2134: The sack race, part one - Pard
by : Stephen Orford
“But if the goal isn't given it could well be a red card for Petr Cech for the foul on Milan Baros and a penalty.” he explains, describing the circumstances which led to Garcia’s goal perfectly. Liverpool’s 1-0 second leg victory over the Premiership champions elevates Benitez into Anfield folklore, as they advance to their first European Cup final in 20 years.
The Reds survive a late scare when Eidur Gudjohnsen fires narrowly wide during an astonishing and frankly ridiculous six minutes of added time, leaving not quite so special boss Jose Mourinho to moan;
“The linesman scored the goal. No-one knows if that shot went over the line and you must be 100%. The best team lost. After they scored only one team played, the other one just defended for the whole game.” he insists, crying into his expensive red wine.
“They are in the final and from my heart I hope they win it. The night belongs to them and I don't want to criticise them.” he adds, having already criticised them.
There are other stories this evening and while Liverpool may have officially entered Dreamland, Nottingham Forest suffer more bad disappointment with the news that Gary Megson intends to stay on as manager despite their relegation from the Championship;
“I've spoken to the people who run the club and they are happy for me to carry on in the job. If's that's the case, that's what I will do.” he cackles insanely.
“We are all singing from the same song sheet.” he suggests, disturbingly.
“We have to get the right personnel in and I have more faith in Gary succesffully doing that than I have in anyone else.” says Forest chief executive Mark Arthur, as Joe Kinnear is heard guffawing in the background.
No sooner has David Hay been dismissed as manager of Dunfermline than Jim Leishman is appointed to replace him. Leishman is installed as caretaker manager, and begins his reign by pledging his every sinew to the cause;
“I'll do anything I can to help the team this season.” he says, phoning the Samaritans and emailing David Blaine.
Wrexham are relegated from League One after losing 2-1 at home to Brentford. The Robins take the lead, but later suffer a last-minute disaster when Scott Fitzgerald notches the winner following Isiah Rankin’s 68th minute equaliser.
The Welsh side are condemned to League Two football next term due mostly to the deduction of ten league points after they went into administration earlier in the season. Meanwhile, Brentford climb into fifth place in the table, on the brink of a play-off place with just one game to go.
As expected it will be AC Milan who meet Liverpool in the Champions League final on May 25, but only after a late Massimo Ambrosini goal denies Dutch side PSV Eindhoven what would probably have been a deserved chance at an extra 30 minutes during the Champions League semi-final second leg on May 4.
The Dutch champions manage to wipe out their 2-0 first leg deficit with goals from Ji Sung Park and Philip Cocu only for yet another last-minute concession to Milan to end their dreams. Cocu strikes again moments later, but Massimo Ambrosini’s crucial away goal had already settled the issue. It was the third time during the two-legged tie that PSV had conceded at the end of a half, with no way back this time;
“We're very lucky - and grateful - to be in the final.” admits Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti afterwards.
“We were very scared when we were 2-0 down. PSV will be a standout team in the Champions League in the next few years.” he adds, a prediction which seems to rely on the likes of his own club not cherry-picking from Guus Hiddink’s squad in the summer.
“It is not the biggest disappointment of my career.” insists Hiddink. “My worst experience was as Holland coach when we lost to Brazil in the 1998 World Cup semi-final.” he confirms, just in case we were wondering. Champions League? Pah. Small beer.
“There was only one team that played to win, and that was us.” sobbed a devastated Jose Mourinho. No, it was Philip Cocu. Sorry.
There is one Premiership encounter this evening, with Fulham and Newcastle United left to squabble over minor league placings at Craven Cottage. The Toon come out on top 3-1, despite manager Graeme Souness’s decision to rest Alan Shearer, apparently requested by the player himself;
“He came to me and asked if he could be rested and I can't argue because he's worked his socks off for me.” says Souness.
Goals from Darren Ambrose, Patrick Kluivert and Shola Ameobi seal the win but the Scot is not entirely convinced by the performance;
“We've made hard work of it. At 3-0 we had done the hard work but we were a bit nave towards the end. We didn't keep the ball as well as we could have done but we've got three teenagers and a 20-year-old and I can't ask any more from the teams I've been putting out.” he says.
Anyone who didn’t know better would think that Souness is complaining about squad depth having rested his Head Boy at his own request, sent one striker off to Glasgow for answering back without putting his hand up in class, and failed to stop two more of his players from scuffling in the same unruly classroom.
Fulham’s Tomasz Radzinski is still alive, confirming this with a late consolation for the Cottagers. Boss Chris Coleman is left to over-state the significance of Saturday’s victory over Everton (April 30) and to convince his players to forget about the Seychelles for another fortnight;
“Overall it was definitely a case of after the Lord Mayor's show. It's important we finish on a high - we can still climb a couple of places up the table and well be aiming to do that.” he says, yawning slightly while flicking through the latest Thomas Cook brochure.
Two mysterious managerial departures to end Wednesday with, as first Neale Cooper leaves the possibly play-off bound League One outfit Hartlepool by mutual consent, while Argentine Ramon Diaz absconds from Oxford United.
Cooper is immediately linked with the recently vacated Dunfermline job, while Diaz’s departure from Oxford is “unexpected” according to chairman Firoz Kassam. Oxford lie a mediocre 14th in League Two, and Kassam adds;
“Ramon has ended his time as manager and left the country.”, which is one way of ducking out of contract negotiations.
Everton finally secure Champions League football for next season as Liverpool suffer a 3-1 defeat to Arsenal at Highbury on May 8. Gunners goals from Robert Pires, Jose Reyes and Cesc Fabregas complete the transition of David Moyes’ toffees from relegation fodder to major European players in the space of twelve months.
“There's no denying Everton are the best team in the city this season.” suggests Moyes.
Steven Gerrard replies for Liverpool but manager Rafa Benitez is left to admit that his team has fallen way short in the Premiership this term;
“I am disappointed by the things we have done away from home. To be in two finals is not easy, but we haven't done well in the Premiership.” says the manager of the second best team in Liverpool and at least the second best, if not THE best team in Europe.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger sees his side cement second place and automatic qualification for the Champions League group phase next season, but begins worrying about injuries ahead of the FA Cup final against Manchester United on May 21;
“The injuries are serious, Gilberto has a recurrence of an ankle injury, Patrick Vieira has hurt his knee, while Robert Pires turned his ankle.” he laments, with Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg already doubtful for the Cardiff dust-up.
It’s the last day in the Coca Cola Championship with promotion and relegation issues settled once and for all. Wigan Athletic will enjoy a first ever season in the top flight after they beat Reading 3-1 at the JJB, securing the second automatic promotion spot behind champions Sunderland. Lee McCulloch, Jason Roberts and Nathan Ellington put Latics in command, before a late Steve Sidwell consolation for the Royals;
“The players deserve all the plaudits, for Wigan to be in the Premiership is an unbelievable achievement.” says boss Paul Jewell.
“I'm delighted not to be going into those play-offs.” he adds.
Reading boss Steve Coppell may not agree, as his side’s defeat costs them a place in the end of season lottery after West Ham United beat Watford 2-1 to claim the last berth.
The Hammers’ win sets up a play-off semi-final tie with Ipswich Town, whose 1-1 draw with Brighton is not enough for them to pip Wigan to promotion, but plenty good enough to secure Albion’s Championship status at the expense of Gillingham;
“It's the worst day of my football career.” claims Gillingham boss Stan Ternent, whose side miss out on the win that would have saved them after conceding a last minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw with already relegated Nottingham Forest;
“It's a great little club. It can be a great slightly bigger club if we can have the right stadium.” says Brighton boss Mark McGhee, dropping a subtle hint.
Crewe Alexandra also survive thanks to a 2-1 win over Coventry, while Derby beat Preston North End 3-1 to set up a re-match with the Lancashire club in the play-off semi-finals.
Dennis Wise has had enough of Millwall. The former Chelsea midfielder resigns his position after a goalless draw with Burnley gives the Lions a 10th place finish in the Championship;
“He (new chairman Jeff Burnage) told me his direction and I didn't agree.” says Wise, citing his reasons for leaving just twelve months after guiding the London club to the FA Cup final.
Juventus open up a possibly decisive three-point gap at the top of Italy’s Serie A after beating nearest challengers AC Milan thanks to a solitary David Trezeguet goal. Meanwhile, goals from Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o take Barcelona a step closer to winning La Liga in Spain as they beat Valencia 2-0. The Catalan club now lie six points clear of Real Madrid with only three games remaining.
Lyon secure the French title for the fourth consecutive time with a 2-1 win over AC Ajaccio
“Signing Rob Hulse shows that the club is coming out of the terminal decline it was in and we are serious about moving forward.” says Leeds United manager Kevin Blackwell on May 9, almost convincingly. The former Crewe striker signs from West Bromwich Albion on a three-year deal worth in the region of £1.1million after spending the last three months on loan at Elland Road.
“I thought Rob was at the stage where he needed first-team football and I couldn't guarantee him that.” says Baggies boss Bryan Robson, putting Leeds current plight into some sort of perspective.
Hearts shoot themselves in the foot by provoking manager John Roberston into a resignation. Despite leading the club to fifth in the SPL table Robertson’s position is reviewed by the board, at which point he is offered a revised role as an assistant. He politely declines, stating;
“Everyone knows what the club means to me and it was a fantastic opportunity to come here. It hasn't left a bitter taste in my mouth. We've done the job, we've been to two semi-finals and we've won in Basle which no other British team has done, and we won at Celtic Park for the first time in five years.”
Records tumble at Old Trafford, but it is visitors Chelsea who are setting all the benchmarks as they cruise to a 3-1 victory over Manchester United on May 10.
The Red Devils take the lead through Ruud Van Nistelrooy but goals from Tiago, Eidur Gudjohnsen and an impossibly off-side Joe Cole seal Chelsea’s landmark 29th win of this Premiership season. Their points total of 94 is also a record, and all of this after they had previously beaten Arsenal’s record for clean sheets during a Premiership season. Barring a catastrophic defensive display on Sunday at Newcastle United (May 15), Chelsea will also better Arsenal’s record of only 17 goals conceded in a Premiership campaign.
The win over United is achieved despite the absence of Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, John Terry and Petr Cech from the starting line-up, leaving manager Jose Mourinho to reflect;
“The record was our motivation. We wanted to beat it and this is a special moment. It is the perfect way to do it - at a great stadium against a team who in Sir Alex Ferguson have a manager who leads by example in success and fair play.”
“Once Chelsea's second goal went in they were worthy winners.” admits Sir Alex, leading by example in fair play, if not necessarily success on this occasion.
Millwall assistant manager Ray Wilkins announces his intention to quit the club following the parting of Dennis Wise last weekend;
“I will depart when a new manager is appointed but I have promised to stay until that happens. I will give the new manager all the information I can about the squad.” says the painfully reasonable Wilkins, after earlier stating he has no interest in the vacant manager’s position.
Everton make a stunning return to the form of twelve months ago as they suffer a humiliating 7-0 pasting at Highbury against Arsenal on May 11. Dutch maestro Dennis Bergkamp is on the score sheet in what may or may not be his last home league game for the north London club, with negotiations on a new contract yet to be concluded;
“I've made a decision, but we won't announce it until the end of the season.” says Gunners boss Arsene Wenger of Bergkamp’s future. “He is a super-special player. You don't meet a Dennis Bergkamp at the end of every street.” he continues.
All of which must be a relief for mortified Everton boss David Moyes. It is just possible that his troops have enjoyed too much champagne after qualifying for the Champions League with two games to spare, but the former Preston North End manager is making no excuses;
“It has been a great week for for Everton Football Club and I have no criticism of the players but tonight, as a manager, I am embarrassed.” he admits, crawling through a large hole in the ground.
Despite numerous attempts to burgle his home, Manchester City defender Ben Thatcher decides to stay with the City Of Manchester Stadium club, looking to be a huge part of the plans of fellow left-sided hatchet man Stuart Pearce;
“It (the series of burglaries) was really unpleasant and shook us. The transfer window coincided with the break-ins, but I am not disappointed the move fell through. I have three years left on my contract at City and I would like to stay.” he claims, rejecting moves to Detroit and Baghdad.
Dastardly American penny-pincher Malcolm Glazer seems finally set to get his filthy mitts on Manchester United after winning control of the club with a £790 million takeover bid on May 12.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner secures the 28.7% stake previously owned by Irish race-horse tycoons JP McManus and John Magnier, taking his overall stake in the Old Trafford club above 70%.
There is uproar among the fans at this, and the situation is deemed serious enough for government comment;
“Manchester United is very important to English football and the government is keeping a very close eye on the situation. The fans are very worried and obviously there is concern that ticket prices will go up and that there won't be investment in the players.” reckons Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time programme no less.
“I hope Mr Glazer sets up constructive discussions with the club, its supporters and employees, as well as the footballing authorities, as soon as possible.” adds Sports Minister Richard Caborn worriedly, as the prospect of his own involvement looms large.
Both Mr Caborn and Ms Harman seem to have that government gift for understatement, as the heads and spokesmen of various United supporters groups set about making their feelings known a little more clearly;
“I am very sad - I still love the club but I refuse to put a penny into the company. And I believe as many as 20,000 fans may also leave Man Utd.” suggests Nick Towle, chairman of Shareholders United, while also claiming to have ripped up his season ticket along with all of his prawn sandwich vouchers.
His second in command, vice-chairman Oliver Houston, is equally dismayed;
“He's (Glazer) not turning up with a suitcase full of his own cash. He is, in effect, asking Manchester United fans to pay for his takeover, to pay for increased ticket prices and increased merchandising.” he moans, failing to realise that he and his comrades have been requested to do that since they became a Public Limited Company over a decade ago.
The last word (for today) on the subject goes to Independent Manchester United Supporters Association chairman Jules Spencer;
“If Glazer does get control, then we will up sticks and form a new club which will continue the traditions and heritage and the legacy of 125 years of Manchester United.” he insists, taking his ball home.
There is other news today, as Stuart Pearce is officially unveiled across town as the new manager of Manchester City. Pearce‘s appointment comes after he was recently named manager of the month for April, and after a run of results that sees City with a genuine shot at UEFA Cup qualification;
“I'm very pleased and honoured to be made manager. I don't know any other way than to win things and judging by results the players are backing me.” says Pearce, seemingly expecting a large trophy haul any time now.
“The oomph of a new manager has helped with our recent results, but all the players have pitched in with 7/8 out of 10 performances in all the games. I try not to baffle them with science, everyone knows their job and they've delivered.” he adds. 7/8 out of 10? Which paper was that in, then?
The only on-field action sees the start of the promotion play-offs with the first leg of the League One semi-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Brentford played out at Hillsbrough. The Owls win 1-0, thanks to an early Jon-Paul McGovern strike, leaving manager Paul Sturrock to reflect;
“It was a good performance from the boys, especially in the first half - the second half was a bit scrappy.”
Brentford boss Martin Allen mentions the fact that it is 'only half-time' a record number of times in his post-game interview, before adding;
“We didn't really get to grips with the game in the first 30 minutes, but that was perhaps to be expected.” without explaining why this sort of expectation is held.
“I do feel sorry for the other managers though. I feel great now but I can understand how the others must feel.” says West Bromwich Albion boss Bryan Robson as his side complete the great escape on the last day of the Premiership season on May 15.
Those other managers are namely Iain Dowie of Crystal Palace, Harry Redknapp of Southampton and Norwich's Nigel Worthington, as all three see their teams slip out of the elite for next season. Robson experienced the pain of relegation with Middlesbrough in 1997, but goals from Geoff Horsfield and Kieran Richardson help his side to the 2-0 victory over Portsmouth that ensures the Baggies safety.
The Hawthorns crowd offers only a mild reaction to Richardson’s ultimately decisive strike, due in the most part to the goings on at The Valley. At the time of Richardson’s goal, Crystal Palace had their fate in their own hands as they led Charlton Athletic 2-1. However, a late Jon Fortune header snatches a point for the Addicks, and seals the fate of Iain Dowie’s Eagles;
“It's not time for recriminations. It's a time to be proud of a group of players who have given me everything.” says Dowie, philosophical as ever.
Harry Redknapp’s future at Southampton and possibly in football is in doubt after his side slipped into the abyss also. The Saints lead Manchester United 1-0 through a Jon O’Shea own goal before Darren Fletcher and Ruud Van Nistelrooy condemn them to their first relegation in 27 years.
“There's a lot of surgery that needs doing. I'll sit down with the chairman, see what he wants to do and where he wants to take the club.” says Redknapp, perhaps suggesting that he might not wish to get involved in messy rocedures like surgery.
The one club who had their fate in their own hands going into the day’s football were Norwich City. However, after a good recent run of form the Canaries spin spectacularly out of the top flight, losing by an apocalyptic 6-0 at Fulham.
“We're down, but I wouldn't have done anything differently.” claims Norwich boss Nigel Worthington.
Not even about Delia’s half-time speech against Manchester City? Strange.
Speaking of whom, Stuart Pearce’s men fail to secure the final UEFA Cup place after Robbie Fowler misses a last-gasp penalty against Middlesbrough. Mark Schwarzer’s save from the former Liverpool striker earns his side the 1-1 draw that ensures another crack at European football next season.
The game features the incredible sight of David James playing as a striker late on, wearing an out-field shirt with his name and number on it after Claudio Reyna is substituted for back-up goalkeeper Nicky Weaver.
Reflecting on his side’s narrow failure to make Europe, and his eccentric tactical manouvre, Pearce comments;
“Credit to Middlesbrough, they came here and shut up shop. Steve McClaren is a good manager. I just thought, with his height, he (James) could unsettle their defenders and I think he did.”
“The whole season comes down to one moment between two players and our player won.” suggests McLaren, personalising things somewhat;
“You couldn't write a better script. We withstood a battering. The team showed amazing character. But we deserved it over 38 games, not just this one.” he adds.
In the Championship there is play-off business to be attended to, as Preston North End earn what could be a decisive 2-0 win in the first leg of their semi-final with Derby County. David Nugent opens the scoring before a late howler by Rams goalkeeper Lee Camp gifts Billy Davies’ men a second through Richard Cresswell;
“I'm pleased but it's only half-time.” says Davies, echoing the sentiments of any coach who has ever won the first leg of any tie in the history of football.
“Preston were celebrating as if they were already at Cardiff but let's remember what the last score was at Pride Park.” warns a seemingly resentful and determined Derby manager George Burley.
Further down the league pyramid there is a goalless draw in the first leg of the League Two semi-final between Northampton Town and Southend United.
Barcelona finally wrap up their first La Liga title since 1999 after a 1-1 draw with Levante. They fall behind in the game, but Samuel Eto’o’s equaliser earns the point that they need following Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla.
“I said from the start that we'd have to fight hard for the league title and we had to suffer to earn this draw but we did it in the end.” says a battle-weary Barca boss Frank Rijkaard.
Stan Ternent quits his post as Gillingham manager after only six months in charge, following the club's relegation to League One this season.
American business baddie Malcolm Glazer now owns more than the 75% of the shares required for overall control of Manchester United, ending the days trading in the stock exchange with 75.7% to his name on May 16. Glazer can now remove the club from the stock exchange, allowing him to effectively make decisions without the approval of others. However, negotiating a broadcasting rights deal for the club independently of the current Premier League contract is out of his reach, so claims Premier League boss Richard Scudamore;
“The Premier League is blessed with a very conservative constitution. Fourteen clubs out of 20 need to vote to do anything. So it is almost impossible, and we have seen it in the past, for a small group of clubs to come along and achieve an alteration to what has been a very successful formula, both in terms of the way we do the TV deals and also the way we distribute the money.” he claims, as Glazer prepares a bid to purchase the Premier League.
Meanwhile United pair Ryan Giggs and Tim Howard both agree two-year extensions to their Old Trafford deals. Despite his inability to hold down a regular starting slot in recent times, American shot-stopper Howard seems enthusiastic about the future;
“The fans here are amazing and I am happy to be committing my future to the club. I look forward to enjoying a successful time with United.” he says, as compatriot Glazer looks forward to reaping the marketing benefits in his homeland.
The satisfaction of being a Portsmouth fan following Southampton’s relegation is damaged a little by the news that the club look set to sell leading scorer Ayegbeni Yakubu to Middlesbrough. The clubs agree a fee of around £7million after the player agrees personal terms at the Riverside Stadium;
“He fills Steve McClaren's requirements - he's young, he's a goalscorer and he's the next generation.” says ‘Boro chief executive Keith Lamb, as Mark Viduka’s broken fingernails rule him out for another two years.
Sheffield Wednesday become the first team to reach Cardiff for the playoff finals, as they see off Brentford 3-1 on aggregate in the League One semi-final. The Owls pull off a passable impersonation of Liverpool on the night, defending for long periods before scoring from two set-pieces through Lee Peacock and Chris Brunt to put the tie beyond the Bees. Andy Frampton pulls one back late on for the Griffin Park club, but it is too little, too late;
“This club has been in the doldrums for too long, and now we have a chance to move up a league.” enthuses victorious boss Paul Sturrock, no doubt relishing the chance to earn promotion to the Championship and a long awaited meeting with Rupert and Southampton.
It will be Hartlepool who face Sheffield Wednesday in the League One playoff final in Cardiff on May 29, as they come through a nerve-jangling penalty shoot-out against Tranmere Rovers on May 17.
Rovers pull back a 2-0 deficit from the first leg thanks to goals from Ryan Taylor and David Beresford, but lose out 6-5 on spot-kicks. Ritchie Humphreys, a former Wednesday player, notches the winning 12-yarder leaving Pools caretaker manager Martin Scott relieved and stressed all at the same time;
“Full credit to Tranmere, they battered us. It was an exciting game but it didn't go to my plan and I aged tonight.” he comments, as Ian Sharps is the unlucky man to miss the vital kick for Tranmere.
The Portsmouth exodus continues as Patrik Berger looks all set to join Aston Villa on a two-year contract. The former Liverpool man is out of contract at Fratton Park this summer after two years with Pompey;
“It is an exciting move and I'm looking forward to my first season. David O'Leary was the main factor in me coming here.” says the 31 year-old.
“As soon as I knew of the interest from Villa, I wanted to come here. This is a big club with a great history.” he adds. Great history, questionable future.
Still needing one more point to preserve their SPL status, Livingston announce the impending departure of manager Richard Gough. It is thought that the former Tottenham and Scotland defender wants to return to the United States where he enjoyed a playing spell. Assistant Archie Knox will also leave the club at the end of the season, and Livi chairman Pearse Flynn doesn‘t know quite whether to worry or not;
“Their primary task was to steady the team's fortunes and start to climb away from the bottom of the table, as well as refreshing the first-team squad in January.” he suggests.
“This they have achieved, although obviously we are all preparing for a grandstand finish to the season against Dundee at Almondvale this weekend.” he adds, with perhaps a hint of panic.
Squarefootball.net is a proper source of footballing news, views and mischievous gossip, and so we start May 18 with the UEFA Cup final whether you are interested in it or not. Roman Abramovich‘s other little hobby, CSKA Moscow, become the first Russian team to win a European trophy, beating Sporting Lisbon of Portugal 3-1 in their own back yard.
“They (the CSKA players) are heroes. They did the impossible.” declares Moscow coach Valery Gazzayev, as his side come from behind to pull off a remarkable victory. Goals from Alexei Berezutsky, Yuri Zhirkov and Vagner Love cancel out Rogerio‘s first half opener, leaving Sporting boss Jose Peseiro magnanimous but seemingly devastated in defeat;
“They are the best team we've faced this season. We are enormously sad. We gave our all but luck wasn't on our side.” he offers, as the conquerors of both Newcastle United and Middlesbrough fall at the final hurdle.
Domestically, the big game of the night is the second leg of the Championship playoff semi-final between Ipswich Town and West Ham United at Portman Road. The Tractor BoBo’ tragic run in the playoffs continues, as they go down 2-0 to a West Ham squad perhaps aware that it could be drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.
Two Bobby Zamora goals seal a second consecutive playoff final appearance for West Ham, as they go through 4-2 on aggregate.
“This was a magic night. It is the players' win because they were brilliant.” insists a jubilant Hammers boss Alan Pardew, before going on to perhaps hint ever so slightly at his own contribution;
“The professionalism and tactical awareness we showed from start to finish couldn't have been better.” says the former Reading boss. Tactical awareness? I wonder what you might be suggesting, Alan?
“We now just want to win the final to get this club back where it belongs.” he concludes.
Despite a third place finish in the league, and a 12-point buffer over their opponents over the 46-game campaign, Ipswich boss Joe Royle suddenly decides that his side are not better than the sixth placed Hammers after all;
“If I'm honest they've probably got better players than us. Our lads have climbed mountains to get here.” he claims, before falling back on the old injustice of the playoff system chestnut;
“I think the play-off system is wrong but that's not a complaint. - Ipswich Town manager Joe Royle.”
That’s odd, Joe. It certainly seems like one.
Episode three is a huge disappointment. That statement works on a couple of levels, but in this case it refers to the third instalment of the recent Preston North End v Derby County spat on May 19.
The Rams, having beaten Preston 3-1 in their final league game of the season, somehow managed to lose 2-0 at Deepdale in last week’s playoff semi-final first leg, a result which ultimately proves costly after tonight’s goalless, pointless tedium at Pride Park.
“Last year we were a point away from getting relegated. We played our part in a fantastic fight but credit must go to Preston.” - says a disappointed Derby boss George Burley.
“They worked very, very hard over both legs and they defended really well.” He adds, perhaps implying a hint of negativity about Preston’s approach.
A late penalty miss from Grzegorz Raziak did little to help the East Midlands club’s cause, and the 2-0 aggregate victory left North End manager Billy Davies jubilant, and looking forward to the May 30 clash with West Ham United for a place in the Premiership;
“It's a very proud day for Preston and we've worked hard for it. We've beaten a good side, we're going to Cardiff and it'll be a great day for Preston.”
Despite taking a fearful pasting, Arsenal overcome arch-rivals Manchester United 5-4 in the first ever FA Cup final penalty shoot-out on May 21 after a 0-0 draw after extra time. Paul Scholes is the unlucky man to have his spot-kick saved by Jens Lehmann, leaving Arsene Wenger to reflect;
“We really had to dig deep. I'm very proud because it was a difficult game.” he gushes.
“There were some times in the second half when we were a bit lucky but we defended very well and to keep a clean sheet is good.” he adds, taking understatement to new levels before finally offering perhaps a miniscule amount of sympathy to the beaten finalists;
“Of course it is bad for the team that loses on penalties but it was a very intense game.” he admits.
Ashley Cole, the man at the centre of the Chelsea-Arsenal ‘tapping up’ row is the man lucky enough to convert the winning penalty. He dedicates the moment to those nice Manchester United fans who had encouraged him so much throughout;
“They were trying to hammer me and get on my back and I just wanted to shove it down their mouths.” he blasts. Shove what? More pizza presumably.
“The test of any manager or player is how they handle adversity. I think our club has handled that well over the years and will do so again. They are a good bunch.” says United boss Sir Alex Ferguson menacingly, as he plots another ten years in the hot-seat. Maybe.
“My problem is that I don't have words to express the things that I feel at this moment.” says Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez on May 25 as his side pull off the impossible, winning the Champions League by beating AC Milan 3-1 on penalties. The win was all the more remarkable given that the Anfield side found themselves 3-0 down at half-time through a double strike by Hernan Crespo and a goal inside a minute by veteran Paolo Maldini.
Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer in possibly his last game for the club, and Xabi Alonso drag Liverpool back from the dead before Jerzy Dudek saves from Andrea Pirlo and Andriy Shevchenko in the shoot-out.
“I am so happy to lift the cup for the fans.” says Gerrard as Chelsea tear up the contract that they had waiting for his signature.
Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti becomes the second manager, following Jose Mourinho, to refuse to believe that Liverpool deserve the glory;
“I think Milan played a marvellous final. We lost without deserving to lose and OK, we have to accept our defeat. We had the penalties and we lost and I think the team should be proud of what we have done. We are unhappy but I think we lost in an honourable way.” he insists.
May 28 sees the first of the three play-off finals as Southend United see off Lincoln City 2-0 after extra time in the League Two showdown. Goals in the extra period from Freddy Eastwood and Duncan Jupp break Imps hearts;
“To get promotion wipes away those two losing LDV Vans finals and it's nice to score here - it's the first time in three visits.” offers Southend boss Steve Tilson, whose side narrowly failed to gain automatic promotion at the end of the season.
“We have to go out and get a better team.” says Lincoln boss Keith Alexander, planning a clear-out.
A day later it is the turn of Sheffield Wednesday and Hartlepool to fight it out over promotion to the Championship. The Owls emerge victorious 4-2, again after extra time and having been just ten minutes away from defeat in normal time before a Steve McLean penalty rescues them;
“They kept with us when we looked like we were out of it.” says Wednesday boss Paul Sturrock of his side’s massive and vociferous support.
“The players were really professional in their approach in the last half-hour and, despite some of them playing 50 games, they were still digging deep.” he adds, giving his players a little of the credit also.
“I'm disappointed but you have to look at the bigger picture. This club is going forward. Yes, it's one step at a time but we are a force to be reckoned with now. If we can keep these players together we will have a good time next season.” says a philosophical Hartlepool caretaker-manager Martin Scott.
A lone Bobby Zamora goal takes West Ham United back to the Premiership at the expense of Preston North End in the Championship playoff final on May 30, Bank Holiday Monday.
“We're back in the Premiership, we'll do it justice and this lot will work hard next year.” promises Hammers boss Alan Pardew, before getting all touchy about previous criticisms of himself and his team;
“We proved a lot of people wrong after they said we didn't turn up last year.” he blasts, refusing to accept responsibility for last season’s playoff final defeat to Crystal Palace.
“We had a lot of criticism but we had to dig deep and we showed them today.” adds captain Nigel Reo-Coker, further displaying symptoms of the paranoid siege mentality that seems to have done the trick.
Preston boss Billy Davies immediately looks to his players to come back stronger next year;
“We've got to dust ourselves down and learn from what happened - learn from the mistakes and the experience.” he suggests, eyeing up West Ham as an example of how to bounce back from such a major disappointment.
“I couldn't have asked any more of these players, they've been absolutely fantastic all season.” he adds.
For those still interested, the future of Arsenal midfielder Edu is finally confirmed, as Valencia reveal that he is to join them later in the summer;
“He will join on 1 July and will play for the team in the next five seasons.” says the most optimistic statement to come out of the club since Claudio Ranieri suggested he would need a few seasons to settle into his job.
“You can't compare this hat-trick to the one I got in Germany because that was a World Cup qualifier and a special night for the whole country.” says Michael Owen, displaying a razor-sharp grasp on reality after his treble helps England overcome the might of Colombia 3-2 in New Jersey on the final day of May.
Peter Crouch falls around like Bambi on a treadmill for 72 minutes of an unspectacular debut, but it is the former Liverpool man who steals the show. Even goals from Mario Yepes and Aldo Ramirez cannot spoil the Real Madrid strikers mood, and he adds;
“We’ve made friends and won two games, so it’s job done for us.” as he moves into fourth place on the all-time England goalscorers list with 32.
Gordon Strachan is finally unveiled as the successor to Martin O’Neill as manager of Celtic, revealing that the decision to join the Bhoys was a very simple one;
“I made the decision in seconds. This is a chance I just couldn't turn down. I’m proud to be asked to follow Martin O’Neill and I’m looking forward to the challenge with a world famous club.”
By Stephen Orford
The big Premiership kick-off is still some 46 days away, but with little else to worry about over the summer than Chelsea’s latest misdemeanour or the potential arrival of another Spaniard in Liverpool, it might still be fun to look at what the new season has in store for the 20 men charged with leading their clubs through the rigours of a top-flight campaign.
By Christmas, you can expect several managers to have fallen by the wayside as one by one panic stricken chairmen push the button on the ejector seat, hoping that the arrival of a new man will provide the quick fix. Last year, Paul Sturrock took the honours, sacked by trigger-happy Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe after a ludicrous two games of the season. Sturrock eventually pitched up at Sheffield Wednesday, leading the Owls to playoff glory in League One, and a deserved assault on this year’s Championship.
So, whoever gets the bullet first might not be doomed to an entire year in the wilderness. However, don‘t expect Premiership chairman to learn any lessons from the Sturrock situation at Southampton who, lest we forget, were eventually relegated. The scramble to avoid the indignity of being first out will be as intense as ever. So, who are the men most likely to be in the firing line?
Many observers rate Chris Coleman high on the list of those likely to seeking new employment sooner rather than later. His Fulham outfit failed to inspire last season, without ever really getting themselves involved in the relegation scrap. The signing of Heidur Helgusson which was announced today (June 28) has bolstered the Fulham attack, but with Tomasz Radzinksi having disappointed badly in his first year at Craven Cottage the former Watford striker will need to settle in quickly if he is to ease the Cottagers’ striking woes.
The likes of Slyvain Legwinski and Steed Malbranque are routinely linked with moves away from Fulham, and should that happen Coleman's team might find it ever more difficult to mix it with the big boys. Coleman was a revelation in his first season with Fulham after taking over from Jean Tigana, but a continuation of the flat performances regularly seen last season will heap the pressure on him. A reasonably gentle opening at home to under-achieving Birmingham City and away at dogged but unspectacular Blackburn may just help the Welshman keep the wolves from the door in the early going. However, Arsenal and Everton await in Fulham’s next two fixtures of the new season, and they are likely to provide a rude awakening for the west London outfit.
Portsmouth were in free-fall last season, escaping relegation only because of the good form achieved under Harry Redknapp before the former West Ham manager made his acrimonious exit from Fratton Park. Frenchman Alain Perrin was appointed by chairman Milan Mandaric and he has immediately set about re-structuring the Pompey squad. Out have gone Patrik Berger, Steve Stone and, most notably, Ayegbeni Yakubu, and in have come Newcastle pair Laurent Robert and Andy O’Brien. With a replacement for Amdi Faye yet to be found, Portsmouth could find that they have a soft centre which could be ruthlessly exploited at the top level.
That they are in the Premiership at all is a remarkable achievement, more so that they have stayed there for what will be a third season. However, Perrin will need to instil a winning mentality quickly if he is to stave off the threat of Milan’s meddling. With the spectres of Velimir Zajec and the strange appointment that is David Pleat looming large over Perrin, things could get awfully complicated on the south coast.
Like Fulham, Portsmouth have a pretty forgiving opening to their schedule, with Tottenham visiting on the opening day followed by a visit to West Bromwich Albion, a home game with Aston Villa and a trip to Manchester City. All winnable, but all likely to be played under the intense pressure that comes with knowing the importance of a good start for a relatively new manager. The complexity of the management structure at Fratton Park muddies the waters even further, and it is Perrin who will be most in the firing line if results do not go according to plan.
It is well documented how much pressure Alan Pardew has been under during his short tenure in charge at West Ham United. The former Reading boss seems to have won the fans over for now, following the playoff win against Preston North End that finally lifted the Hammers out of the Championship , but there are still those who do not see him as the man to bring back the good times to Upton Park. For many, the free-flowing football that has for so long been a tradition in east London is not on show under Pardew, and failure to produce results could see him pay the price for that.
Undeterred, Pardew has set about strengthening defensively, an area in which many promoted teams often fall short, with the signing of the experienced Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Roy Carroll from Manchester United. Thomas Repka, a player much maligned but with much experience including some at Premiership level, has also agreed a new deal and could prove crucial.
Up front Teddy Sheringham remains, despite the fact that he will pass his 40th birthday before seasons end. Pardew will be hoping that the former Tottenham and Manchester United veteran, along with Marlon Harewood and Bobby Zamora can provide the goals to keep the team in with a chance in the top flight, but it is going to be a struggle.
The Upton Park club open with Blackburn Rovers at home before visiting the much troubled Newcastle United a week later. Bolton and Aston Villa then arrive, and it is not until September 24 that West Ham get their first chance to test themselves against the very best, as Arsenal make the journey across the capital.