Bluebird…no more?

Whilst reading this article, why not listen to the apt ‘Bluebird’ by Paul McCartney and Wings.

This is just a small commentary on a matter that has cropped up this week. Footballing message boards have been ablaze with responses to Cardiff City’s apparently impending change of branding. Blue to red, shifting across the generic colour spectrum, Cardiff fans could have understandably major qualms. As to whether they are right to and do, I feel several matters come to mind.

If I were to explore the history of my own club, a major event jumps out at me. Rebranding at the turn of the 1960s from Yellow and Blue to White was an integral part of Don Revie’s campaign to refresh Leeds United. Within ten years, they went from a regional club in a city dominated by Rugby to one of the best teams in the world (at that point). Anthony Clavane explains this incredibly well within the context of the Leeds Jewish Community in his award-winning book The Promised Land. Within 15 years, they had reached a European Cup final. Symbolically, the white kit represented the turning point in Leeds United’s history. That all white strip is a key feature of the club at this point. You do not hear of any controversy regarding this change, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the record books.

Given Cardiff’s recent failures in the play-offs, one could reasonably argue that a change in colour would provide a similar turning point. Frequent runs to the top of the Championship have been met with failure. Could it not, potentially, provide a similar benefit to that which it provided Leeds?

Admittedly, however, there is a massive difference between the two. As mentioned previously, Leeds were a minor blot on the footballing landscape at this point. The change in kit was no issue, as there was no real identity to the club. It was not as if Leeds’s nickname of the Peacocks had anything to do with the colour of the segments on the kit. Cardiff fans can point to their nickname, the ‘bluebirds’, as being heavily linked to the blue and white kit they wear. There is an identity there. It is not the same as a shift that occurred several generations ago. Too much history is tied up in the club colours to accept it readily.

Other minor benefits include the potential marketing ability of the new colours. Word is that in Malaysia, the club have struggled to take advantage of the connections of owner Dato Chan Tien Ghee in this regard, due to the colour of the kit. Red is, apparently, more marketable than blue. Furthermore, the money ‘TG’ could plunge in, were the club to change the kit according to his wishes, would obviously be a great boon to any attempt to get out of the league. Finally, the attempt to become the nation’s club by branding themselves in the primary colour of the flag could reap benefits. This could increase income, should the entire nation find themselves represented in the club.

However, in reality, history should take precedent. It is not like Revie’s Leeds switch, there is too much feeling involved to wade through. It has to be taken as a positive that Cardiff have decided not to go ahead with the change. One can say it would probably not have had a positive end.

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Psychic Shola and Newcastle’s rise

When Shola Ameobi said in April last year that he still dreamed of playing Champions League football with Newcastle, reactions ranged from bemusement to outright howls of derision from some quarters. A topsy turvy summer followed, which saw the arrivals of classy french midfielder Yohan Cabaye from Ligue 1 champions Lille and powerful striker Demba Ba on a free transfer; but the departure of the influential trio of Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique – all 3 of them star performers in the club’s first season back in the premiership. Enrique left with the claim that the club would never again challenge for the top 6, a remark that many experts saw no reason to disagree with. Indeed some pundits, perhaps accustomed to the apparent tradition of self destruction at the club, predicted a struggle against relegation for the coming season. Ameobi’s dream of Champions League football seemed to be pure fantasy.

Visionary: Shola predicted the return of European football when no one else would

12 months on from Shola’s derided claim and only goal difference separates the Toon from returning to Europe’s elite competition. An already stellar season – one that has seen a demolition of the champions, an 11 game unbeaten run and not one but twoof the best individual goals seen at St James’ in recent years – could now be capped with what is, aside from winning the league, the ultimate aim of all teams in the division. The heroes of last season may have departed, but new figures have emerged. Ryan Taylor earned cult status after only two games with his freekick against Sunderland. Yohan Cabaye has given the side a touch of genuine class and formed one of the most formidable midfield partnerships in the league alongside Ivorian enforcer Cheik Tiote. Goal machine Demba Ba was at one point the most prolific striker in the league, his 16 goals propelling the team up the division. As a result of the early season performances of these players, United have occupied the European places for the majority of the season. Yet it is only recently that people have truly begun to believe that Champions League football could be a reality, that Shola’s vision could indeed be realised, only one year on.

Digging in: the Toon have fought hard for every point they've earned this season, and deservedly sit in 5th place in the table

This is a result of a sensational run of form that has seen the club win its last 5 league games – a run currently only bettered by Barcelona and Ajax in Europe’s top leagues. While injury and fatigue have understandably begun to affect some of the early season performers, others have exploded into life. Hatem Ben Arfa was used sparingly by manager Alan Pardew at the start of the season as he returned to fitness after a year out through injury, and as he adapted to the defensive responsibilities he was expected to fulfill without the ball. As a result he now looks fresh and back to his dazzling best, scoring and creating in equal measure, most recently running 70 yards with the ball to score against Bolton. In January signing Papiss Cisse, Newcastle possess the most prolific striker in Europe at the moment, the Senegalese hitman averaging a goal every 68 minutes. They certainly seem to have the attack to fire them into the Champions League, but it is also worth noting that the Magpies have only conceded one goal on their current winning run, something that may please Pardew even more than their prolific goalscoring form.

Potent: Shola has watched on as Senegalese goal machines Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse have fired Newcastle into European contention

Newcastle face a tough final run in: the always difficult Stoke, in form relegation battlers Wigan, rivals for 4th place Chelsea, mega rich Manchester City and FA Cup semi finalists Everton. However, if they can maintain their current form there is no reason that the Toon can’t pick up enough points from these games to take fourth place – particularly as rivals Spurs and Chelsea may be distracted by cup competitions. With Europa League qualification seemingly in the bag, bar a complete disaster, the team can attack these final five games knowing that the pressure is off. Certainly the fact that this is even a possibility is beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic Newcastle supporter going into the season. As the apparent experts keep telling us, ‘no one could have predicted this’. No one that is, except Shola Ameobi.

Nonchalant: Shola has made the predictions game look easy

Follow Philip Buckingham on Twitter @philib57 for more Shola Ameobi based analysis of Newcastle United.

A Note on Arsenal

Arsene Wenger has, in recent years, been criticised in the media for tactical stubbornness. Rigidly sticking to a 4-3-3 with short passing key, Wenger’s Arsenal are often praised for the beauty of their play. They are similarly maligned for the system whenever a series of losses strike the team down. Arsenal, it was obvious, struggled earlier this season. They suffered a run of form that suggested they would not be able to mount a serious challenge on the Champions League places. Yet, they now find themselves ahead of Tottenham, once touted as a challenger to the title, in third.

How have they achieved this sudden turnaround? The reality is that Wenger, criticized previously for not changing the system, has managed to subtly tweak the manner in which his side play, without anyone really noticing. Ironically, the most maligned of players in a much maligned system, Theo Walcott, is the lynchpin to the manner in which Arsenal now play. Who can forget the jeers that greeted Walcott in the Emirates a mere few months ago? Wenger, buoyed by the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who can certainly be considered one of the better young players of the season, decided to shift the manner in which Walcott approached his right-sided role.

A right-winger Theo Walcott is not. Often quoted in the press as having a desire to play through the middle, Walcott has spent the last several years being forced into a wide-role by Wenger, in an attempt to convert him as a player. As a viewer of football, I’ve often been unwilling to criticise Walcott for any issues he may have with a final ball. He clearly has ability, I have often thought, and it should be down to Wenger to integrate him in a manner that uses these abilities to success.

Then he did. Since that point, Walcott has gone on a rampage. Three goals set-up in the 7-1 victory over Blackburn. Two goals scored against Tottenham, in a performance that has since characterized the turnaround in Arsenal’s season. Six victories on the bounce. Arsenal, previously famed for their ability to tear opposition apart under Wenger, once again look threatening.

Wenger has made two key changes to the manner in which his side play. Firstly, and most importantly, Walcott has been shifted in his positioning along the front line. Now essentially inhabiting a role akin to an inside-right in the traditional 2-3-5, Walcott plays far more centrally than previously. Playing on the shoulder of both left and center back, Walcott is frequently played in behind the defence, rather than needing to run at them. With the ball, he has only two real duties, playing the ball across the face of goal or having a strike himself. In this position, he is ruthless. He has been for years, one simply has to look at the performance against Croatia all those years ago. Walcott was, it seems, right all along. He is lost on the wing, but centrally, you can understand why Wenger spent £9 million on the young Walcott in early 2006.

The second major shift is one I thought was likelier earlier in the season, given the departure of Fabregas, and one that has been to the major benefit of Walcott. Arsenal have, despite their sheer ability to retain possession when necessary, become far more direct in their play into the final third. This has allowed the pacey Walcott to often catch defences unaware, with penetrating balls from the midfield contributing significantly to his ability to flourish in the inside-right position.

The midfield three have relished this change in demand. Song, arguably the best defensive midfielder plying his trade in England, has remained willing to sit deep as Arteta and the reborn Rosicky play further up the pitch. Rosicky, who I was concerned temporarily had improved as a ploy for a new deal, has become a key figure in the new Arsenal. The man looks the player Wenger felt he originally signed. The goal against Spurs was a touch of class that probably provided the confidence he had been lacking in recent months.

We stand, therefore, on what I feel is a precipice. Wenger could act conservatively, and recruit in the summer according to his previous tactics. Alternatively, he could plunge into the depths of the new system, and prepare Arsenal for the season ahead according to this. On current form, Champions League football is very nearly assured. Building a team around Walcott’s new role could bode well for the next season. With the unmentioned but integral Van Persie being supplied by inside-right Walcott, Arsenal could find themselves seriously challenging for honours next season. Wenger must commit to this new-found success, and unleash Walcott in this position alone henceforth.