The day the South Wales derby arrived in the Premier League

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On Sunday November 3, a monumental moment arrived in the Barclays Premier League… the first-ever South Wales derby was here.

After spending the earlier part of last week in Wales to find out what all the fuss was about, I returned for the main event at the weekend. I wasn’t disappointed.

Here’s my tale of Steel vs. Cooper, Capital vs. Second City… Cardiff City vs. Swansea City.

STARTING EARLY, THE BUBBLE ARRIVES

As I stepped off the train and breathed in the fresh air of Wales, fans with blue shirts swarmed Cardiff Central station in every direction I looked. “Hang on a minute, it’s only noon,” I thought to myself, but several of the locals were already ‘well lubricated’ shall we say. That said, there was not a sniff of violence. That’s all to do with the revolutionary police tactic of the ‘Bubble’ which has made policing South Wales derby much easier since it was introduced in ’97. Before that a ban was put on away fans traveling to the opponents ground, as the ferocity and venom hurled in both directions is extreme.

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I managed to get in behind the police lines and mix it up with Swansea’s fans in and around the metal fences.

So while Swansea’s fans spent all morning on a crowded bus in a slow police-escorted journey along a road that would usually take them 40 minutes to drive, Cardiff’s fans were sinking the lagers, having a sing-song and catching up with their pals. One set of fans were already in a better mood.

(MORE: Cardiff City vs. Swansea City – Rivalry and passion define soccer’s heyday in South Wales)

The police presence in the capital city was massive, as officers traveled round in twos to survey the many local pubs who had opened up early for the game. But, apart from groups of lads pouring out into the street in full song as the bars became crowded, there wasn’t much going on.

To the ground!

As I got to the Cardiff City Stadium about a 10 minute drive from town, I sat up shop in the press box, said my hello’s to my press brethren and was interviewed by BBC Radio Wales about what fans in the USA thought of the South Wales derby. Then, I took my life into my own hands as I could hear Swansea’s fans finally arriving at the stadium… nearly two hours before kick off.

I managed to negotiate my way through a massive metal fence and chat with the police officers who let me through to get amongst the Swansea fans. And here they came, one after the other, buses pulled in with military precision. Fans got off, were searched and had 30 or so police officers watching their every move in a penned in area as a green wire fence surrounded them. There was no way Cardiff fans could get to them in here. I wouldn’t say I felt safe, but not bad.

Fans began to filter in from both teams.

GAME-TIME, LET THE HATRED BEGIN

The announcers before the game at the Cardiff City Stadium had this to welcome Swansea’s fans…. “Welcome to the capital of Wales, Cardiff.” Which sent ironic cheers and jeers from the home fans and boo from the away section neatly tucked away on the left.  When Cardiff won the FA Cup in 1927, Swansea’s fans cheered and were happy for the Bluebirds… nothing like that anymore.

Just pure hatred.

Chants of “We are all going on a European tour!” emanate from the Swansea section as they taunted the home fans about their recent success gallivanting around Europe in the Europa League and they also had a pop about Cardiff’s controversial kit change from blue to tread to appease their Malaysian owner. Chanting about their famous black and white kit. “We’re Swansea City, we will always be White!” and “you used to be blue but now your red.”

(MORE: Setting the scene at the South Wales derby)

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The hatred and animosity spreads across generations in South Wales, just look at the young kid being told off by a police officer…

As a crescendo of noise built up, literally four to five feet away two Cardiff fans were almost fighting before the kick off. One bald guy was hitting the press box table and threatening to smash the computers unless we wrote positive things about the Bluebirds…

And there were still 45 minutes left until the game started! Our friend on the right was to be a constant nuisance throughout the game, the old guys from BBC Cymru (Welsh language radio station) sat to my right were horrified as this particular Cardiff fan preferred to bellow out obscenities throughout most of their live broadcast.

Anyway, finally, the teams arrived onto the pitch as famous Welsh hymns such as “Men or Harlech” were belted out and the old mining song “I’ll be there.” The noise was deafening as the two sides got into the pre-match huddle.

During the game the banter kept coming, and as Swansea had possession for most of the first half, Cardiff struggled to get anything going and lumped the ball forward whenever they could. Shouts of ‘Boring, boring” Cardiff rang out. When Swansea had the ball for large swathes, the same chant rang out from the home fans.

It wasn’t riveting stuff in the first interval, I have to be honest. But as often the case with these games, there’s so much local pride and pressure on the game, players feel restrained. It certainly seemed like both teams were scared of committing men forward or making a mistake.

Then in the 19th minute came a moment that livened up the home crowd as central defender Ben Turner put in a crunching tackle on Jonjo Shelvey as he surged forward. An almost tribal roar reverberated around the stadium to signify Cardiff’s physical presence unnerving the Swans.

(MORE: The South Wales derby; a tale of two cities – Part II)

For the rest of the first half not so friendly banter rang out between the two sets of fans, as Swansea pushed for the opener and Cardiff soaked up the pressure expertly. A few brief forays forward excited the home crowd, but Swansea were the better side as it was 0-0 at the break.

Remember the lively and slightly confrontational fan to my right? Yeah, he was at it again. Screaming obscenities at the top his voice while the radio guys who sat next to me looked on in horror. They put their fingers to their lips to try and silence him… the angry man’s wife then got involved and started hurling abuse in our direction. I’m staying out of this one.

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Following Steven Caulker’s header, Cardiff’s fans went absolutely berserk as they began to sense a famous win was in sight.

“What don’t you try turning up more often before you tell me to be quiet?” He replied. Or something to that affect.

After the interval Cardiff started brightly, as both Jordon Mutch and Peter Odemwingie got a sniff at goal and that seemed to crank up the decibel levels quite a few notches.

Midway through the second half a late challenge on Angel Rangel from local boy and Welsh legend Craig Bellamy, signified what type of game this was. “Bellamy, Bellamy **** him up,” came the chant from the home fans as Rangel protested on the floor. Personal duels all over the pitch were breaking out, Gary Medel vs. Shelvey, Michu vs. Steven Caulker, Bellamy vs. Rangel, and now you could sense Cardiff were starting to turn the screw.

Meanwhile at that point Swansea’s star man Michu was hobbling around and needed lengthy treatment on the sidelines, he was replaced. Our ‘friend’ to the right then hurled abuse at Swansea’s pony-tailed Spanish defender Chico Flores who threw himself to the floor theatrically after a meaty Cardiff challenge.

“Get your hair cut, you Spanish wanker!” That was the edited version.

As the second half wore on the decibel level continued to rise as Cardiff striker Peter Odemwingie urged the crowd to raise the noise as he thrust his arms into the air repeatedly to gee the home fans going.

Minutes later the home side went ahead as captain Caulker (a former Swansea player no less) rose highest to head home  Bellamy’s corner… cue utter pandemonium insides the Cardiff City Stadium.

In the video I captured above, you can see whole groups of grown men hugging each other, some fans just stood with their arms aloft towards the devastated section of Swansea fans and many… well, they just simply lost the plot.

As the noise levels dropped a little following the excitement of the goal, the home fans rejoiced in their dominance and stuck the knife in and let out a few reminders about their economical and cultural importance.

“1-0 to the Capital” rung out from the home fans.

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A Cardiff fans throws some ‘banter’ towards the Swansea section across the police barricade… I hope he used deodorant.

As the rain teemed down in South Wales, Cardiff went for the kill as they poured forward. But so did Swansea, now we have a game. There were a few hairy moments for the home side, but the incredible display of Medel pulled the home side through it as the ‘Chilean Pitbull’ scrapped for his life in the engine-room to keep the Swans at bay. In the end he went off injured with three minutes to play, after committing one lunging tackle too many. A standing ovation proved how pleased his fans were with the all-action display.

Grit, passion, determination and guile, Medel summed up this game. He was superb and I’d say the difference between the two teams. His tackling and clever possession stop Swansea creating anything in the middle.

As stoppage time approached all hell broke loose as the nightmare afternoon for Swansea’s fans continued.

Substitute Frazier Campbell raced cleared as a long ball bounced on the edge of the box, Swansea ‘keeper Michel Vorm came racing out of his goal and took out Campbell with a flying karate kick.

Cue a red card for Swansea’s goalkeeper and after they’d already made all three subs, right back Rangel had to go in goal… much to the delight of the home fans.

The final whistle blew, the songs rang out and Cardiff’s fans jigged their way out of the stadium and into the night sky of South Wales. They were celebrating a famous 1-0 victory in the first-ever South Wales derby, which had got better as it went on. Me? I didn’t want it to end.

CARDIFF CELEBRATES

Following the game I walked out of the stadium with a massive smile on my face, a newspaper over my head that really didn’t shelter the driving rain and a heavy heart that this match wouldn’t be returning to the PL until next February.

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An incredible setting for such a massive game, as the 106th South Wales derby surpassed my expectations.

Before I caught my train back to England, myself and another journalist sauntered into a local pub before we sped away from South Wales. The establishment we stumbled into was the Prince of Wales pub, and it was chock-a-block with Cardiff fans. To start with it was quite cordial, but then when the replay of Caulker’s game-winner was shown in the news bulletin on the big screens across this massive pub, Cardiff’s supporters celebrated like they were in the stadium all over again.

They were in dreamland, Sunday night was an evening they wanted to savor. Their victory and recent dominance over the “Jacks” of Swansea gives them much joy, as Cardiff have won three of the last four games against there fierce rivals.

And now they’re in the PL for the first-time in their history, Cardiff fans want more. They want to overtake their rivals Swansea and become the best Welsh team in one of the world’s best leagues.

The drunken band of fans were now jigging and singing their hearts out in the Prince of Wales pub, they had a warning for their heady neighbors down the coast.

“You Jack bastard’s, we’re coming for you!”

So long South Wales, see you in February. I can’t wait. But between now and then, bragging rights had swung Cardiff’s way. And boy, are they going to enjoy that.

Report: Sam Allardyce wants to quit Crystal Palace

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The Daily Mail is reporting that Sam Allardyce wants to quit as Crystal Palace manager.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 PL season reviews

Allardyce, 62, kept Palace in the Premier League on May 14 after beating Hull City, but it is reported that after a meeting with Eagles chairman Steve Parish, the former Bolton, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland manager has decided to walk away.

The core reason is thought to be that Allardyce is not impressed with the transfer plans the club has over the summer.

It is believed Palace want to meet again with Allardyce before confirming his departure  but the report states he has cleared out his office at the training ground.

The former England manager (he quit as Three Lions boss last September after being embroiled in an undercover newspaper sting) only joined Palace on Dec. 23, 2016 when he signed a two-and-a-half-year deal.

After struggling to turn things around initially, key January signings such as Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic helped the Eagles eventually soar away from the relegation zone as they beat Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool in the final weeks of the season.

Is it strange that Allardyce would move on? Tony Pulis left Palace in similar fashion back in 2014 after not getting assurances for Parish and the board over transfer spending for the next summer.

With the likes of Christian Benteke and Yohan Cabaye around, the Eagles have players on big money and have spent big to try and push into the PL’s top 10. However, they looked far from a top 10 team last season as Allardyce helped them stumble to safety with brilliant displays against the top clubs interspersed with poor showings against fellow strugglers.

If Big Sam doesn’t think the correct budget is there for him to work with, then you can certainly understand why he would walk away.

Premier League Playback: Themes of the season

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3-4-3 REIGNS SUPREME

If it’s good enough for Chelsea and Tottenham, it should be good enough for the rest of the Premier League. And it started to get that way.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

With Antonio Conte using a 3-4-3 formation from September onwards, Chelsea took the PL by storm with a three-man central defense and Spurs followed suit in the second half of the season.

We started to see teams like Arsenal, Everton, Watford, Manchester City, Manchester United, West Ham, Stoke and many others use it.

Nobody could do it quite as well as Chelsea and Spurs, though.

[ MORE: Detailing Chelsea’s title parade at Stamford Bridge

The thing with systems is they come and go. Like fashion they follow a leader and then eventually something fresh arrives to take over.

With 4-3-3 formations taking over from 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 over the past few years, plenty of teams have invested in exciting wingers but are finding it tough to get them in dangerous areas. That is the main reason why 3-4-3 works so well.

[ MORE: Final Premier League standings ]

Whether they are stereotypical wingers like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard or Pedro, or the likes of Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli at Spurs, you can create space for your most creative players to roam free out wide and then you don’t have to worry about losing defensive shape.

Both Chelsea and Spurs had full backs capable of attacking and also tracking back and with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Spurs arguably had the better wing backs over Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso who were square pegs in round holes. With Walker and Rose injured often in the second half of the season, Chelsea’s wing-back duo took over.

[ MORE: How Chelsea won the PL title in September ]

Alonso covered for Hazard and Moses covered for Pedro and Chelsea looked balanced. Conte had found the right system by switching to default after a demoralizing loss away at Arsenal where he furiously slammed the table and demanded better. He got it.

Conte had used the 3-4-3 with Juventus and the Italian national team with fine results and like every great Italian designer, everybody is now copying him…


LONDON (THE SOUTH) CALLING

With all three north east clubs from this season relegated, the south dominated in the Premier League. For just the third time in PL history two London clubs sat in first and second place in Chelsea and Tottenham, but this is about much more than that.

For next season Newcastle are the only team guaranteed to be north of  Burnley and the PL will have a very southern feel.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Brighton have been promoted, while if Reading beat Huddersfield Town in the playoff final at Wembley next Monday (May 29) then 10 of the PL’s 20 teams next season will be from the Greater London area or the south coast. That’s a huge shift when you think back to the days of Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Wigan Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United all in the PL.

Many believe the north-south divide in the PL is down to economics. Investors, particularly those from overseas, are picking clubs in southern England to pump their money into. Due to London being the main economic and transport hub of the UK, that makes sense. Reports surfacing that some northern teams are contemplating building training bases closer to London aren’t a joke.

[ MORE: A look behind-the-scenes at Spurs’ stunning new stadium

One of the main reasons Alexis Sanchez chose Liverpool over Arsenal was said to be the fact that the Gunners were in London. That happens more often than you think and plenty of PL players travel from London to teams in the Midlands and the far south each day for training just so they and their families can call London home.

These cycles do come in waves but it seems like for the foreseeable future that the power shift in the PL with be in London and the surrounding areas. Just watch out for it over the next couple of years.


GIANTS SEPARATE, BUT STUTTER

This was a season where the top six mostly got their act together as they easily pulled away from midtable.

However, plenty of giants stuttered there way to the top four and two of the biggest didn’t make it.

Arsenal’s late surge of seven wins from their final eight games wasn’t enough as they finished outside of the top four for the first time in 20 years under Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: Premier League scoreboard ]  

Man United prioritized their Europa League final in the final weeks of the season (we will see how that works out when they face Ajax in Stockholm on Wednesday) as Jose Mourinho gave up on qualifying for the Champions League through their league position.

As for Man City and Liverpool, their defensive issues are there for all to see but they had enough in attack to get the job done and finish in the top four.

Spurs were the only challengers for Chelsea throughout the season but in truth the Blues never looked like relinquishing the title after their 13-game winning run. Even that wobble in April with a defeat away at Manchester United didn’t let Tottenham in.

Antonio Conte won the battle of the managers and in his first season in England he won his fourth-straight league title as a club manager. Pep Guardiola and Mourinho have plenty of work to do to justify their big-spending and egos. Both have flattered to deceive this season.

Wenger may not be around next season as Arsenal go through a huge transition and with no European action for Chelsea and Liverpool in 2016-17,  they’ll have to deal with new challenges in 2017-18.

The top four is far from settled but the top six looks likely to stay that way for a while with only Everton ever threatening to finish higher than seventh. The Toffees finished 15 points off the top four, which shows just how much the perennial powers of England have stretched away from the rest.


MIDTABLE BATTLEGROUND

At the end of the season there was just five points separating eighth place and 15th in the Premier League table.

The midtable battle was real.

With so many teams now established as Premier League clubs, all are investing wisely and many are seeing their expectation levels rise to try and finish in the top 10.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

That said, Southampton, who finished in eighth place, were just six points off Watford who finished one spot above the relegation zone. This season was a wake up call to the likes of West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Swansea — who all flirted with relegation at times — that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

With Claudio Raneri fired less than 12 months after leading Leicester to the title, plus Saints’ Claude Puel under pressure, Palace sacking Alan Pardew and West Ham’s Slaven Bilic maybe on the way out, teams in the middle of the pack know they aren’t as comfortable as they have been.

Newcastle United and Brighton arrive from the Championship next season ready to spend big to stick around and the threat of relegation is very real to this cluster of midtable teams. The parity party is here.


RETURN OF THE TARGETMAN

Look at the top seven goalscorers in the Premier League…

  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 29 goals
  2. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – 25 goals
  3. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – 24 goals
  4. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – 20 goals
  5. Sergio Aguero (Man City) – 20 goals
  6. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – 17 goals
  7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – 17 goals

The only outliers here are Sanchez, who can often play out wide but started the season through the middle, and Dele Alli who chipped in with a Frank Lampard-esque goal haul. If it wasn’t for his season-ending knee injury, Zlatan would have also reached 20 goals easily.

Among that list you have traditional center forwards at each club banging in the goals and that points to the way teams are setting up tactically.

The targetman has returned.

It may not be for good but the growing trend in the PL over the past few is to play with a three-man attack as two wide forwards create space for playmakers and forwards to link up. Spurs do it superbly well with Eriksen and Son pulling out and then Alli allowed to roam to link up with Kane.

An intriguing stat suggests that the days of hopeful efforts from distance may be numbered too, with a lowest ever rate of 11.6 percent of the 1064 goals scored from outside the box. Speaking of stats…


STATS OF THE SEASON

Here are some stats which summed up the season.


ABIDING MEMORIES OF 2016-17

Based here in England, I spend my time traveling to stadiums and training grounds to watch and/or talk to Premier League players and managers.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive

Over the course of the long nine month season there are always a couple of moments which stick out.

Here’s are the top five memories I will take away from this Premier League season, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, tweeting and asking me questions along the way.

We are all in this together. And we all love every single second of it. 81 days and counting until the 2017-18 season…

  • Arsenal 3-4 LiverpoolWhat a wonderful game. On the opening weekend of the season we witnessed one of the best matches of the entire season. Sadio Mane ripped Arsenal apart and Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool destroyed Arsenal… only to let them back into the game with some shambolic defending. This match had it all and was an instant PL classic.
  • Tottenham 2-0 Chelsea – Dele Alli scored two headers on January 4 as Spurs beat Chelsea and the Blues’ winning run came to an end at a record-equaling 13. This was the moment when you felt like Spurs would kick on and win the title. In a frigid White Hart Lane the thermostat was cranked up plenty of notches as Tottenham rattled Chelsea early and Pochettino’s youngsters struck twice through Alli. You get the sense that more epic battles will come between these two teams, and managers, in the years to come.
  • Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea – This was a true game-changer for Chelsea. Watching Antonio Conte furiously slam his fist on the table after that defeat in the press room, you just knew he would change things. In came the 3-4-3 formation and the rest is history. At the time it didn’t seem like a big moment, but for me that defeat was the moment of the season. It sparked Conte’s rebuild of Chelsea and got the players on board.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Onyekuru to Arsenal; Sigurdsson to Everton

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Sky Sports are reporting that Arsenal is in talks to sign Nigerian striker Henry Onyekuru from Belgian side KAS Eupen.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

The 19-year-old forward is also said to be interesting Everton, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, but Arsenal look to have pushed ahead of their competitors.

Onyekuru scored 22 goals in Belgium’s top-flight this season, making him the highest domestic scorer and the teenager’s representatives have reportedly said they’re confident he will play in England next season with the striker having a $8.8 million release clause in his contract.

Arsenal have history of taking some of the most talented youngsters in Europe and turning them into first team regulars such as Theo Walcott, Hector Bellerin, Cesc Fabregas and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to name a few.

Would Onyekuru be better off coming to England and playing for the likes of Southampton, West Brom or Everton where he could play regularly? Perhaps.

But even if he ends up at Arsenal he could be loaned at a la Romelu Lukaku when he was at Chelsea and we all know how that turned out. Playing regularly will help Onyekuru’s development and even though he may not get that initially at Arsenal with Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and maybe even Alexis Sanchez still around, it’s not the worst place to learn the game and experience the loan system in the PL or Championship.


The Daily Mirror reports that Everton have agreed a $32 million fee with Swansea City for Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Sigurdsson, 27, was the main reason the Swans fought off relegation from the Premier League as the Icelandic international scored nine goals and added 13 assists.

However, despite the two clubs agreeing a fee it is believed that Sigurdsson’s wage demands of over $155,000 per week could see the deal fall flat on its face.

With Ross Barkley‘s future at Everton increasingly uncertain, bringing in a more experienced playmaker who had the third-most assists in the PL this season. Sigurdsson’s former club, Tottenham Hotspur, and Southampton are said to be interested in signing the playmaker but Everton appear to have moved fast.

This certainly points towards Barkley not having a future at Goodison Park and Sigurdsson may well fancy another crack at European action after struggling at Tottenham before he moved to Swansea in 2014.

VIDEO: Calamitous own goal costs England at U20 World Cup

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Oh no.

This is not a moment Chelsea and England defender Fikayo Tomori will want to see again, but he will probably see it for the rest of his career.

[ MORE: U-20 World Cup latest

With England’s U-20 side leading Guinea 1-0 at the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea on Tuesday, Tomori played a long-range blind back pass towards goalkeeper Dean Henderson.

The only problem was, he over-hit the pass. By a lot.

Click play on the video above to see the calamitous own goal as Guinea held on for a 1-1 draw in the second group game for both teams in Group A.

England play hosts South Korea on Friday in their final group game and despite this huge error they’re on course to make the knockout stage after a 3-0 win against heavily-favored Argentina last Saturday.