Saturday, 27 February 2010

O'Neill dismisses talk of him becoming the next Man United manager

Like David Moyes at Everton there is an added dimension to the work of Martin O'Neill. They are both engaged in the service of their clubs while, like it or not, simultaneously taking part in an unspoken audition for the role of Manchester United manager.

They can never admit it, of course. That does not stop the rest of football weighing the possibility. Last week, Moyes had the catwalk to himself with victory over United at Goodison. Today the beauty contest repairs to Wembley, where it is O'Neill's turn to show Ferguson a fine pair of heels.

At 57, O'Neill probably has one more big posting in him. The fans of Aston Villa, who have not always been kind to him, are increasingly accepting of the idea that he might find career fulfilment at Villa Park. This is the stated aim. Villa's last trophy came 14 years ago. A decade has passed since they last contested a final, the FA Cup in 2000. Two League Cups is the sum of their labours in the 28 years since Peter Withe bundled the ball off a post in Rotterdam to win the European Cup.

O'Neill tells you that this is his focus, that the biggest job in domestic football is not a matter for him. "I have never thought about that at all, not for one second, not even when I was up at Celtic. Sir Alex Ferguson will decide, I would reckon probably in the year 2033, when he feels the Champions League has passed him by one last time. I will have departed this earth long before him."

O'Neill distances himself from the pageant with characteristic charm. The glow of FA Cup victory over Crystal Palace the night before is still on him. The Pullman that will take the team to London is parked at the door. A sense of anticipation is building. O'Neill is at the centre of the narrative. You sense he would be happy to talk all day. On another afternoon the question of the Ferguson succession might send him spinning out of Bodymoor Heath in a haze of expletives. On this day, he is happy to play keepie uppie with the theme.

"Following Ferguson is the impossible job, absolutely. How many times as he won the championship? Ten times, something like that? It has never really bothered me. There is always somebody coming up, somebody whose name is relevant at the time. I never pay any attention to it. I really enjoy my job here. For us to win a couple of competitions in the next couple of seasons is what it is all about, to qualify for the Champions League, that sort of stuff."

O'Neill takes questions like Socrates at the Acropolis, stroking his chin in contemplation, as if teasing the words from his mouth in precise order. "The fact that I'm facing Sir Alex Ferguson does not make the difference. The fact that we are in a final at Wembley is enough for you to want to do your very best, to show off your ability. When you are up against Manchester United and Sir Alex in the final it is not so much that you want to raise your game, you have to if you are to win."

Oh come now Martin, you have taken four points off him already this season, three of those at Old Trafford. What's to fear? Surely you have his measure. The thought prompts another caress of the jaw, and a smile that suggests the Priory is the place for any who believe that. "I don't think that for one second. People have been trying for a lot of years to get the measure of him. He has done an amazing job even to be at Old Trafford as long as he has, at a club that is demanding success. He has delivered and continues to deliver."

OK, that's enough about Ferguson. O'Neill is unique in the upper echelon of English football in his adherence to a domestic template. This is not about believing absolutely in English virtues but in following a line of thinking that respects the league in which he works. Were he in Italy the core would be Italian, German in Germany and so on. That his captain today, Stiliyan Petrov, is Bulgarian, does not contradict the broad sweep of O'Neill's rationale. Neither does the inclusion of John Carew or Carlos Cuéllar. The thrust of the Villa proposition is carried by James Milner, Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing, Emile Heskey, Stephen Warnock, Luke Young and so on.

"I do feel that the heartbeat of the football club should be (the nationality of) the league that you are playing in, the core of this team is fundamentally English. That does not mean that I hold everything by it. At Celtic I had a group of Swedes that loved it to death."

O'Neill is half way through his fourth year at Villa Park. According to some his reliance on a traditional English structure does not stop at birth certificates. After their recent meeting Arsenal aesthete Arsène Wenger reached for the long ball stick with which to beat O'Neill. Wenger rarely sees virtues in the opposition when they get the better of his team. His stylistic hauteur gets right up O'Neill's nose. Perceptions, one might say, have yet to catch up with the evolving brand of adventure O'Neill is orchestrating.

"The stats showed that we played three more long balls than they (Arsenal) did in the game. I had a wee smile when Bacari Sagna hoofed it 80 yards up the pitch in the first few minutes against Sunderland. I get irritated. I should have remembered that he said Manchester United were anti-football."

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sir Alex Ferguson says Manchester City will never be bigger than United

Sir Alex Ferguson has taken a dig at "noisy neighbours" Manchester City by comparing them to the wealthily backed Sunderland side of the 1950s, who wound up being relegated. The Manchester United manager, talking in an exclusive interview to relaunch this morning's Observer, referenced Sunderland's post-war nickname of 'the Bank of England club' – and the fact that they lost their top-flight place in 1958.

Asked about the impact of City's purchase by the Abu Dhabi United Group, Ferguson said: "It has increased that competitive element between the fans and the media, no doubt about it. The decibel level went up in the last two games [the Carling Cup semi-final ties last month]. We have to get used to it, have to do something about it and accept the challenge. There's nothing wrong with having a challenge. We have to do what we're good at and hope it's good enough."

The Scot added: "[Manchester City] is a club with so much wealth they could buy every player in the world, but can they buy a team, can they buy a Manchester United spirit? I don't expect City to be bigger than us, I really don't, even with all that money. The problem with having all that money is that you buy indiscriminately. Sunderland, in the 1950s, the Bank of England team – relegated. I wouldn't wish ­relegation on City."

Ferguson also addressed his own club's ownership, saying that while he understood supporters' concerns and respected their right to hold forth on the state of the club under the Glazer family, he had always found the American owners supportive. "I'm never against protest," he said. "I've been brought up in protest all my life. I was involved in the [Govan shipyards] apprentices' strike of 1961 ... It's everyone's right, there's no doubt about that."

But he added: "My problem with it, being manager of Manchester United, is that I've got owners who have never caused me any bother. Any time I've asked for money they've given it to us ... The debt has concerned a lot of people. David Gill [the club's chief executive] has had a lot of chats with the staff to settle them down, to assure them everything's fine. As far as I'm concerned, I bought [Chris] Smalling for big money [£10m for the Fulham centre-back]. So for me, life goes on. As I say, the Glazers have been fine with me, I've never had any problem."

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Arsène Wenger's will to win on his own terms is leading to mediocrity

Arsène Wenger has always followed his own path, but he is leading Arsenal into mediocrity. A largely justified reputation as a visionary distracts people from noticing the most basic flaws in the team. With 25 Premier League games completed, the 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge means they have conceded 30 goals. That equals the worst defensive performance Wenger has presided over since his arrival in the autumn of 1996.

Statistics of that sort are far from bloodless, and Arsenal have been wounded. Never before in the history of the Premier League have they lost all four of their encounters with Chelsea and Manchester United. The Old Trafford defeat may have been undeserved, but there is no quibbling with the aggregate score. Arsenal must be dazed after the 10-2 thumping from Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson's teams.

In a practical sense, nothing grave has befallen the club. Arsenal are very likely to qualify for next season's Champions League and their current interest in the competition is genuine. They are favourites to get the better of Porto in the last-16 tie that starts next week. The real harm is done to fans, who are starting to feel undernourished on a diet of idealism, and, less gravely, to neutrals who would prefer to see more than just a pair of contenders for the Premier League title.

Two seasons ago Arsenal topped the table at this juncture and appeared reasonably well-equipped. There was to be terrible misfortune in Eduardo da Silva's broken leg at Birmingham City in February 2008. He had notched a dozen goals in that campaign, but has understandably had less impact since his return. He, however, was not to be the only person whose loss would be felt. Jens Lehmann and Gilberto Silva left at the end of that campaign.

It may have been time for them to go, even if the Brazilian was still capable of commanding a place in his national team when England were beaten three months ago, but they have not been replaced satisfactorily. Manuel Almunia has none of the command that Lehmann exuded, and seems to spread unease in the defence. Where holding midfielders are concerned, Arsenal now have no experienced candidates. United and Chelsea have been permitted to notch goals on the break in successive weekends.

The club needs to find a starting point, but Wenger has been disdainful of lesser prizes that might actually be alluring to supporters. Arsenal virtually inflict FA Cup defeats on themselves, and a lightweight selection went out at Stoke City last month. This policy is intended to conserve energy for more important challenges, but getting knocked out does appear to be dispiriting. Since leaving the Britannia Stadium, Arsenal have not won in three games.

Those matches have been particularly tough, but the pattern is also familiar. In 2008, Wenger sent out a weakened line-up against United in the FA Cup and watched as they were crushed 4-0. Injuries were a factor but some of the absentees faced Milan four days later. If Wenger had been writing off the FA Cup it proved to be an error as he helped United to develop the momentum that ultimately took them past the then leaders, Arsenal, in the league.

It is traditional and often fair to point to Arsenal's lack of means, particularly while they concentrate on paying off the cost of the Emirates, but there are limitations, too, that are self-imposed and idiosyncratic. The deals that saw Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor move to Manchester City for a total of £41m was extraordinarily good business for Arsenal and that unanticipated sum was a windfall. The money, all the same, was not used to bring in the centre‑forward who was so badly needed.

There was plenty of time to act since they left Arsenal when over a month of the transfer window remained. Wenger then spoke of wishing to bring in a striker in January, but no business was done. Though the manager was on a demanding mission, it is for his ingenuity and knowledge that he is employed. Sympathy for the harm done by the loss of Robin van Persie to ankle trouble in November is tempered by the recognition that Wenger knew the Dutchman was injury prone.

Arsenal remain the most idiosyncratic of Europe's major clubs. Wenger, with his intelligence and commitment to streamlined football, has endowed them with a status they never enjoyed before but there are days, too, when it seems that success will only be accepted on his pure and personal terms.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Ferguson starts mind games with Ancelotti

Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday blew the dust off his self-written manual on how to win the Premier League, thumbed through the well-used pages, stopped at the chapter called "Mind Games" and put them to work ahead of today's encounter with Portsmouth.

Ferguson stated that he was not even aware that title rivals Chelsea were playing against Hull City on Tuesday evening in their game in hand over United, only learning of the 1-1 result after watching his son Darren's Preston North End side lose 4-1 at home to Barnsley.

If that is true, it is an incredible oversight from a man as meticulous as Ferguson. The chances are that it is an attempt by the United manager to portray himself as so comfortable and almost blasé about the title run-in that nobody else matters and a win today would send United back to the Premier League summit, at least until Chelsea play Arsenal tomorrow. "You know, I didn't realise they [Chelsea] were playing," he smiled.

"I thought they were playing on the Wednesday. I was at a game and left with five minutes to go and on the radio it said it was still one-each at Hull. I thought it was the next day so it was a wee surprise for me."

Success for United in the post-Christmas period and Ferguson's willingness to sow the seeds of mental unease in his opponents go hand in hand. They picked up 58 points from an available 66 from Boxing Day and onwards last season, 47 from 60 in the 2007-08 season and 42 from 57 in 2006-07 and as those years all ended in title success, Ferguson is keen for his team to maintain that tradition.

"Historically, we have always grasped the nettle at this time of the year," Ferguson said. "The players realise there is something at stake and we can't afford inconsistency.

"Teams will drop points in every run-in, but we are experienced and know that if you're going to drop more than the rest you're going to lose the League. Our aim is to try to be as consistent as we can, and produce the kind of performances we did on Sunday [against Arsenal] and that will take us very close. Each game towards the finish becomes more important and it doesn't matter who it is, we want three points from every one now.

"Whatever games we have got left, if we win most of them we have a good chance and Portsmouth comes into that category so it's a big game for us."