Wednesday, January 31, 2007

As one window opens...

If it's the end of January, it must be the end of the second trading period for each of the Premiership clubs. After today, no more players can be purchased until the summer hiatus, so who's put their hands in their pockets since the start of the month and why?

Well West Ham have been most active - unsurprisingly and with some justification. With new owners willing to spend much of their hard-earned fortune and a team that's lacking quality and confidence, it wasn't exactly a bolt from the blue when new players started arriving through the gates of Upton Park.

Among those joining the payroll at West Ham were Luis Boa Morte from Fulham, Lucas Neill from Blackburn and just today, Matthew Upson from Birmingham. Boa Morte has already injected some much-needed pace to the team, but Neill is now injured and could be out of the side for a few weeks.

Aston Villa have made a couple of eye-opening acquisitions. John Carew is a regular scorer who's done well at Valencia in recent times and Ashley Young has left behind Watford to join Martin O'Neill's team that has slipped well into the bottom half of the table of late. He'll be hoping both will bring more in the way of goals than Milan Baros did - he's been sold to Lyon in exchange for Carew.

Blackburn have sought to bolster their defence with three new signings. Liverpool's Steven Warnock, Christopher Samba from Hertha Berlin and Basel's Bruno Berner all come in along with David Dunn for a second stint at Ewood Park to try and push Blackburn back into the top half of the table.

Suffering Charlton have brought in Zheng Zhi from China on loan - he's their international captain - and they've also punched their weight by bringing in Ben Thatcher from Manchester City for £500,000. Will it be enough to save them from relegation by the end of the season?

Neither Arsenal or Chelsea have seen the need to bring in anyone new to their squads but Arsenal have surprisingly offloaded Lauren to Portsmouth. The Cameroon international had slipped down the pecking order under Arsene Wenger but Harry Redknapp knows a bargain when he sees one and may yet give Lauren a chance to shine at Fratton Park.

Everton have cast their net abroad to pick up a couple of new midfielders. Their push for a UEFA Cup spot will no doubt benefit from the arrival of Anderson da Silva, the Brazilian who joins from Montevideo on loan and Portuguese international Manuel Fernandes who arrives on loan from Benfica.

Leaving Goodison is Simon Davies whose impact hasn't quite been as big as was hoped. He joins Fulham along with Clint Dempsey, American international, former Chelsea, Charlton and Portsmouth star Alexei Smertin and Italian veteran Vincenzo Montella, who's already started scoring goals for his new side. It might just be the winning combination Chris Coleman's been looking for as he tries to keep a foothold in the Premiership for another season.

One of the most notable signings has been Henrik Larsson's short-term move to Manchester United. He, too, has started paying back some of the money Sir Alex Ferguson splashed out and it'll cross his mind that an extension to his stay could be worth looking into come the end of the season.

Over at the Riverside, Middlesbrough have put the emphasis on removal rather than addition. Out goes a trio of recognisable names - Ray Parlour, Ugo Ehiogu and Massimo Maccarone. Tottenham have also released some high profile players in the form of Edgar Davids (who goes back to Holland and more specifically Ajax), Reto Ziegler and Calum Davenport - one of West Ham's other purchases.

But aside from all these purchases, one thing may have escaped your attention: an increasing trend for signing celebrity names. SPAOTP can confirm that Manchester City have signed Michael Ball in a move that will test every fan's resolve, and Reading have snapped up Alan Bennett which should also get numerous heads talking.

Oh and one more thing: don't tell the chairman of Blackburn Rovers about Everton's latest signing. It's Mark Hughes.

I didn't realise he was still playing...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Only as good as your last game?

Some say football's gone a bit stale, that it needs a bit of excitement injected into it. The same old teams winning, the usual suspects doing badly and ending up on the scrapheap.

What are we to do? Maybe we could wait and see what Michel Platini will introduce to the game as the new head of UEFA? Easier still, wait ten minutes to see what brainstorm Sepp Blatter comes up with - he's always good for a laugh.

No, it's no good. What we need is a radical new system to change the way the game's played in order to liven things up a bit, and I think I have the answer.

To be fair, it's not really a new idea as it's something I remember from my childhood, but it's certainly worth considering. (Well it is if you want a bit of fun.)

It's called the Ladder League system and here's how it works. Let's say on a hypothetical Saturday afternoon, there's a match between Newcastle (sitting in 10th place in the Premiership) and Fulham (in 16th). Joy of joys, Fulham end up winning the match, but instead of awarding them three points as is currently the case, you make them swap places in the league - Fulham taking 10th spot and Newcastle dropping to 16th. If it had been a draw, they'd stay where they are.

OK, so it's not the fairest system in the world, but let's take another look at it. Imagine if Man United - top of the league - were playing Watford - propping up the table at the bottom. In one fell swoop, Aidy Boothroyd could see his team top the league by putting in one incredible performance to beat Sir Alex Ferguson's lot. Watford would never have more motivation to play well and Man United would have no option but to play well for fear of ending up bottom of the table.

Of course it's not a complete win-win situation. For the team higher up in the table, they'd be purely playing to avoid defeat so they can stay in the same position after the match. Defensive performances could be commonplace, but imagine what it'd be like on the last day of the season. Your team could end up - almost by random - playing another in the bottom three. Your team could be relegated when everything seemed safe the week before. Conversely, your team could end up winning the title or qualifying for Europe when previously there was no such hope. The atmosphere at that final game would be unbelievable.

You see - it seemed like a churlish suggestion earlier, but you must be thinking it's an idea that's got some legs now, aren't you? And if you're wondering how the Premiership would be looking at the present time if such a system had been implemented this season, here's the answer:

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

Obviously the season hasn't finished yet, but you can see that some of the positions are looking about right already. Chelsea are near the top, West Ham are near the bottom... not such a flight of fantasy, eh?

Right, that's that then. A system that guarantees excitment in spades, extreme highs and lows - everything a fan could want. Somebody get me Sepp Blatter's e-mail address, please...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Does your club hit the net on the Web?

The Web, it's been said, is a wonderful thing. How did the world ever cope prior to 1996 (or somewhere thereabouts) without so much information at its fingertips? We've all embraced this amazing resource to such an extent that it now forms a part of our daily lives. Many of us regularly find time to visit our favourite websites - be they search engines, online auctions or news sites, but what if you're into footy in a big way? What's out there for the keen fan of the round leather ball game?

Quite a bit, as you can imagine, but the chances are you will at some point wander by to check out the official website for the team you support and if that's the case, can you expect your visit to be enjoyable, educational or downright disappointing?

That's what we at SPAOTP wanted to find out. (Actually that's not entirely true: our regular contributor Kedge suggested we conduct such a survey way back in 2006 and as we had nothing better to do, we thought we'd take him up on his offer.)

Working it out
So if you visited the official website of a Premiership team, for instance, what sort of thing would you be likely to look for? Well we figured you might be interested in the young players coming through the ranks and which stars of the future were currently learning their trade in the 'Academy'. It's also possible that you'd be interested in your club's history and would like to know what, if anything, it might have won by way of honours.

Another big lure to visiting a club website is to buy tickets for an upcoming match. No more queuing up in the rain on a cold, wet, Monday morning at the stadium - you hope. And what if you're the conscientious type that wants to know all his Fantasy League players are fit for this weekend's games? You'll be wanting a decent News section to put your mind at rest, won't you?

But it's not all about features on a club website. Chances are your visit could easily be spoilt by having too many adverts dominating the screen or a poor navigation system that prevents you from getting to the info you want. Worse still, you might be asked to register your personal details just to get at the most basic of features.

These were the kind of things we wanted to take into consideration when judging each of the twenty Premiership club websites, so with that in mind we went ahead with our investigation, and this is what we found.

The Findings
The first thing you realise when you're looking at the sites of all the top clubs is how many look so similar to each other. There's a reason for this: half of the websites we looked at were designed by Premium TV which meant they shared the same look-and-feel, the same kind of navigation menus, plus a rather disturbing feature: the need to register before you accessed anything worth looking at.

This, frankly, is a joke. To have to sign your life away just so that your club can tell how many followers it's got or what pages they're viewing on the site is utterly unnecessary and uncalled for. Some of us reserve the right, quite justifiably, not to register on websites if we don't want to, and in this case there shouldn't even be a need to. Why, then, prevent us from seeing the News section - pretty standard fare, we think you'll agree - just because we won't sign up?

This is not a good thing, so if you support Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Reading, Sheffield United, Watford or Wigan, don't be surprised if your club scores badly. All the other clubs haven't got a problem in providing a totally accessible website, so your club has no excuse.

Some things, however, were pretty ubiquitous among those sites we viewed. Every club seems hugely keen on providing an online TV channel for us to subscribe to and watch, and every club has an online store from which to purchase replica shirts, mugs, car stickers and all manner of merchandised tat. Betting sections are also commonplace on each of the Premiership club websites, so we've pretty much disregarded each of these factors. We're just interested in the interesting stuff, so let's delve a bit further into the findings...

As mentioned before, the Premium TV mob want you to register with their sites before you see any club news, so they score badly on this category. All the other teams seemed quite happy to provide news stories that were informative, some even giving details of potential injury worries and team line-ups for imminent games.

This was one category where even the Premium TV sites scored highly - in fact it's about the only useful feature on their sites that you can access without having to register first. All teams showed a commitment to giving a detailed history of their team, but those scoring highest were Charlton, Everton, Tottenham, West Ham and Sheffield United.

The Future - Club Academies
Any club serious about nurturing young talent has their own 'academy' - a place where players can develop and hone their skills before being let loose with the big boys. It's where the stars of tomorrow lean on the experience of their mentors before reaching the first team, but if your club has the words 'Premium TV' in its URL, you'll never know who they are. You need to register...

Of the other teams, Chelsea, Charlton, Everton and Tottenham scored high marks for their coverage of Academy matters on their sites. On Charlton's site, it's even possible to apply for a trial with their academy, which we think is outstanding.

At the other end of the scale, West Ham who claim to be the 'Academy of Football' barely even mention their own Academy and consequently score very poorly. At least it gets a mention in the occasional news story, which is more than can be said for Wigan's site which considers their Academy non-existent. Poor scores for both, then.

This should be an important part of every club's website and, if done well, should be dealt with in a transparent yet competent way so that any old Tom, Dick or Harry can buy a ticket for the match.

Unfortunately, most teams seem to insist on registering for this privilege if not for any other that they offer, so this means lower scores for them in our survey.

If you're looking for examples of how it should be done, look no further than Charlton, Chelsea and Fulham. If you want to buy any of their tickets that are on general sale, all you need to do is enter your credit card details and that's that. No fuss or bother, which is exactly what you'd expect. Many other clubs provide plenty of general ticket information such as seat plans, membership details and so on, but if you have to register first before buying a ticket, you may never need it.

Range of Information
Most clubs made a pretty good fist of this in spite of the fact that, if you think about it, there's not really all that much that you can provide information about. After the stuff we've already mentioned, you're likely to run into waffle about business partnerships, results and fixtures, kids' clubs and so on but that's about all. The thing is, those nice people at Premium TV block off most of their info anyway, so you're really restricted with what you can see if you follow one of their teams.

Of the better performing clubs, though, Chelsea came out best, a shade ahead of Charlton (again), Everton, Fulham and Arsenal with many others not far behind.

Or to put it another way, 'How easy is it to get at the info you want?' This is about the only other area where the Premium TV gang score well. They may all look very similar, but at least their menu system, consisting of a list of sections and subsections down the left of the screen, is easy to follow.

Scoring highly in this category were Charlton, Everton, Liverpool and Sheffield United, while at the other end of the spectrum were West Ham who, frankly, confuse everyone with their horizontal, vertical, fly-out and randomly positioned menus. Yes, other teams do have links dotted all over the place too, but somehow they at least follow some logic. At, it's bordering on the bewildering...

Advert intrusion
In this commercial day and age, it's perhaps not surprising that websites like those we've been looking at have adverts littered here there and everywhere, but yet again, it can be done in a non-intrusive way if the designers are worth their salt.

To that end, Chelsea and Charlton have kept images for company's and special offers down to a minimum and have spared us too many that are animated in that annoyingly eye-catching way too.

The Premium TV sites by their very nature tend to have a liberal dash of adverts all through them (or at least the bits you don't have to register for) and among the worst offenders were Blackburn, Bolton and Aston Villa. If you don't know who their sponsors are now, you soon will after a quick visit to their sites.

Look and feel
Finally, the cosmetic view - how easy the website is on the eye. All the sites looked pretty reasonable, but some were definitely more polished than others.

Man United's came out on top with an outstanding design combining excellent use of layout, graphics and typefaces to make your visit a pleasant one.

Chelsea and Spurs a very close second. Chelsea's site relied on Flash to make all the menus animated and slick-looking which, although not to everyone's taste, looked very nice indeed. Tottenham's website was your more typical fare, but used well-designed graphics and fonts to maximise impact there.

One additional note about Charlton's site, before we close. Although it may not look as pretty as some, it's very clear and easy to look at with the added bonus that it meets the minimum accessibility standards for people who are disabled or have sensory impairments. Well done to them for being the only club we could see that made accessibility one of their priorities when designing their site.

The Final Outcome
And so the time has come to tot up the scores and work out who are the champs and who are the chumps. Well let's not beat about the bush: in the end, it was a clear two-horse race between Chelsea and Charlton. The winners by a single point were Chelsea.

Both teams were very thorough in their approach to providing an educational, interactive, open and useful site for their fans and deserve great credit accordingly. While Chelsea's site appears to have had more money thrown at it with a very professional look and feel, Charlton's is just as good while being easier to use and simpler in it's design.

In third place were Everton whose only real let-down was the need to register before buying tickets online, while in fourth were Tottenham who edged Manchester United into fifth spot.

At the other end of the scale were Watford who could only offer a half-decent History section and a reasonable navigation system, and only slightly better than them were their Premium TV stablemates Newcastle, Reading and Wigan. Out of all the twenty Premiership teams, the bottom ten were all from that particular camp.

All of which goes to prove a number of points. Firstly, if you're designing a site for a football club, don't make them sign their name in blood just to access simple stuff like squad profiles and news. Secondly, fans want to be able to buy tickets online, so don't force them to register there either. Thirdly, fancy graphics and a professional look don't make a decent site on their own. It needs lots of content that's worth reading too. Finally, don't cram as many adverts onto your screen as you can either. Fans aren't interested in them even if you're sponsors are, so if you're going to show ads, do it discretely.

And that's that. Our congratulations go to Chelsea for producing a first-class website. Premium TV - take note.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Back to square one...

Forgive me if you've heard this one - but there is a point.

Picture with me, if you will, the scene. Its 1927 (thats almost half seven nowadays), and your beloved team are playing, and you're not there. So what do you do? Of course, theres no TV (and no SKY Sports Saturation - which in itself sounds idyllic), and so its on with the radio.

But no matter how much you stare at the speaker, you dont always know where about the current phase of play is on the pitch.

That is until the Radio Times devised the 'grid' idea.

On January 15th, 1927, England played Wales in an International Rugby match at Twickenham. This was the first ever live running sports commentary. That week, the Radio Times printed a picture of the pitch, split into two rows of four and numbered them 1 to 8.

As the commentator described the action, every so often his assistant would call out the number of the 'square' the ball was in. When the ball returned to the keeper at one end, the commentator would say "Back to square one" - now an everday phrase.

And the point of all this? Well, almost 80 years to the day, Radio Five have resurrected the idea. The commentator will have an assistant, calling out the number of the square the ball is in, and listeners will be able to use grid printed in this weeks Radio Times. Live commentary is from the Emirates Stadium as Arsenal take on Manchester United.

Or you could watch it on Sky... ;-)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Obscure Kits From British Football History #3

Jmmy Hill was a bit of a pioneer in his time. Most people think of him as the pointy-chinned presenter of Match of the Day or the pundit who practically coined the term 'sitting on the fence' by his own words and deeds. Yet from the 1960's to the 1980's, Jimmy Hill could always be relied on to think out of the box, and often with one eye on his beloved Coventry City.

He became director of the Midlands club in 1974 and soon after turned Highfield Road into the country's first all-seater stadium. Unfortunately his misjudged slogan of "You can't be a hooligan sitting down" rather backfired when fans began ripping up the seats to use as missiles, but there you go - you can't have everything.

He also proposed to team up his club with Coventry car company Talbot and rename them 'Coventry Talbot'. Although that scheme was booted into Row Z, one aspect of it survived in the form of a change to the kit design. For the 1981/82 season, Coventry City wore arguably the most revolutionary strip ever seen in England. It was based almost completely on the logo of Talbot's car company.

Shirt advertising was banned in England until 1983-84 but until then Hill was insistent on forging the link between his club and the local giants of the British car industry up the road, so a kit was designed to show Coventry City's allegiance to them. The result was what you see in the image on the right.

It was bold, brash, and ultimately illegal - at least in the eyes of the TV companies that wanted to show Coventry's football matches. They wouldn't allow Coventry City to be seen displaying such blatant sponsorship on their kit, so Jimmy Hill's side had to wear an alternative when the cameras came to town. The rather unimaginative version is shown on the cover of the programme below.

All of which rather took the wind out of Jimmy Hill's sails, yet ironically within a matter of a few years, shirt sponsorship was made legal anyway. It goes to show that Hill was actually ahead of his time, although quite whether we'd like to see football kits bearing enormous company logos on that sort of scale is another matter.

Regardless of that, Coventry's 'Talbot' kit of 1981/82 has without doubt attained notoriety over the years for being so distinctive without actually being seen by a huge audience at the time. It hasn't stopped it becoming a favourite among City's fans, though - the club moved to relaunch the kit in replica form in 2000 after demands for it to be made available again.

So there you have it - the kit you could only see if you went to watch your club in person but not on TV. A real one-off the likes of which have never been seen since.

(Coventry City 'Talbot' kit image reproduced by kind permission of John Devlin at True Colours Football Kits.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

You Bet - The Final Total

As you may have seen, this week's You Bet resulted in all three bets receiving an equal number of votes, which meant we had to place 33p on each one but luckily for us, one of them came up trumps and earned us some winnings.

Frank Lampard was the hero of the hour after his goal opened the scoring for Chelsea against Wigan, which meant £1.65 headed back our way after we parted company with our 99p for this week.

So what does that give us by way of a grand total for the entire 10-week run? Well it gives me great pleasure to say that from our original £10 stake fund, we managed to accumulate


for Great Ormond Street Hospital!

Not an enormous fortune, you might think, but do you know of a bank account whose interest rate triples your money over ten weeks? No, we thought not! So let's rejoice and give thanks for all the success we've had as we give thanks to all of you that took the time and effort to cast your votes each week.

It's been a great success and a lot of fun too, so well done everybody and thanks again for helping us to support the kids at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Honestly Becks - why America?

Today it was confirmed that David Beckham will definitely be leaving Real Madrid at the end of the season to join American side LA Galaxy in a £128 million move.

Beckham was quoted as saying "I didn't want to go there at 34 years old and for people to say he's only going for the money. It's not what I'm going out there to do." Well to that I say 'poppycock'.

If Beckham had been offered £25 million to go there - the same amount that Real Madrid paid for his services - I doubt he'd have bothered. The fact is there are currently only two reasons why anyone remotely like David Beckham would want to go and play their club football in the USA:

1) They're desperate, or
2) They're being offered a disgustingly large amount of money.

Unfortunately, despite the advances made by Major League Soccer in the States since it began just over ten years ago, there is still only one direction being taken by the big stars over there, and it involves turning your back on the Land of the Free.

Only this week while the Premiership transfer window's been open, we've heard of Clint Dempsey signing for Fulham. Dempsey, a regular in the USA national team and New England Revolution midfielder, signed on the dotted line for Chris Coleman in return for £2 million. And according to his old boss in the States (former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol) "It's a great credit to him and the level of the MLS that Fulham pushed so hard to get him."

Damn, that Chris Coleman must have been sweating like a pregnant baboon when he finally had to write out that cheque for... was it £2 million, did I say? Sheesh, Mr. Al-Fayed must have thought that was the kind of deal that could send him badly into the red and no mistake.

To underline the point I'm trying to make, Clint Dempsey now joins Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride in the ever-growing band of Americans who now prefer to play their football somewhere other than on home soil, and more specifically at Fulham. Look beyond Fulham and you're likely to find a lot more than that even.

So let's get back to Beckham. If you thought LA Galaxy was the name of a popular French chocolate bar, perhaps you need some education on who David Beckham's new team is.

Well what do we know about them? Apparently they play in yellow shirts with a green diagonal stripe and green shorts. Their most famous player at present is Cobi Jones, who happens to be their all-time leading goalscorer too. They've won the MLS championship twice in 2002 and 2005, and their biggest rivals were the San Jose Earthquakes... or at least they were until the franchise moved to Houston and changed their name completely.

Hardly inspiring, is it? Add to that the fact that in recent years LA Galaxy have been playing to average crowds of around 20,000, and there's not much to suggest why any half-decent English football player would want to play there, let alone David Beckham.

Sir Alex Ferguson may have been right when he said that Becks was always likely to leave Real Madrid due to the lack of games he was playing. Then again, Fergie also said Becks wouldn't come back to England as Man United was his first love and he wouldn't play for anyone else here.

Wanna bet? Didn't they part company rather acrimoniously due to a lack of respect for each other? My my - what a short memory Fergie has...

Nope, as far as I can see David Beckham has sold his soul to Uncle Sam for one reason and one reason only: copious amounts of money. He might be trying to convince us all that he's doing his bit to take soccer in America to another level, but frankly it won't wash. He's out to line the pockets of him and his family so that they have a comfortable and affluent future.

And I sincerely wish him well in accomplishing that goal. It's just a shame he wasn't honest enough to admit that in the first place.

You Bet! Week 10

Well who'd have thunk it. We've finally reached the end of the road as Week 10 of 10 has arrived in our You Bet challenge.

We started all the way back in November 2006 with a paltry £10 to fritter away on bets which we hoped would reap further rewards to benefit our chosen charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital.

And reap we did. OK, so we didn't make an enormous fortune, but gambling is a veritable minefield when it comes to avoiding outright monetary loss. Fortunately, our consciencious selections and your thorough approach to voting for the right bet have virtually tripled our initial outlay.

But there's still one last week of betting left. Will the totaliser rise still further? People, it's all down to you.

We've come up with something slightly different for Week 10. All three options will win £5 for our charity should they come up trumps, and all three are 'first goalscorer' bets. The question is, which one will you vote for? Will it be:

Bet A
Blackburn v Arsenal: Thierry Henry to score first
Potential winnings: £5.00

Bet B
Chelsea v Wigan: Frank Lampard to score first
Potential winnings: £5.00

Bet C
Watford v Liverpool: Dirk Kuyt to score first
Potential winnings: £5.00

It could hardly be simpler. Just select the bet you favour most below, and press 'Vote'.

Well what are you waiting for?

Voting on this event has now closed.

Your votes must be in by start of play on Saturday 13th January 2007. For the last time, good luck!

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Trading Standard Officers have ordered the urgent recall of a defective product found to be faulty and dangerous.

Over the Christmas and New Year period, tests proved the components in the product called “Chelsea FC” would fall apart when placed under the smallest amount of pressure.

Consumers first experienced problems last year, when it was noted the product failed to work properly in Europe. Complaints were made about it malfunctioning and then emitting a continuous whining noise – usually in Portuguese.

At the time the complaints were ignored. But when the product started falling apart in Britain over Christmas, the Trading Standards Authority took action.

A spokesman warned: “We particularly want to stress to parents that, with Chelsea FC, there is a genuine risk of choking that may end in tears come May."

Despite assurances from the company behind the product that action was taken to correct the faulty parts, including abandoning the use of the highly unpredictable and sub-standard component "Robert Huth" malfunctions have continued. Consumers have been urged to check the small print carefully for the words "this product may contain traces of Shevchenko". If that is the case buyers of the product are urged to put it back in its box and return immediately. "Shevchenko" has been known to cause a severe allergic reaction in many consumers, causing them to shout involuntarily “You useless Ukrainian t**t and “For f*** sake bring back Carlton Cole."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Seconds out, round three...

The FA Cup bandwagon rolled into Round Three this weekend, and as ever, we had one or two upsets to get the eyebrows raising.

In years gone by, the third round of the FA Cup has seen many a big name fall by the wayside. We all know about Ronnie Radford and his goal that saw Hereford usurp Newcastle United in 1972. Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth disposed of Manchester United back in 1984 and Mickey Thomas made himself a household name when his free-kick flew past David Seaman to ensure Wrexham reached the fourth round in 1992 instead of Arsenal.

The list goes on, and this season's competition added another two results to it. Newcomers to the Premiership, Sheffield United, found themselves playing host to Swansea City, currently sixth in League One. No danger there, or so you'd think, but three second-half goals from the Welshmen meant Neil Warnock's side would be concentrating on the league from now on.

Perhaps a bigger shock than that was the win by Nottingham Forest over Charlton Athletic. Forest are currently three places above Swansea in League One, but they faced a Charlton side who are now something akin to Premiership veterans. Sadly for them, their form all season has seen them plummet to 19th in the top flight and new manager Alan Pardew had a host of injuries to key players like Darren Bent to deal with.

Forest, however, are enjoying a good run of form under the leadership of former Spurs defender Colin Calderwood and it was two first-half goals from Junior Agogo and Grant Holt that gave them a ticket for the next round at the expense of The Addicks.

Elsewhere, last year's winners, Liverpool, were soundly beaten 3-1 at home by Arsenal thanks to two goals by Tomas Rosicky and one by Thierry Henry who was making his comeback from a recent injury. Liverpool have the chance to get their revenge on the Gunners when they play them again this week in the Carling Cup semi-finals.

Manchester United eased past Aston Villa 2-1 with a first goal for loan signing Henrik Larsson and a last-minute winner by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Martin O'Neill's side still haven't won a match since November 11th 2006 and will now be looking to change their current run of form that's seen them slip to 13th position in the Premiership.

Finally, spare a thought for lowly Macclesfield. Having gone 1-0 down to Chelsea yesterday, they showed an intent not to be overawed by equalising through John Murphy on 40 minutes. Sadly for them, Chelsea were 2-1 up a minute later and a further four minutes later, their goalkeeper was sent off.

A deluge was on the cards and it duly came. Lampard scored a hat-trick, Macclesfield went down to nine men after an injury to Murphy once manager Paul Ince had already made three substitutions, and the home side finished the game 6-1 winners.

It just goes to show that the FA Cup can be a cruel competition as well as one that brings romance and glory, but at least it allows another chance for teams to make wrongs right next season. Hopefully Macclesfield will have their day then.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

You Bet! Week 9


Yes, it's a welcome return to You Bet and it's our penultimate week before the tally's totted up and the cheque's written out for Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Our Blue Peter-style totaliser is currently flashing away at £29.65 (because in our world you can have totalisers that show two decimal places) but we're hungry for more, so let's get back in the swing of things by looking at this week's betting options... and whaddya know - it's the Third Round of the FA Cup this weekend, so a nice bit of added edge for you there.

Bet A
Birmingham v Newcastle: Draw
Potential winnings: £3.20

Bet B
Tamworth v Norwich: Tamworth to win
Potential winnings: £7.00

Bet C
Liverpool v Arsenal: Half-time - Liverpool leading, Full-time - draw
Potential winnings: £15.00

...and of course the procedure has by now been well documented: simply vote for the bet you think we should put our £1 for this week, and the one that gets the most votes by start of play on Saturday will end up as our selection. If the bet comes up trumps, the winnings go back into the kitty to push our charity total up further still. Here's where you can make your selection...

Voting on this event has now closed.

Best of luck, and let's hope for more winnings!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Moving forward, looking back

Now where were we...? Ah yes - we were in 2006.

How did it all end, one has to wonder? Well let's remind ourselves of how things stand as we march ever onwards into 2007.

In the Premiership, Chelsea ended the 2005/06 season having won the title at a canter, but by the end of the year they were six points behind the leaders for 2006/07, Manchester United. Arsenal found themselves struggling to keep up with the pace, lagging behind Liverpool and Bolton in fifth whereas Portsmouth were exceeding expectations in sixth place on the same number of points as the Merseysiders.

Newly-promoted Reading also outpunched their weight by holding a top-half-of-the-table position, while at the other end, Sheffield United and Watford quickly became stuck in the early stages of a likely relegation dogfight to come in 2007. Joining them in the Premiership quicksand were West Ham and Charlton who exchanged managers but after the first couple of weeks the amount of positive effect its had on both teams has been minimal.

Falling rapidly in their direction are Wigan who, like West Ham, achieved great things in the league last season including an appearance in the Carling Cup Final, but that crucial second season after promotion could yet be their undoing.

In the Championship, Birmingham took their place having dropped out of the top flight but quickly became favourites to return as Steve Bruce steered his team into first place. Sunderland haven't been quite so convincing in plotting their return but the appointment of Roy Keane as coach has helped them slowly improve their plight. West Brom were the other relegated team and they, too, look to be in with a chance of making an immediate trip back to the Premiership in the summer of 2007.

They'll have to fight off the challenge of Preston and Derby, though, and with a surging run by Stoke and Colchester - yes, that's COLCHESTER - the Championship title run-in this season should be interesting and rather exciting.

Sadly the ony chance Southend had to achieve glory was in this season's Carling Cup, but with Tottenham showing them the door in the quarter finals, they now sit bottom of the table. But who's this just above them in 23rd place? It's Leeds United! Yes, the team who not so long ago were playing their football in Europe now appear to be staring League 1 full in the face, despite the arrival of Ken Bates as chairman and Dennis Wise as manager.

In the FA Cup, Burton Albion briefly stopped Man United's charge with a third round 0-0 draw before a 5-0 defeat ensued in the replay. Bolton knocked out Arsenal in the fourth round and in the quarter finals, Liverpool beat Birmingham 7-0. Liverpool were obviously keen to get their hands on the trophy and showed intent from as early as Round 3 when Xabi Alonso was scoring goals from his own half of the pitch against Luton. Manchester United were pushed aside in Round 5 and it seemed only Chelsea could stop them when they met in the semi finals.

In the end, Jose Mourinho's men were beaten 2-1 while in the other tie of the round, West Ham booked their place in the Final by beating Middlesbrough 1-0. As is now widely felt, the 2006 FA Cup Final was one of the best in recent history with both teams playing exciting, attacking football. In the end, the difference between the two sides could be summed up in two words - Steven Gerrard. His goals, including the emphatic long-range drive to win the match late on, lit up the Final, thus injecting some life into a competition that seemed to be lacking some spark in recent years.

Now before we draw a line under 2006, let's take a moment to remind ourselves of those Premiership predictions we made at the start of the season. Kedge, Smart and myself all laid our reputations on the line by trying to guess where each of the twenty teams would finish at the end of the 2006/07 season, as did FourFourTwo magazine.

Well, we punched all the predictions into the big SPAOTP computer - you know the sort: the ones with the spinning reels of tape and flashing lights like Benny Hill had in The Italian Job - and the results so far are quite literally 'interesting'.

Download the data in spreadsheet form here

At the end of August, Smart found himself lagging behind in fourth place but one month later, he was out in front leaving yours truly trailing behind in last. Kedge regained second spot by the end of October as Smart extended his lead, but it was all still pretty close between the four predictees.

When November drew to a close, there was a three-way tie for first place with Smart, Kedge and FourFourTwo magazine all 96 positions away from a faultless prediction. One month on and everyone had split up again with Martin regaining the outright lead and me goodself finally moving up from last place to third as 2007 was about to start.

All of which proves that it's a tricky business trying to predict the future (as 'You Bet' has been proving) but there's a long way to go yet before the season ends. That being the case, we'll return with another update to see how true-to-life our predictions are in a few months time, so watch this space...


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