Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Newcastle do themselves no favours in asking Fergie for hand-outs

Manchester United travel to Hull City for their final Premier League fixture on Sunday, with Sir Alex Ferguson almost certain to field a less than full-strength XI, with next Wednesday's Champions League final in mind. United face Barcelona in Rome and Ferguson will be keen to ensure his best players are injury-free and fresh as they seek to become the first side to retain the trophy since taking on its current format in 1992. Sufficient reason, then, for Ferguson to keep his powder dry at the KC Stadium? Alan Shearer thinks not.

Shearer's Newcastle side sit one point below Hull going into Sunday's matches, with both sides desperate for the win that could secure their top-flight status. And the former Toon striker believes that Hull may be given an easy ride if they line up against United's so-called second string. Surely, though, United and Ferguson should only be concerned with their own interests? After all, football is not a charity, and Newcastle find themselves in their current predicament not because of other managers' team selections but because of their own ineptitudes on and off the field, both this season and in years gone by. Had they earned even a point against Fulham at St James' Park, their destiny would now be in their own hands. As for Shearer's argument that Ferguson has a duty to be 'fair to the league' and 'do football justice', it sounds like the temporary manager is merely preparing his excuses for failure. A manager is accountable to no-one other than his own club when it comes to picking his team - whether that be Arsene Wenger blooding youngsters in the Carling Cup, Martin O'Neill deciding to drop the Uefa Cup down his list of priorities, or Ferguson himself resting first-teamers against relegation-threatened West Ham in 2007. On that occasion, Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock bleated "it's not fair", and Shearer is already pre-empting a similar outcome for Sunday.

If Newcastle United find themselves playing in the Coca-Cola Championship in 2009/10, they will have no-one to blame but the players and managers who have led them into this mess. Which is quite a list.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Millwall party but a stupid few remain

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a coin for a cigarette.

Last night at Elland Road, Millwall made the headlines for all the right reasons. It was a shame, then, that only a thousand Lions fans were in attendance as their side reached a Wembley final for the first time since the 1999 Auto Windscreens Shield. The story was the same at the New Den, with only 1,000 tickets issued to Leeds United fans. The reason - reputation and the idiotic acts of a tiny minority.

There is sensible policing and there are extreme measures - the travelling support from Yorkshire were barricaded by police horses at the final whistle of the first leg, while Millwall fans had to exchange vouchers for match tickets at a motorway service station on their way up to Leeds for the return fixture. This is not the way football should be - but should these teams meet again next season, the tactics will remain. Following Neil Harris' goal at the New Den, a handful of fans spilt onto the pitch in celebration - not an issue in itself - but one felt the need to flick a lit cigarette at Casper Ankergren, Leeds' Danish goalkeeper. Ankergren's opposite number, David Forde, was struck by a 20p piece thrown by a Leeds fan, shortly after saving Jermaine Beckford's penalty at Elland Road. The blow itself did not harm Forde, but the damage done to the reputation of both clubs will only serve to affirm the opinion of both the Metropolitan and West Yorkshire Police that this fixture has a potential for trouble. The fantastic support of 50,000 over the two matches will be forgotten by the time Leeds United v Millwall comes round again. Congratulations to the two idiots - you win.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Royal family down by four thousand

As Steven Thompson's shot looped over the head of goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann to seal Burnley's victory and with it a trip to Wembley, the Reading players sank to their knees, a beaten side. But their supporters had given up long before that. As the match kicked off, to a backdrop of blue plastic bucket-seats, Sky commentators Bill Leslie and Garry Birtles remarked that the Royal county of Berkshire was a relatively genteel backwater of English football - and never was a truer word spoken. For this was no ordinary game, but the second leg of a Championship play-off semi-final which hung in the balance following Graham Alexander's penalty at Turf Moor three days earlier. And clearly Berkshire's residents had better things to do than cheer their side on to one final fixture at the home of football.

Things, after all, were so different just 12 months ago when an average of 23,532 watched the Royals battle unsuccessfully to stay in the Premier League. Are football fans really so fickle, I wondered. Are there really so few loyal Reading fans that the Madejski Stadium should not be sold out for a game of this magnitude? For only 19,909 were there to see what turned out to be Steve Coppell's last match as Reading manager, and 2,000 of those had made the 440-mile round trip from Lancashire. I appreciate that football isn't cheap. I also appreciate that Reading - as Leslie and Birtles continually reminded us - last won a home game on January 27 and have scored just three times in the interim. However, would it have been such a struggle to find the funding for a Wembley ticket? Do fans of all clubs not constantly refer to the play-offs as a lottery, and as such, a place where the form book is shredded?

Those from the North West started singing before the game kicked off, and were louder throughout - it clearly rubbed off on the eleven in claret and blue, and the right team, surely, will face Sheffield United on May 25. As for the Reading fans who stayed away, I'm sure they'll feel their apathy has been vindicated. Because, clearly, that's how football works.