Monthly Archives: January 2011

Honours even on Derby Day

Ask any fan what date they eye up first when the new fixture list comes out, and they’ll almost certainly mention the local derby. Them down the road, the enemy, the old firm, and references perhaps too colourful for this article. Whatever you call them, it’s the meeting fans dread the most, yet also relish with such anticipation.

It’s a surreal experience to feel so nervous about something you also look forward to. More than anything, one thought passes through your mind: “I’ll take losing to anyone all season, even not winning a single trophy; just don’t let us lose to them.”

Sunday’s three Premier League derbies did not disappoint. Though none of the six teams took maximum points, you can’t help but feel all concerned are mightily relieved. Despite Liverpool’s woeful second half performance, they can exhale with the knowledge they didn’t drop more points. Torres, masterful in the first period, went absent with Everton’s brute force in the second. It really was a game of two halves, lacking in style but full of substance.

Given the recent troubles at the Second City derby, the police demanded an unusually low crowd at St. Andrew’s. It didn’t contain problems though; flares and charging fans bought much drama to the occasion. As if it needed any more. Villa’s dominance paid off when they equalised with 15 minutes to go, hardly a score that will be considered for goal of the season. It was one, however, that balanced the books from an earlier scrappy goal from the Blues.

Even in the Northeast they couldn’t go home without some bad behaviour. The first half didn’t need a ball, both teams seemed just as happy to kick each other instead. A bruised Newcastle will feel hard done by to be robbed so late on by a lucky Sunderland.

So no one won the most important game of them all, but perhaps all concerned will feel better off than before hand. At least they didn’t lose.

Sam Saunders

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Even Don Draper couldn’t sell this team

Draper gets a red card… for looking so damn good!

Well, so much for the MLS SuperDraft reviving the hopes of the Toronto FC faithful. On a day when clubs are expected to get better, the Reds appear to have gone in the opposite direction – trading away a potential double-digit scorer in Chad Barrett while bringing in a prospect with an interesting bill of health and Ecuadorian soccer Smurf Joao Plata.

The diminutive playmaker promises goals, but until he can prove it the mantle of secondary scoring falls to Maicon and his 2010 tally of three.

So, if the ad men who operate out of 170 Princes Boulevard are able to come up with a plan to sell its wares to the growing group of south end malcontents, I suggest AtTheRails acknowledge the impossible with a first-annual Don Draper Award.

With that in mind, ATR is here to help with a few suggestions on how to sell the Reds in Season No. 5.

(Disclaimer: If any of the ideas listed below are adopted in any shape or form, ATR is entitled to one set of tickets to a Toronto FC playoff game of its choice. Said playoff tickets can also be written into any will.)

Winter year-round

Has anyone mentioned to coach No. 5 that his surname is a Canadian marketer’s dream? That said, for Reds’ marketing purposes the idea of Winter all year is a positive, for it means there will be just one coach instead of the token two fans have come to expect.

Season F-I’ve seen better

In Season Four the Reds cleverly (no, not Tom Cleverley) took the ‘our’ from ‘four’ and made it theirs. Fail. So in Season Five why not take the ‘I’ve’ from ‘Five’ and market better days, like when the team won 10 games and missed the playoffs on the last day. Nostalgia is a powerful drug.

At Least Our Guys Are Eligible

Sometimes the best way to build yourself up is to tear down those around you. With that in mind, remember that with the first overall selection, the expansion Whitecaps FC chose 17-year-old striker Omar Salgado. Due to his age and FIFA transfer rules, Salgado likely won’t be able to play a game for Vancouver until he turns 18 in September.

Of course, this marketing campaign would only be good for one season. By summer 2012, I fully expect Salgado will single-handedly win the undercontested Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

Now for a bit of Prem chatter, with a side of pub-bashing.

This is where Rafael goes, "Lalalala, I can't hear you..."

The best part about Sunday’s goalless draw at White Hart Lane was that it confirmed my local is no longer a reliable place to watch a match. While the breakfast fare is fine and the Caesars are spicy, the suggestion that volume is not necessary and may bother the other patrons sealed the deal.

Anyhow, my audio-free observations of the stalemate are that as long as the Premier League continues to be hotly contested this season, goals will remain at a premium. There is far too much at stake for the big clubs to play the football fans want to see.

Biased Man of the Match: Nemanja Vidic. The captain’s partnership with Rio is arguably the only reason United remain unbeaten.

Ryan Johnston

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Filed under Major League Soccer, MLS, Premier League

Swings and Roundabouts

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Back in my university days, when I was a virile young rapscallion looking to meet as many women as possible, my friends and I would watch each crop of First-Year students as they arrived on campus, assessing the young ladies for — let’s say — possibilities.

Invariably, there would be one or two gorgeous creatures who would pique our interest.  But word travelled fast in my small school and we were usually disappointed that most of our targets had boyfriends back home, or at another centre for higher learning.

“Not to worry”, someone would say, “she’ll be single by Christmas.”  And lo and behold, the freshman (freshwoman?!?) would return for second semester, sans ami.

So after this last month, I can only assume most owners of English football clubs are like me at 19 years old: horny and stupid.  Why else would they be dumping old managers by Christmas, only to chase new ones, in a never-ending parade of pink slips?

Here are the stats:

– Since Christmas, 14 of the 92 Premier and Football league teams — 15 percent — have hired new managers.

– Since the end of the World Cup, 27 clubs have fired and hired their gaffers.  That’s 30 percent of teams, including five in the Premier League.

– Forty-three managers have been on the job less than a calendar year.  That’s means almost 50 percent of English teams have changed their bosses since last January.

– More than 70 percent of managers have been at their jobs for less than two years.  How many of them will be in the same job come May?

McCarthy can't understand how he's kept his job so long

– Only 10 managers have been in place since the World Cup in Germany.  They include Premier League managers Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, David Moyes, Tony Pulis and surprisingly, Mick McCarthy.  Interesting note: that list would have included the much-maligned Rafa Benitez, before his departure from Liverpool.

I can’t understand why clubs will fire a manager they consider sub-standard, only to bring another with a record of mediocre results.  Example: the sad revolving door at Preston North End.

Last week,  the Lancashire side appointed ex-Hull manager Phil Brown to replace Darren Ferguson.  Ferguson — the scion of Sir Alex — started his managerial career while still a player at Peterborough United.  Joining Posh in January 2007, Ferguson helped the League Two club to a top-ten finish.  The next two seasons saw two straight promotions, and Peterborough were in the Championship.  But Ferguson would only see four months of that league; by November 2009, he was gone.

Six weeks later, he was at the helm of Preston.  Less than one year later, he was gone again.  The firing drew headlines because after his departure, Darren’s famous father withdrew three Manchester United players who were at Preston on loan.  Not to worry, Darren’s back on the touchline… at Peterborough United again! The team that thought he wasn’t good enough to manage have hired him back!!!

Bizarre methods got Brown the ax at Hull City

Meanwhile, his replacement has own history of highs and lows. Phil Brown famously pulled Hull City from the Championship’s relegation zone in 2007, and got them promoted into the Premier League the following season.  It was the first time in the club’s 100+ year history that they’d reached the top flight.  Not only did they go up, they stayed up… for a year.  But Brown’s bizarre coaching methods and questionable purchases did him in.  Hull dropped leagues… and dropped Brown in the process.  Yet Preston must have thought, if he can get Hull promoted, he can save us as well.

It must be frustrating days for the Lilywhites.  The first-ever English champions and double winners have made the Championship play-offs three times in the past six seasons, yet in the second tier they remain.  They sit at the foot of the table while they watch local rivals Blackpool make a respectable go of it in the Prem.

But Preston is just one example of the “now, now, now” mentality of clubs. Owners want results, not willing to let a manager’s methods settle in — or bring in new players to work with.  It’s either win now… or else it’s the Dear John letter.

Without sounding like an afterschool special, football clubs have become like horny college students: always on the hunt for the next big score, instead trying to weather bad times and build a relationship that could pay off in the end.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a beautiful woman who just walked into the pub.  I wonder if that’s her boyfriend…

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Championship, English Football, Premier League

What’s so super about it, anyway?

The inappropriately-named MLS Super Draft is a tough place to generate super results, especially when all your picks are outside the top 25. With that in mind, Sportsnet.ca’s RJ will weigh in Sunday with his thoughts on TFC’s draft day activity…I believe the working title for his piece is is “Rejected TFC Marketing Slogans for 2011.” At least the local XI are getting DeRo back from bonnie Scotland.

For now, our friend Paul Attfield of the Globe & Mail did a nice job documenting TFC’s picks today:

Highlight #1: Multitple sclerosis cost  newly-drafted defender Demetrius Omphroy a contract in Portugal, but after returning to the US and  playing college soccer at Cal, he hopes he has the disease under control.

Highlight #2: Late pick Joao Plata of Ecuador stands just 5’2″ and was the leading scorer at the MLS scouting combine with three goals. I’d say that’s no small achievement, except it is. But the man I’m dubbing The Wee Assassin seems to have a nose for the goal.

Vancouver used the top pick on Omar Salgado, even though they need FIFA permission for a full transfer before his 18th birthday on Sept. 10, ruling him out for nearly all their debut MLS season. The Whitecaps like Salgado and know him: he trained with the team last year. And they didn’t want to get the Steve Francis treatment from Darlington Nagbe, who went second to Portland and had made noises about not wanting to leave the United State. Because Vancouver and Toronto are such foreign, scary, evil, ugly places.  What a doofus. He deserves to get booed in both cities this summer.

Englishman John Rooney doesn’t mind going abroad for a game of footy – he went to the New York Red Bulls in the second round. Henry and Rooney on the same team, they can’t lose.

Back in Blighty, big brother Wayne and his Man. Utd teammates will take on Tottenham this Sunday…RJ’s team against mine. He’s promised to deliver a reasoned, rational, FOXNews-esque account of the EPL encounter. Don’t miss it.

Ian Harrison

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Fergie’s Fantasy: What I Did and Why I Did it…

Barton elbows Parker out of Ferg's lineup.

So here’s where I stand.  I’m running sixth in the table right now in my fantasy league… but it’s a mere 30 ponts or so from the top spot so it’s still a very tight racel.  I’d feel great if I was Bolton trying for a Europa league spot, but I picture myself more of a Manchester United or Chelsea type when it comes to fantasy football.  After all, I need not remind all those in my pool that I am the defending champ.  The title holder cannot be satisfied with anything but a repeat… so it’s time to play my wild card. 

I figure if At the Rails allows me to give my opinions and advice on how to win your fantasy league, then you may at least want to know how I spent my wild card this transfer window.  The January wild card means you can make as many transfers as you want for one week, but it’s only good for another month.

So I made some moves.  Because really, who wants to read a fantasy column by a guy in sixth?

THE BIG SIGNINGS

First thing to do is figure out who the players are that you don’t have and feel you need, regardless of the cost.   For me, I added high-priced members of Manchester United: Dimitar Berbatov, who I think will continue to score — especially if Rooney stays healthy — and Nani, who has been one of the top point-getters this year. 

To make room, I let go of Johan Elmander who seems to have turned cold after a hot start to the season, and I dropped Samir Nasri.  Dropping Nasri could turn out to be a mistake, but I felt Nani will outscore him and Man United make a push for the title.

THE SACRIFICES

Unfortunately this left me in the hole moneywise.  My big sacrifice was dropping Joe Hart.  His high price has scared off many from picking him up but I have had him from Week One and watched as he more than earned the high price, leading all goalies in fantasy points. 

Scottish and cheap... it's like saying it twice!

But I had to save money for what I felt was a great option out there: Craig Gordon.  Gordon has been injured so his price is low. But since he’s been back, Sunderland have been regularly keeping clean sheets.  I saved some more money at the goalkeeper position by dropping the injured Paul Robinson and picking up Steve Harper who seems to back in the top job for Newcastle. (Ed. Note: I always thought he was a right-winger!  Ahahahahahaha… I’ll shut up now.)

To make it work right down to the penny meant dropping Scott Parker from West Ham for Newcastle’s Joey Barton.  Barton, like many Newcastle players, is still a little undervalued in my opinion… though I will likely keep him mainly on the bench.  And I got rid of Birmingham defender Roger Johnson (whose team I appear to have put a curse on ever since acquiring him as they stopped keeping clean sheets) for Kevin Foley from Wolves.  That move was done purely for cost reasons, but it’s good to know Foley is a cheap starter if I ever need to put him in.

KEEPERS

Rounding out the squad I kept pricey defenders Nemanja Vidic and Leighton Baines, who I think are worth paying top dollar for.  I also kept Everton’s Seamus Coleman (who is really a midfielder so a good buy since the game has him slotted as a defender) along with Fulham’s Aaron Hughes.  I also held on to the stars of the Tottenham midfield Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart along with Stoke’s Matthew Etherington. 

Up front I couldn’t part with Carlos Tevez, despite his high price and his constant snood wearing.  I also held on to Andrew Carroll hoping his current injury woes are not too serious.

Will these changes take me to the top of the table? Short answer.  I hope so.  I’ve already spent all the money I collected.

Scott Ferguson

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Filed under Fantasy Football, Premier League

Determination by dolphin at MLS draft

Paul the Octopus is dead. Long live Willy! Or Flipper! Or whatever they call the dolphin who’ll be predicting the first pick at Thursday’s MLS Super Draft in Baltimore.

Anyone who’s read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows that dolphins are at least the second-most intelligent species on the planet, so you know the fellow with flippers be taking all the angles into account before deciding who the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps should select with the top selection. Plus, if he picks wrong, the team will send him to The Cove.

Toronto FC doesn’t have a dolphin, or even a first-round pick, in this year’s draft. The Reds have one second-round selection and two third-rounders, the 26th, 43rd and 44th picks overall. Expect our man Ryan to check back with an update on their selections in the next couple of days.

When they weren’t in training at this week’s MLS combine in Florida, some of Thursday’s potential picks were out in the Everglades looking for alligators. Among that boatload of  hopefuls was John Rooney, younger brother of Wayne, who’s over here looking for a job, and generating a bit of buzz. No idea whether they saw any dolphins down there.

In Florida, of course, the Dolphins and Gators generally play their football on the gridiron, not the soccer pitch. Despite a huge population of South and Central Americans, the state has had two failed MLS franchises and won’t be getting another until they can prove things will work out better, as commish Don Garber told a disappointed audience in Miami this week.

From strange animals in Florida to strange decisions in London, where Tottenham say they’d demolish most of the Olympic Stadium if they move there after the 2012 games. Spurs seem determined not to meet the requirements for moving into the venue, but would rather bolt the borough and save some cash by working with an existing site. Hard to see how the Olympic Park Legacy people won’t rule in favour of West Ham when they make their decision on January 28th. Even a dolphin would pick the Hammers for this one.

Ian Harrison

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Filed under MLS, Premier League, Uncategorized

Leeds, Ipswich long for Red Letter Days

Leeds United turned back the clock this weekend

Rewind 10 years to May 2001.  Manchester United had just won their English third league title in a row. It was the first time a single manager — Sir Alex Ferguson — managed the feat.  Arsenal came in second, pipping Liverpool to the spot on the last day of the season.  But the Merseysiders shed few tears, winning a treble of trophies — UEFA Cup, FA & League Cups — and earning a third-place finish that would put them in the Champions League, their first foray into top-tier European football since the Hillsborough disaster.

The top of the table was awash in a sea of red.  But just below them were the other colours of the Union Jack: Leeds United white and Ipswich Town blue.  Both teams were riding high. Both teams would find their success short-lived.

Fast forward 10 years to the present day.  Leeds and Ipswich have spent much of the last decade in the lower leagues, unable to replicate the success of 2000-2001.  Now both teams must go through Arsenal to have any chance of cup glory this season.

Ipswich Town
Back in 2001, both clubs were riding high.  Ipswich had only been promoted the previous season and were widely picked to go down again.  But they stayed in the top six for much of the campaign,  finishing fifth and earning George Burley the Manager of the Year award.  They also picked up a place in the UEFA Cup, the trophy they had won 20 years earlier.

George Burley: Manager of the Year 2001

But that success turned out to be a blip.  After their fifth place finish, the Tractor Boys spent much of the next season at the foot of the table and were relegated, entering administration in the process.  They’ve remained in the First Division/Championship ever since. Ipswich came close to coming back up, securing play-off spots in 2004 and 2005, but lost both times to West Ham.  Since then, they’ve have simply floundered.  The hiring of former Ipswich great Jim Magilton, and then Man U giant Roy Keane, did nothing for either the club’s results… or for the idea of using unqualified players as managers.

Leeds United
For Leeds, the heights were even loftier. Although they slipped from the previous season’s third-place finish, they made up for it in 2001 by going all the way to the Champions League semi-finals.  A 3-0 defeat to Valencia prevented them from facing their opponents in the 1975 final, Bayern Munich.

That Leeds side featured several young players who would make names for themselves at other clubs: Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Rio Ferdinand.

Leeds: Too good to go down…

But like Icarus flying to close to the sun, the Yorkshire side was burned by pride.  Buoyed by Leeds’ domestic and European success, Chairman Peter Risdale borrowed heavily to secure new players. That proved to be short-sighted: their fourth-place league finish meant they had to settle for the UEFA league.  Leeds lost much-need television revenue and they began their descent.

The team was forced to sell star players to fund debts, killing morale at the club.  Leeds were relegated in 2004, and then dropped again to League One in 2007.  After two playoff losses in a row, the Whites finally got promoted to the Championship last season with a second-place finish.

Cup Success?
One club has rebounded, one has not.  The difference between the two was evident this weekend.   Ipswich sacked Keane on Friday, just two days before the East Anglians were to face Chelsea in the FA Cup.  Owner Marcus Evans was unhappy with Ipswich being in 19th place, but his timing was awful.  The champions and cup holders humiliated Evans’ team, 7-0.

Meanwhile, Leeds — who sit in fifth — almost earned a famous win at the Emirates, if not for a Theo Walcott dive in the dying minutes.  United must now fancy their chances with the replay being held in the intimidating environs of Elland Road.  If they win, a West Yorkshire derby awaits at home against Huddersfield Town.

Ipswich still have a chance at redemption.  New gaffer Paul Jewell will lead them out against the Gooners today at home, in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Ipswich are 7-1-6 at Portman Road.  But after five trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger is hungry for silverware and isn’t likely to let up on the Tractor Boys.

Ten years ago, both Leeds United and Ipswich Town were riding high.  Now, after a decade of being left red-faced, both clubs are hoping for a blue-ribbon day against a formidable opponent, lest they are forced to wave the white flag of surrender.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Carling Cup, Champions League, FA Cup