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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

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

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

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

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