Monday, June 02, 2008

United and the perfect season end - football, bloody hell!...

We start at the penultimate weekend of the Premier League season. The tension had been steadily building as we headed towards the last week of a keenly fought title race between United and Chelsea, in all probability it would be decided on the final weekend. It looked like it was going to be a case of TV heaven for Sky and the media in general, but one of the main reasons for choosing this weekend above any of the preceding ones is that I feel I have to highlight some of the comments on BBC 1's Final-Score programme.

United had just comfortably beaten West Ham 4-1, some would argue too comfortably, in an early kick-off and playing the entire second-half with only ten men. Later that day, Wigan beat Aston Villa away, in doing so, guaranteed their status as a Premier League team in what Steve Bruce later described as the best performance by any team under his management.

The expert analysis (sic) predominantly by Garth Crooks, but ably assisted by Martin Keown trotted out several ABU conspiracy theories. First they insinuated that now Wigan were safe and knowing that Fergie is good friends with Steve Bruce, Wigan may just "take their foot off the peddle". As if that wasn't bad enough they went on to say "Steve Bruce may introduce fringe players". It didn't end there with the former professional footballers' weighing-in with a host of other clich├ęs and, quite frankly, scurrilous and defamatory remarks aimed at creating friction between United, Wigan and the rest of the Premier league. Only Lee Dixon, an ex-Arsenal player and self-confessed Manchester City fanatic spoke any sense. Predictably, it wasn't long before the southern based media also latched on to this ridiculous
notion giving Chelsea some ammunition for a readymade excuse.

To anyone that saw Steve Bruce play, they will know that he was and still is the consummate professional. He may still be friends with Sir Alex, but to roll over and let his team die for his old boss - unthinkable and insulting in the extreme. Of course, this didn't stop the ABU press from continual references during the week.

It was a little disappointing that Ferguson should demean himself in response to this nonsense by pointing out that Bolton, Chelsea's final opponents, were in a similar position and some Bolton players had been seen celebrating, in some style, in the trendiest of bars in and around Manchester. To his credit Ferguson also noted that Bolton's assistant manager, Archie Knox is an old friend and colleague and will not tolerate any unprofessionalism within his ranks.

The following day, Chelsea travelled to the grim wastelands of the North East to face a rejuvenated Newcastle side. Some of us Reds (myself included) actually thought that there could be a Chelsea slip-up and Kevin Keegan might just do us a favour. After a close first-half, Chelsea came out and dominated the game - as with all Kevin Keegan teams, if plan A fails, revert to plan A - there's never a plan B. Tactically inept, Newcastle surrendered meekly and Chelsea deservedly won 2-0, setting up Sky's - "Super Sunday". Oh how the money men rubbed their hands in glee. Personally, I was near feeling sick at the thought of another nerve wracking last game of the season. With the tension bubbling nicely and aided by the media, Chelsea and Avram Grant tried to ramp-up the pressure on United and Wigan.

However, the following Sunday only served to show up just what complete and utter tosh Keown and Crookes had been spewing out the previous weekend. Wigan took the fight to United, as expected. Two first-half decisions went in the Reds favour and we cannot deny it. To be fair, on the Ferdinand handball escape, not one Wigan player appealed and even after a number of television replays, it looked as though the ball had hit his shoulder. Only when they enlarged the pixels did it become clear, we'd got away with it at 0-0. The second decision in our favour needed no replays, Scholesie did yet another Scholesie tackle and should have walked - end of story. The fact that he didn't led to another controversy when Titus Bramble clearly took Scholes's legs away in the area but no penalty was awarded - poetic justice? Perhaps!

We know the outcome, United won 2-0, Giggs coming on to score with around ten minutes to go to ease the nerves and start the celebrations. In truth, Wigan only troubled the Reds once in the second-half when Heskey headed just over the bar. Andy Gray claimed that the only reason he failed to score was because he headed it with the wrong side of his head - which now begs the question, "is Heskey right headed or left headed"? Andy, you were a great player but you don't half talk some sh**e. Gray had also suggested that when Giggs collected the ball that he might have been in an offside position - but the TV replays clearly showed the Welshman was a good three yards onside. Is Andy Gray going blind as well as bald?

Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea conceded a late, late equaliser to ensure, not only did United become undisputed Champions by two clear points but any pre-written, pre-recorded media contrived excuses from the Chelsea camp were quickly discarded as humble pie was served cold around the country, and in particular in West London - the conspiracy theories were last seen floating along the sluice-line of football excuses close to our very own "grey shirt" fiasco of '96.

As for Keown, Crookes and a host of Gin soaked hacks, Steve Bruce, Wigan Athletic and Manchester United are awaiting some form of apology. I suppose they'll use some circumlocution to wrangle out of it and hope that the public's memory is as short as their own - there's a fan here that isn't so forgiving.

So, Champions again, the sun was shining in Manchester as opposed to the Wigan monsoon. We returned home and the real celebrations began in earnest - the fact that Manchester City had contrived to lose 8-1 to a Middlesbrough team that had failed to score more than two goals in any game this season, just added to the overall merriment.

Moving swiftly on to the following Wednesday - another day of significance but for different reasons. I went to Old Trafford to pick up my Champions League Final Ticket. I also went into the Megastore to buy a DVD of "last season's triumphant team" (I can highly recommend this). I was met with a wall of Glasgow Rangers fans', in and out of the store. They'd obviously come to Old Trafford because:- A) to compensate for their pathetic support in the Champions League group stages of a few years back when we were told to expect 15,000 ticketless fans to descend on Manchester - we're still waiting and B) they were on some sort of pilgrimage to see a real football stadium, with history and glory. Actually, they were quite pleasant and I enjoyed talking to some of them. There also a couple of dozen Russian fans
in the store buying souvenirs to take back to St Petersburg.

The downside of our city hosting a European final was, of course, the incredible numbers of Rangers supporters, from all corners of the globe arriving with absolutely no chance of a sniff of a ticket. Word has it that some Man City fans got rich that day. Estimates claim there were 200,000 Rangers in and around the city. Another gross estimation? Whatever, there were a hell of a lot of them. As with anything football related, the small minority destroys any goodwill shown by the vast majority. United, probably more than any other team, have suffered from this in the past, both at home and abroad.

When a large TV screen broke down at the Piccadilly Gardens Fan Zone, a group of 15 -250 Rangers fans went on the rampage causing untold damage and trouble along Market, Oldham, Cross and Newton streets. How that copper isn't in intensive care or even worse, is more out of luck than judgement - the close circuit images are as horrific as any I've seen... Quite simply, the Rangers' fans' involved were a disgrace to their club, their city and their team. The fact that they were angry (understatement of the year) because of the screen shutdown cuts no ice either - Manchester City Council immediately provided a free bus service to the Velodrome - there was an estimated 20,000 fans that took advantage of this but it was too late, the damage had been done.

The following day, the aftermath and the Council, never backward in cancelling something that may cost money, announced that any civic reception for the Reds', should they become triumphant in Moscow, will not now take place. I wonder if the same Council will also cancel this year's annual, money motivated and hugely profitable, "Gay Carnival" due to the same reasons? The Town Hall Gaylords will no doubt ensure that the show goes ahead...

The subsequent interviews with Rangers fans were a mixed response, some were understandably shocked and shamed whilst others blamed Manchester - "not big enough to host a football game of such magnitude". This, a city that has held a European Champions League final, European Championships, World Cup qualifiers and a host of other international matches, the Commonwealth games, numerous football matches of gargantuan importance, test Cricket and untold Championship World boxing bouts - try again. How about this old chestnut? -"The riot police over-reacted". Oh yeh! Try behaving like that in Paris or Rome (or even Istanbul) and then complain about the GMP.

The Rangers fans' that missed the game are the lucky ones. They put on a show so abject in imagination and style it was, at times embarrassing. The Russians were far superior in every department and fully deserved to win. It also has to be pointed out that, despite the Council House being packed with the Rangers blue, there were large parts of the game when the 9,000 Zenit fans out chanted the 'Gers.

Rangers then went on to lose the Scottish league to Celtic in almost Devon Lockesque fashion. An unassailable lead, with games in hand just a few weeks ago, was whittled away by Gordon Strachan's men. I've got no affinity with Celtic whatsoever but I couldn't help developing a wry smile when I heard the results.

Footnote to this fiasco. UEFA, God bless 'em, say that they cannot comment or act on the actions of Rangers supporters. They will however, have an enquiry as to how a dozen or so Zenit supporters "invaded" the pitch at the end of the game. Ostrich like mentality from the suits at UEFA again.

Can you remember the day when the Saturday of the FA Cup final was eagerly awaited by the Nation? Perhaps it was because it was the only live game, with the exception of a few internationals. Nowadays, unless you've got a vested interest in one of the teams, it's just another game, and, I may add, due to the semi-finals also being held at Wembley, slightly devalued.

This seasons FA cup final came and went without me giving it much thought or attention despite the BBC attempting to "over-hype" the occasion to which they failed completely. It would have been nice - STOP. There you have it? I've just used the worst adjective known to man - nice. Nice is a word you use when you don't care about the outcome. If I ever told my Missus she looked "nice" I'd be in line for one hell of a bollocking. I was going to say it would have been nice (oops) for Cardiff to beat Portsmouth but the only reason I was hoping for this was that I couldn't bear the thought of that smug, 'Cockney-wide-boy', Redknapp becoming a kind of "cause celebre" even in his 15 minutes of fame.

In the end the actual game was so low profile it barely warranted more than
a few minutes air-time on the Saturday nights Television news programmes.
As for Old Harry basking in glory? One could witness this if desired as it was
continually shown on Sky Sports news the following day. That, is of course,
if you're some kind of masochist. It was possible to avoid his cockney
smugness - I succeeded admirably

I'm not going to comment on my trip to Moscow and the final, that's for
another day and Blog. Needless to say, it's going to be a big one.

Just when you thought football couldn't possibly get any better - Joey
Barton gets six months. I mean, you couldn't make it up, could you? The
last we heard was that Michael Shields had become his pad mate bitch and
they listened to the Champions League Final, huddled together after lights
out, in tears. It's bulls**t, of course - but a great image for all
discerning Reds'.

The play-offs also provided some more Red merriment. Firstly, Hull got promoted to the Premier League with victory over Bristol City. Fraizer Campbell, on-loan from United looks an extremely good prospect and has done all season. He scored a scorcher in a pre-season game for United at Glentoran. My selfish reason for the Hull triumph however, is not the oft quoted statistic that Hull is the largest city in Europe never to have had a team in the top flight, it's because I'm, and I'll admit it, a bit of an anorak when it comes to new grounds. Been to the old Boothferry Park and Ashton Gate when we were languishing in the old Second Division and the KC Stadium is another one to "tick off the list". Never been to Stoke City's Britannia Stadium either, so two ticks next season. Dear God, I've just realised how sad that sounds.

As for the 'Fallen Giants', our old friends from over the hill, Leeds. They were stitched up from the word go. All other teams falling into administration have been deducted 10 points, then why oh why were they deducted 15? Surely during the appeal they lodged towards the end of the season should have seen reason and the FA could and should have given them, at least 5 points back ensuring automatic promotion in second place? STOP AGAIN. This game was not about the failure of Leeds, it's a success story about one of the most remarkable turnarounds in English football. A little over ten years ago, Doncaster Rovers were in danger of going out of business altogether. They dropped out of the football league and had a chairman so dodgy he got put down for arson, when he set fire to the main stand in an insurance scam. I don't profess to know the situation of just how the club turned itself around but, I'm pretty certain that it was with the help of the local council - perhaps this is a blueprint for other smaller teams. Congratulations, Doncaster.

As for Leeds? I shed no tears for them - would any Red? The attitude of Ken Bates when the appeal failed was nothing short of disgraceful and immature. Mr Bates has to be the most loathsome man in football, he and Leeds deserve each other - a marriage made in heaven (or is it hell?). I've despised Leeds ever since I saw them, hack, argue, harangue the referee, time waste and use their general obnoxiousness to the utmost effect in a Semi Final Second Replay against us at Bolton in 1970 (incidentally, the last time we lost an FA Cup Semi Final). After winning 1-0, the hideous, late Billy Bremner (he was always late), scoring after five or so minutes. The papers the following morning hailed Leeds as the super professionals. I've never forgiven them and never will. Unfortunately, I don't think they languish in, c'mon, let's give its true title, the THIRD DIVISION for long - even City managed to escape after one season.

And finally... The last play-off - the first Manchester Derby at Wembley. North versus South, Rochdale v Stockport. Rochdale famous for Gracie Fields, pie and peas and that the town's football team hold the record for the longest consecutive stay in the bottom division (34 years and counting, I think).

The more local Stockport had a brief flirtation in the upper leagues and with some of the big boys a few years ago but massive under investment, asset stripping and Brian Kennedy's love for anything connected with Sale Sharks soon saw County return from whence they came, so much so that only two years ago, they needed a result from the last game of the season to stay in the football league. In the early '90s Stockport actually reached Wembley, in one guise or another, four times in three seasons and narrowly lost all four games.

By all accounts both teams were a credit and produced the best and exciting of all the play-off finals. Stockport were ultimately victorious winning by the odd goal in five, so justice was done, they were the only team to beat all the top three of the division at their own grounds and finished fourth doing the league double of Rochdale in the process. In addition to this, I really love Stockport fans - the ones I have met are humorous in the extreme (I suppose you have to be) and claim to have more original songs than any other team in the country (or is it the world?) either way, I don't dispute it.

So a perfect end to a perfect season. Need to recharge my batteries and my bank balance in preparation for next season's inevitable season-ticket price-hike.

Hope football fans of any persuasion (with the exception of Leeds) enjoyed my little rant. I always like to hear, and even value some, of the opinions of true match going fans. Keep the comments coming.

Until next season, "Football, Bloody Hell"

Petebug 2008

2 comments:

  1. Long post. So had time to buffer and see the ad video on top. Awesome :P

    ReplyDelete
  2. excellent blog, you've obviously got too much time on your hands. You've also reminded me, how much od an anorak I've become. Like the sentiment about the 1st division play off final - all the media were harping on about Leeds, you're right, it was a success story for the small club. Well done Donny Rovers. Once again, great blog.

    ReplyDelete

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