The Grey Neutral: Emma Hayes – who will really change the game and hire a serial winner?

ONE DAY a football club is going to make history by appointing a woman to manage a men’s team. When that day comes, the sport will change forever, the impact will be more seismic than any 91,000 crowd at the Camp Nou. Why? Because football will move from being a man’s pastime played by women to simply being “The Game”. That woman may well be Emma Hayes, currently presiding over Chelsea’s Women and arguably the most successful football manager in Britain at the moment. She deserves huge respect for her achievements, but what will be the next career move for Emma Hayes? It could be a stint abroad, managing one of the blue riband women’s clubs such as Barcelona, Lyon or Wolfsburg, or maybe it will be a rival such as Manchester City or United.

But what of shifting into the men’s game? Hayes has many positive attributes. Her man management skills are, apparently, excellent. Her no-nonsense personality would also shield her from some of the nonsense that goes on in football, and her tactical nouse is without question. She’s a highly intelligent individual, something that’s often lacking in football. Aside from looking the other way in a dressing room full of primadonnas, there is no reason why Hayes should not be given a chance – if she wants it, of course.

Hayes’ Chelsea completed the double at Wembley, beating Manchester City 3-2 after extra time a day after the men’s team lost their third successive FA Cup final. A week earlier, they clinched the WSL title. Hayes has won six titles and four FA Cups. What’s more, she’s spent a decade in charge – when did a Chelsea manager ever manage that? The answer is Billy Birrell (1939-1952), but given the second world war restricted his role, nobody is ever going to beat David Calderhead who sat in the Stamford Bridge hot seat from 1907 to 1933.

Even goal machines age

THE BUNDESLIGA is over for another season and guess who has won the title? Bayern Munich for the 10th season in a row. Germany was supposed to be the perfect model for a football structure, clubs partially owned by fans, sensible financing, big crowds, plenty of goals and unanimous hatred of any club that doesn’t comply to 50+1. Bayern’s domination is somewhat boring and cannot possibly be healthy for German football.

Germany’s clubs do not seem as competitive at the highest level these days. Bayern, of course, have enough money to remain an elite organisation, but they tumbled out to Villareal in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Now we hear that their star striker, Robert Lewandowski, may want to leave Munich. He will be 34 by the time the 2022-23 season gets underway. Who will be in the market for him? Cost aside, is the gamble worth it as a 34 year-old can be more prone to injury and will take longer to recover. Lewandowski is an exceptional striker, but only a club with a short-term outlook would sign him, surely? Call me cynical, but in all probability, he will stay at Bayern on improved terms, unless Barca and PSG take a punt.

When you’re 26, you should be the finished product

THE SIGHT of Ruben Loftus-Cheek leaving the field after being substituted by manager Thomas Tuchel was a little sad. The 26 year-old had only been on the field 14 minutes after coming on for Christian Pulisic in the 106th minute of the FA Cup final. Notwithstanding it’s pretty humiliating to be subbed as a sub, you have to wonder how long Loftus-Cheek will stay at Chelsea, where he has never established himself? At 26, he is what he is, so if Chelsea don’t fancy him, then let him go. His five-year contract expires in 2024, so Chelsea can command a fee, but from his perspective, he probably needs to move. This is a player with eight England caps, by the way.

Why we should be glad that Stockport are back

THE ROMANTICS among us undoubtedly raised a smile or two when news of Stockport County’s promotion back to the Football League came through. Their 2-0 victory over Halifax finally beat-off Wrexham’s challenge and after 11 years, they are back. The mere mention of “the Hatters” is a reminder that industrialised football began in the north of England and Scotland and clubs like Stockport, Rochdale, Bury and Oldham represented the heart of the game. It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s because you only have to go back 20 years to find that the club reached the semi-final of the Football League Cup. And in 2002, they were in the Championship, so what went wrong? In 2015, the club set out to win back their Football League place by 2020. They’re two years overdue, but nobody will complain. Stockport itself is a town of 136,000 people and although the catchment area is broader, it is an area that includes lots of clubs, not least United and City. The town featured in many paintings by L.S. Lowry, so It’s easy to wallow in a bit of cloth cap nostalgia about the place, but it’s a different, more challenging and uncertain world today than when good-to-honest working class folk occupied the terraces of Edgeley Park and were not as easily distracted by events in Manchester. Welcome back Stockport County!

Proving they’re probably still the best – Bayern Munich’s Klassiker win

EACH season, the same question is asked: can anyone really stop Bayern Munich? There’s sometimes a little suggestion that perhaps the European champions are not totally on their game or signs that another team has got its act together, but for determination and pure skill, nobody seems able to get in Bayern’s way for too long. It has been that way since 2013 and it is beginning to look as if Bayern coach Hansi Flick will get the traditional hose-down with lager once more this year.

Bayern Munich sometimes give a team a head start but still end up comfortable winners. The team has shown, time and time again, they lack nothing in resilience, coming from a goal down 10 times this season to earn at least a point.

Against Borussia Dortmund, Bayern even permitted their opponents a 2-0 lead after nine minutes but came back to win 4-2. Dortmund, it could be argued, scored their goals too early on – Bayern had more than 80 minutes to stage their recovery. The team in yellow also dropped far too deep, almost inviting Bayern to come at them, and they did.

Bayern have lost three Bundesliga games this season, but at home they are unbeaten. RB Leipzig are chasing them hard this season and when Bayern went into the Klassiker, they were in second place after RB Leipzig had beaten Freiburg 3-0 to temporarily leapfrog them. Their form has been patchy at times, prompting criticism from the Bayern top tier, and they have been quite uncharacteristic in defence. They haven’t conceded as many goals in league games for almost 30 years. 

They must have been cheering heartily over in eastern Germany when 20 year-old Erling Haaland drove a left foot shot past Manny Neuer in just over a minute’s play. Haaland, a force of nature if ever there was one, did it again eight minutes later, finishing off a superb passage of play as he swept the ball in at the near post, Jamie Vardy style.

Haaland did his cause no harm at all and his performance only served to emphasise his excellent finishing and enormous promise. Flick has tenuously hinted his club might be interested in acquiring the young Norwegian goal machine and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is, apparently, opening his cheque book in anticipation of a summer raid on Dortmund. 

The list of Haaland’s suitors is akin to the modern A to Z of European football, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and the two Manchester clubs. Bayern, however, may be favourites – they have been very adept at snatching  their rivals’ best players over the past decade, strengthening  their own squad while weakening the opposition – invariably BVB.

Haaland, who went off injured, is the most obvious heir apparent to Robert Lewandowski, who netted a hat-trick against his former club and took his tally to 31 Bundesliga goals for the season. The evergreen Pole has now scored 276 league goals, making him one of the Bundesliga’s all-time greats of the penalty area. Haaland, meanwhile hit his 100th goal, a landmark that has been achieved in under 150 games. 

Lewandowski will be 33 in August but still has two years remaining on his contract. He shows no sign of slowing-up judging by this season’s haul. There has been talk of him moving to the US to finish his career in Major League Soccer, but he’s likely to see out his contract with Bayern. 

Flick’s side returned to the top of the table after their 4-2 win against Dortmund, two points clear of Leipzig. Their 71 goals in 24 games is a remarkable figure given the next highest scoring club in the league is Dortmund on 50. What is notable this season is that Bayern have conceded 34 goals in 24 games.  

RB Leipzig will not allow Bayern to accelerate into the distance without a fight, but having lost one piece of their 2020 treble in the DFB Pokal (against Holstein Kiel), Bayern will be eager to make it nine consecutive titles. They will also be out to retain the Champions League and they are already as good as through to the last eight having won 4-1 away to Lazio in the first leg of the round of 16.

Borussia Dortmund were without England’s Jadon Sancho, but Bayern have long been their bete noire, it is almost seven years since they won a league game in Munich. And Bayern like to score against them by the bucketload. In the previous six meetings in Bavaria, they notched-up 26 goals against BVB, conceding just three times. At least the Allianz saw a closer contest this time, even if the outcome provided more evidence that Bayern will most likely make it nine in a row come the end of the campaign. Watch out for RB Leipzig versus Bayern Munich on April 3.


Lewandowski, Messi and CR7 still at the top

THE Guardian top 100 players is always an interesting end-of-year exercise and almost always reflects the shape of the past 12 months. But this year’s top 20 has a very disconcerting look about it – of the 20, seven are over 30 years of age and the first three are well into their fourth decade.

It is not so much that Lewandowski, Messi and Ronaldo have a combined age of 100, but the concern has to be that these outstanding players are at the top at an advanced stage of their careers and are not being challenged by up-and-coming younger talent.

Admittedly, the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are exceptional players whose careers are only just running down now. They’re supremely skilful, very fit and still scoring goals. Robert Lewandowski is an incredibly consistent goal-scorer and is enjoying a late career flourish. He is also the centre forward of the European and German champions. The year 2020 belonged to Bayern Munich and Lewandowski. 

Where are the heirs to these iconic players? Kevin De Bruyne is in fourth position, but he is 29, he’s not going to get any better. Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Mo Salah are both 28 and players like Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane are 27. In other words, these are players in their prime, we are seeing, or have seen, the best of them. Kylian Mbappe (22), who was the great hope to assume the role of the world’s number one, dropped in the Guardian list this year, but the big newcomer is the Norwegian Erland Haaland of Borussia Dortmund, who is just 20 and has leapt from 53rd to number six.

In total, 27% of the top 100 are over 30 years of age, with the evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 39, the oldest of them all. He’s scoring and AC Milan are riding high at the top of Serie A. Zlatan’s influence is huge in Milan, but even the great Swedish maverick cannot thwart father time and he has become a little injury prone. But to still being among the games best demonstrates just how unique Ibra is. As for the rest of the list, 27% are under 25 and 46% are in their prime years of 25-29.

Liverpool and Bayern Munich are the leading clubs, contributing 12% and 11% respectively to the top 100 and Real Madrid have eight players in the list. Germany is the top nationality, followed by Brazil, France and England. Interestingly, the highest-placed English player is a defender, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Barcelona have just six representatives in the list, highlighting the club’s diminishing influence. In 2019, they had eight, in 2018 nine. Tottenham have also declined, their 2020 presence is just two players (Harry Kane and Son) four fewer than in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, the top five European leagues account for 98% of the top 100, with the Premier League providing 35 players. The Premier League is followed by La Liga (20), Serie A (19) and the Bundesliga (15). 

Will the three old-stagers be at the top in 2021? You wouldn’t bet against it, but sooner or later, younger guns will surely be trying to claim their places on the podium.

Photo: PA Images