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English Premier League

If WWE wrote the 2015/16 Premier League Season (Part 1)

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The wrestling, or “sports entertainment” brand, WWE, is the most mainstream of its kind, followed by millions of fans across the globe. Now sipping Diet Coke instead of downing beers in its PG-era, WWE has nevertheless dreamed up some ridiculous storylines down the years that would put most soap operas to shame. From live sex shows and crucifixions, to kayfabe deaths and attempted murder, many of the stories company owner Vince McMahon has sanctioned have been ludicrously entertaining and glaringly controversial, but there is no doubt that they entertain a wide audience. The clichéd “you couldn’t make it up” line rolled out during actual, unscripted sporting events like football is difficult to take seriously with comparison to some of WWE’s wacky plots.

So what if, in some distant alternate reality, football became scripted just the same as wrestling? If Vince McMahon and his creative team took over a major football ‘brand’ like the Premier League, how could they write in their squared circle stars to the 2015/16 season? Here, I’ll take a look at which superstars, past or present, could star in a WWE invasion of England’s top flight, and what might happen during the ensuing campaign…

The story starts this summer. Chelsea are Premier League champions and, along with Manchester City, once again favourites to challenge for the 2015/16 Premier League. That is, until Vince McMahon takes over the ‘franchise’ as he insists on calling the English top flight, and demands that his newly formed club – WWE FC – is included in the table. Instantly asserting himself as the great pantomime villain, McMahon’s second order of business is to insist WWE FC takes Bournemouth’s spot, as “there can only be one debuting team to keep the franchise prestigious”. The Cherries are naturally not happy at all about this and, just like any wrestling feud, their differences are to be settled in a match; whoever wins takes the 20th spot in the Premier League.

This match with Bournemouth debuts WWE FC’s superstars. In charge is none other than WWE’s best manager, Paul Heyman, a man known, just like Sir Alex Ferguson, for getting the very best out of his players. A genius with the media too, Heyman talks up his as yet unknown team, insisting they will crush Bournemouth’s highflyers and usher in a new Premier League era of dominance.

The match takes place at a packed Wembley Stadium the day before the Community Shield. Heyman’s WWE FC line up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, and to everyone’s surprise, they immediately operate like a well-oiled machine against Eddie Howe’s Championship winners.

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Despite Callum Wilson’s best efforts, he cannot score past WWE FC’s behemoth goalkeeper Big Show, whose enormous frame fills a large percentage of the goal and allows him to effortlessly pluck crosses from the air with giant hands. The centre backs are equally adept and physically intimidating. Kane is another seven foot monster whose power and strength are near unparalleled – plus his ability to spout fire from the corner flags before every match derails even the steeliest opponents. John Cena plays alongside him; the gritty, determined, captain fantastic, who can’t help but annoy people despite his wealth of talent – basically, this team’s John Terry. At right back is the quietly dependable Christian; technically sound, a good reader of the game, boring but dependable. On the left however, rampaging up and down the line with seemingly infinite reserves, is Booker T, whose athletic frame is perfectly suited to the rigours of his role – plus his ‘Spinaroonie’ goal celebration is always a crowd pleaser, no matter what they think of the team as a whole.

The central midfield is made up of the enforcer and the box-to-box engine. The former is none other than WWE’s most celebrated badass, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Rumoured to fill his water bottles with beer and to turn up to training whenever he feels like it, the Texan Rattlesnake is a brawler in the middle of the pitch, bullying opponents with his Vinny Jones style and giving a short pass to the nearest, more technically gifted, teammate. Beside him is the powerhouse Brock Lesnar; Heyman’s hand-picked favourite, the Beast is WWE FC’s driving force, contributing to every play front and back. A near unstoppable machine, Lesnar is the all-rounder: vision, pace, power, tactical nous and relentless stamina.

On the right of the attacking midfield trio is Chris Jericho. Although not standout in any of his attributes, Y2J is another all-rounder and big-match player, like the WWE FC equivalent of Park Ji-Sung or Dirk Kuyt – if there is a job in need of doing, Jericho will carry it out unquestionably and keeps going until the final whistle. His opening goal against Bournemouth shows, too, his penchant for grabbing important goals. On the left is Shawn Michaels; honestly, how could this man, so famous for his super-kick, be left out of this team? WWE FC’s most technically gifted player, Michaels is the go-to playmaker, unlocking defences with acute passes and devastating crosses. His free-kick goal against the Cherries highlights his set-piece prowess, and along with three assists, contributed to his Man of the Match performance. In the middle of the midfield trio, playing just behind the striker is The Undertaker; again, how can ‘the best pure striker in WWE’ be left out of this side? A long range specialist, no one can strike the ball cleaner than the Deadman, as Artur Boruc can testify, yet despite his size and strength he shows guile and a first-touch ability any classic number ten would be proud of. In honour of his famous Wrestlemania streak, Taker dons the number 21, however.

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The lone striker can be none other than Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. An international superstar, The Rock is the typical flashy centre forward, known as much for his image as his undoubted ability. Likened to Thierry Henry with his grace and poise on the ball, a coolly dispatched goal in this opening match is tantamount to the comparison.

The bench is equally adept: CM Punk is a worthy central midfield replacement with his combination of technical ability and tough-guy attitude; Jeff Hardy is the agile and undoubtedly talented winger, but his off-field problems often get the better of him; and Randy Orton is the ideal sub striker, with his ability to, of course, get a goal out of nowhere.

The match with Bournemouth sends a message out to the rest of the country: WWE FC is here to win the Premier League, and they aren’t out to make friends, having denied a favourite of the neutrals their first taste of the top flight. Their opponents are completely bullied during the match, with plenty of sly digs behind the officials’ backs, and a lot of rough fouls the referee seems too intimidated to properly punish. Jericho opens the scoring after twenty minutes, latching on to Michaels’ scooped pass over the defence with a diving header at the back post. The Rock then makes it 2-0 just before the break, collecting another Michaels pass before dribbling his way into the penalty area and passing the ball through Boruc’s sprawled legs as the Pole rushes out. The match is over by the hour, when Undertaker collects the loose ball following a 50/50 (or 99/1) challenge between Lesnar and Matt Ritchie, and effortlessly drives home a powerful strike from 25 yards. Taker and Lesnar begrudgingly acknowledge one another’s contribution before their teammates join the celebrations. Michaels curls in the fourth from a free-kick, which saw The Rock go down amazingly easy under a Tommy Elphick challenge, despite the half-foot and hundred pounds difference in stature. The 5-0 rout is completed with a couple of minutes to go when, off the bench for Johnson, Orton bullets a header into the bottom corner from Michaels’ cross.

Bournemouth’s players, humiliated and defeated, at least try to congratulate their opponents when the match is over, but WWE FC’s superstars are having none of it. Led by Austin, they ignore any attempts to shake hands and swaggers off the pitch and down the tunnel, one by one, not once acknowledging the crowd, as if their existence doesn’t matter. The boos, naturally, are deafening, but not one of them bats an eyelid.

At the post-match news conference, Paul Heyman laughs and jokes about his team’s dominance – and at Bournemouth’s expense – before reiterating that his team will win the Premier League, League Cup and FA Cup treble. Their first match, coincidentally, is against England’s most successful team, Manchester United, in a season opener at the Theatre of Dreams. With their first test brushed aside with such ease, football fans no longer know what to expect of WWE FC…

Any WWE fans out there, which superstars would you have in your WWE FC line-up? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Miguel Discart

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Jonathan is a football lover based in Dublin. He is an especially keen fan of Italian Serie A, and thinks Guti Hernandez's assists may have been the work of sorcery. Struggles to forgive his father's upbringing as a Saint Mirren fan.

Stoke City

Three things Paul Lambert must address to ensure Stoke City’s survival

Martyn Cooke

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Paul Lambert
Photo: Reuters

Stoke City have announced that Paul Lambert has been appointed as the club’s new manager after signing a two-and-a-half-year contract with the Premier League strugglers.

The 48-year-old succeeds Mark Hughes, who was dismissed after The Potters were knocked out of the FA Cup by fourth-tier side Coventry City earlier this month, and must now shoulder the responsibility of guiding the club away from the relegation zone.

Stoke are currently eighteenth in the Premier League table and are facing up to the realistic possibility of dropping out of the top flight for the first time in almost a decade.

Lambert’s appointment has brought an end to Stoke’s prolonged search for a new manager that has reportedly seen the position turned down by a number of high profile candidates.

The club hierarchy were initially keen on securing Gary Rowett, prior to him agreeing new contract with Derby County, and have also been snubbed by Espanyol manager Quique Sanchez Flores and Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill.

Essentially Stoke have had to be content with securing their fourth-choice managerial candidate and there is a considerable amount of uncertainty and frustration among supporters that the club were unable to attract a more prestigious figure.

However, with time running short prior to the transfer window closing at the end of the month The Potters have elected to hand the job to Lambert, who has been out of work since leaving Wolverhampton Wanderers in the summer.

The former Scotland international faces an uphill task to convince Stoke supporters that he is the right figure to rally behind and must now take on the challenge of saving the club from the drop.

Here The Boot Room looks at three things that Lambert needs to do in order to retain Stoke’s Premier League status.

Organise the defence

Mark Hughes’ position as manager was made untenable by his inability to organise an effective defensive unit.

The Potters currently have the worst defensive record in any of Europe’s top-flight divisions and have conceded 47 goals in 22 league games so far this season – that is an average of over two a game.

Furthermore, the last eighteen months of Hughes’ reign was characterised by heavy defeats, especially against the so-called ‘top teams’, on a regular basis. Stoke have already been hammered at the hands of Tottenham (5-1), Chelsea (4-0 and 5-0) and Manchester City to name just a few.

So Paul Lambert’s immediate concern is to plug the leaky sieve that is Stoke’s defence.

The 48-year-old needs to get back to basics by making The Potters organised, fitter and harder to beat. That might mean taking a more conservative or pragmatic approach and that may result in having to side-line some of the club’s more enigmatic and creative players in order to create a team that is more defensively solid and robust.

If Lambert can close the floodgates and stop Stoke leaking goals then he will have already have solved the team’s most prominent issue.

Find a system that suits the players available

Stoke City’s issues this campaign can be largely attributed to the formations and systems deployed by Mark Hughes that simply did not suit the players that he had available. This is exemplified by the Welshman’s decision to play 3-4-3 despite having no natural wing-backs – eventually being forced to shoe-horn Mame Biram Diouf, a forward by trade, into a right-wing back role.

The current squad is not short of talent, but rather it has been widely misused in the past eighteen months, and it is now Paul Lambert’s responsibility to find a way of maximising the potential of players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Ramadam Sobhi, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and, maybe even, Saido Berahino.

The most obvious solution would be to revert to a back-four, yet it is what the 48-year-old does with the midfield and attacking units that will define his career at the club.

He has plenty of questions to answer: does he use Shaqiri as a winger or a number 10? Does he play with a lone striker? Does he play with a front two? What system will get the most out of Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen in the central of midfield? Which wingers does he place his faith in?

At this stage, Stoke supporters will be willing to buy into whatever decisions that Lambert makes as long as they are logical and appear to be part of a clear, definitive game plan. As long as they do not have to see a striker being forced to play as a right-back they will back into their new manager’s decisions

Get supporters onside

There is no secret that Paul Lambert was far from being top of the managerial wish-list for Stoke City supporters and it is no surprise that the fanbase has been left feeling underwhelmed by his appointment.

However, the club’s failure to secure a more high-profile appointment now leaves The Potters with little option other than to rally behind what was effectively the hierarchy’s fourth choice option to succeed Mark Hughes.

Lambert faces a difficult challenge to steer the club away from the relegation zone and he needs to get the supporters onside as soon as possible.

The Bet365 Stadium was once renowned for its loud, raucous and passionate atmosphere after Stoke first achieved promotion in 2008. The crowd often had a key influence on matches and a trip to The Potteries was something that opposition players feared.

However, that atmosphere has dissipated in recent seasons following the club’s steady decline under Hughes and if Lambert can give supporters cause to rally around him then they can play a crucial role in the relegation battle as the metaphorical ‘twelfth man’.

The only way that Lambert can do this is by inspiring some fight, drive and determination on the pitch, which is something that has been sorely lacking in recent months.

The supporters will give the manager and the team their full support if they see their side putting everything into the cause that they can – it is now down to Lambert to show that he can stimulate a dramatic improvement in performances.

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Liverpool

Why Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson was one of the signings of the summer

Jake Jackman

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Andrew Robertson isn’t a household name, but he established himself as one of the best young players in the Premier League performance with an excellent performance against Manchester City.

Few expected Liverpool would be able to topple the runaway league leaders, especially after the departure of Philippe Coutinho. However, the Reds delivered one of their best performances since the appointment of Jurgen Klopp and took the three points to consolidate their own position in the top four.

It was a nervy end to the match as the visitors fought back to grab two consolation goals, but given the incredible energy that the home side showed since the first whistle, a stuttering end can be forgiven.

The 23-year-old was a signing that went under the radar during the summer and those football fans that don’t have their finger on the pulse may not have known that he had moved to Anfield. Despite a good season with Hull City, it is rare to see a player move from a relegated side to one in the Champions League.

There aren’t a lot of quality full-back options in the Premier League and Robertson showed enough to justify a transfer. It was a risk, but at the price of an initial £8 million, it was one worth taking.

The club’s official site reported the following quotes from Klopp upon the deal being announced:

“For Andrew, this is another big step on what has been a quite incredible personal journey in a very short space of time.

“I know our environment will benefit him and help him push himself even more than he has already. This is a player who does not limit his ambition.”

Klopp can’t be faulted for his record in the transfer market since arriving at Liverpool. His big money purchases have all been successes, but his decision to bring Robertson could represent the best value for money. The Reds’ boss clearly saw something in his character that suggested he would develop quickly at Anfield and his emergence in recent weeks has proven him correct.

The left-back was eased into life at a top-six club and made only three appearances for the club before December, two of which came in the Premier League. For Klopp, he needs to fully trust that a new player understands his style of play.

Those already at a high level, such as Mohamed Salah, can be expected to step straight in as they have a lot of experience of playing different systems. However, Robertson had been playing a more traditionally British system at Hull City and likely lacked the tactical knowledge of the rest of the squad.

Since the start of December, he has made the left-back position his own and his efforts against Manchester City showed that he can stand out against the very best. He was given a difficult task of marking Raheem Sterling, the former Liverpool player.

The City winger has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season and is among the top scorers. He would have been relishing the opportunity to return to Anfield and shine, but he was kept quiet by Robertson.

The former Hull City player was keen to go forward and support the Liverpool attacks. His distribution and decision making were both superb against Manchester City. In the past, we have seen Liverpool full-backs get caught upfield as they try to stick to Klopp’s strict tactical instructions.

It is difficult to master playing the position in this system, but Robertson is showing maturity beyond his years. He completed 79% of his passes, which is a good accuracy given they were playing an opposition that press high up the pitch.

Talking of pressing, Robertson was relentless in this area of his game and regularly put pressure on the Manchester City attackers. He was directly responsible for a number of turnovers as he didn’t stop running from the first minute to the last.

There was one incredible moment when he chased a ball back to Ederson and followed it until he eventually fouled Nicolas Otamendi. The Kop responded with a cheer fitting of a goal. They could see his effort and responded to it. Although he didn’t win possession, his manager would have been delighted with that phase of play.

His aggression was shown through his tackling. Robertson completed seven tackles and was only beaten twice on the dribble. Considering he was coming up against the likes of Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero, this is a very impressive return.

In addition to his tackling, the Scottish international made seven clearances to relieve the pressure on his team. The last few minutes were nerve-wracking for the home side, but the left-back remained assured in his defensive work.

Although he has a lot of areas to improve, Robertson is getting better with every game and he is establishing himself as a top-six full-back. Liverpool gambled on his potential and Klopp’s ability to develop it. His slow introduction to the first-team coupled with some excellent performances during the last six weeks show that the German manager knows what he is doing.

The 23-year-old’s performance against Manchester City captured the nation’s attention. He now needs to push on and consistency deliver at that high level.

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Newcastle United

Takeover developments suggest troubling times ahead at Newcastle United

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle
Photo: Reuters

Newcastle United are entering into a tense period of their history and the stakes have never been greater. News broke on Tuesday that the takeover talks between Mike Ashley and Amanda Staveley had broken down. Sky Sports were the first to report the story, publishing the following quotes from a source close to the Magpies’ owner:

“It is only right to let the fans know that there is no deal on the table or even under discussion with Amanda Staveley and PCP.”

The source went on to say that the talks had ‘proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time’. The reaction on social media was predictably a bad one, as many supporters stated that the same description could be used to discuss Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club.

It could be that the story is a cleverly released one by the Newcastle owner’s camp and brinkmanship on his part, but this is the latest of a long string of disappointing events for the club’s supporters. For them, it feels like the Sports Direct tycoon will never release his hold on the club.

A source close to PCP Capital Partners and Amanda Staveley was quick to address the story. Their side of the talks were keen to make it clear that the consortium had made a bid for Newcastle and that remains on the table.

“PCP Capital Partners made a carefully considered bid in November and it remains on the table.”

It is impossible to completely believe any story that has been leaked to the press during these takeover talks, as the media is a tool used to increase pressure on the opposite side. The takeover of Newcastle United was always likely to be a complex business deal that wouldn’t take place over night, despite Ashley’s optimistic Christmas deadline.

It could be that there are more twists and turns to come where the PCP bid is concerned. However, this story has to be taken at face value and supporters should be prepared for the worst-case scenario, which is Ashley remaining at the helm for the foreseeable future.

Why would no takeover be devastating for Newcastle?

Mike Ashley has been owner of the football club for over ten years and the club have been in the Premier League for the majority of those. Why would another few months of his ownership be a bad thing for Newcastle United?

Well, for Newcastle supporters and those that closely follow the club, that is a simple question to answer. Ashley suggested, during his interview with Sky Sports in August, that he was unable to compete with the rest of the Premier League financially and that, concerningly, the club bank was running on empty.

“So people outside of football looking in sometimes think that’s how much you have in the bank, I must make it crystal clear that I am not wealthy enough in football now to compete with the likes of Man City etcetera, not just Man City. It’s basically a wealthy individual taking on the equivalent of a country. I cannot, and will not. “

The namedrop of Manchester City was interesting at the time, as nobody was expecting Mike Ashley to compete with the club funded by oligarchs. However, the sobering fact for Newcastle fans is that their club (£38.07 million) have spent less than both Huddersfield Town (£51.08 million) and Brighton (£42.84 million) since the three clubs were promoted last season.

Against Swansea City at the weekend, the Magpies started the match with eleven of the players that had been at the club last season in the Championship. Mike Ashley has refused to provide the finances required to grow the team to the next level and their precarious position in the Premier League is a reflection of that.

A third relegation in the Ashley tenure is a real possibility without investment this month. As yet, that hasn’t been forthcoming and, judging by his actions during the last 12 months, few supporters are expecting it.

That could lead to further conflict with manager Rafa Benitez. The Newcastle boss has been very public about his desire for more players. The Spaniard is aware of his very powerful position at the club as he is the one person preventing the supporters from directing their anger at Mike Ashley.

If he isn’t given what he wants, he may consider walking away and that is a situation that the owner must avoid.

Benitez is both Ashley’s best asset and biggest threat. The manager has improved the atmosphere around the club and as long as he is in post, the supporters will believe that better times are ahead.

In addition to that, he is a world-class coach and capable of producing better results with an average squad. Newcastle are currently out of the relegation zone and considering the talent at his disposal, that is a huge achievement. However, if he was to leave his post, a crisis would quickly follow and it would be difficult to see the club maintaining their Premier League status.

The next few weeks and months promise to be crucial in determining the future of Newcastle United. There is nothing wrong with Mike Ashley walking away from talks with PCP and Amanda Staveley. If the deal wasn’t right and little progress was being made, his decision is understandable.

However, as the current owner of the club, it would be unforgivable not to invest before the transfer deadline. The squad isn’t good enough and needs an injection of quality. If that isn’t given, Benitez’s future would be cast into fresh doubt.

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