Football, Opinion

A Return to Form and the Inevitable Reality Check

It’s the hope that kills you. Since leaving my teenage years I have tried to be blasé about football. I’ll watch the match yet remain emotionally withdrawn in an effort to keep my mood balanced.

Last night was different. United’s 2-0 loss to Paris Saint Germain came as a reality check. Having seen United hit form, this was a match I believed we would win yet barely threatened. A combination of better players, injuries and inconsistent referring meant that it’ll be another season of hoping Liverpool keep it to five rather than seeing United get to four European Cups. This morning I woke up feeling disappointed after a football match which hasn’t happened in years.

‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor’ is a line from ‘Sit Down’ which is a song by the Manchester band, James. The line typifies how it feels to be a Manchester United fan. Having seen the club lift the Treble in my first match-going season twenty years ago, the past five years have been difficult. That’s a ridiculously grandiose thing to type yet since Sir Alex Ferguson retired Manchester United has forgotten how to be Manchester United. Trophies were acquired, rather than won with matches becoming calculated rather than captivating. Aside from a handful of wins over the revitalised Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as cup final triumphs against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Ajax, it’s been largely meh.

Most of the joy I derive from football is largely irrespective of the result, I want to be entertained by what happens on the pitch and see teams try to win. Shed of the mind-boggling commercial interests and tribal sensibilities, football really is just a game. As a 15 year old, all I saw was a crowd of 50,000 people watching 22 players kick a ball around on a pitch. Beyond that there was a spirit and an element of risk which meant the game meant a bit more than three points or passage in a cup competition. I’d see United win by taking the game to the opposition and committing more men forward, not keeping it tight and occasionally finding some quality in the final third.

I wanted to see my team win, not simply because it meant trophies but because it signified a superior will to compete, to attack and to take risks. For five years that way of winning football matches has largely been absent from my club, that was until Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over.

His impact has been little short of miraculous and not just in the goal difference and points total columns. Where there was tedium, there is now tension which shows how far the team has come. When the draw was made against PSG the tie had a ring of impending doom to it with the likes of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe running rings around the comedic duo of Smalling and Jones (which could still happen in the second leg). Since then, United have rediscovered their mojo which means there is more at stake and belief has returned. Yet it’s more than that, the team are taking risks and with that comes a sense of anything is possible. When your team are playing like that the belief swells to the stands and Old Trafford has become louder as a result. It’s suddenly become fun to go to the match!

In the past twenty years, football has become micromanaged. Sports science and psychology now have their own departments at football clubs as every manager looks for an edge. Pushing all that aside, a belief has returned that if United play the right way the path to former glories becomes increasingly tangible. Under previous managers there was a belief that the right way to win a football match was to contain the opposition, keep possession and edge the match out in 90 minutes of calm, calculated contentment with all the risk sucked out of it. Sod that, I want to see United relentlessly attack, attack, attack. I want to see skill. I want to see drama. I want to see chances.

I don’t get to the game as often as I should yet having seen United beat Bournemouth 4-1 and snatch a late 2-2 draw against Burnley I can see that the match has finally become something to truly look forward to again. In dark times, the match can be disregarded around the rest of the match-going day. From the pride of the smart and superstitious uniform of the same Best 1968 royal blue replica jumper, the Adidas Class of ’92 trainers and calf covering red football socks to the beers on the train, the walk around the stadium, picking up the programme and finding your seat as the stadium fills. If United won it was a bonus.

When I watch the match now I’m almost guaranteed two things; that I’ll be entertained and that United should win.  I’d better get better at managing disappointment.


United Can Do Sterile Domination But Can Van Gaal Take The Handbrake Off

Before the days of Super Sunday, me and my father would watch Football Italia on Channel Four. This was my first taste of trying to understand the beautiful game from a tactical viewpoint. There was the organised art of catenaccio to grasp then zona mista, the Italian version of total football. To me it was 22 players on a field trying to avoid getting too close to the opponent’s goal. However, I did take note of statistics and tried to argue that possession and shots on target proved that one team was performing better than the other. My Dad wisely informed me that only one statistic mattered; the scoreline.

For a few weeks, all seemed well with Louis van Gaal’s United. Following a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace there was a six game winning streak. Before the defeat against Southampton, the team was on a eleven game unbeaten run. All was rosy, wasn’t it?

Well, not really. Another point my Dad would make was that a large part of football was luck, many would argue that United were enjoying more than their fair share. In the victories against Arsenal, Stoke City and Liverpool, the plaudits went to David de Gea, not the forward line. The warning signs were there against Southampton when United eked out an undeserved 2-1 win and defeats could have easily come in away matches against Aston Villa, Spurs and Stoke City. United were getting away it and the team still appeared to be in transition.

Performances were disjointed and victories largely forgotten thanks to clinical strikers. Admittedly that is their job yet with a vast summer outlay bringing in the attacking talents of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao it is fair to expect a bit more excitement and a few more chances. Yet following the 3-5 collapse against Leicester City, United have heeded a lesson to their gung-ho approach and arguably gone back to basics.

Sterile domination has become the buzz phrase to describe United’s recent performances. As if bonuses were paid out for successful passes rather than goals scored. Over the past few weeks United have ground out performances with no real expense spared. Instead of fast, expansive, attacking football it has been slow, ponderous and predictable.

Many have cited a lack of risk-taking resulting in nullifying attacking talent by a lack of positive service. Against Cambridge United, even Alan Shearer could note the opportunities missed when passing the ball forward into space. The players are there, they are simply not being managed properly. It could be something quite simple, like releasing the ball quicker to open up a few yards. Sometimes that is all a Rooney, Mata or a Di Maria needs to cause havoc and get bums off seats.

The ‘perfect performances’ that Van Gaal is striving for have arguably only occurred three times so far this season; in home matches against QPR, Hull and Newcastle. Each victory had an early goal in common helping to prove that taking the initiative is the best plan of attack. United have already shown that they are well equipped to keep the ball and maintain sterile domination yet this would be best employed to see a game out, not from the start. This weekend United face Leicester, here’s hoping that lessons have been learnt and they take the handbrake off.


Van Gaal’s Reconstruction

The statistics do not lie, apparently. The worst start to a season since 1986, fewer points after ten games than under David Moyes and alarm bells should be ringing. Yet for anyone actually watching the displays will appreciate there is little to be worried about. In fact, after the fourth consecutive derby defeat a sense of lingering promise to this season remains.

Cast your mind back to last season’s away derby. A 4-1 scoreline flattered United as they were opened up by a rampant Manchester City time and time again. In one of the most stomach churning ordeals in recent memory David Moyes had seemingly de-constructed a championship winning team. A season that promised much dipped into terminal decline and it was dire, painful viewing. The lights were on yet the exciting, visceral thrill of watching United was largely absent.

The damage was done and Louis van Gaal admitted that this was a reconstruction job and that the first three months would be a struggle. He’s no fool, he has been in a similar position before as it took until October to turn things around in his debut season at Bayern Munich. It will take time for the team to play the way he wants and the signs are encouraging.

Despite the humiliating defeats to Leicester and MK Dons this season has been fun so far. Matches have ebbed and flowed with each win proving hard fought. There are players to get bums off seats like the exhilarating Angel Di Maria and the endearing efforts of Radamel Falcao. In Van Gaal we have a manager that wants to take risks and has faith in youth as he shown by blooding Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and James Wilson.

There is a glorious unpredictability to United that will, hopefully with a bit of tinkering, be moulded into a winning team. At the moment there are genuine concerns about the defence but who cares when the team are playing penetrative, attacking football again. There are chances at both ends and for the time in two years the team genuinely scared a rival.

No team can legislate for an episode of brainfade from one of their defenders yet there is a calmness to this side that bodes well. Despite being down to ten men and a goal down against a talented team there was a poise to play the ball out from the back. The signs are there that the reconstruction is well underway.

Fitness, Food, Football, Health

Shedding some light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s that time of the year again. No, not Christmas but when winter begins to set in and around two million people in the UK start to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I first realised I suffered from SAD back in my freshers year of university. Thinking it was homesickness or just a case of stress I dismissed it, then I spoke to my mother. My second assumption was that she was just missing her firstborn until her nursing expertise kicked in and she confirmed that I had SAD. Personally, I still think there is a lack of awareness of the condition which can be argued for mental illness in general. I want to tell people why I don’t want to come out or why I look so morose at work yet saying that I suffer from SAD seems like a way out. There is a worry that colleagues think I am being dramatic or friends perceive that I am suffering from the ‘winter blues’. Anyone who has admitted that they suffer from a type of depression will relate to how difficult it is, helping people understand the effects will hopefully help.

While an increase in ‘melancholia’ during the winter months has been recorded throughout history, this specific type of depression was first noted in 1845. An example would be a ship’s doctor who would observe that the crew were becoming lethargic during the shorter days and treated this with bright artificial light. It was not until the 1980’s that the condition was formally recognised as a disorder. Little of the condition has changed since then.

The symptoms remain the same; that of a low mood and a general lack of interest in life. From personal experience I can note that the condition does not just hit you, it can take weeks before you realise you have not been acting quite like yourself recently. On this occasion I thought I was simply pissed off with friends letting me down yet this heightened irritability was my warning sign. Alas, I have already begun my few months of hibernation and started to withdraw socially.

I find myself hiding from public view, not out of a want to save money but from a perpetual sense of worry. Specifically, I worry about my mood swings and how I might react to an off remark made in jest. Whereas before I could quip back, now I react; whether spitefully or just by wanting to make a quick exit. I simply do not want to put myself in a position where I will behave ruefully. Put simply, I cannot trust myself.

My judgement remains clouded throughout the day, from headaches to feelings of hopelessness and pessimism. From the moment I wake up I overthink; shall I shave today? What tie shall I wear? Is that jacket the most suitable for the short walk to work? My job necessitates that I make around 50 judgement calls daily. While I used to find that quite easy when I started anxiety, a sense of doubt and difficulty concentrating makes me over-analyse every single one. Are you sure about that? I ask myself the same question so many times during the day that I wonder whether simply staying in bed is a safer way to spend the day so I don’t make any mistakes or create any more problems for myself.

Apart from the nausea and the perpetual dull ache in my head there are more generalised symptoms. One of them is an emotional displacement, I simply do not feel much these days. Jokes that would normally make me laugh fail to register and I genuinely find it harder to see the bright side of life. I try to aid this by doing things that usually cheer me up. For example, I bought two pairs of trainers this week which would tend to brighten my mood yet I have simply worried whether they actually fit me. It becomes very difficult to find enjoyment when doing the same things that you thought you enjoyed.

I have tried to plan activities to give me something to look forward to yet I then worry whether friends will be able to attend or if the weather will behave or if I can afford it. In the next few weeks I have Royal Blood to look forward to, Halloween, Bonfire Night and The Good Food Show yet at the moment I simply look at them as scribblings on a calendar. However, I need distractions, I need things to take my mind off this overall sense of meh.

There are physical symptoms as well. Despite my reasoning that longer nights pre-empted my going to bed sooner a tendency to oversleep is another symptom. There is also the threat of insomnia to consider which makes waking up a whole lot harder though a light box does help mimic rising with the sun.

My 10k run was a couple of weeks ago yet a general lack of energy means I have bought myself winter running shoes in an effort to get more exercise. A weekly parkrun is not enough, I need to spend more time outside which will mean getting up for a run before work as soon as the clocks change, perhaps before then.

My diet is also affected. Yes, I am aware that Christmas is coming so there will be more treats in the office and a general inclination to eat more which makes SAD more potent. Another symptom is overeating, specifically carbs, that coupled with a lack of energy means putting on weight becomes a whole lot easier. A decreased sex drive is another symptom but I currently don’t have to worry about that…

There is some science behind all this, mainly due to the reduced exposure to sunlight. At last check, the condition affected 12 million across Northern Europe with long winters being a contributory factor, and maybe why I barely noticed SAD while in Australia. You see, light stimulates the hypothalamus; the part of the brain which controls mood, appetite and sleep. This effects the body’s circadian rhythm (internal clock) as well as the production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin.

However, there are means of combating the condition. The light box I mentioned earlier is one yet concentrated light therapy (sitting in a room full of bright light) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have also been found to help. Antidepressants, such as St John’s Wort, and Vitamin D supplements due to the lack of sunlight are recommended.

Like mental illness in general, SAD is not something that can be switched off or swept under the carpet. It is a condition that pervades nearly every thought and has a markedly detrimental effect on the physical health of a sufferer. Though there are pills that can help sometimes the best therapy is simply making people aware. Writing this has proved cathartic, not just from setting out what it is I am suffering from but to try and shed some light on it, when sunlight is what I am missing. Roll on Spring.

Mama and More


Calm down, it is only pre-season

There used to be a time when no-one paid much to attention to pre-season. Apart from catching a glimpse of a new signing or sating that football fix before late August it barely mattered results-wise. Apparently that has changed this season with United winning football matches and an actual trophy, remember those things?

Granted, with a new manager introducing a new footballing philosophy we should all be a tad more excited than the nervous anticipation suffered twelve months ago. United have swept aside all comers for a perfect record stateside, scoring 16 and conceding only four. Compare that to pre-season under David Moyes twelve months ago and there is cause for optimism but let’s not get carried away, it is still pre-season.

No points have been put on the board and no-one will really know how well these players have attuned themselves until the season opener against Swansea but the signs are good. Having only seen snippets of action (seriously, I won’t be watching with any real intent until it actually matters) and the International Champions Cup final against Liverpool there seems to be a burgeoning sense of confidence throughout the team.

Louis van Gaal has only had a few weeks with his players yet, unlike last season, the players already seem comfortable. A lot has been said about introducing the 3-5-2 system and how wholly revolutionary it is but change can be good too and in this case it is working. It may only be a stopgap as Van Gaal has gone on record as saying that this is the system he feels works best with the players at his disposal which is an important point.

Systems do matter in football yet they are not the be-all and end-all, they have to suit the players available. In his seminal book, ‘Inverting The Pyramid’, Jonathan Wilson is clear about how tactics works on a football field. He said, “Football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment.” Certainly, until any new signings this is a system that the players already look comfortable with in the sense that they look like they know they are doing and where they are supposed to be on the pitch. For the timebeing it looks like 4-4-2 has been swept aside which may not be a bad thing.

After a season to forget the squad seems to have got its mojo back with some adventurous, one-touch moves and confident cross-field passes finding players in space. Transitions are quick yet unhurried with holding midfielders and wingbacks proving crucial to the movement of the ball. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata are playing in their favoured positions and without much surprise they have an influence on the game.

Like moving on after the most constrictive of relationships the players seem free and enjoying themselves which makes you wonder quite how detrimental the coaching of David Moyes was. While there are still worries about the depth of the squad, particularly in midfield and across the backline, and how challenging the system may prove on wingbacks there is cause for optimism. Then again, it is only pre-season.


More top, top World Cup Moments

Some moments have not been altogether that surprising. Lionel Messi is almost expected to lead Argentina to glory in a Maradona revisited-esque role and for large parts of their games his support actors have disappointed. Against ‘plucky’ (there simply isn’t a more patronising yet more suitable word for it is there) Iran they toiled and rarely troubled. This suited me fine having pulled out the Middle Easterns in the office sweepstake. Indeed, that day I did some research having read an interview with their coach, former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Quieroz. This was conducted by one of my favourite writers, Andy Mitten, in the summer special of United fanzine, United We Stand. It was an engaging read involving the pressures set by their federation and how poor their preparation was going into the tournament. Thus, my expectations that they could pull of a result were slim to none. Having watched it at a family BBQ I barely paid attention and kept returning to the screen expecting Argentina to have scored. Then I sat down and waited, and waited. With the score remaining goalless going into stoppage time it seemed only a hideous mistake or a piece of genius was to make the difference. Up stepped Lionel Messi.

Messi, the savour against Iran (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Messi, the savour against Iran (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty)

There always seems to be certain moments of disgrace that mar a World Cup. The Hand of God in 1986, Luis Suarez’s handball then celebration in 2010. For this World Cup (at least so far) that moment has been provided by Suarez (him again) with another trademark bite. Having watched the game between Italy and Uruguay, like many I did not realise what had happened for a good five minutes. Surely he hadn’t done it again, oh, he had. No-one saw it coming, well, apart from Thomas Syversen, a Norwegian living in Trondheim, who staked money on it. By the end of the game the memes were coming thick and fast with many wondering what goes through a man’s head when he goes to bite.

Luis Suarez, looking like a guilty boy at school (Photo by Giorgio Chiellini/EPA)

Luis Suarez, looking like a guilty boy at school (Photo by Giorgio Chiellini/EPA)


Another moment of utter disgrace that no-one else has noticed, or indeed cared about, came in the France v Switzerland game. With the game deep into stoppage time France were already 5-2 up and cruising when the ball was laid to Karim Benzema. Then the referee suffered a brain fade similar to Clive Thomas’ infamous decision to deny Zico what would have been the winning goal from a corner in a 1978 World Cup match against Sweden. You can hear the final whistle as the pass is played to which Benzema clinically dispatches the shot. Why the referee cannot wait until the ball is in the middle third or out of play is beyond me. It is a ludicrous decision not at all simply because I have Benzema in my fantasy team.

Into the knockout stages now and the first second round game between Brazil and Chile promised much but descended into a nervy, tense affair. The players didn’t know whether to stick or twist and I was stuck wondering when I should leave to catch an evening train. Thankfully I managed to remain until the end of extra time yet had Mauricio Pinilla’s shot been an inch lower I wouldn’t have had to jog to the station. There has been a nervousness in each Brazil match that comes with a home nation expected to win and a young team desperate to meet those high expectations. There  are also the demons of 1950 to eradicate and the fear that the host nation will blow it again. As Pinilla let fly a nation, if not a global audience of millions, held it’s breath. I thought it was in but for the sake of the competition it was a relief to see it crash off the crossbar. Pinilla has since had an epic tattoo done of the moment.

Pinilla hits the crossbar (Photo by AP)

Pinilla hits the crossbar (Photo by AP)

No-one really knows why but the sight of a ball crashing against the woodwork then hitting the back of the net looks so good. Somehow it looks more visceral, more brutal, more aesthetically pleasing than it going straight in. This is probably why I have saved my favourite moment to last. If there is such a thing as a £40m breakthrough talent then James Rodriguez is just that. I was walking down Deansgate to a friend’s party in Manchester when I glanced through the window of yet another pretentious bar. Fake tans, plucked eyebrows and glow in the dark skirts flooded my eyeline yet I managed to see the ball drop out of the sky then Rodriguez swivel and dispatch a stunning goal. Come the final itself it might not be the best goal but for me there is something primal about such a glorious goal, something indescribable that you simply have to stand back and applaud. Even if you are standing outside a bar and rushing to a friend’s house with a four-pack of lagers.
NB – I’m aware the link doesn’t contain a video of the goal (thanks FIFA) yet the commentary does the goal justice.


Top, top World Cup Moments

The opening goal by Paul Pogba against Nigeria was the 146th of this World Cup, that is already more than the total from South Africa four years ago. My memory of that World Cup is hazy as not a lot really happened apart from Suarez’s handball and celebration against Ghana (surely his behaviour had improved), Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany (surely there’d be goal-line technology this time, Sepp) and deserved last-minute glory for Spain. So much has already happened in this World Cup that it hasn’t even finished and it is being heralded as one of the finest in living memory. This could be down to several reasons; a change in mindset and the death of ‘tika taka’, which was laid to rest on 13th June 2014 in Salvador, being an obvious one. Perhaps it is down to the more reliable Brazuca ball actually hitting its intended target instead of mimicking the flight of a beach ball. The second round has just been completed and there have been several memorable moments so far, here are a few of my favourites. Sometimes you have a moment in a match where everything changes, when all that seemed true and righteous suddenly dissolves before your very eyes. The signs were there that football had moved on from ‘tika taka’ ever since Bayern Munich ripped Barcelona apart 7-0 on aggregate in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals. However, Spain were still being talked about as potential winners of this World Cup, albeit in hushed tones. It took 44 minutes for that expectation to be gazumped. Dutch left-back Daley Blind had already shown Spain to be shaky to a well-aimed long ball and another found Robin van Persie through on goal. Many strikers would have brought the ball down, aimed and shot but the Flying Dutchman has such technique and nous that he made the diving header look effortless. The Netherlands were to run out 5-1 winners, the World Champions were on their way home.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman (Photo by Getty)

“Anticipation has a habit to set you up, for disappoint”, so sang Alex Turner in ‘The View From The Afternoon’. It’s also a line that brings to mind England World Cup campaigns. For once, the expectation was patted down as England were placed in a difficult group with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy. Many expected the opening game in Group G to be a tepid affair due to the sapping conditions in Manaus yet England actually came out and attacked with a verve and energy rarely seen since 1996. Of course, Italy punctured that early enterprise with a typically considered set piece. Still, England came forward and equalised with a sublime goal; Raheem Sterling feeding Wayne Rooney on the left and an inch-perfect cross found Daniel Sturridge who tapped in from close range. All downhill from there though as England eventually limped home bottom of their group.

Daniel Sturridge celebrates his goal against Italy

Daniel Sturridge celebrates his goal against Italy (Photo by

Part of me wonders whether Pepe is simply from a bygone era of mindlessness on a football pitch. Back in the early 90’s you could hack a sprightly attacker from behind, stamp on his goolies and get away with it. In 2014 that gains you a lengthy ban and a Daily Mail expose on how no-one is thinking of the children watching this depravity at 5pm. Germany ran out comfortable 4-0 winners yet it may have been less brutal had Pepe not gotten himself sent off in the first half. Alas, Portugal left Brazil with Cristiano Ronaldo still carrying so much hair gel it’d put many traveller’s hand luggage allowance to shame. Had they not lost as heavily to Germany in their opening match they may have squeezed through on goal difference, then again if you have someone as mindless as Pepe in your defence you are always running the risk.

Pepe gets himself sent off against Germany

Pepe gets himself sent off against Germany (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

As a Manchester United fan you could forgive me for being harsh on Marouane Fellaini. For £27m you expect a bit more from a Premier League player than a few bookings and a selection of painfully inept performances. Still, he remains in the squad so I was hoping he would demonstrate some worth on the international stage. With Belgium losing 1-0 to Algeria in their opening group game there were several more dynamic substitutions Marc Wilmots could have made. It all seemed hopelessly desperate, a bit ‘David Moyes’ then the cross came in, Fellaini met it and the ball bounced in off the crossbar. Redemption and maybe a bit of hope he can reproduce such form back in M16.

Fellaini equalises against Algeria

Fellaini equalises against Algeria (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Having witnessed first-hand how mediocre this Australian team could be I expected some tennis scorelines in a group containing Chile, Spain and Holland. They finished bottom with no points yet left with their heads held high following some spirited performances (take note, England). You would be forgiven for thinking that of the Tim Cahill goals I could have picked it would be the ‘worldie’ against the Netherlands, however, that was a 5pm kickoff I missed. Of the 11pm kickoffs I have managed to catch the Chile v Australia game was a welcome surprise. Having gone 0-2 inside 20 minutes I feared the worst but then Cahill scored a trademark header and Australia galvanised. Sure, they eventually lost but against a highly fancied team they arguably deserved a draw. It is weird for Australians to go into a tournament as unfancied so to come out with no points and still feel proud must be a pretty new sensation.

Tim Cahill scores against Chile

Tim Cahill scores against Chile (Photo by AP)