Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Roy Hodgson: From Croydon to Wembley

Roy Hodgson, England manager.

It’s a sentence that even the 64-year-old son of a Croydon bus driver probably never thought he would hear.

Confirmation of Hodgson’s shock appointment by the Football Association on Tuesday has thrust the softly-spoken former Crystal Palace trainee firmly into the national spotlight. The ‘people’s favourite’ Harry Redknapp was surprisingly overlooked in favour of a man who grew up in a flat on Sydenham Road in the mid-1950s dreaming of one day representing his country as a player.

Back then, Hodgson and Steve Kember, who would later become a Palace player and manager, would invite their school friends over to spend hours kicking a ball around on the patch of grass in the back garden. Their fathers worked together on the buses and were friends and neighbours, with Bill Hodgson’s family living upstairs and the Kembers downstairs.

The young football fanatics were briefly separated when Steve’s father joined the police and was stationed in Balham, but his decision to ask for a transfer back to Croydon a couple of years later saw them reunited at John Ruskin Grammar School in Shirley. A year younger, Kember soon began showing signs of the talent that would lead Chelsea to pay a then club record £170,000 for his services in 1971 as he was selected to play alongside Hodgson for Ruskin’s Wednesday afternoon school side.

Palace’s assistant manager Lennie Lawrence was also in the same team, while Bobby Houghton – who would be so instrumental in Hodgson’s development as a manager years later – joined Ruskin in the sixth form.

But by the time Kember signed professional forms at Selhurst Park on his 17th birthday in 1965, Hodgson was already playing non-league football for Tonbridge Angels in Kent and thinking about a totally different career.

Having qualified as a teacher, he started working at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich and used to help coach the Park Hill United under-11s – the youth team started by Kember in 1968 that later became Shirley Saints.

The future England boss also took his first steps as a coach when he became assistant manager to Houghton at Maidstone United and continued to play for them in the Southern League, usually as a left back or central midfielder.

By 1974, Hodgson was teaching at Monks Hill Comprehensive (now Selsdon High School) and living in Farnborough Crescent, having returned from two years in South Africa. As his playing career wound down with Carshalton Athletic, a move into coaching beckoned thanks to the links forged with Houghton at Maidstone.

In 1976, Swedish club Halmstad were persuaded by his former Ruskin team-mate – by then in charge of Malmo – to give Hodgson a chance. The result has been a glittering career that has taken in 18 managerial posts around the globe and has now taken the boy from Croydon all the way to Wembley.        
 “From a local point of view, it’s great that Roy’s managed to get himself the most prestigious job in English football,” said Kember, who worked for Hodgson when he was at Fulham and is now Palace’s chief scout.

“I’m very pleased for him. He’s done very well over the years and deserves the chance. Apart from a couple of blips here and there, he’s been a success everywhere he has been. I can only wish him the best and I would like to think he would do a good job.

“It’s important he can get everybody on board and get the players and the fans to back him. Every manager who comes in deserves that to start with anyway so if he gets that then he can do the job.”

There’s certainly one corner of south London that will be giving Hodgson its full support this summer.

Monday, 19 March 2012

There’s still life in the old Drog

Many have tried to replace him but the last couple of weeks have proved one thing. There’s still life in the Old Drog.

After finally ending his ridiculous goal-drought on Sunday, Fernando Torres is the man making all the headlines at the moment. Yet it has been the return to form of the veteran Ivorian that has been the catalyst to the revived fortunes at Stamford Bridge. 

Now 34, Drogba’s Chelsea career looked as though it may be over just a few months ago with rumours that he was on his way to join Nicolas Anelka in China when his contract expires in the summer. But an explosive display of centre forward play in the epic Champions League comeback against Napoli last week to follow up the winning goal against Stoke a few days before gave an indication that the man voted as Chelsea’s best-ever foreign player in a recent poll by FourFourTwo magazine is far from finished in Europe.

It’s now nearly eight years since Drogba arrived in London having finished as top scorer in Ligue Un and fired Marseilles to the UEFA Cup Final. I remember seeing him play in only his second competitive match in England against a newly-promoted Crystal Palace side at Selhurst Park back in 2004 when he scored his first goal with the kind of towering header that has since become his trademark.

After spending much of his early career as a unremarkable journeyman in France, Drogba did his best to make up for lost time as Chelsea won back-to-back Premier League titles and established themselves as a major European force. He actually scored more goals the following year as Manchester United regained the championship but a succession of injuries meant it wasn’t until 2009 that he returned to his best form, scoring 29 goals as Chelsea were crowned champions under Carlo Ancelotti.

For a while, his success saw the return of English football’s fascination with the old-fashioned, physical style of centre forward and the race was on to find ‘the next Didier Drogba’. It’s no coincidence that Liverpool paid £35 million last year to buy Andy Carroll from Newcastle to provide exactly the same kind of battering ram approach that has served Abidjan’s finest so well, while Chelsea’s purchase of Romelu Lukaku from Anderlecht last summer also had the same idea.

Neither has worked out so far and it remains to be seen whether the latest young player to be given the tag will live up to the hype. Tottenham fended off interest from Real Madrid and Liverpool to sign 17-year-old Souleymane Coulibaly last year after he fired an astonishing nine goals in just four matches for Ivory Coast at the under 17 World Cup.

By all accounts, he has settled well into their set-up but at a couple of inches below six foot, it’s unlikely he will ever provide the same aerial threat as the original. The first African player to reach the milestone of 100 Premier League goals, Drogba has certainly recovered well from the crushing disappointment of missing a penalty in the African Nations Cup Final against Zambia last month but will now have his eyes on redemption at the 2013 edition in South Africa next year.

As for his future at Chelsea, Drogba insists ‘I am not a master of my fate, but I will stay as long as possible’. If Roman Abramovitch, John Terry or whoever makes the decision down at Stamford Bridge these days have any sense, they will make sure their Drog hasn’t had his day just yet.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Moses headed for promised land with Nigeria

You wouldn’t expect that making an appearance in the 22,000 capacity Stade Régional de Nyamirambo in the Rwandan capital of Kigali is on the wish-list of most Premier League footballers. But when Wigan Athletic winger Victor Moses steps out there to play for Nigeria in next week’s 2013 African Nations Cup qualifier, it will represent a home-coming of sorts for the 21-year-old.
It’s now a decade since Moses arrived in the UK as an asylum-seeker after his parents – both Christian missionaries - were killed in religious riots in his home town of Kaduna in the north of the country. His father Austin had run his own church and was targeted by Muslim extremists determined to enforce Sharia Law after it was introduced to the region the previous year.
Moses was reportedly playing football with friends when his uncle rushed to inform him that rioters had broken into their home and murdered Austin and his mother, Josephine. With his family fearing for his safety, the 11-year-old was hidden at a friend’s house and arrangements were made for him to move to England a week later.
According to legend, Moses was eventually spotted playing in a local park by scouts from Crystal Palace and joined their youth team at the age of 14. Having initially enrolled a local comprehensive in Croydon, south London, he was then given the opportunity to attend a prestigious public school called Whitgift and scored all five goals for them in a national youth cup final in 2005, with his exploits featuring in an article by Guardian writer Paul Kelso.
The skilful forward went on to represent England at several junior levels as he broke into the Palace first team under Neil Warnock and was sold to Wigan for £2.5 million in January 2010 as the club battled against administration. It was then that Nigerian officials first contacted his agent to see if there would be any chance of Moses considering switching allegiances to the land of his birth - despite his recent inclusion in Stuart Pearce’s under 21 squad.
At the time, Pearce expressed his regret that a change in FIFA’s rules meant appearances for junior sides no longer restricted players from switching to a different country at senior level. Now, after nearly two years of soul-searching, it seems Moses has finally made up his mind.
Despite a last-minute wobble when he was called up by the Super Eagles for two friendlies at the end of 2011 and then failed to turn up, a series of discussions with friends and family back home seem to have finally convinced the player Wigan boss Roberto Martinez last week compared to Lionel Messi. Fellow members of the Nigeria squad who are based in the Premier League including West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie and Yakubu from Blackburn have also played their part in persuading Moses to shelve his ambitions of playing for England as new coach Stephen Keshi tries to rebuild the morale of a damaged nation.
The failure to reach the 2012 African Nations Cup Finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea marked a new nadir for Super Eagles fans, but with an in-form Yakubu and Moses joining the likes of CSKA Moscow winger Ahmed Musa and Inter Milan’s Joel Obi, their future seems bright. Yet in the week that England also lost promising Blackpool winger Matt Phillips to Scotland, perhaps the FA will one day end up regretting not having done more to keep hold of Wigan’s star player?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

'Mbazo' prepares to leave sinking ship

Tuesday night was a tough one for Portsmouth supporters. Faced with the prospect of entering administration for the second time, a cruelly disallowed goal by the aptly-named referee Darren Deadman denied them a point against Ipswich Town and leaves the south coast club facing an uphill battle to remain in the Championship.

Watching on from the bench at Fratton Park was former Bafana Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena. He was one of the first players to emerge from the home dressing room after the final whistle to clap around 2,000 Portsmouth fans who had stayed behind to stage an hour-long protest that illustrated their anger that the club should find itself in such peril again.

Fighting for his place in the side after returning from a hamstring injury, 'Mbazo' has developed a close bond with the club since moving there from Blackburn in 2009 and told me in an interview last year that he chooses to lives in the city centre because he 'loves being able to have a conversation with the people who pay to watch you every week'. The man who won a record 107 caps for his country has certainly seen a lot in his distinguished career, but nothing could have prepared him for this situation.

An expected 10-point deduction at Friday's High Court hearing will leave Portsmouth just outside the relegation zone on goal difference. With a transfer embargo likely to be enforced and manager Michael Appleton's squad down to the bare bones, they will need every ounce of Mokoena's vast experience to help them steady the ship.

Yet with the administrators set to be tasked with fulfilling the demands of the club's many creditors (including a massive electricity bill), there is every chance that their first move will be to try and move on several players on big salaries. That could spell the end for the 31-year-old defender who began his career at Jomo Cosmos and went on to play in Germany, Belgium and Holland - as well as the likes of Tal Ben Haim, fellow Cosmos graduate Benjani and captain Liam Lawrence.

Back in November, Mokoena stated in our interview that he would like to end his career in a different country, specifically mentioning USA, China and the United Arab Emirates. In line with his ambition to build his own professional side back home in South Africa when he finally calls it a day, it seems a lucrative final contract could well be on the cards after Chinese team Dalian Shide were linked.

Leaving Portsmouth and England behind would certainly be a wrench for a player who has been in Europe since moving to Bayer Leverkusen as an 18-year-old in 1998. But with the club desperate to survive the choppy seas of administration once more, Mokoena may see now as the perfect opportunity to jump ship.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Knowing me, Knowing you: Zaha!

His name may have been new to those BBC pundits who are usually halfway back to their mansions by the time Crystal Palace make their weekly appearance on The Football League show but Wilfried Zaha has been earmarked for greatness ever since he signed a youth team contract at Selhurst Park in 2007.

That famous Carling Cup quarter-final victory over Manchester United back in December was the first time most  supporters outside the Championship had seen for themselves exactly what the 19-year-old from Abidjan in Ivory Coast was capable of. A series of bamboozling runs on a wet night at Old Trafford sparked a surge of interest from Premier League clubs in the January transfer window, with Palace's owners having to fend off a firm bid from Bolton on transfer deadline day to keep their talented forward.

Zaha's decision to sign a new five year deal just a week after his scintillating display in Manchester was a real coup for boss Dougie Freedman, although most Palace fans will tell you that he is still far from the finished article. A return of just two league goals this season is disappointing from a player with such an abundance of talent but another season of Championship football under his belt should see that potential transformed into reality.

Whether he can go on to emulate the exploits of some of the players produced by his real hometown club is another matter. Asec Mimosas is Ivory Coast's most successful side and was where Zaha spent the formative years of his career until moving with his family to south London.

Since the early 1990s, their academy has produced a number of top-class internationals, with many of them currently starring for 'Les Elephants' in the African Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure is the jewel in the crown of the youth system that was first established by lawyer Roger Ouegnin.

After surprisingly beating Tunisian giants Esperance to win the African Champions League in 1999, Asec exported most of their team to Europe, with the likes of Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora all ending up in the UK eventually. Their success has since opened the floodgates for Ivorian footballers, although Zaha could end up being the one that got away.  

His appearance for English youth sides apparently illustrates a desire to turn his back on the land of his birth but time will tell. So far, though, Asec's loss has been to Palace's gain.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Peanut is back as Schillo comes full circle

A year can be a very long time in football. Just ask Steven Pienaar.
The man they call ‘Schillo’ back home in South Africa found himself in welcoming surroundings on Thursday afternoon as he faced the media at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground following his last-ditch loan move from Spurs.
A little over 12 months have passed since Harry Redknapp won the race to sign him on a four-year contract worth an estimated £16 million in total, yet Pienaar must have contemplated how things have changed since then as he made the familiar journey up the M6 the day before. Back then, the future seemed so rosy for a player who had finally lived up to the promise he showed as a youngster for Ajax Amsterdam as he prepared to join a club in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Yet despite starting in the memorable 1-0 victory against AC Milan in the San Siro, that was as it got for Pienaar in a Spurs shirt as first a persistent groin injury and then a lack of first-team opportunities finally got the better of him. But what was most revealing was hearing just how desperate he was to leave north London, with Redknapp apparently keen to hold on to the 29-year-old right up until Tuesday night’s transfer deadline.
“At first he said no, I can’t go. It was the most stressful moment,” said Pienaar at the press conference to unveil him as an Everton player for the second time.
“I had to push him to get him to say yes, and eventually it happened just 10 minutes before time.”
News of the return of the player known as ‘Peanut’ in the blue corner of Merseyside was understandably greeted with great excitement, while Bafana Bafana boss Pitso Mosimane also wasted no time giving his captain the seal of approval after a year of frustration. And with his 30th birthday looming large in just over a month’s time, there is little doubt that Pienaar needs to be playing regularly and a return to the ground where he has arguably produced the best football of his career seems to suit all parties.
Now back home in his home in Woolton in the outskirts of Liverpool that had been up for sale since his departure for London, everything appears rosy. But quite where this leaves Pienaar’s future with Spurs remains to be seen.
Details of the season-long loan have yet to emerge, although it’s unlikely Everton will have been able to finance his weekly wages of around £60,000 – meaning Redknapp’s side are paying a large slice of that figure. Unless he is prepared to take a hefty pay-cut on the remaining three years of that contract, a permanent return to Goodison Park seems impossible.
That leaves just handful of clubs who may be prepared to offer Pienaar an escape route from White Hart Lane, assuming he remains surplus to requirements on his return to north London at the end of the season. But for the player who was given his original nickname in the tough Westbury township in Johannesburg after watching Italy’s Toto Schillachi at the 1990 World Cup, it is hard to underestimate the relief he will be feelling now he finds himself back in the company of old friends in the city he now considers a second home.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

South Africa Road is calling for Bafana Bafana stars

It seems unlikely given that new QPR boss Mark Hughes has been linked to every player and their sister in this transfer window, yet should any of Steven Pienaar, Daylon Claasen or Katlego Mphela end up at Loftus Road they will find themselves in surroundings that sound strangely familiar.

Of the Bafana Bafana trio, Pienaar seems most likely to be taking a stroll down South Africa Road in London W12 over the next five days, perhaps even having time to pop into the General Smuts pub around the corner on Bloemfontein Road for a swift pint before he signs?

Unsubstantiated rumours also claim that Loftus Road is named after Robert Owen Loftus Versfeld - acknowledged as the founder of organised sport in Pretoria, where the famous stadium bearing his name played host to the 2010 World Cup. The area around the stadium is thought to have been named after the South Africa Pavilion in the old Exhibition Grounds, built in 1908 for the Franco-British exhibition, with many of the other roads in the area also bearing names from other parts of the Commonwealth.

As things stand, however, there's a long way to go until QPR fans will be firing up the braai to welcome any new signings from South Africa. Spurs have slapped a price-tag of around £6 million on Pienaar's head and confirmation that Hughes also has his eye on Wigan's Victor Moses - at 21, eight years Schillo's junior - is a worrying development for the Bafana captain.

With his path to regular first-team football blocked by the Premier League's best midfield combination, Pienaar is itching to make the most of the time he has left at the top and would probably jump at the chance of a move - if another club can match his estimated £60,000 a week wages. Nouveau-riche QPR are one of the few who can, although it remains to be seen how far the finances of Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes will stretch after the signing of Manchester City defender on a whopping £4 million a year contract.

For FC Lierse midfielder Claasen, wages would not be a problem. He was a star of the 2009 under 20 World Cup alongside Kermit Erasmus and has been attracting interest from big clubs in Holland and Scotland as well. But issues over whether Claasen would be granted a work permit given his lack of international caps and the galaxy of stars likely to be ahead of him in the pecking order at Loftus Road make a summer transfer the most likely scenario.

That leaves Mphela, who boasts a better goalscoring ratio at international level than Lionel Messi with 22 goals in 42 matches for Bafana. His failed trial at Celtic back in July looked like being 'Killer's' last opportunity to return to Europe after a spell in France when he was a teenager but news of QPR's interest may give him some hope.

A natural predator in front of goal, astonishingly Mphela still has his detractors in his homeland but has shown his ability to find the net at any level. He may not end up being the man to entrusted with the job of keeping Rangers up, although there would be a great photo opportunity if any of the Bafana stars do end up at South Africa Road this January.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Tshabalala forced to play the waiting game

For anyone interested in whether Siphiwe Tshabalala is actually going to end up at Crystal Palace, the last few days have been confusing to say the least.

The Bafana Bafana midfielder spent a week at Palace's training ground in Beckenham earlier this month in the hope of impressing Dougie Freedman enough to win a move to the UK. According to his agent Jazzman Mahlakgane, 'Shabba' was informed that Freedman was very interested in signing him on a free transfer before he returned to South Africa.

A week later and with no news from Palace, though, Tshabalala's club Kaizer Chiefs issued a statement that said he would be signing a new three-year deal with them after the weekend that has just passed - a claim that was strongly refuted by Mahlakgane in the South African media. Sure enough, at the time of writing, no new contract has been signed after Freedman admitted in a press conference this morning that any move to sign him may rest on other players leaving the club.

All of which leaves Tshabalala in a bit of a dilemma. Having opened up a series of fish and chip shops (a venture that has included appearances on billboards around Johannesburg), he's not short of a few bob already and any offer of a new contract from Chiefs is likely to involve a hefty signing-on fee and substantial salary.

Unless they reach the Carling Cup Final or accept an offer for one of the club's coveted young stars like Nathaniel Clyne or Wilfried Zaha, that is likely to be more than Palace are willing to offer. As a top-earner in the South African PSL, Tshabalala could command wages of at least £6,000 a month (paying only 40% tax), with the signing on fee for such a crucial contract in his career ensuring he could expand the takeaway empire across South Africa and beyond.

Yet his willingness to attend trials at Forest last year and brave the English winter in south London suggest that he has bigger fish to fry. Seeing the success of compatriot Kagisho Dikgacoi in English football's second tier has given Tshabalala the appetite to prove himself on a foreign stage and he knows this may be his last chance to do that.

European clubs are unlikely to pay a transfer fee for a player who is tied into such an expensive contract and, at 27, is entering the final stage of his career, meaning Mahlakgane has been forced to play a dangerous waiting game. The whole saga should unfold over the next few days but Tshabalala will have his fingers crossed that his time has finally arrived.  

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Shabba and Spider set for Palace's Bafana revolution?

They say all good news comes in pairs but if things go to plan, Crystal Palace could have three Bafana Bafana internationals on their books before too long.

Destined to be forever known as the player who scored the first goal of 2010 World Cup after a slide-rule pass from Kagisho Dikgacoi, Siphiwe Tshabalala arrived in the UK on Wednesday in the hope of resuming the partnership permanently in south London.

So far, all parties have maintained their silence since the news was broken by a statement from the 27-year-old's club Kaizer Chiefs earlier this week. But a conversation with Bafana goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune - also said to be wanted on trial by Dougie Freedman in the statement - confirmed that 'Shabba' will begin his 10-day trial on Thursday morning.

He could hardly have picked a better time to arrive. With the Carling Cup semi-final against Cardiff City to come and rumours linking prized assets Wilfried Zaha and Nathaniel Clyne with moves in the January transfer window, Tshabalala has a real opportunity to show he is worth the risk of a tranfser fee that is likely to be considerably less than the 1.5 million euros Chiefs had previously been holding out for.

A failed trial at Nottingham Forest last year will certainly have lessened expectations, while persistent injury problems are also a big problem. On his day, though, Tshabalala is capable of unlocking the best of defences with his pace and trickery and possesses excellent delivery from set-pieces thanks to that famous left foot.

Bafana team-mate Morgan Gould also had a chance to join Palace in the summer but was undone by his lack of experience. That shouldn't be a problem for a player who has captained his country several times and amassed more than 70 caps already, yet a lack of physical strength may be found out in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

Remarkably, there's even the prospect of another Bafana player joining Tshabalala and Dikgacoi in south London. Khune seemed in the dark about any details of his proposed trial but admitted he had been following Palace's progress this season because of Dikgacoi, saying he had particularly enjoyed the win over Manchester United in the Carling Cup quarter-final.

Whether he gets the opportunity remains to be seen, especially given Julian Speroni's untouchable status as Freedman's first-choice. At 24, 'Spiderkid' still has plenty of time to make a move to Europe and prove he is capable of living up to the praise of Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel lavished on him after last summer's tour to South Africa.

"He’s not that tall but you can see the spring he has in his legs, that makes up for it and I think he can be able to manoeuvre himself around the goal just fine," said the US veteran.

"The thing that stands out is his distribution. It’s outstanding for such a young guy - at 24, he is still very young for a goalkeeper and as long as he keeps working hard he can only get better and better." 

And after beating Chiefs 3-2 as they became the first foreign club to play in South Africa following their readmittance to Fifa in July 1992, it would be apt for another two of the country's most popular current players to end up in the red and blue of Crystal Palace.