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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.

Pep finally gets it right against Tuchel

This was the first time Thomas Tuchel had faced Manchester City’s strongest lineup. Pep Guardiola made eight changes to his side for April’s FA Cup semifinal defeat to Chelsea, picked out-of-form players and shaped a peculiar formation for May’s Premier League loss, and infamously overlooked defensive midfielders for the Champions League final disappointment later in the same month.

There were no such mistakes for Saturday’s match.

Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Rodri, and Aymeric Laporte all started despite their recent fitness issues, but Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva were the most crucial inclusions.

Shaun Botterill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Cancelo touched the ball more than anyone else on the pitch and expertly read the game with four interceptions. Silva, meanwhile, is arguably Guardiola’s most important player right now: His work off the ball was relentless as he won eight duels, and when he had possession, he squirmed through dark blue shirts and tended to pick the right pass. To call it a quality midfield performance would do Silva a disservice – he was omnipresent.

Some elements can inhibit Guardiola’s thinking – appeasing a large squad, navigating a congested fixture list, or perhaps just his tendency to meddle – which means he rarely selects City’s strongest XI. This time, everything was in its right place, and City strengthened their title push at Stamford Bridge with one of the most dominant 1-0 wins you’ll see this season.

Villa prove credentials at Old Trafford

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith urged his players to go “toe-to-toe” with Manchester United, and his side responded with one of the most impressive performances of his three-year tenure. Crucially, they pulled off the upset of the weekend without injured match-winner Leon Bailey, who singlehandedly turned last Sunday’s game against Everton. Villa spat in the face of history, too, beating United for just the second time in 46 Premier League contests.

Villa didn’t dominate at Old Trafford. United controlled 60% possession and lashed 27 shots, creating the lion’s share of chances. But Villa were far more targeted and precise in their approach, making clever runs down the channel to push the game back into United’s end. Smith’s outfit showed a ton of personality in the final minutes when it would’ve been easier – and far more understandable – to risk-manage and secure the point.

Gareth Copley / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer whined that Villa’s Ollie Watkins had interfered with United goalkeeper David De Gea while in an offside position that and the officials should’ve ruled out the goal resulting from Douglas Luiz’s corner kick. It was, at best, an attempt at damage control. Solskjaer’s overseen three defeats in four matches, and his team has relied on individual brilliance to get the job done more often than not. Maybe that’s why Villa didn’t fear United or history or any of that in the closing stages. They saw a vulnerable club, even with Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, and Edinson Cavani on the pitch, and they made the Red Devils pay.

Martinez knows which buttons to push

Argentinian shot-stopper Emi Martinez appeared to rattle Fernandes in the seconds leading up to his disastrous penalty kick in the 93rd minute. Martinez shouted at United’s players, daring Ronaldo to take the penalty instead while doing just enough to sow the seeds of doubt in their minds, and danced on the goalline as Fernandes maintained ownership of spot-kick duties. The ensuing attempt was the worst of the Portuguese’s career. Fernandes had never skied a penalty kick before, and he had only missed one of his previous 14 penalties in the Premier League.

Martinez must’ve been the difference. The 29-year-old’s trash-talking came in handy during the Copa America, with Colombia falling prey to his mind games in a tense semifinal shootout. Martinez yelled at each of Colombia’s penalty takers just as he did to Fernandes and his teammates, and he celebrated one of his three saves in that shootout with in-your-face hip-thrusting. He did another jig when Fernandes sent the ball sky-high on Saturday.

Nothing in the rules prohibits what is widely known as “shithousery.” Penalties are about keeping your cool and nerve, and by running his mouth, Martinez simply aims to make a nerve-wracking situation that much more difficult.

Sean Longstaff grasping at unexpected chance

Sean Longstaff’s younger brother Matty had a more emphatic introduction to top-flight football when he marked his October 2019 league debut with the only goal in a defeat of Manchester United. But Longstaff was alongside his sibling in Newcastle United’s midfield on that day, plugging away as rumors of him completing a lucrative transfer to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side continued to swirl.

If Newcastle could keep the predatory clubs at bay, the Longstaffs could have become the fulcrum of their XI for many years. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Matty is on loan at Aberdeen after struggling for game time under Steve Bruce, while the Magpies planned to move on from Sean after his development sputtered on Tyneside.

Ian MacNicol / Getty Images Sport / Getty

However, nothing materialized when Newcastle pursued another midfielder late in the summer window, handing Sean a lifeline at St. James’ Park.

The elder Longstaff expertly picked out the top corner from around 25 yards for Newcastle’s goal at Watford on Saturday, but he should’ve scored another shortly before the break when he lifted a clear chance over Ben Foster’s bar. Longstaff’s all-around performance should hearten Newcastle fans, though, as he completed five tackles and five clearances while firing four attempts at the Watford mesh.

Leicester needed to pick up points now

Leicester City supporters are starting to express their frustration at the Foxes’ disappointing start to the campaign. Brendan Rodgers’ side is already six points adrift of the Champions League places after seven matches, and the Northern Irish manager is guilty of being overly loyal to regular starters who aren’t performing.

Rodgers’ decision to substitute Ademola Lookman, who was a threat in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Burnley, for James Maddison in the 78th minute was met with loud jeers from the Leicester faithful.

“I’ve been here nearly two-and-three-quarter-years, that’s probably the first time the fans have booed, so I’ll take that after that period of time,” Rodgers told the Leicester Mercury’s Jordan Blackwell.

Things could get worse for Rodgers. Taking a single point from matches against Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley is concerning ahead of a tricky run for the Foxes.

Date Match
Oct. 3 Crystal Palace (a)
Oct. 16 Manchester United (h)
Oct. 24 Brentford (a)
Oct. 30 Arsenal (h)
Nov. 7 Leeds United (a)
Nov. 20 Chelsea (h)

Bielsa facing toughest test since promotion

You could forgive Leeds United for being a bit porous at the back. Injuries and suspension robbed manager Marcelo Bielsa of three senior center-backs this weekend, and without star center-forward Patrick Bamford, Leeds couldn’t even look to its talisman to hold up play.

But they only have one speed: Relentless. Despite the obvious threat of the counterattack Saturday – a warning to take even more seriously against a side as astute on the break as West Ham United – Bielsa’s side continued to play the same high-pressing aggressive football that earned him acclaim last season. Raphinha’s pinpoint finish into the bottom corner seemed to validate Leeds’ open approach in the first half. The Brazilian proved a constant menace in the opening stanza, giving the hosts hope that they’d finally get their first win of the campaign.

Zac Goodwin – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

The second half was a different story altogether. West Ham took advantage of the space Leeds left behind, with Bielsa showing no wish to compromise. The football was scintillating and made for a great watch for the neutral, but Leeds ceded the victory specifically because they ignored circumstance. With eight players all chasing a speculative cross in West Ham’s penalty area, Leeds came undone in the 90th minute, allowing the visitors to take possession in midfield before feeding Michail Antonio for the winning goal.

Bielsa is by no means at risk of losing his job, but with a measly six goals in six Premier League games and without a win in any of them, his usual carefree football isn’t even offering upside. The Argentine coach’s philosophy is facing the ultimate stress test.

Liverpool’s defensive shortcomings exposed

Brentford unnerved Liverpool’s usually impenetrable backline Saturday with a direct approach that forced game-saving interventions from Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip.

Even with just 33% possession, Brentford could’ve – and perhaps should’ve – scored more. Matip cleared Bryan Mbeumo’s effort off the goal line, and robust center-forward Ivan Toney, who won a game-high nine aerial duels, was a constant thorn in the Reds’ side. Brentford manager Frank Thomas admitted the game was more open than he would’ve liked – the hosts required key saves from goalkeeper David Raya just to stay in the contest – but it was a risk they had to take.

The Bees enjoyed a lot of success with the long ball, and Toney proved a magnificent target man, giving his teammates not just an outlet to release pressure but a viable attacking option up front. The 25-year-old relayed the ball to nearby teammates on several occasions, and Van Dijk struggled to contain his movement.

Brentford did an even better job overloading the far post, giving them the upper hand over Trent Alexander-Arnold whenever crosses came in. All three of the Bees’ goals came off of deliveries to the far post.

Jimenez roars back with 1st goal in a year

When Wolverhampton star Raul Jimenez returned to action wearing protective headgear – the result of a nasty collision that left him with a life-threatening skull fracture – no one knew if he’d play with the same confidence up front. Doctors told him to limit the number of headers he takes in training, neutering one of his best assets.

But Jimenez showed Sunday he can outwit the opposition in more ways than one. After taking down one of many long balls against Southampton, the Mexican striker eluded three defenders before wrongfooting the ‘keeper and depositing the ball into the open side of the net. It was a remarkable display of composure from a player who’s run the gamut of emotions since that scary incident in November 2020.

Before Sunday’s contest, Wolves boss Bruno Lage encouraged Jimenez to adapt to his new normal, urging him to keep his head guard on at all times. The 30-year-old removed it after missing a header against Brentford last weekend – a hint at the frustration of wearing something so constricting.

Jimenez’s goal Sunday should provide a boost in confidence. And with just three tallies in six Premier League matches, the club needs him more than ever.

Tottenham lack vision, planning

It’s time for some soul searching at Tottenham Hotspur.

On the pitch, the harrowing 3-1 defeat to bitter rivals Arsenal in Sunday’s north London derby was the third consecutive league match in which Spurs conceded three goals. Nuno Espirito Santo said the game plan was “not good” after the loss. He’s not wrong. Worse yet, though, it was difficult to decipher what, exactly, the plan was.

Nuno prefers substance over style, which is fine. There are many different ways to win. But a less attractive, more conservative approach will be tolerated by fans – and players – only if results follow. It’s hard to justify having the Portuguese bench boss around with the team looking devoid of proper preparation and structure.

Spurs’ slide has also put this summer’s decision not to cash in on wantaway star Harry Kane under the microscope. Sure, Daniel Levy enhanced his reputation as a tough negotiator, but at what cost? Instead of collecting a boatload of money and using it to rebuild the squad with a long-term view in mind, Levy and Co. decided that keeping Kane and hiring an established manager in the form of Nuno was the path to contention this season.

With Kane struggling and his value diminishing, and the club dropping like a stone in the table, it’s becoming hard to justify the choices made by the brass.

Trust the process at Arsenal

Mikel Arteta has preached patience since his arrival at Arsenal, and after plenty of setbacks (some downright humiliating), we may finally be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

With Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard pulling the strings, Bukayo Saka continuing to blossom into a star, and some new faces helping to build much-needed defensive solidity, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Gunners going forward. Yes, playing a Tottenham side that is pretty hapless right now certainly helps, but Arsenal showed a level of verve and ruthlessness that has often been missing under Arteta with three goals in just over 30 minutes on Sunday.

Julian Finney / Getty Images Sport / Getty

“It’s a special day. Today is one example of what we want to do, but we have to be consistent,” Arteta said after the feel-good triumph.

That’s the next step as Arsenal look to continue their quest to reestablish themselves as one of the elite clubs in the country.

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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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