Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Weekend Observations 8th - 10th January 2011: Sweet FA

You are free to pick your own cliché about this supposedly most sacred of weekends as I'm sure you will not be alone in expressing any gushing sentiment towards, what is – we are led to believe – is the world's oldest cup competition. The tournament actually runs from about September as part time and amateur teams up and down the country square off for the chance to come up against more high profile and illustrious league counterparts as the rounds go on. However, for many observers, the third round is the REAL start of the competition as we see the introduction of the Premier League and Championship big boys and all eyes are trained on the twin tow... er, the massive arch thingy of Wembley Stadium where the final will be played in May.

One of the things that makes the cup so special is the fact that some barely known or recognised team from football's nether regions has the chance to cause an upset against a higher ranked opponent, something that has happened on a number of occasions in the past.

This year's competition has not let us down in that respect. Well done to Southampton, Burton Albion and Notts County who all produced shocks this weekend but the real stories came at Broadhall Way and the Broadfield Stadium respectively as Stevenage and Crawley Town produced the kinds of fairy tales that would have Disney sitting up and paying attention.

Firstly to the leafy suburbs just North of London as Hertfordshire's finest took on Newcastle United. You wouldn’t think there would be much, if any, history between the Geordies of Premier League fame and a club that has spent all but the last 6 months of it’s entire existence in non-league football. But alas, this where the romance of the cup comes into play. 13 years ago the two sides were drawn against each other in the fourth round when Newcastle demanded that the match be switched to St. James’ Park as they felt Broadhall Way was not a venue befitting of their lofty status.

Public bickering between the two clubs ensued but the tie was eventually played following some modifications to the Stevenage home ground. The then non-leaguers famously secured a 1-1 draw meaning a replay at St. James’ Park where they were controversially knocked out after a hotly disputed Alan Shearer goal which it was later proved hadn't crossed the line.

Naturally, revenge was on the minds of the League Two side this time around and they did not disappoint with an emphatic and thoroughly deserved 3-1 victory against a side some 75 league positions about them.

The game's major talking point however, came after the final whistle when in the midst of the celebrations, an over-exuberant Stevenage fan on the pitch actually punched one of his own players. I have to say, I sincerely hope they throw the book at this and ban him from ever attending a football match again. I find it absolutely disgraceful that he got that close to Joey Barton and decided to hit someone else! Shameful. Just shameful.

(The player in question Scott Laird didn't suffer too much by way of injury from the incident and the perp has been apprehended so I guess we can kind of make light of the whole incident now...)

Of course, Newcastle are no strangers to upsets of this kind.

Like many clubs in the lower reaches, Crawley Town have been teetering on the brink of oblivion for a number of years, coming close to folding completely on more than one occasion. Recently, they have found something resembling financial stability and are rocketing their way up the Blue Square table (currently second) with the once unthinkable ambitions of playing in the football league next season. Given their performance in their dramatic late 2-1 victory over Derby County of the Championship, one would say they wouldn't look out of place. An eventful game was settled in injury time when Sergio Torres scored the kind of goal his more high profile namesake would be both proud and jealous of at the moment given his own ropey form.

Speaking of whom, Nando’s Liverpool were in the headlines before a ball was even kicked on third round weekend. Yes, On Saturday morning, the inevitable happened and Roy Hodgson was finally sacked from his post and Anfield hero ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish was placed in temporary charge until the end of the season.

Yes, Liverpool FC: the club where sentiment and emotion supersede logic and reason. Don't get me wrong, Hodgson was the wrong appointment from the start and so it proved during his tenure but he was hardly given a chance was he? This Liverpool team finished 7th last season and were in a terrible state of uncertainty at boardroom level. Hardly the easiest of circumstances for ‘Woy’ to operate under and let’s be brutally honest, with the players at his disposal were they really expected to be performing much better? 5 months is hardly any time to stamp your authority and implement the changes required.

The continued lack of support and undermining from the fans didn't help matters either. How is a manager supposed to do his job each day when he knows the supporters were out for his blood before a ball was kicked in anger? The constant chanting for Dalglish was both unhelpful and undignified.

And what if ‘King’ Kenny doesn’t get it right in the next four months? Who will the all-knowing Kop chant for then? Let’s not forget he's been out of the game for over a decade and it’s been a good 20 years since he was a success on Merseyside. Football has moved on leaps and bounds since then and who's to say he will even be able to understand the rigors of the modern game. I'm not saying I want him to fail but I can't say I will even be remotely surprised if things don't quite go to plan between now and May. Then again, what is the plan?

Dalglish was given a baptism of fire with a third round trip to the old enemy Manchester United. It wasn't to be a happy return as United ran out 1-0 winners thanks to the double act of Howard Webb and Dimitar Berbatov. The former awarding a penalty despite the fact it was clear to every human being lucky enough to possess at least one working eye had seen that the latter had taken a dive. The second minute spot kick was dispatched by Ryan Giggs, 53, and there was no more football worth talking about for the remaining 88 minutes so all attention fell on Webb and his questionable decision making once more.

I'm not going to go with the view that he favours United (although the evidence would suggest that this is the case) but quite simply, he tends to invariably get big decisions wrong on a regular basis. One of the few defences of the man is that he allows the game to flow. What that says to me is that he doesn't apply the rules as he should and when he isn't getting a decision wrong, he is just bottling out of making a call at all. How this man is considered one of the world's best referees is beyond me and possibly more a reflection of the terrible state of officiating rather than his non-existent competence for which has been unjustly rewarded for.

On the subject of diving, Berbatov wasn't the only guilty party this weekend. In Crawley’s win over Derby, the Rams' Chris Porter took a tumble in the box but justice was ultimately served when portly winger Kris Commons had his spot kick saved. At the Emirates on Saturday, before actually winning a penalty when he was fouled, young Theo Walcott had, just moments before, tried to con us all by chucking his slender frame to the ground with little invitation as he tried desperately to win Arsenal a spot kick in the latter stages of his side's surprise 1-1 draw against the Championship's Leeds United. After the diving incident, Theo was quick to both admit and apologise for his actions.

Walcott, for all his footballing limitations, always comes across as a down to earth, smart and articulate lad and this is evident in this post match confession. With all the lies, greed, two-facedness and general bullshit we have to put up with from most people involved in football, it was a breath of fresh air to hear a player seemingly acknowledge his wrongdoing and show some form of regret about doing it unlike some more hypocritical ones out there.

That said, he shouldn't have been diving in the first place. No sense in apologising after the crime. He may not be up there with the Ronaldos and Drogbas of the world but he shouldn't be surprised if people start looking at him in the same accusing manner from now on.

Of course, if you listen to most pundits, fans or general people in the game, diving is the worst possible crime that can ever be committed on the football pitch. Yes, an action that causes no physical harm is apparently signaling the death knell of the game. A high profile dive will more often than not take up more column inches than say.... a bad tackle. Something the staunchest critics of diving will try and justify as 'part of the game'.

Yes, there were people in some quarters who tried to suggest that tackles by messers Gerrard and Tiote in their respective matches which were both punished by red cards were somehow acceptable. English football's Neanderthal mentality strikes again.

On a similar theme, in Blackburn's 1-0 cup win over Championship table toppers QPR, the Hoops' Jamie Mackie flew in on Gael Givet and was unfortunate to himself end up breaking his leg in two places. This was not the end of the story however as Rovers' El-Hadji Diouf apparently stood over the injured Mackie shouting abuse and taunting the Scotland international. This led to Diouf being predictably hammered from all quarters and prompted Rangers manager Neil Warnock to describe the Senegalese international as a 'disgrace' and a 'sewer rat'.

Far be it from me to ever defend Diouf as there are many, MANY reasons to dislike him but on this occasion, I think people ought to cut him some slack. Having seen his teammate completely wipped out (and subsequently stretchered off) I'm pretty sure many *cough* John Terry *cough, cough* other players would have reacted in exactly the same way. Even more significantly, unless I'm missing something, I'm pretty sure the striker doesn't have a medical degree so at the point at which he was supposed to have been abusing Mackie, how could he have possibly have known the extent of the injury? The pictures of the QPR man being stretched off do not suggest a double break. There is no support on his leg nor is the he using any sort of breathing apparatus usually given to players suffering from this kind of distress. At best, the injury appears inconclusive. It just seems easier for people to point the finger at the panto villain than to look at the situation as a whole.

I also find it funny when people who reside in glass houses somehow get their hands on a bag of stones and decide at that very moment to practice their throwing. Neil Warnock has long had a reputation for sending players out to act in a less than gentlemanly fashion on the pitch and he himself has been accused of calling for opposition players to have their legs broken. This is certainly a case of the pot calling the kettle black and it would be crazy for anybody to give Warnock's hypocritical rant any more attention than it deserves.

Finally, football and social networking made for some very uncomfortable bedfellows this week. It seems that posting your thoughts on Twitter can get you in some trouble if you are professional footballer. In the fallout from the penalty incident at Old Trafford, Liverpool's Ryan Babel posted a (badly) photoshopped picture of Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt which has landed him in hot water with the FA who have slapped him with an improper conduct charge.

Earlier in the weekend, Liverpool's alleged right back Glen Johnson responded to criticism from Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson by bringing up the former Arsenal man's drink, drug and gambling problems on his twitter page in an act the showed about as much tact and class as a multi-millionaire footballer stealing a toilet seat from B&Q...

Even the fallout from the Diouf incident has seen QPR players going Tweet crazy. So, as a result of these 'tweets', we've got the authorities investigating players' conduct as well as clubs looking to clamp down on what kind of content is posted.

While some of the posts may be ill-timed, not properly thought out and of course, down right controversial, let's ask ourselves, it is really a big problem? Footballers are often accused of not being able to relate to fans and living in their own bubble. People are always complaining about players not being able to understand the so-called common man like you or I.

Something like Twitter is a great way of bridging that gap. We're all sick to the back teeth of the regulated, vacuous, cliche-riddled, nondescript interviews that players are forced to give so why deprive them of a means to publicly and honestly express themselves? Don't agree with what they say then so what? They are as entitled to their opinions as we all are and as long as what they say isn't libelous, they should not be censored from communicating them. Let them tweet cake!

For libelous, not thought out views, follow me on Twitter

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