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Second Chances: Birmingham City

Big Eck has a GOB moment: "I've made a huge mistake..."

Oh Birmingham City, we’ve seen this before.  After a 16-season stint in the lower divisions, the Blues were promoted in 2002… and then finished three seasons mid-table, before enduring four more yo-yo years into the Championship and back.  Yet last season was supposed to be different. Under the guidance of Carson Yeung and Alex McLeish, Brum finished a respectable ninth in 2010 with a stingy defence and a young keeper on-loan.  Who cared if they couldn’t score? It was a new era.

Ugh. Fast forward 12 months.  Despite their first trophy in almost 50 years, and an appearance in the FA Cup semi-final, Brum rode a train of mediocrity into relegation.  Before their historic victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final, City were 6-12-9.  The 30 points weren’t great… but it left them only a handful of wins away from the magic safety zone of 40.  But after that,  Birmingham only won twice in their last 12 matches… including three straight losses at the end to send them down, allowing Wigan (ugh) and Wolves to remain.

Now McLeish’s defection to hated Aston Villa has fans on both sides of Birmingham screaming Blue murder.   But unlike other serious rivalries, the teams’ exposure to each other has been spotty over the years… while the Second City derby features a couple of key players that have swapped shades of  blue,  with a lot of claret thrown in.

Ridgewell can't believe McLeish left him at City. COME. ON.

One such player is the sensational Liam Ridgewell, who joined Birmingham from Aston Villa in 2007.    The left back scored as many goals as the club’s strikers this season, which is probably a statement on both Ridgewell’s talent and the dire situation in Birmingham’s attack.  Ridgewell signed a new contract last summer… but West Brom have come calling, offering £3 million.   City thinks he’s worth more,  and so does this writer.  The big clubs could do worse than pick up him up.

After 200 matches, Sebastian Larsson is set to leave the Blues, having declined a new contract with the relegated side.  His father says the right winger has signed at Sunderland for Steve Bruce… the man who brought the Swede to St. Andrews in the first place. 

England back-up keeper Ben Foster is no youngster… but has always seemed a star-in-waiting.  Foster performed admirably this season, replacing his contemporary Joe Hart in net with one of the league’s highest save percentages, while facing the second-most shots.  Foster is a Premier League keeper, plain and simple.  I will make a call and say this West Midlander will follow McLeish to Villa.

Roger Johnson and Scott Dann would have received England call-ups, had it not said “Birmingham City” on their badges.  Roger Johnson started almost every match for the Brummies, while Scott Dann had his season cut short by injuries.  Both will likely get a sniff from the big clubs, including Dann, a Scouser whose name is creating rumbles at Anfield.  Meanwhile, Johnson is tough and good in the air.  Both made it onto the score sheet… and neither are afraid of a booking now and then.

Birmingham’s skipper — Stephen Carr — is 34… kind of up there in football years.  But the right back was the lynch pin for the club’s excellent defence: the Irishman started almost as many games as Johnson.  It’s likely he will stay because a) he has extended his contract by a year, and b) his former coach at Spurs and Ireland — Chris Hughton — is the front runner to take McLeish’s place.  Still… Carr’s performance this year merits another kick at the Premiership can.

Do you know which Villa player led the club in fouls and yellow cards? Ashley Young (stop snickering!).  Now that the team’s “hard man” (uncontrollable guffawing) looks bound for Manchester United, and Nigel Reo-Coker (a man who actually would give us nightmares, were we would good enough to play Premier League football) has been released, the club needs some steel in the middle.  Cue Barry Ferguson

Gardner tries the old hand-over-the-badge trick...

Finally, we have Craig Gardner — Birmingham’s answer to Steven Gerrard, circa Istanbul.  Gardner led his team in both goals and infractions this past seaon.  In a Robbie Keane-like obfuscation, Gardner has claimed to be a lifelong Villa or City fan — depending where he’s playing.  Yet he could still return to Villa Park.  After the vitriol that’s greeted Big Eck, the move would likely have Lions fans foaming at the mouth.   However, he has been linked with a move to the Northeast, either Newcastle or Sunderland.

Brent Lanthier

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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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Fringe benefits for Spurs

Which way to the pitch again? I haven't been there in ages.

As our ’Arry is so fond of saying, there are no easy games in the Premier League. With the possible exception of Werder Bremen circa late-2010, there aren’t too many gimmes in the Champions League, either.  And being drawn against local rivals Arsenal in your first Carling Cup match isn’t much of a party, not when you’re used to a diet of Port Vales and MK Dons in the early stages of that competition.

So at the risk of jinxing things, it’s fair to say that Charlton’s FA Cup visit to White Hart Lane this Sunday is the first time in a long time that Tottenham have had the luxury of giving a good number of fringe players in their deep squad a chance for some action. And it’ll be interesting to see just who Redknapp kits out for the 3rd round encounter.

The manager-less Addicks, having just pink-slipped former Colchester gaffer Phil Parkinson, sit some 45 places below Tottenham. They’re in the League One playoff zone, but they’ve got a bunch of teams breathing down their necks and they haven’t won in five matches. Seems like a super opportunity for Spurs to showcase some lads whose boots are gathering spider webs, especially those who might be pushed further down the pecking order if a certain Mr. Beckham moves from La La Land to the Lane this month.

After taking maximum points in all three holiday fixtures, and weathering a pair of sending-offs in the process, Tottenham lost at Everton in the week, their first EPL defeat since October. Gareth Bale left with a sore back, and the squad was far from sharp. Time for some R & R, lads. You’ve got Man. Utd and AC Milan on the horizon.

It was back in September’s 4-1 extra-time defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup when Redknapp last dug deep into the reserves to field a team. And even though Samir Nasri’s pair of late penalties killed Tottenham off that evening, it was still fascinating to watch youngsters Steven Caulker and Jake Livermore get their feet wet with the first team.

For players like Robbie Keane and David Bentley, whose twittering wife has provided yet another reason for ’Arry’s anger, the Charlton clash could be a chance to get in the shop window and line up transfers away from Tottenham this month. Birmingham have expressed interest in both, but only Bentley (17 million pounds and he can’t even drive the team bus!) looks likely so far.

It’s 99.9 percent not likely to line up this way, but here’s a Tottenham XI (and subs bench) I’d be curious to see take on the visitors from South London this Sunday.

GK Stipe Pletikosa: The Croatian hasn’t featured since the Arsenal defeat (if memory serves) and Carlo Cudicini is out with a sore shoulder. Give Heurelho Gomes a good rest.

RB Vedran Corluka: Banished to bench for long stretches after CL miscue in favour of Alan Hutton. Time to dust him off.

CB Bongani Khumalo: Redknapp might not think South African newcomer is ready for trial by fire but hey, it’s Charlton, not Chelsea. This is like trial by lighter.

CB Sebastien Bassong: Plays the least of THFC’s unfortunately few fit central defenders. Dawson and Gallas could use a break and Kaboul is banned for his recent red card.

LB Benoit Assou-Ekotto: Caulker and the Kyles are all away on loan so we’ll stick with a starter here.

RW Andros Townsend: Newly-sacked Roy Keane (suck it, you thug) didn’t want him at Ipswich so he needs showcasing for a new loan.

MF Sandro: The Brazilian beast has had too few chances since his switch from Internacional. We know what Palacios can do. Let’s have a closer look at this lad.

MF John Bostock: I know, even Hull didn’t want him. Give him a run and maybe someone else will fancy a longer look. The kid needs to play.

LW Niko Kranjcar: The other Croatian lost in the wilderness at Spurs. Plus my made-up team is pretty young and needs some veteran savvy. He’s got it in spades.

FW Roman Pavlyuchenko: The Russian donkey was in fine form at the end of last season when he got some regular playing time. If he finds his feet again, it would be a big boost.

FW Giovanni Dos Santos: Remember him? All kinds of rumours say he’s on the way out. How about one last look before he leaves?

SUBS: GK Heurelho Gomes (in case of emergency), CB Michael Dawson (same as Gomes), FW Robbie Keane (for when Dos Santos disappoints again), MF Jermaine Jenas (can’t hurt), MF Jamie O’Hara (unless his back still isn’t better), MF David Bentley (in case his Brummie deal isn’t done yet) and FW Peter Crouch (for when my Spurs XI go a goal down).

Ian Harrison

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Yid Army invades New York City

I’ve finally cooled off from my time in the blast furnace better known as New York City, where I spent the past few days and saw Tottenham take on Sporting Lisbon in the back half of the Barclays Challenge at Red Bulls Arena.

Our long weekend in the red hot Big Apple, which also featured a game at Yankee Stadium, plenty of tasty eats and some gentle walking tours between Manhattan bars, was certainly a lot of fun, and a great chance to see my Yid Army without crossing the Atlantic. But thanks to the long travel and blistering heat and humidity, ’Arry still seems a bit hot under the collar, unsure of whether a three-game swing from California to the Empire State and back home was the best way to prepare for his team’s inaugural Champions League campaign.

Spilt milk now, of course, and hopefully a few dollars and pounds earned for a bolstering of the back line before qualifying begins, especially now that Jonathan Woodgate looks less and less likely to be fit anytime soon, while Ledley King also remains a doubt.

Tottenham take the field to face Sporting at Red Bulls Arena.

Tottenham played four right backs against Sporting, with Alan Hutton in his regular role, Vedran Corluka, Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton rounding out the defense. Redknapp used the US tour to fiddle around up front with his formation up front a bit, and even though Robbie Keane looked good up front against the Portuguese, there’s still no guarantee he’ll be a Yid when the transfer window closes. It was great to see 90 minutes of strong running by Gareth Bale and passing from Tom Huddlestone, interesting to watch Adel Taraabt, who unfortunately didn’t distinguish himself too much, unlike Jonathan Obika, who came on as a substitute and blasted home the tying goal.

That strike, and a late Huddlestone miss from half with the keeper out of his net, meant the matched ended a 2-2 draw. It was certainly entertaining and the Spurs support was surprisingly and pleasantly vocal…our tickets were at the other end of the ground but we moved down and sat behind the rowdies for the second half to join in the singing, which was a blast. We totally drowned out the Sporting fans, even though there’s a big Portuguese community in Newark, across the river from where the Red Bulls play in Harrison, New Jersey. Didn’t see too much of the town that bears my name, but the land around the brand new stadium was pretty desolate. They’re planning to develop the area with shops and restaurants, but for now it’s the same forlorn industrial wasteland so commonly associated with the Garden State.

I haven’t had too many nice things to say about Thierry Henry over the past while, not much of a surprise considering he’s a cheating ex-Gooner, but I am pretty impressed that he travelled to his first Red Bulls game the same way I did – by paying $1.75 for the four-stop, 20-minute PATH train ride from the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. Speaking of which – this was my first trip to NYC since April, 2001 and thus my first look at the hole in the ground in lower Manhattan. It’s hard to imagine the old WTC anymore…I had to watch Tribe Called Quest’s Electric Relaxation video when I got home to remind myself. With the twin towers gone, the Empire State Building is back to being the anchor of what Kurt Vonnegut once called ‘Skyscraper National Park.’

Inside, the stadium offers comfortable, covered seating and solid sightlines of the (thinning) grass pitch, with two levels of private boxes replacing the upper deck on the side of the pitch behind the benches and press seating blended into the stands, as at some European grounds. The concourses are a bit narrow and crowded but offer a wide selection of ethnic foods, like empanadas, Brazilian food, and several European beers. Not surprisingly, a can of Red Bull ($3) is cheaper than a bottle of water ($4).  Overall, a solid soccer experience. We stayed for the first 15 minutes of the Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over Manchester City (one of two losses by Manc clubs to MLS opponents on the day, with United losing by the same score to the KC Wizards), enough time to see a glowing welcome for Henry and NY’s opening goal. The flag-waving supporters clubs behind the goal were in full voice, although they were led in their cheers by a dude with a megaphone.

At the game with my Futbol Guapa.

Finally, here are a couple more soccer stories that caught my eye today (not including Diego’s ouster in Argentina, which Dr. Z will likely chime in on later). First, a new survey says only seven percent of people wouldn’t accept a gay footballer, which could mean fewer offers of reporter sister sex from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Of course, there’s still plenty of love for hot women in the football world, which is why it’s news that some lucky crooks in Brazil got to pluck a cell phone from between curvy Paraguayan Larissa Riquelme’s mountainous mammaries. A grand theft, indeed.

Ian Harrison

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Best of the Prem: Sunderland to Wolves

Brent Lanthier

Here are my final picks for each club’s player of the year.  Get your own blog if you don’t like it.  I’m just kidding, please don’t stop reading ours. I have to send my imaginary kids to private schools…

Sunderland: Darren Bent (ENG)
Deemed surplus to ‘Arry’s requirements at Spurs, Darren Bent pulled a Tevez and shot out of the gates. The former Charlton player proved Redknapp — and his grandmother — wrong by coming third in the Premier League’s scoring race. In fact, his 24 goals accounted for half of the club’s production for the entire year. He was the only Black Cat to start every single League game.

Future:  Without Bent, Sunderland has no offence — Kenwyne Jones notwithstanding — and Steve Bruce knows it.  He’s not going anywhere.

World Cup-bound? No. Bent made Capello’s premliminary 30-man squad.  But he didn’t do much in the game against Japan, and likely blew his chance to impress Don Fabio, who was probably always going to take Heskey instead.

Tottenham Hotspur:
Jermain Defoe (ENG)
Spurs’ remarkable season saw them win admission to Europe’s top club competition for the first time in almost a half-century.  So it was always going to be a tough choice on who to pick, but White Hart Lane’s tiny prodigal son was just a bit special on a talented team. Defoe played only 17 full games all season, yet he scored twenty-four goals in all competitions. Sweet revenge for the player who was pushed out by Robbie Keane and Berbatov, both of whom wilted after seeking out greener pastures.

Future: Seemingly safe at Tottenham, Defoe seems to follow Redknapp whereever he goes.  So if ‘Arry gets it in his head to move again…

World Cup-bound? Yes. Defoe will likely start on the bench, but could be used as fresh — and fast — legs against tired defenders.

West Ham United: Robert Green (ENG)
I’ll repeat my warning: Beware when the best player on your team is your goalkeeper. The Hammers were dangerously close to the drop for much of the season, and it cost Gianfranco Zola his job. West Ham were a half-decent team on paper but failed to meet the sum of their parts.  But Green kept them in it, despite facing a barrage of shots.

Future: Let’s hope Avram Grant builds a half-decent defence in front of him.

World Cup-bound? Yes. He’s wearing the number 12 but could be England’s number one on June 12th. Only Fabio knows.

Wigan Athletic: Titus Bramble (ENG)
Yes, I’ll say it again. Titus Bramble. A central defender on the league’s second-worst defence? Check. A name who still causes Newcastle fans to shudder? Yep. But Bramble seems to have drastically improved his concentration under the stewardship of Roberto Martinez. Rodallega barely scored in the new year and N’Zogbia played with flair. But Bramble did his job for Wigan this season, clearing the ball when he had to, and generally not f#cking up.

Future: After being run out of Tyneside with pitchforks and torches, Bramble may have found a home, even if they get relegated next season.

World Cup-bound? Good God, no.

Wolverhampton Wanderers:
Jody Craddock (ENG)

You know your offence is pitiful when a 34-year-old centre back is your second-leading scorer. Club captain Craddock scored five of Wolves’32 Premier League goals this season. The fans’ Player of the Season, Craddock is a dependable defensive general who does his job.

Future: Craddock just signed a one-year contract extension with WW.

World Cup-bound? No, but he could have gotten a glimpse, just for fun.

That’s it for the best of the Premier clubs. Up next, I’ll give you my Starting XI.

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