Saturday, December 31, 2005

Of all the ways in which Alex Ferguson is descending into hubristic madness, surely the most hilarious is his conspiracy theorising. To be fair, you can see where this comes from: when he claims that everybody hates Manchester United, he is not wrong. It’s also clearly true that every other club takes special delight in beating his team, because they’ve been the dominant team in the Premiership since its inception and are therefore a big scalp. However, to suggest that another club would deliberately sabotage their own stadium in order to gain a slight advantage over United in the next match, as Ferguson has done this week, suggests that he has come to see the world entirely in terms of United and not-United.

Ferguson’s claim is that Bolton’s calling-off of their midweek fixture against Middlesborough, citing a failure of their undersoil heating, is suspect. He suggests that it was a deliberate gambit to give Bolton a better chance of beating Manchester United today. Much as Sam Allardyce was complaining about Christmas fixture congestion, that Middlesborough game has to be played sometime and, as he pointed out yesterday, in the coming months they will have their hands full with UEFA Cup games and Middlesborough are not currently in the best form. But Ferguson doesn’t see the disadvantages Bolton have caused themselves by delaying this game, he only sees the disadvantages caused to Manchester United.

This is fundamentally disrespectful. Just because Bolton have no chance of winning the league doesn’t mean that they are just here to give the big boys somebody to play against. They still have Champions League aspirations and they want every point they can get, whoever it’s against. A win against Manchester United is a big deal, not least for neighbours Bolton, but it gets you three points just like it does in any other game. There aren’t extra special points awarded to ‘hard-working teams who play with a lot of heart’ (copyright every football pundit ever) for making a mockery of silky-skilled milquetoasts (although you can argue that there should be). It’s not worth risking wins in other games just to have the satisfaction of beating a big club.

It’s very dull to hear managers complaining about fixture congestion anyway. They’ve been doing it for years, but whenever it’s suggested that the fixture list is cut back, the club chairmen complain because fewer fixtures mean less gate money – especially over Christmas, when everybody wants to take advantage of supporters having more time off to attend matches. But no manager is going to turn on their chairman, so who gets the stick instead? This year, Sven. The poor fella. He deserves to take England to a World Cup win, just for all the flack he’s taken for trying to make the team halfway competitive.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Sweden. I am not a pessimist by nature: for example, I still believe Villa will finish in the top half this season. (We are, after all, officially better than Arsenal at the moment – we’ve played away matches against the same two teams as them on the last two Saturdays and come away with draws whilst Arsenal have lost. This doesn’t count for anything, but it should.) But somehow, supporting England brings out the pessimist in me.

It was with a heavy heart that I scanned the covers of the tabloids on Saturday morning and witnessed the headlines braying ‘NATIONAL JUBILATION AS ENGLAND HANDED PISS-EASY DRAW’ et cetera. (Interestingly, the Sun. Mirror and Star used images of England’s footballers to illustrate this point, whilst the Times and Telegraph went for a less immediately relevant shot of Heidi Klum in that oddly shapeless blue dress, holding the FIFA trophy.) I tend to follow the lead of managers and players on such matters: you’ll never hear Sven saying ‘Thank Christ we’ve drawn a right bunch of no-marks instead of Holland or somebody decent’ and you won’t hear me say it either.

Yes, I’m pleased we didn’t get Holland, or the Czechs, or Portugal, or the USA, and I’m delighted we didn’t get Australia because if they’d beaten England we’d never have heard the end of it. We’ve also done well to avoid all five African teams, as I think one of them will have a decent run but I have no idea which one (random guess: Ghana). But when I see supposedly ‘lesser’ teams lined up I tend to see potential humiliation, not an easy passage – especially given England’s remarkable consistency in starting World Cups awkwardly (1-1 vs Ireland, 1990; 1-0 vs Tunisia, 1998; 1-1 vs Sweden, 2002).

And if we’re not careful we could be up against the hosts in the second round, which NOBODY wants, and if we get through we’ll definitely play a Group C team in the quarter-final, which means Argentina or Holland or a team which has overcome massive odds to beat Argentina or Holland. Personally I think either Argentina or Holland will win the trophy. But then, if England meet Argentina, it’s a team we’ve beaten at our last two meetings, and contrary to everything I’ve just said, I do think that England are capable of winning seven matches at the World Cup. If everybody’s fit, and not too tired, and we get the formation working.

I always look forward to the World Cup anyway, I love the World Cup, it’s one of the highlights of my existence. I get slightly frustrated that the final round of group matches take place simultaneously, even though there are excellent reasons why this happens, because it makes it impossible to watch every single match of the tournament live. But I’m particularly looking forward to this one because any one of up to ten teams has a realistic chance of winning it. France and Brazil are still very good but arguably in decline. Argentina are probably better than they’ve been since 1986, but as demonstrated against England, they don’t always kill off games. Germany are rebuilding and will get a boost from being hosts – then there’s Holland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Czechs…

It’s a relatively level playing field, with a lot of unknown elements mixed in (such as, er, Trinidad and Tobago). In fact, I wish I had my wallchart already.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A few seasons ago – and I mean football seasons, I haven’t just started talking like a character in a bad fantasy novel – Coventry City were relegated from the Premiership after failing to pull off their customary Houdini act. (This parallel is perhaps unfair to Houdini, as teams who escape relegation always condemn another to the same fate, and Houdini tended not to escape from boxes by locking somebody else in and running away.) There were many teary eyes in the football world that a team which had managed to stay in the top-flight for decades was dropping out. I had a degree of sympathy, but ultimately I was quite glad.

This was because Coventry were Aston Villa’s bogey team, the side we were generally better than on paper but never seemed able to beat. I’m convinced that this hoodoo was programmed into the 1997/8 edition of Championship Manager, as my Villa side on that game could never beat Coventry either, and when I got sacked and ended up managing Coventry, Villa were practically the only team I could beat.

Why do I mention this, several years after it was relevant to anybody? I’ve just realised that, finally, Villa are somebody else’s bogey team. We are Newcastle United’s bogey team. This weekend’s 1-1 draw marked the sixth time in a row that Newcastle have failed to beat Villa, including a draw at St James’ in 2003 at a time when Villa were losing home games to the likes of Middlesborough. So, er, much like this season then. Having said this, Villa will probably get thumped 5-0 by Newcastle in the return game, but this is probably all the more reason to celebrate being a bigger club’s bogey team for once.

It helps, of course, that Newcastle are frequently better on paper than on the pitch these days, not just against Villa but against many teams. The analysis on Match of the Day was almost entirely devoted to Newcastle’s defensive shortcomings, whilst Villa merited just this exchange at the end of the discussion:

LINEKER: And Villa played well.

which I am happy to accept, given the terms in which some of our more abject performances this year have been described.