Back pages | Anorak - Part 84

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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

Talking Frank

‘CLAUDIO Ranieri may have rightly got the blame for Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat in Monaco during the week, but what of the roles played by Roman Abramovich and Peter Kenyon?

If he does sod all, Lampard can be the next Veron, Crespo, Geremi…

The Russian billionaire may have more money than Croesus, but wasting it on expensive flops like Juan Sebastian Veron is not just bad business. It unsettles a team.

If you look at it, most of Chelsea’s best performing players were at Stamford Bridge before Abramovich arrived with his ill-gotten riches.

And, says the Mail, Chelsea could lose the best of the lot, Frank Lampard, if they don’t concede to his not unreasonable demands that he get paid the same as some of the expensive overseas flops around him.

Lampard’s agent Steve Kutner confirmed that talks with the club had broken down over the midfielder’s demand for parity with Veron and Claude “Knock me down with a feather” Makelele.

“Kenyon,” the Mail says, “has indicated that will not happen and, unbelievably, Chelsea have now put themselves in a position where they risk alienating a player who is an overwhelming favourite of the fans and seen by them as the heart of the team.”

The Star says Lampard is Inter Milan’s £20m top summer target – a story no doubt put around by the player’s agent, but by no means implausible.

Ranieri was right when he said Abramovich knows nothing about football, but it seems that Kenyon is as much of a knucklehead as his boss.

As the Express lines up Spanish winger Joaquin as Chelsea’s next target, the Mirror has news of a true transfer coup – Rivaldo is joining Bolton.

We’ll say that again – Rivaldo is joining Bolton.

The Brazilian, a World Cup winner and former World Footballer Of The Year – has agreed a two-year contract and will turn out at the Reebok next season.

Meanwhile, David Beckham’s future is up in the air after Enrique Sobrino, the millionaire bidding for control of Real Madrid, accused him of causing problems at the club.

“The scandal has been very damaging to the club,” he said. “We want our players to be stars for footballing reasons only. All this about Beckham has caused a bad atmosphere.”

But not nearly as bad as having a potential future president slagging off the club’s top players from the sideline.’

Posted: 23rd, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Tinkering While Roman Fumes

‘“ANY old tinkerer can undermine a team’s performance…to detonate it as comprehensively as Ranieri did takes tinkering genius.”

‘Now, one at a time. Marcel, say sorry to Fernando…’

So say Giles Smith in the Times, a Chelsea fan who is none too happy with events in Monaco.

But in the spirit of fair play (and that does not include Claude Makelele and, perhaps, his fellow Chelsea player Marcel Desailly), the paper does list a few moments when the Tinkerman got it right.

So many players and changes are made in the list that to repeat them all here, let alone attempt to make any sense of them, would take an age.

And we, like Ranieri, do not have long. Better to turn to the Telegraph and see what his players now think of him.

You may remember how Chelsea’s stars stood behind their manager after their defeat of Arsenal. They would fight for him. Hey, they might even die for him.

Now, as the paper reports, one confided: “Claudio made a complete cock-up.” “What a dickhead!” came a text message from within the post-match dressing room.

“What the fuck was all that about?” asked another player after the game. “I bet Abramovich feels as shit as we feel,” says Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

But let’s turn away from such matters and look to the Telegraph and the snooker World Championships.

News from Sheffield is that ‘Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan is back to something approaching the form that once made him the world’s best player.

But his 10-6 victory over Stephen Maguire did not pass without incident.

Besides his decision to play while wearing an Alice band on his head, O’Sullivan could find himself in hot water for making what the paper terms a “gesture with his finger” after missing a difficult pot.

Not that Ronnie is too upset.

“So what?” says he. “Frustration’s good. It shows how passionate I am about the game. I’m here to win the tournament. If they want to fine me, they can – I’ve got plenty of money, so I’ll pay.”

But O’Sullivan knows that his route to redemption in the eyes of the British public and its media is to do as Ranieri did and cry.

Then everyone will love him – for a few days at least…’

Posted: 22nd, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Cheats Don’t Prosper

‘HAVING already dictated his own suicide note in telling a Spanish newspaper that Roman Abramovich “knows nothing about football” (a claim he dismisses in the Telegraph as a joke), Claudio Ranieri’s dream of leaving the Blues with the Champions’ League title is all but dead and buried.

The Tinkerman signs his own death warrant

And the papers are united in the opinion that Ranieri, the so-called Tinkerman, is to blame for his side’s 3-1 defeat to Monaco.

“”TINKER BLUE IT,” says the Sun of the Italian’s tactics that saw Hernan Crespo end up on the right wing.

“Chelsea falter as tinkering fails Ranieri,” says the Independent’s headline. “Tinkerman gets his comeuppance,” adds the Telegraph.

It should not have been so. With scores tied at one goal apiece, and Chelsea holding their own, the Londoners benefited from two bits of rough justice from Swiss referee Urs Meier.

The first incident, noticed by the Sun (“IT’S CON WRONG”) saw Marcel Desailly stay on the field despite knocking his elbow against the skull of Monaco’s outstanding Fernando Morientes.

The second was outright cheating. In “WHAT A CHEAT”, the Sun watches as Chelsea’s Claude Makelele receives a retaliatory tap on the back of the head from Vassilis Zikos and goes down like he’s been shot.

Result: Zikos off and the Frenchman and Chelsea’s reputations damaged.

What’s worse for the Blues – as if things could get worse – is that Manchester United are now just a single point behind Chelsea in the Premiership.

Last night, the Indy reports, United beat Charlton 2-0 and edged toward second place in the table and automatic qualification into next year’s Champions’ League.

Meanwhile, in the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, Jimmy White was beaten in snooker’s World Championships by one Barry Pinches.

The Sun hears the people’s champion call his 10-8 defeat a “complete disaster” and say how disappointed he is after another failure at the sport’s top table.

Seemingly doomed to be the greatest player never to be world champion, White must wait until next year for success.

And, barring a shock, so too must Chelsea…’

Posted: 21st, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Hand Of God

‘THERE is the scent of irony detectable in the Guardian’s picture of the dangerously ill Diego Maradona.

‘Have you seen these men? If so, please contact Mr C Ranieri…’

In the shot that sits on the cover of the paper’s G2 supplement, one of the best footballers ever to have raised his right hand (as he did against Peter Shilton all those moons ago) gives the world a kind of sideways thumbs-up.

The difference is that whereas last time the Argentine waved an arm in our face he wanted only to cheat England, this time he wants to cheat death.

And we should have some sympathy for the man, whose physique has succumbed to the ravages of excess.

But from what was to what will be, and the Sun’s lead story on Chelsea’s Champions’ League semi-final tie against Monaco, the first leg of which is to be played tonight.

“I want to say thank you to all England. I’ve been so delighted fans have shown me all this support,” says Chelsea coach Claudio Ranieri, whose future will become clearer after tonight’s match.

“I’m in love with English football and I don’t think that will ever change and I want to stay in England whatever happens at Chelsea. England is the best place to work.”

It certainly is when you’re winning. But if Ranieri does leave the Blues, as seems increasingly likely, we wonder what a few months toil at a new club, say, Tottenham, will do to his sunny disposition.

But our attention is momentarily diverted off the Italian by what appears to be another Argentine footballer. Do our eyes deceive us or is that really Juan Sebastian Veron?

It is! Call off the search party. Veron is alive!

Some of you will remember that Chelsea bought the player from Manchester United, billing him as the greatest midfielder there was.

He then disappeared. And now, just as Chelsea reach for the very pinnacle of European football, wouldn’t you just know it, but there he is, smiling and speaking to the Telegraph.

“Losing the semi-final is not an option,” says the man. Only it is; it is one of two.

But Veron can lead the Blues to glory. The Guardian is of the opinion that the Argentinean will start tonight’s game, replacing the industrious but largely ineffectual Scott Parker on Chelsea’s problematic right.

If Veron does play, then we hope Chelsea win. If they were to lose, Veron might pick up another injury and melt into the ether once more…’

Posted: 20th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Beckham’s Blues

‘DAVID Beckham could be on his way out of Real Madrid, and not only because he has exhausted the Spanish capital’s supply of beautiful women.

‘We are just good friends,’ says Day-vid

The Sun reports that the club could decide to cash in on the England captain if millionaire Enrique Sobrino replaces Florentino Perez as president this summer.

“Beckham has to change,” said Sobrino, who lead an anti-Perez group of 18 influential businessmen. “I would listen to offers for him.”

And that, according to the Sun, would have Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich reaching once again for his cheque book.

And the good women of Chelsea locking up their daughters…

Meanwhile, Abramovich’s Chelsea are in danger of seeing their season collapse, according to influential midfielder Frank Lampard.

He tells the Express that the team needs to rediscover its form and energy for tomorrow night’s European Cup semi-final against Monaco.

“We looked stronger as a team in the build-up to the Arsenal game,” he admitted.

Meanwhile, England’s cricketers get stronger as a team, winning the first one-day international against West Indies yesterday by three wickets.

And the man responsible, says the Mail, was wicketkeeper Chris Read, who responded to being dropped from the Test team with a vital 27 off just 15 balls.

Captain Michael Vaughan described the knock as “a gem”, adding: “If he had a point to prove, he did it in a terrific manner.”

Someone else with a point to prove was snooker player Andy Hicks, whose match against Australian Quinten Hann almost ended in a fight.

The Aussie taunted Hicks during the match about the fact that he had beaten him on the past three occasions they had met.

The left-hander responded by winning the match 10-4 and then, while shaking Hann’s hand, said: “Well, you won’t be in the top 16 next year.”

Hardly explosive stuff, but it clearly riled Hann, who had to be kept away by the referee as he replied: “You’re short and bald and you can have me outside whenever you want.”

What price Alan McManus breaking his cue over John Higgins’ head later in the week?’

Posted: 19th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

No Laughing Matter

‘THE pressure of being a football manager or a football player can do funny things to people.

‘And the Premier League title goes to…’

While the Mail hears the mother of Manchester United goalkeeper Tom Howard relate how her son’s Tourette’s Syndrome has got worse because of the stress at Old Trafford, we are much more concerned for the health Gerard Houllier.

It is not the physical state of the Liverpool boss that has us worried, despite his history of heart problems, but his mental well-being.

The Mirror publishes a back-page picture of Houllier in conversation with fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger, in which he is quoted as suggesting that not only will he still be in charge at Anfield next season but his Liverpool team will win the Premiership title.

This will come as something of a surprise to most observers who have seen few signs of progress at Anfield in the past few years, not least the Liverpool fans themselves who had to sit through their team’s 1-0 home defeat to Charlton at the weekend.

Even the Mirror can’t keep a straight face at the suggestion.

The facts are that Liverpool have lost 10 league games already this season – 10 more than Arsenal – and are 29 points behind the champions-elect.

By contrast, they are only 17 points above the relegation zone, which would surely suggest that they have more chance of going down next season than they do of winning the title.

Houllier can at least dream, which is a lot more than the poor cricketers of Zimbabwe can do as the game in the strife-torn country descends into anarchy.

The Times reports that the Zimbabwe Cricket Union is to terminate the contracts of 13 white players who aired their grievances in a statement on Wednesday…and to sue them for breach of contract.

The group of 13 said they were unable to tolerate any more the “racial and ethnic discrimination in the selection of the national team” and called for the replacement of selectors who did not have the requisite cricket experience.

The ZCU responded by replacing not the two selectors to whom the group were referring – Max Ebrahim and Stephen Mangongo, but the three who were properly qualified.

To add to the air of farce, one of the replacements, Mpumelelo Mbangwa, only became aware of his new job when he read about it on the Internet and promptly declined it.

One of the rebels tells the Times that the issue goes across racial lines and some of the black players picked to play against Sri Lanka in the first of two one-day internationals next week do not want to play.

Meanwhile, the ICC sits by and does nothing, despite the prospect of farce next week as Zimbabwe puts out a team comprising in the words of one rebel’s father “a bunch of schoolboys”.

Let’s hope England can now take the brave course of action and refuse to go on tour – and dare the craven body that governs the world game to sue them.’

Posted: 16th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Hurricane Warning

‘IT’S not that often a sportsmen makes it to the Sun’s Page 3; but don’t fret, today brings no picture of a G-string-clad Paul Gascoigne holding a pair of hilarious comedy breasts.

Alex had pioneered the huge invisible spliff

No nudity is involved, which is a blessed relief when you learn that the man in the frame is none other than snooker player Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

The story goes that in attending a stage play about his life, the former world champion openly smoked a joint in the stalls.

When asked to desist, the 55-year-old sauntered over to the bar at London’s Arts Theatre and carried on smoking.

Another request to stop, and the Hurricane was in the street, finishing his smoke before returning to reoccupy his seat.

A theatre employee said: “If you put on a play about his wild antics and he turns up in person, it’s all you can expect. I think some of the audience thought it was part of the show.”

Nothing more is said about the event but, given the nature of most small-scale theatre productions, Higgins may have hit on the ideal way to allow audiences to sit through fringe shows without growing restless.

Of course, the biggest show in this town or any other remains David Beckham. And the latest sporting news is that England’s captain is being wooed by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

The Express says that the Russian oligarch has offered Beckham a personal invitation to join his impressive array of midfield talent.

Meanwhile, someone eyeing a move in the other direction, from England to Spain, is Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who, the Sun says, is ready to leave Old Trafford for either Barcelona or Real Madrid.

And joining Van Nistelrooy in the rush to leave Manchester will be Diego Forlan and Brazilian flop Kleberson.

United fans will not lament the passing of the two average South Americans, but the departure of the Dutch ace will surely hit morale.

But at least the United leavers will all be moving on. Francis Jeffers, the player whose head is a flesh and bone tribute to the FA Cup, is not sure what happens next.

The Mail says that, at age 23, the Scouser is not wanted by his current employers Arsenal and not liked by Everton, the club he was loaned out to.

The paper picks over what it sees as the bones of the striker’s career to date and concludes that “the reality of his situation must be quite sobering”.

Although, his £30,000 grand a week wages can buy him a few bottles of something cheerful…’

Posted: 15th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

One Lion On Her Chest

‘WELL done to the Times’ Martin Samuel for coming up with the perfect sporting solution to the Beckhams’ trouble and strife: let her sing England’s song for Euro 2004.

The Beckhams say they are closer than ever

We wholeheartedly agree, and cannot help give a wry smile at the idea of each of Day-vid’s incoming text messages being heralded by a downloaded ringtone version of One Lion On My Chest.

But while we wait for that, and for Blazin’ Squad to fall on their swords, the Mail’s spotlight falls upon Real Madrid’s training ground.

When the so-called galacticos (mostly so-called by papers like the Mail when things were going well in Madrid) arrived for training yesterday, they were in for shock.

The fans, who usually scream the players’ names and cheer on their every touch, unfurled a large banner.


Given David Beckham’s grasp of the Spanish idiom, the message would, most likely, not have affected him that much. He probably took it with a smile and blew a kiss to the adoring crowd, as he believed the message asked him to do.

But to help him more fully understand, the Mail gets out its dictionary and translates. It now reads: FOR YOU WHORES AND MONEY. FOR US, INDIGNATION AND REPRESSION.”

Chances are quite high that David is still not that sure as to the meaning of those words, especially the second part, so we will put it in simple terms: WE ARE UNHAPPY.

The Madrid fans are under the moon and as sick as English parrots after a night out on the tiles in Benidorm.

But sport has so much more to offer us than just David Beckham. No, really it does. It has Manchester United.

And the news is that not only is the Old Trafford outfit closing in on second spot in the Premiership thanks to a win over Leicester last night and Chelsea’s failures, but that Roy Keane, the team’s captain, is making a return to the international fold.

The Express says that the man who said he never would play for Ireland again is making himself available for the Republic’s World Cup qualifying campaign.

And the Irish had best win all those games or else Roy will not be pleased. Hey, he may even walk off and vow never to play for the team…again.’

Posted: 14th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Life Of Brian

‘THANKS to Brian Lara, we now fully realise how well England’s cricketers have performed to win the series in the Caribbean.

Brian Lara hears the score from Villa Park

Three up in the four-match series, England travelled to Antigua in search of a whitewash. And then the West Indies’ beleaguered captain came into bat and scored an unbeaten 400 runs.

The Mail was there to see the mammoth innings, the largest total ever hit by a player in a single knock, which came ten years after the same man put England to the sword on the same ground with a then record 375.

This time, Lara took 12 hours and 52 minutes to complete his quadruple hundred, facing 582 balls and hitting 43 fours and four sixes.

It’s a wonder he had the energy left after that lot to jump for joy and talk of how it gave him a “great feeling” in a post-marathon interview.

When the chips were down, Lara came good. As they say, form is temporary; class is permanent.

And so it is that Chelsea lost 3-2 to Aston Villa at the weekend, all but surrendering the Premiership tile to Arsenal.

The number of games left and points available still allow room for the Blues to come good, but the Mirror is more interested in another number – the eight players Claudio Ranieri changed from Chelsea’s previous match.

The paper says that such tinkering will go against the Italian when he discusses his future at the club with Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon later this week.

But Ranieri wants us and Kenyon to know that the defeat that saw Chelsea fall seven points behind Arsenal with one fewer game to play was not his fault.

“I thought we had eight fresh players who would be able to run around better than Villa but it didn’t happen,” he said.

“I’m used to being criticised for my rotation and I accepted that criticism at the start of the season. But I kept doing it and now all the players should be used to it.”

But all footballers ever really want to get used to is winning football matches. And when that stops happening, things can turn quickly sour.

Just look at David Beckham. Not so long ago, he could do no wrong.

But today the Sun reports that in light of Real Madrid’s 3-0 home defeat to humble Osasuna, Becks has been dubbed Forrest Gump by the Spanish press.

“Beckham under siege and alone,” shouts one paper’s headline. “Suicide in the Bernabeu,” says another.

Life may well be a box of chocolates, as Forrest’s mama once told him, and if so, right now Beckham’s being faced with a tray of orange creams…’

Posted: 13th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Blowing Doubles

‘ON paper at least, Chelsea’s chances of winning the Champions’ League were enhanced still further last night when holders AC Milan were knocked out in sensational style.

The Great Escape

Claudio Ranieri still captures the main headlines, with the Telegraph saying how he and his side plan to win this season’s Premiership as well, but the story of the day comes from La Coruna.

In northern Spain, Deportivo thrashed European Cup holders AC Milan 4-0, overturning a 1-4 deficit.

The final four vying for the biggest prize in club football is now known. And with the lesser names of Porto, Deportivo and Monaco in the silken bag, Chelsea have every chance of winning the cup.

Just as Arsenal have every chance of fishing what until a week ago was a spectacular season empty handed.

The Independent’s news that the Gunners will have to make do without Thierry Henry rubs a large does of salt into an already festering wound.

For Chelsea, losing a player would be no big thing – they have so very many of them he could get lost in the crowd. But for Arsenal, a team the paper says are playing the season with just 12 men, it’s a big blow.

“Chelsea are on the way up,” says Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, “just when we are on the way down a bit.

“We have crossed each other…We’ve now lost a bit of freshness and belief.”

A lack of belief in a team that is yet undefeated in the Premier League says something for the standards set at Highbury.

But, as the Sun reports, Liverpool are hopeful of doing what no other side have managed and plan to beat the Gunners in the league this Friday.

And Paul Scholes says that, if Arsenal are to win, they’ll have to toughen up a bit.

This is a rather odd comment on a team that managed to cause a fight at the end of the match at Old Trafford and boast an unenviable disciplinary record.

But it’s Paul Scholes talking and, since he plays for Manchester United, the Sun must hear him out.

Not that there is not too much to hear. Scholes is one of the game’s quieter players and merely says of his FA Cup semi-final foul on Arsenal’s Jose Antonio Reyes that “there are always going to be tackles in big games like that” and that he’s not bothered about being seen as the bad guy by the London outfit.

The only surprise is that this non-story should take precedence over the Deportivo result, which the Sun reduces to an afterthought.

Perhaps if the Spaniards had texted the result to David Beckham, we’d be hearing more about it?’

Posted: 8th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Dead Man Dancing

‘IF Claudio Ranieri is a dead man, he’s not walking – he’s dancing a victory jig and crying real tears of joy.

Last night, his Chelsea did what they had not done in their previous 17 attempts and beat Arsenal, shooting down the Gunners 2-1 and so progressing into the semi-finals of the Champions’ League.

“It’s difficult to kill me,” says Ranieri in the Telegraph. “I may be ‘dead’ but I will still continue to work. I don’t stand still.”

Indeed he does not, and the Italian now leads his team to Monte Carlo for a date with Monaco, who also defied the odds to see off Real Madrid.

There is much to say about the Chelsea game, with the Independent watching Arsenal change from champions into “chumps” after surrendering a one-goal lead.

But these days football is less and less about two halves and more about the haves and have nots. And Wimbledon has not.

The Dons now have even less, having lost to Sunderland and with that defeat lost their Division 1 status.

The Guardian looked on as 4,800 fans (2,300 of which were in Milton Keynes to support Sunderland) stood and stared as the team that gave football a shot of true romance when it won the FA Cup in 1988 slid back into obscurity.

This fall, and the club’s previous rise from the amateur ranks, the paper charts with the aid of a graph, a rising – and now falling – line that begins with Wimbledon’s election to the football league in season 1977-78.

How times have changed from the late Seventies! Now a footballer is less likely to mingle with fans in the local pub than he is to sign an autograph hunter’s book, at least if he plays for Manchester United.

The Times hears that Manchester United’s ban on its players signing shirts and memorabilia outside the team’s training ground has been adopted by Liverpool and Everton.

The reason is not that Everton’s Duncan Ferguson should be approached with extreme caution (and never from behind), but that the teams are upset that the autographs are not for true fans but for dealers who then flog them over the Internet.

For the record, the paper lets us know that a signature from Roy Keane will fetch round £160, while Paul Scholes’ will earn around £140.

Not bad for a squiggle and a quick “Best wishes”.

And good news for United’s shareholders who know that if the club ever falters financially, it can always ask its players to dip their pens in ink – after all, imagine what riches could be earned if Keane were to write an entire sentence.’

Posted: 7th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Sniping At The Gunners

‘ONE defeat (and that in a game that they should probably have won) hardly constitutes a crisis – but a sense of perspective has never had much of a place in football.

Starting Gunners?

And Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is forced to defend his side ahead of tonight’s European Cup showdown with Chelsea.

“We will not wobble,” he declares on the back page of the Sun, while the Mirror suggests he has given his team orders to “destroy” Chelsea.

For a more sober assessment of a game that will have a profound impact on both clubs’ seasons, we turn to the broadsheets.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira tells the Telegraph with a smile – and the paper is clearly relishing the prospect.

“The Arsenal of Vieira and Henry versus a Chelsea side marching to the English drumbeat of Lampard, Parker and Terry stands proud,” it says, “as a monumental match-up, a confrontation worthy of television’s relentless hype.

“It is an intoxicating mix, a fascinating cocktail of the Molotov variety.”

To matters more mundane and the Guardian reports that both Jose Antonio Reyes and Freddie Ljungberg could both be fit for tonight’s game – and the Telegraph believes both will start.

The rest of Europe would be forgiven for looking for ways to prevent Millwall taking the place in next season’s Uefa Cup that their FA Cup final appearance will earn.

But the Indy says that the authorities at Uefa are virtually certain to make an exception for the Lions after it emerged that they could be banned because Dennis Wise has no coaching qualifications.

The governing body is bringing in new rules governing all aspects of clubs wishing to participate in its competitions – but the rules won’t take effect until next season.

What right Uefa have to dictate the qualifications or otherwise of coaches we do not know.

It is one thing to lay down minimum specifications for stadia and insist on certain standards of financial stability, but quite another to get involved in personnel issues.

According to the Indy, even Sir Alex Ferguson doesn’t have an A badge – and no-one would suggest that Manchester United have suffered unduly because of that.’

Posted: 6th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Winning Streak

‘HOW all of Europe must have cheered when Tim Cahill’s goal yesterday propelled Millwall into the FA Cup final and, more significantly, into next season’s Uefa Cup!

Manchester shivered, Cardiff shivered, Theo Paphitis shivered

The London club’s fans are known the length and breadth of the land for their hospitality, good humour and willingness to welcome players and fans of all colours and creeds.

So, when the Guardian suggests that “Manchester shivered, Cardiff shivered and all across the continent, from Brussels to Istanbul, European cities shivered”, we can only assume it was with delicious anticipation.

Dennis Wise achievement in leading the First Division side to its first FA Cup final in the club’s 119-year history is saluted by all the papers this morning.

And the man himself tells the Sun that he is looking forward to chairman Theo Paphitis honouring his pledge to streak round South London if his side made it to Cardiff.

“Get yer kit off, Theo!” demands the Sun. “Get lost, Fergie,” demands the Mirror (on behalf of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger).

The Frenchman insists that he will not be wound up by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s dig that he thinks Chelsea will beat the Gunners in their Champions’ League clash this week.

There are few more nauseating sights in sport than a happy Ferguson and happy he certainly was after his side beat the Gunners 1-0 in the other FA Cup semi-final.

And Wenger was quick to brush off the chippy Scot’s attempts to wind him up. “For a long time, we have not listed to what Alex Ferguson says,” he told the Mirror.

Meanwhile, England’s cricketers were enjoying a day on the beach after winning their first series in the Caribbean in 36 years at the weekend.

The Indy catches up with Michael Vaughan and his men taking on a group of British holidaymakers in Barbados.

And one suspects, getting a bit more of a workout than they got against a West Indies side which again capitulated in the face of some probing England bowling.

Star of the show was Matthew Hoggard, who became the 10th English bowler to get a Test hat-trick when he removed Ramnaesh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ryan Hinds in successive deliveries.

It was, says the Indy, the Yorkshireman’s second hat-trick. His first came for Pudsey Congregational thirds in the Dales Council League.

History does not record his three victims on that occasion.’

Posted: 5th, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Fight Club

‘NO-ONE could accuse Leeds striker Alan Smith of being short of fight, although whether it is always employed in the best interests of his club is another matter.

West Indies get a dose of Basian flu

But this morning he lambastes his teammates for being, in the words of the Express, “gutless” and lacking the stomach for the relegation fight.

Meanwhile, another gobby shite, Gary Neville, turns his fire on Arsenal, accusing them of running scared ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup semi-final showdown.

He refuses to accept that the Gunners have overtaken his Manchester United side as the best team in England.

“I have admired Arsenal for the last six seasons,” he tells the Sun. “There is nothing between us and there has been nothing between us for the last six seasons.”

Well, actually there’s 12 points separating the two sides at the moment, but we know what Gary means.

“Every time we have won the league it has been by a few points and they’ve always been second,” he continues. “Or when they’ve won it, we’ve been second by a few points.”

Except two years ago when you finished fourth…but again we know what he means.

Away from such petty squabbles and the Sun has good news for embattled Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, who will today be awarded the manager of the month award, and bad news for Spurs’ striker Jermain Defoe, who has been told he won’t make it to the European Championships this summer.

Sven Goran Eriksson, it says, will take only four strikers – Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey and Darius Vassell – to Portugal this summer.

And that means no place for Defoe, who excelled on his debut against Sweden on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, good news for England in the West Indies with Andrew Flintoff dominating the headlines after his first five-wicket haul reduced the hosts to 224 all out.

The Times says the captain Michael Vaughan’s decision to put the West Indies in on a decent Bridgetown wicket was a “bold, unnecessary gamble” that was not a complete success.

But the Telegraph says Vaughan knew that “the West Indies were down and close to out and that the job could be finished in a day if his confident bowlers hit their straps”.

Thanks to Flintoff in particular, a first series victory in the Caribbean for 26 years is now a probability rather than a possibility.’

Posted: 2nd, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

1968 And All That

‘FOR all England’s talk of success in Euro 2004 or, more probably, the 2006 World Cup, the fact remains this morning that we haven’t beaten Sweden for nigh on four decades.


Sweden are a decent side, but they cannot claim to be one of the giants of European football, let alone the world game.

And if apologists say that England are a different side in competitive matches than they are in friendly games, well, so are Sweden, whose 1-0 win last night was their first in 16 such matches.

The Telegraph suggests that England are too reliant on their first-choice players – such as David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville, Sol Campbell and Michael Owen, all of whom were absent.

“If England are close to full strength in Portugal, they have a chance of reaching the semi-finals,” it says.

“Any debilitating injuries to key tempo-setting or defensive personnel on the eve of the tournament and England’s odds plummet.”

True enough, but reaching the semi-final can hardly be regarded as a great achievement.

England are the four best team on the continent, according to the official Fifa rankings and, of the teams above them, both Spain and the Netherlands are renowned as being flaky.

France are undoubtedly the best team in Europe, a position built on 14 straight wins until last night’s 0-0 draw in Rotterdam.

The papers do find solace in certain performances, with Jermain Defoe the one who really stands out.

And, says, the Indy Sven Goran Eriksson can take comfort from the fact that his team were comfortably the better side until Sweden scored in the 54th minute.

“Defoe came on and did very well,” the Swede told the Times after the game. “I could see that he’s a big talent. He’ll be even better in the future because he’ll be physically stronger, but I like what I saw.”

Coincidentally, the year in which England last recorded a win over Sweden was the year in which England last recorded a series win in the West Indies.

But such is the optimism within the country after Michael Vaughan’s men took a 2-0 lead in the four-match series that it is spilling over into overconfidence.

The Guardian’s Matthew Engel hears one punter set off to Barbados with the words, “I hope we don’t beat them too badly”.

“Not beat them too badly!” Engel chunters. “When England suffered two successive blackwashes in the mid-1980s, did any West Indian say: ‘Don’t beat them too badly, Viv mon’?”

Who knows? A first series win in the Caribbean since 1968 and the England football team might even beat Sweden…’

Posted: 1st, April 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Bonus Balls

‘ENGLAND may have found the money to keep Sven Goran Eriksson in charge of the national team until a better offer comes along, but the players are feeling the pinch.They are apparently unhappy that the FA has cut their Euro 2004 bonuses, with incentives on the table only for reaching the semi-final or beyond.

The manager says a semi-final exit in Portugal “would not be a disaster”, suggesting (says the Times) that the last four should be considered par for this squad.

In which case, one wonders why the players should be upset at not being rewarded for a below-par display.

However, the Times does suggest that with the recent upheavals surrounding Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith, it is in everyone’s interests to conclude negotiations well before the tournament starts.

Not that tonight’s friendly against Sweden is likely to give much indication of England’s prospects in the summer.

Steven Gerrard has been chosen as captain of a side that is far from England’s first choice XI, including (or so the Indy believes) Alan Thompson and Owen Hargreaves in midfield and Phil Neville and Jamie Carragher at full-back.

The Telegraph reports that it is an opportunity for fringe players to play their way into the squad for Portugal.

“I have until June 3 to change my mind,” said Eriksson.

Oh no! He’s not off to Chelsea again, is he?’

Posted: 31st, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Two True

‘THERE’S some connection between Sven Goran Eriksson and second-hand Saabs that quite escapes us.

David James hadn’t noticed the Pot Noodle spilt on his head

Ken Bates tells the Sun that he wouldn’t buy one off the England manager; the Express says the Swede will get a £14m payout if he’s sacked by the FA, ”which should lower the price of second-hand Saabs”.

Are we missing something? Is Eriksson actually a second-hand car salesman during the hours when he is not involved with England, Chelsea or a blonde TV presenter?

Or is just that the only thing the papers know that comes from Sweden is the Saab.

(We, of course, know that Volvos are also from Sweden, as are, er, naked women.)

But even the more serious papers seem determined to cause trouble for the England boss, despite the fact that he has done what almost everyone wanted and signed a new contract.

David James reported that Eriksson’s first words to the squad when they met up at their Hertfordshire retreat yesterday were: “You’ve got me for another couple of years!”

And Henry Winter, of the Telegraph, is not alone in reading into that confirmation of the suspicion that he won’t hand around after the 2006 World Cup.

The Independent makes the same observation. “No player,” it says, “pointed out the contract was supposed to be for another four years.”

And yet the extension to the contract, which Eriksson signed at the weekend, was for another two years – a reasonable explanation perhaps of the “couple more years” remark.

Eriksson’s desire to stay in international management will certainly not be helped by the number of withdrawals from the squad through injury.

The Telegraph reports that Wales have lost 10 players (including, of course, Ryan Giggs), Scotland and Northern Ireland seven and the Republic of Ireland six through injury.

Arsene Wenger yesterday pulled Patrick Viera and Robert Pires out of the French squad.

And England yesterday lost David Beckham for their friendly against Sweden, victim of a knock described even by Real Madrid as “not serious”.’

Posted: 30th, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

A Turnip For The Books

‘SVEN Goran Eriksson has turned down the chance to make millions as manager of Chelsea to stay on as (the admittedly very well-paid) head coach of England.

‘Have you heard the one about the Swede, the Russian and the Englishman?’

More than that, he has actually signed a two-year extension to his contract.

And yet he is branded “sneaky”, “slippery” and likened to an eel in today’s papers.

Journalists who are happy to trade papers as soon as a chequebook is waved under their noses are happy to pan the Swede for doing no more than listening to offers of alternative employment.

In the reaction of the more hysterical arm of the Press to the revelation that Eriksson had met Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon lies a major reason why the man is considering jumping ship.

As Richard Williams points out in today’s Guardian, when Eriksson agreed to manage England he was accepting a job, not answering God’s calling.

But he now knows that to manage England’s football team “you have to take a monastic vow of poverty, chastity and obedience”.

You might think, he adds, that people would be delighted not only that Eriksson has decided to stay put but also that England have a manager coveted by the top clubs in Europe.

But it seems not – and the Sun and the Express joyfully report the unlikely news that it was only the threat of the sack that forced the Swede’s hand.

Having got it so wrong with regards to the Chelsea job, you might have thought the papers would demonstrate some humility today.

Far from it – the Star even announces that shocking news that Sven could still quit his job.

His contract has apparently not been signed in blood and the FA have failed to take any member of Eriksson’s family hostage as a precaution against him leaving.

As for events on the pitch, Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw by Manchester United yesterday – a result which gave the Gunners a record 30-game unbeaten start to the season.

But, says the Telegraph, “seldom has an historic moment been greeted with so little joy” as Thierry Henry rumbled down the tunnel with a face like a tropical storm.

If it is too early to predict the decline and fall of Arsenal on the basis of one home draw, it appears that the same is not true of England’s rugby players.

To be beaten by three points in Paris is hardly a disgrace, but the undertakers are out in force to carry away the body of the world champions.’

Posted: 29th, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Box Of Tricks

‘MARSEILLES’ players may be “indecent” in the mind of Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, but they form a more decent outfit than his Reds.

Wednesday’s man is full of woe

The Independent leads with news that Liverpool are out of the Uefa Cup, having lost the game in France 2-1, the tie 3-2, and with it any chance of lifting silver this season.

And Houllier is aggrieved. “The penalty was an outrageous decision,” says he of the French side’s successfully taken spot kick when trailing 1-0.

And it was a dubious decision, as Marseilles’ Steve Martlet made sure he fell in the penalty box under pressure from Liverpool’s Igor Biscan, even earning the Croatian a red card for his foul.

But in football much that goes around comes around, and what went for Liverpool at Yeovil and Portsmouth in the FA Cup now goes against them in the Uefa.

Meanwhile in football some things just do not change. Ken Bates might have exchanged the Chelsea lion for the Sheffield Wednesday owl, but he’s still fighting anyone and everyone.

The Telegraph says that Bates has been accused of “losing his marbles” following his claim that the Wednesday board has yet to release financial date on the club, so stalling the bearded one’s £10million investment.

This has led to the Yorkshire club’s chairman, Dave Allen, questioning Bates’ motives. He says he has given the full books to Bates and that Bates “is obviously trying to destabilise the club and create a lot of problems”.

And that includes Bates turning on the club’s current coach, Chris Tuner. “I don’t know of a successful manager who has ever played as a goalkeeper,” says Bates, “and that’s one of the problems.”

The other problems, Bates will get to – and possibly exacerbate in the fullness of time…’

Posted: 26th, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Screaming Blue Murder

‘“YOU’LL have to kill us,” Chelsea manager Claidio Ranieri said, warning Arsenal that drastic measures would be necessary to see off his side after last night’s 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

‘One down, ten to go’

Technically, that isn’t true. Arsenal could progress to the next round of the European Cup either by beating Chelsea at Highbury or even by holding them to a goalless draw.

Indeed, killing Chelsea might be counterproductive – in its determination to clean up the game, Fifa is taking a hard line on extra-judicial killing of any sort.

Arsene Wenger would be gutted to guide the Gunners to the European Cup semi-final for the first time in the club’s history only to find most of his players serving suspensions.

“Do Or Die,” says the Mirror headline, taking up this same rather macabre theme.

It reckons that Robert Pires’ headed goal, which equalised Eidur Gudjonsson’s excellent opportunist strike, has put Arsenal in charge of the tie.

But the Express thinks that Chelsea are, in the words of its headline, “Still In With A Gud Shout”.

Certainly, they are in a better position than Monaco, who scored first (and last) against Real Madrid last night but unfortunately conceded four times in between.

However, the Star has news that Real manager Carlos Queiroz could return to Old Trafford as Alex Ferguson’s number two if he gets the sack from Madrid.

Why exactly Queiroz should get the sack with his club top of La Primera Liga and well on its way to a European Cup semi-final is not explained.

But football is a game in constant flux and so it is we hear rumours in the Mail that Ken Bates is to return to football as chairman of Sheffield Wednesday with Dennis Wise his choice as the Owls’ manager.

Graeme Souness is linked by the Star with a return to Rangers, a club that is the target of a takeover. As is Aston Villa, which, the Mirror says, is the target of former Manchester City player Ray Ranson.

And finally Arsene Wenger could replace Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager, but only on a part-time basis (according to the Express).

But with all this going on, it is good to know that there are some things you can rely on – and the Sun has news that Newcastle striker Craig Bellamy is in trouble again.

This time, it apparently involved a “hotel row” with fans.’

Posted: 25th, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment


‘THERE was a time not so long ago that any England win against the West Indies in a Test match was a cause for national celebration.

‘Will you be here next season, Claudio?’

But such is the decline in the fortunes of the side that dominated cricket in the 1970s and 1980s that England’s feat in retaining the Wisden Trophy does not even lead the Telegraph’s sports section.

It took the visiting batsmen just 23 minutes yesterday to get the 28 runs needed for victory and take a 2-0 lead in the four-Test series.

It is the first time England have retained the Wisden Trophy for 35 years – since the last time they won a series in the Caribbean in 1968.

“We expected to come here and win,” said England skipper Michael Vaughan, “but to be 2-0 up after only two games is beyond where we thought we’d be at this stage.”

The Times says England’s success is die to their having a better fast bowling attack than their hosts, a more cohesive team and “to judge by Brian Lara’s decision to demote himself in the order, the tougher and more confident leader”.

Back in England, however, all interest centres on tonight’s all English clash in the Champions’ League quarter-final at Stamford Bridge.

And all eyes are on Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea’s soon to be ex-manager.

The Times says the Italian is resigned to getting the sack irrespective of results between now and the end of the season – “a victim of Chelsea’s ruthless new hierarchy”.

But he “will fancy himself as a martyr if he knocks out Arsenal over the next fortnight and is shown the door”.

Such is the incompetence and insensitivity with which Chelsea have handled their manager’s situation that Ranieri is the focus of all the pre-match build-up.

The Indy likens him to a “dead man walking”, the horrific expression used in the United States to describe a prisoner on his way to execution.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Ranieri’s employers have made an audacious bid to sign Rio Ferdinand, the suspended Manchester United and England centre-half.

United have apparently turned down the offer, as they have done similar bids from other top European clubs – but the paper says it is unclear whether that will be enough to deter Chelsea.

Meanwhile, the one-man brawl that is Craig Bellamy has apparently been in a scrap with the team coach ahead of Newcastle’s Uefa Cup trip to Real Mallorca.

Only by reading on do we understand that it was the Geordies’ first team coach John Carver rather than the bus used to transport the team to the airport.

With Bellamy, you never know…’

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

Jones Steam

‘THE Sun, which prides itself on getting football scoops, leads with news that Claudio Ranieri is a goner.

Jones follows through with an uppercut

That which was rumour is still rumour – but it’s now at least a rumour laced with some degree of fact as the paper reports on how the Italian called together his team to say goodbye.

Ranieri called a meeting after training and told his players that he will be sacked at the season’s end.

The speculation over his tenure at the club has got to the gregarious Italian, who argues that if the club really want him to stay they would dismiss talk of his successor with a firm denial.

“The club should do something to defend the coach,” he says. “If they don’t want to, I cannot say anything more.”

So Ranieri is out, to be replaced with…well, just about anyone – or what about everyone?

Given Chelsea’s drive to purchase anything in boots, they might take on a handful of managers and rotate them during the game.

While Ranieri’s lament cannot help Chelsea as they prepare for their Champions’ League quarter-final with Arsenal, one team with a firm sense of direction occupy the Telegraph.

The team are the England cricket side and they are heading towards victory in the second Test against the West Indies, having already won the first rubber.

What Steve Harmison did in the that first encounter, the Times watches Simon Jones try to do in the second, as the fast bowler took five wickets for just 57 runs.

But not all is rosy, and the Telegraph says that Jones behaved rather less like a gentleman and rather more like a player when giving two of his victims a vulgar send-off.

His boorish behaviour will most likely earn him a fine for breaking the International Cricket Council’s code of conduct.

But will it, as the paper says, take the gloss of England’s scheduled victory?

Answer: no. The idea of England going 2-0 up in the West Indies is so notable an achievement that the history books will have little or no time for Jones’s show of pique.

If you want to win, aggression is needed, and the Independent says that just such a quality has been located in Tim Henman.

The tigerish one is now the world’s eighth best player, according to the latest tennis rankings, and the paper is of the opinion that Henman’s re-emergence as a tennis force is down to his “new-found aggression”.

On the eve of the Dubai Open, Henman appears to be in uncharacteristic bullish mood.

Reminded by the paper’s John Roberts of his poor record against Lleyton Hewitt, Henman turns on his inquisitor.

“Let’s get this straight,” he says. “If I was 7-0 against you, then I’d start to worry…

“If I was losing seven times in a row against a guy ranked 75 or 100 in the world, then there would be a question mark.”

Henman seems to have reached the conclusion that he is a talented player – and he is.

But his repeated failure to win the matches that matter stymie any further move up the rankings board, aggressive or not.’

Posted: 23rd, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

Claudio Hanging Over Blues

‘CHELSEA lie second in the Premiership with the fifth highest points total at this stage of the season ever, as well as being in the quarter-final of the Champions’ League.


At the weekend, they beat neighbours Fulham for their 20th league win of the season.

But once again, all the talk in the papers is about the future of manager Claudio Ranieri, the popular Italian who has been undermined at every turn by the Stamford Bridge board.

“What’s new?” shrugged Ranieri, when asked about it by the Express. “I’ve been in this position since Eriksson visited Abramovich, so I can’t see what changes there are in the situation.”

The Mail says the sacking of Ranieri will provoke dismay among Chelsea fans, but the man himself seems resigned to his fate.

“Even an unlikely Champions’ League triumph against Arsenal this week will not be enough to save him,” it says.

However, Chelsea are becoming impatient with their chosen successor, Sven Goran Eriksson, and want him to make up his mind whether he will stay on as England boss beyond Euro 2004.

If he does decide to stay with the FA, Chelsea will turn to alternative candidates “believed to feature” Ottmar Hitzfeld, Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti and Martin O’Neill.

As for Ranieri, the Mirror says he wants to stay on in the Premiership when he finally does get the sack.

“Should the situation arise,” says agent Jon Smith, “I know he would prefer to stay in this country.”

For those of us who thought that the tennis season lasts only two weeks and is called Wimbledon, the Sun has news from Indian Wells where Tim Henman wilted in the burning Californian sunshine and lost to World No.1 Roger Federer in the final of the Pacific Life Open.

However, the Brit picked up £115,000 as runner-up, as well as cementing his place within the Top 10.

And Federer had some encouraging words for those who still harbour hopes that Henman could one day end Britain’s years of failure in the one grand slam event that really matters here.

“Tim is always difficult to play against, he’s very dangerous and I think he’s figured out his own game now,” the Swiss ace said.

“He knows what to do now and the results show.”

Federer won the match 6-3, 6-3.’

Posted: 22nd, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

No Defence

‘FOOTBALLERS earn an absurd – and many would say obscene – amount of money, so how is it that they seem to be so badly advised.

United’s defence is resting

Rio Ferdinand yesterday lost his appeal against his eight-month ban for failing to attend a drugs test and with it his chance of appearing for England in Portugal in the summer.

And however much the Sun might try to excite sympathy for the Manchester United centre half this morning, one suspects that Ferdinand is somewhat fortunate that the length of the ban wasn’t increased.

With better advice, Ferdinand would have held up his hand to his offence at the beginning, probably received a lenient sentence and would now be looking forward to arriving in Portugal refreshed and raring to go.

As it was, both he and his club have fought what is essentially an open-and-shut case every step of the way and, whatever the Sun’s Shaun Custis thinks, got what he – and they – deserved.

However, even Ferdinand’s rejected appeal has to take second place in most papers this morning to a piece of history at Cheltenham where Best Mate won the Gold Cup for the third year in succession.

Only three horses, including the legendary Arkle, have achieved the feat before.

And, says the Telegraph, Arkle’s admirers are quick to defend their equine hero, saying that the winner of the Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966 would start as odds-on favourite were he alive today.

Best Mate’s trainer Henrietta Knight (who was too nervous even to watch the race) refused to get drawn into what is always a fatuous argument.

“Arkle was a great horse, Best Mate is a good horse – let’s leave it like that,” she said.

Similarly, comparisons between this England cricket side and the last England cricket side to win in the Caribbean are pointless.

But after their victory in the first Test at Sabina Park, Michael Vaughan’s men know that they have a great chance of emulating the 1968 team.

Much will depend on the toss and the Times says England are hoping to reverse their recent abysmal form in that department and take an early stranglehold on the match.

Much will also depend on West Indies skipper Brian Lara, who will be playing on his home ground and will be desperate to avenge last week’s humiliation.

However, as the Times points out, his average in Trinidad is only 40 – 10 less than his overall average and, until last year, he had only scored four Test fifties on the ground.

England’s bowlers, meanwhile, can only hope that their appeals meet a more favourable reception than did Rio Ferdinand’s…’

Posted: 19th, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Eyes Have It

‘ACCORDING to the official Chelsea website, Sebastian Coe is a fan of the club.

Appealing for leniency

But surely that cannot have any bearing on his call for Rio Ferdinand’s eight-month ban for missing a drugs test to be upheld.

The Express says that on the morn of Ferdinand’s appeal, the former athlete and former Tory MP thinks the ban was right.

“My gut view is that the ban was probably proportionate,” says Coe. “Missing or failing to take a drugs test is a doping offence.”

Meanwhile, the Sun hears that Ferdinand is hopeful that his ban will be reduced on appeal.

He tells the paper’s Shaun Curtis that he has never taken drugs. “No way, drug-taking is just stupid,” says the player.

“So I stared hard into his eyes and asked him: ‘Have you ever taken drugs?’” writes Curtis.

“Ferdinand’s stared straight back and without a flicker of his eye, rapped: ‘Never.’”

“I warned him that if he ever had, it would come out. Someone, somewhere would tell the story.”

Perhaps Curtis is right. But he should stare into a mirror and thus his own eyes and ask himself why, if Ferdinand has never been accused to taking drugs, are you asking him if he has?

And if he has taken drugs, why do you think it would come out, given the player’s inability to be tested and therefore proof to be found?

Elsewhere, away from football’s gutter, Michael Owen scored a goal last night. “Take that!” says the headline in the Mail. “Owen and Beckham answer critics and England lift for 2004.”

The Beckham is Day-vid Beckham, and he also scored a goal last night, a 30-yard free kick for Real Madrid, so confounding his, er, critics.

And if you know who any of those critics are, please let us know, since we’ve been labouring under the impression that Beckham has done no wrong and is universally loved in Spain, England and everywhere else.

As for Owen, well, he has been struggling to score in the proverbial brothel, so news of his two goals is indeed a fillip to his club (Liverpool beat Portsmouth 3-0) and his country.

Of course, one decent performance doesn’t really change things, something Claudio Ranieri is mindful of as his side prepare for the season’s run-in.

Whether he wins anything or not this term, the Mirror says that the Chelsea manager with the voice of an Italian Del Boy is on his way out.

His replacement will be one Ottmar Hitzfeld, a German and the current manager of Bayern Munich.

“At the moment I want to see out my contract at Bayern which runs until 2005,” says Hitzfeld.

Which in football speak means pretty much nothing, especially for a man whose side have just crashed out of the Champions’ League.

Although if we really want to know the truth, we should stare hard into his eyes and then ask him. And if Paul McKenna’s not available for the job, best get Shaun Curtis…’

Posted: 18th, March 2004 | In: Back pages | Comment