Friday, 28 February 2014

Sunderland v Man City - Black Cats as Underdogs is No Bad Thing

This weekend, the first bit of domestic silverware will be decided as Sunderland take on Manchester City in the League Cup final. City will of course be hot favourites but as outsiders, Sunderland will have no reason to believe the game is a foregone conclusion. Even leaving aside the fact they already have a decent recent record over their opponents, the Black Cats (and City for that matter) will be well away that finals don't always go the way they are expected.

Sunderland 1973

Indeed, It seems fitting to start with Sunderland. The Wearsiders had already pulled off a shock in the semi-final having overcome Arsenal 2-1 at Hillsborough thanks to goals from Vic Halom and Billy Hughes but few would have given them any chance of repeating the trick at Wembley. The Leeds United side of the time were one of the strongest in the country and, indeed, holders of the cup going into the final. Don Revie's charges were expected to win at a canter and certainly didn’t expect a team languishing in the division below to cause much of a problem on their way to retaining the trophy.

But Bob Stokoe’s inspired Mackems weren’t about to lay down and simply allow the Whites a procession, especially given the supposed feud between the two managers. Stokoe was to later allege that his opposite number had once tried to bribe him to lose a match while he (Stokoe) was in charge at Bury. Although the allegation was never proven, if it were true, what greater motivation could there have been for the Sunderland manager?

On the day, an Ian Porterfield half volley and a jaw-dropping double save from Jimmy Montgomery saw the Black Cats run out 1-0 winners and write their names in English football folklore. This remains Sunderland’s only major post-war honour. For now...

Southampton 1976

Possibly inspired by Sunderland’s heroics, Lawrie McMenamy’s second division Southampton side travelled to Wembley to take on Manchester United following their return to the top flight. The Reds stormed back from their shock relegation two years earlier by finishing third in First Division and of course reaching the cup final. However, in matter of weeks, Tommy Docherty went from potentially winning a historic double to ending the campaign empty handed. Having missed out on the title by a mere four points, United were then stunned by the Saints. Bobby Stokes’ late first-time snap-shot from the edge of the penalty area beat a scrambling Alex Stepney and meant that the team from the south coast were able to go home with more than just sight-seeing photos from their ‘big day out’.

Coventry 1987

Of course, upsets also occur when two teams from the same division are involved. Despite playing at the same level, finals can still throw up quite clear mismatches where one team will go in as overwhelming favourites but yet still come a cropper as their unfancied opponents still somehow prevail. In fact, this has happened on three occasions over the course of just two years.

In 1987, Tottenham, spearheaded by the free-scoring Clive Allen, were serious contenders on all three domestic fronts. However, despite a third-place league finish in the league – their best since 1971 – they were unable to prevent a rampant Everton from winning the title. In the League Cup, Spurs suffered late heart-break as they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by rivals Arsenal so were desperate to make amends at Wembley against a Coventry team who meandered to a midtable finish. Having won their previous seven, Tottenham were embarking on their eighth FA Cup Final while Coventry were about to make their first (and to date, only) appearance on the big stage.

Things were very much going to the script when Clive Allen headed home his 49th(!) goal of the season to give Spurs the lead. Undaunted, Coventry equalised through Dave Bennett a few minutes later. A scrappy Gary Mubbutt goal before half time restored Spurs’ lead but Keith Houchen’s famous flying header levelled the scores again with less than half an hour to play. The contrasting fortunes of the two clubs were certainly not evident that sunny May day as the teams couldn’t be separated after 90 minutes. In extra time however, Mabbutt was unfortunate enough to deflect a low cross high into the air. In almost slow motion, the ball looped over the head of a confused Ray Clemence to give Coventry the lead for the first time in the game. A lead they were able to hold onto as they went on to lift the trophy for the first time.

Luton 1988

The following year Wembley saw not one, but two major shocks in the domestic finals. The first came in the League Cup as holders Arsenal, on an upward trajectory after some barren years in the early eighties, set about trying to retain their trophy. George Graham’s Gunners were to be crowned champions of England in two of the next three seasons but Luton Town provided a gentle reminder that they weren’t about to have everything go their way.

Brian Stein’s opener gave the underdogs some early hope and Luton were able to hang on for most of the match. That was until two quick-fire goals from Martin Hayes and Alan Smith put Arsenal in front. Nigel Winterburn then had the chance to seal the victory from the penalty spot with just 10 minutes left on the clock but was denied by Hatters’ keeper Andy Dibble. Some hapless Arsenal defending (more on this later) led to Danny Wilson scrambling home an equaliser. The remarkable comeback was completed in the 90th minute as Stein scored his second to leave Arsenal, like their North London neighbours a year before, scratching their heads having been on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline.

The Hatters, under the guidance of the late Ray Hardford, were on something of a mission in the competition that year. Luton had been excluded from the previous year’s tournament after taking the radical decision to ban away fans from Kenilworth Road following the infamous riot involving Millwall fans two years prior. The Bedforshire club’s eventual success almost seemed like their destiny.

Wimbledon 1988

Despite all that drama, Luton’s win was put in the shade just three weeks later. By the time the 1988 FA Cup final came around, Wimbledon FC had been been playing league football for just over a decade and were about to complete only their second season in England’s top division. In that same short period, Liverpool had won eight league titles, one FA Cup, four league cups, and three European Cups. The Merseysiders were on course for their second League and Cup double in just three years so the South Londoners were really supposed to be no threat whatsoever to English football’s dominant force.

However, in similar vein to Luton, the Dons denied their more illustrious opponents thanks mainly to a huge penalty save. Lawrie Sanchez may have scored the winning goal, but when Dave Beasant saved John Aldridge’s 60th minute spot-kick, he not only became the first keeper in FA Cup final history to do so but also preserved the all too precious 1-0 scoreline. Bobby Gould’s ‘Crazy Gang’ hung on to win the trophy and confirm the single best post-war ascension of an English football team.

That Wimbledon no longer exist in the same form makes their fleeting success that more poetic. A tiny club that came from nowhere, had an unparalleled rise to prominence and unfortunately were eventually cruelly dismantled. With that unlikely win over Liverpool, they were able to stitch their name into the very fabric of the game in this country forever.

Birmingham 2011

Arsenal again and this time, the Gunners were flying high in the league, had just beaten Barcelona in the first leg of a Champions League tie, still in FA Cup contention and reached the League Cup final. Much was (and still is) made of the club’s trophy drought. It had been six years since silver polish at the Emirates was used on a cup on any meaningful distinction but the 2010-11 season saw Arsene Wenger’s team, for a time, fighting on all fronts. In fact, as they took to the field against a struggling Birmingham City, some optimistic souls might have even been making fanciful suggestions about winning the lot!

The first obstacle would prove to be Alex McLiesh’s Birmingham side who one might have thought would be more concerned with preserving their top flight status than a potential humiliation in a cup final. As it turned out, nobody in Blue was to be distracted. From a corner, Nicola Zigic rose higher than everyone to head Birmingham into a deserved first half lead. This seemed to spark Arsenal into life as Robin van Persie volleyed in an equaliser just before half time. The expected second half onslaught didn’t come however and as both teams were preparing for extra time, a huge Ben Foster goal kick caught Arsenal cold and Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczęsny inexplicably gifted Obafemi Martins with an open goal to seal the most unlikely of victories in the dying embers of the game. Arsenal's season crumbled and they ended up with nothing to show for their efforts that year once more.

That Birmingham only won 2 of their remaining 12 league games (losing 7) only serves to emphasise how much of a shock this victory was. The Blues were subsequently relegated but a first trophy in 48 years would have certainly cushioned the blow.

Wigan 2013

Similarly, Wigan Athletic had been making something of a habit of last day survival in their all too frequent battles against relegation. Eventually, their luck would run out as they finally slipped through the trapdoor at the end of the 2012-13 campaign. However, the Latics were able to take a rather significant souvenir down with them following their unexpected 1-0 Wembley win over Manchester City.

The last few years has seen Manchester City power their way into English football’s elite, the huge investment since Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition of the club has seen them challenge for top honours season after season. The club successfully won the FA Cup in 2011 and followed it up with that unforgettable title win 12 months later. This time however, rather than benefit from a late goal, Mancini and his City team were instead punished by one as Ben Watson rose from a corner to head the ball past Joe Hart to provide an upset that arguably took on a whole different level of significance than those of the past.

With the vast resources at their disposal, the modern Manchester City have been built in such a way that 'upsets' shouldn't even be something they should be concerned with. By right, this team shouldn’t really have any weaknesses that a team like Wigan (although themselves no strangers to spending money) should be able exploit. Despite being in the same division at the time, the gulf between the two teams was arguably far greater than any of the examples above. Yet Wigan were able to find that chink in City's considerable armour and surprise us all, perhaps also offering a reminder that the game still has the capacity to throw up an interesting story now and again. This wouldn't be popular sentiment over at Eastlands but Wigan's win was a prime example of why football will always remain popular. Despite everything, the best team, no matter how strong, will not always win.

And that's exactly the kind of encouragement that Sunderland will take going into this Sunday's final.

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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Ashley Young not the Only Villain in Football's Theatre of Cheating

The new season is still in it's infancy and we have our first major diving controversy. It's like we've never been away. Manchester United's first home win under new manager David Moyes was marred by the actions of Ashley Young who was guilty of at least one diving offence during the game against Crystal Palace. Having been already been booked for 'simulation' during the first half, Young then controversially 'won' United a penalty after going down following a challenge by The Eagles' South African midfielder Kagisho Dikcagoi. Leaving aside the fact a penalty was an incorrect decision simply because the 'foul' took place outside the box, there are questions raised over whether it was even a foul at all. As we've established, Ashley Young had no issue trying to con the ref earlier in the same game and it was only a year or so back when he was being roundly condemned following two similar incidents against QPR and his former club Aston Villa.

Defence of such incidents usually has some former pro (9 out of 10 times, it's Michael Owen) incorrectly claiming that if the contact is there, a player is 'entitled to go down'. We also hear talk of 'inviting contact' and 'drawing fouls' to attempt blur the lines even further but this merely serves to ignore the obvious point that contact does not necessary mean an offence has been committed. Dikcagoi was clumsy and he did 'touch' Young but does that really constitute a foul? Call me an idealist but until the law is changed to outlaw any physical contact in the game, I don't really see how you can justify taking a tumble based on the slightest graze from an opposition player. Are you really 'entitled to go down' if no foul is actually committed? Even when an infringement is attempted, if a player is able to stay on his feet, there shouldn't really be an encouragement for him to do otherwise.

The fact that this is open to debate shows that the battle to rid the game of such behaviour is probably already lost. Diving seems, sadly, to be a part of the fabric of the game. Stan Collymore, one the more vocal former players, wasn't shy in putting forward this view when he tweeted the following in relation to Young:

I don't necessarily buy into the “good ol' days, when men were men” soundbites usually trotted out by those who don't understand that the game has moved on significantly since the days of knee-high tackles, pitches resembling First World War trenches and terrace racism. However, Collymore has a point about the 'badge of honour'. Standing up for yourself (literally and metaphorically) was something a player would pride himself on. Not now, it seems.

Unfortunately, his argument falls apart when he brings nationality in the equation. Stating that you specifically hate seeing English players cheat suggests that you are more concerned about taking the moral high ground rather than wanting to see the problem eradicated completely.

And while we're at it, it may seem absurd to show any sympathy towards Ashley Young but why should he be the only one singled out? It's almost impossible to imagine that he will be the only player involved in a diving debate this season.

It all contributes to the prevalent culture of cheating that exists in the game. Players seek an advantage wherever they can, both fairly or unfairly - be it incorrectly claiming corners/throw ins when the ball goes out of play or time wasting to run down the clock. We've all seen incidents where attacking players deliberately play the ball into the outstretched arms of defenders to win penalties. Is that actually any worse than diving to achieve the same outcome? Genuine question.

Perceived underhand tactics rarely receive prolonged widespread condemnation. At least not to a point where anyone is likely to do anything about it. David Moyes has claimed to have had a word with Young but then again, so did Sir Alex Ferguson previously. Teams are hardly dropping, fining or selling players for their misdemeanours. Cheating in football isn't punished sufficiently and while people believe they can get away with it, it will continue to take place. As Young (and others) knows, sometimes you get the breaks, other times not. If he wins his side 2 or 3 penalties a season, I'm sure he'd be prepared to take the odd yellow card too.

Ask the fans and they'll tell you it's wrong - but only when others do it. If it's their team, you can expect some of the most tenuous interpretations of the laws in order to justify their man doing the dirty. Taking this example, you'll have Liverpool fans slaughtering Young yet defending Suarez and United fans doing the same with the protagonists reversed. Worst of all, you get some fans attempting to explain away one of their players cheating by pointing out that "everyone else is at it". The hypocrisy is enough to make your head explode.

You even sometimes hear such behaviour described as 'clever'. When this is the accepted rhetoric used, it almost feels embarrassing to try and suggest that fairness and/or sportsmanship should even be considered. The win-at-all-costs mentality means that, sadly, these two unwanted guests have no place in the modern game. Dive on.

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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Thank you, and Good Knight - Sir Alex Ferguson ruined my life

Saturday May 12th 1990. A hyperactive six year old child with a slightly oversized head is running around a Camden Town council flat. He has no plan, no aim, no real sense of what is going on. All he knows is that it's the weekend and he wants to go and knock for his mates so they could go enjoy the springtime sunshine in the communal play area. Said play area doesn't feature much. A swing, a slide, but also some walls which he and his pals would like to climb and jump from, showing flagrant disregard for their own safety and well being. For all his enthusiasm however, the child was still one to be easily distracted by other things, television being the main one. That big grey box of light in the living room would so often prove to be the draw that prevented him from indulging his desire to leave the house and hone in his playful instincts.

The young lad had more than likely been awake for some hours watching cartoons and children's programmes. While his poor mum was busy shopping/cooking/attending to her two year old daughter, the big headed boy would be planted in front of the box. Today, something strange was happening. BBC One seemed to be talking an awful lot about football. “How strange” the boy figured. “football matches are only ever televised on Sunday”. It didn't take long for him to deduce that it was the FA Cup Final. The boy was slightly confused. Just a few months earlier, he had sat down to watch Nottingham Forest beat Oldham to win 'the Cup' (after which, he decided that Forest were naturally the best team in the country...nay, the world!) so why was there another final so soon? “It must be a different cup. For rubbish teams” was the unwavering conclusion he drew.

The game would feature Crystal Palace. A side from from his very own city of London. A team of plucky heroes and underdogs who had defied the odds to make it to their first ever final. The television kept saying what an amazing achievement it would be if they were to beat their opponents, some fairly average team from the north called Manchester United who never really won much themselves in those days. Naturally, the boy was swayed and, on this day alone, would be cheering on this side affectionately referred to as the Eagles. Seeing as their opponents' nickname was the 'Red Devils', the boy knew his churchgoing mother would certainly not approve of him lending his support to them. They were the bad guys and as Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had taught him, the bad guys always lose at the end.

Except, as we would soon discover, these bad guys didn't lose. Ever.

After a thrilling 3-3 draw, the game was set for a replay. The boy still hoped for a Palace win in the return game the following Thursday. However, as it was a school night, he wasn't allowed to stay up and watch it so the following morning when he discovered that a Lee Martin goal had settled the game in favour of 'The Devils', he was understandably, albeit temporarily disappointed (That was, of course, until something else grabbed his attention).

That was Sir Alex Ferguson's first trophy as manager of Manchester United. Even in my youthful naivety it made me somewhat miserable at the time. But it didn't matter. It was just one trophy. For a side without a particularly great recent record of success, I foolishly imagined people would barely even remember this isolated victory a year down the line. If you told me back then that I'd have to get used to it as the next 23 years of my life would be the same, I would have thought you were crazy and told everyone in school not to be your friend any more.

Curiously, such was Manchester United's level of mediocrity at the time, the accepted belief is that the United boss was on the brink of getting sacked and it was that cup win that saved his job. Appointed in 1986, the first four years of his tenure could only be described as bang average. A mid table side who would would only fleetingly flirt with with the top of the table before returning to irrelevance and obscurity. Ferguson's debut match was 2-0 league defeat to Oxford United which tells you all you need to know about the stature of the club at the time. Growing up in London back then you wouldn't have known many United fans. Nowadays, you are never more than six feet away from one. Like rats...

Going into 1990, there was actually a real risk of the Reds being drawn into a relegation battle. The club were on an awful run in the league having gone eight games without a win and an upcoming FA Cup 3rd round tie against the abovementioned Forest – one of the division's stronger sides – didn't look particularly enticing. As I say, it is widely believed that a loss would have seen Ferguson handed his P45. Something that would not have been an unpopular move. Three months before the Forest game, United actually lost 2-1 at home to Palace prompting one disgruntled fan to knock up a banner expressing his frustrations. Thankfully, Mark Robins popped up to score the only goal to give United a narrow win and buy Fergie some precious time. Had it not been for Robins, who knows what the future would have held for the club? Names touted to take over apparently included Terry Venables. Amazing, isn't it?

United finished the season in 13th place – a mere five points above the relegation zone and actually level on points with their cup final opponents. It's difficult to imagine Alex Ferguson would have kept his job but for the cup victory. Needless to say, it was all uphill from there. Sir Alex has since added four more FA Cup wins to his CV making him the most successful manager in the competition's history and United the most successful team with a grand total of 11 wins.

Two years later, Ferguson and United won the League Cup with a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest – the first in the club's long history and something he has gone on to repeat three more times. Only Brian Clough, the man he beat in 1992, has won as many as a manager.

However, the holy grail for United was, is and has always been the League. Sir Matt Busby was the last man to lead to club to championship success back in 1967 so their push in the final season of the old First Division had been a long time coming. Unfortunately for Ferguson, they were narrowly edged into second place by Leeds United.

The opportunity to win a first league title in 25 years that season was denied partly due to a late season 2-0 defeat against great rivals Liverpool. The Merseysiders themselves were at the end of a two decade run of unrivalled success which saw them rise and sit alone at the summit of the English game with 18 league titles. Well clear of Arsenal's 10 and United's 7. The history of hatred between the two clubs is extensive so it is fair to say, there would have been a fair bit of belly laughing and schadenfreude after derailing United's title bid.

Not to be deterred, the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1993 saw Ferguson, with the signing of Leeds' best player Eric Cantona, finally win that much sought after league crown and set the wheels in motion for a period of dominance that would eclipse that of the North West chums. Speaking in 2002, Ferguson unashamedly declared that his greatest challenge was “knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch”. A motivation perhaps sparked by the fact that following that initial Premier League success, Liverpool fans, in keeping with the theme of unwisely unfurled banners, proudly suggested that Fergie's solitary title was somewhat insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Like my 6 year old self, if only they knew what was to come...

We were sold the idea of the Premier League thinking it would open up competition, allowing different teams to grow, challenge and flourish in this new, all inclusive division. New money, new investment and an attractive new environment for players home and and abroad to thrive. “A whole new ball game” we were told. United winning the first title was actually a good thing as it gave hope to other success starved teams. “if they can do it, so can we” was the thinking. Unfortunately, the devious little Scot had other ideas. He was far from finished.

20 years and 12 more League titles later, Ferguson has not simply knocked Liverpool off their perch, he has single handedly burnt said perch to the ground. And it's not just the scousers. Everyone else in the country have been straining their necks to look over the fortress wall as Sir Alex sits in his throne, decorating himself more lavishly each passing year. None of this is by accident, though. Never afraid to let go, Ferguson has ruthlessly dismantled and rebuilt teams who have continuously remained at the forefront of the English game. Whenever it looked as though we may be thankfully seeing the end of their tyrannical reign, they would, in true super villian fashion, only came back stronger.

And it's not just domestically his presence has been felt. Following that initial FA Cup victory, two Mark Hughes goals in Rotterdam secured the European Cup Winners' Cup against Barcelona the following year. Eight years on, the Catalonian capital would be the scene of arguably Ferguson's greatest triumph. With a league title and FA Cup already in the bag, all that stood in the way of a historic treble was Bayern Munich. 1-0 down early on, Ferguson really earned his corn by throwing on substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer late in the game and, well, you all know the story.

A nauseating outcome for the rest of us. Bitter accusations of good fortune and the whole thing being a “fluke” were levelled. But there was also the reluctant acknowledgement, as if there was any lingering doubt before, that we were seeing one of the greatest managers in the long history of the game. Despite the fact it was only United's second success in Europe's premier competition compared to Liverpool's four at the time, it was safe to assume there would be no goading banners at Anfield this time around.

Ferguson added another European crown in 2008 after beating Chelsea on penalties and has since reached two more finals – coming unstuck against brilliant Barcelona teams on both occasions, but firmly enshrining his place among the European elite.

However, despite the drive and determination that has brought him incomparable levels of success, there is an almost spiteful nature at its heart which fuels his pursuit of glory. For years, we've had to put up with the whining and complaining when things do not go his way. Referees, the media and even his own players have all felt his wrath at one time or another. The infamous 'hairdryer' iconology is a direct result of his unchallengeable approach to management, and this has even led to high profile fallings out within his own club. Many would point to his dispute with JP McManus and John Magnier leading to the deeply unpopular Glazer family running the club.

His general demeanour doesn't exactly endear him to the neutral. The desire to see United fail and concept of ABU (Anyone But United) can be attributed to primarily to Ferguson and the way he has gone about his business down the years. That said, this is what makes the man and if he didn't have this aspect of his character, he wouldn't have achieved everything he has done.

It was not simply the success which made him a great but the way in which he has responded to set backs and fought off challenges to his supremacy from a number of different foes. Like a boxer or character from a computer beat 'em up game, Ferguson has always had to adapt and refine his fighting style based on different opponents. From Kenny Dalglish and Blackburn, Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Mourinho at Chelsea, Bentiez's Liverpool and most recently, Mancini at City, the Scot has managed to rise to any challenge and leave them all in his wake. When Ferguson gets into a scrap, you can bet your life he is not walking away until he has won. In football terms, 'Sir' Alex is actually very much like a Knight of the more traditional sense; metaphorically galloping around the country on horseback laying waste to any perceived threat to his kingdom.

I refuse to believe that I am alone in having spent my entire football watching life sneering at his success but begrudgingly had to accept and acknowledge his unmatchable brilliance. The fact that many, many fans up and down the country are not able to gloat or even celebrate the retirement of the greatest manager they've ever seen but only express relief, is perhaps one of the biggest compliments that can be paid to the man.

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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Paolo Di Canio - Football, Fascism and Forgetfulness

Football and all that surrounds it continues to baffle and confuse. So after much to-ing and fro-ing, Paolo Di Canio has come out and denied he is a fascist. Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few days, you might have heard that the Italian has been appointed as manager of Sunderland. A struggling top flight side replacing their boss as they slip perilously close to the relegation zone would normally only cause some mild speculation as to whether he is capable of doing the job, some praise/scrutiny of his previous role and then everyone would go about their business. That is, until the day he either takes them down or keeps them up – prompting various commentators to tell you that they predicted it would turn out this way.

This time around, things are different. Paolo popping up in the north east has caused uproar and indignation the likes of which is rarely seen in the game. As a player, Di Canio excited crowds with his skill, shocked the world with one of the worst, yet absolutely hilarious, acts of indiscipline ever seen on a football pitch and scored wonderful goals time and time again. Capable of petulance and almost unheard of sportsmanship, for better or for worse, he was someone who knew how to make a headline and It would seem little has changed since swapping the pitch for the dugout. To simply say his 21 month spell in charge of Swindon Town was eventful would be bordering on a criminal understating of matters. Fighting his own players, over-exuberant celebrations and outspokenness were just part of the daily routine at The County Ground. Even after his controversial departure he still managed to cause controversy by going back and raiding the club at the dead of night for his belongings. If anyone ever had the idea to write a sitcom or movie based on a player, a lot of the source material would come from the career of this man.

However, it's not all pushing refs and kicks up the backside. As has been well documented, the former fiery Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton hero caused something of a stir back in 2005 while playing from his hometown club Lazio when he was pictured giving straight-arm fascist salute following a match against fierce rivals Roma – the third time he'd done so after returning to Italy. Defending his actions, Di Canio apparently clarified his position when he was quoted by an Italian news agency saying that he was indeed a fascist, “but not a racist”.

It then also emerged that Di Canio made comments which appeared to endorse a certain Benito Mussolini, describing the dictator as ‘principled’ and ‘misunderstood’. He even went so far as to reinforce his admiration for Mussolini by adorning his body with a tattoo reading ‘DUX’ – a Latin translation of the ‘il Duce’ (The Leader) title bestowed onto the late Italian ruler.

Shocking revelations that have understandably caused the heated negative reaction to his installment at Sunderland. Fascism is difficult, if not impossible to define as an ideology with no universal position agreed on what it actually constitutes. In Di Canio’s native Italy, it was seen as a political position leaning very much to the far right and founded on extreme nationalism. The Italian Fascist regime of the early 1900s encompassed a number of different beliefs and ideas including but not exclusive to taking a controversial stance on race and anti-semitism.

In an era where there appears to be an effort to try and rid the game of the discrimination that continues to blight the sport as whole, condemnation has been heaped on both man and club. How can we look to continue the fight against racism, sexism and homophobia when a team will happily take on someone for whom it was believed held such beliefs?

Mussolini’s National Fascist Party also stood shoulder to shoulder with Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party and adopted many of the same Nazi policies ahead of the Second World War. To this end, Paolo's previous attempts trying to divorce fascism from racism would be quite difficult.

For the sake of balance, the pertinent question to ask is whether one can in fact be a fascist without being a racist. On a most basic level, the two can be distinguished from one another. If for no other reason, this controversy might cause one or two people to actually pick up a book and discover that there is actually a difference. Perhaps this distinction is highlighted by a particular extract from Di Canio’s book which has come to light where he discusses immigration in his home country:

“In Italy, too many immigrants come over and act as if they were back in their own countries. They make little effort to fit in and to be fair, we Italians do little to integrate them.

Our government does little for immigrants, so they do things their way. If we’re not careful, in ten years’ time Italy will be a Muslim country. I have nothing against Muslims, but I don’t want my Italian culture to disappear. If immigrants come to Italy and want to be part of Italian culture, want to be Italian, that’s great. I don’t care if they are black, yellow, pink or green. I would love it if an immigrant could come to Italy and after a few years say, ‘This is my country. I am Italian’”

A sensitive issue unquestionably but not necessarily an opinion reserved for The Blackshirts. One is free to make his or her own judgements but it is important to note that these comments aren’t even nearly as extreme as some of the anti-immigration rhetoric printed in the British tabloid press on a daily basis. We also live in a country where the popularity of UKIP is on the rise and the relationship with Muslims, as well as people from Eastern Europe, is hardly the most amicable.

Di Canio and Sunderland have gone to great lengths to defend themselves and attempted to dismiss any accusations of prejudice and political leanings in any direction. Despite these denials, the stance taken by sections of the media and fans alike to criticise him was still a commendable one… if only it wasn’t too little, too late.

Di Canio's comments about Mussolini were made in his autobiography which was published in 2000 – while he was still playing for West Ham and would go on to play in England for four more years. In isolation, a Premier League club hiring a self-confessed fascist today is of course headline news. People have been bending over backwards to have their say since he arrived on Wearside a few days ago but one must ask why people are only vocalising their dissatisfaction some 13 years after his initial admission of his position.

In addition, Paolo Di Canio had already been managing on these shores for nearly two years, in which time he wrote a column on the BBC Sport website and successfully won promotion with Swindon Town from Leagues Two to One just last season. Where were the voices of dissent were while Di Canio was busy plying his trade in Wilshire? Aside from the GMB Union withdrawing its support of the club in protest, Di Canio’s alleged political stance barely made a ripple. Instead, it was his 'wackiness' and eccentricities that dominated the headlines.

The kind of scrutiny and incessant questioning he has faced after it was announced he would be replacing Martin O’Neill at The Stadium of Light seems almost irrelevant. The time for all this was back in 2011 (or earlier!). From a cynical perspective, it's not hard to suspect that the hand-wringing is agenda driven. Simply in place to protect the ‘image’ of English football’s top division rather than any crusade against fascism. Believe what you want and behave as you wish in the lower leagues, just don’t bring it to the Premier League. We have shirts to sell.

Even after this latest not-so-swift denial from the Italian, there's just no escaping the fact that discrimination is still a hot topic after what has been a turbulent couple of years with more high profile racist incidents seeming to take place at alarming regularity. By all means, challenge Di Canio over his perceived beliefs but should he really be the prime target right now? This story, while it lasted, conveniently managed to push aside the continued controversy surrounding Rio Ferdinand. While everybody was focused on events at Sunderland, it almost went unnoticed that in Monday’s FA Cup quarter final, the Manchester United defender once again faced a hostile reception from Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge as the ongoing saga over John Terry racially abusing brother Anton refuses to die. That's not to say the Chelsea chants were explicitly racist but you'll have to go some way to convincing me that “you know what you are” doesn't have specific implications given the circumstances and events that preceded it.

This comes off the back of England fans chanting similar and being reported by FARE for alleged racism against the same player the previous weekend in San Marino following Ferdinand's controversial withdrawal from the squad.

When incidents like this have taken place on the elsewhere – most recently, in Serbia – pundits and observers were shrieking themselves hoarse that these other countries are somehow 'backward' and need to be banned from football and such like. What is actually more worrying than the fact English football fans have been accused of similar behaviour, is the silence of these same people shouting from the rooftops to condemn others. I'm yet to see one journalist suggest England should be docked points or play matches behind closed doors if found guilty.

Instead, what you get is the oft-trotted out stock claims that “things aren’t as bad as the 70s” and that “we've come a long way since then”. True as this may be, there's no reason to pat ourselves on the back and say everything is ok. It may take place much less often but anyone who would claim we don't still have our own problems is a liar. You only need to look to the anti-Semitic chanting when West Ham traveled to Tottenham earlier this season to name but one example.

Then of course, there was the Terry case which, along with that of Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, almost felt as though it set race relations back thirty years given the way certain people conducted themselves. The manner in which Liverpool Football Club acted was nothing short of disgraceful while the less said about the behaviour of certain Chelsea fans the better. The way the purported victims, Evra and Anton Ferdinand, ended up being demonised, causes one to wonder if some players would even bother reporting any discrimination now. It hardly seems worth it. Especially given how quick the narrative changes even when players are found guilty. Suarez is currently being talked up as a potential player of the year. The Evra incident is barely even mentioned.

Similarly, in a perverse way, Paolo Di Canio doesn't actually need to worry about the lasting effects to his reputation. His politics were almost a non-issue when he was winning the League Two title and they will be once again if he keeps Sunderland in the Premier League and performs well next season – even without his denial. That is the kind of short termism that exists in football. It's difficult to combat problems when views and opinions change with each passing game. There’s an uncomfortable sense of misguided moralising with the this story in the sense it feels as though we are only discussing it because it's convenient rather than because it's important.

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Saturday, 12 January 2013

League Cup seeks to profit from Capital gains

Since their brief stint dining at English football's top table at the turn of the century, Bradford City have hardly been at the forefront of the average football fans' mind. A series of relegations and some much publicised financial troubles were the sum total of what most football fans knew of the goings on at Valley Parade. That has all changed. After the incredible 3-1 victory over Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup semi final first leg, the Bantams are just 90 minutes from a historic Wembley final. Avoiding a two goal defeat away from home against their supposedly more illustrious opponents in two weeks is all that stands in their way. Given how poor Paul Lambert's team have performed this season, it may not prove to be the most difficult task.

The first leg of the second semi saw Swansea City beat Rafa Benitez' Chelsea 2-0 in their own backyard. Since almost falling out of the football league completely ten years ago, the Swans' meteoric rise and progress has been astonishing. Currently sitting comfortable in the top half of the Premier League table, Swansea had already won at Anfield and the Emirates this season before this week's victory at the home of the current European champions. Like Bradford, avoiding a two goal defeat when they welcome the disharmonious Blues to Wales could mean a final between two sides who last faced each other in League One just five years ago. It may not be the 'glamour' tie but I will take the liberty of speaking for most “neutrals” when I say it will be one we would all rather see. The 'people's' final if you will.

Over the years, the Football League Cup has become English football's abandoned child. The black sheep. The unwanted guest at dinner that nobody invited. With it's bad breath and inappropriate comments about your wife, many of us are left to wonder why it's name is still always on the invitation list. What was once a respected and highly sought after piece of silverwear on these shores is now nothing more than an inconvenience. Arsene Wenger's candid, open admission that he regards the competition as low down as fifth on his list of priorities each season may have drawn criticism from fans and sections of the media alike but it's hardly a dramatic revelation. For years, the Frenchman has used the competition to blood younger and fringe members of his squad choosing to rest senior players for Premier League and Champions League matches. He's not alone, either. It's one of football's most open of secrets that the Arsenal manager is not the only person to feel this way about the competition. You'd be hard pressed to find a top club who will play a full strength side in the League Cup – at least not until the latter rounds. Weakened teams are often sent out as first teamers put their feet up at home and are not to be troubled by such trivialities. Certainly not with League titles and Champions League places to chase. The reticence is not even exclusive to the upper echelon as teams anticipating a relegation battle or even lower division sides aiming for promotion refuse to risk key players when they have, in their eyes, bigger fish to fry. This then leads to an increased feeling of apathy from fans. If the clubs don't give a toss about this grotesque, ugly, three handled (?) trophy, then why should I waste my time?

Part of what fosters this overall dismissive attitude is the feeling that the competition has lost any identity it may have once had. Cynicism is heightened by the fact it appears to be nothing more than the corporate whore of the football world. Of course, these days, sponsorship and football go hand in hand but the constant renaming of this particular competition has caused its credibility to diminish at a rapid rate. It is a little over 30 years since sponsorship from the now defunct Milk Marketing Board meant that for five years teams were competing for the Milk Cup. Following that, we had the Littlewoods Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, and the Coca Cola Cup. Then 1998 provided the watershed moment as perhaps fatally, the brewing company Worthington attached it's name to the tournament. At a time when English clubs were starting to reap the benefits of Murdoch's millions and taking significant strides in Europe, somewhat less importance was attached to domestic trophies. The Worthington Cup, quite inevitably, was soon amusingly but cruelly rechristened by fans as the 'Worthless' Cup – a blow from which it never really recovered. Despite becoming the Carling Cup and now this season, the Capital One Cup, there doesn't seem to be any real affection towards it. For all the name changes, there is one that sticks. Curiously, one that wasn't the result of sponsorship – although, Disney could have made a killing if they received any money every time a fan of a club exiting the competition uttered the immortal, yet disparaging words “it's only the Micky Mouse Cup”.

However, this season, interest in the much maligned competition has piqued somewhat. Due in part to the fact that understrength teams and dare I say, a lack of full commitment from some teams, has led to some truly entertaining matches and utterly bizarre results. The fact that a current fourth tier side could be in the final is remarkable enough but is quite frankly in keeping with what has been a weird and wacky tournament from the very start. Way back in August's first round, Derby County's match at home to Scunthorpe saw the Rams contrive to draw 5-5 despite leading the match 5-3 going into stoppage time after 90 minutes. Inevitably losing the subsequent penalty shootout. An otherwise ridiculous scenario that merely set the tone for later rounds. Round Two might well be best remembered for Nottingham Forest and Wigan competing in their own goal of the month competition but when Bradford scored two goals in the last 5 minutes to win away at Watford, I doubt many people would have even bat an eyelid. If only they knew...

The Premier League's European participants joined the competition in round three but as Arsenal and Chelsea were hitting Coventry and Wolves for 6, the big story came at the home of newly crowned champions Manchester City who twice surrendered leads to end up losing 4-2 to a poor and unfancied Aston Villa.

The Fourth round is when things really started to kick off. On any other night, Bradford City would have made all the headlines following their penalty heroics at Wigan but the events at the Madejeski put their shootout win so far in the shade it almost went unnoticed. Reading hosted Arsenal and thanks to some of the most comical defending and goalkeeping you will ever see, ludicrously found themselves 4-0 up as they approached half time. Theo Walcott's consolation before the break looked to be just that. However, as he scored his second to make it 4-4 in the 5th minute of stoppage time, many of us wondered what the hell we had just witnessed. As Marouane Chamakh lobbed Adam Federici to make it 7-5 to Arsenal at the end of extra time, nothing was making any sense anymore.

Not to be outdone, 24 hours later, Manchester United sent a young team to Chelsea and looked to be heading through as they led 3-2 deep into the dying embers of stoppage time. That was until Scott Wootton, who curiously hasn't been seen since, gave away a 94th minute penalty. Chelsea turned the screw in extra time but the eventual 5-4 scoreline told a story almost as mad as the events in Berkshire the previous evening. Swansea's impressive 3-1 win at Anfield and Norwich's stunning late comeback to score two in the last 5 minutes to beat Spurs 2-1 were both an afterthought on the night.

Bradford's win over Wigan happened to be their seventh successive penalty shootout victory. After beating Northampton by the same method in the FA Cup first round, they went on to make it nine in a row in the League Cup Quarters. A truly memorable night at Valley Parade saw them knock out a near enough full strength Arsenalteam in an upset that will be remembered for years to come. Having led for much of the game, the Bantams looked to be heartbroken as Thomas Vermaelen equalised with just a few short minutes left of normal time. But the Belgian turned from hero to villain as his decisive spot kick cannoned off the post to send one half of West Yorkshire into rapture. Things weren't so great for the other half as, despite leading 1-0 at half time, Leeds were dispatched 5-1 by a merciless Chelsea side to join Swansea, Villa and the abovementioned Bradford in the final four.

As if learning absolutely nothing from the tournament so far, many people expected Chelsea and Villa to put an end to all the nonsense and navigate their way into the final. However, after this week's first leg shocks, you'd have been a foolish man to take that as given. Instead, we find ourselves on the brink of a Swansea v Bradford final that nobody would have predicted when the balls first came out of the bag in the summer. Yet, despite their advantages going into their respective second legs, one still doesn't know what else to expect from this season's madcap competition. If either or both of Chelsea and Villa were to pull off a comeback and make it through to the final, it would simply be in keeping with the unpredictability this competition has thrown up thus far. However much people want to dismiss the League Cup as a lower priority, there can be no denying the drama it has provided this season – something that looks to continue right to the bitter end on February 24th. The “magic of the cup” is a line that is routinely trotted out every time something vaguely surprising happens in the FA Cup. This year, perhaps the magic has found it's way over to England's 'other' domestic cup competition.

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Friday, 9 November 2012

Bhoy oh Bhoy! Celtic's Barca Heroics Gives Scotland a Rare Reason to Smile

When Celtic packed their sporrans and set sail for sunny Catalonia two weeks ago, nobody in their right mind gave them a prayer against the all-conquering blaugrana beast that is FC Barcelona in their Champions League group match. Boasting a squad so talented it almost borders on cheating, this Barca team is widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest club side of all time. It was supposed to be a case of ‘how many’ against a side playing in a league that is about as weak as an anaemic schoolchild and about as relevant today as a Wet, Wet, Wet cassette tape.

However, instead of a brutal, bloody massacre, we were treated to as heroic an away performance as you are likely to see from a side visiting the Camp Nou. The Hoops had the audacity to take a surprise lead through former Manchester City figure of ridicule Georgios Samaras and although they were begged back by Andres Iniesta after a typically irresistible Barcelona move, they looked on course to secure an unexpected and unlikely draw. Unfortunately, they were to have their wee hearts broken by a close range Jordi Alba finish in the dying embers of the game. All the post match talk was about the Celts’ glorious failure. Brave and gallant but ultimately disappointing for them to miss out on both a vital point towards qualification for the last sixteen and a chance to leave an imprint on a rare appearance at this stage of the competition. The manner of the defeat also dealt a devastating blow to a side not expected to repeat such heroics in the return game – even with home advantage.

How little did we know.

And so to a sold out Parkhead for what was again expected to be a stroll for the four time European Champions. If they were somewhat flat in the first game, then surely normal service would resume this time around? Barcelona, with their embarrassment of riches in terms on the pitch started the game in typically flowing, fluid fashion taking the game to their opponents pushing them further and further back. It seemed like only a matter of time before the first goal would arrive. But a peculiar thing occurred. Barca couldn’t create any clear cut chances. I want to make a 'Braveheart' joke here but I'd like to think I'm better than that. Not by much, mind. The green and white wall may have been camped on the edge of their own box but they weren’t about to allow their opponents through. Even though they were up against the admittedly frightening prospect of Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and a certain Leo Messi in the Barca attack – complimented of course by Xavi, Iniesta and marauding full backs Alba and Dani Alves. Compare that all-star cast to the likes of Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew. Players who you’d struggle to recognise if they came and sat next to you on a bus... in full Celtic kit.

Having weathered the early storm, 20 minutes in the home side found themselves in a rare and unfamiliar attacking scenario. A corner kick was sent into the box by the abovementioned Mulgrew and 21 year old Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama found himself rising above his marker to power home a header that sent the green and white half of Glasgow into frenzy. Undaunted, Barcelona immediately retook control of possession and came close to equalising as Messi hit the crossbar and a Sanchez header came back off the post. Celtic were able to hold on til half time. Barca started make something of a breakthrough in the second half. Unfortunately for them, they found England goalkeeping hopeful Fraser Forster in the Bhoys' goal in inspired form.

Not content with merely preventing the La Liga leaders from scoring, Forster decided to claim himself an assist. A huge kick launched upfield was totally misjudged by Xavi of all people and 18 year old substitute Tony Watt found himself with a clear run to goal to slot past Victor Valdes and make it 2-0 with just 5 minutes left on the clock. Cue pandemonium. Leo Messi pulled one back at the death but the damage was done. Celtic had beaten Barcelona and sent shockwaves throughout Europe. What a way to celebrate their 125th anniversary.

A word on the fantastic atmosphere in the ground. I don't want to get bogged down in 'twelfth man' clichés - I'm sure you can read about all that elsewhere - but even watching on TV you could sense that the vociferous support of the partisan crowd played it's part. The 55,000-odd home fans were duly rewarded for the relentless encouragement of their team. The sight of Rod Stewart overcome with emotion and blubbing like a teenage girl at a Justin Beiber concert almost spoilt the moment but I guess we can let him off. Just. Without naming names, fans of some of the other British sides competition would do well to take note of how important it is to back your team even when the odds are so greatly stacked against you.

Celtic Park has hosted some famous nights in the past. Beating AC Milan and Manchester United in recent years will clearly rank highly but both will struggle to compare to this. It’s not unfair to say that the gap between the hosts and their opponents on this occassion is almost cosmic. To deny that Barcelona are by far the superior football team will most likely see you sectioned but Celtic sent out a timely reminder that in football, you can take absolutely nothing for granted. If you weren’t lucky enough to see it happen, you will likely have been left speechless when you heard the result. An upset of truly monumental proportions.

Part of what makes this result so astonishing is the perilous state that Scottish football currently finds itself in. For a number of years the domestic league has been in steady decline and become something of a laughing stock given that there were only two teams with the resources to compete for the title. Especially given that every half decent player in the country eventually found themselves playing for one of the Glasgow giants as soon as they showed any sign of promise. Naturally, this led to growing indifference from fans of other clubs. Attendances have dropped dramatically meaning no broadcaster is particularly prepared to pay any significant money to televise matches. Consequently, all the talent, if not heading to Glasgow, is leaving the country. The fact that the best Scottish managers currently ply their trade south of the border is a damning indictment.

The exodus is not just restricted to personnel. The league lost further credibility with the continued desperate clamour of Rangers and Celtic to join the English Premier League. As people rightly laughed off such a suggestion, there then came whispers of the big two trying to get involved in some sort of pan-European League which again served to highlight the need to escape the continuing drudgery of the lack of competition they faced at home.

Naturally, with very little coming in, clubs have taken quite the financial hit. None moreso than Rangers themselves who, after years of financial mismanagement, found themselves in crippling debt, administration and finally, liquidation this past summer. Much wrangling saw a 'new club' formed under the same identity but as a result of sanctions imposed, this season kicked off with the ludicrous scenario where the team who lifted the Scottish title for the 54th time just one year earlier were playing in the THIRD division against the likes of East Stirlingshire, Annan Athletic and Elgin. How they would have looked upon their neighbours' feat with great envy this week, remembering that it has barely been two years since they were the ones rubbing shoulders with Europe's elite.

Money troubles haven't been restricted to the blue half of Glasgow. Over in the capital, they're also feeling the pinch. Hearts, under the rule of controversial owner Lithuanian-based banker Vladimir Romanov, have spent recent years harbouring not entirely unrealistic aspirations of breaking up the Old Firm duopoly. Alas, no league titles have been forthcoming. The Jambos have instead found themselves emulating Rangers in a rather unwanted way. Just hours before Celtic's heroics this week, the Edinburgh club, facing the threat of administration, issued a statement pleading with supporters to stick their hands in their pockets to help save the club having been issued with a winding up order over an unpaid tax bill:

"Without the support of fans there is, as we issue this note, a real risk that Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game next Saturday, 17 November against St Mirren.

This isn't a bluff, this isn't scaremongering, this is reality.

...we could be entering the final days of the club's existence."

Dramatic, desperate and ominous to say the very least. To bastardise the words of Oscar Wilde, for the Scottish Premier League to lose one club may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

The problems are not just exclusive to clubs. The news of Hearts' impending demise came just two days after the announcement from the SFA that Craig Levein had been sacked as manager of the Scottish national team. Recent years have seen the fortunes of the game at International level almost mirror the domestic plight. Levein's tenure left the Tarten Army with precious little to get excited about. The current qualifying campaign sees The Scots propping up their group with just two points from their opening four matches. Even putting results to one side, the performances and approach to matches painted a rather grim picture. Levein's legacy will forever be the now infamous ultra-defensive 4-6-0 formation deployed in Prague two years ago. One of the ironies of Celtic beating a Barcelona side that is universally lauded for their vibrant, attacking, fluid collective passing game is that the early origins of this style of play was said to have been introduced in Glasgow by Queen's Park back when football was in it's infancy. Times certainly have changed rather dramatically.

Levein's replacement, whoever he may be, has an unenviable task on his hands.

Curiously, there are no shortage of decent Scottish managers around. Least of all a certain Sir Alex Ferguson. Beyond the impossibly unlikly chance of him taking the job, Paul Lambert worked wonders at Norwich for three years before defecting to Aston Villa this summer while Steve Clarke is currently flying high at West Brom. Either of these would be excellent choices but again, the likelihood of them wanting the job right now would be extremely slim. Gordon Strachan is currently the bookies favourite.

For the most part, Scottish football currently finds itself in the doldrums. Celtic's victory this week is very rare positive passage what is currently otherwise a very miserable chapter in the history of the game north of the border. If you tell younger or more casual football fans that Celtic were the first British team to famously win the competition they'd be forgiven for thinking you were hallucinating after too much Irn Bru. When Jock Stein's 'Lisbon Lions' triumphed over Helenio Herrera's great Inter side in 1967 it was undoubtedly considered the greatest day in the history of the club. People are speaking of this Barcelona win as the second best and it has since has become something the whole country can theoretically latch on to. This speaks volumes of how much Scottish football as whole is in need of a lift.

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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Clattered! Blues see red as ref leaves his Mark - Weekend Observations: 27th-28th October 2012

Match of the weekend
After an epic 3-3 draw last season, Manchester United and Chelsea renewed pleasantries at Stamford Bridge in a match that will, for better or for worse, leave a permanent imprint – or perhaps stain – on this, or perhaps any season of the Premier League. The two sides, supporters and officials did their damnedest to squeeze as much incident as was humanly possible into the time allocated between kick off and full time.

The visitors closed the gap on their hosts at the top of the table to just one point with a dramatic 3-2 win - a scoreline Sir Alex's men seems to have trademarked this season. Having previously netted five times in his only two previous appearances at Chelsea while playing for Arsenal, Robin van Persie again proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of the West Londoners as his 3rd minute shot cannoned off the post and into David Luiz who was helpless as the ball bounced off him and into net. The Dutch striker doubled the lead not long after and the reds, arguably for the first time this season, looked in total control.

The much talked about Chelsea midfield Ménage à trois of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar was left frustrated as United were fairly comfortable with anything that was thrown in their direction. Anything that did sneak through was dealt with by David De Gea.

That was until just a few minutes before half time. Frustrated having ceded possession to the abovementioned Hazard, Wayne Rooney showed all the intelligence of a brain-damaged polar bear on a mushroom trip as he stupidly hacked down the tricky Belgian on the edge of the penalty area. This provided an invitation for the superb Mata to curl a wonderful free kick round the United wall and past De Gea to halve the deficit.

United’s defence has been under incredible scrutiny so far this term due to their basic inability to... well, defend. Just two clean sheets in the preceeding 8 league games tells its own story and while initially things seemed to be going to plan, the concession of the first Chelsea goal on Sunday seemed to be a signal to abandon any sense of discipline. An equaliser seemed inevitable and less than 10 minutes into the second half, Ramieres provided it with close range header from an Oscar cross.

The stage was set for a grand stand finale. Would United respond or implode? Could Chelsea push on for the win? The answers we sought to these questions were indeed provided. Unfortunately, they came less through the influence of either team on the pitch than they did from the officials. With half an hour remaining, Branislav Ivanovic was rightly sent off for clipping Ashley Young and denying him a clear goal scoring opportunity. The home side’s task instantly became more difficult but was made damn near impossible just five minutes later following Mark Clattenburg’s inexplicable decision to issue Fernando Torres with a second yellow card for a perceived dive when the Spaniard had clearly been fouled by Johnny Evans.

Having already been reduced to 10 men, it’s difficult to say whether the European Champions would have got anything from the game. However, they would certainly have at least had something of a fighting chance with Torres on the pitch. The second red card didn't so much hand United the initiative insofar as it was presented to them on a silver platter.

Over the past two decades, be it rightly or wrongly, football fans have always believed Manchester United to regularly be on the receiving end of favourable decisions from referees. 'Fergie time' has become an accepted part of the football lexicon and the general reaction from away fans upon the Reds being rewarded a penalty at Old Trafford, deserved or not, is simply an eyeroll, a tut and a mutter of the word 'typical'.

There’s obviously no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any sort of influence/pressure on officials exists but the frequency with which we find ourselves discussing these incidents undoubtedly allows paranoia to grow and people to fuel their suspicions.

Although on this particular on this occasion, many would simply draw the conclusion that the man in the middle, despite supposedly being among the best in the world, is, to put it as kindly as possible, prone to the odd glaring error rather then being biased. You'd be hard pressed to find a fan of any club who couldn't provide an example of a Clattenburg clanger that has hurt their team. United supporters themselves have been quick to point out that Torres might have walked earlier when his clumsy high kick on Tom Cleverly only received a yellow. Was Clattenberg merely 'correcting' his earlier faux pas? It's more likely the case he just made two equally bad decisions.

So is he corrupt or just incompetent? Neither description paints a particularly pretty picture of the Durham official.

To make matters worse, the reds sealed a dramatic 3-2 win thanks to a goal from Javier Hernandez that was so blatantly offside, the Mexican may as well have been in another time zone (Mexico's, for example). The assistant’s failure to spot this just punctuated what turned out to be a rather dismal weekend for top flight officials. A similar goal was wrongly allowed to stand at the Emirates as Arsenal beat QPR 1-0 while in the Merseyside derby, the odious Luis Suarez was wrongly adjudged to be in an offside position as he scored Liverpool’s last gasp would-be winner against their city rivals. Two points were cruelly snatched away from Brendan Rodgers’ side as the game finished 2-2.

The tragedy of all these talking points is that a brilliant game of football has gone largely unnoticed. One of reasons the title slipped from United's grasp last season was their reluctance to "go for it" in away games against rivals. The meek surrender at Eastlands being the prime and ultimately most costly example. Lessons seemed to have been learned as they dominated the opening exchanges here and were duly rewarded. However, while defensive problems remain, the cavalier approach is always going to be a risk hence the reason this turned out to be the fifth 3-2 result (as well as a 4-2 against Stoke) they've been involved in this season with less than a quarter of the campaign gone.

Despite the loss, many people will still have Chelsea down as favourites for the title this year. Like United, problems are evident in defence but the collective firepower in attack will be enough to overwhelm most teams. Having fought back from 2-0 down, I don't think there are many that would argue that if it remained 11 v 11, they would more than likely have won the game. Still sitting pretty at the top of the league, the loss is unlikely to have any lasting effects.

Racist allegation of the Weekend
Curiously, the erroneously awarded red card and winning goal were not even the most controversial incidents at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Classy, cuddly bunch that they are, the Chelsea faithful, from first minute to last, insisted on jeering and abusing Rio Ferdinand for having the gall to be related to someone who was racially abused by their captain. These fans continued to cover themselves in glory as they decided to shower the United players with coins as they celebrated Hernandez' goal. You can't even afford them the excuse of the goal being offside to fuel their indignation given that very few of them would have been aware at that particular moment that the goal shouldn't have been allowed to stand. In the same incident, some supporters felt it necessary to take out their frustrations on a steward, causing him an injury that required hospital treatment. Any sympathy for them having seen their side robbed by the referee took very little time to disappear.

Somehow even this was pushed into the shade when, in the aftermath, the club filed an official complaint to the FA about the controversial Clattenburg, citing the use of "inappropriate language" directed at two of their players during the game. While the irony of Chelsea Football Club having the audacity to accuse anyone else of this offence is lost on absolutely no-one, the seriousness of the claim should not be ignored. Especially given that fevered speculation has suggested the official racially abused Jon Obi Mikel as well as insulting another Blue.

The allegation casts yet another dark cloud over the game. As we finally shut the door on one race saga, another swiftly decides to show up on your front porch uninvited (presumably wearing a white sheet and burning a cross on your lawn as well).

It would be remiss to speculate while investigation is ongoing but Chelsea would have to be pretty certain about what supposedly took place in order to pursue this complaint. Then again, surely Clattenburg cannot be THAT stupid to make such comments, particularly in the current climate when football's problems with race are such a hot topic. On one hand, you could potentially have one of the FA's top referees potentially guilty of racism which would prove nothing short of a disaster for the already battered integrity of the sport. While on the flipside, Clattenburg clearing his name would quite simply confirm that Chelsea football club, from the very top down, are untrustworthy liars making an extremely misguided attempt to deflect their recent troubles onto someone else. This is literally the last thing their reputation needs on top of everything else.

While we all hope this is resolved sooner rather than later, it can be probably be agreed that there will be no outcome in this case would be 'good' news.

Player of the weekend
Few (none?) particularly outstanding performances so I'm just going to give it to Frank Lampard... or Scott Parker.

Save of the weekend
It would be easy to wheel out the 'silenced his critics' line that often accompanies David De Gea's now regularly impressive performances but it would ultimately prove pointless given that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't now recognise his obvious talent. If any doubters remain, an incredible reflex clawed stop from a Fernando Torres in the first half of Sunday's match should make them sit up and take note.

Goal of the weekend
But for the events at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, the 3-3 ding dong played out at the Madjeski between Reading and Fulham would have been the standout game of the weekend. An end to end slugfest that couldn't produce a winner but had no trouble producing a number of great goals. Mikele Leigertwood's fantastic opener for the Royals and Dimitar Berbatov's late strike stood out in themselves but both were bettered by Bryan Ruiz' wonderful rifled drive which swerved its way between two defenders and managed to dip just under the crossbar leaving Alex McCarthy in the Reading goal stunned.

Dive of the weekend
The merseyside derby, and all the attention prematch was predictably on Luis Suarez and his frequent forays to get better acquainted with the turf despite never actually being fouled. David Moyes had made some damning comments beforehand but he hadn't reckoned on his own captain being the culprit on the day. Anticipating a non-existent challenge from Daniel Agger, Phil Neville went down faster than a drunken reveller falling out of Alma De Cuba on a typical night out in the Liverpool city centre. The most amusing thing was the fact that the former United man was quite clearly not experienced enough in the dark arts to execute even a remotely convincing dive and just ended up looking daft.

In fairness, he fronted up to the cameras afterwards and admitted his act of folly. Such was the embarrassing way he failed to pull off the manoeuvre, it's probably safe to say he won't be attempting any Suarez impressions again any time soon.

Ballsiest moment of the weekend
Speaking of whom, the dislikable Uruguayan put in a typically eventful headline-grabbing display scoring Liverpool's second, escaping a red card for a disgusting stamp on Sylvain Distin and as mentioned above, scoring a legitimate goal that was wrongly disallowed. Before all that however, having set up his side's opener (which went in via Leighton Baines) Suarez took it upon himself to celebrate by sprinting up to the Everton bench and, yep, DIVED at the feet of David Moyes. The Everton manager took it in good spirits but most people would generally know better than to attempt to wind up the firey Glaswegian who could only be technically described as 'Fucking nails'. In a Premier League battle royale, few would look further than Moyes as a potential victor so in that sense, credit must go to Suarez. He might act like a complete pussy at times but he clearly has balls made of solid steel.

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