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10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Ronaldo makes instant impact

We shouldn’t have expected anything less, really.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning return to Manchester United dominated headlines since the Portuguese star completed his move back from Juventus. The ill-timed international break forced everyone to wait just a little bit longer to see him in action at Old Trafford once again, but it was worth the delay for Red Devils supporters.

The 36-year-old is no longer the all-conquering attacking force he once was – that’s inevitable with age – but he remains an elite goal scorer, as he proved in the 4-1 win over Newcastle United on Saturday. Ronaldo displayed his scoring instincts while pouncing on a rebound for the opening goal, and then his clinical finishing inside the penalty area for his second tally.

Playing a more central role than he did at Juventus, where he continued to drift out wide to the left-wing, Ronaldo provided an ideal focal point for a United attack that is suddenly overloaded with talent and still has the luxury of recovering Marcus Rashford from injury.

Should Sancho play on the right?

One question that did emerge during United’s aforementioned victory surrounded manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s usage of summer signing Jadon Sancho. The Englishman spent the bulk of the contest on the left side, cutting in and linking up with Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo.

Matthew Peters / Manchester United / Getty

Along with the rampaging Luke Shaw, that move created big overloads and passing opportunities, an obvious positive, but it also left Mason Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka with acres of space on the opposite flank, as Newcastle committed the bulk of their defensive resources to slowing down progress on United’s left-wing.

Flipping Sancho and Greenwood means Solskjaer would lose his beloved inverted wingers – a favorite of basically every manager alive right now – but it would surely help balance United’s attack and put Sancho, one of the elite dribblers in world football, in extremely advantageous one-on-one situations where he can cause plenty of havoc.

It didn’t matter against an overmatched Newcastle side, but against better teams, it’s a question that will pop up again if Solskjaer persists with his current setup.

Finally some respite for Arteta

It was only Norwich City, yes, but after such a brutal start to the campaign for Arsenal, you take any positives you can get if you’re the under-fire Mikel Arteta.

With wide attackers Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka flanking crafty passer Martin Odegaard, there was a balance about the Gunners that has been sorely lacking this season. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the primary benefactor, getting the chance to play in his preferred role up front with proper support from the aforementioned trio behind him.

It all culminated in Arsenal’s most impressive outing of the campaign: The Gunners, despite only recording a 1-0 win, had 30 shot attempts on the day – their most in a league match since 2017. Slow progress is still progress, and Arteta will be cautiously optimistic that the club has turned a corner.

Positives to take for Aston Villa

Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Chelsea was a classic case of the final score not being fully representative of the action on the pitch for Aston Villa.

Catherine Ivill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Dean Smith’s team went to Stamford Bridge and outshot the title challengers, arguably created more clear-cut chances, and ultimately forced Edouard Mendy into six saves, the joint-most he’s had to make in a Premier League game since joining Chelsea. The shot-stopper was the Blues’ best player in the opening half of the contest, likely leaving Ollie Watkins particularly bewildered by his inability to find the net.

Villa still need to eliminate the crippling defensive errors that again reared their head, but there are signs that the Watkins and Danny Ings partnership up front, along with an enterprising midfield, will bear fruit for Aston Villa going forward this season.

Solid debuts … for the most part

Ronaldo gobbled up all the attention – doesn’t he always? – but this weekend saw several impressive debuts across the league.

Odsonne Edouard delivered a brace to help Crystal Palace sink Tottenham Hotspur and give Patrick Vieira his first victory with the club. Meanwhile, Marc Cucurella and Takehiro Tomiyasu helped their sides Brighton & Hove Albion and Arsenal, respectively, record 1-0 wins.

On the flip side, though, Saul Niguez endured a tricky start to his Chelsea career, being hauled off at half-time against Aston Villa after looking a little overwhelmed and off the pace.

“It was a hard decision, but I had the feeling he struggled,” Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel admitted. “There were some big mistakes, passing mistakes, easy ball losses, which is very unusual for him. He struggled with the intensity. You could see he isn’t fully adapted.”

Catherine Ivill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The German manager, who took responsibility for thrusting Saul right into the mix without enough preparation time, added, “I put him into a very difficult match after the international break, and it was hard to adapt the physicality in general and to the intensity and high pressing of Aston Villa. Also, it was hard for him to adapt to our system and principles.”

The Spaniard is too talented not to return to form, though, so this will likely just be a minor blip for the Atletico Madrid loanee.

Vintage Bernardo ready to fight for place in Pep’s team

As his compatriot was grabbing national headlines at Old Trafford, Bernardo Silva produced a masterclass performance for Manchester City that was arguably just as important as what his Portuguese teammate Ronaldo accomplished.

Despite being deployed in a new role on the left side compared to his usual position on the right flank, Silva adapted flawlessly and went on to be named Man of the Match. Silva teamed up with Jack Grealish and Joao Cancelo on the left to produce some wonderful link-up play before capping off his day with a second-half winner.

It was a vintage display from Silva – one that Manchester City fans might appreciate a little more these days after it appeared that the gifted midfielder was set to depart during the summer transfer window.

While Silva was understood to be ready to leave in the summer, the 27-year-old certainly didn’t show any signs that he was unsettled at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. Instead, he looked like a player determined to fight his way into Pep Guardiola’s team during a campaign in which competition for minutes will be as intense as ever at the Etihad Stadium.

Tottenham’s midfield conundrum

The whole Argentina debacle during the international break robbed Nuno Espirito Santo of the chance to use Giovani Lo Celso against Crystal Palace. That was far from the only reason for the 3-0 defeat, but it speaks to an ongoing issue that the Tottenham boss needs to address if Spurs are to make serious strides this year: What is his best midfield?

The continued freezing out of the uber-skilled Tanguy Ndombele has become an elephant in the room. The Frenchman is, frankly, a much better player than either Oliver Skipp or Harry Winks, but he is still waiting for his first league minutes of the season. At this point, they may never arrive.

The offshoot of the midfield issues is that star striker Harry Kane became increasingly isolated up front, and without the injured Heung-Min Son to provide support, the Englishman endured a frustrating outing.

Nuno figuring out a way to provide consistent support for Kane – or not – will define his first campaign with the club.

Wolves woes could be in rearview mirror

It wasn’t pretty, but an away win over newly promoted Watford could be just what Wolverhampton Wanderers needed to kickstart their season. After a winless and scoreless start to the campaign, Wolves finally got off the mark on Matchday 4 to secure their first victory at Vicarage Road Stadium.

While the opener came courtesy of a Watford own goal, new arrival Hee-Chan Hwang enjoyed a dream start to life on the Wanderers with a debut goal that sealed three points for the visitors. It was a scrappy goal for the South Korean international, but hardly anyone will complain, given the team has squandered countless scoring opportunities so far.

Along with providing attacking depth for Wolves, Hwang should also help take some pressure off Raul Jimenez, who hasn’t looked as sharp in front of goal as he continues to refind his form after recently returning to action from a serious head injury.

Now that the all-important first win is out of the way, there’s real potential for the Wanderers to shoot up the table thanks to their relatively comfortable schedule over the weeks to come. Bruno Lage’s men will take on Brentford next before games against Southampton, Newcastle, Aston Villa, and Leeds United.

Rodrigo’s days limited in Bielsa’s XI

Rodrigo is an uncomfortable fit at Leeds. He’s never going to establish himself as the main striker while Patrick Bamford’s both a reliable goal-scorer and a keen follower of Marcelo Bielsa’s methods. And there are few opportunities for the Spaniard to be an effective withdrawn forward when the Whites’ attacks rely so heavily on the wing play of Raphinha, Jack Harrison, and the full-backs.

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The 30-year-old’s also done little to suggest he deserves a place in the lineup over three Premier League starts in the season’s opening weeks.

Rodrigo had a difficult first half in Sunday’s 3-0 home loss to Liverpool. He should’ve put Leeds ahead inside the opening 10 minutes when Raphinha cut the ball to him, but with both corners of the net at his mercy and time to compose himself, he contrived to fire a shot right down Alisson’s throat. Rodrigo’s pressing lacked bite, too, with the attacker making half-hearted attempts to close down Fabinho and, most critically, Joel Matip moments before Mohamed Salah’s opener.

Bielsa substituted Rodrigo at the interval.

Although new signing Daniel James tended to play out wide for Manchester United, he’s featured in central roles for Swansea City and Wales. James’ pace and work rate could be a huge asset for Bielsa in the middle behind Bamford, and he could swap positions with Raphinha and Harrison to unsettle defenses during matches.

A cruel setback to a burgeoning career

The first few weeks of what promised to be the campaign where Harvey Elliott nailed down a Liverpool starting berth and a place in the England squad is likely over after the teenager suffered a horrific injury at Elland Road.

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

There was no malice in Pascal Struijk’s challenge, and one could argue that a red card was harsh – referee Craig Dawson was letting play continue before the players hoofed the ball out of bounds – but an awkward collision culminated in the young midfielder clutching a seriously broken limb.

Elliott’s been excellent in the first four Premier League starts of his career. Rather than adopting the wide attacking role in which he thrived while on loan at Blackburn Rovers last season, the Fulham academy product has battled and created with equal success to the right of Jurgen Klopp’s three-man midfield. Elliott’s combinations with Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold were getting better and better.

Despite only being featured regularly since the start of this term, Elliott’s absence leaves Klopp with a conundrum in midfield. The 18-year-old was the perfect replacement for Georginio Wijnaldum.

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Premier League

10 thoughts from the weekend's Premier League action

theScore examines the most important Premier League developments from the weekend, dissecting the biggest talking points after a busy slate of action.

Give Salah the money he wants

If Mohamed Salah truly wants £500,000 a week to sign a new contract with Liverpool, well, hand it over. He’s earned the right to be the Premier League’s highest-paid player – and he proved it again this weekend.

Salah’s goal against Watford on Saturday was just the latest display of his world-class ability. Just as he did against Manchester City two weeks ago, the Egyptian dangled and weaved his way into Watford’s penalty area before curling a perfect shot into the far corner. Earlier in the first half, Salah delivered a spectacular assist to Roberto Firmino with the outside of his left foot.

“Come on, who is better at the moment than him?” manager Jurgen Klopp asked BT Sport following the game.

John Powell / Liverpool FC / Getty

Salah’s performance Saturday isn’t an anomaly. He’s scored in eight consecutive matches across all competitions and against all sorts of opponents, including Chelsea, AC Milan, and City. But the stats only tell half the story. Salah has dominated matches by taking on defenders and stretching lines, and he’s helped to restore the ruthless streak Liverpool lost down the stretch last season.

Now, his contract, which expires in June 2023, needs to be sorted out. Liverpool usually loathe handing big deals to players over 30, and Salah, along with star teammate Sadio Mane, will be over that threshold next year. But Salah is so clearly an exception that Liverpool have almost a fiduciary responsibility to re-sign him. He takes good care of his physical well-being and there’s no sign he’ll slow down.

Watford show signs of life in final minutes

Claudio Ranieri smirked as he assessed the damage from Watford’s 5-0 loss to Liverpool. He knew he had a tough job on his hands when he accepted the gig, just maybe not this tough. Watford looked completely out of sorts – with free-agent signing Danny Rose completely out of shape – as Liverpool ran circles around them.

Still, Ranieri mentioned he saw something good on Saturday. He might’ve been referring to the final 15 minutes at Vicarage Road when Watford finally broke into Liverpool’s end and started creating chances. The crowd even applauded when the club won their first corner of the match in the 78th minute. But the play of midfielder Moussa Sissoko and attacker Cucho Hernandez must’ve encouraged Ranieri most. They buzzed around the left flank, and Hernandez nearly snuck a goal past the otherwise idle ‘keeper Caoimhin Kelleher with a shot that soared just wide. Ismaila Sarr also hit the upright with a close-range effort.

Ranieri also gained knowledge about his team after losing so convincingly. Now, he’ll know all of Watford’s weaknesses and what exactly he has to fix. And the examination has to start in defense. The Hornets conceded two goals after losing possession in the first half alone and allowed Firmino to score a trio of tap-ins.

How much longer will Solskjaer last?

Manchester United kicked off a tricky run of fixtures on the worst possible note, and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t really have an answer for it.

“Lately we have not been in great form and lost too many points. Something may have to change. Do we need more legs in there? What do we need?” Solskjaer told Sky Sports after Saturday’s chastening 4-2 defeat to Leicester City.

That’s a pretty unconvincing diagnosis from a man who should have answers to the questions he’s asking. It’s almost like he wants someone else to come up with the solutions.

Alex Pantling / Getty Images Sport / Getty

And the problems – and there are several – are clear to the average spectator. United approach matches without a cohesive strategy, and they don’t play with any particular structure. There’s nothing linking this group of talented individuals.

“The most damning aspect of this sorry performance from Manchester United is that Leicester City simply looked like the better-coached team,” The Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg wrote. “Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had Cristiano Ronaldo, but (Leicester boss) Brendan Rodgers had a plan.”

And Rodgers’ plan worked. Leicester took advantage of United’s lack of intensity by playing through the middle. Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho pressed high and forced a clearly unfit Harry Maguire into compromising positions. Even when United went ahead 2-1, they looked like a team that had merely found temporary relief.

Solskjaer’s side has now earned just a single point in its last three Premier League matches. The schedule gets no easier, with upcoming contests against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Atalanta, and City.

Wolves finally find scoring boots

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Bruno Lage remained optimistic even after his team slumped to a third consecutive 1-0 defeat at the start of the Premier League season. Wolves didn’t exactly play poorly in any of those losses – they outshot their opponents in all three defeats – but struggled to convert their chances.

However, Lage took solace in the offense Wolves were creating.

“From the past, the team didn’t score too many goals,” the 45-year-old tactician said in September. “They have maybe one or two per game, so the average of the goals is not big, so we’re trying to play a different way, trying to create more chances to raise that average.”

Now, they can’t stop scoring. Wolves put three goals past Aston Villa in the final 10 minutes on Saturday to win 3-2 – their fourth victory in five matches. Though Wolves struggled to produce the kind of offense Lage had previously promised, they showed a much more clinical edge than they had in the past, and did so with star striker Raul Jimenez starting on the bench. They needed a bit of luck, too; Ruben Neves’ last-gasp free-kick took a fortuitous deflection on its way in, but the west Midlands side still showed a side of their game they lacked in earlier encounters.

All three of Wolves’ goals came off set pieces, and while scrappy, they managed to turn around a game Villa had dominated up until the 80th minute.

Southampton can kick on from here

Southampton ended a nine-match winless run dating back to last season with a 1-0 result against a depleted Leeds United side. Southampton were also missing captain James Ward-Prowse, who missed the match through suspension, and still managed to impose themselves against Marcelo Bielsa’s usually repellent XI, firing 19 shots to the visitors’ three.

Alex Davidson / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Saints boss Ralph Hasenhuttl has always found solutions in the most trying times, and he struck again with the inspired decision to start Armando Broja, Chelsea’s on-loan striker who made his full Premier League debut Saturday. Broja scored the only goal of the game off a counterattack facilitated by the tricky Nathan Redmond.

With upcoming matches against winless Burnley and Norwich City and struggling Watford, Southampton can build on this victory.

City off rhythm against favorite opponent

If you were watching them for the first time, you’d never know Manchester City scored 30 goals in their previous eight matches against Burnley. Their last four meetings at the Etihad Stadium ended 5-0 to the reigning Premier League champions, but Saturday’s win required far more effort.

City struggled to find their rhythm in between goals from Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, and Burnley themselves looked far more interested in a result, pressing the hosts when out of possession. Josh Brownhill nearly equalized in the 35th minute when he lashed a shot that skidded just wide of the far post, and Maxwel Cornet threatened after Burnley boss Sean Dyche moved him over to the left flank. It was fairly inspired stuff from a club that usually defends in blocks of four, and it had to be, with the Clarets still without a win this season.

“It was a better performance here. It’s been tough in recent times,” Dyche said afterward, according to The Lancashire Telegraph. “We didn’t do much wrong but got punished.”

Mendy proves he’s one of world’s best ‘keepers

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy didn’t have a save to make until the 73rd minute against Brentford. And yet, it ended up being the first of many.

Mendy singlehandedly ensured Chelsea escaped Brentford’s Community Stadium with all three points, making six stops to pick up his 20th clean sheet since joining Chelsea in 2019. Only three goalkeepers have reached the mark quicker in the Premier League.

Clearly, Chelsea would’ve dropped points without the 29-year-old, who compensated for the absences of Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger with proactive and aggressive goalkeeping. Mendy exerted great control over his area, coming out to cut down angles, sweep up loose balls, and deal with crosses into the six-yard box.

It was an important showing from someone who’s struggled to be the sweeper-keeper many expected him to be.

Maybe that’s why he’s not mentioned in the same breath as Ederson, Alisson, and his other top-tier peers. Mendy’s not the most confident passer of the ball, and when he does release it, he prefers to ping it 40 yards forward. But his performance Saturday should remind everyone he possesses the most important quality a goalkeeper should have: pure shot-stopping ability.

West Ham’s set-piece prowess

Don’t concede free-kicks or corners against West Ham United.

The Hammers prospered from yet another dead-ball situation Sunday, with a flicked header from Angelo Ogbonna holding up as the lone goal in an otherwise drab victory over Everton at Goodison Park.

The Italian’s tally was largely down to ineffectual Everton marking, but West Ham’s set-piece prowess is no fluke: assistant coaches Paul Nevin and Kevin Nolan have worked extensively on the training ground to optimize these situations since taking their respective posts alongside David Moyes, and it’s clearly paying dividends.

Set-piece coaches have grown in popularity of late, and for good reason. With such thin margins, especially in games with little action from open play, free-kicks and corners can make all the difference. It would be foolish not to have a deep repertoire of routines at your disposal.

Everton supporters were outraged over the awarding of the corner that led to Ogbonna’s goal – Michail Antonio appeared to get the final touch on the preceding play – but, if anything, that adds more ammunition to the argument that you should focus heavily on set pieces in training; there aren’t many other situations in the game where you can immediately turn a contentious call into a goal. Every little edge is extremely valuable.

Combine the work West Ham are doing with a squad boasting several players who are dominant in the air, and you have a recipe for success.

How we discuss Newcastle matters

Sunday’s match against Tottenham Hotspur was heralded as the start of a new era for Newcastle United supporters. After watching the club flounder under Mike Ashley’s 14-year reign, fans are well within their right to be excited about the despised businessman’s departure.

However, what they can’t do is blindly ignore the ethical questions being raised about the association with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund; the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is now the majority owner of the storied English club.

It’s true that Newcastle supporters aren’t responsible for the actions in Saudi Arabia. They can’t control who purchases the club, of course.

But they can control how they exhibit their feelings about the newfound attachment to a nation accused by Amnesty International of using Newcastle to “sportswash” its “appalling” human rights record. Waving Saudi Arabian flags and wearing mock Arab headdresses are decisions many fans made Sunday.

Members of the media can control how they discuss the purchase, too. It’s important to be aware of what’s being said about Newcastle’s takeover and by whom in the coming weeks. How we handle these types of discussions, which are far more important than sports, matters.

Heroic actions from Tottenham players

For more reasons than one – see directly above – Tottenham’s 3-2 victory at St. James’ Park was a stark reminder that football is a secondary concern in the grand scheme of things.

The match was temporarily suspended late in the first half after the players were alerted to an urgent medical issue involving one of the fans in the East Stand. Had Sergio Reguilon not acted quickly to inform the referee, and had Eric Dier not done the same to ensure that medical personnel raced over with a defibrillator, the welcome news that the supporter was eventually stabilized may never have arrived.

The situation evoked instant memories of Christian Eriksen’s frightening collapse earlier this year at Euro 2020; Danish captain Simon Kjaer was widely praised for his role in saving his compatriot’s life that day. Reguilon and Dier’s actions Sunday deserve similar praise, as do those of the fans who quickly made the players aware of the incident and ensured the match was halted so proper medical attention could be administered.

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Premier League

Newcastle-Tottenham temporarily halted due to medical emergency in crowd

Newcastle United’s match against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday was temporarily suspended due to a medical emergency in the stands.

Tottenham’s Sergio Reguilon, at the urging of nearby crowd members, alerted referee Andre Marriner of the situation in the 40th minute of the fixture. Teammate Eric Dier ran over to the Newcastle bench and indicated that a defibrillator was required for a supporter in the East Stand at St. James’ Park.

After receiving medical treatment, the fan was stretchered out of the stadium and stabilized on their way to a local hospital, Newcastle confirmed.

Stu Forster / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Both teams left the pitch with Tottenham leading 2-1. Play was halted for roughly 20 minutes.

Heung-min Son scored shortly after the action resumed, giving the visitors a 3-1 lead going into halftime.

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The real Ted Lasso: Inside an ex-NFL player's madcap stint in English soccer

Before Ted Lasso, there was Terry Smith. And English soccer’s first American owner appeared to have a Lasso-esque plan ready to roll on day one.

But, as Kevin Ratcliffe, then-manager of Chester City, explained to theScore, there was one problem: Smith didn’t have a clue about soccer.

Smith, a former backup for the NFL’s New England Patriots, plunged into the world of soccer when he bought debt-riddled Chester City in 1999. He spent more time at the fourth-tier team’s training sessions than in his office, filling his notepad while he inquired about the purpose of certain drills.

Ratcliffe was mulling over a season-opening defeat to Barnet in the guts of the club’s Deva Stadium when Smith’s father Gerald – reportedly a key source of financing for the takeover – asked him for the whereabouts of someone named Keith.

“I said, ‘Keith who?’ He says, ‘Keith, the manager,'” Ratcliffe told theScore.

Ratcliffe thought quickly and mischievously directed Gerald to the dressing room for “Keith.” The turn of events bought the actual manager a few more hours until he met the Smiths the following morning.

A former defender who captained Everton during their greatest era, Ratcliffe felt “brain-dead” after that fateful meeting with Terry Smith and Gerald Smith. Ratcliffe irritated the younger Smith when he tried to excuse himself after four hours to spend time with his family on his day off.

“He got this scruffiest bit of paper that I’ve ever seen,” Ratcliffe described, “flattened it out, and proceeded to write on it. He gave it to me and it was a written warning.”

Ratcliffe was already plotting his exit from the club, a process that included him safeguarding players’ immediate futures with new contracts. The face-to-face encounter simply hastened his departure. He resigned shortly after the start of the 1999-2000 season, ending his first managerial role after over four years.

“If he was on fire on the other side of the road, I’d go and throw a log on him,” Ratcliffe said of Terry Smith.

Over his head

Chester City were on life support under their previous owner. Ratcliffe covered a £5,000 bill in 1998 to turn the stadium’s water back on and allow a friendly match to go ahead. He paid himself back with the gate receipts.

Former manager Kevin Ratcliffe Michael Steele – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Darren Moss made his debut at 16 due to his obvious talent, but also, he suspects, because he was a cheap first-team option when his youth contract weighed in at just £42.50 a week.

The state of the club’s finances and the rather antiquated state of banking around the turn of millennia combined for a Mario Kart-style dash every payday.

“We’d get a cheque from the office after training and we’d all race down to the club’s bank branch in the middle of the town center so that we could make sure that you weren’t the last person,” ex-Chester midfielder Nick Richardson recalled. “Whoever was last one there might not have got paid.”

For Smith to deliver his ambitious promise of First Division football, he needed to ensure the club was on surer financial footing. Dan Brooks – a linebacker for one of the successful teams Smith coached in the UK’s American football circuit – was at a loose end in his native Canada when Smith invited him “to come and participate” in the Chester project.

“I marketed American football in a country where it really was not a priority. We had some success with that,” Brooks explained of his experience before he was named Chester’s commercial director. He also noted his position of marketing director for Frontierland, a theme park in the British seaside town of Morecambe that ceased operations in 2000.

Despite the off-field uncertainty, Smith was a regular fixture in training from the beginning. Ratcliffe claims Smith was going over his head to dictate when training started and finished even before his takeover of the club was ratified, and the owner was regularly inviting out-of-contract footballers to try out at Chester’s base.

“It was every week you’d get somebody come through the door,” Moss said. “You’d be like, ‘Fucking hell, who’s this now?’ And they’d be dreadful.”

Ratcliffe remembered an Icelandic trialist who Smith claimed could whip in dangerous crosses, was strong in the air, and was a good finisher.

“I’m thinking, ‘What’s he doing at Chester if he’s got all these qualities?'” Ratcliffe quipped.

Somewhat predictability, the trialist failed at Ratcliffe’s basic crossing, heading, and shooting drills while the rest of the squad went through its workouts nearby. Shaun Reid, the younger brother of then-Sunderland boss Peter Reid, watched in disbelief, and delivered a line which riffed on the trialist’s home nation sharing a name with a British discount frozen-food chain.

“Shaun shouted over to me, ‘So, gaffer. We got the lad in from Iceland, when’s the lad from Kwik Save coming in?'” Ratcliffe laughed. “(The joke) was right over Terry’s head.”

Shaun Reid Neal Simpson – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

The Icelander’s unfortunate audition is one of Ratcliffe’s many tales of Smith’s transfer dealings. Ratcliffe says Smith signed an amateur player but paid him so little that he struggled to cover the one-hour round trip to training, while one American trialist had to stay the night at a local policeman’s house when Smith reneged on a contract offer and abruptly ended the player’s hotel reservation.

Smith also apparently decided to sanction the £10,000 sale of Andy Crosby to Brighton & Hove Albion. Ratcliffe said he’d recently rejected an offer worth twice that amount from Brighton.

“His face just turned blue,” Ratcliffe recalled of showing Smith the £20,000 bid he received via fax. “It just shows you, if you’re not conversing with your manager, you’re on a slippery slope.”

Ratcliffe thinks Brighton went behind his back because “they knew the state of the club.”

‘He’s going berserk’

Smith sensationally succeeded Ratcliffe at the team’s helm, trusting what he’d learned from around two months at the club’s training ground.

“All coaching is 90% the same, regardless of the sport,” Smith is widely quoted as saying after he assumed his self-assigned role.

“He loved to be in control of everything; hands-on with every single thing. I’d describe him as a bit of a control freak,” ex-player Moss shared.

Smith didn’t seem to use much of what he observed at Ratcliffe’s sessions.

“When Terry came in, the actual focus then shifted from 80% football and 20% set-pieces to 80% set-pieces and 20% football,” former midfielder Richardson estimated. Players would wear numerous layers to contend with the increased hours of standing around in the wet English weather.

It wasn’t only the strong set-play focus that harkened back to Smith’s American football roots. Moss said they played 11-v-11 gridiron in one session, where they threw the ball into the net instead of completing touchdowns. In an effort to boost leadership, Smith elected three captains: one each for defense, midfield, and attack. He also introduced prematch renditions of the Lord’s Prayer – a ritual that would be unique in any British sport.

Brooks, Smith’s marketing man, credits his friend as the most prepared coach he encountered during his American football career, and Chester’s unlikely manager was similarly meticulous in soccer. Moss remembered Smith would leave dossiers under each player’s hanger ahead of a match, with details such as set-piece positioning and information on opponents included. Moss said he and his teammates understood Smith worked long hours to prepare the personalized playbooks.

Steve Morton – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Smith’s competitiveness was undeniable and spilled over into him testing his strengths against those of his players. Richardson said there were a few gym sessions when Smith challenged the squad to lift a “fantastical weight,” but it would invariably turn into the players watching as Smith outdid everyone on the bench press.

“The bar would be bending,” Moss added. “He was a strong fella, to be fair.”

But aspects of Smith’s management clashed with his will to win.

He was disorganized for someone who tried to fill many roles. Martin Nash, the younger brother of two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, was briefly on the club’s books and remembers there being “shit everywhere” in Smith’s car. Numerous people mentioned Smith’s office was seldom used and full of unopened letters.

And though the players were given little excuse to lapse on their set-piece routines, the nutritional preparation for games was counterproductive. There are accounts of McDonald’s, pizza, and cookies eaten as prematch meals, while Richardson remembered beans on toast at a greasy cafe under the highway before a 5-0 cup loss at top-tier Aston Villa.

The passionate yet rudderless nature of Smith’s regime didn’t foster respect among the squad. He became a bit of a laughing stock.

Moss describes an incident when someone locked Smith in the gym for an extended period.

“The groundsman heard him banging and came back over to get the keys,” Moss said. “He said, ‘You’re gonna have to get him out. He’s going berserk!’ I just remember Smith coming out and being red-faced – he was fuming. But he didn’t know who (locked him in), so he couldn’t put it on anyone.

Another unidentified player slashed Smith’s tires, and Richardson said defender Ally Pickering’s slapstick impersonation of the manager was a popular dressing-room act.

The poor relations between Smith and his players were unsustainable as the team sunk further into trouble.

‘He ran out of the dressing room’

Smith eventually relinquished the reins in January 2000 amid heavy pressure from supporters, after one win, one draw, and eight losses over their previous 10 outings. He expressed disappointment at how certain players and backroom staff let him take the blame for Chester being rooted the bottom of England’s professional pyramid, two points adrift of safety.

Ian Atkins – a manager with a strong lower-league resume – was given the unenviable task of trying to keep Chester City afloat under the guise of director of football.

Ian Atkins Steve Morton – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

“You were a manager because you ran the team, but Terry wanted that title as a manager,” Atkins told theScore.

The job title didn’t matter to Atkins. Smith assured him he would be in control of the senior side, and Atkins subsequently oversaw a swift squad overhaul with the support of assistant manager Gary Shelton and well-connected physio Joe Hinnigan. Some players were discarded and seasoned professionals were brought in. The tactical approach became more pragmatic.

Smith still wanted to be involved, though. He preferred to sit in the dugout alongside his coaching staff for matches, and he liked to warm up the goalkeeper before kickoff – even though Smith was often wearing a suit.

“Browny would take the piss,” Moss said of his former club colleague Wayne Brown. “Browny would be in goal lashing balls so Terry would have to run after them. Rather than playing them back to (Smith’s) feet, he’d zip them in, so he’d miscontrol it. He’d be collecting balls out the stands from the fans.”

But Atkins’ approach worked. An embarrassing 7-1 home loss to Brighton & Hove Albion in late February sparked a run of five wins and four draws in 12 matches, a spell in which Chester conceded only eight goals. Their fine springtime results remarkably put the Blues on course to avoid relegation on the final day of the season, but Smith was apparently unimpressed with the team’s style of play.

“We were having less possession than the opposition but winning,” Atkins said. “He couldn’t believe that his team were playing so open and having a lot more touches and attacking, but getting walloped every week.”

“He loathed the fact that people were giving me credit, Joe and Shelts credit, and the players credit,” Atkins added.

In the end, the upturn in results wasn’t enough. Chester City were relegated, plummeting out of England’s professional leagues for the first time in 69 years.

A lot conspired against them. One of Chester’s players decided to join the Trinidad & Tobago squad instead of playing in his club’s decisive final-day fixture. On the eve of that same match, another player was imprisoned for his alleged involvement in a fight outside a nightclub.

Meanwhile, Ratcliffe, the former manager now in charge of Shrewsbury, was seeking £200,000 in compensation from Chester.

And it was Ratcliffe’s Shrewsbury who won on the final day, securing their Division Three status while Chester lost theirs.

“It was a great feeling for me in one way, but a sad feeling in another,” Ratcliffe reflected. “Chester meant a lot to me.”

Ratcliffe celebrates a Shrewsbury goal Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The crestfallen Chester players took exception when Smith tried to offer his post-match thoughts.

“In the dressing room after the game, he started to pipe up and a couple of the lads went for him,” Atkins said. “He ran out of the dressing room door and I’ve never seen him again.”

Atkins was already a popular figure with supporters and could’ve committed for another year with Chester, but felt he couldn’t match his ambitions when Smith handled the club’s operations. Graham Barrow, who was a fan favorite from his earlier stints as a player and a manager at Chester, was brought in to succeed Atkins, but Smith’s regime was already disintegrating.

Brooks is unsure what levels of abuse Smith dealt with from some fans. But the former commercial director told theScore that even he was in the firing line, as hosting press conferences and meetings with supporters had effectively made him “a secondary face of the organization.”

“I would get calls and people would be threatening my life and telling me to go home,” said Brooks, adding that a window was smashed at his house following the club’s relegation.

“I was looking over my shoulder. The threats and intimidation weighed heavily on me. I take things personally. I don’t have as thick a skin as some people … I didn’t know if (the threats) were going to be followed through or not.”

Brooks had an agreement with Smith that gave him an option to leave at the end of his first season, and he snatched at the opportunity. Smith himself was looking to take off when Chester were consigned to non-league football, with Brooks helping arrange meetings with potential buyers.

David Rawcliffe – EMPICS / PA Images / Getty

Smith eventually sold the club in October 2001 to Stephen Vaughan, a boxing promoter with links to infamous Liverpool gangsters. Vaughan was jailed for assaulting a police officer in 2013.

Chester City went bust in 2010, three years prior to Vaughan’s conviction, but a supporters’ group launched phoenix outfit Chester Football Club later that year. They now play in the sixth tier of England’s soccer ladder and protect themselves from shady investors by only inviting those who believe in the “ethos and the history of our club” to join the supporter-led ownership group.

Smith’s missteps, and those made by the owners that preceded and succeeded the American, can’t be made again.

“He didn’t realize what football meant to Chester City and the supporters. It was about him. Really, it was about him,” Atkins concluded. “He didn’t know football. He didn’t know anything about the club. He didn’t know anything whatsoever about players, how to win games of football.

“He didn’t know anything.”

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