All posts by Daniel Kelly

‘It was about getting to the Premier League, not the money’

As the 2016/17 season enters its final throes, clubs across the three EFL divisions will be desperately attempting to extend it by finishing in the promotion play-off places.

For the winners of the Championship play-off final, a place in the top flight awaits, along with the riches of the Premier League and the many commercial rewards that come with it.

Boro fans saw their team lose ‘the richest game in football’ in 2015 (Pic: Middlesbrough FC)

The Wembley spectacle is often laden with nerves, incident and drama, yet the game repeatedly carries the tasteless label as ‘the richest game in football’.

Modern-day football coverage and its heavily scripted PR machine will have us believe that the Premier League is every second tier club’s holy grail, not for the glory of sporting success, but rather the financial gain to be pocketed.

This has not always been the case. In 1995, Bruce Rioch guided Bolton Wanderers to the top tier via the play-offs, with a dramatic 4-3 extra-time victory over Reading.

Although there was money to be made from moving up a division, Rioch insists that achieving promotion was the only motivation for him and his club.

“It wasn’t financial. We didn’t look at the aspect of finance,” said Rioch.

“When I first went there, I didn’t have any money to spend so getting loan deals in and wheeling and dealing was how we did it until we had the cup runs.

Reading and Bolton take to the pitch at Wembley in 1995 (Pic: Planet Football)

“The cup runs generated some money from the games with Liverpool, Arsenal and so on, but we had to be very careful how we spent it and the type of players we bought.

“But we didn’t think of the play-off final as a cash fund as they do today, it was promotion and getting to the Premier League. Money wasn’t the motivator for us.

“The players obviously weren’t earning anywhere near the money today’s players earn, and the club wasn’t going to get the income that they do today.

“So it really was different. Everything was grounded and it wasn’t built around money, a totally different outlook.”

Plotting 

Whilst attitudes towards the one-off game may have changed since 1995, trends within it have not.

Late goals settled the outcome in 2014, 2013 and 2012, proving that the drama on the pitch is still very much a part of the play-offs.

Bolton’s victory in 1995 had been exhausting. Reading had finished second in the league that season, but had missed out on automatic promotion due to the Premier League’s downsizing to 20 teams from 22.

The Royals had raced into a first half lead through goals from Lee Nogan and Ady Williams. Stuart Lovell missed the chance to put Reading 3-0 up when his spot-kick was saved by Keith Branagan.

On the bench, Rioch stayed calm, plotting a way back into the game.

Uplifting

Recalling the day, the former Aston Villa midfielder said: “As the half-time whistle went, I walked across the pitch and I met the referee almost in the centre circle. I said to him ‘referee I’m going to make a change’.

Branagan saved Lovell’s penalty to stop Reading going 3-0 up (Pic: Get Reading)

“I used a bit of advice I’d had from my chief scout, Ian McNeil, who was previously a manager. He said to me: ‘You can never have too many strikers, collect them’.

“So I went with four strikers. That was John McGinley on the right, Owen Coyle and Fabian De Freitas up the middle and Mixu Paatelainen on the left; four goalscorers. I was thinking the opposite to what many think, in other words take a striker off and put another one on.

“And it was the strikers who scored the goals.”

Although the Trotters had not performed well during the first half, Rioch was calm and uplifting with his half-time instructions.

“I got into the dressing room and Alan Stubbs was sat with his head was on the floor. I just walked in and said to Stubbsy ‘get your head up, don’t you dare put your head on the floor, get it up’.

“I went round and said ‘Listen, we know if we get the next goal, we’re back in this game in a big way. So we’re going to go for the next goal, Neil [McDonald] I’m taking you off and Fabian [De Freitas] you’re on and we’re going to go 4-2-4’.

“And that really was the team talk.

“The team was confident. We’d got to the play-off final through getting good results and we’d been in the League Cup final (against Liverpool) so we were having a good season. It was just about getting their heads up again, waiting for the bell to go and saying ‘first goal’.

Dramatic fashion

De Freitas equalised with four minutes of normal time remaining (Pic: Bolton Wanderers FC.)

“We got the first goal back in the second half [through Coyle] and the momentum shifted, we were on a run then. There’s one of the goals in the game that started with the right-back Scott Green.

“There’s about six, one-touch passes that leads eventually to the cross for the goal. It was fantastic, I mean a classic goal and those types of goals lift your team and lift your players.”

De Freitas equalised with four minutes remaining before Paatelainen and de Freitas added further goals in extra time to complete a sensational turnaround in what had looked like a one-sided final.

Jimmy Quinn’s late reply for Reading came too late to trouble Bolton as they saw out the game to win 4-3.

Winning in such dramatic fashion was exhilarating for all involved with Bolton on the day, but the emotions felt by all inside the stadium did not go unnoticed by Rioch.

Euphoric

“There were two experiences that I learned from the play-off final that I’ll never forget”, said the man who led Middlesbrough to the top flight in 1987.

“One is the obvious one, coming from behind and winning the game. That euphoria for the team and the fans was enormous.

“But the other one that I’ll always remember would be, over 90 minutes and extra time, how a match can change the emotions of 100,000 people. 50,000 from Reading and 50,000 from Bolton.

“At half time, one end of Wembley was euphoric, which was Reading, absolutely euphoric 2-0 up going in at half-time. And the other end: dead.

“And within the space of an hour, the game had changed and one end instead of being euphoric was in agony and the other end was ecstatic.

“I’d known about it before but this was when it really hit home the impact football can have on people.

“I felt enormous pleasure for the Bolton fans, my board, my family, myself and the players.

“But I had a large degree of feeling for the Reading fans because I had never experienced it to that scale before. They’re the aspects of life that football can give you and it taught me a great deal on that occasion.”

Low-key celebrations

If a place in the Premier League today is worth hundreds of millions of pounds, one can only imagine the parties thrown by the victorious clubs.

Stuart Lovell is consoled after picking up his losers medal (Pic: Get Reading)

The Bolton celebration experience of 1995 was rather more low-key, however. Further proof that it really was the sporting triumph that mattered to all involved.

“We stopped on the way back after the game in St Albans at the hotel we’d stayed at,” smiled Rioch.

“We rang ahead and had some sandwiches organised, we had a couple of bottles of champagne in the hotel.

“Then the boys and their wives got back onto the buses and drove up to Bolton and I went home to Harpenden in Hertfordshire round the corner, because that’s where Jane (Rioch’s wife) lived.

“I had a flat up in Bolton but my home was in Harpenden, so I drove the 25 minutes home and had a Chinese takeaway and a cup of tea.”

‘Great feeling’

For Rioch, promotion to the Premier League signalled the end of his time in charge of the Burnden Park club, as a phone call from Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein asking him to take over from George Graham proved too inviting to turn down.

Having taken over the reigns in 1992 with the club in the second division, Rioch had taken the Trotters into the Premier League. And although relegation followed the very next season, the club would go on to become an established top-flight club and even experience European football.

With pride, Rioch reminisced: “[It was] a great feeling. The fan base went from 5,500 up to 25,000, so the fan base was always there.

“That’s why I went to the club, because I’d played at Bolton when I was at Everton in front of 50,00 people. So I knew there was a fan base and it was just a matter of getting results and getting them back to where they should be.

“The players, I had a fantastic relationship with them all, they were a brilliant group of lads and we worked hard with them on the training ground. I had a great staff and an absolutely magnificent chairman [Gordon Hargreaves]. The best.”

Feature Image courtesy of the BBC

Let Wenger choose when to step down, says Rioch

Arsene Wenger should be afforded the chance to decide for himself when he steps down as Arsenal manager, according to his predecessor, Bruce Rioch.

The under pressure Frenchman has faced increased hostility from Arsenal supporters unhappy at the club’s lack of domestic silverware or progress in Europe.

Arsenal fans are split over whether Wenger should stay (Pic: Sky Sports)

The well-documented ‘ArsenalFanTV’ has featured heavily on social media by calling for Wenger to walk away, and the campaign reached new heights when a minority of disgruntled supporters arranged for a plane to fly a banner overhead during Arsenal’s recent defeat at West Brom.

The banner read: “NO CONTRACT #WENGEROUT”. And although a second plane was flown over The Hawthorns with the message, “IN ARSENE WE TRUST #RESPECTAW”, the away end was awash with hand-held banners protesting for the ex-Monaco manager to call it a day.

Wenger himself has indicated that he will be mindful of the fans’ wishes when he makes a decision on his future at the end of the season, with a two-year contract offer on the table should he wish to continue his tenure in North London.

But former Gunners boss Rioch believes that Wenger’s contribution to his club and English football in general, should be remembered during these uncertain times.

“I think he’s earned the right, with the board of directors, to make the decision himself as to when he decides to step down”, said Rioch.

“I think he’s been outstanding as a manager in this country. 20 years, plus, at Arsenal, second only to Sir Alex Ferguson in longevity in recent years. He’s won three titles, the same as Mourinho and it’s not easy now to win the Premier League.

“His standing in the game is immense. He’s brought a style of play that, when they’re playing well, you sit and admire the way they’re playing.”

Ambition

A heavy criticism thrown at Wenger and Arsenal is that they rely too heavily on Champions League qualification as a marker for success. For the fans and world-class players such as Alexis Sanchez, a place in the top four is secondary to the quest for titles – something that Rioch sympathises with.

Wenger is mulling over whether to sign a new contract (Pic: Independent)

The ex-Championship-winning midfielder with Derby County continued: “If you’re in the top four every year for 20 years, that in itself is success because it’s Champions League football.

“But it’s not seen as total success necessarily by supporters, and going back to my days as a player, to get into the European Cup you had to finish first. Top four is about money and boosting the Champions League, which again, I think has spoilt it in many ways.”

With Sanchez reportedly unhappy with the club’s perceived lack of ambition, Wenger faces a battle to not only stave off the pressure from supporters but also to maintain a harmonious dressing room.

Having not won the title for 13 seasons, Arsenal have struggled to keep hold of their big players, with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Ashley Cole having all moved on to the Gunners’ rivals and won the Premier League.

Impact

According to Rioch, the uncertainty surrounding the manager’s position may continue to have a detrimental effect among the squad.

Can Arsenal hang on to Alexis Sanchez? (Pic: Independent)

“When Sir Alex made the announcement that he was going to leave Manchester United, the results of the team went down hill.

“He changed his mind and reversed it, and when he ended up winning the league, then he called it a day.

“I think what’s happening at the moment, unfortunately, and I’ve thought about it a lot, must have an impact in some way in the dressing room.

“And then you’ve got to work with those players to get the best out of them, they’ve got to be 100% clear every day when they go out onto that pitch and I think it can have an unsettling effect.”

The Arsenal board should be commended for standing firm in their beliefs that Wenger is the right man for their club. In modern day football where the average managerial shelf life is a little over 13 months, the 21 years that the 67 year-old has been in charge is unlikely to ever be repeated.

‘Great servant’

And whilst we may be witnessing the last few weeks of Wenger’s reign, Rioch believes that football fans should be careful in their demands for change.

Rioch took over as Arsenal manager in the summer of 1995 (Pic: FourFourTwo.com)

“I’ve had this saying,” said the ex-Scotland international. “It’s about footballers as well as managers.

“If we keep campaigning that they should be out of the team or out of the club as a manager, once they’re gone, you’ve lost them. You can never get them back so cherish them while you’ve got them.

“It’s a little bit like Wayne Rooney. You keep Rooney in there as long as you can because he’s been such a great servant to club and country. Don’t throw him out; don’t want him out too soon.

“Let the board of directors and Arsene Wenger decide when he’s going to go, he’s earned that right. He’ll go when he’s ready, he’s sensible enough, but once he’s gone he’s gone.”

Should Wenger make the announcement at the end of the season that he is to step down, the list of potential replacements will stretch around the globe.

British bosses

Dennis Bergkamp proved to be one of Arsenal’s greatest-ever signings. (Pic: BBC)

Rioch was not only the last manager of Arsenal before Wenger, but also the last British boss at the North London club, replacing George Graham after Stewart Houston’s caretaker spell in charger.

Having won promotion to the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers by winning the 1994/95 Division One play-off final, the man who called upon the experiences and advice of Bill Shankly in his early managerial days swapped Lancashire to be closer to his Hertfordshire home in the summer of 1995.

It is understood that Rioch beat another British manager in Bobby Robson to the job, yet in 2017 there are no British managers at the world’s elite clubs.

Despite having won promotion to the Premier League and then earned plaudits for their teams’ style of play, it seems nigh on impossible that Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe or Burnley’s Sean Dyche would ever be given the opportunity to take the reins at Arsenal.

Brendan Rodgers might be the only British option to step into Wenger’s shoes, given his transformation of Liverpool during the 2013/14 season which came so close to ending with a league winner’s medal.

Appearing to be comfortable and at ease in the hot seat of one of Europe’s most demanding clubs in Celtic, can surely only serve to further increase his credibility.

Pressure

Having made the jump from a mid-sized club to a ‘big’ one himself, Rioch is well placed to give his opinion on why we are unlikely to see a young, British manager in the Arsenal dugout.

Rioch added David Platt and Bergkamp to transform ‘boring’ Arsenal (Pic: Daily Mail)

“You’ve got to know that you can move from a club like Bolton, Middlesbrough, Southampton or Everton, and go to Manchester United or Arsenal, and the difference is immense. It’s huge.

“You have got to win. At some clubs you can be mid-table, even sixth or seven is fine, but at those clubs [United/Arsenal] you’ve got to win.

“So the pressure is there to win, and the players who play for those clubs know they’ve got to win and that’s why they’re there. There is a different mentality and you have to be of that mentality to go into that club.

“I can understand why Ancelotti, Pellegrini, Conte, are coming to England to come to the top clubs, because they’ve been winners in other countries in Europe and they’ve been brought up as players in big clubs.

“They’ve played for Juventus or AC Milan, they’ve had that aura around them all the time, it’s there every day when they’re playing. And then they become managers and the pressure is on all the time to get results, it’s an ongoing process.

“Then when you come into a big club [in England] you know it’s no different to where you’ve come from and you’re expected to win.

“Whereas if you’ve come from a club down the bottom end where mid-table’s been ok and you move to a big club, it’s a totally different ball game.

“The expectancy is enormous, that’s the difference.”

Jumping ship

When David Moyes made the switch from Everton to Manchester United to replace Ferguson in 2013, the similarities were not lost on Rioch as he thought back to his experiences of moving from Burnden Park to Highbury.

“I nearly rang him up to say ‘I did this, I should really tell you what the difference is. You might think you know the difference, but the difference is this…’,” said Rioch.

“I didn’t make the phone call because I thought well, he’s got enough experience he’ll know how to deal with it. But he didn’t deal with it and he wasn’t there long.

“That was my experience, you see, and I’m sad I didn’t make the call.

Wenger is the longest-serving manager in Britain (Pic: Arsenal.Com)

“He might have thought cheeky so-and-so and I didn’t think it would be right for me to do it, but looking back I wish I had.”

In modern football, we are quick to forget the good that someone has brought to a club. Fans and pundits will tear into a player or manager at the earliest opportunity for jumping ship, claiming the moral high ground over loyalty. Yet praising the hard work of a player or manager becomes much less attractive.

Are we really to assume that Wenger did not have opportunities to leave Arsenal when they were in a far worse state off the pitch than they are presently?

The stadium move from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006 decimated the playing budget, meaning that Arsenal went from Champions League finalists to a selling club, just to be able to scrape into the competition. This didn’t happen to Ferguson, Mourinho or Guardiola.

Wenger’s shrewd recruitment meant that he was well prepared for the sale of his best players, but there is no question that he would have preferred the budgets of Chelsea or the Manchester clubs. What manager wouldn’t?

Wheels in motion

We will never know the vast amounts of money he may have been offered to move elsewhere, only to turn it down in defiant loyalty to continue to help build the club into the global brand we see today. The easy option would have been to walk away.

The Gunners have always been a big club across Europe, “they were a major name, they had a presence. It was ‘The Arsenal’, of course,” confirms Rioch. But let us not forget another of their nicknames under George Graham’s tutelage was ‘boring, boring Arsenal’.

Rioch himself was not given the time needed to transform the style of play, but some may argue he put the wheels in motion with the signings of Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt.

But it was Wenger who brought with him not only attractive, attacking football that lead the way across Europe until Guardiola rolled into Barcelona in 2008, but also the professionalism to ensure that players looked after their bodies.

Arsenal fans want to see success in Europe rather than just qualification (Pic: Telegraph)

Tony Adams and Ray Parlour extended their careers for an extra year or two due to Wenger’s strict policies surrounding alcohol and diet.

For Rioch, having seen first hand during his time at Highbury that drinking vast amounts of alcohol was the norm amongst the players, Wenger’s intervention was essential.

“There was a drinking culture in the club and it was a big one”, said Rioch.

“A glass of wine every now and again I don’t have a problem with, but these guys will openly admit they were going way beyond that.

“I’ve listened to Tony Adams on Sky, and he admitted he was in one hell of a state on a regular basis.

“I met him down at Plymouth Argyle a few years ago at a game and he came across and actually apologized to me for his behavior when I was at Arsenal.

“He’s an incredible guy, a fantastic man. It was a cultural thing in this country, and I think it’s changed quite a bit over the years.

“But that’s sometimes the difficulty you have in a club. Longevity gives you the chance to change it, but when you’re short-term it doesn’t happen.”

With longevity comes the opportunity to bring about change, whilst a short-term approach may not. That should be remembered when discussing the future of one of British football’s most influential figures of all time.

Feature Image: Getty Images

Langford confident of world title win over Khurtsidze

Elephant Sport’s Dan Kelly caught up with reigning British middleweight champion, Tommy Langford ahead of his WBO interim world title fight against Avtandil Khurtsidze.

The formidable Georgian will fight in the UK for the first time in his career on April 22nd and the 37 year-old brings with him a list of 21 names he has previously KO’d.

But ‘Baggies Bomber’ Langford tells us why he is confident that he will have more than Khurtsidze can handle when they step into the ring at Leicester Arena.

Birmingham-based Langford, promoted by Frank Warren, also gives us an update on the training regime that he feels will give him the edge over the ‘mini-Mike Tyson’, as well as providing an insight into what Warren’s landmark deal with BT Sport means for his own ambitions, as well as the sport of boxing.

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Exeter late show against Blackpool keeps play-off bid alive

Substitutes Reuben Reid and Ollie Watkins rescued a dramatic late point for Exeter City as they came from two goals down to maintain their promotion push at home to Blackpool.

The visitors were aiming to climb away from the bottom half of the table and had raced into a 2-0 first-half lead. But injury-time goals in each half from Watkins and Reid sealed a spirited City comeback.

The in-form Watkins had started on the bench due to illness, with Exeter manager Paul Tisdale opting to start with Robbie Simpson in his place.

However Tisdale’s plans for squad rotation were in disarray as early as the fifth minute, when Simpson suffered what was suspected to be a season-ending broken ankle.

watkins-blackpool
Ollie Watkins replaced the injured Robbie Simpson after just five minutes. (Pic. @OfficialECFC)

Stretching to get a touch on a low cross, Simpson could not connect and, after the ball had evaded everyone, it became obvious to all inside St James Park that the striker had suffered serious damage.

After a lengthy stoppage for him to receive treatment, play continued with Simpson’s replacement Watkins showing no signs of the bug that had initially kept him out.

If Exeter were rocked by the early disruption to their plans, it buoyed the visitors who proceeded to pen the Grecians inside their own half for much of the first 45 minutes.

The Tangerines were aggressive in regaining possession, personified perfectly by the front-foot defending of captain Andy Taylor.

Double trouble

Blackpool’s physical dominance paid dividends as goals from Colin Daniel and Brad Potts put them two up, although home keeper Christy Pym, returning to the side after injury, should have done more to prevent both.

The first came after Pym parried a shot into the path of Daniel for the midfielder to blast into the roof of the net from close range. Shortly before half-time, the former England U20s keeper came to claim a high ball inside the 18-yard box, but was blocked by the mass of bodies in front of him, allowing the ball to drop to the feet of Potts, who finished neatly to give Gary Bowyer’s team hope of a valuable away win.

blackpool-tackle
Blackpool’s first half dominance owed much to their physical commitment. (Pic. @OfficialECFC)

These were the kind of blunders that had been all but eradicated from Exeter’s performances since the start of their 12-game unbeaten run at the end of November, a turnaround which has propelled them into the play-off mix.

With the experienced Bobby Olejnik waiting in the wings as his replacement, Pym will be keen to avoid a repeat of such mistakes in the end of season run-in, but fortunately for him, Exeter recovered from this double early blow to spare his blushes.

Comeback kids

Their comeback began in first-half stoppage time, as Blackpool keeper Sam Slocombe could only parry on-loan defender Jack Stacey’s cross from the byline, and Watkins was on hand to slam in his 12th of the season.

This livened up both Exeter’s players and fans, and once the second half began, the flow of the game changed in the hosts’ favour and it looked as though it would be a matter of when, not if, they would draw level.

Shortly before the hour mark, Tisdale introduced fan-favourite Reid in place of Liam McAlinden, and the former Plymouth player made a big impact in the final period of the match, impressing as an individual and raising the standard of the team as a whole.

celebration-blackpool
The point keeps the Grecians on track for a place in the play-offs. (Pic. @OfficialECFC)

Alarm bells should have been ringing in the Blackpool defence when, with 10 minutes remaining, Reid beat the deepest Blackpool defender to meet a perfectly weighted pass, but somehow Slocombe denied him a goal with a miraculous double save.

The visitors were now dug in deep inside their own half, with a counter-attack their only chance of landing a meaningful blow of their own.

But in the 92nd minute, Exeter’s pressure finally paid off as Watkins’ in-swinging cross from the left was headed in at the back post by Reid for his eighth goal of the season.

The point keeps the Grecians in sixth place, whilst Blackpool stay down in 15th.

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Feature image: Reuben Reid heads home in stoppage time to rescue a point for Exeter City. Courtesy of @OfficialECFC & @ppauk (Pinnacle Photo Agency).

 

King hungry for Badminton return after mixed debut in 2016

Having dreamed of competing at Badminton Horse Trials her whole life, 2016 was the year that dreams came true for Emily King.

Seen as the pinnacle of the eventing scene, the three-day competition combines dressage, cross-country and show jumping in a test of a rider’s ability in all three disciplines.

The 20 year-old got off to a fantastic start in her maiden appearance in May of last year, ending the dressage event in second place overall, just 2.4 penalty points behind eventual winner Michael Jung.

However she could not continue her pursuit for glory after suffering a fall at the second to last fence of the cross-country event.

King’s leading horse, Brookleigh, suffered a tendon injury shortly before the incident and such are the time scales of a horse’s recovery, both horse and rider must now wait until 2018 for their second attempt at glory.

We caught up with the Team GB rider who shared her reflections on her Badminton debut.

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Audio commentary courtesy of FEI.

Main photo courtesy of Horse & Hound.

Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

Contact

Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

willock-city
Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

willock-anfield
The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

chris-willock-home-debut
Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”

British champion Langford eyes world glory in 2017

It was five weeks later than scheduled, but finally on November 26th in Cardiff, Tommy Langford’s arm was raised as the new British middleweight champion.

A spilt decision victory over southpaw Sam Sheedy the reward for an uncertain and tiresome few months in the Langford camp.

The North Devon fighter’s original British title tilt had been scheduled for October 22nd against the then-champion Chris Eubank Jr.

When Eubank pulled out of the fight in mid-September, it was Sheedy who stepped up to challenge for the vacated belt. However due to injuries sustained by fighters elsewhere on the card, the fight was further delayed, resulting in an extended training regime for Langford and the risk of burn-out prior to the big night.

Yet the 27-year-old, signed to Frank Warren, is made of sterner stuff and took his professional record to 18-0 by beating Sheedy. Already holder of the Commonwealth and WBO intercontinental belts, the British title proved to be worth the wait for Langford.

Business

“I don’t really think I’ve realised what I’ve accomplished yet. I don’t think it will set in until I finish boxing,” said the Birmingham-based fighter.

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Langford took his record to 18-0 against Sam Sheedy. Pic tommylangford.co.uk.

“As a fighter you always look to the next thing, but it is phenomenal. I’m very very proud, I know what I’ve done is quite special and I’ve done it in the right way. I’ve not called anybody out, I’ve just gone about my business.

“It’s just really nice to be recognised as the British champion and to have done what I always believed I was capable of.

“I’ve done very well in winning the British and Commonwealth titles and I’m very pleased at how I’ve finished the year 18-0. But I think what I’m more proud of is that I’ve done that with a year of hiccups really.

“My first fight for the Commonwealth was supposed to be in February; it got put back a month. I had an extended training camp and then got cut in training and had three or four weeks prior to that fight with no sparring.

“But I still managed to get across the line and become the Commonwealth champion.

“And then obviously having to deal with the whole Eubank scenario, them pulling out, a new fighter coming in and then the date being pushed back and still becoming British champion.

“To be honest, if you put it all together that in itself says more about the year than the wins. I think the fashion in how I’ve gone about my business despite having all those setbacks and still managed to churn out the results, I think says a lot for me.”

Control

Whilst Langford has shown his resilience by churning out results, the ‘Baggies Bomber’ felt as though he out-boxed Sheedy at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena and puts that down to his team’s tactical approach to the fight.

“I felt in complete control really. I was quite surprised at how comfortable the first six rounds were; I thought I’d find it more awkward to catch him.

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Southpaw Sheedy stepped up to fight Langford after Chris Eubank Jr withdrew in September

“We always had the plan to be very patient and not over-chase or over-throw, because his tactic was to frustrate me and make me jump in so he could counter-punch.

“That was his sole tactic and that’s why he did all the antics of showboating and his corner talking to me throughout the fight trying to wind me up. I just knew I had to stick to my guns.”

Despite being unbeaten in his professional career, Langford still knows the importance of analysing each performance in order to continue to improve – including his British title success.

“The first six rounds I stuck to what I was doing and I put them in the bag comfortably. And when you’re six rounds up going into the second half of the fight, you’re one round off winning it.

“The second half, watching it back, didn’t go how it should have. I did switch off a little bit because I’ve not been in that position before where I’ve been so far ahead.

“I didn’t feel at any point threatened that he was going to win the fight.

“The way I’ve fought in the past I throw a lot of punches, I’m busy and always on the front foot taking the initiative, which is great and it makes for a lot of excitement. But in that fight I didn’t need that style because I was at risk of being caught and counter-punched.

“And when you’re up against those slippery southpaws who just pick and run off, if they catch you with one they’ll settle for 1-0. So I had to be clever.”

Outburst

For all of boxing’s history and status within British sport, a contemporary criticism is that the often staged drama and controversy that preludes a big fight have begun to take a sport in a direction that lacks class and social awareness.

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The ‘Baggies Bomber’ now has three belts to his name. Pic tommylangford.co.uk

There seems to be a general acceptance that Dereck Chisora-type outbursts are as much a part of the sport as the punches thrown inside the ring.

So is it important to Langford that he stays away from these practices as his career continues to take an upward curve?

“Not really,he says thoughtfully. “If I get to the stage in my career where I need big fights and the only way of getting them is to call people out, then that’s what you have to do.

“I’m fortunate enough that my boxing has carried me through, my performances and wins have spoken for themselves and I’ve not had to do it in that way.

“I mean, it is important to me in the person that I am, I’m not that sort of a person.

“It is a sport and a business and that’s the way it should be conducted, you don’t need to be doing that sort of thing. If you fight you fight to win, and you win and then you move on.

“There’s no need to do the dramas in and around it, in my eyes it’s all about the fight; do the fight, win the fight and carry on. And that’s the way I feel sport and business should be conducted.”

Impact

Business, as well as sport, has also taken off for Langford in recent times, something he cites Warren as having a major effect on.

“It gives you a lot of confidence when you’ve got somebody like Frank Warren backing you and putting you in for fights that he believes you can win”

“He’s been massively beneficial,” Langford enthused. “I’ve been with Frank for three years now and it’s been massive for me. It has given me the exposure that I needed in terms of being on Box Nation and being out there so people can see me on TV.

 

“I started off on the smaller circuit and it was very hard. I was an England international and won national titles at amateur.

“So you turn professional with the opinion, whether it be right or not, that you’re entitled to a certain amount of limelight and you feel that you deserve better than what you’re getting.

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Langford appears on BT Sport ahead of West Brom’s home game with Man Utd. Pic @Tommy_Langford1

“The exposure’s not there, you’re not known and you’re doing your job in the ring but you’re not being talked about, promoted or thrust into the public eye.

“We spoke to Frank before I first turned professional and his then match-maker, Dean Powell, who sadly passed away a few years ago. They were very interested at the start but we were in the pit of the recession at that time, the money in any business, not just boxing, wasn’t really there and it was taking a long time.

“So I said to myself ‘I’m just going to turn pro, get myself started and we’ll approach it again when the time’s right’. I got to 6-0 I think, or 5-0 and then it was the right time.

“It’s been a big change in my career and it gives you a lot of confidence when you’ve got somebody like Frank Warren backing you and putting you in for fights that he believes you can win. It gives you a lot of confidence in yourself and it’s nice to know somebody is putting weight behind you.”

Fan base

Warren is not the only major backer in Langford’s corner. A life-long West Bromwich Albion fan, the Commonwealth title-holder has established a solid link between himself, the club and his fellow Albion supporters.

With regular home crowds of over 20,000 the exposure provided by West Brom has enabled Langford to further enhance his reputation and support, something for which he is especially grateful.

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Birmingham-based Langford enjoys strong ties with his boyhood club. Pic tommylangford.co.uk.

“Since I’ve managed to get a link with West Brom it has done me masses of good. It’s very important in boxing to have a good fan base and have people travel to support you.

“Ticket sales ultimately pay your purse so it’s a sport that can’t go on without fans. It’s been huge to have them behind me and it has put me into a different realm of fighter in the sense that, regardless of what I’m fighting for, I bring huge amounts of fans to the venues. I can top bills and fill venues with my fans.

“The fact that West Brom promote me and support me through social media, on their website or by getting me on the pitch or in the fan zone, it makes the connection even tighter.

“If you look at some of the best-supported fighters in recent history, they’ve all had football teams behind them. It’s a great thing really and I’m really happy that it has taken off the way it has done.”

“I was there for the [Manchester] United game, I was on the pitch as the fans’ champion which was brilliant. It was a packed house and I just thought walking out onto there, imagine if I was walking out fighting for a world title. It would be unbelievable.

“I think it can happen, West Brom are talking like they’d be happy to do it, it’s just a case of getting the right fight that sells it. Frank’s done shows at West Ham before, he likes a football stadium show. But if you get the right show there, yea, definitely I’d be well happy to do it.

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A fight at the Hawthorns would be a dream for Langford and his fans. Pic @Tommy_Langford1

“There are a few venues that are open to me and it is simply down to how well I’m supported. [The fans] all jump on board and they love it and I love it as well.

“Everything I win it isn’t just mine. People can say they’ve been there and watched it and supported me all the way through so this title is for the fans as well.”

Challenges

Perhaps more important than where Langford will next fight; the question is who he will next fight?

With an 18-0 record and three belts to his name, there will be plenty of fighters out there that want to avoid him.

But after finishing a troubled, yet highly successful 2016 with November’s victory in the Welsh capital, Langford has his sights set on challenges on a grander scale in 2017.

“I’m confident I can mix it with the best at world level, so if those opportunities are offered then I’m taking them”

Outlining his plans he said: “Obviously, being the British champion if I want to own the Lonsdale belt I have to defend it three times.

“[However] I’ve always been of the opinion that if bigger and better opportunities come along, i.e. European or world shots, then I’m going to take them.

“I don’t know what’s next as in the immediate next fight but in terms of the future then, yeah, in 2017 I am looking at putting myself in a position for a world title shot. Whether that be the WBO against Billy-Joe [Saunders], or if other things come along so be it.

“I’m pretty open to anything really, whatever’s best for me career-wise then I’ll do it. If that means defending the British and there’s nothing else on offer, then I’ll defend the British and I’m very confident of beating anything domestically that’s offered up.

“I’m also confident I can mix it with the best at world level, so if those opportunities are offered then I’m taking them.”

Langford puts clash with ‘deluded’ Eubanks behind him

New British middleweight champion Tommy Langford admits he was glad to see the back of Chris Eubank Jr in the build-up to the title fight that never was.

He had been due to compete for Eubank’s Lonsdale belt until the latter pulled out, relinquishing his title and leaving Langford with a battle to find suitable competition for the bout.

All was well that ended well for Langford, however, as he dispatched of Sam Sheedy, Eubank’s replacement, to claim the British crown for the first time.

Despite the sweetness of victory, dealing with the Eubanks – both Jr and his father Chris Sr – left a bad taste in the mouth for the 27 year-old.

“To be honest with you, I’m glad to be rid of them,” said the ‘Baggies Bomber’.

“They were really hard to deal with, they wouldn’t turn up to press conferences and didn’t conduct themselves right in my eyes in the build-up to the fight.

“So I just think I’m better off rid of them and I think that British boxing and the British public is better off not having anything to do with them.”

‘Banana skin’

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Langford (left) poses with West Brom skipper Darren Fletcher with the Commonwealth and Intercontinental belts. Pic tommylangford.co.uk.

The Eubanks cited an elbow injury sustained in sparring as one reason for Chris Jr pulling out of the fight, however they went on to spark controversy by claiming the ‘vast chasm’ in quality between himself and other fighters would put contenders at risk of serious injury.

Many, due to the life-threatening injuries sustained by Nick Blackwell at the hands of Eubank Jr as the pair contested the British title in March, deemed this insensitive.

Blackwell has since had to retire from the sport after spending time in a coma, however Langford feels that the Eubank camp’s comments bear no relevance to his own ability to compete.

“Well, I think they’re just absolutely deluded, really,” he said.

“They know how the sparring went when I went down and sparred him, and they know I’m a very good fighter. They knew I was someone they needed to avoid.

“I’m not saying they were worried about fighting me, I know they’re hugely arrogant and believe they’ll beat everybody and every fighter needs to be confident and have a certain level of arrogance. So I’m not saying they were scared of fighting me.

‘Laughable’

“But what I do think is that I was a massive banana skin to them for their earning potential of fighting bigger fights.

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The Eubanks father and son team are a controversial pairing. Pic @ChrisEubankJr

“I could ruin the Eubank gravy train, if you know what I mean. I know that’s why they didn’t want the fight.

When I was signed to [promoter] Frank Warren, they said they’d fight anybody, but they didn’t want to fight me. There was a list of fighters they didn’t want to fight and I was top.

“So I know the ins and outs of it all and I know that’s the case and I just think they’re absolutely stupid.

“Eubank Sr’s comments about his son being so far above and beyond the British domestic scene is just laughable really, because now his son’s ended up moving up to super-middleweight and fighting for an IBO title against someone who has won 11 and lost 1.

“I was 17-0 when they were talking about fighting me and I’m still undefeated. And it was for a prestigious title. I’m number two in the WBO rankings so by rights that fight would have made one of us mandatory for the WBO world title.”

Big paydays

So after the saga of a potential fight with Eubank Jr this time around, has Langford washed his hands of his middleweight counterpart once and for all?

For the Birmingham-based British champion, big-name fights mean nothing without titles on the line.

“Names don’t matter – if you stack up the titles and stack up the wins then you’re the man”

“You never say ‘never’,” he admitted. “Ultimately, if he’s still about and he’s still doing the things he’s doing and there’s big money on the line, you don’t turn down big paydays, although they seem to have done that.

“But until that happens, no I’m not interested in them. I’m not lowering myself to fight him, I’m going after bigger and better things and I won’t bother with him.

“Ultimately now, what’s he got?” asked Devon-born Langford.

“He’s not got the British title, he’s not got the Commonwealth title, and he’s not got a European or world title.

“So he’s title-less and he’s forfeited his right to call himself a champion. I’ve got the Commonwealth, the British, number 2 in the WBO and I’m looking at European and World title shots.

“Names don’t matter – if you stack up the titles and stack up the wins then you’re the man.”

Main image courtesy of tommylangford.co.uk Follow Tommy on Twitter @Tommy_Langford1

Goss won’t rush after year-long injury nightmare

Manchester United’s Sean Goss remains content to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho.

The central midfielder, 20, has been at United since signing from Exeter City as a 16 year-old and despite being named in previous match day squads for the first team, is still yet to make his competitive debut.

But having recovered from a serious back injury that sidelined him for almost 12 months, Goss is focused first and foremost on regaining his fitness, before pushing for a place in Mourinho’s thinking.

“I’ve only just got back fit, I’ve been out for a year and I’m still on the road to recovery,” Goss told Elephant Sport.

“I had two fractures in my back and I’ve been out since last December. I played my first match [a few weeks ago], so I’m just concentrating on getting a few games under my belt and see where it takes me from there.”

Frustration

A footballer’s lifestyle might not often be described as ‘back-breaking’, however an accumulation of stresses and strains will soon mount up for a top-level athlete.

As is often the case, the road to recovery can be a long and arduous one.

“Van Gaal really helped my game and pushed me forward”

Describing his frustration at the injury Goss explained: “[The fractures] happened over time.

“I woke up and could hardly move, so I had tests, and then three months where I wasn’t allowed to do anything, I just had to recover. No gym, no swimming, no training or anything, which is hard, as you don’t know what to do with yourself.

“You’re watching games and you just want to be playing, so that was another big test. I had the time off and then when I got back I had to slowly build up with injections and that kind of thing.

“Hopefully now that’s the end of it.”

Youthful

Prior to his ill-timed injury, the Devon-born youngster had made big strides towards staking a claim for a spot within United’s first team.

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Goss is hoping to make his breakthrough in 2017

Having signed whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was in his final years at the helm, Goss had seen David Moyes come and swiftly leave before Louis Van Gaal arrived.

Fresh from leading the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final, Van Gaal set about building a competitive, yet youthful Manchester United team.

The Dutchman’s move from orange to red proved fruitful for Goss who feels that the former Barcelona manager helped to raise the levels of his game nearer to that of a Manchester United first team player.

“Obviously I was younger when Sir Alex Ferguson was here. You’d see him around, as you would all the managers.

“But the main one when I started to push on was Van Gaal, he really helped my game and pushed me forward.

“He was always communicating with me in some way, whether I was playing for the under 23’s or if I was in and around the [first team] squad. If I was training with them they were always letting me know how I was getting on, what I could do better.”

“I was just at that age as well where, with the other ones before I was maybe a bit young in my body, but I think that was the time [under Van Gaal] where I was turning into a man.”

Debut

In fact, Van Gaal rated Goss so highly that he took the left-footed midfielder on the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2015.

Despite drawing comparisons to Michael Carrick in terms of playing style, it might have been easy to presume that Goss was there to make up the numbers; taken along to gain experience.

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Goss made his debut against PSG during Manchester United’s tour of the USA in 2015

However there was to be a fairy-tale ending, as Van Gaal introduced Goss as a second-half substitute during the friendly with Paris Saint-Germain, handing him his first team debut.

To add a further poetic element to the moment, it was Carrick who made way for the debutant.

Recalling the mixture of nerves and excitement, Goss explains; “You dream of making your debut but it’s hard to explain how it was.

“You’re there training and you hope you get your chance but when it finally happens you’re just concentrating on the game. It was a big crowd in a big stadium as well so it was a dream come true.

“He [Van Gaal] said I would get my chance. I just remember being sat there on the bench and getting told to warm up.

“It’s almost as if your stomach drops and your heart skips a beat for a second, but it was quality.”

Breakthrough

 Upon returning from the USA, Goss continued to be involved in Van Gaal’s first team environment, making the match day squad for the trip to Watford in the league and travelling with the squad for the Champions League tie away at Wolfsburg.

“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day’”

United scored in the last minute to defeat the Hornets 2-1 at Vicarage Road and whilst being an unused sub, the experience was of vital importance to Goss.

Sitting alongside him on the bench that day was Marcus Rashford, who would later go on to make his breakthrough for club and country, whilst Jesse Lingard and Paddy McNair made sizeable contributions on the pitch.

All three had been peers of Goss before being given their breaks by Van Gaal and at the time, the left footed Devon man hoped he might follow suit.

Whilst many Utd fans believed the time was right for Van Gaal to leave at the end of last season, for Goss there was a feeling of what might have been.

‘Unbelievable feeling’

“I felt like you never know what could happen. There were a few injuries in the squad at the time, but it’s hard to say, as I never got to as I was injured.

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The trip to Wolfsburg provided valuable experience for Goss

“But you saw that other players came through and made appearances, so you’d be hoping that I would have been one of them.

“I was on the bench at Watford and then travelled to Wolfsburg with the squad. Again, when you get told you’re involved it’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s another amazing experience I can look back on and hopefully I can get more of them.”

Goss has been working towards his first team breakthrough ever since making the move from Exeter City in 2012.

A boyhood United fan, he had previously been the mascot for the Grecians’ memorable FA Cup third round draw at Old Trafford, whilst dreaming of stepping out at the ‘theatre of dreams’ as a player.

“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day,’” he said.

“But it’s only when you’re older you look back and realise it’s near enough impossible [to sign for Manchester United]. To get the chance is quality and looking back I never expected it.

“There were tough times… but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard”

“I started at Exeter when I was about seven or eight and played a year up for most of my time, until under 16s. I had a few chances with the youth team and then I was lucky enough to get a trial with United.

“I went up [to Manchester] and played a couple of games. I went to Amsterdam and played against some big teams like Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan.

“After that I was lucky enough to get signed and joined when I was 16.

“It was tough, the first year especially. You’re only young, 16, moving away from home and it’s not like it’s just around the corner either. There were tough times where I felt a bit homesick but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard.

“The coaches are a big help; you get the welfare officer and coaches. When you’re a first-year scholar you’re not really near the first team, usually just the youth team and reserves, but the coaches were a big help if you ever needed some time off.”

Class of ’92

Amongst the coaches who helped Goss to settle were members of the famed ‘Class of ’92’.

Along with the likes of Warren Joyce, who recently left the club to become manager of Wigan Athletic, and senior members of the first team playing squad, the young players at Carrington could depend on a strong support network.

“They were all really good with us, every single one of them.” Said Goss.

“We had Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes for the Champions League [UEFA Youth League], which was always helpful, especially with the experience they’ve had at the club. I think you always need someone like that who’s had history with the club.

“You can go up and talk to any of them, there’s no big egos. Everyone’s human at the end of the day, if you wanted to chat to anyone they’re more than happy to help you out.”

Mourinho has historically favoured experience over youth throughout his career and not many people would be able to argue against the Portuguese’s policy given his medal haul.

But at a club such as Manchester United, whose homegrown players have been a major part of the club’s sustained success, there is an expectancy amongst the supporters that they see their ‘own’ players on the pitch.

Whether or not Mourinho sticks around long enough to give youth a chance remains to be seen. For players like Goss the key will be hard work and patience.

Give England job to the ‘Anti-Sam’

The ever-increasing probability of Gareth Southgate’s promotion to permanent England manager faces its final obstacle when Scotland visit Wembley.

As Matt Law reported earlier this week, barring a first defeat to the ‘auld enemy’ since 1999, The FA plans to formally appoint Southgate after the latest international break concludes with England’s friendly against Spain.

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Southgate watches over England training at St. George’s Park. Pic. The Guardian.

The former central defender’s elevation has been met with scoffs and wry smiles alike throughout certain areas of the media.

Likewise, England supporters have been quick to display their lack of faith, through radio phone-ins, in the 46-year-old’s character.

Yet for every claim of Southgate serving only as an FA puppet, put in place as a PR move to calm the choppy waters created by Sam Allardyce’s dismissal, the former Middlesbrough manager can prove otherwise.

Southgate’s public persona is different to that of other managers.

His measured approach to reporter’s questions and intelligent manner whilst working as a pundit, breaks the mold of bashful characters such as Allardyce. In this respect Southgate is the Anti-Sam.

Intelligence within football has often been misconstrued as softness. Someone who dances to their own beat and displays a hint of quirkiness will, wrongly, raise eyebrows.

Strength of mind

Yet no player can survive in professional football having played upwards of 500 senior games, by being a soft touch. This insinuation about the former Crystal Palace defender simply isn’t true.

His decision to drop (or protect) captain Wayne Rooney for the World Cup qualifier in Slovenia, served to confirm Southgate’s strength of mind.

Steve McClaren had attempted the same tactic in 2006, by not picking David Beckham in his first squad as England manager. But the current England manager’s decision to address the media head on, sitting alongside Rooney, also demonstrated class and consideration for his players’ state of mind.

Modern players at the highest level will respond positively to a manager who shows they care about them, and Southgate clearly understands this. Rooney, who has many years of big-game experience, has been assured of his starting place against the Scots, another indication of his manager’s ability to ‘know his players’.

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Wayne Rooney will start tonight’s game, Southgate has confirmed. Pic. The Guardian.

Gaining such knowledge around the mindset of young people, some of who are 20 years his junior, comes as a bi-product of years of experience within The FA’s infrastructure.

Appointed as Head of Elite Development in 2011, the man who represented his country 57 times would later become England Under 21s manager in 2013.

Southgate’s reign saw the development and progression of players such as John Stones, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane into the full squad, as well as a tournament victory in Toulon during the summer; the first for 22 years.

Euro 2016 proved that England are a long way from winning a major tournament.

The FA’s mission of reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2020, followed by the aim of becoming World Champions in 2022 appeared in tatters as Roy Hodgson’s team lay dejected amongst the Viking-clapping Icelandic team.

But the mission still has six years until completion, so why stop now? And who better to take the reigns than someone who understands from top to bottom, exactly what the aim is and the process in place to achieve it.

A long list of clubs and national federations have successfully promoted from within in recent years, creating a pathway for former players to learn their trade within age-group football, before stepping into first-team management.

That is by no means to suggest that herein lays the magic formula to success; there are many variables that determine the outcome of any appointment.

But as an intelligent, media-savvy, strong-minded and experienced coach with a working knowledge of young players, England should look no further than Southgate.