We are delighted to announce the shortlist for Barclays Aspiring Football Writer Competition. The ten shortlisted entries have been selected from over 750 articles and match reports received from budding football writers across the UK.
The final ten aspiring football writers are Archie Rhind-Tutt, Casey O’Brien, Chris Smith, Ellie Swinton, Greg Sykes, Imran Marashli, John Kallend, Louis Bollard, Phillip Leake and Will Van de Wiel.
You can read all ten shortlisted articles below. The judging panel is currently reviewing the shortlist and the winner will be announced shortly.
QPR 0 – Fulham 1
By Archie Rhind-Tutt
Managers’ thoughts in match day programmes can be a tenuous read from time to time. However, Mark Hughes’s comments on Samba Diakité were telling. “I signed him to add some much-needed steel in the centre of midfield and hopefully he’ll provide us with that.”
The ‘much-needed steel’ was on show in the West London derby. The problem was there was too much from the Senegalese international. What Hughes needed on Saturday was a disciplined performance from his new signing. Just over half an hour into the game, Diakité was walking back past him down the tunnel after a series of rash challenges.
This was QPR’s third red card in their last four home games and unsurprisingly, Rangers have lost in each game where they’ve had a dismissal.
The sending off helped to sew up the game for Fulham who embraced the vibrant atmosphere at Loftus Road far better than the home side.
It wasn’t just in the tackle where Diakité disappointed. Prior to his sending off, he failed to protect his defence meaning Fulham were able to create numerous chances in the opening exchanges.
Andy Johnson’s glancing header was correctly ruled offside but QPR failed to heed this warning. The excellent Mousa Dembele’s back heel slipped Pavel Pogrebnyak through on goal. Having scored on his debut against Stoke, the burly Russian didn’t pass up the opportunity to net in consecutive games.
He waited for Paddy Kenny to commit, before rounding the keeper and sliding in what would prove the eventual winner.
Pogrebnyak’s ensuing celebrations with the jubilant away following were contrasted with Bobby Zamora looking on ruefully from the half way line.
The striker was unable to silence the fans who sung his name so gleefully just a month ago as he was shackled by Brede Hangeland throughout.
The pressure of a relegation battle appeared to be weighing heavily on QPR as they created little against a Fulham side that kept their discipline for all but a few moments in the second half.
One of these lapses of concentration was nearly punished but they are fortunate Mark Schwarzer was alert to the danger.
A slide rule pass from Adel Taarabt ten minutes from time left Shaun Wright-Phillips with just the Australian to beat but Schwarzer produced a deft finger tip save to deny the diminutive winger. When scrapping for points at the bottom, chances can be something of a rarity and QPR cannot afford to miss too many more like this.
For Fulham though, it was an impressive second away win of the season, edging Martin Jol’s side closer to safety.
Keeping 11 players on the pitch will improve QPR’s chances but they still have the daunting task of facing six of the Premier League’s top seven in their remaining games.
Whilst Samba Diakité shouldn’t take all of the blame for Saturday’s defeat to Fulham, he must be aware that Rangers can ill afford any repeat performances from the Senegalese if they are to retain their top-flight status.
Barclays Premier League Still Top Prize
By Casey O’Brien
From the moment the names were drawn from the pot in Monaco back in August, this was the fixture Manchester City had been waiting for. Bayern Munich at the Etihad marked a huge moment of progress for a club haunted by its shortcomings for over three decades. No longer did City have to wait for invitational pre-season tournaments to face Europe’s elite. Finally, they were competing with the biggest of boys on the biggest of stages.
But as Stephane Lannoy got last night’s fixture under way, it wasn’t quite nail-biting tension or uncontrollable excitement that consumed the Eastlands crowd. Instead, a feeling of polite resignation loomed over the 46,000 faithful. Of course, City knew their chances of progression were slim, but there was another factor at work here. City are learning to walk before they run, and for the fans especially, the Champions League remains a novel adventure. It is the Premier League that is truly shaping Roberto Mancini’s reign.
Domestic triumph is still, and always has been, the real litmus test for Europe’s top sides. As any honest (and sober) Liverpool supporter will admit, their side was far from being the best team in England when they lifted the Champions League back in 2005. It is a cup competition, and requires a combination of quality, team spirit and luck to be successful. While these factors play a key role in deciding league titles, there is a consistency demanded over 38 games that sets domestic success apart from European glory.
Mancini was often criticised last season for his negativity. Setting up a team not to lose is not the way to win the Premier League, as Ferguson’s Manchester United have consistently proven. But the Italian was simply testing the water, and City’s expansive football this season appears to be leading to a serious title charge.
In the Champions League, City’s tentative style has once more reared its head. Extraordinarily, the Blues’ last three exits from European competitions have all followed home victories, suggesting the club has been too reserved in earlier matches. However, this reservation is simply a reflection of City’s attitude towards the competition. Manager, players and fans know that domestic success is not only priority, but the real benchmark of their team’s credentials. The Champions League will be there to be explored for years to come, and City’s presence in it looks almost certain.
That’s not to say City didn’t believe they could progress, and with Yaya Toure’s second-half goal came a surge of excitement. But news of a Napoli opener in Spain was met almost instantaneously with knowing nods and resigned shrugs. All that was left was a bitter example of pathetic fallacy, as the fans’ European dream petered out as damp and whimpering as the grim Mancunian evening.
Yet the disappointment was short-lived. City know that before a real assault on European football royalty takes place, they’ll need a Premier League crown of their own, and that crucial battle continues at Stamford Bridge on Monday night.
Roberto Mancini: Fergie’s Most Worthy Adversary to Date
By Chris Smith
Victory over Blackburn marked a phenomenal milestone for Manchester City. Roberto Mancini’s side have now won every home game in a year.
Building on last season’s solid foundations, Mancini’s shift of focus to attack has enabled City to dominate the Premier League. From the outstanding Joe Hart right through the team’s spine, a belief in their inability to get beat has freed City to play with the confidence to win any game.
This is the realization of Mancini’s philosophy: nullifying opportunity for defeat to optimize chance of victory. “If you watch teams that won titles”, he once said, “they conceded very few goals”. Though he was reflecting on past managers, Premier League success will render Mancini’s comment more autobiographical than ever intended.
It’s becoming his trademark. During Mancini’s third consecutive Serie A title year with Inter, the Nerazzurri conceded just 26 goals. 14 of 25 victories involved clean sheets, whilst a further seven were by one-goal margins. This scans with early signs at the Etihad.
Despite the great players before him and the financial power behind him, it is Mancini’s tactical acumen that has been the catalyst for City’s revolution.
It is testament to Mancini’s intensive coaching that one full season was sufficient to build a platform to win titles. What has been most impressive however is the way he’s transformed a safe side with a few flair players into a dynamic attacking force with a solid core.
As important to Mancini’s tactical repertoire as defensive reliability are technical, skilful attackers. Mancini wrote a pamphlet prior to his first managerial job on the trequartista (playmaker) and if any player in world football embodies that role, it’s David Silva. Well, except Messi.
As dazzling as Silva is, his star shines in equal measure to Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, which brings me to my next Mancini critique: money well spent. It is rare to consider three players who cost a combined £92m to represent good value. But as ludicrous as it sounds, the magnificent football these players have produced has been worth every penny.
The mention of ‘projects’ and ‘longer-term goals’ has become a time-buying exercise for managers of big clubs in transition. But what transition has been greater than City’s rise from ridicule to riches? What better vindication of a project than Champions League football and a trophy within a season, and leading the Premier League with 12 games to go of the next?
This season’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester United was Mancini’s only failure to reach a major domestic semi-final in a managerial career that spans 11 years and four clubs. Just over a decade into management, he has collected an impressive 10 trophies.
Mancini’s ability to deliver instant success elevates him to that elite category of manager. It would be foolish to compare him to Sir Alex, but having spent Mourinho-esque millions to create a side that supersedes even Wenger’s Arsenal for continental flair, Mancini will prove Fergie’s most worth adversary to date.
A Game of Many Clichés
By Ellie Swinton
Saturday afternoon, 3pm. Different matches, different pundits, different squads. But one thing stays the same: the famous, overused, and often nonsensical footballing clichés that tumble out of mouths and onto TV screens and radio stations before they can be stopped.
“Football is a game of two halves” (can anyone remember the last time it wasn’t?) and “we’ve just got to take it one game at a time” (probably a good idea actually) are just two from an endless list. More often than not, you’ll hear a pre-match interview with a manager offering the following pearls of wisdom: “Today we’ve got to go out there and show them what we’ve got. Every game is a cup final because there are no easy games in football and I want to see each player give 110%. Whoever scores first will hold the advantage.”
Talk about stating the bleeding obvious. After the match you’re more likely to hear something along the lines of: “At the end of the day, the other team wanted it more. We scored too early and we needed to put the game out of reach but we didn’t, were at sixes and sevens for the rest of the match. One team had to lose and today it was us.” Managerial expression is so idiomatic that it begins to lose all meaning.
Meanwhile, some of the most common clichés come during the game itself, such as “it’s end to end stuff”, “this game needs a goal”, “for a big lad he’s good with his feet”, “bring on some fresh legs” and “he went down far too easily.” And just sometimes these begin to grate.
Wouldn’t we miss them if they suddenly disappeared though? You can shout as much as you want at Motty for providing us with endless obscure statistics, at Jamie Redknapp describing everything as “t’rrific” and Andy Gray’s shriek of “take a bow, son”, but I think we’d all agree that football commentary just would not be the same without these phrases. “At the end of the day”, they’re “a great advert for the beautiful game”. Football is not just a game of two halves; it’s a game of many clichés.
Roberto Mancini: On A Wing And A Prayer
By Greg Sykes
Is there any finer sight in football than a winger in full flight? At a juncture where the ‘art of tackling’ within the Barclays Premier League is shrouded in controversy, it is also a time to reflect on the joy provided by some of the men referees are trying to protect.
The merest glance at the squads on show highlights both the quantity and quality of wingers for the discerning football purist to feast upon. Granted, the likes of Gareth Bale usually (and rightly) take the plaudits, but across the land there are explosive, skilful, attack-minded wide-men that are integral to their team’s chances of success, drawing their followers to the edge of their seats in anticipatory awe.
Wolves have Matt Jarvis, a goal poacher’s dream of a winger who drives toward the by-line with purpose before delivering the cut-backs that strikers crave. In Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer, Swansea have a pair of flanksmen that can trouble full-backs of the highest quality, as highlighted by Ashley Cole recently revealing his implosive side for the first time in many a season.
Whilst a lot of the focus on Stoke name-checks Mr Delap and his long throw, a doff of the cap should also be given to Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who provide a healthy portion of The Potter’s goals from wide areas, using their blend of creativity and fine technique, honed by bags of experience at the top level.
The top flight in England is also being bolstered by quality from lower leagues, as if providing proof that the flying winger still carries an air of gravitas worthy of transcending divisions. Norwich acquired Anthony Pilkington from League One side Huddersfield in the summer and he has rewarded Paul Lambert’s faith with displays of real panache that have surely caught Giovanni Trappatoni’s eye ahead of Euro 2012.
As members of the old wing squadron like Ryan Giggs refine their styles to prolong their career, a new generation of wingers are marauding down the same flanks as their idols, with the same devastating effect. At Arsenal, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is currently impressing all with his own brand of youthful exuberance and a footballing awareness that belies his eighteen years. At the other end of the country James McClean is combining an abundance of power and pace with the raw endeavour that typifies Sunderland under Martin O’Neil. Both look set for bright futures as the spearheads of a new wing movement, one rejuvenated by a Welsh left-back in North London…
It would be somewhat remiss to not acknowledge the ability, and moreover the newly found consistency of Gareth Bale. There doesn’t seem to be a week that passes without another show of jaw-dropping skill, strength and high quality from the Spurs attacker, all done at breathtaking speed. As the eternal ‘best league in the world’ debate rumbles on, it is Bale and his wing comrades that continue to soar and transport the Barclays Premier League to the forefront of any argument.
Mikel Arteta Epitomises The New Arsenal
By Imran Marashli
It was the lowest point of Arsène Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal. With Nasri and Fabregas gone, Arsenal collapsed to their worst defeat in over 100 years,in the infamous 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford. The Gunners appeared in disarray, provoking Wenger to raid the transfer market in a desperate bid to resurrect the faith of disillusioned fans and mute the circling vultures of critics.
On a hectic transfer deadline day, in came Park Chu-Young, André Santos and Per Mertesacker, with Yossi Benayoun recruited on loan. Yet there was still one more decisive deal to be thrashed out. On the cusp of the deadline, after all the speculation, it was confirmed that Arsenal had agreed a fee to bring Mikel Arteta to the Emirates Stadium.
The Spaniard had proved his Premier League credentials at Everton over the years, but at the age of 29, this was viewed as his last big move. It was suggested that he couldn’t withstand the pressure to fill the large boots vacated by Fabregas.
A panic buy from Wenger? Not in the slightest.
Arteta wasn’t immune from all of Arsenal’s early struggles, ending up on the losing side against a struggling Blackburn at Ewood Park. Arsenal’s new players attempted to gel as the games wore on. However, a morale-sapping derby defeat to rivals Tottenham, just before an international break, left Arsenal in lowly 15th, cast adrift from the top four.
Since then, Arsenal have been flying; although a huge amount of credit is owed to the prolific Robin Van Persie, it’s been due to Arteta that Arsenal have a new-found discipline and maturity, not only in midfield, but all over the pitch. He hasn’t been playing the attacking “Fabregas role”, instead, he’s been situated in a deeper position, to control the tempo and rhythm of Arsenal’s game.
Arteta doesn’t always go for the extravagant 40-yard “Hollywood” ball, but tends to keep things simple, accurate and crisp in his passing, orchestrating the midfield. He brings a calming influence to young sparks like Ramsey, taking the responsibility to hold the midfield together, while still chipping in with 3 goals and 2 assists, saying, “I’ve felt responsible for helping us [Arsenal] stay secure.”
He’s not the most thrilling midfielder who ghosts past players for fun, or plunders goals at will; he does what’s required to get the results, like Arsenal in their revival. Players have found their feet after the rocky start to the season, a superb example being Laurent Koscielny. Fewer goals are conceded, the team has unity and spirit in abundance. The 1-0 defeat to Manchester City was a far cry from the collapse in August last time they were in Manchester, with Arteta at the heart of a battling, determined performance. The new Arsenal’s ascension up the table is thanks to this new mentality, winning at tough venues like Villa Park following a defeat at the Etihad signifies the change in their ways.
Arsenal have evolved for the better, with a helping hand from Mikel Arteta.
The O’Neill Effect?
By John Kallend
You would have received many answers if you asked followers of the Barclays Premier League which team they thought would fare best during the festive period. Perhaps the names of Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal or Manchester United would have appeared most frequently in such a poll. It is perhaps fair to say, therefore, that many would not have answered such a question with the name Sunderland.
However, as Martin O’Neill picks up the Barclays Manager of the Month for the eighth time in his career, Sunderland coming out on top over the festive period is exactly what has happened. Starting with a win at QPR on the 21st of December, O’Neill’s men have taken 10 points from a possible 12, 3 of which were taken from none other than leaders Manchester City.
So what, exactly, has O’Neill bought to the club? Typically vibrant on the touchline his own energy has extended to a team who looked devoid of life, at times, under former manager Steve Bruce. There is, possibly, no greater evidence of this new found energy than three of O’Neill’s four wins coming from late winners over Queens Park Rangers, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers respectively.
A squad beset by injury has meant the manager has also had to give opportunities, and more importantly belief, to players who were not used regularly, if at all, under Bruce. Matthew Killgallon was not even given a squad number at the start of the season by Bruce. Following recall from a loan at Championship side Doncaster, however, by new manager O’Neill, Killgallon was required to play an hour against none other than Manchester City after a first half injury to Wes Brown. An impressive performance as part of a mean Sunderland backline that day saw a recall to the side for 90 minutes against Wigan on Wednesday.
Elsewhere on the pitch James McClean, who despite being signed by former manager Bruce in the summer from Derry City failed to make a single appearance before the arrival of O’Neill, has also shone under the new manager. McClean has since talked of the lift the new manager has given the club after scoring in the 4-1 victory at Wigan on Wednesday. The 22 year old has received rave reviews for his performances in the last two games, and after ruling out a re-think over his current declaration to play for the Republic of Ireland, an international call-up may be in the offing.
After the victory over Manchester City O’Neill alluded to conversations with club chairman, Ellis Short, over what can be done in the current transfer window. It was, after all, a spectacular fall out with Aston Villa chairman Randy Lerner over finances that cut short O’Neill’s time at Villa Park. I would suggest that right now, for Ellis Short, Martin O’Neill is the right man to back.
Up ‘Four’ Grabs
By Louis Bollard
Bill Shankly, renowned for his ability to produce a great quote, once quipped ‘If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.’ Perhaps this explains why the baton of fourth place has been passed so carelessly by Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle this season.
Whether ‘Shanks’ would agree or not, fourth place has evolved into one of the most lucrative prizes in world football. The prize is a chance to pit your wits against the very best, to rub shoulders with Europe’s elite and to reward your fans with trips to European football’s cathedrals. However, with three months of this Barclays Premier League season remaining, the final Champions League place is ‘up four grabs’.
Four massive English heavyweights, four loyal fan bases and four demanding owners with great expectations. Chelsea and Liverpool have agonised and frustrated in equal measure after expectations were raised following a summer of huge spending. For Arsenal fans, it’s time for their dwindling trust in Wenger and the Frenchman’s own trust in youth, to deliver a long awaited piece of silverware alongside the requisite Champions League spot. Conversely, Newcastle have exceeded all expectations. Even the Toon’s most optimistic supporter could hardly have dreamt of Champions League qualification in their second season back in the big time.
There are four very differing managerial positions. Dissent is growing at the Emirates with fans gradually beginning to question Wenger’s transfer policy, squad and tactics. But, can the Frenchman’s experience and knack guide Arsenal into the top four?
Head South West and you’ll find a man who’d relish even the amount of backing that Wenger has. A.V.B. is under huge pressure to deliver the goods for a fan-base disillusioned by a man dubbed the new Mourinho. Will Villas-Boas be afforded the time to fight the race to the death?
Contrastingly, at Anfield, the Kop have a King at the helm. Kenny Dalglish can do little wrong in the eyes of Liverpool’s loyal supporters. However, the Scotsman’s tactics have been criticised by those outside of Merseyside. Perhaps his sabbatical from football could be too long for an instant return to top level management?
Alan Pardew, meanwhile, could be on his way to earning hero status among the fanatical Toon army. His steering of the often chaotic Newcastle United ship has been as surprising as it has spectacular. The prospect of a return to Champions League football means Pardew’s name will be bandied about when the managerial accolades are awarded in May. Could his side produce one of the biggest upsets in Premier League history?
Amid all these questions one thing is for certain – the race for fourth is as fierce as it has been in the history of the Premier League. The team that eventually does pip their rivals to the post in what promises to be an enthralling race will have their opponents to thank as much as themselves.
Let battle for fourth commence! (That is, assuming that everyone wants it!)
A Half-Decent Player
By Phillip Leake
What an incredible Barclay’s Premier League season is unfolding, defined by vibrant, attacking football. Players have had us on the edge of our seats – whether it be the relentless Robin Van Persie, the irrepressible Gareth Bale, or the seemingly ageless Ryan Giggs. However, it is the rejuvenated Paul Scholes who could arguably make the difference in this year’s title race.
When Scholes decided to pull on the red shirt again in early January, he was expected to be a bit-part player, but he has been the cornerstone behind Manchester United’s recent good form. Having called it a day last summer after collecting his tenth Premier League winners’ medal, Scholes was summoned by Sir Alex Ferguson following an injury crisis which had ravaged the United midfield. With Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Tom Cleverley all facing lengthy layoffs; as well as the absence of several key defenders forcing Michael Carrick to play in central defence during the home defeat to Blackburn in late December; Ferguson felt the call to Scholes was a necessary one.
At the time, this was seen by many as a desperate measure from United as they fought a losing battle against their ‘noisy’ neighbours Manchester City. However, the little maestro has been a revelation. His performances have been at times exceptional, particularly in the home game with fierce rivals Liverpool where he gave a midfield master class in a match overshadowed by the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair. Moreover, since Scholes’ return, United have negotiated a tricky run of fixtures to remain within two points of leaders City, who are the only side in the top seven that United still have to play.
Yet should we be surprised that Scholes has been so impressive despite six months out of the game? He has always said that he is not interested in sitting on the sidelines. To that end, he has adapted his game immeasurably since he came onto the scene as a fresh faced teenager. His entire career, up until the last five years or so, was defined by his late surging runs into the box and his thunderous long range shots which made him a goal scoring midfielder.
However, age has meant that he has had to alter his approach to the game. He now sits at the base of the United midfield, where he receives the ball and sprays it to all areas of the field. There are few more beautiful sights in world football than one of Scholes’ low ranging cross field balls.
Barcelona’s very own pass-master Xavi has described Scholes as a ‘role model’, describing him as ‘a spectacular player who has everything’. In an era when players are prone to moving from club to club in pursuit of personal glory, Paul Scholes has been a vital cog in the Manchester United machine for almost two decades. It’s hard to believe that he once said that he would be happy to call himself ‘a half-decent player’!
Why the Barclays Premier League Reigns Over Spain
By Will Van de Wiel
The recent migration of Premier League luminaries like Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and ‘Cesc Fabregas to the Iberian peninsula, has led those with a continental bias to proclaim La Liga as the world’s best football league.
Witness the recent FIFA awards – nine of the World XI hailed from Spain. Of that nine, five were from Barcelona, a powerful indicator of the ideological hegemony the tiki-taka ethos currently enjoys on the world stage.
But the Premier League is a behemoth – beaming football matches every weekend to some 600 million people around the globe. So which is better?
While Real Madrid and Barcelona’s individually negotiated deals ensure they suck up television revenue with an edacity that would make Antony Worrall Thompson wince (and adds a caveat to the element of self-righteousness in Barca’s brand) the more egalitarian minded, and business savvy premier league executives have ensured the element of competition is paramount.
Not that England is without it’s disparities; huge transfer deals and bloated wage bills are still a feature of the larger clubs, despite a struggle to break even ahead of FIFA’s financial fair play rules. But here’s the kicker: over the last decade or so, a shared pot of TV money amongst all Premier League clubs has meant that when the big teams do clear their books – or indeed, when predacious intent leads to awkward player situations – the smaller clubs are in a position to profit.
This proliferation of players has buttressed competition, causing teams in the lower half of the table to boast bona fide internationals. The difference with La Liga is acute – players who don’t succeed at Barca or Real, often end up coming to England. And players at clubs outside of the top two, also often come to England. David Silva and Juan Mata being two prime examples of this.
Of course, in some circles, English football is forever associated with pace, physicality and tactics based on directness, rather than the flair and intricacy of continental aesthetes, but the influx of foreign players has created a veritable cultural melting pot.
Harking back to the likes of Bergkamp, Zola, and Henry, technique and élan were added to high-tempo, full-blooded, dramatic football. As well as the footballers themselves, exposure and success in the Champions League helped inculcate an emphasis on possession. Something that, given the tempo of the game, is a lot harder here – a roughness which has helped shape a diamond spectacle; a potent kaleidoscope of styles.
Which brings me back to Spain and tiki-taka – despite it’s undisputed success, it would be folly to think it is the only way to play football. Over the years, some of the best teams to watch have been those that, like Bruce Lee, mastered many styles, not just one.
So despite the sheer brilliance of Barcelona, and Madrid’s Mourinho-inspired renaissance, the sheer number of teams in the Premier League who can compete in an entertaining manner, makes it by far the best league to watch.