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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

Nil Satis

‘IF Arsenal’s achievement of going through a whole Premiership season unbeaten was impressive, then so is Chelsea’s defensive record this year.

Nothing to cry about

The Blues have conceded just eight goals in 25 matches and Peter Cech hasn’t been beaten in the league since Thierry Henry’s quick free kick on December 12.

Last night, he had to save a first-half penalty from Paul Dickov to keep up that proud record and earn a 1-0 win for his side to put them 11 points clear of Manchester United.

As the final whistle sounded after a hard-fought encounter at Ewood Park, the players threw their shirts to the travelling supporters.

“It looked for all the world,” says the Times, “like a championship celebration for a club that has not achieved the feat for 50 years.”

However, once again an off-field spat has taken some of the sheen off a gritty performance.

Blackburn manager Mark Hughes was upset that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho didn’t shake his hand after the game.

“Everyone knows you have to be gracious in defeat,” he said afterwards, “but you have to be gracious in victory as well.”

For his part, Mourinho hit back by accusing Blackburn of trying to intimidate his team.

“It wasn’t a football game, it was a fight,” he said.

It’s small wonder that players niggle and cheat and dive and foul and whinge on the pitch when their managers do exactly the same off it.

Perhaps, the FA should follow the example of the ICC and impose swingeing fines (or even suspensions) for such after-match backchat.

There was no need for words after yesterday’s one-day international between England and South Africa, which ended in a tie.

But if one word was required, it would be ‘choke’ after the hosts somehow managed to fail to lose a game that was theirs for the taking.

The Telegraph says the ending could prove to be a career-defining moment for Kabir Ali, playing in only his third one-day international.

“His final over, which began with a waist-high no-ball, looked like it might be reminiscent of another World Cup debacle – the over that Jimmy Anderson bowled to Andy Bichel at Port Elizabeth two years ago.”

However, this is South Africa and not Australia and, with only three runs to get off the final six balls, they managed to get only two…and lose three wickets in the process.

All of which added lustre to a maiden century by “South Africa’s least favourite export” Kevin Pietersen.

The Telegraph said he reacted to reaching three figures “like a visiting goalscorer at Stamford Bridge”.

Not that anyone will remember what that looks like soon…’

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

Gunners Offer No Defence

‘WHATEVER the result of last night’s showdown between Arsenal and Manchester United, the real winners were bound to be Chelsea.

”Fergie dreams of holding the Premiership trophy”

So much emotional energy did the two sides expend in 90 minutes of fouling, preening, whinging and kicking the football that Jose Mourinho should be rubbing his hands in glee.

As it was, United emerged 4-2 winners and now look to be the only side with a chance of catching the Blues, who will be 11 points clear at the top if they beat Blackburn tonight.

Afterwards, Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira had no complaints, admitting that “they played a bigger game than us and deserved the three points”.

Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, accepted that his team’s title challenge was over and blamed a defence that has now conceded 29 goals in the league for the situation.

“Overall we concede too many goals to go for the championship,” he told the Guardian.

“With the way we gave goals away, you see the players don’t have the same confidence at the back that they had last year. The same players concede goals now who didn’t concede goals before.”

That’s not entirely true, however. Goalkeeper Manuel Almunia looked out of his depth last night and was certainly to blame for two of the United goals.

The Times agrees, suggesting that Arsenal’s defensive malaise has its roots in Almunia’s lack of authority.

The malaise at the heart of South African cricket can also be put down to a lack of authority, this time on the part of captain Graeme Smith.

The hapless Smith turned 24 yesterday, awaking to reports of yet another row among the selectors.

Among cricketing nations, South Africa is a special case because of its recent political past – and racial issues are always going to play a part in team selection.

But race is not responsible for most of the perverse decisions that the South African selectors have made during this tour, which has seen regular changes of personnel and line-up.

“It is important to find combinations and stick with them,” Smith tells the Times. “We need to believe in guys and give them everything they need to be successful.

“We have to have a plan and know we are going somewhere.”

If the South African selectors look like they have learnt from England of the mid-1990s, the current England panel should be their benchmark for the future.

For instance, the Indy reports that wicket-keeper Geraint Jones has been assured that he will be given a decent run at the top of the one-day batting order to see if he can become England’s version of Adam Gilchrist.

Not that Jones himself is making the comparison.

“There’s only one Gilchrist,” he said.

More’s the pity…’

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

Menage A Trois

‘SO, Manchester United have fallen out with Arsenal. Arsenal have fallen out with Chelsea. And Chelsea have fallen out with Manchester United.

”But Gary doesn’t like anchovies?”

Relations between the three clubs at the top of the Premier League can surely never have been lower than they are at this time.

As Arsenal prepare to do battle (literally) with Alex Ferguson’s men tonight in a match that both team need to win to keep up the pressure on leaders Chelsea, the row over the supposed illegal approach to Ashley Cole rumbles on.

Arsene Wenger insists that the Blues must come clean over whether they did try to lure the England left-back to Stamford Bridge.

“It is up to Chelsea to clarify this,” he tells the Times, “and if it really happened – and it looks to me as if it did happen – it will be difficult for them to deny it.

“They can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, then it is up to the Premier League.”

However, if Arsenal don’t beat United tonight, their only chance of retaining their title is likely to be if Chelsea are deducted points for ‘tapping up’ Cole.

And it is a sign of how worried Wenger is by the 10-point deficit that he is talking about Chelsea on the eve of such a big game.

“If you look at what Arsenal have won in the past eight years and what Chelsea have won, you will not be putting me in a position where I have to say ‘OK, Chelsea are the best, they have won everything’.

“You [the media] go with what everybody is saying that the force is with Chelsea. I go with reality.”

The reality is, according to the Telegraph, that Arsenal are likely to direct their anger at what happened at Old Trafford in October at Wayne Rooney.

Rooney fell under a challenge from Sol Campbell to win the penalty that ended Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run.

And Wenger said the England defender feels he was ‘done’ by the teenager.

Talking of talented teenagers, 18-year-old Newcastle centre Matthew Tait will make his international debut in Saturday’s Six Nations rugby match against Wales.

Injuries mean the teenager will line up next to club colleague Jamie Noon on the day before his 19th birthday in a back line that is short on experience.

However, Rob Andrew, director of rugby at Newcastle, warned against unrealistic expectations.

“Let’s not forget that this time last season,” he told the Indy, “he was still playing schoolboy rugby at Barnard Castle.

“He must be allowed time to develop at the highest level. We should not forget how far he has come in a short space of time.”

Indeed, the last 18-year-old to represent England was also from Newcastle – a certain Jonny Wilkinson. And he didn’t turn out too badly…’

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

Terry To The Fore

‘ALEX Ferguson said it was impossible to through the whole of a Premiership season unbeaten – until Arsenal did it last season.

Cole the goal

He said it was impossible for a side to win all four major trophies – but Chelsea are well on their way to proving him wrong again.

Having already reached the Carling Cup final and with a 10-point lead in the league, Jose Mourinho’s team are now through to the fifth round of the FA Cup.

Despite resting several players, they beat Birmingham City 2-0, courtesy of goals by Robert Huth and John Terry.

And, according to his boss, there may be still more silverware for Terry to lift come the end of the season.

“If I had a vote for Footballer of the Year,” Mourinho tells the Telegraph, “I would vote John Terry first, Frank Lampard second.

“I don’t want to make all the other centre-halves in the world sad but, for me, John Terry is the best.”

If Terry does find himself lifting four or even five trophies at the end of the season, it will not have come without its cost.

The Blues will this morning post the biggest loss in football history – £87.8 million.

This is due not only to high-priced signings but to an absurdly high wage bill.

In the year to May 31 2004, they paid out £115.5m in player salaries – more than three-quarters of the club’s total income.

And if reports in the weekend’s papers are true, that could be set to increase after the club were accused of making an illegal approach to Arsenal and England left-back Ashley Cole.

Mourinho denied the News Of The World story, insisting: “I have never met the boy. I just play against him, no more than that.”

However, if the allegations are true, Chelsea’s position at the head of the Premiership could be under threat.

The Indy says the offence is punishable under Premier League rules by a heavy fine, point deduction or even suspension – and you can be sure Arsenal will push for one of the latter two.

Talking of heavy fines, the row over Clive Lloyd’s decision to fine Michael Vaughan the whole of his match fee over comments made about the umpiring in the fourth Test against South Africa rumbles on.

And now it appears that Lloyd himself may be in trouble after accusing the England cricket captain of being “rude and dismissive” at the disciplinary hearing.

And what should have been an open and shut process for a trifling breach of regulations has developed into “a piffling spat” that threatens to damage both men’s reputations.

“Perhaps only cricket could get itself in this tangle,” it says.

Hardly. Football can turn even a trifling breach into a full-blown crisis…’

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

Roger And Out

‘NEWS now to warm the heart of Tim Henman and the joints of the women of a certain age who cheer him on at Wimbledon each year: Roger Federer can be beaten.

Federer wasn’t sure about his new kit manufacturer

As the Telegraph reports, the Swiss tennis player’s 26-match unbeaten run ended last night when he lost to the mercurial Marat Safin in five thrilling sets.

The world No. 1, who had not dropped a set in the Australian Open going into his semi-final clash with the Russian, is down and out.

A lesser player than Federer may even, the paper says, have limped off the court, tempering his opponent’s success with moans about his blistered foot and a nerve-end problem causing a pain in his back.

It would be like the rest of football having a good grumble about Chelsea, who, the Times says, can complete “the full set” of four trophies.

Just to get its readers used to looking at so much silverware in the hands of one team, the Sun mocks up a page on which Blues’ manager Jose Mourinho poses beside each trophy.

He’s a happy man is Jose, and a sight more so than Harry Redknapp, the man who dared to leave Portsmouth for their fierce rivals Southampton.

In the build-up to Saturday’s match between the two in the FA Cup, the Sun hears Redknapp’s assistant say how shocked and hurt his boss is at the hate campaign waged against him by fans of his old club.

“Somebody put his phone number on a website, which is the worst thing you can do,” says Smith. “But the number has changed now and he is OK”.

While we celebrate the fact that Harry has a new mobile, another of football’s characters is making his way into the boardroom at Leeds United.

The Indy was there to see the unlovable Ken Bates hold court at his first press conference since buying half the club, and watched as the bearded one showed how he has lost none of charm.

“Get out, I don’t want you flashing in my face,” said Bates as cameras snapped away.

He then used all his comedic skills to flip open his jacket in the manner of a dirty old man (Bates is 73) and said that he was the only person who could flash around here.

“If you carry on, I’ll walk out,” he went on in response to a journalist who had asked him why he had chosen to invest in Leeds.

“It’s simple really,” said Bates, his charmless offensive in full swing. “I just won’t deal with you.”

Which might just prompt many scribes to pursue that very line of questioning…’

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

Howard’s End?

‘AFTER Chelsea’s victory over Manchester United in the Carling Cup semi-final last night, Alex Ferguson’s claim that it would be impossible for the Blues to win all four trophies this season is looking more hopeful than assured.

”Who wants a go at Bosnich first?”

In “Chelsea Keep Dream Alive”, the Times leads with news of the match that saw Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s playthings pass a stern test.

An away victory at Old Trafford is never a thing to be taken lightly, but Chelsea, for all their endeavour and graft, needed a slice for fortune to settle the tie 2-1.

In “DUFFED UP”, the Sun looks on with a gaping jaw as Damien Duff strikes a free kick from wide on the right.

It sails over the massed United defence, leaves United’s hapless American goalkeeper Tim Howard motionless and bounces untouched by another body into the net.

“TIM’S A BIT DIM,” says another Sun headline, which is a bit harsh since the paper says later in the piece how the goalie made some “fine” saves which kept United in the hunt until that 85th minute howler.

As it is, the money spent on bringing Howard in to stand between United’s posts looks like money not all that well spent.

For £100,000 more than the £2.3m United paid to import Howard from Major League Soccer, Great Britain could have bought an Olympic gold medal.

The Times reports that a total of £92m was spent under the country’s World Class Performance Programme over the four years leading up to the Athens Games to prepare Team GB for the summer and winter Olympics and the Paralympics.

And that means the cost of each medal won in Athens was £2.4m.

While we can argue about whether or not this is a good return on the investment or not – and given the paucity of gold used in Olympic gongs, can it ever be? – a report by the National Audit Office says that “tough decisions” must be made over which Olympic sports now deserve lottery money over the next four years.

Finally, it gives us no hint of any pleasure whatsoever to report, as the Sun does, that disgraced footballer Mark Bosnich is in line to be punched in the jaw.

In a made-for-TV fight, the ex-Chelsea goalkeeper – who was banned from the game for nine months for failing a drugs test and who oh-so innocently offered a Nazi salute to Spurs fans a few years back – is to step into the ring in a celebrity bout.

On the canvas, he will take on singing “bad-boy” Mark “The Mack” Morrison.

And here is the people’s champion. “I’m looking forward to this,” says Morrison. “I’m gonna take Bosnich on and I’m gonna beat him up.”

Set the video, sit back and enjoy…’

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

Forty Years Of Hurt

‘FORTY years ago when England’s cricketers last won a tour of South Africa, the Guardian reminds us, they played under the name MCC and drank cocktails at the all-white clubs.

One Dolly that Vaughan did hold onto

Now, four decades on, England are England, the Proteas have a black player in their midst and the Barmy Army of travelling England fans spurn cocktails with the brigadier and his wife for cans of industrial strength lager under a merciless sun.

Back then, England won the series by one game to nil; this time they return 2-1 winners, and, in truth, they were good for a bigger margin of victory.

But, as the Times reports, the draw secured in the final Test in Pretoria was good enough for the win, which earned them an overall win bonus of £327,000 and the new Basil D’Oliveira trophy. (How times change, indeed!)

“It’s the best moment for me since I became captain because we’ve really struggled with form,” says Michael Vaughan in the paper. “We’ve had to dig deep with mental resolve and we’ve come through.”

Never underestimate the power of confidence and the will to succeed. Simply put, it can be termed character – and it’s a quality not overly evident in the odious little scrote called Craig Bellamy.

In today’s instalment of the story that runs further than the Newcastle player, the Times says that Bellamy’s on his way from the club and then asks which clubs will be willing to sign him.

The teams mentioned are: Liverpool (his agent has connections at Anfield), Manchester City (how else do you follow the pending sale of the petulant Nicolas Anelka?), Aston Villa, Everton and Spurs (a club linked with any and every player on the market).

But our favourites are Inter Milan, the Italian giants who are Bellamy’s chosen team on his PlayStation: “A move abroad would appeal.”

And a move anywhere would also make sense for Rodney Marsh, who, the Independent reports, has been sacked from his job as a nodding head on Sky Sports for comments made about the Asian tsunami.

His offence was to tell a caller on You’re On Sky Sports that David Beckham wouldn’t be going to Newcastle “not after what the Toon Army did in Thailand”.

Marsh immediately apologied, saying: “My intention was to make a light-hearted football joke.”

You can, it seems, in this country send thousands of soldiers to fight a war based on lies and false evidence without a blemish to your reputation.

But tell a slightly off-colour joke and you’re out of a job quicker than you can say Ron Atkinson.

It really is a funny old game, as another jocular ex-footballer once said..’

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

Order Of The Boot

‘IF ever there was a player to epitomise the selfish, petulant greed in modern day millionaire footballers it is Craig Bellamy.

”Yep, it’s real gold”

If we are to believe the word of Graeme Souness and the Newcastle United chairman Freddie Shepherd, the latter today quoted in the Telegraph, the striker has “cheated” the club and its supporters.

“I wish to put the record straight regarding the Bellamy situation,” says Shepherd.

“He walked off the training ground saying his hamstring was tight, but what he failed to reveal in his interview was that he had told other members of the squad before training that he intended to feign injury.”

Bellamy is still denying the truth of that story and calling his manager a liar, but his time at Newcastle is surely up.

If he plays on then the club and the manager are damaged; if he leaves, the team lose a star player, but the manager retains control.

So, as the Sun says it’s “GET OUT OF TOON” for Bellamy, and “GET OUT OF ARSENAL” for the Gunners’ Jermaine Pennant.

In a story that calls to mind the pre-Wenger days at Arsenal, the 22-year-old winger was found to have driven his Mercedes Benz into lamppost at 6:20am last Sunday.

He then offered to have his breath tested by the local Aylesbury constabulary – a test he failed.

And that means he is now on his way to court and to Birmingham City on a loan deal until the season’s end, at which point his contract with Arsenal expires.

“He has shown since he was a youngster that he is a real talent,” says Birmingham manager Steve Bruce in the Sun.

“I hope he makes a big impact between now and the end of the season.”

Watch out, lampposts.

Meanwhile, we feel it is our duty to remind you that footballers are not typical of all sportsmen and there is much to be enjoyed and respected elsewhere.

In cricket, the Independent reports, there’s Andrew Flintoff, the wonderfully talented all-rounder whose performance with bat and ball have all but ensured that England will win their first series in South Africa for 40 years.

Others too chipped in admirably to the England cause, but it is Flintoff – he scored 77 runs and took two South African wickets – who takes the plaudits.

It’s a similar story with rugby union’s Martin Johnson, who could never have become England’s most successful and celebrated captain had it not been for his team-mates.

But even great players need a leader to cement them into a winning unit, and Johnson was just that person.

And now the World Cup-winning sportsman is calling it a day, announcing his retirement from the game on June 4.

“You know when it’s time to go,” the 35-year-old tells the Telegraph. “You’ve got to be out there for the right reasons.”

Isn’t that so, Craig Bellamy..?’

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

Bench Press

‘THE picture of Craig Bellamy, the unlovely Newcastle United striker, on the Independent’s back page is surprising in that it does not shows the Welshman offering a broad self-satisfied smirk to the camera.

Bellamy is congratulated by all his friends

To put the picture on context, Bellamy was warming the bench for his club’s trip to Arsenal and had just seen the Gunners secure a fine 1-0 win.

And he was unlikely to ever get on the pitch since, as the paper says, he had just had a “dramatic row” with his team’s manager Graeme Souness.

There are accusations that the striker feigned an injury because he didn’t want to play in the position Souness had ordered him to occupy.

After being detailed to play on the left side of a five-man midfield, the charmless so-and-so walked out of a training session and then reported back to camp with a “hamstring injury”.

Meanwhile, on the field of play, the Telegraph watched Arsenal “launch mission possible”, as the Gunners moved to a mere 10 points of Premiership leaders Chelsea.

Overhauling the free-spending Blues will be a major task – and one this column does not see happening – but it is possible and, while it remains so, Arsene Wenger says it’s a “challenge”.

Elsewhere in football, the Guardian has an idea of what happened to Jonathan Woodgate. The man who made a surprising move from Newcastle to Real Madrid last summer has been spotted in the doctor’s rooms.

And the news is grim indeed, with fears that the centre-back’s ruptured tendon in his left thigh – “an extremely complex and apparently mystifying injury” (see Bellamy) – may put an end to his career.

Poor him! And unlucky Akebono, the former Japanese sumo champion who has returned to the ring as a kick boxer of no discernible talent.

As the Times reports, the lumbering fighter has to date been knocked out six times in six fights, lasting less than 180 seconds in total.

“Anywhere else in the world, Akenbo’s humiliation would be a cause for mockery,” says the paper, which has clearly not noted the election of the saucer-eyed, untalented Bez as Big Brother’s top celebrity.

But in Japan, he is a hero, who in spite of his obvious failings epitomises the warrior spirit. And he vows to continue “until I win”.

Or until, he falls on his sword. Or, better still, Craig Bellamy…’

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

Sing When We’re Winning

‘RAIN in Pretoria may have dampened the spirits of the Barmy Army hoping to witness England’s first series win in South Africa for 40 years.

The lads pass over the picnic blanket

But we have the Premier League to thank for turning down the volume completely on the public slanging match between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Both managers have been told to end the verbal mud-slinging (and pizza-throwing) of the past few weeks or face immediate sanctions from the FA.

And that Guardian says the truce will come as a particular relief to the Metropolitan Police, worried that the managers were stoking up the tensions ahead of the Arsenal-Manchester United clash in 11 days’ time.

But if it was suggested to Ferguson that he follow Clement Attlee’s advice to Harold Laski in 1945 that “a period of silence on your part would be most welcome”, the same cannot be said of England cricket fans in South Africa.

There are people like the Telegraph’s Martin Johnson who get all sniffy about the Barmy Army and what he calls “their child-like desire for attention”.

In a piece in today’s paper, he bemoans their appearance at the Australian Open tennis yesterday where they came to cheer on Tim Henman.

“In cricket,” he writes, “traditional supporters now stay at home rather than run the risk of being seated next to these airheads, and the same fate awaits tennis while Henman remains at large.”

These, one imagines, are the traditional supporters still packing out the county grounds, the same men and women who would be in Pretoria even now were it not for the Barmy Army.

If the likes of Martin Johnson had his way, Test cricket would still be played as it always was – except that there would be only one man and his dog there to watch.

The people who are ruining cricket are not the Barmy Army, they are the dinosaurs at places like Lord’s who believe that anything more than a polite clap is tantamount to hooliganism.

How many of Martin Johnson’s traditional supporters would save up a year’s holiday to follow the England cricket team through the winter?

If the Barmy Army are in full voice over the next five days, that will probably mean that England are winning the Test match.

And that really is something to sing about…’

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

The Grecians Earn

‘EXETER City’s interest in this season’s FA Cup may have come to an end last night with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester United, but the memories will last a lifetime.

United’s stars earn more than Grecians

Not only will the Conference club be £1m better off for their two ties against the Premiership giants, but the 9,033 supporters who packed St James’s Park can for ever say “I was there”.

The Times puts it nicely: “United’s tie, Exeter’s triumph.”

This is what the FA Cup is all about – something that Rafael Benitez might like to reflect on after he fielded a second-string Liverpool side on Tuesday night.

Indeed, the Times says the biggest compliment Sir Alex Ferguson could pay Exeter was in his team selection with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo notable additions to the starting XI.

It was Ronaldo who opened the scoring for United and Rooney who finished it, but in the intervening 80 minutes it was “a performance of great defiance” from the minnows.

Great defiance is what England’s cricketers are going to have to show in the fifth and final Test against South Africa which starts tomorrow.

The Telegraph reports that the hosts are preparing to gamble all on a series-drawing victory at Centurion by preparing a bowler-friendly wicket and adding an extra bowling option to their side.

The paper says on yesterday’s evidence the pitch could have been flown in from Emerald City.

“It was,” it says, “a sickly, luminous green, the kind of colour municipal hospitals like to paint their walls.”

Even with another day under the Pretoria sun, it is not likely to be a wicket on which England can play for a draw.

England may just be trying to find 11 men who are fit enough to take to the field, but South Africa are looking at their options.

And the paper says we can expect to see Boeta Dippenaar, rather unfairly made the scapegoat for the fourth Test defeat, replaced by all-rounder Andrew Hall.

And Dale Steyn is set to get the chop, with Andre Nel coming in as his replacement – the 18th player South Africa will have used in the five matches (compared with England’s 13).

However, the Indy casts a critical eye over one of those 13 – Geraint Jones.

His poor performance at the Wanderers, it says, nearly cost England the game and it wonders whether his batting ability justifies his inclusion ahead of Chris Read.

It calculates that Jones has cost England 143 runs in his Test career so far – seven catches and one stumping missed – during which time he has scored 524 runs.

“There is no easy answer to this,” it concludes, “but a starting point could be a proper wicketkeeping coach. England have every other conceivable angle covered.”

Well, not quite. Perhaps someone could also teach captain Michael Vaughan to catch…’

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

Red-Faced Reds

‘THE perils of not putting out your first team were amply demonstrated last night as a second-string Liverpool XI were knocked out of the FA Cup by Burnley.

”Els Bells”

It used to be that the big clubs only played their reserves in the Carling Cup, but increasingly it is the case in the main knock-out tournament as well.

And, as Exeter proved at Old Trafford 10 days ago, it is a strategy fraught with danger.

While the papers report that it was an own goal blunder by Traore that cost Liverpool the match, the Times blames manager Rafael Benitez’s “bafflingly casual approach”.

“It was,” it says, “a calamity for Benitez, who by selecting a team of fringe players and unproven youngsters could be said to have inflicted on himself the first minor crisis of his reign as Liverpool manager.”

The Spaniard insisted that the club didn’t have the squad to compete in four tournaments.

“If I’d used more senior players, perhaps we might have had problems in the next game or in the Champions’ League,” he told the Guardian.

“We played against Tottenham Hotspur in the Carling Cup with young players and won, so we tried to do the same here. I don’t think it was a mistake. The fans will understand that we tried.”

No such luxury for England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher, who must try to find 11 fit players to take to the field against South Africa on Friday.

The news in the Independent is that all-rounder Andrew Flintoff has suffered a recurrence of the bone spur problem that dogged him last summer.

However, he is expected to have a cortisone injection and play – although he might need an operation if he is to be fit to play in the Ashes series in the summer.

Steve Harmison is also expected to play at Centurion, although there is no guarantee that his calf injury won’t get worse as a result.

Although a scan has shown no muscle tear, ideally, the paper says, he would have two weeks for the swelling to clear up.

There is better news on the rest of the walking wounded with Simon Jones (groin and back), Ashley Giles (dislocated thumb), Geraint Jones (bruised thumb) and James Anderson (gashed wrist) all expected to be fit to play.

It is just as well, for as so eloquently proved by Liverpool’s defeat and Manchester United’s decision to take their first team to Exeter for tonight’s replay, there’s a fine line between victory and defeat.’

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

The Whole Hogg

‘WITH only a couple of days to recover before the final Test match at Centurion, England will draw enormous heart from their thrilling victory in Johannesburg yesterday.

New patron saint of Yorkshire

Had South Africa held out for a draw as they did in Durban, one wonders how the England bowlers would have managed to raise themselves for one final effort.

As it is, it is South Africa who face that problem after what Neil Manthorp in the Guardian calls “as dispiriting a defeat as South Africa have suffered in the modern era”.

Although Matthew Hoggard and Marcus Trescothick are rightly the heroes of the piece after the former took seven second innings wickets and the latter made a brilliant 180, the hosts’ batting comes in for a lot of criticism.

“The revival bubble,” Manthorp continues, “did not merely burst on the fifth day, it exploded in spectacular fashion.

“The level of disappointment and anger from players and supporters alike was alarming: the self-belief rediscovered at Newlands had been snatched away with the deftness of a pickpocket.”

England captain Michael Vaughan, on the other hand, is in charge of a team which may not be playing at its best but nevertheless believes in its ability to win.

And he rated this as one of the best wins in recent history.

“To bowl out a South African team containing nine batters in two sessions was a truly amazing effort,” he said.

Writing in the Times, Simon Barnes says England were “dreadful” for much of the match – and certainly played worse than South Africa.

They won, however, because they expected to win.

“Winning is no novelty for them and so, when so many were injured, exhausted and ineffective, every one in the side played with the same predatory relish of the possibility of victory.”

Another Englishman who has long displayed such predatory relish is Michael Owen, but it appears the Real Madrid striker is becoming frustrated with his lack of opportunities in Spain.

The former Liverpool player came off the bench to score a seventh goal of the season and retain his record of having the best goals/minutes ratio in La Liga.

But still he is below Raul and Ronaldo in the pecking order – a situation, says the Independent, that he is unlikely to allow to carry on for too much longer.

“I want to be in the starting XI and I’ll never be happy sitting on the bench,” he said – prompting speculation of a move back to England.

Owen has now scored a goal every 110 minutes on the pitch, Ronaldo has a goal every 124 minutes but Raul has been on the pitch for 344.5 minutes for every one of his goals.

Jonathan Woodgate is missing…’

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

Test For England

‘WITH just one day to go in the fourth Test and with the series poised at 1-1, England’s tour of South Africa hangs in the balance.

Trescothick leads the England rain dance

With an overnight lead of 189 (but at a cost of five wickets), the fate of the whole tour will rest with how England’s bowlers perform today both with bat and ball.

Marcus Trescothick was still at the crease with 101 to his name when bad light brought a premature end to proceedings, but yet another mini-collapse has put England in a position of some peril.

They were coasting along at 175-2 when Michael Vaughan nicked one from Shaun Pollock.

Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff followed in quick succession to leave South Africa in with a chance of victory in a match they have always been fighting to save.

“Thus,” writes Mike Selvey in the Guardian, “a game which at times has bordered on the lower reaches of competence is set up for what may yet be a compelling final day.”

And yet it has not been without controversy – the Telegraph says Michael Vaughan is threatening legal action against the ICC after being fined the whole of his match fee for comments he made about the umpires at the end of Saturday’s play.

The England captain wasn’t happy with the consistency of the interpretation of the rules on bad light and said so (in mild terms) after the day’s play.

But Clive Lloyd insisted that making such comments constituted a serious breach of ICC rules – a decision about which Vaughan has no right of appeal.

Had the comments been made by a football manager, one suspects that no-one would have raised an eyebrow.

Certainly, Sir Alex Ferguson would be many thousands of pounds poorer given his ability to start a fight with all and any of his fellow managers.

Alan Hansen is right to point out that “the one common denominator whenever a major argument breaks out” is the Manchester United boss.

And Arsene Wenger has had enough, telling journalists that he will never answer another question on the subject of the red-faced Scot.

“He doesn’t interest me now and doesn’t matter to me at all,” he said. “I will never answer to any provocation from him any more.”

Wenger has enough to worry about with events on the pitch after his Arsenal side slipped to 10 points behind Chelsea with defeat at Bolton.

The Premiership looks to be all over – unlike the cricket in Johannesburg.’

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

Four Play

‘THERE is sports reporting – and there is the Sun.

”No sweat”

This is the paper that dares use its back page to tell the world that David Beckham thinks it would be good if Chelsea won the quadruple.

Day-vid does not tell us in Spanish; instead he opts to have another bash at speaking English – and without the need to wear a hat suspiciously covering up his ears.

“It is great for football there are teams going for these sorts of things,” says Dave of the Blues’ assault on four fronts. “And anything is possible.”

Well, not anything, Dave. For starters, it’s almost impossible to get a good, reliable PA is Madrid.

And it’s pretty darn hard for the Sun to mention cricket in its lead story unless England have been annihilated or a player has been caught sticking drugs up his nose.

But, thankfully, the Telegraph does note that England are playing a Test match in South Africa and that Andrew Strauss is fast emerging as one of the country’s greatest ever players.

Yesterday, the Johannesburg-born England opener hit a superb 147 runs as England reached 263 for the loss of four wickets.

This is nothing short of sensational – all the more so when the paper reminds us that in his 11 Tests thus far, Strauss has scored 1,202 runs at an average of 63.6 runs an innings.

British sportsmen like Strauss should be applauded loud and long. Here’s a player blessed with studious concentration, talent and dedication.

But only time will tell if he can stick his hair in a pony tail and wiggle his shaved backside into his wife’s knickers and so achieve true iconic status in the tabloids.

But however terrific Strauss is, football can not be ignored for long. And it’s a cautionary tale in the Independent.

The sad news for Leeds United’s abused supporters is that Sebastien Sainsbury has decided against buying the Yorkshire club.

This means that, although Leeds insist there are other parties interested in investing in the club, no offer is actually on the table.

And that is no good for a club that is still losing masses of money.

And when asked what this meant for the club, Leeds chairman Gerald Krasner made pained noises.

“Eventually it [administration] will happen,” says he. “It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow but unless something positive happens it will happen.”

So, if there are any Russian billionaires reading this, your help is urgently needed at one of the big names of English football.

And if you want to invest in Anorak – We’re No.1 in Leeds – you can have that, too…’

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

Fighting Talk

‘JOSE Mourinho, Chelsea’s cocksure manager, is making some more headlines this morning with his thoughts.

”You can’t come in here. Only Blues allowed…”

After last night’s 0-0 draw between his Blues and Manchester United in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final, Mourinho spoke of an incident at half-time that he says changed the game.

Quoted in the Telegraph, Mourinho said: “You saw one referee in the first half and another in the second half. I suggest the referee did not walk alone to the dressing room. There was someone with him. If the FA ask me, I can tell them.”

As mysteries go, this is not quite up there with “Who Threw The Pizza?”, and it loses what power it has when the Telegraph says that “there can be little doubt” the Chelsea manager was referring to Alex Ferguson.

His complaint seem to be that Fergie spared a word or seven in referee Neale Barry’s ear at the interval in an effort to influence him.

If this is true, and, as Mourinho says, the second half really was “fault after fault, diving after diving”, then the matter is one of great concern.

If this were, say, Italy, we would be raising the issue of match fixing.

And given Spurs’ goal that was never given in thier game at Old Trafford, talking of a plot to keep a stuttering Manchester United aloft.

Meanwhile, it’s better news for Adrian Mutu. The disgraced, cocaine-taking former Chelsea striker has, the Times reports, signed a five-year contract to play for Juventus.

After serving his seven-month ban imposed by the FA, Mutu will be free to play for the Italian giants and put the past behind him.

If that move looked unlikely when Chelsea sacked the Romanian, then the Telegraph’s story that Everton’s aggressive midfielder Thomas Gravesen is to play for Real Madrid is bizarre.

With Fernando Morientes on his way to Liverpool, there is a gap in the Madrid ranks and, rather than opting for another big name, Real are looking to buy the Dane for around £2m.

And that, as the paper says, could place a question mark over the future of David Beckham. Gravesen for Beckham – who would have thought that a season or two ago?

Meanwhile, there is some comforting news for British sports fans to be found in the Guardian, where Roger Federer says that Tim Henman will win a major tournament.

However, before we hang out the bunting for another Wimbledon and some more of that HRT-driven Henmania, the Swiss ace says that, although Wimbledon is “Tim’s best chance”, it is the competition he most wants to win.

Which makes Henman’s job as hard as it has ever been…’

Posted: 13th, January 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

Tin-Pot Soldiers

‘SUCH is the lust for glory that the Carling Cup might soon rival the FA Cup for our attention.

A nice trip up north

Last night, Watford took on a full-strength Liverpool at Anfield and were unlucky to lose the first-leg of their semi-final match by one goal to nil.

As the Times reports, this was no outing for the Reds’ reserves. This was a serious business, and Liverpool wanted to win.

And that gave them a problem, which the Times is right to point out.

“The trouble with taking the Carling Cup seriously,” it opines, “is that it leaves teams and managers open to embarrassment.”

In other words, it might just be that the smaller teams actually defeat the larger ones. And how terrible would that be for a sport that is increasingly dominated by a few big clubs.

At least Chelsea and Manchester United do not have that problem when they face each other tonight in the Carling Cup’s other semi-final.

Indeed, the only puzzler for many observers is working out how many goal the Blues will win by.

As the Telegraph says, while United need to rely on a clutch of reserves, Chelsea can just dip into their expensively assembled squad of proven talents.

Not that we have any sympathy with United, who have of late made it their business to pay fortunes for their players.

And when we consider, as the Times does, that United have won their last 16 semi-finals in all competitions, the Red Devils should perform better than they did against Exeter in the FA Cup.

And then there’s the Alex Ferguson factor. When his teams are not playing well, the charmless coach returns to type and does down the opposition.

“I don’t think it’s possible to win everything,” he tells the Telegraph. “I think you need a lot of luck.”

Sure you do. And Chelsea have had luck on their side this season. You also need a lot of players and the money to buy them. And Chelsea have those qualities in abundance.

Does Fergie still think it’s impossible for the Blues to win the lot?

It is no less improbable than Day-vid Beckham mastering a language. Having failed with English, the England captain has been heard having a stab at Spanish.

And the result is less that he’s murdered it and more that he’s just wounded the Spanish idiom a little.

The Telegraph was present as a “defiant” Becks spoke Spanish in public for the first time, delivering a steady stream of platitudes as he talked of Real Madrid’s chances of winning a tin pot or ten.

Q: Can Madrid really win the league?

Bolas de oro: “Es possible. Podemos ganar la liga, pero es muy dificil. Juntos podemos ganar titulos. (“My name is David, and I’m a nice man.”)

Q: Where do you prefer to play?

Bolas de oro: “Para mi, no es importante mi posicion.” (“With my wife and kiddies.”)

And so on and so on…’

Posted: 12th, January 2005 | In: Back pages | Comment

End Of The Lime

‘YESTERDAY’S draw for the fourth round of the FA Cup shows there might be some life in the old dog yet.


As the Telegraph says, former Spurs Messiah Glenn Hoddle’s visit to Highbury with his XI Wolves apostles will lead to some interesting terrace chants, and Oldham’s home derby against Bolton could be a cracker.

But the stand out game is that between Southampton and Portsmouth, in which new Saints coach Harry Redknapp will face the club he used to manage.

Given the animosity between the two sides, passions will run high in the Hampshire derby match – when the teams last met a 10-year-old boy, believed to be the youngest ever person convicted of football hooliganism, was banned from every game in England and Wales after rioting.

And Harry‘s doing his bit to whip things up into a frenzy by telling the Sun that without him Portsmouth would never have reached the Premier League.

Humble he’s not – although Harry can be generous and says that he’s prepared to shake the hand of Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric, the man who bankrolled Harry’s success. What a guy!

Meanwhile, another shy and retiring football figure is poised to take over at a new club.

The Independent reports that former Chelsea owner Ken Bates wants to invest £10m to buy a major stake in Leeds United.

Leeds fans too used to crushing defeats over the past couple of seasons may well consider this to be the final straw.

However, Bates did do well for Chelsea – although what would have happened had Roman Abramovich not come along to save the in-debt Blues, perhaps only Leeds fans can truly understand.

But there is worse news than Bates to Elland Road, and that can be found in the Telegraph where a scene of devastation meets a reader’s eyes.

The 90ft lime tree at Kent Country Cricket Club’s Canterbury ground is no more.

After 150 years of playing as Kent’s unofficial 12th fielder, it has succumbed to the deadly combination of heart-wood fungus and high winds.

Some 7ft of the tree remains planted in the turf at deep midwicket, but the rest has been lopped off.

The wood might now be chopped into memorial souvenirs, with the stump whittled down to resemble the form of an actual cricketer.

And given its size and mobility, Kent and England batsman Robert Key may well provide the ideal model…’

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

All Sayed And Done

‘IF you’re finding it hard to muster enthusiasm for the FA Cup, then a look through some of today’s press will not help lift your mood.

Barney slays ‘Grizzly’ Adams

Rather than celebrating football’s oldest knock-out competition, the Times leads its football review with a piece called “FROM ROMANCE TO HOLLOW FARCE” in which Britain’s foremost table tennis player, Matthew Sayed, tells us why the old tin pot has lost its lustre.

It’s nothing we’ve not heard before – the all-consuming Premier League, big clubs fielding reserve sides, the FA allowing Manchester United to forgo the tournament in 1999-2000 in preference to a jolly in Brazil.

But let’s be fair, if the Cup manages to prove anything, it is that the gap between a lower division journey man footballer and a gilded star of the elite need not be so very wide.

In holding Manchester Untied 0-0 at Old Trafford, Exeter City proved that their less-than-household names are every bit as good as United’s reserves who dream of making the big time and the big money.

And then there’s the curious case of Newcastle United. Although the Magpies saw off the spirited challenge of part-time Yeading by two goals to nil, they did so by a reliance on fitness and professionalism, rather than a superiority of skill.

But let us not discount the value of being fit as we read in the Guardian how Jonny Wilkinson has fallen victim to yet another injury.

There is some suspicion that Wilkinson will never get the chance to follow the magical kick in Australia that gave England the World Cup. He has not played for his country since.

And now, with the Six Nations on the near horizon, the player is in danger of missing the entire tournament for the second successive season, having damaged his medial ligament.

That’s hard luck on him.

And as the boy wonder of English rugby lies on his sick bed, he’d be forgiven for thinking of life beyond rugby.

He could employ his unerring sense of accuracy to good effect in come other field. He could play darts.

If Jonny ‘Blade’ Wilkinson does, he’ll have to beat Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld to be top dog at the oche.

As the Telegraph reports, the heavyweight player won his fourth BDO world championship last night, seeing off England’s Martin Adams.

And, as one commentator on the great game famously put it, there’s only one word for that – “magic darts!”’

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

Heads & Tails

‘ENGLAND duly lost the Third Test to South Africa yesterday, their first defeat in 14 months and the first such experience for two of their players.

Looking down and out

There was never much chance of England saving the game after the top order had fallen to a combination of poor luck, poor judgement and Shaun Pollock on Wednesday.

But what little hope there was vanished with the dismissal of Graham Thorpe to the new ball and it was only a gutsy effort from the tail-enders (with Steve Harmison top-scoring with an entertaining 42) that prolonged the innings to mid-afternoon.

While the papers line up to criticise England, Michael Vaughan is right to point out that a single defeat doesn’t make this a poor side.

As the Indy points out, Vaughan’s inability correctly to call the fall of a coin has been a massive factor.

The loss of the toss in this match was especially crucial, giving South Africa’s bowlers four days rest to England’s two.

But it wasn’t really the bowlers who lost this match (albeit Steve Harmison is nowhere near the same level at which he was operating last year).

It was a combination of brilliant batting from Jacques Kallis and the correspondingly poor batting from the England top order.

The Indy puts that down to a combination of complacency and lack of preparation.

Certainly, application seems to a problem – in Cape Town, batsmen reached double figures in 16 of the 22 visits to the crease but no-one went on to make 50.

All of which is put into perspective by the picture on the front of the Telegraph’s sports pages, which shows what until just over a week ago was the Galle cricket ground in Sri Lanka.

It’s worth reminding ourselves at times like that that cricket is just a game.

And it is worth reminding people like Robbie Savage that there are people a lot worse off than him.

That’s what Birmingham City chairman David Sullivan does in this morning’s papers, blasting his want-away midfielder a moaner and vowing that the club will not give in to his transfer demands.

Sullivan says Savage’s reason for wanting to move to Blackburn had everything to do with money and little to do with wanting to closer to his sick parents.

“I find his attitude sickening and depressing,” he says.

“He signed a new four-year contract and then, when he was offered more money by a rival club, thought he could ignore it and walk away on the cheap.

“We all have problems in life that we have to overcome.”

And some much bigger than others…’

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

An Ideal Husband

‘VINKA Mijovic, 32, from Garas, Serbia did not want much from her husband. All he had to be was to a) be a man and b) be with her. Oh, and if he had a few quid to spare, so much the better.

And wealthy Miodrag Tomovic, 68, fitted the bill. He would never complain. He would never leave her. He would never even raise his voice in anger.

Mijovic had to have him. So she bribed a local registrar to sign a marriage certificate saying the couple had both turned up for the wedding, and bribed two friends to be the best man and a witness to the fake event

She had to bride them because her man had gone and died before he could be taken up the aisle.

She kept the death a secret for two weeks before suddenly announcing it and organising a lawyer to get his fortune turned over to her.

But the scam was exposed after relatives complained to police and the dead man’s signature was found to have been forged.

She’s now been jailed for 18 months.’

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

A Side Under Strain

‘AT the time of writing, England’s chances of saving the Third Test against South Africa are about the same as Abu Hamza carving out a career as a professional juggler.

And with him goes hope of an England recovery

And the news in this morning’s papers is decidedly gloomy for England fans with reports that Andrew Flintoff might not be able to bowl in the next two matches.

The Indy reports that the all-rounder is suffering from a side strain and was sent for a scan at the close of play.

“But,” it says, “bowling injuries in this area do not just go away and they can take up to six weeks to recover from.”

Coach Duncan Fletcher insists that it is just a bruise and is not the result of his being bowled too much.

But he will have been distinctly unhappy at the way in which England’s batsmen have played throughout this match.

If Andrew Strauss was unlucky to be given out lbw, then Robert Key (out stumped) and Michael Vaughan (caught hooking) have only themselves to blame for their dismissals.

There was certainly no need for a video umpire in either case, but in football the big talking point is again today over the use of technology to help referees.

The Telegraph canvasses a range of opinion in the wake of Spurs’ disallowed “goal” at Old Trafford – and predictably it is divided.

But referee Graham Poll comes to the defence of the linesman Rob Lewis, who failed to signal that, following Roy Carroll’s blunder on Tuesday night, the ball had crossed the line.

“His positioning was correct,” he argues, “his fitness enabled him to make up a lot of ground in the short time available and he was unable to say with any degree of certainty that the whole of the ball had crossed the line.”

If so, he must have been the only one of 70,000 people in Old Trafford who was unable to say so with certainty as the ball was at least a yard into the net.

Of course, the person with the best view was Carroll himself – and it is clear that he knew perfectly well that a goal had been scored.

If manager Alex Ferguson is so quick to accuse Bolton’s Tal Ben Haim of cheating in his reaction to Wayne Rooney’s push, then surely he should level the same charge against his keeper.

However, such is the mad world of football that Poll insists that, even if Carroll had admitted that the ball had crossed the line, the referee should not have given it.

In cricket, batsmen may get a lot of stick for not walking even when they know they’ve got a faint nick, but at least the ones who do walk don’t risk getting overruled by the umpire.’

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

It’s All Over

‘FOR almost 40 years, we have pored over TV replays and still pictures trying to work out whether Geoff Hurst’s second goal in the 1966 World Cup final actually crossed the line.

Like many of us, the referee refused to believe Spurs scored at Old Trafford

But you don’t have to be a Russian linesman to know whether the ball crossed the line at Old Trafford last night for what would have been a winning goal for Spurs.

All you need is a very long tape measure to calculate exactly by how much the ball was over the line before Manchester United keeper Roy Carroll scooped it out of his net.

The Telegraph, which includes a picture of the “goal” on the front of its sports pages, estimates that it was at least a metre.

But amazingly that wasn’t enough for the officials – linesman Ray Lewis and referee Mark Clattenburg apparently didn’t see the incident which followed a terrible mistake by Carroll.

Unsurprisingly, Spurs boss Martin Jol was furious.

“It was not just a couple of centimetres over the line,” he said. “It was a metre. It’s a disgrace. We feel robbed.”

More surprisingly, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson agreed.

“Technology should be used,” he said, “and we could start off with the goal-line thing.”

However, lose or draw Manchester United look to be out of the race for the Premiership title with Chelsea now enjoying an 11-point lead over then and a seven-point lead over Arsenal.

Nor does there appear to be any way back for England’s cricketers who have started off 2005 as poorly as they so brilliantly went through 2004.

The batting collapsed for the second time in a week, with England being bowled out for a lamentable 163 on what still looks like a decent track.

And the bowling didn’t fare a whole lot better as South Africa chose not to enforce the follow-on and built up a lead of 462 runs by the end of the day.

The Times thinks it sees an element of safety-first in the decision not to put England back in – but the result is likely to be the same.

As it says, five sessions on a dry pitch should be ample for South Africa to take the 10 wickets needed for victory.

While Ashley Giles explains the two collapses to the Guardian as “we’re not doing something right”, Geoff Boycott is rather more forthright in the Telegraph.

“It was like watching lemmings leaping over the cliff edge,” he says.

Or not quite over the cliff edge, as they say at Old Trafford…’

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

Unhappy New Year

‘ENGLAND’S cricketers may have won 11 of the 13 Test matches they played in 2004, but yesterday they needed no reminding that this is a new year.

The arrows of outrageous fortune

And if they are not to start off 2005 with a first Test defeat since the third Test in Sri Lanka 14 months ago, they might need another Durban-like miracle.

A weary looking England subsided to 95-4 on a benign Cape Town pitch last night in reply to South Africa’s first innings score of 441.

And today they will struggle even to save the follow-on unless they can somehow rouse themselves after the best part of two energy-sapping days in the field.

The lost toss (Michael Vaughan’s third of this series and tenth in 12 overseas Tests as captain) suddenly looks even more costly after the exertions of Durban.

Derek Pringle, in the Telegraph, concedes that fatigue has been and may be today a factor in England’s sub-par performance – but it was the late wicket of Andrew Strauss that has really put England in trouble.

The Middlesex opener chopped the ball onto his stumps in the penultimate over last night soon after becoming the fourth quickest Englishman to 1,000 Test runs (after Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton and Wally Hammond).

And with Robert Key out for a duck and Vaughan continuing his worrying run of poor form, England suddenly looked in trouble.

In circumstances like these, they should perhaps look to a man with a very similar winning record.

Phil “The Power” Taylor had before last night won 11 of the last 14 world darts titles – albeit spread not over a calendar year but a decade and a half.

And, although below his imperious best last night, he made it 12 out of 15 in beating Mark “Flash” Dudbridge 7-4 at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet.

“It was the most difficult win of the lot for me because it gets harder and harder as I get older,” the champion told the Independent afterwards.

“I practised very hard for this tournament but you can’t practise the pressure or the atmosphere.”

Something that Robert Key, for one, knows only too well…’

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

Paying The Penalty

‘OKAY, so when have we heard this before?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

England qualify for the summer’s major football tournament with a brave 0-0 draw at the home of their major rival and come in to it full of hope.

They qualify from their group in second place, a late goal having deprived them of the top spot – as a young teenage sensation captures the world’s imagination.

They draw their first game in the knock-out stage 2-2, but only after a headed Sol Campbell goal had been controversially disallowed (by a referee who is then hounded by England fans).

And they lose on penalties…

Yes, there was more than a hint of the 1998 World Cup about this year’s European Championship failure, even to the pillorying of David Beckham in the aftermath.

Beckham’s fault on this occasion was not to get sent off – if only! – but to cap a series of lacklustre performances with a botched penalty.

The ground moved for the England skipper, not judging by his text messages for the first time that year, and he ended up sending the vital kick into orbit.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, all managed to overcome the shifting tectonic plates and retain their footing, dumping England out of Euro 2004 in the quarter-final stage.

There was a sense of déjà vu too about much of the sporting year as footballers disgraced themselves on and off the pitch, Phil “The Power” Taylor won the world darts crown and England’s cricketers carried all before them.

Sorry? Yes, it may be hard to believe but England’s much-derided cricket side won 11 out of the 12 Tests they have played this calendar year, including a record eight in a row.

This didn’t stop the Sun laying into captain Michael Vaughan in one of the most spectacularly inept bits of sports journalism of our time.

It’s a mad world when Vaughan, as the most successful England captain ever, can get pilloried, while Paula Radcliffe is lionised for failing to complete not one but two races.

Britain’s top athlete broke down in tears two-thirds of the way through the Olympic marathon and followed it up days later by pulling out halfway through the 10,000m.

But that was soon forgotten as Kelly Holmes made history in winning both the 800m and 1,500m, the men’s 4x100m team won an improbable gold and the men’s coxed four snatched a dramatic gold in the rowing.

All in all, it was a successful Olympics for Britain – which meant we got about half as many medals as Australia.

In tennis, Tim Henman gallantly failed to win any Grand Slams, but he did confirm his place as the best British man for half a century by reaching the semi-finals of the French and US Opens.

In rugby, England spent most of the year suffering from a thundering post-World Cup hangover, which they only started to shake off towards the end of the year.

In golf, Europe thrashed the Americans in the Ryder Cup by the kind of margin by which they used to beat us.

And Tiger Woods was knocked off the top of the world rankings by Fijian Vijay Singh.

But, as usual, darts provided the most enduring image of the sporting year when Andy “The Viking” Fordham pulled out of his showdown with Phil “The House” Taylor suffering from heat exhaustion.

Paula Radcliffe knows how he feels…’

Posted: 24th, December 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment