East meets Southwest as Twickenham gets Streetwise

A hooligan's game played by gentlemen: artwork with rugby connotations tells the story of the Old Streetonians

A hooligan’s game played by gentlemen: artwork with rugby connotations tells the story of the Old Streetonians

There is some corner of an English field that is no ordinary art gallery. With patriotic fervour stirred by the forthcoming Autumn internationals at Twickenham, one amateur rugby team have already set up camp. But they are not here to learn of any dark arts to overcoming a side from the Southern Hemisphere.

The Old Streetonians currently prop up the eighth tier of English rugby with four points from six games. While the side struggles to consolidate its London North West Division Three status on the field, their off-field exploits show they can rise from the canvas.

The Hackney-based club, consisting of players who earn their living from painting and designing to jewellery and sculpturing, have opened a gallery in the East Stand as part of the World Rugby Museum inside Twickenham HQ.

But as Club President Dick Stringer told me, you wouldn’t know it from the Shoreditched décor.

“We rebuilt an authentic 1990s Shoreditch loft in Twickenham,” Stringer succinctly said of the transformed venue for Old Streetonians: Life, Rugby and Art in Shoreditch. “It’s brick, there’s a chipboard flooring and plaster with jointed edges. It feels as though you are walking into one of those cheap, damp lofts that people lived in.

“All the artwork in the exhibition is from practicing artists. We have more members from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in the club than any other in the world. That’s its heritage, and that is what we are trying to celebrate.

“There are approximately 15 artists, including works from wives and girlfriends of the players. There’s a fantastic film by a lady called Kate Hawkins with one of the players demonstrating the laws of rugby using flowers. There’s some wacky stuff in there too!”

Sensual art hums beneath the exhibition’s surface. Patrick Colhoun’s ceramic Gimp Shield with coloured Corian mouthguard detail compliments Mark Woods’ delicate fetishes that are redolent of sadomasochistic sex toys. This motely crew of British artists most certainly possess an edge.

On the playing side, camaraderie is key for Stringer, who founded the club over 20 years ago at the Bricklayer’s Arms pub near Old Street. The bohemian boozer was a mecca for local artists in the strong Britart era of the late 1980s. The likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers and Rachel Whiteread were all based in Shoreditch.

“It was the centre,” Stringer recalls. “If you walked into the Bricklayer’s back then, everyone you spoke to was either a designer or an artist – and that became the core of the team. The rugby team was almost more like an art project and the most amazing thing is that we’ve actually kept on going and survived.”

Shoreditchification: A stadium tour plus admission to the museum costs £16 for adults and £10 for children.

Shoreditchification: A stadium tour plus admission to the museum costs £16 for adults and £10 for children.

“We used to gather to play a game of cricket in the local park during the summer evenings. When it got to September, we didn’t really know what to do. A friend of mine said we should start a group of amateur dramatics. We flipped a coin to see whether we would put on a play or play rugby. The coin landed the right way up, but even then it was only supposed to be a one-off rather than the foundation of a club.”

A derelict Hackney Marshes pitch on a freezing Friday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1990s was where it all began. The game itself was described as shambolic, but little did they know it would lead to the formation of a rugby club that has steadily risen up the league pyramid.

The union of bone-on-bone brutality with light brushes is an unlikely one but it is those contrasting elements that Stringer believes has held the club together.

“A surprising number of rugby players have been artists,” Stringer continued. “It’s not quite as unusual as it first appears. Playing rugby made a big difference to the founding members because being an artist, like nowadays, meant spending a lot of time on your own.

“It’s quite a lonely existence at times, and the fact that we could all go and have this great release of energy and have a few beers afterwards once a week was an important part of their lives.”

Stringer hopes the success of the exhibition, which shall presently last until the end of the Six Nations Championship next Spring with a view to an extension until the Rugby World Cup held across England and Wales starting next September, will spur on the First XV to improved results in the coming months.

“The threes and twos are doing really well in their respective merit tables, but the firsts are struggling at the moment,” Stringer admitted. “The standard of amateur rugby is going up all the time, and these things can be very cyclical.

“We are at the bottom at the moment but we’re confident of turning that around. The nature of sport in the inner city is that you need a very big pool of players because in the amateur game, you are not paid to play. In London, we have to accept that there are a lots of other fun things to do as well.” Attending an art gallery at the home of rugby is certainly one of them.

‘Old Streetonians: Life, Rugby and Art in Shoreditch’ is now open at the World Rugby Museum, Twickenham Stadium. It is open every Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 – 17:00 and on Sundays from 11:00-17:00 until April 2015.

Curtain Call For Keane and Doyle at London Sports Writing Festival

The Nightwatchman: Keane's face pierces through the crowd gathered to see his book tour come to an end at Lord's.

The Nightwatchman: Keane’s face pierces through the crowd gathered to see his book tour come to an end at Lord’s.

“This is our last gig tonight. Thank God!”

It has been a busy fortnight for Roy Keane. Having been away on international duty with the Republic of Ireland and touring the country promoting his latest autobiography, The Second Half, Aston Villa will be glad he can return to focusing solely on being their assistant manager.

But for one final hour on the penultimate day of the London Sports Writing Festival at Lord’s, he took centre stage. Kevin Pietersen had vied with the Corkman for supremacy as the sports writing season’s bestseller, but at the home of cricket he was always going to be cast as the favourite.

The BBC’s Matt Williams introduced both Keane and his ghostwriter Roddy Doyle to a lively audience, fresh from consuming El Clásico in the Thomas Lord Suite’s adjacent bar. Despite the tired appearance of that opening exhale, there was still more bite on show than Barcelona.

The annual Lord’s spectacle had once again shown the literary world how much good sports writing is being recognised, but when the subject largely centres on a controversial player’s acrimonious exit from one of the country’s greatest clubs, there is enough subplot besides to fill a fictional classic.

The benevolent mood was set from the moment the players entered the stage to rapturous applause. Williams moved swiftly in asking Keane for a motive behind writing another book. “I wasn’t doing much at the time of the offer,” came the honest response. “There was a chance that Roddy was going to write the book. I met him in Dublin to say that I wasn’t interested. But once I met him, I knew he would look after things.”

Doyle arrived at the Grafton Street location of that first meeting with an open mind, unsure of what to expect from a man who had been left somewhat hung out to dry by Eamon Dunphy, the ghostwriter of Keane, for his choice of words to describe the player’s reaction to that foul on Alf Inge Haaland which led to a heavy court fine and an additional five-match ban by the FA.

Despite the fellow Irishman’s love of the game, Doyle boasted no previous works on sport – but he told the audience that the warmth and humour he found in relaying Keane’s sequel may have come from being a ‘lay person’, as he described himself, rather than a sports journalist.

“It’s the only time I’ve done it and it’s probably the only time I will,” Doyle admitted. “I had just finished a work, and I was humming at home over what I’d do next, and this short email came from Alan Samson, the publisher [at Weidenfeld & Nicholson] asking if I’d be interested. As somebody who’s never written about sport or played it since I was about 13, I wondered if that could be an advantage or a disadvantage.

“I asked him questions that somebody who was immersed in the world of sport wouldn’t – very simple questions. There was one time when Roy was talking about recovery, and I asked what that was. It was brilliant, because he said it was basically doing nothing. It’s what I’d been doing for the past five or six years…I thought I was just fucking around. But I was actually in recovery. So the meeting went well.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to doing what I normally do. But I think in years to come, when I ever think of Sunderland going out to play a match while listening to Dancing Queen, it will always make me laugh, and it will probably be what props me up through the last minutes of my life. One of the shitest songs ever recorded. That to me is the comic high point of the book.”

Whether Keane’s sharp sense of humour had increasingly rubbed off on Doyle with each copy signed or whether the process of writing the book had been the natural coming together of similar minds from different walks of life, the chemistry between the two was delightfully refreshing given Keane’s happy knack of falling out with people.

But, as Williams rightly prompted, the person who takes the biggest pounding in this book is Keane himself.

“I was a bit harsh on myself, particularly with the job I did at Ipswich,” Keane added.” Whenever I’ve looked at a disagreement and been critical of something, I’ve also said that I can’t talk highly enough of Alex Ferguson either. Obviously, that doesn’t grab the headlines.

“But stuff like that doesn’t keep me awake at night. I don’t hope to bump into him and ask for a cup of tea but I know that football is strange. I had the same scenario when I ended up working with Niall [Quinn] at Sunderland. We’d had a big disagreement at Saipan, so I wouldn’t be shutting any doors on myself.

“It’s slightly different with United, because I felt they wronged me. They let me down badly, and I’ve got a good memory. Those who do read the book will see that it’s fairly balanced.”

Having a ball: BBC's Matt Williams hosted an evening of laughter in front of 400 crammed into the Thomas Lord Suite

Having a ball: BBC’s Matt Williams hosted an evening of laughter in front of 400 crammed into the Thomas Lord Suite

A cleanly shaved Keane admitted that his honesty has often led him into trouble in the past, but that without his intimidating image he wouldn’t have been the player he became. In Saipan, he lost out on playing in the 2002 World Cup. It was also his undoing at United, even if a crunching challenge from Steven Gerrard, which broke the midfielder’s toe, played its part.

“People talk about my playing career, the injuries and the sending offs, but the big issues which people will remember me for was off the field stuff – missing out on the World Cup and leaving Manchester United,” said Keane.

“When you are in the middle of a disagreement, the worst anger for me is the justified anger. If you feel like you’ve been wronged, it’s really hard. Ferguson knew which buttons to press.

“The manager spoke about loyalty, and all that nonsense, but they treated me that morning with pre-planned statements. I think I served the club OK, I was well paid for it and they said they’d like to thank me for 11 and a half years at the club. Obviously I’d been there 12 and a half…United would’ve done their homework…so I’m thinking, well this is going well. David Gill said to me that I was injured…I’d broken my foot against Liverpool playing for Man Utd…I didn’t get injured skiing!”

Keane, who said he found working with Doyle offered him greater freedom than in his first autobiography given he was no longer attached to any club, was left incensed by how the club depicted him through the media in what he described as a ‘carryon’.

“There was a lot of nonsense that I wasn’t a good lad in the dressing room, that I was very hard on younger players. In 12 and a half years at the club, everyone was OK with my temperament. If people think I was going to United every day and shouting at people, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.

“Ferguson had digs along the way, not just in his book, but also in the United programme and one night on ITV. I know some people may think I could’ve shown a bit of class, but there comes a point when enough is enough. You have to fight your corner.

“The two words he always worked with were ‘power’ and ‘control’. I had no problem with that as a player, but if you think you can have that over me when I’m not at the club, forget it. That’s why I’m here.”

That was why many of us were drawn to our local bookshop, but what has kept us hooked to the turning Keane carousel while the Pietersen’s score settling saga has ground to a halt are the many anecdotes besides.

There were more on Saturday night, with Crystal Palace’s Damien Delaney – who had an unfortunate knack of scoring own goals under Keane at Ipswich – bearing the brunt of the banter.

The sight of shirt swapping and back-slapping between rival players in the tunnel this past week is also timely given this nostalgic reminder of how Keane used to play the game, 12 years on from his first book.

“I see nowadays how players are quite pally with each other in the tunnel,” continued Keane. “They meet after for a bite to eat, play X-Box and all that…fucking hell man! Even with some of the lads I’d played with for Ireland, I didn’t want that. It’s why I couldn’t get worked up for pre-season friendlies. I had to always be on edge with matches.

“It was to do with my image. I was always on edge with matches, but I had to be on the edge. It cost me a few Cup Finals, but that was the way I played. Part of my role was being ‘the actor’. At United there were so many distractions, commercial deals and media interests.

Slogging out: Keane was speaking on the third of four days devoted to sports writing at Lord's

Slogging out: Keane was speaking on the third of four days devoted to sports writing at Lord’s

“Running a really tight dressing room was what I’d been doing for years. The responsibilities came with years at the club…I didn’t go looking for it. I couldn’t have helped us win the trophies we did had I not been on edge.”

Keane faces another former United player on Monday night, but as Rio Ferdinand’s fall in valuation reached a new low following his recent admission that he is contemplating retirement this summer, it would appear that having taken time out from the game, the hunger has been rediscovered in the man who once led him into battle.

“I enjoyed my time off,” said Keane of his time after being sacked at Ipswich in 2011. “I wasn’t missing football that much. I wasn’t missing being out on the grass, getting the cones out and the bibs ready! I haven’t put myself under pressure over what I’m doing for the next five years. I didn’t think I’d buy a house in Ipswich, or do a lot of TV stuff. I’m doing a lot of stuff I didn’t think I’d do, so I’m not looking too far ahead. I always knew that I wanted to become a footballer as a kid…I don’t think you ever dream of being a coach or a TV pundit. All these things have panned out for me the past few years.

“It’s scary to think of being tired at 34 years old. I achieved nothing at school. Football was my love and that was it. The punditry kept my brain busy even if there was something just to moan about. I was getting dog’s abuse at a City game, being called a wanker for three hours. I was thinking, ‘Am I living the dream here?'”

Keane might yet fulfill his goal of emulating the success he enjoyed as a player in the dugout. While he may not admit it, there is always room on the top table for a manager who oozes such personality. Recalling his awkward run-in with Alan Shearer on the media circuit as a TV pundit, he was asked if he would replicate the successful Vieira documentary with the former Newcastle striker. With a steely gaze came the response, “have you been drinking?” Keane still detests those he detested as a player. Our intrigue in the man, like his playing days, lives on.

How Ched Evans can return to football

Return of the Dragon: Evans was freed from prison this morning

Return of the Dragon: Evans was freed from prison this morning

Early this morning, Ched Evans left Lancashire’s Wymott Prison in the backseat of a tinted vehicle a free man, having served half his time for raping a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room in Rhyl, north Wales.

But returning to society as a convicted rapist, the 25-year-old footballer may only now truly realise the severity of his actions. The wrath of the baying terraces and toxic tackles await Evans should any club risk their fans’ loyalty by playing society integrator.

In a week when a BBC study into the Price of Football revealed statistics that many believe do not equate with the astronomical television rights to broadcast Premier League football matches, the thought of helping to pay the wages of a man showing no remorse as yet for the crime he committed would be another sign of the gatekeepers to our national game being out of touch with the many thousands entering the turnstiles each week.

There is nothing legally preventing Evans from returning to football. It is now a subject of moral debate: Should the Wales international receive the double punishment of now being shunned by football?

Sheffield United, the club with whom Evans scored 42 in 103 games prior to being jailed on April 20th 2012, are yet to make a decision on whether or not to bring the player they once bought for £3million back to the League One side. Manager Nigel Clough recently visited him in prison and revealed that it would be the board – “above football level” – making the call.

If that judgment shall be made based partly on opinion polls, Evans would surely not be granted the second chance that in principle he should be afforded in a law-abiding society. What really rankles the 145,000 people to have signed a petition against United re-employing him is that he is yet to show signs of rehabilitation. His lack of apology has angered members of the public alike, many of whom feel he should serve a longer sentence in order for him to accept wrongdoing.

Accepting responsibility for the crime would help. But should we be led to thinking Evans is condoning rape due to his remorseless stance? Where do we stop punishing people? Were he to be a convicted paedophile, returning to a role as a nursery assistant would be deemed as endangering the public – but he is not.

Running around on a grass pitch does not pose a threat to society in itself. As bleak as it might sound, Evans is no less likely to re-offend on an inebriated night out as a recruitment consultant or executive manager.

Denying him the opportunity of returning to a profession in which he has a track record of performing well would not only represent a failure in the principle of second chances, but it could lead to less of a re-integration into society. Indeed, if football rejects Evans, why wouldn’t any other sector? The idea that footballers were seen as role models died long before the advancement of social media. They are mere sportsmen capable of mistakes.

Selling a plush car to his victim’s family garaged during the two-and-a-half-years spent in prison would prove an insufficient apology (that much we already know), but is saying he has rehabilitated any more indicative of a man who has learned his lesson? It is his actions that shall speaker louder than his words.

This relatively high-profile case should be used as an example to young aspiring footballers in particular that there is no place for rape nor violence towards women. It can also be used to dissuade drunken girls from throwing themselves at high earners who are constantly under public scrutiny. Sheffield United, and other clubs in the Football League whose plight could be eased with the acquisition of a player of proven ability, should be lauded and not chastised if they hold out an olive branch to the offender, but only if Evans plays his part.

Football has an illustrious past of turning sinners into saints. Oldham Athletic signed Lee Hughes after the striker had served three of a six-year sentence for killing a passenger upon losing control of his vehicle. The sport’s working-class roots are still pervasive, allowing it to be used as a tool for good when many of the underprivileged turn to crime. Evans has flouted the golden rule in throwing what has been offered him back in the face of football, but the fickle nature of the sport could just as easily represent his saviour, even if the striker doesn’t replicate the goal-scoring record Hughes achieved for the Latics.

How would he feel if his daughter had been raped and the perpetrator showed no sign of repentance? Does he feel he has the right to resuscitate his career when his victim has had to deal with Twitter hate campaigns, been forced to adopt a new identity and leave her hometown?

The Office of National Statistics reported yesterday that 22,000 rapes cases were reported for the 12 months leading up to June 2014 – a 29 percent increase. In order to help reduce these figures, Rape Crisis, the registered charity in England and Wales, should take the moral high ground of engaging with the footballer’s family in its campaign for change.

Evans must now be allowed to send out a strong message condemning sexual violence against women before any ball is kicked in anger. Involving himself in campaigns alongside anti-rape movements, donating his wage to Rape Crisis and admitting guilt would go a long way to welcoming Evans back into the football fraternity and society as a whole.

UEFA in limbo after more Serbian shame

Police were unable to prevent fans from entering the pitch

Police were unable to prevent fans from entering the pitch

Argument and allegation have riddled an international window bereft of something really worth talking about. That was until autobiography accusations, ‘club v country’ rows and Twitter taunts were eclipsed by a far greater evil that reared its ugly head in Tuesday night’s Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade.

With the scoreline 0-0, a low-key affair erupted in the 41st minute when a drone carrying a ‘Greater Albania’ flag hovered over the stadium and was eventually seized upon by Serbia’s Stefan Mitrovic on its approach to landing. A mass brawl involving players and some of the 20,000 Serbian fans entering the pitch ensued, leading English referee Martin Atkinson to abandon the game.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter reaffirmed his belief that football should never be used for political messages, but swiftly condemning the behaviour of those responsible for the clashes is not unprecedented when it comes to matches held in a country seemingly bound by its own rules.

As recently as last month, the same stadium hosted a Europa League stalemate between Partizan Belgrade and Tottenham, in a match that shall be remembered more for an anti-Semitic banner, fireworks and a laser pointer descending from the home section than events on the field. A daunting atmosphere had been anticipated by Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, who decided to leave Danny Rose at home in wake of racist abuse the full back received when England Under-21s visited Serbia in 2012.

UEFA investigated the melee and monkey chants which marred that European Championship qualifier, but the resulting £65,000 fine – in addition to one match being played behind closed doors – was slammed by the English FA and British government as a ‘paltry’ sanction. The latest shame suggests the partial closure of the stadium for the forthcoming European fixture with Besiktas will do little to detract the mindless minority who have now tarnished the nation on a much larger scale.

Attack of the drone sparked a mass brawl involving players and fans

Attack of the drone sparked a mass brawl involving players and fans

The use of a drone carrying a political message to enrage a sensitive crowd should also be condemned, but as the scars of political turmoil that engulfed the Balkans two decades ago show few signs of healing, UEFA need to stop unfurling an offensive banner of their own: ‘Politics should be kept out of football (unless it’s played in the Balkans)’.

UEFA have opened disciplinary cases against the Serbian and Albanian Football Associations, but precisely how the confederation can tar the latter with the same brush seems illogical. Try palming off the joke ‘who drone it?’ as banter in Belgrade. Was it controlled by the brother of Albania’s Prime Minister? There are even suggestions that the Albanian squad were involved in the stunt. But not only is discovering the perpetrator for the drone unlikely but finding the apt punishment to fit the crime will inevitably lead to further tensions.

President Michel Platini released a statement on Wednesday morning, which read: “Football is supposed to bring people together and our game should not be mixed with politics of any kind. The scenes in Belgrade last night were inexcusable.”

FIFA Vice President Jim Boyce added his voice, lamenting the most recent example of football’s inability to overcome all barriers in Serbia by saying: “It’s very sad once again that politics is being brought into sport. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life in certain parts of the world. Obviously, the UEFA disciplinary committee will look into this matter and I think it will impose very serious sanctions.”

While the inept security levels at a fixture which always promised hostility is likely to incite much of the dialogue exchanged by the committee, making a real example of a highly ranked footballing nation ahead of a tournament designed to encourage perennial underachievers would ensure the message of zero tolerance is truly received. The only surprise of last night was that none of the Albanian players were seriously injured. Banning Serbia from participating at Euro 2016 is not out of the question; imposing harsher sanctions must be enforced to discourage fans of other nations from similar misbehaviour in future.

Albanian players run for cover amid fears of a mass pitch invasion

Albanian players run for cover amid fears of a mass pitch invasion

The Albanian squad was welcomed home by government officials at the Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana late last night: their mood in stark contrast to the sense of euphoria as they embarked from the capital following a promising start to their qualification campaign. Buoyed by victory in Portugal on a sun-kissed September evening, a battling draw against Denmark heightened belief that the nation might be on the verge of qualifying for their first major tournament. The Eagles – as the team are nicknamed – were brought back down to earth by an ultra wielding a plastic chair. It’s time UEFA did more than just place the Serbian FA in the naughty seat.

It’s time to talk about the Champions

Silva Service: David Silva was at his brilliant best against Aston Villa

Silva Service: David Silva was at his brilliant best against Aston Villa

David Silva was conducting a midfield master class. The diminutive Spaniard was seemingly afforded the keys of Villa Park, finding pockets of space at will, but the score was still 0-0 entering the closing stages. No bother. A blitz begun by Yaya Toure and ended by Sergio Agüero in the space of six minutes unlocked a resolute Aston Villa defence and the points returned to Manchester.

Biding their time and doing just about enough is how it’s been so far for Manchester City this term. The visitors emerged victorious from a complacent first-half against Hull last week, and were far from being at their most fluid on Saturday night against Paul Lambert’s tenacious side. But while the media spotlight flickers from Chelsea’s fast start to the continual struggles of others in the north-west, Manuel Pellegrini’s team look as though they are slowly warming to the season, rotating their goalkeepers, doings things their way.

City have now scored six goals in the last ten minutes of matches – more than any other side. Putting on the after burners in the game’s dying embers is the hallmark of Champions, and with Silva’s patience and the belief in class prevailing, few should bet against them retaining their Premier League crown on this evidence.

Blitzing teams nearly brought Liverpool their first league title in 24 years last campaign, but it is now the side who eclipsed them on the home straight that has developed a habit for not taking their foot off their opponent’s throat. Even a lukewarm run-out in the Capital One Cup against Sheffield Wednesday morphed from a tepid affair of little significance into a second-half bloodbath through seven unanswered goals.

The latest show of relentlessness was forewarned on the stroke of half time. Shots were fired as City clocked a remarkable five attacks on Villa’s goal in the space of the one additional minute. It would come to nothing, but the visitors were fast out the traps upon the restart. Agüero latched onto James Milner’s pass only to strike the foot of Brad Guzan’s left-hand post and the American palmed Silva’s deflected shot out of harm’s way, either side of a swift Villa counter-attack which saw the recalled Joe Hart make a smart save at the feet of Kieran Richardson.

This is October but, make no mistake, City didn’t want to fall further behind Chelsea in the title race. Poor away form derailed their title hopes last year, and a repeat of the 3-2 reverse at Villa Park just over 12 months ago coupled with a win at Stamford Bridge on Sunday for Jose Mourinho’s side over Arsenal would have opened up a seven-point gap between the two front-runners. As it is, three away successes and a battling point at Arsenal suggest they are set to mount a much sterner title defence than the 11-point surrender to their bitter rivals two seasons ago.

On Saturday, illness struck in the Villa camp prior to kick-off once more, after being severely affected leading up to the 3-0 home defeat to Arsenal last month. Losing the speed of the stricken Gabriel Agbonlahor didn’t make for any less comfortable an evening for Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala for the best part of an hour, before Pellegrini identified a way of converting his side’s 70 percent possession into a meaningful advantage.

The Chilean recognised the need to ‘go back in order to go forward’, as Gary Neville described Fernandinho’s replacement of Edin Dzeko shortly after the hour-mark. The withdrawal of the injured Fernando had resulted in a period of dominance for the home side that was nullified by the additional man in midfield. Villa came to play, but despite the return of Christian Benteke from a seven-month injury lay-off lifting the home crowd, the constant ceding of the ball ultimately took its toll on wearied claret and blue legs.

Toure, who had hitherto epitomised City’s underwhelming displays, benefited from being pushed further forward in the role of a physical presence vacated by Dzeko. The Ivorian seems far happier when allowed to roam and it was his burst of acceleration and guided finish, reminiscent of that goal against Villa at the Etihad last season, which finally breached the hosts with eight minutes remaining. For all Villa’s hard work, few could argue with the outcome – their third successive defeat – that was put beyond doubt when Agüero latched onto Milner’s pass to blast in a second, and his fifth league goal in as many away games.

While question marks still linger over City’s ability to replicate their domestic form on the continent, consecutive away wins have now propelled them to second in the league, with Chelsea in their sights. The pre-season favourites occupy one and two: Catch them if you can.

Forward-thinking England Shaw of investing in youth

Bad Luke: Shaw has had an injury-ravaged start to the season

Bad Luke: Shaw has had an injury-ravaged start to the season

And so, once again, just when the Premier League threatens to break out into any sort of rhythm, the international break will return with as much anticipation as Lindsay Lohan’s West End stage debut.

Not even the most pessimistic England supporter would predict Roy Hodgson’s side to fluff their lines against European minnows San Marino and Estonia next week, but the sense of apathy towards the senior squad set to be reflected by another low attendance at Wembley for the first of those fixtures should not extend to the mood surrounding the younger age group.

The Under-21s face a crucial two-legged qualifying play-off against Croatia for a place in next year’s UEFA European Championships in the Czech Republic, and head coach Gareth Southgate has been allowed to call-up Manchester United left back Luke Shaw, alongside his former teammate Calum Chambers, as part of an experienced 23-man squad.

Yet being ‘called-up’ has been viewed in some quarters this week as an oxymoron. Shaw has only recently featured for his club this season under Louis van Gaal, due to a persistent hamstring injury, while Chambers has excelled at Arsenal, only to be eclipsed in the past month by the performances of Nathaniel Clyne, whom replaced him at Southampton.

Having already featured for the senior team has led some to believe the two promising defenders are now facing a test of their resolve in being relegated to the Under-21s, but debating any such fall from grace would be gravely premature. Such was the sense of excitement sparked by Hodgson’s decision to include Shaw in his World Cup squad, and then exacerbated by his £30 million move to United, a measured outlook has once again been lost on one of the country’s brightest talents.

Shaw was the youngest player to feature out in Brazil, and while Molineux will feel a million miles away from Belo Horizonte next Friday, the meteoric rise of the 19-year-old once snubbed as a boy by Chelsea should not be forgotten. From a physical as well as mental perspective, representing the Under-21s is the right call for a player who only accumulated three caps at that level before his first senior appearance.

While Kieran Gibbs has shown greater consistency and maturity in his game for Arsenal this campaign, it is the lack of minutes that has resulted in Shaw’s exclusion from adding to his three full caps. Being the baby of the group has followed him throughout his short career, but no other player named to face Croatia has been to a World Cup. After a frustrating start to the season, Shaw now faces a test of mental strength at international level that wouldn’t have been asked by San Marinoan semi-professionals.

Steep Incline: The form of Nathaniel Clyne has 'relegated' Chambers to the Under-21s

Steep Incline: The form of Nathaniel Clyne has ‘relegated’ Chambers to the Under-21s

Hodgson admitted on revealing his squad yesterday that should there be any defensive withdrawals over the coming weekend of Premier League fixtures, Chambers would move up to the senior squad. But the form of Clyne simply couldn’t be ignored any longer. Even when both he and Chambers vied for the same place at Southampton last season, the ex-Crystal Palace defender caught the eye of Hodgson. The versatility of Chambers and John Stones, who continues to impress in a distinctly average Everton defence this season, is a sign of the growing competition on the right side of England’s backline. Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson have a tough battle on their hands to wrestle a squad number let alone a starting berth when they return from their respective injuries.

Both Southgate and Hodgson acknowledge the importance of England qualifying for next year’s Under-21 European Championships. Having players who buy into the belief that success with the junior squad, as achieved by Germany in the 2009 tournament, can transcend to senior level is a key component to FA chairman Greg Dyke’s strategy for success.

Hodgson admitted that Jonjo Shelvey, whose performances for Swansea this term has earned him a senior recall, had been ‘reticent’ to representing his country at under-21 level. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers wanted to keep the midfielder, but Shelvey wouldn’t wait for his chance. The 22-year-old has excelled in South Wales, but the former Charlton Athletic trainee would be the first to identify the void being created by Steven Gerrard’s receding influence at Anfield.

Shelvey may well fulfill his clear potential, but being fast-tracked to the top has often been England’s undoing at major tournaments in the past, where players have believed their own hype stirred by performances against opponents who wouldn’t grace the Championship. Hodgson cannot be accused of shortsightedness. Placing an emphasis on creating a winning mentality within the next generation, as intended by the inclusion Shaw and Chambers against the Croats, should not be viewed as a demotion in the pecking order, but rather as a clear sign of forward planning that should be promoted and embraced.

Ferdinand Kicks Out At Punchbag Claims

Scrum down: Rio was joined on the sofa by Alex Corbisiero

Scrum down: Rio was joined on the sofa by Alex Corbisiero

Rio Ferdinand has moved to defend comments made in his latest autobiography that Kick It Out could have done more to support his family during the race trial involving his brother Anton and Chelsea captain John Terry.

The QPR defender refused to wear a T-shirt supporting the annual anti-racism campaign in October 2012 prior to a game for Manchester United, on the grounds that the group had refused to attend court alongside his family dressed in the same attire.

Herman Ouseley, chairman of the anti-racism body, criticized Ferdinand on Wednesday for treating them as a ‘punchbag’, but on The Clare Balding Show, the 35-year-old moved to clarify that section of #2sides, which was released at a Mayfair launch on Thursday night.

“I wasn’t using them as a punchbag at all,” said Ferdinand. “They were part of a bigger issue; Kick It Out want us to wear the T-shirts once a year, and I was saying that if you can’t go into a racism case in court and wear the T-shirt on a player’s behalf, why should I wear it on your behalf?

“My mum said to them, ‘if you’re going to come to court, don’t come invisible. Come so that people know why you’re here, and what you’re doing here. If a guy comes in a suit and works on behalf of Kick It Out, who’s going to know? You may as well not be there.”

Speaking Out: Ferdinand's book was launched at the Mayfair Hotel on Thursday night

Speaking Out: Ferdinand’s book was launched at the Mayfair Hotel on Thursday night

Ferdinand maintained that the world of football didn’t provide his family with sufficient support during the Terry case, and stressed that everyone concerned would have emerged from the saga with their reputations intact had the Football Association handled the episode with greater immediacy.

Despite its severity, the former United captain believed the race row got out of hand after the FA had allowed for ‘Chinese whispers’ to circulate, but asserted that racism is still an issue that pervades all of society – not just football.

“There’s been an improvement, definitely – from the days of Viv Anderson getting pelted with fruit,” added Ferdinand. “They received a lot worse than the black players of today, but I think there is a bigger issue than just football. Racism is society’s problem, and I think we have to hit that home with education and family life.

“Football isn’t going to change it; people who are racist can turn up at games and decide to keep their thoughts to themselves due to the new punishments, but then when they get out of the stadium, they will go back to being racist. Football isn’t going to change everything, but it can help, and it can be a starting block.

“I just feel that nowadays the punishments sometimes don’t reflect the seriousness of the incidents. Especially when you see a federation being fined a few thousand pounds and their income over a year could be a few million, even up to £20 million. That doesn’t really add up; that doesn’t hurt that federation.”

Ferdinand was also questioned by Balding over his comments about former United manager David Moyes, whom he describes in his book as bringing ‘the mentality of a smaller club’ to Old Trafford. The defender wrote that Moyes ‘didn’t want to take risks, and it was like he had no confidence in the team, constantly changing opinions and sending mixed messages like, ‘pass the ball’ and ‘don’t pass the ball’.

“Doing that chapter wasn’t to be vindictive towards David Moyes,” Ferdinand told Balding. “As a human being, and as a person, I’ve got the upmost respect for him, and I liked him. But I was talking from a fans perspective as well – I’ve been there 12 years, and as a fan, I’d be sitting there wondering what’s happened there, and that was my way of explanation.

“In the book, I explain how it felt we’d gone from a clear picture of understanding what we needed to do to win, to going to a bit of fuzziness and a grey area in a lot of situations, which from my perspective was one of the fundamental reasons why we went from 11 points clear to where we finished last season.

“When a new manager comes in, you try to help them. I think people get it twisted in thinking that we didn’t want to help the new manager because we didn’t agree with what he was doing…it was nothing like that. I always want to win…I always want more trophies. So, if the manager is telling me to run right, I’m going to run right. But then if he’s telling me to run left, right, forward and back, I’m going to be sitting there not knowing what it is he wants me to do. That’s the kind of situation that I try to explain in the book.”

The full interview with Rio Ferdinand can be seen on The Clare Balding Show this Friday at 10pm on BT Sport 2 and is repeated on Saturday.