Friday, 29 July 2011

Home At Last

Most will say that tomorrow's match against Tottenham Hotspur will be Brighton and Hove Albion's 14 year wait for a home to call their own ended. Those who have felt the heartache, frustration and passion through those 14 years will know that their true homecoming will be on August 6th as they embark on a new league and a new challenge, starting their nPower Championship Campaign against Doncaster Rovers.

The AMEX Stadium

We can go on and on about the recycled clichés that will no doubt follow the coverage amongst the opening of the AMEX Stadium next week, but they stand to reason. There probably will not be a dry eye in the house come August 6th, and rightly so. It's been a struggle felt in the stands as well as in the boardroom, and come kick off the over-riding feeling of relief will swamp the Brighton fans and players. Not that they'll settle for this, mind.

Plans to extend the capacity of the new ground are already being put in place, with the corners of the ground and a new tier on the East Stand part of proceedings. The extension will add a further 8,000 seats to the ground, taking capacity to an impressive 30,500. Considering that last May the Seagulls were saying goodbye to their stay at the Withdean Stadium, able to hold just under 9,000 people, shows how far the club has come in recent years. The plans to add to the AMEX should be welcomed by all, the stadium still feeling slightly unfinished when inside the ground; The corners left empty takes away slightly from the shine from the new stadium, though still streets ahead of the common bowl-type arena that Leicester, Southampton and Coventry have all introduced to the footballing world.

The AMEX, infact, is so innovative and stunning that it even offers a welcome package like no other to travelling support. The away end will have lights within the stand dependant of the team playing that day; Bristol City, for example, will be greeted to red lights projected onto the walls to add their own touch to the stand. Not only that, but hangings of the team's badge will be placed to give the away fans a unique experience when visiting. It's a clever move with sensible reasoning behind it, the decision being made after discussions on the importance of away fans selling out week in week out.

After all, the ground is still being paid for - Loans for the £93 Million ground were taken out, amongst other sources of money, to get Brighton their new home. As such, reasonable gate averages need to be meet to pay for the costs. The away support can sometimes be just as valuable as the home in terms of gate receipts, so why not make their stay more inviting? Their money is as good as Brighton's, after all.

It doesn't stop at the ground for reasons to smile, either. Brighton can look forward to their new home introducing a new league for the fans, after winning the League One title last campaign. It's a more fitting tribute to the stadium, inviting the likes of Leeds United, Leicester City and West Ham United rather than Yeovil and Exeter. On the field, Brighton have added well and managed to pull off one of the signings of the season in Craig Mackail-Smith, a £2.75 Million buy under the noses of then admirers Leicester City. Along with Will Hoskins, Will Buckley and Kazenga Lua-Lua joining the squad this season, it's not just a fitting league that the AMEX will play venue to, it's a fitting home for fitting players; Players of real quality.

Three men need to be thanked for all of this, though. The input and backing Tony Bloom, current chairman and fan of Brighton and Hove Albion, has been incredible. Despite plans having already been put down before his backing, it's clear that his involvement has made this a more positive and financially capable dream that soon opens it's doors and becomes a reality. Dick Knight, credited for keeping the club away from extinction, also needs a worthy mention. His time as chairman saw the fight for the new ground which proved successful, and rightly passed on the role as chairman in 2009 to Bloom, who then funded the stadium. Lastly, Gus Poyet, who's won the hearts of the Brighton faithful for his exciting tactics and clever style of football which has seen them recover from the possibility of relegation when he first took over, leading to now; One week before the start of their Championship campaign.

Home at last for Brighton and Hove Albion, and what a platform they've set themselves to move on in their new abode.


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Monday, 18 July 2011

Leading the Line

Upon arrival at the Emirates Stadium, fans, players and opposition will be greeted by Arsenal's elite. Plastered on the framing's of the ground stand thirty-two of Arsenal's previous legends, acting as a statement of what Arsenal Football Club represents. Among these stand Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams and Pat Rice. These names should be familiar to current manager Arsene Wenger, Patrick and Tony having captained two of his great sides and featured so frequently under his tenure. Meanwhile, Pat sits next to him in the dugout, assistant to the Frenchman. These three stand strong in the list of thirty-two, influential leaders who've stamped their authority on teams under their leadership. Forgetting the fact that they stand amongst a crowd including Ray Parlour, you can truly understand the importance their captaincy had to their own Arsenal side.

Pat's importance to the side wasn't just present whilst he held the captain's armband. Previous to taking on the role in 1977,  the Northern Irishman was right back for Arsenal throughout the 1970's, whilst also holding a central midfield role throughout the 1970/71 Double winning season. Having played in five FA Cup finals and remaining the longest serving member of the first Arsenal Double-Winning campaign, Rice's career is embedded within Arsenal's illustrious history. After being made captain in '77, he led the club by example, a speaker on the field, confident in his role as captain and as player. His determination and ability flooded through the rest of his team, and together they lifted the 1979 FA Cup Final, sandwiched between final defeats in '78 and '80. His contributions as Arsenal captain also saw European recognition after leading the club to the final of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup final, bitterly losing on penalties to Valencia. His ambition to win and lead his team forward shone through, and saw him stand out as one of Arsenal's most influential players in their history. Despite leading out more talented players under his captaincy, he was still seen as a leader of the group, commanding respect from some of the best players Arsenal have had the grace of having.

'Mr. Arsenal'

Tony Adams, often referred to as Mr. Arsenal, became Arsenal captain in 1988 aged just 21. Under his leadership, Arsenal lifted nine major trophies, of which include four league titles in three separate decades. Despite his well documented troubles with Alcohol, his performances on the pitch didn't suffer. His ability to lead the defensive line and is noted as Arsenal's most successful captain of all time. In no small part is this due to Arsene Wenger. Upon arrival in '96, Wenger stood by the troubled captain as he admitted to being an alcoholic. After treatment, Adams was emerging as a gentle character and was often linked back in the media to his hobby of playing the piano. His gentle touch wasn't present on the field, though, as he stood fierce against some of the best strikers in the world. His time at Arsenal with the armband saw Tony lift the Cup Winners' Cup and FA League Cup on one occasion, whilst the FA Cup lay firm in his grip thrice.

Following on from Adams was Patrick Vieira, Wenger's first own chosen captain of Arsenal. Also noted as the first foreign captain Arsenal had, Vieira was seen as the obvious choice to replace Adams following his retirement in 2002. His previous experience of leading the line for Cannes as a teenager acted as the shining light which highlighted him ahead of the other candidates. Despite not having many trophies to his name under his captaincy, Vieira can still be proud of his time with the armband, having led Arsenal to an unbeaten season in 2003/04 which saw the Gunners take the Premier League title. That team, known as The Invincibles, relied on Vieira's steel and guidance in the centre of the park to see out some gritty games. His sheer presence often dragged Arsenal across the finish line in games, having saved them from potential loss during that season. Patrick also led Arsenal to two FA Cup wins during his time as captain, and is thought of as one of the best midfielders to ever grace the Premier League.

Since his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger will have created a special bond with all three. He understands the influence they have had over critical periods in the Gunners history, and will have befriended all three. It therefore begs the question as to why Wenger cannot seem to grasp the importance of having such a reliable leader in the heart of his current team. It is not a simple coincidence that Arsenal's trophy cabinet has become a year-on-year rent out for spiders and their cobwebs since Vieira's departure from Arsenal, their last captain of noted quality.

Under the current regime, Césc Fabregas is the man deemed worthy of the captain's armband, with Robin Van Persie in reserve. Césc's own future at the Emirates Stadium is in doubt, after speculation linking him to Champions League winners Barcelona reached it's third year on top of the charts of footballing saga's. Barca manager Pep Guardiola deems him worthy of replacing the slowly aging Xavi from what can only be considered as one of the most impressive midfield's of all time, an appreciative statement to say the least. A glowing reference from one of the most successful young managers in the world today is enough to turn any head. Yet, adding to the equation Césc's own affectionate feeling towards the Catalans, as well as the possibility of playing alongside some of the best players of the current generation, and Arsene has a conclusive problem; his current captain's eye has been wandering for a while.

As a player, this is an incredible blow to Arsene Wenger. It's highly unlikely that, should Fabregas leave, Arsenal will be able to replace him with anyone of similar quality. As a captain, however, it's not that much of a loss. The ongoing saga has left Fabregas lacking any sighted passion for Arsenal remaining on his sleeve, something that should be a given if you are to remain as captain. Césc's ability to play can not be questioned, but as far as leading a team through difficult situations, he's not a man you really turn to hoping for a miracle. I doubt I'd even consider him as a Phone A Friend option.

Cesc's leadership is under constant scrutiny.

Year on year, Arsenal have been the classic target for the national press to question and scrutinise against. A common sight within the top four, yet unable to hold any silverware. Doubts towards their defence and especially their goalkeeper have remained in the spotlight, often shadowing the need for a natural leader on the field. Maybe Arsene is riding his luck on this issue. After having such prominent and proud leaders in their history, Arsenal are left without anyone who you'd look at thinking 'he's a Gunner, alright'.  Had it not been for a leaky defence and questionable goalkeeping that seems stuck on repeat, Wenger would surely be sweating from the heat of the media as well as his own fans for not having brought in a new Adams or Vieira.

In Thomas Vermaelan and Laurent Koscielny, Arsene has his favoured duo in defence; Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci acting as competition. Traditionally, a captain occupies a defensive role, where leadership is often needed. This dates back throughout the game where scrutiny has been targeted. As a defender, you are more vulnerable to criticism for a mistake than you are as a striker. Cost your team a goal and you've potentially cost yourself the game. Miss a chance as a striker, though, and the score is unaffected. An unfair balance rooted within the game, but one that demands a more strong-minded and outspoken individual at the back. This attribute is the bloodline for great captains. Arsenal lack that bloodline. Whilst Vermaelan is one of the better defenders in the division, his capability at organising isn't brilliant. Squillaci and Koscielny seem to spend more time with their chins touching the floor than facing forwards with any venom in their eyes. There's no passion, no heart and no leadership in Arsenal's most disturbing position.

Kill two birds with one stone, then. Arsenal remain in the market for a central defender, after constant links to Gary Cahill and Scott Dann. Both are promising young defenders who have performed well for their sides. Dann's absence towards the end of last campaign remains the knockout blow to Birmingham's eventual relegation to the Championship. Normally both could be seen as potentially promising signings for Arsene Wenger. Not anymore, though. Too long, the Arsenal faithful have had to watch on as their side lack leadership, and ultimately, without a trophy. Wenger is accused of often filling round holes with square pegs. It's worth note that the captaincy hole isn't even being filled, a vacant gap which too often the opposition will exploit. When Arsenal get down and gritty, they struggle against even the mediocre of the division. That presence on the field has been lacking for too long, and for Wenger to remain in his position, a talisman leader is required.

Looking back to the aforementioned Fabregas, though, and there-in lies Wenger's true problem. To lose his current captain would be a knockout blow before a ball has even been kicked. His intentions to keep Samir Nasri and Césc Fabregas has been clear, but to achieve the almost impossible requires every trick up his sleeve. Fabregas' captaincy may remain as the cherry on top to keep Césc content in North London. In offering, though, Arsene maybe signing another season off without that bite, that spirit, that determination, that has distanced his side from silverware for too long. The time will soon come where enough is enough, and Arsene will be sent packing. It's catch 22, and it's ready to make Wenger buckle.


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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Out of Luka

A lot can happen in twelve months. In that time, the Earth can complete it's orbit around the sun. Jedward can manage to go from annoying Britain on Simon Cowell's platform to achieving the same on a European stage, via the platform of Eurovision. In the space of a year, David Gilmour's son can 'achieve remorse' through good behaviour, and end his recent stint behind bars. And, within twelve months, Luka Modric can go from being content at White Hart Lane to holding back the desire to punch Daniel Levy square between the eyes.

Modric has been tracked by Chelsea all Summer

Spanning back twelve months and Luka's aforementioned happiness at Tottenham Hotspur, and things can't be better for Spurs. After qualifying for the Champions League after a fourth place league reward, Modric signalled his intention to further push Tottenham amongst the brightest and best within World Football by penning a six-year contract. Such intent from a talisman is a significant flexing of the proverbial muscles, especially considering the tall order that faced Tottenham dead in the eye. Manchester City's millions were set to pounce on the command of Roberto Mancini, whilst Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea sat firm in their stools around the round-table for the top four.

Tottenham were merely visitors to that table following from Liverpool's premature departure from the elite. To maintain their spot, amongst heavy pressure to pass on the throne, Spurs' main assets had to be on board, along with new arrivals. Modric appeared determined to lead Tottenham's defence of the throne, a startling thought to Mancini's task. Whilst the bookies made Tottenham the underdogs to Manchester City to claim the remaining spot in the expected top four, having Modric on-side pushed the battle onto a level playing field.

But, to no surprise, the bookies came out on top. Mancini's men broke Tottenham's short stay. As Spurs laid in fifth place following a draining and dramatic tale amongst the elite of Europe, their best laid plans had started to untangle. Barking to the high heavens like a bloodhound at full moon, Levy lead the call to keep his talents at the club. But, with just a Europa League spot to offer out, Luka Modric has decided that a second battle with Manchester City (and King Kenny's resurgent Liverpool) is one not worth leading the line for. Luka Modric wants out of White Hart Lane.

Luka's 'saga' has led to a sharp tongue lashing from Daniel Levy, who has stood firm in the public eye over the past month to ignore the Croatian's plea to leave the club. Following on form a £22 Million bid from local rivals Chelsea, Levy warned any forthcoming bids to expect to be hurled in the bin, stating an increased bid 'would not make any difference'. Despite a transfer request from Luka and a planned bid exceeding £30 Million from Chelsea, Levy's stance hasn't changed.

His ambition to keep his better players would normally be something to be admired. Whilst Aston Villa sit in the sandbox having their favourites chocolates taken from the playground bullies, Tottenham have fought back. On any other occasion, this would have been seen as a commendable act from a club willing to still keep up it's fight to be one of England's best, refusing to believe in the folk-law script hailing a top four clique, allowing it to sit on top of English Football's heirachy. Under the leadership of Levy, though, it seems bitter and petty. His openly public fued with Modric appears to be leaked from just one side of the story. Levy's intenton to make Modric understand he's not going anywhere has backfired. You get the sense that he'd refuse Modric the chance to play, just because it was Levy's ball being used.

After all, Tottenham have hardly faced up to their belief that they can match Modric's ambition.  As the White Hart Lane bosses flick through the blinds watching their neighbours Arsenal struggle over defensive woes which hold them back from progression, Harry Redknapp is struggling to paper over the mirroring cracks that refused Tottenham their chance to remain seated at the round-table.

The man at the centre of this, of course, is Gomes. Erratic, Eccentric and Comical, the Tottenham shot-stopper has been let off lightly by the national press, who seem engaged in their usual routine of hitting Wenger with every stick and stone they lay their hands on regarding Almunia and co, despite Gomes being just as unreliable. In a world where Dzeko can fail to find his feet after a near £30 Million move yet not be seen on any newspaper, however, it's not really a surprise. Dzeko doesn't read as well as Torres in the Sun, anyway.

Redknapp's belief to have found the answer to just one of Tottenham's problems, though, seems a little desperate and out-dated. In 40 year-old Brad Friedel, Redknapp believes he's solved a problem. I suspect if he'd had any involvement with solving the Problem of the frolicsome Maria, we'd have seen rivalling competition to Charlie Sheen befitting of a talent-show final. Whilst Friedel has played in one of the most prestigious leagues in the world for some time, his arrival at a side chasing Champions League qualification holds no lasting ambition or fierce signals to competing others.

Redknapp and Levy maintain desperate to hold on to Luka

And despite Redknapp's January Auction at the Spanish Striker's Convention, no solution has been found to fuel their strike-force, leaving all the work to Tottenham's midfield. Bale, Van Der Vaart and the hotly followed Modric have felt the focus of the Lane's faithful drag down on their shoulders, quite like the drunkard stumbling out of the nightclub, before resorting on her boyfriend for a 'lift' home. It's hard to see why Modric should be happy staying for such expectancy when those sinking problems around him are simply hidden from view rather than fixed.

Across London, new Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas is determined to still secure Modric for the new era at Stamford Bridge. Whilst it may seem a perfect move for Chelsea, it still doesn't seem the ideal move for Luka. Travelling north, Manchester United lurk in the market for a new midfielder to cover the heavy loss of recently retired Paul Scholes. Despite his frailties in tackling, Scholes' range of passing, precision and creativity will be an incredible loss to Ferguson's attempt at title number twenty. Luka's pleas for a move from Spurs should have alerted Sir Alex and his transfer budget, already hit by the signatures of Young, De Gea and Jones. Modric's style of football could accommodate the loss of Scholes perfectly, whilst offering more consistency in terms of fitness. Quite why United haven't bid for Modric yet is a mystery.

Manchester United and Tottenham have had enough recent encounters to know how the other likes to conduct their business. Michael Carrick and more recently Dimitar Berbatov's moves to Old Trafford have lived long in the memory of Spurs fans, who would flinch at the thought of another star player moving to Ferguson's side. Despite this, the one positive from Tottenham's perspective is the relentless stance held not just by Levy but by manager Harry Redknapp, who is yet to lose a star player from White Hart Lane. His record of holding on to his better players where possible is quite outstanding. He's never had to deal with the looming pressure of his star wanting to leave, though.

And, despite the likelihood of Redknapp leaving next season to follow on from Capello as England manager, we could finally witness how Harry Redknapp will cope with a player wanting to leave, yet holding such ability to push them on to outstanding glory. Standing in untested waters, Harry may have to turn to those with a more rational and reasoned viewpoint. 63336, the text service for 'Any Question Answered' recommends Luka to stay at Tottenham, as 'it's better to be a bigger fish in a small pond'.

I guess that's settled, then.


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