For the first time in years England fans up and down the country exploded in joy over a goal that was scored in a friendly. Jamie Vardy’s flick at the near post past the best goalkeeper in the world Manuel Neuer was very much the kind of goal Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne would have scored, and in many ways, the two are remarkably similar.
In other ways they are nothing alike, Gascoigne was one of the best players of his generation and perhaps the most gifted to ever wear the shirt of the Three Lions while Vardy, although a remarkable success story, will never be remembered as a world class player. We will leave that to Dele Alli.
Where they do draw comparison though is the way both have them have captured a nation.
Gascoigne put smiles on football fans’ faces at a time when the sport was in the doldrums. The Geordie made his first-team debut for boyhood club Newcastle United in 1985 – the same year of the Heysel disaster, the same year as the Bradford fire disaster and four years before Hillsborough. Football in England around that time was also a period where pitch invasions were commonplace all over for reasons of violence and not those of celebration more typically seen in 2016.
Gazza’s brilliance helped provide the sort of distraction that only sport can from such dark times he also made a big contribution to the transformation of football with his dazzling displays at Italia ’90. Those tears in the semi-final against west Germany put football in a good light again and would lead to the formation of the Premier League two years later which has led to a more commercialised game but also a safer one that more traditionally welcomes families as opposed to just dads and sons.
The tears that captivated a nation: Gazza cries at Italia 90
And this is where Vardy comes in. Due to the amount of money in the Premier League the so-called ‘top’ teams dominate. Chelsea and Manchester City, who 20 years ago were not typically challenging for titles, have been crowned champions three of the last four years thanks to Russian and Abu Dhabi billionaires respectively.
This year, however, some new kids are in town: Leicester City, and Vardy is the poster boy.
While football is thankfully no longer trapped in the unmitigated horror that is constant tragedies and a fear of going to matches, the modern fan is so disillusioned with the game due to ever-increasing ticket prices and football players being multi- millionaires that the beauty has been in danger of being lost but Vardy is bringing it back.
Just over a decade ago, Vardy was playing non-league football with Stocksbridge Park Steels after being released from his beloved Sheffield Wednesday. In 2012, as England were preparing for their last European Championships, Vardy was still in the Conference with Fleetwood Town and now he is one of the top scorers in the country’s top division and will probably be on the plane to France in the summer.
People enjoy Vardy because the Leicester striker could be one of them. The man playing with mates in a park and ten years later stepping foot in the Premier League in true cliché ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. Gascoigne is much the same, the local lad who supported and played for local club and, it would not be unfair to say, did not possess the most athletic stature, but this again endears him to the people who watched him. That could be me.
Although, to both Vardy and Gascoigne, there is a darker side.
Gascoigne has had a very troubling and very public battle with alcoholism and has admitted to being violent to now ex-wife Sheryl during their marriage whereas Vardy has been filmed being racist to a Japanese man in a casino but we don’t like to remember these events, perhaps wrongly, but such is sport. It gives us great memories and we don’t want them tarnished.
If England do the impossible and win Euro 2016 Vardy will have gone one better than Gascoigne and done the thing Gazza always dreamed of – leading England to a major tournament win.
The 2015-16 Premier League season is slowly dawning upon us and, soon enough, so will the dreaded “sack race”. Here are five managers that will need a good start this season to prevent themselves being dragged into the mire.
1) Steve McClaren – Newcastle United
Newcastle’s murky issues off-the-pitch seem to finally look like they are coming to an end. Alan Pardew resigning as manager to take over at Crystal Palace in December 2014 was the beginning of the end of the “Cockney Mafia” and now owner Mike Ashley is set to step down to much fanfare from the Newcastle faithful.
New manager McClaren hopefully signifies a new dawn at St.James’ Park, however he arrives in Tyneside having twice failed to gain promotion from the Championship with Derby County following a brief stint as a coach at QPR, a failed return to FC Twente where he previously won the Eredivisie, a four month spell at Nottingham Forest and a dismal period at Wolfsburg where he was sacked after less than a year.
McClaren has defiantly announced his intentions to be the first man to bring a major honour to Newcastle since Stan Steymour who won the FA Cup in 1955 while in charge, which could suggest the Magpies’ league position could be sacrificed in order to pick up some shiny silverware.
A home match against Southampton offers McClaren a decent prospect of a promising start as Newcastle boss where he will be backed by a 50,000-plus capacity crowd, but defeat will only remind his new fans that he was once a man leading arch-rivals Middlesbrough to a 2004 League Cup win and a 2006 UEFA Cup final.
Man About Toon: McClaren is the new Newcastle boss.
2) Brendan Rodgers – Liverpool
What a year for Rodgers – and not in a good way. He finished May 2014 by signing a four-year extension to his Liverpool contract after winning the LMA Manager of the Year award a few weeks earlier having guided the Reds to 2nd place in the Premier League scoring 101 goals in the process – the club’s most since the 1895-96 season and the third highest in Premier League history. He finished May 2015 with Liverpool in sixth and his job under scrutiny.
Raheem Sterling’s likely departure gives him another headache, as for already the second time in his tenure, he has to find a replacement for his top goalscorer – although Daniel Sturridge missed most of last season through injury.
That ultimately made his job a lot more difficult, as did £15 million man Mario “the postman does not celebrate when he posts a letter” Balotelli failing to deliver.
The Northern Irishman has wasted no time in recruiting for next season, already bringing in six new faces at the time of writing.
Charlton’s Joe Gomez (£3.5 million), Roberto Firmino of Hoffenheim (£21.3 million), Manchester City’s James Milner (free), Burnley striker Danny Ings (tribunal), Bolton’s Adam Bogdan (free) and Southampton right-back Nathaniel Clyne (£10 million) are the early Anfield arrivals to bolster what was a small side that struggled to cope with both Champions League and Premier League matches last season.
It is not a problem they will have this time around, which could work in their favour like it did two seasons ago, but with Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City being seven of Liverpool’s first eight away games and Jurgen Klopp still as yet being unemployed, Rodgers could well be soon nervously looking over his shoulder.
3) Arsene Wenger – Arsenal
Two successive FA Cup triumphs has certainly relieved some pressure on Arsene Wenger – it has silenced a few doubters, anyway – but this needs to be the season the Gunners finally start firing on all fronts.
The blow-your-socks-off signing of Alexis Sanchez for £35 million around this time last summer was the second sign of intent after the £42.5 million capture of Mesut Ozil the previous season from a manager who had attracted a reputation of being a bit stingy in the transfer market.
Sanchez swiftly showed with his performances why his manager paid the big bucks and the Chilean would later be named Arsenal Player of the Year.
Other signings Danny Welbeck, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina, and January buy Gabriel Paulista did not quite have the same impact though – with unexpected progress coming from academy players Hector Bellerin and Francis “Le Coq” Coquelin.
Whether Coquelin really is the rock-solid holding role midfielder Arsenal have been craving for years remains to be truly seen, but for now it has filled a reasonably large gap in the “how far are Arsenal away from being Premier League champions?” puzzle.
One piece of the jigsaw has definitely been found, however with the acquisition of goalkeeper Petr Cech from London and title foes Chelsea for £10.9 million.
While the Czech Republic international was no longer the main man between the sticks for the Blues, he is still clearly a top stopper and a definite upgrade on both Wojciech Szczesny and Ospina with Jose Mourinho openly reluctant to sell Cech to a Premier League rival.
Unlike McClaren and Rodgers, Wenger is not wary of an early sacking, but only picking up six points from their opening 12 last season opened the door for Chelsea to romp to the title. A better start this August, and we may just see a first Arsenal triumph since that “Invincibles” team of 2004.
4) Mauricio Pochettino – Tottenham Hotspur
Despite failing to reach the much-coveted Champions League places, Pochettino’s first year as Tottenham boss was a success, finishing fifth and guiding the north Londoners to a League Cup final, but some fans are still not totally sold on him due to a lack of plan B.
The Argentine has wasted no time in planning for next season though, bolstering what was an, at best, dodgy defense with the proven Premier League buys of Kieran Trippier and Toby Alderweireld (both undisclosed fee) who enjoyed successful seasons with Burnley and Southampton respectively in addition to FC Koln’s Kevin Wimmer (also undisclosed fee).
Spurs may attract some neutral admirers this season too with the English core that has the potential to develop in the coming years. Harry Kane had a phenomenal rise last season, going from third choice at Tottenham to most prolific English marksman in the Premier League in the space of seven months.
Ryan Mason, who has spent the majority of his seven-year Tottenham career out on loan to clubs such as Yeovil, Doncaster, Millwall and France’s Lorient ended the 2014-15 season as a once capped England international just a year after spending time on-loan at League One Swindon Town.
Eric Dier also found himself in the spotlight and the new additions of the aforementioned Trippier and Dele Alli (£5 million from MK Dons) join a rejuvenated Danny Rose, Three Lions regular Andros Townsend and Alex Pritchard who returns to White Hart Lane after two successful loan spells at Brentford and Swindon while, although Algerian, academy graduate Nabil Bentaleb will generate admirers from those who love a home-grown player.
This is similar to when he was at Southampton with Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert all getting England recognition as well as Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Clyne and Jay Rodriguez all earning plaudits while Pochettino was in charge at St.Mary’s.
Pochettino will get a good opportunity to get some early points on the board once the difficult task of Manchester United away is chalked off with Stoke at home, Leicester away, Everton at home, Sunderland away and Crystal Palace at home following that as they look to go one step further and finally reach the promised land of the top four.
Maur of the same please, Poch: Pochettino with rising star Harry Kane.
5) Manuel Pellegrini – Manchester City
It is fair to say that Manuel Pellegrini starting the 2015-16 season at the helm of the Citizens a little surprising.
His pedigree of taking Villarreal to the semi-final of the 2005-06 Champions League and fellow Spanish side Malaga to the same stage five seasons later got him the Manchester City job with the target of making them in a force in Europe, which he has so far failed to do so.
Winning the league title in 2014 did Pellegrini’s reputation no harm, but a trophy-less season where City did not really challenge for the title, only made the last 16 of the Champions League and round four of both the FA and League Cup was underwhelming to say the least.
A huge rebuilding is expected at the Etihad this summer with young talents Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Wilshere and Fabian Delph all linked with a move to the blue side of Manchester in order to give them a new lease of life and restore them as champions of England, and finally get them to worry Europe’s elite.
Failure to do so, however, may just result in the Engineer Pellegrini needing a servicing.
He may not be the man who grabs all the headlines but the defeat to Newcastle proved that Chelsea do not fully tick without their dynamic Serbian.
Chelsea lost their unbeaten run that stretched back to late April, 24 games in total, in the North East on Saturday lunchtime – the only game Nemanja Matic has not featured in in that time, due to a suspension.
The absence of Matic was clear to see, Cesc Fabregas struggled to find the space to be the orchestra of Chelsea’s attack and therefore the normally prolific Diego Costa had limited chances and ultimately failed to hit the back of the net.
Matic has made 840 successful passes with an 89% completion rate, won 37 tackles, made 29 interceptions and made 44 clearances. The last three totals are the highest out of the rest of Chelsea’s regular midfield five of him, Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar. *
Fabregas is the man that unlocks defences, contributing 38 key passes and 11 assists in his 15 league games this season but the physicality of Moussa Sissoko, Chieck Tiote and most notably Jack Colback stunted the Spaniard at St.James’ Park.
It was a problem Chelsea had in the Champions League last season too with Matic ineligible having already featured in the competition for Benfica.
The West Londoners needed a last minute winner to overcome Paris Saint-Germain in the Quarter Finals and played six defenders in the 1-3 defeat at home to Atletico Madrid (Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta).
Not a problem the Blues have had this campaign, winning three and drawing two and already securing their spot in the last 16 with one game remaining.
Chelsea’s unbeaten run may be over, but a Chelsea with Matic on the pitch remain without a loss. That may continue for a long time to come.
At 23-years-old, Nathan Thompson is the second youngest captain in League One leading the youngest side in the division, Swindon Town – a team with an average age of just 22, but while experience at the County Ground may be low, the ambitions are high.
“I look at the talent and potential we have in our team and I think the Championship is where we belong”, Thompson insists.
“The ethos of football we play is different to any team in League One, and arguably the Championship and Premier League too. In my opinion it is the way ‘the beautiful game’ should be played and, when we are in form, the opposition can’t compete with us.”
It is big talk from the sprightly Swindon skipper who seems completely unfazed at the task of captaining such a youthful side.
“The fact I’m the longest serving player (at the club) helped me take to the role and my team mates have been extremely supportive of me, so I’m grateful they’ve helped make the transition a smooth one”.
His team mates may well be the secret to his success but it was Thompson that took the plaudits after Town’s 0-3 win at Chesterfield last Tuesday night.
Swindon’s two games previous had ended in a 2-3 loss and a 2-2 draw on their own patch to Rochdale and Colchester respectively in what were disappointing results considering the Robins were the fourth best team at home in League One last season.
Thompson missed those two games due to a suspension but his return match ended with Swindon securing their first clean sheet since September 27 where they beat Barnsley by the same score at Oakwell.
This is even more impressive given the fact that Thompson is now playing a sweeper role in a three man defence instead of his favoured full-back position.
Nathan Byrne, arguably Town’s stand out performer so far this season, is occupying Thompson’s right wing-back spot while the left has been covered by former loanee from Liverpool Brad Smith and now Amari’i Bell who has joined temporarily from Birmingham City.
“Throughout pre season I trained in the wing-back position and I only switched to centre back a couple of training sessions before our first game”, Town’s back-to-back Player of the Year explains.
“It was a shock but I didn’t have time to dwell on it – which I think has helped me. As time’s gone on and I’m learning more about the position, my confidence has grown and I enjoy the new role I play during games”.
This attitude is a testament to Thompson’s character who genuinely gives his all for the club he has been at since the age of 12.
When asked how he felt about being awarded Swindon’s Player of the Year award for two years running he responded:
“What makes this award so special is that it’s voted for by the fans, and each game I try to give 100% for them and the club, so to be recognised in this way is very humbling indeed.
Top of the Tree: Rockin’ Robin Thompson with the first of his Player of the Year awards
“It goes without saying I’m immensely proud to captain a club that I’ve been at not just for my professional career, but for my Centre of Excellence years and youth development too. I take the role extremely seriously – working hard to ensure the team morale is high – so that this team gives back to the fans and the club.”
Giving back, as he puts it, is clearly very much at the forefront of the man’s mind as he is also an ambassador for the girls’ Centre of Excellence as he “feel(s) it’s important to show them I was in a similar position once, and with perseverance they could be in my boots one day too”.
Said perseverance and more importantly hard work have reaped the awards for “Thommo”, something he did not forget as he recalled the time he first put pen to paper on a professional deal for the Wiltshire side in 2009.
“When I think back to to when I first signed my professional deal this club had a very different ethos in developing young players. The average age of the first team was around 26 and not many players remained at the club past their scholar.
“While there were occasions of concern and anxiety (that he would never get his chance at Swindon), I had a very strong support network around me and that helped me to keep focused and determined to break into the Swindon Town first team.
Interest from Premier League teams Arsenal, Everton, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur around that time did not distract him either.
“One thing I have learned is to keep attention focused on my game and, at that point in particular, leave off-field discussions to my parents and third parties.
“It’s often seen where youngsters leave lower league teams to join top flight clubs and too often it’s unsuccessful. Therefore, while it’s always flattering to have interest from these sorts of clubs, the last thing I wanted to do was get carried away so I was committed to establishing myself at Swindon.”
That sort of attitude will be music to the ears of many a Swindon Town fan I’m sure. The future of SN1 is in a safe pair of feet with Nathan Thompson with a wise and selfless head on those young shoulders too.
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Capital One Cup holders Manchester City host Championship side Sheffield Wednesday in the third round while last year’s runners up Sunderland have been drawn at home to Stoke City.
The most frequent winners of the League Cup Liverpool will play Middlesbrough at Anfield as they hope to win the competition for a ninth time while Arsenal have to face Southampton in one of the five all Premier League face-offs.
Elsewhere MK Dons’ 4-0 win over Manchester United has been rewarded with a home tie against fellow League One side Bradford City who defeated Yorkshire rivals Leeds.
Draw in full:
Chelsea vs Bolton
Arsenal vs Southampton
West Brom vs Hull City
Crystal Palace vs Newcastle United
Leyton Orient vs Sheffield United
Cardiff City vs AFC Bournemouth
Sunderland vs Stoke
Derby County vs Reading
Liverpool vs Middlesbrough
MK Dons vs Bradford City
Manchester City vs Sheffield Wednesday
Burton Albion vs Brighton and Hove Albion
Swansea City vs Everton
Shrewsbury Town vs Norwich City
Fulham vs Doncaster Rovers
Tottenham vs Nottingham Forest
2) Manchester City
3) Manchester United
7) Tottenham Hotspur
8) Newcastle United
9) Swansea City
11) Stoke City
12) West Ham United
14) Queens Park Rangers
15) Aston Villa
16) West Bromwich Albion
17) Crystal Palace
18) Hull City
19) Leicester City
Premier League teams Aston Villa and Newcastle United are rumoured to be tracking Watford frontman Troy Deeney.
The 25-year-old Birmingham born forward hit 25 goals in 44 games for the Hornets last season as Watford finished 13th in the Championship.
He bagged 19 the season before when Watford, then managed by Gianfranco Zola, reached the play-off final.
Swansea City are also monitoring Deeney’s situation as he may be keen to leave the Hertfordshire club following a disappointing season.
Recently relegated clubs Norwich City and Fulham have also entered the frame as they aim to return to the top flight at the first attempt while fellow promotion chasers Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest are keen too.
Deeney began his career at Walsall, scoring 27 goals in 123 games before signing for Watford in 2010 where he has blossomed in a Yellow shirt.