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!

The cashless Non-league society and Luiz in Brazil

OK, it was my fault, I didn’t read the small print, AFC Rushden & Diamonds don’t take cash – unless, of course, you buy a programme. Whatever the reason for the club not to take hard currency, they are making a mistake. Non-league football is not big-time football – there were just 387 people at the game with Hitchin, not 38,700. The stewards claimed it was protecting their people, a bizarre statement given the rest of the ground was free and easy and there appeared to be no obvious precautions in place. They may only be losing a dozen or so fans per game as a result, but as a percentage of their average gate, that’s not to be sniffed at. Non-league football needs the casual fan who decides to turn up on the day, or at the very least, needs the facility to accommodate last minute decision-making. Hitchin, by the way, operate a similar system, although to be fair, they did show some flexibility at the recent FA Cup tie with Cheshunt. Non-league isn’t wealthy enough or popular enough to exclude people. On this occasion, I made an error of judgement and did not bring a wallet with cards, just a cash holder, but I truly believe operating cashless non-league football is flawed and not in the spirit of inclusiveness. Presumably, the clubs now pay their players electronically these days rather than little brown envelopes? The game, incidentally, was half decent, Rushden edged it 2-1 with a late header.

Crisis at United – again?

The new season is underway and we’ve already witnessed the start of the game-by-game assessment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After the hysteria over the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, United have now lost three games, a 2-1 setback in Bern in the Champions League, a 1-0 home defeat against West Ham in the Carabao Cup and now a 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa. People are now talking about 2021-22 season being make or break for OGS and insist he has to win a trophy. The Norwegian must be tired of the constant examination of his future. United do not have the playing resources to be genuine title contenders and their reliance on a 36 year-old striker is not exactly forward-looking. The Villa defeat was their first of the campaign and the Carabao Cup game saw a much-changed United team take the field. In the Young Boys game, they were reduced to 10 men. United’s season has not taken a turn for the worse, at least not yet. Nevertheless, OGS continues to be two or three games from the sack if you believe the rumours.

Familiar at the top

CIES Football Observatory, who provide some of the most revealing statistics and data in the football world, have published their forecasts for the big five leagues in Europe. The results are far from startling, as one would expect. According to CIES, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan will be champions. In the Premier League, Newcastle, Watford and Norwich will be relegated, and the top four will be unchanged from 2020-21. In Serie A, Juventus will finish sixth, according to CIES, with Napoli coming in second behind Inter.

Flamengo and Luiz dancing to the final

Brazil’s Flamengo won the first leg of their Copa Libertadores semi-final, beating Ecuadorian side Barcelona in the first leg. The second leg is on September 29. If they succeed, they will face fellow Brazilians, Palmeiras or Atlético Mineiro, who drew 0-0 in the first leg of their semi-final clash. This year’s final is on November 27 in Montevideo. The cup tie with Barcelona saw the debut of former Benfica, Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal defender David Luiz, who recently signed a 16-month deal with Flamengo. Luiz had an impressive first game and was roundly applauded throughout the game. Flamengo were delighted to capture the 34 year-old. Their official site trumpeted his arrival: “He’s won all over the world, and now is in a place where our anthem says, ‘win, win, win’. We want to welcome Luiz to Mengao! Our nation is more than ready to see you in the Sacred Mantle!”

The Grey Neutral: Knees, Qatar and jobs

THERE’S no doubt the scenes witnessed in Budapest at the Hungary v England game were unacceptable and the outrage was warranted. But let’s think about this, can England look itself in the eye and claim racism isn’t a problem in the UK? No, absolutely not, which is why English footballers are taking the knee at every available opportunity – notably week-by-week in the domestic football. Not everyone agrees with the action, though. Rod Liddle, writing in the Times, said if England want to take an anti-racist stand, they should not go to the World Cup in Qatar. Liddle refers to the knee gesture as corporate virtue gesturing, and adds:  “The notion – advanced by some – that if you don’t take the knee, you’re a racist, is as obnoxious as it is inaccurate”. Interestingly, it is noticeable the TV and media seems to play down the amount of jeering that takes place at some grounds. Liddle goes further by claiming that if “England players really do mean something by that gesture, then how on earth are they going to take part in the World Cup finals?.” He points out there is perhaps no country on earth where people of colour get a rougher deal than in Qatar. The proper response is to refuse to attend, he says. We know that will not happen as football has a habit of shelving its morals when it is convenient to do so.

The sportswashing World Cup

They say that the world has enough oil for 50 years, so the future of oil rich states will be under threat at some point. The World Cup is part of a project that aims to reduce Qatar’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The cynics might suggest that Qatar are merely “sportswashing”, which effectively cleanses the country’s reputation and covers-up a whole catalogue of sins, such as human and LGBTG rights. This practice has been going on for decades – you can go back to the 1936 Olympics for an early example of how a regime uses sport to try and improve its image. Although lots of undesirable things were covered up in the Berlin games, nobody was completely fooled. And then there was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was going to be played against a very bleak background. Moscow 2018 was supposed to be similar but somehow, Russia pulled it off. We know too much about Qatar, and we don’t know enough, but the fact remains, this is an unsuitable venue.

Ban them – it’s simple

Returning to the subject of racism and those Hungarian fans. While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would surely be far more effective. It is time to get tough rather than showing disapproval through very benign gestures. Conversely, Refusing to play an opponent that harbours racists, bigots and right-wing thugs would send a very strong message.

Jobs for the boys

Being a Premier League manager is a perilous job. Expectations are high and mostly unrealistic. How many Premier League managers have won silverware of any kind when managing an English club? The answer is just six: Mikel Arteta, Rafa Benitez, Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Who has the best win rate among Premier managers? Guardiola with 73.13% before the season started. The longest serving manager in the top flight is Sean Dyche (36.8% win rate), who took over Burnley in 2012. On the subject of win rates, Mikel Arteta, the current holder of the “one defeat and he’s out” trophy, has won 51.1% of games since he took on the Arsenal job. The Gunners face Norwich at home next, the latest vital game in Arteta’s short managerial career.

Other games to watch this week: Leipzig v Bayern; Napoli v Juve; Sporting v Porto, Leeds v Liverpool; Hearts v Hibs, Marseille v Saint-Etienne.

Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, via Flickr CC-BY-2.0