Posts Tagged ‘Premier League



When all’s lost, there’s always hope. Why? Why can’t there just be nothing…

As the cliché goes, it’s the hope that kills you.

Bearing that in mind, as a Manchester United fan I had done my best not to have any; I was hopeless, you could say.

Even when United were eight points clear with just six games to go I refused to say that it was over – that the twentieth title was in the bag.

I remember a Japanese friend laughing at my hesitancy, and deep down I have to admit that it felt as good as done.

But as good as done is not good enough, and with each subsequent game things started to slowly unravel.

Defeat to Wigan was a hiccup, but Sir Alex would surely give the team a kick up the arse and have them back in gear again for the next game.

And that he did, they beat Villa and were then at home to Everton. 4-2 up with seven minutes to go, it looked like another step towards an improbable triumph – don’t forget, United themselves had made up a five-point gap on their “noisy neighbours” Manchester City to establish their lead on the final straight.

But again they messed up, and two goals conceded in three minutes turned a vital three points into one and, in my opinion (and that of Patrice Evra), cost them the title.

As I so often touch upon when discussing the J.League, the psychological aspects of football are absolutely crucial, and that slip-up undoubtedly threw the players off their concentration and introduced nervousness at the worst possible time.

Next came the derby with City, and with their expensively-assembled squad sensing blood the unthinkable came true and they ground out the win that took them back to the top of the table.

But, don’t forget, there’s always hope. Goddammit, there’s always hope.

Both teams won their next games meaning it would all be decided on the final day of the season.

Thankfully City were at home to QPR though, so it was inevitable they’d win and take the title. I didn’t have to get my hopes up.

Things progressed as expected and they took a first half lead through their Argentinean full-back Pablo Zabaleta. Still, with United also leading against Sunderland, just one goal would send the trophy to the red half of Manchester instead.

There it was again, like those annoying and unavoidable Japanese politicians who drive down your street repeating nothing but their name over and over again; always in the background.

And just after half-time somebody decided to turn the volume up. Djibril Cisse equalised for QPR and United went top. I refused to celebrate or be tricked into anything though, knowing full well that Mark Hughes’ side wouldn’t be able to hold on for the best part of 40 minutes.

My heart-rate was helped a little by Joey Barton a few minutes later, bless him, when he did what he does best and acted like an absolute bell-end to get himself sent off before trying to start a fight with half of the city of Manchester as he left the pitch.

“Ok, just as I thought, there’s no chance. The title’s City’s.”

Then the car stopped right outside my apartment. The noise was deafening and it was all but impossible to ignore: Jamie Mackie had put QPR ahead. City needed two goals.

By this point I don’t mind admitting I was in quite a state. I couldn’t sit still but had nowhere to go. Time couldn’t move quickly enough. In fact, I felt sure it wasn’t moving at all.

All I knew was that I couldn’t do it. Whatever it took I wasn’t to think about it. It was impossible. City were going to win.

But 90 minutes were up. It was still 2-1 to QPR and I did it, I gave in to hope. And that was it. A couple of minutes, a couple of goals and everything was snatched away.

I said that the draw with Everton was what cost the title but I can’t help but feel I’m also partly to blame. I was seduced and – to return to my laboured metaphor – I returned a wave to that irritant and his incessantly-smiling cronies in their white gloves, and I paid the price.

I certainly won’t let it happen again.

I hope.


Not Kean

The treatment meted out to Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean this season has not only been a little close to the bone but it’s also become counter-productive…


Usually when I travel back to England and settle down to write this column I focus on something that English football does better than Japanese, and suggest ways that the J.League could improve.

This Christmas, however, something that was going on in the Premier League had the opposite effect, with Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean being subjected to a ridiculous amount of abuse by his club’s own fans as the team slid slowly down the table.

Several times I have spoken of my desire for fans in Japan to be a little more spontaneous and to think for themselves rather than just robotically supporting their team regardless of what is happening on the pitch. 

The treatment that was being dished out to Kean is definitely not something that I support though, and the fact that such mindless protests aren’t the norm in Japan is certainly something that the J.League can be proud of.

Sometimes, of course, a coach is not doing his job well enough and a change is the best option.

Indeed, Blackburn are certainly not in a good position, sat at the bottom of the table with a board who appear to have no real understanding of how to run a professional football club.

It is not so much the cause of the unrest which I have a problem with, it is more the personal nature of the insults and its counter-productivity. 


Blackburn fans have been booing their side and chanting for the dismissal of their manager for several weeks, as well as hiring a plane to fly over their Ewood Park stadium with a banner reading “Kean Out!” during a match.

It is very rare that I agree with religious leaders, but ahead of Rovers’ tricky set of fixtures over the Christmas and New Year period the Bishop of Blackburn spoke a lot of sense on the issue.

“I would say please, always remember the human being, always remember that he’s part of a family — that other people will be suffering because people have got him in their sights,” Right Reverend Nicholas Reade said to the BBC.

Bolton Wanderer’s head coach Owen Coyle – whose side defeated Rovers to send them to the bottom of the table – was one of many managers to publically support Kean.

“I don’t think they have given Stevie Kean a chance from the outset when he was appointed,” he said. “Ultimately, people who shout the loudest get heard. Stevie Kean is a terrific coach, he is managing in the best league in the world and somebody has to fill the dreaded bottom places.”

While the team has struggled, the idiotic behaviour of their fans appears to have contributed to their plummet to the bottom of the table, and it is surely no coincidence that Rovers have reserved their best results for their away games – including a draw at Liverpool and a victory over Manchester United – while losing eight of their first ten at home.


Striker Yakubu threw his considerable weight behind his coach after the win over United, asking “What did [the fans] expect? They should give him a break and support the team. Look at the way he believes in the players.”

Kean also came out fighting, and pointed out the mindless nature of the protests.

“I have five or six players who are under 22 and if they can feel a negative vibe around the ground, it can get to the younger players. So I hope the fans realise we have a young side and are a little bit fragile, and I hope they get behind us.”

It was even suggested in some quarters that the impressive results against two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs would have displeased the protestors – by virtue of the points keeping Kean in a job.

“I wouldn’t imagine any true supporter would want to see us get relegated,” he said on that issue.

“If there is anybody in the stadium who is taking a bit of joy when we don’t win or when we lose and that’s their goal when they come to the ground, I wouldn’t class them as supporters.”

I fully agree with that; there are many words to describe those people and ‘supporters’ is definitely not one of them.


Debate goes on

I have many problems with the English Premier League, but the manner in which the games create and encourage debate is one thing that the J.League would do well to learn from.

Since I moved to Japan I have lost touch a little with the English Premier League. I keep up with the scores and bigger news stories but being 6,000 miles away I don’t really feel like I am involved in the narrative of the season.

I wasn’t really that much closer to the action when I lived back in Brighton as I played matches at weekends, but in England it is impossible to avoid the football.

And to be honest, I was actually getting a little tired of the overhyped Premier League and that was part of the reason that I developed an interest in the J.League.

One thing that I do really miss though is the coverage of the game on television, and the way in which everybody has – and is encouraged to have – an opinion.

An excellent case in point was provided by the Newcastle v. Arsenal game on the first day of the season, which I watched in the pub with a group of friends.

While the match failed to live up to the previous fixture between the sides – Arsenal unbelievably threw away a 4-0 lead to draw 4-4 at St. James’ Park last season – it more than delivered when it came to talking points.

First of all Newcastle’s Joey Barton – a player who is never far away from trouble – had his leg stamped on by Arsenal’s Alex Song, something that the referee didn’t see but the TV cameras did.

The real excitement came about a quarter of an hour before full-time, though.

Barton was again the central figure, and after Arsenal’s new striker Gervinho flung himself to the turf in a bid to win a penalty the midfielder dragged him up by the scruff of the neck before finding himself on the ground after he was struck on the head.

The pub was instantly ablaze with discussion, abuse and laughter as replays showed from multiple angles that Barton had barely been touched and that mere seconds after being outraged by an overreaction to gain an advantage he had done the same thing.

He was variously described as clever, a cheat, an idiot and a range of things far too colourful for me to write here as Gervinho received his marching orders.

Then, in the post-match interviews players and coaches from both sides were asked about the incident and the pundits in the studio further analysed the situation.

This is something that just doesn’t happen in Japan, where controversial incidents are hardly ever given airtime.

After the live broadcast had concluded it was over to ‘Match of the Day’, the BBC’s trademark highlights show, by which time the debate had taken on a far more inclusive edge as Barton himself had now been commenting on the incident via his Twitter account.

The game had ended 0-0, but whereas in Japan that would almost certainly condemn the coverage to a 10-second clip of a wayward shot by one of the clubs’ national team players, 15 minutes of highlights and analysis took place, during which it was agreed that most of the individuals involved in the melee were partly at fault.

The J.League is obviously hesitant to draw attention to any of the negative aspects of its game (mistakes by officials, cheating, violence – of which there are plenty) but I think it is misguided in thinking that airing them will detract from the image of the game.

Fans want to be entertained and footballers embarrassing themselves by cheating is very entertaining. It can also be argued that the more airtime given to bad sportsmanship the less likely players are to try and get away with it – although I’m not so sure about that.

Barton didn’t seem to mind that his integrity was being called into question, and was more than happy to take part in the interactive culture of English football, tweeting just before the programme began, “Right, off now to watch MOTD, its what sat nights are all about.”

In England it’s not just Saturday nights when opinions about football are aired though, and the J.League could learn a thing or two from English coverage of the beautiful (and sometimes ugly) game.


Timing key for Kawashima

Eiji Kawashima understandably wants to move up a level after an impressive season with Lierse SK in the Belgian First Division. As a ‘keeper being Number 1 at a lesser club is usually preferable to being Number 2 at a bigger one though…

During the Kirin Cup I attended several Japan training sessions and while everyone else was busying themselves with notes on 3-4-3 and Zac’s stop-start efforts to get the players to understand the tricky new formation, my gaze was drawn to the other end of the pitch where the goalkeepers were being put through their paces by Maurizio Guido.

It wasn’t only Signor Guido’s enthusiastic motivational cries that drew me to his session though, with Japan’s No. 1 Eiji Kawashima giving as good as he got.

Something I have noticed in Japan is the relative lack of verbal communication on the pitch. There may be the odd call here and there but the players generally move about almost silently, seemingly relying on little more than telepathic understanding or by following the routines practiced in training to the letter.

The former Kawasaki Frontale stopper was flinging himself about his six-yard box, yelling with every step, dive and catch though, and the concentration on his face was no different to that seen during matches.

Being so vocal is an absolutely vital aspect of goalkeeping, something that the Chelsea and Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech made clear after his side’s clash with the Samurai Blue at Nissan Stadium.

“You need to communicate with everybody around,” he said, “because a big part of goalkeeping is to be able to organize people in front of you.”

Kawashima can certainly do this, and even in training he is anything but easy on those in front of him, constantly barking orders to get his defence in line and hassling Akihiro Ienaga for being too far forward in his new role as a defensive-midfielder.

The 28-year-old’s rapid progression over the past 12 months has unsurprisingly led to rumours of a switch to a bigger European league, with West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League his most likely destination.

Whereas outfield players can usually play in a couple of positions and be broken in gradually with substitute appearances though, this is not an option for goalkeepers. The only way they can retain their sharpness, and confidence, is by being between the posts every week.

Cech, again, had wise words to say on the matter, pointing out that a reserve goalkeeper’s chances are not only determined by their form, but also that of their rival for the jersey.

“I think it’s always better when you start as Number 1 and then you can take it from there and keep your position in the goal. If you start as Number 2 then obviously it’s more difficult, it doesn’t all really depend only on you it depends on the other goalkeeper as well.”

While a certain amount of time adapting can be afforded, too long sitting on the bench will not only harm his form but may also call his place in the national team into question, then, and Alberto Zaccheroni will certainly have a keen interest in his goalkeeper’s next move, with Eiji having been an integral part of the Italian’s unbeaten start at the helm of the national team.

The man himself is more than aware of this, but concedes that if he wants to play at the highest level he may have to take a little bit of a gamble.

“For me, always, it’s really important to play. Always,” he said after the Czech game. “Of course, I know the Premier League is a really higher level than the others, but I think I can try.”

“It depends on the situation. Even if I’m the second goalkeeper if there is a possibility to become the first, of course I can try.”

Cech agrees that a lot can be learned on the training pitch too, but maintains that too long away from the pitch can be detrimental to a goalkeeper’s career.

“It will be another experience, already being there and working every day with a team which plays Premier League.”

“You can learn always by watching as well but, as I said, if you hope to be always playing for the national team, of course it’s better when you play.”

Eiji must be careful then, and must make sure that he chooses the right club at the right time.

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June 2023