Back pages | Anorak - Part 75

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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

Silence Is Golden

‘“IT was a collective collapse,” says Sven Goran Eriksson of England’s dismal performance in their recent 4-1 defeat to Denmark. “In the second half if I should take the players individually, I would slaughter all of them.”

‘You are feeling sleepy…You are finding me more and more attractive…’

That he should. The utter lack of cohesion and understanding by Eriksson’s team in the second 45-minutes demanded nothing less than the full hair dryer.

But Eriksson saves his passions for other pursuits, and did not tell each player in turn what he thought of their showing. He preferred to show the team a video of the match and after it ask them if anyone wanted to say something. “There was silence,” says he.

This silence, to Eriksson’s mind, says everything. The boys were turned mute with embarrassment. They were struck dumb by their inadequate performances. Rio Ferdinand was unable to speak when presented with video evidence of his lacklustre and apathetic performance. David James put his head in his hands (and missed).

All hail Eriksson the genius. No need for bloody post mortems. This is a time for quite reflection Sven style. As Sven once said: “David [Beckham] should think that talking is silver, but being quiet is golden.”

Perhaps this love of silence is what made Sven such a hit in Italy? Softly spoken Sven would have been a novelty in a land full of hand-gesturing, wide-eyed managers.

Sven is Swedish so it stands to reason in the minds of the tabloid-reading fans that he must be ice cool and only ever get hot when he’s sitting in his sauna and being whipped with birch twigs.

But it is occurring to more of us that Sven’s may be quiet because he has nothing to say. Writing in the Times, Martin Samuels says that when the issue of England using one of Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard as a holding midfielder arose, Sven said he’d never talked about the possibility with either player.

“Can Gerrard or Lampard play as a holding midfield player?” asked Sven. “They can both do it but it is a question in their heads. Do they like to do it? Are they prepared to do it? We have never talked about it.”

Like Samuels, we are amazed that so obvious a ploy should not have been broached to two of the best midfielders in European football.

England are leaking goals, yet Sven has never talked to either of his first choice central midfielders about one of them adopting a defensive role.

Which makes us wonder what it is Sven does talk about with the team? Emptying the dishwasher? Spit roasting? The wonder of forks?

Sven needs to speak. He’s no Glenn Hoddle, able to pick up a ball and show the players what they need to do, and how they are not doing it. He needs to talk.

If he doesn’t, we will start to wonder if his silence is rooted in a fear that what he has to say is not worth listening to…’

Posted: 31st, August 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Bench Markers

‘WHAT is it about seeing a five-year-old boy in the full Manchester united kit walking along a Dorset beach that makes me want to go up to him and laugh in his face.

‘I was there’

Clearly, I am a danger to children at large, and it is inevitable that this piece will end up on the desk of some Government wonk who will then spend the better part of their life dreaming up a law to have me deported.

And while I am being watched, I’d like it on the record that whenever Manchester United play Chelsea this season, I shall, as an Arsenal supporter, want the game to end in a 22-man hand-bagging leading to the deduction of points from each team’s tally. Or, better yet, they’ll be banned from ever playing again, or relegated.

But back to the opening point about those little shirts. You say that the real person to direct my mocking stare at is the kid’s dad. He bought the thing and surely was instrumental in choosing that kit from the myriad coloured football tops that hang in sports shops.

And if dad is also wearing a piece of Man Utd merchandise, I’d agree. He is clearly inadequate in many areas of his life and has a desperate need to look rich (or, given the club’s post-Glazer condition, impressively in debt), popular and successful.

Only, dad is not always at fault. Children know that they want. And they will nag until they get it. And if that means them having a United kit that little Wayne can live in for the entire summer, then it’s a cheap wardrobe acquired with ease. And so much the more understandable if dad’s teenage daughter wants one too.

The lad wants to fit in, to be associated with the winners, the biggest, the flashiest and the wealthiest.

And it’s a process that has led to a sharp increase in the sightings of little boys in Chelsea tops. A few years back what Chelsea fans there were wore their colours inked on their low sloping foreheads. A couple of hundred million pounds later, and there are a sea of thousands of boys in deep blue shirts.

And it’s not just the fans who want to be part of the best gang. Just look at Shaun Wright-Phillips. Like all those other little desperados clad in the kit of the champions, Wright-Phillips has swapped a regular place in Manchester City’s first team and the adulation of their fans for a bit part on the Chelsea bench.

He’ll tell you he went to Chelsea to win things. But how many games does he really think he’ll play in this season’s campaign, let alone start in? Five? Ten? Twenty? A key part of the Carling Cup run? And then how many of these games will be vital must-win occasions?

If Chelsea do win some silver this season, then Wright-Phillips will have played a part similar to that boy who wears the shirt of his favourite team. His is a support act. His team wins the Cup, he brags to his mates and shows everyone his medals, but knows deep down that he was never really involved. Not really.

Sure he’ll be hideously rich, and be able to talk fast cars and yachts with team-mate Joe Cole and Manchester United’s Alan Smith, but when talk turns to football, the conversation will sound like those little kids in their replica kits all grown up talking about the time Chelsea won the big one.

“I was there,” Wright-Phillips will say. “I was on the bench…and I’ve got the kit prove it…”’

Posted: 15th, August 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Fat Lip

‘“SHANE Warne ate my other banner,” says the placard at St John’s Wood station.

True to not, Warne still has much to worry about. Not only is his flipper not working as it once did, but Warne’s hair is sure to be the subject of much sledging.

The bottle-blonde bowler has completed a course of replacement treatment from Advanced Hair Studio in a bid to rebuild his locks.

What will be said to Warne, who now makes a sledging target as big as a sightscreen, is keenly waited.

But do not on any account feel sorry for the chubby Australian. When South African Daryll Cullinan was on his way to the wicket once, Warne told him he had been waiting two years for another chance to humiliate him. “Looks like you spent it eating,” Cullinan retorted.

Note everyone in cricket is a pie chucker – some, like Warne, actually appear to catch the things and then eat them whole.

When Australia’s Glenn McGrath was once bowling to rotund Zimbabwean Eddo Brandes he offered the delightful: “Hey Eddo, why are you so f**ing fat?” Quicker than he looked, Eddo replied: “Because everytime I f*** your mother, she throws me a biscuit.”

It’s pretty clear that in cricket, size matters. And that though Australians have a mystical reputation in the black art of sledging they are in actual fact not that good at it.

The best moments are when the target of the Australian mouth gives a neat riposte. The one-off remark has its place, but the come back is king.

When Botham took guard in an Ashes match, Rodney Marsh welcomed him to the wicket with the words: “So how’s your wife and my kids?’ Not bad. And certainly better than Ian Healy’s comment when Sri Lanker’s Arjuna Ranatunga called for a runner: “You don’t get a runner for being an overweight, unfit, fat c**t!’ No, you get abused in public by short and bumptious Australian man in gloves.

But however hard the Australians try, it’s the opposition that most often take the upper hand.

Consider James Ormond, who had just come out to bat in the Ashes tour and was greeted by Mark Waugh. “F*ck me, look who it is,” said one of the Waugh twins. “Mate, what are you doing out here, there’s no way you’re good enough to play for England.” Ormond: “Maybe not, but at least I’m the best player in my family.”

Helmet off and a big stare down the wicket to that. And to West Indies batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan. “So what does Brian Lara’s d*ck taste like?’ inquired Glenn McGrath by way of light conversation. Sarwan: “I don’t know. Ask your wife.” McGrath: ‘If you ever f***ing mention my wife again, I’ll f***ing rip your f***fing throat out.’

Of course the Australian pace bowler might not be as stupid as others find him, and may be deliberately getting batsman like Sarwan to goad him and so encourage him to bowl faster and with more aggression.

But such a ploy doesn’t always work. When during the 1989 Lords Test Merv Hughes said to England’s Robin Smith, “You can’t f**king bat”, he may not have meant it. But Smith was spurred to try harder and duly despatched Hughes to the boundary: “Hey Merv, we make a fine pair,” said Smith. “I can’t f**king bat and you can’t f**king bowl.’

Which all encourages us to believe that England can win the battle of the sledges. As for winning the Ashes…’

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

Cry Of The Mild

‘OOPS! Or, as Tim Henman might well put it, “f***”.

When I urged the Henmaniacs (“Quiet Please”) to give Tim a break and pause from yelling “Come on, Tim”, “Go Tim!” and “You can do it, Tim”, my intention was to help Henman on his path to glory.

But used to the customary din that surrounds a Henman match at Wimbledon, the sudden silence must have rung inside the player’s head like a bout of white noise. No wonder he exploded.

I had thought Henman would come to thank his fans for their silence. In keeping mum, the mums who follow Tim’s every move, for whom every swish of Tim’s racket causes their skirts to billow up girlishly, would earn their idol’s eternal gratitude.

In years to come, Henman would nod his grey head and say how he could not have fulfilled his dream and been made Wimbledon champion in 2005 had his fans not kindly consented to shut up.

But it didn’t go to plan. As early as the first set, as Henman moved towards his eventual demise in five sets to world no. 152 Dmitry Tursunov, Britain’s No.1 wanted more noise.

“Come on, f***, more, make some f**king noise. It’s f***ing unbelievable,” he urged.

Crikey! When in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon, Henman admitted that he had become ‘a grumpy old man’ we never thought he was telling the truth.

But here he was being grumpy. He was even using the word so favoured by professional grumpy old man Victor Meldrew – it was all so very unbelievable.

And so it looked on TV. He might have the looks of a Blue Peter presenter, but although the Beeb’s tea-time children’s show has featured pooing elephants and frotting dogs, I’ve never heard the f-word.

Tim didn’t even warn us to send granny out of the room; he just bulldozed in with his tirade. Wimbledon was making a Tiger out of Tim from a Russian opponent, a few iffy calls and some sticky grass.

And there was more. Not since 1995, when Henman inadvertently lost his grip and slammed a tennis ball into a ballgirl, has he involved the green-clad boys and girls on court in his game plan.

Tim, whose clothes, like his image, are famously whiter than white, extolled the boys and girls to greater things. “Tell them to get their heads out of their arses and get me a coke,” he advised.

Such was the furore that the BBC, which broadcasts the Henman show, issued a public statement. “Swearing was broadcast live,” it read, “and the BBC would like to apologise for any offence caused.”

Apology accepted. We know it’s all part of sport. Wayne Rooney has taught us that.

In any case, with Henman gone, we can now support and pile the pressure on his heir, the young tyro Andy Murray.

Now, if the Murryanicas can just make some f***ing noise to stop him going out in Wimbledon’s first week…

Paul Sorene’

Posted: 24th, June 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Quiet Please

‘IT’S a little known thing that the Queen Mum’s dying wish was that Tim Henman would one day win Wimbledon. “Do it for me,” she beseeched. “Do it for the Sipper.”

Do it for the Sipper

It was 2002, and the Queen mum’s demise and Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee had given Tim the perfect platform on which to launch a successful assault on Wimbledon.

Here was the finest tennis player Britain had produced for an age being asked to deliver. And, before we go on, let it not be said that Henman is anything other than a very talented player.

So why did he fail to deliver? Was it deliberate? Did he lose to spite Royalty? Are we to suppose that our Tim is something of the anti-monarchist? Is Tim a Womble at Wimbledon?

Would it have been Tim’s year had another asked him to win? If George Galloway had told Tim to win it for Saddam, would our No. 1 have taken up his racket with a renewed and unstoppable gusto?

Of course, this is a fantasy. Tim is as British as, well, heroic failure. He’s as patriotic as rain on centre court. Like a course of HRT, Tim will deliver.

It’s just that Tim’s failure to transfer his talent into titles has left us looking for reasons.

How did it go wrong? Why at 30 years of age has Henman not yet won Wimbledon or reached the final? Why has he not won a single title on grass?

And we have an answer. In a word: Henmaniacs. And it’s no use a thousand and one of his middle-class, middle-aged, Middle England fans egging him on.

As any one who has ever had to perform in even a school play in front of mum knows, her presence is an unwelcome distraction.

Now imagine you’re at Wimbledon, the cameras are watching, a nation expects and hundreds of mumsy frumps are chanting your name.

And it’s not just on court – there are loads more of them camped on a hill they’ve named after you, clapping and clicking the lids on the tops of their prescription medication in rhythm behind your right arm. Tim hadn’t a chance.

But this year will be different. Henman will play on grass like he’s playing on speed. He wants to win.

Henmaniacs can all help by ignoring him. You need to look away and let him be himself.

He’ll thank you for it in the end…’

Posted: 21st, June 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Four Ball

‘JUST over 1 year ago, that Saffer, Retief Goosen, earned himself the princely sum of $1,125,000.

His skill was being able to hit a small white vulcanized rubber ball into a hole using only a lump of metal at the end of a stick of metal in fewer goes than anyone else.

This year’s US Open golfing tournament kicks off at the Pinehurst II course in darkest North Carolina, a Little House on The Prairie region of the US of A where, no doubt, you can buy fizzing candy and chewing tabaccy from the cornershop and still get change from a nickel.

All pre-tournament talk has been about the Big 4 combatants.

In the red corner, we have world No.1 Vijay Singh, golfing out of Fiji, a man who is to charisma what Peter Aliss is to the anarchic Wombles.

A man who on being asked what it’s like to win the most important prize in the golfing calendar would presumably answer: “Nice.”

In the blue corner is the sultan of swing, Tiger Woods, golfing out of California, winner of the first of this year’s four Majors in April’s US Masters and hoping to complete a second Major win on his way to a possible grand slam.

In the Mauve corner is world No.3 Phil Mickleson, representing San Diego, who appears to have no discernable arse and an untelegenic pot-bell – no handicaps in golf, but worth preparing yourself and any watching children for.

In the leopard-skin corner is World No. 4, South Africa’s Ernie Els, a natural who could play great shots in his sleep – and often looks as though he is.

Such is this group’s domination of the sport, knowing bookmakers are offering just 6/5 that one of these gents will win the tournament – the same odds that any of the other 152 competitors will be victorious.

As for the Brits, well, let’s just hope that prize tint Ian Poulter, he of the attention seeking clothes and dragged-through-a-hedge hair-do, falls flat on his backside.

Jules Segal’

Posted: 16th, June 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Colours Of Money

‘DID anyone have the same dream as me? In my dream, Spurs fans complained that money was now running and ruining the game?

‘My agent says I can fly, and I believe him’

It was a most peculiar reverie, in which fans of the so-called glamour club, one of the old Big Five, the club that went public in the cash rich 1980s to earn loadsa money, complained about money hurting the game.

It made little sense. But the magical figures in my dream made a salient point about football now being controlled by cash. There is no place for loyalty when Chelsea’s millions can easily seduce the top talent from the other clubs.

Who in his right mind would not jump at the chance to double his wages, or, as is reported in the case of Spurs’ suspended sporting director Frank Arnesen, treble them?

Not, it seems, Ashley Cole. Although Cole and his agent met with Chelsea’s representatives to discuss the price of cream cheese.

You see, in among all this talk of money destroying the game, even a cock-sure pragmatist like Cole recognises that there is something else involved. Let’s call it loyalty.

“I wouldn’t sign for another Premiership club,” says Cole, “because I couldn’t imagine playing against Arsenal.”

Couldn’t imagine? Or can’t imagine any longer since being so wonderfully found out talking to Chelsea, who, the last time we looked, do play against Arsenal at least twice every year.

Not that Cole’s imagining is up to much – this is a player who didn’t imagine that meeting with representatives of another club in a hotel in breach of the Premier League’s rules would get noticed.

Now the Chelsea deal looks dead, Cole is attempting to wiggle free of the mess. He’s the victim. He’s the slave in a game of S&M played out between men in nylon and their cruel masters in silk.

And, speaking as an Arsenal fan, I don’t care. I now want Cole to go, and go fast. I no longer want to see even a tiny element of my gate money go towards this arrogant sod’s already ludicrous wages.

Best if he went to Chelsea, and Arsenal beat them in the league next season.

Footballers might be fickle, but it is high time fans behaved in the same manner. Cole doesn’t want to play for Arsenal, and I don’t want him to play for them.

Let the team pick someone else. There must be a player who wants to earn over twenty grand a week and have his name sung aloud? Anyone out there?

Or are you all waiting for a better offer..?’

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

Pizza Cake

‘IT was a familiar tale at the Millennium Stadium last weekend as an Englishman took a penalty kick and a German made the save that mattered.

Springtime for Lehmann

Not that even an Arsenal so bereft of their usual attacking flair could lay claim to any kind of Teutonic masterplan.

Sure they set out to stifle United’s play, but the Cardiff woodwork was as much responsible for Arsenal keeping a clean sheet as Arsenal’s stultifying five-man midfield.

Jens Lehmann was the one outstanding player in red and white. Even at the end of the match, with penalties loomed large, he kept his concentration.

Was it luck that he saved where United’s Roy Carroll could only fling himself at thin air? While the United keeper was being wished the luck of the Irish and the best of British by his teammates, there was Lehmann, a lone figure lying on the grass, locked in concentration.

Having been kept the busier of the two keepers (Carroll was only called to make a single save during the match proper), Lehmann’s hands were warmed to the challenge.

(By the time the players had left the pitch, Arsenal fans were arguing that if it hadn’t been for Rooney’s shooting, Lehmann would not have been so focused, and their team would never have won.)

Meanwhile, Carroll might have just stepped from the bench, or given the anaemic look on his pasty face, the bathroom.

What happened next is so much history: Arsenal won the 2005 FA Cup; it was the first Cup Final to be decided by an American-style shoot-out (at least Malcolm Glazer would have understood that part of the match); and it was he first Cup Final to end goalless since the Titanic sailed in 1912.

It was also cruel luck on United. But then, that’s not the first time in history the better team on the day has played and lost. Arsenal fans need only look back to 2001 against Liverpool to know that.

But the defeat will still sit badly with Alex Ferguson, who has presided over another season with no trophies. Sure, United will come back stronger and refocused next season – what team won’t? – but Fergie will be another year older, another season past his prime.

But should we feel sorry for United. The question was put to Robin van Persie, Arsenal’s feisty Dutch striker.

His answer to the BBC’s man on the spot was unequivocal: “No.” If Van Persie had wanted to endear himself any more to Arsenal’s supporters, he could not have chosen his words better.

But his answer was not designed to please and curry favour, just to show that to fans and players on the winning team, it doesn’t matter how you win, so long as you do.

And, in any case, Arsenal were always going to win. Well, they did have a German in goal…

Paul Sorene’

Posted: 23rd, May 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Corry On Regardless

‘ENGLAND’S ruby players are tossing the captain’s armband around like they once moved the ball.

Mask ban flies in the face of reason

And now that Jason Robinson’s succumbed to an injured thumb, it’s the turn of Martin Corry to prove that he’s got what it takes to make England a winning team again.

So, as the Telegraph reports, it’s the big England No.8 who’ll lead out his country’s beleaguered troops as they take on Scotland this weekend.

And Martin Johnson, the man who led England to the World Cup in a match sometime back in the dim and receding past, thinks Corry is up to the challenge.

“I’m sure Cozza will handle it fantastically well,” says Johnson. “He’s a top man, just the sort you need in a tight situation.”

And England, with no points from three matches played in this season’s Six Nations are in the merciless grip of an awful slump in form and fortune.

While England attempt to go back to the future with their third captain since Johnson hung up his studs, Manchester United fans plan their own trip down memory lane.

The Independent says that to mark the tenth anniversary since Eric Cantona kung-fu kicked Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, United’s travelling support will wear Cantona masks at Sellhurst Park.

And this is in the face of a ban on them doing so. Palace have said that anyone wearing the face will be refused entry, and anyone pulling one on once inside the ground will be ejected on safety grounds.

But surely this is an overreaction. And, in any case, the Indy says many United fans still plan to wear the mask.

And we say, why not? If it helps them enjoy this match in these increasingly sanitised times – when a manager putting his finger over his lips is the root of all evil – then let them.

And, as for safety issues… Well, are we to believe that in wearing the mask, these fans will start to act like the former French star and begin an impromptu martial arts demonstration on the locals?

If so, then perhaps they’ll even stay playing like their hero. In which case, let Phil Neville wear one as well…’

Posted: 29th, April 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Legends Of The League

‘WE are a brave and honourable bunch. We struggle on through wind, rain and no end of abuse to bring you the word from the football grounds of this crazy land.

And today we can reveal that even we have the ability to astonish ourselves. For one week only, and while stocks last, we can offer you a limited edition 22-carat, gold-trimmed porcelain plate portraying some of the greats of the modern game.

And this can be yours for the knock-down, smash-and-grab, ram-raid price of GBP42.99 (overseas orders pay GBP5 for postage and packing).

Our record in football is truly amazing. And now we give you the chance to join us in a celebration of the greatest game in the world.

Now artist and life-long football supporter Tony Broke pays tribute to some of the men who have brought honour and glory to the game.

Tony, who learnt this trade in Slade (prison), where he studied for five years after he was found guilty of organising the great pitch invasion of ‘84, has used his master skills to invoke football’s true splendour.

His creation, ‘Legends of the League’, has been expertly reproduced on a plate crafted from the finest porcelain. Each item comes with a serial-numbered certificate of authenticity.

This is the chance for you to join in the global tribute to the game’s greats.

Orders are being handled on a first-come, first-served basis. We cannot stress enough how popular these plates have been. To avoid disappointment reserve your plate today.

This is an official product. We take no responsibility for any copies bought on the black market or through unofficial outlets.

And what’s more you can even help the youth of tomorrow by applying for our own credit card.

Yes, at last we have cracked and can now offer the ‘Legends of the League’ credit card. Those applying before 09:00am get a free leatherette carrying case and access to our 24-hour online banking service.

Using the card enables you to invest in the future of the game. Every day you exceed your overdraft limit, we will specially send a given percentage to the Young Football Institute (or other).

What better way to show your love of the game than supporting its future?

Take this opportunity to be involved in the sport you love.

And, remember, it’s not playing the game, it’s not even watching the game – it’s buying the game that counts.’

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

Ajax Come Clean

‘REMEMBER when it was lucky for Spurs when the year ended in one?

Giving Liverpudlian’s the finger

Well, it still is, and come 2011, we’re certain that Martin Jol’s boys will be the greatest team the world has ever seen.

But in the meantime, they can still play some decent stuff, as they did last night, beating a pretty ineffectual Nottingham Forest side by three goals to nil.

It’s all going to plan. The Spurs are on course to meet their 2011 deadline full pelt. The only doubt is whether Jol will still be in charge of the team come that heady era.

Indeed, as the Sun says there is a question mark over whether the affable Dutchman with the guard dog’s smile will still be at the Lane tomorrow.

Ajax of Amsterdam are said to be ready to make Jol an offer he cannot refuse. Only he might – if Spurs can up his pay from a pathetic minimum wage of £600,000 a year, Jol might decline the offer to coach one of the world’s great clubs and stay at Spurs.

But as Jol considers his future, and Spurs get ready to return to that well-used drawing board, the Express waves a hearty goodbye to David Prutton.

After his antics in his side’s 1-01 draw with Arsenal – he shoved the referee after being red-carded – the player pleaded guilty to being a berk and has been duly banned from playing for ten matches. He has earned his punishment.

But what did Jose Mourinho deserve for his “Shhh!” gesture to Liverpool fans at last weekend’s Carling Cup final?

Many Scousers will no doubt consider that the cocksure Chelsea boss should be hung, drawn and quartered. Or made to offer a public apology to the people of that Red city, in the manner of Boris Johnson or Jimmy Corkhill.

But, as the Express says, he got nothing aside from a slap on the wrist from those hard men at the FA. Mourinho’s been told not to do it again.

And surely even this mild rebuke is too much. While fans shamefully scream that a manager is a paedophile, chuck mobile phones at players and generally foam at the mouth, Mourinho puts his finger over his lips.

What a maniac. Nutter! You can forget the hanging – it’s too good for him…’

Posted: 3rd, March 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Arsenal’s Main Man

‘MANUEL is not a name that encourages Arsenal fans to believe their team’s fortunes are in safe hands.

Sentenced to three years at St Andrew’s

Manuel Almunia may not be from Barcelona (he was born in Pamplona), but like his TV namesake he is well used to serving up disappointing fare.

Until last night that is when the Spaniard with the hang-dog expression saved two penalties to take the Gunners into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

“AN AL OF HERO,” says the Sun, which was in Sheffield last night to see Arsenal win the tie in a penalty shoot-out.

What odds a headline like that when Almunia was letting in soft goals and coming for crosses with all the conviction of a demented vampire?

Elsewhere, however, it was normal service, as the glamour of the Cup was treated to Premiership sides Blackburn Rovers and Southampton beating lower league Burnley and Brentford, respectively.

And it is pretty much normal service off the pitch as well as the Sun publishes CCTV footage of Everton striker James Beattie “trading blows” outside a nightclub.

The Express throws a spotlight on Alex Curran, Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard’s 21-year-old fiancé, who is vying with Coleen McLoughlin for the title of “queen of shopping”.

Considering the gilet, the earrings, the hair extensions, the bag, the tan, the watch, the tracksuit and the boots, Alex seems to be sporting around £31,000 worth of clobber.

And then there’s the Mirror’s story of Jermaine Pennant (“Jermaine Penance”), the Arsenal player on loan to Birmingham City, who has just been jailed for three months.

His crime was to have been caught drink driving while being banned from the road.

But not to worry, dry your eyes, because, as the Times says, Birmingham plan to sign the player permanently as soon as possible.

Which is probably just what he deserves…’

Posted: 2nd, March 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Delia Roasts Canaries

‘DELIA Smith now knows that the recipe for success on the football pitch does not include a half-time talk from her.

Defeat for Norwich is no mere trifle

Norwich City’s most famous supporter berated fans at Carrow Road last night after seeing her side let slip a two-goal lead against Manchester City.

The Indy has a picture of Delia with microphone in hand, appealing for more support.

“We need a twelfth man here,” she shouted out from the pitch. “Where are you? Let’s be having you.”

Unfortunately for Norwich, they were soon short of an eleventh man as Mattias Jonson was sent off before. And things got worse as they conceded an injury time goal to go down 3-2.

Nor are things likely to improve quickly for Norwich, who are currently languishing in 19th place – their next four opponents include Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

At the other end of the table, the top clubs have their own problems.

The Indy reports on Arsenal’s striker crisis with Thierry Henry and Robert Pires injured and Dennis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie and Jose Antonio Reyes suspended for the FA Cup replay against Sheffield United.

The Times has a picture of Manchester United captain Roy Keane in his familiar strip – grey suit, white shirt, grey tie – as he appears in court to face an assault charge.

And the Guardian says Chelsea’s on-pitch success is at risk of being overshadowed by disciplinary problems after the sending-off of manager Jose Mourinho during Sunday’s Carling Cup final.

But there is also support for Mourinho, notably from James Lawton in the Independent who implores the Portuguese coach not to adapt to the prevailing culture of his host country.

“You were supposed to be a breath of fresh air,” he says.

“You were supposed to go your own extremely impressive way, paying generous tribute to beaten opponents, revealing a healthy and often amusing self-belief, but more than anything letting your team make the most significant statements about your plainly extraordinary ability.”

And Sue Mott, in the Telegraph, suggests that Mourinho is the victim of small-minded jealousies from the kind of people who would prefer to see the Queen riding round London on a bike.

Or complain that the money spent on the London 2012 Olympic bid would be better used on some convoluted tax credit scheme for single dads.’

Posted: 1st, March 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Hapless Kaplan

‘ONE thing that has always distinguished football and rugby has been the attitude to refereeing decisions, both on the field and off it.

‘Oi, Steve! You’re not a Chelsea player yet’

In the former, every little decision is contested and argued over by the players before the managers get their chance to add their criticisms.

In the latter, players have tended to accept the referee’s decision not least because any form of dissent was punished by ten yards of territory being given away.

And managers have usually followed suit, preferring not to dwell on matters over which they have no control.

But that seems to be changing and England coach Andy Robinson was fuming at the performance of South African referee Jonathan Kaplan after yesterday’s 19-13 defeat to the Irish.

“I think Mark Cueto scored a perfectly legal try and I think he should have gone to the video referee on Josh Lewsey when he burrowed over the line,” he said.

“I am still trying to work out the Cueto try. I have looked at both and they both looked tries.”

Robinson’s opinion of the referee is shared by the Telegraph’s Mark Cleary, who says England were deprived of victory by “one of the worst refereeing performances seen on the international stage since another South African caused English blood pressure to rise in the World Cup Final’.

A former international referee apparently commented on Kaplan’s eccentric decision-making: “That was the most incompetent display of refereeing I’ve ever seen at this level.”

The Irish, however, have their own justifiable complaint about the manner in which Ronan O’Gara was taken out for the England try, leaving the way open for Martin Corry to storm through.

Incompetent Kaplan certainly was – the question is to what degree his incompetence favoured the home side.

Certainly, the Irish fans had no doubts.

“To be sure, there’ll be a couple of pints for the ref in O’Donohue’s,” one stalwart of the west stand is quoted as saying in the Independent.

“He’ll do better than that,” answered another. “They’ll give him the Honeymoon Suite in the Berkeley Court Hotel.”

While England were suffering their fourth defeat in a row, Chelsea managed to avoid their third.

The Blues fell behind in the first minute of their Carling Cup final against Liverpool and, despite having the majority of the play thereafter, had to rely on a Steven Gerrard own goal to secure extra time.

Having done so, there only ever appeared to be one winner, with goals from Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman earning them a 3-2 victory.

And all this without manager Jose Mourinho who was sent from the field by the police for apparently inciting Liverpool fans after the Gerrard equaliser.

The Portuguese insisted his finger to lips gesture was aimed at the English press – even though they were housed on the other side of the stadium.

“If I made a mistake, I apologise,” he told the Guardian afterwards. “I’m happy I’m not going to jail for that.”

If he had been sent to jail, he could have just rung up Jonathan Kaplan. He was busy getting the Irish out of jail at the time…’

Posted: 28th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Tin-Pot Dictator

‘LOOKING at Jose Mourinho’s hand gestures and grandiosity calls to mind an image of Charlie Chaplin playing The Great Dictator.

‘It was never a sending-off’

When you’re winning it can look so very impressive, the little man doing his bit for the people; when you’re losing, the man with the small feet and the big voice can look like a bumptious fool.

And so it is with Mourinho, who followed his big words before Chelsea’s match in the Nou Camp with more talking afterwards, in which he complained that Frank Rijkaard, the Barcelona coach, had had a half-time chat with the game’s referee, Anders Frisk.

It all seems that the cocksure manager is a little rattled by his team’s sudden inability to win matches. And Henk ten Cate, Barca’s assistant coach, has noticed.

“Coaches are always moaning about decisions in big matches,” he says in the Times. “It’s a bit pathetic to react the way he’s done.”

To the Sun’s mind, this leads to the headline “PATHETIC LIARS”. Barcelona “insist” the Blues invented the story about the Rijkaard-Frisk conflab and lied about the line-up of his team.

The man who seemed like a new broom when things were going well for his Chelsea, now looks like a poor sport, a bad loser and a bit of a tin-pot megalomaniac.

Meanwhile, the other big footballing news is that… hold on a moment, while we find it… Oh, yes, Middlesbrough are through to the final 16 of the Uefa Cup. Hurray!

And after you’ve heard about Mourinho’s moaning and then some more about Mourinho’s moaning, you can read about that Uefa Cup win in the Sun.

For fans of Boro, this could appear to be a slight on their team’s performance. The lads are going well in the pan-European competition, yet the bleating of a sore loser takes centre stage.

But, in truth, the Uefa Cup has little or no allure. If you disagree, ask yourself this: which country do AK Graz (Times) or Grazer AK (Sun) or AK Grazer (Telegraph), who lost to Boro, play in?

The answer is Austria. Well done, you.

And now for the tie-breaker: which country are Heerenveen based in and can you name one (ONE) of the players? (Last night Newcastle beat this outfit in the Uefa Cup.)

Way to go on Holland. And congratulations to Mrs Breuer for remembering what her son Michel does for a living.

Now look out for Sunday’s questions on the Carling Cup…’

Posted: 25th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Pain In Spain

‘BEFORE this week’s round of Champions’ League matches, English teams were among the best in the world.

Didier Drogba sees red

Then the whistles blew and the games kicked off.

Arsenal were flattered by a 3-1 scoreline in Bayern Munich’s favour, Chelsea were beaten in Barcelona and Manchester United went down at home 1-0 to AC Milan.

Only Liverpool managed a win – 3-1 over Bayer Leverkusen – but only the most blinkered Red would believe their club can go all the way without lashings of luck.

And luck is important, as Chelsea found out last night. First, as the Times says, the Blues were fortunate to earn a goal when Barca’s Juliano Belletti turned the ball into his own net.

Somewhere in the thermosphere up in Barca’s towering stadium the travelling Chelsea fans laughed, mocked and danced.

And then the luck turned against them. As the Telegraph says, having already been booked, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba made a risky lunge at the ball and bundled into Barca’s goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

That was yellow card number two. And in the numbers game, it meant Chelsea had ten men.

This, as the paper says, “gifted” Barcelona the initiative and they took it with glee, scoring two goals to win the tie 2-1.

Chelsea were unfortunate to lose Drogba; but not to lose the match – not if you believe the Sun’s statistical analysis.

In the course of the entire match, the Blues managed just two shots on goal, both of which were deemed to be off target. Over the same period, Barcelona had 11 shots on target, 13 shots off target and 11 shots blocked.

Statistics can lie, but even to the most questioning mind these numbers paint a pretty conclusive picture of events in the Nou Camp.

Meanwhile, in Old Trafford, Roy Carroll, United’s hapless goalkeeper, was proving to be true to his reputation and spilling a shot.

His clanger allowed Milan’s Hernan Crespo to feast on the pickings.

This time Carroll didn’t even bother pretending the other team hadn’t scored. He saw it. The net moved. It was a goal.

Just the thing when you’re busy negotiating a new contract…’

Posted: 24th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Cold Comfort

‘IT was cold in Munich last night and Arsenal froze.

Just add a ‘t’

Losing 3-1 to Bayern Munich all but ends the Gunners’ hopes of making the big push and taking the Champions’ League title.

Sure, they can score the two goals they need to win the tie when the teams play the second leg ay Highbury in two weeks’ time.

But, as the papers say, they can just as easily let in three.

The Times is right in saying that Arsenal’s defence looks vulnerable without the steadying presence of Sol Campbell, injured for last night’s match.

But they do have a chink of light offered to them by Kolo Toure’s late goal, a strike that will afford the player some comfort since it was his blunders that directly led to two to of the Germans’ goals.

Indeed, if the Arsenal team read the Independent’s verdict on Liverpool’s 3-1 win in the competition over Bayer Leverkusen, they will be encouraged to believe all is not lost.

Three goals to the good against a pretty unexceptional German side, the Indy watched as Liverpool’s goalkeeper, the periodically hapless Jerzy Dudek, fluffed his lines and handed Leverkusen a lifeline.

The paper says that Sean De Souza Franca’s late away goal could be “potentially crucial” in the grand scheme of things. If so, the same can be said of Toure’s late effort. Arsenal have hope.

And Chelsea… well, they have oodles of cash, a sense of belief in their talent and Jose Mourinho.

Yesterday, the Telegraph was in Barcelona to hear the cocksure Chelsea coach ask the assembled media if they wanted to hear what his team will be.

They nodded as one. So Mourinho told them the line-up. He told them the identity of the referee. He also told them the line up of the Barcelona team.

Had he gone on, he would have probably told everyone the secret of his success, his shaving routine and why he is the best-ever manager in the history of best-ever managers.

And then told us what the score will be in tonight’s match…’

Posted: 23rd, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Us And Them

‘IN what counts as a rite of passage at Highbury, the Mail says that Jose Antonio Ryes has been charged by the FA with violent conduct.

Reyes hears about the violent conduct charge

If ever the player wanted to bolster his Arsenal credentials after being tricked into revealing his dream to play for Real Madrid, a ban from the game is a decent way to start.

The Spaniard should be fired up for the Gunners’ trip to Germany where they face a Bayern Munich side in fine form.

The Mail previews this Champions’ League game and concludes that it will be a stiff test for Arsene Wenger’s team.

But, as the Telegraph notes, “nothing fuels a team’s fire more than a siege mentality”, and Wenger is keen to play on just that notion.

Claiming that the media do not fully appreciate the quality of his dynamic team, the Frenchman said: “We simply have to fight against this. No matter what we do, it is all negative in the press.”

The ‘us against the world’ approach may well stand Arsenal in good stead, but surely the game of the night is Chelsea’s trip to Barcelona.

The Times says the Chelsea’s coach Jose Mourinho’s credentials will tonight face a “Spanish inquisition”, a predicable pun based on nothing much.

Mourinho’s credentials are not what is in any doubt – it as only last year his unfancied Porto side won the Champions’ League; what is in doubt is how his new Chelsea team can fare.

The other question of the day, and the main poser as far as the Mail is concerned, is how “serial offender” Michael Lewis made it onto the pitch during Burnley’s FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers.

There’s a nice picture of a tattooed Lewis – dressed oddly in T–shirt and gloves – knocking the helmets off a couple of constables as he attempts to show what a complete berk he is (success) and get at some of those Rovers players (failure).

Going up against a couple of professional sportsman smacks of an ingrained deep-seated idiocy that Lewis clearly posseses in spades.

For, as the Mail says, at the time of his one-man pitch invasion, Lewis was banned from every football ground in the land.

In the language of the police, Lewis has previous.

But that did not stop him getting a ticket to the game and a seat in the stands.

Nor his picture in the paper…’

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

Thin Blue Line

‘POOR old Chelsea! Oh dear! Even with all the cash in the world – or at least a large chunk of it – they have learnt that money cannot buy you luck.

‘I’ve got them, officer’

Sure, the Blues had their slice of this most precious commodity this season, but yesterday their good fortune appeared to run out in spectacular style as they went down 1-0 to Newcastle.

They may have been “FROZEN OUT” of the FA Cup, as the Guardian says, but the Blues still have three trophies to go for, which, all told, would not be bad haul of silver for all the millions spent.

But, as the paper says, since the loss off Arjen Robben, Chelsea have scored one goal in 335 minutes of play. They have now lost Wayne Bridge with a possible broken leg and suffered injuries to Damien Duff and William Gallas.

With a trip to Barcelona looming and next Sunday’s Carling Cup final to Liverpool now looking far less than a formality, the wheels on the Chelsea troika are looking a little less than tight.

While we and the papers contemplate a Chelsea collapse, the Independent looks at Wayne Rooney’s return to Everton for the first time since his move to Manchester United.

And didn’t the boy do well. Which is more than can be said for some sad elements of the Everton crowd, especially the inadequate who hurled a mobile phone at United’s goalkeeper, Roy Carroll?

The boy who enriched his club to the sweet tune of £27m deserved better than this spite and stupidity.

As for the phone chucker, the Sun has a grainy picture of him/her/it and asks: “DO YOU KNOW THE LUNATIC IN THE CROWD?”

We are unsure, but keen to see the Premiership race thrown wide open, believe it could be either Jose Mourinho, Petr Cech or Frank Lampard.

Indeed, it may even be a conspiracy between all three.

While the police follow up our lead and chuck the trio in jail for the remainder of the season, the Times has news of Urs Meier, the Swiss referee with the tinted beard who was in charge of England’s defeat to Portugal in Euro 2004.

Speaking to the paper, Meier reveals the extent of the abuse he suffered from disappointed English fans who bombarded him with abusive emails and telephone calls.

“I think the first three or four week after this were the hardest in my life,” says he. “They wanted to kill me, to finish me off.”

And who are they? Why, John Terry and Glen Johnson we suppose. They too are now being rounded up…’

Posted: 21st, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

No Way, Says Jose

‘THE Uefa Cup is now very much the European version of the Carling Cup, except of course that it is even harder to get knocked out of.

”I would like to pick the English – Cole from Arsenal, Gerrard from Liverpool, Defoe from Spurs..”

For evidence of the decline of this once prestigious trophy, take a look at the back pages of the papers this morning.

Only the Guardian feels the need to report to its readers that last night Newcastle United beat Heerenveen 2-1 at the Abe Lenstra stadium and so put a tentative foot into the last 16.

Sadly, the Guardian doesn’t feel the need to tell us where Heerenveen is and we have to go to the Anorak atlas to discover that it is in fact in the Netherlands.

The other papers barely seem to have known there was a game on last night, so busy are they with the real business of the Champions’ League.

The Indy hears Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho – with typical modesty – launch the first fusillade ahead of his team’s match with Barcelona with an attack on the credentials of his opposing manager.

“Frank Rijkaard’s history as a player can’t be compared to my history – his history is fantastic, mine is zero,” he said.

“But my history as a manager can’t be compared to his, because he has zero titles and I have a lot of them. He just can’t be compared with me.”

Nor can Arsene Wenger be compared with Mourinho, it seems.

The Portugeezer insisted that he would never field a squad consisting entirely of foreigners as Arsenal did on Monday night.

“Especially as a foreign manager, I feel a bit responsible for the national team,” he said. “And I would never forget my responsibility to the future of some kids.”

Responsibility is not a word that sits easily with the West Indies cricket team at present.

The Telegraph has seen a leaked memo from Richard Nowell, sponsorship manager of Digicel, West Indies’ new £11m sponsors, which, it says, “could set off one of the biggest crises in Caribbean cricket for years”.

In it, he accuses the players of paying too much attention to women and not enough to cricket during the recent one-day tournament in Australia.

“As a former professional cricketer and having toured with England on three occasions,” wrote the former Surrey batsman, “I know men need to have fun on tour.

“However, not at the expense of performance.”

Judging by the recent performances of the West Indies, we can only assume they must have had an awful lot of fun…’

Posted: 18th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Money For Nothing

‘IF money were goals, then British clubs would have dominated the European club competitions in recent years.

Keane picks up his trophy at the football marketing awards

Premiership clubs dominate the list of Europe’s Top 20 richest clubs, accounting (with the two Old Firm clubs) for half the names on the list.

And, says the Telegraph, it is a hold that is likely to become even stronger in coming years with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea taking the top three places.

At the moment, Real Madrid occupy second place in the list, compiled by Deloitte – and made £56.9m from commercial income alone.

David Beckham may not have set Spain alight on the field, but he certainly shifts a lot of shirts.

Liverpool may not have set the world alight on the field either, but they do at least hang on to a place in the Top 10.

Whether they can retain that, however, depends to a large extent on whether they manage to get a Champions’ League place next season.

And the Times reports that Rafael Benitez has read the riot act to his players after a fourth defeat in seven games threatened to undermine the club’s whole season.

“I have come here to work hard and I expect everyone else to do the same” may not qualify for the Sir Alex Ferguson Hairdrier Award.

But, says the Times, it marks a departure from the Spaniard’s previous Sven Goran Eriksson demeanour.

Words are one thing, actions another – as the FA managed to demonstrate again yesterday.

New chief executive Brian Barwick may have spoken convincingly about the need to eradicate “simulation” (otherwise known as cheating) from the game.

But, says the Times, that brave declaration was looking “as convincing as an El-Hadji Diouf swandive” yesterday as the FA has spectacularly failed to put it into practice.

Bolton’s defender Tal Ben Haim escaped without censure for what looked for all the world like a blatant dive in the match against Manchester United on December 26.

“The Israel defender attracted widespread derision,” it says, “when he reacted to a shove in the face by Wayne Rooney as if he had been struck by lightning rather than a podgy teenager.”

If the FA is not itself to attract widespread derision, it needs to act – and we are grateful to Roy Keane for this suggestion.

Having a go at Ashley Cole for his theatrics, the Manchester United midfielder said: “Before the game, there was all this stuff about anti-racism and anti-bullying.

“It would be a good idea to start wearing wristbands for anti-diving.”

A pointless initiative from the game’s ruling body and another great merchandising opportunity for the clubs – all in one.

Is genius too strong a word?’

Posted: 17th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Foreign Legion

‘ARSENE Wenger is not known for his 20:20 vision, so it is hardly surprising that he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about his squad selection on Monday night.

Are you watching, Perry Groves?

However, the fact that he did not name a single English player either in the starting XI or on the bench was a record that has not exactly been welcomed.

Former Arsenal star Paul Merson calls it “a joke”, while PFA boss Gordon Taylor tells the Times it will be another 40 years until England win a major trophy if clubs continue to ride roughshod over the interests of the national team.

One could point out that it is already 40 years since England won a major trophy and for most of that time there has been no problem with foreign players squeezing out homegrown talent.

Indeed, as Taylor himself admits, a look at the national side suggests that it is not a lack of talent that is the problem.

However, the Times (which devotes an inordinate amount of space this morning to the subject) compares the England under-21 team of a decade ago with the one now.

And it discovers that the starting XI in the 1995 team against Ireland had more than twice as many caps (383) as last week’s side who played Holland (151).

What can we deduce from that? That few players make the transition from the under-21 team to full international honours.

Of the 1995 team, only two have had any kind of international career – Trevor Sinclair and Nicky Butt.

And Butt (with only six appearances for Manchester United prior to that game) was the second most inexperienced player in the side.

All of which suggests that you can prove whatever you like with statistics.

Be that as it may, the Indy says Arsenal are locked on a collision course with Uefa, who want to introduce quotas for European competitions.

Not a single member of the Arsenal squad for the game against Crystal Palace would have qualified under the Uefa definition of a homegrown player.

However, by the time the quotas come into force in 2006-7, three of the 16 – Gael Clichy, Philippe Senderos and Cesc Fabregas – will do so.

Although Uefa expect a legal challenge to the ruling, they insist that they are ready to defend their stand.

“What I am disappointed with,” says spokesman William Gaillard, “is that they [the clubs] are failing to read what the fans want and they are losing touch with them.”

We wonder. If Arsenal were to continue to play as well as they did on Monday and win every game 5-1, we imagine the North Bank would be happy with a team full of Martians.’

Posted: 16th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Sugar And Spice

‘IT’S taken footballers a couple of days to respond to Sir Alan Sugar’s opinion that they are “scum”, probably because they were working out whether it was meant as a compliment or not.

”We beat the scum 5-1”

Having decided that it wasn’t, PFA boss Gordon Taylor this morning leads the fightback, arguing that the former Spurs chairman’s comments were “as offensive as any racist remark”.

Note that Taylor is not calling Sugar a racist. How could he when the latter explicitly tarred every footballer, black or white, with the same brush?

But by equating his views with those of a racist’s, the implication of Taylor’s statement is that if Sugar isn’t a racist he could be one.

The Independent allows us to judge for ourselves by printing the 57-year-old businessman’s thoughts on the practitioners of our national game in full.

“[Football players are] scum, total scum,” he said. “They’re bigger scum than journalists, don’t you understand? They don’t know what honesty and loyalty is.

“They’re the biggest scum that walk on this planet and, if they weren’t football players, most of them would be in prison.”

Where they would no doubt find themselves sharing a cell with many of Sir Alan’s friends in business.

While we ponder on the irony of the likes of Alan Sugar giving lessons in loyalty and honesty, 22 scum were staying out of prison by kicking a ball around a field in north London.

And the Times reports that 11 scum in red and white (who call themselves Arsenal) kicked the ball five times into the net of the other scum (called Crystal Palace) and so won the game.

In doing so, the paper says they played like champions but as there are no extra points in the Premiership for style they remain two points behind Manchester United and 11 behind Chelsea.

Sugar may not like footballers, but Malcolm Glazer does. So much so that the American wants to buy himself a whole club full of them.

The 76-year-old tycoon is likely to make a formal bid for Manchester United next week, which (says the Indy) will include formal pledges relating to transfer budgets, ticket prices, job security and the status of Old Trafford.

It is, the paper says, part of a strategy to change minds, not win hearts.

Supporters remain as implacably opposed to a Glazer takeover as ever, recruiting the likes of Eric Cantona and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer to the cause.

Cantona has said: “If Glazer were to come here, we would lose everything.”

A look at recent additions to Manchester United’s trophy cabinet would suggest they’re doing a pretty good job of that without him…’

Posted: 15th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Jonny, Be Good

‘WHEN England fly-half Charlie Hodgson was masterminding victory against Tri-Nations champions South Africa in the autumn, the talk was of ‘Jonny Who?’

Where’s Jonny?

Now, Jonny Wilkinson cannot return quickly enough after England slipped to their third defeat in a row against what the Telegraph describes as “one of the worst French teams in living memory”.

Hodgson is fingered as the main culprit in the 17-18 loss after he and centre Olly Barkley missed a total of six penalty kicks.

Even then, England could have won but the Sale fly-half fluffed a simple drop goal chance with a couple of minutes.

Comparisons with Wilkinson’s last-minute drop goal winner in Sydney 18 months ago make Hodgson’s failure that much more conspicuous.

Others made more direct comparisons with the World Cup-winning team.

French captain Fabien Pelous, for instance, doubted that the old England would have let slip a 17-6 half-time lead.

“It’s probably the main difference between this England team and the team that won in Sydney – the World Cup team never faded away,” he said.

World Cup success for England’s one-day cricketers seems as far away as ever after they were routed 4-1 in the pyjama cricket series against South Africa.

However, appropriately given the setting, they do appear to have unearthed a diamond in South African-born Kevin Pietersen, who yesterday rescued his adopted country from embarrassment.

The No.5 guided England from 68-6 to 240 all out with another century – his third in the past four matches – scored at better than a run a ball.

The Times has had to use a calculator to work out Pietersen’s tour average – 558 runs from 554 balls at an average of 139.5 – when it can count most of the team’s on the fingers of one hand.

And it reckons that in doing so he has played his way into the Test side.

It would, it says, necessitate a rejig of the batting order with captain Michael Vaughan moving up to No.3 and Pietersen and Graham Thorpe coming in at No.4 and No.5.

But Vaughan has no doubts that England’s new recruit can turn one-day runs into Test success.

“He has set the world alight and has played innings of unbelievable tempo in pressured situations,” he told the Guardian. “He is an immense talent.”

The same has often been said of Michael Owen, who has struggled to break into the Real Madrid starting XI despite an exemplary goal scoring record.

The former Liverpool striker came off the bench to score with his head and so consolidate his position as having the best goal per minute ratio in La Liga.

Whether it’s enough to earn a starting berth remains to be seen.’

Posted: 14th, February 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

A Sorry Spectacle

‘LAST night England’s footballers said “NO TO RACISM”.

The Wright stuff?

After some Madrid locals directed monkey chants at England’s black players during the team’s last match in Spain, the FA asked FIFA for permission for their lads to wear the statement of intent on their tops.

As the Telegraph reports, this stance was supported by England’s righteous fans who held aloft “no racism” placards.

But still one back player comes in for special attention.

He’s Shaun Wright-Phillips, the scampering winger who before last night’s match against the Dutch was all set to replace David Beckham on England’s right.

Sixty minutes of play later – in which for the first 20 the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward watched the players legs turn to blancmange – he was off the pitch and Beckham’s future in an England kit seemed even more secure.

But in the prevailing spirit of racial harmony, let it not go unsaid that other England players were just as ineffectual in the 0-0 bore draw.

Granted, they did not let nerves get the better of them as Wright-Phillips did, but the likes of white Frank Lampard and orangey Wes Brown did play with an alarming lack of verve.

Not to worry because it’s not the fault of the lads. The blame for yet another insipid England performance lies with the team’s manager Sven Goran Eriksson, who just happens to be of foreign birth.

The Sun calls the match a “fiasco”, in which Sven experimented with a 4-3-3 system (it’s a 4-3—2-1 system in the Telegraph) and watched it fail miserably.

As the Times announces on its lead headline: “Eriksson’s experiment fails.”

Four years after taking over as England’s main coach, the boys in red and white are no closer to achieving coherency, let alone world dominance, than they were under Glenn Hoddle or Kevin Keegan.

There is so little so say about England that English minds may consider the Northern Irish lucky for having a representative team that are at least worth talking about.

And the conversation in Belfast centres on the fact that Northern Ireland are one of the worst teams on the planet.

And last night, as the Indy reports, they set new standards in awfulness, losing 1-0 at home to a 10-man Canada side.

Lawrie Shanchez’s team have now not won a home match since a 3-0 victory over Iceland in September 2001.

That is dreadful. But at least when the Northern Irish play their next match, there should be some interest in it. In case you didn’t know, they’re playing England.

The headline writers and anti-racists will have a field day…’

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