Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Can someone shut the window please...

When I was younger, so much younger than today, I can remember when the powers that be came up with the brainwave that is the ‘Transfer Window’.

“What a great idea” I thought to myself, as I pictured the scene of blank sports pages on the daily rags. In those days, there was a new transfer ‘rumour’ every 48 hours.

So the transfer window has now been implemented, and what do I find… Its worse than what it was before! Instead of the 100 rumours spread of over the 9 months of the football calendar, its now 100 rumours spread over the final days before someone shuts the window. I should have expected that I suppose, perhaps I just didn’t want to believe it…

My club, Spurs, are as always, linked with every professional and unprofessional footballer, living or dead – and there are some great rumours about.

I think my favourite has to be a) “Spurs bid for Baptista” and b) “Spurs swap Defoe in Baptista deal”. This will be the Baptista who turned down Arsenal to sign for Real Madrid last season, and the same Defoe who cant get a regular start in the Spurs squad. I cant possibly see how Real Madrid and Baptista could possibly turn that down…

‘John’ Steed Malbranque is linked with Spurs… and every other club by the looks off things. Not that Fulham are desperate to get some cash for him as he wont play for them again and he has 9 months left on his contract. Oh no…

Pascal Chimp-Honda is next. We bid £4 million, Wigan say £6 million. So we go back with… £4 million and Wigan say, surprise-surprise, £6 million. We say £4 million, you say £6 million – “lets call the whole thing off”. So watch him sign for under £4m rising to nearer £6m depending on appearances.

Stewart Downing and Harry Kewell… don’t start me on those two.

Still, we have ‘re-signed’ Mido. Jol said “We have been tracking him since his loan spell at the club ended”. Didn’t you notice him in lily white during the previous 18 months then? You know, the tall guy you keep getting Paul Robinson to hoof the ball up to at every possible opportunity?

Im sure there have been plenty of rumours for other league clubs too, but excuse me not for listing them here. I leave that for you to do if you so wish, as I am too busy laughing at my own clubs ‘rumours’.

Thank god it all ends on tomorrow. (August 31st)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

England In The 70's: Part 3

We’ve been here once before…

It was time for Don Revie to get his England squad together and regroup for the 1978 World Cup qualifiers. Having missed out on the previous Finals in West Germany, it was time for Revie to prove that he could succeed where his predecessor, Sir Alf Ramsey, had failed.

But before the competition started, England travelled across the Atlantic to take part in a special tournament organised to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial. The Americans put together a team made up of star players from the North American Soccer League, and they would face England, Italy (who had also failed to qualify for the 1976 European Championships) and Brazil.

England’s first match resulted in a 1-0 defeat to the South Americans who fielded the likes of Zico, Falcao and Rivelino. Somehow Trevor Cherry and Mick Doyle didn’t have the same sense of awesome reputation, but no matter. England’s second match against the Italians gave greater cause for hope despite Revie’s side going 2-0 down inside 20 minutes. Mick Channon came to England’s rescue again with two goals either side of a Phil Thompson effort to run out 3-2 winners.

The last game of the competition came against Team America who sported the likes of Pele and Bobby Moore in its ranks. The FA considered the fixture to be a ‘training match’ due to the multi-national aspect of the American side and to this day have never listed it as a full international, even though the Italians and Brazilians did. That aside, England strode out onto the pitch at the John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, resplendent in pale yellow strip, and beat Team America 3-1 to finish the competition in second place behind Brazil.

And so to the World Cup qualifiers. England were drawn in Group 2 where they would face Luxembourg, Finland and yet again, Italy. They began with comfortable wins against Finland home and away before the first meeting against the Italians in Rome in November 1976. Italy boasted the likes of Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Marco Tardelli and Roberto Bettega while England lined up with Kevin Keegan and Stan Bowles up front with Trevor Brooking and Mick Channon playing just behind them.

Both England and Italy had made winning starts to their campaigns and it was vital for England that they didn’t lose in either of their matches against the Italians. Unfortunately for England, it wasn’t to be. Two goals, one from Giancarlo Antognoni, the other from Roberto Bettega, gave the Italians a vital 2-0 win.

As far as the rest of the qualifying campaign was concerned, England needed to win all of their remaining matches comprehensively and beat the Italians well in the return match at Wembley one year later in order to qualify for the Finals in Argentina.

Although all was not lost technically, the press felt that Don Revie was now living on borrowed time. They felt that the England manager would almost certainly lose his job after the Italy re-match in November 1977, and the pressure on Revie began to build up palpably with each passing week. Revie became convinced that the FA were also sharpening their knives, so he started making plans that would help him control his own fate, rather than let someone else do it.

Inevitable conclusion

Meantime, Revie turned his attention to the 1977 Home International Championships, but this also added to England’s frustration and despair. Despite a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland in the first game, England looked decidedly average as they lost 1-0 at home to Wales and 2-1 at home to Scotland. England finished third in the competition as the Scottish fans tore up the Wembley pitch and broke up its goalposts.

It was the start of a six-game run without a win that included a three-match tour of South America during June of 1977. England drew all three of their games - 0-0 against Brazil and Uruguay and 1-1 against Argentina, a bad-tempered match which saw Trevor Cherry become only the third English player ever to be sent off.

As the tour ended, Don Revie was putting together the finishing touches to a dramatic announcement that would rock the English football world. Unbeknownst to the FA, the fans and the public at large, Don Revie had negotiated a new highly-paid contract with the United Arab Emirates which would allow him to leave his post and work for a huge some of money, tax-free.

Not only that, but Revie had reaped a further financial reward by selling his story exclusively to the Daily Mail who were the first to break the news on July 11th 1977. The FA didn’t receive Don Revie’s resignation letter until later that same morning, and they were understandably furious.

As for the Fleet Street hacks, they were only too pleased to brand Revie a traitor for leaving the national team in the lurch even though it was they that probably caused him to do so in the first place. It was certainly true that another factor in his struggle to get the right results was the injury to key players like Gerry Francis and Roy McFarland but the manner in which Revie engineered his own departure to great monetary benefit was enough to ensure sympathy for him was hardly anywhere to be found.

The FA responded promptly by charging Revie with bringing the game into disrepute. He refused to attend the hearing that followed, and when he finally did meet to discuss the matter, his objections to the charge were ignored. He was consequently banned from English football for ten years, a decision which Revie managed to reverse in the High Court some time later.

During his time in charge of the national side, Revie had won just 14 of the 29 games England played, so it was perhaps right for England to start the search for a new manager, but there were still matches due to be played, so once again the FA put a caretaker manager in place. This time, they chose West Ham United’s Ron Greenwood.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Football - the game for intelligent human beings

If you run a blog site, it's only natural that every now and then you end up writing one or two negative articles for it. You know the sort of thing - 'Don't you find Neil Warnock irritating' or 'Why doesn't Robbie Savage get a proper man's haircut?' for instance.

Well this is all grist to the mill as far as I'm concerned. One of the things that a blog site allows you to do is to get things off your chest, and what better a way to do it? The danger comes when you allow negativity to consume your blog site, your opinions - even your day-to-day life.

That's why I like to maintain a healthy balance here on SPAOTP. Some people, however, aren't so fortunate, and we're not just talking about people that run blog sites either. We're talking about a considerable proportion of regular football fans.

These fans or 'bigots' as I prefer to call them, all share a particularly infantile brand of prejudice and can crop up in any number of different situations. The thing to note, however, is that some bigots are more bigoted than others, so let's assess how the big bigots begin being bigots in the beginning.

First of all, there's the Casual Bigot. He's the average sort of bloke you might find down the pub on a Friday night talking to his mates about tomorrow's big game, amongst other things. He's the one propping up the bar in his Fred Perry polo shirt, jeans and white trainers, knocking back a pint of Fosters.

Now the thing with Casual Bigot is that he isn't the most ardent of football fans, but he's happy to promote the supposed rivalry between the team he supports and its adversaries. To that end, he'll make the occasional derogatory remark about his team's rivals to show that he's a 'true fan' and a shining wit to boot. Neither of these facts is actually true.

If you're listening out for a Casual Bigot, his call goes something along the lines of "I couldn't stop laughing when City got knocked out of the Cup" or "I can't wait to see United get relegated". It's his way of showing a mild sense of hatred towards his club's natural enemies which is totally unnecessary and rather pathetic.

Casual Bigot is annoying, but essentially harmless. Far worse is Mob Bigot. He takes the job of hating anyone that doesn't support his team rather more seriously. Altogether louder and less mentally stable, Mob Bigot doesn't just follow football by reading three-line football stories in 'The Sun' every day - he visits web forums where like-minded individuals can generate a deep-felt loathing about their team's rivals, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Mob Bigot is identifiable by the replica club shirt which regularly adorns his back and the determined but slightly aggressive expression on his face, as if he's ready for a punch-up at any minute. Mob Bigot also suffers from severe blinkeredness - that is to say an inability to see any wrong in the team he supports until things get really bad, in which case he whinges like an old woman who's just missed the bus that takes her to Bingo every Wednesday.

If you want to really irritate Mob Bigot, simply visit one of the many fan sites on the web for his team, and go to the 'Forum' section. Once there, post a message saying "Hi, I support [insert other Premiership team of your choice]". Within minutes, you can guarantee a reply to your message - not actually aimed at you, but ignoring you - saying "Who's this ****ing [Premiership team of your choice] scum?" That'll be Mob Bigot or one of his mates.

Finally there's Utter Bigot. What differentiates him from the other two Bigots is the fact that he actually goes to watch his team play. Not that this is something to be admired because Utter Bigot spends most of the time standing up out of his seat shouting a constant stream of obscenities at the opposing team's players. Even if they happen to be on the pitch some 150 yards away from where he's standing, well out of earshot.

Utter Bigot borrows characteristics from Casual Bigot and Mob Bigot - the replica shirt, aggressive expression, the prejudicial comments and so on - but extra embellishments give him away as being at the top level of bigotry. Some sport a tattoo on their arm (often featuring the name of the team they support). Others have a close-cropped hairstyle or may even be bald altogether. Many wear just a short-sleeved replica shirt during those sub-zero evening matches in deepest winter to show everyone how 'hard' they are.

However they look, you'll always see the Utter Bigot foaming at the mouth as if the slightest mention of the opposing team's name could send them into a frenzied bodily contortion. Their entire raison d'etre is to deny the existence of the opposition, and their extreme way of showing this can best be seen on any live Sky match behind the goals at either end of the pitch. He'll be the one waving his arms around and mouthing f-words to the bloke who's about to take a corner.

So there you have it - the three levels of Bigotness. Now the point I'm making is this: the modern game is full of Bigots who like nothing better than bad-mouthing other teams, their fans or their players, and they are there to be treated with contempt. That's because Bigots of this type have an unhealthy love of their team to the point where their whole life seems to revolve around it. This is about as misguided as it's possible to be.

My feelings are that football is a game to be watched and enjoyed. Naturally you have a team of your own that you follow, and that's fine, but the fact is we can all sit back and admire a fantastic goal, a wonderful bit of passing, a great tackle or an unbelievable save no matter which team does it. So why the need to behave in an unfriendly and hostile way towards other supporters and their teams? Most of the time it isn't even justified by constructive reasoning, as in "United are a bunch of ******s... because they just are."

I shall therefore be leading a one-man campaign to promote positive football supporting by example, and anyone that wants to join me is more than welcome. As for negative football supporting, it's not Bigot and it's not clever.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"There is nothing like a Game..."

[“...Nothing in the world...”]

Tottenham Hotspur 2 – 0 Sheffield United
Written by Smart

So the first home game of the season has been and gone – and there is simply nothing like it.

But before the match, some tough decisions had to be made – Chips or a Donkey Burger? The queue out of the chip shop door meant only one thing – Burger. Besides, what man can resist the aroma of fried onions that seems to hang in the air?

Near the ground, a coach carrying the travelling away supporters has taken a wrong turn and beached itself across one of the low kerb like barriers across the road. In an attempt to raise the coach a bit, the coach is emptied of its passengers. No luck.

After the burger, its into the pub to see some old faces that I haven’t seen since the end of last season – so that’s two months. Spirits are high, optimism is low. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this game...” was the over used phrase of the evening. I myself predicted a 1-1 draw.

Then the magnetic pull of the referees whistle empties the pub in a matter of moments – its time to take your seats, ladies and gentleman.

The anticipation is growing, the tension is mounting. Walking up the steps from the confines of the under stadium food area, then its out into the daylight. The muffled audio tape sound in an instant flicks into Dolby surround 5.1. Through the clouds of smoke – “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…” Hopefully not ‘Disappointed’.

However, that cannot beat seeing rest of the stadium, the thousands of expectant fans, and the players coming out onto the billiard table of a surface. Its a sensory overload - Im buzzing with excitement already.

The opening games of the season are also usually complimented with fine summer-like weather. Not tonight however. Dark clouds gather overhead, fuelling the pessimism around.

After losing your opening game of the Premiership campaign, the best thing to do is get an early goal. Step up, Dimitar Berbatov. After some magical ball skills by the young apprentice Aaron Lennon (I swear the ball was up his sleeve at one point), he pulls a low cross out of the hat, putting the goal on a plate for Berbatov. One-nil after 7 minutes – you could sense the relief around the ground.

Robbie Keane is in a class of his own, Lennon assisting him admirably, Tainio and Berbatov are enjoying themselves – the second goal is coming. Berbatov heads a ball down into the path of the on-running Jenas, who lifts the ball over Kenny’s hand to make it 2 goals with only 17 minutes on the clock. Game over already.

Sheffield United pleasantly surprised me. We were expecting a bruising encounter with fouls galore. To their credit, that wasn’t the game plan at all. Some nice touches, moments of pressure and some good moves were also nice to watch, and only added to the entertainment of the match. It takes two to Tango. Apparently.

It would be nice however, with all the replica shirts about, if Sheffield United could give the latest kit to Keith Gillespie, who for some reason was playing in last seasons strip. Perhaps he isn’t one of those people who ‘must have’ the latest fashions? Perhaps he picked it up cheap in the club sale?

On leaving the ground, comments such as “Business as usual” and “That’s more like it” fill the air. The dark clouds above have dispersed. It didn’t rain. The pessimism has gone.

For now.

Going home, I go past the travelling away coach. It isn’t stuck on the kerb barrier anymore. Its now jacked up onto a huge recovery vehicle, with people looking rather concerned at the underside.

I hope they had AA Relay Plus.

I hope to see you dancing on the touchline sometime soon...

Written by Smart

Just a quick note to wish Bobby Robson my best wishes today - a man I have great admiration for.

The former England manager will undergo surgery today to "remove a small brain tumour" and is expected to "make a full recovery".

I wont dwell on his life too much as it would seem like a rather ill-placed obituary, but I will say the thought of him dancing on the touchline after David Platt scored a late winner against Belgium in Italia '90 always raises a smile on my face.

See you soon, Bobby.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

England In The 70's: Part 2

It was the summer of 1973 and England's chances of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup Finals had been rocked by a 2-0 defeat away to Poland. Sir Alf Ramsey had just four months in which to prepare for the final match of the campaign, this time at home to Poland. England would have to win or face the prospect of an embarassing and unthinkable failure.

By way of preparation, the England team embarked on a short tour of Europe to distract themselves from their now growing problems. Even that didn't go according to plan. After scraping through 2-1 against the Soviet Union in Moscow (thanks largely to an own-goal by the home side), England then lost to Italy for the first time ever in a 2-1 defeat in Turin. Not even Bobby Moore’s record-breaking 107th cap for England could ease the mounting pressure.

And so to the final showdown. In September 1973, Poland had beaten Wales 3-0 which meant the re-match between England and the Poles would decide who booked their World Cup Finals place the following year. Poland were in the commanding position of only needing a draw, but for England only a win would do.

In one of the most famous matches of England’s footballing history, Poland faced a long and arduous onslaught from Sir Alf Ramsey’s men. Goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, non-conformist in his technique, stopped shot after shot from England’s attack-minded line-up with the only let-up coming in the form of a goal against the run of play for Poland after 57 minutes.

England now needed two goals in the last half-hour of the match, but it wasn’t long before the first one arrived. The continual wave of pressure from the home team was rewarded with a penalty six minutes later which Allan Clarke put away to equalise, but no amount of fury and fire could bring England the second goal they so desperately wanted. When the referee blew his whistle to signify the end of the match, England were left to face the reality of failing to qualify for a World Cup Finals for the first time in their history.

Sir Alf Ramsey soldiered on for two more matches - one of which saw another friendly defeat to Italy (this time on home soil) before the FA decided enough was enough. On April 19th 1974, it announced the end of Sir Alf Ramsey’s 11-year reign as the manager of England’s football team and the hunt for a replacement was soon underway.

All change

While a permanent successor to Ramsey was being found, the Football Association appointed a temporary manager in the form of Joe Mercer, then in charge of Coventry City.

Mercer took control of the England team for seven matches and successfully kept things ticking over while the rumours grew over who was to become the new England boss. The press reported the emergence of two clear favourites to get the job: one was Brian Clough, the other was Don Revie.

Clough had guided Derby County to the 1972 League Championship and the semi-finals of the European Cup the following year, but his outspokenness was something the FA weren't comfortable with. So it was then that on July 4th 1974, the Football Association made their announcement. The new England manager was the man whose team was pipped to the 1972 League title by Clough - Leeds United’s Don Revie.

Revie was thrown straight into the thick of it as his new side began their qualification for the 1976 European Championships. They began well, winning three out of their first four games and there was even time for a 2-0 friendly win over West Germany at Wembley. The Home Championship followed next and Revie’s England breezed through that too.

What’s interesting to note is Revie’s approach to team selection during his first year in charge. There were a handful of players who had undoubted quality and were already regarded as regulars - Kevin Keegan, Gerry Francis, Ray Clemence to name but three - but the other positions were filled by a variety of players who, in nostalgic terms, barely even appear on the radar.

Take a look at Revie’s England side for the match against Wales in 1975:

Ray Clemence; Steve Whitworth; Ian Gillard; Colin Viljoen; Dave Watson; Colin Todd; Mick Channon; Alan Ball; David Johnson; Gerry Francis; Dave Thomas. Sub: Brian Little

Steve Whitworth was a Leicester City right-back whose England career began and ended in 1975, before losing his place to Phil Neal. Ian Gillard was a full back with Queens Park Rangers who’s tenure in the England side was even shorter, running to just three games. As for Colin Viljoen, he was a South African-born midfielder who was Ipswich Town’s Player of the Year in 1975. He played just twice for England.

All three players are typical of the lengths Revie went to in order to find the right mix for his team, and yet they, together with the bigger names on his team sheet, seemed to be achieving some success despite the constant changes.

All that came to end, though, when England travelled to Bratislava for a key European Championship qualifier against Czechoslovakia in October 1975. As in 1973, England were unwittingly running into a team that would eventually hit form in the not-too-distant future. An early goal by Mick Channon gave England hope but the home side fought back to win 2-1, leaving Revie’s side in a precarious position.

England had one game left, away to Portugal. If they could win that, it would mean Czechoslovakia would have to win both of their remaining matches. They, too, would have to play the already eliminated Portuguese away from home before their campaign ended with a trip to Cyprus.

The record books show that in November 19th 1975, England could only draw 1-1 against Portugal, and yet again it was Mick Channon whose name ended up on the scoresheet. That opened the door for the Czechs who now needed only two points to win the group, and unsurprisingly they got them after a 1-1 draw with Portugal and a 3-0 win away to Cyprus.

Don Revie’s honeymoon period was well and truly over, and it would now take a huge effort to get the support of the public back on his side. England had gone nearly ten years without a win in a major competition and Revie was starting to feel the pressure.

Monday, August 21, 2006

At least Watford lost quietly...

So the first weekend of the Premiership passes us by fairly quietly - unlike the cricket.

The return of the Premiership sees the return of the routines. Sky Sports for results, Match of the Day for goals, Sunday's papers to weep at, league tables to ignore.

So what did I find of interest this weekend? Well, as always the opening day of the season's focus was on the Premiership new boys - Reading, Watford and Sheffield United. That’s when it hit me - we have a season of listening to the inane drivel of Neil Warnock. My god what a plank that man is. Luckily, my remote has a ‘mute’ button, and I am sure that it’s going to get a lot of use this season. I advise you to get familiar with your mute button too…

Maybe there is something about former championship sides, because next it was Reading's turn to irritate. Not only is their chairman magnanimous enough to name the stadium after himself, John Madjeski is now also doing post match interviews.

Ok, sure, it was a great comeback in your first Premiership game. I’ll give you that. Now stay off my screen. You’re a chairman. Go… ‘chair’. And wake Steve Coppell up, please. Thanks.

I don’t know if the above behaviour is normal in the Championship as I don’t like to watch inferior football - but if it is, they are welcome to it.

Which just leaves little old Watford, who weren’t very good and were defeated by a shot from Andy Johnson. His shot was in danger of hitting the corner flag before a deflection from a Watford defender sent it goalwards.

Still, only 37 more games to go.

Talking of which, Tuesday night I am at the Lane to see Spurs versus Sheffield United. I’ll be taking my remote control, hoping it will shut Warnock up. Oh and some eggs. I hope he likes eggs.

Wish me luck.

Friday, August 18, 2006

New Kits for 2006/07 - Part 2

OK, first of all, an apology. In part 1 of this feature, I ended by saying we'd look next time at some kits being worn by teams at the other end of the Premiership pecking order. Well despite my best Google-bashing efforts, I failed to get a decent picture of the new Watford home kit for the 2006/07 season, so I gave up on that altogether.

The good news, however, is that I have another eight new shirts for you to see (some albeit in slightly blurry form, for which I humbly apologise). Cast your eyes over this little lot...

On the top row from left to right we have the new away shirts for Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea and Liverpool along with the new Manchester City home shirt. On the bottom row we have the new Newcastle United away shirt, the new home shirt for Tottenham Hotspur, the new away shirt for West Ham United and Wigan Athletic's new home shirt.

Out of this bunch, I think I'm most impressed with the new Manchester City home shirt. They haven't had a decent blue one for ages but I think Reebok have finally hit the bullseye there.

Tottenham have a bold new simple design for their kit thanks to Puma who were the most prevalent manufacturer at this summer's World Cup. Their shirt is now completely devoid of any stripes or patterns... on the front! If you're after some embellishments, look for the navy blue panel across the back on the shoulders...

Finally it's good to see (from my point of view) Liverpool go back to a yellow away kit and Adidas have come up trumps with the offering shown above. It'll no doubt please those Reds fans who'll be hoping for a return to the form shown by their club in the early 1980's when a kit similar to this one was worn.

On the subject of Liverpool, another apology. I was lead to believe by an unnamed website that the new Liverpool home shirt would look like the one we showed in part 1. As it turned out, the final product looked completely different, so here to correct the matter is a picture of what the shirt really does look like...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

England In The 70's: Part 1

As England begin a new era under a new coach and a new captain, let's take a look back at an often overlooked era in the history of the national team which also began full of hope and optimism but ultimately ended in failure. This is the story of the England football team in the 1970's.

Part 1: Out with the old, in with the new

As the decade began, England were world champions and rightly proud of only having lost one game in the previous thirteen. Confidence in the team was high and the only note of disappointment was the defeat to Yugoslavia which saw them eliminated from the 1968 European Championship semi-finals.

By the time England strode out onto the Wembley pitch to play the Netherlands on January 14th 1970, the national team was already showing signs of a gradual transition. Many of the 1966 World Cup winning line-up was still there, but one or two new faces were now starting to appear regularly. They were the new stars of the English First Division, namely Norman Hunter, Francis Lee and Colin Bell.

All three fitted into Sir Alf Ramsey’s new agenda - to put together a squad of players that could retain the World Cup that June. When the tournament started in Mexico only half of the old guard from 1966 remained, and the entire defence had been rebuilt from scratch. It was now up to Keith Newton, Brian Labone, Terry Cooper and Alan Mullery to protect Gordon Banks from the onslaught that was waiting for them in the heat of Guadalajara.

England did better in their first round group than they had in the equivalent round four years earlier, even allowing for a 1-0 defeat to Brazil. Yet it was to be in the next round that England’s changing team would be dethroned as old adversaries West Germany came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 after extra time in the quarter-final.

World Champions no more

It was the end of an era. Bobby Charlton retired and in came a few new names as Sir Alf began the long rebuilding process towards the 1972 European Championships. Peter Shilton got his first chance between the posts as deputy for Gordon Banks, a young Emlyn Hughes established his place in defence and Leeds United’s new goalscoring sensation Allan Clarke also pulled on an England shirt for the new campaign.

After their exit from the 1970 World Cup, England went back on another long unbeaten run that lasted for 10 games over 20 months. Sadly and somewhat ironically, the run came to an end in the first leg of the 1972 European Championship quarter-final against West Germany. England had been beaten 3-1 at Wembley and there was no way back for them as they struggled to a 0-0 draw in West Berlin.

Suddenly England were failing to achieve success when it really mattered. The FA decided that change might soon be required at managerial level, but they were prepared to give Sir Alf Ramsey just one more chance to find glory again. He was charged with guiding England to victory in the 1974 World Cup Finals.

Last throw of the dice

Before England could think about that, they were already struggling to overcome teams nearer to home. The 1972 British Home Championship match against Northern Ireland was the first time England didn’t field a single player from the 1966 World Cup Final, in fact the England team was looking barely recognisable at all.

England’s front line that day featured Malcolm Macdonald, Tony Currie and Rodney Marsh while at the back Larry Lloyd and Peter Storey were on show. The game ended in victory for the visitors: Northern Ireland winning 1-0 thanks to a goal by future Arsenal manager Terry Neill.

The following match against Scotland saw the return of Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Gordon Banks to the side and England immediately got back to winning ways, going on to share top spot in the competition with the Scots.

Things were looking up once again. With an unhappy 1972 out of the way, England coasted through the first half of 1973 with a renewed feeling of confidence, winning their Home Championship matches and going unbeaten over two World Cup qualifying matches against Wales. The side looked settled and optimism was high, but around the corner out of view, the Poles were waiting to derail England’s hopes once again.

Alf Ramsey’s men travelled to Chorzow in what seemed like a no-fuss trip to pick up two more World Cup qualifying points on the road to West Germany. Poland had already lost to the Welsh in Cardiff, so England’s task seemed like a mere formality. Unfortunately for them, nothing went to plan.

Alan Ball became only the second man to get sent off for his country and the Poles showed that they had their own agenda for reaching the World Cup with the nucleus of a side that would go on to be one of the best in the Finals a year later. Two goals for the hosts - including an own goal by Bobby Moore - were enough to put Poland firmly in the driving seat.

England's chances of reaching West Germany in 1974 now looked distinctly uncertain, but there was still time to put things right...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hunting season is officially 'open'

Yes, of course I’ll give McLaren a chance, and yes, of course I support my country.

Steve McLaren has been in the job for only a short while now, and after his name-making “I’m dropping Beckham” spiel last week – a rousing affair to stir the hearts and minds of every English man exiting the churches after praying we don’t have a Mini-Sven on our hands – he announces the starting line-up for his first international in charge. (By the way, don’t be surprised if Beckham comes back now that dust has settled on that bombshell.)

Whilst McLaren is enjoying the usual “honeymoon period” allocated to each new England manager before the press decide to go on a duck shoot, I thought I’d be different and get my shot in early.

The biggest thing for me is the role of Gerrard. Sven was accused of trying to fit square pegs into round holes – or putting players into a formation and not a formation based around the players - most notably Gerrard, Beckham and Lampard.

So in comes the new regime – and what do we find? Well blow me if its not the same problem with the same solution. Not having the balls or perhaps tactical mind to drop Gerrard or Lampard – and lets face it, "Barndoor" Lampard has been shocking for club and country for long enough now – he decides to keep them both and play Gerrard out of position on the right.

Surely dropping Lampard at this ‘friendly’ stage can only be beneficial. It’ll give Lampard a kick up the behind, and make players realise that there places aren’t ‘assured’.

Instead, we have Gerrard playing in a position which he "doesn’t mind" – but one to which he has commented on before, saying its not his preferred role. To add more fuel to the fire, its not as if we don’t have other options on the right. Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wrong Phillips are just two alternatives – both are in the squad.

As I said at the start, I support my country and after posting the above I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Lampard and Gerrard on the score sheet – and a large amount of ridicule to boot.

Such is the nature of the beast.

England team to face Greece: Paul Robinson; Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry (captain), Ashley Cole; Steven Gerrard, Owen Hargreaves, Frank Lampard, Stewart Downing, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch.

Time to stick your neck on the line...

Just four days to go now until the start of the new Premiership season and it's time to put your money where your mouth is.

How do you think the season will go and what will the Premiership table look like come the end of the 2006/2007 season?

Think you know the answer? Then why not leave us a comment with your prediction. At the end of the season, we'll see whose prediction was best using a simple scoring system: for every place in the table that your teams are incorrectly positioned, you score a point. The more points you accumulate, the worse your prediction was.

Example: Arsenal finish 2nd and you predicted them to finish 5th = you score three points, and so on.

Anyway, let's deal with that in nine months time. For now, here's my prediction for the 2006/2007 FA Premiership table...

1 Chelsea
2 Liverpool
3 Arsenal
4 Man United
5 Tottenham
6 Blackburn
7 Newcastle
8 Bolton
9 West Ham
10 Everton
11 Aston Villa
12 Charlton
13 Wigan
14 Portsmouth
15 Man City
16 Reading
17 Middlesbrough
18 Fulham
19 Sheff Utd
20 Watford

Not much that's controversial in the above, except that I've got Liverpool to finish second which I've no doubt some of you will disagree with. I think Aston Villa will improve on last season under Martin O'Neill but it's going to take some time to achieve and I think he'll have to spend lots of money wisely and fast in order to do it.

Smart and I were caught out last year (along with everyone else) by the surprisingly good performance of newly-promoted Wigan and West Ham, but I'm just as cautious this year as last. I think two of the new boys will go straight back down with only Reading capable of really causing any flicker of an upset.

Speaking of Wigan, I think their bubble will burst after several of their top players parted company with them, but meeting them on the way up should be Charlton and Portsmouth who may be slightly better than before after making some interesting additions to their squad.

I think Gareth Southgate will struggle badly in his first season as manager of Middlesbrough and Chris Coleman, too, could be set for a relegation battle judging by the squad he has. It's any wonder they finished 12th last year, but this time I don't think they'll be so lucky.

As for the top half of the table, I can't see it being much different to 2005/2006. The main difference for me will be the order of the top four as I've gone for Arsenal to take third place and Manchester United to finish fourth.

And Chelsea? Well they might not have things all their own way this season, but if you're looking to pick up at least one point in this prediction game you'd be a fool to put them anywhere other than top spot.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Didnt someone once say "Its a funny old game..."?

At last, the wait is almost over. After one of the dullest summer breaks I can remember for a long time, the season is about to kick-off. Chelsea have added to the title buying side of last season and so that race is over already, yet there is still room for the rest of us to have our moment of misplaced optimism - until around 4.45pm this Saturday that is...

During the pre-season, there have been plenty of rumours and speculation. Who knows whats true? And who cares?

For your benefit, I have been scouring the various headlines and news stories that have been published and came up with the list below. These caught my eye for one reason or another.

You can thank me later.

"Spurs sell Michael Carrick for £18.6 million" - There IS a God!

"West Ham wont recieve a penny from the Carrick transfer due to no sell-on clause in his contract" - bad news for the West Ham fans expecting a a bumper windfall.

"Manchester United's new £18.6m signing Michael Carrick is set to miss the start of the Premiership season after injuring his left foot against Ajax" - No comment...

"Crespo going nowhere unless the price is right" - Chelsea FC, one week before he joined Inter Milan on a free transfer...

"Former England boss Bobby Robson taken ill whilst watching Ipswich" - There are so many puchlines for this one that I feel its only fair to allow you to come up with your own...

"The Northern Ireland international will be out of action for another 10 weeks because of a knee injury but he passed a medical on Monday evening" - West Hams new signing George McCartney.

"Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has warned Peter Crouch against complacency." - ... and low bridges no doubt.

"Thierry Henry is making a last-ditch bid to try and persuade Ashley Cole to stay at Arsenal." - Strange that, as two months ago even Henry couldn't make his own mind up.

"Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has urged Steve McClaren to play both Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville in Wednesday's game against Greece." - Whats this? Alex Ferguson WANTS his players to play for England? He'll be claiming Louis Saha is the answer to his striking problems next...

"Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has tipped striker Louis Saha to step out of ex-Old Trafford star Ruud van Nistelrooy's shadow and help the club to success this season. " - Told ya...

Personally, I cant wait until the transfer window shuts on August 31st - but I will miss the daft comments.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Not long to go now...

If you've been waiting patiently for the new Premiership season to start, you'll be relieved to know that the wait is almost over. By way of a tempting entrée before the main course arrives, this Sunday provides us with the Charity Shield match. Sorry - the 'FA Community Shield' match. 'In Partnership with McDonalds'.

Yes, there's only one day of the year when you're allowed to use the phrase 'traditional curtain raiser' and this Sunday is it. The ceremonial coming together of the Premiership champions and the FA Cup winners is almost upon us, but what's it all about and how much do we really value it?

Well it all began back in 1908 as a kind of challenge match between a professional side and an amateur one. They originally played for the Sheriff of London Charity Shield, but the extra bit was dropped for the first game between Manchester United and Queen's Park Rangers and it thereafter became known as the Sheriff of London.

The event took on a rather freeform approach in the early years and was generally played at the end of the season, either at a neutral venue or at the ground of one of the competing teams. It was an approach that allowed for some flexibility, too, as in 1950 the Charity Shield match featured the England World Cup team played a touring team from Canada, England winning 4-2 on the day.

Then in 1959 it was decided to play the match at the start of the season, coinciding as it did with the emergence of some of the great teams of the era. Teams like Manchester United, Wolves, Bolton and Burnley had their time in the spotlight, as did Tottenham Hotspur who won the double in 1961. They ended up playing an FA XI that year, and beat them 3-2.

The 1960's saw the trend for high-scoring games continue, the highlight being Manchester City's 6-1 defeat of West Bromwich Albion in 1968. But in the 1970's, things started to get a bit serious. Whereas the previous decade saw an average of 4.4 goals scored per game, suddenly it became just 2, and that was largely thanks to Nottingham Forest's 5-0 beating of Ipswich Town in 1978.

The Charity Shield started losing its sense of significance and players lost their commitment and even their composure. In 1974, Leeds United played Liverpool in a stormy affair that saw Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner sent off for violent conduct. Both players removed their shirts as a gesture of disgust as they left the field and the FA soon after punished them for their part in the affair, handing out a £500 fine and an 11-game ban each.

After the Merseyside domination of the event during the 1980's, the 1990's saw the return of the high-scoring spectacle with Eric Cantona scoring three of Leeds' four goals in a 4-3 win over Liverpool in 1992 and Manchester United beating Newcastle 4-0 in 1996. Even United themselves found themselves on the end of a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in 1998, but as we entered the 21st century things returned to a more sedentary pace.

The big four - Arsenal, Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool - have appeared in one permutation or another in every final since 1997 and naturally they're close fought affairs. You'll be lucky to even get a penalty shoot-out from it these days, which leads us to think in these fixture-congested times 'is it really worthwhile'?

OK, so admittedly it's only one game per year involving two teams, so dropping it from the footballing calendar won't help matters much, but wouldn't we football fans rather get straight on with the new Premier League one week earlier instead? With clubs getting involved in the early rounds of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup during August these days, it's not as if we're short of some pre-season footy action, so is their a place for the Community Shield in the modern era?

My solution is a simple one. Remove it along with the Football League Cup and any other competition that's lost its purpose, and leave us with some Football matches that really mean something.

The Community Shield was alright once upon a time, but even silverware can lose its lustre. Let's be brave and draw a line under these historical anachronisms so we can look forward to a better game in the future that's better supported.

Got an opinion or any Community Shield memories? Then why not leave us a comment...!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

SPAOTP Recommends... ESPN Classic

The internet is nothing if not a good medium on which to share knowledge, and as we know, knowledge is power. So in this series, we'll be sharing our positive experiences and spreading a little happiness by recommending anything better than half-decent that relates to football which everyone else should be getting the benefit of.

To begin with, I can thoroughly recommend ESPN Classic to all you Sky Digital viewers out there. This is a relatively new channel which prides itself on raiding the televisual archives of ITV and the BBC so that it can show you all manner of sporting material which hasn’t seen the light of day since the 1970’s and 1980’s.

It’s a 24-hour channel, but take a tip from me - the good stuff’s on after about 6pm every night, and if you can wait until 10pm, you really are in for a treat. During the daytime they show frankly rubbish programmes about American extreme sports like Active Volcano Snowboarding, but switch on around teatime and you’ll have much better luck.

Keep your eyes open for various footballing gems that regularly get repeated. First of all, there’s coverage of numerous European Cup Finals involving great sides like Liverpool, Ajax and Bayern Munich.

Secondly, there’s a series called ‘The Dead Good Match’ which is an edited-down version of either an old FA Cup Final or a dusted down edition of ‘Match of the Day’, complete with linkage from David Coleman, Jimmy Hill or anyone else who happened to be at the BBC at the time.

And coming soon to the channel will also be some old international matches from the 70’s involving England, Scotland and Wales, so expect to see even more unkempt sideburns, hairstyles and other dubious bits of facial hair.

Yes, if you really want to know what football was like before Rupert Murdoch got his hands on it, check out these programmes on ESPN Classic. They’re a wonderful insight into a lost world when Notts County and Luton Town were in the top flight and injured players just got back onto their feet without so much as a funny look in the referee’s direction.

Highly recommended and well-worth a visit.


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