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Friday, October 25, 2002

Lost and Found

You may be forgiven for thinking I've gone into hibernation, been abducted by aliens or involved in a horrible accident. But the truth is far worse. You may or may not have noticed that a team who 10 days ago were being hailed as the best British club team of all time and had more records under their belt than any other side in history — suffered a bit of a blip this week.

You also may or may not know that I'm a fan of that particular team.

I couldn't watch the Premiership over the weekend (and I don't mean I couldn't get to a telly); so apart from being force fed Wayne Rooney's goal about five times by Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights news bulletins, there's not a lot I can say about the football last week. But I'll try.

Good draw for Fulham, bad draw for United, Liverpool jammy another win and go top and Terry Venebles rejuvenated Leeds… lose again. West Ham get some points, Newcastle get tanked by Arsenal's opponents this Saturday, Chelsea beat a poor side (it's a miracle), Midlands derby ends in boring draw, Middlesborough lose, Villa lose, scum win. Oh yeah, and a bloody 16 year old scally beats probably the best footballing side I've seen in my life.

I was really looking forward to the Champions League games too. Mistake. Two fluke goals from a really impressive Auxerre side made it Arsene ‘dedication's what you need’ Wenger's worst week in about two years. I cannot believe that anyone tried to make out either goal was David Seaman's fault. He kept Arsenal in the game in the second half, and anyone who puts any blame on him does nothing but emphasise the fact that they don't have the foggiest idea what they're talking about.

Finally, to anyone who has a go at Arsenal fans for being a bit miserable, or over reacting to what is effectively just a couple of bad results, I say this; you try not seeing your team lose for the best part of a year. I knew the defeat would come, I just didn't know it would feel quite this disappointing. Having said that, all those ‘fans’ that had the audacity to boo the best side they'll ever see, go fall on a rusty fork.

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Thursday, October 17, 2002

What A Result!

I'll start with something positive. Well bloody done Wales. I thought it could be a fluke result and then I watched the highlights, either I was a victim of some very biased coverage or Wales gave Italy a damn good beating. On top of magnificent goals from Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy, Danny Gabbidon missed an absolute sitter and Bellamy had a late goal ruled out when the referee brought play back (after about 10 seconds) for a foul on Mark Delaney. Strange, but who in Wales cares?

On to the serious business. David Seaman. The stick he's getting, and got during the game simply isn't on. When the crowd started booing and jeering their own player, he was perfectly within his rights to just give the ungrateful tossers the finger and walk off as far as I'm concerned. He is a fantastic goalkeeper and England's best — he is now and has been for the last ten years. I have nothing but contempt for the attitude of those pretend patriots who'd rather boo their own player than give the team give encouragement. Seaman made a horrible mistake, a misjudgement, but he was not the only one to blame for drawing with Macedonia.

I can't be the only person who saw Paul Scholes ducking the ball as he ‘covered’ the far post on the corner. It's the kind of thing you do down the park on a cold Sunday morning, when you don't fancy a stinging, wet ball in the face — you'd still expect a bollocking though.

I'm not happy with the amount of blame that's been apportioned to England's defence either. I thought Gary Neville played really well and Ashley Cole had an excellent game, neither put a foot wrong. With the exception of one very poor clearance I thought Sol Campbell was superb, and Jonathan Woodgate definitely improved on his performance against Slovakia.

From where I was sitting, England's downfall was the barely conference quality passing. David Beckham was England's inspiration, he was everywhere, tackling, closing down and generally trying to force the team forward. The problem was that whenever we did get forwards, we found white shirts less than 20% of the time. Wayne Bridge was the only player to distribute efficiently and the one that I wouldn't have taken off. Gerrard was the worst offender with Scholes a close second. Though between them they clocked up an assist and a goal, Gerrard was as much at fault for the second goal as Campbell; you can't pass the ball straight to their best player when you've got bags of time and just two players behind you.

In summary, I think we criminally underestimated Macedonia and paid the price. They on the other hand underestimated the values that English footballers try to play by, and forfeited handshakes and shirt swapping by spending the final 45 minutes rolling about the St Mary's turf.

P.S. Don't kid yourself into thinking that David James or Richard Wright will or would have erased their catalogue of blunders if they pull on an England shirt. I really hope Paul Robinson matures into the keeper he looks like he could be.

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Sunday, October 13, 2002

Is Doing the Job Enough?

So, what did you think of the Slovakia game.

I was torn between cheer that we had taken three points from was turning into a dificult game, and exasperation at how we'd made it look so difficult against a team ranked 45th in the World. Firstly lets not try and convince ourselves that Slovakia are any good. Morale is at an all time low and their best player is an average Middlesborough forward. Secondly, though England had two players injured we were overwhelmed by the number of suitors for the role of central defender. Morale and confidence, despite the Ulrika Johnsson affair, was reputedly high and players like Owen and Scholes were in fine goalscoring form. We should have beaten them.

The pitch didn't help, I've seen better Sunday League surfaces; and abuse from the crowd along with the unsettling (and absolutely intolerable) shooting of two England fans the night before no doubt contributed to the nervy looking line up.

From watching the opening few minutes, you would have been forgiven for thinking that England's XI had been out for a jog to Prague and back, such was the laziness of the passing and general non-plussed attitude. For some it refused to abate and if was was Sven I'd tell Steven Gerrard that he'll get a £1000 fine for every pass he attempts over 15 yards. I spent the whole game screaming at him to stop making it so easy for a defence we should have torn to shreads, I thank Sven for saving my voice in the 79th minute.

I've never thought Gareth Southgate was international class; and despite his recent good form for Middlesbrough he looked thoroughly out of his depth against his team-mate Szilard Nemeth. Jonathan Woodgate didn't look great either, but his youth and promise allows the excuse. That said, for all the talk of Sven's affinity for form players, Woodgate has not been performing particularly well this season from where I've been sitting.

It wouldn't be an all things footie report on an England game without some Heskey bashing. Well, as long as Sven insists on playing the lumbering oaf, I'll insist on asking the question why? All I'll say this time is that it's bloody embarassing when your left back's first touch is infinitely better than your holding centre forward's.

Another of Sven's criminal decisions is wasting our best player. No, not David Beckham. Or Michael Owen.Paul Scholes is the only English player capable of consistently ripping a top class team apart from midfield, as well as being our most talented all round footballer. To put him in the anonymous left midfield position that Eriksson refuses to lose in favour of anything other than a flat four in midfield, is akin to playing Pele in goal. If you're going to lose anyone in the left void, it might as well be Hes…

Which brings me on to my next moan. Why are England unable to adapt to teams playing unfamiliar formations. You would have thought that the lack of a left sided player would already have forced his hand on this one but Sven has doggedly stuck to playing someone out of position and wasting (in theory) one of the eleven best players in England. Why not use the attacking instincts and hard work of Ashley Cole in a wing back style role? And do the same on the right with Danny Mills or Gary Neville?

This would enable Eriksson to use Gerrard's protective qualities in front of the back four and hopefully discourage the wasteful and frustrating long balls he's so fond of. Gerrard would have to keep the passing short and sharp to a midfield of Beckham, Scholes and Butt. In more adventurous games, Butt could be sacraficed for a more attacking option — such as David Dunn, Thompson or Joe Cole — with Gerrard moving into the midfield three. Flexibility, no one out of position and a hard working midfield that would link with attack and defence equally.

It's the big question over Sven from my point of view, he's proven his ability to motivate a side and get the players thinking about what they're doing as a unit, but does he have the flexibility and tactical nous fhe'll need if this England side are going to win anything.

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Sunday, October 06, 2002

Lies, Damn Lies and...

Today I've been delving into some statistics. I read a particularly interesting artice about a rather topical MORI poll regarding racial attitudes and elitism in English football (State of the Nation - a survey of English football). As it happened I failed to find the actual report on the MORI website or the FA site and I refuse to simply re-write either of Colin Malam's very interesting articles…

1. Elite clubs ‘taking too much money’
2. Racial abuse is still deterring black fans from going to games.

My trips to MORI and the FA were not entirely in vain though, I did uncover some interesting information along the way. Firstly I breathed a sigh of relief to find out that there will be no changes to the current disciplinary system in English football. As I'm sure you've heard, FIFA have issued a circular to all football associations demanding an obligatory suspension after a dismissal. In other words no time to appeal (currently a player has 14 days to appeal to the FA) and no opportunity for referees to look at their decisions again — except in cases of mistaken identity. The FIFA cirular says…

“The disciplinary bodies of the relevant competitions may not breach this binding instruction by passing exceptional rules.”

I guess the FA are not passing an excpetional rule by sticking to the current one. Bring down the system Crozier! Rebel!

On MORI I found a poll from 1998 where telephone interviews with people who ‘had the potential to provide an authoritative and informed opinion on likely developments in European club football’ found that,

“by the year 2002, a European Super League (ESL) will have been established.”

There's a reason I highlighted the word potential. Expect a full rundown of the weekend's fixtures and team of the week after United play Everton tonight.

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Friday, October 04, 2002

Continental Drift

Seeing as I've said very little on the subject of English clubs in Europe this season I'll have my say. With the exception of Newcastle it's been a good trio of games so far for English clubs and the gradual shift in power away from Italy and Spain is becoming more and more noticeable. Liverpool won't be happy with their comprehensive defeat in Valencia or the draw with Basle but at a club where cynicism is an alien concept, the 5-0 drubbing of Spartak Moscow (however poor they were) will just about make up for it.

However reluctantly, I have to disagree with Sir Bobby Robson, who doesn't believe his Newcastle side have been overawed by the competition. With the exception of the Feyenoord game (which they still lost) Newcstle have looked in a different league to their other opposition — and not in the positive sense. Juventus toyed with them for 90 minutes at the Delle-Alpi on tuesday with Alessandro Del Piero in particularly sparkling form. I remember his visit to Higbury last season in a game Arsenal won comfortably 3-1, ‘Pinturicchio’ was still my man of the match.

Arsenal seem to have banished their away day demons. For so long dissapointing on the road in Europe, the 4-0 victory over Dutch Champions PSV was the perfect way for this remarkable team to achieve their first European away win in 15 months. Few would argue that one of the main factors in Arsenal's improvement is Arsène Wenger's shrewd aquisition of World Cup winner Gilberto Silva. The Brazillian has offered Arsenal a completely new dimension helping Vieira cover defensive duties and getting up and down the pitch with almost boundless energy.

He may not be making such an impact on the Premiership but Ruud Van Nistelrooy must love European football. 14 from 14 is his current United record and you really can't argue with that. I do look at the Champions League sometimes and think that for all the hype, a Saturday afternnon in Middlesbrough is a much harder task for a team than a Wednesday night in Cyprus.

Chelsea fans may argue with that though; Haipol Tel Aviv, St Gallen and now Viking Stavanger. Too many players looked like they couldn't be bothered, and what goes through Jesper Gronkjaer's head at times I do not know. At one point he was in the 18 yard box, through on goal with (I think) Hasselbaink waiting — on his own — for the centre, instead he tried to take on a player down the outside and runs it out for a goal kick.

As seems to happen each year since their foray into the Champions League, Leeds scraped through against a team no one's heard of and surely everyone (bar Norwich fans) will be cheering on Ipswich in the next round. If a Nationwide club can reach the quarter finals of the UEFA cup it would be incredible. I'm not sure whether it would say more about Ipswich or the state of Europe's struggling club competition though.

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