Back pages | Anorak - Part 97

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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

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

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

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

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

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

Roy’s Rows: Part 1098765b

”’THE Oval (first day of five: England won toss).” It’s heartening that in among the ardent professionalism of modern sport, cricket still possesses the language of the Pathe newsreel. Readers can imagine such a line appearing on a screen in grainy black and white, followed by some shots of cricketers scurrying around the field.

Well, you didn’t really want another picture of Roy Keane, did you?

As it is, the message comes at the top of the Times’ despatch from cricket’s frontline, where England are holding off the Indian challenge. As the rest of the message reads: ”England have scored 336 runs for two wickets against India.” Michael Vaughan is seen celebrating his fourth Test hundred of the summer, going on to score 182 not out before stumps. But as the first line of the report says, the individual is not as important as the team, and cricket is a team game.

Which is what football should be but rarely is – at least not off the field. Because football means Roy Keane. And loath as we are to mention the disgraced one’s name, we are merely acting as messengers, relaying the news from football land.

And the news is that Roy Keane appears to have got himself a media savvy agent. Where once he picked fights with a few targets – Alf Inge Haaland, Mick McCarthy – Roy now starts rows with everyone.

It’s as if he’s been told that if he ”tells it like it is”, ”gives it straight from the lip”, or engages in any of a million other newspaper euphemisms for having a big mouth, he will become ”The Hardest Voice In Soccer”.

And to prove that no target is too remote, Roy has turned his maniacal gaze on Team England. According to the man who ran home, England were more interested in swapping shirts with Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final that they were in winning the game. England, to quote the language of ”The Hardest Voice In Soccer”, ”bottled” it.

Michael Owen spends too much time telling the Mirror that Roy is talking nonsense. But in responding to the rantings of the injured one, Owen plays the game. Keane might be looking for a media career, it’s just that he should start one when his playing days are over and not before.

Posted: 6th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Ding But No Dong

”’THIS is a ding, rather than a ding-dong,” said an FA spokesman. He was referring to the latest clash between England coach Sven Goran Eriksson and Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

Fans celebrate as Sven issues an invitation to play to anyone who has an England shirt, own ball and wants to

The intention, presumably, was to indicate that the whole thing was a storm in a teacup. The effect was rather different. Whereas a ding-dong suggests a two-way battle, full of cut-and-thrust, a ”ding” suggests a knockout inside two seconds. And no prizes for guessing the winner.

Eriksson may have initially put Sir Alex on the back foot by whisking David Beckham off to Dubai midway through the metatarsal saga, but Fergie landed a killer punch this week and Eriksson and the FA are still reeling.

When Sven sat in the directors’ box and watched the ”unfit” (and unavailable) Paul Scholes zipping about like a demon in a United shirt, he must have felt utterly humiliated. When Beckham was taken off in the final minute with a dodgy calf, and consequently withdrawn from the England squad, insult was added to injury.

Beckham’s injury is by all accounts genuine, but the symbolic damage has been done. Ferguson has stuck two fingers up at Eriksson and the Football Association, and the club v country ”debate” is once again in full swing.

In Ferguson’s defence, no-one can blame him for wanting to protect his players. And his attitude to friendlies is shared by the other top managers, such as Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier, both of whom count out their players and count them back in again every time the international fixtures come around, hoping that their boys will return intact.

Even without injuries, there is the physical and mental strain of international duty. It is the other side of the same coin that Eriksson worries about when he complains about the demands of the Premiership.

Nor is their anything new about Fergie’s policy. For decades, managers of leading clubs have operated an unofficial quota system, allowing two selected players to go on England duty and keeping two back. Eriksson’s problem is that he has inadvertently brought the issue into the open – albeit with a little help from Fergie. He has raised the call-up issue, but undermined his own case with his complaints about fixture congestion.

Given that he can’t hope to win either battle, he would have done better to keep lines of communication open with the top managers and relied on their co-operation. Now he will lose face by backing down or pursuing a doomed war against the financially powerful clubs who hold the all cards.

Posted: 6th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Fighting Talk

‘MEMBERS of the FA disciplinary committee had better watch out. When Roy Keane vows to the Express that he will go into his hearing (on disrepute charges) fighting, the first image that springs to mind is of the rabid Irishman chinning a bunch of suits.

Sven indicates the number of fit players he has

In which case, Sir Alex Ferguson would no doubt immediately leap to the defence of his captain, claiming that most of the punches were pretty innocuous and saying what a shame it was that 82-year-old Dufton Bufton went to the floor so easily.

Fergie is under attack from other quarters in the rest of the papers, however, over his ”insulting” decision to play Paul Scholes only 24 hours after claiming he was unfit for international duty.

The Mirror says Sven Goran Eriksson is to lay down the law, demanding that every single England player turns up for future internationals, whether they are injured or not.

Ferguson’s decision to pull both Scholes and David Beckham out of the squad for Saturday’s friendly against Portugal at Villa Park has destroyed the Swede’s trust in the top managers and the FA is now talking tough.

If the FA really wants to play hard ball, however, there is a simple remedy. Leave players who feign injury or do not report for friendly internationals out of the competitive games.

It may have a cost in the short term, but players like Scholes will not put up with Ferguson’s reluctance to release him for long if it threatens his international career.

Graham Thorpe’s international career is currently on hold as the England batsman tries to sort his head out following the break-up of his marriage.

But the good news for England fans is that he will be available to tour Australia this winter. The Mail says the 33-year-old is likely to be handed a provisional place in the 17-man squad when it is announced next week.

He has spoken to all four of the selectors ”and is believed to have gone most of the way to convincing them that his state of mind is much improved following the traumas of his divorce”.

Thorpe, however, will not be taking the field this morning as England and India meet in the series decider at the Oval.

India have not won a series outside of their country since 1986, and Nasser Hussain’s men have a fight on their hand to ensure that they don’t succumb.

As the Mail headline says, ”The Ashes can wait, England’s priority is to save the summer”.

Posted: 5th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

A Bright Future

‘SIR Bobby Robson thinks England’s performance against Brazil in the World Cup was a shambles and he accused the team of lacking fight.


Roy Keane reckons England’s players were overawed and simply looking forward to swapping shirts at the end of the match. Vinnie Jones reckons England ”will always be the nearly bunch”. ”They will get a result against Germany or Argentina,” he allows, but England ”will never win it”.

Nor did Sven Goran Eriksson exhibit much fighting spirit, even with half an hour left against 10 men. One England defender remarked that the team ”needed Winston Churchill and got Iain Duncan Smith”.

Of course, Eriksson was appointed precisely because Kevin Keegan’s combination of passion and tactical ineptitude proved fatal in Euro 2000.

The Swede was supposedly the opposite: ice-cool and tactically shrewd. The problem is that at significant moments, such as the second half against both Sweden and Brazil, he appeared to be neither.

He looked nervous and displayed an astonishing reluctance to address obvious problems on the pitch.

His first post-Japan squad hasn’t exactly gone to plan either. His inclusion of Bowyer and Woodgate has caused predictable protests, while the mysterious absence of Paul Scholes and now David Beckham will not only wreck the England midfield, but will also fuel suspicions of a feud between Eriksson and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Meanwhile his remarks about the length of the English season are not only an unconvincing excuse for England’s fading efforts against Brazil, but have also put him at risk of losing face when his plea for a winter break is rejected, as it surely will be.

He seems to be holding back on the big pronouncements, which is wise, but Michael Owen has already said that England will have a two or three times better chance of winning in 2006, where conditions will be cooler.

”There are some great players in the England squad,” he enthuses, ”and so much reason for optimism.”

If so, he must be the only one to see it. The fact is that there is just one England player who has proved himself in World Cups – and that’s Owen himself.

The rest have either under-performed or not yet had the chance to prove themselves. One proven world-class player does not a winning team make.

But then England are always favourites to win every tournament except the one that’s actually happening. So as this experimental squad prepares for its Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, the talk is already of Germany 2006.

Good times, as ever, are just around the corner – and if that’s not a good reason for celebration, then what is?

Posted: 5th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

United We Fall

‘FIRST, Alex Ferguson began to go off the rails. He started talking about his side being the best on paper, and how everyone knew that they were the real number one, even though they had finished at number three in the league.

Keano, Edwards and Fergie sense no harm in their actions

He had said he was going to quit, to do a Cantona, a Borg, a Graf and get out of his sport while still at the top. But he forgot to go and instead signed for another three years. And then he signed £80million of talent in Van Nistelrooy, Veron and Ferdinand.

The new recruits demonstrated the board’s faith in their manager, and how the train of talent that had produced Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and Neville had run dry.

But the club is bigger than one man, and if another one who shows signs of wear and tear is needed, we can take a look at Martin Edwards. Mr Edwards, former chairman and senior director of the club, is in the spotlight for his allegedly pervy ways. It’s been written in the papers of late that Edwards has taken his eyes off the ball and placed them under the doors of women’s toilet cubicles.

Police are looking into allegations of peeping, and while they’re at the ground they might like to have a word with the team captain, Roy Keane. Having courted controversy in his book, the player whose vengeance once stretched to labelling people prawn sandwich fanciers, has been seen of late elbowing national team-mate Jason McAteer in the head.

And to make matters worse, Keane, who was apparently so incensed when Alf Inge Haaland accused him of feigning injury that he launched a vendetta against his tormentor, shakes his head and wags a finger in a way to say that McAteer was making a meal of it. Big Roy doesn’t always take his punishment – on this occasion a straight red card – like the hard-jawed man of literary fame.

And when he gets to the touchline, he is greeted by Sir Alex, who tells the press: ”It’s always sad when a player goes down quickly.” But not nearly as desperate as watching Keane’s slow, inexorable slip from grace.

Perhaps United should stop looking elsewhere and begin taking a hard look at themselves. And if Mr Edwards wants it, yes, why not do so in a ladies’ toilet. Because United are showing signs of stress.

The once cohesive face of a great team has been distorted into the snarling visage of Roy Keane, a purple-headed manager who should have gone and an executive of questionable mores. It all begins to look like the beginning of the end of an era.

Today, United are far from gone and will challenge all the way this season. But new faces are needed, and if they don’t arrive soon, the club could have a long wait until it’s hype once again lives up to its reality. ‘

Posted: 4th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Paul The Other One

‘WHEN Manchester United are talked about as being the biggest football club in the world, it means that not only are they more high profile than Real Madrid, Barcelona and AC Milan, but that they are a bigger draw than international teams, and that includes England.

United team doctor issues players with emergency guide on how to avoid broken nail trauma

And to prove the point, the Paul Scholes that was unfit to play for England in Saturday’s friendly with Portugal is the same Paul Scholes who last night played in United’s 1-0 win over Middlesbrough.

The Mail and Mirror say that the move has ”humiliated” watching England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, whose face was set to redden all the more when David Beckham was brought off a minute from full time. ”David has had a calf injury all week,” explained Alex Ferguson. ”He’s not been able to train. We’ve had to withdraw him from the national team.” Well, it’s the only sensible option, isn’t it?

And while we curse the cruel luck that sees the England captain limp of a pitch in the dying moments of a game his side are winning, Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira offers a few curses of his own. And, apparently, he likes to aim them at referee Andy D’Urso. So says the FA, and so reports the Sun, which says that the French dynamo is facing a two-match ban for his outburst.

Such tirades used to be called ”industrial language”, and managers and players would chortle about it afterwards. But that was before television made the game into a form of entertainment for all the family, and before the camera zoomed in on players’ mouths. It’s CCTV evidence that’s to blame.

And mindful of that, the Sun takes a look at he Leeds kids who can ”rule the world”. And the players who can, according to no-nicer-ex-pro-than Norman Hunter, are ”Paul Right” Robinson, ”Rated” Danny Mills, ”Hotshot” Alan Smith, ”Superb” Lee Bowyer” and, get this, ”Class” Jonathan Woodgate. Class! Right on.

As Hunter says of Woodgate: ”But this boy has got the lot and I think he is different class.” Class none of it – he’s a whole different category, Norman. ‘

Posted: 4th, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Operating Theatre

‘LAST night’s brilliant match at Anfield, in which Newcastle came back from 2-0 down to salvage one point (and almost stole all three), was a timely reminder of why so many millions of people are infatuated by this game.

Hip-Hip Hooray

It is sometimes worth reminding ourselves, especially when the back pages of this morning’s papers are concerned with everything but events on the pitch.

Mostly, it is all about Manchester United skipper and all-purpose lunatic Roy Keane.

The Mail headlines its piece ”Keane Cracks”, which we half expect to be followed by a fellow-player’s cheekbone. But it is actually Keane’s mental state that is under examination, with the paper claiming that manager Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to leave his mini-me out of the match against Middlesbrough tonight because of his state of mind rather than the state of his body.

But it is the state of his body that concerns the other papers, with the Sun reporting that Keane will undergo a hip operation today which will rule him out for three months.

”That means,” the paper says, ”the Manchester United skipper will be able to serve his FA ban for being sent off at Sunderland on Saturday and the expected misconduct rap following revelations in his book – while he recovers.”

The Express makes the same point, saying Keane has effectively outwitted the FA with what it calls ”Operation Freedom”, although as he is expected to miss 19 first-team games it is a curious type of freedom.

England play their first game since their World Cup quarter-final exit to Brazil on Saturday, but will do so without the services of either Steven Gerrard and Kieron Dyer.

The Mirror says Sven Goran Eriksson’s plans for the friendly against Portugal are in tatters following last night’s double blow, although anyone who say Dyer run around so ineffectually for 90 minutes last night will not lose too much sleep over the midfielder’s shin splints problem.

It is a different matter with Gerrard. His absence from England’s World Cup squad cost the country dear – but would it have made any difference to the final result?

With criticism of Sven Goran Eriksson’s laid-back attitude during the campaign under fire from certain players – in particular the complaint that when the players needed Winston Churchill at half-time against Brazil, they got Iain Duncan Smith instead – the Swede has challenged the players to voice their concerns at a showdown tomorrow night ahead of the friendly at Villa Park.

Eriksson told the Star: ”If someone could guarantee we would have played better if I had shouted and screamed at the players, I would have done.”

And it is fair to suggest that if the players are not able to motivate themselves for a World Cup quarter-final against the most famous footballing team in the world, then they should look to themselves for the reasons for their dismal second-half performance, not the manager.

Posted: 3rd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Roy Who?

”’ROY WHO?” That was the headline on the front page of one sports supplement yesterday, accompanying a characteristically scary-looking mug shot of hardman-turned-actor Vinnie Jones, football’s answer to gangster-turned-actor John Bindon.

Roy Race – aka Psycho

The gist of Jones’s interview was that Roy Keane isn’t half as hard as he and everyone else seems to think.

But this isn’t just an opportunity to remind the world of his own status as the top boy of the modern era. On the contrary, Jones is happy to give credit where it’s due: Jimmmy Case and Graeme Souness would also ”sort you out”, no problem.

It’s easy to mock today’s tough guys, of course. In an age when you can be cautioned for hurting someone’s feelings, let alone his cruciate ligament, the red card has inevitably been devalued as a badge of shame.

All the same, Keane has done his best to keep up standards. Although his first red didn’t come until 1995, it was worth waiting for: a vicious and wholly unprovoked stamp on Gareth Southgate in a 1995 FA Cup semi-final replay against Crystal Palace.

This was made still more impressive by the circumstances in which the game took place – in a half-empty stadium boycotted by Palace fans after one of their number was killed in fighting on the day of the first match.

This in turn had been a consequence of the bad blood between the clubs following the Cantona incident. Not only that, but both managers had appealed for calm in a public appearance on the pitch before the game.

So Keane’s wild behaviour set a high standard right from the start, and since then he has raised the bar still higher with the Haaland ”tackle”.

Yet although Keane’s total of 11 reds is impressive, there is another Roy who still leads the field.

”Roy who?” Roy McDonough, aka Red-Card Roy, that’s who. Roy (who uses phrases such as ”the so-called hard man Tommy Smith”) set a record of 13 dismissals during his spells with Walsall (one red), Exeter (two), Colchester (three) and Southend (seven).

It will no doubt be beaten soon, but it is unlikely to be bettered in these softly-softly days.

”I’m not the sort who’ll hurt people on purpose,” says Roy, in traditional fashion. But he admits that ”if it gets a bit naughty, it brings out the best in me”.

Roy didn’t let retirement stop him causing mayhem either. While watching his brother play a Sunday league match that was getting ”naughtier and naughtier”, he ran on to the pitch to avenge an attack on his sibling by a tasty centre-half – at which point, all hell broke loose, leading to a 22-man punch-up. Or rather, 23. The match was abandoned.

”After that there was deadly silence,” recalls Ray. ”I was so embarrassed. My mate Ian Atkins was shaking his head and my girlfriend was just standing there. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened’.

”Ian went to see the referee in his room and said, ‘I’m ever so sorry, ref, he comes to watch us every so often.’

”The referee looked at him and said: ‘Bollocks, I know who he is – that’s Roy McDonough. He’s a raving lunatic.”’

Posted: 3rd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Keane’s Eire

”’NOW is the time to debunk the myth that Roy Keane is indispensable to Manchester United,” writes the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward. He then goes on to explain why, but all he need do is draw a bold arrow to divert readers’ attention to the picture alongside his article. For there is Roy Keane tussling with referee Uriah Rennie.

Sunderland – August 31, 2002

Having messed with the face of Sunderland’s Irish international Jason McAteer in Saturday’s 1-1 draw, Keane wanted more. But between he and his quarry stood the ref. Had it been Andy D’Urso, a former Keane target, who was to send Patrick Vieira from the field in Arsenal’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea, Keane would most likely have whirled his arms and spat vengeance.

But this was a man called Uriah, and even a hardened mad-eyed street fighter like Keane knows not to mess with anyone with a strongly biblical name, especially when he is roughly twice your size.

And after grappling with one mighty man, Keane is now strangely at odds with another. The Sun reports that Alex Ferguson has ”condemned” his captain for elbowing McAteer, and is ready to fine him a club record £180,000. And so the latest chapter in the life and times of Roy Keane goes on, covering the first three pages of the Sun’s sports coverage.

And that includes a picture of the ballistic one posing with the skull of a tiny bird. And the reason for the picture? No idea is offered – you’d have to read yesterday’s Observer Sports Magazine to understand why. And even then, you’d probably be none the wiser – some things and some people are just out of reach.

And so it is with Michael Schumacher, who is so far ahead of the Formula One pack that most other drivers have only ever seen his exhaust pipe roaring off into the distance. We, though, courtesy of the Mirror, get to see the cheery sight of the world champion German celebrating his tenth win of the F1 season.

His victory in yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix meant that he eclipsed the nine-wins-in-a-season record he had shared with Nigel Mansell. Mansell was at Spa to see the race, and offered what may well have been his hearty congratulations to the new record holder. ”Achievements are there to be surpassed,” says Nigel. And those are sentiments that we can all applaud. ”Good luck to him,” he adds.

And with excitement and controversy like that it’s not overly hard to see why Roy Keane’s face is over all the back pages. Now if he could just put his collar up a bit and learn some charm… ‘

Posted: 2nd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

A Ray Of Hope

‘ON Saturday afternoon at around one minute after the full-time whistle had blown, I received a phone call. At first, it sounded like a long distance message, but the interference on the line was not the crackle of static but the rare noise of jubilant Tottenham fans.

Will Spurs fans ever see the likes of Crooks again? We can only hope not

”Have you seen it?” asked the voice. And before I could ask ”What?” I was told. ”We’re top of the league.” ”We” are Tottenham, and it should be said that I am not. That message was punctuated with an ”Aaaaahhhh”, a quintessentially football sound which used to be followed with a ”How d’yer feel?” I felt fine, and told the lunatic on the other end just so.

”You ‘ate it,” he said. Then he sang ”We are top of the league” a few times at me and said he had to go, no doubt to join the thousand-strong conga down Seven Sisters Road.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the same road, at Arsenal, all was peaceful. Birds were still singing, fully-stocked shops and pubs were still selling the finest kebabs and lagers and the sun was in the sky. Because it was still August, and, according to my official Arsenal calendar, that meant there were another nine months to go ’til season end.

I could be cruel at this point and point out how in the Spurs time zone, the season ends around Christmas, and with just four months to go, the lads in white are in with a shot of glory. I could, but I won’t, because to do so would be to admit that what I was being told has affected me in some way.

So instead I congratulated the voice on the phone. ”Well done,” I said. ”Enjoy it. Make the most of it. Live it large.” And it wasn’t me being disingenuous, it was me being genuine. I wholeheartedly wanted him to enjoy it.

And why was I not spitting blood? Why had I not slammed down the phone, or at least laughed at him? Why had I not verbally patted him on the head and told him, as George Graham had told me before he was carted off by the authorities, that the game is a marathon and not a sprint? Because he had shown that he cared.

He cared deeply enough to call me, a fan of the enemy, at his moment of joy. After years of affected indifference (it’s been three since Spurs were last top), of saying countless times how he and his like were ”bored” with football and ”who cares who wins the league”, he had finally played his hand. And I knew at once the pain he must have suffered over the past years and the pain, in truth, he is likely to feel at the end of this season.

But I also know that to laugh too hard is to set myself up for a fall. All rivalries, and few are more intense that the north London version, are based on fear. And my fear is that one day Spurs will rise again and Arsenal will fall from Wenger’s lofty pedestal.

And come that day I will sit and nod and say how football has lost its interest for me and that, although Spurs have won, they are an average side whose success says so much about how football has been corrupted by greed and fiscal pragmatism. And the voice at the other end of the phone will say: ”Never mind. Perhaps now Ray Parlour’s your new manager, he’ll bring the good times back.”

And, if he wants to really hurt me, he’ll say it without a hint of laughter or malice in his voice.

Posted: 2nd, September 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment

Paper Talk

‘A HAT has been thrown into the ring, and judging by the smart little feather on the side, it looks like a German headpiece. And indeed it is. Inspecting the label, we find that it is a size 8, made by Apfelschafft & Muller for customer 2986 Herr Kalus Toppmoller.

Hats off to the cheeky Herr Toppmoller

And inside the hat is an envelope addressed to the board of Manchester United PLC. ”GIVE ME FERGIE’S JOB”, it says. At least, that’s what the Sun seems to think, for it reports that the Bayer Leverkusen boss is keen to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.

If that sounds rather cheeky, then that’s largely down to the way in which the paper has chosen to present the story. Read on, and you discover that Leverkusen and United have been drawn together in the same Champions’ League group.

In the course of the usual press conference flattery about United being the biggest team on the planet, Toppmoller admitted that he would be his dream to succeed Fergie when the great man takes up his pipe and slippers in three years’ time.

Of course, Fergie might as well pack it all in now, because United have no chance of European glory this year. Why not? Because Alan ”Exclusive” Shearer has already announced that ”Toon Army will scream us to glory in Europe”.

Taking a break from mending a hole in his garden fence, the Geordie maestro dismisses the threat of Juventus, Feyenoord and Dynamo Kiev, who Newcastle will face in Group E. ”They’re rubbish and they know it,” he scoffs. ”We’ll give them a footballing lesson like they’ve never had.”

And Shearer is equally dismissive of United. ”Well past it” is his verdict on Fergie – the man who tried repeatedly to sign him. ”I turned United down because I wanted to join a club that played positive football. For me, United are basically spoilers, and this year they’ll be found out big time.”

Of course these quotes are simply our intepretation of Shearer’s words. The actual Sun article tends to shy away from spelling these things out, preferring instead to publish a series of respectful compliments directed at Newcastle’s opponents, and predictions that United, Liverpool and Arsenal will all succeed.

But you know Shearer doesn’t mean a word of it. Like the Toon Army, he anticipates great things, and there’ll be tears down the Auld Gallogeet – and in Shearer’s garden shed – if Newcastle fail to meet their date with destiny. ‘

Posted: 30th, August 2002 | In: Back pages | Comment