Archive for the 'World Cup' Category

28
Oct
10

who will be United’s next goalkeeper?

reina couldn't resist a smile when he heard he may be leaving the dippers

reina couldn't resist a smile when he heard he may be leaving the dippers

The number one jersey at United has been one fraught with difficulties over the past forty years.  For every Alex Stepney, there’s been a Jim Leighton, for every Peter Schmeichel a Massimo Taibi. In fact if you look a the list of ‘keepers that have played for United, just in Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign you’ll realise that it’s not always been the easiest position for the United manager to fill.

Proven Premier League stars- Mark Bosnich, World Cup winners- Fabien Barthez, up and coming potentially world class stoppers- Tim Howard, and future England number ones –Ben Foster have all failed when it’s come to minding the space between the sticks at Old Trafford.

Edwin Van Der Sar’s arrival at United, finally gave the fans and no doubt Fergie, the chance to breathe a huge sigh of relief. After all United fans had seen more than one or two duffers don the goalkeeping gloves for the Reds and there’d been a few horror stories along the way- Porto at home, Arsenal away, the 3-3 with Southampton,- you know what I’m talking about.

Replacing VDS should not be underestimated, it’s one of the most difficult tasks Fergie will ever face as, as previous ‘keepers have shown, just because you’re good doesn’t mean you can handle the pressure at United. Many keepers who’ve struggled at United have gone on to be reliable, dare I say even world class stoppers somewhere else, just look at Tim Howard for example.

With so much importance being, rightly, placed on VDS’s successor the rumour mill has been going into overdrive with stories of the nest ‘keeper ‘destined’ to be heading towards Old Trafford.

The latest nugget suggests that Spain’s second choice and beach ball lover Pepe Reina could be a new target for Fergie to set his sights on. Roy Hodgson has already wubbished such claims insisting that his number one, who signed a new deal in April is going nowhere- especially to the arch rivals down the M62.  So who is coming to United as the next number one? There’s been so many rumours it’s difficult to keep track so I’ve tried to narrow it down to five who could have the unenviable job of filling VDS’s gloves.

5. Pepe Reina. Liverpool. It’s a far-fetched rumour but it’s still doing the rounds so I’ll give it some credence, although not much. Could Reina really come to United? It’s highly unlikely, after all having signed a new contract only months ago, it would be up to Liverpool to sell him and that’s never going to happen.

The recent takeover by ‘good’ American owners, means that the Anfield outfit will probably not have to sell any players to balance the books, least of all one of their best ones to United. Could Reina do a job at Old Trafford? Probably. Although he is highly thought of and no doubt a very good stopper, he does like the occasional blunder and with any United keeper having large parts of the game where he’s not called upon, his concentration may be a slight worry.  Personally, I’d prefer it if United went for someone a little but more reliable and a little less scouse-infected.

4.  Shay Given. Manchester City. This may seem equally as far-fetched as the idea of Reina joining the Red and White Army, however there is a part of it that makes sense. Given is highly unlikely to want to stick around seeing the twilight of his career off by keeping Roque Santa Cruz warm on the City bench. He’s a proven world class keeper who has shown, not least in the 4-3 that he can produce stunning saves at the drop of a hat. The only problem to any such move would of course be City themselves who are about as likely to sell any player to United as they are to sign Wayne Rooney- but you never know. At 34, Given wouldn’t be a long-term signing but he could arguably do a job for at least two seasons if the unthinkable happened.

3. Igor Akinfeev. CSKA Moscow. Akinfeev is Russia’s international keeper and at only 24 years of age already has an impressive 34 caps. Fergie’s long meant to have been an admirer of the Russian and there’s little doubt that a significant bid could tempt CSKA to sell him. The only question mark would be could he handle the pressure of life at Old Trafford? That’s pretty impossible to tell unless he actually signed but there’s every reason to believe a player who’s stock is constantly rising could well be the man to take over from VDS.  There’s been talk of Russian team mate and part time agony uncle- check out his blog it’s hilarious- Andrei Arshavin trying to convince him to go to the Emirates. Whether Arshavin is successful remains to be seen, but if Akinfeev did end up at Old Trafford, I for one wouldn’t be complaining.

2. Maarten Stekelenburg. Ajax.  The Dutch stopper was one of the few players to emerge from the Holland team with his reputation enhanced following the world cup- despite their run to the final. Stekelenburg has taken over from VDS in the Dutch goal so replacing him for United may seem like a logical step- after all Ajax is also a former club of the United keeper. Standing around 6 foot 6 Stekelenburg is certainly one of the tallest keepers in world football but like VDS is pretty adept at getting down quick and as he proved in the World Cup final the big stage doesn’t faze him.

If Edwin has a quiet word in his ear then Stekelenburg may well be Fergie’s big summer signing, he has already ruled out a move to Arsenal- who seem to be in the hunt for every goalkeeper who’s currently playing.

1.  Anders Lindegaad. Aalesunds FK. Lindegaad has apparently caught Fergie’s eye recently after an impressive display for the Danish national side against Portugal. Although, he only played an hour, replacing the injured Thomas Sorensen, Lindegaad made some world class saves, including a stunning one to prevent Nani. United’s goalkeeping coach Eric Steele was despatched to Norway, where Lindegaad ply his trade obviously otherwise that would be just pointless, to give the keeper the once over and was apparently very impressed. With Fulham and Spurs  supposedly in the hunt, it’s highly likely if Fergie does want him, he may have to move in the summer regardless of whether VDS is retiring or not. One advantage that Lindegaad may have over some of the others on this list is his relative small price- plus the fact that barely-known Danish keepers are pretty well thought of at Old Trafford.

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12
Aug
10

Ten Things United Must Do To Win Back ‘Our Trophy’

Will we be seeing scenes like this at OT come May?

Will we be seeing scenes like this at OT come May?

With last season’s title race going right down to the wire with Chelsea edging it over Manchester United by a single point every game counted towards the title. This summer has seen a distinct lack of major transfer activity from either club with Chelsea having something if a mini-exodus and bringing in only Yossi Banayoun, while United have made two additions, in Chris Smalling and a certain diminutive Mexican who’s already grabbed a few headlines with the most bizarre Wembley goal since Emile Heskey’s last one. The question is are the new signings enough to bring the trophy back to Old Trafford, just what do United need to do to wrestle the title back from West London and is Dimitar Berbatov ever going to revert back to his headband? Here’s a list of ten things which need to happen for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to overtake Liverpool in the title winning stakes.

1. More goals from midfield. While many a United fan is quick to point out the deficiencies of Berbatov and even Ferguson has lamented the injury to Michael Owen that robbed United of his services for the business end of the season, the fact remains the midfield did not score nearly enough goals last season. Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nani managed 24 league goals between them, the same amount that Frank Lampard scored. While certain players –Fletcher for example- are not in the side to score goals, while Giggs and Scholes can hardly be expected to hit double figures at their age- it is still obvious United need more goals coming from the midfield department. If Rooney continues to operate as a lone striker –as he did for much of last season- then someone behind him needs to step up. Personally I’d like to see Nani and Valencia weighing in with a few more this time round.

2. A bit more stability in the starting XI. I fully understand that with United chasing honours on four fronts, the need for a large squad and a bit of rotation but surely it’s time for a little moderation. It seems every week there’s a new right back, its 4-5-1 then it’s 4-4-2, Berbatov starts, grabs a goal, then is dropped for the next game, Anderson’s in, then he’s out again, ditto Ji Sung Park. Admittedly injuries and the ages of certain players have to dictate Fergie’s thinking and the days of the man on the street naming the Saturday’s starting XI are long gone. However it could be time to give some players more than just one game in every three, and try and get a bit more cohesion going between certain ones. I’ve said it before and it may sound crazy but unless Rio Ferdinand can get back to proper full fitness, I’d make Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic my starting centre backs for every game. Stability has often been the key to United’s success and maybe a bit more is needed.

3. Give youth a chance. With Tom Cleverly not going out on loan, and the Da Silva twins and Macheda getting a chance both at the end of last season and in this pre-season then could we now see a few youngsters starting more than just the Carling Cup games? Hopefully yes. If United are not going to buy Mesut Ozil- to be honest I don’t think they will- then why not give either Darron Gibson or Cleverly the chance to have a run in the side. After all despite what a certain Scottish pundit may have claimed you can win things with kids. United have bags of experience in every department so throwing one or two youngsters into the mix shouldn’t lead to disaster and what better way for a developing player to learn than to play alongside the likes of Scholes, Giggs or Rooney.

4. Darren Fletcher to raise his game. At first this may seem blasphemous, after all ‘super Daz’ was one of United’s best performers last season, putting in the sort of barnstorming displays you’d associate with Roy Keane. However the reason I think he should raise his game is simple- because he can. While there’s no denying against the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, Fletcher bosses the midfield so much he even had Arsene Wenger complaining of his ‘anti-football’- so basically tackling people then- but against lesser opposition Fletcher can occasionally be a little less influential. I know it seems harsh to criticise such a dedicated player but let’s be brutally honest, there are times when his passing can go awry a little too often, and despite what I said earlier about him not being in the side to score goals that doesn’t mean he can’t. His brace against City and his superb volley – or should that be superlative strike- in the home game against Everton show that Fletcher knows where the goal is. I know he’s quality I just feel that if he were to perform against the likes of Sunderland as he does against the top teams, he could well be the difference between second and first.

5. Michael Carrick. This one doesn’t need a Fletcher-type apology or explanation, it’s shockingly simple. He’s got to start performing consistently. Carrick’s been at Old Trafford for four seasons now yet amazingly the jury still seems to be out on him. Three title winning campaigns would be enough to put most players in the pantheon of club legends but Carrick has a knack for going missing when he’s needed most and sometimes making costly errors. The games against Wolves away and Liverpool and Bayern Munich at home were cases in point. While Carrick’s mistakes in the first two may have been academic his failure to deal with the danger in the Champion’s League, then getting caught dilly-dallying on the ball, cost United two goals, and to some critics the tie. While I think there was more to it than just Carrick, the fact that he was dropped from the United side after his similar blunder gifted Liverpool an early Old Trafford lead, may mean that Fergie is running out of patience with a player who should now be hitting his peak not going backwards. If he doesn’t perform well at the beginning of the campaign, I feel it’s time to give someone else a chance.

6. Beat their title rivals. Ok this may sound like the sort of obvious statement you would associate with David Pleat but it’s true. The past two seasons have seen United lose home and away to their nearest rivals. In 2008-09 they got away with it mainly due the fact that by the time Liverpool came to Old Trafford and won 4-1, the title race was all but over. Last season however, even a draw in either game against Chelsea would have been enough to see United win the title for a record breaking nineteenth time but it wasn’t to be. United have usually performed well against their title rivals and there’s no doubt that a man has proud as Ferguson will be looking to regain that tradition this season. Winning against your rivals doesn’t just give you a points advantage it can often help psychologically convince you that you’re the better team and it’s time United took the edge on both counts.

7. Believe the hype and give Chicharito a proper run. I’ve tried not to get over excited about Javier Hernandez, but it’s been about as difficult as liking Ashley Cole as the ‘Little Pea’ shone in both the World Cup and United’s pre-season. Whether he’s banging in screamers against Argentina or using his teeth in the Community Shield, it’s obvious that he’s class and rather than wrapping him up in cotton wool or saving him for special occasions like the nice china, Fergie should unleash him and let him stake a claim for a regular starting place. He’s been compared to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, which is a bit unfair, but if he is going to be another ‘baby-faced assassin’ then he should at the very least be an obligatory substitute coming on after 60 minutes in every game.

8. Improve the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Whether United have money or not chanting and singing is still free- mind you give it time and they’ll probably charge us- so there’s no excuses for having a lack of noise at Old Trafford. United still have the highest attendance in the League, yet at times away fans of a mere few thousand are out-singing 70-odd thousand Reds. ‘We want Glazers out’ is one chant that seems to be heard without any problems but it’s hardly likely to motivate the team. While I’m not saying that shouldn’t be sung, I’m merely stating that the fact remains personally I’ve been a bit embarrassed by the lack of atmosphere at OT at times and think a bit more noise wouldn’t go amiss. United may have only dropped eight home points last season, but if they can get the sort of atmosphere you hear against City going every week, then there’s every reason to feel they won’t drop any. This isn’t something the club should be culpable for, it’s up to the fans and don’t worry I’ve brought plenty of vuvuzelas back from South Africa so message me and I’ll send you one.

9. Take the burden off Wayne Rooney. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s a bit like saying score more goals than the opposition or win more games than your nearest rivals, but the fact is, United cannot win the title with Rooney alone. When Cristiano Ronaldo was scoring goals like they were going out of fashion, a large part of that was down to Rooney. Last season Didier Drogba had Lampard to help him out, Arsenal will no doubt have Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas this time round. Rooney needs someone to weigh in with not just their fair share of goals but also assists and being another option that players look for when United are attacking. Berbatov, Hernandez or one of the midfield, it doesn’t matter but when Rooney’s fit and playing it shouldn’t mean that if he has a quiet game so do United. When Rooney’s out, it’s time for someone else to perform; no doubt all eyes will be on Berbatov who came up short against Chelsea and Blackburn last season. Whether or not this will be the Bulgarian’s season remains to be seen, but someone needs to give ‘r Wazza a hand.

10. Play Edwin Van Der Sar in every league game. VDS performance in the Community Shield was yet another in a long list of exemplary shifts between the sticks at Old Trafford. The Dutchman was injured for the beginning of last season and Ben Foster was preferred to Tomas Kuszczak and all but ended both his United and England career with a series of inept displays. A loss away to Burnley and a disappointing home draw to Sunderland came on Foster’s watch, while Kuszczak oversaw the home loss to Aston Villa and the away loss to Fulham- although to be fair the entire defence was injured for that one. Van Der Sar may be 40 but if he can manage the league games and Fergie rests him for the cup ones, he may just be the difference between another near-miss or making United the most successful ever team-at least domestically- in England.

09
Aug
10

Wes Brown’s decision the right one for him and United.

The two Browns, at least Wes timed his retirement right.

The two Browns, at least Wes timed his retirement right.

News that Wes Brown has decided to retire from international duty has been met with a mixture of disdain and incredulity from many both inside and outside Old Trafford.

The ‘hardest man in town’ has called an end to his international career after 23 caps, which considering he made his England debut 11 years ago is hardly a great amount.
Brown stated:

“After a lot of thought and with a very heavy heart, I have decided the time is right for me to retire from international football.
“At the age of 30, I feel it is right for me to stand aside and let younger players come through, which allows me to concentrate on my club career.
“I regard it as an honour and a privilege to have represented my country at every level from under-15s upwards. I have always been very proud to play for England and wish them well in future tournaments.”

Brown’s decision comes just as Paul Robinson made his to also retire from England, although he stated it is more to do with being way down the pecking order than any wish to concentrate on his job at Blackburn.

While Robinson’s decision was a little surprising, after all as Robert Green showed, even a mediocre season can get you a place between the sticks for England when Capello’s in charge, Brown’s was actually pretty pragmatic.

Brown has never been a real first choice for England either at right back or centre back, due to either his injuries or having Gary Neville in his way. Since Neville more or less dropped out of the international scene Glen Johnson has emerged as the preferred choice at right back for Capello.

The world cup may well have been the final straw for Brown when it comes to England. After seemingly working his way back into the international fold under Capello, Brown was omitted even from the provisional 30 man squad for South Africa. Although he had recently returned from injury, the fact that the England manager chose to coax Jamie Carragher out of retirement and take a player who’d played a lot less football and has severe knee problems in Ledley King may well have irked the quiet defender.

Gary Neville wasted no time in questioning Capello’s decision to leave Brown out-although call me cynical I feel he may well have been having a dig due to his own omission but as with most things concerning ‘r Gary, who knows.

What amazed me about his world cup omission was that last season Brown played all his football for United at centre back and did a fine job as with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic missing large chunks of the campaign he was called into action a total of 26 times. Admittedly that hardly constitutes the term ‘mainstay’ but considering United’s defence was the best in the country and Brown put in some marvellous performances- Stamford Bridge for example- then for me he was a far better option than either Matthew Upson, Michael Dawson, Ledley King or Jamie Carragher. Like King and Carragher he has international experience but is capable of playing more than one game a week and didn’t need convincing to play, like Carragher he can play at right back or centre back but is far better in either position, and unlike Upson and Dawson he is truly world class. I know many Tottenham, West Ham and Liverpool fans may disagree but other than King, I think Brown is the more naturally gifted defender.

Regardless of whether he made it into the World Cup squad, another major factor which seems to have swayed his thinking towards retirement is Brown’s falling down the United pecking order.
When everyone is fully fit, Brown can no longer be guaranteed the right back spot that he made his own during the successful 2007-08 campaign. What is even more worrying for the ginger-ish- haired one is that even when the likes of Ferdinand and Neville are injured, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea, not to mention even Rafael Da Silva, seem to find themselves starting games with Brown often on the bench.

Sir Alex Ferguson loves to rotate his squad but certain players are pretty much guaranteed to start every game, or at least the big ones, if they are fit. Patrice Evra seldom gets rested and when he does it’s usually for an ‘easy’ Champion’s League tie or the Carling Cup. Fergie has pointed to France’s version of Leon Trotsky’s huge appearance record over the past few seasons as a reason for giving him an extra week off recently. Vidic is another defender who is only really rested when he’s either just returning from injury or it’s not a truly testing game. Ditto Rio- although if he’s fit he’ll play due to the rarity of the occasion. Brown is nowhere near this level of importance to Fergie, yet in 2007-08 he appeared more than any other United player- including Cristiano Ronaldo.

Brown knows that if he’s not careful he could find himself fourth choice right back and with the recent signing of Chris Smalling, possibly fifth choice for a centre back spot. Playing for England may not entirely prevent him from gaining his place in the starting XI but if he were to pick up an injury on international duty, would Fergie be as understanding or patient with him as Brown would hope?

Brown has two years left on his United contract, by which time he’ll be 32 and if he wants to ensure the next two seasons at Old Trafford aren’t spent keeping the bench warm or being an important member of the reserves, retiring from international football may be a step in the right direction. United have reaped the benefits of Paul Scholes decision to retire from England as the –truly- ginger haired one is still going strong –as he showed by winning man of the match in the ‘Community’ Shield.

England and Capello may regret Brown’s decision but I have a feeling that United and the defender himself won’t, the question is will Rio be joining him?

24
Jul
10

Forlan- far from a United a ‘flop.’

forlan with a body very similar to mine

forlan with a body very similar to mine

During the World Cup only one thing became even more irritating than the sound of thousands of vuvuzela’s constantly blaring out. No it wasn’t the sight of Emile Heskey making another England appearance nor was it the shots of random celebrities in the crowd, including Dutch politicians, which the camera seemed to cut to every few minutes. No the thing that really irked, riled, and annoyed me was every commentators insistence that Diego Forlan had been a flop at Old Trafford.

Whenever the golden ball winner scored a great goal or did something majestic, which was quite frequently, we would be treated to some pundit exclaiming how remarkable it was that such a good player had failed so miserably in the Premiership.

Now while even the most die-hard Forlan fan would struggle to argue the case that the Uruguayan’s time at Old Trafford was a rip-roaring success, I feel certain things should be put into perspective.
For starters, Forlan hardly got a decent run in the United side making the vast majority of his appearances as a substitute. Arriving in January 2002, Forlan started just seven games, making a further eleven appearances from the bench. While he may have failed to find the net in any of those games, he was only 22 years old and had never played for a club in Europe let alone one the size of United, so it was only to be expected that it may take him time to adjust. However the media were not so charitable quickly labelling him Diego ‘Forlorn’ –absolutely hilarious, no wonder it was re-used in the World Cup to the title ‘Diego leaves Bafana Forlorn’ in a leading South African paper.
The following season the now under-pressure striker found himself making more appearances- mainly from the bench. One particularly frustrating time for Forlan came against Zalaegerszeg in the Champion’s League when the striker came on in the 70th minute as a substitute for David Beckham with United three goals up- two on aggregate. Only a few minutes later United won a penalty which Forlan volunteered to take, only to be waved away by Roy Keane who insisted that Ruud Van Nistelrooy take it ,who duly scored.
Such an embarrassing incident may have caused lesser players to shy away from volunteering again for penalty taking duties but only three weeks later Forlan put his name forward for another Champion’s League penalty, fortunately it being the last minute of a game United were winning 4-2 and Roy Keane being absent, the Uruguayan was able to break his duck coolly sending the keeper the wrong way.
Despite finally finding the net for United, rather than receiving praise or even a grudging acknowledgement from the Chelsea and Arsenal fans at Fleet Street, he merely received more scorn. With the next day’s headlines highlighting how long it had taken him to score, some even being as petty as to actually count the minutes.

It was in this season-2002/03 that Forlan endeared himself to practically all the Old Trafford faithful with some extremely important goals, an equaliser at home against Villa and a last-minute stunning winner against Chelsea, went a long way to convincing United fans he was good enough to don the red shirt. One of my fondest memories of Forlan was watching him run around chasing the ball with his shirt in his hand after he’d removed it celebrating a winning goal against Southampton, only for the Saints to restart the game before he could get it back on.

Let’s not pretend that these goals are behind many United fans holding a torch for Forlan, the reason the striker still gets his name sung has nothing to do with any shirt removing antics or equalisers against teams from the midlands. No, Forlan’s name is still sung occasionally at Old Trafford, for one reason and one reason alone- his two goals in United’s win against Liverpool at Anfield in the 2002/03 title winning season. With those two strikes, one a gift from Jerzy Dudek, the other a well taken angled shot, Forlan more or less wrote himself into the United legends, history book- almost. Arisotle once said‘one swallow does not make spring’ to which he could have added two goals at Anfield do not make a United career. The reason many fans may look back at Forlan with fondness is that as well as that brace at United’s arch-rivals, his other goals in that 2002/03 season were instrumental in bringing the title back to Old Trafford. While Van Nistelrooy may have scored a lot more, without Forlan’s winners against the likes, of Southampton, Chelsea, and of course Liverpool, not to mention his equaliser against Villa, it’s highly likely the Gunners would have retained the title they won the previous season. He may have only scored six Premier League goals that season, but they were mightily important ones.

Unfortunately for Forlan, and United the following season was a fairly disappointing affair as the ‘Invincibles’ of Arsenal swept all before them. For Forlan it was even more of a letdown as he scored fewer goals than the previous season and failed to make the squad for the FA cup final against Millwall. Again though, Forlan did not get a decent run in the side, starting the same amount of games as he was substitute for -15. His return of eight goals was hardly awe-inspiring but considering his lack of a steady run in the team it was far from disastrous.

The 2004/05 season began with a trip to Stamford Bridge, against Chelsea for a certain ‘Special One’s’ first game in charge. For Forlan it would be the end of his Premier League career as coming on as a substitute he had, what can only be described as a ‘shocker’ shooting wildly and at one point even appearing to trip over the ball, to the delight of the Chelsea fans. He was soon shown the exit at old Trafford with his performance at Stamford Bridge seemingly being the final straw for Fergie. However Forlan himself has another explanation as to why his poor showing may have signalled his departure. He told the Champion’s League Magazine:

“(Manager Sir Alex) Ferguson wanted me to play with high studs, the interchangeable ones that suit wet pitches,”
“But I feel more comfortable in low ones. I agreed to change boots, but I didn’t. Against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance.
“Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots. Ferguson caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United.”

It was a shame, that boots would see Forlan booted out of Old Trafford- sorry, there’s no excuse for that one, as with the arrival of Wayne Rooney, as the Uruguayan himself has stated they could have forged a good partnership- certainly one with Van Nistelrooy never quite happened for Wazza.
The rest as they say is history, Forlan would go on to score a ridiculous amount of goals at Villareal then Atletico Madrid, twice winning the european golden boot, before grabbing his national team by the scruff of the neck and almost single-handedly dragging them to a World Cup semi-final.

Along the way Forlan would endear himself to United fans even more by knocking Liverpool out of the Europa League. Regardless of whether he returns to the Premier League- it’s looking increasingly doubtful, there will always be a place in the hearts of many at Old Trafford for the man who ‘came from Uruguay and made the scousers cry!’

16
Jul
10

world cup diary- the final and road trip

Spanish fans celebrate in Durban- but as every Englishman knows, it's the taking part that counts.

Spanish fans celebrate in Durban- but as every Englishman knows, it's the taking part that counts.

With the world cup finally over it’s with a heavy heart I post the last installment of my diary. As Oleta Adams once sang “just when I thought our chance had passed, you go and save the best for last” substitute the word ‘best’ for ‘daftest/dodgiest/stupidest’ and you’ll get the jist of my final week in South Africa.
In our infinite wisdom a couple of the lads I’m here with and I decided to get out of Johannesburg and do a bit of travelling, after all it’s not much of a trip to South Africa if you’ve not experienced such basic things as the seaside or seen any mountains.
We decided we’d watch the final on the beach in Durban then drvie down to Coffee Bay, as it was recommended as being a great place to visit.

For our journey we obviously needed a vehicle and due to budget restrictions weren’t going to be troubling the chaps at Avis or any other mainstream car rental company. We went with a mob called ‘Rent -A-Wreck, who could never be sued for false advertising as the car we rented from them was to put it politely an absolute sh*tbox. It was a Ford Laser, which I’d never even heard of before to be brutally honest, and would quite happily never hear of again.

Let's take a 2750 kilometer trip in this car- okay then.

Let's take a 2750 kilometer trip in this car- okay then.

We set off on saturday morning with me being designated driver due to being the only one who’d driven in the past three years, the decision was made pretty assured when my passengers proceeded to get p*ssed before there could be any form of deliberation, or talk of swapping over driving duties.
After an eight hour drive, we arrived in Durban where we stayed in one of the nicest hotels I’ve experienced for quite a while. The journey was helped at the end by the listening to the commentary of the 3rd place play off on radio 2000. The commentator is an absolute legend, putting even the pundits on SABC to shame.
My particular favourite was “Opportunity!!!! Forlaaaaaaaaaan!!!!!!!……………Nearly scores a goal.”
After we’d dropped our bags off and had a drink in the bar with the manager a Zimbabwean called ‘Innocent’ which is easily the best name I’ve come across in South Africa, we headed for a night out in Durban.
The night was fairly innocous to be honest as we were all knackered, after our long drive so we ended up sat on our balcony looking out onto the sea, putting the world to rights by about 2am.
The next day was obviously the final, which seemed almost unreal. After being here for nealry six weeks and experiencing the world cup first-hand it felt strange that in a few hours it would be all over.
After a disastrous walk up the beach, which ended up with the three of us turning round after two hours of trekking and walking almost all the way back as the tide was coming in and we were in danger of drowning, we managed to cadge a lift of some random bloke and his mates who took pity on us.

We got to the fan park in Durban about an hour before kick-off, and after chatting to some lads from England who’d booked their time out here for the latter stages months ago under the illusion that England would be involved, we made our way to the big screen. Unfortunately the fan park was full, but there was an overspill one about 2 minutes away so went headed there.

After some drama in the beer tent, where after a half hour of queueing the police turned up told the bar tenders to stop serving and close the bar, before changing their mind after ten minutes of near-rioting we went and found a spot to watch the final. We were situated nicely in front of the massive screen about 20 metres away and all happy with our decision to come and watch the final on the beach.
About twenty minutes into the game, I experienced one of the stangest moments of my trip when a woman came on the microphone and asked everyone to sit down, as I turned to my mates who were stood behind me, and laughed at her naivety, I couldn’t believe it when I turned back to face the screen and saw that everyone had complied with her ridiculous request.
After some debating between the three of us as whether to attempt to lead a mutiny and simply stand, we basically bottled it and sat down.
For the second half we stood nearer the back and after Spain eventually won were treated to a firework display and lots of Spanish singing and dancing.

I decided to get an early night as I knew I had a monster drive ahead of me the next day, so I left the lads to it and went back to the hotel.

The next morning we set off for Coffee Bay, in what turned out to be one of the worst, most harrowing driving experiences of my entire life. Driving along the Transkei part of South Africa in the daytime is difficult enough, with lots of winding roads, cliff edges, looney taxi drivers and random goats walking across the road, doing the journey once night fell was nearly impossible. I nearly killed us all at one point by trying to overtake a truck before realising we were on a bend- there are next to no lights anywhere- and another truck was coming towards us. Fortunately we all survived- just about- but that wasn’t the end of our misadventure. Due to a combination of a p*ssed up navigator and no real road signs, when we finally came to a place called Butterworth, we found out we’d missed our turn to Coffee Bay….by about 100 Kilometres!
The idea of turning back through the dodgy darkened winding roads and looking for the turning we’d already missed appealed to me about as much as a Manchester City museum tour, so we decided to formulate a plan B. Simon, my trusty navigator, had a coast to coast book, which showed we were only about 30 kilometres from a backpackers retreat called Buccanneers in a place called Chintsa.

Without any real discussion we headed there, and thankfully made it, in one piece, despite another incindent involving a sharp turn, where I almost went one better than the truck overtaking fiasco.
After all the trauma of the journey it turned out to be worth it, as the next day was one of the best I’ve had out here.

Chintsa- just like Urmston really

Chintsa- just like Urmston really

We met a few Americans there and after giving them a football, sorry soccer, lesson on the beach I then did the same back at the bar over a game of killer pool, where I finished the winner with three lives intact, take that you yankee b*stards, that’ll teach you to finish top of our group. I also managed to bump into a couple from Sale, which was mad considering we were in deepest South Africa- mind you, there’s no escaping people from Sale.

The journey home was much, much easier, apart from needing a jump start due to a flat battery, mainly because Simon decided he’d actually drive most of the way- no doubt his near-death experiences with me behind the wheel had convinced him.
We arrived back in Johannesburg around 9pm that night, after around 30 hours of driving, grateful to be alive- literally, yet sad that our World Cup journey was at an end.
Thanks to everyone in South Africa for making it such a wonderful time. “Mint.”

09
Jul
10

World Cup Diary : German lesson in how to watch football

One of the 'whacky' football caravans at the Goethe Institute

One of the 'whacky' football caravans at the Goethe Institute

The Germans have given quite a few teams in this World Cup something of a lesson in the art of playing the beautiful game, but I’ve always considered them not exactly famous for letting their hair down.
Well after a visit to the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg I learnt that not only do the Germans lead the way in football, beer, bratwurst and Alsatians but also how to watch football.

The Goethe institute is a fairly modern looking building on Jan Smuts Ave, which is home to a German exhibition not to mention restaurant and screening room. Outside in what would be a car park the staff have filled it with sand and caravans- as you do- to create a makeshift beach of sorts, complete with stage for performers and a barbecue. To be fair though the Germans have let themselves down by not transporting a few thousand gallons of seawater to give us an ocean-type view, but we can’t be too harsh on them.

The caravans each have a television and are decorated in various football-style ‘whacky’ ways. There’s also a stage outside on the ‘beach’ where live bands perform- it’s pretty amazing just how seriously the Germans take having fun.

I watched the Holland Brazil game, there with a friend in one of the caravans and had a cracking time, so we decided to return as soon as possible.

In the true spirit of being English a few of the lads I’m here with and I decided to watch the Spain Germany game..and get behind the Spanish.

Due to the fact it was yet another pesky German semi-final the place was packed with everyone but the four of us getting behind the Fatherland.
The caravans were all full, so we decided to watch the game in the auditorium which was also packed. Funnily enough the few empty seats actually had towels on them- I kid you not!
The big stage in front of the large screen was actually empty so we made our way to it, and plotted up. Soon afterwards everyone who’d been standing at the back came and joined us on stage and it was soon full-it took us Brits to show them how its done.

The game itself wasn’t the best semi-final I’ve ever seen but I thought some of Spain’s passing particularly in the second half was exquisite. There was also the added bonus of a pitch invader- who it later transpired, managed to get past stewards by sitting in a wheelchair in the disabled section, then suddenly jumping up and running -catching everyone by surprise.

The crowd at the institute was strangely subdued- even before Spain’s winner- there wasn’t much chanting or singing and even the vuvuzela blowing was minimal.

When Spain scored we were naturally elated and couldn’t help but cheer- which was drowned out by German shouting- probably for the best.
Unlike most games I’ve watched on television here- which have been on the SuperSports channel- this one was being shown on the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
The commentator for this game was so shockingly bad he was almost good, producing such gems as :” He’s not the one of the best goalkeepers in the world by not being a good keeper.” Not to mention “One of those moments you would never ask a player to do.”
Despite the rubbish commentary, the evening was very enjoyable- mainly thanks to Spain’s victory – which earned me 200 rand after a bet with a friend.

After the final whistle we went outside to the makeshift beach to chat and debate whether Spain were gonna beat the Netherlands.
With a lot of -white-South Africans being descended from the Dutch I expect most of the country will be behind the men in Orange.
Before I arrived here- in a stopover at Kenyan Airport a few of us discussed who we thought would win and strangely all picked Holland as our favourites- I say strange cos the rest of our predictions during this world cup have been shocking- hence wasting money to watch an England side we were confident would beat Germany!

Whether that could tip the balance in Holland’s favour is anyone’s guess but I sincerely hope this finals remembered for the football rather than strange chest- headbutting!

29
Jun
10

World Cup diary -England v Germany

The Lampard 'goal' was at the other end- yet I could still see it went in

As soon as the Germany Ghana game finished and it was obvious England would be playing the Germans in the next round, my friends and I made a decision, no matter what we’re going.

After spending a ridiculous amount on a ticket- 150 quid for a 35 pound ticket from some bloke on t’internet- and getting rid of a Argentina Mexico one that I already had, it was time to sort out transport.
Staying in Johannesburg, getting to Bloemfontein should have been a doddle, after all they’re both big cities. However after checking train times it became clear that both trains coaches and even flights were not going to get us there before kick-off.

Due to the fact none of us had a credit card, car-hire was also out of the question, so it was dodgy lift time. My mate Simon had the number of a Zimbabwean bloke called…..erm Zimbabwean geezer, who ran a taxi of sorts so we gave him a ring. After some bargaining that went on throughout Saturday over a series of phone calls we eventually settled on a price of 2000 rand which is about 200 quid. We had a train booked to take us back at 4am so we could stay in Bloemfontein and celebrate England defeating the krauts- or so we thought.

A light aircraft had made an emergency landing on the road to Bloemfontein

We set off at 7.30 am – miraculously Zimbabwean geezer was on time, luckily for me I managed to sleep throughout most of the journey. When we got to a petrol station to get some supplies we encountered a crowd of both England and Germany fans, we were almost there.

After a four and half hour drive we arrived in Bloemfontein and made our way to where all the fans were heading- it was a good four hours till Kick-off.

All the fans were congregated round a waterfront set of bars, and the England supporters were in full voice. There were inflatable spitfires , St George flags, even a few St. George body suits on display. Unlike other games I’ve attended there was a distinct lack of vuvuzelas- although there were the odd one or two.

Both sets of fans were in good spirits and the atmosphere was jovial and friendly- chants of Deutschland and In-ger-land could be heard everywhere interspersed with the occasional “you can stick your vuvuzelas up your *rse” and the odd actual vuvuzela.

As we made our way into the ground, walking through a shopping mall, there were several chants of “England till I die,” which I’ve always found slightly embarrassing for some reason. It reminds me of one of those no surrender to the IRA nonsensical chants that many England fans used to sing before the Good Friday agreement consigned it to the scrapheap- although I have heard the word IRA has been replaced by Taliban.
Maybe I’m just not as patriotic as some people but I’ve always found supporting England to be something of a paradox. Standing alongside people wearing everything from Arsenal to Liverpool to Chelsea to whatever tops sometimes feels a bit weird. As does cheering on a team led by that cheating “there you go Chelsea, you have the league title” badge –or camera- kissing donut Steve Gerrard. I do want England to succeed- obviously as I wouldn’t have spent almost the rest of my entire South Africa budget going to see them but if I’m honest, they’ll always be a fairly distant second to following Man U.

The waterfront at Bloemfontein was almost like being in England

That aside, the atmosphere in the stadium was electric and the old chestnut “England fans did us proud” was actually very true.

Just outside the ground I got chatting to a couple of lads from Oldham- Royton to be precise- who told me they’d got rid of their spare tickets for a measly 20 quid a few minutes earlier. Apparently despite the rumours that there were thousands of England fans travelling to Bloemfontein without tickets and that the game would be a sell-out and then some, there were lots of tickets available from touts or supporters just prior to kick-off for ridiculously low prices. It looks like, spending 150 quid each for ours was a bit of a fook up to say the least but we weren’t to know that.

The game itself was obviously disappointing from an England point of view. We were sat behind the goal where the Germans opened the scoring, when Upson put us back in the game we thought the comeback was on. For Lampard’s ‘goal’ even though we were down the other end we –along with every other person in the ground bar the ref and linesman thought it was a goal and celebrated as though it was. When we realised it hadn’t been given we were distraught, angry, bemused, devastated, all rolled into one. At half time a woman told me her friend had texted her and the ball was at least “two yards over the line”.
Great, yet again it seemed a decision against England- a bad one- was going to cost us our chance at a major tournament. When England came out for the second half we were all still pretty confident, but obviously it wasn’t to be.

The final nail in the coffin of my England world cup experience was seeing Emile Heskey come on in the last twenty minutes. I’ve never been a fan of the Villa forward and don’t buy into the whole ‘he brings the best out of Rooney’ nonsense that’s often spouted by so-called experts. Seeing him take the field to help us gain back a three-goal deficit was a joke. The man’s scored 3 times all season and yet somehow Capello thinks he’s the key to unlocking the German defence. To quote a distasteful Ivorian striker “It’s a fooking disgrace.”

After the game we headed to a bar/club as our train journey back to Jo’burg wasn’t until 4am. The shock of being knocked out and the manner of the defeat actually seemed to subside slightly and many England fans were in good voice and getting along well with the Germans- I was almost disappointed. Surely there must have been somebody rioting or burning Bloemfontein to the ground? But no we just got on with enjoying our night.

One of the few highlights of the journey back - picture Jon Devo

The train journey home was without a doubt one of the single most stressful journeys I have ever undertaken. The carriages were all full so we had to try and sleep in a corridor which was about minus 3 degrees. It was a nightmare. The journey lasted 9 hours?! But if felt like 24, although the last two hours were less harsh as seats were available and some all the ladies in our carriage began signing church songs and dancing, it was a truly magical experience watching all these ladies singing along, clapping and dancing in the aisles. I was tempted to start of a few Cantona chants but decided against it.

We were treated to two rather disconcerting things in the final hours of our trip, we saw a dead body from an accident on the side of the tracks- I say dead without meaning to sound melodramatic but the poor chap clearly was and then someone threw a rock through the window which narrowly missed my mate Jon’s head.

We finally arrived in Johannesburg a full 28 hours after we had left. England were out of the World Cup and no doubt the English newspapers would be blaming Capello, the referee and more than likely the linesman too. For our post-match analysis we went to a Nando’s and while the game may have been disappointing, the journey back a nightmare, the trip itself had actually been a good laugh. Now to find another team to get behind…….come on Ghana!