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Sports news, sport betting, featuring football and Premier League teams, players from Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. And David Beckham. Rugby World Cup. Backpage stories from the newspapers and BBC sport

A Great Year?

‘IT has been a great year for British sport – or at least that’s what they told us last night prior to announcing the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Wilkinson prepares to kick

But when two of the five people in the running for the top award could have walked into the studio without fear of being recognised, then one wonders whether it really was such a great year.

That Jonny Wilkinson actually became the 50th winner of the famous trophy was as inevitable as his World Cup-winning drop goal was in retrospect.

But who can honestly say they knew who Pippa Funnell (the first rider to claim three-day eventing’s Grand Slam) or Neil Hodgson (World Superbikes Champion) was?

That is not the case with Thierry Henry, Arsenal’s French striker who is favourite to beat Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane to the title of world football player of the year later today.

But the Guardian says that such is Henry’s talent that “the clamour for his signature from the world’s richest clubs” has reached fever pitch.

And Arsenal are doing their best to convince the world that the 26-year-old is not for sale at any price.

Chelsea apparently made a formal approach at the beginning of last week and were rebuffed, while Real Madrid are also said to be interested.

Life is pretty good for Henry at the moment – Arsenal are top of the Premiership (and still unbeaten) and in the knock-out stages of the Champions’ League.

Meanwhile, the Times reports that Chelsea were left singing the blues after a home defeat to Bolton.

“When you want to compare Chelsea with Manchester United and Arsenal,” coach Claudio Ranieiri said, “I say ‘No, but we are improving’.

“We are learning something as a team; they are teams – that’s the difference.”

Meanwhile, England’s cricket team “scaled Mount Improbable” and held on for a draw in Sri Lanka, thanks mainly to a century from captain Michael Vaughan.

He batted for 7.5 hours to make 105 runs yesterday for the tenth century of his career.

“For the period I batted and the position we were in on a fifth-day pitch facing Muttiah Mualitharan, I’d say it was my best hundred to date,” Vaughan told the Telegraph.

But he was by no means the only centurion – Brian Lara broke a Test match record by hitting 28 runs off a single over on his way to an unbeaten 178 against South Africa.

And Rahul Dravid and VS Laxman shared a partnership of 303 against Australia – the second time they have reached that milestone against the Aussies, itself a record.

Dravid finished the day at 199 not out.

If only they were British…’

Posted: 15th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Crime & No Punishment

‘FORMER England cricket captain Nasser Hussain yesterday escaped a Test match ban after allegedly calling Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan “a fucking cheat” and “a fucking chucker”.

The new Mike Gatting

Match referee Clive Lloyd gave Hussain the reprieve because he said he could not prove that he made the remarks, although they appear to have been heard by Murali’s teammates.

However, what the papers can’t decide is what Hussain’s greater crime was – if indeed he did make the remarks.

The Sun says he escaped a ban for use of the F-word, while the other papers tend to think that calling a fellow player a “cheat” in an unprovoked attack is offence enough.

There is no doubt that the incident will cause further acrimony between two sides who are not known to be the greatest friends, although ironically Murali and England’s Andrew Flintoff are genuinely good mates.

However, at least the matter is sorted out in the space of 24 hours. If this had been football, it would still be dragging on next summer.

So long has passed since Rio Ferdinand famously missed his drugs test that unless something happens soon, the player will have finished his career before any ban comes into effect.

But Rio is taking no chances and has, says the Sun, hired top barrister Ronald Thwaites to argue his case at the hearing, which is supposed to take place next week.

As well as Ferdinand employing a top barrister, Manchester United have the country’s biggest paper on their side.

For instance, the Sun this morning suggests that the England centre-half could be hit with a three-month ban if found guilty – as if that were the worst punishment he could expect.

If he is found guilty of deliberately missing the test, one would certainly expect the ban to be a lot longer than three months.

After all, Eric Cantona was banned for nine months for his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan – an offence that is in sporting terms much less serious than ducking a drugs test.

If all this is adding to the stress on Sir Alex Ferguson’s heart, then so will news in the Mirror that many Manchester United shareholders want to vote down his three-year contract extension.

The paper says they think the Scot should only be offered a one-year rolling contract when his present deal runs out in 18 months’ time.

Who knows? He might still be at Old Trafford when Rio Ferdinand’s case is finally decided.’

Posted: 12th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Rearguard Gunners

‘IF sport is all about hitting your best form at the right time, then Arsenal epitomise the very best of it.

All Gunners blazing

Seemingly destined for an early Champions’ League bath a few weeks ago, the Gunners are now in the last 16 of the tournament.

Last night, the Guardian reports, Arsene Wenger’s team played with style and drive enough to see off the challenge of Lokomotiv Moscow.

The Gunners are now being offered at odds of 9-1 to win the Cup, with Manchester United at 5-1 and Chelsea at 11-2.

Chelsea’s chances of winning some silverware this term are looking brighter by the day.

And things are set to glimmer that bit more brightly if or, if the Guardian is to be believed, when Pavel Nedved arrives at the Bridge.

The Czech player may or may not make the move to London, but the story is that England coach Sven Goran Eriksson is being instrumental in wooing him.

Such a rumour can only add to the Sven saga, and to the pressure on the shoulders of Claudio Ranieri, the current boss at Chelsea, who would do well to get his CV out to all the major clubs – pronto.

He might even try Leeds United. The club are looking for a new boss and with a decent severance package from Roman Abramovich, Ranieri might even buy the Yorkshire club.

But he’ll have to move quickly since the Telegraph says Leeds only have until January 19 to find a buyer or descend into administration.

Bahrain’s Sheikh Abdul Mubarak al-Khalifa has yet to make a definite move and Allan Leighton, who quit his post as Leeds’ vice-chairman to table his own bid, is not saying much.

And all the while Leeds wait and their fans wonder if the club will be there tomorrow and, if it is, what it will look like.

At times like these, those fans might like to consider that worse things happen at sea. And they do. For instance, the Independent says that Mike Golding, competing single handed in the Defi Atlantique Race, might have hit a whale.

His boat, the open 60 Ecover, now has damage to its bow, a fact that has not helped him close the 31 miles he lags behind the race leader, Vincent Rious.

That’s a long way. But, as any Leeds fan will tell you, it’s nothing compared to the gap that opened up between Leeds now and Leeds as they were…’

Posted: 11th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Turkish Shower

‘IT’S not often you see pictures of footballers sitting on the bench beneath umbrellas.

”I just need a lighter for a full house”

The Guardian shot of the Chelsea substitutes and coaching staff at the club’s game against Besiktas is an oddity.

But the Blues were not sheltering from the rains, rather the barrage of missiles being launched their way by the hooligan element that seems to be attached to each and every Turkish club side.

Among the missiles, the Guardian notices a smoke bomb, lighters, coins, batteries, a mobile phone and the paper even hears rumours of a knife.

There also seemed to be an inordinate amount of toilet roll being hurled. Not one or two rolls furled inside the goal at one end but tons of the stuff. Enough to delay the start of the second half.

Looking at and hearing about the scene is like rewinding the clock to a Chelsea game from the 1970s, although one in which the Blues are the victims.

But while Besiktas move backwards, Roman Abramovich’s men march on and are now in the final 16 of the Champions League.

And there they’re joined by Manchester United, who last night beat Stuttgart 2-0 in the relatively sober surroundings of Old Trafford.

Which just leaves Arsenal to win tonight against Lokomotiv Moscow and make it a happy trio of English teams in the knock-out stages.

In “We Won’t Crumble”, the Sun hears the Gunners’ Sol Campbell say how tonight he and his team-mates will fulfil their potential and win through.

Arsenal’s record in the competition suggests that the words may yet outperform the deeds. But we wish them well, and turn to the Times and Serena Williams.

Reports are that Nike have agreed a deal to pay the tennis player a whopping £35m to wear their clothes.

It’s good deal, and looking at the accompanying shots of Miss Williams, works out at about £1m per inch of fabric…’

Posted: 10th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


On The Bandwagon

‘ENGLAND are “On Top Of The World”, says the Telegraph – with a barely concealed dig at those often ungallant but battling losers Down Under it.

”Just don’t pass it to Ben Kay!”

And yesterday England’s rugby union team were also on top of a bus, heading for dates with Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone and the Queen.

But we don’t want to hear too much from the greeting party, and instead do as the Telegraph does and listen to what the winners have to say.

“In our own little world in Australia we did not appreciate the effect it had on people,” says Martin Jonson.

“For all this, I really don’t think my life will change,” says a hopeful Jonny Wilkinson, now one of the most recognisable faces in Britain.

But it’s Matt Dawson who has the most to say, and he takes readers through the day in his own words.

He talks of a feeling on board the bus of “pure joy and happiness”. “It was like being a kid enjoying your first proper Christmas again,” he said.

That’s just great. But Matt stupidly forgets to mention what he thinks of Manchester United’s chances against Stuttgart in the Champions League.

Dawson has got to realise that although many more of us now know what rugby union is, football remains the benchmark against which all things are measured.

The Independent keeps its head while all the other papers are climbing on the England bandwagon, or chariot, and begins its sports report with news that Paul Scholes is back in the United team.

Hurrah! Keep the engine running, we feel another parade on the way…’

Posted: 9th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Fergie’s Petty Hates

‘SIR Alex Ferguson may be back at work after what is being described as a surgical procedure on his heart, but he retains the same place in the country’s heart as he always did.

Leicester branch of Ashley Cole fan club meet their hero

In other words, none.

The Manchester United manager just cannot help but make the same kind of spiteful comments that are normally the preserve of teenage girls.

This morning, it is David Beckham who is the recipient of his former manager’s snide remarks with Fergie effectively claiming that the England captain is not a world-class player.

Talking of Real Madrid, Ferguson told the Express that the Spanish giants were favourites to win the European Cup “because they have four great players who – on an individual basis – can win a game: Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul and Figo”.

This may be true, but anyone who thinks Ferguson wasn’t well aware of the obvious interpretation of the remark doesn’t know the Scot’s petty nature.

The Mail certainly doesn’t share Ferguson’s opinion, nor indeed do his paymasters after he helped Real to their first win against rivals Barcelona in the Nou Camp for 20 years.

“It is not just people in Madrid who adore him,” one prominent member of the Spanish media told the Mail. “The whole of Spain has fallen in love.

Anyway, to domestic football matters and the draw for the FA Cup Third Round has landed the game’s most famous giant killers Yeovil Town with a home tie against Liverpool.

Having won promotion last season, the Glovers can no longer extend their impressive record of league scalps as a non-league club.

But they are certainly confident of an upset, with defender Adam Lockwood rating their chances against Gerard Houllier’s men as 50-50.

With Arsenal’s visit to Leeds one of five all-Premiership match-ups and arguably the tie of the round, we hear that the Gunners are in familiar trouble.

This time it is Ashley Cole who feels the full force of Leicester’s anger after he was sent off on Saturday for a two-footed lunge at Ben Thatcher.

“It wasn’t just a tackle which could have broken someone’s leg,” Foxes’ defender Steve Howey told the Sun. “Tackles like that can finish people.

And Cole’s participation in the match…’

Posted: 8th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Heart Of The Matter

‘ARHYTHMIA is very definitely this year’s heart condition after Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday followed Tony Blair’s lead and took himself off to hospital for a spot of shock treatment.

This year’s metatarsal

However, like our beloved Prime Minister, Sir Alex was soon back at work with Manchester United doing a Downing Street and playing down the story.

“The procedure went well,” the club tells the Telegraph, “and Sir Alex is resting at home and is due in work tomorrow. The treatment revealed he has no underlying heart problem.”

But while Sir Alex is fine, the same cannot be said for the rest of us.

Unmindful to the age and sensitivity of its audience, the Telegraph paints a truly disturbing image, telling us how the procedure involves the patient being “stripped to the waist and sedated”.

We apologise to our readers for the distress that any thought of Ferguson’s naked torso no doubt caused and move quickly on to the no more attractive figure of Sepp Blatter.

And we read in the Times that the Fifa executive has voted to reintroduce that most reviled of tournaments, the World Club Championship, for 2005.

To make matters worse it will almost certainly be held in the United States, where – as we know – soccer is about as big as George Bush’s brain.

And it will just add to the workload of the top players, which only a couple of days ago Blatter himself said should be reduced.

One man who is likely to feel the heat as Fifa flexes its muscles (or, in the case of Blatter, wobbles his well-fed stomach) is Rio Ferdinand.

The Fifa president is threatening to intervene in the case to increase any sentence the FA might impose on Ferdinand for missing a mandatory drugs test.

And he accused the Manchester United chief executive David Gill of not having a clean conscience in the whole affair.

However, the Guardian says Blatter’s real target is the FA and its dilatory procedures.

Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole, for instance, has just received a two-game ban for offences committed seven months ago when he was a West Ham player.

One thing we can do quickly in this country is a middle-order collapse and the Guardian watches our cricketers fold like a house of cards against Sri Lankan spin legend Muttiah Muralitharan.

With England now left needing more than 300 in the fourth innings to win the match, one imagines it will be a case of more of the same tomorrow.’

Posted: 5th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Cockerel-A-Hoop

‘BACK in the days when Terry Venables was a young cove, the Tottenham glory trail ended in a cup final at Wembley and the Double.

Forward short leg

These days, fans of that benighted team are cock-a-hoop to beat Manchester City in the Carling Cup and watch a player who cost many millions more than the likes of Jimmy Greaves score his first goal for the club.

The Express spots Spurs’ Portuguese striker Helder Postiga finally hit the ball into the net as the Lilywhites go marching onto the heady heights of the last eight of the second-rate domestic cup.

Of course, up in Manchester and Liverpool, the Carling is now considered to be something lower than tin foil.

Last night Manchester United were beaten away at West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool lost at home to Bolton Wanderers.

Both results prompt the Mail to produce the headlines “Fallen Giants” and tell how United were “cut down to size” while Liverpool were merely sunk.

While United’s fans can shrug their shoulders and say how these things happen and the real business is in the Champions’ League and at the top of the Premiership, the Mail hears Liverpool fans boo loud and long.

And the Sun hears the Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier explode with rage – well, he threatens to. “I am very, very angry with my players and they will know that in the morning.”

Knowing the state of Houllier’s heart, visible signs of his displeasure may not make pleasant viewing.

Liverpool’s treble of a few years back – albeit a pale version of United’s – now looks like a false dawn.

But the Sun soon leaves matters football and goes to Sri Lanka where England are dong battle with the locals at cricket.

As is stood overnight, things looked pretty even in the first Test, although as the Sun’s picture shows, Freddie Flintoff is making things swing, a fact illustrated by a gaping hole in the crutch of his trousers.

Thankfully, this is one day when an England no ball is a blessed relief…’

Posted: 4th, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Wolves Creche To Defeat

‘THE papers hail a new hero. Last night, Arsenal’s reserves beat Wolves by fives goals to one to progress to the last eight of the Carling/Worthington/Littlewoods/Rumbelows/Anorak Cup (delete as applicable).

Some of Arsenal’s side hadn’t yet learnt to count to five”

And the boy who scored two of the Gunners’ goals, including one after a Thierry Henry-style run from the halfway line, is Jeremie Aliadiere.

It’s a name seemingly well suited to a terrace chant and also to the Sun’s headline: “Diere hunter.”

That’s a nice pun, but should the young French blade go on to fulfil much early promise, the paper may regret peaking so early.

As might Chelsea, if the surly Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is to believed.

With Arsenal’s starting XI now made up of youngsters, including, the 16-year-old boy wonder Francesc Fabregas – scorer of Arsenal’s fifth last night – Alex Ferguson cannot attack the north London side for fear of being pulled up on a charge of child abuse.

Instead he just snipes at Chelsea’s legion of men.

“It’s not a bad thing them being top,” says Ferguson. “Expectation is always a big thing.”

Indeed it is. Such as the expectation that United would get something out of the weekend’s game at Stamford Bridge and not lose.

What is clear is that Fergie is rattled by the Blues’ challenge, just as he has in the past been antagonised by Arsenal and Leeds.

These days Leeds are far removed from the powerhouse of a few years back. Indeed, they could be far removed in spirit too should Sheik Abdul bin Mubarak al Khalifa buy the club.

The pitch will remain in Yorkshire but the brains behind the operation will move to the sunny Middle East.

The sticking point to the takeover is the fee. The Mail says that the bond holders at Leeds are only likely to be satisfied by a bid in the region of £50-£60 million.

A small amount when you consider that if the sheikh is successful his name will appear on many shirts – and at a fiver per letter, Leeds may well rise from the ashes…’

Posted: 3rd, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Not Waving But Drowning

‘MANCHESTER United need a new striker. Roy Keane tells the Mail that his club need a new striker. So the club are out there right now looking.

”I’m mad for it, me”

By January they will have plucked one of the small lads who kicks balls around the perimeter of Old Trafford to play up front.

And don’t doubt it. Alex Ferguson has told the world, via the Star, that he’d rather win the title with homegrown stars than buy it.

“I’ve had satisfaction when we put faith in young players and I don’t think you can get better satisfaction than that,” says the unlovely one.

Manchester lads Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and Kleberson are all proof the streets of Manchester are blessed with some outstanding talent – just look at Phil Neville and Manchester City.

And talking of Lancashire lad Rio Ferdinand, the Mirror says that the hearing into why he failed to take a mandatory drugs test will be heard at Bolton’s Reebok stadium on December 18 and 19.

Of course, with only a couple of weeks’ notice, Rio may well forget to attend. His phone might not work. A mini-earthquake might erupt outside his front door. He might suddenly develop agoraphobia.

While one spoilt, cosseted footballer wonders what further ills will befall him – and a sudden bout of Alzheimer’s remains a possibility – the Express spots someone waving in the waters off Sri Lanka.

He’s already waved twice and is just about to wave for a third time when the England’s cricket captain, Michael Vaughan, spots him.

The water rat is revealed to be Worcestershire off-spinner Gareth Batty. He’s not waving as signal for some new gloves or a refreshing orange drink. He is waving because he is drowning.

Taking a dip in the ocean last Sunday, Batty was swept up by a current.

“The current whacked me onto the rocks – they were hellish sharp – and when I tried to get up another wave knocked me over again,” says Batty.

Thankfully he is okay, saved by Vaughan, who bravely managed to wave hard enough to attract the attention of a group of lifeguards.’

Posted: 2nd, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


French Connection

‘FRESH from success at one major sporting championship, England look forward to next summer’s European Championships with a certain amount of trepidation.

What happened next?

The draw has pitted Sven Goran Eriksson’s men in the same group as holders France, whom they meet in the first match on Sunday June 13 in Lisbon.

And none of the papers are in any doubt that this is a major obstacle for the English.

However, Eriksson tells the Telegraph that it is not all bad.

“In a way, playing against Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord is good because we know them so well,” he said. “At least it means if we both qualify, we cannot meet them again until the final.”

In order to qualify, France and England will also have to finish higher than Croatia and Switzerland in what Eriksson described as “a difficult group”.

However, given the ridiculous seeding system, the draw has thrown up four fairly even groups.

Group D, for instance, contains Germany, Holland and the Czech Republic (with Latvia presumably the makeweights) and Group A contains hosts Portugal, Spain, Greece and Russia.

Whether or not Rio Ferdinand will be lining up for England next June depends on what sanction is applied to him after he missed a drugs test.

However, the Times says the Manchester United centre half’s case received a big boost after FA boss David Davies admitted that existing regulations did not make explicit provision for the scenario.

Meanwhile, Fifa boss Sepp Blatter criticised the situation as “crazy”, saying that United’s results would be nullified if Ferdinand was found guilty of misconduct.

That would include its 1-0 defeat to Chelsea yesterday – a result which the Guardian suggests underlines the Blues’ position as genuine title contenders this season.

“Anyone waiting for the fizz to go out of Claudio Ranieri’s side learned yesterday that there is also a precious stillness in the squad,” it says.

The question is whether Chelsea will still be at the top of the table come May…’

Posted: 1st, December 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


On The Spot

‘IT shows what a ridiculous mess the FA have got themselves into in recent months that they can manage to stage another PR disaster out of offering a man a job.

”Wonder what Ulrika would do?”

But Sven Goran Eriksson is decidedly unimpressed that his employers have put him on the spot by offering him a four-year extension to his contract.

The Mail says England coach is fuming – if indeed he could ever be said to fume – at what he sees as an ultimatum, which is bound to create unwanted media attention.

“What angers the Swede is the added pressure he is now under to commit his future until 2008 after what he believed was one private, informal meeting with his employers,” it says.

And, if it is a ploy by the FA to bounce Eriksson into a decision, the Star predicts it will backfire and he will turn down the £14m offer.

In fact, the paper says the FA’s bungling has just hardened his resolve to walk away from the job after the European Championships in Portugal next year – two years before his existing contract expires.

Meanwhile, on the pitch Liverpool and Newcastle both made sure of their places in the last 32 of the Uefa Cup, although the Reds did so at the expense of another injury to Michael Owen.

The Sun says the striker has already missed nearly seven weeks of the season already and is set to have a scan on a thigh strain today.

England may have returned home victorious from the Rugby World Cup, but there is one area of that famous night in Sydney they are still deeply unhappy about.

And the Mail says Clive Woodward is preparing to make a formal complaint about the performance of South African referee Andre Watson, who inexplicably kept penalising the dominant England scrum.

The paper says that even the Australians were puzzled by Watson’s decisions, which Woodward believes almost cost England the game.

Watson gave six penalties against the England scrum, despite the front row of Phil Vickery, Steve Thompson and Trevor Woodman having a clear advantage over the Aussie trio.

“Our scrum was depowered and we weren’t too sure why,” assistant coach Andy Robinson said after the game.

However, that is looking back – and looking forward the Mail asks whether Martin Johnson will follow the lead of the great Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh and call it quits after the next Six Nations.

It certainly wouldn’t do ticket sales any harm…’

Posted: 28th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


England Forgets

‘BAD luck those of you who thought the Jonny Wilkinson’s bandwagon would keep on rolling.

Who he?

Not even a week after the rugby World Cup was won the Telegraph’s lead sports page has but one thing on its mind: football.

We learn that Chelsea have done enough to make it through to the last 16 of the Champions’ League. We hear that Claudio Ranieri, the Blues’ likeable if barely understandable manager, now plans to win his team’s qualifying group.

And we hear that Leeds United are in even deeper trouble than Captain Nemo is a giant squid’s tentacles. Continued failure to secure a deal with creditors could well see the Yorkshire club fall into the hands of administrators.

The Sun, which loves a good rugby story as much as the next lager-swilling city dweller, tells us that Manchester United, like Chelsea, are in the knock-out stages of the Champions’ League and that Arsenal’s Thierry Henry is on course to be named World Footballer of The year.

And even before readers of the Times’ rugby newssheet can learn about Jason Robinson’s commitment to Christianity, we are invited to pick over the report of Heart of Midlothian’s Uefa Cup mach against Bordeaux tonight.

Only then do we hear of Robinson, and how the paper’s Giles Smith eyed the crowd assembled at Heathrow Airport to greet England’s returning heroes and worried about how any of the lads would find their taxi.

Thank goodness then for the Independent, which does have a rugby story on its lead sports page.

And the news is that for the Newcastle game against Basle tonight the skies will be “partly cloudy” with a temperature of around five degrees Centigrade.

Oh, silly us, that’s not Jonny Wilkinson’s Newcastle, but that of Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer. It’s an easy enough mistake to make.’

Posted: 27th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Gunners’ Glory

‘THE debate here at Anorak Towers is intense. How long will Jonny Wilkinson occupy a spot on the back page?

Watch out, watch out…

Already, if the Telegraph is any guide, his name is on the slide.

Today he is relegated to playing seconds string to the news that Arsenal have managed to transfer their domestic form into European competition.

Last night the Gunners thrashed Inter Milan 5-1 at the San Siro. Using words like “sensational” and “brilliant”, the paper heaps prise on the Gunners.

Of course, as good as Thierry Henry is, as he showed yesterday, having Jeremy Beadle on your team plane to Italy can only put fire in the lads’ bellies.

The trick is not to get overly aroused. Not to do as the feisty Leeds striker Alan Smith did and toss a bottle into the crowd.

For that act, the Independent reports, young Smith has been charged by the Football Association with improper conduct.

As with football – and Rio Ferdinand is not far from our thoughts – Smith has 17 years in which to appeal, at which juncture he will be handed a nasty slap on the back of the legs and sent away with a flea in his ear.

How Rio must be quaking in his boots as he prepares to play on though the ignominy of a missed drugs test in Manchester United’s Champions’ League match against Greek club Panathinaikos tonight.

While we wonder about the ramifications of a Ferdinand winning goal in the final of Europe’s premier tournament, we are attracted to the sight of the odious piece of work that is Lazio’s Sinisa Mihajlovic.

The Times has heard the defender apologise to his teammates for his sending-off when his team played Chelsea earlier this season.

And then this: “I want to clarify that if I had such a reaction [spitting at Adrian Mutu] it was due to the fact that I was provoked. That is why – just as it occurred with Vieira – I have not apologised to Mutu”.

Bravo! How dare Mutu get his face in the way of Mihajlovic’s spit and play for a side that thrashed Mihajlovic’s own by four goals to nil.

And shame on Patrick Vieira for being black! Thank you, Mihajlovic, for bringing these despicable taunts to light.’

Posted: 26th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Beadle’s About

‘WE’D like to start by saying a hearty thank you to Jonny Wilkinson for his kind words. To play such a big part in your success needs no thanks. Your success is all the reward we need.

The Jonny Wilkinson Memorial Hall

That said, we hope that Arsene Wenger can be equally inspired when he leads his Arsenal to their Champions’ League do-or-die game against Inter Milan tonight.

The portents for success are already very good as the Times spots no lesser a figure than Jeremy Beadle stepping aboard the team’s official plane.

If anything can be guaranteed to get the players’ hearts thumping and their aggression high it must be spending the best part of four-hours stuck in a vacuumed tube with the prince of pranks.

The Gunners might of course just be playing a trump card in their bid to sign West Ham striker Jermain Defoe.

The Guardian says that they have joined the race for the player, hoping to secure his signature before he plumps for Manchester United.

Beadle’s presence in the Arsenal camp might just swing it their way, although United’s celebrity contingent of Eamonn Holmes and John Virgo does provide stiff opposition.

Of course, what Defoe should ask himself is what Jonny Wilkinson would do when confronted with such a choice.

England’s cricketers should consider the same. As Nasser Hussein tells the Sun: “We need a Jonny.”

“Make no mistake,” says the former England Test captain, “the one thing any England team needs in any sport is a superstar – it just turns any side around.”

This would cut some ice if England with Ian Botham had been cricket World Cup winners or Beckham’s England football team had won any silverware.

English sport has had its stars and still lost. The fact is that Wilkinson did the job when it mattered.’

Posted: 25th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Kings Of The World

‘ONLY a few years ago, Clive Woodward was being ridiculed after his “Judge us on the World Cup” boast backfired on him, courtesy of Jannie De Beer’s record five drop goals.

Guess who?

Now, as a World Cup-winning coach, Woodward not only looks odds-on for a knighthood but is seemingly being lined up to rescue England’s football team.

The Mail says FA chief executive has already asked his counterpart at the RFU to set up a meeting with Woodward and the man himself admitted he would be interested in the challenge.

The paper reminds us that Woodward coached football while studying for a business degree at Loughborough University and still follows the game closely.

However, the timing of any switch would be difficult, given that the coach is committed to defending his world crown in France in 2007.

How many of the 30 members of the winning squad will be there we don’t know, but the Express says there is an appetite for more among the golden oldies.

Woodward says that he is expecting all 30 to be available for the Six Nations starting at the end of January.

“We have to keep the momentum going and all these players have a huge role to play in the future,” he says.

“You don’t want to break the team up but rather over the months and years change it one by one.”

As for Saturday’s game itself, the England players admit that it should never have gone to extra time. Part of the reason that it did was the mistakes England made, part was the sheer cussedness of the Australians and part was a bizarre performance by referee Andre Watson.

The Express says the England players have been diplomatic in public about the South African’s performance but are “incandescent” in private.

“We thought we went in with real superiority at scrum time and to be penalised so many times in such a massive game, where we hadn’t been penalised once in six games, seemed difficult to understand,” Woodward said.

Prop Phil Vickery is clearly as bemused as the England fans and most observers.

“The sense of frustration was massive,” he tells the Sun, “because you could say we were penalised for having a better player than them and that’s daft.”

In the end, Vickery was substituted for Jason Leonard and the England pack gave up contesting scrums on the Australian put-in.

But thankfully it did not affect the result. As Neil Back tells the Mirror: “I’m king of the world for four years and no-one can take that away.”’

Posted: 24th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Best Of Ruck

‘AS if any of you need reminding, Saturday marks England’s chance to be world champions at rugby union.

‘It’s 11 against 11, 90 minutes…’

Sadly, the Mirror supposes that many of its readers have not a clue about the sport and duly produces “The Bluffer’s Guide To The Rugby World Cup Showdown”.

The rules of what is a complicated game on first viewing are explained by one Ruki Sayid, a woman who the paper thinks is ideally placed to speak to the not-yet-converted Jonny Wilkinson fans since she appears to have just discovered the game herself.

“But if, like me,” says Ruki, “you know nothing about the game, here’s a bluffer’s guide to help you through the big day.”

Nothing better than being led by the blind through the pitch dark, festering mess of a scrum.

And if you don’t know about rugby, better to ignore the Mirror’s pitiful guide and just know that, in the words of the Sun, it’s going to be a “kanga banga”.

“Wilko will wreck ‘em like Beckham, says Rob Andrew.”

You see, to get this football-mad nation talking about rugby, the Sun has correctly realised that you need to talk from a footballing perspective.

Because Jonny Wilkinson kicks the ball while the others handle it, he is the star of the show. You can’t support 14 David Seamans, not when there’s one Beckham on the pitch.

Sticking with football, the Mail tells us that Leeds intend to make Gordon Strachan their new manager.

They’ve asked Southampton for permission to talk to the ginger Scot, a former captain of the Yorkshire team.

Strachan, who has worked well at Southampton, appears as an attractive choice for Leeds, even more so when readers learn that an agreement will have to be reached over compensation since he has six months to run on his current contract.

How Leeds love paying out all that lovely compensation.

But let’s not leave on a bitter note, but look towards Saturday’s big game, nail our colours to the posts and wish England the best of luck.

Win or lose, rest assured that in around a year’s time rugby will be as popular as it always has been.

No pressure then, lads…’

Posted: 21st, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Victory Is Ours

‘IT was touch and go for a while but now England are guaranteed victory in the Rugby World Cup.

‘Cheer up! There’s always the Close Harmony Singing Championships’

News in the Mail is that David Beckham is backing England for glory in Saturday’s final – and, with the patron saint of celebrity on her side, England cannot fail.

And the news gets better as the Mail also reports on how Alex Ferguson is supporting England’s bid for glory.

“It’s hard for a Scot to support England but I’ll be watching the final and I hope they win – if only because I think their coach is a wonderful man and brilliant at his job.”

How very typical of the Manchester United manager to support a fellow professional and spread some bouquets as he goes!

And so it goes on in the Mail, with Sir Bobby Robson sparing a few thoughts about England.

”I hope an England win kicks off a good day for Newcastle,” says Sir Bobby, the Magpies’ manager, putting things in their true perspective.

To watching Australians it would seem that the Mail is reflecting the mood of the British public. But, as Robson hinted, rugby remains a minor sport in these lands. And it’s football that dominates, as ever.

“CRUSHED,” says the Sun, announcing the grim news that both Scotland and Wales will not be travelling to the Euro 2004 finals, having lost their play-off matches to Holland and Russia, respectively.

Indeed, lost is a kind way to view the Scottish demise, as they were thrashed 6-0 in Amsterdam, a drubbing that included a hat-trick from Ruud van Nistelrooy.

With a national team that can provide a result like that it suddenly seems less of a surprise that Scot Alex Ferguson should be rooting for England in the rugby.

Nothing is more attractive than success. Just look at the masses of United shirts on show in Ipswich.

As such, it’s hard to blame Mark Hughes if he decides to quit as manager of the Welsh team. Who wants to be in charge of perennial failure?

The Express says that Hughes’ future at the helm of Welsh football is in doubt after his side’s 1-0 defeat last night.

“My job is to get Wales to a major championship and I have now failed twice,” says Hughes.

Given the limited playing resources at his disposal it would be churlish to blame Hughes for Wales’ failure.

Better to do as the Australians do and just call the other side names, like boring, arrogant and, er, boring.’

Posted: 20th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


A Gulf In Class

‘IF George Bush can teach Tony Blair anything more, it is that any defeat of England in Sunday’s rugby World Cup final should be swiftly followed by an all-out ‘shock and awe’ attack on Australia. That would, as the president might say, learn ‘em.

How to be not boring

And such thrilling action would be out of kilter with what the Australians expect from the English. As the Sun says, Australians find Clive Woodward’s men “boring”.

Former Wallaby captain Russell Fairfax says: “England are killing the game. They are just so bloody boring.”

Of course, the English would have to go some to match the boring attitude of the Australians, whose moaning before the game surely belies a fundamental fear that they will lose.

Meanwhile, the Mirror takes a gander at the Australian press. It sees the front page of the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the headline “Hands up if you think you’re boring” above a picture of the England team waving to the crowd.

That is clearly a work of rare genius. And with the benchmark set so very high, is it any wonder that the highly-imaginative Australians who dream up such wonderful puns think the English are boring?

The stage is certainly well set for Saturday, when even if Australia lose they will surely talk long and very loud about how they are the true world champions because if points were given for artistic merit they’ve be straight sixes to England’s run of zeros.

This is all, as the Mail says, “laughable”. As is story about England’s cricketers’ foray into Sri Lanka. The Mail’s headline says it all: “Humiliation.”

In the first one-day international in Sri Lanka, England batted first and scored a paltry 88 runs all out from 46.1 overs.

Those are the bald statistics, which look even less hairy when readers learn that Sir Lanka reached a winning total off 13 overs for the loss of no wickets.

“The guys played similar shots to those they have been playing in Bangladesh,” says Michael Vaughan, the team’s skipper, “but we got ourselves out more.”

And so it was that England reached their second lowest one-day score of all time. Which is not boring. Just awful.’

Posted: 19th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


War Of Words

‘EVEN if England do win the rugby World Cup, it’s unbelievable that anything will replace football as the papers’ most favoured sport.

Quids in

But until England win or lose, even the Sun leads with news of the boys Down Under.

And that means more news of Jonny Wilkinson. The Sun can promote rugby to the lead sports news but only if the story is about Wilkinson, that most marketable of players.

The paper’s front page reports on how Wilkinson is being protected from overzealous fans by at least six security men.

But jumping up and down, he just about makes himself heard over the din of heavy marching boots.

“Each time I practise it’s like putting a little investment in the bank,” says Jonny. “If I miss a kick, I know what I’ve got in the bank and can knock the next one over.”

And if England win the World Cup, Jonny can put more than kicks in his bank, what with the endorsements that will flow his way.

Of course, even the success of England’s rugby team has its limits.

The Star is the only paper to lead with a football story, reporting that Ryan Giggs will not miss Wales’ Euro 2004 decider with Russia.

While the Russians want him banned for his petulant reaction to what the paper calls a “horror tackle”, the Welsh FA are fighting to keep their best player in the team.

How the paper can call a tackle horrific when we’ve all been watching the rucking and mauling that is rugby union for the past few weeks is an oddity.

But this is football, and football is so often about hyperbole.

The Mail reminds us that, if we want to see a real fight, then next Sunday’s World Cup final is the place to be.

“Grudge match?” asks the headline. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” comes the reply. “The fur will really start to fly once Jones and Woodward cut loose.”

It’s not the players who will be scrapping but the respective coaches of Australia and England, Eddie Jones and Clive Woodward.

And it won’t really be a fight, more of a name-calling session. Although the only name to really upset the opposite number will be “loser” come Sunday morning.’

Posted: 18th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Jonny Is Good

‘THERE is no doubt who the papers think is responsible for England’s place in next weekend’s Rugby World Cup final – Jonny Wilkinson makes it onto the front page of all the broadsheet papers this morning.

Can England finally win on penalties?

But the sports pages offer a more balanced opinion, with the Guardian awarding Matt Dawson and Phil Vickery higher marks than the magical number ten.

These post-match player ratings are so subjective as to be completely worthless but they are interesting only as evidence that all of us watch a different game from everyone else.

The Indy, for instance, gives Neil Back top billing, while captain Martin Johnson (with whom, in the Guardian’s eyes, it looks like time is catching up) is “feisty and fiery”.

What is agreed is that England were highly impressive in subduing the in-form French side in appalling conditions in Sydney.

The fact that they failed to score a try is of interest only to the Australian media, who seem to have forgotten that in far better conditions on Saturday the only Aussie try was a 75-meter interception.

The Times calls England’s 24-7 victory “so accomplished and expertly executed that they rendered their shaky early-tournament form almost irrelevant”.

The Telegraph praises England’s character and resolve while suggesting that France “all but disintegrated” in the Sydney monsoon.

And it does mean that we have the dream final, the one that England coach Clive Woodward has always wanted and predicted – England v Australia.

We are sure that next weekend England’s rugby players will show far more character and resolve than their footballers did yesterday in losing 3-2 at home to Denmark.

Once again, Sven Goran Eriksson’s team have shown that they do not know how to play friendly matches, their excellent record in competitive games contrasting sharply with some fairly appalling results in friendlies.

Twice England led but Denmark equalised twice before scoring a deserved second-half winner in a match whose relevance is already open to question.

In the Telegraph, Alan Smith (not the banned Alan Smith) suggests that the performance of Joe Cole was a big plus.

The Times is not so sure, suggesting that Cole’s game still lacks depth and maturity – a thought echoed by Eriksson himself.

“The quality he has is unbelievable,” he said. “He is a great, great talent, but needs to learn things about the game.”

The same cannot be said of England’s massively experienced rugby players who next weekend hope to emulate the footballers of 1966 in becoming World Champions for the first time.’

Posted: 17th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Putting the FA in Farce

‘ALAN Smith is used to incompetence – he is surrounded by it on the pitch at Elland Road and has seen it at close quarters in the Leeds United boardroom.

Coming or going?

But proving that it is a big step up in class between club football and international football, the striker yesterday learnt that there is nothing that Leeds can do that the FA can’t do worse.

In fact, the organisation that put the FA into FARCE is again a laughing stock this morning after an amazing blunder which saw Smith sent home from the England squad four hours after being called up.

The reason was that Smith had been arrested for throwing a plastic bottle into the crowd at a recent Carling Cup game against Manchester United.

However, the arrest took place five hours BEFORE the 23-year-old was called up.

The Sun says the FA is now facing another player revolt ahead of this weekend’s friendly against Denmark.

“Players rep Gary Neville, with the backing of the whole squad, contacted PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor to organise a battle plan,” it says.

When Smith gets back to his club, he will understandably be confused about who his next manager will be.

The Star has the exclusive news that the porcine David O’Leary is so desperate to get away from Aston Villa and return to West Yorkshire that he is prepared to stump up the £2m compensation figure himself.

However, an exclusive in the Star’s sister paper, the Express, says the exact opposite – namely, that Leeds have offered the piggy one a £600,000 golden hello, but O’Leary has chosen to stay at Villa.

All of which leaves us little time to hear from the Mail that England rugby coach Clive Woodward has taken the biggest gamble of the World Cup by picking Mike Catt and Richard Hill in his starting XV to play France on Sunday.

When you consider that the two have 120 caps between them, it might be suggested that it isn’t such a massive gamble after all.

And it is even less so for Woodward, who has been told that his job is safe even if England go down to France.

To underline England’s experience, Jason Leonard will become the most capped player ever if he comes off the bench in Sydney and Dorian West will likewise become the oldest to appear in a World Cup semi-final.

However, England have eight players in their starting XV who are under 30 – only one fewer than France.

Allez Les Blancs, as they don’t say in either Paris or Sydney.’

Posted: 14th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Over The Hill

‘RICHARD Hill!! Yes, folks, THE Richard Hill. You’ll all know who he is because ever since injury stopped him from playing the papers have been talking about Hill being the key to England’s chances of lifting the Rugby World Cup.

Passed fit

So let’s give a big hand for Richard Hill, the flanker who the Telegraph says has been included in the England’s starting line up to face the French in Sunday’s semi-final.

This is encouraging news for England, although Hill might be a wary starter given the praise that has been heaped upon him during his enforced absence from the team.

But if Hill had not have made it back in time, England could have done far worse than get on the phone to Bangladesh and call up Andrew Flintoff.

Bigger of shoulder than Hill, and every bit as hard a hitter, Flintoff is the toast of the Independent following his latest performances against Bangladesh.

Not content with taking two wickets for just 32 runs with the ball, Flintoff than smashed his way to an impressive 52 runs not out from a mere 39 balls.

Included in that fiery innings was the six he needed to overhaul Ian Botham’s record of 44 sixes by an England player in limited overs cricket.

Andrew Flintoff, as the Times says, is now England’s “sixiest” ever one-day player.

That is something of a bad joke. And if you want to hear another one, the Times has the news that David O’Leary is heading towards the exit door at Aston Villa.

But hold your laughter for the punchline. A roll on the drums, if you please. When or if he leaves the employ of Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, he will be in line for a return to Elland Road.

That would certainly eclipse the return of Richard Hill…’

Posted: 13th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


More Whine, Garcon

‘HERE’S a question for you. Which country’s sporting teams can be described as “professional”, “reliable” and ”arrogant”?

‘And now you’ve got my shirt dirty’

Yes, it’s us. No, it’s not the Germans. Well, it is, but it’s now the English as well. As Martin Samuels writes in the Times, Clive Woodward’s England are the Germany of rugby union.

Of course, being the new Germans you might expect the French to love us, to open their arms out wide, to build huge boulevards through which we can parade our might.

But they are not. The Telegraph hears that they think we are lower than George Gregan’s knees.

“We have always felt a lot of arrogance coming through from England players and their supporters,” says France wing Aurelien Rougerie.

Oh dear, oh dear! It’s clear that England have got right under the skin of their opponents.

And the French reaction gives an added option to the question ‘what is a Frenchman’s favourite whine?’ Is it a) White; b) Red; or c) That Englishman’s looking at me funny?

And so it goes on, as France lock Jerome Thion says how the English are just so, well, arrogant.

He invites us to go and ask the Australians what they think – “I don’t think they have much love for the Poms as they call them.”

You might have thought the Australians had little love for the French, but given their common ability to moan and whinge, it looks like the beginnings of a great holiday romance.

Looking past the sniping and the Guardian’s shot of brave French skipper Fabien Galthie jumping clear of a small wave on Bondi Beach, the paper reminds us all about Rio Ferdinand.

You’ll remember that Ferdinand was not so long ago the scourge of English football. He’d missed a drugs test and that was very bad. And weeks on, he’s still playing football.

And this has got to change. So from next season, as the paper says, players in Rio’s situation will be suspended immediately. They will not be allowed to play on while they protest their innocence and lawyers and clubs cloud the issue.

In addition, the Football Association says that from next season any player given a red card will be banned for the following game.

If this sounds like sensible stuff to you, as it does to us, send a letter to the FA and ask them what they are up to. Sense has never been the FA’s stock in trade.’

Posted: 12th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment


Cockerel & Bull Story

‘AS things stand, the only place Leeds United are marching onto is the first division and administration.

‘Get two big oeufs, comme ca…’

However, manager Peter Reid is marching onto the job centre, although with around a £1m pay-off in his hands it might be more of a slow amble, taking in a Caribbean winter break and a nice meal on the way.

Marching the other way is Paul Hart. Well, he might be, since his is the name the Independent links with the now vacant manager’s post at Elland Road.

The other option, as cited in the Telegraph, is for Leeds to return to pastures old and hire George Graham, who led the team before David O’Leary.

But Hart’s name crops up again, and the paper reminds us that he used to play for the club and says it would only cost Leeds £200,000 in compensation to prise him away from his current tenure at Nottingham Forest.

It’s pretty amazing to think that a club crippled by debt would even consider paying such an amount to get a new manger. But this is Leeds, and what’s a couple of hundred grand when you’re almost £80m in the red?

While things go from worse to terrible for Leeds, Team England are looking forward to their Rugby World Cup semi-final against France.

“It’s a little perplexing at the moment,” says the team’s coach, Clive Woodward, of the English performances of late. “We did look a bit slower compared to the Welsh team.”

But someone not slow to the pitch is Bernard Laporte, the France coach, who is taking up the cudgel the Australians and South Africans have used to beat England with of late.

“A lot of people have seen how Mike Tyson fights,” says the bespectacled Frenchman. “It’s doesn’t mean they will get in the ring and beat him.”

But before Ben Cohen chews someone’s ear off, Laporte would like to endear himself to the whingeing Aussies with some more anti-English rhetoric.

“Most people hate them [the English],” says Laporte. ‘Personally I don’t have much love [for them], but one has to accept that they are often the best in business or in sport.”

Although the French do make a nice omelette and the Australians are very good at moaning…’

Posted: 11th, November 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment