Newcastle 1-2 Southampton


For Eljero Elia, the on-loan Dutch forward whose career flat lined after impressing as the Netherlands reached the World Cup final in 2010, a brace on his Premier League debut against Newcastle provided a certain sense of redemption. The relief expressed on his face as he ran towards Southampton manager Ronald Koeman and embraced him, almost like a son with his father, told its own story for a footballer with obvious talent who has been given a chance to impress in England after a frustrating few years at Werder Bremen.

Elia’s excellence proved to be the difference between two sides experiencing opposite fortunes so far this season. The win elevated the Saints to third place while Newcastle’s resolve to find a new manager became ever so slightly more desperate, despite a credible performance and, had a penalty been awarded against Jose Fonte for a handball deep in stoppage time, could have ended in a deserved draw. It was not to be and a second successive defeat for Newcastle adds to the worrying record of just two wins in the last eleven games in all competitions, neither of those wins coming under the reign of caretaker manager John Carver. The St. James’ Park faithful looked visibly frustrated by the match’s end, the toll of a poor run and the club’s increasingly dragging pursuit for a new manager getting to them more and more.

The Tynesiders came into the contest with the joint-top highest injury list in the league, missing nine players, a state that was compounded by the below-par performances from some of Carver’s players. Right-back Daryl Janmaat and captain Fabricio Coloccini, historically reliable defenders, were particularly deficient in their attempts to contain Southampton’s attacking unit of Elia, Dusan Tadic, James Ward-Prowse and Graziano Pelle. Newcastle could have taken the lead in the opening minutes however, had Yoann Gouffran’s ferocious volley from 25 yards gone anywhere other than straight at Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Saints boss Koeman, missing the influential midfield duo of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama, fielded an under-strength side that still contained invention and solidity.

It was Ward-Prowse’s incisive pass that led to the game’s first goal, finding the incoming Elia who then held off pressure from Janmaat and fired under goalkeeper Tim Krul, an effort against the run of play that really should have been saved by the Dutch stopper. This was Elia’s first of the campaign in both England and Germany and his celebration showed how much it meant to him. Ward-Prowse was at the heart of another golden opportunity for Southampton, his bending free-kick from the right finding defender Fonte who headed just over the bar. Despite going behind Newcastle remained resolute, playing with a vigour, flair and urgency that was evident in their last Premier League match against Chelsea.

Their persistence paid off in the 29th minute in the most fortunate of circumstances; Remy Cabella’s through-ball into the box was intercepted by Florin Gardos but the defender’s clearance smashed against Gouffran’s knee and ballooned into an empty net. A freakish, but warranted outcome for Newcastle’s tenacity and the French striker’s first goal in over 47 hours of league football. The home side upped the ante thereafter and could have found themselves in the lead when Cabella’s pinpoint pass found striker Ayoze Perez, whose half-volley unluckily flew just wide of Forster’s left-hand post.

Gouffran really should have given his side the lead 15 minutes into the second half but his tame header from a Cabella ball into the area was well wide of the goal. Newcastle were left to rue the missed opportunity just a minute later when Southampton substitute Shane Long’s flick on found Elia whose shot deflected off Janmaat and past Krul into the net. Another Southmapton goal slightly against the run of play but one which showed the gulf in quality between the two sides. Graziano Pelle was extremely unfortunate not to add to his side’s lead and score his first league goal since December when his header from right-back Nathaniel Clyne’s cross rattled against the bar.

The Saints’ second had knocked the stuffing out of the home side and they struggled to find their rhythm thereafter, but had a chance to equalise when a corner from Jack Colback reached defender Paul Dummett, who headed wide of Forster’s right-hand post. Scrambling for a last minute leveller, Newcastle pressed and substitute Emmanuel Riviere struck towards goal, an attempt blocked by the hand of Southampton captain Fonte. Newcastle’s angry appeals were dismissed by referee Robert Madley and Fonte could count himself very lucky not to have conceded a penalty. In the end, Newcastle were swept aside by two impressive efforts from the debutant Elia, who marauded the pitch with zip, energy and purpose and deserved his two strikes.

The win means Southampton remain an unlikely contender for a place in next season’s Champions League, ahead of the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, putting to bed fears that the pre-season exodus of the club’s best players would threaten its Premier League status. The victory also means that the South Coast side have been unbeaten in all competitions since 16th December. They will be aiming to extend that record in their next game against Swansea.

As for Newcastle, defeat leaves them in 11th place, the absence of a manager having a detrimental effect on results. With a degree of uncertainty concerning when a new man will be appointed, morale at St. James’ Park is understandably low. John Carver has frequently stated he would love the job, but the delayed decision suggests the Newcastle board may not have long-term faith in their temporary manager, especially after admitting a manager may not be appointed until the summer. An away day at Hull is Newcastle’s next Premier League assignment and, with a number of players due to return from injury, and with Hull’s poor form as of late, the North East side will be hoping for better fortunes next time out.

Man of the Match Eljero Elia (Southampton)


The kids who lost their wonder

The kids who lost their wonder

A compilation of young players primed for the big time, but never lived up to expectation

Harry Kane is on fire right now. With 18 goals so far this season, a record which includes seven goals in the last seven Premier League games, the imposing Tottenham striker has taken a monumental leap in a short period of time, transitioning from a player on the fringes to one of the country’s deadliest forwards. For sheer hard graft and dedication he is in a league all on his own. Cue archetypal calls for an England cap and declarations that the 21-year-old is the future of the nation. Enthusiasts never disappoint.

Kane’s graduation represents the happier side of the conundrum known as the ‘wonderkid’, a triumph which generates sympathy for those who, like Kane, showed great promise as youngsters and were tipped for greatness, only for the ‘wonderkid’ title to inadvertently work against them, and never realising their true potential. It is frequently the same story; young footballer impresses at local club after an indelible contribution or x amount of goals, is snapped up by a bigger one where competition is stronger and game time is lesser. A struggle to hold down a starting berth significantly stunting development until the bigger club eventually cuts its losses and the ‘wonderkid’ is plying his trade in the second division in insert country here. Never to be heard from again. Football is cluttered with such stories, the quantity of which ceaselessly grows. Here are just five of these stories:

Francis Jeffers

Despite a 100% goal-scoring record for England (although he only appeared just the once), Francis Jeffers’ career has not turned out anywhere near what was expected. Having made his debut for local club Everton in 1997 aged just 16, the Liverpudlian showed instant promise as well as goalscoring pedigree, scoring 20 goals in 60 games for the Blues before sealing a £8 million move to Premier League titans Arsenal in 2001, one of the club’s most expensive signings at the time.

But the step up from mid table to the big time proved too much of a tall order for Jeffers who struggled during three years at the Gunners and made just 22 league appearances in total, despite making his England debut while at the club, in 2003. He was offloaded to Charlton Athletic in the summer of 2004 where, again, he failed to live up to expectations. Spells in Scotland, Australia and Malta have followed and the former England striker’s last club was Accrington Stanley. A pedestrian career for an English forward who promised so much.



Perhaps Brazil’s most exciting talent before Neymar appeared on the scene, and for a while labelled the new Pele, Robinho probably had the brightest future among Brazil’s countless wonderkids. He made his debut for boyhood club Santos in 2002 aged 18, and scored 82 goals in 177 appearances between 2002 and 2005, dazzling suitors with his consistency and outrageous talents. Real Madrid came calling and stumped up 24 million euros for his signature, confident they had snapped up the next big thing in world football. But Robinho initially failed to live up to the price tag, scoring just eight in 37 appearances in his debut season. Performances improved however, and the Brazilian had a significant role in Real’s title winning campaigns in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008.

Issues with club president Ramon Calderon led to a record-breaking transfer to Premier League outfit Manchester City, where he impressed in his first full season, netting 14 goals and finishing as the league’s third top goalscorer. But a significant decline in form the following campaign pushed Robinho down the pecking order of the Sky Blues, and he ended his spell in England in January 2009 when he re-joined Santos on loan. Robinho is now in his third spell with Santos, on loan from AC Milan, and continues to show glimpses of the outrageous talents that could have propelled him into the realm of some of the greatest footballers in the world. But glimpses are the most it has ever been and, despite an impressive collection of winner’s medals and 95 caps for Brazil, the 30-year-old’s career can be seen in some light as a disappointment.


Gael Kakuta

Though still on the books at Chelsea, Gael Kakuta represents a curious case in the realm of the wonderkid. His talents were so exalted at first club Lens that Chelsea were prepared to break the law to sign him back in 2007. For ‘tapping up’ the young French winger, or inducing him to break his contract with Lens, as he did to join the Premier League giants, Kakuta was, in 2009, banned for four months and fined 780,000 euros while Chelsea were banned from signing players in the next two transfer windows.

Yet for all that was done by player and club to acquire Kakuta, it can be seen as highly anti-climactic that the 23-year-old’s career to date, hasn’t really got going. Since 2009, he has made only 16 appearances for the West London club, spending of the majority of his time out on loan throughout Europe. Even while away from the Cheslea first team, he has not impressed on a level that would be expected from his parent club. Kakuta, who has played at every level for the French national team excluding the senior squad, is currently at Rayo Vallecano and, while there is still plenty of time to show Chelsea what they are missing, the Frenchman must be looking at his career thus far as profoundly unfulfilling.

Alexandre Pato

The inclusion of a forward who for a long period was hailed as one of the most promising in the world isn’t necessarily based on a poor goalscoring record or attitude problems, but more on a reflection on what could have been. Pato made his first team debut for Internacional in 2006 at the age of 17, scoring 12 in 27 appearances and helping his side win the 2006 FIFA Club World Cup. Intense pursuits from Europe’s biggest clubs followed and the Brazilian eventually signed for AC Milan in August 2007 but was unable to make his debut until January 2008 due to FIFA’s regulations concerning non-EU minors.

Pato scored on his Milan debut and ended the 2007-08 season with eight strikes in 18 games, relatively impressive for an 18-year-old. His sparkling form continued in 2008-09 and he finished as Milan’s top scorer with 18 goals and winning Serie A’s Young Footballer of the Year. Injury would soon set in and severely hamper Pato’s progress and in the following years, until his move to Corinthians in 2013, he unluckily underwent a significant decline. Now on loan at Sao Paulo, Pato is attempting to resurrect his previously impressive career, before the cruelty of injury problems prevented his jettisoning to the world’s best.

Freddy Adu

The granddaddy of floundering wonderkids and a Championship/Football Manager legend, the rise and fall of Freddy Adu is profoundly telling. The Ghanaian born attacking midfielder made history in 2004 when he became the youngest American ever to sign a professional contract in any sport, penning a deal with DC United. Labelled the American Pele, excitement as well as expectation rested on Adu’s extremely young shoulders. The prodigy made his debut later that year and broke every record imaginable – the youngest player to appear in any US professional sport, the youngest goalscorer in MLS history and, in 2006, the youngest player to appear for the US national team.

The expected move to Europe finally came in 2007 when, to everyone’s surprise, Adu joined Benfica. But the move turned sour very quickly and Adu found himself being loaned out to Monaco, Belenenses, Aris and Caykur Rizespor during four years in Europe, making just 11 appearances for his parent club. Spells at Philadelphia Union and Bahia followed his departure from Benfica and, most recently, Adu was released by Serbian side Jagodina, three days before Christmas. At just 25 years of age, Adu’s career has seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows. One can only wonder how his career so dramatically fell apart.

Reigning Cup of Nations champions Nigeria now the outsiders looking in

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**This also appeared on the Guardian website**

Nigeria will hardly be better off when Stephen Keshi, their most successful coach, is cast adrift amid the turmoil and inexcusable failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations

All is not well for the Nigerian national football team. With this year’s Africa Cup of Nations scheduled to start on Saturday, the reigning champions will be watching the battle for their crown from afar, pondering whether, or how, their failure to reach the tournament could have been avoided.

Two wins in the last three qualifiers could not undo the damage of a poor start to the campaign in a group (containing South Africa, Congo and Sudan) where an expectant Nigeria Football Federation and fans demanded nothing short of a walk-through. Instead they saw underachievement, tactical ineptitude and personal battles rip through the confidence of the squad, failure to qualify serving as the icing on the cake. All roads of blame lead back to the coach Stephen Keshi but this is only an aspect of a saga that has persisted for the best part of two years.

In the time span of Nigeria’s qualifying campaign Keshi, the nation’s most successful coach in 20 years and arguably the best the country has ever produced, was fired and then rehired and now lies in a state of limbo over his position, for which he has not been under contract since last June when his deal expired. It is widely expected that the 52-year-old will leave his position. It goes without saying that Keshi has not been held in particularly high regard by the NFF, which has taken him very much for granted despite leading a young, relatively inexperienced side to Cup of Nations glory in 2013, their first since 1994.

The NFF’s actions since that triumph have done little to portray a productive working relationship between employer and employee. Immediately after winning the Cup of Nations Keshi, expecting to be sacked, offered his resignation after reports that the NFF had been offering his job to other candidates. Amid the high politics surrounding presidential elections and Nigeria’s suspension from Fifa following its ban for government interference back in July, Keshi was left in the middle.

Nigeria’s failure to qualify for this year’s Cup of Nations can very much be attributed to the insecurity of Keshi’s position, which undoubtedly affected squad morale and performances.

Which is why when Keshi eventually departs, Nigeria will not be better for it, and it may even signal a return to the state of underachieving mediocrity that had engulfed them for years before Keshi took over. While his approach has been deemed questionable by many, in his three-year reign he brought the best out of the players he introduced and nurtured and brought the likes of Sunday Mba, Ahmed Musa and Brown Ideye into the fold.

His was a brand of quick-paced attacking football that fans had not seen since the peak years of Jay-Jay Okocha, with an urgency that frightened opponents and an organisation that ensured solidity. He was not afraid to take risks and his greatest gamble paid off, as a squad with an average age of just 24 years claimed the crown as kings of Africa. One bad qualifying campaign and the fans are calling for the head of the man revered just a year ago, which says much more about the state of football in Nigeria than it does about Keshi.

Granted, failing to qualify for the Cup of Nations is inexcusable, particularly as reigning champions, and Keshi should take some responsibility for alienating such star players as Mba, Ideye and Ikechukwu Uche and dealing his own blow to his reign. But for the NFF to have treated a man who has remained dignified in the midst of turmoil, with such negligence serves as yet another example of the organisation’s inner chaos and constant search for short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

For Nigeria to regress to those dark days when Lars Lagerback, Berti Vogts and Samson Siasia ruled, while nations such as Senegal and Cameroon are back on the rise, will be a heavy blow for the NFF and fans to take.