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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.

Will Major League Soccer ever be taken seriously?

November 21, 2016 in News & Features

The profile of Major League Soccer in America has certainly grown in recent years, but will it ever be able to compete with its European counterparts?

When it comes to other sports, the United States boasts some of the top leagues in the world. The National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Hockey League (NHL) are unquestionably the world leaders in their respective sports.

But considering the size of its pool of players and the resources available, America’s domestic football league is still a poor relation.

The men’s and women’s national teams have both impressed on the world stage in recent years, and the Premier League continues to be extremely popular, but as for MLS? It is still some way behind its rivals in other countries.

European imports

One way in which MLS clubs have tried to strengthen themselves and ultimately the league as a whole is by importing some of the biggest stars of the European leagues as they come towards the end of their careers.

The prime example of this remains former England captain and ex-Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham, who,  in 2007,  joined LA Galaxy at the age of 31.

beckham_la_galaxy_cropped

©Wikimedia Commons: David Beckham

This coup opened the door for other clubs, and the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Rafael Marquez, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill followed suit by ditching Europe for America, keen to try out a new footballing experience, live in some of the world’s most exciting cities – and pick up a decent pay cheque for doing so.

One of the MLS’ more recent high-profile signings Frank Lampard, however, who joined New York City from Chelsea in 2014, believes players such as himself have the responsibility of trying to improve football in America instead of just going there to pick up their wage packages.

Speaking to The Drum in March, Lampard said: “As a player now you come to America to play but also you have a responsibility to improve the brand of football, which means taking the MLS to bigger levels.

“I think as a player coming from Europe, myself, David [Villa] and Andrea [Pirlo], we have a responsibility then to get out in the community and do these things [promotional events] and make people want to come and support us.

“I think you’ll see more [foreign] players come here as the league improves.”

Designated Player Rule

As for Beckham’s move to the States in particular, it had repercussions.

Repercussions that may need to be looked at should the MLS one day hope to have its top team teams filled with stars to rival the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga.

Beckham’s signing ushered in the Designated Player Rule, also known as the “Beckham Rule,” as part of the MLS salary cap regulation.

It means MLS clubs are only allowed to sign up to three players (the third resulting in a fee of $150,000 (£120,000) being paid and split between teams without three designated players) whose salaries will exceed the MLS salary cap of $436,250 (£350,000).

As a result, there is an obvious limit to how many big names a team can sign, considering they are the candidates for the designated player slots.

While such deliberate limitations do help keep a level of parity and competitiveness in the league, some modifications should at least be considered if the MLS truly wants to mix it with the big boys of Europe.

Retirement home

The signing of players such as Beckham definitely brought publicity to a competition which people may not otherwise have seriously considered paying attention to.

“The MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.”

However, whilst Beckham still had a few good years in him when he joined as a 31-year-old – Real Madrid tried to re-sign him before he joined the Galaxy, and he went on to have spells at Milan and Paris St Germain – many of the signings that have followed in his wake have given the MLS a reputation as a retirement home for ageing European stars.

That does not necessarily mean that those who have joined the MLS in recent years are not up to scratch.

©Nigel Wilson: Frank Lampard(L), Steven Gerrard(C) and David Beckham(R)

The likes of Henry, Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole and Robbie Keane, have all made an impact during their stints in the MLS.

Additionally, New York City’s Villa and Orlando City’s Kaka have also impressed and could probably have played at a higher level for at least one more season instead of joining the MLS in 2015.

But the MLS will never be able to shed its unwanted tag until it can attract world-class players who are yet to reach their peak.

‘A league that doesn’t count for much’

Regardless of the calibre of its foreign imports, the overall standard of quality across the league seems to be its biggest problem.

Earlier this year, former Juventus midfielder and Italy legend Pirlo, criticised the MLS for involving too much running.

The 2006 World Cup winner told Reuters: “It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.

“What I’m talking about is actually a system or culture. I don’t mean that the level of technical skills are low. I just mean there is a cultural void that needs to be filled.”

And Pirlo is not the only Italian to have questioned MLS football.

Despite his red-hot form since joining Toronto in 2015, Sebastian Giovinco missed out on Antonio Conte’s Italy squad for Euro 2016 because he plays in the MLS, and the former Juventus forward’s exile has continued under Giampiero Ventura.

©Wikimedia Commons: Sebastian Giovinco

“I have done everything to help him [Giovinco] but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn’t count for much,” Ventura was quoted saying on ESPN FC.

“And the number of goals he scores is less important because with the quality he has got, he is bound to make a difference in that league.

“The problem is that if you play in that type of league, and you get used to playing in that type of league, it becomes a problem of mentality.”

Does Ventura have a case? It is debatable, although some MLS fans interested in the affairs of the Italy national team will be quick to remind Conte’s successor that he has not been afraid to call-up Graziano Pelle – who is currently playing his trade in China.

Will MLS ever be taken seriously? Perhaps one day but, until something changes, it seems destined to remain deep in the shadows of Europe’s elite leagues.

Featured Image: ©Matt Boulton

Review – Box to Box by Curtis Woodhouse

October 31, 2016 in Opinion

Many youngsters grow up dreaming of becoming professional footballers, but for every one that makes the grade, there are so many that fail to fulfil their potential and drift into obscurity. We’ve all heard that story before. 

Similarly, the tale of the ageing boxer who somehow manages to pull off one last shot at the big time is something of a cliche.

Combine both stories, however, and you have something a bit different – people don’t just go from being nearly men in football to really men in boxing. But somehow Curtis Woodhouse managed to do just that, and his autobiography ‘Box to Box’ tells his remarkable story.

The start and the end

When he stepped up from Sheffield United’s academy to the first team at the age of 17, the outlook was bright for Woodhouse as he moved from earning £42.50 a week as an apprentice to taking home more money than he had ever seen before.

Once he broke into England under-21s team alongside Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, his future looked even better. But something was missing. Desire.

“Ever been trapped in a loveless relationship?” he says in his book. “One day you’re head over heels and all set to take on the world together, a few years later it’s all gone to shit.

“You’ve fallen out of love and you don’t know how it happened. The dream has gone and it’s impossible to get it back. Love and hate are similar emotions. And I really hated football.”

Whilst to an outsider, a Premier League footballer may be living the life of a king, for Woodhouse, the reality was very different.

For sure, he enjoyed the parties and the drinking culture, but for the young child who grew up on Northfield Crescent in Beverley, outside Hull, with dreams of being the next John Barnes, the lustre had faded.

‘Living in my own little Beirut’

Despite a close relationship with family members, particularly his father, Woodhouse’s childhood was permeated with violence and anguish. Fighting and arguing were all around him.

“Between the ages of 10 and 14, I lived in a war zone,” he writes. “Northfield Crescent was my own little Beirut. I wouldn’t wish those years on my worst enemy. Please, Dad, don’t kill her. Please, Mum, don’t die.”

“He brawled in nightclubs and was arrested numerous times. Repeatedly, he declared himself a new man and spoke of controlling his destructive urges, but no matter how far Woodhouse walked, trouble followed”

The challenges Woodhouse experienced as a youngster left mental scars, and when his mother fled the family home with his siblings, fed up with rows and heartache, for years Woodhouse despised her.

As he got older, though, he realised the challenges she had faced – and also that his father, whilst being his hero, was by no means a saint.

The bitter youngster descended deeper into chaos, taking solace in drinking and fighting with anyone who got in his way. Although he says he was not by nature confrontational as a youngster, he changed his ways after a piece of advice from his father.

“Listen, do you want to be running for the rest of your life?,” said Woodhouse Snr. “It’s embarrassing, son. Get out there and fight. From now on, if anyone ever calls you nigger, smack em as hard as you can, straight in the face.”

Problem after problem

Throughout his footballing career, Woodhouse’s combative personality was a problem, and the book lists his series of run-ins at every club he played for.

Off the pitch, he brawled in nightclubs and was arrested numerous times. Repeatedly, he declared himself a new man and spoke of controlling his destructive urges, but no matter how far Woodhouse walked, trouble followed.

“Five years after being booted out by Birmingham, aged 33 and in his 28th fight, Woodhouse became the British light-welterweight champion”

Inevitably, his Premier League career came to an end when he was sacked by Birmingham after a 44-day bender. Not that he has much memory of his actual dismissal, however.

“I thought [manager] Steve Bruce was a wanker. I thought [club director] Karren Brady was a bitch,” he writes. “When I was smashing up Indian restaurants and playing for the first team, they pretended it didn’t happen.

“But now I was in a mess, they wanted me off the wage bill. I couldn’t tell you what was said or even the official reason I got sacked. I haven’t got a clue, because I wasn’t really there.”

Dreams can come true

With Woodhouse filled with rage, Barry Fry – manager of his next professional club, Peterborough United – suggested he take up boxing as an outlet for his anger.

This proved to be the turning point, as Woodhouse began his journey from the laughing stock who was pummelled by kids in sparring into a seriously talented and dedicated fighter, motivated by those early humiliations.

In September 2006, Woodhouse made his debut as a professional boxer. Just a few months later, in May 2007, his already ill father suffered a stroke, and shortly before he died, Woodhouse made a promise to his ‘superhero’.

“Dad, I promise that I’ll win the British title. I promise… I promise.”

And this he duly did. Five years after being booted out by Birmingham, on February 22 2014, aged 33 in his 28th fight, Woodhouse beat Darren Hamilton to become the British light-welterweight champion.

‘Box to Box’ is compelling, honest and very amusing, telling an amazing story of a remarkable sporting life.

It is a bruising ride through adversity and a lesson in shattered dreams, wasted opportunities, and the power of not giving up.

Despite the demons he faced, Woodhouse has conquered all.

“The demons are still inside but now I’m their master, rather than the other way round,” he writes. “I’ve succeeded in two sports and also overcome all the bad shit that happened when I was a kid.”

Box to Box is published by Simon & Schuster (Amazon £12.91). 

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