Sunday, September 21, 2008

Huntelaar’s 99 not out can’t quieten De Kuip

Week three of the Eredivisie season heralded the clash of old foes Feyenoord and Ajax; the former’s intimidating De Kuip stadium the venue for the 158th running of der Klassieker since the rivalry was born in 1921.

Ajax, now under the tutelage of one of their favourite sons, Marco van Basten, travelled to Rotterdam as most bookies’ favourites for the Dutch title – this despite PSV’s four-year-long domestic dominance – and riding high on the back of a thumping 4-1 UEFA Cup victory at Serbia’s FK Borac during midweek. Meanwhile, their opponents had suffered a humbling 0-1home reverse at the hands of Swedish League leaders Kalmar.

Support for the Amsterdammers was severely restricted due to episodic crowd trouble in and outside of previous fixtures between the two clubs, but ‘the Legion’ – Feyenoord’s raucous following – were in fine voice in sun-kissed Rotterdam.

Feyenoord started without midfield star Jonathan de Guzmán, through injury, and their current lack of squad depth was exposed by a benchful of untried youngsters. Van Basten, on the other hand, felt confident enough to leave talented Argentine-Croat forward Darío Cvitanich on the bench, as cover for goal-machine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Dutch record (£13m) signing Miralem Sulejmani.

The home side enjoyed marginally the better of the tense, hard-fought opening exchanges, while Ajax had to re-adjust after losing Sulejmani to an early injury. Yet it was the visitors that took the lead, following a terrible howler by Feyenoord goalkeeper Henk Timmer.

The ex-AZ stopper badly fluffed an attempted clearance, with Ajax winger Jeffrey Sarpong taking full advantage to clinically fire in left-footed, from the edge of the area.

Just minutes later, Leonardo – Sulejmani’s replacement – pounced on a stray pass and raced clear of the Feyenoord defence. Timmer, clearly rattled by his earlier misdemeanour, raced from his goal; crudely hacking the Brazilian down just outside the box. Only the covering presence of Theo Lucius prevented referee Peter Vink from reaching for the red, and Timmer was justly booked.

With Ajax clearly in the ascendency, Thomas Vermaelen spurned a glorious opportunity to extend their advantage – heading straight at Timmer on the stroke of half time.

Head Coach Gertjan Verbeek’s words were doubtless still ringing in the ears of his players as they made a spirited start to the second period. Following hot on the heels of Roy Makaay’s wayward finish – when he really should have scored from close range – seasoned striker Jon Dahl Tomasson nodded in an equaliser when the ball looped up from the foot of unfortunate ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenberg.

The home crowd energised by the goal of a returning favourite; Feyenoord found themselves firmly on top, and favourites to claim their second win of the season. However, the tide was turned by the 69th minute endeavours of Ajax’s tricky Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez.

Suárez used all his skill and dexterity to wriggle through Kevin Hofland’s meaty challenge and, inadvertently, tee-up the ball for penalty-box predator Huntelaar to sweep home his 99th goal in an Ajax shirt.

The arrival of Van Basten as manager has apparently brought with it the requirement for the tall striker to diversify – adding improved team-play to his already formidable goalscoring repertoire (166 goals in 235 games to date). And Huntelaar could hardly have a finer exponent of the centre-forward’s art to learn from than his new boss.

Yet it was far too early for the artisans of Amsterdam to take for granted a victory over their bitter rivals from the industrious port city.

Perhaps more in hope than in expectation, Verbeek threw on veteran forward Michael Mols, now far past his peak, aged 37. Within ten minutes the ex-Rangers man had produced the desired effect.

As a hopeful ball from the left touchline looped into the box, Ajax full-back Urby Emanuelson inexplicably wrapped himself around Mols, bringing the diminutive striker to earth inside the area. Referee Vink – erratic throughout – pointed straight to the spot.

Tomasson stepped forward and confidently struck his penalty over into the net, to register his third success from the spot in three attempts this season and salvage a deserved point for his team.

The impact of either side’s failure to win was somewhat softened by PSV’s Saturday loss to Louis Van Gaal’s AZ, in Alkmaar, yet the smart money would still be on the team from Eindhoven making it five out of five next May.

The return Klassieker, at the Amsterdam ArenA next year, could still prove crucial in deciding the destiny of the title. Marco Van Basten will be aiming that, by that time, his ambitious footballing philosophy has been fully absorbed by his expensively-assembled side, and that they can live up to renewed expectations.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ashley mounts his defence, as Toon slide deeper into crisis

When Mike Ashley took over as Newcastle owner in May 2007 many press reports described the Sports Direct chief as a “reclusive” self-made millionaire, and several questioned why such an apparently private individual would want to undergo the unique scrutiny faced by the modern Premier League proprietor.

Then, before our eyes, Ashley morphed into something of an embarrassing dad figure at St James’ Park – sporting an XXXL Toon shirt and grasping a ubiquitous pint glass – trying desperately to prove he’s still ‘one of the boys’, not merely a dull, money-making ‘suit’. He also became a tabloid regular; with lurid tales of his lavish expenditure in strip joints and nightclubs worldwide Ashley gained notoriety as a wannabe playboy.

This unedifying process naturally drew attention towards the previously media-shy retail magnate, and similarly drew the ire of traditionalist football fans – those who would prefer that the game’s moneymen show a little decorum and act as a positive ambassador for their club (see Boro’s saintly Steve Gibson).

But his appointment, last season, of Geordie messiah Kevin Keegan provided a feel-good factor; a shot in the arm for the long-suffering fans who endured years of turgid football under the guidance of Messrs Souness, Roeder and Allardyce. When KK’s footballing mantra of positivity finally kicked in, and the returning hero steered the team to safety, St James’ was awash with talk of a renaissance to match that of the thrilling mid-90s joy-ride Keegan had himself led.

The cracks started to appear, as many predicted they would, this summer, when Keegan’s dreamy aspirations could not be matched by Ashley’s funds or – crucially – the efforts of the desperately unpopular ‘player recruitment’ team of Dennis Wise and Derek Llambias. Keegan spoke of fetching the lad Henry back from Camp Nou; of handing Becks one final shot at the Premier League; of making Newcastle United great again (though you could quite creditably question when exactly they were ‘great’ before) by bringing in the big-name stars who might illuminate Tyneside with their winning artistry and flair.

Instead he got Xisco. And Nacho Gonzalez. And, er, Danny Guthrie.

So when James Milner was then sold to Villa from under his feet (for a hefty fee, it must be said), Keegan bit the bullet and quit on a point of principle – a stance which he has notoriously taken on several prior occasions. Naturally, the Geordie faithful have come out in vociferous support of their hero and publicly damned Ashley’s ‘London mafia’ of Llambias and the loathed ‘Ratface’ Wise, through long and loud protest.

On Sunday evening, Ashley acceded to their wishes and put the club up for sale, via an extraordinary 1,644-word press release, which will, nevertheless, most likely prove a case of ‘too little, too late’ in the eyes of thousands of rabidly angry fans.

In the statement, the UK’s 54th richest man cited fears for his safety and that of his children as the primary reason for selling up; having received numerous threats of violence since Keegan’s untimely departure.

He also mounts a strong defence of his tenure at the St James’ helm, saying: “Like any business with assets the club has debts. I paid £134 million out of my own pocket for the club and then poured in another £110 million – not to pay off the debt but just to reduce it. The club is still in debt.”

And the 45-year-old highlighted the naive profligacy of the previous Hall/Shepherd regime, painting a vivid picture of his gallant ‘rescue’ of a club in crisis: “The club still owes millions of pounds in transfer fees. I shall be paying out many more millions over the coming year to pay for players bought by the club before I arrived.”

Commercial deals such as sponsorships and advertising had been front loaded. The money had been paid upfront and spent. I was left with a club that owed millions and part of whose future had been mortgaged. Unless I had come into the club then it might not have survived. It could have shared the fate of other clubs who have borrowed too heavily against their future.”

“Before I had spent a penny on wages or buying players Newcastle United had cost me more than a quarter of a billion pounds.”

Even accounting for a large dollop of positive spin – as employed by his lawyers or whomever else was involved in ghosting the statement – it is difficult to argue that Ashley is part of this insidious new breed of greedy Premier League owners that have both eyes fixed on the potential profit margins offered by colossal TV deals and global merchandising.

So, having apparently justified his presence as owner of Newcastle, the statement then turned to Ashley’s role in the recent machinations at the club:

“I was always prepared to bank roll Newcastle up to the tune of £20 million per year but no more. That was my bargain. I would make the club solvent. I would make it a going concern.”

“My plan and my strategy for Newcastle is different. It has to be. Arsenal is the shining example in England of a sustainable business model. It takes time. It can't be done overnight. Newcastle has therefore set up an extensive scouting system...and money is being poured into the Academy. This is a long-term plan for the future of the club so that it can flourish.”

This stubborn – but prudent – refusal to spend big on the established stars somewhat unreasonably coveted by Keegan marked a key difference in ideology with his manager that has obviously proved irreparable.

A model of continuity and sustainability is an admirable one. But in the hectic, logic-defying world of English top-flight football – where last years’ paupers can be this years’ kings at the pen stroke of a moneyed foreign investor – it is rarely attainable. Where Ashley has primarily faltered – aside from his disastrous public image and appointment of Wise – is in attempting to administer a dose of realism to a club renowned for its wildly unreal aspirations.

With King Kev gone and Ashley heading the same way, acrimony reigns on Tyneside. Once again, the self-styled Geordie nation waits in hope of a new saviour.