Cheltenham Insights Why There's Too Much Focus On Cheltenham

The National Hunt season is underway as we were treated to some wonderful racing at the backend of October. To talk about all the current events in the racing world, Steve McManaman returns with his column to discuss why it’s too early to predict any Cheltenham Festival winners, why the Jumps season is too focused on the Festival and the difficulties regarding race horse management during this time of year.

We are now a few weeks into the National Hunt season, but it’s too early to call many Cheltenham Festival winners.

The Charlie Hall Chase was last week when Shan Blue was well clear and fell. You thought he looked special this year but subsequently he looks like he’s picked up an injury. Sceau Royal won recently in the Unibet Elite Hurdle, which was very nice to see. There haven’t been too many surprises yet with the Down Royal race being won by Envoi Allen, but there’s not been a great number of superstars on this side of the water. Over in Ireland there has been a better standard of racing. 

Ahead of the Cheltenham Festival there haven't been many surprises with horses where you can confidently say they’re going to be victorious at the Festival. Can Envoi Allen win? Of course he could, but that wouldn’t be a surprise to anybody.

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It’s a shame that the Jumps Season is too focused on the Cheltenham Festival.

I don’t believe that the Cheltenham Festival is the be all and end all. In the last 15 years the hype being focused on the festival has got greater. I’ve always believed that the Aintree Festival is brilliant, but it comes in such close proximity to the Cheltenham Festival - sometimes they’re only three weeks apart, which certainly isn’t long enough. Then three weeks after that there’s the Punchestown Festival. That two month period is a little bit congested. 

The Dublin Racing Festival at the turn of the year has become a nice festival of racing but not many English horses go over due to the races going on domestically. Maybe that will change when the pandemic begins to calm down. The fact that so many horses go to Cheltenham puts an onus on that particular festival and certainly many in the horse racing community believe it is the no.1 festival.

I’ve always loved the races that take place at this point in the Jumps Season.

I’ve always liked the early festivals or the early races with the big fences. The racing we saw at Aintree this weekend with the Grand National fences has always been something I’ve enjoyed. Again, they fall early on in the season where there’s a small field as many of the horses aren’t fit enough by that point. The Charlie Hall has always been a great race, but you’re not always seeing the best horses as it’s so early on in the season. It’s difficult to get the good horses out early and keep them going to the end of the season. I do understand how difficult the management of horses must be.

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Maybe next month there will be lots of horses I can recommend that people follow for the Spring festivals, but at the start of November, it’s still early days

You don’t know any of the new superstar, two-miler hurdler horses as of yet as a lot of them haven’t been out. That’s always been a division that I’ve loved. I know we repeatedly talk about the Gold Cup and the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but I’ve always enjoyed Champion Hurdle races. When I was growing up, I loved the first day at the Cheltenham Festival with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Arkle especially. 

As I’ve said before in this column, I love the fact that Shishkin may go over to the Queen Mother Champion Chase. I love the fact that Energumene may run in the Festival this year after missing the last. Monkfish was a superstar last year but how is he going to progress? These are readymade horses already. There’s no doubt that J. P. McManus would have bought in the summer. There’s no doubt that Rich Ricci would have bought in the summer, plus Gordon Elliott is back. There will be a lot of new horses on the tip of everybody’s tongue.

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Onto the football, Roberto Firmino’s injury doesn’t mean that Liverpool have to panic buy in the January transfer window.

There are different severities of hamstring injuries, but I’d like to think that Roberto Firmino will have recovered by January. Divock Origi has done really well in his cameo appearances recently. He was very good against Preston in the League Cup and he was on the scoresheet on Sunday in the defeat to West Ham. He was a real threat and he provided something different to what Liverpool have got already. Even though he’s not an especially strong player, he’s a tall lad and he caused problems in the air.

From a buying perspective, I don’t think there’s any reason for Liverpool to panic yet. If one of the other forwards gets injured however, then that presents a different scenario. The way Firmino walked off after his injury against Atlético Madrid suggests to me that he will be okay for January and Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino are able short term replacements.

Brentford’s Ivan Toney is linked with a move to Liverpool and if there’s any truth in it, then he certainly passed his audition in front of Jurgen Klopp last month. 

I’ve been very impressed with Ivan Toney this season and his performance against Liverpool. When you play well against a particular team and cause them problems then that’s normally a good sign if that opposition is a prospective buyer and he gave Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk a load of problems when he was up against them. He’s 25 years old, which is a decent age, but now Brentford are in the Premier League it means that they will want a lot of money for him. They sold Ollie Watkins and Saïd Benrahma for a lot of money when they were in the Championship and in regards to Toney, they won’t want to lose him. He won’t leave in January as staying in the Premier League for Brentford will present a bigger financial reward than whatever fee they could receive for him. 

Another forward linked with a move to Anfield is West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen...

He’s a very good player. He’s doing really well at the moment, but hypothetically, if he signed for Liverpool tomorrow, then he wouldn’t play. So, I don’t see the point of it at the minute. It could be a great move for him in terms of playing for Liverpool but he’s not going to get in ahead of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané or Diogo Jota. It’s always nice to have lots of players and I’m sure the manager would prefer to have 25 established internationals, but that’s not football. Bowen is playing really well at the moment for a club who are in the Champions League positions. Liverpool at the moment don’t need Jarrod Bowen.

Perhaps the player with the most prominent links to Liverpool at present is RB Salzburg’s Karim Adeyemi...

He’s very raw isn’t he? It’s like when Jeremy Doku came on for Belgium during the Euros, when he played for ten minutes and was then immediately linked with a move to Liverpool. It’s just because both players are young, fit, dribblers who match the profile of the players that Liverpool like to sign.  

Liverpool have a good relationship with the Red Bull clubs, which is a really good breeding ground for them and they trust the type of players that come out of that system. Adeyemi is 19, very inexperienced but is playing high quality football. However, it’s a bit of a shot in the dark. Liverpool may as well stump up the money for the almost finished article rather than target the unknown. But Liverpool already have players in their academy that show plenty of promise. 

If Liverpool have the money then they’re better off going for Erling Haaland because he’s already proven and it will be worth it in the long run. Some young players play well over a short period and then all of a sudden they’re worth £50 million, when their true value is £15 million. It’s the selling club trying to make as much as possible out of a player. 

Nowadays when Liverpool want to sign a player then they won’t solely consider what they do on the football pitch. They’ll speak to the player’s family, friends and agents to make sure they know what this player is like. They don’t just sign the player but they sign the whole person.

With his current contract expiring in 2023, Liverpool has been linked in the British press with a move for Real Madrid winger Marcos Asensio, but I think he’s more of an Arsenal type of player.

Marco Asensio hasn’t played enough at Real Madrid. His reputation was probably better two years ago when he first came onto the scene and scored a bunch of lovely goals, in the Champions League final against Juventus in 2017 in Cardiff and in the Super Cup, a lovely goal, against Barcelona. But since then he’s had injuries and of course Real Madrid aren’t the team that they were four years ago, and his level has come off.

It all depends on what Asensio himself wants to do and, secondly, what Real Madrid are going to do; whether they’re going to bring [Kylian] Mbappé in, if they’re going to try and bring [Erling] Haaland in as well - and that will determine Asensio’s decision. 

I know lots of players who have been at Real Madrid. Because they’re Spanish, because they love the capital, because they love the lifestyle, because they love playing for a team like Real Madrid, they’d quite happily stay, and stay, and stay, without playing a huge amount of football. Asensio maybe one of those players but if [Karim] Benzema’s in front of him, Mbappé’s in front of him, if he thinks Vinicius Jr’s better than him, Rodrygo’s ahead of him, and the opportunity is there to leave, then maybe he will take it.

If it was a club next year I’d say it would be Arsenal. [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang’s coming to the end of his career - or he’s certainly into his thirties - and with [Alexandre] Lacazette in a similar position and coming to the end of his contract, Asensio could be at a club where he’d probably have more joy of playing. If he’s to leave in 18 months, it’s still a long, long way away. But I think he’s an Arsenal type of player, like an [Martin] Ødegaard, who’s good on the ball, not necessarily really quick, but turns well, scores goals and makes chances.

Both Liverpool and Arsenal may be also linked with Real Madrid’s forward Luka Jovic but during his time in Spain, I haven’t seen that quality to suggest that he could be a good signing for a top Premier League side.

Of course we saw signs of Luka Jovic’s quality when he played for Eintracht Frankfurt. But now you could say, if he can’t play in a Real Madrid team that’s not competitive with the very best English sides at the moment, he’s possibly not good enough. He hasn’t played enough, he’s gone out on loan, he went to Madrid and didn’t play from the start, Zizou just didn’t fancy him at all. 

Yes he’s a good player, of course he is, there’s no doubting that, but for him to recreate that form he showed at Eintracht Frankfurt scoring all of those goals is another thing. You wouldn’t necessarily say you would go out and spend a lot of money on him to bring him into a Premier League club. It would be a huge gamble.

I don’t mind Paul Pogba and there'll be plenty of clubs who will want to take him once his contract at Manchester United ends in the summer. No problem at all.

It’s an easy move for Real Madrid to take him. You’re getting him on a free so you’re really not taking much of a gamble. 

So you take into account what you have in the team -they’ve got Luka Modric who’s 36, Toni Kroos is into his thirties, Casemiro will be 30 in February. That’s what you’re looking at. Of course you’ve got a number of players in and around the squad as well. I don’t think it would be a big issue to bring Pogba in. 

Is he playing well enough at the moment? No, of course not. That’s an easy thing to say. He was poor when he came on against Liverpool, against Atalanta he was really slow and got caught lots of times so his form hasn’t been good enough to walk into a Real Madrid team. But saying that, he has had levels of form in the past, at Juventus and for France. He may feel a change is better for him and the fact that he’s on a free, there'll be plenty of clubs who will want to take him. No problem at all.

I don’t know whether the current United team plays to his strengths but if he goes to Real Madrid, they might. And if he’s got Mbappé or Erling Haaland in front of him he could still be an absolute superstar there. 

Though Steven Gerrard is the bookies’ favourite for the vacant manager's role at Aston Villa, the way that club has treated Dean Smith is atrocious. I’d tell him to stay away.

The way Aston Villa have treated Dean Smith is absolutely atrocious. They were fifteenth in the Championship. He’s taken them to where they are now and they’ve lost their best player in Jack Grealish. Yes they’ve had a couple of bad results. They were 2-0 up against Wolves, which ended 3-2, but wasn’t the manager’s fault. But five defeats on the bounce and they’ve just cast him aside. The way he’s been treated is diabolical. It’s just considered ‘the norm’ and ‘acceptable’ to treat people like this in football. He’s not been given the chance to get himself out of it. You win 20 on the bounce - it’s great. You lose five on the bounce - you lose your job. It’s just awful.

So if it was Steven going to that club I would just say ‘No!’ The way that they’ve treated their manager, does that mean if Steven loses five on the bounce is he going to get canned as well? And it’s just accepted?! Absolutely not.

The main thing is to be happy, to have a relationship with your owner, to have a relationship with the people above, trust each other - and trust each other when things are going a little bit south rather than when everything is going great all the time because you can’t be great all the time, it’s impossible.

They needed time to get themselves together, and they’ve just chucked him aside. I feel sorry for him. 

It just shows you what football management really is now, and it turns out it’s not very pleasant at all.

Pressure remains on Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Manchester City. Zinedine Zidane and Brendan Rodgers have been heavily touted to replace Solskjaer but neither is probably the right choice.

I can’t see Brendan going there. I think he’s got the credentials, yes, but I think his history with Liverpool would be too much for everybody.

I haven’t spoken to Zizou in a while but I don’t think he speaks English and I don’t know whether it’s a job that would appeal to him. He leads a lovely lifestyle in Madrid and uprooting and coming to Manchester would be a big ask for him and his family. I think managing in France, in Paris, or at Juventus would be more in tune to Zizou.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Manchester United went back and got Mauricio Pochettino. Anyone who works at Paris Saint-Germain for a couple of years has normally had enough of it! And Poch would probably be the man because of his knowledge and experience of England and the Premier League.

Brendan and Zizou are more than capable and they’ve got better CV's than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But Ole knows Man Utd and it looks as if the club are going to stick with him, certainly for the foreseeable future.

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