Loftus Road: West London’s hidden gem

The city of London hosts a wealth of fantastic away days. From the depths of Brentford’s old-school Griffin Park to the idyllic views over the Thames at Craven Cottage, each ground and location seems to have it’s own little quirks. One ground, however, attracts little attention- yet offers so much. Wedged in between an unsuspecting housing estate is Loftus Road- the home of QPR.

Loftus Road was built in 1904, and first occupied by QPR in 1917. It’s last major alteration was the erection of the new Ellerslie Road stand in 1972, raising the standing capacity to around 35,000. However following the Hillsborough disaster the capacity plummeted to a mere 18,000 ( 4th lowest of the 12 football league clubs in London) as all-seater stadiums became mandatory. Yet what’s most surprising is not the size of the ground for a club dipping in and out of the Premier League in recent years, but the fact they can actually fit 18,000 people in there.

On my trip down last season, where Forest triumphed 1-0, Reds fans felt obliged to rekindle one of the old favourites from the dark days in League 1: “My garden shed, my garden shed, is bigger than this, is bigger than this,”. Tongue-in-cheek ? Yes. But wildly inaccurate ? Not so sure. It’s microscopical seats are accompanied by an equally dwarfish leg room, to the extent whereby one’s knees actually graze the person in front’s back. Crouchy, if you’re reading this, please never go to QPR away.

We can joke over the size all we want, but the bottom line is that it made for a cracking atmosphere and viewing. The seating at both goal ends is reminiscent of Valencia’s intimidating ‘La Mestalla’ stadium, where the stands angle at practically 90 degrees. It feels as if your perched in the heavens- yet directly above the keeper. What is most striking, however, is the compactness and sense of community within the ground. Loftus Road lies, quite magnificently, in the heart of an active Shepherd’s Bush housing estate. And that doesn’t mean there is some sensible gap between the houses and the ground, oh no. Some residents can literally walk out their garden door and find themselves face-to-face with the turnstiles. A proper hearty, old-fashioned set-up.

The QPR away day, though, is much more than the match itself. Put it this way, you have two options: glamour-fest or absolute p*** up. Loftus Road is a mere 10 minute drive from the famous Notting Hill and Portobello Road, which hosts an abundance of beautiful pubs and restaurants for those who need a bite to eat after catching the morning train or coach. Post-match, the likes of Marble Arch, Grenfell Tower and Hyde Park are all nearby landmarks available to visit. And then there’s option two. Scattered among the various Shepherd’s Bush alleyways are your grimy, hooligan boozers: open all night long and ideal for those middle-aged, Stone Island head-to-toe men who came down to London for a scrap outside the “White Fox” or some other generic pub name. QPR away really does have it all.

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Chelsea failed Sarri

“Sarri’s not a Chelsea man!”, bellowed Rory from Chelsea Fan TV. In all honesty, he could be forgiven for thinking so. Maurizio Sarri was unorthodox in many ways, but one particular move backhanded the ‘Chelsea way’ right across the face. He attempted, dare we say it, to instil a positive brand of football- an attribute Abramovich has yearned for throughout his time at Chelsea, but something he has rarely ever recieved. Sarri was billed as the signpost of a new era at Stamford Bridge, following in the footsteps of the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool with long-term planning and a positive footballing identity. Initially, anyway, Chelsea fans pledged to support the revolution. But one thing is saying and one thing is doing. As soon as a couple of results went wayward, and form went downhill, Chelsea, well, became Chelsea again. The torches were out, calling for Sarri’s head, and the managerial merry-go-round turned full circle once more. Indeed, his supposedly revolutionary ‘Sarriball’ was largely unconvincing. Sarriball revolves around moving the ball forward urgently, vertical one-twos and rapid attacking transitions. Yet, especially early on in the season, his side were notorious for “sideways”, “unambitious” football.

Image from http://www.squawka.com

In fact, come the latter parts of the season, displeased Chelsea fans felt it necessary to voice their opinions on the system rather, well, explicitly. “F*** Sarriball, f*** Sarriball” topped the charts at Stamford Bridge. Jorginho- Sarri’s golden boy and systematic linchpin- fell prey to particularly harsh criticism. His defensive shortcomings and alleged lack of forward passing was lambasted by Chelsea fans and pundits, especially considering he was taking the position of fan-favourite N’Golo Kante. However, and this is what irate Chelsea fans couldn’t seem to grasp, the problem with Sarriball- and for that matter Jorginho- did not lie within Sarri himself. It was a lack of time to work on the training ground, and at the same time, a lack of a squad able to perform the system.

First, and most importantly, Sarriball requires defenders comfortable on the ball. This is so that if Jorginho- the man responsible for creating from deep and linking build up play in their own half- is marked out of the game, one of the centre-halfs can bring the ball forward out of defence and pick a forward pass. Kalidou Koulibaly performed this to a tee at Napoli. Yes, David Luiz is renowned for his technical quality, but he has a tendency to attempt long, extravagant balls rather than the simple forward pass. Antonio Rudiger is more sensible, but needed more time on the training ground to learn when to step out of defence and what passes to pick.

Image courtesy of https://metro.co.uk

The false 9 is another key component of Sarriball. The job of the false 9 is to drop in between the lines to offer options to passing combinations, while also lurking on the defenders’ shoulders to offer options in behind on quick breaks. Therefore, your archetypal false 9 is quick, nimble and technically gifted- with a fantastic awareness of space. None of these characteristics, however, would you associate with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain. It would be unfair to describe the pair as old-fashioned no.9s, but nor are they your typical modern day striker. Both thrive on crosses into the box and scraps in the penalty area rather than offering selfless link-up play. This is partly why Chelsea’s possession went sideways not forward- there was no false 9 to play off.

Behind the soap opera, we easily forget Sarri had a very successful season. Chelsea finished 3rd thus guaranteeing Champions League football, won a European trophy and were only beaten on penalties by eventual league-winners Manchester City in the Carbao Cup final. However – and this narrative is becoming freakishly identical to the one up the M25 at the City Ground- Sarri burnt bridges with the fanbase. They despised his stubborn adherence to the system and supposed ‘lack of adaptation’ when results turned pear-shaped. Don’t listen to them Maurizio. Once your on those sunbeds in Turin, you’ll forget Chelsea ever happened.

What is a Chelsea man though ?

Tumultuous week for Forest sees O’Neill out, Lamouchi in

Not again, Forest. In a seismic eighteen minutes, Nottingham Forest’s future was sent crashing into the unknown with a process all too familiar in recent years at the City Ground. At 13:21, Friday afternoon, the club’s social media announced the ‘departure’ of Martin O’Neill, followed by the announcement of Sabri Lamouchi as new head coach at 13:39. Manager out, manager in : it wasn’t our finest hour. With Pochettino excelling at Tottenham, and Liverpool finally reaping the rewards of their faith in Klopp, continuity and long-termism have become buzzwords of the modern game, ideals yearned for by modern clubs. Trentside, though, has evolved into a slaughterhouse. 8 managers in 6 years we have hacked our way through- and that’s excluding caretakers. It’s naive to believe Karanka wasn’t pressured out of the club by Marinakis, and similarly senseless to think that O’Neill did, in fact, voluntarily leave. If that was the case, then how did the club find a replacement a mere 18 minutes later ? Let’s not disrespect or be ungrateful to Marinakis here – he shares an ambition and drive with the fans with the money he has invested and stadium renovations- but two promising managers have now been given the chop in 6 months. Alarm bells are ringing.

Yet whether O’Neill did, in fact, have a future at Forest, has been the point of great discussion and debate among Forest fans. The Irishman led the Reds to a respectable 9th, but blew potential play-off hopes in a wretched April, where Forest picked up zero points out of a possible 12. It was the style of football, though, which particularly dismayed the Red’s faithful. O’Neill was largely adherent to a 4-1-4-1, with not one defensive midfielder- but three- in the middle of the park. Tight and compact defensively, we lacked the requisite creativity and rhythm further up the pitch with star-man Joao Carvalho relegated to the bench and old fashioned no.9 Daryl Murphy favoured up top. O’Neill refused to adapt- even when results turned pear-shaped- until the last three games of the season. By this point, however, O’Neill was public enemy no.1 among Forest fans- the relationship irrevocable. It was his dogma, his old-school approach, his ignorance: while all the players would clap the fans off after the match, he would simply walk straight down the tunnel. There grew a tension between the fanbase and the dugout.

However, what actually happened in the last three games of the season is key to the discussion. Not only did results begin to improve ( three wins on the bounce, first away win since November ), but O’Neill began to stray away from his principles, and experiment with the squad. Formation switched to a 3-5-2-1, Carvalho was drafted back in for three immaculate performances, and Murphy was shunted out. On the whole, our ball-retention improved and so did attacking fluidity, with the extra options in between the lines. O’Neill credited this to having nothing to play for, and explained that the reason for the poor quality of football beforehand was just him trying to grind out results. After all, he always spoke of wanting to implement a positive footballing philosophy at Forest, so perhaps those final three games were just the baby steps.

Rumours surrounding his dismissal suggested a ‘player revolt’, a backlash against O’Neill’s alleged old-school training methods. The legitimacy of those reports can be questioned, though it wouldn’t be surprising if it was true, especially considering the mysterious departure of Roy Keane a few days earlier, a man famed for his hardline approach. Admittedly, should the rumours be accurate, it changes the complexion entirely. The narrative is no longer one of a lack of time for O’Neill, but of the Irishman’s failure to adapt to modern man-management. Players nowadays won’t be ruled by fear like Brian Clough used to, they won’t accept a dressing down after a poor touch or spit flying in their faces after a below-par performance. And if there was this much-speculated ‘revolt’, it owes to a flaw in O’Neill’s man-management. Once you loose the dressing room, you’re already halfway out the door. It’s all rumours though, and the bottom line is that O’Neill’s project had more to offer. We’ll see what Lamouchi has in his locker, but we are undoubtedly weakened for next season with the departure of the Irishman. Managers can’t just walk through the doors, click their fingers and get results. It’s a huge gamble on an unknown quantity with very little time before the dawn of the new season. And Marinakis won’t wait.

Didier Drogba: the Premier League’s biggest misconception

Didier Drogba is just one of those guys you can’t help but like. It’s the energy, the power, the flowing locks. The way he bullied hapless defenders. The Ivorian is one of the cult heroes of English football, no doubt. “DROGBA LEGEND,” reads the famous banner at Stamford Bridge. Legend indeed. In an illustrious career at Chelsea that spanned 8 years from 2004-2012 (with one farewell season in 2014/15 ), Drogba netted some of the most crucial goals in the club’s history. One thinks of his late equalising header against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final and his winning penalty in the ensuing shootout. The FA Cup clincher in the infamously tedious 2007 final, an occasion where history would repeat itself ,three years later- this time against Portsmouth from a free-kick.

League form, however, is the greatest misconception of Dider Drogba. The Ivorian only managed 0.41 goals per game- miles below what you would expect of the typical calibre many associate him with. To put that it into perspective, Thierry Henry scored 0.68 goals per match, Alan Shearer 0.59, while Sergio Agüero currently averages 0.69. In fact, Drogba was rarely first-choice striker at Chelsea, which is staggering considering his ‘legend’ status among social media. Upon his hefty £24m price tag, many expected him to hit the ground running in West London. His first season was of profound disappointment, starting less than half of the matches and managing only 10 goals. Eidur Gudjohnsen- an attacking midfielder by trade- was the preferred option leading the lines in Mourinho’s 4-3-3 system for his link-up play and selfless runs off the ball. Drogba, on the other hand, was a more traditional number nine. He thrived on crosses in to the box and long, direct balls, where he could exercise his physicality and heading ability. However, with the likes of Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney adding a new dimension to forward play- that is, dropping deeper to link attacks and chipping in with assists- the traditional number nine was gradually falling out of favour.

Bar a prolific 2006/07 season where he netted 20 goals, Drogba’s league-form and goal stats remained chronically underwhelming until Ancelotti’s arrival in 2009. In 05/06 he scored 12 times in 29 appearances, 07/08 saw 8 goals in 19 appearances, which then dropped even further to a mere 5 goals in 24 appearances for 08/09. In 09/10, though, Drogba fired out of the blocks- scoring 13 goals in his first 15 matches. Still though, Chelsea looked a more fluid, well-rounded unit in his absence. Nicolas Anelka, like Gudjohnsen under Mourinho, was the superior ‘team-player’ for Ancelotti despite Drogba’s magnificent individual contributions. The speedy Frenchman could link play and also run in behind, making Chelsea’s attacks more unpredictable. Drogba ended the season with another Premier League title in his hands and a first golden boot award but, once again, he had become the plan B.

Drogba was the definition of a big-game player. When the stakes were high, when the adrenaline was coursing through his veins, he came to life. It is equally notable that the style and tempo of cup matches suited the Ivorian. They have a tendency to be cagey, attritional affairs, where traditionally technical teams will be more direct- just look at Liverpool in the Champions Leage final. The game becomes a real battle, a scrap, long balls and hopeful crosses into the box suddenly of the essence. Drogba feasts on that.

To earn a spot on the pantheon of the greatest players to have played for Chelsea, to become compared in Instagram polls to the likes of Shearer, Henry and Suarez, to spark misty-eyed nostalgia years after retirement you need to put in big performances in big games. Drogba perfected this art to a tee. But one of the great ‘Premier League’ strikers of all time? Not even top 20.

Kit Review: Nottingham Forest anniversary shirt

The timeless tale of Nottingham Forest’s 1979/80 miracle men will not just forever provide the backbone of Forest folklore, but was an achievement that will never be forgotten by anybody around Europe alive to witness it. The idiosyncratic Brian Clough and his trusted adviser Peter Taylor guided outsiders Nottingham Forest to the peak of european football twice in a row- a feat only achieved by one other English club (Liverpool). Having never even seen Forest in the Premier League, the story never ceases to amaze me, something which can be said for many of the younger generation. Even after 40 years -an era of gradual decline and visceral disappointment- it’s proved the lifeline keeping the city ground afloat on the banks of the Trent. “How many European Cups have you won then ?” The ultimate silencer. Clinging on to the past ? Maybe. But why not ? It is a proud, illustrious history, and one that no doubt deserves to be celebrated.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first European Cup win, Forest teamed up with Macron to produce 1979 limited-edition celebratory shirts (as we won it in 1979), each one worth £70. A hefty price tag, but, in all honesty, worth every penny. There was something almost prestigious about it, as though you were buying the European cup itself.

Arriving in an authentic red box, sleekly adorned with miracle men logos, the Forest badge and a fading, legendary photo of John Mcgovern et al crowding round round the trophy, it was the fanciest wrapping you’ll ever get for a football shirt. Ever. Inside, it got even better. A quaint little booklet containing some of the memorable photos of the cup run was perched on one side- another lovely touch- but it was the main event that really caught your eye. Concealed behind a transparent sheet of plastic was the shirt itself, the different shades of red a beautiful combination.

Though, it was not until you looked closer that the real magic of the shirt hit you. Inscribed on one of the half the shirt like Latin on some Roman colosseum were the names of everybody lucky enough to have been part of that European cup winning team. Names like John Mcgovern, Gary Birtles, Franck Clark and John Robertson particularly leaped out to me, – perpetually popping up when the older Forest fans reminisce over ‘the good old times’. Even the inside of the neck, repeatedly stamped with European Cup Winners 1979, was designed to a tee, while the back of the neck was embellished with a tiny, but somehow powerful European Cup. Macron- a company who can often over-sponsor themselves on shirts – made sure to keep it simple, and it spoke volumes of the importance of honouring the shirt and achievement. After all, only a handful of clubs get to produce European Cup-winning celebratory tops.

Comfort: 9.5

Aesthetics: 10

Uniqueness: 9.8

Rarity: 10

Retro Factor: 9.1

Overall rating: 9.8

Kit review : Liverpool 89/90

There was, believe it or not, a time in England when playing football was seen not as a pro – but a con. It was viewed by many as the game of the working-class, a vulgar, masculine mud bath- far from the stylistic virtues we now associate with the beautiful game. After all, it was the late 80’s- a decade of football marred by three tragedies. The Bradford City stadium fire on 11 May 1985, 18 days later the Heysel wall collapse and the Hillsborough disaster, 15 April 1989. English football had hit rock bottom.

Liverpool, though, were thriving- despite their involvement in two of those aforementioned disasters. Under the guidance of Paisley and Dalglish, the scousers lifted 10 league titles, 2 FA cups, 4 league cups and 4 European cups in 14 years (1976-1990)- cementing their place as the most formidable team in the land. This iconic shirt was worn in the victorious 89/90 First Division season. It would be their last league title. Dalglish at the helm, Liverpool won the league by 9 points with club legends such as Ian Rush, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley sporting the jagged, blood-red design. Football shirt culture hadn’t really begun then- it all started during the marketing revolution of the Premier League. Most sides just stuck with their simple colours, a badge, sponsor and maybe a couple of stripes. This Liverpool shirt was one of the first patterned shirts, and was considered one of the trendiest, most stylistic shirts at the time.

The retro Adidas logo holds a special place in the heart of kit collectors like myself. It’s made a comeback in sportswear as a whole over the past 5 or 10 years, so football tops where the logo was new during the shirt’s use bring this unadulterated, old-school aura. While the previous shirt we looked at (Buriram United 18) was perhaps over-sponsored, the Candy advertisement here is neat, smooth, and the font fits in with the playful nature of the shirt. A legendary tee, it must be said, and an emblem of scouse dominance- something which Liverpool will need to rekindle in Madrid on Saturday.

Comfort : 4.5

Aesthetics : 9.5

Uniqueness: 9

Rarity: 9

Retro factor: 9.5

Overall rating: 9.5

Joe Lolley not fit for Villa and Premier League

Let’s get it straight, Joe Lolley has been absolutely superb this season for Forest. Registering 11 goals and 11 assists, Birmingham-born Red shouldered huge creative burdens for this Forest side- especially when Joao Carvalho was left out the starting 11. He weaves his way in and out of defenders like they’re training cones, possesses a venomous left-foot- as we saw against Villa with that thunderous, swerving strike from distance- partnered by an unassailable work-ethic and desire. At Championship level, a complete player- Forest’s player of the year- and, at around £500k, an absolute bargain. Aston Villa, though, fresh from their victory over Derby County in the play-off final (you love to see it) and looking to strengthen before the dawn of the Premier League, are reportedly preparing a £10m bid for Forest’s talisman. It isn’t a rumour straight out of the blue. This has been brewing for a long time, with it being common knowledge among Forest fans that Lolley has always dreamt of walking out the tunnel at Villa Park, sporting the iconic claret and blue, having supported the Brummie giants as a little boy.

Joe Lolley is fantastic, but is he Premier League ? He is an old-fashioned, almost Giggs-esque, one-dimensional dribbler- and is not blessed with electric pace. Defenders can easily wise up to that sort of thing- especially in the Premier League. On the wing, nowadays, you need speed and trickery to beat these quicker, sharper defenders. Look at Virgil Van Dijk and Raphael Varane, for example- these guys could have played on the wing 25 years ago with their sheer pace and technical quality. Lolley may feint one way, shimmy the other, but by the time he recollects the ball they’ll already be onto him. In the Championship, it’s slightly different. Richard Keogh is no Van Dijk, nor is Jack Hobbs Aymeric Laporte. To be perfectly honest, £10m for Lolley would be detrimental for Villa, Lolley himself, and Forest. Although £10m is still an awful lot of money in the Championship, Forest can’t afford to be losing their most lethal attacking weapon when, for large parts of the season, a chronic lack of creativity has proved our downfall. A short blog today- but an urgent one nevertheless. Please stay, Joe. For us and for yourself.