Sometimes, Who are You? interviewees bend over backwards to please, offering upbeat predictions for Sunderland’s season that even we wouldn’t share. Not Ben Jacobs*, another of Monsieur Salut’s ESPN FC colleagues but also a busy sports broadcaster and journalist in the Middle East. A passionate Leicester supporter, and first in the WAY hot seat for the new Premier season, he makes due apology, but forecasts an end to our top-flight stay. What’s worrying is that he comes across – with fascinating views on football cheats, Qatar as 2022 World Cup hosts and Foxes management issues – as knowledgeable!…
Salut! Sunderland: Nigel Pearson seemed to divide fans and alienate neutrals while also getting results. What did you make of his departure and the appointment of Claudio Ranieri?
Ben Jacobs: A bit like former Sunderland bosses Gus Poyet and Paolo di Canio, he had a fiery temperament and that ultimately proved his undoing. The stats may crown him Leicester’s most successful manager, but his conduct repeatedly let him down and ultimately proved perfectly fair grounds for gross misconduct.
After avoiding being axed for a winless run over Christmas and somehow surviving strangling Crystal Palace midfielder James McArthur, too, Pearson led Leicester to seven wins from their final nine games to secure a miraculous escape akin to Sunderland’s own in 2013-2014. Having dodged so many bullets it was a massive surprise to see Pearson dismissed over the summer, seemingly for his response to his son James’s sacking for his part in a “racist orgy” on a goodwill tour to Thailand.
If Pearson’s acrimonious exit raised eyebrows so did Claudio Ranieri’s arrival. The former Chelsea boss is 63 and has been through 15 previous clubs. His last gig was an ill-fated five-month spell with Greece. He was sacked after losing to the lowly Faroe Islands. The so-called “Tinkerman” is old school and will definitely divide opinion. The fear is the Italian is just “Sven 2.0”, but he does have enough experience to keep the Foxes up, which is ultimately still the main aim this season.
Is Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha a monster or a magician?
Neither. Vichai is just a shrewd businessman who has invested significant amounts of cash even when Leicester were in the Championship. He gets to as many games as possible – often via a private helicopter that frequently lands in the centre circle – yet leaves the day to day running of the club to his son Aiyawatt. The pair aren’t especially tyrannical or impatient, but they do have long term ambitions to qualify for Europe. Both live by a very strict moral code, hence why Pearson’s didn’t fit in.
Perhaps their main weakness is a lack of contacts in the football community: they can’t just magically make big names appear. Consequently, after Martin O’Neill declined to return this summer, City were short of viable candidates to approach, allowing Ranieri to successfully table a “come and get me” plea. Perhaps Sean Dyche or Neil Lennon would have been better options, but neither were approached. One thing is for sure, though, the owners’ hearts are in the right place. They have always treated the club as far more than just a business. This was evident in the final game of last season (a 5-1 rout over QPR) when they gave out 30,000 drinks vouchers to thank the fans for their support.
Check out Pete Sixsmith’s priceless memories of an opening game vs Leicester that saw a 15-year-old keeper chucked into action for managerless Sunderland – and six goals shared equally: https://safc.blog/2015/08/leicester-v-safc-managerless-no-adult-as-goalie-but-one-point/
Have a stab at your starting XI for Saturday
(5-3-2): Schmeichel, De Laet, Huth, Morgan, Wasilewski, Schlupp; Kante, Albrighton, Vardy; Ulloa, Okazaki.
Who are the great strengths and where may you still be weak or uncertain?
Leicester certainly have goals in them. Shinji Okazaki, Jamie Vardy, Andrej Kramaric and Dave Nugent have all had productive pre-seasons, while last campaign’s top scorer Leonardo Ulloa is looking fit and fired up. Midfielders Marc Albrighton, Riyad Mahrez and Andy King are also a threat in front of goal and at the back the frightening pace of both Jeffrey Schlupp and Ritchie De Laet make Leicester a potent counter-attacking outfit.
However, Esteban Cambiasso’s departure is a devastating blow, even though N’Golo Kante is a promising replacement. Leicester aren’t short of defensive midfielders (Danny Drinkwater, Dean Hammond and Matty James can all play in this role), but they have lost their talisman.
The other uncertainty is over Ranieri’s preferred formation. Pearson switched to a 5-3-2 in the latter part of last season and it catalysed the surge in form. Ranieri will almost certainly stick with this to begin with, but in the long run may switch to a 4-4-2 (with a diamond midfield) or the so-called “Christmas Tree” (4-3-2-1). Reverting to a back four could expose the centre-backs’ lack of pace.
Looking back, whatever you thought about Pearson, can you describe the doubtless fluctuating emotions you experienced as last season progressed?
The season was simple (and depressing) until April: it began with an astonishing honeymoon period capped off by the 5-3 comeback victory over Manchester United, but then an inevitable and emphatic lull followed. With Leicester rock bottom for over 100 days there was a tedious period when most were resigned to (or at least braced for) Championship football again.
Yet dramatic back-to-back wins over West Ham and West Brom in April provided a glimmer of hope and when maximum points over Swansea and Burnley also followed Leicester suddenly became unexpected favourites to stay up. They secured their place at Sunderland in a shocking spectacle, which had the feel of an intentionally played out stalemate after both sides realised other results were going their way.
It was bizarre being so sure of relegation then so confident of safety in the space of just a few whirlwind weeks, but once the flurry of victories started Leicester looked as good as any Premier League side, champions Chelsea included.
Will you build on the outstanding escape act or do you fear this season will be another struggle?
The goal should simply be to secure safety, hopefully a little more comfortably, but 17th wouldn’t actually be a bad finish, especially under a new manager. The owners probably crave mid-table mediocrity, but that may be a bit ambitious. It all depends on whether momentum from the back end of last season spills into the opening ten games. Leicester should aim to finish top of the bottom half of the table, but as long as they cross the magic 40 point barrier Ranieri will have had a successful first season at the helm.
And if Premier stability is achievable, how far can Leicester realistically hope to rise?
Leicester’s owners genuinely believe European football is attainable and have repeatedly put their money where their mouth is to try and build the foundations to make this a reality. They have broken the club record three times in the past 14 months (Leonardo Ulloa, Andrej Kramaric and Shinji Okazaki) and would have done so for a fourth time had Internacional’s Charles Aranguiz not snubbed a move. There’s no reason why the Foxes can’t eventually linger in or just outside the Europa League places, as they did under Martin O’Neill in the nineties. They still might need three years to get there, though.
Too young to have seen Shilton, I imagine. Lineker, too? But who are the best you’ve seen in Leicester colours?
Argentine destroyer Esteban Cambiasso has to be up there, while the squad Martin O’Neill compiled from a shoestring budget also boasted some outstanding talent. The best Leicester XI I saw in person actually demolished Sunderland 5-2 in 2000. Stan Collymore scored a hat-trick and Emile Heskey also got on the scoresheet. The midfield (Steve Guppy, Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet, Robbie Savage) was one the tastiest in the Premier League at the time. I also grew up watching the likes of Steve Walsh and Julian Joachim, who were superb, quasi-cult second tier players if perhaps not world-beaters.
And who should never have been allowed to wear them?
Leicester have had a plethora of flops (particularly under Peter Taylor) but none more so than Ade Akinbiyi (or ‘Akinbadbuy’ as he rapidly become known). The Nigerian international arrived in 2000 from Wolves for a then club record of £5.5 million and suffered a near immediate crisis of confidence. His low came in a 4-1 loss to Liverpool, where he fluffed four sitters including an open goal from six yards. Akinbiyi did, however, net the winner in a 1-0 victory over Sunderland shortly after!
Guess the Score in Leicester City vs Sunderland at https://safc.blog/2015/08/leicester-city-vs-sunderland-guess-the-score-or-maybe-guess-the-team/
High and lows as a fan of the Foxes?
It’s hard to look past either the Martin O’Neill era, which saw two League Cup final victories (1997, 2000) or the playoff final triumphs over East Midlands rivals Derby (1994) and Crystal Palace (1996). The former saw Steve Walsh net an iconic winner (with a little help from Ian Ormondroyd’s nose), while Steve Claridge(‘s shin) proved the hero in the latter. The 2013-2014 record 102-point Championship winning season was also incredible.
The low in recent years was undoubtedly Peter Taylor’s tenure in charge. The Foxes hit rock bottom when they were dumped out of the FA Cup quarter-finals in 2001 by Wycombe’s “Ceefax signing” Roy Essandoh.
We played two goalless draws against you, the first as bad as they get, the second a little better but hardly inspiring. What was your view of out own flirtation, yet again, within danger?
Sacking Gus Poyet was a very bold move, but arguably necessary after the pathetic 4-0 home loss to Aston Villa. Replacing him with Dick Advocaat was risky and I personally expected the appointment to backfire. Sunderland were fortunate to stay up. The 2-0 win at Everton and gutsy draw at Arsenal provided four welcome (and unexpected) points and that, coupled with the solid derby win over Newcastle, got them over the line. A side that had been embarrassed 8-0 by Southampton and shipped four goals against Manchester City, Villa and Palace did exceptionally well to keep three clean sheets in their final four games.
Do you feel Advocaat has the ability and resources to lift Sunderland from a dead-cert bottom six existence?
To be brutally honest, I fear for Sunderland this season. I just don’t see where the goals will come from. Last season was bad enough, with the Black Cats involved in a record eight stalemates and now top scorer Connor Wickham has left for Crystal Palace. Even he only managed a modest tally of six last campaign. There’s a ton of pressure on new signing Jeremain Lens. The forward was prolific for both Dynamo Kyiv and PSV, but will need time to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. The Black Cats could really do with Jermain Defoe turning back the clock and weighing in with 8-10 goals.
Is there any SAFC player you’d quite like to see at Leicester?
I have always been a Lee Cattermole fan. There’s still question marks over his temperament (his 14 yellow cards last season borders on farce), but never his talent and at 27 he’s now at the perfect age to step up and start challenging for international honours, having representing England at virtually every other level. Cattermole has been quite vocal in pre-season claiming Sunderland are “underachieving” as a club, but as the old adage goes… people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Explain your Doha/Dubai links and what impact this has on your support for Leicester (no problem seeing them live, of course)
Every game is live in the Middle East on TV broadcaster beIN Sports so it’s easy to follow the games. I do miss going week in week out and soaking up the atmosphere. Several clubs visit us doing the season for warm weather training, though, and Arsenal and Manchester City have strong ties with the region as well. This naturally helps with access. On opening day you feel quite homesick being so far away, but during Christmas it’s both amusing and surreal to watch the festive fixtures on a beach whilst the hardcore Foxes fans freeze back home.
What do you make of Qatar’s preparations for the World Cup – can they square the circle?
I feel a bit sorry for the Qatar 2022 team. On paper their World Cup plans are tremendous. The stadiums and overall fan experience is going to be world class. Corruption (however you define that word) in FIFA seemingly dates back three decades, yet there’s a danger only Qatar will be scapegoated since you can’t retrospectively punish old World Cups and Russia 2018 is surely too close to cancel. If Qatar is proven by the Swiss authorities to have engaged in flagrant wrongdoing they obviously deserve to be punished, but the Supreme Committee are adamant of their innocence. The British media should wait for the results of the investigation before writing wild accusations.
Of course, there are worrying stories about the treatment of migrant workers, too – and the problem is sadly Middle East-wide not Qatar specific – but this isn’t a World Cup issue yet since very few of the proposed stadiums have even been started.
Personally, I am against a winter World Cup, but the decision has been taken so it’s time to just move on. Qatar bid for a summer tournament and having personally tested their incredible cooling technology they could have pulled this off. The date change – and never-ending debate before a decision was taken – definitely disrupted Qatar’s plans, but this was really all Fifa’s doing.
Is it time to stop worrying about diving and start regarding it, along with other forms of cheating, as a basic footballing skill? If not, how do we tackle it?
Diving can’t really be classified as a skill, but human error is a wonderful part of football. If a player cons the ref they don’t deserve credit, but it does always get the terraces talking and that’s part of the beauty of football.
Fifa do now do enough to tackle diving. A yellow card is a sufficient deterrent. Perhaps, retrospectively, if a player has dived and significantly altered a result by doing so, a more severe punishment could be dished out. It’s such a grey area, though, since there’s so often minimal contact and in these cases you can argue players are entitled to try their luck.
The only real way to deter diving is to better educate young footballers that it’s wrong. It’s almost become cool to fall down in the penalty area, especially if you’re going nowhere. Plus computer games like Fifa programme in diving, so you can even try and con a virtual ref. All this does is make diving commonplace and just a little bit trendy.
Name this season’s top four in order, and the bottom three
2 Manchester United
3 Manchester City
18 Sunderland (sorry!)
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
I will be watching the game from the Middle East and expect Leicester to get off to a winning start under Claudio Ranieri. Like last season’s meeting I fear it won’t be a spectacle for the purist, but think the Foxes will sneak a 2-1 victory.
* Ben Jacobs on himself: I have been writing for ESPN FC since 2013. I am also a commentator for beIN Sports across the Middle East and talkSPORT’s Middle East correspondent. Prior to this, I presented a nightly sports show for the Arabian Radio Network and was also founder and editor of Middle East-wide monthly magazine Sports Talk. I also spent five years at the BBC since graduating from Oxford in English in 2004.