Saturday, 30 April 2011

Rooney's Renaissance

 *This piece originally featured on*

His performance on Tuesday night once again had fans and pundits alike singing his praises. Wayne Rooney produced another inspired display to drive Manchester United past Schalke with a 2-0 victory in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final. It would appear that those dark days of just six months ago are well and truly behind Rooney now.

He received a barrage of criticism after his woeful World Cup and his form had clearly not improved at the start of United's current campaign. He cut a forlorn, disinterested figure before Christmas. His touch had deserted him and his characteristic hunger and aggression had all but disappeared. Following a contradiction between himself and Sir Alex Ferguson over the extent of an ankle injury he was supposed to have suffered, it was announced that Rooney wanted to leave United.

Rooney's well-publicised dip in form coincided with his even more well-publicised alleged affair with a prostitute. A scapegoat for England's World Cup failures, hounded by his once adoring United fans and top of the tabloids villain list, Rooney had a nightmare start to the season. And yet now, as Manchester United close in in another Premiership title and seem destined to make the Champions League Final at Wembley, the England striker has reached what is quite possibly the finest form of his career.

Over the past three months Wayne Rooney has been an imperious figure for his club. His goalscoring tally may not have reached the heights of his prolific record last season but his all round play has been nothing short of sensational. Whereas last season Rooney was the spearhead of the United attack, this season he has played a much deeper role, thus allowing him to become far more instrumental in all aspects of United's play.

Rooney's willingness to work for the team and his intelligence for finding space has seen him pulling the strings across the pitch. Whether he is utilised on the left wing, when Sir Alex wishes to bolster the midfield with a fifth member, or he playing just off of a main striker, Rooney has been a destructive force of late.

Since 'that volley' which won United the Manchester derby in February, Rooney has been potent in front of goal. He has only scored 14 goals in all competitions this season but these have included a decisive hat-trick against West Ham - which was followed by that notorious outburst which earned him a two match ban - and the only goal in their crucial quarter-final first-leg victory over Chelsea in the Champions League. He added another goal last night in Germany to round off what was a superb performance.

The partnership that he has formed with Javier Hernandez has undoubtedly played a big part in Rooney's renaissance, he has revelled in the energy and enthusiasm shown by United's wonder signing. The little Mexican plays on the shoulder of the last defender and constantly tests them in behind. This, in turn, keeps the defenders on the back foot and stretches the defence which enables Rooney to drop deeper into the space left behind. It is this position that gets the best out of Rooney and indeed the United team. He acts as the linchpin of the United attack, dictating the direction and tempo of the attack and dissecting the opponents.

It is the position that all England fans want to see him play. Just in 'the hole'. It is a role that optimises his clever movement, vision, passing, technique while still enabling him to be a goal threat. All of which were highlighted this week against Schalke. His resurgence in the second half of the season has been at the heart of United's push for a Premier League and Champions League double. Had he not been suspended for their FA Cup semi-final match against Manchester City then they may well have still be on track to repeat their treble winning season in 1998/99.

His passion for the game seems reignited which can be seen by his desire to be on the ball whenever possible. Towards the end of their match against Everton at the weekend Rooney dropped into a deep-lying midfield role to collect the ball from the centre-backs and begin building the play. The contrast with his lethargic performances at the start of the season could not be more stark. His turn around is not just evident on the pitch but his attitude off it has been far more relaxed.

It would, however, be unfair to pinpoint Rooney as the sole reason for United's current success. As already stated, Hernandez has proven himself to be probably the signing of the season while the likes of Giggs, Vidic, Van der Sar and even Carrick in the Champions League have all be extremely important. Nevertheless, it is Rooney who elevates United from being a good to a great team. His industry and skill completely alters the United attack when he is at his best.

'Form is temporary, class is permanent', or so the old cliché goes and Rooney is, of course, a player of the highest class. He is also a player in fantastic form. The combination of the two has been potentially decisive for United in the final third of the season. They have four games remaining in the Premier League and, as long as they see off Schalke in the second leg at Old Trafford as they are expected to do, they have two more matches left in Europe. If Rooney can carry his current, devastating form into those six matches then he may well prove to be the decisive factor in deciding where the two trophies end up this season.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Top Ten Injury Ruined Careers

*This piece originally featured on*

Injuries are part and parcel of the game of football and all players will inevitably suffer a variety of them throughout the course of their career. Players who come to clubs with bright futures, big reputations or with large price tags can suffer injuries which mean they never reach the heights that were expected of them by their buyers and can potentially threaten their careers. Here is a list of the top ten players who have seen their careers severely hampered, if not ended, because of injury.

10. Daniel Prodan
£2m / Athletico Madrid – Rangers / Knee.

The Romanian centre-back made a promising start to his career. He played over 150 games for Steaua Bucuresti and Atlético Madrid between 1992-1998 before then moving to Rangers for £2million. In his three years in Glasgow he played precisely zero matches due to a knee injury that he had actually already suffered before moving to the club. A club doctor is reported to have admitted that the deal was rushed through without a medical being completed. He only went on to play 33 more games in the rest of his career.

9. Andy van der Meyde
£2m Internazionale – Everton / Various.

A bright start to his career at Ajax saw the Dutchman move to Italian giants Inter Milan for two years. Having struggled to feature regularly at the San Siro he made the move to Everton in 2005 in order to resurrect a career which had once promised so much. Various injuries and a battle with alcoholism plagued his first season and took their toll on his potential. He would make only 10 appearances in his next three seasons at Everton due to a string of injuries and disciplinary problems. He was released by Everton in 2009 and spent six months in the wilderness without a club before he went to PSV, for whom he made just one appearance. He has since retired from the game.

8. Luc Nilis
Free / PSV – Aston Villa / Leg.

Nilis made just three appearances for Aston Villa, having moved to the club in 2000 after a prolific spell at PSV in which he scored 110 goals in 164 games. Nilis had also played for Belgium 56 times. He managed to score a sublime goal against Chelsea before a collision with Ipswich's goalkeeper Richard Wright resulted in a horrific leg break. He never played again.

Valeri Bojinov
£6m / Fiorentina – Manchester City / Knee  & Achilles.

Within weeks of signing for City in 2007, the Bulgarian forward suffered a knee ligament injury against rivals Manchester United which saw him spend five months on the sidelines. At the start of the next season, almost exactly a year after his first major injury, Bojinov suffered more bad luck when an Achilles injury kept him out for six months. In 2009 he was sent on loan to Parma where he eventually secured a permanent deal. Bojinov made only 11 appearances and scored just two goals for City, that's £3million a goal, in case you couldn't do the maths.

Dean Ashton
£7m / Norwich City – West Ham / Ankle.

Having joined West Ham in the January of 2006, Ashton made 11 appearances for the club in the league in the remainder of that season. That summer, however, Ashton broke his ankle while away on international duty with England. He subsequently missed the whole of the next season. He did return in 2007 at the start of West Ham's next Premier League campaign and went on to play 31 times and scored 10 goals. Just a handful of games into the 2008-09 season, though, Ashton suffered another ankle injury, one from which he would never return. He was forced to retire in December 2009 at just 26.

5. Pierluigi Casiraghi
£5.4m / Lazio – Chelsea / Knee.

The Italian striker came to England in 1998 with 90 career club goals and 44 caps to his name. In his two years at Stamford Bridge he would add just one more goal to his name and never feature for his country again. He played for Chelsea just ten times before a cruciate ligament injury halted his career. Like Luc Nilis, he collided with a goalkeeper, this time West Ham's Shaka Hislop, and he would never play again.

4. Jonathan Woodgate
£13.4m / Newcastle United – Real Madrid / Various.

After impressing at both Leeds and then Newcastle, Woodgate moved to Real Madrid in 2004. He had been hampered by injuries while at St James Park and made the move to Spain still not 100 per cent fit. He did not play at all in his first season at the Bernabeu and then only went on to make at total of 12 appearances at the club due to a seemingly never-ending run of injuries. His début will be remembered for all the wrong reasons as Woodgate managed to impress his new fans by scoring an own goal before getting sent off. In 2007, the year Woodgate left Madrid to return to England, he was voted 'The Worst Signing of the 21st Century' by the Spanish paper Diario Marca.

3. Owen Hargreaves
£17m / Bayern Munich – Manchester United / Knee.

As a consistently solid performer at Bayern Munich for seven years Hargreaves broke into the England team. It was there that he really grabbed the attention of English football fans and, after an outstanding World Cup in 2006, he put himself well and truly on the radar of Sir Alex Ferguson. The next year he was signed by Manchester United for a fee in the region of £17million. Renowned as a tireless worker and tenacious ball-winner, Hargreaves helped United win both the Premier and Champions League in his first season in England. Since that first season, however, Hargreaves has only gone on to make four more appearances for the side meaning that he has cost the club around a little over £600,000 for every time he has stepped out on the pitch.

2. Gianluigi Lentini
£13m / Torino – AC Milan / Head.

In 1992 Lentini became the most expensive player in the world when he moved from Torino to AC Milan for £13million. He helped Milan win the league title in 1993 but after a pre-season tournament in Genoa in 1994 Lentini was involved in a car crash. He suffered a fractured skill, damaged eye socket and was left in a coma. In his next three seasons he rarely featured for Milan and did not add to the 13 caps he had acquired for Italy. His career, which had once promised so much, then faded into relative obscurity as he went on to play for some smaller Italian clubs.

1. Fernando Redondo
£11million / Real Madrid – AC Milan / Knee.

Having spent the prime of his career at Real Madrid, the Argentine midfielder cost AC Milan the tidy sum of £11million when he moved to the San Siro in 2000. He is reported to have suffered the first of his many knee problems (that would ultimately claim his career) just three minutes into his first training session at the Italian club. In his defence, Redondo did suspend his wages while he was unavailable for selection. He did not feature for the side in either of his first two seasons at the club and, in total, only managed 16 appearances before eventually admitting defeat to his persistent knee problems and retiring in 2004.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

An Interview With Dominic Matteo

*This interview was conducted for, and originally featured on,*

What does Dominic Matteo, a man who's passions include football and having a few beers with his mates, do when he retires from football? Simple. Buy a bar. But the former Liverpool, Leeds and Scotland defender is quick to steer clear of any ideas we may get that this was the business venture of a man turning to the bottle having hung up his boots. “I thought I would give a little bit back to the city,” he tells me.

'Rock Bar' is located on the trendy Call Lane in Leeds' city centre and it becomes abundantly clear through the course of our conversation that this is a city that still holds a special place in Matteo's heart. But it is not his first love and that is where we begin our conversation.

A life-long Liverpool fan, he signed for the Reds as a “young boy” and spent eight years at Anfield as a pro. He reminisces about what it was like to be come through the ranks at the club at the same time as other prestigious young talents such as Fowler, Owen and Gerrard.

It was amazing to watch them mature as players and to see them go on to do what they have all done. The good thing about it is that are all great lads. Every single one of them is a good lad off the field and they all deserve everything they've got.”

The end of his time at Liverpool is not a subject of such positivity, however. “The thing about leaving Liverpool is that I never wanted to leave,” he explains. “I thought the season before I left I was one of the better players in the team and I thought I deserved my place in the team for the following season. Gerard Houllier made it difficult for me because he told me he was bringing someone in who was going to play my position. He didn't really give me too much of an option.”

A couple of days earlier I had signed a new five year deal, I was on top of the world. I was delighted to be at Liverpool. I thought I was maturing and getting better as a player and getting stronger as a person. I just thought this is it now, I didn't see myself leaving. But football changes very, very fast sometimes and that's what happened unfortunately.”

His assessment of his relationship with Houllier is one that is frank, honest and somewhat cathartic. “Me and Gerard, we didn't have the worst relationship in the world but we didn't have the best either. I think there is a way of dealing with players. I had been at that club since I was young boy and he was trying to tell me things about Liverpool, I knew a lot more then he ever would. But I respect what he did there and the trophies he won.”

I never have any resentment for anyone in football. I know it is a difficult job in whatever you do. Whether you are playing or managing, I know how tough it is and decisions have to be made. Sometimes, if that effects you, you have to be man enough to accept it and I did and I went on my.”

And so we move back to Leeds. Matteo joined David O'Leary's young Leeds side in the summer of 2000, on the back of a season in which they unexpectedly qualified for the Champions League. We waste little time in moving on to what was, quite probably, the defining moment of his playing career. On the night of the 8th November 2000 Matteo scored a near-post, glancing header from corner against AC Milan at the San Siro. It was the goal that booked Leeds' place in the knock-out stage of club football's most coveted competition.

For me personally, because I have an Italian background through my father, I think that night in Milan was special. There was a lot, a lot of Leeds fans who made the trip over. People I meet around Leeds still tell me to this day that it was one of the best nights they have had in football. I have met people who broke their arms and broke their legs in their celebrations when the goal went in.”

I think anyone who played in that Leeds team and who experienced what we did after that game, the sing-song with the fans on the pitch. Things like that don't happen that much any more in football and it was a great moment for me and a great moment for the team.”

Matteo remains a fan favourite at Elland Road not just for that goal but, as the man himself recognises, because “Leeds fans always knew that they were always going to get 100% out of me.” Yet, like his time at Liverpool, things did not come to a ceremonious end at Leeds. Their all-too-well-documented fall from grace still baffles football fans today.

Unfortunately he was apprehensive, no, reluctant, to shed too much light on the issue. “I don't want to go too far into it because in the book I have coming out I will be going into it in more detail.” He pauses before offering some brief insight into those turbulent times. “I don't think we were any more aware than a lot of people were. Obviously we knew there were problems because it was well publicised but we didn't know how bad the stuff was a lot of the time.”

Again, on the subject of his decision of whether to play for England or Scotland, Matteo refuses to be loose-lipped due to his pending book release. Despite having played for England Under-21s, England B and being in England squads, Matteo was eventually capped by Scotland in 2000. All he says is “I was brought up Scottish, I was brought up supporting Scotland so as far as I'm concerned I'm Scottish,” and he leaves it at that.

On that succinct sentence we move from past to present. We touch upon the prominent issue of respect in the game, or rather the apparent lack of it. “I think towards the end of my career I saw it appearing more. Now it's everywhere because there are more cameras and there is more people looking out for it. I don't remember it being talked about like this when I was playing. When I was playing, you would have a couple of words with the referee every now and again after a bad decision and that would be it finished with, and that's how I used be.”

The referees have a hard enough job as it is without getting more grief but the thing is that sometimes the players don't think the referees are getting some of the easy decision right and that's what frustrates them and managers the most.”

It is a topic that neither of us are overly enthused to discuss much further and so the conversation swiftly moves on to the current situations at Liverpool and Leeds. On Liverpool's turn around under Kenny Dalglish he says “Kenny has given everyone a lift. He is Mr. Liverpool, he is a legend at the club, we all love. I think all the players really respect him as a person as well as a manager and I think you can see that they all really want to play for him. He has done a fantastic job since he has come in. I think if you spoke to any of the players or you hear what they are saying then you'd know that they want him to get the job.”

If you look at the performance against Man City, there were a few youngsters in the team, it's good to see Kenny giving young lads a chance. That has always been the Liverpool way and we haven't had that for a few years so it's good to see them back in the squad.”

He is particularly impressed by their new striker partnership of the “classy” Suarez and “raw” Carroll who have come in to replace the “sulking” Fernando Torres.

The focus then switches back to Leeds once again. The club, who sit in sixth in the Championship table, just inside the play-off places, are making an unlikely push for back-to-back promotions. “I did think they might have a chance of the play-offs,” he says. “I have been a little surprised by how some of the players at the club have performed, though. A few have done better than what I had thought. People like [Max] Gradel, I had doubts if he could step up to this higher level and perform in the Championship. He always had looked a little bit raw but I think this year he has matured a lot and turned into a good player.”

He laughs to himself before continuing, “Leeds haven't got the best record in the play-offs, we all know that. I don't fear for Leeds in any of their home games at all. Against anyone at home they have got a chance. But away from home they conceded a lot of goals and they have been quite sloppy. In the play-offs they certainly do need a bit of luck and they haven't had that but maybe this could be their year.”

Throughout the conversation his children play in the background. He urges them to go and play with their mother while we continue to 'talk football'. They serves an apt reminder as to how this is a man who has seemed to make the transition into retirement with relative ease. Between being a father and owning his bar, Matteo also has his book coming out at the end of summer and he writes a column for the Yorkshire Evening Post.

I do like the media-side of things,” he tells me. “I like talking about football and watching games. It is definitely an option so I am not ruling that out.” He breaks to make the point though, “You know what, I have had a pretty serious back injury over the past few months so once that has cleared up I would like to go back and finish my coaching badges just so I've got them.”

I think, at the moment, defending in the country is not great as a whole. Maybe I could get into that side of it, some kind of a defensive coach. I don't know if someone would need something like that but I just sometimes see defenders making wrong decisions like not getting tight enough to people. We have all done that ourselves but when you see it and you have been there you can try and help someone out, especially at a young age.”

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

My Favourite Premiership XI: A.D. Winn

Blogging has been somewhat non-existent of late and I have a range of poor excuses for that which I shall not bother even mentioning. Over the coming week I shall be putting up some of  the features and interviews I have done for but in the mean time, as it is a Sunday, I thought it would be good to put up another post in the 'My Favourite Premiership XI' series. This time it is A.D.Winn who has kindly taken the time to give us a side comprising of all the players they have most enjoyed watching over the past two decades.

For my goalkeeper, there’s only one rational choice here. Peter Schmeichel was, at times, unbeatable. Being 6ft 4in gives you one kind of advantage when faced with oncoming strikers, but being able to appear almost double that at times meant that shot-stopping seemed almost unfairly tilted in his favour. Add to that his ability to claw away what sometimes looked like the most unreachable efforts on goal puts him in a category of one for the best goalkeeper to grace English football.

You were unlikely to get many goals out of Gary Kelly, but he was dependable, hard-working, and loyal to his club, which are traits I’d happily have in my XI. His presence means I would be putting Denis Irwin on his weakened foot, though the former United full-back played the majority of his United career in that role, keeping Phil Neville out of a regular first-team place until the Irishman was near retirement age. Irwin’s ability at free-kicks and penalties would be ideal too; it’s one of those rare treats in football when someone unexpected deals with set pieces. I’d happily have them either side of Frank Leboeuf and, somewhat of an unexpected choice perhaps, but Brede Hangeland. I’ve never had a bad word to say for the Norwegian, I find his style of defending to be one that many of the so-called top four could actually benefit from having 40 times a season, and would happily have him alongside the World Cup winning Leboeuf.

The biggest problem my XI appears to have is the two central midfielders are quite similar. McAllister and Le Tissier were both set piece and penalty takers, heavily focused towards creativity and awareness on the ball and, well, hardly known for their out-and-out defensive abilities. It could be argued that both players were able to control games more when they had a more defensive partner alongside them, worthy names like Batty, Hamann... um... Magilton?

McAllister’s European goal against Rangers in 1992 was one of my earliest memories in football of thinking “wow; that was great!” Le Tissier, much like Cantona or a more modern day example in Berbatov, had the ability to do so much looking like he did so little.

The backup here is that if Matt or Gary ever had an off day, I think having Sinclair and Sinton as the wingers would give you plenty assists in any given game; a tactic which is downright crucial considering I have Thierry Henry and Kevin Phillips leading the line.

Henry was the worst name to see on the team-sheet when your team played Arsenal. He would always seem to score, just at a point in the game where you think things were turning in your teams favour. With 226 goals in 369 games for Arsenal he was, and perhaps still is, the epitome of excellence.

Phillips is in not just because he is a fantastic goalscorer, but because I’ve followed his career since he was at Baldock Town, around the same time that I was playing for one of their many youth teams. One day I will sit down to interview him, making sure to tell him that he is the best striker I have ever paid money to watch play.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Friday, 8 April 2011

Polly's Pause for...

Sorry for there not being any new posts this week but I do, for a change, have a reasonable excuse. I am currently doing a placement at so have been channelling all my sport writing efforts towards their site. Lucky them, ay.

So, here is a round up of my various pieces for them this week. Over time I will hopefully feature some of these pieces on this site too.

Interviews with Leeds United goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and England's all-time most capped player, goalkeeping legend Peter Shilton have also been completed and will appear on the site in due course.

I intend to write something over the weekend for PPFS though so watch this space.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Previous posts