Mohamed Zidan, Hosni Mubarak, controversy and political change

Former Borussia Dortmund striker, and one time Manchester United and Arsenal target, Mohamed Zidan has been sentenced to six years in jail by an Egyptian court after he allegedly issued three bad cheques to a real estate company, in a case brought by Arab Company for Projects and Urban Development.

Zidan, who was not present for the trial and whose current location remains unknown, has been without a club since leaving Emirati side Baniyas in January after being frozen out of the first team squad. Instead, the 31-year-old had been working as a pundit for Al-Jazeera Sports. He is permitted to appeal against the sentence, but it is reported that should he return to the country of his birth he is likely to face immediate arrest.

Zidan’s career has been in freefall since leaving Mainz in 2012, after his third spell for the club with whom he famously became the only player in the history of the Bundesliga to score in each of his first six games with his new side after the transfer window. Zidan, who also has German citizenship, played the bulk of his career in Germany, also turning out for Werder Bremen and Hamburg, as well as Dortmund, where he won the league in 2011.

Capped 44 times by his country, with 13 goals to his name, Zidan was part of the Egyptian golden generation that featured Ahmed Hassan and Mohamed Abou Trika, and won back-to-back African Cup of Nations titles in 2008 and 2010. On British shores he is perhaps best remembered for scoring his side’s only goal in a 3-1 loss to England in March 2010.

Though Zidan has not formerly retired, after ten months without a club and a prison sentence hanging over him it would appear to be the end of his playing days. Though Zidan’s exuberant and often difficult personality meant he was often better known for his activities off the pitch, such as shaving the symbols ‘love equals football’ into his hair, and frequently falling out with the Egyptian football authorities, he was a hugely talented and unpredictable player.

Zidan hair

But controversy was never far away, and though spats with managers and teammates are sometimes to be expected, it was Zidan’s actions in the aftermath of the Port Said disaster that changed his reputation in his homeland.

Following the Port Said disaster in February 2012 in which 74 fans were killed, Zidan drew widespread criticism when he failed to acknowledge the tragedy after scoring his first goal in his last spell with Mainz.

Zidan, who was born in Port Said, then gave an interview to the privately owned Egyptian satellite channel CBC, in which he apologised for his lack of action. “I really didn’t mean to provoke the emotions of the Egyptians,” he said.

But it was his comments in support of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak that caused the greatest scandal. “I kissed Mubarak’s hand when he honoured Egypt after the 2010 African Cup of Nations as I saw him as a father of all Egyptians,” said Zidan.

In the increasingly unstable environment of a post-Mubarak Egypt, Zidan’s comments reflected on the patriarchal nature of many Arab world leaders at a time when the Arab spring was sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, eliciting a fiery response from the millions of protesters whose actions had changed their country’s political landscape.

Zidan angered his supporters even further he refused to join his national side for a crucial Cup of Nations qualifier, which Egypt then drew 1-1, resulting in an aggregate loss and failure to qualify for the African Championship for the second time in a row. Having chosen instead to travel to China to discuss a contract with a potential new club, Zidan was banned from playing in Egypt for life by the Egyptian Football Association for his transgression.

Mideast Egypt

Just weeks later Zidan was reported to have visited Mubarak’s son Alaa Mubarak in prison, where he had been held on suspicion of stock market fraud, along with his brother Gamal. Egyptian security forces confirmed the visit, but Zidan maintained it had never taken place, insisting he was in Dubai at the time.

Still, Zidan’s pro-Mubarak views have drawn something of a line in the sand. In many ways, as Egypt and much of the Arab world fights for political change, football in these regions is evolving too. The patriarchal rule of Mubarak and others such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Yemen’s Abdullah Ali Saleh and Libya’s Al Saadi al Qaddafi, who have all used football as a vehicle for scoring political points, is being eroded.

Partly this is because football, with all the masculine and authoritarian stereotypes it plays into, offers leaders of this kind the perfect propaganda opportunity. When Zidan and Egypt triumphed in the Cup of Nations, these were Mubarak’s victories, as Zidan alluded to in his comments to CBC, and on the players part there was little reason to question this, their status affording them lives of luxury.

But Egypt now is a very different place, one without Zidan and Mubarak, and its football is changing as dramatically and quickly as its politics.

Former Russian champions FC Alania Vladikavkaz face collapse

They may not be a household name in the west, but 1995 Russian champions FC Alania Vladikavkaz have admitted that they are on the verge of folding after coach Vladimir Gazzaev revealed they cannot afford to travel to their next fixture, potentially leaving Russia without one of its most historically intriguing clubs.

It was 18 years ago under the tutelage of Valery Gazzaez – Vladimir’s father and current club president – that unfancied FC Alania Vladikavkaz claimed the Russian title, with a squad featuring former Manchester City and Georgian international striker Mikhail Kavelashvili – whose 12 league goals led the team – fellow ex-Citizen Murtaz Shelia, and ex-Roma and Russian international defender Omari Tetradze.

Based in the Caucasus region of North Ossetia not far from the troubled area of Chechnya, FC Alania Vladikavkaz’s title was a huge surprise in Russian football. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, FC Alania Vladikavkaz – then known as Spartak Vladikavkaz – were the only non-Muscovite Russian club competing in the Soviet Top League. This was only their second season in the division, however, with most of the 1970s and 1980s spent in the Soviet second tier. Though FC Alania Vladikavkaz had qualified for the UEFA Cup in the 1993/94 and 1995/96 seasons, losing in the first round on both occasions to Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool respectively, there was little to suggest that they could upset the traditional powerhouses of Russian football.

Yet FC Alania Vladikavkaz suffered just three league defeats on the way to claiming the 1995 title, and with it a place in the 1996/97 Champions League. In doing so, they became the first non-Muscovite club to win the Russian championship, with Zenit St. Petersburg not becoming the second until 2007.

Sadly their Champions League adventure was cut spectacularly short, as Glasgow Rangers embarrassed the Russians with a 10-3 aggregate win in group stage qualifying, a result that included a shocking 2-7 home defeat for FC Alania Vladikavkaz, a game that featured Ally McCoist’s first European hat-trick – delivered in devastating fashion inside the opening 18 minutes – and a stunning performance from Brian Laudrup. After the game Rangers manager Walter Smith called the result his “best in management”, while Gazzaev told reporters: “They [Rangers] are a good side with some very good players, and they can do well in the Champions’ League.” Rangers would go on to finish bottom of a group containing Auxerre, Ajax and Grasshopper Club Zurich, with a single home win over the Swiss side their only points in the competition.


The emphatic defeat would prove to be a pivotal moment in FC Alania Vladikavkaz’s history. Despite pushing Spartak Moscow all the way in the 1996 Russian Top League, even finishing level on points, they missed out on the title on goal difference, before falling to a tenth placed finish in 1997. Though they would go on to make the UEFA Cup first round on three further occasions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they never appeared in the Champions League again. Valery Gazzaev left the club in 1999, and went on to manage Russia, before enjoying a hugely successful spell with army club CSKA Moscow, where he won three Russian titles and three Russian Cups between 2003 and 2008, as well as the 2004/05 UEFA Cup. In 2005, after 15 consecutive seasons in the Russian top flight, FC Alania Vladikavkaz were relegated. It was to be the start of a tumultuous period.

Financial problems had taken their toll, and after a long, drawn out process, the Russian Football Union excluded Alania from all competitions five days before the start of the 2006 first division. The club were forced to restructure, briefly changing their name to Spartak Vladikavkaz, before finally being admitted to the Russian third tier. Immediate promotion followed, and with it the club changed its name back to FC Alania Vladikavkaz.

Between 2006 and 2009 FC Alania Vladikavkaz established themselves as a first division side, before winning an unlikely promotion back to the Premier League after finishing third – outside the promotion places – courtesy of FC Moscow’s own financial woes that saw them removed from the top division. Sadly for FC Alania Vladikavkaz, immediate relegation followed.

But in 2011, there was a rare ray of sunshine when it was announced that Valery Gazzaev would be returning to the club after a spell in charge of Dynamo Kyiv. To the surprise of many Gazzaev was not reclaiming his place in the Alania dugout, however. Instead he was unveiled as the new club president, appointing his son as manager. Nevertheless, Gazzaev’s return was treated as a new beginning by Alania’s fans.

With the father and son team in place, Alania achieved a remarkable feat. Incredibly, despite not scoring a single goal in regulation time, they qualified for the 2011 Russian Cup final, where they faced CSKA Moscow. Despite losing 2-1, FC Alania Vladikavkaz qualified for the 2011/12 Europa League as CSKA had already achieved qualification for the Champions League. It was only the second time in the history of Russian football that a second division side had qualified for Europe, and though Alania were defeated 3-2 on aggregate in the qualification playoff by Besiktas, their 2-0 home leg win over the Turkish side was a momentous day.

Russia Soccer Champions League

FC Alania Vladikavkaz’s renaissance continued when they added to their cup final appearance by finishing second in the first division, winning another short-lived promotion back to the top tier before suffering relegation once more last season.

But now, after years of yo-yoing between divisions and a reckless but ambitious transfer policy that has seen high-earning foreign players including former Real Madrid man Royston Drenthe, ex-Swansea City striker Tamas Priskin and one time Brazil youth internationals Diego Mauricio and Welinton turn out for the club, FC Alania Vladikavkaz appear to have reached the point of no return.

Widespread reports reveal players have gone unpaid for months, and with Alania due to undertake a gruelling and financially draining 12,000 mile round trip to Vladivostok on Saturday November 23rd for their final league fixture against Luch-Energia before the winter break, Vladimir Gazzaev took to the club’s website on Sunday to reveal the perilous situation his side are in.

“At the moment, we don’t have the funds to fly to Vladivostok and take part in the match with Luch-Energia. Moreover, several players are not willing to fly,” he is quoted as saying.

Alania’s financial plight has been dramatically worsened by RusHydro – the club’s chief sponsor – withdrawing its financial support after last year’s relegation from the Premier Division. Even if Gazzaev manages to take a side to Vladivostok to the compete in the first division fixture, there is no guarantee that Alania will be able to survive the imminent three-and-a-half month winter break, itself a huge drain on the finances of many Russian clubs.

But with FC Alania Vladikavkaz’s currently sitting second in the first division, there is every chance that if they can survive the winter, a return to the Premier Division is achievable, and with it potentially lucrative sponsorship that could secure the club’s future. If not, the Russian winter may claim one of the nation’s most historic and intriguing clubs.

Home sweet home for Italian clubs

Enrico Letta

A.S. Roma may be sitting pretty at the top of Serie A, their record breaking run over the opening 12 fixtures of the season carrying them not just above their top flight rivals but also into the record books, but the Giallorossi still find themselves lagging behind their northern rivals Juventus when it comes to stadium ownership, and therefore match day revenue. In fact, everyone in Italy is trailing Juventus in this regard, and in turn Italy is trailing many of its European counterparts.

For years the lack of club-owned stadiums has hindered Italian football, leaving its mark on the balance sheets of teams already struggling in the wider context of the European economic downturn. Many football commentators have remarked on the perceived decline in Italian football over this period, drawing connections between the lack of stadium ownership, the decline in the number of world class players heading to Italy and the loss of Serie A’s fourth Champions League spot to the Bundesliga.

The Juventus Stadium remains the only ground in Italy that is privately owned by its club, with the majority of stadia and supporting infrastructure perceived as being outdated and inadequate. These are stadiums which are, more often than not, owned by local councils, who are happy to collect rent and who have no motivation to renovate and update their facilities.

However Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta this week vowed that he will appeal directly to his country’s parliament to allow clubs to improve stadia and build new arenas. Letta is quoted by La Gazzetta dello Sport as saying: “I want to have the final word on a long-standing stadium problem.

“There will be an amendment drawn up in the stability plan which will define this issue once and for all, and I will be inviting the parliament to approve it.

“This is the appeal I will be making to parliament: from January 1st, we need new laws for more modern stadia without any barriers.”

The last large scale update to facilities in Italy was in preparation for the 1990 World Cup, and Letta’s commitment to improving stadia coincides with the announcement of his support for an Italian bid for the 2024 summer Olympics.

Udinese are already set to follow Juventus’ example by renovating the Stadio Friuli, but should Letta’s plans be approved by parliament then many more sides could follow suit, potentially allowing Serie A to catch up to its competitors.

Yesterday I went to Villa Park

Villa Park

Yesterday I went to Villa Park,
it felt like I’d never been away,
Down Aston station steps, by Saint Peter and Saint Paul
“Heroes and Villains, brand new issue out today!”

But in truth it had been years, since I’d been alone in this crowd,
that first stood together more than a century ago,
And the faces have changed, and the country has changed,
the scars of recession and decay so clearly on show

We marched passed billboards, for Sky and BT
and we questioned where our ticket fee goes,
For £40 a month, the cost of this game,
we could just watch all the football at home

But still there was burger vans, kids holding Dad’s hand
hope and despair mixed up in the air,
“Benteke is out, we don’t have a shout!”
Nonsense, Kozak is a beast in the air!”

Then the sight of the Holte crept into view
and what a sight it is to behold,
It’s witnessed enough stories, and defeats and even glories,
and none of that can ever be sold

Still it feels uneasy, being part of this circus
Surely this isn’t what William McGregor would have wanted,
And as I stood at his feet, and looked up to his eyes,
I asked if he knows our views are no longer being counted

Then from nowhere a child in tears, his ticket misplaced,
a truly horrible sight to see,
But Allen the steward saved the day, you can come in anyway,
you don’t see this on TV

So we climbed the steps as one, and reached the gates
where turnstile staff have been replaced by barcode readers,
And we wondered what’s happened, to this game that we love
and whether it actually needs us

But when I reached my seat, and looked around,
At faces that minutes before were just passers-by,
I realised that as we sing together, this family of thousands,
we are all Holte Enders in the sky

And that’s what’s important, that’s why we do this,
year after year, week after week, day after day,
Football is family, football is love,
and that can never be taken away

Tottenham Hotspur, Mark Bosnich and me

We all have various reasons for supporting the clubs we do. Whether through simple geographic proximity, family ties, the influence of friends or just outright glory hunting, there is a real and traceable connection for why we devote so much of our time and emotions to something that so often leads to heartache.

But, by the same token, there are reasons why we all have those clubs that we simply can’t stand, hate even. Again this could for any number of reasons: their knack of inflicting particularly heavy defeats on your side, a miserable away trip, a perceived sense of privilege or just that their kit leaves you feeling nauseous. The reasons for loathing a club can be just as varied as those for loving one.

And so to a confession: I used to hate Tottenham Hotspur.

As I lose any Spurs fans that may be reading, I offer an apology and an explanation.

I started supporting Aston Villa as a young boy, having been given a second hand 1982 European Cup winning home shirt that was several years old by the time it found its way into my tiny hands. I remember being amazed by the magic and the history sewn up in this shirt. I was at the age when I had started to show an interest in football, and being handed this garment that seemed to contain the spirit, the smell and the excitement of the game was a profound moment.

I wore that shirt almost non-stop. My parents had to plead with me to allow it to be washed. I slept in it, holding its badge iconic badge and revelling in the forming of a lifelong bond between club and supporter.

It may not be conventional, but this is how I became an Aston Villa fan.

Over the years that followed I started attending games, fixating over results and squad sheets, learning about the club’s history and immersing myself in all it had to offer.

And still that shirt hung proud in my bedroom, long after I had grown too big for it.

But two days threatened to destroy all of that. Two days that came about because of Tottenham Hotspur.

Tottenham Hotspur

My first Claret and Blue clad hero was Paul McGrath, but with his playing time increasingly limited as I grew up I turned my attentions to our charismatic Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich. Perhaps I was too young to fully appreciate McGrath’s struggles, too young to comprehend how incredible a player he was in spite of his off field problems. Regardless, I was inspired by Bosnich’s charisma and athleticism, and as a young boy excited by the prospect of far off lands, the fact he was an Australian playing in the Premier League in the days before it was saturated with foreign talent was new and exciting.

My second Villa jersey was a goalkeeper’s shirt, complete with Bosnich’s name and number on the back, which I received for my eighth birthday. I adored it even more than that first shirt, if possible. I wore it with incredible pride as I watched Aston Villa defeat the power and might of Manchester United at Wembley in 1994 to lift the League Cup, the first success I tasted as a Villa fan. It was glorious.

The following winter, however, all that was threatened.

Tottenham Hotspur travelled to Villa Park in January 1995 on a run of 11 games without a loss. Their last league defeat, in fact, had come on Gerry Francis’s managerial debut for Spurs two months earlier, when a brace from Graham Fenton and a goal apiece from Dalian Atkinson and Dean Saunders had given Villa a 4-3 win at White Hart Lane.

But after a rocky start under Ossie Ardiles, Francis had worked wonders with the north London club, and their talismanic striker Jurgen Klinsmann was in a rich vein of form. Villa’s own impressive streak of seven games unbeaten under Brian Little would be put to the test. Something had to give.

I remember very little about the game itself. I know Villa won, and I seem to remember the goal came courtesy of Saunders, but the details fade. Only one image remains from that night.

I thought he was dead.

As Klinsmann lay motionless on the Villa Park pitch, having been clattered by Bosnich in mid-air in a truly horrific challenge reminiscent of Harald Schumacher’s sickening attack on Patrick Battiston, I really thought he was dead.

Football had just changed completely for me. Until then it had just been a game. In an instant it had become far more important than that. It had become a matter of life and death.

Remarkably, and paralleling the Schumacher incident even further, Bosnich was not penalised for the challenge. Even more remarkably, Klinsmann suffered nothing worse than a concussion, despite Bosnich’s knee colliding with the German’s head with such force that it had been audible from the stands.

I remember being very quiet after the game. I didn’t know how to process what had happened. I was young, and Bosnich was my hero. I knew he had been in the wrong, but I couldn’t clearly process my emotions. In the end they were left to fester, and it led to an odd and an entirely illogical animosity towards Tottenham Hotspur.

These feelings gestated in the mind of this young football fan for two seasons. Then everything came to a head.

October 12th 1996. White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur versus Aston Villa.

Bosnich, back in the Villa team after injury, was taunted relentlessly by the Spurs fans for the horror tackle of eighteen months earlier. His uneasiness as he stood between the posts was palpable.

But that’s no excuse for what he did.

The next day I was on a train with my mum, making some routine journey and occupying my time by reading the day’s newspaper. The back pages were dominated by the news that during Spurs’ victory over Villa some 24 hours earlier, Bosnich had turned to the home fans and given a Nazi salute.


The goalkeeper has been quick to apologise for his actions, saying he was “distraught.” He’d taken the step of calling into a radio phone-in to reiterate how stupid he had been. “I thought the crowd were laughing with me. Obviously I was mistaken. It’s been taken out of context and I’m really sorry. I was being taunted all game. I’m so sad.”

As I sat on that train with my Bosnich shirt on my back, I felt the lettering of his name burn into my skin.

I sat there, utterly ashamed. Utterly confused. Utterly lost.

Some time later, an hour or so maybe, a group of Tottenham fans boarded the train, and ended up in the same carriage as me. Spotting my Villa shirt, they began to throw taunts at me. I was a defenceless ten-year-old, and while with retrospect their insults may have been innocent enough, they really hurt.

I was too young to fully appreciate the intricate connection between Tottenham Hotspur and the Jewish communities of north London, but I knew how horrific the incident was. When I got home I took my Villa shirt off, and I cried.

It could have been the end of my then brief love affair with football. I felt let down. I’d stood by Bosnich in his hour of need, and this is how he’d repaid me. This is what he’d done.

I never wore my Bosnich shirt again, and though my first Villa shirt still hangs proud, that goalkeeper shirt has long since gone.

For the longest time I hated Spurs, blaming them for these two incidents that had ended an innocent love. It’s utterly irrational, but some days I thought they’d engineered this, trapped Bosnich somehow. Other days I felt a rage towards them for being the club that exposed his shortcomings. At all times, the cruel words of those Spurs fans stayed with me.

It was a long and difficult healing process, one nurtured by David Ginola, but I can say with absolute honesty now that those feelings have gone. It’s been nearly twenty years and the damage has healed. Believe it or not I now have a genuine fondness for Spurs, and hope they can break into the top four again this season.

Spurs may have broken my heart, but I guess you have to have your heart broken before you can love again.

Apologise Now!

It’s been a funny couple of weeks for football, but then international breaks are always a bit weird, aren’t they? Still, the site of Gabriel Agbonlahor clattering in to floppy haired boy warbler Louis Tomlinson at Stiliyan Petrov’s testimonial, a tackle that prompted the One Direction star to erupt vomit of a hue that suggests mushy peas are his only rider request, has provided plenty of belly laughs while club football has been on the back burner.

In truth, the tackle that felled the pop star was barely even a foul. Yet such was the outpouring of hatred from Tomlinson’s legions of prepubescent fans towards Agbonlahor that the Aston Villa striker was forced to issue a public apology, calling the challenge “just one of those things.”

How did it come to this? A footballer being forced to issue an apology for fouling (only just) an opponent. This is why international breaks are dangerous. Football, being the attention whore that it is, gets bored and goes crazy.

And Agbonlahor is not alone in having to grovel for forgiveness. The last fortnight has witnessed an avalanche of remorse.

Gabriel Agbonlahor Aston Villa

First there was Phil Bardsley, who backtracked after posting a message mocking Sunderland’s opening day defeat by Fulham on the social media site Instagram. “I understand how they [my comments] may have been interpreted and it was a serious error of judgment,” Bardsley said, who had received a club ban following his post.

Then there was Kyle Walker, pictured huffing on hippy crack in a Sheffield nightclub, who in admitting he had used the perfectly legal substance accepted that “my actions were of poor judgement.”

Arguably the most shocking incident came when Denmark manager Morten Olsen was forced to apologise for comparing his side’s 4-0 defeat to Armenia in last July’s World Cup qualifying match in Copenhagen to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Olsen took to Twitter to repent, writing “I’m sorry if my comparison – despite my reservations – inadvertently offended some people.”

Whether you think the actions of these four really warranted an apology or not (for my money, Agbonlahor no, Bardsley yes, Walker maybe, Olsen yes), there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to saying sorry. Some will tell you that saying sorry is a sign of weakness, and that it only serves to prolong the memory of the wrongdoing while having a negative psychological impact on the offender.

On the other side, many studies suggest that apologising is a good thing. From the ‘victims’ point of view, a sincere apology increases the desire to seek a reconciliation, while diminishing the want for revenge. Genuine repentance will also lead to an increase likelihood of the offender successfully avoiding repeat behaviour, it has been argued.

The latest footballing sorry scandal revolves around a player asking for one, rather than giving one, as Phil Jones took the unusual step of demanding a written apology from former England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce, after he had suggested that Jones lacked the commitment to play in the European U-21 Championships this summer. So far, Pearce has yet to yield to Jones’ demands.

Fundamentally, all apologies – or requests for one – are a form of power play: a mind game that can redefine the boundaries of the relationship between the parties involved. Nowadays, footballers are so protected by agents, advisers and PR types however, that these apologies – when they materialise – are very rarely the sole construction of the player themselves. More likely, the individual has been guided, sometimes even forced, into action.

All of which leads to an interesting possibility: what if footballers just stopped saying sorry altogether?


Last year, Australian psychologists Tyler Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick published a paper in the European Journal of Psychology arguing that not apologising resulted in greater feelings of self-esteem, and increased feelings of power and value integrity. Though the work was designed to apply to situations of victim-offender reconciliation, it’s hard not to wonder what the world would be like if footballers took this advice to heart.

It might be something of a generalisation, but footballers are not known as a bunch short on self-esteem of feelings of power already. So imagine a world where players, emboldened even further by seizing the power of refusing to say sorry, run amok.

Surely the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), driven mad by the lust for power and no longer content with merely being footballers, would seek to take control of the country.

Clarke Carlisle, appointed leader of this shadowy organisation, would then lead his troops up the Thames to the Oxfordshire countryside, where they’d make their home in the dense woodland. Carlisle, now isolated from the outside world, would descend into madness, as the PFA becomes a rabble of lunatics, utterly unrepentant and hell bent on domination.

Our only hope of saving football – and the world – would be to send sorry-sayer Agbonlahor on a one man mission up the river to take out Carlisle, before it was all too late.

It’s enough to send a chill down your spine.

So next time a highly paid, privileged footballer offers a paltry and unconvincing apology, accept it.

The alternative could be much, much worse.

Surviving deadline day

Another transfer window mercifully closed. Though the gaudy where-will-they-end-up key party that is deadline day conjures up plenty of drama for the modern football fan demanding excitement and news around the clock, it can – as in the case of Peter Odemwingie in January – leave some waking up with a hangover and sense of guilt every bit as unsettling as rising the morning after a real life key party. At least that’s what I imagine; I’ve never been to a real life key party.

As well as which there’s the utterly formulaic sense of déjà vu deadline day brings with it: from Jim White’s yellow tie to the group of scamps in Arsenal shirts pratting about outside the Emirates, you get the horrible feeling you’ve been here before, and you didn’t enjoy it then, either.

No, what’s more interesting than deadline day is what immediately follows it. To anyone with even a passing interest in football and human behaviour, this is where the real stories can be found.

On the surface, the day after deadline day is all smiles and big dreams. Players parade around in their new team jerseys, extolling the virtues of their new employers and eulogising about how much the move means to them. It’s the sporting equivalent of a graduation party, or a ‘congratulations on your new job’ card, complete with a smiling puppy with a balloon tied to its tail, or something similarly nauseating.

Take this summer’s blockbuster deal: the move of the Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale to the Madame Tussauds of footballing galacticos that is Real Madrid. To hear the Welshman wax lyrical about his new club, and how the transfer allowed him to ‘achieve a boyhood dream’ was oddly touching, particularly given his transformation from sock-drawer left back to top-drawer winger. Unless you’re a Spurs fan, the entire move reads like some sort of footballing Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Gareth Bale greets Real Madrid fans during his official unveiling at the Bernabéu

I should point out at this point that my tongue is only slightly in my cheek. It genuinely is quite moving to see Bale get his dream move, and it’s a privilege for us to be able to witness the career of potentially one of the best footballers of his generation unfold. Of course Tottenham fans have every right to feel differently, though many will no doubt be happy to remember the service Bale gave them, and be comforted by the huge fee he generated, and the reinvestment in the squad it has offset.

Once the deal was completed and deadline day was done however, we were greeted to Bale’s unveiling at the Bernabau, as the £85 million man struggled with his keepy-uppies in front of a crowd swollen with delight at getting their man. For his part, Bale showed true deadline day deal form, grinning and waving to his adoring fans in a scene reminiscent of Terry Waite stepping off the plane.

And that’s precisely the psychology a lot of these deadline day deals play into. To hear, for example, Luis Suarez’s own bungled attempt at forcing through a transfer away from Liverpool this summer was akin to hearing the desperate pleas of a hostage for freedom.

Again, I’m not criticising Suarez. With such a short career he’s entitled to try and better himself and achieve his goals. Nor am I disparaging the Liverpool supporters who naturally want to see their best player commit to the club. But now Suarez has to cope with the days after deadline day. He has to deal with the fallout of his comments, among other things.

Suarez is already an intriguing character. His list of misdemeanours doesn’t need summarising; his reputation now precedes him, and seeing how he will react to the corner he is in once his suspension ends will be intriguing. Were the constrict of the transfer window to be removed, Suarez would be able to continue his protest, but with his presence on Merseyside now guaranteed for the short term at least, Suarez may well contemplate a change of tact.

For players, knowing that the end of transfer window brings a last chance for escape can lead to strained relationships and outlandishly desperate exploits. Odemwingie, who spied his chance of escape during the dark cold nights of the January transfer window, virtually tunnelled his way out the Hawthorns in the dead of night like Andy Dufresne, only to find the doors to Loftus Road cruelly locked, forcing him to crawl back through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine. Or maybe I just don’t want to.

500 yards. That’s the length of 5 football fields. Just shy of half a mile.

P Odemwingie

Thankfully for Odemwingie, this summer’s deadline day brought salvation, with a £2.25 million move to Cardiff City. Having endured a nightmare seven months at West Bromwich Albion you would think Odemwingie might want to rant and rave about his terrible suffering, or lock away the whole episode in the deepest, darkest corner of his psyche. In reality, he did neither. Until today.

Perhaps there is some sort of simple Stockholm Syndrome psychology going on. After all, having been so desperate to escape the Baggies, then been disciplined for his actions in trying to force a move away from the club, Odemwingie no doubt endured a difficult time before joining Cardiff. Fans turned on him, Steve Clarke publicly criticised him and it’s hard to imagine his fellow players were particularly forgiving in training.

Yet on joining Cardiff, Odemwingie took to Twitter to praise the Baggies, and even took the step of professing his love for the club. Given his warts and all interview in today’s Guardian, it’s difficult to understand what motivated him to do this. If it’s not some Stockholm Syndrome effect, perhaps it’s motivated by a sense of guilt, or of wanting to make amends with fans and those at the club who he felt he might have wronged. Maybe he simply wanted to bide his time.

Either way, as long as the existing transfer window structure remains in place, players such as Suarez and Odemwingie will continue to fall foul of deadline day, remaining trapped in their tower like a fairy tale princess awaiting rescue from the heroic knight that is Malky Mackay.

And that’s why, as much as I hate the rigmarole of deadline day, I hope the current system doesn’t change. It creates far too much drama, far too much hysteria and far too many stories for it to be done away with.

And who knows, maybe Suarez, when he inevitably leaves Anfield, will apologise profusely for his actions, and take to Twitter to declare his love for Liverpool FC.

Or maybe not.

Stuck in the middle


England’s insipid goalless draw with Ukraine was just 40 seconds old when the only authentic heart in mouth moment occurred. In truth it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise: Joe Hart’s form has been in such decline that these moments of madness don’t really shock us anymore. Nevertheless to witness England’s number one career into Roman Zozulya so haphazardly that it drew winces hardly inspired confidence. Rather it proved an omen for the 90 minutes of drudgery that followed it.

Hart’s complacency – so obvious as to now be unavoidable – is perhaps a result of his virtually un-threatened place in Roy Hodgson’s team. Though Hodgson – like some seedy detective in a 1970s thriller – warned Hart that ‘he had his eye on him’ following his blunder against Scotland at Wembley in August, Hodgson by his own admission revealed that he wouldn’t be dropping the Manchester City man.

Hart is no doubt a talented goalkeeper with a long and potentially very successful career ahead of him, but Hodgson’s confession has practically given him carte blanche with his decision making. Fraser Forster and John Ruddy, watching from the bench in Kiev, must feel their chances of playing their way into the first team are non-existent, and while Hodgson’s unquestioning faith in Hart is in some sense admirable, you have to wonder if all parties wouldn’t benefit from Hart sitting out a few games.

Meanwhile England’s failure to register more than a smattering of shots on target against Ukraine revealed their shortcomings at the other end of the pitch. Rickie Lambert’s goal against Moldova may have elevated him above the David Nugent and Francis Jeffers one-in-one club that many thought his strike against Scotland would permanently secure him membership of, but at the wrong side of 30 he is hardly a viable long term option.

That said, many have argued that Lambert’s performance on Tuesday night was a cut above Wayne Rooney’s own efforts against the same opposition a year earlier; a point it’s hard to disagree with. To hear Hodgson lamenting the absence of his three preferred strikers then, including Rooney, a still relatively untested at international level Daniel Sturridge and the inconsistent Danny Welbeck, hardly gave the impression that, had other options been available, the outcome would have been wildly different.

And that’s partly because England’s problems at either end of the pitch obscure a much greater and troubling issue: Hodgson’s midfield is a confused, ill-conceived and increasingly redundant element of his team.

Yesterday Hodgson admitted that he had briefed his team to play long-ball football, aiming to profit from Lambert’s physical presence and bypassing his three man midfield entirely if necessary. While he justified this as a tactical decision designed not just to compliment Lambert’s qualities but also to ease pressure on England’s defence, its primitiveness and disregard for England’s brightest talent is not in keeping with FA Chairman Greg Dyke’s vision for the future.

Of the three that started in midfield against Ukraine, only Jack Wilshere – though far from the finished article – is key to any long term ambition of success that the FA may have. Yet his deployment as what was virtually at times an emergency number 10 negated the very best elements of his game. If Steven Gerrard’s advancing years mean that Hodgson is now forced into deploying him in the water-carrier role, it is clear that Wilshere must be the ball-carrier. He is at his best bursting forward with the ball at his feet, linking the defence with the attack, not, as he was asked to do in Kiev, in sweeping up the loose balls fired long to a big number nine. As for Frank Lampard, his 100th appearance passed him by with such anonymity that he may as well have stayed at home.

Some have pointed to Manchester United’s Michael Carrick as the answer to England’s midfield woes, but his game is one built around elegance and finely crafted passing, not a set of skills that would be in high demand in a midfield that seeks to repel the ball, rather than treasure it. Indeed had Carrick been selected, the likelihood is that his main job would have been in competing with Lampard for the armchair role.

Hodgson is an experienced coach, but if his attritional and still potentially crucial point in Kiev is to yield a World Cup place – never mind World Cup success – he has to return to the drawing board, and accept that England’s problems at either end of the pitch cannot be resolved until he has his midfield house in order.

Renaissance man

There have been certain moments over the first few weeks of the season when, if you were to strain your eyes and squint slightly, all the hype and all the comparisons with a young Paul Gascoigne would have seemed so right.

A swivel of the hips to evade danger in the midst of a congested midfield, an explosive and unexpected surge forwards, a 30 yard cross-field run to offer a teammate an option: Yes, all the signs are there.

Fabian Delph is becoming the kind of midfielder he once threatened to be.

Some would argue that it’s not before time. Before completing his £8 million move to Aston Villa in August 2009, Delph had become a regular in Simon Grayson’s Leeds United side despite his tender years, and the 19-year-old had broken through into Stuart Pearce’s England under-21 squad, where he won four caps.

Delph’s performances that season for Grayson’s promotion chasing Leeds United side saw the burgeoning midfielder nominated for League One Player of the Year award, as well as claiming the Young Player of the Year award at the Football League Awards. Within the club, Delph’s achievements were recognised with three prizes at the club’s own annual ceremony, where he was awarded the titles of Fan’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, as well as collecting the trophy for Leeds United’s goal of the season for a long range curling effort against Brighton and Hove Albion.

Such was the quality of Delph’s performances that then Leeds United chairman Ken Bates was forced to reject a series of bids from Premiership clubs, including Arsenal, during the January transfer window for his newest talent, dismissing the approaches as simply being “petty cash.”

Failure to gain automatic promotion at the first attempt following their relegation from the Championship however left Leeds United facing Millwall in the playoff semi-final, where a late Jimmy Abdou goal at Elland Road was enough to hand the visitors at 2-1 aggregate victory that left Leeds United languishing in the third tier, and forced Bates to consider offers for his prized asset.


Aston Villa, meanwhile, were coming to terms with the loss of Gareth Barry, the midfield stalwart and fans favourite of eleven years who had been lured by newly cash-happy Manchester City. Martin O’Neill had targeted Delph as a possible replacement, and lodged an early offer which threatened to start a bidding war, until Bates assured O’Neill that no other offers were being considered. Leeds United even took the unusual step of issuing a statement praising Aston Villa’s conduct in their pursuit of Delph. “We can confirm a fee has been agreed with Aston Villa for Fabian Delph and wish to place on record our appreciation for the honourable manner in which they have conducted their interest in the player,” the statement read.

With the deal done, Delph looked set to make a strong start at Villa Park, making his Premier League debut in the 2009/10 season opener at home against Wigan Athletic. However as the season rolled on he found his playing time limited, his best position not immediately obvious to O’Neill who was also often unwilling to rotate, before a serious cruciate ligament injury suffered in April 2010 derailed his progress further.

In the seasons that followed Delph became something of a forgotten man, plagued by injury and dismissed by some as a relic of the O’Neill years, not obviously compatible with the club’s transition from chasing Champions League football to battling for Premier League survival. Loaned back to Leeds United in January 2012 in an effort to jump start his now stifled development, Delph again suffered injury, this time an ankle problem that kept him out for the rest of the season.

Though the flirtation with relegation was no less worrying under his guidance, the arrival of Paul Lambert last summer rejuvenated a Villa Park faithful that had grown tired and weary since O’Neill’s departure. His effect on Delph has been no less invigorating.

Fully fit for the first time since his arrival in the second city, Delph enjoyed a successful campaign in Lambert’s first season, starting tentatively but growing in stature and going on to make 24 appearances in a young, but promising midfield.

But it wasn’t until Arsenal away on the opening day of this season that Delph, now 23, began to show just how bright the spark that once illuminated Elland Road could become. His rakish frame buzzed about the Emirates, a whirling dervish of energy, zapping into tackles with a pomp and swagger that caught the Gunners midfield by surprise.

The opening 45 minutes against Liverpool aside, when, in all honesty, the entire starting 11 looked sluggish, there has been no let-up in Delph’s performances since, with some pundits even demanding an England call up as reward for his inspired start to the season.

Delph may not yet be the finished article; his propensity for collecting bookings is a side effect of his exuberance that he must learn to control. With Aston Villa arguably over-reliant on Christian Benteke for goals, he is also the obvious choice from the midfield to step up with a regular contribution that has been missing since James Milner’s departure, yet his 24 Premier League appearances last season failed to yield a single goal.

Aston Villa's Fabian Delph

It’s an area of his game that Delph seems eager to address however. Against Arsenal he unleashed a barrage of shots on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal, with one rasping 20-yard effort catching the outside of an upright, prompting Delph to drop to the floor and punch the pitch in frustration, revealing another facet of that exuberant personality: he genuinely seems to care.

Lambert has shown remarkable faith in Delph, and has the conviction that, with the right development, he could be a future England international. “I’m pretty sure there’s more to come from him. The way he has started the season is great. If we keep him fit and healthy, the way he is playing, it’s up to himself how far he goes,” Lambert told the The Birmingham Mail last week. “He’s got a big, big future.”

This combination of passion, potential and performance, as well as his survival against the odds at Villa Park, has clearly endeared him to the club’s supporters. And there is another combination that has sparked his revival: Delph’s blossoming partnership with Ashley Westwood.

It’s been some time since two Aston Villa midfielders complemented each other so perfectly. Westwood’s composure and assurance at the base of the midfield offers Delph the freedom to skip forwards, foraging for chances, supplying the front three. Westwood’s own incredible rise has released the potential in his midfield partner; he appears to be the mind to Delph’s matter.

Both Delph and Westwood have age on their side, and given the working relationship the two have developed in such a short space of time, it’s perhaps not even too fanciful to suggest that the former Crewe Alexandra man will soon play his way into the England set up too. Given England’s convoluted problems in forming a cohesive midfield unit in recent years, it may not be impossible to imagine the two youngsters being given their chance together.

It is, of course, unlikely to happen. It is more important that Delph and Westwood form the backbone of an Aston Villa side that continues to develop, and the two seize the opportunity they have to make their midfield spots their own, hopefully for seasons to come.

For now the third and final spot in the Villa midfield is trickier to fill, with Yacouba Sylla, Karim El Ahmadi, Leandro Bacuna, Aleksander Tonev and Gary Gardner all offering Lambert something different. The stability offered by Delph and Westwood however is the perfect building block for Aston Villa, and will be crucial to any success the club has this season, and beyond.

After four years of false starts, Delph appears ready to make this season count.

FiveinMidfield is back

Not that anyone will notice. But not that it matters. That’s something I’ve learned over the last two and a half years. When I started this blog, I wasn’t chasing readers, I wrote just because I loved football and because it was fun. I was unemployed having returned from a year away travelling, and simply needed something to fill my time while I put off the job hunt. But I got hooked.

As 2011 rolled on I was devoting more and more time to researching and writing, despite having returned to full-time employment. But I was becoming increasingly aware of the competition from other, far better, football blogs. Don’t get me wrong, I had no feelings of animosity. I loved these writers and felt that FiveinMidfield was simply part of a football blogging community that was in its prime. However the struggle to reach more than a handful of readers for a piece that was taking hours to put together each week was taking its toll. With other commitments piling up I couldn’t justify spending such large amounts of time on something that reached a single figure audience, and so my dedication began to wane.

What’s more though, a curious thing began to happen. Having been rapturously obsessed with the maddening world of football since I was a little boy, the game started to annoy me. Certain aspects of it, though far from hidden previously, began to leave a sour taste. After wrestling with these strange feelings for some time I realised the answer was that I was falling out of love with football, and with that FiveinMidfield disappeared. Sure there were spurts of activity, attempts to get back into the swing of things, but though I was aware of what was happening and tried to fight it, something had changed. Around Christmas time last year I decided FiveinMidfield was no more. I made no announcement, and nobody even noticed.

Over the last year though, something equally strange has happened. My long term girlfriend, who had previously shown less than no interest in football, began to get drawn in by my murmurings of discontent on a Saturday afternoon. She wanted to know what it was that could drive me to such extreme moods, both positive and negative. In either an attempt to understand or to help me rebuild bridges, she picked a team to follow, and then through a twist of fate another team stole her heart. In just a few short months as a ‘football fan’ she has witnessed triumph and despair, and watching her fall for football has awoken something within me.

And so, unemployed once more and with a heart all astir, FiveinMidfield is back.

When I started this blog I was wary of making it team-specific. I wanted to simply tell football stories, and while this will remain the case, I know now how important my team is to me, and so I have made a conscious decision to incorporate that passion. The elements of the old FiveinMidfield that I prided myself on: the stories, postcards and profiles will continue too, and after removing loads of my old work when I decided to give up, I have now put this archived content back online.

This season looks hugely exciting. From wholesale management change at the top of the Premier League to Nigel Reo-Coker taking the MLS by storm, there are plenty of stories to be told.

I know readers will be just as elusive as ever, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to be enjoying football again.

So thank you. And enjoy.