THE FORGOTTEN PLAYERS OF FIFA ULTIMATE TEAM

Words by Neil Boardman

We seemed to go on one of those nostalgia trips the other day. Reminiscing about the days where our lives seemed to revolve around how many coins the latest ‘Brasilver’ god was going for on the market. Getting back from, what we thought was, a hard day at school and jumping on the Xbox, our biggest decision of the day tended to be whether it was going to be COD or FIFA tonight.

I guess there is little point in lying, for the most part, I was a Call Of Duty man. My K/D ratio meant far more to me than anything else in the world, looking back I was pretty sad. The reason I tended to be more of a COD player is because FIFA bothered me, it got me angry – I think it’s had us all fuming at points. I could whack one of the Modern Warfare games in and as much as the flawed spawn system made me want to cry, it would not have riled me in the same manner that a last minute equaliser on head2head seasons did.

However, there was times on FUT where i felt no angst whatsoever. The game was beautiful. I may have just conceded a ‘sweaty goal’ but I didn’t care, I was well aware that I could go straight back up the pitch and nick one back – literally, the exact same goal. Times like these were created by an elite club of players. As much as I would read the nerds on the FUThead forums calling their stats ‘overpowered’, I didn’t care.

There is a small selection of players that, because of their reputations on FIFA Ultimate Team, have played a big part in some of our lives. Here, we will look back at a few of these players:

Alexander Esswein

In Ultimate team, particularly in the earlier versions, chemistry was of the upmost importance. Building a team round a nation or a league was key to stringing any sort of performances together. For many, a Bundesliga team was reliable. Not only that, but building a squad of pretty average Bundesliga players was cheap. If you were to come up against a Bundesliga squad in FIFA’s questionable matchmaking system, chances are it was led, up top, by this lad.

Alexander Esswein was ridiculous. He had it all. He was pacey. He could shoot. He was cheap. He was German, played in the Bundesliga and was probably very sound. When Esswein broke through, against you, it was clearly time to stop playing – put the controller down for a second whilst you reanalyse what to do, Alexander has banged his fourth in.

Now, on the books at Hertha BSC, but on loan at Stuttgart, Esswein has unfortunately never quite been the player he was in FIFA 13. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he will always have a special place in the hearts of many, for years to come.

Felipe Santana

Felipe Santana. There isn’t actually an awful lot to say about this bloke. He is 6 foot 4. And in FIFA 13 he had an 81 pace stat and an 84 heading stat. And he was a centre back. Whether you like it or not, that is unreal.

The Brazilian, at the age of 33, is now a free agent. However, there is no doubt that the man, due to his time spent at Borussia Dortmund in a video game, will be remembered as an unbreakable force of nature.

Luis Muriel

Moving away from the Bundelsiga, for a moment, we remember just how bloody good Luis Muriel was in FIFA 13. As we all know a pacey striker was the key to any kind of success on FIFA, back in the day; and there weren’t many doing it better than Muriel.

At this stage of his career, he was applying his trade at Udinese, which made him the perfect candidate for a goal scoring machine at the top of a Serie A side. Often stating Ronaldo as an influence on his style, if his playing career was solely based off his FIFA 13 stats, it wouldn’t be hard to see why. Unfortunately, it is not. However, Muriel is by no means a bad player and with 22 caps and counting for his national side, Columbia, maybe having a good card on Ultimate Team isn’t entirely useless.

Aiden McGeady

AIDEN, AIDEN MCGEADY, GOES DOWN THE WING FOR ME (SINGS HEARTBEAT TUNE, REPETITIVELY).

In FIFA Ultimate Team, the Irish ace used to go down the wing for all of us. As part of a freshly built Russian League team, Aiden was a man you could count on to come up with something out of absolutely nowhere. His five star skill set was the thing that so many players could only ever dream of being gifted. And that is ignoring the fact that the game also featured McGeady’s aptly named signature – the McGeady spin.

McGeady has a bit more of that ‘household name’ feel surrounding him than many other of the Ultimate Team greats. Maybe that is why the developers at EA clearly took a disliking to him and attacked McGeady in later editions by removing his ability to pull off his own skill move. I will never forgive EA for that, never. And if they want my money in the future they better give this lad his ability back, that allows him to take the piss from League One.

Some little belters here, isn’t there? And as we were talking about this, a lot more were springing to mind – thought we might as well make a little series about it. Check out part two in the next couple of weeks!

THE MOST HATED MAN IN FOOTBALL

Football is a soap opera. It’s got drama, excitement, heroes… and villains. And no-one plays the bad guy quite like Sergio Ramos.

Words by Danny Brown

Football is a soap opera. It’s got drama, excitement, heroes… and villains. And no-one plays the bad guy quite like Sergio Ramos.

Adored by fans at the Bernabeu and despised just about everywhere else, Ramos is the pantomime villain that football fans love to hate. Wiling to stop at nothing to win and well practiced in the Dark Arts, Ramos is the type of guy who would two-foot his nan if it mean winning the Champions League. Just mention his name near a Liverpool fan, and you’re likely to hear the sound of piss boiling.

It’s got to point where Ramos is that much of a bastard, there’s not much you can do but sit back and admire evil at work. After all, who doesn’t love a good anti hero? Tony Soprano, Michael Corleone, Walter White and now Sergio Ramos. With that in mind, here’s six times Ramos proved his reputation as football’s biggest arsehole:

WHEN HE TRIED TO SNAP MESSI’S LEG OFF

As someone who makes a living out of scything people down, Ramos is unsurprisingly no stranger to red cards (he’s got the most in La Liga history), and El Classico is no exception. The games against rivals Barca tend to be a feisty affair and have seen Ramos chalk up an impressive five sendings off.

The best of the bunch is probably the straight red Ramos received for this two-footed lunge on Lionel Messi, would would have taken the Argentinian’s leg clean off (had he not jumped out of the way first.) It’s a horrible challenge but to be fair to Ramos, that’s probably the only way to stop Lionel scoring.

WHEN HE REARRANGED A VICTORIA PLZEN PLAYER’S FACE

While Messi might have escaped the wrath of Ramos (that time at least), one Victoria Plzen player wasn’t quite so lucky. When the Czech side met Real in the group stage of the Champions League, Milan Havel was unfortunate enough to find his face on the end of a sly elbow from Ramos just ten minutes in.

I don’t know what’s worse, Havel being crumpled on the ground in a pool of his own blood or the fact that Ramos clearly wasn’t arsed in the slightest. What a bastard. (Warning – the video’s pretty grim, so if you’re squeamish maybe skip this one.)

HIS VERY DELIBERATE BOOKING AGAINST AJAX

Nothing says cynical like a deliberate yellow card, which is what Ramos decided to pick up during Real’s tie against Ajax back in February. With the first leg wrapped up 2-1 and a suspension hanging over Ramos’ head, the defender hacked down Kasper Dolberg in front of the ref late on ensuring he collected a yellow card.

The booking meant Ramos sat out the return leg at the Bernabeu – meaning he’d be suspension-free and able to hack people down again in the later rounds. For once however Ramos’ actions came back to bite him in the arse, with Ajax, inspired by Dusan Tadic, battering the hosts 4-1 and dumping Madrid (and Ramos) out of the competition.

WHEN HE GOT CUADRADO SENT OFF IN THE CL FINAL

When it comes to shithousing, Ramos has tended to save his very best for Champions League finals. Rewind to 2017, when in a seemingly innocuous exchange Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado ever-so-slightly brushed Ramos’ ankle on his way to collect the ball for a throw in. Big mistake.

Naturally, Ramos decided to throw himself on the ground, roll about a bit and hold his foot in fake agony. It would have been hilarious, had the linesman two inches away not somehow fallen for it and told the ref to send Cuardrado off. Juventus were reduced to 10 men and Real went on to win 4-1.

AND THEN INJURED MOHAMMED SALAH THE YEAR AFTER

It was in last year’s Champions League final that Ramos really established himself as the most hated bloke in football (look away now Liverpool fans). His victim was Mo Salah, Liverpool’s prolific Egyptian striker, who had pretty much single-handedly fired the reds into the final with his 10 goals scored in the competition.

With Salah on-fire, Liverpool came into the match with their eyes firmly on the trophy. But as always, Ramos had other ideas. An innocent tussle for the ball turned WWE takedown later and Liverpool’s talisman was limping off the pitch in tears. The rest is history, two mistakes from a concussed Lorius Karius (also thanks to you-know-who) later and Real had a 3-1 win.

AND RUBBED SALT IN THE WOUND AT UEFA’S AWARD CEREMONY A FEW MONTHS LATER

If you thought injuring Salah in the biggest game of his career and snatching away Liverpool’s chance of a historic Champions League trophy would be enough for Ramos, then you’d be wrong. (Credit for this one also has to go partly to whichever genius at UEFA comes up with the seating plans for major award ceremonies.)

It was at a swanky UEFA awards do that Ramos decided to make his best attempt to replace Maggie Thatcher as the most hated person in Merseyside. Lurking behind Salah all night like some sort of demon in a three-piece suit, Ramos’ smugness was there for all to see as he collected his award, giving Salah an infamous brush on the shoulder as he returned to his seat.

As Tony Montana once said: “This is the last time you ever gonna see a bad guy like me.” Never change, Sergio. You horrible man.


THIS IS NOT BARCELONA – THIS IS SANT ANDREU

Words by Dominic McCearney

There are a multitude of things to consider and plan for when moving to a different country; employment, where to live, learning the language and most importantly, which football team to support.

When I decided to move to Catalunya from Scotland, after accepting a job offer in 2018, I barely spoke a word of Spanish – never mind Catalan. It probably says a lot about myself that choosing a team took place before I could even string a sentence together. Supporting Barcelona, or even Espanyol, seemed too easy, so I started doing some research on teams in the lower Segunda and Tercera Divisions. My plan was to go to the matches of a few local teams and see which one felt like the best fit.

I first came across Unio Esportiva Sant Andreu when their ultras visited Celtic Park for the Glasgow Derby in September earlier that year, and after attending my first UESA match, I became completely besotted with the club. Simply known as Sant Andreu, the club was founded in June 1909 under the name Club Z, later being renamed Andreunenc Football Club. By a weird quirk of fate, El Campo de las Medicinas, the stadium where the club formerly played their home games, was on Carrer d’Escocia, which translated into English means ‘Scotland Street’.

The Andreuenc won their first match in this guise 2-0 in the Copa Cataluña Junior wearing striking yellow and red vertical stripes, akin to Les Quattre Barres, the famous flag of Catalunya. In 1925, following a merger between two local clubs, they became Unio Esportiva Sant Andreu. The club now plays it’s home games at the Estadio Narcis Sala, holding just over 6500 people.

The club have enjoyed a relatively modest history, their most successful period coming in the 1970s and 80s when a feeder club agreement with RCD Espanyol saw the arrival of a new coach and a dozen Espanyol players. As a result, the team coasted through the Tercera Division and remained in the Segunda Division for 8 years, reaching the semi final of the Copa Del Rey in 1971 and the quarter finals in ’72, ’73 and ’74.

However the last few decades have been wracked with uncertainty, due to multiple owners and financial troubles. UESA are now languishing in the Tercera Division B, the fourth-tier of Spanish Football, and a division which is notoriously difficult to escape from. Despite this relative fall from grace, the Sant Andreu fans are still as fucking loco as ever when it comes to supporting their team.

My first experience of the Estadio Narcis Sala was for Sant Andreu’s Wednesday night cup fixture against CD Calahorra in the third round of the Copa Del Rey. Making the the 25-minute metro journey from Plaça Cataluyna, in the heart of Barcelona, to Onze de Septembre Station, less than 300 yards from the Estadio Narcis Sala’s ticket office. There I was informed there was no charge for entrance to the stadium’s Gol Nord section, the stand inhabited by UESA’s rowdy ultras, Desperdicis.

When I took my place in the Gol Nord, 15 minutes before kick off, the ultras were already in full voice with chants of Dale UESA” ringing out all around the 6500 capacity stadium. Everywhere you looked there were yellow or red flags, some emblazoned with the iconic Antifa motif. And scarves emblazoned with the words “This is not Barcelona. This is Sant Andreu”.

The slogan is a reference to the fact that, prior to the construction of the Eixample district and the subsequent expansion of the city of Barcelona in the 19th and early 20th century, Sant Andreu de Palomar was once a town in its own right.

Desperdicis appear to have an extremely good relationship with the club itself, with Entradas del Gol Nord being significantly cheaper than general price trickets. A season ticket in this section costs a measly 30 euros, which to put that into context, is the same price as entry and two drinks at Razzaamatazz, one of Barcelona’s most famous nightclubs.

Nine tines out of ten, the club actually negotiates a deal for away games where UESA season ticket holders pay a discounted price to gain entry to the home team’s stadium. However, when such a deal is not in place, such is their dedication to the team, they refuse to enter the stadium, instead watching the game from outside. I was told by a member of Desperdicis that this happened in the 2017/2018 season for an away game against Cerdanyola FC. The travelling away support made clever use of some crates found nearby, peering over an 8-foot concrete wall to watch their team romp to a 4-1 victory – they are dedicated, but mad, bastards!

There was an image in my head when I thought of football ultras and what they looked like, but this was completely shat on by Desperdicis. Think less Stone Island jackets and Adidas trainers and more Doc Martens, shaved heads and tattoos. Almost punk-rock. Not surprising when you find out they take their name from 80s Catalan punk band, Desperdicis Clinics.

The game itself was a tense affair, with both sides threatening to break the deadlock on several occasions. It was the home side that finally managed to make the breakthrough in the 95th minute of extra time, speedy number 9, Kuku, running through onto a dainty flick-on from Oscar Muñoz to calmly slot the ball past the goalkeeper, sending the Estadio Narcis Sala wild. Flares were lit and the noise was amplified as UESA held on for a 1-0 win.

Drawn against Madrid giants Atleti in the fourth round, St Andreu slumped to an unsurprising 5-0 aggregate defeat. But it was the UESA fans that made headlines, displaying the logo of Proactiva Open Arms, an organisation who’s mission is to “rescue from the sea those people who try to reach Europe fleeing from war, persecution or poverty.” Oscar Campos, the organisations founder, later said the “generosity of Sant Andreu in showing our logo in their most important game was priceless.”

Sant Andreu share a fierce rivaly with CE Europa, hailing from the city’s Gràcia district. In promotional material for the derbies, both clubs bill it as “the authentic derby” in reference to the high number of tourists that frequent the Camp Nou for El Clásico and El Derbi Barceloni.

I’ve never seen armed police at any football match back in Scotland, never mind a game in the fourth tier. But there we big meathead vans patrolling along side El Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan Police). I received a more-than-enthusiastic pat down on my way through the turnstiles, the first time I’d been to a UESA match where the sale of alcohol was prohibited (not that that stopped the away support from smuggling their cans of Estrella into the ground).

Sant Andreu took an early lead and the away supported exploded. Limbs everywhere. So much so that a club official from Europa, an elderly man donning a club blazer, stopped the match and had to walk over to the away end to tell the travelling support to calm down. My Catalan is terrible but in a derby as fierce and as volatile as this, I can only imagine what sheer vitriol was sent his way from the UESA fans.

The game eventually ended 1-1, with Europa equalising in the second half and Sant Andreu finishing the match with 10 men after a straight red card for midfielder David Lopez. Interestingly, this was the fifth match in a row between the teams to end as a draw. All in all a frustrating night.

After an indifferent start to the season, Sant Andreu were sitting in 11th position in the table. However, at the time of writing, a 10 match unbeaten run has rocketed the boys up to 5th in the league – within 5 points of the playoff places. The storm of a run has included highlights such as an injury time winner away at, then leaders, Llagostera. There’s a feeling around the place at the moment, that San Andreu can beat anyone, do anything and, god, I hope this carries on.

But no matter what happens in the rest of the season, the club did themselves proud in the Copa Del Ray and have the final of the Copa Catalunya to look forward to (having dispatched three higher-division teams already). I like to think of myself as a good luck charm – I’m yet to see the team lose.

When people from back home ask me “Are UESA any good?” I tell them they’re the best team in town. “What about Barça?” they say.

I reply “Sant Andreu is not Barcelona.”

WHY DOES EVERYBODY HATE NEIL LENNON?

Words by Neil Boardman

Everyone absolutely hates Neil Lennon, don’t they? He’s a little bastard, he’s cocky and he will tell anyone, and everyone, exactly what he thinks about them. But that is the exact reason why I am a Neil Lennon fan.

As much as we all love seeing Lionel Messi pull off the unthinkable, a fluid counter attack ending in a wonderful, composed finish and the next international star rising through the ranks of Jong Ajax. There is a different side to our love of the beautiful game. We all love a little bit of shithousery. And, as much as you don’t want to admit it, no one quite does it like Neil Lennon.

No matter where Lennon is basing himself, at that moment, he can’t help himself. He has to cause a stir. To be honest, if you want to criticise this piece i will do it for you, it’s not always good. Personal issues have affected Lennon’s career from the offset and allegations of misconduct have followed him wherever he goes.

Despite this, there is still a hole, to be filled, when it comes to celebrating Neil Lennon. More or less every media outlet around has published some kind of story condemning Lennon on his behaviour; yet, celebrations of Lennon are hard to come across. In order to take Lennon for what he is, you have to understand him beyond what the Sun or Daily Mail are portraying him as.

Lennon recently made his Celtic managerial comeback away at Hearts. An Odsonne Edouard last gasp winner sealed the 2-1 victory for the hoops. In a similar fashion, just a couple of weeks later, the bhoys sealed victory in the dying seconds away at Dundee. Lennon, had his celebrations ridiculed in the media. Touchline celebrations with the fans, gloating in front of the opposition – it is the Neil Lennon way. Yet, I log on to twitter and all that appears on the timeline and the ‘Neil Lennon’ trend is people moaning. Lads with a union jack in their bios, calling him a disgrace.

But why? Why should a manager be slated day after day for his passion in the technical area? It’s not just the shithousery of Neil Lennon that makes me appreciate the guy, I believe that a manager of his manner can be an ingredient for a successful club, in many cases.

The passion showed by Neil Lennon on the side of the pitch can only be compared to the passion that is shown in the stands.

No matter who your club is, or what your sport is – nothing, absolutely nothing, beats that feeling of a last minute winner. You’re watching your club at a meaningless mid table clash at the back end of the season, your position isn’t changing no matter what the outcome is, but then after a long, goalless 89 minutes the ball falls to your man up top. By some miracle, it finds its way into the back of the net. You’re celebrating, aren’t you? You find yourself three rows away from your original seat. You’ve got no idea where your mates are and you’ve just given a 40 year old topless bloke a questionable embrace. Nothing beats it.

Now. Ask yourself. Would you like your manager to have remained in his technical area, same expression, with his notepad in hand? Or, would you like him to be in there with you, top off running down the touchline? If you’re telling the truth, it is the second of the two options.

Neil Lennon is an ambassador of going off the rails in celebration or giving it to his rivals abit too much. But isn’t that one of the things that makes football and sport so great? It is a release. Lennon is unique in the fact that we don’t have many managers in the world like him. I feel more like he is one of us than any other gaffer in the mainstream and, despite his flaws, he deserves a lot more credit for his managerial style, than he gets.

Ahead of this Sunday’s old firm derby, Lennon’s first derby back in the Celtic hot seat, I am not going to sit here and support whatever daft thing he is, inevitably, going to get involved with. However, I know, for a fact, that he will be getting involved in a way that I wish more football managers would. He is a nice change from what has become the norm for a football manager, it’s nice to see (most of the time).

TOP 5 KITS: CRAZY 90s GOALKEEPER SHIRTS

The 90s was mad. New Labour. Britpop. Sex in the City. The internet. Gazza. ‘Cool Britannia’ was in full swing. And for some reason, barmy goalkeeper tops were everywhere.

Words by Panenka Magazine

The 90s was mad. New Labour. Britpop. Sex in the City. The internet. Gazza. ‘Cool Britannia’ was in full swing. And for some reason, barmy goalkeeper tops were everywhere. We sifted through the most out-there efforts from the decade and put together our favourites for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

MEXICO 1994

Any self-respecting compilation of mad 90s goalkeeper kits wouldn’t be complete without a mention for Jorge Campos, arguably the man who was responsible for the trend in the first place. The Mexican’s bizarre getup at the 1994 World Cup helped him take the crown of ‘craziest keeper’ from Rene Higuita (the latter was in prison for kidnapping at the time, but that’s another story.)

Unusually short for a goalkeeper at just 5’6″, Campos made up for his lack of stature with his eccentric style of play and barmy self-designed kits. This fruit salad-inspired 1994 effort is probably the craziest of the lot and earns it’s place in our top five.

LIVERPOOL 1995/96

From shirts decked out with orange liver-birds to ones covered in purple and grey rectangles, it’s fair to say David James wore some pretty interesting attire during his stint as No. 1 at Anfield. We can’t tell if this leopard print, triangle-y number dreamt up by Adidas for the 1995/96 season is a work of art or a pure disaster, but we like it either way.

PS – There’s a really nice purple version of it knocking around but we couldn’t find a decent picture of Dave wearing it, so enjoy this one instead.

MANCHESTER UNITED 1995/97

Not even Peter Schmeichel was immune from wearing bonkers kits in the 90s. United’s Danish shot-stopper wore everything from tessellating yellow and blue diamonds to space invader-themed triangles and even psychedelic green spirals during his trophy-laden decade at Old Trafford.

This pink and purple striped effort, complete with black sleeves and diamond accents, is one of Umbro’s classier efforts from the time, all the while still being zany enough to make it onto our list. Well played lads.

ENGLAND 1996

When people associate things with David Seaman, this kit is probably up there with horrible moustaches and that time he got lobbed by Ronaldinho. Worn for the 1996 Euros, the odd-looking rainbow number is one of the defining memories from the tournament when ‘football almost came home’.

Others include Gazza’s wonder-goal against the Scots, ‘Psycho’ Stuart Pearce fist-pumping against Spain and of course the penalty shoot-out heartbreak against the Germans where Seaman’s kit didn’t help him save a single one.

NEWCASTLE 1994/96

Nowadays, if someone suggested putting the Newcastle skyline (complete with Tyne bridge) on the front of a Premier League football kit, they’d be laughed straight out of their production meeting. But in 1994, that’s exactly what Adidas did, and in the process spawned one the Magpies’ most iconic ever shirts.

Looking at the shirt, it’s got everything. The black silhouetted skyline, the sunset-inspired colours and that perfect Newcastle Brown Ale sponsor rounding it all off in the middle. What more can we say? Top marks.

Last week: Top 5 Kits: Women’s World Cup 2019

COULD FOOTBALL LEARN FROM RUGBY LEAGUE?

Words by Danny Brown

When you ask most people to think rugby league, they think grim Northern towns, big blokes with anger issues and a weirdly-shaped football being lobbed about a muddy field. And to be fair, they’re not far wrong. Where’s the intricate skill moves, careful possession play and midfield masterfulness seen in The Beautiful Game™?

However, as a football lad who lives with a pair of diehard rugby league fans, you can’t help noticing there’s a couple of things their game actually does pretty well. With that in mind, here’s five things that football could learn from rugby league (based on the opinion of someone who knows f*ck all about it). Enjoy!

SHOT CLOCKS

A simple one to start off with. In rugby league, whenever a team needs to form a scrum or kick a drop out, a big clock in the stadium ticks down from a set time limit. If a team fails to perform the action within time limit, they get penalised. Simple, and means the game gets back underway with minimum fuss.

Where we’d want to see this in football is in that annoying situation when your team is 1-0 down late on and the opposition keeper is doing everything he can to piss away vital seconds at every goal kick. Stick a massive f*ck off clock behind him and see just how quickly the ball gets punted down the other end. Lovely stuff.

TIMED STOPPAGES

Another fairly straightforward one, but one that would solve the age-old mystery of how injury time is actually calculated in football. Seriously, how does four goals, two injuries, a red card, pitch invasion and an earthquake still seem to only chalk up just 3 minutes when the fourth official’s board goes up at the end of the game? It’s barmy.

In rugby, the length of the game tends to be easier to trace. The ball goes out of play, the clock is stopped. When the ball comes back in, the clock starts again. The whistle goes at the end of the match and there’s no need for any mysterious added time. So easy even Danny Murphy could understand it (maybe).

SIN BINS

Just like in football, red and yellow cards are a thing in rugby. Red means you’re off, yellow is a warning, pretty standard. However, there’s one big difference. When shown a yellow card in rugby, a player is also sent to the sin bin meaning they must leave the pitch and watch on for the next 10 minutes.

The main criticism of yellow cards in football would be that they don’t do a right lot. How many times have you seen a midfielder craftily leg up his opponent during a promising break, just to casually shrug off the resulting yellow card. Add a sin bin into the mix and a feisty five minutes could see the most boring of games turned on it’s head, and we’re here for it.

VIDEO REFFING (DONE RIGHT)

Ahh, VAR. That magical thing football fans either love or hate (sometimes both within the same game). It’s fair to say it’s introduction in England has been patchy at best. Rugby’s had a video ref for a while now and they’ve got it it running pretty smoothly. And with a few tweaks, video reffing could be great in the Prem.

For objective decisions (offsides, balls going out of play etc.), VAR should definitely be used. Someone, somewhere, takes a look, tells the ref and he can make the right decision. But subjective calls (penalties, red cards) are just that, subjective. By all means, use VAR to take a look if the ref didn’t see it first time but other than that, leave it. Big fan of the mid-air-rectangle-drawing hand signal though.

MIC’D UP REFS

Now if there’s one thing that should make it’s way over from rugby league to football, it’s this. The A-League decided to mic up one of it’s refs for his last ever game in Australia the other week and it’s fascinating. If you’ve not watched it yet, I seriously suggest you do. However, insight into the referee’s decisions isn’t the sole reason why this would be great.

When you talk Premier League referees, only one man comes to mind. Mr Celebrity Referee himself Mike Dean. As if the over-the-top facial expressions, no-look yellow cards and acrobatic free kick signals he gets up to now aren’t entertainment enough, imagine the David Brent-eque comments that would go along with them. “I’d think of myself as a friend first, ref second. Probably an entertainer third.” Keep doing you Dean-O.

OLE’S AT THE WHEEL (FOR GOOD)

In just a few months, United have gone from their worst ever Premier League start, playing negative, non-football under Jose Mourinho to a team that’s flying, showing glimpses of the confidence and swagger not seen at Old Trafford since the Fergie days.

Words by Danny Brown

To celebrate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s official appointment as Man United manager, we’ve decided to take a look at the Norwegian’s incredible turnaround at Old Trafford so far this season.

Now I’m not a Manchester United fan, far from it. But no-one can deny that the Red Devils’ resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season has been nothing short of remarkable. In just a few months, United have gone from their worst ever Premier League start, playing negative, non-football under Jose Mourinho to a team that’s flying, showing glimpses of the swagger and confidence not seen at Old Trafford since the Fergie days.

Let’s go back to December. A humbling 3-1 defeat to Liverpool had proved to be the final nail in Jose Mourinho’s money-lined coffin and The Big Bad Wolf was finally out of the door. But with United having had their worst start to a Premier League season ever and trailing the top four by 11 points, it seemed at the time like, no matter who came in, the rest of the season would be just as bleak.

Rather than rush into another full-time appointment (and probably with one eye on Zidane in the Summer), Ed Woodward and the gang opted to appoint a caretaker til the end of the season. Solskjaer was the man they chose, a club legend (scorer of the famous treble winning goal in 1999, no less), a cheerful chap with modest managerial experience, inside knowledge of the club and a pre-existing bond with the supporters bound to improve the mood around Old Trafford, if nothing else.

In his first few games in charge, United collected three emphatic wins against Cardiff (5-1), Huddersfield (3-1) and Bournemouth (4-1). All games you could argue they were expected to beat (even under Jose). But it was the manner of these victories that really caught the eye. Whereas under Mourinho, United would have gone out to secure a safe 1-0 or 2-0 win against these mid-to-lower-table sides (boring half the stadium to sleep in the process), Solskjaer’s United came out to attack, and attack often.

It was like watching a completely different team. A throwback to a different Man United era. This was a set of players, who had looked so dysfunctional and stifled at times under Mourinho, playing with a freedom and confidence not seen this season at Old Trafford. For the first time in months, United were getting the ball out wide, running at defences, playing fast, exciting football. Playing the United way.

Ole himself explained it as: “Pace and power, that’s what we are. We attack quickly when we can. Get the ball up in their half as soon as we can, as quickly as we can. If you score, fantastic, if not then you’ve got to have patient build-up play. But attack, quickly.” Comparing United’s style of play to his own playing days, he referenced attacking talents such as Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke (‘Yorkie’), Ryan Giggs (‘Giggsy’) and David Beckham (‘Becks’).

What was shocking to learn was that with their 5-1 win against Cardiff, United had recorded five goals against an opponent for the first time since the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. Such is United’s decline in recent years, that teams that would have once gone to Old Trafford praying to avoid a five or six-nil thumping were now going there with a genuine belief they might be able to nick a point (or three).

These early results, along with Solskjaer’s sentiments in his early press conferences, quickly saw the United back onside. You can hardly blame them, after suffering the ‘Special One’s negativity, melodrama and mind games for for the last two-and-half years, Solskjaer’s refreshingly old-school and honest approach, delivered in his half-Norwegian, half-Mancunian accent must be like a welcome breath of fresh air for Red Devils fans.

What Solskjaer may lack in experience and tactical knowledge, he more than makes up for in his understanding of the history and tradition that’s at the heart of United. Having played for the club for over a decade under the mentorship of Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s not many people in football more equipped to continue the United tradition. “We’re playing for the supporters, we’re playing for our pride, we’re playing for the clubs history.”

So far Ole has done everything right. His faith in Paul Pogba, something the Frenchman was clearly lacking under Mourinho, is being repaid on the pitch. Alexis Sanchez has been quietly eased onto the fringes and Marouane Fellaini sold. Perhaps most impressive of all, Romelo Lukaku, made to look like a donkey at times under Mourinho, is now finally playing like a £75 million striker.

But by far the most defining moment in Solskjaer’s short tenure has the remarkable turnaround against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League. Going into the first coasting off the back of ten victories out of Solskjaer’s first eleven games, the reds were brought swiftly back down to earth by the 2-0 defeat inflicted on them by PSG at home, with Paul Pogba earning himself a late red card to make matters even worse.

Going to the Parc des Princes with a two-goal deficit, a suspension and a handful of injuries and winning is no easy feat. But when Romelu Lukaku, rejuvenated under Solskjaer, gave United a shock lead just two minutes into the reverse tie – it became abundantly clear, that the United players on the pitch backed themselves to do just that.

Not even PSG restoring their deficit through Bernat ten minutes later was enough to soften United’s resolve, Lukaku getting his second before half time to put United one strike away from clinching the tie on away goals. A tense second half wore on, and it seemed like PSG’s one-goal advantage was going to be good enough for them to sneak through into the quarters.

Then in the dying seconds, a speculative shot from Diego Dalot struck the arm of Presnel Kimpembe inside the PSG box. A lengthy VAR review later, United had a spot kick, with Marcus Rashford, their Mancunian-born academy product standing over it. Ice running through his veins, the 21-year-old stepped up and smashed the ball home, sending United through in the most dramatic fashion possible.

Since Solskjaer took over, United have won 14 games, drawing two and losing three. They’ve seen impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs and gone 11 points adrift of the top four to just two points behind Arsenal in fourth. They’re in the quarter finals of the Champions League and playing their most exciting football in months. All things considered, it seemed almost impossible for United not to keep him on full time.

The three-year deal given to Solskjaer by United makes him the club’s fourth permanent manager since Fergie’s departure in 2016, and they’ll be hoping that Ole is finally the perfect-fit they’ve been looking for since then. If he can continue the start he’s made this season, then the signs are he could finally be the man to restore United to their former success, over the next few years and beyond.

However one important thing to note is that we’re yet to see Solksjaer under any sort of real hardship at United. As unstoppable as they may seem at present, the ‘honeymoon period’ must come to an end eventually and when it does, is when we’ll see what the Norwegian’s management credentials are really made of. At the time of writing United have lost their last two games on the bounce and Ole will be desperate to return to winning ways against Watford on Saturday.

But for now: “Ole’s at the wheeeel…”