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Thursday, 21 July 2016

Callum O'Dowda - the future's bright!

In the first of a series of pieces in the lead up to the new season, I take a look at one of our new signings, one who is arguably both the least known and the most exciting in terms of potential.

It’s pretty safe to say that when the rumours started surfacing about City landing this young, Oxford winger, most had to quickly Google the name to find out a little bit more about him. Kemar Roofe took most of the plaudits at the Kassam Stadium last season and was the player fans perhaps hoped we’d be in for this summer.

On a little more investigation, the move comes as little surprise when you hear Mark Ashton was a big fan of O’Dowda whilst at the U’s, and gets on well with his family. Whether or not you feel Ashton should be the one identifying players or not is a matter for another day, but you’d hope and assume with the network now in place that Lee Johnson has also seen enough to be convinced.

Equally, digging a little deeper I have found out that some at the club actually rated O’Dowda as a better prospect than the afore-mentioned Roofe, despite the latter grabbing most of the headlines last season with his goals and form.

So who is Callum O’Dowda? Well I aim to follow this up with a more in-depth look at him via an interview, but for now I’ll give you the words of Patrick McCarry (@patmccarry), correspondent for Irish Sports website www.SportsJOE.ie.

“Bristol City are getting a lad who has seemingly come from nowhere but who looks like he has been around for ages!

He is a pacy winger, with a trick or two in the bag, but likes to drift in and get on the ball. He had a great 2015/16 with Oxford and scored a brace against Barnet earlier this year.

His grandfather, Brendan O'Dowda, is Irish so that made him eligible to play for us. He was called up for Ireland U21s in March and scored on his second appearance for that side.

Martin O'Neill was hearing good things about him so got Steve Guppy to watch him in club action. A senior call-up soon arrived and he made his debut against Belarus in a 2-1 home defeat before Ireland set off for Euro 2016.

He stood out like a beacon in that game, unafraid to take on and beat his man and demand the ball in the tightest of spots.

My SportsJOE colleague, Conan O'Doherty gave him 8/10 and wrote:
‘Was given just 20 minutes to prove himself to O'Neill and, Jesus, he did everything he could to impress in that time. Looked lively, looked creative, confident and positive and really made things happen for Ireland. As late as late bolters go.’

He was a genuine option for O'Neill at Euro 2016, but he went instead with David Meyler as he could cover a number of defensive and midfield roles. Irish fans have only caught a glimpse of him so far but his Championship move should change all that. Expect him to be a regular in Ireland's World Cup Qualifiers squads!”

A regular in a half-decent Republic of Ireland squad and potentially better than Roofe certainly sounds exciting, and helps justify the apparent fee of over one million pounds – one of the largest in our history.

Let’s hope he can fulfil that potential with us and ensure no-one is googling Callum O’Dowda in future to find out who he is.


Big Sam Allardyce, England Manager

'Big’ Sam Allardyce. England manager.

Yes really.

On the face of it, no-one should be too surprised. He’s an Englishman who has managed in the Premier League for most of the last 15 years, and – on paper – has done a pretty good job at most of the clubs he’s managed at.

Most recently he got West Ham back up at the first attempt and then consolidated their position in the Premier League, giving Slaven Bilic their platform for his success last season. He then somehow saved Sunderland from inevitable relegation last season, with an inspired signing of Jermaine Defoe providing the firepower once he’d re-organised and patched up the division’s worst-looking defence and turned them into clean sheet regulars.

His hugely successful stint at Bolton is perhaps drifting into the memory banks but what he achieved there – especially when you look at where they are now – was nothing short of miraculous, albeit one that set in motion the start of the build-up of debt that has so crippled the club now. In fact he almost certainly should have got the job in 2006 when Steve McClaren was handed the reins and he has no budget to push for with England.

His time at Newcastle and Blackburn is viewed as being less successful, with Newcastle fans in particular seemingly still reeling from that period, but being sacked at both clubs only tells part of the story. On each occasion new owners – Mike Ashley at St.James’ Park and the infamous Venky’s at Blackburn – had recently come to the club and, as so often happens, wanted to stamp their own mark with their own hand-picked manager.

Both clubs sacked him whilst they were just the wrong side of the table’s mid-point, feeling they were going nowhere. They were though. Both were relegated within 18 months of Allardyce leaving. Was he over-achieving with both?

So what’s wrong with this appointment? Why have so many reacted with such ferocity, suggesting the FA have lost their minds?

Well, it’s ‘Big Sam’.

Some are inevitably likening him to Mike Bassett, with a partly-understandable, partly-unfair stereotyping him of an 80’s style English manager. You know; big man up-front, big defenders, tough midfielders and generally only score goals from set-pieces. That kinda thing.

And he certainly has a track record of a backs-to-the-wall, attritional style of football. The consolidation pointed to above, with Blackburn, Newcastle and West Ham, is often deemed insufficient by fans and owners alike who get comfortable, want to press on and only realise what they’ve got when it’s gone. And consolidation, of course, hasn’t led to a major trophy win as a manager, something everyone seems very keen to point out about Sam.

But that belies his time at Bolton where he successfully built teams around the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff, allowing them the platform to dazzle, create and entertain and reached not only the UEFA Cup, as it was, by finishing sixth, but a League Cup final which they lost by the odd goal.

He’s certainly a Marmite selection and the view of those in support of him barely stretches beyond ‘he can’t do any worse’, but he is the new gaffer and deserves at least the two year window, if not the four years that the international game revolves around.

My own personal view is that England should have cast the net wider. It seems as if it was an Englishman plus one or two options, but when managers of the calibre and with the cvs of Hiddink, Wenger, Pellegrini, Ranieri and Benitez have such strong links to the English game, you have to assume one or two of them would have been tempted with the right offer.

But if you get too snooty about Allardyce being the chosen on, then recall we’ve just been knocked out of one of the most average European Championships there has ever been by Iceland. Remember we haven’t reached a major final for 50 years and that even ‘doing a Wales’ and getting to the last four of a major tournament was last achieved two decades ago, before Marcus Rashford was even born.

Doubts will remain about his style of play and whether England will be entertaining enough. My answer to that is pretty simple. Would you rather keep clean sheets, nick games by the odd goal and win the European Championships like Portugal have just done, or try to keep endless possession, then badly fluff your lines when going forward before showing up immense weaknesses in your organisation in defence, like England managed so adeptly this summer?

Hodson’s idea of attacking, entertaining football was to play any number of strikers regardless of whether they fitted into the team structure or not, but all that did was leave us short on those able to defend and create in the middle of the park.

Whatever the natural ridicule following the Iceland defeat, you can’t say that Walker, Rose, Smalling and Cahill are worse players than those who turned out for Iceland, Northern Ireland or Wales (with the possible exception of Ashley Williams). Otherwise all their players would be playing Champions League football and be plying their trade at clubs finishing in the top five of the Premier League. They’re not, because individually they’re not as good, yet were made to look light years in front of us at times.

You struggle to imagine an Allardyce side would have conceded a goal from a long throw-in. There’s no way he’d have had Harry Kane taking corners and I suspect the honest, hard-working Danny Drinkwater would have been rewarded with a place in the squad over two midfielders with barely a couple of games between them since the early Spring.

Would Andy Carroll have been a more viable option to throw on when things did get desperate, someone to knock down and hold up those 60-yard passes from Rooney out of defence?

So what are we getting with the new England manager? Organisation, set-piece expertise, both defensively and in attack (43% of Sunderland’s goals last season were scored from set-pieces).

We’re certainly getting someone with a lot more character than Roy Hodgson, and maybe that rubs off naturally. One accusation Hodgson could never seemingly shake was that his dour demeanour filtered through to the players who were left uninspired and short of ideas.

You won’t get that with Big Sam. There will be passion, hard work and absolutely, definitely no giving up.

By far the worst worst element of England pathetic exit in France was that with 20 minutes to go we just seemed to give up the ghost without even a snivelling whimper of the quietest order.

Oh, and for those who say Allardyce will take us back to ‘the bad old days’ of long ball English hoofball. Have you really seen a worse performance than the one against Iceland? How can it get worse than that?

One might argue we tried this with Keegan, getting someone in with passion to inspire the players, but Allardyce is substantially more capable than Keegan ever was tactically, hence his prolonged stay at the top of the game.

You can manage on passion for a short while, but then you get found out. The evidence from last season’s successful escape indicates Allardyce has yet to be found out. But now he faces his biggest test in one of the most high-profile jobs in football.

Will we win the World Cup under Sam? Probably not, but then we haven’t won any of the last 12 either. 

Have we got a better chance of going further by being better organised, playing with good spirit and being a real team? Of course we have.

What you can be sure of is that Big Sam Allardyce won’t shirk this challenge, in fact he’ll positively relish every second of it.

He won’t give up and for that, at least, he deserves the support of every English football fan.

The Exiled Robin

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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Hillsborough: Supporters, not criminals


27 long years, almost to the day after the dreadful tragedy on that warm, spring day, the families of the Hillsborough victims finally had their loved ones’ names exonerated this week. Having spent a lifetime being told their criminal activity caused the disaster, their names are finally clear and they can truly, for the first time, rest in peace.

As the truth has slowly seeped out over the last two decades, the outpouring of highly emotive comments from football fans far and wide has been hugely prevalent and that’s not only because it was such an awful event, with such obvious injustice. It’s partly because anyone who attended games at that time, and indeed, anyone who still does now, knows that it could have been them. Their friends, their parents, their children.

I personally remember sitting in Block E of the Dolman Stand on that day. City were losing 2-1 at home to Blackpool in front of a little over 5,000 of their own fans – which tells its own story about the shape of the entire game of football in those days.

I was listening to my Sony Walkman – always tuned to what must have been Radio 2 in those days as they covered sport on a Saturday afternoon before Radio 5Live went on the airwaves – and hearing the events unfold. At first it was just confusion and uncertainty, but then the story began to become clearer.

I distinctly remember mentioning to my friend’s Dad who used to take me to games that the radio was saying there appeared to be a handful of people who were lying dead on the pitch. To this day, despite being just 11 years old at the time, I can recall his response (almost certainly trying to be reassuring for his young match companion) word for word.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad. The media always exaggerate things – it can’t be that bad”.

It was. And on a greater and more horrendous scale than anyone could have possibly imagined.

It could have been us. It could have been any one of us and without wanting to be too macabre about it all, you can see how something could happen still to this day – perhaps not on the scale of Hillsborough thankfully, but crowd control by the police at big matches still often leaves a lot be to be desired.

We’re supporters, not criminals, and that should always be at the forefront of the police’s mind, yet often it is simply not the case. Steve Cotton’s column in the Bristol Post last week shows that completely innocent supporters are still being treated as guilty until they can prove otherwise. Suspicion reigns and certain forces are far more forceful and reactive than others – I won’t name names as anyone who travels away will know exactly who I am talking about.

Yes, there are fans who sometimes turn up drunk and, on occasions, cause a disturbance. Yes there are sadly still some who go to games with the specific aim of causing trouble. But the statistics and the real-life experience is that they are a tiny, tiny minority of the main football-going public. Yet controls, surveillance and ‘hoarding’ is still far too prevalent amongst the rest of us.

On three occasions in recent times (and I only go to a handful of away games these days) I’ve been frogmarched, along with many others I should add, from a pub close to the railway station directly to the turnstiles, not trusted to make my own way there, not able to stop for a bite to eat or a bottle of water, despite showing not a single sign of causing trouble. Indeed on those marches the most likely problems will be a reaction to the over-aggressive shoving and pushing of the police to get people back in line if one dares walk on the wrong bit of concrete, or show a slightly over-exuberant approach to the singing.

That’s an issue for the police to look at themselves and I’d be disappointed if those in charge of forces up and down the country weren’t at least prompted to review their procedures and policies based on today’s rulings.

But today is for those guilty of cover-up, abuse and victimisation to look deep inside themselves and try to understand why they did what they did. Why they felt capable of lying to the families of the innocent dead.

Today is very much for the victims and their families. They’ve fought an unbelievably strong, concerted campaign for justice and today they will feel a million different emotions, the over-bearing one of which must be relief, despite the obvious sorrow.

Their family members were unlawfully killed. It wasn’t their fault.

They were innocent supporters, not criminals.

The Exiled Robin

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