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December 1998

Tuesday 1 Home wins in the Worthington for Sunderland, who score two in the last minute in beating Luton 3-0, and Wimbledon, where the holders Chelsea suffer their first defeat in 19 games. Gianluca becomes the 1,000th defeated manager to say: “We tried to play football, not long ball like Wimbledon,” while Joe Kinnear virtually writes his own invite to an FA disciplinary hearing by announcing that his players “had a nice few bob” on themselves to win the tournament at the start of the season.

Wednesday 2 In the Worthington Spurs beat a Man Utd team featuring nine changes from their last match. “Some clubs may treat this tournament lightly but we’re not in a position to do so,” says George. “Even the best teams can’t win all the time,” sniffs Alex. In the other tie, recent cup specialists Leicester plough on with a 1-0 win over Blackburn , who announce that they have been given permission to talk to Brian Kidd about their managerial vacancy. “I just hope he decides to stay,” whispers Alex, being brave for the sake of the kids.

Thursday 3 “I just didn’t want to die wondering,” says Brian Kidd on becoming the new manager of Blackburn. He claims that his mind was made up when Man Utd refused to give him a written guarantee that he would succeed Alex, who says, “I worked hard to keep Brian here last summer so this is disappointing.”

Saturday 5 Villa keep top spot after coming back to draw 1-1 at home with Man Utd. West Ham drop back from second after a 4-0 crushing at Leeds, where Neil Ruddock is dismissed for clattering Harry Kewell. Also bathing early, for the third time this season, is Dennis Wise, sent off during the first half of Chelsea’s goalless draw at (where else) Everton. “I think the less everyone talks about Dennis the better,” growls Gianluca. “We could be turning the year in the top three, we’re bucking the system,” beams Joe Kinnear after Wimbledon’s 2-1 win over Coventry. City’s chairman Bryan Richardson joins Gordon Strachan in a visit to the referee’s dressing room, apparently to enquire after some penalties not given. Southampton drop back to the bottom after losing at Leicester while Blackburn celebrate Brian Kidd’s appointment with a rare win, 1-0 over faltering Charlton. In the First Division Sunderland are now nine points ahead of the play-off contenders after another home win, this time 1-0 against Stockport, while Ipswich are five points clear in second place after a win by the same score against Birmingham. In the Cup, Third Division strugglers Hull City and Swansea beat Luton and Stoke respectively, while Southport of the Conference win at Mansfield and Yeovil claim another League scalp at home, beating Northampton 2-0.

Sunday 6 Middlesbrough stretch their unbeaten run to nine matches but miss a chance to move into the top five after conceding a late equaliser in a 2-2 home draw with Newcastle. “The crowd was not happy and my fellow coaches from Middlesbrough were not happy so I have to be pleased with that,” says Ruud, possibly not too happy himself.

Monday 7
Liverpool’s faltering form has set young Michael Owen thinking about his career plans: “My ambition is to win honours because I haven’t done that yet. After five years maybe I’ll move abroad.” These 18-year-olds: once they would have settled for painting their bedroom black and getting a motorbike on HP, now they want a job in Madrid or Turin. Tsk.

Tuesday 8 Liverpool tiptoe out of the UEFA Cup, losing 1-0 at home to Celta Vigo and so 4-1 on aggregate. “I cannot fault my players for effort,” says Gérard, though you sense that several will be not be his players for much longer. Rangers are out too, after taking the lead at Parma they have defender Sergio Porrini sent off and go on to lose 3-1. If that news cheered up Celtic fans, it will have been balanced by news that Mark Viduka, their new signing from Croatia Zagreb, has gone home to Australia without having kicked a ball for his new club. “I am not a guy to hide my feelings,” he says, insisting on a rest after a stressful time in Zagreb. What’s wrong with old-fashioned emotional repression, dammit? Fergus McCann, meanwhile, sniffs an agent-shaped rat: “There are question marks over the fee and where it is going.” A night to commemorate for Man City fans: the crowd for their Auto Windscreens first round tie, just 3,007, is the lowest ever to see a match at Maine Road. Rubbing it in, opponents Mansfield win 2-1. The disgraced Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall have forced their way back on to the Newcastle plc board. The three directors who voted against their return resign and Newcastle’s stockbrokers announce that they will no longer be working with the club. Ruud, however, is believed to be hopeful of getting a new chequebook to play with.

Wednesday 9 A 1-1 draw at home to Bayern is enough for Man Utd to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League. Both teams know some time before the end of the match that they have qualified, thanks to results in other groups. “I knew we were OK with ten minutes to go because the Germans are never wrong with these things, they have very good lines of communication,” says Alex, almost mentioning the war. Arsenal, already out and fielding a reserve side, cause a major surprise winning 3-1 away against Panathinaikos. Chelsea move up to third place in the Premiership, only two points off the top, after an injury-time goal from Tore Andre Flo (“he’s like a lethal weapon,” beams Gianluca) secures a 2-1 win over Aston Villa.

Thursday 10 UEFA confirm that the Champions League is to be expanded to 32 teams from next season, with the third-placed club in the Premiership getting the chance to play off for a place in the group stages. And if they bugger that up, they’ll move across to the UEFA Cup which is to be merged with the Cup-Winners Cup. The champions of Scotland, meanwhile, will have to enter the Champions League in the first qualifying round and get through three matches to reach the last 32. It’s going to be hell.

Friday 11 The FA are to investigate transfer deals between Tranmere and Everton, including that of Steve Simonsen, to determine whether Peter Johnson (no relation to Anton) had undue influence at two clubs. Portsmouth striker John Aloisi is reported to be joining Charlton for £800,000, but behind Alan Ball’s back (“an incredible deal, a shocking deal, a laughable deal,” he says). “I refused to sell the players at what I considered knockdown prices so the chairman got someone else in to do it,” Ball says. Step forward the “multi-talented” (Daily Mail) agent and impresario, Athole Still.

Saturday 12 Man Utd go to the top of the Premier League but are denied a victory at White Hart Lane by Sol Campbell’s late equaliser in a 2-2 draw. After seeing six of his players booked and Gary Neville sent off in the first half, Alex Ferguson tangles with the fourth official on the touchline, refuses to shake hands with George Graham, locks himself in the dressing-room and then leaves with­out attending the mandatory after-match press con­ference. He was a bit upset, apparently. Chelsea blow their chance to go top by conceding a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Derby. Pierre van Hooijdonk is sent off in Forest’s 3-1 defeat at Leicester. “Whatever else we say about him, I don’t think he is regarded as a hard-tackling striker,” says Dave Bassett, managing to sound miffed and uncharitable at the same time. Result of the day in the Nationwide is Birmingham’s 7-1 win at Oxford. Manager Malcolm Shotton throws his jacket to United fans at the end, saying: “It was a Christmas present.” They said it was just what they wanted, but did he have the receipt?

Sunday 13 Wild times on and off the pitch at Villa Park. A half-time skydiver dressed as Santa Claus crashes into the Trinity Road stand and plummets to the pitch, breaking more bones than he knew he had and delaying the second half for 20 minutes. Arsenal then proceed to throw away a 2-0 lead in the second half. Two more goals from Dion Dublin and one from Julian Joachim take Villa back to the top. Sports Personality of the Year Michael Owen, in his last game as an 18-year-old, misses a penalty as Liverpool go down 1-0 at Wimbledon. “I’ve told the players that if they keep playing like that they will get back to the top of the table. I’m disappointed as a man but not as a manager,” says Gérard. Portsmouth fans invade the pitch twice during their team’s 1-0 home defeat by Grimsby to protest at Martin Gregory’s stewardship of the club. But the Aloisi deal is up in the air. “No one is going anywhere,” says Alan Ball.

Monday 14
“It’s nice to perform disappointingly and still get a result,” says David O’Leary, reading from the Bumper Book of George Graham Quotations after Leeds move up to third following a 2-0 win over Coventry. Patrick Vieira is fined a record £20,000 at an FA disciplinary hearing for making gestures to the crowd after Arsenal’s match at Sheffield Wed last month, but he is found not guilty of assaulting a policeman in the players’ tunnel. “Patrick’s gestures came after verbal abuse from the fans. He is an aggressive player on the pitch but very kind off it,” says Arsène.

Tuesday 15 A mushroom cloud appears over Lancaster Gate HQ as Graham Kelly is forced to resign as FA chief executive for his part in the unauthorised loan made to the Welsh FA, allegedly in exchange for them supporting Keith Wiseman’s bid for a FIFA post. Wiseman receives a vote of no confidence as FA chairman but refuses to stand down, though he will be officially dumped at the next full meeting of the FA council in January. “There is no question of financial impropriety by myself. I’m not embarrassed but it’s certainly a big disappointment for me personally,” says Graham. “I want to stress that the leadership of the FA is still in good hands,” says Graham’s temporary replacement David Davies, flashing his palms. “It has given the FA the perfect opportunity to modernise itself,” says Ken Bates, who has apparently been sounded out about taking over from Wiseman. One certainty to emerge from the chaos of Lancaster Gate-gate is that England will have to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. The Asian Football Confederation threatens to withdraw its teams from the 2002 World Cup qualifiers in protest at Asia being given only two qualifying places. It had been expected that a third Asian country would play off against the Oceania winners, who will instead play a South American team.The other regions have kept the same number of qualifiers as in 1998.

Wednesday 16 Man Utd miss a chance to go top after being held to a 1-1 draw by Chelsea at Old Trafford, Gianfranco Zola getting an equalising goal seven minutes from time. Alex fumes over referee Graham Barber’s failure to send off Bernard Lambourde who was already on a yellow card when he fouled a goalbound Dwight Yorke: “If the referees are consistent then fair enough but when they change from game to game it’s very frustrating.” Media group NTL pay £10 million for a six per cent share in Newcastle Utd and will acquire a majority stake if the Monopolies and Mergers Commission allows BSkyB to take control of Man Utd. Deadly duo Douglas Hall and Freddy Shepherd will make over £100 million between them if the deal goes through.

Thursday 17 David Platt is the surprise choice as the new coach of Sampdoria, though he may be barred from sitting on the bench because he doesn’t hold the necessary coaching licences. John Aloisi joins Coventry from Portsmouth for a cut-price £650,000, in a deal agreed between the two clubs’ chairmen.

Friday 18 In the least surprising resignation of the season so far, Martin Gregory steps down as Portsmouth chairman having allegedly received death threats from fans.

Saturday 19 Chelsea go top for the first time since Peter Nicholas was their midfield dynamo, after two late goals beat a Spurs team reduced to ten by the dismissal of Chris Armstrong. “It is much better being top than being bottom,” offers Gianluca. Man Utd are down to third after losing at home for the first time in nearly a year, 3-2 to Middlesbrough, whose supporters sing “Are you City in disguise?” with their side three up. Not a good start for acting assistant manager Jim Ryan who’d only been expecting to make Kidd-type moves on the bench but instead was manager for the day in place of an absent Alex. A 3-1 win over Wimbledon takes Southampton (with 14 players injured and “a creche on the bench” according David Jones) off the bottom ahead of Forest who squander a two-goal lead to draw with Blackburn. In the First Division, cash-strapped Portsmouth score the quickest goal of the day inside a minute at Bolton only to let in three in the final 20 minutes. They remain one place above the relegation zone though, thanks to another defeat for fellow strugglers Oxford. Fulham top the Second after winning 1-0 at Preston, ahead of Walsall who beat previous leaders Stoke by the same score. Cardiff go into Christmas four points clear in the Third after a 4-2 win over promotion rivals Mansfield.

Sunday 20 Arsenal (remember them?) move up to sixth after a 3-1 win against Leeds during which Gilles Grimandi becomes their fifth player to be sent off this season and the 17th since Arsène took charge. Neil Ruddock and Trevor Sinclair, resplendent in flared suits and kipper ties having just attended West Ham’s Christmas fancy dress party, are arrested for trying to walk over the roof of a car with the driver still inside. “It would appear that they have let themselves down,” says Harry Redknapp.

Tuesday 22 Paul Alcock says he may take legal action against his mortal enemy Paolo Di Canio for that push for which he has needed physiotherapy (bruised egos can take a while to heal). Paolo, having served out his suspension, has told Wednesday that he is not “mentally right” to return to the club before the new year. French international Ibrahim Ba will not being joining Newcastle from AC Milan after failing a medical. He might look back on that as a narrow escape. The Kenny Dalglish-Jim Kerr consortium claim they will scrap their bid to take control of Celtic after the club’s chairman and current owner Fergus McCann refuses to meet them. “It seems he wasn’t man enough to see us,” says Jim, forgetting to add his customary “Woah, yeah”.

Wednesday 23 Arsenal pull out of a deal to take Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu on loan from Inter because the player will need knee surgery that will keep him out for six weeks. One Anglo-Italian move that may go ahead, however, involves corner flag dance pioneer Lee Sharpe joining Sampdoria from Leeds (yes, that’s where he’s been) for the rest of the season.

Saturday 26 Chelsea go top after a 2-0 win at Southampton while Villa are beaten 2-1 at Blackburn in a match that turns on the dismissal of keeper Michael Oakes for handling the ball outside the area.“It cost us the game. There has never been any better argument for introducing a fourth official than this,” says John Gregory. Man Utd stay third with a 3-0 stroll against Forest who are now joined in the relegation zone by Charlton, who suffer their sixth successive defeat, 2-1 at Wimbledon. “I don’t know if the players lack confidence – they don’t seem to lack it when they ask for a new contract,” mutters Alan Curbishley. Masochists on Merseyside get their regular fix at a packed Goodison Park where Derby help Everton grind out their sixth goalless home draw of the season. Sunderland suffer their first away defeat, 1-0 at Tranmere, but remain furlongs ahead in the First Division. Fulham now have a two-point lead in the Second after beating Colchester 2-0, while Cardiff go six points clear in the Third. Wins for the top three in Scotland mean Rangers remain three points ahead of Kilmarnock and seven clear of Celtic. A few rungs further down, Graeme Armstrong of Stenhousemuir beats Tommy Hutchison’s British appearance record for an outfield player, playing the 864th game of his career against East Stirlingshire.

Monday 28 Red card fever in the Premiership. Patrick Viera is sent off for the fourth time during Arsenal’s 1-0 win at Charlton (“I’m very concerned all this could damage his confidence,” says Arsène). Dieter Hamann is controversially dismissed at Anfield as Newcastle lose a two-goal lead to go down 4-2 (“A club like Liverpool does not need favours,” seethes Ruud). Paulo Wanchope goes during Derby’s home win over Wimbledon (“He tried to throw a couple of punches and I was surprised he missed with both,” says coach Steve McLaren) and Sheff Wed’s Dejan Stefanovic walks at Villa Park where the home side get a late winner that keeps them three points clear. At the bottom Southampton and Forest share a point that does neither much good but Blackburn stretch their unbeaten run since Brian Kidd took over to five matches with a draw at Leicester. In the First Division Sunderland are booed by their own fans as they struggle to see off bottom-placed Crewe 2-0. Second-placed Ipswich are beaten by a late goal and are now only three points ahead of Birmingham, 4-2 winners at Bury. Fulham stretch their lead in the Second Division to three points following defeats of nearest rivals Walsall and Stoke, who lose 2-1 in front of over 30,000 at Man City. “Who knows where we can go from here,” says Joe Royle, having a fit of blind optimism. Brentford halve Cardiff’s lead in the Third by beating them 1-0 at Griffin Park. Hull stay six points adrift and seemingly Conference-bound after their 17th defeat of the season, 3-2 at Shrewsbury.

Tuesday 29 No change at the top after Chelsea and Man Utd share a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge. As in the first game at Old Trafford, Alex turns puce at the referee’s failure to send off a Chelsea defender, this time Frank Leboeuf, for a second bookable offence: “There is a bias towards home teams these days – we are seeing lots of that.” “We certainly won’t be asking the referee to look at the decision again,” says Gianluca, just about keeping a straight face. Leeds miss a chance to go third, being held 2-2 at home by Wimbledon. Michael Oakes will not be suspended for his dismissal at Blackburn after Dermot Gallagher admits to having made a mistake after studying a video replay. “Dermot’s a man’s man and men admit when they have made a mistake,” says John Gregory, beamed in from the 1950s.

From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month


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