started to push on was Van Gaal, he really helped my game and pushed me forward.

“He was always communicating with me in some way, whether I was playing for the under 23’s or if I was in and around the [first team] squad. If I was training with them they were always letting me know how I was getting on, what I could do better.”

“I was just at that age as well where, with the other ones before I was maybe a bit young in my body, but I think that was the time [under Van Gaal] where I was turning into a man.”

Debut

In fact, Van Gaal rated Goss so highly that he took the left-footed midfielder on the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2015.

Despite drawing comparisons to Michael Carrick in terms of playing style, it might have been easy to presume that Goss was there to make up the numbers; taken along to gain experience.

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Goss made his debut against PSG during Manchester United’s tour of the USA in 2015

However there was to be a fairy-tale ending, as Van Gaal introduced Goss as a second-half substitute during the friendly with Paris Saint-Germain, handing him his first team debut.

To add a further poetic element to the moment, it was Carrick who made way for the debutant.

Recalling the mixture of nerves and excitement, Goss explains; “You dream of making your debut but it’s hard to explain how it was.

“You’re there training and you hope you get your chance but when it finally happens you’re just concentrating on the game. It was a big crowd in a big stadium as well so it was a dream come true.

“He [Van Gaal] said I would get my chance. I just remember being sat there on the bench and getting told to warm up.

“It’s almost as if your stomach drops and your heart skips a beat for a second, but it was quality.”

Breakthrough

 Upon returning from the USA, Goss continued to be involved in Van Gaal’s first team environment, making the match day squad for the trip to Watford in the league and travelling with the squad for the Champions League tie away at Wolfsburg.

“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day’”

United scored in the last minute to defeat the Hornets 2-1 at Vicarage Road and whilst being an unused sub, the experience was of vital importance to Goss.

Sitting alongside him on the bench that day was Marcus Rashford, who would later go on to make his breakthrough for club and country, whilst Jesse Lingard and Paddy McNair made sizeable contributions on the pitch.

All three had been peers of Goss before being given their breaks by Van Gaal and at the time, the left footed Devon man hoped he might follow suit.

Whilst many Utd fans believed the time was right for Van Gaal to leave at the end of last season, for Goss there was a feeling of what might have been.

‘Unbelievable feeling’

“I felt like you never know what could happen. There were a few injuries in the squad at the time, but it’s hard to say, as I never got to as I was injured.

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The trip to Wolfsburg provided valuable experience for Goss

“But you saw that other players came through and made appearances, so you’d be hoping that I would have been one of them.

“I was on the bench at Watford and then travelled to Wolfsburg with the squad. Again, when you get told you’re involved it’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s an
other amazing experience I can look back on and hopefully I can get more of them.”

 

Goss has been working towards his first team breakthrough ever since making the move from Exeter City in 2012.

A boyhood United fan, he had previously been the mascot for the Grecians’ memorable FA Cup third round draw at Old Trafford, whilst dreaming of stepping out at the ‘theatre of dreams’ as a player.

“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day,’” he said.

“But it’s only when you’re older you look back and realise it’s near enough impossible [to sign for Manchester United]. To get the chance is quality and looking back I never expected it.

“There were tough times… but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard”

“I started at Exeter when I was about seven or eight and played a year up for most of my time, until under 16s. I had a few chances with the youth team and then I was lucky enough to get a trial with United.

“I went up [to Manchester] and played a couple of games. I went to Amsterdam and played against some big teams like Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan.

“After that I was lucky enough to get signed and joined when I was 16.

“It was tough, the first year especially. You’re only young, 16, moving away from home and it’s not like it’s just around the corner either. There were tough times where I felt a bit homesick but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard.

“The coaches are a big help; you get the welfare officer and coaches. When you’re a first-year scholar you’re not really near the first team, usually just the youth team and reserves, but the coaches were a big help if you ever needed some time off.”

Class of ’92

Amongst the coaches who helped Goss to settle were members of the famed ‘Class of ’92’.

Along with the likes of Warren Joyce, who recently left the club to become manager of Wigan Athletic, and senior members of the first team playing squad, the young players at Carrington could depend on a strong support network.

“They were all really good with us, every single one of them.” Said Goss.

“We had Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes for the Champions League [UEFA Youth League], which was always helpful, especially with the experience they’ve had at the club. I think you always need someone like that who’s had history with the club.

“You can go up and talk to any of them, there’s no big egos. Everyone’s human at the end of the day, if you wanted to chat to anyone they’re more than happy to help you out.”

Mourinho has historically favoured experience over youth throughout his career and not many people would be able to argue against the Portuguese’s policy given his medal haul.

But at a club such as Manchester United, whose homegrown players have been a major part of the club’s sustained success, there is an expectancy amongst the supporters that they see their ‘own’ players on the pitch.

Whether or not Mourinho sticks around long enough to give youth a chance remains to be seen. For players like Goss the key will be hard work and patience.

Chapecoense and other sporting aviation disasters

December 1, 2016 in News & Features

In the early hours of Nov 29th, Lamia flight 2933 carrying 77 people, including the Chapecoense football team, crashed a few miles south of Medellin, northern Columbia.

The team were due to play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, against Medellin team Atletico Nacional. Just six people survived and subsequently, the football world was plunged into mourning.

The saddest part about the crash, aside from all lives lost, is that such an incident is not unique in sporting, or even in footballing history. In this piece, we examine other sporting aviation disasters.

1) Munich air disaster

Perhaps the most well-known air crash involving a sports team occurred on February 6th 1958.

British European Airways flight 609, taking Matt Busby’s Manchester United team back to England after a triumph away at Red Star Belgrade, overshot the slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem airport, West Germany, where it had stopped for refuelling.

It was the third takeoff attempt after both pilots expressed dissatisfaction at the aircraft’s left engine. Of 43 passengers on board, 21 were killed, including seven Manchester United players. Manager Busby was severely injured and twice given last rites, but recovered and eventually rebuilt the team.

With Busby at the helm, United won the FA Cup four years later, the league title in 1965 and 1967 and then – a decade after the Munich crash – their first European Cup.

2) Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash

On September 7th 2011, Yak-service flight 9633 crashed near the city of Yaroslavl in Russia on its way to Minsk, carrying 45 passengers; of which, 43 died.

On board were the Russian ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and every player but one on their roster lost his life. Forward Maxim Zyuzyakin, who was not on the flight, later became captain and embodied the team’s rejuvenation.

The crash happened shortly after departure and was blamed on human error, when the captain braked during takeoff, causing a stall.

3) Cubana flight 455

Cubana de Aviacion flight 455 from Barbados to Jamaica, carrying 68 passengers and the Cuban national fencing team, was bombed midflight on June 11th 1976. Two C4 explosives were used by terrorists in an incident found to be orchestrated by Orlando Bosch Avila.

CORU, his anti-Castro terror group had been waging a violent campaign against Caribbean neighbours that had developed strong links with the Cuban regime. Everybody on board died in the disaster.

A declassified FBI document dated October 21, 1976, states that CORU “was responsible for the bombing of the Cubana Airlines DC-8 on October 6, 1976… because CORU was at war with the Fidel Castro regime.”

4) 1972 Andes flight disaster

A chartered flight carrying 45 passengers and the Uruguayan Old Christian rugby union team crashed into the Andes mountains on October 13th 1972.

The incident was a controlled flight into terrain, in which both wings clipped mountain peaks and holes were ripped in the fuselage.

Upon impact, five passengers died, with some survivors perishing in the ensuing days due to avalanches and others resorting to cannibalism.

Sixteen people survived the ordeal, including six of rugby team. The disaster was the basis for the 1993 film Alive and in the Hispanic world is referred to as the ‘Miracle of the Andes’.

5) LOT flight 7

On 14th March 1980, 87 passengers on board LOT flight 007, which included the US amateur boxing team, crashed in the Polish capital on its way from JFK to Warsaw Frederic Chopin airport.

The crash was caused by a faulty engine and subsequent loss of flight controls, and killed everybody on board.

Post-crash investigations revealed that many of the boxers on board, unlike other sleeping passengers, knew that they were about to crash, as examinations by doctors showed tears to muscles and tendons in their arms, suggesting that they were braced upon impact.

6) Air Indiana flight 216

On December 13th 1977, an Air Indiana DC-3 carrying the University of Evansville basketball team to Nashville to play the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders crashed shortly after takeoff at Evansville regional airport.

Fourteen members of the team perished in the incident alongside 12 other passengers.

The crash was blamed on pilot error, with an overloaded baggage compartment ‘changing the aircraft’s centre of gravity to the back end’ combining with a locked rudder and aileron, meaning that the aeroplane could not get the lift necessary to keep it airborne.

The only surviving member of the team, who did not travel that day, was killed in a car accident just weeks later. A monument was erected outside the university called the ‘weeping basketball’.

Five famous footballing returns

November 29, 2016 in Opinion

Many Liverpool fans were hoping against hope that club icon Steven Gerrard might have one last hurrah at Anfield after leaving MLS club LA Galaxy.

Gerrard, 36, opted to end his playing career last week, but may one day return to Liverpool in another role – possibly as a coach and potential manager?

For a footballer, leaving the club where you are seen as a legend is an incredibly hard decision, but the chance to return as a player or manager can be an even bigger one.

Remind everyone why you became a hero in the first place, or ruin your reputation; which way will it fall?

Here are five of those who did it best:

5 – Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea

Graeme Le Saux’s first spell at Chelsea ended in anger but the second was glorious.

Le Saux was the most expensive defender in England at the time at £5m – a far cry from the £30m Chelsea recently paid for David Luiz to return to the club after a £50million move to PSG two years earlier – when he returned after a controversial first spell in west London. 17 Sep 2000: Graeme Le Saux of Chelsea in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge in London. Leicester City won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Dave Cannon /Allsport

In 1993 Le Saux was a regular starter at Stamford Bridge, but rarely lasted the whole match, and when he was taken off at Southampton, it proved too much for him to take and he ripped off his shirt in disgust, throwing it on the feet of manager Ian Portfield.

The defender was soon on his way to Blackburn Rovers, where in his first full season, he helped them win the Premier League title and became an England regular.

In 1997 he returned to Chelsea, making him English football’s most expensive defender and in the next three years, they won the FA Cup, League Cup, Cup winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

Leaving Chelsea as the “villain” for showing disrespect to the manager was tough enough, but returning to the club that sold you after your misdemeanours is a risk Le Saux took and evidently it paid off.

4 – Thierry Henry – Arsenal

When Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, after eight years, 245 appearances and 174 goals, a huge part of his heart remained in north London.

So in some ways it was no surprise when five years later he returned to train with the team, and, inevitably, play for them again. Henry celebrates after scoring the winner on his return to Arsenal.

By then Henry was playing for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and during their 2012 off-season, he trained with the Gunners to keep in shape.

But when they suffered an injury crisis, manager Arsene Wenger looked to his former talisman and he signed a two-month loan deal. ‘King’ Henry was back.

He made four appearances and scored twice; the first came in his debut when he scored the winner goal in an FA Cup tie against Leeds.

His last ever Gunners goal came in his final match under Wenger – again, the winner, in injury time for a 2-1 triumph at Sunderland. No wonder there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.

Henry is now Belgium’s assistant manager and a pundit on Sky Sports. Many Arsenal fans would love to see him succeed Wenger as manager one day. Is another hero’s return too much to ask for?

3 – Ian Rush – Liverpool

Ian Rush’s 346 goals in two spells at Liverpool make him the club’s all-time record goalscorer. At his peak in the 1980s, there was no-one to rival him in English football. Ian rush celebrates scoring at Wembley for Liverpool.

Having won four league titles and two European Cups in six years with the Reds, in 1987 Rush left to join Serie A giants Juventus. It did not go well, with just seven goals in 29 appearances for the Italians.

Loaned back to Liverpool for the second year of his Juventus contract, Rush’s Midas touch returned, as he scored 30 goals in 42 matches.

A permanent return home was just a matter of time, and the Welsh striker spent another eight seasons at Anfield, making 245 more appearances and adding a further 90 goals. During this time he also won another league title, two FA Cups and became their record goalscorer.

A legend? Unquestionably.

2 – Didier Drogba – Chelsea

Didier Drogba was not just a legend as a player; over two spells at Chelsea, he helped change the history of his club.

His first spell, after joining from Marseille in 2004, saw Chelsea win their first league title in 50 years, in his debut season.

Another Premier League title followed the next year, setting up a glorious era in which he became the first ever player to score in four different FA Cup finals, as well as the first African player to score 100 Premier League goals. But nothing compared to how he signed off his first stint at the club.

His 88th minute equaliser in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich, took the game to extra time and then penalties. And who scored the winner? Drogba, of course.Drogba celebrates scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final.

When he left that summer to join Chinese league side Shanghai Shenhua, after eight years, 226 appearances, 100 goals and eight trophies, a fan poll by Chelsea’s official club magazine saw the Ivorian named as the club’s best-ever player.

Supporters probably thought they would never see his like again. They were wrong.

Drogba’s stint in China was short-lived, and soon he was playing for Galatasaray in Turkey, where he added the 2013 Turkish Super Cup to his medal collection.

The following year, he was back at the Bridge, signing a one-year contract for manager Jose Mourinho – like Drogba, enjoying his second spell at Chelsea.

Drogba managed four more goal in 28 appearances, before announcing that the final game of the season against Sunderland would be his last for the club.

After half an hour, he had to come off injured, but rather than limping off, he was chaired off the field by his team-mates. Now that’s a stylish exit.

The success Drogba enjoyed in his first spell at Chelsea meant that coming back for a second time he had to be as good, if not better than he was previously. Undoubtedly, he was a good playing an integral part in saving Chelsea’s season and thats why he is second.

1 – Paul Scholes – Manchester United

An increasingly rare one-club man, Paul Scholes’ 466 appearances for Manchester United over 17 years make him one of the modern greats.

In his testimonial match in August 2011, the midfielder signed off with a 25-yard finish, showing that even though he was retiring, he had still not lost his touch and he could have played on for a while yet. But no-one expected that he would actually do so.

Five months later, with United going through an uncharacteristic rough patch, he was back, making his ‘second debut’ by coming on to score in the Manchester derby, and also finding the net in his first start second time around. Scholes makes his second debut for United in a Manchester derby.

He was persuaded to sign another one year contract extension, keeping him at United until the end of the following season, and retired for good at the end of the 2012-13 season – fittingly, picking up a yellow card in his farewell match. Well, he never was much of a tackler…

His total of 25 major trophies makes him the most decorated English footballer of all time, and he is now co-owner of Salford City FC, a coach at United and a pundit on BT Sport.

The fact that Scholes completely retired from football before returning to top level football looking fitter than ever, makes his comeback the greatest of all.

Why are so many ex-footballers taking to our screens?

November 9, 2016 in News & Features

Since leaving Manchester United in the summer, Ryan Giggs has become the latest high profile ex-player to step into a TV studio and chance his arm at punditry.

The Welshman’s transition from Old Trafford’s left wing, to the ITV sofa, (via the dugout), is a path trodden by many in recent years. Tune in to football coverage, be it on TV, radio or the internet, and you’ll struggle to not find the opinions of a former player.

So why exactly are so many ex-pros finding their second careers within the media?

Peter Lovenkrands played at the highest level for clubs such as Rangers, Schalke and Newcastle United, and also represented Denmark in two major tournaments.

As is the case for many an ex-sportsperson, replacing the buzz of competition proved difficult following his retirement.

Struggle

Yet, while nothing can ever replicate the feeling of 90 minutes on a football pitch, for Lovenkrands, media work provides the perfect way to remain closely involved in the sport.

“I don’t think you’ll see many more now going from punditry to coaching”

“For me, it’s the closest thing to playing. When I stopped playing, [punditry] was the thing that helped me get over missing it,” said Lovenkrands, who co-commentates on German Bundesliga games.

He explained: “There’s a thing in the football world, people who don’t have anything to go into after playing kind of struggle, and some people get depression, even.

“It’s something that a lot of players find hard. I even find it hard still sometimes when I’m sitting in commentary, you think ‘I want to be out there, I want to be playing’.

“But by sitting watching and talking about it, that’s the closest thing to getting the atmosphere in the stadium and being [out] there. I really enjoy it and that’s what helps me get over  retirement.”

Enhanced

Lovenkrands working as a summariser. Pic @lovenkrands11

Giggs may believe that coaching or management is the closest thing to playing.

After the disappointment of being overlooked for the United hotseat, some might argue that his regular appearances on our TV screens serve only to keep him ‘relevant’ in the eyes of fans and club owners alike, reminding us of his suitability for a role in management.

In his excellent book, Living On The Volcano, Michael Calvin discusses the way in which Tony Pulis left his post at Crystal Palace, only to find himself the new manager of West Brom, thanks to a little help from the media.

Wrote Calvin: “He maintained his profile as a media pundit, refused to enlarge on the circumstances which led to him leaving Palace by ‘mutual consent’, and watched the stakes rise. He would join West Bromwich Albion almost as soon as his gardening leave ended.”

Gary Neville, of course, is a fine example of an excellent pundit who enhanced opinions of his highly thought-of coaching ability, by educating (rather than patrionising) us on screen.

“I think these days you’re one or the other; you’re either a pundit, or you’re a coach”

Neville provides no catchphrases, no clichés and certainly none of the ‘faux-intelligence’ displayed by many of his peers on alternative channels.

However after three tournaments with England as part of Roy Hodgson’s backroom staff and a short-lived spell as Valencia manager, Neville himself feels it will be difficult for him to step from commentary box into the dugout once again.

But what about everybody else? Jamie Carragher once joked on Sky’s Monday Night Football that “no pundit on TV will ever get a job again, he’s [Neville] ruined it for us all”.

Praise

Lovenkrands, who now works for Rangers TV, makes the point that the demands and differences between working ‘on-pitch’ and working ‘on-screen’, may make it difficult for others to follow in Neville’s footsteps.

“I think these days you’re one or the other; you’re either a pundit, or you’re a coach,” said the 36 year old.

“He [Neville] was kind of the first one to go from being a proper Sky pundit, to go and take the Valencia job. Even though he was a pundit, he had the England job, but that’s not full-time.

“I praise him for taking the chance and trying to go and do his thing. I love him as a pundit, I think he’s fantastic. Him and Jamie Redknapp are two of my favourites.

“But I don’t think you’ll see many more now going from punditry to coaching.”

Caution

Neville’s success as a pundit can be attributed to his obvious desire for hard work, his undoubted knowledge for the world of football from training ground to boardroom and, quite simply, his knack for talking honestly and passionately on air.

Lovenkrands takes on Chris Sutton during an Old Firm Game

Lovenkrands takes on Chris Sutton during an Old Firm game

Other pundits choose to go down a different route, offering controversy and sparking vicious debate amongst viewers, listeners and people within the football industry alike.

Neither approach is wrong or right; success for Neville could look different to success for Robbie Savage. Either way, they are both successful.

For Lovenkrands, controversy should come with a hint of caution.

“I’ve spoken about that with people before and a lot of people say you can go two ways. One is knowledge, knowing so many things. And then there’s the controversial side of it,” said the Dane, who still holds a close affinity with the fans of many of his former clubs.

“Chris Sutton, for example, has been quite controversial with a lot of things, especially up here in Scotland. He’s had a lot of criticism because of the controversial way he’s been talking about the game.

“But for me that becomes a little bit like the X Factor and Simon Cowell, where somebody’s being negative. The same as Strictly Come Dancing where one of the judges will be negative, it creates a lot of interest for people watching it because they’re thinking ‘what’s he going to say next?’.

Controversial

“I feel like you have to be careful when you’re going down that road because I don’t like being hated. I like to be positive, but of course you have to be honest if certain things don’t happen right.

“A lot of people don’t care about being controversial and that seems to have helped them in getting more jobs because people want to hear what they have to say, even if they maybe don’t like what they’re saying.

“My view on it is you can be negative and controversial, but try to put a positive spin on it and not upset too many people.”

The reality is that football is a sport in which no matter how positive one may be, someone will always be upset.

Like anyone, footballers can be sensitive to the comments of others; they are human beings after all.

Criticism

John Terry has been the captain of his club and country, played in major games in front of some of the most hostile supporters, and faced public disgrace over his racist comments to a fellow professional.

Yet for Terry, receiving criticism from Robbie Savage over his form last season was not something he planned on taking lightly.

He responded by comparing his own successful career to Savage’s, and insinuating that criticism offered by a less successful player was not welcome.

“You try not to be too controversial and there’s a limit, I feel. You can be critical, but about football and not being personal at all”

Lovenkrands however believes that criticism is to be expected as a footballer, as long as opinions never become personal.

Having played with Joey Barton at Newcastle, the Liverpudlian’s current situation with Rangers could potentially have put Lovenkrands in a tricky situation.

“Sometimes it’s something you need to think twice about. But if you want to be in that kind of business you have to just say what you feel because you get paid to be honest and talk about what you see,” said Lovenkrands, who finished his playing career in the Championship with Birmingham City.

“If I feel like there’s certain things that have happened that I feel are negative, I have to say it and I have to just deal with it. To be fair, most people in the football world would understand.

“You try not to be too controversial and there’s a limit, I feel. You can be critical, but about football and not being personal at all.

“I think that’s the fine line I’m finding as a commentator.”

Lovenkrands (right) prior to co-commentating on a Champions League match. Pic @lovenkrands11.

Allegiances

Carragher and Neville hold the prestige of being one-club defenders who gave everything for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively.

Whilst their rivalry on the pitch has turned to admiration in the studio, the passion they have for their old clubs still remains.

Yet a major strength of both, is that through their media work you would struggle to work out their allegiances.

Being fair and balanced is a must for any journalist, however, were the ex-defenders to work for their club’s own TV channel, would their approach be encouraged to change?

Shedding some light on the subject of bias, Lovenkrands said: “The Rangers commentary that I do, it’s for Rangers TV, so I don’t need to be biased in any way.

“I really enjoy that because I’m a Rangers fan as well so when they score I can celebrate and be part of it in that way. That’s really exciting.

“But when I do the German football, or sometimes when I’ve done Premier League games, or Scottish football for radio, then of course you have to make sure you commentate on both teams and be professional about it.

“I like that as well, that I have to be that aware.”

So to revisit the original question as to why football coverage is now saturated with former pros, each individual will have their reasons. Some will say the salary appeals, whilst the job security far outweighs that in management or coaching.

Others may see it as a profile booster, a public job interview every time the ‘ON AIR’ light is switched on. For those who have no interest in coaching, media work provides a no-pressure involvement with the game.

But for Lovenkrands, his reasons are far simpler. “I just love football,” summed up the former striker.

“I get carried away when I commentate so when a goal happens, no matter what team it’s for, in the Bundesliga for example, I get carried away and start celebrating.

“That’s the way it should be. It should be coming across for people to listen to that you’re excited about your job and what you’re doing.”

Mourinho made to suffer on Chelsea return

October 24, 2016 in I Was There

On his first match back at Stamford Bridge as manager of another English team, former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho was given a stark reminder of how easily things can change in football.

Stood in the opposition dugout and now at the helm of Manchester United, Mourinho watched on as his team’s dreadful start to the game inspired chants of “you’re not special anymore” from – admittedly, only a minority of – home supporters.

A year ago, those same fans were well and truly singing a different tune, in unison. “Stand up for the Special One,” was once the cry around Stamford Bridge as the Blues struggled to defend their Premier League title. Not anymore.

A broken man

As he witnessed the 4-0 dismantling of his United side from the technical area, Mourinho cut a frustrated and disappointed figure.

“Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten”

It was a sight that Chelsea supporters were already familiar with, engraved into the memories of those who cannot simply ignore the disastrous season of 2015/16.

We all know the story, and Mourinho’s body language in Sunday’s game was a reminder of a chapter that most in west London want forgotten.

Moving on

Ten months after the 53-year-old’s sacking, however, it seems Chelsea have finally started to turn a corner.

Slowly but surely, former Italy coach Antonio Conte, now occupying Mourinho’s old seat in the dugout, is repairing the damage left behind by his predecessor.

New Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has started to make friends at the Bridge ©Nazionale Calcio

Players who were shattered in confidence under Mourinho, like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic, are now all performing at their very best again thanks to the Italian.

With a renewed sense of freedom and adventure, the days of players feeling shackled and restricted under Mourinho are a thing of the past.

Chelsea midfielders and forwards alike are truly blossoming in Conte’s 3-4-3 system, and the former Juventus manager is reaping the rewards of having ditched the 4-1-4-1 formation deployed earlier this season, a formation similar to that of Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1, in favour of his trusted three-man defensive set-up.

The future

After a bleak, dark and depressing 2015/16 season, the future looks somewhat brighter for Chelsea.

It is too early to predict whether Conte will be a success or not at Stamford Bridge. But what can be seen clearly under the 47-year-old is the establishment of an on-field identity and a long-term vision for the club.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham are often picked up for the high-intensity football and constant pressing game they play on instruction from their respective managers, and Conte too wants his Chelsea team to be recognised for such.

For Mourinho, it was about winning at all costs. However, that does not seem to be the case for Conte.

For the three-time Serie A winning manager, Chelsea must win, and win in style.

Chalobah could play a key role in Chelsea’s future ©Wikimedia Commons:

As well as what appears to be a difference in footballing philosophy between the two, Conte has made it clear that unlike Mourinho, he intends to utilise the young talent that Chelsea have produced or are producing.

John Terry – who made his debut in 1998 – was the last success story to come from Chelsea’s academy, but that could soon be about to change under Conte, a manager renowned for giving those who deserve to play a chance regardless of their age.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ola Aina and Nathaniel Chalobah are all a part Conte’s plans with the latter finding himself gaining more first-team minutes as each matchday passes.

As for Mourinho and Manchester United, something has to give sooner or later if they wish for a change in fortune. But that is not Chelsea’s concern.

After all, Mourinho himself said it better than anyone else could have after Frank Lamapard’s move to Manchester City in 2014. “When he decided to go to a direct competitor then love stories are over.”

Featured image: ©Aleksandr Osipov

Middleweight stardom beckons for Kayani

October 13, 2016 in Interviews

A day with Amar Kayani is a day like no other. A morning of ‘light’ training, with pad and bag work supplemented by skipping and hundreds of press-ups, is a distinct reminder of how boxing is steeped in hard work and dedication. 

Sweat flies from the rising star in the middleweight division as he prepares for his upcoming bout in the national quarter-finals.IMG_2684

After three hours, Kayani peels off his drenched shirt and squeezes a pool of perspiration into a grubby bucket at his gym in High Wycombe.

Born in Slough, Berkshire, and having had to work hard to become one of the most feared amateurs in the sport, Kayani says he has educated himself.

“Life wasn’t plain sailing when I was a youngster,” he admits while watching a dozen prospects being put through their paces in a sparring session.

“I was always getting in trouble at school and as a youngster I was fighting all the time. I was never scared of confrontation and I just loved fighting.

“It was obviously wrong, but punching someone or something was the easy way out during that time. It gave me an adrenaline rush so boxing seemed perfect for me to get into.”

Family

Kayani grew up in a family passionate about boxing. In his understated way, the 21-year-old describes his journey to becoming one of the most destructive boxers in the amateur ranks, and says he is delighted to have a family that has a massive attachment to the sport.

“Boxing teaches discipline and you have to be disciplined in many more ways than just the boxing aspect in life in order to be a success”

“As a youngster, I looked up to my oldest brother,” says Kayani with a huge smile.

“He did taekwondo and used to show me clips of him competing, and I would get such a buzz watching him.

‘My dad [pictured, top, with Kayani] was a massive Muhammad Ali fan and all he ever spoke about was how good the heavyweight division was with the likes of Henry Cooper, Joe Bugner, and George Foreman.

“As as I got older, I started to Google these fighters and got drawn into the world of boxing – let’s just say the rest is history. I owe my family so much because without their love for boxing, I wouldn’t be doing this today.”

Life lessons

Kayani, 21, admits he learnt some of his biggest life lessons after experiencing confrontations triggered by a violent temper.

“The fight against Adewale was a good test but I was in complete control”

“I’ve learnt a lot since I started boxing. Before, I was arguing with individuals on the street, but now I know I’m a trained professional.

“Now if arguments ever occur, I will always walk away rather than fight.

“Boxing teaches discipline and you have to be disciplined in many more ways than just the boxing aspect in life in order to be a success.”

Laying down a marker 

Kayani leans forward intently as he discusses his huge victory over Josh Adewale – the man who is supposedly one of the brightest middleweight’s in the country.

That bout at Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, earlier this month for a place in the quarter-finals of the Nationals, was one Kayani was expected to lose.

Kayani lands a punch on Adewale

However, a dominant performance saw him earn victory by a split decision.

“It was a special evening,” says Kayani, beaming at the recollection.

“I always knew I would overcome him. I was training so hard for this moment and most of the media doubted me, but that gave me more motivation to prove them wrong.

“The fight was a good test but I was in complete control.

“I did what I had to do but now that’s in the past and I look forward to the next fight and the next after that. This business does not stop for anyone.”

Maturity 

Reaching a new level of maturity in his life, the man nicknamed the ‘AK’ says his dedication to the sport is, in part, down to the support of his coaches.

“Stuart, John, Russ and Shane are the definition of a team,” says the 21-year-old fighter. “They all contribute so much and I learn different things from each of them.

Kayani alongside his coaching team

“They all have their own way of doing things and I mix up everything to make myself the best that I can possibly be.

“They have helped me grow as a boxer, but most importantly as a person so I will forever be grateful for that.”

Teaching 

Kayani is also passing down lessons to aspiring young fighters by running twice-weekly sessions at a boxing gym in Slough.

The flamboyant star, who likens himself to pro fighters Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, admits that the aim of these sessions is helping young kids steer clear of trouble.

“A considerable amount of youngsters were getting into trouble in Slough, and I thought why not use my knowledge of the sport to teach them something productive and keep them off the streets.

“The sessions are tough so usually they will go home and shower and then rest instead of being out all night causing mischief like most of them normally would!”

Hobbies

Despite the tough training regimes implemented by his coaches, the amateur star, who has a record of 14 wins and two close losses, enjoys the lighter side of life through hobbies including PlayStation and watching his beloved Manchester United.

“I get pretty engulfed in most things but watching United play gets me pumped,” admits Kayani.

“Boxing takes up most of my schedule but when I have time to relax, it’s all about my friends and family and just enjoying the finer things in life, and that includes thrashing someone on FIFA 17!”

Ambitions 

The youngster’s instinct is steering him in the right direction as he aims to become British boxing’s most exciting amateur.

“I will bring a flamboyancy to the middleweight division – for many years it’s lacked the cutting-edge excitement that professional boxing needs”

However, the calm and calculated character smiles and insists he has many aspirations to accomplish by the end of this season.

“Right now I’m focused on the here and now and by the end of this season, I want to achieve a lot,” insists Kayani.

“I have a solid goal in my head, and that is to turn professional within a year or two. I think I will bring a flamboyancy to the middleweight division – for many years it’s lacked the cutting-edge excitement that professional boxing needs.

“I think I will keep improving until I can win a world title, but at the moment I want to be national champion and then the ABA champion and anything else in between that.

“I have no doubt in my mind that it can be done and it is possible.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swfM5y9_Lzk

 

 

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