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Exclusive: Q&A with La Liga expert Graham Hunter

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The Boot Room has had the pleasure of interviewing Spanish football expert and highly respected author Graham Hunter.

Hunter has become a household name thanks to regular appearances on Sky’s La Liga coverage and his first book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World , was a best-seller in 2012. He is widely regarded as the top football analyst and commentator for the Spanish football revolution since moving his family to Barcelona just over a decade ago; credit, where credit is due.

His most recent publication, Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble, has been equally as successful. Here, he has used his unique friendships to tell the inside story of how Spain won the 2010 World Cup and the last two European Championships. His access-all-areas pass at all three tournaments has resulted in a remarkable eye witness account of the greatest achievement in the history of international football.

In the following Q&A session Hunter expresses his views on the differences between the Premier League and La Liga, Manchester United’s David de Gea, Diego Simeone’s England prospects and much more.

What did you find so alluring about Spanish football and what compelled you to write about it?

That’s quite a long, complicated answer. I was always fascinated by continental football. I loved Ajax in the late sixties to early 70’s and was virulently anti-Bayern when they succeeded in winning three European Cups in a row. I wanted to understand who these clubs were, how they’d done it. And I recall being stunned by the Derby v Real Madrid midweek ties in European cup of about 1975. Riveted.

Cruyff always fascinated me and thus so did his move to Barcelona, followed by that of Maradona, when we began to see more continental football on TV, and then Steve Archibald going there. By this time I’d been to the 1982 World Cup and loved the atmosphere at Spanish football grounds but also in the bars and cafes and in the football papers. The more I watched Spanish club football the more I was taken by its flair and technique and the very theatrical idea of it, as opposed to our tribal kind.

Aberdeen beating Real Madrid in 83 did no harm either. By the time I was a journalist I was convinced that Spanish football was a brilliant hybrid of what I liked watching and characters I wanted to write about – Cruyff, Pep, Butragueño, Hugo, Laudrup, Stoich. Not to the exclusion of some of the football in Italy or France, but Spain drew me. So when I began to go to interview Capello, Robson, Raddy Antic and the likes in 96 I was sure that La Liga was special.

How do relations between players/managers and the press differ between Spain and the UK?

There is much more access, much more interaction. The great majority of those in Spanish football still treat most of us with respect and openness and as an integral part of the football industry in this country.

This ‘access’ to interviews, to press conferences, to training was a great part of my idea to move to Spain. The access to training has declined over the years, sadly, but there is generally a more friendly and more ‘let’s talk about football’ attitude here in this country. I’m not knocking British footballers [well certainly not all of them] but the clubs and the agents and the Press Officers at some clubs in the UK need to stop being unnecessarily mono-visioned.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions in the UK. I’ve got sympathy for the superstar players in that they could easily fill their every waking hour with interviews and photo shoots. Also, I’m aware that not all in the journalistic profession act in a way that encourages fruitful, two-way relationships. But I think Spanish football still teaches its coaches and players that they can benefit from mature, respectful relationships with the media [or those branches of the media who earn that].

What are the real differences between La Liga and Premier League and does it mean some players can only perform well in one or the other? And, which current Spanish, Premier League, ‘imports’ are you most impressed with?

I honestly believe that the Spanish game remains both more tactical and more technical. There is a vast, vast disparity in the number of junior coaches in this country who have sought, and obtained, professional qualifications before they coach. There’s also a huge degree of football sala (Futsal) played here at a young age.

The overall effect, plus the will of young players to mimic what they see for their clubs and country, is that Spanish footballers tend to grow up with a better tactical and technical awareness. The football here is played with less hurricane momentum and that leads to greater thought, tactical thinking and promotes more emphasis on technique.

In saying this I’m not trying to do down the Premier League. There are hosts of things that Spain could learn from the English top flight and almost every Spaniard who takes his career over there comes back saying so. But the skill and tactical gulf I’m talking about is the very reason that English football is engulfed in a ‘where are we now’ and ‘how can we make the national team successful’ debate. I believe that English football is more forgiving of errors of position or technique.

By imports I suspect you mean Spanish to England? I’ve always loved Santi Cazorla as a footballer and as a guy to meet and speak to he’s both very funny and very generous. Juan Mata, too, always impresses me. I’d build United’s attacking play around him to be quite honest. Bright young man. [ David De Gea’s improvements have been enormous, good to know there’s an Iker replacement around the corner. But let’s settle on Cesc [Fabregas] and [Diego] Costa.

Cesc’s ability has too often been underplayed. I think he’s an enormous footballer and I was angry at how off hand his treatment at the Camp Nou was by some fans and media. As for Costa, what a cool guy he is off the pitch. Mr LaidBack. On the pitch he’s my kind of footballer. To the extent that back in 2011 when he was with Valladolid I recommended him to Newcastle as their Carroll replacement. Love watching him play.

What’s your take on the David de Gea – Real Madrid situation? Do you believe he will stay at Old Trafford, or will the opportunity to play for the Galacticos prove too enticing? Also, how highly do you rate him?

I’m not sure he’s made a firm decision either way so who am I to second guess him? IF there was an operation going on then it would be my job to try and find out and reveal it but I think he has a conundrum.

From those I’ve spoken to who know him he’s loyal to United but also tempted by Madrid. I do not think that’s in any way contradictory. Just human. Think it’s clear that there are some family wishes to go back to Spain, a multitude of players have proven that saying ‘no’ to Madrid is difficult but right now they have two good keepers and DDG is no1 at United.

Part of his figuring needs to be ‘can I oust Iker at Madrid?’ ‘How do I best guarantee myself no.1 spot with Spain. Honestly? At his age I’d be advising him to stay another couple of years at United, learn, win trophies, then return to the best offer there is in Spain. I rate his development very highly. He has changed, greatly – used to be dozy, drop concentration, he is in much better physical shape now, learning to cope with pressure. There’s lots of development left though.

How do the challenges faced by Louis van Gaal with Manchester United compare to his two spells with Barcelona?  Also, what can the Old Trafford faithful expect from the Dutchman in the future?

I don’t see a lot of similarities. When he took over from Bobby he had a ‘made’ squad, one which had won trophies, which had just been renewed, where he was able import some high class, peak of their career favourites of his. That Barcelona was different from now. When he took over the second time the entire club was in a mess. Genuinely in awful shape. That’s not true of the United infrastructure now.

It’s not better off without Ferguson and Gill but the club isn’t on the point of not being able to pay the salaries like FCB apparently were in 2002/3. Van Gaal was an ill thought out replacement when he returned but, even then, he had some really key youth product ready to promote or advance in Valdes, Iniesta and Puyol [who he prevented from leaving] which I’m not sure is identical to United albeit Adnan and McNair get their games.

When he went to United he was someone who’d reinvented his worth, his reputation, his vibrancy with AZ, Bayern and Holland. I think there was a sense that United were getting someone who’d put things right AND give flair. I believe it’s reasonable to expect that if he gets them fourth and is allowed to dictate how United buy there will be better football and trophy challenges next season. But if he’s NOT allowed a good say in who’s bought next, if he doesn’t get top four then I see storm clouds ahead.

Do you think Atletico Madrid can become an established force in Spanish football in the long-term or is their recent success a limited phase like Valencia from 2000-2004? Can you see any other clubs challenging the ‘now-top three’ in the future?

There have always been challenges since I came here. Depo, Valencia and Atleti winning title. But some of the challenges – Valencia, Sevilla, Villarreal – just haven’t been quite strong enough when the financial disparity handicaps them so much.

Atleti are so heavily in debt that the answer to your question revolves around them not having a miss-step. If you look at their buying and selling since the QSF era it has been exceptional. Keeping that going is the key. To remain competitive for trophies and to keep selling for more than you buy, while earning big Champions League revenue. That’s a neat trick.

Do you see Diego Simeone managing in the Premier League one day, if so, which would be the best club for him? On the flip side, which English top flight manager’s style is most suited to La Liga?

Yes. No doubt. Ambitious man, he’ll move there in due course. Although don’t rule him out of the Inter job at some stage. Simeone would be ideal for Liverpool or Chelsea, when they need replacements in the future.

Brendan Rodgers – good student of the game, speaks Spanish. Wenger, past his sell by date at Arsenal for a host of reasons. But with a football director to buy for him it would rejuvenate Wenger the coach if he were to move to a big Spanish club.

What kind of an impression has David Moyes made on La Liga in his spell so far and how does the future look with him in charge at Sociedad?

His personality is winning. Honest, forthright, dignified, sometimes fun. He’s moving the club towards safety but he’s unfortunate in having inherited a club where the fans want lovely football but they also want to be more robust than for the last 9/10 months. So, that’s a process.

It’ll take until next autumn to really see ‘David Moyes’ football at RS. Proper buying, weeding out those who shouldn’t be there, a pre-season and then a handful of games.

After Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who do you envisage being the next big stars of Spanish top flight football?

They are there already. Isco, Rafinha. James, Gayá.

You’ve probably seen #AdviceForYoungJournalists circulating Twitter in recent days. What’s your best piece of advice for someone looking to establish themselves in the world of sports journalism?

Ask the difficult questions, make the phonecalls, speak directly to the subjects whenever possible, be accurate, be brave, be honest. Have a point of view, DO NOT follow the herd, and don’t be afraid to be different. Tell the truth, honestly, as you see it whether it is the prevailing view or not.

Finally, who is your favourite for the La Liga title this season?

I tipped Madrid at the start of the season. I didn’t fancy Atleti and still don’t. Barcelona look, right now, very, very threatening.  Let’s put it like this, unless Madrid sort out their injuries and attitude very quickly then … Barcelona.

Chris is the founder of The Boot Room. He is a Swindon Town supporter, having lived in Wiltshire for most of his years. His work has also featured on Squawka, Bleacher Report and Eurosport.

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Massimo Luongo: Tottenham education, Ballon d’Or recognition and Loftus Road experiences

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Massimo Luongo has had an interesting career to date and, at the age of 25, he will be looking to build on his experiences and continue to progress as a footballer. The midfielder is currently on the books of Queens Park Rangers and has emerged as one of the club’s key players under Ian Holloway.

Although the Rs are not currently in a position to challenge for promotion, they are a developing a promising team and the Australian international has impressed this season. In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, he admitted that the squad feel they should have more points to their name this term. However, he suggested that now they are getting back to the level at which they should be.

“It’s been very up and down. We are probably a few points off where we should be, but there have been a lot of good performances and we picked up a lot of draws early on that could have been wins, which would have put us in a better position. We’ve had a lot of injuries and we are getting back to where we should be, I think.”

QPR are currently in 17th position, 13 points off the pace when it comes to the Sky Bet Championship play-offs. It seems unlikely that they will be able to make that gap up and another mid-table finish looks likely for the club this term. Nonetheless, Luongo is an ambitious player and he will be looking to return to the Premier League in the long-term.

He was given a taste of the English top flight after starting his career with Tottenham. The North London side are now renowned for giving young players a chance, but the 25-year-old was there before that became the norm. Although he failed to make an appearance for the club, he remains grateful for the education that he received.

“It was difficult for me at first, because the direction of the club was different to what it is now. They were always pushing for a Champions League spot at the time. When I came, Harry Redknapp just took over after getting them up from the bottom of the table. The direction they were going was to find a bit of security so it was difficult to break through, but development wise, it was the best place I could have been.

“The coaches I had, Tim Sherwood, Les Ferdinand and Alex Inglethorpe who is at Liverpool now, prepared me for English football in general. I think from then, it has gone pretty well. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been on loan to Ipswich, which was a good education for me.”

There is often a lot of criticism directed at Premier League clubs for not giving young players a chance in the first team. Tottenham are now famous for getting the most from their academy, but that wasn’t the case when Luongo was at the club. He had to go out on loans to Ipswich Town and Swindon Town to get experience.

Despite not making his Premier League debut at White Hart Lane, the midfielder clearly made an impact, as Les Ferdinand was influential in bringing the player to QPR after taking the post of director of football. Although he didn’t make it in North London, there is no ill feeling from the midfielder and he suggests that they are now the example to follow for other clubs.

“It didn’t work out, but they’ve hit the nail on the head now. They probably realise that they trust in their youth academy and their development now more than they did when I was there. The likes of Harry Winks are doing so well and obviously Harry Kane.

There are a few boys in the Championship from Tottenham that are full of quality. Josh Onomah from Villa. He was there when I was there. I think they are doing it right. If any a club wants an example to follow, they should follow Tottenham.”

There are lots of young players let go by Premier League clubs every year and it can be easy for them to lose faith, but Luongo didn’t take the failure to heart and joined Swindon Town on a permanent deal after a loan spell at the County Ground.

The Robins were clearly impressed by his talent and opted to pay £400,000 for his services, which was too much for Tottenham to turn down considering he was far down the pecking order at the club.

During the following two years, he became an influential midfielder in League One and his reputation grew on a weekly basis. During the 2014-15 season, he helped the Robins to a play-off final, where they were ultimately beaten by Preston North End. This denied them a return to the second tier, but it was Luongo’s performances on the international stage that allowed his name to enter the mainstream.

He had found himself in and around the Australia squad prior to the 2015 Asia Cup, but it was during the tournament itself that he made his breakthrough for the Socceroos. Scoring two goals and contributing four assists throughout the competition, he steered his country to glory, before later being handed the competition’s Most Valuable Player accolade.

“It was good, as I hadn’t really established myself in the Socceroos yet, so it was my first time being called up. The people didn’t really know much about me and it was in Australia. The final was in Sydney where I’m from, so that was pretty cool. It was amazing and scoring in the final of any tournament is big, but the fact it was at home meant a little bit more.”

Incredibly, his performances during the tournament earned him worldwide recognition and, still a Swindon Town player at the time, he found himself included on the Ballon D’Or long-list for 2015. The voting system means that those who impress at international level receive credit for their performances and Luongo was an example to everyone that no matter which club you play for, you can aspire to reach individual goals.

“The Ballon D’Or thing was pretty cool as well. I was happy about that. It was nice to get the recognition from the Asia Cup. Over here, you don’t see much of what happens in comparison to other continents. Being at Swindon at the time, it’s nice that they recognise wherever you are. At any club, you can still get on the Ballon D’Or list.”

After returning from the Asia Cup, it was obvious that Luongo should be playing at a higher level than League One. It would have been special to have achieved promotion with Swindon Town, but their play-off failure left the midfielder with a decision to make. QPR were quick to act, as they paid £3.5 million for the Australian and his club team-mate Ben Gladwin.

As the Rs had recently experienced relegation from the Premier League, Luongo would have seen it as a stepping stone to the top flight. Unfortunately, the club have been through a difficult period of transition ever since, forcing them to re-build and re-stratergise in the Championship.

Despite this, Luongo has successfully continued his development and he is now performing to a very high level in the division. When asked about the influence of the managers he has worked alongisde, he describes Ian Holloway as the one who has been able to get the best form out of him.

“All the managers are different, but at the moment, I’d say Ollie. He’s given me the role that I’m suited to best, the box-to-box role. I’m behind Luke Freeman and ahead of Josh Scowen, so I’ve got the creativity of Luke to combine with and the security of Scowen behind me.

“I’d say he’s brought out the best in me, but I learned a lot from [Jimmy-Floyd] Hasselbaink when he was here. The security that he wanted to play with and the discipline needed to play for him. It took me a while to get into his squad and I learned a lot of the game from Hasselbaink.”

This season, Luongo has been a consistent performer for QPR in the midfield and has regularly contributed in the final third. His current haul of a goal and two assists shows that he can offer something in attack, but he will be looking to improve on these during the second half of the season.

It has been his defensive work rate that has stood out most, averaging 3.9 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game. As he alludes to, he is a box-to-box midfielder and, at the age of 25, there is potential to grow further. The Premier League remains his ultimate goal in England and he is now closer than ever to achieving this dream:

Getting to the Premier League has always been the goal and I’m working hard to achieve it.”

The short term aim will be to get there with QPR and there is no reason why that cannot happen. Paddy Power latest football offers suggest it doesn’t look likely this season, but fortunes in the Championship change on a yearly basis and if they can find some consistency under Ian Holloway, promotion is a realistic aim for the club.

Luongo has stepped up to every new level with ease and has already been nominated for the Ballon d’Or by his peers. He has quite some pedigree, despite never playing in the Premier League.

If unsuccessful in achieving this objective with the London outfit, he might just be worth his weight in gold to any onlooking current Premier League sides.

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Danny Hylton – Fronting Luton Town, the Football League’s high scorers

Luton Town striker and The Boot Room contributor Danny Hylton reveals the secret to his prowess in League Two this season as he explains what makes The Hatters so prolific in front of goal.

Danny Hylton

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Danny Hylton
Photo: Reuters

The season has been very successful so far, both for myself and Luton Town. The club strengthened well in the summer and made some really good signings after narrowly missing out in the play-offs last season. At times last term we were lacking a certain level of experience, so we brought in a few older heads, players who know and have been about the Football League.

We all wanted to achieve promotion and set that as the target at the beginning of the season – it is not something we are going to hide. We think with the squad that we have, we can achieve that. We have started the campaign really well and it seems the longer it goes on we are moving from strength to strength., while playing some really great football.

We have some fantastic individuals at the club, those with incredible ability. Not just goal scorers, but players with great technical qualities and athleticism. We score goals from everywhere and do not just rely on one person or the forwards. From set pieces we are especially a real danger. We are lucky to have goals throughout the team.

Every time I go onto the pitch I want to score, but it is not the be-all and end-all. If I am bringing something to the team and we are winning games, then I am happy. It is not about me or any other individual, but I am definitely aiming to beat last year’s tally of 27 goals in all competitions, this season.

Credit has to go down to our First Team Manager, Nathan Jones. Ever since I have come in he has been fantastic with me. He has filled me with confidence and now every time I go out onto the pitch I know he is 100% behind me.

As a team, our performances come down to the amount of work he does with us on the training ground, the runs he tells us forwards to make, the time he spends with the midfielders so they know what ball to play.

We work tirelessly on patterns of play and structure, so we know what each player is going to do with and without possession. I have never seen a manager coach like he does and he deserves a huge amount of praise.

On a personal level it is great to be the leading goal scorer in League Two. Although football it is not about the individual, it is nice when you know you are doing your job and things are going well.

I go out there every game and work hard, trying to bring as much to the team as I can. If I am playing well and creating, or helping the squad in any way then that is great. If I am scoring goals in doing so, then that is even better. When you are playing in a team with players of the quality that we have at Luton, then you are going to get chances to do just that.

Our Head of Sports Science, Jared Roberts-Smith, always reminds us that we score most regularly in the latter stages of games. He takes big pride in that. We have a great backroom team at Luton and Jared is fantastic at what he does.

He places a huge amount of emphasis on the team’s fitness and the work done in the gym. When you see that we score a lot of goals in the closing stages of games it is because we are a very fit and in great shape as a squad.

It is also down to the way opponents set themselves up. Typically, they make it difficult for us, playing defensively and trying to counter attack.

They make it hard for us to score in the first period and if we don’t get an early goal it makes the game more of a challenge. If we then grab a goal early after half-time, teams are forced to come out and attack more, which makes it easier to grab a second or third.

It is really difficult to single out a particular team performance this season, as we have had a few high scoring wins. However, our recent win over Swindon, against a really good team, stands out.

At the County Ground they made it really hard for us, packing their half with 11 men. It took us until the second half to get one goal, but then in quick succession we managed to score four more. It is really pleasing to see that.

Ultimately, we have a great squad at Luton, not just the boys who are starting. When we make changes we are able to take the game away from people. We have fantastic ability coming off the bench, which gives us a different dimension and can help to take us to a new level.

When I got promoted last with Oxford we thought that we were by-far the best team in the league. However, sometimes we were a bit complacent, turning up and just expecting to be given three points. We ended up coming second that year, securing promotion on the last day of the season and it was not quite as comfortable as we would have wanted it to be.

This year we definitely won’t be taking anything for granted or taking our foot off the pedal. You have to go out there and fight for every point and we will definitely be doing that after being so close last year. We drew 17 games in total and if we could have turned just a few of those into wins then we might have gone up automatically.

It just goes to show the fine margins come the end of the season. We are only at the halfway point of the domestic campaign and anything can happen still. It is a bit of a cliché, but we need to take the second half of the campaign one game at a time.

Before this week, no-one in the team has really spoken about our upcoming FA Cup tie with Newcastle United. We have real tunnel vision on the league at present, taking each match as it comes. It will be a nice day out and a great tie at St. James’ Park, a huge stadium with lots of home support. The atmosphere should be fantastic.

We will go there and give them a good game. We can test ourselves against their big name players and really see how far we have come, as well as how far off the level we are now. However, we won’t be going there to get a draw or a replay. We will be going there to try and win and hopefully add to our goal tally.

 

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Christian Doidge – Adapting to life in the Football League with Forest Green

Christian Doidge

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Christian Doidge
Photo: Reuters

When I joined Dagenham in the Football League I had only started playing football again three years before, so I was almost re-learning the game. I hadn’t played for two or three years and I was definitely out of my depth at the start. I could always play football, but at that time, experience let me down.

I was like a rabbit in the head lights, running after balls that I shouldn’t have been chasing. But the more you play, the greater experience you get. The more time I’ve had on the field and the training pitch has really helped to improve my game over the last few seasons.

Dagenham gave me my first crack at professional football. I was in a team that was really struggling. I never had a good run of games and the type of football was a lot different.

We play a possession-based style at Forest Green, which allows me to just stay high up the pitch. My aim being to put the ball into the back of the net. That really helps me, as I’m a much better player when I’m in the box and just need to create a yard for myself.

I’ve had a good start to the season, scoring 11 times in 22 league games to date and just really hope that I can keep going now and continue getting goals for Forest Green. It was a really nice achievement winning League Two Player of the month for November, an award I never imagined I would receive.

I’ve been taking my chances whenever I have them and my chance-to-goal ratio is pretty high. This is down to the quality of players around me. My teammates set me up in good areas of the pitch, where I can be most lethal.

At Dagenham I probably wasn’t ready, but the last year spent in the conference at The New Lawn has really helped me to build my confidence. Now, I feel a lot more mature on the pitch and an underlying factor has to be down to the experience I have gained in our promotion run last season.

The play-off final win against Tranmere at Wembley was unbelievable.

When I signed for Forest Green, the first thing that came to mind was the goal of getting promoted. If you get the chance to do that at Wembley and score the type of goal that you wouldn’t usually, that feeling is unbelievable. It is a sensation makes you really want it again and I will definitely be pushing for more of those moments throughout my career.

After winning at Wembley we had a number of new players come in over the summer.

One who has really impressed me is Reece Brown, who arrived from Birmingham. He played Championship football for them, but needed more game time. Mark Cooper, the gaffer, saw something in him and brought him to the club.

He has really been fantastic for me, personally, this season. He is still really young, but he is someone I would love to play with for the rest of my career. He has provided a number of assists and I am convinced he has a really big future in the game.

We were under no illusion that stepping up into the Football League would be tough, especially considering the way we play. We knew it would be difficult.

With Forest Green, the way we play is very dependant on control. When we turn a game into a dog fight, because we are not brave enough to get ourselves on the ball, it becomes a flip of a coin for us. We are not set up for route one football.

We need to be confident and believe in what the manager and the coach, Scott Lyndsey, does for us. They work so hard on it. Our form is all down to sticking to what we do. We play good football and we need to keep on doing it to get the necessary results.

It took us a couple of games to get into it. In the early weeks we were putting in the performances, but not quite getting the results. The gaffer didn’t put any pressure on the players, whatsoever. He simply said, listen, it is going to turn around. You can’t keep playing like that and not start to pick up points!

We had a spell during which we went unbeaten for five games in November, playing some really nice football and scoring a lot of goals. We were second in the league form table.

Losing to Chesterfield and Grimsby since has not been ideal, but we have been very short on numbers recently due to injuries and suspensions.

Obviously being one of the better teams in the National League last year, while playing some excellent football, we went into every game almost expecting to win.

However, as you step up a level, you come against sides with bigger budgets, perhaps with better players. It is difficult because you go into games with a different outlook.

But the one thing about or manager is, we go everywhere to try and win, while playing expansive football. We try to get bums off seats.

That is the way that we play football and it will never change.

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