My intention this week, for one week only, is to make this a Euros free-zone.
But that’s easier said than done. I’ve been away on a short break ahead of joining up with the squad in Dublin tomorrow but hardly a minute has gone by when my mind hasn’t been fixated on what’s coming up in Poland next month.
At least it was easy enough to be distracted last Sunday by what can only be described as the most exciting day in Premier League history. Of course, while the actual title drama was unfolding in Manchester and Sunderland, I was busy trying to help West Brom get a result against an Arsenal side who themselves needed a win to finish third in the league and thus avoid the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. And even though we heard in the dressing room after our match that Man City had snatched a last minute goal to win the title, it wasn’t until I got home and saw it on Sky and then later on Match of the Day that I got a real feel for what an enthralling climax to the season this was.
And, ultimately, it was the right outcome. Because, for me, Man City were the best side in the Premier League this season, and I think United actually did well to run them so close. United are a team going through a slightly transitional period, with the addition of the likes of Jones, De Gea and Young to Cleverly and Smalling. These players will be the heartbeat of United’s side for potentially the next decade and, while the disappointment they suffered at the hands of City will be hurting them, I have no doubt it will give them an even greater hunger to come out on top next year.
City had to deal with a lot of internal issues this year, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez to name but two. This is something United, under Sir Alex, never have to do deal with as he generally sorts things out privately and doesn’t let anything get to a stage where it becomes a public controversy. Having said that, I feel Roberto Mancini did well in swallowing his pride to a certain degree by bringing Tevez back into the fold in the last few weeks of the season and, having seen him and the likes of Aguero, Silva and Toure at close quarters when they beat us 4-0, you could tell that they were a team gathering momentum going into the final few pivotal weeks of the season.
Understandably, our game against Arsenal was overlooked by comparison. We were disappointed not to have finished the season with a result to give the manager a fitting send off before he takes up his role as England boss. But it was a fantastic carnival atmosphere at the Hawthorns and it must have been nice for the fans to watch a match against a top side secure in the knowledge that we’d made sure of our Premier League survival weeks earlier. Unfortunately, we gifted them at least two goals and you simply cannot do that against a side of Arsenal’s quality. Still, it was nice to secure a top half finish and be the best side in the Midlands, something the fans were delighted about as it gives them bragging rights over their local rivals.
It was quite emotional afterwards as Roy Hodgson said a few words to the waiting crowd and went on a lap of honour. The applause he and the team got was richly deserved after a fine season. He then went around the dressing room saying goodbye to everyone individually. He even joked with me that we might meet in Ukraine, which I would love as that would mean we would have qualified from the group! There is a genuine hope from all the players that he succeeds with England as he truly deserves it.
His first proper task as head coach was to pick a squad for the European Championships, with the Rio Ferdinand/John Terry debate obviously high on everyone’s agenda. Having heard Roy talk about John Terry in a complimentary fashion a couple of months previously in training, I wasn’t too surprised he was named in the squad. He also loves his wingers to play inside rather than hugging the touch line so that’s probably why he favoured the likes of Oxley Chamberlain, Milner and Young. No matter what squad he chose he was always going to be heavily scrutinised but I feel he has hit on a nice blend and — on paper, as per usual — they should do very well.
Going back to the Premier League season, when it comes to my vote for player of the season, I always like to push for a player who is not the most obvious choice — unless, of course, there is one absolutely outstanding candidate. But this year, I was really making the case for Clint Dempsey who, I suppose, plays for one of the more unfashionable clubs but still scores a hell of a lot of goals. I must have played against him six or eight times, and in every one of those games I thought he was the best player on the pitch.
The other player I rated really highly this season was Vincent Kompany who was an absolute rock for Man City, especially during the crucial run-in. And off the pitch I always thought he handled himself with great dignity. Sometimes when you come up against these top clubs and players you can detect a bit of arrogance but not from him.
I want to write a few words here about the relegation of my old club, Blackburn Rovers.
When I did interviews with the press after my move from Blackburn to West Brom in January, all that seemed to get reported was the small percent of negative things I said. The truth is that I’m sad to see where Blackburn are now and what the club has turned into. When I signed for them it was a club that was run very well from top to bottom. Paul Ince had to fight very hard to get me in but once I was there, I was treated very fairly by the then chairman John Williams and everyone under him.
Despite Paul unfortunately getting the sack and Sam Allardyce coming in, I played nearly every game that season and, true to his word, Williams rewarded me with a four-year deal.
There are still some very good people at Blackburn and it’s those people I feel for. On that note, I also want to wish Sam Allardyce the best of luck in today’s Championship play-off final at Wembley. He is a proper manager who players love playing for and was always brilliant with me.
Tonight’s Champions League final in Munich will be an interesting affair. With Bayern having home advantage and players like Gomez, Robben, Ribery and Schweinsteiger at their disposal, I think they have to be favourites. I enjoy watching them play, I think they’re a fine, footballing team. It’s just a shame there are so many players suspended for the final and, once again, it raises the argument that maybe yellow cards should be wiped clear in the later rounds, as it’s us, the fans, who miss out on seeing some top players perform at the highest level. Chelsea have steadied the ship since the dismissal of AVB and have already done well to win the FA Cup but I really can’t see them getting the better of Bayern on their own ground.
Then again, I seem to remember saying something very similar before they played Barcelona.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved