Neville: Liverpool stuck in mud

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Liverpool have been unable to agree a contract extension with Sterling and the 20-year-old England international is expected to be targeted by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City this summer.

Writing in his column for The Telegraph, Neville argues that this represents the latest evidence that Liverpool are a fading force.

“The harsh reality for the club is that this situation has been 15 years in the making,” Neville wrote. “There is a wider context to this story and it centres on how Liverpool have gone from being from one of Europe’s great superpowers to one which is in danger of becoming a provincial club.

“The uncomfortable truth is that this is nothing new for Liverpool. Just look back over the past 10 to 15 years and count the number of players who have left Anfield to pursue bigger and better things elsewhere.

“Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez have all gone.”

Although Neville acknowledges that Liverpool remain alongside Manchester United in terms of global appeal, he feels the club have been responsible for their own decline.

“While United have been happy to shout from the rooftops about how big they are and promote the legend and mythology of the club on a global scale for years, Liverpool seem to have been stuck in their own mud,” Neville added.

“They are years behind the biggest European clubs and, for me, their problems are a direct result of that failure to think beyond the confines of their city.

“Great football clubs like Liverpool will never go away, but they need to find a way to arrest the slide and make themselves a team that players want to play for rather than one they try to leave in search of bigger things elsewhere.

“If Sterling leaves, then that will be another star player who has decided that Liverpool is a club that is unable to match their ambitions.”

 

Carver haunted by Shearer pain

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Carver – who was on the coaching staff at St James’ Park under Sir Bobby Robson – had left the club by the time playing legend Shearer was drafted in to attempt to keep the club in the Premier League in 2009.

It was an appointment which was to end in failure on the final day of the campaign as a 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa condemned Newcastle to the Championship.

Carver witnessed Shearer’s pain from afar on a pub television screen and as he prepares for a similarly crticial clash with West Ham at St James’ Park on Sunday, he has no intention of suffering a similar fate.

“I remember seeing Alan on the pitch afterwards, watching it on the TV, and on that day I genuinely didn’t speak for an hour afterwards,” Carver recalled.

“I thought, ‘I hope that never, ever happens to me’.

“As it happens, I saw him the other day and we talked about what his feelings were, and I told him what I felt at the time. I just said, ‘I hope I don’t have to experience that’. Hopefully, I don’t.”

Carver revealed that two veterans from that relegation at Villa Park six years ago – skipper Fabricio Coloccini and fellow Argentine Jonas Gutierrez – had shared their experiences at a team meeting earlier this week.

He added: “They’ve experienced this – Ryan Taylor and Tim Krul were here as well – so they know what it feels like. I talked about their experiences and how they had to deal with what came next, because it wasn’t nice.”

But Carver has resisted the temptation to show the current crop of players footage of that day, but did consider using an inspirational collage of images before thinking better of it.

He said: “I considered showing them something to reinforce what it’s like to be in the Premier League compared to what it’s like to be in the next division down – ‘This is what it’s like to go to Old Trafford, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge’ compared to ‘This is what it’s like to go to the lesser clubs with a smaller changing room and all of that’.

“I thought about showing them the fans after the Aston Villa game, but I decided against it because I think if you can’t motivate yourself for a game as big as this when you’ve got so much to play for, then no matter what I show you, it’s not going to make any difference.”

 

Oakland Raiders collect picks, plug holes as NFL draft comes to a close

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After targeting two of their biggest needs on the first two days of the NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders looked to fill a hole on their offensive line on the final day.

The Raiders drafted Miami guard Jon Feliciano in the fourth round Saturday after trading down twice to acquire three extra picks.

“A lot of the targets that we went into in terms of needs matched up in certain areas with the value of the board, and that’s how we put together our draft weekend,” coach Jack Del Rio said.

Oakland later added two linebackers in the fifth round in Kansas’ Ben Heeney and Florida’s Neiron Ball. The Raiders then took Virginia defensive end Max Valles in the sixth round, and Tennessee State tackle Anthony Morris, Florida return specialist Andre Debose and Kansas cornerback Dexter McDonald in round seven.

They add to a class that features two pass catchers for quarterback Derek Carr in first-round receiver Amari Cooper and third-round tight end Clive Walford, and a potential pass rusher in second-round defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. out of Florida State.

“You have to realize when you come into it, you can’t always fulfill every need that you maybe go into — or every person on the wish list,” Del Rio said. “But I thought, for the most part, we were disciplined in terms of staying with value and working the board from that standpoint.”

The Raiders took Feliciano 128th overall with hopes he can compete for the starting right guard spot. General manager Reggie McKenzie traded down twice before making the selection, adding a fifth- and seventh-round pick from Carolina in the first trade and a seventh-rounder from Tampa Bay in the second deal.

Oakland moved last year’s starter Austin Howard to right tackle to compete with 2013 second-rounder Menelik Watson for the starting spot. That left converted tackles Khalif Barnes and Matt McCants as the top two options at guard leading into the draft as offensive line coach Mike Tice said the race on the right side is “wide open.”

“That’s all you want coming in is an opportunity to compete and get better,” Feliciano said. “We have that there at the Raiders and I know everyone is going to go in there and compete and try to get better and that’s going to be awesome.”

Feliciano has experience playing tackle, guard and center. Feliciano is listed at 6-foot-4, 323 pounds and is a physical player who fits Oakland’s style of play. Feliciano allowed just four sacks the past three seasons at Miami.

“It’s going to be great to add him to the mix,” Tice said. “We’ll get some young blood in here with some toughness, intelligence, versatility.”

Feliciano had a tough road to the NFL. He was born breech and with a foot deformity that required a brace and was told he would never play sports. His mother had bouts with cancer and his home was condemned when he was in high school.

That made draft day all the more fulfilling for Feliciano, who watched at a friend’s house surrounded by those close to him.

“Growing up there was a lot of just extra stuff that I had to go through and everyone here at this house right now at this party helped me get through it,” he said. “That’s why I wanted them around me and to be able to get drafted in the fourth round by such a great organization. It’s a blessing and I’m so happy.”

Ball also overcame a lot. The former four-star recruit was diagnosed after his freshman year with an arteriovenous malformation, a defect of the circulatory system in the brain. He sat out the 2011 season recovering from brain surgery before playing his final three seasons at Florida.

He missed the final three games last year because of knee surgery but said he is completely healthy now.

“It’s definitely a dream come true,” Ball said. “I just feel like I’m just so blessed. I can’t really explain the feeling that I’m going through right now.”

Ball and Heeney both add depth at linebacker and will be counted on to contribute on special teams.

Valles is a raw player who has potential as a pass rusher. He played both linebacker and defensive end in college but will be used primarily as an end in Oakland. He had nine sacks this past season at Virginia.

“Obviously, if you’re still involved down low like that, there is a reason that you slid down the board,” Del Rio said. “We’ll try and help him grow through some of those things and become a kind of player that can help us.”

San Francisco 49ers go offense, offense, offense on Day 3 of NFL draft

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After addressing defense during the first two days of the NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers turned to offense Saturday.

The 49ers used six of their seven picks on the draft’s final day on offensive players, including each of their three selections in the fourth round.

In a span of 45 minutes, San Francisco added Oklahoma tight end Blake Bell with the 117th overall pick, South Carolina running back Mike Davis at No. 126 overall and Georgia Tech wide receiver DeAndre Smelter six picks later.

After making Clemson punter Bradley Pinion the first kicking specialist selected in this year’s draft in the fifth round, the 49ers went back to offense for their final three picks.

All six offensive players fit the mold of power and size the 49ers are looking for after losing three mainstay starters in free agency from an offense that ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing last year but just 20th overall.

“It was all about best player available,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “We went into this draft looking at certain criteria that we felt we needed to do. We wanted to stay big. We wanted to get faster. We wanted to get as much football intellect as we could at each position. We felt we addressed all that. We feel real good about this group of guys, for sure.”

Particularly Bell, who earned the nickname “Bell-dozer” while in college thanks to his brawny style with the football in his hands.

“It goes back to OU,” Bell said. “The fans kind of gave it to me and it stuck, and that was it through my whole career. That’s what they called me and it works.”

It worked for Bell while playing quarterback, where he scored 24 rushing touchdowns as a redshirt freshman and sophomore, often entering the game in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Bell, rated as one of the nation’s top prep quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2009, became a more conventional quarterback as a junior in 2013 when he started eight games for the Sooners, passing for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns.

But it was also during that season Bell realized he had a better chance of playing football at the next level as an athletic tight end rather than an oversized quarterback. So the 6-foot-6 prospect switched positions last year as a senior, when Bell bulked up to 259 pounds.

“That was my decision,” Bell said. “A lot of people thought OU or somebody wanted to do it for me. The big deal was, my dad played tight end in college and in the NFL, and we kind of sat down and talked about quarterback and different ways to maybe transfer and stuff. One thing was, hey, what about playing tight end. I was pumped up about it. So when I made the switch I was fully invested and did it. It was pretty cool.”

Bell’s father, Mark, also was a fourth-round draft selection in 1979. Mark Bell played six seasons in the NFL as a tight end with the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts. Mark’s twin brother, Mike Bell, was the second player selected overall in the 1979 draft and played 12 seasons as a defensive end with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bell became the seventh tight end currently on San Francisco’s offseason roster, and the 49ers added an eighth with their final pick in the seventh round by selecting South Carolina tight end Rory ‘Busta’ Anderson.

Davis is the eighth running back on the roster, which added free agent Reggie Bush and international rugby star Jarryd Hayne during the offseason.

But Davis fits in as a versatile rusher in the mold of Frank Gore, who left San Francisco in free agency this year after leading the 49ers in rushing each of the past 10 seasons while becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 11,073 yards.

Davis is the same size as Gore at 5-foot-9 and 217 pounds.

At 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, Smelter becomes the biggest wide receiver on the roster and also fits in with the physical theme of San Francisco’s early third-day draft picks. Like Davis, Smelter also draws comparisons to a San Francisco star that he will try to emulate in starting wideout Anquan Boldin.

The 49ers also got bigger along the offensive line by selecting guards Ian Silberman (6-foot-5, 306 pounds) of Boston College in the sixth round and Trenton Brown (6-8, 353) of Florida with the first of the team’s two seventh-round picks.

How futbol influenced Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota’s football success

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HONOLULU — When Marcus Mariota wriggled out of the grips of three would-be Michigan State tacklers in September on a comeback-sparking play, some saw a reason why he could be the NFL’s top overall draft pick.

“This,” Sports Illustrated wrote in a scouting report afterward, “was also an example of his ability to make clutch plays when the team needs them.”

Watching back in Mariota’s home state of Hawaii, Rick Chong saw something else. Something few others, unless they’d been watching youth soccer in Oahu around 2001, could have spotted.

Chong, a former youth soccer coach of Mariota with the Honolulu Bulls club, saw a memory of practices at Waialae Iki Park near Oahu’s eastern shore where a tall, skinny elementary-aged boy learned to hone the nimble footwork that has transformed him into a national star in another sport.

“If you want to be a good soccer player you have to be creative and be able to think on the fly,” Chong said. “You have to be able to look at a situation and, in a split-second, find a solution.

“Soccer gave him his quickness. That’s what gets him out of the Michigan State play, where the coach thinks, ‘I got him!’ … and Marcus pulls the rabbit out of the hat. Those are soccer feet.”

Eventually, futbol gave way to football. Compared with his credentials earned on the gridiron, highlighted by being the first Oregon Duck and Hawaiian-born player to win the Heisman Trophy, soccer remains a footnote that is mostly unknown off the islands.

But those who witnessed Mariota play club soccer since his start at age 7 staunchly believe the quarterback’s record-breaking success, which he will parlay into likely a high first-round selection in Thursday’s NFL draft, is rooted in the influences he learned from the beautiful game.

His quick feet, improvisational skills amid a fast-moving game and level-headedness are hallmarks that all can be traced to not only his Pop Warner days, but his youth spent with club or high school teams with the Honolulu Bulls and Saint Louis, respectively.

“I believe he learned from the game you have to solve your own problems,” said Phil Neddo, the Bulls’ director of coaching. “Don’t count on the guy on the sideline in your ear. In soccer, you just can’t do that.”

Soccer was an early passion he fed with superb athleticism. After he stopped playing club soccer at age 13 to focus on football, his playmaking smoothed out his rough edges as he continued playing soccer at Saint Louis School each winter. Despite little time to train, he became an all-state defender as a junior.

In one game against rival Punahou late in his high school career, Mariota was moved forward from the back line — where his speed could chase down most any advancing striker — to scoring position. Punahou respected Mariota enough to shadow Mariota with its most athletic player: Ka’imi Fairbairn, who went on to become UCLA’s starting placekicker.

“He loved soccer, he loved football,” Chong said. “Obviously soccer took a second seat but if football took a second seat he would have been a very, very good soccer player. He’s the kind of athlete that soccer doesn’t keep very often.”

Mariota was not preternaturally gifted in soccer, but was molded, in part, into the football player he is today through Saturday morning workouts under the direction of Neddo, who picked up footwork drills from Dutch coach Coerver Viel, and Chong, a Saint Louis alumnus whose sons played for the club. Starting around 7 a.m., the players drilled grueling technique work for 75 minutes in humid weather.