Saturday, December 31, 2011

Premier League Bosman List : Dimitar Berbatov, Didier Drogba & all the players available for free

With less than two months to go until the January transfer window opens, Premier League clubs are now having to decide whether to keep hold of some of their star players or risk losing them for free next summer.

Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Jose Bosingwa are among five first-team players at Chelsea whose contracts expire at the end of the season, and manager Andre Villas-Boas could decide to cash in on some of his fringe players in the new year.

Dimitar Berbatov is also out of contract in the summer, though Manchester United hold the right to extend the player's deal by a further year. But with Paris Saint-Germain being linked with a move for the Bulgarian, the Red Devils will need to exercise the clause before he is allowed to discuss a summer switch in January.

Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky and Fulham's Andy Johnson may also be on the move if they cannot agree fresh contracts with their clubs, while time is running out for Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers to tie top-four targets Junior Hoilett and Gary Cahill down to new deals.

With a number of players in England's top flight out of contract next summer, runs through a club-by-club guide of who could be moving on in the coming months.

Jonathan Woodgate is proud to be part of Stoke's renaissance


Jonathan Woodgate is proud to be a Stoke City player, but as someone who once shared a dressing room at Real Madrid with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Raul and David Beckham, he does not buy into the notion that the Premier League's toughest team bear comparison with Barcelona.

'We wouldn't get a kick, would we?' he says, raising his eyebrows at Gary Neville's suggestion that Stoke put opponents under pressure in much the same way as the likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi.

'That is not being disrespectful to Stoke, but how would we get the ball? Teams like Barca are in a different league. They keep the ball against elite teams. Look what they did against Manchester United in the Champions League final, and United are the best in England.

'If Zidane and Roberto Carlos had come to the Britannia Stadium, I know they'd have just puffed their chests out and gone out to be the best players on the pitch. Big players have winning mentalities.' 

At 31, Woodgate's horizons expanded long ago beyond the Middlesbrough suburb of Nunthorpe, where he grew up. Capped at 19, he seemed destined to become England's best centre-back since Bobby Moore until a conviction for affray while at his first club, Leeds United, was followed by a horrific injury record that cost him around three years of his footballing life. 

Last year, he was told he needed a metal plate inserted in his pelvis to correct a chronic bone problem. It would have ended his career. Woodgate refused to give up, opted for different treatment and is still playing. 

So it was a worldly-wise Woodgate who chatted and signed autographs for children at Langdale Primary School in the Potteries last week as part of Stoke's community work. 

He credits moving to Madrid as a life-changing experience, even though his debut - an own-goal and a red card - was a personal nightmare and injuries restricted him to 10 starts in three seasons before Fabio Capello, then managing Real, sent him back to England on loan. 

As one whose eight-cap international career never lived up to its promise, Woodgate is missionary like in his belief that the next generation of young English players, such as Jack Wilshere, would benefit from playing abroad.

'Madrid made me as a character and a person,' he says. 'When you're young you do some stupid things and I was no angel. But when I went to Spain it made me grow up. 

'It was the best thing I ever did. I was injured a lot but I learned the language and tried to fit into the culture. It has massive benefits from a football point of view as well. 

'I'd advise anyone to do it if they had the chance, including the England players. I saw first-hand what makes the really big players - that winning mentality. They just refuse to be beaten. Raul made a big impression on me, the way he trained hard every day. 

'The Premier League is totally different to international football. We play one way, and they play another. We like the hustle and bustle, they are accustomed to passing the ball. Our younger players, like Jack Wilshere, are all learning but they are still playing in the Premier League. Why don't they go abroad?

'I'd love them to do that; it would be brilliant, playing in a different league, a different type of football where it's not 100 miles an hour, where players are comfortable on the ball, as you have to be at international level. 

'It would benefit the England team enormously because, at the moment, we are just not good enough to win a World Cup.' 

Woodgate insists blaming Capello for England's poor performance at the last World Cup finals masks a simple truth. 'Capello has taken a lot of the blame for what's happened with England, but the truth is that we're not better than Spain, or Germany, or France, or Brazil or Argentina,' he says. 

'It's hard to ask our players to go from one style to another and I just don't think we're good enough, basically. That includes me, by the way, and I'm not an international any more.' 

Woodgate can speak with the candour of a player for whom every match, including Sunday's Premier League game for Stoke at Sunderland, is a bonus.

Less than 12 months ago, he knew his career was in serious trouble when a surgeon said he needed the same treatment as Carlo Cudicini, the Tottenham and former Chelsea goalkeeper who had smashed his pelvis in a motorbike accident. 

According to the specialist, Woodgate's chronic injury problems stemmed from an unstable pelvis. The only solution was to insert a metal plate across the joint that holds it together. 

Woodgate sought a second and third opinion, but they said the same thing. When specialist No 3 delivered his gloomy verdict in Swansea, even Woodgate's natural optimism took a massive hit. 'I did think to myself my career could be over,' he admits, voice dropping to a near-whisper. 

'When you see three pelvic surgeons and they say the same thing, all you can think is, "Oh my goodness, is this it?". 'I remember driving back home to Middlesbrough after my visit to Swansea, hardly saying a word to the driver. My head was all over the place. 

'By that time, I'd also been to Australia for an operation on my adductor muscle, and that hadn't got me back playing either.' 

He adds: 'I knew if I had the plate installed, that was me finished. I would have struggled to play again. No outfield player has managed to carry on with a pelvic plate - you need to do too much twisting and running. 

'So, in the end, I just thought, "I'm not getting that done". 'I looked for something else, I looked for different avenues. When you're injured, you have this almost illogical thought that "something will happen". And thankfully in my case, it did.' 

Salvation finally came in the form of Tottenham's medical chief, Wayne Diesel, who sent Woodgate to a specialist in Denmark. 

He was encouraged to return to London and undergo a series of injections of bisphosphonates, drugs normally used to prevent loss of bone mass.

'I had four injections, one a month,' recalls Woodgate. 'They nail you, I swear you can't move afterwards - it just screws your body up. I was warned before I had them, they'd be like having the flu for three weeks afterwards. Not nice, but it had to be done.' 

At the start of 2011, Woodgate was back in full training, much to the delight of Spurs boss Harry Redknapp. Woodgate's contract with Spurs ran out in the summer but he was determined to earn a new one. 

His dream was shattered at the first day of pre-season training on July 4 when Redknapp invited him to report in, but a club official intervened and refused to allow Woodgate to train.

'Harry would have kept me, definitely. He'd ring me every week, even when I was in Australia, to encourage me and say he needed me back. But I think his hands were tied,' reveals Woodgate. 

'The manager told me to come in for training but as I was walking towards the dressing room to get changed, a Spurs official stopped me on the grass verge outside and said I couldn't train. I felt humiliated. We all went into a room. Harry fought my corner, he was dying for me to stay, but Spurs said they felt I wouldn't get to the top again.

'I couldn't do anything about it but go to another club and try to prove people wrong. I did worry that nobody would have me after 18 months injured, but I think Harry must have had a word with Stoke manager Tony Pulis, because they came in really quickly.' 

'I wanted to play for a good club in the top flight and I remember turning out against Stoke at The Britannia Stadium. It was an atmosphere no opponent looked forward to.' 

Stoke are in their fourth season in the Premier League and able to attract such players as Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch, who both played in the 2007 Champions League final for Liverpool. 

Woodgate is determined to do his bit, too. His one-year contract, with an option for a second if he plays enough games.

'I want to play 40 games this season. Did you think I'd say 20?' he says, smiling.

'Playing more is probably better for me because training is sometimes harder than the games.
'I want to play as long as I can. I can't understand people who retire early. I bet they end up regretting it.'

Friday, December 30, 2011

Italy's greatest multi-national XI- from Claudio Gentile to Mario Balotelli

Italy's 2-0 victory over Poland was a landmark occasion, as Italy finished with two black players on the field for the first time ever. Angelo Ogbonna's introduction as a late substitute added to Mario Balotelli's third start in the national side, leaving the Azzurri to end the match with two men of African descent on the pitch.

When also considering the introduction of another sub, Thiago Motta, who was born and bred in Brazil but has an Italian passport, plus Argentine-born Pablo Daniel Osvaldo's presence on the bench, and La Nazionale has a huge multi-national presence in the current ranks.

But this is nothing new for Italy, who have had many naturalised foreign nationals and dual-nationality representatives in their squads in years past. Names such as Raimundo Orsi, Jose Altafini, Julio Libonatti and Omar Sivori have all worn the blue shirt with distinction having come to the peninsula at a late stage in their development.

In honour of Italy's long-standing diversity, takes a look at Italy's greatest multi-national XI, based on their impact on the Azzurri.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

After Walcott, Bale and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Southampton are aiming to create a new golden generation for England


Barcelona's contribution to the fortunes of Spanish football could be replicated with the England team of the future thanks to a remarkable project launched, not by one of the Premier League big boys, but by a club whose recent history has been beset by financial problems and a battle to survive. 

Southampton’s academy, tucked away on the South Coast but with an ethos modelled on Barcelona’s famous set-up at La Masia, has already provided home-grown talent now worth £100 million-plus to Premier League clubs, including Englishmen Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wales star Gareth Bale. 

Les Reed, the club’s head of football development, insists it is only the start. 

No accident: Oxlade-Chamberlain
‘Alex was not an accident,’ says Reed of a player sold at 17 to Arsenal for £12 million this summer. ‘Maybe at the next stage of our academy’s development we’ll have two Oxlade-Chamberlains in a single year, and then three.’ 

Reed, along with Saints’ Swiss chairman Nicola Cortese, and academy manager Matt Crocker, is a key figure in an upgrade of the academy that will bring it in line with Europe’s best. 

‘The model is Barcelona, who have home-grown players and success,’ he says. 
Crocker adds: ‘The club has always had a philosophy of giving youth a chance and raising its own talent, from Mick Channon to Danny and Rod Wallace, Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer. What we’re doing now is continuing those traditions at even higher levels.’

Southampton were among the first clubs to adopt an academy system at the end of the 1990s, when they still were a Premier League club. Relegation in 2005 and the resulting steep drop in income made it more important than ever to keep the home-reared talent flowing. 

The sales of Walcott and Bale to Arsenal and Tottenham helped to keep the club afloat and, after near-extinction in the summer of 2009, it was clear to Cortese and Southampton’s saviour-benefactor, the late Swiss billionaire, Markus Liebherr, that player development should successful,’ says Reed. 

Southampton’s revival from a club who just two years ago were languishing in League One after administration has been swift and strong, and it is hoped that future success will come with more of the home-grown stars for which Saints have become known. 

Oxlade-Chamberlain joined the club at the age of seven in 2000 and was there until August, when he signed for Arsenal a few days before his 18th birthday, for a £12m fee fame remain at the core of the club’s vision. 

Since Liebherr’s death aged 62 in August last year, Cortese has been driven by the desire for Southampton to become a self-sustaining top-flight club, with all areas of the academy expanded and strengthened to realise that vision. 

Saviour: Markus Liebherr (right), pictured with former Soouthampton boss Alan Pardew in 2009

The cost of running it, around £2.3m a year, is seen not as speculating to accumulate but as economically prudent. Saints have already made returns of several times their outlay over the past decade and in the future they want to keep players of the calibre of Bale, Walcott and Chamberlain — not see them go for big money to other teams.

So there is a buzz among Saints fans as they take the Championship by storm, with Nigel Adkins’s side five points clear and entertaining large crowds, while insiders are just as excited about the future. 

‘Aiming to match Barcelona is a big ambition but you need to strive for that to be successful,’ says Reed. Southampton’s revival from a club who just two years ago were languishing in League One after administration has been swift and strong, and it is hoped that future success will come with more of the home-grown stars for which Saints have become known. 

Saintlets: Academy youngsters dream of following in the footsteps of stars who have made the big time. But the club hope to retain their best young talent in the future
Oxlade-Chamberlain joined the club at the age of seven in 2000 and was there until August, when he signed for Arsenal a few days before his 18th birthday, for a £12m fee that will rise to £15m. He has already scored for Arsenal in the Champions League and netted his first England hat-trick — for the Under- 21s — against Iceland last month. 

Walcott is another who took the Saints-Arsenal route, nurtured from 11 by Southampton until his big-money move at 16 in 2006. Walcott and Chamberlain are both expected to be key England players of the future, while Welshman Bale is now his country’s brightest star. 

Bale was spotted by Southampton at nine and attended their satellite academy in Bath before signing up, making his first-team debut in 2006, and moving to Tottenham in 2007. 
Other Saints academy alumni include Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge, Newcastle’s Leon Best, Fulham’s Chris Baird and Norwich City’s Andrew Surnam.

Career opportunity Theo Walcott moved from Southampton to Arsenal in 2006
The home-grown star of Southampton’s current team is Adam Lallana, an England Under-21 midfielder who has been with Saints since he was 12. 

All these players were produced by the academy as it stands today, with temporary buildings at the heart of a 10-acre site in the village of Marchwood on the outskirts of the city. But work begins within days on a vast and impressive new academy complex, complete with school-rooms, medical centre, swimming pool, state-of-the-art gym, video labs, restaurant and office suites for the youth recruitment department, coaching staff and support personnel.

‘We’ve got an ambition to be not just a Premier League club but a competitive Premier League club,’ says Reed. ‘If we want half our team to come from the academy, which we do, the recruitment needs to be the best, and the development plan for each individual needs to be excellent, as do the facilities, the sports science and the technical quality of the coaching.’

Superstar: Gareth Bale lit up the Champions League last season
Reed, 58, is a coaching veteran, best known for his short spell as Charlton manager in 2006. But he has spent much of his working life innovating behind the scenes, working as FA technical director, as an assistant to Sir Bobby Robson, Alan Curbishley and Kevin Keegan, and alongside Howard Wilkinson in trying to develop ways to improve young English players. 

His research has taken him from drama schools to the Royal Ballet, from the Yehudi Menuhin music school to Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Florida and elite football centres across Germany — academies that have contributed greatly to that country’s international renaissance. 

‘The philosophy of player-development at Bayern Munich,’ says Reed, ‘is “two each year for the first team, two for the league, and two for the rest of German football”. And you find similar aims across the top Bundesliga clubs.’

Reed was initially invited to Southampton as a consultant in late 2009 but is now a Southampton director, and his excitement at the future is obvious. The Saints academy has 104 students aged between nine and 16, plus 22 apprentices between 16 and 18. 

‘We believe we have the equivalent of Manchester United’s Scholes, Beckham and Co already within our system,’ he says. Southampton’s ‘golden’ generation of 16- and 17-year-olds includes James Ward-Prowse, a creative midfielder who made his first-team debut last month, and Luke Shaw, an England Under-17 attacking full back.

Then there are striker Jake Sinclair and Harrison Reed, known as Saints’ ‘young Scholes’ for more reasons than his red hair. Harrison’s father, Dave, says: ‘Saints have academy coaches who have worked with Scholes and they make comparisons with Harrison’s discipline and dedication and his tenacity in that central midfield role. They’ve got high hopes for him. 

‘He’s been at Saints since he was eight. He effectively left home for the club at 15 and lived with a family nearby. That was a wrench for us but it’s a fantastic club and his all-round education has been brilliant.’

Put through their paces: Southampton academy students train
Southampton employ six teachers on site. With class sizes as small as five or six, academic results are often better than predicted at their regular schools.

Julian Woods, whose 12-year-old son, Henry, has been attached to Southampton since the age of six, says: ‘They’ve always looked after him. In February he broke his kneecap but the care has been tremendous. I know he’s happy here.’

Southampton fans may be enjoying the moment. But behind the scenes, the future is dreamier still.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cristiano Ronaldo outscores Lionel Messi in 2011 - but the Argentine has the last laugh with five trophies to one

Barcelona versus Real Madrid is arguably football's greatest rivalry, but within the fascinating duel of Spain's superpowers there is an individual battle between two tremendous talents: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

They could not be more different. While the Argentine is an old-fashioned, street-style footballer who evokes a bygone era with his dazzling dribbles and mesmerising magic on the ball, the Portuguese is the complete modern player - all pace, power, precision and potency.

Messi and Ronaldo will go head to head - along with Xavi - for the Fifa Ballon d'Or in January and while the Argentine is expected to triumph in Zurich, 2011 has been a brilliant year for both players. Individually, Cristiano has the edge over the last 12 months, having netted an incredible 60 goals in 60 games, although collectively, Messi can claim the bragging rights, having led his brilliant Barcelona side to five more trophies under Pep Guardiola - La Liga, the Champions League, the Spanish Supercopa, Uefa Super Cup and Club World Cup.

Ronaldo recently broke the record for the number of league goals in a calendar year. The former Manchester United man has netted 43 times in La Liga in 2011, surpassing Messi's mark of 42 goals set in 2010. And those 43 strikes have come in just 34 games, 27 of which were part of last season's record-breaking total of 40, which set a new Pichichi record in Spain's top flight. But that may yet be beaten this term as Cristiano has already scored 20 in just 16 league games for Jose Mourinho's side in 2010-11.

Ronaldo is often accused of failing to produce against bigger teams, however, and that point was raised recently as the 26-year-old disappointed in the 3-1 Clasico defeat to Barcelona. These stats appear to back up the claim, too, because Cristiano is less prolific against top-class opposition in the Champions League than in La Liga, where standards drop outside the top four or five sides.

For Portugal, the forward enjoyed a happy year in front of goal, scoring seven in nine games, but apart from the winner in a 2-1 success over Messi's Argentina, the other strikes came against lesser lights such as Cyprus, Luxembourg, Denmark and Bosnia.

And although he has shown a more generous side to his game of late, his total of 17 assists is still some way short of Messi's 28.

Madrid are getting closer to Barca, though, and much of that is down to Ronaldo. At his brilliant best, he may just inspire them to even greater things in 2012.

At the moment, however, Messi is still the main man. His international stats may be less impressive, but overall his numbers are very similar to those of Ronaldo. He has more assists than his rival, struck just a goal less than the Portuguese in 2011 - albeit in more games - and offers so much to a Barca side in which he is the undoubted star.

Messi may have hit 12 goals less than Cristiano in the calendar year, but his superior strike rate both in the cups and the Champions League proves he can perform against any adversaries. Indeed, in key games such as the Champions League semi-final and final, the Argentine delivered.

He falls down only internationally, hampered by a system which fails to get the best from his astonishing abilities. That remains a concern for Argentina as the South Americans look to take advantage of possessing the world's finest footballer in their ranks. No wonder, then, they have tried to copy Barcelona's formation in the past, attempting to replicate a system in which Guardiola moved Messi further forward, playing him inside, supported by Xavi and Andres Iniesta behind him. It's a frightening prospect for any side, and one which has led Barca to 13 trophies under their current coach - including five in the past 12 months. But as Pep always says: they couldn't have done it without Messi.

So even though Cristiano outscored Leo in 2011, it's the Argentine who ends the year on top because of his ability to perform on the grandest of stages - and the silverware he has claimed in the process.

But as their clubs commence battle again in the New Year and their own personal duel continues, it remains to be see who will come out on top in 2012.

Serie A Team of the Season so far: from Andrea Pirlo to Ziatan Ibrahimovic

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ligue 1 Team of the Season so far: Eden Hazard, Mathieu Valbuena & Nene form lethal attacking midfield trident

Lionel Messi & Bojan Krkic are distant cousins, investigation reveals

An investigation by Diari Segre has revealed that Barcelona attacker Lionel Messi and Roma forward Bojan Krkic are distant cousins.

It became known last week that the Argentina international has Catalan roots and it now turns out that his great-grandfather was the brother of Bojan's great-grandfather.

The families of both players share the surname Perez, stemming from ancestors who moved from Teruel to Poal in the 18th century.

Ramon Perez Llobera, Messi's great-grandfather, was born in 1859 and his brother Goncal, Bojan's great-grandfather, was born in El Poal nine years later.

Ramo's granddaughter Rosa Maria Perez Mateu eventually emigrated to Argentina, where she married Eusebio Messi Baro. Their son is the father of the current Barcelona ace.

Messi and Bojan played together at Barcelona until the latter's move to the Stadio Olimpico club in the summer transfer window.

More important than Cristiano Ronaldo – how Xabi Alonso’s absence against Sporting Gijon ended Jose Mourinho’s nine-year home record

By KS Leong

When it comes to under-rated and under-appreciated footballers, no player fits that description better than Xabi Alonso, as unfortunate as it may be.

While players like Fabio Cannavaro, Claude Makelele, Carles Puyol and Xavi have attained the recognition they deserve after years and years of consistent, magnificent performances, Alonso hasn’t quite been given his due yet.

The 30-year-old Basque-born midfielder is very much a no-frills, no-thrills type of player, a player who has to do the dirty work but does so without fuss; a player who makes a difficult task look effortless and a simple task look elegant.

We have frequently examined the importance of Puyol and Xavi to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, stars who regularly have to live with Messi hogging the limelight. If Puyol is the heart of Barca and Xavi the brains, then Alonso is both for Madrid.

With the ability to control the midfield, win back possession, exert his dominance with his forceful challenges, and exhibit superb passing range and vision, Xabi - in a way - does the job of Puyol and Xavi combined.

Xabi’s importance to Madrid cannot be highlighted enough, especially against a team like Sporting, who are expected to be very stubborn at the back and very dangerous on the break. Madrid need a player like Xabi who can spray a variety of passes around the opposition half, someone who is comfortable on the ball under pressure to retain possession, and able to break up a counter-attack.

It’s not just his individual ability that will be missed. His teamwork has been vital to Madrid’s successes this season. At present, he has the second-best pass completion rate in La Liga with 1062 clean deliveries, behind only Xavi with 1273. He has released 221 accurate passes down the wings for a team-mate, more than any other player at Madrid; he is also the second-most fouled player at the club at 23 times, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo’s 30. 

All of these numbers suggest just how much his colleagues rely on him, and how much possession he has of the ball one game after another to keep the team’s increasingly-fluid midfield and attack ticking like clockwork.

Mourinho will have more options now, compared to last season, to fill the void left by Alonso. Sami Khedira, Lassana Diarra, Nuri Sahin, Kaka, Fabio Coentrao - although not all of them are direct replacements - will give the Portuguese coach numerous combinations to work with and allow him to shuffle the pack throughout the game to accommodate Xabi’s absence.

But despite the extra alternatives to fall back on, Madrid are unlikely to find their trip to El Molinon any easier. Manolo Preciado seems to have found a strategy to frustrate both Madrid and Barca in recent seasons. Los Blancos, since scoring a total of 11 goals over two games against Sporting in the 2008-09 campaign, have failed to beat the Asturians by more than two goals in their subsequent four meetings. In fact, Preciado’s men have conceded just four times to the capital giants in their last four encounters. The most significant of those four, of course, was Sporting’s 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu last season, which famously ended Mourinho’s nine-year undefeated streak at home in league games. And that came with Alonso missing from the field.

Even Barcelona, despite all their attacking firepower, have failed to score more than a goal a game against the Gijon outfit in their last four meetings.

Alonso’s absence against Sporting could prove decisive, and if the result doesn't go Madrid’s way, it could be one of the key turning points in this season’s title race. But ultimately, Madrid, Madridistas and Mourinho would rather be sure of having Xabi Alonso with the team to face Barcelona in El Clasico.

Swanselona! How Rodgers has turned his team into the talk of the Premier League


On Saturday evening, Brendan Rodgers and his Swansea team will be preparing for the match of their lives. Manchester United will be in town, not for a romantic Cup tie or a benign friendly, but as Premier League opponents. 

While it would be incongruous to describe them as equals - Manchester United's turnover last year was £286million, Swansea's just £10m - next weekend they compete as such. Squeezed into his tiny cupboard of an office, provided for him by the health club where Swansea train, Rodgers is relishing the challenge.

'This club and this city have been waiting years to host such a great team, a great club and a genius of a manager,' says the man who took Swansea into the Premier League via last season's play-offs. 'It will be a brilliant occasion and for me there's real excitement.'

Growing reputation: Brendan Rodgers has enjoyed phenomenal success in the past 18 months with Swansea

Excitement and deep regret, too. Rodgers does not say it but he will surely feel it next Saturday evening, as the dusk descends on the Liberty Stadium before kick-off.

For the visit of United is the kind of occasion his mother and father would have relished. But while their son has enjoyed phenomenal success in the past 18 months, forging a reputation as one of the game's brightest young managers, 38-year-old Rodgers has also been a man in mourning, having lost both his parents at relatively young ages and at a time that has been the most successful and fulfilling period of his professional life.

The cruel irony of his loss is an obvious source of pain. 'My mum and dad had worked so hard all their lives,' he says. 'They had arrived at a good moment, seen their son develop his life and could get over to watch games and come and share in what you've done.

'Then, all of a sudden, they're gone. There's a real empty feeling, you know. I spoke to them every day, sometimes you get into the habit to phone, in the car, away to a game…' His words tail off. But there is no self-pity, just grief.

Two months ago, as Swansea struggled to find their feet in the Premier League and were being defeated by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, their manager was 400 miles away in Carnlough, a picturesque village of just 1,500 inhabitants perched on the County Antrim coast where, on a good, clear day, you can look across the Irish Sea to the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

In ordinary circumstances, the beaches, the pretty harbour and the glens would have made for a serene location. But in the early hours of that morning, Rodgers's father, Malachy, had died, aged 59. 'To be with him when he took his final breaths, that was important to me,' says Rodgers.

'He died on the day of the Arsenal game. I had been with him as much as I could. I was flying back to Northern Ireland every chance I had to spend time with him. Then, whenever it looked like he wasn't going to pull through, as much as I loved Swansea and as much as I love football, I needed to be with my father.'

Hard times: Swansea endured a tough start to life in the Premier League
The grief was so acute for Rodgers because only a few months before his father had been diagnosed with lung cancer, his mother, Christina, had died of a heart attack. She was aged just 53.

'She went out one morning to get her hair done, eyebrows done, all that stuff that women do,' says Rodgers. 'She came back in at a quarter to 11 and my dad went out.

'He said he was going to get a plug and he was on his way home when this ambulance came flying past him. Unbelievable. He thought, "Where's that going?" 'When he arrived down at our village, and our house is just on the edge, the ambulance was outside our house. My mum had collapsed and died.' 

His was a tight family where his brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles grew up alongside each other, helping each other through tough times in the Seventies and Eighties. 
'They had no fancy jobs,' says Rodgers. In fact, his father was a painter and decorator but his mother raised millions of pounds and ended up travelling the world as a volunteer for the Irish Catholic charity, Trocaire.

Tue faith: Rodgers has rebuilt his career at Swansea

When she died, Rodgers had only recently been sacked by Reading and was yet to be appointed at Swansea.

Now, amid his grief, he has rebuilt his career and is reviving the reputation of the club whose Premier League credentials many might have questioned.

'The time when I think is when I'm on my own in the car,' says Rodgers. 'To be at this level as a football manager, you have to be strong-willed. On my own I'll have my moments, of course, but the focus is very much on the job of turning our good performances into results.'

Swansea were on the verge of financial extinction and bottom of League Two just eight years ago. They were saved by their fans to rise into the Premier League. Even now, though, they hardly bear comparison to the men who will be their opponents on Saturday. While United have at their disposal the huge Carrington training complex, where a small army of security men prevent anyone bothering the players, Swansea's finest must mingle with young mums relaxing in the health club bar after their morning gym sessions.

But with more than a quarter of the season gone, Rodgers's players now sit 10th in the table. Since that Arsenal game they have not only achieved results but in some style. Last weekend they were applauded off the pitch at Anfield by Liverpool's own fans, impressed by the way Swansea had gained a 0-0 draw while, by some observers' reckoning, out-passing their more illustrious opponents.

'I said to the players afterwards, "Write that down in your diary. November 5, 2011: You got a standing ovation from the Anfield crowd. That doesn't happen often. I think iy was a measure of our performance and the respect they had for our game.The figures show that Swansea consistently out-pass their Premier League rivals, have more touches on the ball and pass more accurately. Nor are they a soft touch; Swansea have achieved five clean sheets in 11 games and all from a squad of desperados and rejects culled from the lower leagues.

Their 'Swanselona' nickname is well earned, for Rodgers likes Spain and its football so much that he learned the language in his spare time. 'My biggest influence has been Spanish and Dutch football, that Total Football idea,' he says. 'Barcelona have been doing it for years, since Johan Cruyff was coach.'

Perhaps inevitably, the tale returns to his father. 'He loved Brazilian sides. He loved gifted players and I suppose when you're brought up in that environment, you swing more towards that type. He was always keen for me to be a creator and a technician, so that was the influence for me.

'The British type of football never suited me as a player. It was very much smash it up the pitch and play the percentages. The only percentage I was interested in was possession and I didn't think it was rocket science. If we have the ball, you can't score, no matter how big or strong you are. I've always worked off that.'

At Reading, he had grown up as a youth team player but never made it to the first team. He rose to head the club's academy but they never quite absorbed his ideas. He implemented them so well at junior level, though, that he was poached by Jose Mourinho to join Chelsea. 

When he returned to Reading as manager, he lasted just six months before being sacked.
Swansea, whose chairman, Huw Jenkins, knew and liked his style, gave him a second chance. And the fans, as Rodgers points out, had been well schooled under the management of Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa before him.

'They understand what we're trying to achieve,' he said. 'But I could take this group of players to play the same football at other clubs and we wouldn't get the reaction we get from these fans.'

Pass masters: Brendan Rodgers salutes the fans after his side was clapped off the pitch at Anfield

At present, it is a mutual appreciation society. Club and fans have embraced a manager who reciprocates. 'From the age of 16, I was living in Reading, dominated by the city of London, which I loved but when I came here it was like home, really. I was back on the sea again having lived on the coast all my life as a child. What makes it is the people: they're real. It's the real world. There are areas that are deprived, areas that are really modern and improving. But they love life.'

On his desk is a commemorative plaque, made by a fan, which records the date, result and scorers of the club's first ever Premier League win: 3-0 against West Bromwich on September 17. It was a week after the death of his father and came in the week when four miners were killed at the Gleision Colliery in the Swansea Valley.

'That was a sort of monumental game,' says Rodgers. 'The disaster had happened, a young kid had also lost his life here, so it was an emotional time. I was fully aware that football can provide a beacon of hope. And we were very determined to get our season up and running.
'We're in the business of winning, irrespective of style. We understand that we're a million miles away from other people in terms of budget, the size of the club and our resources. But we're here to compete.'

That they are and, with no small thanks to Rodgers, they are doing so in style.

Petr Cech unmasked! Behind the mask of a man who's still the No 1


Standing over a golf ball at Wentworth with an audience, Petr Cech looks a little uneasy. A childhood spent playing ice hockey probably explains why he swings a club a bit like Happy Gilmore and he seems rather miffed when he heads for the clubhouse. ‘I just don’t get to play enough,’ he complains. ‘I can shoot 10 over one day and 30 the next.’

Amateur golfers the world over can sympathise but Chelsea’s giant of a goalkeeper seems to be unflappable in every other respect, on and off the football pitch.

He is extremely bright. He insisted on completing his education in the Czech Republic even after joining Chelsea seven-and-a-half years ago and he can speak five languages. ‘At  the moment I’m studying Spanish for fun,’ he says. ‘We have many different nationalities in the dressing room and it allows me to converse with most of them.’

But Cech’s linguistic skills also enable him to articulate his thoughts and feelings on a variety of issues. From the recent problems at Stamford Bridge and the questions that remain about Andre  Villas-Boas to his personal journey at Chelsea; a journey as memorable for the setbacks as the success. 

I last interviewed him, one-to-one, in August 2004, a couple of weeks into his first season in  English football and long before he needed a head-guard or the  services of a plastic surgeon for a facial injury that required 50 stitches. Just lately he has needed a mask too, this time to protect a broken nose. He says it does not bother him in the slightest.

‘I can see a line at the top of my nose but it’s not a problem,’ he says. ‘When I played as a goalkeeper in ice hockey I would wear a full mask so I am used to it, although I hopefully won’t have to wear it in another week or so.’

But I have to ask him if he ever feels vulnerable. If he ever fears that the next 50-50 ball could leave him with another serious injury. Particularly when the club’s medical experts now suspect that being one of triplets has left him with a fractionally thinner skull than the average man and particularly when he concedes that a head injury as serious as the one he suffered in a collision with Reading’s Stephen Hunt back in 2006, at that time obviously without the protection of his head-guard, could kill him.

‘I guess whatever produced the bones had to be shared between three kids and they do say my skull, in terms of the thickness, is slightly under the average,’ he says. ‘They don’t know for sure but they do  say it could be because I was one  of triplets.

‘But once I’m on the pitch I’m  giving 100 per cent for the team. If that means if I have to put my head somewhere I will do it. Even after the head injury it meant I ended  up with a broken nose against  Blackburn and I needed plastic surgery after a training session.

‘If I have to put my head in to  get the ball I will do so because I don’t want to concede a goal. To be  honest, if you have a bit of fear you should not go on the pitch because if there is a bit of hesitancy you  will probably end up with a more serious injury.’

Even so, one can only admire his courage and his resolve. ‘If I ever feel differently, if I ever feel I cannot give 100 per cent, I will stop,’ he says. ‘But it never once crossed my mind to stop playing. Obviously I was initially thinking, “Thank God I’m still alive”. But I was also relieved I could still play.

‘The day it happened they told me I might not play again that season. Perhaps even the following season. They said it would be a case  of seeing how things progressed. The first priority was my life. It was not about football.

‘But as soon as I realised I would be able to play again I was determined to get back as quickly as possible. There were some days when I could not even think about training. But I was back after three months and a month later we won the Carling Cup. It remains one of my favourite trophies because of what I’d had to overcome. I was happy not only for myself but for all the people who had helped me through that time.’

He says he will always wear the head-guard. ‘I have to because another crack and it’s all over,’ he says. ‘And because nobody can guarantee what would happen if I took another blow like that to the head. I don’t think it’s wise to risk my career, perhaps even my life, for the sake of not wearing a helmet.’ He has always been brave. You have to be to face an ice hockey puck travelling at up to 100mph.

‘When I played the padding and protection was not as good as it is today and, boy, it could hurt,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘I was good, and when I was younger I probably enjoyed it more than football. Probably because there was more to do. More shots to deal with.

‘It was only because the  equipment was too expensive for my family that I chose football. But if you got hit by the puck between the pads, it was terrible — really painful. The bruising could be unbelievable.’

It might, nevertheless, explain why he has long made goalkeeping look relatively easy. It is impossible to find fault with any aspect of his game but his ability as a shot stopper is second to none, perhaps because he grew up facing a considerably smaller, faster flying object.

That said, he has conceded a few more goals than usual this season. It has not really been his fault, the decision by Villas-Boas to play a more aggressive, ambitious style at times leaving him exposed.

But Cech has an interesting take on what led to a run that saw  Chelsea suffer five defeats in nine matches before what appeared to be a return to more familiar tactics enabled them to beat Manchester City and Newcastle and progress to the last 16 of the Champions League with an impressive win against a much-fancied Valencia team. 

He dismisses talk of tactics being the problem before Chelsea’s game at Wigan today. ‘The problem was that we were making too many individual mistakes,’ he says.

‘The high defensive line was not the issue. The problem was that at moments we would lose balance. We would have too many people attacking and we could not recover fast enough. Now we keep more people behind the ball. That is the major change.

‘It means if we lose the ball we are now better organised. Against Valencia and Manchester City we played deeper but we did that because they played really well. We couldn’t play high because we didn’t have the ball. They had spells of possession and we had to organise ourselves to deal with that. 

‘We talked about the individual mistakes we were making and the fact that, while we were attacking really well, we were forgetting to defend. We put that right and you can see the result.

‘But it’s about adapting to the challenge of each game. Against Wigan this weekend it will be  different to the last two games because I would expect Wigan to defend and wait to hit us on the counter-attack.’ 

Cech speaks with real authority and he does so as one of Chelsea’s most senior and influential players. He is a member of the four-man players’ committee at Stamford Bridge, along with club captain John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.

So it seems appropriate to ask him about Villas-Boas and the  attitude of the players towards their 34-year-old manager. After all, there have been mutterings of discontent; this sense that the return of Jose Mourinho’s DVD guy as  manager might have been met with a touch of scepticism. When Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked as  Chelsea manager, Cech was singled out by the Brazilian as a reason for his downfall. Scolari said he had problems with Cech, Drogba and Michael Ballack, claiming he clashed with his goalkeeper when his demand for a personal coach was not met. 

Cech has since refuted the claim, insisting he has never had a personal coach and never asked for one either. Judging by what he says, he seems to have genuine respect for Villas-Boas.

‘Every manager is different,’ he says. ‘But the people identifying problems at the club are making those judgments from the outside.

‘They are never at the training ground. They never see what we are doing on a daily basis. I know that everybody is looking only at the results, but sometimes it is not always a reflection of what is happening. And everybody with Andre is talking about his age when in football there is no such thing as age. There is only quality.

‘It’s about the talent, quality and character of the individual. Edwin van der Sar was still a top, top  goalkeeper at 40. If you have the quality and the character to win things, and the manager won  with a big club like Porto, then I am not worried about the age. He has the experience.

‘Whether you like or dislike a  manager is not important. There have been so many managers I have not liked but I might have liked the way they are working; the way they prepare the team, the way they organise the training. If they understand the game, I am happy.
‘You don’t have to love the manager, you don’t have to love the other players. You can hate half the dressing room but if you are happy to play with them on the same pitch that is all that matters.

‘In training we are doing some very interesting stuff and that gives me a lot of confidence. It gave me confidence even when things weren’t going so well in matches.’

But what about Scolari? What about this group of senior Chelsea players some managers might find intimidating?

‘I was really surprised by Scolari,’ he says. ‘If you think a player is a problem, if you think they are not good for the team, you take them away. You are the boss after all. Well, I played every game and I always gave my best, for the team and for the coach. When Scolari arrived I had big respect for what he had done. He was a world champion with Brazil and he did good things with Portugal. But it didn’t work out for him at Chelsea.

‘I will never do things for myself. For me the club and the team come first. Petr Cech is not important. I might be an important member of the team but compared to the club I am not important.’

And the dressing room? ‘If you are the manager it has to be a massive help that the dressing room is united,’ he says. ‘It’s a good working environment, easier to manage. The players should not be intimidating.

‘Yes, it’s a strong dressing room. We have a lot of experience and we have won things together. We have also had plenty of difficult moments and we have always managed to come through them as a group. We have had so many different managers but the strength of the team has remained and we have enjoyed great success.

‘You discover the character of the team in difficult moments. I think you have seen that character in the last couple of weeks. We have been through another tough period, and it’s not over yet. But I think we have found a way out. We are back on the right track.’

And with that Cech heads back to the driving range, to the nice chaps from TaylorMade he wants to fit him for a new set of golf clubs. You never know, they might even make him hit the ball more like Nick Faldo than Wayne Gretzky.



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