Manchester United v Chelsea: match report


Jose Mourinho produced a tactical masterclass. His side were smarter, sharper and more ruthless than their opponents in every department and showed fans and critics alike what he can do when the big matches roll round. The game in question here, though, was Chelsea’s 3-1 destruction of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United almost 12 years ago. On that day Mourinho enhanced his reputation further as Chelsea marched towards a record-breaking triumph in the Premier League.


12 years is a lifetime in football and this time, Mourinho seems like he is rebuilding his once unquestionable reputation. The Portuguese managed his best Man United game yet as he got the better of rival Antonio Conte in a feisty encounter. Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera got the goals in what turned out to be a convincing 2-0 victory at Old Trafford and perhaps gives new life to their top four ambitions as well as the title race.


The Special One sprung surprises on Easter Sunday choosing to leave star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench and lining up in a 4-2-2 set-up with Rashford and Jese Lingard up front. Ander Herrera was tasked with marrying himself to Eden Hazard – flashbacks of the F.A. Cup tie where the Spaniard was given his marching orders after a late challenge on the Belgian may have had Man United fans worried. Not so this time as the tenacious midfielder stuck to his task diligently and frustrated the Chelsea talisman in an all-action man of the match performance.


Mourinho’s men flew out of the traps at Old Trafford with the pace and understanding between Rashford and Lingard causing problems for the Chelsea back three. The game was not even ten minutes old when Herrera stole possession – questionably as big shouts for handball appeared to be justified – before sliding an excellent ball in behind for Rashford to chance and calmly finish. A goal move unable to materialise, perhaps, if Ibrahimovic was spearheading the attack.


Diego Costa, often the subject of many subplots throughout Mourinho’s time at Chelsea, yet has seemed more measured under Conte, showed his unsavoury side yet again. The brutish Spanish striker found himself embroiled in battles with United’s defensive duo Marcus Rojo and Eric Bailly. His frustrations earned him a yellow card after a late challenge on Pogba.


Chelsea looked unusually unfocused, drawn into Manchester United’s clever mind games and acts of street-smarts. The focus was so much lacking that Gary Cahill was more attentive in hauling Lingard up from the ground during the build up to Herrera doubling United’s advantage.


It took Chelsea 45 minutes to muster their first effort on goal albeit a frustrated lash from Costa.


Whatever Conte’s half time message was to his flat Chelsea side at the forefront of it must have been not to concede another goal early in the second half. However, some three minutes into the second period they found themselves further behind. Chelsea failed to clear their lines once more and Ashley Young, who was given the captain’s armband for the occasion, drove into the Chelsea penalty area before another failed clearance fell to Herrera. The Spaniard, the beneficiary of two slices of good fortune after his alleged handball in the first half for his assist for Rashford’s goal, arrowed his shot through a crowd of players which ricocheted off player’s in blue shirts on its way past Asmir Begovic in the Chelsea goal.


Before the hour mark Conte attempted to turn the tide in this giant game of chess. Cesc Fabregas came on to offer much needed creativity in place of Victor Moses, asked to operate out of the other full-back position after a pre-game injury to Marcos Alonso.


Mourinho countered with a tactical change of his own, sacrificing pace for control, as he brought on Michael Carrick for Lingard. The switch left Rashford isolated but that did not stop the young England centre forward from hustling and bustling his was up front and making life uncomfortable for the Chelsea defenders.


N’golo Kante failed to get his usual grip in midfield, partly due to the excellence of Mauroane Fellaini and Herrera in midfield scurrying around refusing to give the Chelsea key players a moments rest. Matteo Darmian found himself handcuffed to Pedro on the other side of the field refusing to let the former Barcelona wide man find space to operate in.


Mourinho’s side could have filled their boots in truth, Rashford smashed an effort into the side netting and Young spurned two excellent chances from the edge of the area to inflict more misery onto Conte’s men. England manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands and will have been impressed with what he saw from the Manchester United English trio – especially in a new tactical set-up.


Rashford was brought off with just two minutes of time remaining to a standing ovation and allowed Ibrahimovic to get on in a cameo appearance.


Conte pleaded with his side to push forward in the closing stages but by that point United had become water tight, refusing to give an inch.


The final whistle brought with it a rapturous ovation, it was perhaps the most complete United performance since the days of Ferguson, and certainly the best day so far in Mourinho’s time as Man United manager. The former Chelsea boss could not have asked for much more in a week where his side have a vital away goal in the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht capped off by a monumental league victory over what many believe to be the champions elect. Mourinho was at his meticulous best – substituting captain Young fully knowing it would take the winger-turned-full-back more time to exit the field due to him passing on the armband.


United fans chanted Mourinho’s name in unison clearly buoyed the masterful display. The same fans which were often sickened by Mourinho bringing his Chelsea teams to Old Trafford and furthering his reputation as The Special One now get to experience perhaps what is come down long road ahead.


West Brom V Liverpool: match report


A particularly stale encounter in the Black Country on Easter Sunday saw Liverpool take another step towards Champions League qualification while West Brom’s stagnation after reaching the 40-point mark continued. Before the fireworks at Old Trafford Jurgen Klopp’s men took their chance to establish themselves even more in the hunt for the top four and heap further pressure on those behind – including Mourinho’s men in Manchester. Roberto Firmino got the solitary goal – and managed to keep his shirt on – in a hard-fought 1-0 victory at The Hawthrones.


West Brom by comparison look to be on their holidays – mentally if nothing else. Now past the magical 40-point mark and with their Premier League status promised for at least another campaign the hard work for the Baggies has been done. Perhaps this speaks to a wider problem about the ambition at West Brom, but most of their players looked to have downed tools and lacked motivation – so much so that Pulis was screaming encouragement throughout the whole 90 minutes instructing each player when to close down, take on their full-back and so on.


The game started with Liverpool half asleep in the opening two minutes being sloppy from two throw-ins to the annoyance of Klopp on the touchline. West Brom failed to capitalise on their visitor’s slow start however with little creativity from their midfield. A huge area of need this summer if West Brom are to build on their impressive season.


The first big chance of the tussle fell to Firmino after a quarter of an hour. Claudio Jacob lost possession to Philippe Coutinho inside the West Brom final third. Coutinho then slid in his fellow Brazilian with a deft ball in. Firmino’s effort was scuffed but had Ben Foster beat, instead trickling past his far post.


West Brom endeavoured to get down the flanks with Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli the likely benefactors from deep balls by Jake Livermore and Chris Brunt. Perhaps just the lack of a high-quality playmaker all that was missing to really carved Liverpool open down the sides.


On the other side, Liverpool’s high end architects were struggling. Coutinho and Firmino were smothered under the organisation that came with a Tony Pulis side.


West Brom’s success from set pieces caused them to spring into life and maraud forward when anything as little as a throw in in Liverpool’s final third presented itself. Phillips’ throw ins were no match for those of Rory Delap and the Stoke side of nearly a decade ago which built theirs, and Pulis’ reputation, as a rugged, no-nonsense outfit.


Right on the stroke of half time it was Liverpool taking a page out of their opposition’s book. James Milner’s free-kick was flicked on by Lucas and found Firmino all alone in the six-yard area to nod past Foster. The goal was uncharacteristic from both sides. It is not often that Liverpool make the most of set pieces, and it was even less likely that West Brom surrender back-to-back headers to two Brazilians whom both measure under six feet tall. Firmino’s 12th goal of the season undoing all of the effort West Brom had put in with Pulis’ constant instructions from the side line counting for naught at the interval.


The home side conducted a small meeting before the second half got underway with captain Darren Fletcher offering encouragement amongst other things to try and spark some life into West Brom.


Hal Robson-Kanu, surprisingly making just his first home start for West Brom since joining in the summer, Offered the Baggies the best route to goal but too many times found himself compromised by the linesman’s chequered flag.


Liverpool offered more creativity and incision after the break with Divock Origi and Firmino exploiting the extra half a yard of space left behind by the West Brom midfield as they attempted to restore parity.


Milner was offered the chance to seal the game early in the second half after a delightful chipped ball from Firmino found the midfielder turned left-back in acres of space only for the England international to blaze his effort straight over the crossbar. A finish befitting of a full-back. Firmino could only offer up a knee slide in despair and not, as he probably anticipated, in celebration.


Liverpool briefly had a second which was quickly chalked off after Firmino had just leaned into an offside position before cushioning a header back into the path of Origi who calmly headed the ball into Ben Foster’s goal. The diminutive Brazilian was starting to find more leaks in the West Brom damn with Jurgen Klopp looking for his side to make it burst. An extra worry for Pulis surely had to be that his usually robust defensive outfit were losing headers to a slight midfield playmaker.


After just over an hour the Baggies boss had seen enough and threw on Salomon Rondon and James McClean, although Rondon himself has not been in great goal-scoring form with no goals in 17 club games since his hattrick against Swansea.


The home side’s biggest chance fell to Phillips after a powerful run from Rondon had Liverpool’s defence, often questioned but comfortable on the day, scrambling to stop the burly Venezuelan. His pass found Phillips on the inside left of the penalty area and the winger could only take aim and fire his effort into the onrushing Simon Mignolet.


A mad scrap ensued in the final moments of the game with the West Bromwich faithful roaring mightily with every set piece earned. The proceedings even saw Foster come up from his goal for an injury time corner – and nearly resulting in disaster. Substitute Alberto Moreno won the ball from the corner and tried his luck from all of 45-yards but completely missed the target, much to the disgust of Daniel Sturridge, when Foster a full 60-yards back from his own net. Amazingly, Foster stayed rooted in the heart of the Liverpool half in a desperate bid to snatch a leveller but to no avail. A smile of relief greeted Klopp upon hearing the ringing of the full-time whistle.


Klopp will care little that his side failed to provide their usual swashbuckling best, as at this stage of the season it is all about the three points which propel the Merseysiders into third – nine points ahead of fifth placed Everton and heaping even more pressure on Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

How sport helped guide me through the darkest period of my life


It has been little over six months since I lost my mother. During which time, I have had to confront grief, stress and deep depression. All of this on top of having to tackle the everyday issues that we all face.


Many have helped me get through this period. Family and trained professionals have tried to guide me through the abyss to see me come out the other side Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption style. Yet the place where I often found the most solace was when glued to my screen watching sporting drama unfold.


When my mother passed in early September me and my father made the journey from Lincoln to Oldham four days later to grieve as a family. Yet on that day the first Manchester Derby of the 2016-17 Premier League season was also taking place. For an hour and a half, I sat with my family utterly absorbed by the occasion. My uncle Fernando screaming at the television desperate for his beloved Manchester City to be victorious.


I myself had no stake in the game, but for 90 minutes all my sadness evaporated as I watched Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola duel on the touchline while superstars draped in sky blue and red played out a pulsating encounter. It made me forget. For however brief the amnesia the game eased the heartbreak and transported me to a world where I did not matter. All that mattered were the 22 men on the field and the thousands in the stands willing them on.


Mum’s funeral was some three weeks later. An occasion that provoked reflection amongst other things. Yet even in the early hours of the morning of that exhausting day I found myself sat with my cousin Chris and two friends debating the right back position. A chance to debate and think in depth and compare player X against player Y provided escapism for my brain leaving behind reality.


Escapism has been key. Being alone with your thoughts and all the time in the world is enough to drive any person insane. Yet amid a deep depression those thoughts turn dark. They turn to thoughts of suicide, regret and self-loathing. Nothing is more depressing than questioning with your own mortality and if life is worth it when such pain exists. You can often make a compelling case that it is easier and worth it to end it all. To not have to face the trials and tribulations of life and be reunited with loved ones.


The day after I watched Manchester United destroy champions Leicester 4-1 before listening to Arsenal produce a scintillating half of football to gun down Chelsea 3-0. A three-hour period that brought a much-needed catharsis. It was an opportunity to become absorbed in something other than reality.


While sport shares many traits with the normalcies of commonplace life it was one of these similarities that I relished most: unpredictability. Mum’s death hit home, harder than ever, that life was unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Yet it was this characteristic that I loved dearly about sport. I appreciated that I knew nothing about the outcome of whatever sport I sat down to watch – and that gave me comfort.


The day after that I sat in a friend’s kitchen watching the Green Bay Packers open up their 2016 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. We had to leave at the end of the third quarter. We got back just in time for the final drive of the game where I was less composed journalist and more fanboy watching his team try and hold on for an opening day victory. I was so close to the television that nobody behind me could see a thing. I remember I was sent home from work that day after it all got too much. I broke down in the kitchen, then, emotionally spent, I fell asleep once my step-mum collected me from work. When the first ball was kicked in Jacksonville I was as awake as ever. All my difficulties fell away. The only thing that mattered was Aaron Rodgers and company marching Green Bay up and down the field. While they sweated in 30 degree heat they unknowingly provided a strange therapy for a man, whom felt more like a small boy, who had lost his direction in life.


In the immediate aftermath of my mother’s passing I fell into a deep depression. Forcing every emotion that was not a frown. Smiles were forced rather than naturally occurring, even when I had reason to smile I could not find it within myself to raise one. But when football, NFL or darts was on the emotions flooded back and the drama unfolding in front of me made for a sturdy dam keeping negative emotions at bay. All screams, smiles and large exhales were spontaneous. Each televised sporting occasion became my own outer body experience as I rose from the cocoon of despair and grief to be reunited with emotions of joy and exhilaration.


In mid-November I was sat watching the Dallas Cowboys defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a gripping encounter. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant ended the game with six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Without context, his stat line means little. But less than 24-hours earlier Bryant had lost his father. His Head Coach and teammates paid homage to his toughness in the locker room after the game.


Watching an emotional locker room rally around Bryant slapped me back into reality. Bryant could perform due to his dedicated support group. Much like what I had around me. It also reminded me that, as much as we may not want to, life must go on. We must perform our duties in work and home life. He played his position at the highest level less than a day after his devastating loss (fast forward to 1:10 on the video). Bryant used playing sport the same way I used watching and analysing it. An escape from reality, a form of therapy, even if only for a fleeting period.

Not long after I sat in work watching a story on Philadelphia Eagles’ long snapper Jon Dorenbos, whose father murdered his mother when he was just 12-years-old. I shed tears. Not only because the story was touching in its own right but because suddenly I could relate. After experiencing such a devastating loss of my own I could offer sympathy on a personal level. Even if that person had no idea who I was.


Sport illustrated better than anything that in a split-second anything can happen and with that lives are changed forever. For better or worse sport painted the picture that in the moment anything is possible. It taught me not to assume anything no matter how stacked the odds are in your favour, or against it.


For me, my mum was superhuman. She was going to be around even after rapture. But trying to make sense of a passing of that magnitude is hard to convey in the spoken or written word. Yet unknowingly sport demonstrated it perfectly. Sport is a collage of hundreds and thousands of moments, strung together along an undetermined timeline until a certain outcome is reached. It is only after the final moment can a post mortem be carried out to examine what moments mattered most.


My own reflective stage taught me to string together the moments that mattered most when remembering my mother: the trip to Barbados, being with her on my graduation, watching the 2004 F.A. Cup final together and seeing a young Cristiano Ronaldo blossom in Manchester. These moments, in hindsight, mattered more significantly than I could have ever imagined at the time. Just like all the moments in sport matter.


For the last six months’ sport has provided a wonderful, yet surreal, haven for myself. A bridge between fantasy and reality allowing for brief moments of distraction while being present in the moment. Everything about sport as an industry made it feel surreal. The level of skill on show, the very nature of it being on television and the vast amounts of money on display allowed for an experience unable to be pinned down in reality.


After turning to alcohol, work, family and many other outlets for, not help, but a way out it was in sport that I found the most comfort. After all, all I am after, is an escape.


Liverpool title chase a lost cause with a bad defence


Saturday’s 3-2 home loss to Swansea saw Liverpool’s season in a microcosm. While breathtakingly entertaining, their weak backline became exposed. It’s the third time this season that The Reds have shipped three goals in a single game.


Jurgen Klopp’s side have already conceded 27 goals this season, more than five title winning sides conceded over a 38-game span. The average number of goals conceded by a title winning team is 32 and Liverpool are set to go over that number, probably by some distance.


Having based their recent title-tilts on attack over defence Klopp’s Liverpool is now facing the same problem as Brendan Rodgers’ did during their 2013/14 title charge. Liverpool conceded 50 goals that season while scoring an almighty 101. Winners City conceded 13 less while scoring an equally impressive 102 goals.


The Reds’ erratic defending has heaped pressure on their forwards. Starting as they meant to go on their opening day clash with Arsenal saw them roar into a 4-1 leading midway through the second half only to hang on for dear life as their defence capitulated allowing Arsenal to get the score back to 4-3 with just 15 minutes remaining. While many praised Liverpool for not buckling while The Gunners attempted to stage a great comeback the bigger issue at hand was that Liverpool could not go an entire season conceding at that level. Unfortunately, the issues that plagued them in August are still there in January.


Klopp has invested in his back line with the additions of centre-backs Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan as well as goalkeeper Loris Karius to provide competition for Simon Mignolet. While Matip shows signs he will develop into a very good centre half Estonian international Klavan remains a liability at the back. Klopp has turned to James Milner to help fix their problem at left-back with Alberto Moreno lacking positional sense. Neither Karius or Mignolet cuts a figure of a shot-stopper who can be the backbone of a title-winning side.


Only twice has a team lifted the Premier League when conceding at least 40 goals – Manchester United on both occasions. Liverpool have conceded at least 40 goals for six straight seasons and look odds on to make that reach seven.


Swashbuckling attack has never been an issue for Liverpool with them able to match the very best when going forward. Klopp has moulded an exciting array of firepower but what his side lacks when compared to front-runners Chelsea, and the great Manchester United sides of years gone by, is organisation at the back with solid defenders and a world class goalkeeper. For all their brilliance going forward the method simply is not sustainable.


Liverpool’s approach at times could often be labelled as chaotic – perhaps much like their brilliant German manager. Their attack so fast and furious the opposition can’t have a moment to breath, head-spinning speed and movement and in Saido Mane they have a forward with power as well as pace. Their chaos is a double-edged sword however, transferring to their backline where The Reds all too often scramble around making it painfully obvious that their organisation and communication is a huge weak spot.


For the next few transfer windows Klopp’s objective should be clear: get better defenders. Dejan Lovren has not recaptured his form which earned him a move to Liverpool from Southampton, James Milner, while having an outstanding season at full-back, is more there out of necessity due to Alberto Moreno’s ineffectiveness. Nathaniel Clyne has been solid in his right-back role and, along with Milner, is their most consistent performer in defence.


Klopp has certainly brought his “heavy metal” football to Anfield, his vision is starting to take shape to the joy of spectators but their lack of solid foundations at the back is what has always been, and continues to be, their undoing.


Can Bournemouth finish top ten?


Bournemouth survived their maiden Premier League campaign by five points. Eddie Howe steered The Cherries to 16th place and did so having lost key players to devastating injuries. Record signing Tyrone Mings, striker Callum Wilson and winger Max Gradel all suffered season ending torn ACLs by September.


Last season was about survival for Bournemouth. They hit several icebergs on their voyage yet refused to be sank. Such icebergs included playing so openly against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspurs in back to back games – shipping ten goals in the process (a lot of seafaring analogies).


Howe’s side also dropped 14 points from winning positions with only Liverpool dropping more. Some very harsh lessons for the coastal outfit.


Their first year of being a Magikarp in a sea full of Gyarados saw them survive in an impressive manner. Now the question is: Can they push up the table? Can they in fact achieve a top ten finish in just their second season in the Premier League?


The proposal does not sound as preposterous when their season as a whole is put under the microscope. Bournemouth finished on 42 points, just eight behind Chelsea who finished tenth. Had Bournemouth collected those 14 aforementioned points they dropped from winning positions they would have placed an astonishing ninth. In context – if they manage to secure three more wins in the 2016/17 season they will crack the 50 point barrier and be well in the running for a top ten finish.


To do that, Howe will have to bring more joy to the Vitality Stadium. Bournemouth triumphed just five times at home last season with eight losses including 1-0 defeats to now Championship sides Aston Villa and Newcastle United.


Howe is presented to many of us as England’s great new managerial hope. At just 38 years old and successfully managing in the Premier League many tip him for greatness. With such hype comes forgetfulness – we forget that he is still a very young manager with a lot to learn especially at such a high level. Howe’s arrow is pointing upwards but one area of improvement – as well as Bournemouth holding onto leads – is their need to turn games around after conceding the first goal. The Cherries collected a lowly four points when they were breached first.


during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Leicester City at Vitality Stadium on August 29, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.

Howe will have much better personnel available to him when the season ambushes us in just over two weeks with Mings, Wilson and Gradel all available as well as the addition of exciting winger Jordan Ibe from Liverpool and engine room Lewis Cook from Leeds. That brings Bournemouth’s total of English players to 13 – for that reason alone we should all root for them to succeed.


The way to turning draws into wins and losses into draws is down to goals. Bournemouth lost six games by one goal last term. The firepower will be much improved with Ibe and Gradel supplying the ammunition for Wilson, Joshua King and January signing Benik Afobe to put away. The strikers will also have to come up with the goods as between the three of them they only managed to find the net 15 times combined. Afobe started well but soon tapered off as supply dried up and he failed to take the precious chances which fell to him.


Howe’s men found the net 45 times a very acceptable rate for a team looking to survive but if Bournemouth want to crack the top ten they will need more – but they are in pole position to score more with the added fire power.


While their number of goals scored must increase the number of goals they concede must decrease – by a lot. Only relegated Aston Villa conceded more than the 67 goals The Cherries shipped. Their central defensive partnership should be a pairing of Mings and the very capable Nathan Ake whom they have acquired on loan from Chelsea. Last season saw them lose five games by more than two goals including their October thrashings by Man City and Spurs.


To concede around 15 less goals would be a big ask but not an impossible one with the gain in experience and a reinforced defensive options.


Looking ahead to their season in 2016/17 Bournemouth open the season in difficult fashion. Starting at home to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United before travelling to West Ham’s new home hoping to crash their house warming party. They end August with a tricky trip to Crystal Palace.


Once the early season rust is out of the way October presents some very winnable fixtures for Howe’s squad with away days at Watford and Middlesbrough sandwiching a home clash with Hull City. Teams gunning for the top ten will need to collect at least six points from nine – a very achievable target for such a talented club.


December may be a month to batten down the hatches as a turbulent December lays in wait for the plucky underdogs. Bournemouth square off again champions Leicester, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, Liverpool and Southampton – who are undergoing their annual permanent trip to Merseyside. Bournemouth may consider themselves fortunate to collect one win from those games but have shown in the past that they can beat the big boys securing back to back December wins over Chelsea and Manchester United – albeit a very stale Chelsea and Man United.

The closing fixtures are much kinder to Bournemouth and present them with ample opportunity to push into the top ten. They face just two sides who finished in the top six last season – Spurs and Leicester both away – with very winnable games against promoted sides Burnley and Middlesbrough both having to visit the south coast.


The order is tall for Bournemouth to obtain a top ten finish but since Leicester ushered in an era of anything being possible the notion that the underdogs could rise into the top half of the table is not in the realms of fantasy. Like Leicester, Bournemouth have made a habit of defying the odds.

He’s no Pep or Klopp but Big Sam is the right man


Sam Allardyce is set to become the latest man to pick up the poison chalice of being named the England manager. His imminent appointment has a more poignant feel than other hiring’s for the job. It’s been ten years since the last time Big Sam has been talked about seriously as a potential England manager – losing out to Steve McClaren in 2006.


Such is the age we live in social media has by enlarge rejected the appointment of Allardyce already looking to his successor – how insane is that? People are already calling for the man’s head and he hasn’t even been appointed yet.


Outrageous backlash aside the former Bolton Wanderers manager will be the nest England manager and before we drop the guillotine we should take a moment to seriously consider Allardyce’s achievements.


Success is measured in many ways – for coaches like Mourinho and Guardiola it’s silverware. For managers such as Big Sam it’s how to consolidate teams and make them competitive, saving them from relegation and building on that. Allardyce’s success comes in the shape of taking players with shattered confidence and making them believe in themselves. After inheriting a bunch of players at Sunderland who looked lost on the pitch Allardyce transformed them into snarling pumas – not scared kitty cats.


Sunderland were seven points adrift when Allardyce took to the helm. Fast forward to the end of the season and The Black Cats finished two points above the relegation zone at the expense of their bitter rivals Newcastle United. Sunderland lost just one of their final 11 games including show stopping performances against Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton.


To look forward to Allardyce’s appointment we must first look back – not too far back – to Euro 2016. France, Germany, Spain even England all boasted a wealth of attacking talent. The tournament was won by a solid, stubborn, organised Portugal team. Portugal won just one game in 90 minutes throughout the entire tournament but all that matters is they won it. Head Coach Fernando Santos set his side out to be diligent in defence and ruthless in attack – they rode their luck at times but every team needs luck to go all the way.


Santos built his team around a strong spine: Pepe at the back, emerging superstar Renato Sanches in midfield and Cristiano Ronaldo in attack. There was nothing flashy about Portugal and they way they played but everything they did was efficient and effective.


“Efficient” and “effective” are two words which would sum up Allardyce’s career. He gets the best out of what he has got and can tweak his formation according to the personnel he has available.


The biggest knock on Big Sam is his direct style of play, “19th century football” Jose Mourinho called it. Arsene Wenger has also slammed Allardyce in his Bolton days for his robust style of football. However, such things are no more than a tactic Allaredyce adopts rather than the makeup of his managerial abilities. When looking back on performances against Manchester United and Chelsea, Sunderland took the game to their opposition and attacked with intent – with the ball on the ground I might add.

The backbone of Allardyce’s tactics is still making the most of set plays and defending set plays well – but is that a bad thing? Organisation and structure? The very things England lacked throughout the Roy Hodgson reign.


One thing can be guaranteed from the ex-Newcastle manager and that’s organisation and structure. The clichéd headless chickens phrase sprung to mind watching England desperately try and rescue their Euro 2016 campaign against Iceland as they aimlessly threw players forward. Allardyce at least has a plan, get numbers in the box, get it out wide and get the ball into the box and attack it. By the law of averages – if the quality if good enough you will get a chance. Look no further than Jermain Defoe’s winner against Chelsea in May.


The defence would now like to make a case for defence. If you can stomach it, look back at any game of England at Euro 2016. What hit’s you the most? How bad the defending was. You stand more chance of winning games if you stop the opposition from scoring. While Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are tremendous going forward they often get caught out defensively. There seemed to be no communication between the two centre halves and Joe Hart was awful.


Allardyce to date has kept 131 clean sheets, the fifth most in Premier League history. Sunderland also kept four clean sheets in their last eight games to save their skin. Allardyce wants to build on a solid defence, score first, then counter attack. Sunderland took 28 points from a possible 39 when they scored first – a remarkable record.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Allardyce has a presence about him. He isn’t called Big Sam for nothing. He is a man’s man, unafraid of egos and not afraid to drop big names – Wayne Rooney may be sweating on his place in future squads – Allardyce will make sure that players selected play for the shirt, accepting nothing less than 100% effort and commitment from even fringe players.


Big Sam is not the most sophisticated man. He’s tough and direct (especially with his words). He doesn’t play tiki taka football and won’t attack just because of fan and media pressure. He’s a strong minded, tough and direct character with unshakable belief in himself – and his teams have always reflected that. At a time when the England national team are at their most fragile after their lowest point on the international stage, Big Sam is absolutely the right man to restore English pride.

Pogba’s nightmare tournament still has a dream ending


Watching ITV’s half time closing sequence a Paul Pogba caricature looked smooth and sophisticated. Yet some 44 minutes earlier his clumsy clattering of Shane Long had gifted Republic of Ireland a dream start as Robbie Brady dispatched the penalty. The host nation down a goal at half time with the lion share of the blame placed fairly on their talisman’s shoulders.


If Pogba is the poster boy for France and Euro 2016 it would be a black & white one with “WANTED” written directly underneath it. Alas more villain than hero for Didier Deschamps so far. Pogba’s road to true superstardom yet again encountered more road works and diversions. Outshone by Dimitri Payet in the opening game (and the group stages as a whole) prompting his benching for their second group fixture. Rescued by Antoine Griezmann after his gaffe it was the Juventus star that truly had the Luck of the Irish.


All the omens pointed to Pogba lighting the tournament up like those who have gone before him. A Juventus player making a European Championship in his native land his tournament. Peak Michel Platini inspired hosts France to victory in 1984 and Zinedine Zidane was crowned Player of the Tournament at Euro 2000 as he lead the national side to European glory in Rotterdam. Pogba would complete the trifecta or so he would in the eyes of the world.


The narrative seemed to perfect and unfortunately it is proving that sometimes we can’t have nice things. Pogba to his credit did recover well from his ham-fisted challenge against Ireland making a series of quality touches, passes and turns. It was a glimmer of what the boy wonder can do and why he is so lauded in world football. But only a glimmer. The casual fan, the fan who does not follow Serie A so closely is waiting to see what all the fuss about the powerful midfielder is about. Overrated is the diagnosis for the man mentioned in the same breath as Zidane and Platini.

Pogba’s tournament so far has been a classic case of trying too hard. The pressure on him is almost visible. Playing like a man who has literally been wrapped in cotton wool. We have been spun a tale of a player who is a world beater, has the ability and potential to be the greatest midfielder to ever play the game. A man who has the audacity to shave “Pogboom” into the side of his head is the mark of a man who has unshakable belief in himself yet he advances with trepidation – a player who knows Europe expects.


The former Manchester United prospect has been built up to dizzying heights. The favourite to be named player of the tournament before France raised the curtain on this summer’s football festival Pogba has slipped to 16/1 with the bookmakers. His team mate Payet yet again stealing his thunder being the new favouroite at 4/1. But the pain doesn’t stop there. After his quickfire brace against Republic of Ireland Griezmann takes his goal tally to three and is back in the hunt for the Golden Boot and buzz is building around the Atletico Madrid striker that he is peaking at the right moment to propel his country to third European Championship in just over two decades.


Pogba is slipping further down the pecking order for the role of ‘talisman’ in Deschamps’s side. Payet and Griezmann look set to duke it out for that moniker as a potential showdown with England beckons in the last eight.


However narrative is a funny old mistress and a superstar performance against Roy’s boys (should they navigate past Iceland that is) would not only be Sod’s Law in the eyes of England fans but would also catapult Pogba back into iconic status.


England fans have been burned all too often by young superstars in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo (twice), Thomas Muller and Ronaldinho. While Wayne Rooney and company are all focusing on the task at hand against Iceland the tale turns it’s watchful eye towards a France vs England showdown with Pogba set to finally break free of his shackles.


They do say after laughter comes tears. We may be mocking Pogba’s hellish tournament thus far but he may still be the one to capture, then break, our hearts.