Warren Gatland – A Lion among men?

In a year’s time, everyone will be picking up their pens and making their own minds up who should be on the plane to Australia to represent that old rugby tradition. The British Lions. Despite suffering a 2-1 series defeat to South Africa back to 2009, that tour helped the public fall back in love with a concept that had some serious doubters after Clive Woodward led a disastrous tour to New Zealand four years before that. Without a win since 1997, the Lions could really do with someone to pull a result out of the bag and prove the Northern Hemisphere can still mix it with the best.

It seems the Lions bosses have already decided who to entrust with the task of beating the Aussies and have subsequently offered the position out. Warren Gatland, Wales coach since 2007, having picked up his second Grand Slam during that period, is the selected man and an official approach has been made to the WRU. The 48-year-old is the obvious choice, considering his coaching credentials and achievements, not just with Wales but also a trophy-packed spell with London Wasps. Although Ireland boss Declan Kidney and Scotland coach Andy Robinson were apparently interviewed for the position, Gatland is the overwhelming favourite, not just with the public, but the players as well as it seems. So what’s the problem then?

Well the WRU are in fact, being very co-operative over the situation. They are willing to allow Gatland to step aside for the 2013 Six Nations, which would ensure he fulfils his duties as Lions coach. The Lions bosses though, are keen for a man to be appointed for the entire year. This makes the situation slightly trickier, as Wales would prefer Gatland to remain in charge for the autumn internationals, before handing over the reigns to assistants Rob Howley and Robin McBride to defend their Six Nations crown. Given the WRU are making a fairly big sacrifice in allowing their main man miss part of an international season, it is only reasonable that the Lions bosses let common sense prevail and allow Gatland to continue in his position until the end of the autumn tests. Hopefully, some sort of compromise can be reached so Gatland can be appointed and get on with his task of reviewing who he wants on his plane toAustralia.

What about Gatland as a coach though? The New Zealander would become only the second overseas coach to lead the Lions into battle, and the last man that attempted this didn’t exactly do a great job. Graham Henry was everyone’s number one choice last time the touring party visited Down Under, but clashes over his management style and team selection ensured the tour was a dismal failure, and much worse than the 2-1 series defeat suggested. Scores of players complained about his coaching style, including England stars Matt Dawson and Austin Healey in controversial newspaper columns, while it was suggested certain Welsh players were disgruntled having been left out of the test team.

Issues have arisen over the problem of favouritism, with people in some quarters suggesting Gatland might favour those who have helped his Welsh side to two Grand Slams during his time in charge. Players have been quick to speak out against those claims though, with Welsh prop Adam Jones telling the BBC: “In fairness to Gats he would pick who he thinks would be the best players. Knowing him, he’s not going to be one of these guys who will pick you if you play for Wales or on past form. If you’re on form and playing well for your club or country, you’re going to go on tour regardless of which country you’re from.”

Aside from the obvious fact that if a test team was picked today, a high proportion of Welsh names would feature anyway, Gatland knows the value of the Lions and what it means to Britain in general. Having toured with Sir Ian McGeechan’s party in 2009, Gatland understands the ethos and team spirit needed to build a successful tour, and this should stand him in good stead when the trip comes around next summer.

The choice is obvious, Gatland is the best man for the job and should be able to assemble a decent set of backroom staff to assist him. It seems his Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards would also join the team, while most people would expect England’s Graham Rowntree to coach the forwards given the positive reviews he has received in helping Stuart Lancaster revive England’s fortunes. Gatland’s appointment is just the beginning of the excitement though, as rugby awaits one of the highlights of the international calendar. Bring on 2013.

The talented Mr Di Canio

There’s something about Italians and eccentricity. It just seems to be built into their DNA, indeed you only have to look at the fact they elected Silvio Berlusconi as their Prime Minister (at least officially anyway) to see that the whole country loves a man who isn’t quite all there upstairs.

Photo Credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk

Another rather crazy Italian is making waves in an industrial town in Wiltshire right now. Yes, Mr Paolo Di Canio is catching the headlines in England once again, but this time not as a player. Swindon Town suffered a rather embarrassing relegation from League One in 2011, rolling through three managers in the season before finally sliding through the trapdoor into the dreaded League Two. It was all the more disappointing for Robins fans considering just a couple of years before, they were pushing for promotion under Danny Wilson thanks to the goals of Billy Paynter and Charlie Austin.

Still, the board saw relegation as an opportunity to start afresh and decided that Di Canio, with no managerial experience, was the man to bring glory back to the County Ground. The Italian overhauled the playing staff, bringing in a number of unheard-of names from all over the globe. He dipped back into his home country as well, bringing in four Italians to give Swindon a touch of flair. The dramatic change in faces made the Robins an unpredictable force at the start of the season, and although Di Canio promised promotion, how Paolo’s first job would go was anyone’s guess.

The new names didn’t bed in initially (indeed some never have) and Swindon struggled for consistency at the start of the season. A 2-1 defeat to bitter rivals Oxford United at home left some supporters questioning the Chairman’s decision to appoint a managerial rookie. Results improved though, and after a Boxing Day defeat to Torquay, Swindon have won 13 of their next 15 League matches, though unfortunately one of those defeats came again at the hands of Oxford. It wasn’t just league success that Di Canio enjoyed though, indeed Swindon produced a storming FA Cup run that included a 2-1 third round victory over Premier League outfit Wigan that prompted Paolo to tell BBC Wiltshire “My lads today deserve to have their names put on this stadium. I know you normally do this when you win something important and I don’t want a big statue but maybe a plaque. Today we did something special.”

Although the FA Cup dream ended in the next round in defeat to Leicester, the Robins did make it to Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, though they met their match against League One opposition Chesterfield. Although the 2-0 defeat proved to be a bitter disappointment for Di Canio; indeed it denied him a first major piece of silverware as a manager, Swindon’s progression through the competition is a sure sign of glory to come.

It seems like Di Canio’s magical touch on the field is working in a similar fashion off the pitch as well. The Italian, though mercurial at times (see volley against Wimbledon for evidence), always cut a controversial figure. There was the 11-match suspension for the shove on referee Paul Alcock in 1998, not to mention his self-proclaimed support of Fascism that resulted in his Roman salute to Lazio supporters that caused a bit of a stir in the footballing world. This colourful side to his character has also come out in his managerial style. There have been a few bust-ups of epic proportions so far, see his clash with Leon Clarke at the start of the season that ended with the pair going head-to-head in the tunnel. Although the press conferences haven’t contained the fireworks one might have expected from Paolo, there have still been a few choice moments, especially regarding his touchline demeanour that often reveals his dramatic Italian nature to all. Prone to sulking, gesticulating and arguing, Di Canio got himself sent to the stands in a game against Macclesfield after protesting about a free kick in a way only Paolo could.

The showmanship is what we’ve come to know and adore about Di Canio, he was never a shrinking violet during his playing days in the Premiership. The larger-than-life personality doesn’t have to be a hindrance in management though; indeed has anyone heard of that Jose Mourinho fella? There’s no doubt Paolo’s presence at Swindon is a big draw for players, some of his recent loan signings shows that individuals are willing to drop down a few divisions to play at the County Ground. It is datable as to whether Swindon could have attracted the likes of John Bostock, Lee Holmes or Jay McEveley without Di Canio pulling the strings.

Nine games remain for Swindon to seal an immediate return to League One. They are four points clear at the top of the league, ahead of Torquay, who have also played two games more. Eight points is the difference between them and Crawley Town who lie in fourth position, so it seems that Di Canio and his men are on the right lines for promotion. They return to action against Bristol Rovers and will hope to put their Wembley defeat immediately behind them. A few more wins and Swindon can start dreaming again of what may be possible in the future. One thing’s for sure though, however long Paolo stays at Swindon, his career in the dugout is definitely one to keep an eye on.

10 Things the Premiership taught us this week

  1. Arsenal are on fire currently. Once again it proves, NEVER doubt Arsene Wenger. The man’s a genius.
  1. Peter Crouch. Oh, stop it.
  1. Alan Pardew, what a terrific appointment. Don’t hear Newcastle fans bleating on about Mike Ashley now.
  1. Djibril Cisse – have a look at yourself son. Two red cards in five games? That’s dirtier than Tulisa.
  1. Liverpool fans are so fickle. Anyone other than Kenny Dalglish and they’d be hounding them out of Anfield. Return for Rafa anyone?
  1. Martin O’Neill proves just why he is so highly rated. Sunderland are now eighth despite scrapping against relegation when he took over. Surely he deserves a shot at a Top Four club?
  1. As strange as it may be, Fabrice Muamba could inspire Bolton to safety from his hospital bed. Terrific performance against Blackburn.
  1. Grant Holt for England? Keep smashing them in big man.
  1. Tottenham for the Europa League? No wins in five in the Premier League.
  1. Sir Alex Ferguson is the best exponent of mind games in the Premier League. City wind up United all week. Ferguson responds. City can only draw with Stoke. 1-0…

West Ham: Has the Bubble Burst?

For a side that had just suffered relegation despite having that ‘too good to go down’ tag hung round their necks, the mood at Upton Park was surprisingly buoyant this summer. Out went Avram Grant, in came Big Sam Allardyce, a man not renowned for putting the ‘beautiful’ in ‘beautiful game’, but well regarded in the footballing world for turning sides into consistent outfits, something necessary for a promotion campaign in the Championship.

Despite a few hiccups along the way, all seemed good for West Ham, especially as they moved top of the division for the first time in the season on January 21 thanks to two Mark Noble penalties in a 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest. Promotion looked almost certain; indeed the Hammers enjoyed a successful January transfer window as well, bringing in the likes of Nicky Maynard and Ravel Morrison to strengthen the squad for the final push.

Things haven’t quite gone according to plan since then. After topping the League, West Ham came straight down to earth with a bump as Ipswich handed them a 5-1 hammering at Portman Road, throwing the form book straight out of the window. Four draws in their last five games, including three successive 1-1 scorelines have allowed Reading to overtake them in the promotion race, pushing Allardyce and his men back into third position.

Whilst it would be daft to rule West Ham out just yet (they are just three points off second with a game in hand), there’s no doubting failure to get promotion would be an absolute disaster for the club. There is no way their wage budget could support another season in the Championship, especially considering the squad still boasts former England internationals Rob Green and Carlton Cole, not to mention those players with significant Premiership pedigree like Kevin Nolan (earning a reported £50,000 a week), Matty Taylor, John Carew and Gary O’Neil.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that West Ham approached this season with a level of arrogance that doesn’t cut the mustard in the Championship. The squad is bursting with star quality, as well as those mentioned above, there is a considerable amount of young talent at Upton Park, with the likes of Jack Collison, James Tomkins and of course, Ravel Morrison on the books. Tomkins has already attracted Premiership interest from Newcastle United and West Ham don’t want to be losing home grown youngsters that could form the basis of the side for years to come. The revelations that the club tried to take Carlos Tevez and Fernando Torres on loan in January are somewhat are incredulous. While you could look at these approaches and say ‘ah well, worth a punt’, it also shows what the rest of the Championship have to compete with. Other clubs just don’t have the financial clout to compete on the same playing field as West Ham, even some of their closest rivals for promotion, like Reading or Brighton for example.

It’s almost as if the board expected the economic standing of the club to earn them some sort of automatic right to be back in the Premiership, indeed there has been no significant debt-cutting procedures as of yet at Upton Park. The model of Newcastle United should have been the guidance for the way forward, the Toon Army cut their losses in terms of playing squad and lost a number of star names, before reforming in the Championship, turning into a hard-working squad with considerably less egos than before. You only have take one look at their position this season to see if this has worked for the club.

Nobody can buy the Championship, Leicester City have also tried this season and have failed miserably. The League is unique in terms of competitiveness; if over-paid players don’t pull their weight then even the average teams will turn you over week in, week out. Honest, hard-working sides like Blackpool, Swansea or Burnley have proved far more effective than those with the big-name players in recent years and this offers some explanation into why West Ham are now languishing outside the automatic places.

The fans have started to show their displeasure as well. Boos have replaced blowing bubbles as the current theme tune at Upton Park, and supporters have the right to voice their displeasure at recent performances and the manager’s tactics. For now though, they need to get behind their side. It is vital West Ham secure promotion this season, especially in terms of their own future. The financial implications of another year in the Championship could be severe; indeed there would be no cheeky loan offers for world class strikers next January. Ten games remain for West Ham and in no uncertain terms, it could be the most important ten games in the club’s history.

Top 10 Worst Badges in World Football

1. Hamburger SV

Hamburg’s badge is without a doubt the worst in world football.  A team’s badge should be evocative and by its very nature be emblematic of the club. The sight of your team’s badge should stir up feelings of pride and passion, but HSV’s badge looks like one of the fake badges from PES teams which Konami didn’t have the licensing rights for and I had to actually see a HSV shirt to believe that a club could put such a lamentably drab badge on their shirt.

2. Columbus Crew

Columbus Crew’s badge is the worst US contribution to football other than the Yanks’ insistence upon calling the game soccer. Admittedly, part of my hatred (and trust me, it is a hatred) of Columbus’ badge is a love of traditional football crests, but I would be willing to overlook that if The Crew had opted for an NFL-style logo or simply a stylised form of the team name. Instead, Columbus Crew decided to stick with a crest template but with an exceptionally drab colour combination and a picture of three blue-collar workers in place of anything vaguely tasteful or football-related. Whilst I appreciate the sentiment of representing the strong work ethic of the local community, surely this is better achieved by creating a side which is renowned for its work rate and not with a badge which is quite simply tragic.

3. The New Saints F.C.

The Welsh team formerly known as Total Network Solutions had the opportunity to create a new team badge after TNS’ sponsorship expired in 2006 but made a complete and utter hash of it. Having decided to use the Welsh dragon and a lion to represent the two merged clubs that created The New Saints, the club had a solid base for creating at the very least a respectable emblem. Despite this, the Saints decided to go and ruin it with the top section of the badge, which is seemingly copied from a cash-stricken Sunday league side. To add insult to injury, the powers that be decided that it would be a great idea to dot the “I” of Saints with a football. It is the football equivalent of dotting an “I” with a heart and is heinously tacky; what on earth were they thinking?

4. Coleraine F.C.

The red chevron saves Coleraine’s badge from being a monochromatic nightmare, but it isn’t even enough to be considered a saving grace. A fish should not, under any circumstances, be featured on a team’s badge and the wheat sheaves, whilst more socially acceptable, are unrecognisable – in fact they look more like dandelion seeds. Moreover, the badge simply fails to inspire; if an animal features on a badge it should be a powerful predatory animal, hence the prevalence of lions, tigers and bears on logos throughout sport. Though salmon is a predator in technical terms, it’s hardly in the same league as a wildcat or bird of prey, and certainly won’t be striking fear into the opposition. If nothing else, Coleraine’s badge is further that taking inspiration from the key industries of the club’s locality is not necessarily a winning formula.

5. F.C. Paços de Ferreira

The Portuguese side’s badge looks incredibly budget and you could be forgiven for thinking it had been drawn in Paint. All the colours on the badge look dull, which is probably a major contributing factor in how underwhelming the crest is. Why these shades were chosen is beyond me – surely you would want bold, vibrant colours on your team’s crest? Since ancient times, colour has been used as a status symbol and Paços’ choices seem to be a tacit acknowledgement of their lowly status. The club’s motto translates into English as “effort and victory for Paços”, sadly it doesn’t look like much effort was put into their badge.

6. Airbus UK Broughton F.C.

Having started life as the football team of the local Airbus factory, it is understandable that the Planemakers would want to pay tribute to their heritage, and their sponsor, on their badge. The problem is, an aeroplane is never going to be part of any iconic football crest no matter how subtly it is incorporated, so superimposing an overly detailed depiction of an A380 over a crudely drawn football is unlikely to result in an even vaguely acceptable badge.

7. Figueirense

Figueirense’s badge looks like a zebra crossing with a child’s drawing of a tree over the top of it. It looks cheap and that’s probably because it was, which is all the more galling because Florianópolis – the city where Figueirense are based – is said to have the highest standards of living in Brazil. My biggest problem with Figueirense’s badge though is that it is so generic that it could be a crest for almost anything and consequently it is instantly forgettable.

8. Napoli

It is easy to overlook the breathtakingly lazy approach to club crest design adopted by Napoli considering the master class in anti-aestheticism demonstrated by Hamburg’s logo. Clearly creativity was at a premium when Napoli created their badge, for I can think of no other reason for such a despicably boring badge. It’s as if the designers literally couldn’t be bothered and just selected one of the most basic geometric shapes, put the first letter of the team name in the middle and added the team colours; in fact, I am convinced that that’s what happened. It certainly isn’t the most visually offensive badge out there, but it fully warrants its place among the worst badges due to the inescapable fact that it looks more like a “contains nuts” symbol from a restaurant menu than the badge of a prestigious football team.

9. Legia Warsaw

I actually quite like the green, white and red stripes on Legia’s badge, but there needs to be more to a crest than just that. Legia Warsaw clearly agreed with me on this point but for some inconceivable reason thought it could be solved with an “L” in a circle to represent Legia. Even if stylised, an “L” in a circle can only do so much to make an impact on a badge, but Legia chose the most boring option available to them. This is an unacceptable oversight, especially considering that the city of Warsaw has a fairly interesting coat of arms – a mermaid wielding a golden sword and shield, despite the fact that Warsaw is 500 miles inland.

10. Cercle Brugge

Club Brugge’s lesser-known rivals may only be three places behind their famous rivals at the tie of writing, but they are light-years behind in club crest stakes. Cercle’s badge fails to do what badges are designed to – that is to be distinctive. What’s more, the fact that it is rectangular, rather than being incorporated into any number of traditional crest designs, makes it look far worse than it otherwise would be. In fact, there is another form of the club’s badge which is used for pin-on badges which looks far better; if only Cercle would use the latter incarnation…

                                                                                                         

10 Things the Premiership taught us this week

  1. Even though it wasn’t in the Premier League, #prayforMuamba. Puts football into perspective really.
  1. FA Cup weekends never make great viewing on Match of the Day…
  1. Gylfi Sigurdsson was some signing by Brendan Rodgers. 5 in 9 for the Swans now. Heading for Europe?
  1. The Demba-Demba combination for Newcastle has the potential to be one of the most effective (and best value) strikeforces in the Premier League.
  1. Wolves and Wigan deserve to be in the Championship. Make room for some real clubs please.
  1. Only Manchester United can produce an ‘adequate’ performance and win 5-0. Title heading back to Old Trafford.
  1. Paul Scholes is the master of the midfield. 96 completed passes of 98 with a 97.96% accuracy rating. England please.
  1. Jonny Howson may have moved from Leeds to the Premiership with Norwich, but he apparently still thinks he’s playing rugby. Ball goes under the bar kid.
  1. As the Toon Army are still fifth, we still await a Newcastle collapse. Mike Ashley is leaving it late this season. Must have something special up his sleeve.
  1. Terry Connor has no chance at Wolves. Squad low on confidence, revolting fans and clueless board. Can only feel sorry for the bloke.