Back pages | Anorak - Part 97

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Curse Of The Ex

‘THERE is little worse for sportsmen and women than having to listen to the carping from the sidelines of those who preceded them.

‘Thank god we don’t have to listen to us’

But you cannot shut an ex-player up, especially one with a newspaper column or a TV microphone to hand.

While they are still active, players like nothing better than to have a go at ‘the media’ for any real or imaginary criticism they have had to endure.

But no sooner has the last ball been kicked or bowled or hit then the player is signing a lucrative contract for a bit of media work.

Hypocrisy? It stinks.

The worst offenders are the likes of Ian Botham, who with a straight face manages to attack the Press from the Sky commentary box.

That would of course be the same Mr Murdoch who signs his pay-check at the end of every month as the one who owns the Sun and the Times, would it?

Ex-players, of course, do have something to contribute to our understanding and appreciation of their sport.

At their best, they manage to convey exactly what the player or players we are watching are going through, the pressure they’re under, what they’re trying to achieve etc.

At their worst, they just grandstand – using their privileged position to boost their own profile and denigrate the efforts of the people who have succeeded them.

Adam Hollioake recently said he would never watch cricket on Sky because the commentary was so awful.

He is not alone. The presence of Botham and – worse – the irredeemably dull Bob Willis sees to that. They even make Paul Allott sound vaguely interesting.

It is no coincidence that all three are ex-players because the best commentators are almost without exception journalists rather than former exponents of the sport themselves.

It is high time the TV companies recognised this. We’ve all had enough of the Sky team, of Garth Crooks’ interviews, of listening to Sally Gunnell…

Posted: 9th, May 2003 | In: Back pages | Comment

On The Spot

‘HOW hard can it be to beat a goalkeeper from 12 yards? Just ask Stuart Pearce or Chris Waddle or Paul Ince or David Batty or Gareth Southgate… But they were under extreme pressure. In a normal Premiership game, surely it can’t be so hard.

Seconds before the penalty kick, Gareth remebered he’d left the light on in the downstairs loo

Well, it appears it is. At the weekend, Thierry Henry, Michael Owen and Alan Smith all missed penalties. In the case of the first two, it did not ultimately matter, but for Smith it cost Leeds a point.

The question is how much longer teams can go on spurning this most golden chance to score. Figures show that this season, only 16 of the 22 spot-kicks awarded have been converted – a success rate of less than three in every four.

By way of comparison, German clubs have slotted home 11 of the 14 awarded in the Bundesliga, the Spanish have scored four of the five awarded in La Primera Liga and the Italians have buried six of the seven awarded in Serie A.

Missing penalties has often been thought of as an English disease, mainly because of the high-profile exits from the World Cups of 1990 and 1998 and the European Championships of 1996 on shoot-outs.

But Henry isn’t English and he was one of the offenders at the weekend. Indeed, one of the greatest penalty takers of recent years has been Matt Le Tissier, who missed only once in his professional career.

And, anyway, the record of the Italians in penalty shoot-outs in major tournaments is even worse than the English.

The point is that clubs cannot afford to continue to squander one out of every four penalties they get given. What it suggests is that not enough care is being taken in selecting the person to take the penalty kick, in practising kicks in training or, indeed, in studying the opposition keeper.

By contrast, keepers do study the expected penalty takers of the opposition to help them assess which way he is likely to put the ball. It is clearly working, given the dismal conversion statistics of the penalty-takers, so isn’t it about time they tried to turn the tables?

Does the keeper go to ground early? Is he a lot weaker on one side than on the other? Does he move early?

Of course, none of this would matter if penalty takers could hit the corner every time. A well-struck shot into the extreme eighth of the goal is unstoppable. A well-struck shot into the extreme quarter of the goal is pretty difficult to keep out, even if the keeper guesses the right way.

Posted: 24th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Strange Days

‘IT’S fortunate for the security personnel at The Belfry for the Ryder Cup that the world’s top golfer isn’t called Ali Tiger Mohammed Woddslam. If he were, chances are that the armed police, as seen on the Telegraph’s lead sports page, would be aiming their weapons at him and his fanatical supporters.

Saddam’s new bunker – we have the pictures

As it is, he isn’t, and Tiger Woods is as all American as they come, albeit with a bit of African, Indian and Oriental thrown in. But Woods is only one of a dozen members of the American playing staff, a group their team captain Curtis Strange calls ”12 selfish egomaniacs”.

Which is a nice problem if it’s compared to the shape of Europe’s team, in particular the stricken form of Europe’s Colin Montgomerie.

The Telegraph reports that the genial Scot, who already has a bad back, has suffered a mild heart scare. The debate inside the camp is what would happen if the game went against him – does be grab his back or his chest? But why worry – so long as he grabs the cup.

But sometimes silverware can be bought and not won, as in the case of the trophy from the Italian Cup final of 1943. The Guardian says that this chunk of sporting glory is to go under the hammer at Christie’s today, a move that has upset Italian football fans.

The Cup was won by Torino, a great team wiped out in May 1949 in the Superga air disaster.

And amid all the decades of pain and heartache, no-one noticed the cup was missing until 2000, it having been given away by Natalino Fossati, the club’s captain in the 1970s, to a friend who was ”having financial problems”.

And now those of you not in the red can make the cup yours for an estimated outlay of between £35,000 and £45,000. Money that could be spent on winning some more modern silver – should the referee want a new car.’

Posted: 24th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Holding On For A Hero

”’HENMAN Britain’s hero.” On one level that is a headline to make us all proud. This is not America, a country where only winners prosper, or China or Japan.

Have you seen this man?

This is Great Britain, where boys from Chiswick can outclass the very best Thailand has to offer in straight sets. It might not have won us the Davis Cup, but by ‘eck it taught those Thai upstarts a few things about sporting endeavour.

The Telegraph sees Timmy in full flow, slapping a shot past Paradon Srichaphan, giving Britain a winning 3-1 lead over Thailand.

But let’s not cloud the scene with our tawdry take on such a moment, rather let man-of-the-hour Tim speak out.

”To have been able to play on all three days and then round it off against a player of his calibre by winning in style makes this the most satisfying of my Davis Cup performances.”

Words fit to carve on the Henman tomb when the great man’s career is over.

And someone else who may be on his way out is Michael Owen. Followers of this column will perhaps recall that Owen was once the little tyro who couldn’t miss the net. He was just great.

Now Michael can’t score for toffee, and, in the Times’ eyes, is a ”one-dimensional forward” who might soon be on his way from Liverpool.

Writing in the Times, Tony Cascarino says that Owen needs to work on his mental approach to the game. Get that right, and he’ll be back. Get it wrong, and Tranmere Rovers here he comes.

And then we’ll be asking, ”Whatever happened to Michael Owen?” and not, as the Guardian asks, ”Whatever happened to Ryan Giggs?”

Giggs, who used to be so good it hurt, who ”used to stand out like an exotic flower in a field of weeds”, is no more. So where is he? On Saturday he was on the same pitch as Tottenham, neglecting the qualities that once made him such an awesome player.

Which is a shame, because football needs its heroes, and until Timmy starts to kick the ball, we’ll have to make do with watching burned-out 20-something has-beens go thought the motions.

Or Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs, if you prefer.

Posted: 23rd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Pilgrims’ Progress

‘IN 1929-30, Chesterfield went an incredible 46 consecutive matches without defeat. On Saturday, they visited Plymouth, winning the game 1-0 thanks to a long shot against the run of play.

And on the other side of the Tamar is…

That win came on the back of a 1-0 home victory at Wigan, which means the Spirites are just 42 games away from matching the achievements of arguably the greatest Third Division North team there has ever been.

And if they really get their teeth into it, they could push on and reclaim the current record of successive league games without defeat from Arsenal.

And while Chesterfield and the 30-odd (or 30 odd) fans regale their friends and families with tales of the long trip to Devon, Plymouth wait.

In fact, Plymouth have been waiting for quite some time. Back when Chesterfield were mighty, Plymouth were also doing pretty well.

The Pilgrims had Sammy Black, who between 1924 and 1938 scored a not inconsiderable 180 goals. He’s still the club’s record goal scorer, and even kicking a medicine ball in hobnail boots would be a welcome addition to the current team’s front line.

Goals are not Plymouth’s thing; the defence is the team’s strength. Indeed, the current back five were largely responsible for Plymouth’s own record run of games without defeat, when between August and December 2001, Argyle went 19 games unbeaten.

They stood on the threshold and duly won the third division at a stroll. And with a bright new manager in the shape of Paul Sturrock, a ground blessed with a Pilgrims Way and banks of green seats, Plymouth look like a club on the up.

But in the second division, they are just as likely to be on the down. Plymouth are a team stuck in a rut, behaving like an agoraphobic housewife, who wants to go out to the main show in town but keeps popping back to her humdrum flat to check things are as she left them.

Plymouth need a guiding hand, and with a new board there is much talk of five-year plans and cash injections.

But when the Torquay result (on Saturday they won their third division game at Swansea 1-0) is eagerly anticipated, eyes are already looking down rather than up, a feeling not countered by the pained groans that followed news of third division Exeter’s 1-0 win against Orient.

Plymouth lack the lure of a bigger rival. In any case, it is they who should be the region’s force, based as the club are in a large city with a steady influx of students and naval cadets.

And the crowds do come: this week’s mid-week game with Cardiff is expected to be an 18,000 sell out. And if Plymouth win, Home Park will go ballistic.

And although fans will hope for more, they will also know that to actually expect success requires a mentality as green as the club’s kit. And that is a rich, deep, dark green.

Posted: 23rd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Viva Espana

‘IF anyone were in any doubt as to which country has the best league in Europe (and by extension the world), this week’s Champions League results must surely have dispelled them.

”Is it just me or is this getting a bit boring?”

The Spanish clubs once again looked in a different class from the rest of Europe, led of course by Real Madrid who thumped AC Roma 3-0 in the Italian capital.

England has long kidded itself at the strength of its Premiership, but the record of English clubs in Europe really does not bear this out.

Only Manchester United have reached a European Cup final since English clubs were banned following the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1986.

By contrast, in the last five years, Real Madrid have reached the final three times (and won on every occasion) and Valencia have reached the final twice (and lost on both occasions).

Anyone who saw the way in which Valencia took Liverpool apart on Tuesday night would not be surprised if the Spaniards made a third final on four years.

Indeed, it may be that the only reason that Valencia were not in the final last year was because they didn’t even qualify for the competition through La Liga.

And whereas in England hopes tend to be pinned on Manchester United and Arsenal (despite the fact that the Gunners have never got past the quarter-finals in this competition), Spain have four very realistic challengers.

Barcelona look perhaps the weakest of the four, despite the fact that they made the semi-finals last year. Three first-half goals allowed the Catalans to stroll through most of their match against Club Brugge, although a late goal by the Belgians made the scoreline 3-2 and gave home fans a few nervous moments.

However, it was Deportivo who notched up the most impressive result of the evening, a Roy Makaay hat-trick securing a 3-2 win away at Bayern Munich.

Arsenal fans need no reminding about Deportivo’s pedigree and, although they were eventually knocked out by Manchester United last season, they are certainly not a side that any club will want to come up against.

Losing in Kiev is no disgrace, but Newcastle have their work cut out to get out of their group, while Liverpool will be pushed to repeat their quarter-final place of last year.

That leaves United and Arsenal to fly the English flag – and try to repel this Spanish armada.

Posted: 20th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Why, Oh Why, Oh Wise

‘THERE is a certain sense of inevitability about Dennis Wise joining Millwall. The New Den is surely the spiritual home of the pint-sized powderkeg, and the way things are going, it could yet turn out to be his spiritual burying place too.

”No-one likes me and I don’t care…”

”Old Den meets New Den today” says the Sun, although the negotiations have already been thrashed out in private. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer fella, could it? Lions boss Theo Paphitis, that is. Because, let’s face it, no one would describe manager Mike McGhee as popular would they?

And as for Dennis… The 35-year-old madman will now be getting ten grand a week after losing his rag and his lucrative contract with Leicester City.

Personal terms were ”quickly agreed”, reports the paper: as well as his basic wages, Dennis will get his own reinforced dressing room and as much raw meat as he can eat each day, plus a share of any club merchandise that uses the word ”nutter”.

Over at the Mirror another man with a short fuse is in the news. Graham Taylor has apparently banned the England women’s football team from staying at the same hotel as his Aston Villa squad.

The England players will now have to find new accommodation before their important World-Cup qualifier play-off against Iceland at St Andrews.

FA technical director Howard Wilkinson has appealed directly to Taylor, but the former England boss will not budge. The paper gives no explanation for Taylor’s intransigence, so readers will have to draw their own conclusions.

”It is disappointing,” said women’s boss Hope Powell, ”but we cannot allow ourselves to dwell on it and sometimes setbacks like these can refocus the team and hopefully that will be the case this time.”

In the Telegraph there is news from the altogether more agreeable world of real tennis.

We are delighted to hear that Chris Bray, Petworth’s ”head professional” (no, we don’t know either), beat Scotland’s Mike Gooding. This was not a punishment, but a world championship eliminator.

Posted: 20th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Forlan Hero

‘WHEN Gary Birtles scored his first goal for Manchester United after 41 games, some wag was moved to observe: ”The trouble is now they’ll expect him to score every 41 games.”

Diego was still celebrating his goal three weeks later

As Diego Forlan scored his first goal for United after a mere 27 games, the same thought is no doubt running through the fans’ minds.

However, at least Birtles’ goal was from open play. The Uruguayan was handed the ball after David Beckham had won an 89th minute penalty and with his team already 4-2 up.

Not that anyone’s been counting how long Forlan has gone goalless since his £7.5m from Independiente.

Except perhaps the Mirror, which stops its watch at 13 hours and 55 minutes. And the Sun, which shows ”the picture you thought you’d never see” as Forlan strokes home the spot-kick.

Forlan’s goal helped United to a comfortable 5-2 win over Maccabi Haifa, but Newcastle’s first Champions’ League match ended in defeat as they were comfortably beaten 2-0 by Dynamo Kiev.

However, news that all football fans can enjoy creeps onto the back page of most of the papers – Leicester have been told that they can sack Dennis Wise.

A four-man Football League panel upheld the club’s appeal against a ruling that said they couldn’t terminate the contract of the former Chelsea player after a fight in which he broke a team-mate’s cheekbone.

But, says the Mail, ”they are bracing themselves for a civil action, which they have said they will fight to the last”. And we wish them every success.

We’re sure you’ve got your favourite Pringle sweater out and your Comfi-Slax hanging over the back of the chair as we enter the greatest fortnight in golfing history.

The Ryder Cup is only a week away, but already the Americans are looking over their shoulder at any man with a beard.

With last year’s competition scrapped because of September 11th, this year’s looks likely to be overshadowed by the possibility of military action in the Gulf.

”If last year’s organisers could have provided 100 per cent assurance they had a safe environment and that everyone was going to be protected, it would have been fine,” Tiger Woods tells the Sun.

”But they couldn’t. And it’s certainly not assured now either. As golfers, you are left wondering whether it’s worth putting yourself in a place where there could be some type of attack or injury to one of the players.”

And as a spectator, you are left wondering how it is that Woods and his colleagues manage to play week in, week out in the United States without any problem.

But then no terrorists would ever attack the US, would they?

Posted: 19th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Do Or Di Canio

‘ALAN Hansen says that, by the time he had won his seventh title in 10 years as a Liverpool player, he and the rest the team had almost grown tired of success.

”Manchester? It’s what way?”

Sure they did the lap of honour, but the cup was tossed that little bit lower into the air. He says that nothing matched the emotions of that first championship medal.

The first one is always the best one, but one cannot help but think that if Manchester United do win the Premiership title this season the celebrations on the pitch will be explosive.

The team are in the doldrums, and even a 5-2 victory over an Israeli team cannot hide that. Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-seeing eye has been distracted from the team and onto his captain’s book and his racehorse.

But for the first time in a while United are not favourites to lift the trophy. That honour goes to Arsenal, and with it goes the baggage of expectation. And only United have shown in recent seasons that they can deal with the added pressure of being the team everyone wants to beat.

So United come as underdogs. Granted, they are not of the mongrel variety, and are blessed with pedigree features from back to front, but underdogs nonetheless.

And if Ferguson can instil in them that realisation, and the attitude that they are on the way down and Arsenal are the team to shoot at, he may get recapture the fighting spirit that seems to have deserted the team of late.

To do it Ferguson needs to restore that belligerent swagger that Eric Cantona brought to his side. Keane has the mouth and the aggression, but winners need something more.

In Rio Ferdinand, Ferguson has an able player but not a man blessed with great charisma. In Van Nistelrooy, he has another man who does a perfunctory job but does it without the style of a born winner.

In Veron, he has a player who still looks unable to comprehend how he ended up playing under the grey skies of Lancashire and is not still bathing in the Roman sunshine.

And it goes much the same way through the team. United are high on skill but low on charisma. David Beckham does have a certain allure, but it comes more to the way he looks than the way he plays.

Beckham, good a player as he is, is a tryer. Aside from the epic freekicks, he has yet to set grounds alight with moments of sublime skill and touch.

So how can United get the added zest they need? How? By once more showing an interest in Paolo Di Canio. Di Canio is getting on in years, but he possesses an infectious enthusiasm that makes you look more at the man and less at his game.

Fans overlook the invisible moments, the games without a goal, and dwell instead on the magic. And if fans do it so do other players. Opposition defenders develop a fear factor. They are expecting the unexpected and in doing so often get beaten by the simple.

But Di Canio probably won’t go north. Ferguson no longer buys players with panache, choosing instead to buy solid and reliable pros, and pay dearly for them.

But if he did look once more to east London, how fabulous the celebrations would be as the cup goes to Old Trafford on the season’s final day? Why, even the fans might get excited.

Posted: 19th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Thai Break

‘ANYONE who ever loses a football match on the Iberian peninsular, and here we include Portugal, experiences ”pain in Spain”. It’s just the way it is. So the headline in the Sun and Express on Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat in Valencia comes as little surprise.

”I aim to be every bit as successful as Tim has been in bringing the Davis Cup home,” says Martin Lee

What is a shock is the banner that sits atop a shot of Arsenal’s Freddie Ljundberg celebrating his first goal, and his team’s second, in the Gunners’ 2-0 defeat of German side Borussia Dortmund. ”Hip hooray,” it says.

For those not in the know, Ljundberg had undergone an operation on, yes, that’s right, his hip. But Ljundberg is more than a one-headline pony, and the Mirror (”He’s Freddie for anything”) shows just that.

Tonight there is more opportunity for the sub editors to trot out the cliches as Manchester United play host to Maccabi Haifa of Israel. Expect mention of the promised land, falling walls and much milk and honey.

And if you cock an ear towards Alex Ferguson, you might just hear the sound of chewing and mention of another team, one by the name of Hapoel Tel Aviv.

Football fans will recall that name in context with Chelsea’s Uefa Cup defeat of last term. And Alex Ferguson is nothing if not a fan of football. ”Their form last season versus Locomotiv Moscow, Parma and AC Milan was a big step up for them,” says Sir Alex.

And he’s right, but what does that have to with Maccabi Haifa, the team his United face tonight? Not a lot, and we can only conclude that Fergie’s mind stopped learning new things a while ago.

In the Alex Ferguson brain, United are still kings of Europe, Roy Keane is a footballer and Tim Henman is about to win Wimbledon.

Some mental leap, but Ferguson is a sports fan, and any one of those worth his, or her, salt is right now daubing on the red, white and blue warpaint and getting ready for the big one: Great Britain v Thailand in the Davis Cup.

And that’s Great Britain without Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. And in the time it takes to turn an ankle (Greg) and hurt a shoulder (Tim), Thailand are elevated from no hopers to international dark horses.

But never fear because the Express reports that Martin Lee (number 163 in the world rankings) is ready for the challenge. Recalling the last time he was part of a Davis Cup squad, when he sat on the bench for the duration, Lee offers little hope. ”I wasn’t even playing,” says Lee, ”but at the end of it my brain was fried. After three days of tension I was exhausted.”

But not to worry because as sports mad Alex Ferguson would attest, if you are going to lose there is no disgrace in losing to the best. And that includes, Thailand, Maccabi Haifa, Bolton…

Posted: 18th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Enckelman’s Blues

‘SCORING a goal is, to borrow a phrase from Swiss Toni, like making love to a beautiful woman. Or so we are told, repeatedly, by professional footballers and full-time fans. ”Better than sex!” is the phrase that invariably springs to mind in those extra special moments.

”I do not like orange. And I’m not to keen on Blue, at the minute”

How then can one begin to describe the feelings of Birmingham fans after the first Second City derby since 1986? Imagine an impotent man kept in solitary confinement in a prison next to a very noisy brothel, then released after 16 years, given a handful of Viagra and invited next door for a party. Then times that by ten and double it. Then you’ll be about half-way there.

”Remember it’s a game of football,” wrote Steve Bruce before the game – a statement that sounded about as convincing as his recent declarations of loyalty to Crystal Palace.

”I haven’t slept properly since Friday, thinking about tonight,” wrote a Villa fan on the morning of the game. ”I can’t work today. I can’t believe the feelings of pure hatred towards the Blues are resurfacing. I just thank God I don’t live in Brum any more – I can’t imagine what’s happening up there today.”

To lose was unthinkable for either side. To lose 3-0, and concede one of the most farcical own-goals ever seen, is a nightmare come true. It could also be the straw that breaks Graham Taylor’s back.

During the game he could be seen reenacting his famous rant at the linesman, as first performed in Rotterdam back in ’93. Did he not like that. And did he not like Enckelman’s ankle-work, as the Finnish keeper flicked his foot ineffectually at the ball as it rolled towards the net.

”There’s only one Graham Taylor!” sang the blues fans happily. Afterwards he sounded like a broken man. ”I am incredulous,” he said slowly and quietly. ”It was so extraordinary I think it affected everybody, players and fans alike. Peter Enkelman is very, very low and he’s always going to be reminded of it in this city.”

The Blue Noses, by contrast, were as high as kites. The night was filled by the club’s traditional song, in which their rivals are cast in the role of involuntary receptacles for the content of Blues bowels.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was music to St Andrews ears.

Posted: 18th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Losing His Bottle

‘GOALKEEPERS often fancy that they can play a bit. And Fabien Barthez thinks he can play a bit more than that. Which creates a problem for the Frenchman.

”Okay, who else wants some?”

Are we to suppose that when he booted his drinks bottle towards the back of the net he meant it to snake its way through the webbing and smack a celebrating, baying Leeds United fan in the face? Just how skilful is the French No.1?

Police investigating the incident would do well to request a collection of Barthez moments from the Manchester United video store.

The sleuths would soon note that Barthez is given to moments of deft foot play and has even played outfield for his current club.

But the same videos will also show a few clangers, such as shooting the ball at Thierry Henry’s feet last season and forgetting that he can use his hands whenever Wes Brown is in his team.

But whether or not it is referred to the CPS might come down less to the player’s skill and more to the investigators’ allegiances.

Because ask yourself thing: were it Leeds ‘keeper Paul Robinson who had smacked the bottle at the back of his net in a fit of pique, would the struck fan have complained?

Or would he have glowed with pride as the blood filled his eyes, happy to have experienced first hand the legendary Robinson Rocket?

My feeling is something of the latter – as the home player goes and gives the injured fan his gloves and a hug. So Barthez’s misfortune is that his unlucky strike, or splendid finish, occurred at the home of the sworn enemy.

What self-respecting Leeds United supporter could pass up the chance to cause mental anguish to a Manchester United player?

The situation could only have improved for the Leeds fan had it been Rio Ferdinand who had stuck the bottle. Then we could be talking about considerable trauma, possibly fractured heads, whiplash and all manner of injury.

Rio would be shaking in his boots, expecting to hear the rap on the door that heralds the arrival of the Yorkshire debt collectors, Messers Woodgate and Bowyer.

Fans are given over to blind hatred, and how much more partial the view if seen though the eyes of their own blood.

Posted: 17th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Putting One’s Foot Down

‘REMEMBER the famous clip of the Mexican goalkeeper throwing the ball into his own net. Well, Aston Villa keeper Peter Enckelman came close to rivalling it last night when he let in what the Mirror describes as ”the most bizarre and embarrassing own goal in the history of the Premiership”.

A two-footed stamp or an evasive jump?

The Finn amazingly allowed a thrown-in from teammate Olof Mellberg to roll under his foot and into the goal during his side’s 3-0 defeat at bitter rivals Birmingham.

Hold on, say devotees of You’re The Ref – surely that is just a corner. And you’d be right, but unfortunately referee David Elleray decided that the ball had brushed Enckelman’s foot on the way through and awarded a goal.

It was not all good news for Birmingham, however, with Elleray telling the Mail that he would be reporting the club for the pitch invasions that followed each goal.

The Mirror says Brum now face ”the strong possibility of an FA charge” – as does Arsenal’s Thierry Henry after the FA said it would examine video of his clash with John Robinson on Saturday.

This despite the fact that David Beckham escaped scot-free from a similar incident just a few hours earlier. No wonder the Express describes the decision as ”crazy” and a ”farce”.

FA rules say that the Henry incident can be investigated because the referee didn’t see it; in Beckham’s case, the referee did see it but only awarded a free-kick against the England captain.

Arsene Wenger tells the Mail that he thinks the system is ”absurd”, but so does John Robinson, the recipient of Henry’s so-called elbow.

”I think the FA should get on with something else and not worry about an incident that wasn’t there,” he said.

And nor should we, especially when what the Mail describes as ”the greatest fortnight in golf history” is upon us.

”This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated fortnight, so get the trumpets out and prepare to savour a unique double bill,” shouts the paper.

Surely not. Surely, fate hasn’t conspired to give us the first round of the Stockley Park Winter Mixed Foursomes and the West Hertfordshire Monthly Medal all in the space of the same 14 days?

No, even more incredible than that – we have the Solheim Cup (the women’s Ryder Cup) taking place this week, followed by the Ryder Cup (the men’s Solheim Cup) a week later.

”Throw in this week’s gathering of the world’s top 50 men for the biggest tournament Ireland has staged,” writes Derek Lawrenson, ”and you have an unprecedented golfing festival.”

Be still, thy beating heart…

Posted: 17th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Smash And Gabby

‘ON the one hand, the papers show how far football has come since it was rebranded as family entertainment. On the front of the Times’ ”The Game” section, TV presenter Gabby Logan shoves a ball up her Sheffield Wednesday football top and holds it in the manner of an expectant mum. ”In the family way,” says the headline, inviting sports fans to go straight to pages 4 and 5 to read more.

”Isn’t sport just soooo much fun!”

On the other hand, the Mirror and Sun both lead with a story on how, although the packaging is shiny and alluring, the contents are just the same. In ”Foulo Di Canio” the Mirror cocks an ear toward the conversation between West Ham United’s Italian firebrand and the team manger, Glenn Roeder. Readers join the action as Roeder is about to substitute the player in West Ham’s defeat at Spurs.

”F*** you, f*** you, f*** you,” says the Italian.” And says Roeder: ”He is a very passionate man and he is a man who plays football without any fear in his body.” And likes to tell you where to go, eh, Glenn?

But who needs words, however short and unsweet, when a picture can say so much? David Beckham to most is a clean, fun-loving guy who likes to imbibe helium and say how much he loves his wife.

And on the pitch, according to today’s picture in the Mail, he likes to elbow Leeds United’s Lee Bowyer in the face. Now this might not be a massive jump from his nice guy image, and Bowyer does resemble an urchin of the lowest order, but elbowing is so very un-Beckham, so very unmarketable.

”David Beckham always chooses elbow guards from Man at Tweed” might make a thousand geography teachers purr, but it’s not sexy.

What is sexy is being the fastest man ever to walk the earth. And that’s what Tim Montgomery is. As the Telegraph reports, the American sprinter has just set the world record for the 100 metres, tearing down the track in a nifty 9.78 seconds.

The Telegraph’s man in Paris does well to catch up with Montgomery, and once at his side shares a few words. ”The day was perfect,” says the record-breaking athlete. ”I always thought I could beat the world record but I never thought it would happen here.”

That’s a sentiment shared by many, as the pictures show a virtually empty Charlety Stadium. But he did it, and is on his way to becoming one of the world’s most famous sports personalities.

That’s as soon as Gabby Logan moves out of the way…

Posted: 16th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Losing The Plot

‘BY all accounts, Sir Alex Ferguson is very charming company away from football. It is a pity that the same cannot be said of the Manchester United manager when it comes to his day job.

Brooklyn prepares to show Romeo dad’s latest trick

His defence of David Beckham at the weekend, coming so soon after a similar whitewash on Roy Keane, has done Fergie no favour at all. Worse, it threatens to make one of the most successful managers in British footballing history into a figure of fun.

For those who didn’t see the Ferguson interview, his first reaction to news that video replays suggested that Beckham had elbowed Lee Bowyer in the face was a blanket denial. ”We don’t have players who do that sort of thing,” he said – clearly forgetting that Roy Keane was sent off against Blackburn a couple of weeks ago for exactly that offence.

On that occasion, Ferguson had first tried to claim that his captain’s challenge was ”innocuous” until TV replays showed that it was anything but.

Having been caught out once, you would have assumed that Ferguson would have been wary of jumping so fully to the defence of one of his players.

He could easily have employed Arsene Wenger’s tactics and said he hadn’t seen the incident. In the end, Ferguson did allow some room for manoeuvre by saying he would be ”very surprised” if the England skipper had used his elbow.

Well, there is no doubt that that is what happened, although whether any action will be taken against Beckham is another matter. Only referee Jeff Winter, who gave a free kick at the time for what he described as a ”clumsy challenge”, can ask the FA panel to review the incident. And we all know how much referees like to admit they were wrong.

The whole thing is part of a deeper malaise at Old Trafford, as what should have been the end of a remarkable career descends into petulance.

With three defeats already this season, United already lie six points behind champions Arsenal. But, what is more, there is little sign of the qualities that have seen them dominate the Premiership since its inception.

And at the same time, we are seeing the worst side of Ferguson’s character. Loyalty to one’s players is admirable; a blanket refusal to accept that one of them could be at fault is not.

Single-minded competitiveness has become stubbornness – in particular the refusal to admit that the signing Juan Sebastian Veron has not worked out.

It is a pity, because whatever you think of United, Ferguson’s managerial career deserves a better end.

Posted: 16th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Le Pauvre Patrick

‘REALLY. What does Patrick Vieira think he’s playing at? Only five games into the new season, the Frenchman is claiming that he’s tired and he needs a break.

Here’s a little goblin…

”I can hardly stand up at times,” he told French newspaper L’Equipe. ”My back hurts, my legs hurt, I hurt everywhere.”

And round the country fans’ ribs are hurting from laughing at the Arsenal midfielder. It’s not as if he even had a busy summer with France being knocked out of the World Cup at the first hurdle. And given the amount of suspensions Vieira picks up (the first one of this season is already in the bag), he gets more breaks than most.

As the Express asks incredulously, can he be serious? And, it says, he also faced a barrage of criticism, not least from London firemen who are currently ready to strike to try to get their annual pay up to Vieira’s weekly wage.

As the paper helpfully points out, ”the kind of money which Vieira earns is beyond the comprehension of most public sector workers”. Private sector workers, on the other hand, regularly receive seven-figure salaries.

Anyway, the upshot of Vieira’s bleating is that he has been told to get on with it by manager Arsene Wenger, who tells the Mail: ”I have no plans to rest him.”

Someone who has been resting for the past year is Juan Sebastian Veron, Manchester United’s expensive Argentine midfielder.

Whatever Alex Ferguson says, Veron has been a disaster for United and this morning ex-United captain Bryan Robson pretty well says as much.

”Seba has to stamp his authority on games this season, take them by the scruff of the neck and dominate things,” he tells the Sun. ”Everyone at United feels he is capable of doing that, but now is the time for him actually to do it.”

Which is not exactly saying he’s a waste of 20 million quid and looks like a goblin – but it’s as close as you’re going to get with an ex-footballer.

To prove the point, ex-United centre-half Brian Greenhoff weighs in on the same page with his thoughts on Rio Ferdinand’s return to Elland Road on Saturday.

”He is such a very focused young man that it wouldn’t surprise me if he walked away with the Man Of The Match award,” said the man who played for both clubs. Just the kind of anodyne ”opinion” that the sports media love – a career of punditry surely awaits.

Meanwhile, history was being made in the world of cricket where Pakistani batsman Shoaib Malik became the first batsman to be given out lbw by a third umpire – a decision which, the Mail says, ”could change the face of world cricket for ever”.

Not only does it mean that the umpires might get a few more lbw decisions right, but anything that pisses off Dicky Bird and Fred Trueman has to be good news.

Posted: 13th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Captain Cooked

”’I’M not just tired, I’m cooked. I can hardly stand up at times. My back hurts, my legs hurt, I hurt everywhere. I am going to see the manager because he must give me some rest.”

The crowd were stunned when Vieira suddenly fell asleep

The manger is Arsene Wenger, the player is Patrick Vieira and the excuse just might work. If it does, then write it down and use it the next time you want a few days of work.

And for an added bonus, tell the team leader of your call centre, or whatever hellhole you work at, that you fear that your performance has begun to suffer and that you are ”unnerved” by your loss of form.

The bet is that you’ll be given short shrift and will end up wishing you’d just got your girlfriend/boyfriend to phone you in sick; and if you don’t have one, just call up and say that you’ve got the runs.

Diarrhoea is no laughing matter and although it might cause the less brash among you to grow redder than a constipated nun, it does guarantee a short conversation.

But you just might have enjoyed success with the candid Vieira manoeuvre. Of course Vieira has played a lot of football, but not nearly as much as he might have done had France not been knocked out of the World Cup in round one.

Had they got to the final, the languid Frenchman might well have reason to bemoan the lack of a break. But France were knocked out with the tournament proper yet to begin, and with no energy sapping jaunts to Madrid, the Frenchman had time to put his feet up.

And he has more time to do the same since he was sent off for putting his feet up a couple of Chelsea players.

As it is Vieira has little to complain about. Indeed, if he is looking for an example of how to be, he could do worse than take a glance to his immediate left. And there he would see Gilberto, the new Silva lining in Arsenal’s midfield who played in the World Cup’s winning team and has moved from Brazil to London.

And does the Brazilian complain? Possibly, but only a few people at his club speak any Portuguese, so the chances are high that any grumbling will fall on deaf ears.

And that is exactly what Arsene Wenger should turn towards his captain. Can it be that his captain has played too much? No. It could be that he has had enough of football, and that is something else.

Better to just excuse Vieira from training for a few days. Stan Bowles and Johann Cruyff were not the most dedicated trainers in the world but still managed a few decent performances.

In fact, the closest Bowles often go to sports lush pastures was watching horses run on them on a TV set in an Uxbridge Road bookmakers.

Anyhow, if Vieira want a break he can always do what he used to and get a red card and then spit at Neil Ruddock. Although, these days, that reaction might increase his workload – after all, when you’re cooked a lap of honour is no small thing.

Posted: 13th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Not Good Enough

‘WE hope they enjoyed it while they could – because Tottenham’s brief spell at the top of the Premiership is over and Glenn Hoddle is likely to be collecting his pension before the chance comes again.

Rock solid

Spurs’ fall from grace is made all the sweeter by the fact that they were leading Fulham 2-0 at half-time and 2-1 with barely five minutes to go. But goals by Steed Malbranque and Sylvain Legwinski robbed them of the points and assured hated north London rivals Arsenal of the top spot.

”Title Chumps,” says the Mail, as it also watches Manchester United slip up at home to Bolton, Liverpool let slip a 2-0 home advantage over Birmingham and Newcastle fall to Leeds.

Those results may have more of a bearing on the destination of the Premiership title than that at Loftus Road, but there is no doubt which the Gooners will have enjoyed most.

Afterwards, Hoddle told the Mail: ”I don’t think it was complacency – just a lack of ability.” Seasoned Hoddle watchers will know that translates to a complaint that he does not have a team of 11 G Hoddles.

At Old Trafford, Bolton recorded their second successive win over Manchester United – and it was David Beckham who was to blame.

Goldenballs became Goldenballs-up after his blunder gifted Wanderers the three points.

”I have to apologise to the fans because they pay their money to come and watch us and one silly mistake from me has cost us the game,” he told the Mirror.

At the other end of the table, West Ham lost at home to West Brom in what manager Glenn Roeder had said was a ”must-win match” and stay rooted to the foot of the table, but just above them are Newcastle after what the Sun calls ”another St James’ Park disaster”.

With just a fortnight to go until the start of the Ryder Cup, Europe are themselves looking at disaster with loss of form and injury threatening to make the biennial match as one-sided as it used to be 20 years ago.

But there is a glimmer of better news for home captain Sam Torrance in the not insubstantial shape of Colin Montgomerie who tells the Sun that his back injury has eased so much that he is capable of playing in all five rounds of matches.

”Sam has told me he regards me as one of his key men, and I want to assure him that the rock he describes me as is as strong and solid as ever.”

And if not a rock, then at least 18 stones.

Posted: 12th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Hammer Blow

‘IF a couple of weeks ago Gary Megson was the favourite in the annual which Premiership manager will be first to get the sack, then he must surely have been overtaken today by West Ham’s Glenn Roeder.

”Which way is Division 1?”

The Hammers’ disastrous start to the season sees them propping up the bottom of the table after their first four games, but it is not just the fact that they have only a single point to their name this season that is the worry but the quality of opposition they have lot to.

To be beaten 2-0 by Charlton at Upton Park was a disaster, to be beaten by West Brom is something of a catastrophe.

With £30m from the sale of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, England players such as David James, Joe Cole and Trevor Sinclair in the team (not to mention Under-21 stars such as Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe) and international stars such as Paolo Di Canio and Frederic Kanoute, there is no reason for West Ham to be in such a lowly position.

It will be pointed out that the Hammers had a similarly poor start to last season and went on to finish seventh. But last season West Ham were at least winning their home games. They certainly weren’t losing to the likes of West Brom and Charlton.

Which begs the question of what is going wrong. Some of it can perhaps be attributed to bad luck. After all, they outplayed and should have beaten champions Arsenal, and they certainly had enough chances last night to have won the game.

But bad luck can only explain so much. It does not explain why West Ham crumbled after an hour at St James’s Park in their opening game of the season, losing 4-0 to Newcastle (incidentally sitting only a place above West Ham in the table this morning) in a game that they looked for a long time like drawing.

And it certainly does not explain how they can lose at home to a side whose players even their own fans would struggle to pick out in an identity parade.

The West Ham board have traditionally been more patient with managers than many other top-flight clubs but, with so much staked on at least remaining in the Premiership, this forbearance will not carry on much longer.

Roeder has the players, but they are just not performing – and he must take some of the blame for that.

With difficult trips to White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge coming up, interspersed with home games against the two other promoted sides (Manchester City and Birmingham), the clock is very much ticking on Roeder’s managerial future.

Posted: 12th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Off Message

”’THIS FOR THE NEW-BORN KID.” Not one of the more offensive massages ever to have been displayed at a football ground but still enough to earn Thierry Henry a rap over the knuckles from the football authorities.

Henry addresses the spoilsports

The Mirror shows Henry celebrating his goal, the winner in Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Manchester City last night, by showing is on-vest message, a reference to Texas singer Sharleen Spiteri’s new baby. All very showbiz, and not at all in keeping with the decorum one expects at a football ground – something Fifa, who have banned players from displaying messages on their shirts, are striving to maintain.

But Arsene Wenger is unimpressed. ”They seem to want to ban everything theses days,” says the Arsenal manager, ”but celebration is part of sport.” It is for the winners, and, perhaps, for people who scrawl ”THIS IS FOR SEPTEMBER 11th” on their chests.

Or, indeed, for the Luton fans who saw their side win 2-1 away at Watford and their fans engage in fisticuffs with the locals. In ”Yobs Rampage”, the Sun captions an action shot with ”hooligans give fan a kicking”, sensing the difference between the thugs in the replica shirts and the supporters in the same garb.

As it is, the picture of violence just looks like a ruck, and one about half as nasty as is often witnessed at Vicarage Road when Saracens rugby union side are at play. The one thing for certain is that football hooligans like a good fight nearly as much as football writers do.

But if sports fans want to see a real battle they should pull on their Comfi-Slax™ and settle in for this winter’s Ashes series. The Telegraph shows the team the selectors have picked to represent England down under.

The usual suspects are there – Hussain, Stewart, Caddick and all. And there’s Darren Gough, too, although Darren is sporting a huge bandage over the greater part of his right leg. And if you look really closely, you might just make out the message ”Property of NHS”. And that, as we can all agree, really is taking things too far.

Posted: 11th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment


‘IN keeping with the football community’s deep desire to show deep respect for everything and empathy with everyone, this column will now hold one minute’s silence, in which we hope everyone will stop and reflect upon important matters…

The Real big deal


[Ripple of applause]

Thank you. Impeccably observed. Now, talking of ”Nine Eleven”, here’s a themed quiz question for you. Why was Ronaldo allocated the number 11 instead of 9 when he joined Real Madrid? Because Fernando Morientes didn’t fancy a move to Barcelona, and is contractually entitled to keep it, that’s why.

Of course the coveted centre-forward numeration would have confirmed the toothy one’s ”iconic” status and would have looked good on the replica shirts, but Real are unlikely to be complaining too much.

Working on the assumption that they employ the same pricing system that Crystal Palace used to on the last occasion we bought a club shirt – ie, charging for names and numbers according to the amount of letters and digits they contain – then the Madrid giants should make even more money from the millions of tops they expect to sell.

On the other hand, when Ade Akinbiyi signed for Palace, and found the iconic number ten already taken, he amusingly put AKINBIYI 5 + 5 on his back, thus bumping up the price. Hence don’t see many Palace fans wearing them. Or at least, we assume that’s the reason.

Whether Ronaldo’s extra digit is responsible for the reassuringly expensive £45 price tag that Real have slapped on the Ronaldo replicas we don’t know, and whether it will adversely affect sales remains to be seen, but the early signs are that it will not deter them.

The first run sold out immediately, and tickets were issued for places in the queue to buy them at the clubs official outlets. Real ordered 500,000 Zidane tops when the unusually-tonsured Frenchman joined, and duly became the world’s biggest seller. Ronaldo, with his Brazilian following, should be able to set new records and, who knows, unite the whole world in the process. (Not including Barcelona.)

So let’s end on that thought, and reflect on the words of John Lennon, a man who united us all first in love and then in grief. As he put it so memorably in his hymn to humanity (Revolution No 9): Number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine…

Posted: 11th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Back Chat

‘IT is still hard to believe that the charmless striker who sloped off to Real Madrid a few seasons back is to return to Highbury tonight in the colours of Manchester City. Back then Nicolas Anelka had then world at his feet and was being touted by his manager, Arsene Wenger, as the next Ronaldo. Now he’s at Manchester City.

When Nicolas was King

But though he seems to have lost his way, the sulky one has found his voice and after years of letting his brothers do his talking can be heard making some noise in the Mirror. ”I’ve got on with my life and Arsenal fans should forget the past,” says he. ”I’ll forget the whistling and only think about the good times.” Like the day he finally left for Madrid.

But some sportsmen do return as good as ever, if not better. And tennis player Pate Sampras, who has endured what the Times calls a ”year in the shadows”, is one such sportsman.

Having been discounted by the press and no leser name than Greg Rusedski, Sampras has just won the US Open. It’s his fourteenth Grand Slam title in a fantastic career. ”This one might take the cake,” said Sampras after his four-sets win over old foe Andre Agassi.

”This year I was struggling and hearing I should stop, negative tones from the press. It was a good effort, one of my better ones.” And as understatements go, that’s a classic. ‘

Posted: 10th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

In The Eyes Of Hod

”’I CANNOT envisage a situation where Tottenham would commit £30m on one player. That would be very dodgy business strategy. If he breaks a leg it can have serious consequences.” The words of Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, who had earlier insisted that his club have ”set out to establish Spurs in the top flight of European football”.

Hoddle asks ‘dad’ to switch the floodlights on

It’s all great stuff, and exactly what we have come to expect from a club that had been going after Rivaldo, Morientes and Chiesa. As it was they snared Robbie Keane, which for £7m does represent a good deal on a player who had cost Leeds between £5 and £6 million more.

But this talk about refusing to break the bank for a player is rubbish. The players on Hoddle’s wish list didn’t not come to Spurs because the money wasn’t being offered; they didn’t come because they had no intention of playing for the fourth best team in London (source: 2001-2002 Premiership table; 2000-2001 table; 1999-2000 table; 1998-1999 table).

And ”envisage” is such a wonderful word, lending a measured edge to the chairman’s comments. Also note how Spurs have ”set out” to be a big, successful team. And, to my mind, there are few teams that haven’t.

The laughable thing is that Spurs think they can do it with Glenn Hoddle is charge. The Messiah, as many people still call him, is at the top of the table, doing for Spurs what he once threatened to do for Chelsea. But Hoddle is not the glue that will gel any new Spurs team.

If his chairman were to ask Hoddle which player would be worth £30 million, a few seconds deliberation would see Glenn answer: ”Me.” And then the pause would be because Glenn considered the sum as something of a bargain. For now and forever, Glenn remains the best player at the club. And £30 million for his talent would be money well spent.

As Tony Cascarino, a player who once performed under Hoddle at Chelsea, puts it, Glenn Hoddle was ”completely besotted with himself”. And as one nameless Chelsea player adds it: ”If he was an ice cream he would lick himself.”

On another note, we see that the weekend saw the joining of Spurs with north London rivals Arsenal when Sarah Buchler, the daughter of David Buchler, vice-chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, married Darren Dein, the son of David Dein, vice-chairman of Arsenal. It was a traditional do, with Sven Goran Eriksson in attendance. And one for which, one imagines, the bride’s family picked up the bill. Which might well have set back Tottenham’s big plans a little further. More champagne, Mr Dein?

Posted: 10th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

The Impossible Job

‘YOU can’t win as England manager, as Sven Goran Eriksson is quickly finding out.

”I guess I’ll have to go on next”

Accused by the Press of not trying out different players, you are then vilified for turning friendly matches into farces by your liberal use of substitutions. No wonder they call it the impossible job.

The Mail leads the campaign against the Swede after the 1-1 draw with Portugal, accusing him of scoring an own goal in his battle with Premiership managers.

”Managers calling for meaningless matches to be scrapped,” it says, ”were given more ammunition at Villa Park in a match against Portugal in which 40 players were used.”

Most it must be said by Portugal, but Eriksson did make a total of seven substitutions and see his side turn in a second-rate second-half display.

But, as Eriksson says in his own defence, if he can’t have a look at different players in friendly matches, when can he?

And one player who made sure that his first start for England on Saturday afternoon should be the first of many was Alan Smith.

The Leeds striker scored England’s only goal and turned in an accomplished performance that was not lost on Eriksson or on the watching sports hacks.

In the Star, Brian Woolnough urges Eriksson to pick Smith for the first European Championship qualifying game against Slovakia next month.

”Smith looked every inch a future England star,” he writes. ”Confident, direct, he held the ball impressively, passed well, dropped back and scored what Eriksson called a ‘beautiful goal’.”

One would have thought the emergence of Smith was justification enough of Eriksson’s approach, but the FA does not agree.

The Express says FA bosses will confront the England coach over what they see is a broken promise not to use so many substitutes in friendly matches this season.

Certainly, the fans have reason to feel short-changed, but Eriksson does not set ticket prices. Surely, the way forward is not to charge so much to get in rather than to hamstring the coach.

England’s fourth and final Test against India is also heading for a draw, although fans cannot really complain about being shortchanged after watching some brilliant batting, from Michael Vaughan and Rahul Dravid.

The pair are the two leading run-scorers in world cricket in 2002, but it is the Englishman who gets the plaudits in this morning’s paper.

”Vaughan’s running riot,” says the Mirror back page – focusing on the Yorkshireman’s attempt to become the first Englishman to score five Test centuries in a season.

He resumes at the Oval this morning on 47 not out – and history beckons.

Posted: 9th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Taking The Low Road

‘ENGLAND, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were all in action this weekend, with varying degrees of success.

Scotland – a small island off the Faroes

Once the smoke cleared after the pre-match fireworks, England’s game against Portugal was a bit of an anticlimax.

The first half was fairly satisfactory, with Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith particularly impressive. But England are famously suspect when it comes to second halves, so the real test was yet to come.

The Portuguese decision to change practically their entire side at half-time made it difficult to evaluate England’s second-half performance, especially when Sven Goran Eriksson himself made several changes.

Certain baffling traits remain, however, such as Eriksson’s strange fascination with playing Emile Heskey wide left, not to mention using Owen Hargreaves as a makeshift right back.

Neither player looked happy, and it was more ammunition for those who see the Eriksson phenomenon as a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

Wales have had some good players over the past couple of decades, but even in the days of Rush, Hughes and Southall, they never quite had the overall strength to get to the finals of a championship.

That might finally change, as Mark Hughes seems to have got a reasonable collection of players together, organised them and given them some self-belief.

Their 2-0 away win against Finland was a very impressive result, and one with which any of the big European sides would have been well satisfied. It was a good start to their Euro 2004 campaign, and they will fancy their chances now.

Ireland were always going to be susceptible to a crash landing after their adrenaline-fuelled World Cup trip. The Roy Keane saga is beginning to get to Mick McCarthy, and the team lost its composure against an admittedly talented Russian side.

Their 4-2 defeat in Moscow was no disgrace, but it will have thrown them out of their stride nonetheless.

But when it comes to problems, it is hard to imagine a worse predicament than Scotland’s. Alan Hansen reckoned they were ”lucky to get a draw” in their away fixture, which wouldn’t have been such a problem had their opponents not been the Faroe Islands.

It’s a fair bet that there will be no children christened Douglas Ross Crainey Dailly Weir Dickov Ferguson Lambert Johnston Kyle Dobie in Scotland this year – although there may be a few south of the border.

The worst Scottish team ever? Probably. So far, at least.

Posted: 9th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment