Rather unexpectedly, yesterday turned into a proverbial footballing fiesta. I went down to see Dad on one of those raw, dank English winter days where thoughts turn towards emigration to warmer climes. As the heavens opened, it was almost as though some higher power was intoning ‘Get thee unto a television and tune to Sky Sports, for I say to you, yea verily, it will continue to piss down for the rest of the day.’
So we did and, rather spookily, it turned out to be a journey up football’s food chain, starting near the bottom with the FA Cup 2nd Round tie between Kettering & Leeds on ITV. There was a modicum of interest here; Kettering is only about 8 miles from Dad’s place (though he’s always been a Northampton Town fan) and Leeds, well after all, there was a time when they were nearly as unpopular with United fans as Liverpool are……nearly.
Of course, Leeds and the financial incompetence of Ridsdale et al have become a watchword for stupidity, the “There but for the grace of God…” club, where everyone shakes their heads ruefully, even though they’re doing the same thing. Clubs like United, Chelsea, Liverpool…even City are only a major stockmarket meltdown or a palace revolution away from the same kind of disaster.
Still, I had more immediate issues to deal with and,almost to my surprise, I discovered there was still a warm glow of pleasure to be had from seeing those Leeds fans, once so arrogant, stuck on a terrace in the pouring rain in a one-horse Northamptonshire town playing a non-league team in the second round of the FA Cup. The Kettering fans were singing ‘You’re not famous anymore’…..so true, so true…
And last year, of course, lest we forget, they lost at the same stage to a non-league team just 50 miles away in Histon. Marvellous stuff. I settled back, hoping for a repeat. Leeds actually dominated the first half and looked the more likely to score, but couldn’t make the breakthrough. The camera scanned the sodden frustrated faces at the Leeds end and I found myself wondering if the Leeds-based painter & decorator who so hated Manchester United that he would habitually turn down any work that required him to use red paint was in there somewhere. If he was, he wouldn’t have been happy when the red shirts of Kettering scored from a corner. Ian Roper, a journeyman centre-back who had previously played for Walsall and Luton, nodded the ball in off the underside of the crossbar.
Kettering player-manager Lee Harper puts a protective arm around goalscorer Ian Roper at the end of the game
This of course caused huge enjoyment on my part, though even I would have to concede that Leeds hardly deserved to be down in the game. As it was, they soon equalised; Kettering failed to close down the dangerous Snodgrass on the left and he fired in a cross that was deftly deflected home by Beckford. And that was it…a 1-1 draw. Afterwards came the third round draw and – wouldn’t you just know it – the last tie out of the ‘hat’ was Manchester United v Leeds or Kettering…..
Moving swiftly along, we then tuned into the Arsenal v Chelsea game on Sky. Like many people, I enjoy watching Arsenal as long as they’re not playing us. Their style is very cultured and easy on the eye and they have at least one great player in Cesc Fabregas. However, were I an Arsenal fan, the media coverage they get would infuriate me. When they pass and stroll their way past some lesser team and win 4-0, the hacks are all falling over one another to praise their style and their panache, Wenger is revered as a genius, as is Fabregas…. On the other hand, when they get caught out – badly – as they did against us in the Champions League Semi-Final 2nd Leg last year or as they did against Chelsea yesterday, the media are on their case straight away, dismissing them as toothless and without substance as a team. Fabregas is ineffectual and Wenger is…..well, yesterday, poor old Arsene didn’t help himself with some ludicrous claims about a disallowed goal, designed of course to deflect attention away from the fact that his team had just been clobbered. I read somewhere that Chelsea had bullied Arsenal into submission and I’d say that was fair comment.
Didier Drogba – a force to be reckoned with…..
Poor old Chelsea; no-one really likes them except their own fans. Even media people ‘respect’ Drogba but have no real affection for the guy. Even a couple of gorblimey Landan boys like Lampard and Joe Cole are respected rather than viewed with any real affection. As for Ashley Cole, he must have thought pantomime season had come early because the Gooners fans booed him from start to finish yesterday like he was some pantomime villain. Even Captain Courageous, Blubbering J.T. himself, is handled with some caution by the media. This does intrigue me though only to a certain extent as there are a number of players in the Chelsea team – Ballack and Joe Cole in particular – who I absolutely despise for one reason or another, mainly connected with gamesmanship and foul play in that order.
However, no-one could deny Chelsea a comprehensive win yesterday. They simply blew Arsenal away and are looking good for the title. However, they still have to come to our place and if we can keep pace with them until March, it would be a brave man who would bet against United pinching a fourth consecutive title.
Of course, having dominated the latter stages of the Champions League for the last few years, the so-called ‘Big Four’ in the Premier League will be feeling pretty good about themselves right now – except for the Dippers of course, who are no doubt busily planning their Europa League itineraries. However, the eyes of the rest of the world were last night focussed on the Camp Nou in Barcelona where – in the popular view – the best teams in the world were facing each other in the first ‘El Clasico’ of the season, with the world’s three most expensive footballers and – in the view of most – the current best footballer in the world all on the same pitch.
98,000 in the Camp Nou, Ronaldo & Kaka versus Messi and Henri (no Ibrahimovic for now) – the world held its collective breath – and waited for the genius of someone or other to unfold…and waited…..OK, it wasn’t as grim as bits of Kettering vs Leeds, but not as absorbing as quite a lot of Arsenal vs Chelsea either. Frankly, it was pretty ordinary. Ronaldo should have scored but didn’t, but other than that it was a bit of a phoney war. However, the second period was a different story. Barcelona began to play in those mesmerising little triangles – what Fergie referred to (I think) as the ‘carousel’ – with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi prominent. The quality of the play and the contest improved considerably. First Ronaldo was taken off, then the lacklustre Henri was withdrawn in favour of Ibrahimovic. This prompted huge cheers from the Barca fans and within a few minutes of coming on, the tall Swede had connected emphatically with Dani Alves’ long cross to the back post, firing a left -footed volley past Casillas. All in all, a very English goal – Alan Shearer or Mark Hughes would have relished a chance like that.
Ronaldo fires a free kick into the Barcelona wall during an insipid first half at the Camp Nou
And that really was that. There was a sending-off per team, but Real were unable to seriously discomfort Barcelona and Benzema, who I so wanted United to sign in the summer was somewhat disappointing when he came on. Ironically, given all the conspicuous consumption on display, the game’s best player was a Catalonian centre-back who cost Barcelona nothing, team captain Carles Puyol, who simply swamped Real’s attackers whenever they did look dangerous.
Like Ian Roper, Puyol is a no-nonsense defender. Both will have slept the sleep of the righteous last night. There, however, the similarities end….