Matt Holland (PA)

Warnock, Hughes and what it's like for a player

By SportUK 12/01/2012 14:37

Neil Warnock, QPRThe decision made by QPR to sack Neil Warnock has been met with mixed reaction to say the least. I would suggest it has split opinion pretty much down the middle. My assessment is that it was harsh. He took over the reigns at Loftus Road in March 2010 with the club lying 20th in the Championship, saved them from the threat of relegation and barley a year later was celebrating promotion back to the Premier League. It had been 15 years since the club had last been in the top flight and he succeeded where many before him had failed.


Yes, results in the last couple of months have taken a serious nose-dive and with just one win from the last 12 games, alarm bells will have been ringing with regard to their ability to stay in the division. I would argue that Warnock deserved at least this season and definitely this transfer window to get things right. The current owner Tony Fernandes only had his takeover rubber-stamped on Aug 18th which meant there was limited time to bring in some of the transfer targets that the manager had identified. I also think that his cause hasn’t been helped by the fact that Norwich and Swansea have done so well on a more limited budget, and that Martin O’Neill has had such an immediate impact at Sunderland since Steve Bruce was relieved of his duties.


If opinion has been divided by the fans what will it be like in the dressing room? Well, when it happened in my career the decision to sack a manager was always received with a combination of delight by some, sadness by others and a couldn’t care less attitude by the rest. The players that had been out of favour and didn’t see eye-to-eye with the boss would see the change as a fresh start and an opportunity to get back into the side. Those that the manager had signed or had been playing on a regular basis would be fearful as to whether the new man would think the same and continue to select them, and then there were always some who had little feeling either way.


My love for the Cup, being giant-killed and my 3rd round predictions

By SportUK 06/01/2012 16:44

Ricky Villa, Tottenham HotspurSir Bobby Robson once said that the FA Cup final is “The greatest single match outside the World Cup final”


The competition may have taken a drop in some teams’ priorities, particularly in the Premier League where fighting for a Champions League spot or even merely staying in the division has become more important, but it is still very special. The fact that lowly non-league teams can fight their way through numerous qualifying rounds to reach the 3rd round proper and face one of the big boys is unique and exciting.


Growing up FA Cup final day was the one I looked forward to most in the football calendar. There was very little live football on television but this game most certainly was. There would always be a large gathering of family and friends at our house from early in the day to watch the build up to the match which included reports from the team hotel and the bus en route to Wembley. I can vaguely remember the 1979 final when Alan Sunderland scored a late winner for Arsenal and the 1980 final when Trevor Brooking stooped to head the only goal for West Ham against the previous years’ winners. But my clearest early memory was the mazy effort Ricky Villa produced in a replay against Man City in 1981. An amazing goal!


Matt Holland, Ipswich 2000 play-offsAnd what about some of the songs that clubs composed for the special occasion. To this day only one football club side single has reached No.1 in the charts. Any ideas? I’ll give you the answer at the bottom of my column.


My childhood dream was to captain a side to FA Cup glory and lift the trophy at Wembley. As it turned out the competition wasn’t very kind to me in my career. The furthest I got was the quarter-final in the 2005/06 season losing to Middlesbrough in a replay whilst playing for Charlton. My only goal in the tournament came the same year against Sheffield Wednesday in a 4-2 win in the 3rd round. I did, albeit not the trophy I had envisaged, manage to lift a cup at Wembley in 2000 when Ipswich beat Barnsley in the play-offs, fulfilling my dream (sort of)!


Part of the mystique of the FA Cup is the possibility of a giant-killing. There have been numerous over the years but the one that sticks in my mind, particularly from the 3rd round was when Sutton United beat Coventry City in January 1989. The Sky Blues had won it just two years previous and yet came unstuck against non-league opposition. This is the last time that a side from outside the football league has knocked out a team from the top flight.


By SportUK 31/12/2011 12:22


BarcelonaAlthough they have finished the year in second place in La Liga, 2011 has seen Barca reach heights I have never seen before on a football field. They are quite simply the greatest team I have ever been fortunate enough to watch. After beating Real Madrid in the semi final of the Champions League, they completely dismantled Man Utd in the final at Wembley – the 3-1 scoreline not really doing them justice. With their sparkling array of talent they have finished the year as world club champions and put Real Madrid in their place with an impressive win the “EL CLASSICO”.




Lionel MessiAfter waxing lyrical about Barcelona it almost goes without saying that the player of the year award comes from them. I am a huge fan of the artistry and invention of Xavi and Iniesta but the stand out performer and the one that has made the difference in games more often is Lionel Messi. They say the hardest thing to do in football is to score a goal – he makes it look easy. At times the ball appears to be glued to his feet as he mesmerizes defences. With great balance and skill he has shone brightest in the best team in the world. He takes his fair share of kicks but displays great temperament. Quite simply he is a genius.




Sir Alex FergusonI guess Barcelona deserve to make it a hat-trick and Pep Guardiola be given this award, but I have been a little sentimental in my choice. In 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated 25 years at Manchester United by securing the Red Devils their 19th Premier League title and in doing so, surpassing Liverpool who have won it 18 times. Yes, his side were given a lesson in the Champions League final and Man City have proved a real threat in terms of trying to win title number 20, but his achievements deserve to be recognised. He turns 70 today and appears to have the same passion as when he first arrived at Old Trafford. I also enjoyed the moment when The Sir Alex Ferguson stand was unveiled before his eyes. He was genuinely shocked and honoured.




Wayne Rooney scores against Man CityI was at Old Trafford in the commentary box to witness a pivotal moment in last season's title race. United and City were level at 1-1 with about 10 minutes remaining in the game when Wayne Rooney produced a moment of brilliance to win the match. It may have come off his shin but the acrobatic technique and execution of his bicycle kick that planted in the top corner was magical. It was only a few months before that it looked like Rooney may even move to his rivals, but the celebration in front of the City faithful meant that was quickly forgotten by the United fans.




Mario BalotelliLike him or loathe him, this guy is dynamite (literally). On the pitch he is a special talent and has become a regular starter at City. He has produced some memorable moments such as nonchalantly scoring with his shoulder in one game and who could forget the slogan on his T-Shirt after scoring at Old Trafford in a 6-1 victory –  “Why Always Me?”  There was also the infamous bib incident in a warm up when he couldn’t work out how to put it on. However, off the pitch he has also created headlines. From racking up thousands of pounds in parking fines to setting fireworks off in his bathroom he is always in the spotlight. People moan about the game not having enough personalities – Balotelli makes up for the lack of them.



Newcastle v ArsenalThis is without doubt the hardest category to pick a winner. We have been blessed with some magnificent matches and many are worthy of winning this award. Man City have demolished Spurs and United 5-1 and 6-1 respectively. United themselves thrashed Arsenal 8-2 and Arsenal won a thrilling game at Stamford Bridge not so long ago 5-3. But I have decided to go with Newcastle's stunning comeback at St James Park against Arsenal. The Gunners raced into a 4-0 lead inside 26 minutes and there looked no way back. But after Abou Diaby was sent off early in the second half and Joey Barton scored from the spot on 68 minutes, the comeback was on. It was complete in the 87th minute when Cheik Tiote crashed in a volley from the edge of the box. An amazing end to a wonderful game.



My memories of the year go far beyond these awards. What about Man City winning their first trophy for 35 years when lifting the FA Cup in May.  The large sums of money paid out for Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll have yet to bear fruit. The sadness everyone felt at the passing of Gary Speed. Ireland qualifying for next years Euros. In fact that is what I am looking forward to most in the next 12 months particularly after drawing Spain and Italy in our group. Although these are my choices for the awards and some of my memories you may see things differently and I would love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, Happy New Year to you all – see you in 2012!


Have your say, vote in the MSN 2011 football awards

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By SportUK 24/12/2011 15:12

My initial thoughts on the Christmas schedule for the Premier League teams this year is that it’s not too bad. The main dates of the matches are the 21, 26 and 31 December and 2 January. That’s four games in 12 days which with the size of squads these teams possess nowadays should be absolutely fine.


The only area of concern for managers will be the gap between the games on New Years Eve and 2 January. It is only 48 hours and the players will not be sufficiently recovered to be at their peak fitness for the second match. No doubt you will see a lot of changes to the starting line-ups for the latter fixture.


John Walton-EMPICS SportAs much as people say you should be able to play every day and be unaffected that is just not the case. Most clubs in the top flight use a system called Prozone whereby every pass, how far you have run, how many tackles you have made, how many sprints you have done etc, is monitored. There will more than likely be a significant fall in each individuals statistics for the second game in a 48-hour period.


So what’s it actually like to be a footballer during the festive period? To be honest it’s business as usual. Throughout my career I think I only had one Christmas Day off. That was when I was at Bournemouth under the stewardship of Mel Machin. I think he felt sorry for us as we were away at Crewe the next day, which meant a 6am departure from Dean Court!


If I was playing at home on Boxing day then my typical Christmas day would be to get up early with the kids (sometimes having to wake them up) to open the presents and then head off to training about 9am.


It would normally be a short sharp session of about an hour and then return home around 1pm to have lunch. Of course I had to be careful what I ate and drank and certainly no alcohol could be consumed!


Sometimes managers would want you in a hotel on Christmas night to make sure players adhered to the rules so if that was the case it would mean returning to the ground early evening to go to the hotel.


If we were playing away from home on Boxing day the schedule would be slightly different. We would probably have most of the day at home before training late afternoon and then off to the hotel afterwards.


To be honest, I don’t think many players minded being in on Christmas day for training. It’s part of the job and getting out of the house for a kickabout when there was more than likely chaos at home wasn’t particularly a hardship. And when you think about the many heroes of our armed services/nurses etc that don’t even get home/work all day it puts things into real perspective.


There have been calls in the past for a winter break in the football season and maybe a couple of weeks off would benefit the players to re-charge the batteries and allow for one or two niggles to heal, but I wouldn’t want to see it over the festive period.Adam Davy-EMPICS Sport


Invariably the crowds are bigger with great atmospheres at the matches and it’s also a great tradition. If there was to be a break I would prefer it to be in January.


I remember one Christmas when my children were stuck for ideas in choosing me a present. I said not to bother and that a goal and a win the next day would be just fine.


It was during my time at Charlton and we were playing Chelsea at the Valley. We won the game 4-2 and I managed to get on the scoresheet. It was the best Christmas present ever!


I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a fabulous Christmas and, if you are going to a game, that your team can deliver you three points!


More on MSN Sport


Footballers with festive names


The Fan: what Premier League clubs don't want for Christmas


Festive football fixtures


By SportUK 16/12/2011 17:05

There’s no doubt that the Champions League draw could have been a lot kinder to both Chelsea and Arsenal. Having won their respective groups and ensuring they avoided Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich they would have hoped for more sympathetic ties than they have been given.


Robin van PersieThe pick of the bunch has to be AC Milan v Arsenal. The Rossoneri are an improved team this year and pushed Barcelona in their qualifying group. However, they don’t have a great recent history against English opposition. In 2008 the gunners sent them packing, whilst in 2010, Man United beat them 7-2 on aggregate. Last year it was the turn of Spurs to take their scalp so they will be hoping to reverse that trend this season.


It is difficult at this stage to pick a winner as there is a long time and a lot of football to be played before the matches take place and so much can happen in terms of injuries for instance. On that note, Arsenal will be keen to keep their skipper Robin Van Persie fit and well and that is something he has failed to do for a complete season in all his time at the club. The most games he has played in a year has been 44 in 2008/09.


He is though in the prime of his career and currently enjoying his most prolific spell in front of goal whilst at the same time breaking all sorts of records. Although I would be the first to say that football is very much a team game he is at the moment the closest the Premier League comes to a “one-man team”. The reason I say that is because where would Arsenal be without him. He has got 19 goals already in all competitions with his nearest rival in the scoring charts Theo Walcott some distance behind on 4. Also when you look at the other striking options at the Emirates, it highlights even more the importance of Van Persie.


See my predictions for this week's Premier League action

By SportUK 10/12/2011 11:34

Some cracking games this weekend, perhaps, most excitingly runaway leaders Man City travel to Stamfod Bridge on Monday night.


These are my predictions, see if you can do better than me with MSN Sport's FREE predictor game.

Matt Holland's predictions

Play MSN Sport's FREE football predictor game 

Ferguson lacks a midfielder of the highest quality

By SportUK 08/12/2011 16:12

Manchester United outWhat a disastrous night in the Champions League for the two Manchester clubs.  The exit of Man City from the competition was the more predictable as they were relying on other results to go their way, but the demise of Man Utd was a real shock. For the first time since the 2005/06 season they won’t be competing in the latter stages of Europe’s premier tournament and will instead have to settle for their first tilt at the Europa League.


So where has it gone wrong for these two? Let’s start with United...


For United though this registers high on the Richter scale. They have reached the final in three of the last four seasons and the challenge for Sir Alex has been to get closer to Barcelona. They are much further away today than they were when dismantled by them in May at Wembley. Having been drawn in a group with Basle, Benfica and Galati many saw this as a bye to the knockout stages. Maybe United thought the same and took their eye off the ball.


Or maybe they haven’t solved the problem that they faced in the summer and that is the lack of a midfielder of the highest quality. Last night they fielded a midfield three of Giggs, Park and Jones – that’s two wingers and a defender. They have tried Rooney in that role and Cleverley looks a great prospect but has been injured for large parts of the season. They were linked to Sneijder, Modric and Nasri in the summer and any of them would have made a difference. The manager has said he won’t buy in the January transfer window but if they are to try and stay on the coattails of their local rivals I think they must invest - particularly in the engine room.


By SportUK 02/12/2011 21:12

Fabio Capello will be a happy man. And the England fans should be celebrating too: they've been given a group that they should be able to escape even if they don't hit their top form; even without Wayne Rooney.


Fabio Capello - that's a smileThey know all about Sweden, having just beaten them without really having to extend themselves. And France, while they've improved since the last World Cup are coming from a very, very low place. Never rule them out, in rugby or football, they have quality players but they are nothing like the side that once ruled the world.


As for Ukraine, they're quick on the break with a solid midfield but they lack someone up front to make opponents pay.


The real test for Capello and whoever ends up with his captain's armband is that they can't afford to come second. Wembley win or not, facing Spain in a quarterfinal will be the last thing they want.

  • Matt HollandMatt Holland

    Former Republic of Ireland midfielder Matt Holland talks all things football from the Premier League to the grass roots.

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