Back pages | Anorak - Part 74

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Premier League news. Stories from the newspapers and BBC sport – sports news from tabloids Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Star, the Guardian, Daily Mirror, the times, daily telegraph

We’re No. 1

‘WHEN Wimbledon FC were in their prime, they used to frighten the opposition by taking a radio into the dressing room and blasting our hardcore techno house music.

Vinnie Jones and a dance partner

Vinnie Jones and his team-mates might have hated the din, but they knew that the opposition hated it more. Victory was theirs. They charged onto the field of play – hearts racing at 200 beats per minute – ready to do some damage.

Such a policy might also work for the English national side. Team England are always slow starters in tournaments (and too-quick finishers), and the idea of Sven dispensing with his pre-match whispers to blare out Funk D’Void’s Volume Freak is worthy of consideration.

In Euro ’96, while we sang Three Lions on the terraces, better had the lads stuck on Black Grape’s England’s Irie in the dressing room, a song that features the threatening lyric “Cut the trigger, I fire like this”.

But you can talk and talk and talk and still the FA will produce (How Does it Feel To Be) On Top of the World, the disastrous 1998 song featuring the Spice Girls and Ian McCulloch.

Of course, as Kevin Keegan assured us back in 1982, this time it will be different. This time England will be cheered on by Embrace.

As the Times says, this band have an affinity with the national game. BBC TV’s Match Of The Day uses their song Ashes to spice up the Goal Of The Month competition (“I’ve waited and given the chance again/ I’d do it all the same but either way/ I’m always out played up on your down days/ I left in the right way to start again”.) And the band’s Gravity was used as the theme for the film Mike Bassett: Manager.

Which means that the FA’s search for a song is over. Tom Harold, the FA’s marketing manager, is relieved. “With only 75 days to go until England’s first game, against Paraguay, everybody has been asking who will get the gig. We’d like to think we’ve pulled off something of a coup by bagging such a great band,” he tells the Times.

Sure, the FA would like to congratulate itself. But before the blazers order champagne and secretaries all round, they should consider what it is they hope to achieve by the song.

Do they want the fans to hum the official anthem in their cars and sing it in the ground? Or do they want it to stir the team into a state of rare excitement and passion – and for the Brazilians, Germans and Dutch to hate it?’

Posted: 28th, March 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

Who’s The Singer In The Black?

‘“ALL across the nation. You can taste the expectation. Finish what we started, England the lionhearted.”


There’s more.

“Every single player (woe oh oh). Holds our destiny (woe oh oh). And they’ll all be heroes on plasma screen TVs.”

Such are the lyrics for the song that could yet become England’s official anthem at this summer’s World Cup. The Sun says that version of Tony’s Christie’s (Is This The Way To) Amarillo is the Football Association’s No.2 choice.

The only thing the blazers at football headquarters would like more is Baddiel and Skinner’s Three Lions. We all now how it goes; and it will need reworking to make an impact. Perhaps the introduction of a bevy of scantily clad FA secretaries would help repackage the tune?

Third choice is a song by a band called Kasabian. The band have already written music for television football shows Match Of The Day and Sky’s Soccer AM.

They have form. They might get the gig. And, then again, they might not.

One other option is to use the Man In Black. The Times says that the late Johnny Cash is achieving a fame of sorts on the terraces at Liverpool.

It seems that Liverpool fans have been humming the tune Ring Of Fire at games. It’s even become a kind of mating call. To check if there are other Liverpool fans in the area, a Scouser sings out “Du, du, du, du, du. Dah, Dah, dah” and waits for the responsive echo.

Of course, Scousers run the considerable risk of sounding like Sting fans, something which should be avoided at all times.

On the plus side, it is an all purpose tune. England cricket fans like it. Ring Of Fire might yet become a universal anthem for all sports.

So let us take a look at the Times and see how the Barmy Army’s rendition. In India to watch England escape to victory, the lads are giving full throat to: “Grit…is a splendid thing/ That’s how…we dealt with Harbhajan Singh/ We…improved our statures/ Defying a ring of catchers.”

There is more. You want more? You sure you can handle it? Ok. Here goes…

“I fell into a baptism of fire/ When Vaughan went home our plight seemed dire/ But I turned, turned, turned/ The series around, The series around.”

Enough? You betcha. It might not be the song that wins the day, but it is the fans’ own chant – at least it was before the Press got wind of it.

And that’s the thing. Whatever the official anthem is, the fans will come up with a better one. It might be an awful song, but it will be their awful song.’

Posted: 23rd, March 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

They Predict A Riot

‘“I PREDICT A RIOT,” chant the Kaiser Chiefs, Britain’s new and highly praised Oi band.

The Kaiser

And so it was that the English Football Association believed they had found the act to sing the team’s official World Cup anthem.

This time, more than any other time, this time, England would get it right. The team would love it, and back home we’d sing loud and long into the night. But when the idea was put to the group, they shook their heads.

As the Sun reports, the boys have released a statement explaining their reasons for turning down their country in its time of greatest need. It reads: “We have no plans to write the England football team’s Wold Cup song. We are sorry to dispel the myth.”

Back in FA headquarters, the protectors of the national game have taken time out from playing keepy-uppy with secretaries to put their heads in their hands. As the paper says, FA chief executive Brian Barwick is “gutted” by the band’s decision.

A source at the FA says: “It’s a bit of a sickener.” Indeed. “They think it doesn’t fit in with their image.” And that is the image of a band that supports Leeds United and is named after the team former Leeds captain Lucas Radebe once played for in South Africa

But there is no use complaining. The FA must press on and find a band able and willing to provide the musical accompaniment to England’s great adventure. But who?

Sources say McFly could get the nod, reworking their song Home Is Where The Heart Is. Or they could not.

At the time of writing, things are like Team England’s Plan B – up in the air…’

Posted: 16th, March 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

Hitler Youth

‘“STOP ZIS MENTION OF WAR,” says the Star in its best sitcom German. Too much talk of the war is no good at all. For you, the war is over etc.

A modern German, and friend.

This, of course, is not the paper’s view, but that of Dr Keith Crawford. Yes, that Dr Crawford, of Edge Hill International Centre in Liverpool. That’s the place the Star claims “trains more secondary teachers than anywhere else in Britain”.

What a secondary teacher is, we are unsure, but Edge Hill trains lots of them, and being experts in matters secondary, Dr Keith is ideally placed to talk about the war.

Says he: “For the British, defeating Germany on the battlefield and on the football pitch are comparable national triumphs”. We refer you to the popular ditty ‘Two world Wars And One World Cup (doo-dah, doo-dah)’.

But it must end. Such behaviour is detrimental to good education. As Dr Crawford continues: “Our research shows pupil understanding of Germans and Germany is totally negative from quite a young age.” (At which juncture in the piece the Star produces an illustrative shot of a typical German, who may or may not look like Adolf Hitler, speaking to the dewy-eyed German masses.)

Such a narrow view of a country and its peoples is, as the Star says, damaging the campaign to tackle hooliganism at the World Cup. So it must end.

But Dr Crawford does concede: “We are not suggesting we ignore the obscenities of war.” That would be wrong. It is just that we stop talking about it.

And instead of illustrating stories about Germany with shots of Hitler and his Herrenvolk, we must choose images of other Germans.

Like Eurovision Song Contest winner Nicole, that footballer with the curly hair who got spat at, Hans Tilkowski, Horst-Dieter Höttges, Willi Schulz, Wolfgang Weber, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Helmut Haller, Franz Beckenbauer, Wolfgang Overath, Uwe Seeler, Siegfried Held, Lothar Emmerich and Harald Schumacher.’

Posted: 16th, March 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

Dutch caps

‘IT is not only the English who are unable and unwilling to forget the war. The Dutch are finding it hard to move on.

Never again

To keep the memory alive, they have taken to wearing Nazi helmets, like the ones worn by the Germans who invaded their country between World Cup 1938 and World Cup 1950. Only these ones are orange.

Understandably, modern Germany is unimpressed. Supt Andreas Morbach, the joint head of the German police’s national football intelligence unit, says: ‘The helmets are a potential provocation.” He goes on: ‘It is not nice to have a sports event compared to war and to wear this helmet in such a way is not to cause a joke, it is to cause offence. All references to the war cause unpleasant feelings.’

Quite so. We could not agree. Mentioning the war is arcane, unenlightened and hurtful, even if it our right as free citizens not enslaved under the burden on unspeakable tyranny to do so.

And the Dutch FA agrees. Football’s governing body in the Netherlands, the KNVB, has banned the helmets, saying they are offensive.

‘We don’t see the joke in wearing these helmets and think they are in bad taste,’ says KNVB spokesman Frank Huizinga. ‘A lot is possible in Holland, but we will not accept everything.’

And the ban has not passed unnoticed among the Dutch. As a direct result of the ruling, sales of the helmets have trebled. “We are now selling three times the previous average daily volume,’ says the helmet’s producer Florian van Laar. ‘We are thinking of sending the KNVB a gold helmet in thanks.”

The plastic hats don’t only come in orange and gold. Laar’s company makes them in the national colours of Australia, England, Germany, France and Italy.

And the news is that although they are banned in Holland, the manufacturers claim German police recently informed them they will allow fans to wear the helmets during the games because they were not adorned with Nazi symbols.

As helmet designer Weno Geerts puts it: “Germany should prepare for an invasion.”’

Posted: 14th, March 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

Ho Ho Jose

‘IF you can gauge your success by the calibre of your enemies, Joe Mourinho is either very successful (fans loyal to the mighty Barcelona hate him) or languishing in the relegation zone (Mourinho says Bryan Robson of West Bromwich Albion has been insulting Chelsea’s players).

Go down, Jose! Go down!

In what is routinely called a strongly worded statement, Mourinho celebrated another functional win by his pragmatic and increasingly soulless looking Chelsea side by moaning and posturing.

By now we have realised that the presence of other teams in the Premier League is an inconvenience to Mourinho and his highly paid team. But – come on – can’t he at least pretend Chelsea are in the same league as these other less worthy sides?

It seems not. Having refused to speak to the press after the match, Mourinho wanted us to dwell on his every word without the inconvenience of a journalist asking him questions and debating his answers. Forget the post-match interview. Be quiet and listen.

The statement reads: “After 57 seconds he [Bryan Robson] was out of the dugout accusing Duff of diving and shouting at the referee and the general trend continued.”

Good job Mourinho was there to be superior. And we got to see just how much better Mourinho is than the West Brom manager when in leading his team out late for the second half, and so further riling his opposite number, he turned away and smirked.

Is there anything more guaranteed to get the general public to look sympathetically on Robson’s tirade then seeing the supposed victim smirk?

Would Mourinho, had he been capable of playing for a good enough team, have smirked at former England captain Robson on the field of play? And, had he done so, would Robson have responded with a post-game statement or something more instant that still managed to speak volumes?

Or, just perhaps – and here we are really fantasising – Mourinho would have done as Chelsea’s Arjen Robben did a couple of weeks ago, and his team-mate Didier Drogba did at West Brom, and take a dive.

In our dream, Mourinho would recover from his grotesque brush with a blade of grass in time to look up at the red-carded Robson and smirk. Or, better yet, Mourinho would be the bigger man and offer Robson his hand to shake. No hard feelings. And no Christmas cards…’

Posted: 7th, March 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

Inflaming Passions

‘MORE Nazi-tendentiousness in action now as the Sun reports on how “We’ll fight them on the terraces”.

“We”, for the purposes of the article, are England football fans, and we are travelling to Germany armed to the teeth with a squadron on inflatable Spitfires.

Now, to accompany the lone gunners who rise meerkat–like from their seats to strafe the enemy with ack-ack fire are 1,000 fighter aircraft.

Complete with RAF emblems, but not live rounds, the 3ft-long Spitfires are sure to tickle the hosts’ funny bones.

Or so you would have supposed. But no. A spokesman for the German World Cup organising committee is concerned. “You mean Spitfires – like those from the war?” he asks. We fear so. “No. This is not a good idea at all. They might seem a joke but could be seen as inflammatory.”

For sure. But if we are aiming at historical accuracy, we would like to point out that Zeppelins are inflammatory. Doodlebugs are inflammatory. Spitfires are inflatable…’

Posted: 10th, February 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

War Balls

‘THERE’S not long to go before the World Cup gets underway in Germany, and the papers are desperate to avoid any mention of the war.

He’s got the whole world in his hands

Problem is that the war keeps invading the sports stories.

Last week, in an informative and knowing article in the Star on the 95-room Schlosshotel Bühlerhöhe close to Baden-Baden, where team England will be hard at it during the tournament, Hitler made a shock appearance.

“SVEN WE NEED A GHOULKEEPER,” said the headline over a story that the five-star hotel in Germany’s Black Forest is haunted by the spirit of Adolf Hitler.

The Star heard locals say that guests had woken in the night to see Hitler’s “screaming ghost in a ball of flames”.

We don’t want to mention ze var but then neither do we want our brave boys to be confronted by the last word in night lights.

And there’s more. The Sun says that English fans caught goose-stepping, straight-arm waving and rubbing the index fingers under their noses will be arrested.

For purposes of instruction, the paper illustrates its cultural travel guide to Germany with a front-page shot of Basil Fawlty putting considerable effort into not mentioning the war.

This is sensible reporting. Forewarned is forearmed. So, when in Germany, keep your forearms bent at the elbow at all times. If you find yourself struck by a sudden desire to point at something high up, like an airplane, a cloud or David Beckham’s penalty from Euro 2004, use a branch or a small child for the purpose.

There is a strong desire not to offend the hosts. So keen is it that the Sun, pricked by a sense of European brotherhood, feels compelled to tell the German police that their logo looks like, well – you guessed it – Hitler.

It’s as if the Germans are fixated with the man. Will they never let him go? If they’re not letting him run amuck in hotels, they’re sticking his head on a football.

For your education, we’ve reproduced said logo on this page. As the Sun notes, the character wears a military-style cap and balances the world on his finger.

All very innocent. Until you notice the black smudge. As a spokesman for Germany’s National Football Information Point tells the paper: “The position of the black panel is unfortunate if you look at it in a certain way. But it is arguable whether people would think it was Hitler – unless the resemblance was pointed out.”

So lest you think the logo looks like some demented snowman, the Sun points out the image’s resemblance to the Nazi leader (with an arm bent to the point of deformity).

It also hears from a national police spokesman. He adds: “We are very disappointed and cannot understand how somebody could think this smiling face is the dictator.”

Indeed. But facts are facts. One German cop’s happy football is a tabloid writer’s grinning despot.

But at least we all understand that football is just a game. So long as we don’t mention ze var…’

Posted: 10th, February 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

No Need For Common Sense

‘AS the nation’s football fans gorged themselves on the ridiculously busy festive schedule, the period was once again peppered with contentious refereeing decisions and unfair dismissals. Inevitably the TV pundits once again railed about refereeing competence. Yet at this time of peace and love, let’s spare a thought for the much-maligned ‘b*****d in the black’.

With Sky Sports employing almost as many state-of-the-art cameras at matches as there are people in the crowd at the Riverside, along with their hi-tech graphics and trainspotter stats, the poor old ref is scrutinised in more detail than an Iraqi asylum seeker. And as well as having to decipher complex new directives handed out by the FA, referees are also expected to implement the laws of the game with ‘common sense’, a vague concept that inevitably leads to even more contention. After all, one man’s common sense is another man’s utter lunacy. Just ask William Hague.

This refereeing common sense is a theme peddled by numerous pundits who, while prattling on about the inconsistent implementation of the laws of the game berate officials who simply go by the book.

Football experts such as Andy Gray are particularly prickly when it comes to referees dishing out cards early into a game. In their self-inflated view early bookings ‘set the tone’ for the rest of the game and therefore players should be given some time to get into the game and no doubt kick the crap out of their opponents without reproach.

Imagine if the police force decided not to arrest as many people in the morning, as it might set a bad tone for the rest of the day? Murder someone before midday and you’d get off with a slap on the wrist.

The football authorities also add to the confusion, continuing to peddle the ridiculous ‘interfering with play’ diktat in terms of the offside rule. Surely if a player is on the pitch he is interfering with the play. Again referees and linesmen are put in a position where inconsistencies are inevitable.

Fulham boss Chris Coleman is the latest manager to appeal for video technology to be used to help referees after the Welshman saw his side succumb to a number of bad decisions against Chelsea on Boxing Day. The utilisation of a Sky Sports-esque technological armoury would without doubt be beneficial to all the interested parties – managers, players and referees. However, one wonders how Gray would feel about having his toys used by the very targets of his criticism.

Let’s face it, the quality of refereeing in this country does need to be improved, and a number of officials need to have their ego’s pruned back a little. Indeed we may never actually like those ‘b******s in the black’, but the fewer grey areas there are for referees to deal with, the better and more consistent their performances will be and the less whinging we’ll have to put up with from the pundits.

? Alan Duffy 2005′

Posted: 4th, January 2006 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Liver Birds

‘GOD-LIKE geniuses come around in football only very occasionally. However, in former Valencia boss Rafa Benitez, Liverpool may well uncovered someone with powers not seen on earth since the days of Jesus Christ.

The soft spoken Benitez may not have been born in a manger or spent his early years on the run from the Romans, yet in turning Djimi Traore (amongst others) into a European champion, he made the changing of water into wine or the raising of Lazarus look like child’s play.

That spectacularly dramatic and unprecedented Champions League victory over the mighty Milan back in May also managed to persuade the previously want-away Reds captain Steven Gerrard to eschew a move to runaway Premiership champions Chelsea and stay in his hometown.

However, with a blank-chequebook in the back pocket of his cashmere coat, Jose Mourinho turned to Michael ‘bite yer legs’ Essien with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders and the Blues continued where they had left off the previous season.

The self-appointed ‘special one’ along with Chief Executive Peter Kenyon spent most of 2005 like a pair of west London Goodfella’s, paying little heed to the authorities or traditional notions of fair play and provoking the ire of everyone from UEFA to Arsene Wenger.

Wenger, along with United boss Alex Ferguson could only stand and watch as their places atop the Premiership pecking order were taken by the nouveau riche Blues. Shorn of Patrick Vieira, Wenger’s blind faith in pre-pubescent imports has failed to worry anyone at Stamford Bridge. While the arrival of the Glazer family and the departure of Roy Keane has left Fergie angry and confused, accusing everyone of hating United like some paranoid mad old tramp who talks to the pigeons.

Another veteran boss who has enjoyed an interesting year is saggy faced veteran Harry ‘pretty-boy’ Redknapp. The twitchy Cockney pulled off a reverse turn even Johan Cruyff would’ve been proud of, returning to Portsmouth after leaving them for south-coast rivals Southampton less than a year ago. Who says loyalty is dead?

On the international front, Swedish loverman Sven will be sleeping a lot easier at night after being handed a piddly World Cup grouping alongside Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago.

It’s only a few months since English suffered that hideously embarrassing defeat at the hands of the mighty Northern Ireland, yet already the nation’s media have blanked out the Three Lions woeful qualifying campaign and are bigging up England’s chances of lifting the trophy come June.

One player who will be hoping for a decent World Cup will be impish England hitman Michael Owen. His excitement at returning to the Premiership after a reasonable period in Madrid turned to horror when he realised that Newcastle were the only big club interested in signing him. A repeat performance of France ’98 and Owen will be hoping for a move to a club with a chance of actually winning something.

Never one to eschew the chance of a party himself, the great George Best finally stumbled his way past the bouncers at the Pearly Gates leaving Paul Gascoigne to take over the mantle as the nation’s favourite footballing alcoholic.

With the former England idol out of work again after controversially losing his managerial post at Kettering Town, Gazza’s future looks anything but predictable. Maybe Rafa Benitez can resurrect his career, too?’

Posted: 22nd, December 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Winning At Last

‘NO-ONE could have predicted that in 2005, Lord Sebastian Coe would once again find himself the toast of the nation. Yet the former Olympic champion’s work in stuffing it to the French and bringing the 2012 games to London surely outshines even his two Olympic golds.

London property developers, politicians and the entire construction industry danced in the streets at the good news in July. And Coe pulled off a second incredible feat by appearing to be even smugger than usual.

(Sadly, the Olympic joy soon paled into insignificance with the horrific terrorist attacks in the capital the following day.)

England’s heroic cricketers also gave us something to cheer about when they finally wrestled the Ashes from the hands of their Aussie counterparts.

Although the ensuing media frenzy – comparing the victory to that of 1966 – may well have been down to one too many Pimms in the newsroom. The comparison would have been apt if the World Cup was played every couple of years and only England and Germany took part.

Still, suddenly everyone wanted to be a paid up member of that ‘crazy’ and ‘mental’ barmy army, wearing khaki shorts, dock shoes and reading the Daily Mail.

Local parks were packed to the brim with youngsters eschewing their Playstations for the satisfying thud of leather on willow. Many others, young and old, took inspiration from Andrew Flintoff, and got on with some serious binge drinking.

Flintoff’s post-Ashes, red-eyed debauchery was cheered by the media – but one wonders if the same treatment would have been given to Wayne Rooney or John Terry.

No doubt many of the barmy army are also regular visitors to Wimbledon’s Henman Hill. This year, however, Tiger Tim was outshone by a new kid on the block in the gangly form of Scotland’s teenage whirlwind Andrew Murray.

The charismatic youngster’s mix of unreserved passion and all-action play was a breath of fresh air for British tennis. His momentous victory over the ageing and morbidly uninteresting Henman in Switzerland signalled an overdue changing of the guard in the domestic game.

In the Six Nations rugby, some more Celts were making waves, with the Welsh side bagging their first Grand Slam since 1978.

However things didn’t go so smoothly for the British & Irish Lions in New Zealand. Indeed, the bizarre double act of Sir Clive Woodward and Alistair Campbell contrived to turn the tour down under into an unmitigated disaster.

No clumsily contrived photo opportunities or self-deluded excuses could mask the embarrassment of it all. In Woodward’s case, the Lions loss is Southampton FC’s gain. Or is it the other way round?

One British sportsperson who did successfully negotiate her way around the choppy waters of the Southern Hemisphere was the ubiquitous Ellen MacArthur. The diminutive Derbyshire yachtswoman bagged herself yet another record, this time for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe.

Yet arguably the most memorable sporting moment of 2005 may well belong to the nation’s sweetheart Paula Radcliffe. The sight of our head-bobbing track queen performing her one-woman dirty protest in the middle of the London marathon before going on to win the race was both disgusting and inspiring.

A bit like Chelsea…’

Posted: 20th, December 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Board In The Extreme

‘WITH a couple of Olympics gold medals, not to mention the Holy Grail of British sport – a BBC Sports Personality of the year award to her name – our dear Dame Kelly Holmes has decided to jack in the early mornings and niggling injuries and retire from the track for good.

Holmes’ 800m and 1500m victories in the Athens Olympics amounted to Great Britain’s only two individual track golds and with the Beijing games now only two and a half years away, and the London games scheduled for 2012, the race is now well and truly on to find the next generation of British sporting talent.

Ex-army trainer Holmes has herself been busy trying to promote athletics among the nation’s youth and flush out the next Paul Radcliffe, Jonathan Edwards or Denise Lewis. However, no matter how much encouragement children are given to put on their spikes or pick up their javelins, the likelihood is that most kids will still be happier hanging around shopping centres sneering at the elderly, indulging in happy slapping and getting in our way with their skateboards.

So with our once svelte youth now piling on more pounds than Fern Britten at a pie-factory lock-in, maybe the time has come to ditch the traditional sporting fair and focus on the likes of skateboarding and BMX. Admittedly the phrase ‘Extreme Sports’ does make one think of irritating Beavis and Butthead-esque ‘dudes’ high-fiveing each other until their hands fall off.

Yet these ‘radical’ pursuits are now an integral part of our youth culture. And while the thoughts of representing your school in the Discus on a wet and cold Saturday afternoon is unlikely appeal to the cynical adolescent, the chance to show off on a skateboard would inevitably carry with it a lot more street cred.

In Olympic terms, elitist pursuits such as ‘Dressage’ and ‘Modern Pentathlon’ continue to take pride of place in the games, yet, excluding members of the Royal family, just how many of us spend our weekends teaching our horses how to trot properly?

Although maybe once long ago, Dressage itself was considered and underground sport, with bored youths still waiting for the invention of rock ‘n’ roll and Playstations spending their free time hanging around street corners on horseback, practising the ‘leg-yield’ and the ‘half pass’ while off their heads on pink gin and eccles cakes.

The subject of skateboarding in the Olympics is currently a hotly debated topic in the skate community – a positive sign that 50-50’s, ollies and grinds may yet be gracing the games in the not too distant future.

Indeed, maybe we will get to see the kind of teenager currently demonised in the media and slung out of shopping centres wearing their hoodies with pride as they take their place on the Olympic podium. And when you consider that the likes of live pigeon shooting, the aquatic obstacle race and tug of war have all been, at one stage or another, Olympic sports, nothing is impossible.

With Snowboarding and Mountain Biking already accepted into the mainstream Olympic movement and BMX set for its debut in Beijing, the time is surely right for skateboarding to take its deserved places in the Games. And as ‘Extreme Sports’ carry with them more than a faint whiff of drug-taking and illicit activities, they’ll fit right in with the Olympic movement.

Alan Duffy’

Posted: 10th, December 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Stop The Clock

‘THE stopwatch is clicking. Alex Ferguson’s career at Manchester United is moving deep into injury time.

Fergie poses for his statue

Of course Fergie will want a few more minutes, as ever he did. But the papers are adamant that time is almost up for Fergie.

“It’s Premiership or bust now for the United boss,” says the Mail’s backpage headline. But that’s not much of a choice. Chelsea are miles ahead in the league. It looks like bust for Ferguson.

The race for the league title is all but over. Ferguson might as well go now, before another season at old Trafford ends without silverware. It might get worse – Ferguson’s reign might end with the club’s debut in the InterToto Cup.

But when Ferguson goes who will replace him? Helpfully, the Telegraph profiles a list of candidates. All the usual suspects are there: Roy Keane, Steve McClaren, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Martin O’Neill.

But the Sun sees a favourite. It’s not a dream team of Phil and Gary Neville. The Sun says Gus Hiddink is the man to restore glory to United.

But whoever gets the job the Sun’s headline seems to say it all: “Your arrogant reign is over.” Ferguson is being given the full hairdryer.

It’s clear that not everyone will miss the red-faced one, not least of all the poor groundsman who has been picking up the chunks of chewing gum Ferguson aggressively tosses to the ground after matches.

Elsewhere in sport, all eyes are on the fight between Audley “Fraudley” Harrison and Danny Williams, the man who beat Mike Tyson when the former baddest man on the planet was making his umpteenth comeback bid.

Somewhat amazingly, all tickets for Saturday’s Commonwealth title about have been sold out. When most sports fans will be glued to the box to see if Darren Gough can move into the latter stages of Strictly Come Dancing, 15,000 people will be sat in the ExCeL arena watching a fight.

The rest of you can watch it on ITV after the X Factor, a contest every bit as important as this bout…’

Posted: 9th, December 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Down It Like Best

‘“WHEN I grow up I want to be like George Best,” says the little Geordie lad in the replica kit. And so it is that Paul Gascoigne grew up, kicked a ball and got drunk.

When did it all go wrong, Gazza?

But Gazza missed the important bit about Best’s life. He didn’t get sozzled with a Miss World – he got inebriated in Kettering.


Given that Gazza was Kettering FC’s manager, his training methods must be called into question. Especially when we read that the former England player was once so well oiled he fell out of the team’s bus.

But why did he do it? As the paper tells its readers, Gazza has admitted to drinking before a match in memory of George Best.

Has there ever been a more valid reason to have a drink than in order to salute the man whose liver earned him as many headlines as his sublime ability with the football?

So Gazza drank. And now Gazza is gone. And he joins Harry Redknapp on the game’s sidelines.

Harry didn’t have a drink, although he may well have had a bottle of champagne on ice, ready to pop the cork when he regained his old post at Portsmouth.

But now, as the Express says in its back-page headline: “HARRY’S OUT IN THE COLD.”

The plan was for Redknapp to resign his post at Southampton and take over at Portsmouth. The first part went fine. Harry cleared his desk. The second part has proved to be more problematic.

The Saints demanded £200,000 in compensation for Harry’s defection. Portsmouth’s Chairman, Milan Manderic declined. The Telegraph says Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe was offered a “derisory” £50,000, and an additional £75,000 should Redknapp keep Portsmouth in the Premier League.

No deal. Now asked if Redknapp is on his list of potential managers, Mandaric tells the Express: “No.”

“I’m still hopeful that something can be sorted out but it is looking more unlikely,” says Redknapp.

It’s just as unlikely that Audley Harrison and Danny Williams will take their places in the pantheon of boxing legends.

In readiness for Saturday’s fight, the two British heavyweights have been talking a good fight.

Williams tells the Sun that “Harrison has only fought journeymen”. While the Telegraph’s Sue Mott dubs the bout “Fraudley v Has-Been”.

But even with such an unexciting card, all seats to see the fight have sold out. The bout has been hyped. And the hype has paid off.

As Mott says: “Somebody somewhere has been very clever, and it probably isn’t Harrison or Williams.”

Fighting talk, indeed…’

Posted: 6th, December 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

We All Love A Bad Boy

‘AS the new 24-hour licensing laws kick in nationwide, the excitement of it all seemed too much for poor George Best. After years of living the high-life and battling with the bottle, the original playboy footballer has sadly drifted off to sporting heaven, no doubt to be greeted at the Pearly Gates by Sir Matt Busby, Duncan Edwards and a bevve of buxom blondes.

Despite the Irishman’s wanton wasting of his own talent, not to mention a previously owned liver, Besty will forever be remembered with fondness by the vast majority of the nation.

Indeed, for the simple act of appearing on Wogan in 1991 and proclaiming that he “likes screwing”, the man deserves respect. We may, according to the press, be witnessing the end of civilisation – what with ‘booze Britain’, ‘yob culture’ and ASBO’s – yet despite the current climate of moral outrage, you can’t escape the fact that we all love a bad boy.

Just ask Gary Barlow, about to go back on the road with a Robbie-less Take That. Maybe if he and not Robbie had cultivated a public penchant for hard drugs and rampant promiscuity, we’d now be referring to him simply by his first name – the ultimate sign of stratospheric success, rather than his cheeky former band-mate. Instead ‘Gary’ could now just as easily mean the dodgy geezer down the road with the go-faster stripes on his Fiat Ritmo.

The final whistle for George Best also comes less than a week after the messy departure of another United bad boy. Shrinking violet Roy Keane still has all his organs in tact, but to Sir Alex Ferguson, the Cork-born star is dead in all but name.

Yet once again, despite ‘Keano’s potent mix of inspirational leadership and alleged pre-meditated violence (just ask Alf-Inge Haaland), this Irishman will forever be viewed with a (grudging) fondness. Nasty and vindictive he may be, yet his outbursts directed at everyone from Mick McCarthy to his United team-mates to the Old Trafford prawn sandwich set, coupled with his rottweiler performances on the pitch have ensured his legendary ‘rebel’ status.

Not surprisingly, Keane rarely indulged in the current vogue for applauding even the most woeful attempt at a pass from a team-mate. And rightly so. This hollow attempt at ‘team spirit’ is the equivalent of an American saying “have a nice day”. (They really don’t give a monkey’s what kind of day you have, but they’ve been brought up to repeat it, almost mantra like, as it apparently constitutes ‘manners’.)

Indeed, maybe sometimes sportspeople can be too nice for their own good. After all, whether we like it or not, sport is ultimately all about winning. And where would the likes of Diego Maradona, Michael Schumacher and, indeed, new United icon Wayne Rooney be without their mean streak?

While the recent cricket pitch–tampering pirouettes of Pakistani golden boy Shahid Afridi and the gymnastic diving of a myriad Premiership glamour boys can never be condoned, there is no bigger turn-off than a goody-two-shoes, on or off the field of play.

Just ask yourself who you’d rather meet for a pint – Michael Owen or Paul Merson..?’

Posted: 26th, November 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

More Prawns?

‘DESPITE losing their sheen of invincibility in recent weeks, cheeky Latin heart-throb Jose Mourinho and his team of fantasy footballers continue to dominate the Premiership.

However, biting at the heels of the loadsamoney west Londoners are not the usual suspects of Arsenal, Liverpool or even Manchester United.

Instead, it’s Premiership new-boys Wigan Athletic who are giving the champions a run for their bottomless pit of money. Only six points behind with a game in hand, Paul Jewell’s upwardly mobile charges have made light of their first season in the English game’s top tier.

And while their fairytale start to the season may not last too much longer, they’ve given small clubs in the Championship and below a bag full of hope.

However, while clubs in the lower divisions will be looking at Wigan’s success story with a mixture of pride and jealousy, for a certain section of the footballing world the ‘big-time’ is something looked upon with suspicion. For, with success, come the horrors of nouveau fans, cleaner toilets and family enclosures.

Like music fans who only liked the Smiths before “they went commercial”, football’s snobbish elite hark back to the apparent good old days of rampant hooliganism, turd-like cups of half-time Bovril and pissing down a rolled up programme while standing on the terraces.

For these elitists, fans should have to pass a lengthy exam before gaining their place in a football ground at the weekend. It’s not simply a form of entertainment to be enjoyed by the public at large – it’s a private members club. It’s the sporting equivalent of a Star Trek convention. Don’t know your LDV Vans from your Intertoto and you can feck off.

It’s not that the growth in corporate boxes and billionaire owners is not worrying. The financial imbalances in the game do need to be urgently addressed.

However, have a go at the likes at Roman Abramovich if you think you’re hard enough, not the family travelling to Stamford Bridge at the weekend, resplendent in new Chelsea shirts and only partially au-fait with the intricacies of the three-man midfield system.

Indeed, if you are lucky enough to have the time and the money to actually see your heroes in the flesh, don’t sing and cheer if you don’t want to, whatever the ’real fans’ say. You’ve paid your money so do what you bloody well like. Put on your iPod and play Sudoku for the entire 90 minutes if it floats your boat. And bring a whole hamper of prawn sandwiches, too.

Bill Shankly famously said that football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that. Well, frankly Mr Shankly, that’s a load of horse manure. Footie may well be an intrinsic part of our culture, it may well provide a welcome home for the pseudo-tribal yearnings of the working-class male, but hey, it’s a game – a game for everyone, whether or not we can recite the entire contents of the 1981-82 Rothmans yearbook.

Alan Duffy’

Posted: 11th, November 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Danny’s Girl

‘“IS Jose Mourinho the Barclays Premiership’s answer to Simon Cowell?” ask Joanna Taylor in her “the footballer’s wife” column in the Times.

Joanna in her kit

Readers of these pages will need little reminding that Taylor is also known as Mrs Danny Murphy, the former Hollyoaks actress who married football’s Bash Street kid look-alike.

Taylor usually reserves her incisive comments on life for the pages of Hello! and OK!, but the Times has signed her up to give us the football bird’s eyes view of the game.

So we get Joe Mourinho as Simon Cowell and Wenger as Louis Walsh. Or are Mourinho and Arsene Wenger less like a pair of TV talent show judges struggling for something new to say and more like a couple of fighters on WWE wrestling?

Joanna is unsure. And the more she thinks about it, the more unsure she gets. She soon thinks that Mourinho and Wenger are like two school pupils.

Or are the managers like two hairdressers? “Whenever you go to a new hairdresser they will adopt mock horror and says, “Who did your colour last times,” says blonde Joanna. “Only once have I had someone say the previous stylist did a good job.”

Joanne thinks some more. She thinks that Mourinho and Wenger’s spat is a bit like the war of words between Charlotte Church and Girls Aloud. The group accused Church of stealing their style – which is a bit like Graham Taylor accusing Norway of copying his long ball game.

Joanna says Church and Girls Aloud are “a case in point”. She doesn’t say which of Mourinho and Wenger is Church, leaving us to guess – with Girls Aloud’s strength in numbers, Wenger must be Church.

“That said,” says Joanna, “I don’t know if Church has ever compiled a dossier on Cheryl Tweedy”.” Nor do we. But doubtless lots of teenage girls have scrapbooks full of all things Tweedy they can offer up should the Arsenal boss need it.

So much for all that. And Joanna, ever the footballing thinker, moves onto the second half of her article by offering up the opinion: “It’s is good to be honest and open.”

Indeed. But before Joanna opens up and tells us about her hairdresser, her make-up and how her acting carer is progressing, she wants to talk about Danny.

Showing a rare grasp of her husband’s profession, Joanna knows that Danny’s Charlton side lost as the weekend. “Afterwards Danny was in a foul mood,” says Joanna. “He didn’t feel he had played as well as he sometimes does and I knew it was not the time to talk about the match.”

Very wise. Best to wait until Danny cools down before you get the ProZone charts out and start dissecting Danny’s game in your neo-Tudor home.

But Danny was soon calmed down. “We were laughing about his mood by the end of the night,” says Joanna, “but I think the Charlton fans should appreciate how seriously he takes it.”

That would be those Charlton fans who had seen their team’s defeat and taken to their beds for the remainder of the weekend? Or those other Charlton fans who spent their Saturday nights grasping some masochistic pleasure in watching their side lose on Match of The Day and crying?

Whichever ones Joanna is addressing, we’re sure they’ll appreciate the news that Murphy, who by dint of being a well-paid player who can score a goal and affect the result, was upset for a bit.

And before she goes, Joanna would like to comment on Roy Keane’s verbal assault on his Manchester United team-mates via the MUTV channel.

“If I were in a long-running TV programme and the ratings were dropping, it would not be the shrewdest move to point the finger and say it was everyone else’s fault,” says Joanna.

Although Hollyoaks, like Manchester United, might have been all the better for it…’

Posted: 8th, November 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Horses Aren’t For Courses

‘THE nation sat down to breakfast on Wednesday morning to be greeted by the face of a newly-departed sporting icon.


One of this sporting genius’s names was Best – but it wasn’t the original footballing playboy George Best who’d dribbled his last; not yet. The fallen wasn’t even a human.

While the esteemed former Manchester United superstar was inching away from death’s door, and perhaps inching closer to the door of the local boozer down the road from his hospital, three time Gold Cup winner Best Mate was suffering a fatal heart attack in the home straight at Exeter.

The equine star’s dramatic death precipitated an outpouring of emotion usually reserved for dead royals or rejected X Factor contestants. According to the papers, the whole nation was united in grief over Best Mate. He was our very Best Mate.

Indeed, according to all and sundry who were lucky enough to know and work with the champion horse, he was Best Mate by name and best mate by nature. John McCririck spoke of the horse’s “love of attention”; owner Jim Lewis said his trusty steed “made a lot of difference to a lot of people”.

You can just picture Best Mate larging it up with friends in Ayia Napa, or making a touching yet cheekily risqué speech at his mate’s wedding. The perfect friend. The best mate.

And he was a good looking boy. According to trainer Henrietta Knight, her prize-winning friend was “the most beautiful horse that was ever created”.

However, despite all the love and emotion excreted since Best Mate’s demise, one shouldn’t forget that he, like every other racehorse, was bred for the single reason of earning money and glory for the owners.

While the racing world gushes about the horse’s personality, charisma and joie de vivre in a sentimental attempt to turn the four-legged animal into some centaur-like half-man half-beast, we remember that Best Mate’s singular purpose was to make them richer – apparently, over £1million in prize money richer.

Best Mate, one can safely assume, didn’t choose to be a racehorse, growing up dreaming of winner’s enclosures, the roar of the crowd or being fondled by John McCririck.

It’s more likely the young horse’s mind was filled with little more than thoughts concerning his next feed of hay or that cute filly in the next paddock. Not legging it around a track with a little Irishman on his back.

And why if he was so loved was he allowed to run with a fatal heart condition? Reports suggest that Best Mate had suffered a burst blood vessel back in March. According to experts, the risk of sudden heart failure in horses during racing is around 50 times greater than with human athletes.

Would horse owners let their human loved ones gallivant around at those odds?

Maybe they would – if there was money to be won.

Alan Duffy’

Posted: 4th, November 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

No Fear

‘REMEMBER when we were invited to stand up if we hated Manoo?

Rio cost more than Neville, Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs, Schmeichel, Sheringham, Cantona, Bruce, Irwin, Butt and Solskjaer put together

It was back in the day when United were the dominant force whose remorseless drive for trophies and world domination was threatening the fabric of the game – a fabric available in at least four designs and yours for £39.99.

No-one really minds Man United any more. Arsenal play the more vibrant, attacking football. Spurs spend more money. And Chelsea are the winning team every little boy and his dad want to support.

Now we watch Man United as we would any other club. Nice that they lost to Middlesbrough 4-1, but no great shakes. Few fans of other clubs were punching the air. It didn’t really matter.

And therein lies the problem with United. More precisely Ferguson’s Untied, a club never loved as the great Matt Busby teams of old.

The problem was always Ferguson. It was just so hard to like him. It was the way he aggressively chewed his gum with his mouth open and took it out of his mouth with his fingers and tossed it to the ground. It was the way he fiddled with his stopwatch. It was the way he put his arm around the shoulders of a losing manager in an act of dominance cloaked in filial respect. It was the way he shared a bottle of wine after the game with the visiting manager. It was the way John Motson calls him “Fergie”.

But that’s all gone. Ferguson is now the Premier League’s oldest mascot in residence. His character traits that were once so offensive to the opposition are now a comforting constant in a changing world. Doesn’t matter who wins, rain or shine, Fergie will be there, chomping on a piece of gum with his familiar purple face.

We now longer loathe Ferguson because we no longer fear him. And his players seem to think the same. This United team have no fear. And with no fear of losing comes a lack of desire to win.

Aside from Rooney’s foul mouth, what is threatening about United? Alan Smith, all bite and push and shove in attack is a petulant boy lost in midfield. The only person Ruud van Nistelrooy winds up is himself. Rio Ferdinand, the supposed best defender in the world, doesn’t always show up, and that goes for drugs tests and playing.

And who’s scared of the manager’s infamous hairdryer? A hot blast from today’s Ferguson comes with a diffuser to take in the entire team. No one minds being in the line of fire when you are huddled in a group.

So instead of Ferguson’s tirade to get the lads motivated we get Roy Keane’s barbed comments about his under-achieving team-mates. So shocking was Keane’s analysis of United’s performance at the Riverside that MUTV, the club’s in-house TV station, deemed it “unbroadcastable”. Keane is said to have “named names”, accusing his team-mates of lacking what it takes to be a United player.

Players like Rio Ferdinand. So awful was United’s £30million record singing last Saturday that he was substituted. “I know he’s a laid-back character, but he will be hurting inside,” says Gordon McQueen, the former United player.

Hurting inside, eh? Suffering from a bout of inner turmoil? Why not hurt openly? Ferdinand’s paid a fortune to play for a great club, where he’s lionised and pampered yet he plays with his head in the clouds. Get with it. Get angry. Get some desire. Or get out.

And if Ferdinand wants something to be upset by, take a look at Chelsea. They’re killing United on and off the field. That top spot should be United’s top spot. That silverwear, United’s silverwear. That little lad in the replica kit with “Lampard” on the back should be wearing a United top with Ferdinand’s name on.

United need to get nasty. They need to be hated…’

Posted: 4th, November 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Fun & Games

‘SOMETIMES you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Arsenal’s gallic duo of Robert Pires and Thierry Henry will be all too familiar with that feeling after the recent penalty shambles at Highbury.

While their fluffed attempt to recreate a 1982 Johan Cruyff spot-kick showed an admirable impudence, much of the post-match analysis was full of moralising and derision at the players’ apparent lack of respect towards the opposition and their basic irresponsibility as Arsenal were only a goal up at the time.

However, considering the recent debate concerning the apparent drop in entertainment value in the Premiership, surely a bit of unpredictable silliness is just what the doctor ordered?

The fact that Pires fluffed his lines in such an embarrassingly inept way will have no doubt added to the subsequent criticism. Indeed, there is nothing more amusing than seeing a show-off make a fool of himself – a hipper-than-thou skateboarder catching his privates on a hand-rail while trying an intricate move is a heart-warming sight to behold.

The risk of failure is intrinsic to an attempt at something memorable, and whatever the outcome – a botched penalty, a crushed testicle or a moment of sporting genius. But in this age of super rich owners, grasping agents and gold-dust sponsorship deals, sportsmen and women are encouraged, more than ever before, to tow the line and keep to the script.

And so it is in tennis. The defeat of Tim Henman by young pretender Andrew Murray at the Swiss Indoors tournament is a small victory for genuine personality in British sport. Since bursting onto the scene at last summer’s Wimbledon, the young Scot has injected a dose of unpredictability into the staid world of British tennis with his all-action style and emotional honesty.

For years the British game has been dominated by Tiger Tim, a sportsman who despite his regular placing in the top ten rankings never even managed to win BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year, an oxymoronic event won by larger-than-life colourful ‘characters’ such as Steve Redgrave, Nigel Mansell, Nick Faldo and even Henman’s long-time rival Greg Rusedski.

Despite being annually treated like a god during the All-England tournament and admittedly giving us all a few thrilling moments, Henman’s innate reserve has never managed to win over the entire nation. Indeed, his fans who year after year inhabit ‘Henman Hill’ are more often than not the kind of people who wave little Union Jacks at Last Night of the Proms, spend their weekends rambling in Sussex and propel Katie Melua to the top of the charts. They are not like you and me. They are not normal people.

No doubt, with the result in Switzerland, Henman Hill will morph into Murray Mound, and come June that particular grassy knoll will once again be full to bursting point.

However, with Murray’s passion and, dare I say, personality, the young Scot may well provide us all with some joyously unscripted moments, something rarely seen from a British player.

Let’s hope that unpredictability and downright silliness are not sacrificed for all eternity at the feet of so-called professionalism. Sport is not a serious thing. It’s fun.

And it would be all the poorer without the likes of Pires, Murray, Gazza, Chris Eubank, Dennis Rodman and the pert bottom of an occasional streaker?

Alan Duffy’

Posted: 27th, October 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

International Tired Young Things

‘PICTURE the scene – the latest over-hyped 16-year-old footballing whiz-kid, having just signed on the dotted line for one of Europe’s big guns, drops a bombshell at the press conference – “I’d like to announce my retirement from the international game although I haven’t actually played any matches for my country yet. Still, I feel I need to focus all my energy on my club football and also I need to spend more time with my Xbox.”

Just because you don’t know the words

Maybe it all seems a little far-fetched at the moment, yet nowadays professional footballers seem to be eschewing their national teams at a younger and younger age.

Only recently the Irish triumvirate of Keane, Cunningham and Carr decided to call it a day on the back of another disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign for the Republic. While both Roy Keane and Kenny Cunningham are well into their footballing twilight years and entitled to enjoy a more leisurely end to their careers, the impish Dubliner Stephen Carr’s decision seems rather less understandable.

Carr claimed: “It’s time to stand aside and let some of the younger lads coming through to have the opportunity to play for Ireland”. But he’s only 29, hardly ready for the knacker’s yard. Yet the miniscule Newcastle star now joins the growing list of superstars, including Paul Scholes, Alan Shearer and Zinedine Zidane (recently back in the French fold after some pleading by a desperate French FA) who decided to duck out of all those downright inconvenient international fixtures.

There is no doubt that the extra travelling and training camps involved in international football eat into the over-worked millionaire playboy footballers’ valuable time, but considering that these sporting superstars have more free-time than 99% of the working population in order to spend time with their kids, wives, mistresses, roasting partners, hookers, or drugs counsellors, it seems a somewhat unconvincing reason for hanging up your international boots.

What is even more galling is the retired footballer who decides, ‘heroically’, to come out of retirement to come to the rescue of his national team just when they are on the cusp of qualifying for a major tournament. The Czech Republic’s Pavel Nedved is the latest self-proclaimed knight-in-shining-armour to ponder dusting off his international boots for the cause of his country as they prepare for a World Cup play-off with Norway.

No doubt the possibility of potentially gracing another major tournament and thus adding a few zeros on the end of your boot deal is a lot more attractive than playing tedious qualifying games in Armenia.

Stephen Carr’s decision to focus on his club career is sure to have brought a warm glow to Newcastle boss Graeme Souness. Indeed the words ‘international retirement’ are music to the ears of every club manager, desperate to keep their charges away from the ravages of international duty.

Sadly, it now seems that the amoral cash-happy world of club football has forgotten that playing for your country is, or should be, just that – a duty.

So why not force those idle millionaires to give something back to their places of birth and make representing your country a form of national service? If you make the grade as a top football player, able to wallow in your neo-Georgian mansions and rub fake tan into your C-list celebrity girlfriends, then you must, by law, play for your country until your country’s FA says otherwise.

And for those players who really really don’t want to play, they can always choose a second option – join the Army.

Surely the likes of Paul Scholes would rather don the three lions again than dodge bullets in downtown Kandahar…

Alan Duffy’

Posted: 20th, October 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Altered Image

‘“ABEL Xavier, the Middlesbrough defender, will protest his innocence after testing positive for a banned substance,” says the Times.

A shock for Xavier

Nothing extraordinary in that: we have long since stopped expecting a sports man or woman to say that the system has got them. They’re bang to rights. It’s a fair cop, guv’nor?

And it’s only proper they don’t. It’s Xavier’s right to defend his corner. The Portuguese international might well have tested positive for a banned substance after a Uefa Cup match against Xanthi on 29 September, but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of cheating. In any case, it’s not him that’s wrong – it’s the system.

Xavier, memorable for his shock of dyed blonde hair and for spinning the ball on his finger while seated on the bench at Euro 2000, is now becoming well known for something else – he’s an, alleged, drugs cheat.

And if found guilty – he’s waiting on the results of a second test on his urine sample – Xavier would be the first player in English football to have tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Not a first Xavier can be proud of, but nonetheless a first – handled rightly it could make him a celebrity and, who knows, perhaps earn him a spot on Superstars or Celebrity Rehab.

The substance for which the Portuguese player tested positive is not known. But he says that whatever it was it came from a food supplement he was taking to combat a virus.

‘I am convinced that there is a reasonable and entirely harmless explanation for such a positive finding, should it be confirmed by the analysis of the B-sample,” says Xavier in a statement.

He’s innocent. Although it does sound odd that a professional athlete didn’t first read the list of ingredients on the side of the packet and then check them alongside a list of banned substances before consuming the brew, or just have handed over the stuff to the club’s doctor and asked for his expert opinion.

But mistakes are easy enough to make – and hard to defend. The Fifa rule books states that “it is each player’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters the body… It is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or conscious use on the player’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping violation.”

That’s all very clear. It doesn’t matter how it got there, but if you’re caught with a banned substance in your system, you will be banned from the game.

Jaap Stam protested his innocence after testing positive for nadrolone in 2001. Playing for Lazio at the time, he received a three-month ban.

Adrian Mutu may well have taken cocaine to boost his sexual prowess, but a positive test is just that and a seven-month ban followed.

“One (positive test) can be one too many,’ says Gordon Taylor, head of the England players’ union. “We’ve got an image to protect and an image for youngsters coming into the game.’

Quite so. Zero tolerance of drug-users is the only way. The image of the game is everything. God forbid that the image gets rubbed away and football is made to look sordid and damaged.

God forbid that we start to wonder why a professional footballer feels the need to turn to drugs. God forbid we wonder how many cheats get away with it and are not caught. God forbid we stop buying into the dream.

So former Manchester United goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, who tested positive for cocaine in 2003, is given a nine-month suspension from the game (he’s not played since). And Rio Ferdinand is given an eight-month ban for failing to provide a sample.

And the image of the game as something pure and untainted is maintained – until the next time…’

Posted: 19th, October 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Plan C(rouch)

‘ASHLEY Cole is injured and out of England’s next World Cup qualifying match. Wayne Rooney is suspended. Gary Neville is out. It looks so bad for Sven Goran Eriksson, now forced to seek replacements among the few thousand other professional English footballers.

The snow on the ball when it came down reminded Sven of home

And time is pressing. Eriksson has little time before Saturday’s match against an Austrian side short of a manager to make his selections. But he hasn’t had a just few days – he’s had just short of five years to build a squad. And plenty of games to experiment in.

Since Eriksson took charge of England affairs in 2001, his team have played 24 friendly matches. Of these, the lads have won 9, drawn 8 and lost 7.

While it can be argued with vigour that friendlies are a learning process and indicate little about the finished product, the record is not exactly impressive.

In this period, England have lost twice to Denmark; lost once and drawn twice with Holland; drawn twice with Portugal; lost once to Sweden; and once more to Italy. The only top European side England have beaten in a friendly – and by top we mean a country that has made it to the final of a major competition – is Spain, and, even then, in the last friendly the two sides contested, England lost 1-0.

Still think friendlies are meaningless? Take a look at that match against Northern Ireland, the video nasty Eriksson isn’t showing to his team, and then answer.

The head coach has had 24 frindlies – or 48 half games – if Sven’s annoying habit of making mass changes to the personnel at half time is taken into account – to form a squad of players. He could get them all playing one way, or experiment with a few new formations.

So there was 4-4-2. And then lots more 4-4-2, even when England had no natural left-footer to work the left flank.

But against Northern Ireland, Sven finally showed that he could formulate a plan B. It had taken a long time in coming, but here it was. And amid the confusion, there it went.

England were dreadful that night in Belfast. But at least Sven showed that he could change his side. And buoyed by that, he has come up with plan C – for Crouch.

This new scheme involves playing the lanky 6-foot 7-in Peter Crouch up front and aiming the ball at his head. Crouch, who betting firm totesport have recently quoted at just 10-1 not to score in the Premiership this season, has not, er, scored this season.

Paul Petrie, totesport spokesman, said: “It is not a good sign that England are resting their World Cup hopes on a striker who has a really good chance to go through the whole season without even scoring. The words cow’s backside and banjo spring to mind.”

Given that view, we humbly suggest Eriksson consider a plan D. Rather than fretting about which two of his star central defenders to start with – Rio Ferdinand, John Terry or Sol Campbell – Eriksson should start with them all, only with Campbell up front in place of Crouch.

Sol’s big, tall and strong, and, unlike Crouch, has an international goal to his name and recently scored a brace in the league.

It might not be clever or pretty, but neither are plans A, B and C…’

Posted: 5th, October 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

England Expects…To Lose

‘HOW many of you think it will take Australia 18 years to win back the Ashes? Not merely hope the Australians will experience the same mush of unremitting failure seasoned with bits of soulless torpor as England have, but truly believe it?

How long before we see this?

The answer should be none of you. There is almost no chance of this happening. Put your money on something that offer you a beter chance of winning, like Wayne Rooney not swearing for a full minute or Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport, jumping off the nearest charabanc to spend the day watching a country championship cricket match.

The belief that England can be world number ones at cricket, and so take over from the Australians at the top of the International Cricket Council’s rankings table, is one based on the performance of the current first XI.

And then this thinking can be distilled still further. England’s talisman, Andrew Flintoff, is in his mid twenties, so he and England can get better. On the other side, Shane Warne is advertising hair restoring products between overs and approaching forty. We are on the up, they are on the down.

“We’ve beaten Australia,” says Andrew Flintoff, now widely regarded as the finest cricketer in the world. “Now we’ve got to be like Australia.”

What he means that that England have to be as ruthless as the great Australian sides. England’s players have to maintain their concentration, keep the standards high and play to win.

And this side can achieve all that. As Flintoff says in the Times, “I don’t think many of us have reached our prime. We are all of us a little way from being at the peak – now if we can all do that together…”

Ah, the big “if”. And it gets even bigger if Flintoff or any of his teammates are injured or lose their form (bar Geraint Jones and Ian Bell).

Just look at Ashley Giles, that quintessential team man, happy to do his bit for the common good. He’s a decent enough player, but surely he’s replaceable. Indeed he is, just not with anyone who’s all that good.

Great sporting dynasties flourish on the ability to replace one top player with another. Australia’s leg spinner Stuart McGill is no Shane Warne but he’s a very accomplished substitute. The Australians boast strength in depth.

For England to get to the top and then to emulate Australia and remain there for a long period, the first XI will need to be at its best and the squad replenished with one or two new players a season.

But where will the new players come from? Who really plays cricket any more? Writing in the Telegraph, Michael Parkinson says that fewer than one in 10 state school’s offer “meaningful cricket” on the curriculum.

Any country can get lucky and produce a crop of fine players once in a generation, and secure the services of a top coach as England have in Duncan Fletcher to mould the talent into a team, but it takes investment and training to keep the player pool well stocked.

Without investment, this Ashes triumph will be talked about in the same manner as that epic win in 1981 – a brilliant flash in the pan…’

Posted: 19th, September 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Boyce & Men

‘ANYONE seen Max Boyce? Not in concert, obviously; no-one would want to do that, much less admit to it. No, we mean has anyone seen his spirit?

Where’s Max?

There was a time when Wales-England matches were heralded by the curly-topped Welshman tossing around a massive leek or a huge demented daffodil and entertaining the masses with his hybrid music and comedy act.

No Max on Saturday’s Wales v England World Cup qualifier meant an altogether different approach to kick-off. The good men and women of the Welsh terraces were left to make their own entertainment. So deprived of the big leek and several bouts of “Oggy! Oggy! Oggy!” they booed the English national anthem.

Of course, there was a time when God Save The Queen was all the home nations’ anthem of choice. It now only counts when Team Great Britain is winning gold medals for rowing and hockey or someone’s driving in circles really fast in F1. At all other times, it’s every anthem for itself.

The only country to have stuck with the tried and tested dirge is England. And it will only change when Queen Liz dribbles off and “our gracious Queen” becomes “our gracious king”, or Prince William ascends to the throne to the strains of “Let’s All ‘Ave a Disco” and “Two World Wars And One World Cup”.

But in any case, it was hard to hear the tune above the din created by thousands of Welsh people giving full throat to their inferiority complex.

And don’t think it’s anything but that. Until Wales is granted its own Eurovision Song Contest entry, that landmark of nationhood, it remains part of Great Britain. And membership of that entity requires a rather touching and slightly pathetic love of the underdog.

The Welsh, like the English, will cheer and clap smaller, less powerful nation’s than themselves and boo the big well-oiled machines. So England fans boo the Germans and cheer on the Bulgarians, and Wales’s supporters boo the English and cheer on San Marino.

In any case, booing is so quaint. It’s contains an element of the pantomime about it. (And with that we’re back to Max Boyce – according to his official website, “In 1990 Max was persuaded to enter the magical world of pantomime in the title role of ‘Jack’ in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford. Anyone go?)

Much better and more poisonous is the European habit of the high-pitched whistle. And then there’s the toxic shriek. It’s the din that gets right inside your head, sounding like the slashing strings of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho when young Norman Bates showers the place in blood. The southern Europeans are very good at it.

But maybe the Welsh can practice. They like close harmony singing, so why not close harmony shrieking?

And we mean to encourage the Welsh voices because we are repeatedly told how they loathe the English and crave for the old enemy’s utter failure in every walk of life. We do not want them to forgo this enjoyable part of their lives.

If they seek incentive, Welsh sports fans should consider the following: England beat them; by a single jammy goal; in Cardiff; by a ball deflected into the home side’s net by a Welshman’s jutting forehead. That must hurt.

The chip that sits on the nation’s shoulder must have turned into a gigantic baked potato.

Which is a vegetable which could just give Max Boyce an entirely new lease of life…’

Posted: 7th, September 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment