Marcus Rashford Stays Grounded but is Hoping to Propel England to Russia


London – As Marcus Rashford stretched out his limbs on one of the white leather seats at St George’s Park, the great young hope of English football stopped for a moment to consider how life had changed since those days when even his team-mates at Manchester United, among them Wayne Rooney, had to double-check his name on the club’s training pitches.

At 19, Rashford is now one of the more recognisable faces of the Premier League and the rising star of a renascent United side. Yet it is not even two years ago that he could probably have walked along Deansgate without being recognised. “My mum used to work in a bookies,” he said, “and my brother used to be a personal trainer. But my brothers just look after me now.” And his mum? Rashford’s boyish smile was a brief reminder that this strapping six‑footer sitting is still, lest it be forgotten, a teenager for a few more weeks. “My mum relaxes now,” he said.

He turns 20 on Halloween and has packed an awful lot into his short career bearing in mind he has already been to a European Championship with England, with the opportunity for Gareth Southgate’s team to book a place at the World Cup by beating Slovenia on Thursday. Rashford’s debut for United owed to a stroke of fortune before a Europa League tie against FC Midtjylland, courtesy of Anthony Martial sustaining a hamstring injury in the warm-up, and to put it into context the teenager’s name did not even appear in the club programme that night. Nineteen months on, a rare appearance in front of the England press corps included one question about what it felt like to belong to the small and exclusive club of the world’s best young footballers, alongside Kylian Mbappé and Neymar.

Another player might allow it to go to his head. Yet an audience with Rashford is a reminder that he has managed to stay remarkably grounded. Indeed, time with the boy from Wythenshawe confirms that everything you might hear about him being an unpretentious and ordinary sort is probably true. He is what is known in the trade as a reluctant interviewee – or rather one who does not seem to understand why these strange journalists, with their tape recorders and inquisitive minds, keep banging on about him living the dream. One certainty: Rashford would much rather continue living it than having to discuss it with a bunch of strangers.

That makes it a slightly unusual interview in one respect, not least because Rashford manages to go from start to finish without a single line that fits into the narrative of what an exhilarating story it has been. Yet that perhaps is how they are taught at United – never to get too far ahead of themselves – and Rashford has come all the way through the system, including the club-sponsored Ashton-on-Mersey School. “There’s loads of different examples I can give you of ways they keep us grounded,” he explained of his days in the club’s academy. “If you are winning a game by a ridiculous scoreline, obviously as an attacker you might start messing about if you’ve scored three goals or whatever. But the coaches will tell you: ‘You’re beating them but still show them respect.’ They drill that into you from a very young age.

“Obviously the coaching is very good, but They also try to turn you into good people as well as good players. It’s about having respect for everyone, regardless of who they are or what they’re doing. That is probably the baseline at United, no matter what age you are. Just having that alone can get you a long way. It’s the main message they give you.”

The result is there is no self‑congratulation from the player who scored on his Premier League, Champions League, League Cup and Europa League debuts, not to mention his first appearance for England, breaking Tommy Lawton’s 78-year record as the team’s youngest-ever debutant scorer. At the same time, it is not shyness that exudes from the 19-year-old. Rashford might have the superstar’s accessories now – the fast car, the expensive clothes, the big house – but he is from a streetwise part of south Manchester and perhaps, for someone in his position, that is not such a bad thing.

Ask him about the biggest change in his life and his response makes it clear it has not all been a bed of roses. “Probably the way you have to look after yourself, and look out for yourself as well, because everyone is always trying to get something off the back of you. You have to take care of yourself. You just have to be smart and try not to put yourself in them situations as much as you can. But there are always people who are trying to build themselves up off the back of you. It can be your own friends, or even people’s family members. It’s difficult, but what are you to know? I have people around me that guide me and kind of keep me away from certain things. Sometimes as a young player, that’s what’s needed. I have friends. I just do normal stuff, to be honest. I play PlayStation and I take the dogs for a walk.”

He has two – “a Cane Corso and a Frenchie [French bulldog]” – and is already thinking about who might be able to look after them in a World Cup summer. It is a reminder of Rashford’s tender years that the first tournament he can remember was South Africa in 2010, aged 12, and even then his memory was sketchy. “It’s going back,” he said. “Lampard and … Germany? That’s the one.”

The impression he leaves is that he is not entirely satisfied operating as a left-sided attacker – “I’m a striker” – and his memories of Euro 2016 also offer an insight into his personality. Rashford was the youngest player at that tournament but he bristles when someone asks if he valued the experience. “I’ll be honest with you, it is difficult to see it as a positive. We went out before we’d expected to go out, and before we wanted to go out, so it was a disappointing end to the season for me.”

The Guardian Sport

Martin O’Neill Is in the Managerial Elite Even If a Top Job Eludes him


London – Blink, and you might have missed the part Shepshed Charterhouse, in the puddles and potholes of the Northern Premier League, played in the professional life of Martin O’Neill, back in the days when aspiring managers were prepared to start at the bottom and learn the hard way.

O’Neill’s first steps in management were actually with Grantham Town, grubbing around for points in the then Beazer Homes League, Midlands Division, a couple of rungs below the Conference. O’Neill arranged the deal at a bed-and-breakfast on the A52 and had a five-year plan in place until he ended up falling out with the chairman and, still in situ, found his job being advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post. Shepshed were next but O’Neill’s time at the Dovecote was distinguished only by how quickly he came and went. The unofficial website for what is now Shepshed Dynamo summed it up rather neatly: “1989 – July – appointed Martin O’Neill as manager. October – sacked Martin O’Neill as manager. Wonder what became of him.”

In fact, O’Neill was not sacked and the truth makes for an even better story. O’Neill, like many ex-pros of that time, had been embarking on a career in insurance, working in the offices of Save & Prosper while his old pal and team-mate, John Robertson, his No2 at Shepshed, was out on the road trying to drum up business. It is a situation that could never happen now: two European Cup winners adjusting to a nine-to-five office job. The problem was combining that with trying to run a football team. “On one occasion we were almost late getting to a midweek match against Frickley Colliery in south Yorkshire,” Robertson recalls. It was obvious it could not continue that way and O’Neill gave up Shepshed to concentrate on Save & Prosper.

It is a great story bearing in mind what we know now, almost 30 years on, about his list of achievements, most recently as manager of the Republic of Ireland, the conveyor belt of players who speak about him in awe and the unmistakable sense, more than anything, that they will give absolutely everything they have to get his approval.

My first professional dealings with O’Neill came at Leicester City – the club where, I always maintain, he put together his most outstanding work. O’Neill had taken over in the same week that I had moved to the city and, as a young agency reporter putting out the old rotary-dial telephones in the pressbox, it was a marvel to see, up‑close, how much the players and fans at Filbert Street disliked him when he took over and how, by the end, he had the entire city dancing to his tune.

O’Neill faced down the makings of a dressing-room mutiny and transformed a second-tier team in such an invigorating way the people of Leicester, pre-2016, could have been forgiven for wondering whether it would ever get any better. There were four top-10 finishes after securing promotion with virtually the final kick of O’Neill’s first season, in the 1996 play-off final. His team reached three League Cup finals, winning two, and lifted their first silverware since 1964. They went to Anfield four times, won three and drew the other.

Everyone remembers Dennis Bergkamp’s improvisational brilliance for his hat-trick goal at Leicester in August 1997. What tends to be forgotten is that it came in the third minute of stoppages and O’Neill’s team still found the time to conjure up the final goal of a 3-3 draw. Bergkamp left the pitch that night shaking his head in disbelief and that, in a nutshell, was the O’Neill effect. In all the years since, it is difficult to recall more than a handful of teams with such a spirit of togetherness.

It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see Ireland qualifying, at the expense of Wales, for a place in Tuesday’s draw for the World Cup play-offs and there have been so many other examples of O’Neill’s expertise in the interim years it does feel slightly unfair, perhaps, that he has never been given a chance to manage one of the Premier League’s elite clubs.

It tends to be forgotten, for example, that there was once a time when O’Neill was the overwhelming favorite to take over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. O’Neill was managing Celtic at the time, where he won seven trophies and reached the Uefa Cup final, and the Manchester press corps still talk about the 2003 press conference before the two teams played a pre-season fixture in Seattle. When O’Neill was asked about replacing Ferguson he answered with great diplomacy bearing in mind the man himself was directly to his left. Yet the journalist who asked the question was already feeling a pair of Glaswegian eyes boring into his skull. “Don’t worry about him,” Ferguson whispered to O’Neill, quietly enough not to be heard by his audience but loud enough to be picked up by the tapes. Ferguson always sounded extra Glaswegian and talked a little bit quicker when his temper had been roused.

All good fun. The problem for O’Neill if he did fancy that job was that Ferguson – “The Man Who Couldn’t Retire,” as the Daily Telegraph called him – stayed for another 10 years and when United did finally need a new manager, in May 2013, it was two months after “Squire”, as he is still known by his old Nottingham Forest team-mates (a nod to his university background), had been sacked for the only time in his career. Even the most accomplished managers tend to have one club on their CV where it goes wrong. For O’Neill, his spell in the managerial wasteland of Sunderland came at the worst possible time.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that his four years at Aston Villa are not remembered more fondly by their supporters. Villa finished 11th, up from 16th, in his first campaign and then sixth in each of O’Neill’s last three seasons at the club, qualifying for Europe and, in 2010, reaching a Wembley final. They improved their points total every season and in his second campaign they scored more times, 71, than they had since winning the league a quarter of a century before. The 1980-81 team managed 72 – but that was over 42 games, not 38.

The call won’t come now, though. O’Neill recently agreed a two-year extension to his contract with Ireland. He will be 68 when it expires and he might just have to accept that some of the elite clubs could be put off by his team’s lack of artistic merit.

Equally, take a close look at the squad before questioning why Ireland don’t pass the ball more elegantly. Eighteen of the players O’Neill called up for the Wales game were from teams in the Championship, whereas only 11 came from top-division clubs. Of those, only three played for teams that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. Where Roy Keane once patrolled, it is now David Meyler of Hull City. For Robbie Keane, it is Daryl Murphy of Nottingham Forest. James McClean is now probably Ireland’s best player. He will run until he drops and his goal against Wales was taken beautifully – but, as wingers go, he is hardly in the class of Liam Brady. Or even Damien Duff. Is it any wonder the opposition often have more of the ball?

The point is there are all sorts of ways to win a football match. O’Neill won the European Cup for a side whose backs-to-the-wall operation against Hamburg in the 1980 final was denounced in the German press as “Blitzkrieg football” and described by Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times as “tactical cowardice”. Do you think Clough cared when he had the trophy on top of his television? And would you imagine O’Neill will worry about the unrealistic snobbery if he makes it to Russia next summer with one of the least distinguished groups of Irish players for some time?

For now, O’Neill’s CV is the best response. It always was. Robertson remembers what his mate was like in the world of insurance. “By his own admission, Martin’s knowledge of the financial services we were trying to sell was not the best. But he came across as though he knew the business inside out.”

The Guardian Sport

Football is Heading for Trouble Over Brain Injuries Caused by the Ball


London — In happier times, there was a story Eric Harrison used to tell his players at Manchester United, as the coach who helped bring through the Class of ’92, about a piece of advice he once received from the centre-half he regarded as the hardest man he had ever seen on a football pitch.

George Curtis will always be best remembered as John Sillett’s managerial partner on the day Coventry City won the 1987 FA Cup. Yet for Harrison’s generation in the 1950s and 1960s he was the kind of centre‑half who could trouble even the most granite-jawed opponent. Harrison played with him on their national service and was always fascinated how a man of 5ft 11in won so many headers against players who were well over 6ft. “No problem,” Curtis explained, “early in the game, when the first ball comes up the middle, I don’t head the ball. I head the back of the centre-forward’s head against the ball – and he doesn’t usually come back for more.”

Harrison liked what he heard so much he adopted the same tactic, as you might expect for a man whose nickname during 10 years as a wing‑half at Halifax Town was “Chopper”. Harrison, by his own admission, saw every header as a personal challenge, no matter what was in the way.

Yet it had its consequences. His wife, Shirley, told me a story recently about her first pregnancy and the arrival of their baby daughter, Kim. Harrison was in another part of the hospital that day, suffering one of his regular concussions, and missed the birth. That one wiped him out for three days.

He is 79 now and the most famous players from his list of successes Old Trafford are still in thrall of their old coach. Yet it hasn’t been easy for anyone when they have called in to see him this year. “Eric still talks about them – Giggsy, Beckham, Scholesy, the Nevilles – but he doesn’t recognise them now,” Shirley explains. “He recognises me and his daughters, but not even the grandchildren. The players have all been to visit but it wasn’t the Eric they knew. Scholesy, in particular, found it really hard. They all did. It was upsetting for all of them.” Beckham had turned up with a carrot cake he had baked with his children and a bottle of whisky. Afterwards, he sat in his car and wept.

By now, you have probably read about Harrison’s deteriorating health and the inevitable concerns that maybe he has suffered from what the coroner in Jeff Astle’s inquest described as “industrial disease”, namely dementia brought on by heading the ball.

Nobody can be sure if there is a connection but, as Shirley acknowledges, it is something she and her family have to consider when there are so many stories of other former pros from bygone eras – in particular, players who were renowned for their heading ability – who have suffered the same way. Astle’s family have led the campaign for greater research, first featured in this column in March 2014, and maybe we are finally getting somewhere now the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association are planning to commission a study to examine the risks and see what can be done.

Yet it has been a bewilderingly slow process, to say the least, bearing in mind it was actually 2002 when the two organisations announced there would be a joint 10-year research programme and I wonder how Kevin Doyle feels about that now football has a story of a modern player who has been forced to retire, on medical advice, because heading the ball was causing persistent headaches. Doyle’s announcement follows what he describes as “numerous” concussions, including two this season, as a player who was always renowned for his aerial ability, scoring a high percentage of his goals that way at Reading, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Colorado Rapids. He is 34 and says his doctors have advised him to end a career that also features 64 caps for the Republic of Ireland to “avoid the possibility of these symptoms becoming more serious and permanent”. The risks are simply too great.

At least he has got out now, rather than subjecting himself to any more punishment, and hopefully that will mean no further problems, whereas there once would have been a time when a footballer in that position would have been encouraged to carry on regardless. Yet it always comes as a jolt when a professional sportsman is advised to quit on medical grounds and particularly in Doyle’s case when many of us, I imagine, might presume there is not a great deal to worry about from heading the ball in today’s game.

It is an easy assumption to make and I must confess I was one of those who thought the dangers had largely been removed once football phased out those heavy, leather balls, often saturated in water, that have been blamed for the issues relating to previous generations. That, however, might be a common mistake because if you listen to some of the experts who have been studying these cases it is a complete red herring.

The balls might be lighter these days but that just means they travel much faster. The game is getting quicker all the time and that means more crosses are being made and more headers are necessary. There might not be the same kind of physicality compared to the days, to quote Harrison, when “trying to break opponents in half” was part of your average Saturday afternoon. But the greater speed also means there is a higher risk of players taking accidental bangs to the head.

Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who examined Astle and likened what he found to the brain of an old boxer, calls it a “lazy characterisation” to think of it as merely a problem of the past. Many people still do, however, and maybe that explains why the authorities in England have chosen to look the other way for so long, never taking the trouble to confront the evidence properly.

It is certainly worth recounting what happened after the FA promised the Astle family in 2002 that it would treat the issue as a high-level priority. Instead the family received two letters and did not hear from the governing body for 12 years until Greg Dyke, the then chairman, had the decency to apologise on behalf of a previous regime. The first letter was from the FA’s solicitors to advise against legal action. The next could easily be described as a sweetener – a tactic the FA used many years later with various sexual-abuse victims – by offering free tickets for the next England friendly, albeit with the rider that it would be difficult to squeeze them all in. Two seats was the limit.

Thankfully, there are other countries where they have devoted time to these studies without leaving the impression they had to be pushed into seeking answers. One study in New York found that players in their 30s who headed the ball 885 to 1,550 times a year had significantly lower water movement in three areas of their brains and those who did so more than 1,800 times tended to do notably worse in memory tests. American sports have been much quicker to recognise the dangers of concussion and when it comes to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease caused by repeated blows, Boston University announced last week there had been a significant breakthrough diagnosing it in living humans rather than having to identify it posthumously, as was previously the case.

The United States feels so far ahead in terms of its research, its response (heading has been outlawed for under‑10s since 2015) and its understanding that the people playing sport have a right to know the risks. It might not change the way they play, or what their coaches demand, but at least they would be in possession of the facts. Doyle moved to Major League Soccer in 2015. It doesn’t reflect well on English football that he might still be going up for headers every Saturday, come what may, if he had stayed put.

Burden of proof on Ox to show worth

Who did Gareth Southgate mean when he admitted being dissatisfied with his latest England squad and volunteered the information that “one or two players” did not warrant their places judging by their club performances so far this season?

Southgate was too gentlemanly to say but nobody should be surprised if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain featured prominently in the thoughts of the England manager after a run of form that has merely confirmed the view here that Arsenal did extraordinarily well to coax a transfer fee of £40m out of Liverpool.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is a curious player because he certainly does not lack admirers. Arsène Wenger wanted to keep him at Arsenal and, as well as Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, Antonio Conte had him on his wish-list for Chelsea. Roy Hodgson spoke highly of him during his time as England manager and Southgate keeps selecting him.

At the same time, it is not always easy to understand the attraction and the difficult truth, looking back over his Arsenal years, is that it is trickier even still to recall a key fixture when Oxlade-Chamberlain has played the leading role. He has started only one game for Liverpool, a Carabao Cup tie, and if there are hidden layers it is time he found a way to bring them out. Oxlade-Chamberlain is 24 now and at that age no footballer should want to be talked about for mere potential.

The Guardian Sport

Germany’s Stand on ‘Despicable’ Fans Puts Silent England to Shame


London – That was some performance from Joachim Löw, the Germany national manager, after the jarring evidence during the international break that there are still a few troglodytes among his team’s support who seem hell-bent on providing living proof of Einstein’s theory that there is no limit to human stupidity.

Löw had just seen his team win 2-1 against the Czech Republic in Prague, maintaining an immaculate record in their World Cup qualifying group, but when he arrived for his press conference, face like thunder, the questions about his team’s performance had to wait. “I am neither upset nor sad,” he began. “I am full of rage, that explains my feelings better. I am really, really angry about this – that some so-called fans have used the stage of an international football match, and the stage of football, to bring shame on our country with their embarrassing behavior and appearance. We don’t want these anarchists. We are not their national team and they are not our fans. Their behavior was the lowest of the low and utterly despicable.”

It isn’t usual to hear a manager speak this way but, then again, these weren’t usual circumstances. A section of Germany’s support had disrupted a minute’s silence, abused one of their own players, Timo Werner, and followed up the traditional chants of “Sieg” (victory) towards the end of the game with an echoed “Heil”. It was an abomination and, at the final whistle, something happened that the people who follow die Mannschaft tell me they have never seen before. Germany’s players refused to go to the away end. They didn’t wave, there was no clapping, zero appreciation. It was a choreographed protest, a public disavowal and a clear, defiant message that they didn’t want any association.

For that, the players deserve our applause and Mats Hummels, in particular, as the captain who directed his team-mates off the pitch and made it absolutely clear it was a time to make a stand. “The chants were a catastrophe,” Hummels said later. “They started during the minute’s silence, which shows you the kind of people we’re dealing with. Timo Werner was insulted and ridiculed. Then the fans started shouting their insults. We distance ourselves completely from it and want nothing to do with it. And that’s why we didn’t go [to them].”

Bravo, that man, and what a pity England’s players did not have it in them to do the same in response to that abysmal night in Dortmund six months ago and the absence of respect for their hosts from the corner of the Westfalenstadion decorated in St. George’s flags.

That occasion needed a strong voice, too, when virtually the entire soundtrack was about the second world war and the only real choreography came in the form of the outstretched arms, creating a fleet of pretend fighter planes, during the various renditions of Ten German Bombers, one lasting fully 15 minutes, and how “the RAF from England shot them down”.

Unfortunately, it did not get one. Gareth Southgate’s comments were, frankly, not nearly enough and let’s not kid ourselves: it won’t even have crossed the players’ minds that they might be in a position to affect change and try to stop it happening again. The modern‑day England footballer just isn’t made that way. You will never find one speaking in the way that Hummels did. And more’s the pity.

The only counter-argument is that the 21,000-capacity Eden Arena in Prague is a much smaller stadium than the Westfalenstadion, making what happened feel even more intrusive and lamentable, and the behavior was on a different, more sinister level than the backdrop to the Germany-England encounter.

Maybe that’s true. Reports in Germany say the 100 or so troublemakers were associated with Dynamo Dresden and a number of other clubs from the former East Germany, where right‑wing extremism is said to be more prominent than other parts of the country. They mostly wore black and targeted their own football association with chants of “scheisse, DFB” during what was supposed to be a minute’s silence. Rudolf Kocek, president of the Czechoslovak FA when they won 1976 European Championship, was one of the people the host nation wanted to remember. Rudolf Bat’a, the organization’s former general secretary, was another; and so was Lenka Civinova, who was on holiday in Egypt during the summer when a terrorist went on the rampage in two beachfront hotels. Civinova, 36, the Czech FA’s accountant, was among the seven tourists stabbed. Two of the dead were actually from Germany.

It isn’t easy to understand why anybody would want to shout that down, but don’t forget what happened when England arranged a minute’s silence against Brazil in 2013 to honor the people who died in the Munich air tragedy, the 20th anniversary of Bobby Moore’s death and the 238 victims of a nightclub fire in Santa Maria. Perhaps you might remember the England-Wales match in 2004 and what happened after a request by the authorities for a minute’s silence for Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day.

The difference on those occasions is that it is very rare for anyone involved with England – the manager, the captain, any of the players – ever to dare criticize their own supporters, even when criticism would be deserved, and it is a shame they have never found their voice when Löw, Hummels and their various colleagues have shown that it is possible to make a stand and in the process, change the narrative.

The FA did hold a media briefing three months after the Dortmund game to go over what had happened but nobody from the England setup itself was prepared to go on record even though it was clear by that point it was more than just a few beery, offensive chants. The footage of England’s end showed people making Nazi salutes and slit-throat gestures. One member of the choir could be seen holding a finger above his lip to imitate Hitler, in between gesturing that he would stab the German fans. All of which brought to mind the verdict of one Philadelphia Inquirer columnist after the United States had been awarded the 1994 World Cup. “What’s the first word to come into your head when I say: ‘British soccer fan’?” he asked. “It was ‘sub-human’, wasn’t it? I rest my case.”

It’s a nice line but, in reality, there are plenty of people who go abroad to watch England and enjoy their adventures without restoring to time‑warp chanting, 90-minute xenophobia or pretend patriotism about conflicts from another phase of history.

Yet it was still easy enough to find lads going through “No Surrender” in the queues on Wembley Way after England’s last game and, when it comes to next year’s World Cup, it has been interesting to hear from the relevant authorities about some of the supporters who will be making that trip to Russia and why those people had better wise up bearing in mind what could be waiting for them.

England’s troublemakers still tend to wear the same uniform that was fashionable on the terraces a quarter of a century ago – Stone Island, Burberry, Adidas trainers (more Gazelles than the Maasai Mara) – but it is a different form of trouble these days. The old category-C hooligans have gone, for the most part, and in their place it is a new breed of younger supporters, largely 19 to 25, who are not so dangerous but make up for that by adopting an anything-goes, stag-weekend mentality, whereby they take pride in behaving badly and regard England trips as a bit of escapism. When the FA’s travel club emailed its members after the Germany game a number of replies came back telling the FA to stop being spoilsports, arguing the behavior was exactly how they liked it.

The difficult part is breaking that kind of mentality and perhaps Southgate and his players missed a trick when the alternative, as their equivalents in Germany have shown, would have been to turn their backs and disown the people who still confuse international football matches with old medieval tournaments.

It doesn’t automatically mean that when Germany go on future excursions the demagogues and dunderheads will stay away or come with a new songbook. But at least the manager and players of the world champions have realized this kind of behavior affects them, too, and that it would be better to confront it rather than sitting on their hands and deciding it is somebody else’s problem. That has to count for something and, for that alone, it is tempting to think their English counterparts could learn a thing or two.

The Guardian Sport

Sergio Agüero Has Been Left Feeling Like a Second-Class Citizen


London- It isn’t easy sometimes understanding why Pep Guardiola gives the impression that he is never fully satisfied with Sergio Agüero, and it is even more perplexing when we cannot be too far away from the Argentinian going into the record books as the most prolific scorer in Manchester City’s history.

As it stands, Agüero’s 170 goals in their colours leave him seven short of the highest total and, to put it into context, it took the record holder, Eric Brook, 11 years to accumulate that number, from 1928 to 1939. Agüero is just starting his seventh season in Manchester and is almost there already.

Even last season, when we were repeatedly told he was having a bad year, it was difficult to follow the logic. A bad year? Agüero managed 33 goals in all the different competitions, more than any other player in England with the exception of Harry Kane. It was one hell of a bad year.

There is no getting away from the fact, however, that at the same time Agüero is chasing down that 177-goal target his mind must be filled with a little self-doubt on the back of the club’s attempts to sign Alexis Sánchez – an upgrade, in the eyes of Guardiola – and the questions it leaves regarding his own position.

Not just when it comes to City, either. Agüero, the scorer of 33 goals in 82 caps for Argentina, did not play a single minute of his country’s goalless draw against Uruguay in the early hours of Friday. Even when his team were searching for a late winner, the Argentina coach, Jorge Sampaoli, decided he could get by without the City striker.

Yet the fact Agüero was even on the bench was actually progress, of sorts, bearing in mind Argentina’s games in June against Brazil and Singapore. Sampaoli, a few weeks into the job, left Agüero out of the entire squad and it might surprise you how uncontroversial that decision was. When the Argentinian sports daily Olé ran a poll in March asking which players should be dropped, 80,000 readers responded: Agüero had 86% of the vote.

Agüero, in other words, is going through a difficult and challenging period, for club and country. The two go hand in hand and this is why nobody should just pass off the latest stories about his discontent in Manchester as assumptions and hearsay on the back of City’s attempts to bring in another elite forward.

On the contrary, it has been apparent for some time that the relationship has been strained and that it predates the move for Sánchez. There is no warmth, little chemistry, not a lot of interaction. Agüero is no longer a mandatory pick and that, in turn, is threatening to have repercussions on his international career. The word in Argentina – where they are not exactly short of front players – is that nobody should just assume he will automatically be picked if or when the albiceleste get to the World Cup.

Amid all that nonsense with the steward at Bournemouth last weekend, the more relevant detail was that Agüero was left out of City’s starting lineup to accommodate Gabriel Jesus (just as he was last season). Agüero then headed off for international duty and when he returns to Manchester this coming week it will be in the knowledge that, if Arsenal had not dug in their heels, Sánchez could conceivably have supplanted him in the team to face Liverpool on Saturday. Of course Agüero is going to be wondering what all this means. Of course there are going to be moments of insecurity. Which footballer in that position would not feel that way?

If you find it all rather confusing, then join the club. Agüero was still the first player Zlatan Ibrahimovic mentioned – apart from himself, naturally – when he was asked recently to identify the best striker in the Premier League. Nobody has scored more goals for City in less time, or done more to elevate the club to a new level. He is still only 29, the age when many strikers reach their top level, and it is easy to understand if he feels bruised when the previous City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, treated him so differently.

The Chilean used to talk about Agüero being third on the list of modern football greats, outperformed by only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and even if he was applying a little top-spin you knew why he was saying it: fluffing up the player’s ego, playing on the fact that all footballers, but strikers in particular, tend to do better when they are high on confidence.

Guardiola has taken a different approach entirely and it has been obvious ever since he replaced Pellegrini that the new manager did not care greatly if the players he disappointed were the ones with the greatest presence and personality.

Agüero scored 11 times in his first six games for the Catalan. Sure, there were compliments from Guardiola but, equally, there were follow-up remarks that stopped you in your tracks. What an important player, Guardiola would say, then a few sentences later there would be a line that felt puzzling and incongruous when it was unprecedented to hear a City manager, even one as forthright as Roberto Mancini, question Agüero’s contribution.

Even when Guardiola was invited to praise his player it was never articulated with the warmth that would be evident later on in his eulogies about Jesus or some of his other signings. To begin with, it wasn’t something you would necessarily pick up on. Then, after a while, it stood out like a sore thumb.

Is Agüero still the same player? Maybe not quite, but if there has been a slight deterioration it is only in the tiniest of fractions and the manager must take a degree of culpability, too. Guardiola’s demands that a 30-goals-a-season player change his style of play might form part of a tactical masterplan. It has also jarred the player’s confidence and created a situation where Agüero feels unfairly maligned, where he has started to feel sorry for himself and has been snatching at some of the chances he would ordinarily have been expected to put away. However it is dressed up, it is difficult to think of it as good man‑management.

Where all this leads is not so clear but a player of his standing would be within his rights to contemplate leaving in January, especially if there is an attempt to resurrect the failed deal for Sánchez. Until then, however, Agüero doesn’t really have a great deal of choice, this being a World Cup year, other than trying to prove his manager wrong.

He is more than capable of doing it. Yet it is also easier said than done sometimes when a player, especially a star player, feels unappreciated by his manager and, in fairness to Agüero, he is not alone when it comes to thinking his manager should cut him some slack. Jesus has bags of potential, undoubtedly. For now, however, there are not many people at City who would agree that the Brazilian is the superior player. Not yet, anyway.

The harsh reality for Agüero, however, is that if it were not for Jesus breaking a metatarsal at Bournemouth in February then it is more than likely the younger man would have finished that season as the team’s principal striker. Sánchez was seen by City as another central attacker. Jesus, already established as one of Guardiola’s favourites, occupies the same role and, at most, there is space for only two players in that position. Agüero, City’s record scorer in waiting, could be forgiven for wondering where he was supposed to fit in.

Hazarding a guess at Kylian’s prospects

Amid all the transfer business of the last week, what do we make of Chelsea’s surprise swoop – amid not a great deal of top-level competition, I would strongly suspect – for a 22-year-old midfielder from Ujpest of the Hungarian league?

The surname might be familiar: Kylian Hazard , previously of White Star Brussels and Zulte-Waregem in Belgium, who has been added to the Chelsea development squad even though you would ordinarily expect someone of that age to be in the manager’s first-team plans.

All for the greater good, perhaps, but it does leave a slightly awkward question about whether Chelsea would have given him a second look if he were not Eden Hazard’s younger brother and nobody should be surprised if the new signing makes precisely the same number of appearances as Thorgan Hazard, another sibling, managed in his three years on the Stamford Bridge payroll. That number being zero.

Anybody else suspect Chelsea are doing everything they can to make sure Eden does not entertain any thoughts of leaving? No doubt the club are also keeping tabs on 14-year-old Ethan, the youngest Hazard brother, currently to be found in the academy at AFC Tubize, just south of Brussels, and surely destined for a move to SW6 soon. But it does make me wonder what the younger players in the development squad, namely the ones who are there for orthodox reasons, think about it all.

Shame Roy wasn’t keen enough on FC

It is difficult not to admire the chutzpah of FC United of Manchester – the breakaway club formed after the Glazer family’s takeover of Manchester United – during those seismic days in 2005 when Roy Keane had trashed his team-mates on MUTV, fallen out spectacularly with the Old Trafford management and suddenly found himself out of a job.

The story is recounted in a new book, Red Rebels, by the club’s founder, John-Paul O’Neill, and tells how Keane’s first offer of alternative employment came in the form of an old-fashioned knock at the door and an invitation to be part of the new movement.

It was worth a go and Keane, you might be surprised, did not react too badly to two FC representatives wandering up his drive to ask if he wanted to join the fledgling club in the second division of the North West Counties Football League. Keane took a number and promised to think about it – “Would I have to do everything the manager tells me?” – before deciding in the end that the Scottish Premier League with Celtic might be a slightly better standard (insert your own joke here).

What a pity. Keane would have fitted in neatly with the idea of punk football and climbing up the ladder of English football (FC are only two stops off the Football League now). It would also have been a delight to see the reaction of Sir Alex Ferguson – a man who always seemed startlingly paranoid about FC’s success – on hearing the news. Just a guess, but I doubt he would have taken it well.

The Guardian Sport

Nemanja Matic’s Manchester United Move May Leave Chelsea Feeling Blue


London- It was the cartoon, published on the Daily Telegraph website a few years ago, that probably demonstrated the perception at the time that the man in charge of Manchester United’s transfer business was straying dangerously close to getting the reputation of being a bit of a pushover.

Entitled “Manchester United and the Transfer Market” and published shortly after the arrival of Ángel Di María and Radamel Falcao, the cartoon showed the club’s executive vice‑chairman, Ed Woodward, walking into a convenience store called Costless and asking to be shown the “very finest” chocolate they had for sale before handing over £80 for a Mars Bar.

He returned to the same store a while later and the shopkeeper, sensing another easy kill, offered him a packet of wine gums for £100. Woodward offered the “far more realistic price of £95” and they started haggling.

Shopkeeper: “£98.” Woodward: “£99.” Shopkeeper: “£110.” Woodward: “£100.” Shopkeeper: “Deal!” Woodward (triumphantly): “Still got it …”

It’s an easy laugh. Yet it’s not entirely fair to portray Woodward as a soft touch and, if we think back to his first transfer window in the role, he never really got the credit he deserved for the way he faced down Wayne Rooney and refused, point-blank, to bend to the requirements of Chelsea and Roman Abramovich.

Chelsea, you might recall, had lodged two bids for Rooney after José Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2013. The player was doing all he could to make the move happen and Mourinho was under the impression it was only a matter of time. Yet Woodward held firm. Bending to player power, he concluded, would be weak in the extreme. It wasn’t a question of money. It was a case of self-preservation, assessing the dangers and looking after his own club’s reputation. Chelsea’s £50m signing of Fernando Torres from Liverpool was seen throughout the sport as a shift in dynamic between the two clubs. Woodward decided his position was irreversible and that he could not risk United going the same way.

Most people would conclude that was the right decision when Rooney, at 27, was still capable of scoring 20 goals a season for the next three years. Yet it is also fair to say Woodward was under considerable pressure to change his mind. Rooney went to see him, making it clear he wanted to go, but it made no difference. And of course it was the sensible thing to do when the alternative, as Chelsea might yet find out with Nemanja Matic, risks a scenario where the selling club see a former player lift the Premier League trophy in another team’s ribbons.

Chelsea evidently thought they could take that risk, bearing in mind their favourable reaction when Mourinho, now their former manager, identified Matic as an ideal wearer of United’s colours and found out that his former club were happy to do business with his current one. Matic has fitted in seamlessly to his new team, immediately giving the impression his contribution to United’s season is going to be considerable, and it is easy to understand why throughout the sport there is an element of mystery why a club with Chelsea’s ambitions have been so obliging.

To put it into context, perhaps the best place to start is an interview last February in which Mourinho was asked whether it was possible in the Premier League for the top clubs to sign players from their leading rivals. “This is not Germany,” he pointed out. “In Germany, Bayern Munich starts winning the league in the summer. They go to Borussia Dortmund every year and buy their best player. One day they go there and [Robert] Lewandowski. The next year, they go there, Mario Götze. The next year, Mats Hummels.

“Do you think I can go to Tottenham Hotspur and bring two Tottenham players to kill Tottenham? I can’t. I cannot go to Arsenal and bring the two best Arsenal players. I cannot go to Chelsea and bring two of the players that I love very, very much. That time is over. That time of attacking your direct opponents in the country is over. You cannot attack your rivals that way any more.”

It turned out he was wrong, or at least partly wrong, given that one of his favourites from Chelsea is now exerting his influence in a red shirt. Mourinho seems as surprised as anyone and there may come a time when Chelsea have to concede that maybe Woodward had the right idea. Why help out the team that could be going head to head against you for the title? Why facilitate a club who would never dream of being so generous in return? And how much will the £40m transfer fee matter to a man of Abramovich’s wealth if Matic’s contribution for his new team helps to return the championship trophy to Old Trafford?

Arsenal were guilty of an even more reckless form of business when they allowed Robin van Persie to move to Old Trafford in 2012 and handed over a player who had just won the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year award. They seemed quite happy with the money they received for the player – £22.5m, initially – but not so much when he scored 35 times the following season and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team won the league with four games to spare. For that, Arsenal received a £1.5m top-up payment. Who would you imagine was the happier?

United made a calculated risk of their own when Danny Welbeck went the other way during the Louis van Gaal era. Yet Welbeck was not a performer with Van Persie’s intuitive brilliance and there have been only a few other occasions – Mickaël Silvestre to Arsenal and Juan Sebastian Verón to Chelsea, being the notable ones – when the modern United have broken away from their position that it makes absolutely no sense to solve your rivals’ problems.

United even brought in lawyers in 2007 to prevent Gabriel Heinze from moving to Liverpool. Heinze had a written agreement that he could leave Old Trafford if a potential buyer offered £6m. He ended up employing Liverpool’s solicitors to act for him against his own club – an incredible story of politics, rivalry and legal manoeuvring – but it got him nowhere and Phil Chisnall remains the last player, in April 1964, to move from one club to the other, in the same week that BBC2 was flickering on to the nation’s black-and-white televisions for the first time.

The strange thing, perhaps, is that some of the other clubs with realistic aspirations of going for the title are nothing like as particular about who they do business with. Spurs, for one, have regularly pained their own supporters that way and Arsenal, similarly, have spent a number of years helping the Manchester clubs assemble title-winning sides.

For the reigning champions to risk the same, however, doesn’t make obvious sense. Matic might not have been an automatic starter after Tiémoué Bakayoko’s arrival from Monaco but the Serb has gone straight into United’s midfield and, at 29, could feasibly stay there for the next four years. It defies logic and the popular theory, namely that Abramovich apparently ticked off the deal after a personal request from the player, doesn’t make it any less perplexing. Very decent of him, you might think, but if the question is whether United would do the same in return then Rooney can probably provide the answer.

Costa blank when it comes to blame

It shouldn’t be a great surprise, if you have followed the pattern of Diego Costa’s career, that this is not the first time he has failed to report for duty after a summer of self-indulgence.

Costa was so out of shape when he turned up late for pre-season training one year at Atlético Madrid one of the journalists who covers the club, José David Palacio, recalls the player trying to strike a deal with the local media. “He tried to avoid the cameras as much as possible and insisted that we didn’t film his whole body,” Palacio says.

Costa had been awol for the first four days of training and was made to issue a public apology in which he initially blamed his mother’s cooking. “It was just a breakdown in communication. I lost my Spanish mobile and didn’t realise that the club don’t have my Brazilian number. Otherwise they could have called me on that. But I came back the minute they called and I’m really sorry this happened. Something seems to go wrong every year. Problems seem to seek me out.”

He is right. Problems do seek him out. Yet Costa seems to labour under the misapprehension that it is merely misfortune and, in that regard, one imagines it will be a considerable relief for Chelsea when they have finally removed one of the more tiring characters in the business from their payroll.

FA’s odd omission in Aluko inquiry

The FA’s decision to publish the barrister’s report relevant to the Eni Aluko “hush money” case detailed why the governing body had not upheld her complaints about an alleged racial remark and ruled there had been no wrongdoing by the England women’s team manager, Mark Sampson.

What it did not address was the well‑sourced claim that the mixed‑race player he was said to have left “distressed” during the China Cup in 2015 – Sampson was alleged to have asked her how many times she had been in trouble with the police – was not among the people to be interviewed in the wake of Aluko’s varied complaints.

It feels bizarre, yet there have been no denials from the FA. Can it really be true? Can there really have been an allegation of that nature and an investigation took place without actually speaking to the player in question?

The Guardian Sport

Danny Rose the Rebel Causes Thorny Problem for Daniel Levy and Tottenham


London – They tell a story at Manchester United that probably sums up why the previous regime at Old Trafford had a policy never to do business with Tottenham Hotspur and Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that hip surgery was more enjoyable than trying to find common ground with Daniel Levy when it came to money. It goes back to Luka Modric’s final season at White Hart Lane when Ferguson was tipped off that the Croat would be keen on a move to Manchester to fill the void left by Paul Scholes’s retirement. In ordinary circumstances, Modric would have been the ideal fit. These, however, were not ordinary circumstances. Ferguson had never forgotten what it was like dealing with Levy in the protracted transfer saga he referred to as “the Dimitar Berbatov carry-on” and when he raised the matter with David Gill, United’s chief executive, the two men agreed they didn’t have the stomach to go though the same again. As good as Modric was, they simply couldn’t countenance another negotiation involving the Spurs chairman.

As football administrators go, it is certainly difficult to think of anybody else with Levy’s reputation for driving the people with whom he is negotiating to the point of spontaneous combustion. Ferguson, to put it into context, regarded Modric as one of the finest passers in the business and, five years on, probably still thinks the same. Yet he and Gill preferred to watch the player join Real Madrid rather than reopen lines of communication with Spurs. Gill had been there before with Levy and, to borrow a line from Billy Wilder: “I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time, but you’re 20 minutes.”

Not that it is necessarily such a bad thing, bearing in mind it was not so long ago Levy was the subject of acclaim for the way he had managed to combine a healthy balance sheet with a team that could potentially win the league.

His record is of a man who gets a lot more right than wrong. He doesn’t bend for anyone and, if there is one thing we should know about him by now, it is that he won’t have liked one of his own players trying to back him into a corner over the last few days.

Danny Rose has certainly given it a good go and, if nothing else, it has provided an insight into the tactics the modern-day player favors when he fancies a better deal elsewhere and wants to hurry up the process. The key is to read between the lines and in Rose’s case it felt like the start of some prolonged eyelash-fluttering with Manchester United. Romelu Lukaku did something similar last season. Luis Suárez used the same ploy, albeit with far less subtlety, when he was trying to force his way from Liverpool to Barcelona and Philippe Coutinho may have to contemplate adopting the tactic if he wants to go the same route. It is known in the business as “playing the game”. Coutinho may not like the idea, but time is slipping away and, as Steven Gerrard has said, at this stage it’s a question of “what type of war he’s prepared to create”.

Rose opted for the scatter-gun approach and he shouldn’t be too surprised that it has landed him in trouble with his employers. Yes, it made a welcome change to read a player interview where a press officer hadn’t scribbled a red line through all the interesting points. From the club’s point of view, however, it has caused considerable disruption on the eve of the new season and the timing was questionable, to say the least. For that alone, Rose can hardly be taken aback that it has cost him two weeks’ wages as a club fine.

At the same time, what he told the Sun did contain a number of home truths and Levy has badly misjudged the situation if he did not envisage a scenario where his players, after successive third- and second-placed finishes, would eventually start to ask these kind of awkward questions.

Put together a league table of how much the current top-division clubs have spent on transfers over the last five years and you may be surprised to find Tottenham actually occupy bottom spot. Spurs spent £253.9m on new signings in that period and banked £321.4m for players sold, making them one of only three clubs (with Southampton and Swansea City) to show a net profit. On average, it’s a £13.5m gain per season.

Looking at the top of that table, compare Spurs’ figure with Manchester City’s average net spend of £110m over those five years, followed by Manchester United (£87.4m), Arsenal (£47.6m), Chelsea (£26.8m), Liverpool (£22m) and, perhaps surprisingly, Crystal Palace (£21.9m). Huddersfield Town, playing in the top division for the first time since 1972, have a higher net spend than the team that finished runners-up in the Premier League last season.

Indeed, Burton Albion, 20th in the Championship last season, have spent more on average than Spurs. Rose’s apology was merely PR perfume. Of course there are players at Spurs thinking the club could do more. Of course they are wondering whether there are greater adventures to be had elsewhere.

It won’t put their minds at rest, either, that they are the only club in England’s top division to begin the season without having made a single transfer. Most clubs prefer to get their business done as quickly as possible. Yet Levy seems to get a strange kick from knowing the price will change if he holds his nerve and waits and waits. Hence he does so much late business. Jon Smith’s book, The Deal, telling the story of his life as a football agent, sums it up rather neatly. “I can remember Daniel phoning at 6am on one deadline day, bursting with enthusiasm and asking: ‘Right, what are we going to do today then?’” Smith did the deal that took Harry Redknapp from Portsmouth to Spurs in 2008 but he and Levy were £50,000 apart when it came to the commission. Levy eventually agreed to pay the extra as long as Smith, an Arsenal fan, bought an executive box at White Hart Lane. It cost him £48,000.

It certainly tells you a lot about Levy’s thinking that in the past 10 summers Spurs have signed 44 first‑team players and 20 of those deals have been completed after the season has started. Seventeen have arrived on deadline day or in the preceding 48 hours and it looks as if this will be the strategy for Ross Barkley at Everton, too. It doesn’t make life easy for the manager or the team as a whole.

Yet the bigger issue, undoubtedly, is that the players have just seen Kyle Walker more than double his wages by moving to Manchester City and are increasingly aware, as Rose pointed out, they are underpaid in comparison to the other clubs at the top end of the league, as well as plenty below that level. Harry Kane is the club’s top earner at £100,000 a week. It is mind‑boggling money but that would be at the lower end of the scale at, say, Chelsea or Manchester United and around a quarter of what Alexis Sánchez will earn – £325,000 a week plus image rights – if Manchester City can persuade Arsenal to let him go. Most of the other Spurs players, including Rose, Eric Dier and Hugo Lloris are in the £60,000-£75,000 bracket. It’s not Skid Row, but you can see their point when Bournemouth, Stoke City and Crystal Palace can pay more.

What does all this tell us? First of all, what we should already have known: that Spurs have been dramatically punching above their weight under Mauricio Pochettino’s guidance. The Argentinian has shown it is possible to take on the super-rich but Levy surely needs to have a long, hard think about significantly increasing the club’s wage bill unless he wants to risk a more widespread mutiny. Something has to give because whatever you think of the players’ motives – whether you agree with their complaints or think it is greed, envy, call it what you will – it is just a fact of life at Spurs that Pochettino’s men are earning a fraction of what they could make elsewhere. Levy should have seen this coming and, now it has finally caught up with him, it would be another mistake to assume this is an issue involving only one player.

Rose is simply the one who dared to put his head above the parapet but Levy is so intransigent in his financial dealings nobody should be surprised if he chooses to do nothing about it. This really is the key point. Do Spurs accept they have been short-changing their players and try to put it right? And can they afford not to, bearing in mind the disaffection that would inevitably create behind the scenes?

All that can really be said for certain is that it is a lousy way to begin the club’s first season away from White Hart Lane and another year of trying to end those opposition songs poking fun at the fact they “won the league in black and white”.

Their first game is at Newcastle on Sunday and maybe this is a good time to remember how Desmond Hackett, bowler-hatted sportswriter in the peak years of the Daily Express, elegantly previewed one season in the Bill Nicholson era with the opening line: “Spurs, once undisputed cock of north London and the whole of England and Europe, still grope uncertainly for vanished glory.” That was August 15, 1970. The same could apply now, coming up for half a century later, and starting the season this way makes it all the more difficult to imagine this could be the year that all changes.

The Guardian Sport

Wayne Rooney Rekindles His Everton Love Affair, Wants to Play Up front


London- If nothing else, it was a more polished performance than the first time Wayne Rooney staged his own press conference, on a January evening in 2003 and the occasion of his first professional deal for Everton. At 17, Rooney was so unprepared for the barrage of flashing cameras the words stuck in his throat and his audience could hardly hear him speak.

David Moyes told him off for chewing gum and there was an awkward moment, after his first uncertain words, when he reached for the bottle of water on his table. Rooney was about to swig straight from it until Moyes intervened. “Pour it in the glass, Wayne,” came the advice.

Fourteen years on, it was a very different Rooney taking his seat in the People’s Club Lounge at Goodison Park, holding up the No10 shirt – the possession of Romelu Lukaku until recently – and telling the story of how he had kept the negotiations of his transfer from Manchester United a secret even from his closest family.

The explanation was that his dad, Wayne Sr, would have been so excited “he would not have been able to keep it in”. The same for his mum, Jeanette. “I didn’t tell Kai [his eldest son] either because he was going to school and I didn’t want him speaking to his mates,” Rooney reported. “It was literally once everything was agreed and the paperwork was through that I told everyone. Kai just jumped on me. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. My dad, too. Obviously he’s an Evertonian and he’s been going to Manchester to watch me for the last 13 years. Now he’ll just have a five-minute drive.”

It would need a flint heart not to appreciate the symmetry that had brought Rooney back to the club where he has been both loved and reviled – once kissing the United badge directly in front of the stand where he was now talking – and now wants to play his way back into the crowd’s affections.

Approaching 32, Rooney was quick to make the point he was here to win trophies, not because Goodison represented “a retirement home”, but there was also an admission that he could understand why people suspected his career had been in decline – “certainly the last year” – and it did not need long in his company to realise that his one season with José Mourinho in Manchester had become a personal ordeal.

“November,” Rooney replied to the question of when he had started to think he had to cut himself free from Old Trafford. “I started the season doing OK. I’d done well, I had a bad game at Watford away, and that was it [out of the team].”

And after that? “The hardest part was actually lifting the two trophies, the League Cup and the Europa League. You don’t feel like you deserve it because you haven’t been part of the games. That was hard. You’re naturally happy because you have won but you don’t celebrate as much as if you were on the pitch.

“It was just a frustrating time. It was the first time in my career I didn’t play. I was on the bench and that’s not me. I needed to play but I was also the captain of Manchester United so I needed to stay positive around the place and try not to bring any negativity. I spoke to José in January to see what his opinions were and he always said he wanted me to stay and help the team until the end of the season. I did that. But I knew I had to leave for my career.”

Moving to a suite overlooking the Goodison pitch, Rooney made it clear he had abandoned his wish to reinvent himself as a midfielder and would be leading from the front for Ronald Koeman’s team.

Beyond that, there is next year’s World Cup and the sense, perhaps, that his England career should not be talked about in the past tense, after all. “If I had gone to China, which was an option, then I would have called it a day,” Rooney said. Not on Merseyside, though. “I want to play for England. You can’t get in the England squad because of what you have done before. You need to be playing well to represent your country. I understand that and I respect that. That’s what I have to do now.”

The second coming will begin at home to Stoke City on 12 August but it would be wrong to assume his return to Old Trafford on 17 September is the fixture that will mean the most to him in the coming season.

Rooney deadpanned that he would be going back to Manchester, the club where he won 12 major trophies and scored more goals than any other player in history, with the sole aim of trying to win three points. But his eyes lit up when someone asked if there was a date circled in red in his diary. “There’s already one: the Liverpool game [9 December]. That was one of my biggest regrets when I left Everton, not scoring in the derby. I came on in my first one [a 0-0 draw in December 2002] and I hit the crossbar. To score against Liverpool for Everton? That would be great.”

It was spoken like a true Evertonian – “Once a blue, always a blue,” as the T-shirt famously stated – on a day when Rooney also reminded his audience he was in the crowd at Wembley when his club won their last trophy, the 1995 FA Cup.

The only slight issue was Rooney being late for his own press conference, leaving Koeman waiting 25 minutes in a corridor. Nobody, however, was impertinent enough to point out there was a bigger crowd outside for Duncan Ferguson’s return to Goodison in 2000.

Koeman did not seem to mind too much and when Rooney did finally appear it was difficult to remember the last public appearance when he has looked and sounded so happy. “It just felt right,” he concluded. “It felt so comfortable when I walked in.”

The Guardian Sport

Real Madrid’s Pursuit of David De Gea and Co Should Be Resisted

David de Gea’s proposed move to Real Madrid in 2015 fell through at the last minute but the Spanish club still have their eyes on the Manchester United keeper. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It isn’t difficult to understand why there are times when Real Madrid, with all their haughty self‑importance and the inescapable sense that they always seem to get their way, leave some of the other clubs at the higher end of the sport filled with moments of insecurity.

There are plenty of other great clubs who regard European domination as a legitimate ambition. Yet none, perhaps – not even Barcelona – have the same kind of magnetic attraction for the game’s superstars. None of the other superpowers seem so sure of themselves, bordering on a superiority complex, when it comes to luring their targets. No other club take more pleasure from flexing their muscles and reminding everyone about the order of merit that exists among the elite.

“Madrid paid £80m in cash, and do you know why,” Sir Alex Ferguson writes of Cristiano Ronaldo in his last autobiography. “It was a way for Florentino Pérez, their president, to say to the world: ‘We are Real Madrid, we are the biggest of the lot.’ It was a clever move.”

Ferguson, you might recall, was so incensed by Madrid’s pursuit of Ronaldo throughout the preceding year that he brought up the fascist dictatorship of General Franco to argue his point that one of the great sporting institutions was, in fact, morally bankrupt. Ferguson’s press conferences around that time presented the image of a man who refused to be cowed, leaning forward in his chair and promising he would “not sell a virus” to “that mob”. Ferguson, perhaps the greatest actor football has ever produced, struck a pose that day that Al Pacino would have been proud of. But it was all for show. Secretly, there was a gentleman’s agreement with Ronaldo, he just didn’t admit it until a few years later. “I knew full well that if they produced the £80m he would have to go. We could not block his fervent wish to return to Iberia and wear the famous white shirt of Di Stéfano or Zidane.” And Madrid, once again, got their man.

This is the problem for United now the relevant people at the Bernabéu have realigned their sights on David de Gea, even if it is also true the goalkeeper spent his early football years at the Vicente Calderón, home of Atlético Madrid, where the tribuna lateral held up thousands of red and white cards before their latest encounter with Real to make its point in a huge, defiant mosaic: Orgulloso De No Ser Como Vosotros. Translation: Proud of not being like you.

It was a nice put-down and that kaleidoscope of color, with the Almudena cathedral on the skyline, was a wonderful reminder why the old place will be missed when Atlético upgrade this summer to their new stadium out by the airport.

The bottom line, however, is that it was Zinedine Zidane’s players who finished the night doing knee-slides on the rain-soaked pitch. The club where Jorge Valdano once said you could never have too many stars even have a galáctico managing them now. They have won the European Cup 11 times, four more than Milan and six ahead of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Liverpool on the next rung down, and los blancos could add another when they meet Juventus in Cardiff on 3 June. If so, it will be the third time in four years that Madrid’s ribbons have adorned that 17lb hulk of silver. Of course De Gea must be intrigued. Of course there are temptations. How, possibly, could anyone think there are not?

That must be an alarming prospect for United if the club are serious about re-establishing themselves among the elite and Chelsea are probably entitled to a few concerns of their own when Madrid have also been fluttering their eyelashes in Eden Hazard’s direction.

Madrid might be a chaotic place sometimes – six managers and more crises than they will probably care to remember during David Beckham’s four years at the Bernabéu – but this is still the nearest football has to the Harlem Globetrotters. Or as the headline in USA Today once put it: the Yankees of Soccer. It isn’t easy for any player to say no.

There is, however, no rule in place that dictates other clubs must dance to their tune and it would be a pity if United and Chelsea do not have the will to stand up to Madrid at a time when the Premier League needs this kind of players and Match of the Day, a show with natural urges to make the sport feel exciting, had a debate recently about whether England’s top division had lost its stardust.

Chelsea, to give them their due, have already made their intentions clear. Hazard might have finished behind N’Golo Kanté when it comes to the season’s individual honors but the Belgian would have been a worthy recipient of the footballer-of-the-year awards. He would be an ideal wearer of Madrid’s colors and it makes perfect sense that Chelsea, with high ambitions of their own, have already initiated talks about replacing his existing contract, which runs until 2020, with a longer one that would reinforce his position as the club’s highest‑paid player.

United’s position with De Gea is not quite so clear but surely this is a time when they have to shut the door on Madrid if they have serious thoughts about returning to a position where their idea of success is something far more elegant than huffing and puffing through the Thursday-night-Sunday-afternoon churn of the Europa League.

De Gea has won his club’s player-of-the-season award for each of the three previous years. He is 26, which is still relatively young in goalkeeping terms, and approaching what should be the best years of his career. Most important, he has a contract until 2019 and there is an option his club surely should take to extend that by another year. United had to wait a long time before they found someone who did not make them pine for Peter Schmeichel; now they have that man it makes little sense that they would contemplate losing him.

Putting up those barriers will clearly not be straightforward if De Gea makes it clear that he wants to go and, unfortunately for United, he could be forgiven for wondering what adventures might have been possible had his proposed move to the Bernabéu in 2015 not fallen through at the last minute.

Hazard might have grown up with Zidane as his football hero and he might have made it clear that one day he would like to play in Spain, but his current club have just won the league and could turn that into a Double when they meet Arsenal in the FA Cup final a week next Saturday. He is the player, more than anyone, who opponents worry about the most. Chelsea have the Champions League in their thoughts again and even, hypothetically, if he asked to leave, the Premier League’s newly crowned champions should do everything they can to stop it happening.

The encouraging part for Chelsea is that there has been nothing to indicate that is in Hazard’s mind. United, however, are on the next rung down and, though the attractions of playing for England’s biggest club are obvious, De Gea is part of a team that have finished, in order, seventh, fourth and fifth over the previous three seasons and now look like coming in sixth.

The process of recovery, post‑Ferguson, has been slow and Roy Keane has described United’s league position, 22 points from the top, as an embarrassment for his old club. United are trailing one of the worst Arsenal sides of the past 20 years and are about to finish behind Manchester City for the fourth consecutive season, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. Keane may have an old grievance against José Mourinho – and United as a whole – but that doesn’t make what he says wrong.

The one thing United have never lost, however, is their desire to get back to the top. This is a time when they, and Chelsea, need to dig in their heels because the alternative would not only undermine their chances of future success, it would also look like a white flag. This is what enraged Ferguson so much during the Ronaldo standoff: that Madrid were making them look weak. That one was a world record transfer fee. In another sense, it was one of the worst pieces of business United have ever pulled off.

Wolves look at risk of misdirection

Arsène Wenger sounded peculiarly out of touch with the modern sport when he said there was no place for a director of football at Arsenal and declared he did not even know what the position was supposed to entail. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left?” Wenger asked. “I don’t understand and I never did understand what it means.”

It’s quite straightforward, really – as Wenger probably knows – and it can actually be a useful role when managers at a lot of top clubs are simply too busy working with their teams to be flying around the world on scouting missions, negotiating transfer business, dealing with agents and a multitude of other tasks.

Wenger seemed to think it would mean signing players he didn’t necessarily want but the secret, generally, is to find someone who works alongside the manager, rather than against him, and when it happens that way there is plenty of evidence that it is something clubs should embrace rather than be afraid of.

Unfortunately it is easier to understand Wenger’s misgivings when there are so many clubs that cannot get the balance right and managers are marginalized when it comes to identifying the players that might just keep them in a job.

The latest is Wolves, where Paul Lambert has apparently been informed that Jorge Mendes – a football agent, last time I checked – will take control of the club’s transfer activity this summer.

Mendes does not have an official title at Molineux but that clearly does not matter when the man who represents Cristiano Ronaldo, among others, has an “in” with the club’s Chinese owners. How that qualifies him to pick the right players for a season in the Championship is anyone’s guess but that appears to be the plan and Lambert has duly found out that his own targets will probably be scrubbed because Mendes has an entirely different wishlist.

This includes a number of foreign players Lambert has never heard of and, not surprisingly, he is now considering whether this is a club where he wants to be employed. Keep an eye on Wolves next season: amid some stiff competition they seem utterly determined to be thought of among the Championship’s more harebrained operations.

(The Guardian)

Séamus Coleman’s Horrific Injury Demands Rethink of Misplaced Tolerance


London – It doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you watch it. The way he lands, his instinctive reaction to assess the damage, the split second where you just hope your first suspicions might be wrong. But then Shane Long is cradling Séamus Coleman’s head and that is the point when you don’t need confirmation from any doctor or press officer. You know it’s snapped, you know that’s him done.

And, deep down, you know this is one of those occasions – “a good old British game”, to use the jarring words of Chris Coleman – when a certain level of aggression is considered OK, mandatory even, and the people demanding it usually just assume everybody will be able to walk off at the end. “Heavy-metal football,” the Irish Times called it: all thrash, not enough melody. The kind of game, in other words, when players do cross the line, behaviour-wise, and the risk of getting hurt is higher than usual – often wrapped up in the guise of “passion”.

That is not to excuse the wild, flailing challenge from Neil Taylor that inflicted the damage and, whatever the scale of professional shame and remorse that must be swimming through his mind right now, it isn’t easy to find too much in the way of sympathy for the Wales left-back. For all the character references, there is no pride to be had for anyone who shatters a fellow professional’s leg.

The bottom line is there can be no mitigation for what happened in Dublin on Friday. But there must be an explanation and maybe, in the process, there is a lesson for any of us who likes to think there are certain fixtures, the Republic of Ireland against Wales being one, when different standards should apply and the two sets of players should somehow be allowed to get away with more.

In the buildup to the game, it was widely circulated that Ireland needed to be physical. They needed what is known, in football parlance, as “a reducer”. More than anything, they needed a moment to let Gareth Bale know he was in for a difficult night. Roy Keane, whose equivalent on Marc Overmars is remembered as one of the all-time Lansdowne Road moments, had said it might be an idea. Wales must have known, therefore, that it was going to be a battle. Their manager would have made it clear they had to hold their own.

And so it transpired. Glenn Whelan planted a forearm into the jaw of Joe Allen, a colleague at Stoke City, before half-time and played part of the match with a bandaged head after taking a kick from Aaron Ramsey. Long clattered Ashley Williams, who had dealt out some rough treatment to Jon Walters, and James McClean was the Ireland player who introduced himself, with interest, to Bale.

“Are you saying all the bad challenges were from us?” Chris Coleman asked afterwards in a defiant, bristling press conference. And nobody in the audience who wanted to challenge the Wales manager, or take exception to his talk of “a typical British derby”, could raise their hand to argue that Martin O’Neill’s team had been entirely innocent.

The truth is these kind of hostilities are almost expected on certain football occasions. It is part of the Irish culture and, if it wasn’t, Roy Keane would not be as revered as he is and the Overmars moment.

This still doesn’t excuse what happened in that game.

The Guardian Sport