Football never fails to surprise, does it? Naturally, we should’ve come to learn this many moons ago, but following an unprecedented barrage of astonishing, ludicrous and heart-breaking headlines which entered our hostile media environment this week, with yet more to come, it seems any concept we had of normality in the beautiful game was foolishly held, to say the least. Predictably – in ironic circumstances – I have stepped up to the plate, or rather the keyboard, to even attempt to decipher the slurry of shocks, the absolute avalanche of absurdity and the bombardment of bat-s*** crazy (without wanting to exaggerate) of this week of footballing upheaval, and, perhaps perilously, as very little has sunk in by 20:41 on Thursday night as I begin to write this, detail why, in truth, it has been nothing out of the ordinary. With little inspiration required quite honestly from anywhere else other than the footballing columns of any respectable media agency (and that does not include The Sun), this could be a treacherously off-course ramble about the fast-paced nature of news, specifically in the sport of the round ball, the rectangular green field and the 22 players, but hopefully it should offer something a little out-of-the-blue, dutifully reflecting this mad, mad week.
19:57 – Sutton United kick off against Arsenal in the FA Cup Fifth Round.
20:23 – Arsenal go 1-0 up through Lucas Perez’s deceptive low shot, disrupting Sutton’s early stability.
21:09 – Arsenal add a second, with Theo Walcott finishing a well-worked move to effectively end the tie.
21:33 – Sutton reserve ‘keeper and all-around legend Wayne Shaw is spotted eating a pie on the sub’s bench, having earlier been pictured in the bar at half-time.
21:50 – The full time whistle blows; cue the obligatory pitch invasion by Sutton fans after a credible 2-0 defeat.
Having been the focus of a raft of attention prior to kick-off for his antics around Gander Green Lane – acting as a groundsman, goalkeeping coach, substitute and cult hero around the club in various stages – Wayne Shaw, hailed as the ‘saviour of the FA Cup’ by some, and condemned, if jokingly, as someone who ‘followed his [dreams] to the burger van’ by others (namely Alan Shearer), seemed to have become a timeless memory of our age in the FA Cup on Monday night. Caught on camera stuffing what he later referred to as a pasty in to his mouth – but more on that in a bit – his comedic sense, as well as his undeniable enthusiasm and loyalty to his array of roles, made him appear a shining beacon of hope in a monotonous landscape of soulless footballers, a distinct opposite of those professionals, dead-behind-the-eyes in their seemingly steadfast state of tedium, and we, as viewers, loved it. In comparison to the game, where the North Londoners efficiently, but unimpressively, assured their manager of another week of stability, as well as a tie with Lincoln in the quarter-finals, with a patient exploitation of the limitations in fitness and finesse in the non-leaguers, Shaw’s incomparable madcap behaviour certainly proved a silver lining to what, after considerable build-up, turned out to be a damp squib of a game.
10:32 – Sutton Chairman Bruce Elliott hints Shaw ‘will be brought back down to earth’ following his pie stunt.
10:41 – The Independent’s reveal of Shaw’s actions linking to an offer made on Sun Bet – Sutton’s shirt sponsors for the night – lead to his actions being linked to FA investigation.
13:11 – News breaks that the FA launches an investigation into Shaw’s potential breach of governing body rules.
15:56 – Shaw, who often slept at the club, as was his devotion, offers his resignation to the Sutton board, which is accepted, though rumours suggest he was forced to quit.
19:46 – Manchester City and Monaco kick off in a Champions League Round of 16 First Leg at the Etihad.
20:32 – Monaco ahead at half-time, leading 2-1 after Falcao’s diving header and teenager Kylian Mbappe’s emphatic close-range finish cancel out Raheem Sterling’s point-blank effort.
21:37 – The match finishes 5-3, with Pep Guardiola’s side the second English side to be leading in their European tie, alongside their cross-city rivals, 3-0 up against Saint Étienne. Falcao’s penalty miss proves costly, as even though his chip on Willy Caballero puts the Ligue 1 leaders ahead after Sergio Aguero levelled for City, a rapid succession of goals from Aguero again, Stones and Sane – each exposing a dubious away defence - leave the tie in the Mancunians’ hands.
Considering the day started, and was largely dominated by Shaw’s ‘pie-gate’ scandal, in the shock announcement that the goalkeeper had a motive to his pastry-themed shenanigans in settling a few bets for friends, there seems no better place for us to begin on a highly dramatic Tuesday. Surely unprecedented on the national scale, Shaw’s privately emotional resignation divided fans of the baked treat everywhere – had he inexplicably overlooked the reputation of his club and FA rules when justifying the odds himself, or was he simply an innocent victim – as a pasty eater, of course - of an organisation so dogmatic in its politically-correct approach towards the heart and humour of the non-league game?
For a servant so loyal to the leafy corner of South London, Shaw’s punishment for an ill-though-out publicity stunt seemed a little harsh; after all, it was hardly of the level of Sam Allardyce’s seedy dealings in London bars to avoid third-party rules in the English game, physically tampering with the credibility of the regulations his employers – the FA – set. While certainly, the credibility of some at Sutton suffered as a result of Shaw’s actions, I can assure the likes of Elliott and Paul Doswell that nobody thought any less of them as a club in the wake of the pie-eating (sorry, pasty-eating), and that the exposure they received on Monday, including Shaw as a key figure, was entirely positive for the side. In my view, as an entire group, they did themselves a huge disservice when they cast such a devoted character aside for the sake of reputation – spoiling the light-hearted picture of non-league serenity which they had just been coated with less than 24 hours previous.
Manchester City, on the other hand, redeemed their pedigree as European heavyweights against Monaco, playing out what some dubbed as ‘the best Champions League match ever’ at the Etihad, showcasing, for once, the true spirit of football after a controversial few hours previous. An encapsulation of many great European nights, the Mancunians roared back to their attacking best on a night of end-to-end entertainment that was complemented by a similarly high-octane clash at the BayArena, where Bayer Leverkusen hosted a rampant Athletico Madrid, presenting great value for money for the spectators present in a 4-2 defeat. Guardiola appears happiest when managing in such pressure cookers of matches, squaring off against the crème de la crème of world football, so perhaps it was no surprise that his forwards, including the suddenly resurgent Sergio Aguero – signalling a statement of intent with his well-taken brace – were so proficient on the night, softening the blow that Gabriel Jesus’ serious metatarsal injury posed the Spanish boss. While the Citizen’s defence leaves much to be desired – in the recurring lack of thought John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi place into their passes, and the ageing nature of their full-backs – if any English side is currently capable of challenging for the Champions League title, Guardiola’s XI is it, combining a plethora of experience, determination and level-headedness that cannot be equalled on such a stage until Antonio Conte’s Chelsea undoubtedly qualify next season.
17:00 – Jose Mourinho’s in-form Red Devils take to Saint Étienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard pitch aiming to see out their advantage in the Round of 16 tie.
18:51 – Thanks to a 16th minute goal from Henrikh Mkhitaryan - a dainty slice across Stephane Ruffier from Juan Mata’s teasing cross - United ease over the line while adding to their advantage without captain Wayne Rooney, injured before the tie and rumoured to be in talks with a number of Chinese clubs before the national transfer window ends on 28th February.
19:46 – Leicester City kick off in their Champions League RO16 first leg in Sevilla, with expectations low following the Foxes’ poor run of form.
20:33 – Sevilla end the half 1-0 up and coasting towards a certain victory, dominating a defensively fragile Leicester side, with Pablo Sarabia’s header the sole effort to breach Kasper Schmeichel’s resistance.
21:35 – Claudio Ranieri’s English champions rise to the occasion in the closing stages, but trail 2-1 heading into the second leg at the King Power Stadium as Jamie Vardy’s six-yard finish reduces arrears following Joaquin Correa’s instinctive response to a defence-splitting Stefan Jovetic run on the hour mark.
If Tuesday had been a 24 hours of great drama, then Wednesday appeared to have taken a back seat following United’s low-key victory in central France, only to be set alight at the very death by Vardy’s first goal in over two months, a lifeline for Leicester and what appeared at the time to be a glimmer of hope for Ranieri’s ill-fated 2016/17 campaign, showcasing a snippet of the explosive energy and industrious desire in the final 20 minutes which defined them last season. In truth, few of the Foxes fans who flew out to the Andalusian capital would’ve realistically predicted a victory after so many weeks of arduous torment in terms of results, so when charting their stormy season, this defeat seems little more than a great success against the three-time consecutive winners of the Europa League, also known as the side third in La Liga currently, in the midst of what, until about 42 hours ago (as this goes up), was a relegation battle in unprecedented circumstances for Ranieri. Little did we know what would follow less than a day later…
7:40 – Wayne Rooney’s agent Paul Stretford confirmed to have been in China, fuelling rumours that the Manchester United and England captain could leave for the Far East by the summer.
18:00 – Rooney releases a statement revealing his commitment to United and intention to remain in England.
20:01 – Claudio Ranieri sacked as Leicester manager just nine months after leading the 5000/1 outsiders to the Premier League title, leaving them 17th in the Premier League and 2-1 down heading into a home leg with Sevilla.
20:05 – Tottenham return to their European home of Wembley, attempting to overturn the 1-0 deficit facing them from the first leg of their tie with Gent.
20:53 – Spurs implode following Christian Eriksen’s early goal, as Harry Kane’s unfortunate own goal and an entirely deserved straight red card for Dele Alli hand Gent a surely insurmountable advantage at half time.
22:00 – Gent see their lead home, as despite tonnes of pressure from Mauricio Pochettino’s side and Victor Wanyama’s stunning goal, sub Jeremy Perbet wins the tie with a timely finish on the counter 82 minutes in to dump the North Londoners out of continental competition.
Likely the main inspiration in its massive diversity of news in quick succession for this style of blog, Thursday’s action, so close to when I was penning the first few words here, undeniably sent tremors across the often cosy atmosphere English football has. It did, however, take what I perceived perhaps to be the least surprising of the three events to truly awaken the pundits, armchair and studio alike, as well as Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp in Friday press conferences, in Ranieri’s sacking. On the back of a vote of confidence from the Leicester board just 16 days earlier and having salvaged a vital away goal in arguably the biggest match of the Foxes’ history to date, the world seemed to have been turned upside down when news (officially) filtered through that the Srivaddhanaprabhas (aren’t you going to question my spelling on that?) had given the Italian the push as the sun set in Leicestershire, before rumours first spread around 19:30 on twitter. While a serious majority argue the immoralities of ditching the man who built a title-winning empire from rags and bones in terms of Premier League finances, understandably so, many gloss over the serious deflation of form and the painfully visible lack of confidence or awareness present in what mainly are the same title-winning squad of last season when calling Ranieri’s corner.
From the evidence I have certainly witnessed in a season the boss formerly known as the ‘Tinkerman’ purchased Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, Nampalys Mendy, Bartosz Kapustka, Ron-Robert Zieler and Wilfred Ndidi for around £80 million, amongst others, he has failed to adapt a tactic now only too obvious to every other manager in the whole of England, let alone the Premier League, and who have learnt to counteract and nullify it. This, to me, presents a worrying lack of self-awareness on Ranieri’s part, as other than a handful of unsuccessful attempts at switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation, he has tinkered with little from the 2015/16 miracle, and has therefore paid the price. It’s no coincidence that the statistic flying around many social media pages – displaying how Sir Alex Ferguson has been the only of the last five bosses to lift the famous Premier League trophy to retire, rather than be sacked within the space of two years or so – proves the alarming trend of short-term winners in English football. While we greet our prime division as likely the most competitive league at such a level in the entire globe, boasting a dazzling array of unique tactics, world-class individuals and spine-tingling atmospheres, there is the tendency, as ever in life, for winners to become complacent. Failing to adapt your approach to changing circumstances, and also failing to recognise key events in your season which will later prove decisive have cost the likes of Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho, heaven forbid, as while they will explain they followed a strategy that they believed suited the changing environment, what they did in truth was fail to ward off the returning momentum of their competitors. The way in which Ranieri has done this, however, has seemed puzzlingly public, refusing to adjust tactics to specific games, opponents or competitions, pursuing with dreadfully out-of-form players and not, in truth, ever losing his patience with either, or rallying his troops with a direct public call to arms.
A 4-4-2 specialising in warding off the rapid passing football of many top sides in the league, while utilising the pace of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki to exploit tiring and exposed defences when they clinically countered, may have succeeded last season. But when faced with an entirely fresh challenge, against 12 managers over the course of the past eight months who have arrived with new ideas, and a host of new threats on the pitch, Ranieri’s confidence in the same exact tactic was naïve to say the very least. More than anything, it is the defensive quartet of Robert Huth, Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs that have to take a significant brunt of such blame this season. Without a shadow of the assured nature, organisational qualities or rallying cries witnessed last season, Huth and Morgan especially have struggled to cope with the growing mob of pacey, or even equivalently powerful, strikers facing them.
Perhaps this was inevitable without the high-energy shielding of N’Golo Kante, but to be put to the sword on all but four occasions this season is embarrassing for the bedrock of last season’s miracle. For me, Yohan Benalouane and Marcin Wasilewski just demonstrated why they should’ve be drafted in earlier when the pairing impressed against Derby in the FA Cup replay, and when Demarai Gray also starred on that night, only to have not received a consistent run in the side for the rest of the season, Ranieri’s waning skills were only becoming more blatant to me. That’s without even mentioning the disgruntling of Leonard Ulloa, the understated hero so often of many a game last season, the loyalty to the desperately drained Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton, amongst others, and the deposit of just three away points all season – which I must point out even Ringmer FC have bettered. Honestly, the Champions League campaign of this term, and what will forever remain the unbelievable achievement of 2015/16, were the only saving graces to Ranieri’s drawn-out unravelling since the turn of the year, and while some argue he only suffered because of heightened expectations; I point to the statistics, with the 11th highest wage bill in the league, and now as the 20th highest grossing football club in the entire globe, relegation, with form that was surely heading that way, wasn’t going to be tolerated. Whether they stand a better chance of avoiding it with one of the rumoured Roberto Mancini, Alan Pardew, Nigel Pearson (NO), Guus Hiddink or Gary Rowett (the new Alan Curbishley, in that he’ll be linked to any job going), it cannot yet be said, but without an entirely admirable and lovable Italian doggedly playing on past glories, I feel that the change should be the shock Leicester players require. (On that note, I should just mention that the rumours that key dressing room figures forced Ranieri out are entire BS, they’d either have to be Oscar-worthy actors or incredibly sly dogs to pull it off, and I’d suggest they lack the intelligence to be either.)
What truly shocked me, however, this week was the castaway, callous and entirely apathetic attitude shown to Rooney amidst swelling rumours, which I hadn’t truly believed until Wednesday morning, that the threat of him moving to China was tangible. While it has to be admitted he has never been the best-loved of any England captain, and has been a much-maligned figure for his role in the lack of national success – having once been the beacon for world-toppling hopes – I had never imagined the British footballing public to wish him away to a career twilight in a burgeoning footballing empire without any desirable competition, atmosphere, history, living quality or moral reflections, without as much of a second of deliberation.
Naturally, as a Manchester United player once the gem in Fergie’s crown, very few opposition fans appreciated his skill without branding him – with expletives – a failure, a horrible person or, far worse than anything else, a poor footballer, and it is this aggressive spotlight fixated upon his career that has, at times, threatened to wane – ironically – his passion for the game. He has (twice) previously attempted to manipulate moves away from Ferguson’s United, but in the past few years, notably since his relationship ended on a frosty note with the Scot, and his influence on David Moyes’ campaign led to Louis van Gaal handing him the armband, his dependability as skipper – of both club and country – and selfless contribution to the side on and off the pitch, has for me been undermined by those who lament him for not recapturing the attacking form that led to 33 goals being scored in all competitions in the 2009/10 season, and 34 in the 2011/12 season. He isn’t that explosive striker who outruns defences anymore, granted, but he is a natural playmaker, perhaps the closest to a European or South American player we will ever experience in this country, with the ability to spot, but most importantly, spray searching passes long and short, stretching defences and causing ruptures which lead to goals, leading from the front, while also serving an undervalued purpose in the side. As we do rely more on passing football under the influence of European managers in the Premier League, it had surprised me that Rooney hasn’t experienced the game time of Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan, as I expected things to change for United under Mourinho.
I expected width to play much larger of a role in the ‘Special One’s’ strategy, to be honest. For too long have United dabbled with Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the wing, while mystifyingly finding the solution to the right-back issue in Antonio Valencia, instead of signing a stronger alternative to Matteo Darmian. A key factor of Ferguson’s United was width; when you think of the major players of his reign, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps even Andrei Kanchelskis and Luis Nani, spring to mind, players who were born on a touchline, set to hug the outskirts of the pitch and tear defences apart with pure pace and skill. We haven’t distinctly seen any replications of that since the Scot departed, and personally I think it has cost the Red Devils dearly, but as United’s managers switch to tactics that will tend to utilise Rooney’s attributes less, as a player who was trained to play off wide play, he will suffer.
It is not the bosses I am angry with though. It is the British public who, on the whole, have shamed themselves by wishing a player who has yet to get any sort of run in the United side this season due to injuries, away from the country, for no discernible reason other than that they see him as an easy target of frustration for his accolades at United and his failure, as part of squads heavy reliant on him for years, in a three lions shirt. If only, as on countless other occasions in his career, he could respond sharply to such a turbulent week with something special on Sunday – in the EFL Cup final against Southampton – it would, for me, top everything else we have witnessed and discussed.
Overall, though, on an diagnostic level, we will never refer to this week, and the multitude of shocking events – from pies and pasties to tumultuous European nights and Chinese whispers to Thai tears – that ran through it, leaving a 23-stone non-league goalkeeping coach and a Premier League-winning Italian manager down at the job centre, with reputations smeared alongside Rooney’s as a United player, as being a ground-breaking one in football. Despite what’s happened, what has, that we haven’t seen before? Well, Leicester playing in the Champions League knockout stages, yes, but we’ve seen, we’ve learnt lessons from and we’ve developed as a footballing community from previous examples of thoughtless actions costing jobs, professionals wishing away, and being wished away, from their clubs and countries only to remain, and formerly leading bosses being left by the wayside to keep up with the ever-revolving door of playing trends, so honestly, very little has been proven in the past seven days. You could ponder whether football has any mysteries up its sleeves these days, but to damn the sport with a judgement that it has nothing yet to prove, and has exceeded its use and limitations as a symbol of endless capitalist war – at a professional level – would be unwise, to say the least. Watch on, and let football prove the rest – you’ll be amazed.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!