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Thursday, May 29, 2003

As promised, here’s the story of the torment of a Wolves fan and the joy of promotion. Take it away, Tom Green.

Every Dog Has Its Day

Sunday 21 April 2002. Hillsbrough, Sheffield. 14:02 pm.

‘Kevin Cooper dashes down the left wing, picks out Cameron… 1-0 to Wolves!!’

Whole stand goes mental, 50 odd seconds gone, 1-0 up, Sandwell still drawing 0-0 with Crystal Palace… 7000 fans start to believe again. Maybe, just maybe we all thought.

Well we all know what happened next. Some five goals and 89 minutes of football later it was all over. Even if we had managed to beat 20th placed Sheffield Wednesday instead of limping to a two-all draw it wouldnt have been enough. Events south of Sheffield saw to that, where a Crystal Palace side were (and I say this running the risk of it sounding Chris Sutton-esque) doing ‘a Dunfermline’. The goals from Darren ‘big Dave’ Moore and Super Bobby Taylor confirming Sandwell’s Premiership status just rubbed salt even deeper into the wound. (Ask any Wolves fan which Sandwell player they hate most and these two guys would come out on top, trust me.)

The journey back down the M1 was a very morbid affair. On our descent back into the Midlands we were greeted by a sea of navy & white. Old ‘Apollo 2000’ and the infamous ‘green & yellow barcode’ shirts littered the streets all the way back to Stourbridge. Sandwell fans - male and female, young and old - with their chests stuck out proudly, all of them sporting very smug smiles.

Unless you too are a Wolves fan, I believe I can honestly say that no football supporter will ever come close to experiencing this kind of pain. If you could all take a moment to think of your biggest football-supporting nightmare, multiply it by ten, and you still wouldnt even come close to how I felt that day.

The following week, a crushing first leg 3-1 defeat away to Norwich (who finished sixth), our Premiership dream in tatters and an even bigger, even more depressing journey home.

‘Why do I bother? ’ was the question I asked myself. 392 days, 16 hours & 55 minutes later I realised why.

If it was a match report you expected, then Im sorry. Im not really a football reporter. But here it goes.

Errr… Sheffield were shite; we were not. Sandwell are in the Nationwide; we are not. Nineteen years of hurt are over and I cannot find any words to express how good it feels.

I think it was easy to tell from the very start who wanted it more. Was this the same team that staggered to third position 12 months ago? Was this the same team who completely bottled it at Carrow Road in last season’s play-offs? For those of you whose Wolves knowledge is limited you could say no. The additions of Mr Irwin and Mr Ince have undoubtedly helped, granted. I very much hope they both stay at least another season to guide us through what will be a very difficult 2003/2004. Their experience has been vital, but there were another 9 players on that pitch on Monday, all of whom (except Matt Murray - future England no.1) played their part in the infamous ‘self-destruct’ act of 2001/2002. Was that the same Nathan Blake who I saw trudging around moaning and falling on his arse last season? Was that the same Shaun Newton who I saw last year, hiding on the right-wing? The same guy who ran back and forth on Monday covering every blade of grass on the pitch? Was that indeed the same Mark ‘only-at-Molineux-for-the-money’ Kennedy who almost burst a blood vessel expressing his delight at scoring his side’s first goal? The answer is no. These three players were as guilty as most for last years throw-away, yet twelve months later they have come back to prove they are not bottlers, that they aren’t here just for the money and that they too, care just as much about this great club as I do. It’s somewhat questionable whether or not these players (especially Blake & Newton), have a part to play in our maiden Premiership voyage, but this was far from evident in their performances on Monday. And for that I have nothing but total admiration for all of them.

To win the game 3-0 was a dream come true; to be 3-0 up at half-time was nothing short of sheer fantasy. Kennedys sixth minute strike would have been worthy of any game. His left-foot at times can only be described as sublime. As for Blakes goal, I didnt even see it. One second Mark Kennedy was taking the corner, the next I was on the floor in a noisy scrum consisting of Mr Bingham (some fat kid in a Wolves goalie top) some bloke with in a Wolf mask and a toothless 60 year-old who smelt of gin. Hugs & kisses were exchanged as five strangers were united in total ecstasy. As for Miller’s goal, well he made it himself. Sheffield United’s immobile defence was exposed to the max and as the ball span off Miller’s boot and looped past the helpless Paddy Kenny. The 33,000 Wolves fans started to believe once again.

At half time there were more hugs & kisses. ‘If we f*** this up now I’m supporting Walsall next year!! ’ said one fan in the toilet.

I arrived back at my seat to the news that Mr Sheffield United himself, Neil Warnock had been ‘sent off’ during the interval. This just gets better and better. And then, three minutes into the second half, Steve Bennett awards a penalty to Sheffield. ‘Here we go.’ said one bloke behind me, and for a moment, I thought it too. Then for some reason I looked at the scoreboard. There was Michael Brown, who for once didn’t appear his usual assured, cocky self. He looked nervous. His face just seemed to say ‘I’m gonna scuff this. ’ And scuff it he did. The Wolves end joyous for the forth time in 48 minutes.

The 42-odd minutes that followed were to be honest just euphoric blur. We defended stoutly, and when you see Wayne Allison being thrown on to try and save the day, you knew it was all over.

When the full-time whistle went I couldnt even begin to describe how I felt, so I’m not even going to try.

I never went to Wembley (well, I went on a guided tour when I was nine), but I can honestly say the atmosphere at The Millennium Stadium was magic. Never has Status Quo sounded as good as they sounded at five past five on Monday afternoon. And I think most other football fans who have sampled the ‘Millennium’ experience would second that opinion. (About Cardiff, maybe not Status Quo.) All the scare-mongers who I’d spoke to previously were talking of 20-mile tail-backs and 5:30 am starts - what rubbish! I left my house at 8:45 and got there at 10:30 with no problems whatsoever. And by the looks of things I wasnt the only one; it was quite funny going into Starbucks seeing it packed with football shirt-wearing beer bellies and Stone Island-clad hooligans supping on their Café Latté’s.

I got home some time on Tuesday after Mr Bingham and I made a very valiant effort to drink the Welsh capital dry. We giggled like schoolgirls all the way home. I still can’t believe it, and I doubt I’ll even begin to believe it until I see the likes of Giggs and Pires at The Molineux running Lee Naylor ragged sometime next season. Until then though, I’m sure we’ll both have a very, very enjoyable summer - reminiscing the day the ghost of the 2001/2002 ghost was finally put to rest.

I guess it true what they say, ‘Every dog does have its day’ - and this dog’s day was Monday 26th May 2003.

Roll on next season!

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Monday, May 26, 2003

Best of 2002-3

It may have taken a week, but it’s finally done. In the meantime, Celtic have lost the UEFA cup final, Wolves have become the third and final first division side to join the Premiership (we can hopefully expect an entertaining match report from Mr Thomas Green any time soon) and England nearly bored us to death (for a change) beating South Africa 2-1 in Durban. So before we move on and begin looking forward to next season, here’s the definitive roundup of the 2002-3 Premiership season.

Player of the Year

For anyone who has read some of the things I’ve written in the last few weeks, this wont be a hard one to guess. These couple of paragraphs are not wasted though, I want to tell you all why

Thierry Henry simply has no equal in British football. Something that’s easily forgotten in the days of clubs being liquidated and pressure that causes managers to have heart attacks and strokes is that football is about entertainment. Ironically - with billion pound deals with TV companies driving the game - it’s easy to forget that there’s few pleasures like a wonderfully entertaining game of football. Be it in the Premiership, La Liga, Serie C, the Ryman league or a kickaroud on a backstreet in Rio.

There’s no more consistently entertaining footballer than Thierry Henry and he also managed to finish Arsenal’s top scorer, the Premeirship’s leading goalscorer from open play and set a new Premiership record for assists in a season (20; beating David Beckham, Nolberto Solano and Robert Pires’ joint record of 15). He’s the only striker I’ve seen that was a dead cert for man of the match in a game where two other players scored hat-tricks and he is constantly responsible for victories he scores - and fails to score - in.

of Arsenal's 85 goals this season, the PFA player of the year has either scored or done most of the work for just over 50% of them. The corresponding statistic for Van Nistelrooy is more like 40% (assuming a generous 5 assists, I can't get hold of the actual figure but last time I read it, it was 3). Bearing in mind United have scored 11 goals less than Arsenal and that 13 of Van Nistelrooy’s goals have been penalties puts Henry's achievements into perspective.

I could write an essay telling you why Ruud Van Nistelrooy doesn’t deserve this award, but I really don’t need to.

Outstanding Young Player

The trickiest award by far. Wayne Rooney has impressed all season and made a breathtaking and fearless England debut as the nation’s youngest ever player. Jermaine Jenas has been absolutely superb for Newcastle this year too, driving the midfield and outshining his more experienced collegue Kieran Dyer. There’s only one winner of this award though.

John O’Shea has been the most influential member of Manchester United’s defence this season. I don’t like tagging footballers with the price that some idiot has paid for them, but O’Shea has put £30m Rio Ferdinand to shame this year. Exceptionally versatile, the Irish international has been better than Silvestre at left back, better than Ferdinand or Brown at centre half and better than Neville at right back. Whenever he’s been called upon - Europe, Premiership, Worthlesston Cup - he’s risen to the occasion and truly epitomised the ‘attack starts from defence’ philosophy.

When you think how young he is it’s frightening how good this kid could become with some experience. Lets hope he keeps his head screwed on an shows as much dedication in the future as he has done until now.

Outstanding Senior Player

It’s been quite a year for oldies; Chris Marsden, Martin Keown, Gary Speed and David Seaman all deserve special mentions for their irreplacable contribution to their clubs; but for the same reason Thierry Henry can be the only winner of the player of the year award, the senior player worthy of most recognition can only be Gianfranco Zola.

At 36 years old, he still looks to have the sharpness and talent he had 10 - and I can only presume 20 - years ago. He still regualrly baffles defenders, and strikes the ball with a sweetness that only comes with age and lots of practice. With last year’s hot strike partnership of Eidur Gudjonsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink being Chelsea’s unquestionable first choice, there was talk of Zola returning to play out his final months in provincial Italy. The determination he’s shown to keep going and return to the top of Chelsea’s strike order, as well as proving a deciding factor in his club’s push for a Champions League place makes him in my outstanding senior player without a doubt.

Goal of the Season

As I say every season, there have been some absolutel corkers this year. Ruud Van Nistelrooy's goal against Fulham was superb, but it began with the dutchman handing Sylvain Legwinski a forearm smash to the face which - for me - detracts from its beauty somewhat.

Nicolas Jensen's volley from the edge of the box is as sweetly as any balls been struck all year. But you get the impression that if he was given the chance again he may not repeat the feat. The same cannot be said of Alan Shearer’s volley for Newcastle, I really can’t say anything against it apart from that he’s done it so many times it wasn’t a surprise.

The winner? He’s scored some beauties this year, particularly when he ran the length of the pitch and beat half the team against Tottenham, but it has to be Thierry Henry’s two touch (on the volley, one on each foot, without a bounce in-between, edge of the box) wonder strike against Man City. Quite simply because there’s not another player in the premiership who could do that. Not one. And you just know that if you gave Henry another chance at it tomorrow he'd do it again, only better.

The Djimi Traore Award

For extreme doginess, the Djimi Traore award this year goes to … Djimi Traore! Why? Because if you could choose between Pascal Cygan and Djimi Traore you’d choose Cygan. More need not be said.

Team of the Year

Brad Friedel
John O’Shea
Man Utd
John Terry
Sol Campbell
Ashley Cole
  Jermaine Jenas
Patrick Vieira
Robert Pires
Paul Scholes
Man Utd
  Thierry Henry
Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Man Utd

Special mentions must go to: Lucas Neill (Blackburn), Carlo Cudicini & Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Thomas Gravesen & Wayne Rooney (Everton), Ryan Giggs (Man Utd), Geremi (Middlesborough) and last but not least Jay Jay Okotcha - so good they named him twice.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Writer’s block

Keep checking back I said. I’ve got loads to write about I said. Last Monday I didn’t know how I’d get all my mutterings out without writing something every day. Didn’t quite work out like that though.

Firstly the Cup Final. Awful weather, awful game, good result (for me anyway, I’m acutely aware that the rest of the population wanted Arsenal to lose). I didn’t even get to have a good look at the roof as I was behind the goal at the back - great view of the pitch, poor one of the roof - it’s a pity the latter was probably more exciting. It wasn’t warmer or louder, but it did feel a little like we were playing indoors. Which I guess we were.

Once again though, it was a good atmosphere, in the ground and in the pubs and streets - it seems only United and Liverpool fans cause trouble in Cardiff (though I wouldn’t bet against there being some ‘high spirits’ for the playoff final on Monday). Kudos to the Southampton fans for sticking around after the final whistle, and not just until Gordon Strachan’s team had collected their medals either. They stayed there longer than I was and really demonstrated just what the FA Cup means to real football fans.

it’s a shame their team couldn’t give them a performance to remember. I thought Southampton looked poor - Arsenal were little better - Beattie looked toothless up front and I was disappointed with Chris Marsden’s performance as well as the usually superb Anders Svensson. Without even playing very well, and with the Saints still giving their fans a performance to be proud of, Arsenal looked several classes above them. I’m normally a hopeless pessimist, but for some strange reason from the moment the ref blew his whistle I didn’t have the slightest doubt that Arsenal would win. Southampton looked like they simply couldn’t.

I will update again soon (no really, I will this time) with the all things footie awards 2003. I thought I’d leave them until the season finished so that there was something to do once all the excitement was over. I bet you can’t wait.

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Monday, May 12, 2003

They think it’s all over

Roll on a dull three months without football. How crap. This season really seems to have flown by, it seems only yesterday that Wayne Rooney was being touted as the next big thing and ending Arsenal’s unbeaten run with his superb strike at Goodison park. Yesterday saw the presentation of the Premiership trophy to Manchester United at same ground - they’ve got a habit of turning up at these Premiership parties.

I wouldn’t say I as gutted to see West Ham go down, but I was devastated Bolton stayed up. I hate Sam Allardyce with a passion, the Walrus faced discourteous w*nker. After yesterday’s match he all but said ‘well, it’d have been worse on me if we went down, compared to Trevor [Brooking]’. It’s always worse on you isn’t it Sam? He went on to say it was a ‘proud moment in the history of a proud club’. Well, if your proudest moment is just managing not to get relegated despite spending a fortune on players and paying two internationals (Jay Jay Okotcha and Youri Djorkaeff) £70,000 a week, then it can’t be a very proud club. Relief Sam, not pride.

I’m very interested to see what’ll happen to West Ham. With all due respect to the club that raised him, I think Joe Cole has been held back by West Ham. There’s no one at the club who can teach him anything he doesn’t already know, and at his age he needs to learn. He needs to play with the likes of Paul Scholes, Patrick Vieira, Edgar Davids, Zinedine Zidane or David Beckham to better himself and become an England regular. Given the commitment he’s shown to his beloved hammers by staying there this long, it would be disappointing if the fans begrudged him leaving and saw it as jumping ship.

Talking of jumping ship, I don’t actually fancy West Ham’s chances of coming straight back up. Like Derby, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday before them, they’re too much of a footballing side for the first division. As I predicted twelve months ago, Leicester have bounced straight back despite being one of the worst Premiership sides I’ve ever seen last year - but they had/have the right stuff for Div 1. West Ham will struggle, and unless they really improve at the back and hold on to most of their stars I think the play-offs will be their best hope. I reckon that like Leicester, Sunderland and West Brom stand a much better chance of bouncing straight back up automatically.

Isn’t it a crying shame Liverpool won’t get a chance at playing in the Champions League next season? They could have brought their special breed of long ball football to the glamour cities of Europe again and make the Premiership look like it’s having trouble breaking out of the bad old days. Along with Sunderland, West Brom and Tottenham; Liverpool have consistently played some of the dullest, most uninspiring and downright awful football in the Premiership this season. Chelsea on the other hand have been scintillating at times and can be a joy to watch; there’s no doubting that Claudio Ranieri is a great bloke too, I’m happy for him.

He’s certainly a lot more likeable, less bitter and more entertaining than the irritating boggly eyed freak who manages the worst team ever to finish in the top five. When asked yesterday if finishing fifth this year after taking second place last season was a step back for the club;

‘you call it a step back, I call it a plateau’ — Gerrad Houllier

Hmmm. If you define a plateau as something that slopes downwards then yes.

I’ve got so much more to say about this year. Expect many updates this week, end of season awards (including the Djimi Traore award for extreme doginess) and why anyone who thinks that Ruud Van Nistelrooy may have been a better choice than Thierry Henry for player of the year is wrong, wrong, wrong.

One more thing for all United fans who mocked Arsène Wenger’s claim that Arsenal have been the better team even though United won the title. Do you remember this? It’s a shame that Ferguson couldn’t come up with a retort quite as witty as Wenger’s ‘everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home’ remark from last year.

I’m not endorsing either manager’s assertion by the way, just reminding anyone who mocks one must be willing to mock the other. I don’t think either were right to be honest, Arsenal cannot claim to be the best team this season because they didn’t win the league, and didn’t deserve to. I think they have the best player in the league, and I think they played the best football; but that does not mean they deserved the league.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2003

The fat lady sings

Well done Manchester United. I always thought that the team that deserves to win the title would win it, and they have. Arsenal fans should not be ashamed though, their team has been peerless at times this season and played some of the best football the Premiership - and Europe - has ever seen. They have a fraction of the spending power of the new Champions and yet very nearly retained the double - a feat that has (still) never been achieved in the English league. Since Christmas however, United have been simply unstoppable. Make no mistake, Arsenal have not thrown this title away, it has been wrenched from their grasp by a determined, focused and incredibly strong willed United side.

As well as the realisation that Van Nistelrooy is probably the most lethal goal threat in Europe (and yes, I include Henry, Ronaldo and Raul there), one of the main reasons for United’s ability to put such a magnificent run together has been the marvellously mature and discretely effective performances of one John O’Shea. Van Nistelrooy may be the headline grabber, the match winner, but the contribution of the young Irishman to Man U’s back line cannot be overstated. He’s outshone Rio Ferdinand by a considerable margin in the centre and he’s been more effective at fullback than Gary Neville and Mikaël Silvestre. Arsenal sold a very similar player in Matthew Upson mid-season (similar in ability, not style) and it would be wrong to say it didn’t cost them dearly.

It has not just been defensive frailty that separates England’s finest, players like Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs have performed when it mattered for United; Arsenal’s corresponding players have not - Ljungberg, Pires and Gilberto have not been influential enough. There’s still the FA Cup Final, and it surely would be a travesty if this side left the season empty handed, but Southampton aren’t going to be easy and the Arsenal players will have to show character in getting over their disappointment.

Next season will be interesting, and I’m certain there’ll be a lot of movement for the big two in the transfer market. Unless he sells one of his stars (it may surprise a few to know that I think Robert Pirès is the most likely departure*) Wenger will not have a lot of money to play with. I suspect he’ll bring in Frederic Kanouté for a few million and possibly Auxerre’s talented centre half Phillipe Mexès - unless the budget stretches to Chelsea’s John Terry.

As for United, I think Beckham leaving for Real Madrid is almost a certainty, though I don’t think it will be a deal worth as much as the media speculate - a measly sum of around £25m will probably be brokered. If Arsenal don’t sign him, expect Sir Alex to move for John Terry or William Gallas, and PSG’s Ronaldinho will probably be at Old Trafford next season too.

Just one more thing to mention, it’s wonderful to hear a true football fan enjoy their success without being a tosser like so many cardboard cutout United fans will be in offices up and down the country today …

‘If people expect me to gloat at Arsenal’s expense, they will be sorely mistaken. When two boxers trade punches for 12 rounds, we salute the champion and respect the loser. In football, why can’t we similarly acknowledge two great teams?’ — Gary Neville

Respect to United, they deserve it.

* Since I wrote this, Wenger has said that ‘I will not sell one of my top players to finance any other deals’, so expect bargain basement shopping or a pissed off Wenger.

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Monday, May 05, 2003

Roll on May 17

There’s a dark and a troubled side of life,
but there’s a bright and a sunny side too.
Though you meet with the darkness and strife,
the sunny side you also may view.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
if you’ll keep on the sunny side of life.

Though the storm and its furies rage today,
crushing hope that we cherish so dear.
The cloud and storm will in time pass away,
and the sun again will shine bright and clear.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
if you’ll keep on the sunny side of life.

It’s a shame Leeds aren’t going down.

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Friday, May 02, 2003

Racist, moi?

So the FA have been fined £70,000 for racist abuse dished out to Turkish fans at the Stadium of Light in April - the largest fine for any association for a racism charge. Racism is of course totally unacceptable, but I can’t help but think that the English fans are being punished for being English.

Sickening monkey chants and stomach churningly bilious abuse is churned out routinely at just about every Eastern Bloc stadium and most of Spain and Italy too. Nothing wrong with that though. Oh, hold on, I’m forgetting the swift UEFA system of justice.

Valencia were fined just under £10,000 for the ninety minutes of vile abuse that Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Sylvain Wiltord and Lauren suffered at the Mestella because of the colour of their skin. And Vieira has just been fined £2,300 for speaking up against the blatant injustice. The same abuse was dished out to Emile Heskey and Djimi Traore at the same ground last year and it seems a blind eye has been turned to the magnitude of this problem.

It’s different when the evil English hooligans are the ones accused. I wasn’t there for the Turkey game, but I’m sure it was a minority of mindless idiots rather than the majority that were responsible. Unlike in many other countries.

Victimised, Moi?

Meanwhile, the rest of the season has been decided. Alex Ferguson and Van Nistelrooy have been awarded manager and player of the month for April. Maybe the FA aren’t bias towards united after all, they clearly don’t want them to win the league.

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