The Premier League Awards 2014

The red carpet has been swept.  The orchestra is tuning up.  The MC is nervously checking cue cards and sucking cough sweets.  Yes, ladies and gentleman, it is time for the inaugural annual alternativesportsblog Premier League Awards for outstanding achievement or underachievement for achievements achieved during the 2013/14 Premier League season (snappy title I think you’ll agree).  Sadly the winners of these prestigious awards haven’t as yet got back to us to confirm which date would be best for them to hold the actual ceremony (for England’s players, obviously any date from the start of the World Cup 2nd round), so while we await their responses (probably a problem at the sorting office or something) here are the winners.

Player of the Year: Luis Suarez

An extremely close call this one – the two outstanding players this season have been Suarez and Yaya Toure.  Toure is an outstanding talent, probably the most complete player in the world (I can’t think of anyone else who could hold his own so well in every outfield position), and I agree with him that he doesn’t have the status in world football he deserves.  His passing is immaculate, his energy relentless, his penalty taking nerveless, his free-kicks Beckham-esque, and the precision of his long range curler against Fulham was beautiful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdMC8nAG_Qk).  However, Suarez has that magical ability to make crowds gasp in amazement at some of his play.  This quality doesn’t necessarily make a great player (Adel Taarabt is by far the most talented player I’ve ever seen, and no-one thinks he should be player of the year), but this season Suarez has allied it to deadly finishing and some bewitching link-up play.  Yes he’s a bit of a prat, but, similar to Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal, his vision and style has lifted the performance of those around him, leading to some dazzling football from Liverpool’s front five this season.

Goal of the Year:

RDW: Jack Wilshere (Arsenal v Norwich)  There have been quite a few crackers this season –Wayne Rooney v West Ham and Jonjo Shelvey v Aston Villa both showcased quickness of thought and superb technique, while Alexander Tettey’s volley for Norwich v Sunderland was the sort of shot that ends of knocking over someone’s Bovril 99 times out of 100.  Pajtim Kasami’s homage a Van Basten against Crystal Palace was wonderfully controlled as was Morgan Amaltifano’s effort v Cardiff, and I’ve got a soft spot for Tomas Rosicky’s goal against Sunderland, a brilliant finish to a lovely move.  My favourite, though, is another Arsenal team goal, a bewildering move featuring Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere.  The speed of thought is astonishing as before you know it Wilshere is tapping a deceptively cute volley past John Ruddy following an evisceration rarely seen this side of a post mortem.  Even in slow motion, you can’t quite believe that Wilshere’s flick with the back of the heel to Giroud actually happened.

DDW: Pajtim Kasami (Crystal Palace vs Fulham)  I can’t believe there’s even a debate about this.  The way Kasami controls the ball on his chest and shoots first time without breaking stride beggars belief.  The fact that he had the audacity to even attempt such a shot from such an acute angle is a feat in itself.  Obvious comparisons will be made to Marco Van Basten’s goal in the 1988 European Championship final.  Kasami’s isn’t quite in that league but it more than deserves the incredible honour that is our goal of the season award.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9IkIKpmnVM)

Honourable Mentions:

Jonjo Shelvey Swansea vs Aston Villa (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxAl2PcCigg)

Alexander Tettey Norwich vs Sunderland (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ypx2NinTw)

Jack Wilshere Arsenal vs Norwich (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNMKlFkDEKs)

Manager of the Year: Tony Pulis

If Manuel Pellegrini wasn’t such a nice bloke, you’d suspect he might be getting a bit irked at having won two trophies, in some considerable style too, yet being barely mentioned as a potential manager of the year, but the truth is such an achievement was the minimum requirement given the resources at his disposal.  Brendan Rodgers did a magnificent job at Liverpool, encouraging his team to produce some of the most exhilarating football ever seen in the Premier League, but he was either unable or unwilling to adapt his tactics for the crucial home match with Chelsea, where perhaps more patience was required.  Pulis took over a dispirited Crystal Palace side, seemingly lacking in any sort of ability and bereft of last season’s leading scorer (Glenn Murray) and best player (Wilfried Zaha), and turned them into a resilient mid-table outfit.  A bit like Stoke really.  He even managed to turn Damien Delaney (who I watched from behind my hands at QPR) into something resembling a Premier League defender, which is no mean feat.

Tosser of the Year: Jose Mourinho

As always, a hotly contested category, with Vincent Tan’s treatment of Malky Mackay, along with his appointment of the work experience boy Alisher Apsalyamov as head of recruitment, meaning he scores quite high on the tosser-o-meter, but Jose Mourinho has been constantly graceless, classless, hypocritical and generally obnoxious.  For some reason when he first arrived in English football in 2004, the press fawned all over him, lapping up his egotistical schtick.  This time round, however, he’s a little older, a little greyer, and even less likeable, with his post-match press conferences consisting of little more than poisonous barbs aimed at other managers, the FA, and referees.  It is little wonder that members of his Chelsea team (whether on the pitch or off) regularly lose control, if their manager is always behaving like a spoilt 6-year-old.

Best Match: Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Obvious, perhaps, but a real feast of attacking football between by far the two most entertaining teams in the league.  Liverpool, as was customary in the second half of the season, started like a train, racing into a two goal lead, before a combination of David Silva’s invention and Liverpool’s defensive clusterfuckery (it’s a real word, honest) allowed City to equalise.  Momentum was with City, but, in what appeared to be a pivotal moment, Vincent Kompany sliced a clearance to allow Philippe Coutinho to score the winner.  Combined with the emotions involved with the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, it was a truly unforgettable game.  Honourable mentions must go to Everton 3-3 Liverpool, Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal and the last 11 minutes of Crystal Palace 3-3 Liverpool.

Best Signing: Wilfried Bony

There have been several shrewd signings this season, but none with the impact of Robin van Persie or Michu from last season.  Everton bought James McCarthy, worth less than half a Marouane Fellaini apparently, who was the model of consistency, while a couple of loan signings, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku, were their most influential players.  Chelsea have done some marvellous business, re-signing Nemanja Matic (albeit for 7 times more than what they sold him for), while both Andre Schurrle and Willian look like they will have a more prominent part to play next year.  And Jason Puncheon, one penalty aside, has brought pace and creativity to an otherwise prosaic Crystal Palace attack.  Bony, however, has been utterly crucial for Swansea this season, scoring 30% of their Premier League goals, and being frankly a right pain to play against.  In another season, Swansea could have been one of those teams that are ‘too good to go down.’  They were lucky that this year’s league contained plenty of teams that were too shit to stay up.

Worst Signing: Ricky van Wolfswinkel

If there were few candidates for best signing of the season, then the shortlist for worst signing carried on to a second piece of A4.  Pretty much everyone that Liverpool signed in the summer was poor, particularly Iago Aspas and the rarely spotted Luis Alberto, while Cardiff signed Andreas Cornelius for a large fee before selling him back whence he came for a couple of welsh cakes and book of part-songs.  Fulham splurged £11 million on Kostas Mitroglou, who would apparently bang in the goals to keep them up.  He played for a grand total of 153 minutes and looked as likely to score as a spotty teenage chess player at the Miss World afterparty.  Marouane Fellaini cost Manchester United an arm and a leg, and then spent the remainder of the season wandering around the field looking utterly petrified in case he made a mistake.  All these players would be worthy winners, but van Wolfswinkel has been utterly abysmal – he fluked a goal on the first day of the season, and since then failed to contribute at all to a pretty sterile Norwich attack.  For £8.5 million, surely a little more was expected.

Goalkeeping performance of the season: Tim Krul (Tottenham Hotspur vs Newcastle United)

Literally, and I’m not being hyperbolic here, one of the great performances of modern times.  The Dutch stopper has been one of the Toon’s most consistent performers in recent seasons, but this took the biscuit.  Spurs had 20+ shots on goal and 14 on target but still big Tim wouldn’t let them score.  One save from a Christian Eriksen free kick will live long in the memory.  And it all contributed to a smash-and-grab win for Newcastle. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GmULt7_cYI)

Pass of the season: Steven Gerrard (Fulham vs Liverpool)

I was watching this match in a bar in New York and I pretty much had to go and change my pants after seeing this pass.  The outside-of-the-foot technique, the vision to see Daniel Sturridge’s run, the perfect weight of pass so Sturridge didn’t have to break stride.  Even writing about it is getting me strangely aroused.  Thank god Sturridge managed to score otherwise Gerrard and I may have never forgiven him.  If you’re in bed with your partner tonight and the old magic isn’t really happening, forget Viagra.  This is all the aphrodisiac you’ll need. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-STfxqWxKRA)

Own-Goal of the season: Kolo Toure (Fulham vs Liverpool)

Quite a few contenders here.  In terms of volume, own-goal specialist Martin Skrtel did his utmost to get the award.  Vincent Kompany also threw his hat into the ring with a finish of pinpoint accuracy and finesse that most strikers could only dream of, Fulham the beneficiaries again (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nkiry9DQ6Jo).  But it was Kolo Toure, good old trusty Kolo, who wins the year’s most coveted award.  And what a goal it was.  It had everything.  A daisy-cutter of a cross, absolutely no pressure on the defence, the classic comical sliced clearance that seemed beyond the realms of physics leaving the goalkeeper no chance.  Clinical Kolo.  Everything one could want from an own-goal and more.  Toure has the sort of malco-ordination that makes Bambi look like she could take on Torvil & Dean in their pomp, and god bless him for it.  He provides Premier league audiences with hours of entertainment and long may it continue. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w1aiQIFdMg)

Worst decision of the season: Raheem Sterling offside Manchester City vs Liverpool

Not that I’m biased, but as a Liverpool fan, this was an absolutely atrocious decision and obviously completely affected the final outcome of the title.  Had Sterling not been flagged offside when he was clearly two yards onside, Liverpool would have (probably) at worst, drawn the game, Steven Gerrard wouldn’t have slipped against Chelsea, and Liverpool would have won the league at a canter.  All the fault of some poxy linesman. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s2XHIxOGVA)

Worst haircut of the season:  Sergio Aguero

It’s tempting to give the award to Olivier Giroud because, unlike Aguero, he doesn’t have the footballing talent to back up such an outrageous barnet which made him look all the more ridiculous.  But for the short-back-and-sides-comb-over, our winner is the little Argentine striker.  As the season went on, the sides got shorter and the comb-over got more luscious – and given he spent a proportion of the campaign on the sidelines, he had plenty of time to sack his barber.  Alas he didn’t, and it seems Aguero recommended him to Southampton trio Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw.  Oh for the days of Jason Lee and his pineapple.

The Transfer Window

It’s the start of the silly season.  For the next month, all of the 20 Premier League clubs will be linked to all and sundry.  Don’t be surprised to see Buzz Lightyear mooted as Cardiff City’s new saviour, or Winnie the Pooh touted as the answer to Manchester United’s defensive frailties.  In January, in the words of Cole Porter, anything goes.  Chairmen, managers and agents are all working overtime in a bid to find the right formula for a final push for the title/to stave off relegation (delete as appropriate).  The January transfer window is rarely a good time for buying clubs.  Inflated prices mean that they often pay over the odds for players that they don’t really need.  Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m is a classic transfer window move, as is Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m the same season.  But there are bargains to be had: Luis Suarez cost a paltry £22m when he moved from Ajax to Liverpool in 2011 and Christophe Dugarry was the first real January transfer bargain when he helped save Birmingham City from relegation in 2003.  So who will make their move?  Expect to see clubs further down the table splashing the cash in a bid to avoid a relegation dogfight.  There may be one or two significant transfers amongst the top eight clubs but I would be surprised if a major signing was made.

 

Arsenal

Top of the league, through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and into the 4th round of the FA Cup, life could be worse for the Highbury club, all the more so if you consider the discontent around the Emirates a year ago.  They have turned round their fortunes with basically the same playing squad with two major additions – Mesut Özil and Mathieu Flamini.  However, with Theo Walcott and hairdressing’s Nicklas Bendtner both injured and Olivier Giroud struggling for fitness, Lukas Podolski is Arsene Wenger’s only fit forward (himself having only recently returned from injury) so the Gunners may require extra back-up in that area.  Wenger is loath to do business in January but needs must if he is to secure Arsenal’s first trophy since 2005.

Linked to: Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata (both Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Pedro (Barcelona)

 

Aston Villa

Villa’s recent form has been poor, culminating in an embarrassing FA Cup loss at home to Sheffield United at the weekend.  They should have enough in reserve to avoid relegation and if they can get Christian Benteke scoring again they will be absolutely fine.  Villa haven’t splashed the cash recently, preferring to promote from within and have assembled an impressive array of home-grown talent.  They could probably do with a bit more quality in the centre of the park to complement Fabian Delph (Tom Huddlestone would be a good fit) and if Joleon Lescott becomes available he would be a good steadying buy for Paul Lambert’s team.  Villa may have to sell before he can buy though.  If that is the case, fringe players like Charles N’Zogbia (whatever happened to him?) and Alan Hutton may be vulnerable.

Linked to: Joleon Lescott (Man City), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)

 

Cardiff City

Fuck knows why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to be part of Vincent Tan’s Flying Circus of Nutjobbery but who am I to judge.  He seemed to galvanise the team in their 2-1 FA Cup victory at Newcastle at the weekend.  Scoring goals (and letting too many in) has been Cardiff’s achilles heel this season but if they re-discover their home form they might just stay in the division.  A proven goalscorer is a priority but they don’t exactly grow on trees.  Solskjaer is apparently bringing a couple of his countrymen in (midfielders Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Moller Daehli since you ask) and I know shit-all about them so I can’t tell you if they’re any good or not.  I think someone like Darren Bent would be a good shout for the Bluebirds.  He knows where the goal is and can’t get a game for Fulham so he could be available, as might Jermain Defoe.  Equally someone like Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn would be a more long-term fix.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Magnus Wolff Eikrem (Heerenveen), Mats Moller Daehli (Molde)

 

Chelsea

Despite not playing anywhere near their potential, The Special One’s team are still in the title hunt, the Champions League and the FA Cup.  Their defence has been uncharacteristically porous and I can see Thibaut Courtois (currently on loan at high-flying Atletico Madrid) replacing veteran Petr Cech between the sticks next season.  Tellingly, Chelsea’s leading scorers this season (Edin Hazard and Oscar) are both midfielders.  The Blues do have plenty of striking talent (Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Andre Schürrle) but they have not been doing the business and if their particularly turd record at signing strikers in the January window is anything to go buy, they would be well advised to keep their cash in the bank.  They need a long-term successor for Ashley Cole, though that will probably wait until the summer unless someone world-class becomes available.  They may also look in to a replacement for Frank Lampard when he finally hangs up his boots.  Both Juan Mata and Kevin de Bruyne have been linked with moves away from Stamford Bridge so another creative midfielder may be on his way to West London.  With Roman Abramovich running the show, expect the unexpected.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Jackson Martinez (Porto), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

 

Crystal Palace

Tony Pulis has certainly improved Palace’s results since his appointment in October.  They proved they really can play in their plucky 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in December.  Their defence has been pretty solid, but any side that regards Danny Gabbidon as a first choice needs to strengthen.  The Eagles also need more inspiration from midfield to ease the burden on Jason Puncheon.  A proven goalscorer wouldn’t go amiss either (they are the lowest scorers in the Premier League).  Dwight Gayle has only impressed in fits and starts, Marouane Chamakh has done OK but Cameron Jerome doesn’t have the goals in him to keep Palace in the Premier League.  On the bright side, they don’t need a new goalkeeper.

Linked to: Demba Ba (Chelsea), Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn), Joe Ledley (Celtic), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Nikica Jelavic (Everton)

 

Everton

Roberto Martinez’s appointment has been an absolute masterstroke.  Everton are playing with confidence and flair – something that was lacking under David Moyes.  This transfer window will be focussed on holding on to their prize assets such as Ross Barkley and Leighton Baines, rather than bringing new ones in.  Nevertheless, a new striker would be nice given the injury to Arouna Kone and the fall from grace of Nikica Jelavic.  They could also do with a bit more cover all over the pitch.  However that goes against their policy of promoting from within so whoever comes in will have to be a good fit.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow), Shane Long (West Brom)

 

Fulham

The Cottagers (interesting choice of nickname) have been well below par this season.  Their defence has been leakier than a leaky tap aided in no small part by the ever (un)reliable Philippe Senderos.  New goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg hasn’t covered himself in glory since his move from Ajax – for me, the number two keeper David Stockdale is a safer pair of hands.  Another big problem has been Fulham’s home form.  Craven Cottage has not been as much of a fortress as it usually is.  Confidence isn’t exactly sky high though after their 6-0 humiliation against Hull.  The return of Clint Dempsey should help.  Rene Meulensteen has an important month ahead of him, even if it is simply instilling belief into his players.

Linked to: Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United)

 

Hull City

The Tigers have been a revelation this season, basing their success on a solid defence and strong home form.  Apart from the Fulham thumping, goals have been hard to come by but they do have a strong midfield lead by the rejuvenated Tom Huddlestone.  Again, like most teams in the relegation zone, a proven Premier League goalscorer is top of their wish-list.

Linked to: Shola Ameobi (Newcastle United), Shane Long (West Brom), Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)

 

Liverpool

Brendan Rodgers has transformed Liverpool’s fortunes since they were languishing in mid-table at this point last season.  I think the Premier League title is beyond them this year but a Champions League spot is definitely within their grasp.  Maybe another young striker is required as back-up for Daniel Sturridge and Suarez.  Simon Mignolet in goal has not exactly convinced and the defence has been a little suspect recently after starting the season with three clean sheets, but with the free-scoring Suarez in their ranks, that hardly matters.  Perhaps their most important signing was tying the Uruguayan down to another long-term contract.

Linked to: Mohamed Salah (Basel), Arda Turan (Atletico Madrid), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Danny Ings (Burnley)

 

Manchester City

The richest team in the Premier League don’t exactly need much in the transfer window.  City’s attack is purring like a contented cat and when all their squad is fit, they could play two world class teams and beat almost anyone in the world.  Their central defence isn’t completely watertight however, and the continued absence of Vincent Kompany has not helped matters so another centre-back would be ideal but is not compulsory.  Joleon Lescott may have to leave to make space for a new arrival.  Joe Hart seems to have got over his bout of poor form so the goalkeeper position seems tied up.  The title is theirs to lose.

Linked to: Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Douglas Costa (Atletico Madrid)

 

Manchester United

Nothing has gone to plan for David Moyes in his a debut season as Manchester United manager.  Their big problem was the lack of world-class re-enforcements in the summer.  Instead they splurged £27m on Marouane Fellaini and £12m on Wilfried Zaha.  The injury to last season’s top scorer Robin van Persie has not helped matters and consequently the team has been relying too heavily on Wayne Rooney who is currently struggling for fitness.  The return of Nemanja Vidic to central defence should sure up the defence.  The main area that needs strengthening for me is the midfield.  Wesley Sneijder is always mentioned at this point every season but he is pushing 30 now.  Ross Barkley is the ideal signing but I doubt Everton will sell another one of their prized players to the Old Trafford club.  United are still sniffing around Leighton Baines like a randy dog and Fabio Coentrao is still on their radar but I would be very surprised if either of them were to move.  They have a real job on their hands getting into the Champions League next season.

Linked to: Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid), Leighton Baines (Everton), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Ross Barkley (Everton), Luke Shaw (Southampton), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Ilkay Gundogan (Borussia Dortmund), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto)

 

Newcastle United

The Magpies have had a promising season so far after a slow start.  On-loan striker Loic Remy has started banging in the goals and he has been ably backed up by Yohan Cabayé and Yoan Gouffran.  The ever-reliable Tim Krul has been solid between the posts and when Fabricio Coloccini is fit, the defence becomes a lot stingier.  Newcastle do not have any desperate need for re-enforcements but another reliable centre-back to partner Coloccini would be a welcome addition.  Cabaye seems to no longer be on Arsene Wenger’s radar anymore which will please manager Alan Pardew.  If they do buy someone, it’s a safe bet that they will be French.  Comfortable in mid-table and pushing for Europe.

Linked to: Luuk de Jong (Borussia Monchengladbach), Bafetimbi Gomis (Lyon), Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven)

 

Norwich City

Chris Hughton’s men have had a strange season.  They play attractive football yet the results have not matched the performances and they find themselves just three points above the relegation zone.  Their midfield is very strong and Gary Hooper has been a fine acquisition from Celtic.  Like most teams in the relegation zone, Norwich can’t stop conceding goals.  Goalkeeper John Ruddy hasn’t been in his finest form and the central defensive partnership of Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner currently isn’t cutting the mustard.  A centre-half is a priority because they need to find a tough backbone if they are to remain in the Premier League.

Linked to: Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven), Chris Samba (Dinamo Moscow)

 

Southampton

The Saints’ bright start to the season has been tempered somewhat recently amid a run of tough fixtures.  However they continue to play a wonderfully slick brand of football and Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been a breath of fresh air in the top flight.  Their footballing philosophy requires a certain type of player, technically gifted and intelligent, and I am not sure that player is available to them at the moment with the budget they have.  Their biggest fight in this transfer window will be keeping hold of Mark Clattenburg’s favourite man, Adam Lallana, hotshot forward Jay Rodriguez, and two of the country’s most promising full-backs, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne.  The defence has not recently been as mean as previously but given where they were last season, most Saints fans would bite your hand off for their current league position.  An added bonus would be to get summer signing Dani Osvaldo scoring regularly.

Linked to: Ever Banega (Valencia), Diego (Wolfsburg)

 

Stoke City

Everyone’s least favourite team are doing a frustratingly competent job of staying in the Premier League.  I was hoping that the departure of Tony Pulis in the summer would lead to an inevitable slide into the Championship but so far my hopes have been dashed.  The Potters haven’t exactly been impressive this season (save for the 3-2 defeat of Chelsea) but Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi has been a bright light, as has the evergreen Peter Crouch.  Asmir Begovic continues to excel in goal but Stoke have not quite been as solid defensively as under Pulis.  They have a good spine to their team but not too much back-up if one of Robert Huth or Ryan Shawcross gets injured.  A forward or attacking midfielder is also a priority if they are to improve on their rather meagre tally of 19 goals so far this season.

Linked to: Michael Mancienne (Hamburg), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)

 

Sunderland

I don’t know what Paolo Di Canio was doing during the summer because he seems to have worsened Sunderland’s squad, rather than strengthening it.  They have an OK midfield – slightly light on creativity but with plenty of fight – but it is up front where they have the real problem.  Leading striker Steven Fletcher has been injured for part of the season, and has not been firing since his return.  The back-up options are simply not good enough for this level.  Jozy Altidore has only scored two goals this season and their joint leading scorer is their right-back David Bardsley with three which tells the whole story.  Also, when injury-prone pair John O’Shea and Wes Brown don’t play, the central defence looks like an accident waiting to happen.  Furthermore, they have the hindrance of having to sell before they can buy.  Marcos Alonso has been brought in on-loan but they need high-quality first-team players, not fringe players.  Gus Poyet has done a good job in galvanising the Black Cats but it may be too late for them to save themselves from relegation.

Linked to:  Darren Bent (Fulham), Wayne Bridge (Reading),

 

Swansea City

Michael Laudrup’s team have endured a trickier second season in the top flight.  They still play attractive pass-and-move football but teams seemed to have worked out how to beat them.  Michu is not the force of last season and I think their squad has been stretched by their European jaunts.  Another striker to relieve the burden on Wilfried Bony and the injured Michu would not go amiss as would a top centre-back.  The Swans have been a bit leaky at the back and this has not been helped by the absence of Dutch stopper Michel Vorm.  Replacement keeper Gerrard Tremmel just isn’t in the same league.  Not totally out of the relegation scrap but should have enough quality to survive with comfort, as shown by their win at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool)

 

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs, rather unwisely, decided to spend all the proceeds from the sale of Gareth Bale on every midfielder ever.  Consequently left back and up front are looking a bit bare.  Danny Rose has recently looked a bit suspect at defending (rather important for a left-back) so that is a priority.  In the striking department, the return from exile of Emmanuel Adebayor has been a godsend and Tim Sherwood has found Tottenham’s attacking mojo again.  Still, if one of Soldado or Adebayor gets injured then an uncharacteristically lacklustre Jermain Defoe and not-all-that-talented Harry Kane wait in the wings.  It will remain to be seen just how much money the notoriously frugal Daniel Levy makes available for transfers.  He may have to dig into his pockets if Spurs are to get into Europe next season.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Mohamed Salah (Basel), Alex Buttner (Manchester United), Ezequiel Lavezzi (PSG), Paul-Georges Ntep (Auxerre)

 

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies are pretty comfortable in mid-table although whoever takes up the reigns at the Hawthorns will not have a lot of money to play with.  To be honest he won’t need it because West Brom have a good squad and plenty of cover for all positions.  They arguably could do with another right-back as cover for the injury-prone Steven Reid.  The Midlands club have a jewel in Saido Berahino and they will have a job keeping hold of him in the coming months.  They should also use the transfer window to buy Nicolas Anelka a brain.

Linked to: Aaron Cresswell (Ipswich), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Craig Gardner (Sunderland)

 

West Ham

The Hammers have some serious problems.  I watched their 5-0 drubbing to Nottingham Forest at the weekend and it was embarrassing.  Forest could have easily scored 10.  I know West Ham have some defensive injuries but to lose in such a fashion to team from a lower tier is inexcusable.  They need Andy Carroll fit and playing (and scoring) to have any hope of arresting their current slide.  They have been unfortunate to have so many injuries to key players (Collins, Tomkins and Reid) and actually, overall, at the back, they have been fairly solid.  It’s in the final 3rd that they’ve been pretty pathetic.  If Big Sam can do a bit of wheeling and dealing, if he doesn’t play Stewart Downing, if they get their defenders back in time and some decent service to Carroll, and some magic dust, they might just avoid relegation.

Linked to: Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Demba Ba (Chelsea), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Marseille), Chris Samba (Blackburn), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Nikica Jelavic (Everton).

Remembering previous play-off finals

The Championship/First Division/Second Division (delete as appropriate) play-off final has provided a large number of English football’s most memorable games and moments since the inception of the play-offs in 1987.  Styled as the most valuable game in the world, even more so this season thanks to a massive increase in TV revenue, a combination of the importance of the event, fatigue caused by the rigours of a long season, and an end-of-term atmosphere often contribute to an attacking, free-flowing game (with a few exceptions, I’m looking at you Birmingham 1-1 Norwich in 2002).  So, with this season’s final finale of many just around the corner, let’s have a look at some of the more memorable ones.

Leeds 1-2 Charlton 1987

A cursory search of the Internet throws no light on the question of who it was that came up with the idea of the play-offs, but whoever it was, a doff of the hat and a tug of the forelock to you.  They were introduced for the 1986-87 season, with a slightly different format to now, in that the fourth-bottom team in the First Division would take part to avoid relegation.  To be honest, the first few years of the play-offs were a little over-complicated – for some reason the fourth-bottom team of the First Division would have to take part, but only the third bottom team of the Second Division, and the final was held over 2 legs, with no penalties or away goals rule, leading to several replays on neutral grounds.  The oddest occurrence came in the 1987-88 Second/Third Division play-offs, when after drawing 3-3 on aggregate over the two legs of the final, Walsall and Bristol City had a penalty shoot-out, not to decide who would win promotion, but to decide who would win the right to host the replay.  Bizarre.

Charlton finished fourth-bottom in the First Division in 1986-87, back in the days when they ground-shared with Crystal Palace, while an attractive Leeds side under Billy Bremner had finished 4th in the Second Division, while also losing a belting FA Cup semi-final 3-2 to Coventry.  Both teams narrowly won their semi-final, Charlton beating Ipswich 2-1 on aggregate, while a last minute goal from lower league goal machine Keith Edwards put Leeds through at the expense of Oldham.  Goals from Charlton’s Scottish striker Jim Melrose, subsequently famous for having his cheekbone fractured by Chris Kamara leading to the SkySports ‘pundit’ being found guilty of GBH, at Selhurst Park, and then Leeds’ Brendan Ormsby, from all of 3 centimetres, at Elland Road meant a deciding match, at St Andrew’s, would be required.

Leeds had a reasonable team that season – former PFA Young Player of the Year Mervyn Day in goal, Mark Aizlewood, recently signed from…you’ve guessed it…Charlton, in defence, the smooth passing of John Sheridan in midfield, Micky Adams’ energy down the left and Ian Baird as a classic number 10.  Charlton, in their first season after promotion, had done rather well to avoid relegation considering the financial uncertainty surrounding the club, but they also had one or two useful players, a young Rob Lee providing goals and bustle from the right wing, Colin Walsh scheming from midfield, and in Paul Miller and Peter Shirtliff a couple of centre-backs who would find themselves (along with Malcolm Shotton and Brian Kilcline) near the top of a hard-bastard central defenders of the 80s list.

To be frank, the game itself wasn’t great.  Leeds probably shaded it, but there wasn’t much in the way of clear chances.  However, the drama was still to come in extra-time.  Ten minutes in, Miller was rather harshly penalised for handball as Edwards ran in on goal (nowadays he’d probably be sent off), and John Sheridan, with almost Federer-esque insouciance, curled the free-kick over the wall and in.  Advantage Leeds, but with seven minutes left, a typically English football in the 80s bout of penalty-area pinball, ended with Shirtliff, an irregular goalscorer to put it mildly, sweeping the ball in with his left foot from 15 yards with Rush-like efficiency.  A penalty shoot-out loomed, but Shirtliff, who scored more than 10% of his career goals in these 5 minutes, popped up once more, heading home Andy Peake’s outswinging free-kick.  Not the most scintillating football, but for drama and the throwing up of an unlikely hero, it’s right up there.

Swindon 4-3 Leicester 1993

Swindon had been denied promotion to the First Division in 1990 when, having won the play-off final against Sunderland, it became apparent they had been breaking all sorts of financial rules over the last 5 years, mainly involving illegal payments, but also including chairman Brian Hillier and then manager Lou Macari betting on Swindon to lose an FA Cup game against Newcastle in 1988.  There was therefore a whiff of catharsis in the air for the Robins, under the management of Glenn Hoddle; there was also unfinished business for their opponents, Leicester City, who had lost the final to Blackburn the previous season thanks to a very soft penalty.  Again the semi-finals were close – Leicester edging out Portsmouth 3-2 on aggregate, and Swindon beating Tranmere 5-4, but the final started cagily.  As you would expect from a team containing the passing and playmaking ability of Hoddle, John Moncur and Micky Hazard (although Hazard was only a substitute here), Swindon were easy on the eye, while Leicester were more direct, relying on the pace of Julian Joachim and Lee Philpott, and the physical presence of defender-turned-striker Steve Walsh.  Shortly before half-time Swindon took the lead when Nicky Summerbee whipped in a mediocre cross, Craig Maskell controlled it well, before playing a neat back-heel into the path of Hoddle who placed a first time shot just left of Kevin Poole.  So far, so unremarkable.

The second half, on the other hand started out like a house on fire.  Moncur tried to dribble his way through the middle, got a lucky rebound and managed to poke the ball through to Maskell, who tonked a left-footed strike across Poole into the top corner.  Then Moncur headed a loose ball into the penalty area following a corner, and Shaun Taylor braved Poole’s flying fists to nod the ball over the line.  3-0, and Swindon were surely strolling into the Premier League.

But not for long.  Three minutes after Taylor’s goal, Philpott and David Oldfield played a nice one-two down the left, Walsh headed Philpott’s cross against the post, and Joachim walloped the rebound home, nearly decapitating Swindon ‘keeper Fraser Digby in the process.  Ten minutes later, with Swindon’s defence looking petrified, Gary Mills’ cross from the right was retrieved by Philpott who stood up a 9-iron of a cross.  Digby waved a hand in the general direction of the ball, and Walsh, whose physique suggested he should have been playing with an oval ball at Welford Road instead, headed home.  Almost inevitably, Leicester equalised, when Mike Whitlow took the ball off Moncur with the brutal ease of a school bully relieving the school weed of his lunch money, went on a barnstorming run down the left, and cut the ball back across the penalty area.  Steve Thompson arrived late, dummied two defenders with a first touch of almost inhuman calmness, and touched the ball past the onrushing Digby.

Received wisdom suggests momentum is a crucial concept in sport.  According to the laws of momentum, Leicester should have gone on to win the game.  However, there were still 20 minutes left, giving Swindon time to recover themselves and keep things simple.  On 84 minutes, Hoddle played a delightful lofted through ball over Colin Hill into Steve White’s path.  The substitute knocked the ball past Poole with his first touch, realised Hill had recovered and threw himself to the floor in a rather unconvincing manner.  Convincing enough for David Ellery who, presumably practising for the two penalties he’d give at the next season’s FA Cup final, awarded the penalty.  In an era when full-backs seemed quite often to be regular penalty takers (Julian Dicks, Lee Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Denis Irwin), left-back Paul Bodin stepped up and sent Poole the wrong way.  Success for Hoddle, who joined Chelsea in the close season, and would become England manager just over 3 years later, and a case of history repeating itself for Leicester.

Bolton 4-3 Reading 1995

The Reading team of 1994-95 are one of the unluckiest of all play-off losers.  Under the guidance of joint player-managers Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding (back in the times where such things were fashionable/possible), the Royals had been unexpected challengers for promotion, having won the Second Division the season before.  Challenge they did, though, ending up in 2nd place, 3 points behind champions Middlesbrough.  Ordinarily, 2nd place would have been enough to gain promotion, but with the football league going through another restructuring, reducing the number of teams in the Premier League from 22 to 20, only two promotion places were available.  Reading swallowed their disappointment and defeated Tranmere 3-1 in the semi-finals, while a John McGinlay goal in extra-time took Bruce Rioch’s Bolton past Wolves.

In the final, Reading started like a house on fire.  Aussie full-back Andy Bernal bombed down the right and scuffed a cross in towards Lee Nogan.  The striker somehow managed to wriggle his way past Alan Stubbs, dummied Scott Green and fired the ball past Keith Branagan.  That was after four minutes – eight minutes later a quick free-kick from Simon Osborn found the Bolton defence asleep, and centre-back Adrian Williams poked home.  On 34 minutes Michael Gilkes tricked his way into the penalty area and drew a rash tackle from a baby-faced Jason McAteer.  Joint player-manager Quinn was the regular penalty taker, but had selected himself on the bench (surely part of the point of being player-manager is to pick yourself at every available opportunity), so Stuart Lovell took on the responsibility.  Although, as has been seen, a 3-0 lead is in no way impregnable, surely were Lovell to score, Reading would have one foot, a heel and the best part of an instep in the Premier League.  Instead Branagan (keeping a little-known veteran named Shilton out of the team) dived the right way and kept out the striker’s well-hit penalty.

Despite the fact Reading held out until the 75th minute, there was something almost tragically inevitable about Bolton’s comeback.  First Owen Coyle emphatically headed in a right-wing cross, then, with four minutes left, Alan Thompson played in substitute Fabian DeFreitas , who (just) beat the offside trap and shot in across Shaka Hislop.  Extra time was practically a foregone conclusion.  Big-boned Finn Mixu Paatelainen nodded in from 6 yards, before treating the Wembley crowd to a forward flip that presumably could be felt back home in Helsinki, and then, with the Reading defence barely bothering to walk let alone defend, McGinlay crossed, DeFreitas stuck out a leg, saw the ball hit the post and rebound into his forearm, looked around guiltily and prodded the ball in.  There was still time for Quinn to lash in a consolation with the frustration of a man who has watched his dreams of top flight football slip away, but this was a missed opportunity for Reading who would have to wait another 12 years before attaining promotion to the top flight. 

Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace 1996

Leicester City went on an impressive run of appearing in 4 out of 5 play-off finals in the early-mid 90s.  After defeats in 1992 and 1993, they had finally won at Wembley, undeservedly beating Derby County in 1994, and, following relegation, were back again, facing another side relegated from the Premier League the year before, Crystal Palace.

Martin O’Neill was starting to build the Leicester team that would win the League Cup the following season, and establish themselves in the Premier League.  Most of the midfield and attack from the previous season’s Premier League disaster had been replaced, with Garry Parker (surely far too good for Division One), Scott Taylor and Neil Lennon being signed, and Muzzy Izzet arriving on loan from Chelsea.  A strong left-sided attacker named Emile Heskey was breaking through, and just before the transfer deadline, O’Neill had paid over £1 million for journeyman striker Steve Claridge.  Palace, under Dave Bassett, had also made some important signings, including top scorer Dougie Freedman from Barnet, and Britain’s ginger-est man David Hopkin from Chelsea.

Palace went ahead early in the game, a perceptive pass from Ray Houghton finding Andy Roberts on the edge of the area whose shot hit a bobble and jumped over the unfortunate Kevin Poole’s outstretched arm.  For the remainder of the game, however, it was pretty much constant Leicester pressure.  Parker and Lennon probed away from the middle of the park, Izzet, playing on the left, was busy and tricksy, while Heskey did what Heskey always did best – make a nuisance of himself, run defenders around, create space for others, and resolutely fail to score.  Claridge hooked wide from 10 yards as the ball came over his shoulder, and Steve Walsh had a shot cleared off the line, although Poole had to be at his best to stop a tremendous long-range effort from George Ndah.  With 15 minutes to go, however, time was running out for Leicester.  Then Walsh played a terrific ball down the left for Izzet, who cut in towards goal.  Despite the fact there were three other Palace defenders around, with barely a Leicester player in sight, Marc Edworthy dived in to try and win the ball, a tackle as ill-judged as Phil Neville’s against Romania in Euro 2000.  A clear penalty, which Garry Parker put away with no trouble, and Leicester had the equaliser they deserved.

And so we had extra-time again.  Leicester continued to dominate, but failed to create any real chances, and the game drifted inexorably towards penalties.  Then after 119 minutes O’Neill played his masterstroke.  Looking over to the bench, most were surprised to see Leicester’s reserve (and future Milan) goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac ready to come on.  Apparently he had talked O’Neill into bringing him on, reasoning that his 6’8’’ frame would render him more likely to save penalties.  A rather odd decision in retrospect, especially given that Kevin Poole, who looked gutted to be taken off, had a reputation as a shot-stopper.  However, on he lumbered, and as Palace’s players watched this behemoth take to the field, Leicester launched a last minute free-kick upfield.  Ndah won the ball but could only nod it down towards the edge of the penalty area.  Claridge ambled onto the bouncing ball, and swung a tired right leg at it.  Now, Steve Claridge, admirable footballer though he may have been, was never one of the great technicians.  Here at the end of 120 minutes of one of the most important matches of his career, it is sad to report that Claridge’s technique deserted his exhausted body.  The ball hit his shin and went off at an improbable angle.  This improbable angle happened to be towards the left-hand corner of Nigel Martyn’s net, in a perfect curving arc.  The gobsmacked ‘keeper could only watch the ball loop into the goal, as Claridge wheeled away, scarcely believing what he’d done.  To be fair to the striker he had the good grace to admit he’d shinned it in the post-match interview.

There are several other finals I could have chosen, and I am aware that I am extremely biased towards my childhood.  For example, there was Palace coming from 3-1 down after the first leg to beat Blackburn after extra time in 1989, thanks to a brace from Ian Wright; or the famous 4-4 draw between Charlton and Sunderland in 1998, complete with Clive Mendonca hat-trick, and Michael Gray being responsible for one of Wembley’s worst penalties (tied with Gary Lineker’s against Brazil in 1992); Ipswich finally breaking their play-off hoodoo with a 4-2 win over Barnsley in 2000, with Britain’s craggiest man Tony Mowbray scoring on his last ever appearance; or Blackpool beating Cardiff 3-2 in 2010, with all the goals coming in the first half.  Anyway, I hope that this season’s game lives up to its illustrious predecessors.