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MARTIN SAMUEL: What a JOKE for United to think that Antonio Conte wasn’t worth the trouble

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56487069 10708783 Image A 29 1649702747698.jpg
56487069 10708783 Image A 29 1649702747698.jpg

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Nobody knows what Erik ten Hag will bring to Manchester United. He may be a brilliant manager, he may deliver Champions League football year in year out, maybe the first title since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson. 

He could develop players who have lost their way, and produce, at last, a recognisable style and vision of how United should play.

One thing we know for certain, though: he can’t do that this season. He can’t do what Antonio Conte has done for Tottenham in the here and now. United missed that boat, missed the chance to get to work on their problems the day they sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Conte was available. They thought he would be too much trouble.

Manchester United decided against hiring Antonio Conte as their manager last year

Manchester United decided against hiring Antonio Conte as their manager last year 

Depends what is meant by trouble. A run that should see them qualifying for the Champions League does not seem to be troubling Tottenham greatly. Nor does the rejuvenation of the partnership between Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, and the creation of a potent triumvirate with loan signing Dejan Kulusevski.

Also untroubling would be the rise from ninth when Conte took over, to fourth now — or the fact Arsenal are the club most likely to be deposed from that final Champions League spot.

Daniel Levy made a bold move getting in Conte to rescue Spurs’ season, and more, but he needed one big break for it to happen. He needed United to as good as give up on this campaign.

For United, 2021-22 is another bust. No trophies and an increasingly forlorn fight to qualify for the Champions League. Right now, all that is keeping them steady for a berth in the Europa League next season is that the same competition is stretching West Ham’s playing resources to their absolute limit.

Ajax manager Erik ten Hag appears to be the leading candidate to take over at United

Ajax manager Erik ten Hag appears to be the leading candidate to take over at United 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked as United manager all the way back in November

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked as United manager all the way back in November

Yet another season out of the Champions League hurts United’s finances. Major deals with TeamViewer and adidas contain significant penalties if United do not enjoy exposure in UEFA’s marquee tournament.

With new financial fair play regulations governing wages in proportion to income, United’s shortcomings matter. It is hard to blame this on Ralf Rangnick.

An interim appointment is always fraught with danger. United looked under-coached in the Solskjaer era and Rangnick was sold as a technician. The players haven’t responded to him as hoped, however, because he’s so plainly passing through. Conte would have had them standing to attention, the way he did at Tottenham. He swept out those who were holding the club back within a matter of months, because he was empowered to do so.

United made a mistake. Not long term, perhaps, because that would pre-judge Ten Hag’s capabilities. Yet we do not have to speculate about what Conte can do. He’s already doing it, and we can see it on the field.

Since the start of 2022 only Liverpool have picked up more points than Tottenham, and points per game this season have gone up from 1.5 before Conte, to 2 after him.

At that rate, with Conte in from the start, Tottenham would be level on points with Chelsea. The battle for fourth would be as good as over.

Defender Harry Maguire (left) may have benefitted from time working alongside Conte

Defender Harry Maguire (left) may have benefitted from time working alongside Conte

United briefed that it was felt Conte would be too demanding of the players. Do we believe this, or was it the executives who feared the demanding side of his nature? Again, it hasn’t worked out so badly for Tottenham. A few awkward conversations in private, no doubt; the odd alarm bell on reading Conte’s public comments about ambition and his future at the club. Yet it worked.

Tottenham had a good January. Conte moved on players that were draining his energy, and the recruits — Kulusevski in particular — have proved inspired. And United would have been troubled by that?

Might Harry Maguire have benefitted from time with the man who has made Tottenham’s defence function effectively again? Might Marcus Rashford have been reinvigorated by the coach who is getting some of the best football of his career from Kane?

Conte has worked wonders with players who looked mundane and unimaginative under their previous bosses. For a man who never got the chance to manage so much as a minute at Old Trafford, he’s going to be a hard act for Ten Hag to follow.

TIME FOR UMPIRES TO STRIKE BACK   

A clampdown on poor behaviour in men’s tennis continues apace. Tiresome bore Nick Kyrgios disappeared from the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston in a blaze of obscenities and angry confrontation with umpire Joshua Brace, who grew increasingly flustered under his attacks. 

Will Kyrgios be given a serious ban? No. Excluded from the next tournament? No. He may get another fine, like he did the last time. This cannot continue. The umpires should strike until they are properly respected and protected. 

Nick Kyrgios is unlikely to face a serious ban for his fiery exchange with umpire Joshua Brace

Nick Kyrgios is unlikely to face a serious ban for his fiery exchange with umpire Joshua Brace

Not long ago, talking with Chris Wilder of Middlesbrough, he gave his opinion about the promotion race in the Championship. Wilder said that below the top two, Fulham and Bournemouth, all the clubs were in a cycle of win two, lose one. None, he said, had the consistency to take command. 

And he knows the course and distance. Now look at the last five results of those clubs. Middlesbrough: DWWLL. Huddersfield: DLLWW. Luton: WWDDL. Sheffield United: DWLWD. Blackburn: LWLDD. 

Nottingham Forest are apart: WWWWW. They may yet challenge Bournemouth for that second automatic spot, but Wilder’s right about the rest. It’s anybody’s.

WELL DONE ELLEN, BUT BETTER THAN SIR BOBBY? NOT IN THE REAL WORLD  

Another World Cup qualifier, another ludicrous walkover for England’s women. A 10-0 win over North Macedonia wasn’t even greatly exceptional.

As it stands, England have a goal difference of 63-0 in seven group matches: they average a 9-0 win in every game. And that’s grand. You can only beat what is front of you, and England are doing it well. But it is also the reason there is a small degree of eye-rolling when Ellen White’s 50 goals for England are said to have eclipsed the scoring record of Sir Bobby Charlton. White’s numbers are admirable, but there has to be context if the record books are to have meaning.

It is no different in rugby, where England’s women have averaged 59.6 points per game across three Six Nations fixtures. Again, it is not their fault that other countries have not invested in women’s rugby. But, statistically, there’s no comparison   

England recently had an emphatic 10-0 win against North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying

England recently had an emphatic 10-0 win against North Macedonia in World Cup qualifying 

TIMING WILL BE CRUCIAL IN PEP TALKS   

It is not now, but there will come a moment when Pep Guardiola will be told his future at Manchester City: and then it is up to him.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak is the designated Pep whisperer at Manchester City.

More than the manager’s Catalan allies, the club chairman is the one entrusted with judging when the moment is right to talk to Guardiola about his new contract.

There will be choices, particularly over the length of commitment; there may be exotic options, such as a sabbatical if required. But City are not about to let Guardiola leave without a fight. It just won’t be done with a lot of fanfare.

Guardiola’s intensity is well known. Catch him at the wrong moment and, no matter how good the offer, the answer could be negative. Al Mubarak knows Guardiola harbours ambitions in international football, knows there could be nations out there — Holland, maybe even Brazil — that see him as a good fit. He also recognises an attempt to pre-empt that interest, to broach the subject at the wrong time, could be counter-productive.

Pep Guardiola has been coy when speaking about his long-term Manchester City future

Pep Guardiola has been coy when speaking about his long-term Manchester City future 

It was why Guardiola was speaking in riddles when questioned about his future at the weekend. With matches against Liverpool and Atletico Madrid looming, and the run-ins for the title race and the latter stages of the Champions League unfolding, now is most certainly not the time.

‘I’m not staying for ever, but I could stay for ever,’ said Guardiola. ‘I could extend the contract 10 years but I will not. Now is not the time to talk about it.’

Al Mubarak could have told anybody in the room that. Doesn’t mean he’s asleep, though.

Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool will stay out of the ‘crazy’ race for Erling Haaland this summer. Real Madrid and Manchester City are vying for his signature, with wage demands believed to be in the region of £30million a year. 

‘We’ll have nothing to do with it,’ said Klopp. ‘The numbers are crazy.’ And they are — especially for a club like Liverpool with world-class strikers already forming a queue. 

If Klopp’s sole forward option was Gabriel Jesus, however, he might find investments are relative.

Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool will stay out of the ‘crazy’ race for Erling Haaland this summer

Jurgen Klopp insists Liverpool will stay out of the ‘crazy’ race for Erling Haaland this summer

LEEDS BONUS AN EXPENSIVE OVERREACTION  

Jesse Marsch, his staff and Leeds’ players could be paid up to £48million in bonuses if the club remain in the Premier League. 

Yet did anyone think Leeds were going down, even under Marcelo Bielsa? Yes, they were on a poor run, but there always looked to be three worse teams. 

Football clubs never need an excuse to waste money, but the fear of relegation does force them to do extraordinary things. As Sam Allardyce’s accountant will no doubt testify.

Jesse Marsch and Leeds could get up to £48m in bonuses if they remain in the Premier League

Jesse Marsch and Leeds could get up to £48m in bonuses if they remain in the Premier League

DIEGO’S DAUGHTER HAS NO RIGHT TO GET SHIRTY 

Diego Maradona’s daughter has claimed her father’s Argentina shirt, in the possession of former England midfielder Steve Hodge and soon to be up for auction at Sotheby’s, is not the one in which he scored the famous Hand of God goal.

Hodge exchanged shirts with Maradona in the tunnel at the end of the game. It was probably the nearest he, or any England team-mate, got to him that day. ‘The England player thinks he’s got my dad’s shirt, but there’s confusion,’ said Dalma. ‘He has the first-half top. That’s not the one my dad scored his goals with.’

Sorry? That makes no sense. Why would Maradona be carrying his first-half top at the end of the second half? Where was he keeping it? In a backpack by the goal with a drink and his sandwiches like on Hackney Marshes?

The shirt has been on display in the National Football Museum for 20 years, without debate, and Sotheby’s claim it has been verified from photographs by experts as the authentic second-half shirt. Maradona even wrote in his autobiography that he gave his shirt to Hodge.

So why should Dalma care? Might it be the estimated sale price of £6million? The family wouldn’t conveniently happen to have the ‘real’ shirt in an attic somewhere, by any chance?

Maradona’s daughter says her father’s Argentina shirt, in the possession of former England midfielder Steve Hodge, is not the one in which he scored the famous Hand of God goal

Maradona’s daughter says her father’s Argentina shirt, in the possession of former England midfielder Steve Hodge, is not the one in which he scored the famous Hand of God goal

The shirt is due to go on sale in a dedicated online action taking place between April and May

The shirt is due to go on sale in a dedicated online action taking place between April and May

Reinforcing his commitment to Southampton, Matt Le Tissier once claimed that when all his contemporaries got together in the bar after their careers were over, there would be those who could say they won more, but none who could claim they were better at football. 

It was a lovely insight into the reasoning of a one-club man, from a time when Le Tissier was open to reason. Last week, he stood down as club ambassador, having disappeared down a rabbit-hole of modern conspiracy theories. What a terrible pity.

BRIDGES DEBACLE CAN STILL LEAD TO BALANCE   

Emily Bridges’ family are threatening a robust response, maybe legal action, after a ban on transgender competition in elite female cycling events. 

Certainly, the rules are a mess. Yet the problems stem from administrators who disproportionately valued inclusion over fairness. 

It went too far, and there was always going to be a reaction. If any good comes from this, balance will be achieved.

If any good comes from the Emily Bridges (above) situation, balance will be achieved

If any good comes from the Emily Bridges (above) situation, balance will be achieved

The problem for English cricket is not that it has never replaced Alastair Cook as opening batsman. 

It’s that, at 37, and having retired from Tests in 2018, he could probably still justify his place in the side.

LOAN SYSTEM IS TERRIBLE – BUT CLUBS KNOW RULES   

Why the fuss about Chelsea’s refusal to release Conor Gallagher to play for Crystal Palace against them in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final?

The terms of player loans between teams in the Premier League are well known: no games against the parent club. UEFA do not stand for this nonsense which is why when Atletico Madrid were drawn to play Chelsea in the 2013-14 Champions League semi-final, not only was on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois allowed to play for Atletico, UEFA ruled a £3million compensation clause in his contract inadmissible.

So, of course Gallagher should be able to face Chelsea. All loaned players should be available for every match. But those aren’t the rules, which favour elite clubs being able to stockpile talent and farm it out as a favour or for a fee.

Gallagher has thrived for Palace and, as such, can play against all of Chelsea’s rivals, but not Chelsea. It is a terrible system, skewed towards the richest, which is why they love it.

Conor Gallagher is unable to face parent club Chelsea in this weekend's FA Cup semi-final

Conor Gallagher is unable to face parent club Chelsea in this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final 

Nick Faldo says he was talking to Tiger Woods about his issues playing the Masters. ‘It’s only pain,’ Woods insisted. ‘Just pain.’ How much pain, Faldo inquired. How did it compare to, say, the 2008 US Open? 

‘Oh, it’s a lot worse than that,’ Woods confirmed. That was the tournament he won on two stress fractures and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. What an extraordinary man he is.



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