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Trouble Dogs Leeds

‘THE leader who turned grown men into babies is back in the biggish time. The Star reports that David O’Leary has been appointed as the new boss of Aston Villa.

Oink! Oink! Pigface is back

And he’s a changed man. ”I’ve learned a lot and I’ve made mistakes,” says O’Leary. ”The biggest one I made was that I became too opinionated in newspapers and you won’t be getting that any more.”

Readers will also recall how O’Leary became too opinionated on television and in his book, Leeds in Trial, and on radio and the Internet.

But he soon gets back to talking the usual stuff, about how he plans to make Villa into a top six club – ”where it belongs”.

It really seems that O’Leary has learned from his time at Leeds, chiefly that miracles cannot be worked over night and that ambition must be tempered with reality.

The situation at Leeds comes under more scrutiny in the Express, where we hear that ”Peter Ridsdale’s reputation as a football chairman sleeps with the fishes”.

Using a phrase borrowed from a gangster film would seem to suggest that not all is what it should have been at the Leeds Ridsdale built.

The club’s news chairman, Professor John McKenzie, is pretty damning of his predecessor’s regime. ”There’s been irresponsibility and indulgent spending,” he says.

”In my view, the place has been managed in an indulgent way,” he says, going on to criticise the ”frivolous nature of the expenditure”.

And so it seems to have been as the Express mentions the nearly £6m spent on paying off managers O’Leary and Terry Venables, the fleet of over 70 company cars, which cost £600,000 a year to run, and private jet travel for executives.

There is also the matter of the tank of tropical fish, which Ridsdale rented for a princely sum of £20 a month.

These are said to have been the first casualties of McKenzie’s purge on waste.

Meanwhile, the Mail gets ready for the final of the Uefa Cup, and Celtic’s chance to relive the glory of 36 years ago when they lifted the European Cup.

”I’ve told my players this is once-in-a-lifetime chance and they must grab it,” says Celtic manager Martin O’Neill.

Celtic play Porto tonight in Seville. We wish them the very best of luck.

Posted: 21st, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Men Only

‘APART from ice dancing and things with horses, women fail to compete on an equal footing with men in sport.

Annika Sorenstam prepares for a meeting with Vijay Singh

Some East German athletes of the 1970s could lay claim to being every bit as good as their male counterparts – and so good were they that a few were made honorary men, complete with Adam’s apples and the ability to dress to the right or left.

And unless Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam has a mobile pharmacy in with her clubs, she will be whipped out of sight by the rest of the field at this week’s PGA Tour’s Colonial Tournament.

It is 58 years since a woman last entered a professional men’s tournament. In 1945, Babe Zaharias competed at the Los Angeles Open, making the cut.

Since then no mixing on the professional fairways has been allowed. It’s the way Peter Alliss, the pompous ass, would have dreamt it – the big boys out on the course, boring the socks off each other, while the little ladies potter about chattering about macrame and how wonderfully clever darling Peter is.

But now golf’s men’s club has been opened up to women. And Vijay Singh, the world’s seventh best golfer is put out. He says he hopes Sorenstam misses the cut, and that women have no place in the men’s game.

Doubtless some voices in the less enlightened parts of the golfing US would also prefer it that Singh, a man of dark skin, didn’t play the game either.

And, as luck has it for the good ol’ boys, the Fijian has withdrawn from the tournament, giving the excuse that he needs a week off.

”I told my wife last week if I won a tournament I would take a week off,” Singh said, just before, one imagines, he patted her on the head and sent her back to the kitchen.

But why withdraw? Why does it matter that a woman plays with men? She has no chance of winning.

Sorenstam is the best female golfer in the world, the winner of 43 tournaments, 19 in the last two seasons, but she’s still not good enough to compete with the top men.

I recall that Bobby Riggs was 55 when he challenged Billy Jean King to a game in 1973, with the words: ”I want Billie Jean King… I want the women’s lib leader!”

Riggs was confident that no woman, however skilful, would beat him. Billie Jean won in three sets, proving little more than Riggs was wrong and that a young fit woman can beat an ageing still fit man.

Sadly for Sorenstam, she’s not up against Seve Ballesteros or Arnold Palmer but some hungry young American golfers. She won’t win the tournament, but she will attract interest to the game.

And that is no bad thing in a sport that before Tiger Woods came along was as alluring to the young and female as Peter Alliss.

Posted: 21st, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


In A Stew

‘IS Alec Stewart the best wicket keeper-batsman in England at the moment? Yes, almost certainly.

The Methuselah of English cricket

Should he have been selected for the two-Test series against Zimbabwe, which starts on Thursday? Almost certainly, no.

Stewart is 40 years old and, although he remains remarkably agile for a man his age and although his desire is still as great as ever, he is past his prime.

Whatever Nasser Hussain and the selectors say about not being able to take the opposition lightly, this series is a great opportunity to blood new players.

Three have already been chosen in the squad for the first Test.

James Anderson has earned his chance by his performances in Australia and at the World Cup.

James Kirtley is another who already has experience of playing for England in one-day internationals.

And Anthony McGrath has been given then opportunity to stake a claim to an all-rounder spot by Andrew Flintoff’s continuing bad luck with injuries.

Maybe it is this inexperience towards the bottom of the batting order that has persuaded the selectors to choose Stewart ahead of pretenders like James Foster or Chris Read.

If so, one can only hope that the return of Flintoff and/or Andrew Caddick prompts a bit of a change of heart.

There never is a right time to swap your most experienced player for a relatively untried youngster, but it is hard to think of a better time than now.

Without their one genuinely world-class player, Zimbabwe should be no match for England.

Surely, batting Foster or Read (both of whom have experience of Test cricket in far harder circumstances) at No.7 wouldn’t have been too much of a gamble.

If the top six cannot perform against a side as inexperienced as Zimbabwe, they do not deserve to win.

The problem now is that, if Stewart gets runs against this below-par bowling attack, then he will become impossible to drop for the rest of the summer.

And that, in the longer term, is bad news for England.’

Posted: 20th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


One For Joy, Two For Sorrow

‘READERS of any newspaper will know what Sir Bobby Robson is seen as some avuncular figure, the old boy we don’t mind talking to.

”Why doesn’t anyone like me?”

Others will know him as the hard-nosed footballer manager who is so desperate for Newcastle to win something – anything – that he has bought Lee Bowyer.

Quick as a panda car with lights ablaze you will have realised that such a move, as touted in the Sun, means the reforming of the unlovliest partnership in football: Bowyer And Woodgate.

Whereas once Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle were everyone’s favourites, they are now set to be the least loved outfit in the land.

But Bowyer is not the only man making ready to tread on pastures new. According to the Mirror, John Terry, the Chelsea captain, is contemplating a move to Arsenal.

The Express says that the player wants to discuss a new contract with Chelsea, but the Blues aren’t talking.

”I want to stay but if you wait around and nothing happens, you have to look after your own interests,” he says.

Which is the kind of thinking that, given the Mirror’s story, should have Aston Villa fans heading for Villa Park with their placards of protest raised high.

News is that Bryan Robson has thrown his hat into the ring to be the new Villa boss.

The paper says that Robson made a ”grovelling” bid to be the Birmingham side’s new boss, ”gushing a ”fawning tribute to unpopular club chairman Doug Ellis”.

Despite any protestations to the contrary, Robson is one of the worst club managers around, and Villa fans must be praying that he is not the new man in charge.

”My record is as good as anybody’s,” says Robson – like he means it – ”and I made Middlesbrough into a Premiership club.”

Of course you did, Bry – and Steve Gibson, the club chairman who bought the players, had little or no say in the matter.

We can only wonder why Robbo’s stopping just at Villa, as the Mirror’s back page says that the Real Madrid job is up for grabs.

Do you suppose the Spaniards know he’s available?

Posted: 20th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Gold Rush

‘FOR those who hang to the belief that all Arsenal fans smoke those little cigars that come in individual plastic wrappers, there is news.

”Do Not Sit On The Sink”

They do so because they look so sophisticated yet grounded (it says here) and because the wrapping prevents the urine wetting and thus spoiling the tobacco.

You see, urine is a substance Arsenal fans know too well. Those Gooners contemplating buying timeshares in Cardiff (for the second and third weeks in May), would do well to wrap everything they own in plastic wrap.

Should the Welsh capital run out of the protective film, a plastic bag round the feet and some official Anorak Comfi-Wellies must be the go.

The Cardiff urine problem can be traced all the way to the lower concourse at the city’s Millennium Stadium, where the toilet troughs have burst their banks.

But since not everyone gets to see Cardiff’s Golden Waterfalls, you’ll have to take our word that they do exist.

Just think that these wonders would not have sprung forth had the stadium designer’s plan been followed to the letter.

Our study says that the stadium’s planners have allocated a generous two-inch width of trough for each crowd member, with the ground at full capacity.

If just the bit that does the pissing was extended forward to the wall, all male fans at the ground could go to the toilet during the 10-minute rush before the game and the half-time interval with no fear of drowning.

But men will be silly about these things, so instead they have adopted the architect’s plan B: wait in a cell-like, piss-soaked room and then go anywhere you can.

This ploy involves making use of the three to four sinks in each urine-soaked hole. If you can get to the cubicle, the move is to hose the seat and wall.

But our favourite was demonstrated by the man who ripped up the rulebook and on seeing the lattice-work plastic bucket under the said sinks, ventured forth and pissed freely in it.

A nice effect resulted, as piss cascaded down the white bin and seeped suggestively through the gaps. For novelty value it matches the Golden Waterfall, although the size and volume of the GWs marks them out as the must-see attraction.

This wonder will be appearing again on days which, as luck has it, coincide with the play-off finals for the three Nationwide divisions.

Next week: The Magic Box – marvel as three thousand women queue to get inside two toilets.

Posted: 19th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Not So Able Seaman

‘DAVID Seaman lifted the FA Cup in Cardiff on Saturday, but it looks as if he has played his last game for Arsenal.

Seaman is grateful for Manchester City’s equal opportunities programme

The Independent reckons the 39-year-old will pre-empt any decision over his future by signing for another Premiership club, probably Manchester City.

Friend Bob Wilson tells the paper that Seaman still wants to play.

”I think it will boils down to whether Arsenal can get him to stay against an offer he gets from Manchester City of anyone else.”

Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg are definitely staying at the north London club, however – with the Frenchman committing himself to the club until 2007 over the weekend.

The Guardian says Dennis Bergkamp is likely to sign on for one more season, but reckons Francis Jeffers and Nwankwo Kanu could be on their way over the summer.

At Highbury next season, there is likely to be a new centre back (with Philippe Mexes and Jean-Alain Boumsong the most likely candidates) and a new goalkeeper.

Whether Saturday’s goalscorer Robert Pires and club captain Patrick Vieira will still be in the country is another matter.

Michael Schumacher duly won the Austrian Grand Prix yesterday (his third victory in a row) despite his car catching fire during a pit stop.

Padraig Harrington held his nerve to win the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in a play-off with Thomas Bjorn and shake off his near-miss demons.

And England named three new caps in their cricket squad to face Zimbabwe in the first Test on Thursday, but none of them was a wicketkeeper.

That means Alec Stewart, who is even older than David Seaman, will play – a decision that Derek Pringle (writing in the Telegraph) reckons serves no useful purpose.

”Few doubt he can still outperform James Foster or Chris Read, the most likely of the young shavers waiting in his slipstream,” says Pringle, ”but his own game, especially his keeping, is in decline.”

When the combined ages of England’s goalkeeper and wicket-keeper is just one shy of 80, maybe it’s not just Stewie’s keeping that’s in decline.

Posted: 19th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Good As Gold

‘FOR the second time in the space of six months, the Australians have failed at the final hurdle to register a whitewash series victory against one of their oldest rivals.

”And this stump’s for Darren Lehman…”

In Sydney, they were outplayed for pretty well the whole game by an England side inspired by the batting of Michael Vaughan and the absence of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.

In Antigua, the West Indies overhauled a record fourth innings total to complete a remarkable Test win and salvage some pride from the series.

Is it a coincidence that Australia seem so often to fail in the last match of a dead series?

History suggests not – which is good and bad news for the teams trying to bridge the gap between Steve Waugh’s team and the rest of the world.

The most favourable interpretation suggests that the difference between Australia and the rest is not actually as great as it seems.

Even the Aussies cannot win Test matches playing at anything less than 100% intensity – and they do not always respond when under pressure.

The less favourable interpretation holds that the Aussies can always raise their game when they really need to.

It is only in dead rubbers – like the ones in Sydney and Antigua – that they are vulnerable.

Before the West Indies get carried away by this lone success, it is worth looking at the difference between the two sides over the series.

For Australia, all six top-order batsmen averaged comfortably over 50, with Ricky Ponting averaging 130 and Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist averaging over 70.

For the West Indies, only Brian Lara and Omari Banks averaged over 50.

Five Australian bowlers averaged under 40; only one West Indian did.

It is always great to see the Australians beaten and it is good to see the West Indies showing their mettle again, but one Test hasn’t changed too much.

All we do know is that, good as they are, this Australian side is made of the same flesh as the rest of us. They are not invincible.

Posted: 16th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Olympic Games

‘THE Maine Road Home for Elderly and Distressed Goalkeepers is pleased to announce that it is moving to new, luxurious premises in Greater Manchester.

Britain’s Olympic bid is up and running

And it is delighted to introduce its latest resident: a Yorkshire lad (but we won’t hold that against him!) called Mr Seaman.

Mr Seaman has lived in London for many years, and has picked up a few funny southern ways, such as wearing his hair in a ponytail, but we are sure that everyone will make him very welcome.

He replaces Mr Schmeichal, who will be missed by all the staff and residents, and he will be arriving next week, as he plans to stop off in Cardiff over the weekend.

The Sun reports that as a special treat, Mr Seaman, who is an Arsenal fan, will be allowed to lead the team out onto the pitch before the FA Cup final – a welcome change from the rather ”ageist” policy of choosing only young children as club mascots.

Well done, David! Although the Telegraph usually takes a keen interest in the elderly, it is too busy blowing its own trumpet to give much thought to Mr Seaman.

”TELEGRAPH SET THE AGENDA – AND THE ANSWER IS… YES,” screams the headline. And the question was: will London bid for the Olympics?

Ken Livingston has come out fighting and reckons that London can beat its rivals – principally Paris and Madrid – and land its first Olympic games for over half a century.

The plans are fantastic, and the world will surely fall in love with the plucky East End bid. Fisher Athletic’s ground will be redeveloped into a 9,000-seat stadium.

A new changing room, with a shower and a hairdryer will be installed at the Plaistow baths. The congestion charge zone will be extended to Stratford in order to clear roads for the marathon, and Tesco will be offering its car parks for the use of team coaches.

And it all makes sound business sense. ”For every pound Londoners pay they are going to get back £3 in investment,” says the man formerly known as Red.

”If you said to most Londoners that if they put in 25 per cent for buying their house we would put in the other 75 per cent, they would jump at it.”

Only Ken himself understands the connection between those two statements, but we’re sure it all adds up.

Posted: 16th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Turnip For The Books

‘IT would good to say that Real Madrid’s defeat in the semi-finals of the Champions’ League is good for football competitiveness.

He’s even got the shirt on the wrong way round

No-one, save fans of the winning club, likes to see the same victors year on year.

But, as the Times reports, the Madrilenos lost to Juventus, themselves one of the richest teams around.

That 4-3 aggregate victory for the Old Lady of European football sets up an all-Italian final with AC Milan at Old Trafford.

This, or course, was not how it was supposed to be. And while we look to next year and hope that a British team can go all the way in the continent’s premier contest, we hear news of Aston Villa.

Villa are about as far removed as you can get from winning the Champions’ League, especially since they are now without a manager.

Yes, folks, Graham Taylor has left the Birmingham club – and he’s got a few words to say.

Asked if changes were necessary at the club he has now managed for two spells, Taylor told the Independent: ”I believe so. The structure has to be looked at on and off the field, people have to be able to look at themselves and say it’s time for a change.”

Without naming names, that sounds like a dig at the Villa chairman, Doug Ellis. And that’s a cue for the Indy to list the 11 men who have taken charge of Deadly Doug’s club.

As it is, few Villa fans will lament the loss of so dull a manager as Taylor, whose way with words could turn the most beautiful poetry into a work of plodding tripe.

A bit of hype doesn’t hurt the morale of the man in the stands.

And so we turn to the Telegraph and news that Tony Blair is ready to support a British bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

London is tipped to get the Government’s nod to start preparations for a bid.

And the news is that we’ll be up against the French, as President Jacques Chirac puts his weight behind Paris.

The only downside is that Londoners will have to pay for the honour of having their city overrun by even more tourists, as a ”special” tax prepares to take hold.

But since we are unlikely to win the race, Londoners can spend their cash on something else – like a one-way ticket out of here.

Posted: 15th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Wrecking Our Game

‘GIVEN the idiocy of the average football hooligan, the decision by the police to publish photographs of 29 men who invaded the pitch during England’s Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey is a non-event.

It’s bed with no tea for you, son

Northumbria police, who are circulating the pictures, are keen to name and shame the culprits.

They are keen to try and prevent a repeat of the scenes at Sunderland when England play at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium for the crunch tie with Slovakia on 3 June.

We are no supporters of football hooliganism, and football-related violence is a scar on the national game, but jumping around on the pitch when your team have scored is not the greatest crime.

It is, though, an offence. FA spokesman Paul Barber points out the maximum fine for invading the field of play is £1,000. He’s duly called on magistrates to fine the offenders the maximum amount.

He goes on to say: ”Pitch invasions are not clever and they’re not cool. The players don’t like it.”

It’s as if the FA has adopted the broken window policy, the line of thought best espoused by the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Guiliani, which said that a single broken pane of glass leads to more crime. Neglect fosters crime and fear.

It’s just that the FA has chosen to repair the fractured glass while all around the yobbos are removing the bricks.

The FA had also said those who were convicted of offences at Sunderland would be banned from watching the national side for life.

Whether this ban includes watching England on TV as well as from the stands is not stated, but you can bet that if asked the FA would answer to the affirmative.

They want to be seen to be doing something about a problem that is already out of hand.

The police can only stop a few criminals from spoiling the fun. They can arrest, stick pictures up, name and shame all they want but the culture of football violence is so ingrained that removing 29 rotten apples from the badly damaged barrel is useless.

If the FA is truly serious about ridding the game of its criminal element, they should exercise a zero-tolerance policy, and talk to the idiots like the overdeveloped children they are.

The next one who boos another country’s national anthem can stay behind while everyone else can go.

Had they done this years ago, the berks could have been locked in the old Wembley.

How we would have cheered as the wrecking balls swung into action…

Posted: 15th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Lara’s Dream

‘AFTER a brief hiatus, Italian football has returned to the pinnacle of the European stage.

West Indies avoid the whitewash

Last night AC Milan beat local rivals Inter on the away goals rule – the game finished 1-1 – to move into the European Cup final.

The Telegraph says that AC won because ‘their approach was more adventurous from the beginning’. But since this is Italian football, that means two AC players crossed the halfway line in the game’s opening stages, opposed to Inter’s one, or none.

For sheer excitement, tortoise racing can match the football on offer in Italy. And neither of those sports comes close to the high-octane thrill-a-minute sport that is Test cricket.

The Guardian leads with a picture of the entire West Indies cricket team kissing the wicket at St John’s in Antigua.

The reason was that the West Indies had made the highest ever fourth wicket winning total of 418 runs.

That’s just awesome, and it gets even better when the opposition are revealed as our dear friends, the Australians.

The Times shows the scorecard, with centuries for Sarwan and Chanderpaul, a ‘modest contribution’ from Brian Lara of 60 runs, and seven wickets down.

A score of 60 for an English batsman against the Aussies would be no little achievement, but for one of the world’s best, it’s a walk in the Caribbean sunshine.

‘I can hardly put into words what has happened,’ said Lara. ‘It is fantastic to see us show this mettle and character.’

And it can’t be bad for cricket per se to see a side upset the world’s best.

And while the Italians go wild, the West Indians party into the small hours, the British read in the Independent that Greg Rusedski is injured.

The British No.2 pulled out of the Zagreb Open after feeling pain in his back. It would have been his first match in almost nine months, but it was not to be.

And it is indeed a shocking thing. How can a sportsman who has not played for the best part of a year still be the second best tennis player in Britain? Who’s the third best? Tony Blair..?

Posted: 14th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Friend Or Defoe?

‘JERMAIN Defoe’s decision to put in a transfer request only 24 hours after West Ham was relegated is akin to a widow getting remarried the day after her husband’s funeral.

You could wait until you got off the pitch, Jermain

In other words, it is indecently hasty – and it is no great surprise that the board turned down the request.

That is not to say that the young striker will still be at Upton Park next year, which must be very unlikely.

But had the board acceded to a request (which was leaked to the Sun on the morning of the final game), it would have sent a message to the other players – and other clubs.

Defoe is only 20 years old and has understandably probably got a bit caught up in all the speculation linking him with Manchester United.

But whoever is advising him really doesn’t know what they’re doing.

West Ham fans accept that they will lose many of the better players.

The career of a footballer is short and they cannot be blamed for wanting to play at the very top level.

When Trevor Brooking was a player, he would still get picked for England when West Ham were in the old Second Division.

Those days are probably gone, just as we are unlikely to see non-top flight teams win the FA Cup as Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham did.

What the fans find harder to accept is a scramble to the door by players, many of whom are responsible for the club’s dire plight today.

Paul Ince has never been forgiven for moving to Manchester United, not because he left but the manner (being pictured in a Man U shirt while still a West Ham player) in which he did it.

Had Defoe bided his time, he could have returned to Upton Park (when the Hammers return to the Premiership) and received a warm welcome.

By the indecent haste in which he has put in this transfer request, he is likely to get a similar reception to the one he gets at Charlton.

Posted: 14th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Seaman Overboard

‘THE England squad for friendlies against South Africa and Serbia-Montenegro and the Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia has been named.

The (pony)tale is over

And the first notable point is that David Seaman’s name is not on the list.

The Telegraph leads with the news that Seaman’s international career – ‘one of the greatest goalkeepers to pull on gloves for England’ – is at an end.

Add to that the news that Arsenal, Seaman’s club, will not be offering him a playing contract next season, consigning the Yorkshireman to a coaching job.

‘Sooner or later it had to happen,’ said Seaman in conversation with England coach Sven Goran Eriksson.

At the other end of the field is Wayne Rooney, the 17-year-old wonder kid.

It should be an honour for him to play, and an honour for Everton, his club side, to watch their brightest hope wear the three lions. But it’s turning into a row.

The Times says that David Moyes, the Everton manager, has argued, and is still arguing, that Rooney should not make the trip to South Africa in nine days time.

The result of this attempted interception has been to propel the one who must be protected into the limelight.

Another Englishman who is the centre of attention is Tim Henman, the man on whom tennis fans still pin their hopes of British success at Wimbledon.

The Independent shows Tim winning only his third match of the year (from nine played), beating American Jan-Michael Gambill in the second round of the Masters Series in Hamburg.

‘I am starting to be a bit more aggressive with my serving and I feel 100 per cent with the shoulder,’ says Timmy. ‘There are no problems physically.’

If the rest of the Wimbledon hopefuls can pick up an injury or two, Tim should be in with genuine shout of victory. Just a thought.

Posted: 13th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


A Sending-Off

‘SO farewell David Elleray, the man in the black with the schoolmasterly manner and the disarming expression.

‘Off to detention with you’

He’s a Housemaster at Harrow school, don’t yer know. Of course you do know, because it is one of those facts that every commentator and his dog trot out on sighting the referee.

But we won’t be seeing him in his black shorts again, because the man has just retired, hung up his whistle and put his little back book to bed.

From his first football league experience, running the line in 1983 at a Southend versus Walsall game – when he disallowed a goal for the home side about 10 minutes into the game and the chant of ‘kill the lino’ went around the ground – Elleray has been in the thick of it.

He once had to abandon a match at Maine Road, when the home team was winning 2-0. Back in December, he showed Everton substitute Wayne Rooney the red card late in the 1-1 draw at St Andrew’s for a foul on Birmingham’s Steve Vickers.

And who can forget the magic moment when Elleray red carded Dennis Irwin because, having received one yellow card, the Irishman ran a ball back across the touchline.

Irwin was duly suspended and missed the 1999 European Cup Final versus Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

But Elleray has never been card happy. It’s just that we know who he is, so we notice what he does.

Aside from the Thing From Tring, the unlovely Graham Poll, little is known about the 23 men who have refereed games over the past Premiership season.

What we do know can be distilled as follows. Uriah Rennie: black belt in some martial art, big and the first black referee in Premier League history.

Graham Barber: a friend of Gary Neville. Paul Durkin: small, ginger, bares a suspiciously close resemblance to Paul Scholes. Andy D’Urso: fails to stand ground when confronted by vein-popping players.

And that is it.

These are the non-people of the most hyped, commented upon league in the land. And let’s leave it that way. Indeed, let’s just give them numbers and do away with their names.

So goodbye Number 5, you were a man in black – much like all the rest, only better.

Posted: 13th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


The Bubble Bursts

‘I THOUGHT I had resigned myself to West Ham’s relegation months ago. I was sure that I had done my mourning after the defeat at Bolton.

‘When I open my eyes it will be 1966 and we’ll have won the World Cup…’

But even when the odds were firmly stacked against us on the last day of the season, a small glimmer of hope remained.

And for just a while yesterday that glimmer seemed almost a ray as Michael Ricketts got Middlesbrough back into the game at the Reebok Stadium and Les Ferdinand put the Hammers ahead at St Andrew’s.

So dominant were West Ham at that stage that it almost seemed possible they would score the eight goals they needed to overtake Bolton on goal difference.

But then – as has been the case so often for us this year – two cruel pieces of luck dashed what hope we had.

A wicked deflection off Rufus Brevett gave Birmingham an equaliser totally against the run of play and Middlesbrough were harshly reduced to 10 men as they enjoyed their best spell of the match against Bolton.

That was when we all knew the game was finally up – that we were down on a record number of points and having lost just the one game in three months.

It is nothing short of a tragedy for West Ham, who will surely now see the core of what could – and should – have been a very good side broken up.

Unlike Bolton, who managed to field a side this year without a single British player, West Ham have developed many of their own stars.

They may have had to sell Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard already, but they could now lose Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and even Glen Johnson – all of whom came up through the youth team (even if Defoe was poached from Charlton).

And of course that doesn’t include the likes of Trevor Sinclair, David James and Freddie Kanoute.

Yesterday’s game was a microcosm of West Ham’s season – but we all know that the damage was done in the first half of the season.

Had there not been a transfer window, Glenn Roeder may have been able to act sooner in response to our awful start.

But those are all ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’. The harsh truth is that the Hammers will start next season in Division One with a very different squad.

Just because it’s been coming for months doesn’t make it any easier.

Posted: 12th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


The Vultures Circle

‘THE vultures are already circling overhead, ready to feast on the carrion of what was once West Ham United Football Club.

West Ham reveal new signing

Bolton’s win against Middlesbrough yesterday condemned the Hammers to relegation – and now, according to the Sun, ‘it is a scramble for the lifeboats’.

The paper dubs the Hammers players ‘the most talented bunch ever to be relegated from the top flight’ and predicts plenty of interest from other clubs.

‘Keeper David James interests Manchester City,’ it says. ‘Joe Cole has been targeted by Everton, Manchester United have their eyes on Jermain Defoe and Freddie Kanoute may switch to Fulham.’

The Star says Juventus have expressed an interest in Kanoute, while Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier is a long-time admirer of Cole.

But the Mirror asks whether other clubs will be interested in what it calls ‘this bunch of losers’.

‘It means West Ham’s biggest worry may not be relegation but how on earth they will survive without the riches of the Premiership while being saddled with a squad of overpaid under-achievers,’ it says.

What was agony for West Ham was ecstasy for Bolton, whose boss Sam Allardyce is pictured in several papers doing an after-match jig with star player Jay-Jay Ococha.

Allardyce agreed that it had been ‘a freak season’ in which West Ham had been relegated on a record 42 points.

‘I feel the whole world has come off my shoulders,’ he tells the Express. ‘I’m floating six feet above the ground.’

At the other end of the table, Chelsea secured the fourth Champions’ League spot by beating Liverpool 2-1 and Blackburn pipped Everton to a Uefa Cup place with a 4-0 thrashing of Spurs at White Hart Lane.

The Mail says there was a poisonous atmosphere at Spurs on Teddy Sheringham’s farewell game for the club as some of the crowd shouted: ‘We want Hoddle out.’

From two Glenns managing in the Premiership this season, we may have no Glenns next season.

Posted: 12th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Tuff Love

‘IT doesn’t say much for the health of our summer sport that the best thing to happen to cricket recently is Phil Tufnell’s appearance on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here!

‘Mom, why am I so tall?’ asked Daniela

However, that’s the opinion of Michael Soper, deputy chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

‘People like heroes, however unlikely,’ Soper tells the Telegraph.

‘He was a bloody good spinner but, bless his heart, he has done more for cricket in these past 10 days than anyone I know, raising cricket’s profile.’

Tufnell has also given young ITV viewers a fair indication of what they can expect if they take up the game – hours of sitting doing nothing and waiting for the rain to stop.

But cricket is in a healthy state, compared with our winter sport – football.

All the papers today splash on the news that after months of looking for a new chief executive to replace sacked Adam Crozier, the FA have achieved exactly what their name suggests.

The Indy reveals the lengths the organisation has gone to in its search with its headline: ‘FA left in void as man from Mars pulls out.’

‘Cash-strapped and rudderless’ though it may be, we would never have believed that the FA would have got the stage where it had to look outside Earth for a boss.

But the Telegraph has no doubt who’s to blame for this latest fiasco – FA chairman Geoff Thompson.

‘Thompson’s handling of the situation leading up to Adam Crozier’s departure last year and the search for a successor that carried all the hallmarks of Inspector Clouseau at his most bumbling will surely be used by business schools the world over as part of their ‘how not to’ seminars,’ it says.

Not so. The way things are these days, he will almost certainly get a knighthood and a six-figure pension.

As to actual sport, well there were a few games of tennis played yesterday.

One of them was by Anna Kournikova (hence its inclusion in the papers) in the Cloister Cup, a third division tournament with total prize money of just £15,000.

For the record, she won against Maria Fernanda Alvez…but only because the Brazilian retired with a thigh injury midway through the deciding set.

Also playing was Daniela Hantuchova, although there was considerably more attention paid to the Slovakian’s weight than her tennis.

The 20-year-old admitted she was thin, but denied that she was anorexic.

‘I eat almost everything,’ she told the Guardian, ‘especially what my mum cooks. Unfortunately, it’s not as often as I like.’

Come on, Mrs Hantuchova. Pull your finger out…

Posted: 9th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Curse Of The Ex

‘THERE is little worse for sportsmen and women than having to listen to the carping from the sidelines of those who preceded them.

‘Thank god we don’t have to listen to us’

But you cannot shut an ex-player up, especially one with a newspaper column or a TV microphone to hand.

While they are still active, players like nothing better than to have a go at ‘the media’ for any real or imaginary criticism they have had to endure.

But no sooner has the last ball been kicked or bowled or hit then the player is signing a lucrative contract for a bit of media work.

Hypocrisy? It stinks.

The worst offenders are the likes of Ian Botham, who with a straight face manages to attack the Press from the Sky commentary box.

That would of course be the same Mr Murdoch who signs his pay-check at the end of every month as the one who owns the Sun and the Times, would it?

Ex-players, of course, do have something to contribute to our understanding and appreciation of their sport.

At their best, they manage to convey exactly what the player or players we are watching are going through, the pressure they’re under, what they’re trying to achieve etc.

At their worst, they just grandstand – using their privileged position to boost their own profile and denigrate the efforts of the people who have succeeded them.

Adam Hollioake recently said he would never watch cricket on Sky because the commentary was so awful.

He is not alone. The presence of Botham and – worse – the irredeemably dull Bob Willis sees to that. They even make Paul Allott sound vaguely interesting.

It is no coincidence that all three are ex-players because the best commentators are almost without exception journalists rather than former exponents of the sport themselves.

It is high time the TV companies recognised this. We’ve all had enough of the Sky team, of Garth Crooks’ interviews, of listening to Sally Gunnell…

Posted: 9th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


On The Spot

‘HOW hard can it be to beat a goalkeeper from 12 yards? Just ask Stuart Pearce or Chris Waddle or Paul Ince or David Batty or Gareth Southgate… But they were under extreme pressure. In a normal Premiership game, surely it can’t be so hard.

Seconds before the penalty kick, Gareth remebered he’d left the light on in the downstairs loo

Well, it appears it is. At the weekend, Thierry Henry, Michael Owen and Alan Smith all missed penalties. In the case of the first two, it did not ultimately matter, but for Smith it cost Leeds a point.

The question is how much longer teams can go on spurning this most golden chance to score. Figures show that this season, only 16 of the 22 spot-kicks awarded have been converted – a success rate of less than three in every four.

By way of comparison, German clubs have slotted home 11 of the 14 awarded in the Bundesliga, the Spanish have scored four of the five awarded in La Primera Liga and the Italians have buried six of the seven awarded in Serie A.

Missing penalties has often been thought of as an English disease, mainly because of the high-profile exits from the World Cups of 1990 and 1998 and the European Championships of 1996 on shoot-outs.

But Henry isn’t English and he was one of the offenders at the weekend. Indeed, one of the greatest penalty takers of recent years has been Matt Le Tissier, who missed only once in his professional career.

And, anyway, the record of the Italians in penalty shoot-outs in major tournaments is even worse than the English.

The point is that clubs cannot afford to continue to squander one out of every four penalties they get given. What it suggests is that not enough care is being taken in selecting the person to take the penalty kick, in practising kicks in training or, indeed, in studying the opposition keeper.

By contrast, keepers do study the expected penalty takers of the opposition to help them assess which way he is likely to put the ball. It is clearly working, given the dismal conversion statistics of the penalty-takers, so isn’t it about time they tried to turn the tables?

Does the keeper go to ground early? Is he a lot weaker on one side than on the other? Does he move early?

Of course, none of this would matter if penalty takers could hit the corner every time. A well-struck shot into the extreme eighth of the goal is unstoppable. A well-struck shot into the extreme quarter of the goal is pretty difficult to keep out, even if the keeper guesses the right way.

Posted: 24th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Strange Days

‘IT’S fortunate for the security personnel at The Belfry for the Ryder Cup that the world’s top golfer isn’t called Ali Tiger Mohammed Woddslam. If he were, chances are that the armed police, as seen on the Telegraph’s lead sports page, would be aiming their weapons at him and his fanatical supporters.

Saddam’s new bunker – we have the pictures

As it is, he isn’t, and Tiger Woods is as all American as they come, albeit with a bit of African, Indian and Oriental thrown in. But Woods is only one of a dozen members of the American playing staff, a group their team captain Curtis Strange calls ”12 selfish egomaniacs”.

Which is a nice problem if it’s compared to the shape of Europe’s team, in particular the stricken form of Europe’s Colin Montgomerie.

The Telegraph reports that the genial Scot, who already has a bad back, has suffered a mild heart scare. The debate inside the camp is what would happen if the game went against him – does be grab his back or his chest? But why worry – so long as he grabs the cup.

But sometimes silverware can be bought and not won, as in the case of the trophy from the Italian Cup final of 1943. The Guardian says that this chunk of sporting glory is to go under the hammer at Christie’s today, a move that has upset Italian football fans.

The Cup was won by Torino, a great team wiped out in May 1949 in the Superga air disaster.

And amid all the decades of pain and heartache, no-one noticed the cup was missing until 2000, it having been given away by Natalino Fossati, the club’s captain in the 1970s, to a friend who was ”having financial problems”.

And now those of you not in the red can make the cup yours for an estimated outlay of between £35,000 and £45,000. Money that could be spent on winning some more modern silver – should the referee want a new car.’

Posted: 24th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Holding On For A Hero

”’HENMAN Britain’s hero.” On one level that is a headline to make us all proud. This is not America, a country where only winners prosper, or China or Japan.

Have you seen this man?

This is Great Britain, where boys from Chiswick can outclass the very best Thailand has to offer in straight sets. It might not have won us the Davis Cup, but by ‘eck it taught those Thai upstarts a few things about sporting endeavour.

The Telegraph sees Timmy in full flow, slapping a shot past Paradon Srichaphan, giving Britain a winning 3-1 lead over Thailand.

But let’s not cloud the scene with our tawdry take on such a moment, rather let man-of-the-hour Tim speak out.

”To have been able to play on all three days and then round it off against a player of his calibre by winning in style makes this the most satisfying of my Davis Cup performances.”

Words fit to carve on the Henman tomb when the great man’s career is over.

And someone else who may be on his way out is Michael Owen. Followers of this column will perhaps recall that Owen was once the little tyro who couldn’t miss the net. He was just great.

Now Michael can’t score for toffee, and, in the Times’ eyes, is a ”one-dimensional forward” who might soon be on his way from Liverpool.

Writing in the Times, Tony Cascarino says that Owen needs to work on his mental approach to the game. Get that right, and he’ll be back. Get it wrong, and Tranmere Rovers here he comes.

And then we’ll be asking, ”Whatever happened to Michael Owen?” and not, as the Guardian asks, ”Whatever happened to Ryan Giggs?”

Giggs, who used to be so good it hurt, who ”used to stand out like an exotic flower in a field of weeds”, is no more. So where is he? On Saturday he was on the same pitch as Tottenham, neglecting the qualities that once made him such an awesome player.

Which is a shame, because football needs its heroes, and until Timmy starts to kick the ball, we’ll have to make do with watching burned-out 20-something has-beens go thought the motions.

Or Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs, if you prefer.

Posted: 23rd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Pilgrims’ Progress

‘IN 1929-30, Chesterfield went an incredible 46 consecutive matches without defeat. On Saturday, they visited Plymouth, winning the game 1-0 thanks to a long shot against the run of play.

And on the other side of the Tamar is…

That win came on the back of a 1-0 home victory at Wigan, which means the Spirites are just 42 games away from matching the achievements of arguably the greatest Third Division North team there has ever been.

And if they really get their teeth into it, they could push on and reclaim the current record of successive league games without defeat from Arsenal.

And while Chesterfield and the 30-odd (or 30 odd) fans regale their friends and families with tales of the long trip to Devon, Plymouth wait.

In fact, Plymouth have been waiting for quite some time. Back when Chesterfield were mighty, Plymouth were also doing pretty well.

The Pilgrims had Sammy Black, who between 1924 and 1938 scored a not inconsiderable 180 goals. He’s still the club’s record goal scorer, and even kicking a medicine ball in hobnail boots would be a welcome addition to the current team’s front line.

Goals are not Plymouth’s thing; the defence is the team’s strength. Indeed, the current back five were largely responsible for Plymouth’s own record run of games without defeat, when between August and December 2001, Argyle went 19 games unbeaten.

They stood on the threshold and duly won the third division at a stroll. And with a bright new manager in the shape of Paul Sturrock, a ground blessed with a Pilgrims Way and banks of green seats, Plymouth look like a club on the up.

But in the second division, they are just as likely to be on the down. Plymouth are a team stuck in a rut, behaving like an agoraphobic housewife, who wants to go out to the main show in town but keeps popping back to her humdrum flat to check things are as she left them.

Plymouth need a guiding hand, and with a new board there is much talk of five-year plans and cash injections.

But when the Torquay result (on Saturday they won their third division game at Swansea 1-0) is eagerly anticipated, eyes are already looking down rather than up, a feeling not countered by the pained groans that followed news of third division Exeter’s 1-0 win against Orient.

Plymouth lack the lure of a bigger rival. In any case, it is they who should be the region’s force, based as the club are in a large city with a steady influx of students and naval cadets.

And the crowds do come: this week’s mid-week game with Cardiff is expected to be an 18,000 sell out. And if Plymouth win, Home Park will go ballistic.

And although fans will hope for more, they will also know that to actually expect success requires a mentality as green as the club’s kit. And that is a rich, deep, dark green.

Posted: 23rd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Viva Espana

‘IF anyone were in any doubt as to which country has the best league in Europe (and by extension the world), this week’s Champions League results must surely have dispelled them.

”Is it just me or is this getting a bit boring?”

The Spanish clubs once again looked in a different class from the rest of Europe, led of course by Real Madrid who thumped AC Roma 3-0 in the Italian capital.

England has long kidded itself at the strength of its Premiership, but the record of English clubs in Europe really does not bear this out.

Only Manchester United have reached a European Cup final since English clubs were banned following the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1986.

By contrast, in the last five years, Real Madrid have reached the final three times (and won on every occasion) and Valencia have reached the final twice (and lost on both occasions).

Anyone who saw the way in which Valencia took Liverpool apart on Tuesday night would not be surprised if the Spaniards made a third final on four years.

Indeed, it may be that the only reason that Valencia were not in the final last year was because they didn’t even qualify for the competition through La Liga.

And whereas in England hopes tend to be pinned on Manchester United and Arsenal (despite the fact that the Gunners have never got past the quarter-finals in this competition), Spain have four very realistic challengers.

Barcelona look perhaps the weakest of the four, despite the fact that they made the semi-finals last year. Three first-half goals allowed the Catalans to stroll through most of their match against Club Brugge, although a late goal by the Belgians made the scoreline 3-2 and gave home fans a few nervous moments.

However, it was Deportivo who notched up the most impressive result of the evening, a Roy Makaay hat-trick securing a 3-2 win away at Bayern Munich.

Arsenal fans need no reminding about Deportivo’s pedigree and, although they were eventually knocked out by Manchester United last season, they are certainly not a side that any club will want to come up against.

Losing in Kiev is no disgrace, but Newcastle have their work cut out to get out of their group, while Liverpool will be pushed to repeat their quarter-final place of last year.

That leaves United and Arsenal to fly the English flag – and try to repel this Spanish armada.

Posted: 20th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Why, Oh Why, Oh Wise

‘THERE is a certain sense of inevitability about Dennis Wise joining Millwall. The New Den is surely the spiritual home of the pint-sized powderkeg, and the way things are going, it could yet turn out to be his spiritual burying place too.

”No-one likes me and I don’t care…”

”Old Den meets New Den today” says the Sun, although the negotiations have already been thrashed out in private. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer fella, could it? Lions boss Theo Paphitis, that is. Because, let’s face it, no one would describe manager Mike McGhee as popular would they?

And as for Dennis… The 35-year-old madman will now be getting ten grand a week after losing his rag and his lucrative contract with Leicester City.

Personal terms were ”quickly agreed”, reports the paper: as well as his basic wages, Dennis will get his own reinforced dressing room and as much raw meat as he can eat each day, plus a share of any club merchandise that uses the word ”nutter”.

Over at the Mirror another man with a short fuse is in the news. Graham Taylor has apparently banned the England women’s football team from staying at the same hotel as his Aston Villa squad.

The England players will now have to find new accommodation before their important World-Cup qualifier play-off against Iceland at St Andrews.

FA technical director Howard Wilkinson has appealed directly to Taylor, but the former England boss will not budge. The paper gives no explanation for Taylor’s intransigence, so readers will have to draw their own conclusions.

”It is disappointing,” said women’s boss Hope Powell, ”but we cannot allow ourselves to dwell on it and sometimes setbacks like these can refocus the team and hopefully that will be the case this time.”

In the Telegraph there is news from the altogether more agreeable world of real tennis.

We are delighted to hear that Chris Bray, Petworth’s ”head professional” (no, we don’t know either), beat Scotland’s Mike Gooding. This was not a punishment, but a world championship eliminator.

Posted: 20th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0


Forlan Hero

‘WHEN Gary Birtles scored his first goal for Manchester United after 41 games, some wag was moved to observe: ”The trouble is now they’ll expect him to score every 41 games.”

Diego was still celebrating his goal three weeks later

As Diego Forlan scored his first goal for United after a mere 27 games, the same thought is no doubt running through the fans’ minds.

However, at least Birtles’ goal was from open play. The Uruguayan was handed the ball after David Beckham had won an 89th minute penalty and with his team already 4-2 up.

Not that anyone’s been counting how long Forlan has gone goalless since his £7.5m from Independiente.

Except perhaps the Mirror, which stops its watch at 13 hours and 55 minutes. And the Sun, which shows ”the picture you thought you’d never see” as Forlan strokes home the spot-kick.

Forlan’s goal helped United to a comfortable 5-2 win over Maccabi Haifa, but Newcastle’s first Champions’ League match ended in defeat as they were comfortably beaten 2-0 by Dynamo Kiev.

However, news that all football fans can enjoy creeps onto the back page of most of the papers – Leicester have been told that they can sack Dennis Wise.

A four-man Football League panel upheld the club’s appeal against a ruling that said they couldn’t terminate the contract of the former Chelsea player after a fight in which he broke a team-mate’s cheekbone.

But, says the Mail, ”they are bracing themselves for a civil action, which they have said they will fight to the last”. And we wish them every success.

We’re sure you’ve got your favourite Pringle sweater out and your Comfi-Slax hanging over the back of the chair as we enter the greatest fortnight in golfing history.

The Ryder Cup is only a week away, but already the Americans are looking over their shoulder at any man with a beard.

With last year’s competition scrapped because of September 11th, this year’s looks likely to be overshadowed by the possibility of military action in the Gulf.

”If last year’s organisers could have provided 100 per cent assurance they had a safe environment and that everyone was going to be protected, it would have been fine,” Tiger Woods tells the Sun.

”But they couldn’t. And it’s certainly not assured now either. As golfers, you are left wondering whether it’s worth putting yourself in a place where there could be some type of attack or injury to one of the players.”

And as a spectator, you are left wondering how it is that Woods and his colleagues manage to play week in, week out in the United States without any problem.

But then no terrorists would ever attack the US, would they?

Posted: 19th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment | Comments RSS feed:RSS 2.0