Best • Seeing different faces in the home dugout at the Riverside. Finally getting a radio that allowed me to listen to Alistair Brownlee’s delirious, deranged commentaries on Century FM. His pronunciation of Marinelli alone is worth the price of the batteries. Oliver Kahn’s expression at the end of the game in Munich.
Worst • Fabien Barthez’s smirk. Rupert Lowe. Just what the game needs – another high-profile chairman. The Tactics Truck. All that technology just so Andy Townsend can tell us that Michael Owen is “very quick”.
Hope for 2002 – That in future everybody involved in the Wembley fiasco will be forced to wear large dunce’s caps whenever they enter a football ground.
Best • A very ordinary (by Spanish standards) Barcelona’s destruction of Liverpool at Anfield, a game which should bring about some serious reflection as to the state of the English game, but probably won’t. A very ordinary (by any standards) Grimsby’s destruction of Liverpool at Anfield. The Mariners’ 24-hour occupation of the top spot in the First Division back in September, an occasion which prompted the memorable remark from manager Lennie Lawrence that “the last time Grimsby were top of Division One, dinosaurs roamed the Earth”.
Worst • All that stuff about Beckham suddenly being the dog’s proverbials because of one game against Greece. He played well, sure, but perhaps one detects a teeny problem with a sense of perspective these days? Bad sports Brazil qualifying for the World Cup finals after whingeing and moaning their way through the qualifiers. England beating Germany 5-1, because we’ll draw them now in the finals and they’ll beat us.
Hope for 2002 – For someone to adjust the set and everything to return to normal. I refer to the return of Match of the Day, 10.30ish, a real (reduced) European Cup with the knockout stages introduced much earlier, the prohibition of ex-professional footballers commentating in any form whatsoever about football on television and for Grimsby to retain their First Division status. Well, maybe just the last one…
Best • England playing in the regions. It won’t last, of course, but it has offered a different, infinitely more enjoyable, dimension to what it means to follow the national team. In some places we even had to look hard for any traces of No Surrender or the stylish booing of the opponents’ anthem. Hardly real international football in England at all, then. Supporters Trusts. Not a solution to the failing economics of the smaller clubs, but, nevertheless, an imaginative and democratic leap forward. They could barely do worse than most football club administrators. Fabien Barthez. The world’s greatest goalkeeper at the world’s greatest football club. The two are made for each other, clearly.
Worst • Germany 1, England 5. Just too much ammunition for the tabloids, and for all those fans who think England are even close to matching the qualities of the French, Spaniards or Argentinians. And how did we let those pesky Germans even get one? Transport to south Wales. Cardiff is a great city, which has a fantastic (£96 million!) stadium, and is a positive joy to visit. But how the hell do you get there – and back? Sir Alex’s (sob) last season. He knows how much we all love him. How can we persuade him to stay?
Hope for 2002 – That Gérard Houllier makes a full and complete recovery and, in the course of it, experiences a dramatic conversion to full-on, sophisticated, attacking football which matches in its intensity the level of teamwork, organisation and discipline now successfully installed at Anfield.
Best • Oliver Kahn actually winning something at last. Three saves in the shoot-out against Valencia dressed the wounds of 1999. Fernando Couto, Edgar Davids, Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer testing positive for nandrolone. Always suspected the truth was out there somewhere. Can’t avoid listing Beckham’s free-kick against Greece, for purely selfish reasons. Without it, no update of a forthcoming World Cup book.
Worst • Reading losing the play-off final after an own goal you couldn’t invent. The pace of the rebound going past the keeper: ouch. The whiff of Belarus losing a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine thanks to the performances of their two players with a Ukrainian club. Moneybags Rushden and Diamonds buying a place in the League.
Hope for 2002- That Italy and England don’t go out of the World Cup on penalties. Five times in a row is already too much of a bad thing.
Best • The fact that attendances have grown despite (or because of) wall-to-wall TV coverage to the point where there are sometimes more fans at the game than watching on TV. England: not just the 1-5 and deserving it but the whole Sven the Sensible thing, three world-class players and taking the team on tour . Who needs Wembley? Not England. More local, decent young players emerging from Reading’s FA Academy, the first good kids we’ve had in years (not saying who, just in case you want to buy them).
Worst • Rangers’ and Celtic’s flirtation with the Premier League. Many of us have been waiting a century for the wheel of fortune to spin our way and get us into the top division. You can’t just barge in like that having paid no dues to the English game at all. Or maybe you can – life’s like that but it shouldn’t be. Coventry going down; like the death of Houdini at Niagara Falls. Somehow you always thought there would be a way out for them. A cliff-hanger that’s lasted my footballing lifetime but with a dismal low-key ending. A wet Sunday afternoon in a Cardiff traffic jam contemplating another defeat in the play-offs for Reading. If only the “if onlys” weren’t so damned small.
Hope for 2002 – With so many interesting nations there I hope for a great, peaceful World Cup and a great English performance in it. And tolerance for those who “have to” spend the mornings watching the games on TV. Will the nation “drink through” until 7am kick-off or get up to a Carling six-pack breakfast?
Best • Watching Lincoln v Port Vale in the northern section final of the LDV Vans Trophy, first leg. Lost 2-0, but it was a final. The debut of 16-year-old Santino Quaranta for DC United, one of a batch of flair-blessed teenagers who will hopefully make the US team more charismatic in coming years. The inaugural fixture of WUSA, the women’s pro league, between Washington Freedom and the Bay Area Cyber Rays.
Worst • The most gutless Scotland side ever being out-footballed at home by Latvia. Failure of Celtic and Rangers to leave the Scottish League – come on, boys, just go! Continued dulling of football websites through takeovers by umbrella internet businesses, and copyright-related bullying from clubs, the FA and Football League.
Hope for 2002 – Someone interesting to win the World Cup.
Best • The Charidee Shield being reclassified as a “trophy” and “another piece of silverware” now it resides at Anfield. Not expecting Man Utd to win every game – rediscovering that uncertainty is part of football’s rich tapestry. Alan Ball quoted at 5,000- 1 to succeed The Laird at the Theatre of Revised Expectations.
Worst • Every time the ball comes anywhere near United’s penalty area and a commentator suggests it’s a simple clearance under no pressure for one of United’s “defensive unit”. The Succession Crisis: some acts are too hard to follow. Hearing Man Utd had offloaded a player for £15 million whose form had been disappointing, and finding out it wasn’t Dwight Yorke.
Hope for 2002 – Ferguson to stage master coup by tempting Franco Baresi out of retirement (“if they are good enough, age doesn’t matter”) to revive United’s season. Failing that, rapid global warming to create Costa del Stretford so that Zidane’s missus willingly packs her bikinis and heads north.
Best • Meeting Laurent Blanc at Marseille airport and getting him to sign a folded piece of paper, the hidden side of which committed him to a binding two-year contract with Clissold Park Rangers of the London West End League, Division 2. Hearing We Will Rock You at huge volume as the players ran out for Marseille v Bordeaux, then hearing it again weeks later, crackling through some apparently Victorian hi-fi equipment, as the players ran out for Arbroath v Partick. Sitting in a Broughty Ferry cafe three feet away from the fearsome former Dundee Utd manager and chairman Jim McLean – famed for his televised Krakatoa impersonation with a hapless journalist – as he politely ordered a ham salad bap and a piece of fruit cake for his lunch.
Worst • Laurent Blanc subsequently signing for Manchester United. Our lawyers are looking into this as we speak. Running clean through towards the goal behind which I stood as a boy during a charity match at Tannadice Park, realising I had waited my whole life to score this goal, and then bottling it lamentably. Accepting that the scoreline Dundee United 1 Rangers 6, as printed by L’Equipe and read during a civilised breakfast in a Cote d’Azur resort, was not a misprint.
Hope for 2002 – That the Old Firm’s increasingly desperate attempts to join the Atlantic League, the Worthington Cup, the Premiership or the World Wrestling Federation will succeed before both tragically collapse into ever-increasing black holes of debt.
Best • Deliriously pointing at a scoreboard on a TV screen on September 1, eyes rolled back in my head and braying “Look! At! THAT! You will never! See! Anything like that! AGAIN!” ITV taking an absolute rinsing on the Premiership and Football League deal. Although I was one of the few who saw the Forest game that had such low ratings, it would have would have been cheaper for ITV to fly us all to Nottingham and put us up in hotels. The fact that we may be in for the best title race in, ooh, years.
Worst • Man United’s evil alliance with the New York Yankees – the sporting world’s equivalent of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The Chelsea Four, Lee Bowyer, tabloids devoting reams of newsprint to the shock discovery that footballers like drinking and having sex. The fact that I’ve actually started shouting “Go on, son” at matches and that virtually every player is now younger than me.
Hope for 2002 – FIFA allow the newly democratised Afghanistan into the World Cup, sporting the tightest, high-cut, Taliban-defying shorts ever seen on a football field since Everton’s 1983-84 season. They get hammered, but always with a smile on their face, because that’s what football’s all about. Bless.
Best • The successes of small or medium-sized clubs in Spain, Portugal and Italy in both domestic and European competitions. Corny and all, but welcome nonetheless and not likely to be repeated in England in the near-future, unless the looming recession wreaks serious damage to the finances of our top clubs (one can only hope…). The progress made by supporters groups at the likes of Lincoln, Chesterfield and Enfield. Hardly revolutionary, but a step forward and a handy alternative to management by one-man megalomania. Finals at the Millennium Stadium. Perfect location, magnificent stadium, great atmosphere. Remind me again why we should bother with the National Stadium project. Scrap it.
Worst • Stadium disasters in South Africa, Iran and Ghana. A pretty traumatic spring for football, all told. The continuing respect, and sometimes approval, paid by media commentators to such obviously objectionable ideas as the Old Firm joining the Premiership and Wimbledon moving to Milton Keynes – the only dutiful response should be to stir up a restless lynch mob and pursue the proponents of such plans with pitchforks. The losing of finals at the Millennium Stadium, especially Third Division play-off ones, thanks to inept tactical decisions and daft substitutions by now thankfully departed managers.
Hope for 2002 – That the World Cup will pass off without us having to suffer a single broadcast comment by Tony Blair (or any other populist politician) about the nation’s pride/shame/ heartbreak at events surrounding England games.
Best • Bryan Robson shutting the door quietly on his way out of the Riverside. It wasn’t all bad, mind; he did bring Juninho to Teesside and he always got his round in. The look on Franz Beckenbauer’s face with the score at 5-1 in Munich. Which matched the look on Martin Edwards’s visage as Man Utd’s share price tumbled as they were dumped out of the Champions Trough by Bayern. Ipswich qualifying for Europe. The sort of club that the fat cats, if they had their way, wouldn’t even invite to the table, let alone ask to share in the feast.
Worst • Every time Ken Bates opened his trap. This man accused Gordon Taylor of arrogance! Australia 31 American Samoa 0. No easy games in international football, my arse. Southampton’s chairman Rupert Lowe flying his hypocrisy like a kite in his treatment of Stuart Gray.
Hope for 2002 – Apparently Juninho fancies another stint in the Premiership with an ambitious club prepared to pay generous wages. Be still, my beating heart.
From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month