Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

It was the day before our flights when we finally got our tracksuits and it was all thanks to Barry Goodwin. He was just another listener to Spin 103.8 when he heard Jamie’s appeal of sponsorship for gear. He got in contact with us and drove to Maynooth to deliver them to us himself so to him we are so very grateful.

The Irish Football Tennis team

Thank you Barry.

He was in stark contrast to the Buy and Sell who offered us €800 for tracksuits in return for us to change our name to The Buy and Sell Irish Football Tennis Team. Changing our name like that would have ruined the whole story.

So we agreed nothing.

We were thinking of putting Football Tennis Ireland’s soul for sale in the B&S as a kind of ironic middle finger to them but we were too busy being international athletes anyway!

Remarkably some guy in Spin 103.8 also had connections in RTÉ and wrote a proposal to the Aprés Match lads to do a piece on us! One of the proposed features was a “One part aftermath follow up documentary some weeks later showing the boys in Green after the World Cup saga”!

We knew it wouldn’t go anywhere but it was still funny as hell hearing it even being talked about!

Also a quick word needs to be said about NUI Maynooth who got great coverage out of us representing them and the country. They were absolutely no help to us at all. We left messages on the presidents office phone line, sent emails to them, tried contacting the sports department but all to no avail trying to see if they could help us in any way. When it snowed and we couldn’t practise outside on the tennis courts we had to book the sports hall. When we got in at 9am they told us we had to leave because there was no running water or heat. As we left the hall we found the heaters were hot but suddenly nobody around to complain to. As for running water the engineering building thirty feet away had running water.

So it need to be made clear that NUI Maynooth were no help. We had to make a trip into Leixip on the snow and ice covered roads to pay €30 an hour to train.

It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon when we got our flight to Istanbul. A window seat for myself, and the No-Show and Jamie beside me. The rest of the lads filled the seats in front and across from us. We just looked at each other as the plane went into full power;

“I think we took this one a bit far boys”, said Jamie.

“Well we’ve another 3,000km and four days to take it yet”, I said.

And it was there the reality of the situation finally decided to kick in. What we were doing had never been done by Irish people before. We were the first, clueless and naïve, but suddenly there was a lot of responsibility. We actually had to represent the people of our country. These eastern European teams would see the whole of Ireland by what thought of us. So we had to do well. Each one of us.

The triples final between Hungary and Romania

The fixtures were handed out when we got to the sports complex. The first game was Jamie vs. Croatia’s finest – the third best in the world. This was exactly what we didn’t want. We were hoping to get to watch a few games to make sure we had the rules right, but there would be no time for that. The whistle blew and suddenly Jamie had to perform. We said on the plane over it would be great to get a few points and in the first game against one of the best who had been playing for almost ten years Jamie had already achieved that. He lost 11-2, 11-2 but he had done us proud.

In the next game against the Macedonians, who aren’t any less experienced or talented, Captain Jamie was actually beating their best player 8-6. In the end he lost out 11-8, 11-7 but spirits in the FTI camp were high. We had a bit of belief.

Next up was the doubles where Jamie teamed up with Kevin to take on the Turks. The lads were doing brilliant. They were beating the host country 9-3 at one stage and had caused the Turkish coach to substitute both players.

“Come on boys!”

“Ye have ‘em rattled lads!”

Kev’s serves were forcing mistakes from the Turks and were as consistent as the No-Show Sheegar’s ability to not show up for training. But it was tense.

The Turkish subs made a difference, upsetting the lads’ rhythm and eventually they managed to fight back to a 12-10, 11-8 victory. But the lads had won a few fans who were watching on. The Romanian coach was impressed with how we were doing and offered to send on their training program to us. It would be handy enough having the training program of the world champions in singles and doubles!

We were delighted with how it was going but next up were the Hungarians in the triples. These guys were all over six foot, were sponsored by a bank, and played in leagues in Hungary. We decided to stick Jamie and Kev in with myself since the lads were doing so well. That meant swapping them for Emmet and Hynes who I had trained with for the last nine weeks. This didn’t work to our advantage at all as we were not used to playing with each other in triples. We lost the first game something like 11-2 and the second game 11-5 which doesn’t sound that bad but the Hungarians were admittedly taking it easy on us. They suggested a few things to us and were very helpful and we were glad to see them win the triples in the final.

The Hungarian team that won the triples and came second in the singles and doubles

We kept the same triples team for the next game against the Russians though, thinking that the only reason we lost to the Hungarians was because they were so good. Looking back at the Russian game now I think we could have done a lot better if we played with our usual formation. That’s nothing against Jamie and Kev, who were in top form, but our usual formation gave us confidence because we knew what each of us had to do. We didn’t play particularly bad against the Russians but we lost the second game 11-5. They are a team we feel we could beat next time and we had learned our lessons.

That was it for Day 1 and we had learned a lot. We knew we could beat the Georgians and Indians the next day and we were confident we could give the Serbians and good game as well. This was to see who would make up the 9th – 12th places in the competition. But for now it was back to the hotel for dinner and a well deserved pint. These were long days, starting off at 9 in the morning and ending around 8 in the evening and we were wrecked, physically and mentally.

Day 2 and up at 7.30 thinking we were meant to start at 9 but for some reason the bus was late and we didn’t leave until 9.30.

“Could have done with that extra hour in bed”.

But off we went eventually to the final day of games. It was the singles first again and Jamie against Serbia’s finest. After some great rallies Jamie got into his rhythm and beat the Serb 11-7! We were delighted to win a game but knew we had a chance here to win the two sets. Back out on the court the Serb upped his game and so did Jamie but in the end after winning the second game 8-11, the Serbian won the decider 9-11 with two very tense games. Jamie had done us proud again but he wasn’t finished there. The Indians were up next and there was no stopping the Pontoon man! He wrapped them 11-2, 11-2 to give Ireland its first competitive wins in Football Tennis!

Soon after he had to play Georgia’s finest but lost out 11-9, 11-7 after winning the opening set 11-7. It was a very contentious game with several close calls and a very argumentative Georgian but we knew we’d have another chance to beat them in the doubles and triples.

And we did.

In the most tense game yet  Kev and Jamie ended up going to sudden death with the Georgians where the next point won. After a great serve from Kev the Georgians couldn’t control the ball and Ireland had beat them.

Fantastic!

Then it was the triples again. This time we decided to keep to the team we had trained with. Our first game was against the Indians and we should have won it. A large portion of the crowd were shouting for India because they were underdogs but that just shows how much of an impact we made on everybody at the competition.

The Indians are full members but we were favourites. We had lost, but we didn’t fail!

We were disappointed with the loss to the Indians but then we had a good game against the Serbians. We lost 2-1 to them in close games but we hammered the Georgians after. Some great calls from Coach Rogers of where to put the ball from the serve kept them from getting any rhythm and I duly obliged by picking their left foot or serving through the middle. When they did get service Hynes’ returns were controlled and composed and Emmet and the No-Show both won some fantastic points at the net. It was great that our last game was against the Georgians and we won. As we walked off the court the Serbians congratulated us. They were happy to see us beat the Georgians as well!

After that we could relax and watch the finals where our friends the Romanians and Hungarians were competing. The

The singles and doubles winning Romanian team drinking some Romanian poítín

Romanians won the singles and doubles but the Hungarians won the triples. When we got back to the hotel for dinner the Romanian coach came over to our table and offered us some Romanian poitin which could have easily have been just pure white spirits. But the gesture was appreciated, we had represented our country well.

So that was it. After a twelve hour day we had beaten four teams to give Ireland its first competitive Football Tennis wins and finished 10th in the world. The whole thing is documented with over 10 hours of footage of games and interviews with the president of FIFTA and some of the coaches. It might be a couple of months before its all finished though.

But Football Tennis is only getting bigger and a lot of the coaches and organisers hope to have it in the Olympics in the next 5 – 10 years and they want Ireland to be represented there too! Could ya imagine that?!

Relieved, wrecked, and contented we boarded our plane the next morning in Ataturk airport…to a round of applause! A group of Irish people we had met on the plane over there had coincidently gotten the same plane home and gave us a bit of a buladh bos when we boarded! Not only that but we were on Turkish news on the tv screens on the plane as well! So tens of millions of people saw us in Turkey representing our country!Amazing!

So its been some adventure. For now the Euros in North Cyprus, the Las Vegas competition, sports council funding and all that craic can wait. We will sit down together, reflect, laugh, and think about the future soon but not yet. We will let you know of course but Christmas has crept up on us.

The Football Tennis Family

We would like to thank everybody for their great support, it really made a difference. To all the radio stations, newspapers, tv stations who helped carry the story we thank you as well.

Boob.ie also went through an enormous amount of effort promoting the story and mediating between companies about sponsorship so we are very thankful for that too.

And to FIFTA and the Turkish people who were all so incredibly friendly and genuine, thank you for having us!

Football Tennis Ireland: 10th in the world after nine weeks of practice!

 

Hard done by: Hughton's work had only just begun

In the run-up to the new season, I wrote about how Newcastle United could be a team to look out for, with their down-to-earth manager and their young, talented squad (pieced together on a shoestring budget), the newly-promoted former giants looked as though they had finally achieved a certain level of stability after years in the doldrums. https://universalgrassroots.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/newcastle-united-the-tragic-heroes-of-football/

And indeed, this proved to be the case as the early stages of the season unfolded, with the Magpies picking up wins against the likes of Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea, and most notably Aston Villa (6-0), and Sunderland (5-1). Inevitably, there were low points too, such as Hatem Ben Arfa’s terrible leg injury, suffered at the hands of a defeat by Man City, and dismal performances against Blackpool, Blackburn, and most recently, West Brom. Having said that, the Toon Army currently sit 11th in the league, ahead of the  likes of Fulham, Everton and Villa. Why, then, has owner Mike Ashley decided that now was the right time to get rid of manager Chris Hughton, who had achieved so much in his 14 months in charge. A 55% win rate from 70 games, 102 points in the Chapionship last year. Statistics tell their own story, and these particular ones show that Hughton was the man to raise St James’ Park club from their mediocre status.

The first thought that came into my head when I heard the news this morning (Dec 6th), was the similarity between Hughton’s dismissal and that of Sir Bobby Robson, four games into the 2004/5 season. Parallels between the late, great Geordie and their newest casualty are plentiful; Robson had taken over in 1999, with the club rooted to the bottom of the Premiership, before slowly turning them around with a series of shrewd signings and a positive attacking style, reminiscent of the great Kevin Keegan era. Robson even brought them into the Champions League, because he was given the time, money and patience to do so.

Sir Bobby, 1999: Brought the good times back to Tyneside in a way few could have imagined

Hughton has been the best Newcastle manager since Robson, but time,  patience and money are no longer in fashion in Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct @ St James’ Park. The grim inevitability of the whole situation is perhaps the worst aspect, it has long been established through media sources that Ashley has wanted a more “showbiz” manager, after Hughton had essentially taken over by default when Joe Kinnear fell ill. Martin O’Neill currently stands at 7/2 to replace the former Ireland defender at Tyneside, but, considering the way in which O’Neill left Aston Villa, this move seems unlikely. Villa chairman, the American tycoon Randy Lerner, is seen as one of the more decent and rational money-men in the game, but O’Neill walked out when he discovered Lerner was unwilling to fork out too much cash during the summer transfer window.

Ben Arfa's capture was a stroke of genius by Hughton

The reasons behind Hughton’s sacking are much like the reasons you would dump a girlfriend before Christmas – so you don’t have to buy her a present. Hughton had identified a number of January transfer targets which could have helped the squad keep the momentum going after the testing Christmas schedule and beyond. Utrecht’s £8 million-rated Ricky Van Wolfswinkel was one such target, and talk of Robbie Keane, Niko Kranjcar and even Manchester United’s Anderson had been mentioned as potential new arrivals. Clearly, Ashley was not prepared to spend money on a manager he didn’t have faith in. When we look at Hughton’s dealings in the transfer market, however, we can see he has a keen eye for a bargain. Free transfer Sol Campbell has proved a worthy understudy to Fabricio Colloccini,  loan signing Hatem Ben Arfa’s talent is known the world over (although Hughton’s departure may jeopardise a permanent move to the North-East), while Cheik Tiote’s dominant performances in midfield have been one of the few consistent elements in what has been a rollercoaster season so far.

Sad as it may seem, the damage has been done now, and the Newcastle board will live and die by the decisions they make in the next few weeks.

Amazing Football Tennis Ireland Video

Posted: November 25, 2010 by undergroundfisherman in Sport
Tags: , , ,

This is the story of a gang of lads (including Stevo who writes for this blog) who managed to qualify as the Irish Football Tennis team in the upcoming World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey. Here’s their epic promo video 

It’s been a season of Mersey misery so far, with both Liverpool and Everton making horrible starts, the Toffees eased some of this pressure today, but Liverpool limped to another defeat at the hands of their nearest and most bitter rivals.  So, with Roy Hodgson’s side now lying second from bottom in the table, we ask what exactly went wrong?

Defensively, Liverpool had been hesitant and disorganised, with Paul Konchesky and Jamie Carragher playing either side of Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos. None of these four were able to really effectively take charge and contain the threat of the lively presence of Yakubu and Tim Cahill. Everyone stood off Seamus Coleman as he burst into the box for the first goal, leaving Cahill with an easy finish.

In midfield, while Mikel Arteta was pulling the strings for Everton, Liverpool were relying on Raul Meireles and Lucas to put tackles in and break up the play, but could never distribute the ball to Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Maxi Rodriguez or Fernando Torres, none of whom were able to realise their potential in a disappointing first half. When we look at the quality that is undoubtedly in this Liverpool side, we really have to wonder why Roy Hodgson cannot get  the best out of them. The Everton back-line were never threatened in the first half, and remained on top all the way to half-time.

 

Another dismal result for Hodgson

 

One real problem is that the frustration they have already felt in previous games this year has started to seep into the psyche of practically every Anfield soul, an early example of this was when Jamie Carragher completely lost the rag with Torres after playing a pass down the right wing to the Spaniard. Carragher seemed to forget that by playing a pass down the wing to his lone forward, he was leaving his side with no attacking options in the box – tactics seem to have fallen by the wayside, replaced by bickering and wayward attacking ideology. The disinterested figure of Torres was in stark contrast to Yakubu at the other end, who put himself about and used his strength to torment the visitors’ shaky rearguard.

Coming out a goal down at the intimidating Goodison Park, with their New England Sports Ventures executives looking on, the Reds knew the next 45 minutes  would be crucial to their season, and the opening signs were promising, with Rodriguez testing Tim Howard with an early shot, but four minutes later, more slack defending from a corner allowed Arteta to rifle a shot past Pepe Reina to put them two goals clear. There was little doubt Roy Hodgson had do to something to try to scrape something from the game. His only attacking options on the bench were Ryan Babel and David N’Gog, both underwhelming to say the least, but surely they couldn’t be any worse than what was out there? Everton held 80% of the possession for the opening ten minutes of the second half, and were still very much on top.

It became increasingly apparent that the Reds had never found an adequate replacement for Xabi Alonso; in Meireles and Lucas, Hodgson was using two men to do the job that Alonso used to do on his own, and far more capably too. Joe Cole and Rodriguez continued to provide no support whatsoever for Torres, and Tim Howard remained a spectator for much of the second half.

 

N'Gog - ineffective as ever

 

N’Gog came on, did nothing. Babel came on for Cole with just 11 minutes to go, and Jovanovic with six minutes remaining, why wait so long? They had been 2-0 down since the 49th minute. With stray passes and tiring legs hampering any chance of a comeback, and chants of “you’re going down” following them around Goodison, it was a miserable day for the Anfield club. There is little doubt that someone somewhere would be able to devise an effective playing system and starting XI for Gerrard and Co. but right now, Roy Hodgson has a long way to go before he finds that winning formula. Although all logic suggests that they won’t fulfill the Everton fans’ prophecy and get relegated, that same logic does seem to say that mid-table is as good as they can expect from this season.

Alexander the Great?

He’s almost untouchable in terms of criticism, actually knighted by the queen for his services to the game and for the last 24 years has managed to keep his club right at the top of international standards, but with recent poor results and unconvincing transfer buys Alex Ferguson’s recent decisions have to be at least analysed, if not called into question.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Ferguson and he is for me probably the best of our generation at least but there seems to be a kind of apprehension by football analysts and journalists to criticize Fergie, and perhaps understandably so. Winner of the premier league 11 times, the F.A. Cup 5 times, the League Cup 4 times, the Community Shield 9 times, the Champions League twice, the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, UEFA Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup once each, the trophy’s are there as proof of his worth and it can be difficult to argue against them.

But its interesting to note how the signing of Portuguese striker Bébé was written about as

United's newest signing Bébé

a Cinderella story rather than the major £7.4 million gamble that it really was. According to the Manchester United official website Fergie didn’t even view the player but instead admitted it was an impulse decision to sign the player, following advice from the club’s scouts in Portugal and by former Reds’ assistant manager Carlos Queiroz. Of course the Man Utd website doesn’t note how soon after Bébé’s arrival he was struggling to even get on the reserve team and hasn’t really shown the promise the Red Devil’s scouts have promised he would.

But then again it has been a major change for the young player and perhaps he hasn’t had time to ‘settle’, as the old excuse seems to go. But there are plenty of other recent signings Fergie has made that have had their chance to settle such as the Da Silva brothers, Gabriel Obertan, Michael Owen, and Owen Hargreaves. Hargreaves alone cost United £17 million in 2007, how much in medical expenses has he cost them since then? Fergie has probably got his worth out of Michael Owen however, seeing as he got him on a free transfer and he has scored 12 goals in 37 appearances. But there was a reason none of the top clubs could be bothered paying his salary; simply because he’s getting older and prone to injury. Gabriel Obertan is meant to be an attacking winger/striker but in only 14 appearances since joining in July 2009 for reportedly £3 million the French player has managed zero goals and is now, you probably guessed, injured. The Da Silva brothers Raphael and Fabio have also failed to really play to the standards that are required of Manchester United defenders. A lack of positional play seems to be there main problem, getting sucked towards the ball and a lack of awareness of the opposing striker’s runs, traits barely good enough for the Manchester United reserve team never mind playing in Champion league matches.

It is easy to think that these players are young and to give Ferguson the benefit of the

Hernandez - probably Fergie's most promising buy since Rooney

doubt considering his record but when you look at other players around the same age as these it becomes a little clearer that they are under performing. Gareth Bale has won four different young player of the year awards since 2007 and has excelled for Tottenham Hotspur but no attempt was made by any of Fergie’s scouts to sign him even though he is the same age as Obertan, has already scored more goals than him, set up countless goals and isn’t prone to injury. How could a player like that be overlooked by these world class scouts? Are they too busy scouting in Portugal for the likes of Bébé or Brasil for the next Da Silva brothers? The 22 year old Mexican Javier Hernandez is the only recent buy that Fergie has made that looks promising. Two goals in 7  matches and a good performance in the World Cup have impressed onlookers and worried defenders making him look a great prospect for the club.

But another way you could look favorably at Fergie’s signings and think highly of him is to

Rooney - United's biggest shirt seller

note how he refuses to buy ‘shirt sellers’ like other major European clubs do. The likes of Real Madrid and even now Barcelona seem hell bent on buying the biggest name so they can stick his name on their shirt. The transfers of Thiery Henry and David Beckham to American Major League Soccer seem to be solely for this reason. And if you think that this might be a bit far-fetched an example is Rooney’s recent decision to try to increase his salary from £100,000 to £170,000 a week because he is the clubs biggest shirt seller even though he is completely under performing, not to mention already a millionaire.

Whether Fergie manages to get his team out of the bit of a mess they are in now looks to me to be his greatest test. The way they are playing now reminds me of the way Liverpool were playing about 3 years ago, getting by just because they believed they should win not because they were good enough to actually win. But as the poor results mount up that winning mentality which is so crucial for the top teams begins to fade and all sorts of other troubles mount up as well. So how Sir Alex will fair this season remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, its still hard to bet against him.

After Liverpool’s disappointing 0-0 draw at St Andrew’s this weekend, and Villa’s last-minute defeat at the hands of Stoke, we can see there is a real air of uncertainty around both clubs, but are they really in a state of decline, or just transition?

‘Pool Predicament

Assessing the draw against Birmingham, the Irish Independent carried the headline “What’s wrong with Torres?,” but really, Roy Hodgson’s men have many more problems than just their misfiring Spaniard. Money has been a huge issue for a few years now, with unpopular American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett coming under serious pressure to step down. There seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel when Chinese businessman Kenny Huang showed an interest in buying the club, but that deal has since fallen through. The real problem, however, lies in the lack of top-quality personnel at the club.

Benitez - Under fire from old foe Mourinho

Even Roy Hodgson, who had received so much praise for guiding Fulham to a Europa Cup final with meagre resources, could not have imagined the extent of the challenge he now faces at Anfield. The squad he has inherited from Rafa Benitez is weak in every area of the pitch, and they simply don’t have the money to put it right. In a recent interview, Jose Mourinho fired a parting shot at his successor as Inter coach, saying Benitez had effectively reduced the Liverpool setup to mere also-rans, saying “It is very difficult for Roy to do it with Liverpool as, over the last few years, they have been getting worse, worse and worse. The Liverpool of 2004 was better than the Liverpool of 2005, 2005 was better than 2006 and 2006 better than 2007.” Strong words indeed, and it’s worth noting that he and Rafa did not always see eye-to-eye, but as The Special One himself says of Hodgson’s new squad; “he needs time and it’s not easy because I don’t think they went in the right direction.”

Mourinho is justified in this statement when we look at the kind of players Benitez has brought in over the last few years. Nabil El Zhar, Ryan Babel, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Alberto Aquilani, Philipp Degen and Emiliano Insua have all been costly flops, with Aquilani standing out as one of the worst purchases of the decade. The midfielder, who was supposed to fill the boots of the influential Xabi Alonso, is now back in Italy, on loan to Juventus after making absolutely no impression on the Premier League.

The rare sight of Aquilani in a Liverpool jersey

In fact, the sale of Alonso was a real turning-point in the club’s fortunes. They came 7th in their first season without him, and seem to have bought not one, but two players – Christian Poulson and Raul Meireles – to replace him. Whether either can combine with Steven Gerrard in the way the Spaniard did remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. Both of these new recruits are dogged, holding midfielders, so it seems unlikely that they will have the same passing vision or guile in the final third of the pitch.

On top of this, the free signing of Joe Cole this summer already seems to have been a typically disappointing Liverpool venture. Cole hasn’t hit anything close to his best form since his West Ham days, and that wasn’t today or yesterday. Lucas, Dirk Kuyt, Milan Jovanovich and Maxi Rodriguez make up the rest of their underwhelming midfield. So, when Torres and Gerrard are playing badly, which they have been for quite some time, where can they turn to for inspiration? Martin Skrtel?

So, what about Villa?

With Gerard Houllier taking over this week, can we expect to see more of the same inconsistent Aston Villa, who can lose 6-0 to Newcastle and then beat Everton a week later?

Marc Albrighton is one of many exciting young Englishmen who Villa have produced in recent times

There’s no doubt they’ve had a strange start to the season, but, had they beaten Stoke last night (13th Sept), they would have gone into third place. Under Martin O’Neill, they had developed a young, home-grown and exciting squad of players, who had performed consistently well for the last few seasons. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Stephen Warnock, Stuart Downing are all vying for places in the England squad, while the young Marc Albrighton has been one of the revelations of the season so far. There is little doubt they have quality, but the sale of James Milner to Manchester City (who will be one of their closest rivals come May) sent the club into disarray, and Martin O’Neill was next out the door.

O'Neill arguably quit when the going got tough at Villa Park

While O’Neill’s frustration at not being able to use the Milner money to fund new signings was understandable, they did recruit a suitable replacement in Stephen Ireland, who is only one step behind Milner in terms of quality. The fact is, compared to Hicks and Gillett, Villa’s very own American chairman, Randy Lerner, is quite a reasonable, unobtrusive kind of guy, who seems to have the interest of the club at heart. O’Neill should have stayed, and while Houllier will relish the challenge put in front of him, it could be difficult to build upon last season’s sixth place in the current climate.

Money is power in the Premiership these days, and while Roberto Mancini’s Man City have yet to hit top form, there can be little doubt they will be fighting it out for a top-four finish. Spurs, Arsenal and Everton all have stronger squads than Villa, and we may even see Fulham or Birmingham fighting it out for the Europa League spots. So, can Villa get in there again this year? The answer is yes, but it will be a lot harder than before, and a real test of Houllier’s abilities as a coach.

Of all the games in this opening weekend of Premiership action, the one that stands out the most is Monday night’s clash between newly-promoted Newcastle United and Manchester United. While most people would say Liverpool v Arsenal  is a bigger game (and it is), the Magpies 102 points in last year’s Coca-Cola Championship proves they are an interesting prospect for their new season in the top flight.

Roberto Di Matteo may find things tough at West Brom this season

We have seen some contrasting fortunes from the two other newly-promoted teams so far, Blackpool’s 4-0 demolition of Wigan shows what a tight, well-organised squad of players can achieve, while West Brom’s capitulation at the hands of Chelsea reminds us that the smaller teams must know their limits – ordinary footballers forced to play beautiful football will always fall short when faced with the reigning champions. Newcastle are an altogether different prospect, with Argentine internationals Jónas Gutierrez and Fabricio Colloccini in their ranks, the Black and White will not be in awe of their Old Trafford surroundings. Kevin Nolan was the best player in the Championship by some distance, while up front, they have a genuine successor to Alan Shearer’s boots in the young Andy  Carroll.

Carroll: Part of a new era on Tyneside

The history between the Toon and the Red Devils goes back to the mid 90’s, when Kevin Keegan’s side was 12 points clear at Christmas, only to collapse in the later stages of the 96/97 season, handing the title to United in the process.

These two videos sum up what is best about the mercurial north-east side, the first is Keegan’s infamous rant towards the end of that season, with their rivals closing in. The second shows what happened on October 21, 1996, a day which lives long in the memories of fans.

Once Keegan had left, his side slipped into gradual decline, with Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit guiding the Magpies to mediocre mid-table finishes, and successive defeats in the ’98 and ’99 FA Cup. Things took a significant upturn when Bobby Robson was appointed manager in 2000, and they finished fourth the year after, and made the top five twice more during his tenure. Then, perhaps predictably, as the veteran Geordie made way for Graeme Souness, things fell apart once again. The Scotsman’s short stay left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, especially with the club hemorrhaging money through the permanently-crocked Michael Owen, who cost £17 million and made just 71 appearances in four years. Souness was followed by Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer, which brings us right up to the present day, with Irishman Chris Hughton.

Hughton has won many admirers with his calm outlook in difficult times

Gone are the days of spending daft money on the likes of Owen, Hughton has moulded a team primarily out of good, up-and-coming English players. The signings of James Perch, and Dan Gosling should prove very good investments indeed, while the addition of Sol Campbell should give their traditionally shaky back-line some muscle. 35 year-old Campbell had come in for some criticism about his weight in recent weeks, but going by last season’s performances for Arsenal, he’s still got it.

Ashley: Unpopular

All of these pragmatic, sensible signings do make the typical Newcastle fan yearn for a bit of folly though; the likes of Faustino Asprilla, Carl Cort, Hugo Viana, and of course Michael Owen are all part of an era that will probably never return to St James’ Park. With the notoriously penny-pinching Mike Ashley in charge of finances, Hughton doesn’t have much to work with. Still, if they can finally complete the loan signing of Hatem Ben Arfa from Marseille, they will have pulled off the biggest transfer coup of the summer. He will join a long line of tempermental French wingers to serve the club. David “40 fags a day” Ginola and Laurent Robert have gone down in the club’s folklore, and Ben Arfa’s style of play really suits the English game.

So, how will they actually fare out this season? Well, they are nowhere near Sir Bobby’s great team of the early noughties. At the moment, their strengths lie in midfield; the typical line-up this year will be Gutierrez, Barton/Smith, Guthrie and Lovenkrands/Ben Arfa, with Kevin Nolan just behind a lone striker. Compared to a typical ’03/’04 midfield of Robert, Speed, Jenas and Solano, (plus Shearer and Bellamy up front), so there’s still a long way to go. I have often said, having followed them closely in the Championship last year, that they would have come around 12th in the Premiership with the form they were in. Now, with a few extra signings under their belt, and a new winning mentality forged during tough times last year, they should (in theory at least) do pretty well. Well worth putting a fiver on them staying up anyway.