"Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try."
- Homer Simpson
When Steven Gerrard made his debut for Liverpool against Blackburn, I was a 15 year-old lad studying for my mock GCSEs. A year later, when he picked up his first red card against Everton, I had just begun my A Levels. On May 31st 2000, a day after turning 20, Gerrard made his England debut. Meanwhile, I was learning to drive. By the time he picked up his first medal, against Birmingham in the League Cup, I'd passed my driving test and was working towards completing my A Levels and deciding which university to go to.
The week in May when we completed our famous cup treble with wins in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, a game in which Gerrard scored, was also the week I took my final A Level exams. Following our golden goal win against Alaves in Dortmund, I went into town with my mates to celebrate Liverpool's success and the end of our exams. We were young, stupid and happy, so we were pouring bottles of WKD over each other's heads in PJs on Wood Street and would later sit on the wall of the Adelphi singing Liverpool songs until the early hours. It was a good time to be alive. I was about to begin university, Liverpool were successful and they looked like only getting better. We had a top manager and an excellent, young side. Michael Owen, who would be crowned Europe's best player that year, Jamie Carragher and Gerrard himself still had years ahead of them.
As I progressed through my late teens and early twenties, Gerrard just got better and better. As he grew up and became a man, so did I. As I reached all these landmarks - graduating from uni, getting my first job, moving out of my mum and dad's - Ste Gerrard was racking up his own achievements. His first international goal as England smashed Germany 5-1. A European Super Cup victory over Bayern. A goal and another League Cup winner's medal against United in March 2003. Being named Liverpool captain. That Olympiakos goal. Istanbul.
There was low points as well, of course. His own goal against Chelsea in the League Cup final of 2005. His red card against Everton in March of 2006. His missed penalty for England against Portugal that summer. Athens.
Since Gerrard's debut, Liverpool have gone from being a decent team to being an excellent team to being an awful team and back again. Throughout all of it, he was consistently brilliant, but his game changed too. Rafa taught him how to better use his energy and he moved further up the pitch, going from a tough-tackling defensive midfielder to being a box-to-box midfielder to being part of the attack, before dropping deeper again.
For me, my overriding memory of Gerrard will be of him chasing back to recover a ball lost by a team mate, sliding in to nick the ball off the foot of an opposition player just as he enters the box, springing up with the ball at his feet and charging up the field, head up, with those long strides, always looking for an option, before pinging the ball 50 yards onto the toe of a team mate on the opposite flank. That's what I will miss most.
Steven Gerrard is the best player we've ever had. He's the best player we ever will have. No player has ever had such a huge impact on our team for such a long time. He did, literally, win games by himself. And he did it for years. During the tough times, I thought and often said, "At least we've still got Gerrard." Him just being there always softened the blow.
He captained the team he supported as a boy to a Champions League victory. Very few can say that. All those games of football as a kid in which he belted the ball between two jumpers in the park before lifting an imaginary trophy over his head; those dreams were realised. He captained his team to an FA Cup victory and a Champions League victory, both of which he would have dreamed about as a kid. We all did it. He's now lived it. The only one he didn't achieve was the Premier League, but he very nearly managed that too.
Last season I wanted us to win the Premier League for me, of course. So that I could experience it and so that I didn't have to listen to people mention how long it's been since we last did. But as well as for me, my dad and my mates, most of all I wanted us to win it for Gerrard and for the families of the Hillsborough victims. 25 years on, it would have been fitting. Gerrard is one of them too, himself having lost a cousin that day. Steven Gerrard deserves a Premier League winners medal more than anyone. Much more than he deserves the ridicule. Much more than he deserves that song. And much, much more than he deserves the guilt. The last 12 months must have been horrendous for him. To have it within his grasp and then for it to slip away. He has carried that on his shoulders despite few actually blaming him, and we can't blame him for wanting to get away from the situation.
For most players, football is just a job; a way of earning money: an enjoyable one, yeah, but still, just a job. Whereas for the fans, it's much more than that. Ste Gerrard is a fan, so whilst it has been his job - his career - he cares. Sometimes he's cared too much. But that is what sets him apart. You can't even criticise him too much for the red cards he got in those games against Everton and United when things weren't going our way because he just did what anyone on the Kop would have done given the chance.
The Gerrard I'm going to miss isn't the one we've had this season. It isn't even the one we had last season. It's the one we had five years ago. The one we'd had, at that point, for ten years. The complete midfielder. The tackles, the goals, the passes, the right foot, the headers, that header, the clearances off the line, the kissing of the camera, the free-kicks, the pens, the hat-tricks, the trophies. What a privilege it was for us to see him in a red shirt.
Over the course of Gerrard's career I've gone from being a young lad to being an adult. My life for the last 17 years has been punctuated by watching Ste Gerrard play; the good and the very occasionally bad. Gerrard leaving Liverpool is the end of an era. Not just for Liverpool but for me as well. It symbolises an end to that part of my life. Gerrard is leaving Liverpool the same summer as my wedding. I will soon be married and looking to start a family and with that a new chapter of my life will begin. Hopefully I'll have kids, and when I do I will bore them with stories of how good Steven Gerrard was for us, like my dad has with me about Keegan, Souness & Dalglish.
Steven Gerrard is responsible for some of the best days and nights of my life. For that, I'll always love him.
After last season, this season at Liverpool was always going to be a disappointment really, wasn't it? We were two games away from winning the Premier League title. Had Gerrard not slipped, things might have been different. Not all that different though, because Suarez would still have left and we would have still wasted all that money on the exact same players. So we'd probably be in the exact same position now: fighting it out with Spurs & Southampton for 5th.
Despite that, an FA Cup win would have made this season a success, and we were gifted an excellent chance with so many of the big guns going out so early on. The truth is we just about struggled past lesser opposition to find ourselves in the semi-final and at no point in the run did we look good enough to win it, least of all on Sunday. So now the fans are disappointed and wondering where we go from here. So, here's what I'd do if I were Brendan Rodgers.
The first thing he needs to do is to sit down with the coaching staff and decide on a formation that he will go with next season; the biggest factor being whether he intends on using full backs or not. With players like Johnson and Enrique most likely leaving, it's imperative that we know if those areas needs strengthening or not. For me, 4-3-3 is the way to go, so I'll base my transfer dealings on playing that next season.
Of the current first team, I'd say Mignolet, Sakho, Flanagan, Can, Lucas, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana, Ibe and Sturridge are all good enough and can can stay. The rest, unfortunately, can go. I'd probably say Allen and Moreno - putting his mostly poor performances down to it being his first season - can stay as back ups. Gerrard and his huge wages are, thankfully, already off. Manquillo is only on loan so seeing if he develops any more over the next twelve months won't do any harm. Johnson and Toure - both on decent wages - I would also let go, same for Brad Jones. Jose Enrique, I'd allow to leave for nothing. I know we'd all miss his selfies but he has offered very little else this season.
Now, here's the contorversial bit: who to sell? If we could get ?60m combined for Coates, Skrtel, Alberto, Aspas, Lovren, Markovic, Lambert, Borini & Balotelli, I'd take it. Lovren and Markovic alone cost ?40m so getting half price of what we paid for them is do-able. Markovic might one day develop into a good player but I'm not convinced and we have plenty of attacking players vying for his position. I think he'll stay but personally, I'd get rid now.
Andre Wisdom and Divock Origi would become first teamers, providing good cover. I'd then bring Vlaar (Villa), Neto (Fiorentina), Milner (City) and Ayew (Marseille) on Bosmans. Good players with no initial outlay. Ings has been mentioned a lot but with given Sturridge's injury problems, are Origi and Ings alone good enough cover? I think not. So we need a top striker, and given that we only play one central striker would we need four of them on the payroll? Probably not. So I'd maybe let Ings go elsewhere. Even if it is to Man United. Who will most likely also go for Vlaar, thanks to the Dutch connection. If we fought hard enough for him, though, we could get him. Same applies to Neto who is wanted by Juve to replace Buffon.
My #1 target would be Alexander Lacazette from Lyon who is like Sturridge Mark II. However, he might be tempted to stay with Lyon for one more season and, when he does leave, will almost certainly want Champions League football. However, United showed last season that money talks. We should be putting everything into getting him. As well as Lacazette, I'd bring in Ki (Swansea), Ward (Palace), de Vrij (Lazio), Imbula (Marseille) and Amavi (Nice).
Stefan de Vrij has been brilliant for Lazio this season after a good World Cup and could develop an excellent partnership with Sakho which could last years. Jordan Amavi should be fairly cheap and has been the best left back in France this season by some distance. Imbula has been excellent in midfield for Marseille. Joel Ward is a solid full back. Ki is a very tidy midfielder. The latter two both come with invaluable Premier League experience.
Most fans would be furious with those signings, I imagine, because they're not big names. But, unfortunately, we can't attract the really big names anymore. Or rather the board aren't willing to spend what needs spending to attract the big names. Last season showed that with Alexis Sanchez picking Arsenal over ourselves. Whilst City, Chelsea and United can chase the likes of Pogba and de Bruyne (should he leave Wolfsburg), we just can't compete. Even players like Depay and Clyne are out of our league due to the interest from the other big four.
As unlikely as all that sounds, we would then be left with a first team of; Mignolet, Neto, Sakho, Wisdom, de Vrij, Vlaar, Flanagan, Ward, Manquillo, Amavi, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Henderson, Imbula, Allen, Milner, Ki, Coutinho, Lallana, Ayew, Sterling, Ibe, Sturridge, Lacazette and Origi.
That, to me, seems like a squad good enough to challenge for top four. However, it involves a fairly large overhaul which is exactly what happened last summer and is what contributed to such an awful start. And that is not something Liverpool, Rodgers especially, can afford to go through again.
No-one can argue the genius of Luis Suarez. With a ball at his feet, he is one of the very, very best on the entire planet. And his work rate and desire to win equals his footballing ability. But it's the other aspects of his character that so often come into question.
During his time at Liverpool, he was sensational, right from the word go. Liverpool fans could see that he had the quick feet of a Dalglish with the work-rate of a Keegan, and he instantly became adored at Anfield. Terrorising United's defence, the hat-tricks against Norwich, that goal against Newcastle.
But we've also had the diving, the racism towards Evra, and, of course, the bites. Plural. I defended Suarez as much as anyone during the racism claims, and I felt, like most people, that he was punished very harshly. Unfortunately, he didn't learn. The bite on Ivanovic was undefendable, and he was rightly punished, in the extreme. His bite on Chiellini was even worse. And the punishment was even more severe. However, punishments handed to other players for similar actions didn't match those for Suarez, and the press response every time Suarez was involved was outrageous. However, he has dived in the past; he did used racist language towards a black player; he bit opposition players, multiple times. He did those things. It was all on him. No-one forced him into it. He brought it on himself.
Even before joining Liverpool, he was the source of controversy. In fact, Liverpool signed him during a period in which he was banned for having bit a player in Holland, playing for Ajax. They were only willing to let him go because they'd had enough. His "cheating" handball during the World Cup, his constantly disciplinary problems, the bite on Otman Bakkal.
He then bit Ivanovic in April 2013 and Liverpool did the opposite to Ajax; they stood by him. Some Liverpool fans even, wrongly, defended him. Most fans knew what he'd done was wrong but wanted him to stay nonetheless. Then in the summer of 2013 more controversy: he spoke out all summer about his situation at Liverpool. Firstly he blamed the media. Then he claimed he wanted Champions League football. Rodgers and Liverpool told him to stay. Liverpool fans, again, stood by him.
And, thankfully, he rewarded us for that. He was the best player on the planet during the 2013/14 season, once he'd come back from his ban. We narrowly missed out on the title but with Suarez, and the team, continuing that form, Liverpool's fans knew we had a good chance of the title, and Champions League, this coming season. Controversy, we thought, was behind him.
The World Cup arrives and Suarez boots England out of the World Cup. In the next game he bites Chiellini and the world implodes. Everyone from Gary Lineker to your grandma thought it was a disgrace. Some suggested a lifetime ban. What he got was another harsh punishment, but once again: controversy. Controversy that has, eventually, led to his sale. Liverpool would have kept him if they could; the Liverpool fans would have stood by him, again, had he chose to stay. We can't blame him for wanting to go. The press were harsh on him but he was no Saint, but, most importantly, his family wanted a move to Spain, Barcelona especially. That is where his in-laws reside; it's perfect for him and his family.
So he's gone. What now? Brendan Rodgers has invested some the money on what appear to be good players. With the ÂŁ75m from the Suarez sale added to the funds we had available anyway, Rodgers could still afford a few more very good, young, hungry players. The likes of Sturridge and Coutinho have shown that those players are out there. Hopefully the likes of Can and Markovic will show that in the coming years. If two or three of the new signings show as much potential as Coutinho has since his arrival, Liverpool will be a much better squad next season. Liverpool under Rodgers have done very well, even without Suarez. Add ÂŁ100m worth of talent to that and we may be OK.
But as much as you'll hear people saying that no player is bigger than the club, Luis Suarez will be missed. The difference between good teams and trophy winning teams are the difference makers. We've had one for years in Gerrard. Arsenal had Henry. Barcelona have a few, Messi and Iniesta included. They're the ones that will man up when the going gets tough and drag a team to victory. Suarez has done that for Liverpool in the last couple of years. The question is, do we have still have difference makers in our squad? We still have Gerrard but whilst he still has a huge impact on the team, he isn't the difference maker he once was, and he won't last forever. Could it be Sturridge, Sterling or Coutinho? Or one of the new lads; Lallana or Markovic perhaps? I guess we'll find out.
One thing is for certain, Barcelona have got themselves one hell of a player.
In a week in which Liverpool lost at home to Chelsea despite having 73% possession and a Pep Guardiola led Bayern Munich team were humiliated 5-0 over two legs by a fierce counter-attacking Real Madrid side, some would have you believe that possession football is dead. And given the relative demise of the mighty Barcelona this season, currently at risk of finishing 3rd in La Liga, some might say that tiki-taka has had its day. The theory behind possession football is still sound; when you have the ball, your opponent can't score. And that's all well and good, but the problem arises when you lose the ball and a direct ball is played at pace to the likes of Ronaldo and Bale. With the majority of your side camped high up the pitch, there's little you can do. Even Usain Bolt, the fastest human being in history, couldn't match the pace of a ball.
Barcelona haven't forgot how to play, despite their managerial change. Guardiola hasn't demanded his Bayern team play differently in recent weeks. Good players haven't become bad players over night. The tiki-taka played by Barcelona and Spain in recent years has often had its critics; some people have said Spain have been boring to watch, knocking the ball back and forth and rarely penetrating. But when you have Lionel Messi knocking in 73 goals during the 2011â€“12 season playing in a Guardiola tiki-taka side, you can hardly call it boring. Even Bayern, who don't have Messi in their ranks, have scored 89 goals in the league so far this season, an average of 2.78 per game with a supposed 'boring' style of play. Tiki-taka is the beautiful game; technical footballers passing, moving and one-twoing until the cows come home, or, rather, until they manufacture a clear goal-scoring opportunity. And that, in itself, hasn't become any more of less effective than it was two years ago.
What has changed is how opposition managers have dealt with tiki-taka sides. Football is constantly evolving, now more than ever, given the tactical nous of today's top coaches and the stats and computer analysis available for each and every game. No-one has put more thought into preventing tiki-taka than Jose Mourinho, who struggled to match the achievements of Barcelona during his reign at Real Madrid. And he had some success at it, eventually wrestling a league title from them and culminating in the success his Chelsea side had at Liverpool at the weekend. Mourinho setup to 'park the bus', an analogy we've all quickly become bored of hearing, and got lucky when Gerrard's slip gifted Demba Ba a one-on-one. After that, Mourinho had exactly what he wanted and a well-drilled team on the pitch to deliver an unexpected victory.
Even last night, at home to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, a game which Chelsea had to win having drawn 0-0 in the first leg, Mourinho started with 6 recognised defenders. Atletico, themselves a counter-attacking team, out-Mourinho'd Chelsea and won 3-1. And that wasn't a fluke; Atletico have done it all season, with stupendous results. They're in the Champions League final and four points clear at the top of La Liga with three games to go.
Even Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, a man who has long believed in 'death by football' has deviated from his 'possession is king' style of play this season, turning Liverpool into a devastating counter-attacking team with the likes of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. But what Rodgers has managed is knowing when to play it and when to not. You can never accuse Rodgers of parking the bus, but he definitely has taken advantage of blistering attacks against possession-based teams like Arsenal and Everton at Anfield this season. In home games against the lesser teams in the league, Liverpool have dominated possession and, like against Chelsea on Sunday, have at times struggled to break the opposition down.
People are fickle. Ten weeks from now Social Media could very well be alive with the sound of people praising Spain on yet another World Cup victory. Or they could find themselves again declaring its demise, having to shout over the sound of the apparent tiki-taka death rattle. The best teams and the best players can have poor games; when they do it doesn't mean that their entire approach is wrong.
Possession football isn't dead. Nor will it be dead if Spain fail to win the World Cup in July. It's just one solution to a complex problem. Managers insistent on possession football are going to have to come up with a Plan B, because the cat is out the bag and teams have learned how to make it extremely difficult to play slow, probing football. Tony Pulis has been doing it for years at Stoke without really getting the credit. He, more than any other manager, has mastered the art of not having the ball. Some teams, when setup to exploit it, are actually more dangerous without the ball than with it. Teams will have to adapt, to find a Plan B, but the best teams and the best coaches will do.
A Pulis led Crystal Palace host Liverpool on Monday, a game that Liverpool absolutely have to win to maintain an interest in winning the title. It'll be interesting to see if Rodgers and his players have learnt anything from the Chelsea game on Sunday.
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We all hate it when a transfer goes through and the transfer fee is reported as being undisclosed. What in the name of Brendan Rodgers new teeth does that mean? It means one or both parties want to keep the details of the transfer under wraps. Probably because someone has taken a huge loss on it. If you spend ?35m on a striker and, less than 3 years on, let him leave for ?15m, you probably don't want anyone knowing about it, do you, Kenny? And more and more deals are being reported like this in recent times. But why?
I'll tell you why, because deals nowadays are fucking complicated, that's why. When I was a kid, players would move from one club to another and you always knew the fee. We'd all take a break from kicking a crushed can around the yard to talk about Roy Keane's ?3.75m British transfer record deal to Man United or Andy Cole's ?7m British transfer record deal to Man United (no-one gave a fuck about the Keith Gillespie part-ex bit) or Dwight Yorke's ?12.6m transfer to Man United... It was always fucking Man United, because they bought their success as much as anyone, and because, even as a little 7 year old, we all despised them Manc bastards. Well in, Dad.
Anyway, it was an honest time. You'd compare the transfer fee of a player to his performances and you could decide if he was worth it, after a season, or half a season, or a couple of training sessions (isn't that right, Mr Assaidi?). You know what's different now though? Player wages. Back then, they were on nothing like what they're on now. In most cases today in the main European divisions, the outlay on player wages far exceeds the initial outlay of transfer fees. Unless you're Liverpool, of course, in which case you massively overspend on transfer fees. This is why when a player moves 'on a free' and fans go on about it, it winds me up. They're not free; there just wasn't an initial fee. Was Joe Cole free? Did he not cost us an arm and a fucking leg for every game he played? And even when he did play, he was dog shit.
But again, I digress. What would be ideal for us as fans would be that when a transfer is announced, the entire cost of the player, his transfer fee and his wages, were reported to the press, so we really knew the cost of a player. An example would be:
'Kolo Toure has signed for Liverpool, costing them a total of ?8,000,000 over the course of a 2 year contract.'
'Real Madrid have brought the most boring transfer saga in the history of football to an end with the acquisition of Gareth Bale from Tottenham for eleventy million fucking pounds over the course of a 5 year contract and the world, led by Daniel Levy, is laughing its tits off.'
This would be great, because by doing some simple maths fans you could determine the worth of a player, inspiring epic pub discussions inevitably ending with a, 'No, fuck you, Dave. He's only 23 and cost us just ?65,000 per goal. Not like that fancy Italian prick that has cost us ?540,000 per game without scoring a single fucking goal.'
There is a problem with this though; both transfer fees and contracts nowadays are ridiculously complex. It's never just an X million pound transfer fee with X thousand pound a week contract. There's appearance fees, agents fees, image rights, bonuses for goals, assists, clean sheets, European qualification, relegation avoidance, and a million other bonuses that you could never imagine. And that's just for contracts. Transfer fees include clauses for additional payments based on appearances, goals, number of trophies won, league status, and the like. And because all of this is unknown as the deal is announced, it's impossible to state the exact cost of a player. They could just state the expected outlay, minus bonuses, such as:
'Kolo Toure has signed for Liverpool, costing them ?8,000,000 over the course of a 2 year contract, performance related bonuses not included.'
Some people might want a range, such as from ?8,000,000 (if the player doesn't play a single game, score a single goal or win a single trophy) to ?10,000,000 (if he plays 60 games a season, scoring 60 goals each season, winning every available trophy along the way), but there are so many variables, I don't think that'd work. And as good as Kolo Toure is, he isn't going to score 60 goals, is he?
So even if you get a number reported at the start of the deal, minus any the player may earn through performance related bonuses, that still doesn't tell the whole story, because contracts include image rights that make the club money, and money is also recuperated through shirt sales and the like. So shouldn't that be taken into account? Maybe not, maybe we'll leave that with the bonuses.
But will this ever happen? Of course not, because clubs don't like advertising how much money they spend on players. And even more so, their agents. But it'd be nice, wouldn't it? You know what else would be nice? If people stopped saying, 'Yeah, but he was free!'
So it's that time of the year again when we'll all spend more time than we care to admit on picking the best 15 players available for a ?100m budget. The major dilemma most people are currently facing is whether to have van Persie or Bale? Or - outrageously - do you have both? If you choose to have both, you're choosing to blow more than a quarter of your total budget on 2 players. Don't get me wrong, these are ridiculously high scoring players, but can you justify that? Can you really manage 13 other players of good enough quality with just ?74m? Do you really want most of your eggs in just 2 baskets?
Bale and van Persie have become quite familiar with the treatment table in past seasons, so are they worth the risk? A few years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo always cost silly money, but he always played. Like, always. He was never injured, nor suspended. Hence, he was worth the risk. And in the case of Bale, can you even be sure he'll be at Spurs when the deadline closes, or will Madrid come in with a silly offer to tempt him to Spain? If he does leave, which I admit is unlikely, you'd be making a forced change to your squad - and filling a massive hole - within the first couple of weeks of the season.
A second key element to achieving success in Fantasy Football is to find the cheap players who will get you lots of points. Last year, Michu was the obvious stand-out with Lambert and Snodgrass also doing very well, but in previous seasons players like James Harper and Matthew Etherington have brought in excellent point tallies for relatively low prices. The key here is to pick players from the newly promoted clubs; Hull, Crystal Palace and - my recommendation - Cardiff City. I think Cardiff will do the best of these three this year, so when you're looking for a solid defender to sit on your bench, you'd do a hell of a lot worse than picking Mark Hudson, for example, at just ?4.5m. He may not get you clean sheets every week, but he will play, will probably get assists and goals along the way, and will manage a handful of clean sheets whilst probably accumulating the odd bonus point here and there.
The key here is knowing who will play, and which midfielders are creative and goal-scoring. Afterall, there's little use in having a defensive midfielder who just sits in the hole, as they won't get you many points at all. Another good buy may be Yannick Bolasie from Palace (?5m), as he is one of their more creative midfielders, and if Glenn Murray recovers from his injury well and plays anything like he did last year, he will certainly get a few goals, and at just ?5.5m, might be worth a gamble. His return date is not yet known though, but it may be something to consider in October, if one of your forwards has flopped. And with Craig Bellamy at ?5.5m, but also registered as a midfielder, you're getting a proven Premierleague player who will play between midfield and up front, yet won't use up one of your valuable forward slots.
Another risky and difficult decision to make is which new signing do you select in your squad. Is SchĂĽrrle worth a punt at ?8m, or maybe Aspas at ?7m? With Suarez suspended and Sturridge out injury, he might be leading the line for Liverpool early on. Will ?6.5m Zaha actually get a game at United? Risky decisions. I think you're better going for players you know will play early on, and you can quickly transfer new signings in over the first few weeks, once you know who's getting games.
One thing to consider is that the bonus points are being calculated differently this season, so players who play well whilst not accumulating points the traditional way (through goals and assists) should score higher. It's definitely worth having a read of the new rules before deciding on your final squad.
And one final bit of advice: you may want to avoid having any Swansea players for the first couple of weeks; their first two games are Man Utd (H) and Spurs (A), so if you do fancy having Bony (for example) as one of your front three, maybe have someone else in the first two games and then transfer him in for the game away to West Brom.
So have you decided? Bale, van Persie or both? Will Benteke be as good? Will Lukaku get enough games at Chelsea? Is Navas going to be a starter each week for City? Tough decisions. Whatever you do, someone will score a hat-trick on opening weekend and you'll curse yourself for having considered them but, ultimately, picking someone else, who invariably will have got 2 points. That's the nature of the game though, and one of the reasons why it's so enjoyable. Whatever you choose to do, good luck, and remember, tweaks to your team in the early weeks of the season are crucial.
So yesterday Stoke City sacked Tony Pulis, their manager of seven years, despite 5 years of Premiership safety; placing between 11th and 14th in each of those seasons, even reaching their first FA Cup final in 2011. Now, that's some achievement for a team that had been out of the top division for 23 years, but seemingly it's not been good enough, because Pulis now finds himself out of a job. But why?
You always knew what you'd get with Stoke. They haven't been the most attractive side to watch, but in a game where results are really all that matter, few Stoke fans complained about their style of play. They were physical, dangerous at set pieces, often lumped it up to a big man up front, and, with their crowd behind them, very tough to beat at home. And it worked. They beat the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs playing that way and were never really at threat of relegation. But after five years of that, were they beginning to get stale with Pulis in charge?
It's not that he didn't try. Pulis brought in, funded by the ambitious Stoke chairman, Peter Coates, a number of England internationals to try to reach the next level. Peter Crouch, Michael Owen, Matthew Upson and Jermaine Pennant all came in, but judging by league position, it's clearly not had much of an impact. Had those players not been brought in, you could say that Stoke may have been relegated, but they didn't meet the target of getting into the top half.
The gamble being taken by Peter Coates is a risky one. Pulis has kept Stoke in the Premier League for 5 years, but that's it. And with little sign of improvement. Coates wants to get to the next step. They had a brief European adventure in 2011 after qualifying through their FA Cup final appearance, and Coates wants more of it. So he's sacked Pulis and wants to bring in someone else to take them to that level.
People can only go so far, and it takes a certain type of manager with a certain type of mentality - and certain types of players - to win promotion out of the Championship. It then takes a different mentality to avoid relegation and yet another mentality to challenge for Europe, and eventually the title. Changing the mentality of a manager, and of a team, is very difficult. Maybe failure to adapt is what cost Pulis his job. He did recognise that different players - better players - were necessary to kick on, but a few new faces didn't have the desired affect, so what other option is there? What else can change? The manager, of course.
And with just 3 wins this year, and with the poor run of results putting their Premier League safety at real risk, the chairman clearly felt that change needed to happen this summer. But what if the gamble doesn't pay off? What if the wrong man is chosen to replace Pulis? Stoke might find themselves stalemated in mid-table, or worse, relegated back to the Championship. Then all Pulis' good work - and it was good work - might come undone.
Stoke are by no means the first team to do this, nor will they be the last. Southampton brutally did the exact thing earlier this season, replacing Nigel Adkins - who had done, and still was doing, an excellent job - with Mauricio Pochettino. They avoided relegation, but how that will turn out is yet to be seen.
Whoever the new manager is, he'll have a difficult job. He has a squad of Pulis-mentality players who need adapting or moving on and replacing, not to mention a particular reputation that needs shaking off. I'm pretty sure Coates won't bring in someone who shares ideas similar to Pulis - I mean, what would be the point? The new manager will probably be more of a passing, attacking manager; maybe someone like Roberto Martinez, someone who will want his players to keep hold of the ball, someone to entertain the Stoke fans after all these years. I think a foreign manager is most likely.
As for Pulis, well, you'll almost certainly find him back in the Premier League before too long, having led another direct, physical team up from the Championship, but will Stoke be here when he does? Or will they finally be a top-half side? With Stoke director of football, John Rudge, also leaving the club, there is obviously a different direction being taken, but will that direction be up or down?
One of my earliest memories is being sat in the living watching a game of football with my dad, my uncle and my granddad, and I kept thinking, this has to be set up somehow. How come every time a player in red kicks it, it ends up at another player in red, and not at the feet of a player in blue? I remember then asking my dad which team he supported. "Liverpool" was his answer. I responded, "I'll support them then, too". And even then, all those years ago, Alex Ferguson was Manchester United manager. And here we are, 26 years later, and he's finally calling it a day. There are millions of football fans around the world that have never known another Man United manager other than Ferguson; me included.
As a Liverpool fan, I'm obviously pleased that Ferguson is leaving, but he's done a fantastic job at United, by hook or by crook, and his retiring is a good thing for all Premier League teams, especially those challenging at the top. But anyone hoping that for an end to United's dominance will be sorely disappointed. They have the infrastructure in place to continue to challenge for trophies for years to come. And Fergie knows that, hence why he's leaving now, with United such a healthy ship.
So who's going to take over from Ferguson? I'm pretty sure it'll be David Moyes, despite his lack of European experience and his horrendous results against the top teams. It's been said for a long time that Fergie would have a big hand in his replacement, and Fergie, more than any other, knows how important the character of an individual is in driving them succeed. He often bought or sold, or picked or dropped, players entirely on their character alone.
Players who were technically better footballers have often been sat on the bench in big games for United down the years, whilst the likes of Park Ji-Sung was given the responsibility of playing. Ferguson's ability to read the character of players is the main reason they've been so successful all this time. He has built team after team of winners; players who just don't lose two games in a row. Players who consistently sneak 1-0 wins when they're playing poorly. Players with the character to achieve. And it's because of Ferguson's ability to spot these type of people that I think he has singled out David Moyes, because I believe Moyes has that character himself. Everton's improvement under Moyes has proven that. And in bringing in Moyes, Ferguson can feel content that he's brought in someone capable of continuing that winning attitude after he's gone.
David Moyes might not be happy with Ferguson looking over his shoulder the entire time from his comfy seat on the board, but this is an opportunity he simply cannot turn down. The expectations at times will be incredible and he'll have to deal with forever being not quite Alex Ferguson, but David Moyes is one of the best equipped managers around to deal with that. The real losers in all of this will be Everton. I think it'll be tremendously difficult to find as talented a manager as David Moyes, and with their limited budget, they may well fall down the league without him.
I think we'll discover that the Boston bombs were set by one angry, disillusioned America (like Tim McVeigh), rather than a foreign terror cell. However, even Tim McVeigh didn't target innocents. He targeted what he believed were guilty people who worked in a federal building. He had a political motive. As did Al-Qaeda. I don't know the motive behind this attack but I can't imagine how spectators at a marathon could be deemed guilty of anything worthy of attack.
As awful as this is, the scale of these bombs doesn't compare to Oklahoma City or those of 9/11, which suggests, to me, someone more amateur. And not only more amateur, but more cowardly. This resembles more the attacks of Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, James Holmes, Anders Breivik and others, who all took their anger out on the world with a gun in their hand, and, in most cases, took the ultimate sacrifice: their own lives.
Whilst there is no adoration or awe whatsoever in using guns - or, indeed, in suicide - and, remembering that all these were acts of immense cowardice toward unarmed people (in some cases children), whoever bombed Boston took an especially cowardly route. They dropped a parcel and watched from afar as people who had done them no harm, and in no way deserved it, lost limbs, loved ones or, sadly in three cases, their lives.
This will matter very little to the families of those killed & injured though. Their only solace is that America will find those responsible; they usually do.
Casting aside all the rights and terrible wrongs of Margaret Thatcher's reign and the legacy that she left behind, something dawned on me this morning. At her prime, Thatcher gave the impression that she had no weaknesses; she didn't need sleep; she didn't need, nor showed any, compassion or kindness; she was indestructible. She was the Iron Lady.
But what happened on Monday? An old frail lady died from a common stroke. She did have weaknesses. She was destructible. She did need looking after. People were kind to her and she was glad for it. She was what we all are: flesh and bone. No matter how durable the mind, how healthy the body, nor how strong and fierce your character, the relentless march of age will trample you down.
You too will hopefully live long into old age. You will need looking after. Someone to fetch your groceries. Someone to make you a brew. Someone, simply, to talk to. You too will leave a legacy. It may not be a legacy of a nation; certainly not one of deceit and tyranny, but it will be a legacy of your family; of your loved ones. So live your life right.
Ensure that when you do get old, when you do need looking after, when you are weak, and when, eventually, you do die, your loved ones remember how you lived right. And in doing so, that the legacy you leave behind is the best one you possibly could have.