Zola’s West Ham project begins to bear fruit

March 1, 2009

Gianfranco Zola‘s West Ham moved up to seventh in the Premiership after disposing of Mark Hughes‘ expensively assembled Manchester City project at Upton Park this afternoon.

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The two clubs could hardly have been run more differently this season. Zola has built a team moulded in his image – at its best free flowing and beautiful, at its worst a little diminutive on the pitch. Hughes, on the other hand, has failed to stamp his personality on Manchester City with the same degree of success as at Blackburn Rovers or with Wales. Blackburn were a team that had a solid foundation built around big-hearted and just generally big players like Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelson and Roque Santa Cruz. On paper, Richard DunneMicah Richards and company looked to be made of the same stuff. Instead, they have proved to be more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – seemingly huge but actually soft, vulnerable and all too easily defeated by a bit of total protonic reversal. Or, in Manchester City‘s case, Jack Collison.

Then there’s the small matter of money. West Ham are a club teetering on the brink of annihilation, while Manchester City have a virtually bottomless pit of dirhams for transfer fees and exorbitant wages. Hughes spent January splashing the cash, bringing in Wayne BridgeNigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy for a combined fee of over £40 million, while West Ham‘s biggest achievement in the transfer window was keeping hold of most of their star players (Bellamy excluded, of course).

Then finally – and crucially – there’s the difference on the pitch, underlined by West Ham‘s 1-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday. The Hammers were dominant throughout, with their one January signing Savio Nsereko instrumental in Collison’s goal and Scott Parker adding real bite to all the delicate touches being exchanged in midfield. Based on this performance, it should come as no surprise that Chelsea have been linked with an approach for Zola where just eight months ago they lost out on Hughes as their first choice to replace Avram Grant. At the moment West Ham and City are chalk and cheese. And I think Roman Abramovich might just have a taste for expensive Italian gorgonzola.

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One cap wonders

January 30, 2009

It’s all right for some people. With England‘s friendly international against Spain just around the corner, David Beckham has moved half-way across the globe and reproduced his finest form, all in the hope of securing a record equaling 108th cap. But in the shadow of Beckham, fans of the Premiership‘s less fashionable clubs and even some gossip columnists will be beginning to speculate about which players Fabio Capello will be handing an international debut.

Surely Aston Villa‘s James Milner – England’s most capped Under-21 international with 40 matches under his belt and eight goals – is due a promotion to the senior team? Perhaps Capello is set to spring another surprise after including Michael Mancienne in his last squad – in which case, the midfield duo of Tottenham‘s Tom Huddlestone and West Ham‘s Mark Noble have been impressing in the junior ranks. However, the fear for all of these players is that they sucumb to the fate of the “one cap wonder” – players called up on the back of exceptional form or circumstance to fill a void in the national team, or simply as a misjudged experiment. Recent candidates include Portsmouth flop David Nugent, while Jimmy Bullard has a lot of hard work to do at Hull to avoid being similarly derided. 

So I’ve put together a team of recent players to fall into the “one-cap” trap since the Premiership‘s inception in 1992. I have been careful to leave out the footballers who are likely to add to their tally, with the likes of Robert GreenBen Foster and Gabriel Agbonlahor left off the list (sorry Phil Jagielka, but that’s just my opinion). I have also missed out Francis Jeffers (who has a record of one goal in one game for England) and Michael Ball, because some wasted talent is a little too hard to stomach. To see players like Chris Sutton (a Premiership winner with Blackburn) and former UEFA Champion’s League semi-finalist Lee Bowyer in the team is certainly food for thought.

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I would love any thoughts or opinions about the respective qualities of the players above, and why any manager – and particularly such a venerable old hand as Terry Venables – would allow David Unsworth onto an international football pitch. I mean, seriously?


In defence of Sparky

January 22, 2009

mark_hughes_498041aMark Hughes will be breathing a sigh of relief this evening. You see, the man who signs his pay cheque – Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook – believes he is nothing less than “competent”. High praise indeed for the manager who took Wales to the brink of a first major international tournament and revitalised former club Blackburn Rovers.

Just eight months ago Hughes was being chased by arguably the two richest clubs in world football, Manchester City (a formidable financial force even in the days of Shinawatra) and Chelsea. He now looks on the brink of falling victim to the curse of the equivalent of football’s “get-rich-quick-scheme”. Chelsea have been through four managers under Roman Abramovich, while nearby neighbours QPR have turned over the same number in just over a year since Flavio BriatoreBernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal become stakeholders. Would it be such a surprise if Man City were to swing the axe after the Kaka debacle and with the club hanging in Premiership mid-table limbo?

If Hughes is sacked, it has to be based on results and not his profile as a manager. After all, Hughes is not some young coach who has been picked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. He has played at Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, winning a plethora of titles and twice being named PFA Player of the Year. Before arriving at Man City, he had turned round the fortunes of Welsh football and stamped his name and style on the game in Lancashire. He also has an unparalleled record of helping waning stars reignite that missing spark. Under Hughes, Craig Bellamy scored a goal every other game compared to a career average of just 0.34 goals per game, while Robinho‘s scoring average has doubled at Manchester City thanks to 11 goals in 16 games. Then there’s Benni McCarthy, Roque Santa Cruz and David Bentley, all of whom feature on the list of Blackburn‘s top 20 Premiership scorers of all time.

Hughes is staking his career, at least at the top eschalons of the game, on that ability to spot a bargain – and I suspect the purchases of Bellamy and Wayne Bridge will vindicate his transfer policy in time. Whether the Welshman will still be at the helm of Man City to see the fruits of his labour remains a very different question.

Hughes’ management career First 11

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