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.

VIDEO: Brandi Chastain explains Hall of Fame plaque blunder

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Brandi Chastain had a strange day on Monday.

The U.S. women’s national team legend, who won two Olympic golds and two World Cups during her iconic playing career, was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

But when she unveiled her plaque, well, it got weird. Really weird.

Instead of a bronze image of Chastain’s face on the plaque, there was an image of what looks like an elderly man grimacing. Several media outlets have speculated as to who the face on the plaque actually is, with Gary Busey, Louie Anderson, John Goodman, a hint of Bill Belichick, and Mickey Rooney frontrunners according to Deadspin.

Take a look at the video below as Chastain appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show to explain what happened.

Needless to say, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame are going to get Chastain’s plaque redone.


Key takeaways: Emery’s first Arsenal press conference

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Unai Emery was unveiled as the new head coach of Arsenal on Wednesday and the Spanish coach spoke to the media at the Emirates Stadium soon after the news was official.

[ MORE: Emery “first choice” ]

The former PSG, Sevilla and Valencia coach spoke in limited English and answered some questions in his native tongue as he explained his vision for the Gunners AW (after Wenger) while sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis.

Below is a look at five key takeaways from Emery’s first presser as Arsenal officially have a new boss for the first time in almost 22 years.


Emery was Arsenal’s “first-choice” replacement for Wenger

Gazidis revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist for the job and all eight were interviewed and kept their hats into the ring until the end. Emery was also the unanimous “first choice” selection and was interviewed on May 10 before being recommended to the board on May 18, then flying to Atlanta, Georgia, on May 22 to meet with Stan and Josh Kroenke before meeting the media. The fact that Mikel Arteta had seemed such a strong contender until Monday was perhaps a smokescreen before Emery was selected. The Spaniard has an impressive resume and no coach in Europe has won more than his eight major trophies in the last five years, which included three successive Europa League titles at Sevilla. At the age of 48 he has worked at huge clubs with big expectations and has delivered at each, apart from PSG being chucked out of the Champions League last 16 to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last two seasons.


The style of play will remain similar but “intensive pressing” will arrive

And this is maybe the main reason why Emery was first choice. Tactically Emery is quite different to the style Wenger created at Arsenal and there can be some clear, and healthy, progression while still sticking with the possession-based style.

Asked about Arsenal’s possession-based game and some of the counter-attacking tactics he has used during his career, Emery seems keen to not tweak too much with the way the team plays currently but he is further aligned to the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino with the way he sets his teams up.

“In my career I am very demanding of myself as well as the people at the club and the players. The history here is one thing, they love to play with possession of the ball,” Emery said. “I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure. Two important things are position of the ball and pressing when you haven’t got it.”

High-pressing with plenty of possession? Sign me up to watch that.


There will be funds to spend

In the media there’s been a figure of around $75 million being available for Emery to spend this summer on building a new squad. Although Gazidis wouldn’t confirm if that was true, he did state the following when it comes to money being spent on new players.

“We don’t discuss our finances publicly but we run ourselves on a very clear and transparent model. Anyone who wants to look at our accounts can do so. All of the money has always been available to our manager and that will carry on,” Gazidis said.

Okay, that was a little tetchy but it does mean there should be some significant funds available to spend if the past two years are anything to go by with Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all arriving. Emery’s main area of concern will be in central midfield and in central defense, so, not much changes in terms of their main needs, recruitment wise.


Small changes to the squad are coming up

When asked if the likes of Jack Wilshere will stick around despite being out of contract on July 1, Emery was quite eager to focus on the bigger picture.

That said, the Spanish coach said that there will be changes but didn’t seem to think plenty of ins and outs were needed.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players but I don’t want to talk individually about the players. This is a big team and today I want to work and speak globally for the squad,” Emery said. “This is a big project and I am proud to be here and to work after Arsene Wenger. We want to work on this club together. I know my ambition and my passion and to know how I want to grow up with Arsenal. All the conversations I have had with the club shows we share the same vision for the club.”

Emery hailed Mesut Ozil as “one of the biggest talents at Arsenal” but you have to wonder if Ozil and others will align with Emery’s tactics as he enjoys setting up solid defensively and hitting opponents on the counter.


His English isn’t great, which may be a good thing

Props to Emery for having a go at speaking in English and taking questions but it is clear that it will take quite some time for the Spaniard to express himself fully in the English language. And that may actually work in his advantage. Remember Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, then Tottenham? The Argentine didn’t have a single press conference in English for his first 18 months in the Premier League and that allowed him to absorb the culture and feel his way into the PL. Emery is already way ahead of Pochettino in that respect and even if Arsenal’s fans are looking for instant answers in every single press conference, it’s unlikely Emery will deliver them simply because he has yet to master the English language. That could well lead to more patience from fans (these are Arsenal fans though) and Emery will be able to give simpler answers due to the fact that he won’t be able to understand what a lot of journalists are asking. Or at least that’s the way he can play it when tough questions come around early on…

Harry Kane’s World Cup optimism encouraging

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Harry Kane raised plenty of eyebrows on Tuesday as the newly announced captain of the English national team had the following to say in a press conference.

“It’s impossible not to dream about lifting the World Cup. It’s the biggest competition in the world,” Kane said. “I believe we can win it – anyone can. I cannot sit here and say we are not going to win it because we could do. We are not favourites but you look at this season, no-one would have thought Liverpool getting to the Champions League final. You look at Manchester United back in the Sir Alex Ferguson days, they had a young team and dominated the Premier League for years to come.

“Being young is not an excuse – it could be a good thing. I believe we can and that is what we want to try and do. Anything else is not good enough.”

And just like that, England’s new skipper appeared to set the bar ridiculously too high once again ahead of a major tournament.

Compare Kane’s comments to that of England captain Steven Gerrard ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“Anyone who thinks we can’t win the World Cup has to be barking up the wrong tree,” Gerrard said, before England crashed out at the group stage four years ago…

Are England going to win the World Cup this summer? Probs not. Kane, and his manager, likely know that but what’s the point of having a negative mindset from the get-go? True, it hasn’t helped England in the past but this is a fresher, younger squad than in previous campaigns and there is a real sense of optimism building that Kane and Co. are flying under the radar.

The Three Lions have a chance of reaching the last eight, and even the semifinals if the draw is kind to them, and then, I guess, they’ll have a fighting chance. Germany, Spain, France, Brazil, Argentina and Belgium are still the clear favorites.

Still, Kane’s comments will no doubt be scoffed at and dismissed as nonsense by England fans and neutrals across the globe. Yet there is a growing sense that this is the strongest unit the English national team has had over the past decade with individual sentiments put to one side and Southgate fostering a team-first approach.

His selections for the final 23-man squad were based on sensibility and picking players who were in form, and fit, heading into this summer. So often the English national team has been about massaging big egos (Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry) and trying to fit square pegs in round holes come tournament time.

That’s no longer the case. With a humble, hard-working and talismanic figure such as Kane leading the line, and their charge, this summer, you get the sense that England will end up surprising many in Russia.

They won’t win the World Cup but they could win plenty of hearts for a brave style of play in a 3-4-3 formation and the likes of Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford excelling on the biggest stage.

Kane’s optimism is encouraging but unless England get out Group G (they face Tunisia, Panama and Belgium) comfortably, the negativity won’t take too long to take over the mood in the England camp.

That’s the way it always works for England as stars from the Premier League are put on a pedestal after a few decent performances and then knocked off it quickly with one slightly shaky displays. Perhaps the failure of the past two tournaments (knocked out in the last 16 at EURO 2016 by Iceland, plus the group stage exit at the last World Cup) will have toughened up this England squad.

With just five players left over from the Three Lions’ last World Cup exploit in the 2018 squad, this is very much a fresh, young squad looking to write their own history and not be haunted by the ghosts of England’s past.

“First-choice” Emery reveals his plans for Arsenal

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Unai Emery spoke to the media for the first time as Arsenal manager on Wednesday, with the Spanish coach detailing his vision for the Gunners as more details emerged about the managerial search.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s unveiling ]  

Emery, 48, was named as Arsenal’s new “head coach” with the former PSG coach replacing Arsene Wenger and edging ahead of Mikel Arteta in the battle to take charge at the Emirates Stadium.

Sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis, Emery spoke to reporters at Arsenal’s home stadium on Wednesday and although his English is limited he seemed excited by the challenge ahead.

“My English is not very best now and I want to make sure, to the supporters to explain my idea, my ambition, to explain that I am very excited for this opportunity at a big club, a great city and a grand stadium. Also, great players for this work,” Emery said.

Before adding that “it’s a great challenge but in my career, every year I grow up with new challenge and for me this challenge is a dream.”

Asked about changes to his current squad and which players may stay or leave this summer, Emery wanted to focus on speaking about the club as a whole rather than individuals but hinted at change.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players, today I want to work and want to speak globally for the squad,” Emery said.

Asked about the specific style of play he aims to achieve at Arsenal, Emery believes he can follow a similar style to the one Wenger created over two decades.

“In my career I am very demanding of myself as well as the people at the club and the players. The history here is one thing, they love to play with possession of the ball,” Emery said. “I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure. Two important things are position of the ball and pressing when you haven’t got it.”

Gazidis revealed that he led a three-man team in the managerial search which involved Raul Sanllehi, the head of football relations, and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat.

The keys for Gazidis and Co. were to bring in “progressive, entertaining football, a personality and a record of developing players, particularly young players through detailed tactical instructions and cultural demands.”

Arsenal’s CEO also revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist and all eight were interviewed in-person and none of the candidates withdrew their interest.

Gazidis confirmed that Emery was their “first-choice” after meeting him on May 10, and the Spaniard was then recommended “unanimously” on May 18 to the board.

Emery, Gazidis and Sanllehi then flew to Atlanta, Georgia to meet majority owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh on Tuesday before arriving back in London to meet the media on Wednesday.

“Thank you to all the chairman and the board,” Emery said. “They feel with their heart Arsenal and the conversation with the chairman and the board is very important for me to know better Arsenal. Also, thank you Ivan, Raul and Sven, the first meeting with Arsenal’s board, after three hours I felt a very good feeling and we will work together and we will create a new present and future at Arsenal. Thank you Arsene Wenger for your legacy. For all the coaches in all of the world he is a reference. A learned from him all of the things in football.”

Emery will have a strong Arsenal squad to work with but fans and the board will no doubt expect him to challenge for the top four, at least, and that’s before any big-name arrivals this summer.