April 2002

All fight on the night

On-field violence at the Old Firm game. Songs they can sing in the Nationwide. The Book of English World Cup excuses.


Specs Appeal?

Martin O’Neill has done a magnificent job in his two seasons with Celtic. He looks down on all challengers from the peak of the SPL, master of all he surveys. But like a warlord of old, he is constantly seeking new battles to fight. And in the absence of credible opposition from within the ranks of Scottish football clubs, he has trained his guns on a new enemy – the SFA, and in particular, its referees.

Hopefully, like many a military warrior before him, O’Neill will find this a battle too far. If he pursues his pending appeal against the dismissals of Johan Mjallby and John Hartson in the latest Old Firm encounter he risks losing his hard-won reputation for fair play.

What happened at the end of the Celtic-Rangers game was nasty and brutish with players wading in on each other. It was also mercifully short. Had referee Kenny Clark not sent off the offending pair, along with Rangers’ Fernando Ricksen, he risked further trouble, both on the pitch and in the stands.
If this sort of trouble can emerge at the end of what was a meaningless league encounter, think what might have happened in a game of greater substance – the coming Cup Final for instance.

Clark’s swift action has ensured that the players will go into that game, knowing the penalty for physically attacking another player will be prompt dismissal. It may help to concentrate minds.

Ex-players turned commentators Mark Hateley, Andy Walker and Charlie Nicholas all thought it was “handbags.” When will these guys stop their knee-jerk defence of the indefensible? If you believe this trio, no player is ever guilty of a bad tackle or a serious foul. At least not in the domestic game – opponents in European games are always dirty cheating continentals. Funny how they all clean up their act once signed by the Dirty Duo.

For O’Neill to suggest his players were blameless is laughable. His defence of John Hartson as a peacemaker would bring tears of laughter to a glass eye. Hartson a peacemaker? Aye, and Big Arnie’s next movie is Conan The Humanitarian.

Celtic have already demonstrated amazing chutzpah, as the Americans would say, or bare-faced cheek to give it its true name, by appealing against Bobo Balde’s sending-off against Hibs in order to free the defender for important matches.
We said then and say again now, that there is only one way to deal with this contemptuous manipulation of the rules. That is to increase the offenders’ suspensions and make them run from the start of next season. That way, O’Neill will think again.

Should the unthinkable happen, and the appeals are allowed, then referees might as well give up on Old Firm games and let the managers take over.

Rangers are not blameless here either. It was Ricksen’s assault on Mjallby that kicked everything off. At least they have had the sense to say no more about it. Alex McLeish, in his post-match interview made no attempt to defend the Dutchman who has a penchant for dismissals in big games.

The Ibrox whingeing has come from their support, annoyed that Clark didn’t play the additional four minutes signalled by the fourth official. They reckon that with ten against nine, they might have won the game.

They may be right. But Clark’s decision, while technically wrong, was the common sense one. At 1-1 and tempers boiling, he did the right thing in blowing the whistle when he did. No League positions would have been affected by playing another four minutes. But there may well have been further trouble on and off field. For once, the referee was right.

Just a pity then that Clark’s appearance on ‘Inside Scottish Football’ a few days later confirmed the long-held suspicions of every fan in the country. Who told the whistler that it would be a good idea to go on TV sporting a Specsavers sweatshirt?

New Songs, Old Frauds

If Celtic and Rangers are determined to join the ranks of the Nationwide League, then they’re going to need some new songs to sing. In a spirit of fairness I’m prepared to give them some ideas. Feeling generous, I’ll even let them keep their old tunes.

For Celtic: Tune: This Land

"This land's not Ireland
This land is England
From the Scilly Is-les
Up to Car-li-sle
From the river Mersey
To the Humber Fe-e-rry
This land belongs to Sellic FC"

Tune: We shall not be moved

"We’re on our way to Grimsby
We are going to move
We’re on our way to Grimsby
We are going to move
We’re going to Crewe,
To Watford and to Gill –ing-ham
We are going to move"

For Rangers: Tune: Wand’rin Star

"I was born under a Saint George cross
I was born under a Saint George cross
Where the hell is Walsall?
That’s where we’re going to play
Then we’re off to Millwall
On the following Saturday"

Tune: The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne.

"On the brown muddy slopes of the Thames
The Rangers play in the greatest of gemmes
We’ll get gubbed
By both Brentford and Reading
On the brown muddy slopes of the Thames."

His Left Foot

When David Beckham lashed out at Diego Simeone in France in 1998, he saw more World Cup finals action with that single kick than Man Utd legends Eric Cantona, George Best and Ryan Giggs did throughout their entire careers. So why all the fuss over his foot? Could it be that Beckham possesses one quality denied the aforementioned superstar trio? That he is English?

What other explanation can there be for the hourly bulletins, the headlining news stories, the pictures of THE foot on the front pages of the newspapers.?

The hysterical reaction of the media to Beckham’s unfortunate injury has been, like Aldo Busch’s tackle, way over the top. Suggestions that the Argentinian player deliberately attacked Beckham during Man Utd’s Champions League tie against Deportivo La Coruna has led to calls for retaliation. Steve McManaman has been provided with a handy list of Argentinians playing in Spain to be dealt with (though the thought of McManaman taking on the role of a latter-day Nobby Stiles is too ludicrous for words)

Juan Sebastian Veron had better watch out too. Man Utd’s Argentinian will be a target for every English thug (whether on the pitch or not) from now until the end of the season.

Now Beckham’s injury is a matter for genuine concern. Not least for his team. Already deprived of Roy Keane, United must attempt to retain their title and conquer Europe without their two most influential players. Incidentally, the Republic Of Ireland have managed to face up to the loss of Keane with equanimity. England could have done with following their example. Other countries will miss key players too. Yet nowhere is an injury regarded as a national disaster the way it is in England.

As far as this writer is concerned, Beckham is a class act and deserves to play on the biggest stage in the game. Yet, whether he makes it this time or not, he is young enough to play in Germany in 2006 (should England qualify) and already has the experience of 1998 behind him. Then he was the villain of the piece who cost his country the World Cup. Now he is the Saviour, without whom all is lost.

The English make a habit of excuses at World Cup time. To most of the sporting media, winning the World Cup is England’s destiny. They can only be cheated out of it. They never fail simply because they are not good enough.

In 1970 it was their own arrogance that defeated them. Alf Ramsey made substitutions when 2-0 up against the Germans, resting players for the semi-final. The Germans beat them 3-2. But this conveniently overlooks the fact that Brazil had already beaten England in the group stages. The Brazil team of 1970 is commonly regarded as the best the world has ever seen. But English folklore suggests that but for a couple of substitutions, that glory would have belonged to the sons of St George.

Of course in 1974, 1978 and 1994 they didn’t qualify. That was blamed on the managers, not the players. Ramsey, Don Revie and Graham Taylor took the rap. One forced out of the game while still in his early fifties. Another exiled to Saudi Arabia. And the third, to be forever lampooned as a vegetable. As the current boss is already a Swede, it will be interesting to see what fate will eventually befall him should he fail to bring the trophy back from Asia.

In 1982 the English belief was that had the injured Brooking and Keegan been able to play for more than 20 minutes in the last match, glory would have been theirs. This conveniently forgets that the same two players were leading lights in the failed class of ’78 and that England scraped into the Finals in Spain only after humiliation in Switzerland and Norway.

1986 of course was the year when only the cheating arm of Diego Armando Maradona deprived the World Cup of being won by the most deserving nation on the planet. Maradona’s magical second goal when he skipped through the entire English defence is never mentioned.

In 1990 it was only penalties that deprived them of a place in the Final where they would have gained revenge against the Argies. No mention of the last minute extra time free kick needed to overcome Belgium or the two penalties that were converted to eliminate Cameroon. Luck, you see, is never on the side of the English.

And this from a country that owes its solitary success in the World Cup to a goal that never was in a tournament where all their games were played on the one ground in arrogant defiance of FIFA rules

That brings us to 1998 and Beckham. The first time a player has been blamed for failure, though the hapless Hoddle was dismissed as coach soon afterwards. Hoddle could have made all the insensitive, abusive remarks about disability he wanted if he had won the World Cup. His idiocy became a convenient smokescreen for his removal.

Now to 2002. I sincerely hope that Beckham recovers and plays in the tournament. His talents deserve it. I hope too that he is mindful of those who have also distinguished themselves at Old Trafford who have been less fortunate. Yes, it would be a shame to be deprived of Beckham, just as it is a shame to be deprived once again of Giggs. And it was a shame never to see Best or Cantona in action in the finals. And a pity that after sixteen years as an internationalist, that all Denis Law ever managed was 90 minutes for Scotland against Zaire.

Perhaps most important of all, an England deprived of Beckham will have a ready-made excuse for failure. ‘If only Beckham’ could become as irritating and repeated a phrase as ‘They think it’s all over.’ No, when England go out, they must have Beckham in their team. Please God, no more excuses. In the unlikely event of them winning it, you may consider leaving the country. Try the UK passport office here.




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