December 2001

Saturday 1 England draw Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria in their World Cup group, with France the likely opponents should they reach the second round. Ireland get Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia. Sven offers a thin smile: “I hope we have more luck in the matches than we had in the draw.” “I must have run over a lot of black cats,” sighs Colin Todd as Fabby misses a penalty for the second successive week, allowing leaders Liverpool to sneak a win at Derby through a Michael Owen goal. Sir Alex pretends to throw in the towel again – “I don’t think we can win the title now” – after Man Utd’s 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea leaves them eight points off the top. Alan Shearer’s contentious dismissal during Newcastle’s 1-1 draw at Charlton has his manager hopping mad: “It’s an insult to a player who has graced the game.” Burnley return to the top of the First Division, beating Palace 2-1. Brighton lead the Second by three points, Plymouth hold a four-point lead in the Third, where Bristol Rovers are now just two points off the bottom after defeat at Rushden. Luton face a possible three-point deduction after calling off their trip to Kidderminster due to a flu outbreak. League investigators will visit the club with a coughometer.

Sunday 2 Robbie Fowler’s Leeds debut ends in a goalless draw at Fulham that keeps his new club in second place, three points behind his old one. Southampton stay in the bottom three after losing 2-0 at Everton, with Gordon Strachan now fully locked into relegation-speak: “I’m hurting, the players are hurting.”

Monday 3 Shares in Nottingham Forest, £12 million in debt, are suspended after they fail to produce annual accounts. Chris Bart-Williams is the eighth player to leave since the summer, joining Charlton on loan. Spurs are fifth after beating Bolton 3-2.

Tuesday 4 “The goals have started coming since I dyed my hair red,” says Freddie Ljungberg, who gets two in Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat of Juventus in the Champions League. Arsène, meanwhile, is unrecognisably feisty: “This result will send a message to everyone.” English football will fall into line with the rest of Europe from next season in having two transfer windows per season, one through the summer, the other for the whole of January.

Wednesday 5 With David Beckham on the bench, Man Utd beat Boavista 3-0. “This season has been blighted by individual mistakes but there was no carelessness tonight,” says Sir Alex. Liverpool grind out a 0-0 draw at Roma. “They have a very strong defence,” concedes Fabio Capello, pre­tend­ing to nod off. In the Premiership, those great big enigmas Chelsea lose at home to a last-minute Charlton goal, while West Ham get an injury-time equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Villa.

Thursday 6 Ipswich’s European tour comes to a end in Milan, where Inter win 4-1. Harry Kewell gets a spectacular solo goal in Leeds’ 2-2 draw with Grasshoppers that takes them through 4-3 on aggregate. Rangers win on penalties against PSG, but Celtic go out by the same route to Valencia. After dragging out the drama for months, Arsène Wenger finally signs a new four-year contract. “We have seen football from a different planet during his reign,” says David Dein, as George Graham sits at home sobbing quietly.

Saturday 8 Liverpool maintain their lead at the top with a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough. Gareth Southgate thinks he has seen the next champions: “Everything is there for them to shift the balance of power.” Meanwhile, Man Utd’s re-creation of their early Seventies team continues with a 1-0 home defeat by West Ham. “It was a diabolical performance… by the referee,” says Sir Alex, neglecting to spot that Paul Durkin could have sent off an especially reckless Roy Keane. Southampton move out of the bottom three with a 4-0 win at Leicester. Dave Bassett boils over: “If these players don’t want to do it for Leicester City I can find them a job somewhere else.” “We can still get involved in the relegation issue,” says Sam Allardyce after Bolton slip into the bottom half with a 1-0 defeat at Derby. Man City miss a chance to go second in the First after losing 2-1 at Palace. Kev is under no illusions: “The football you play doesn’t get you up – it’s about points.” “If they’d shut up about me I wouldn’t play so well,” says former West Brom striker Paul Peschisolido, who scores a 90th minute winner for Sheffield Utd, having been roundly barracked on his return to The Hawthorns.

Sunday 9 Leeds halve Liverpool’s lead with a 2-1 win at Blackburn. Arsenal come back from two down to beat Villa 3-2 with a Thierry Henry goal in the last minute. “We don’t have that winning mentality throughout the club,” says John Gregory, having another dig at his allegedly parsimonious board. Canvey Island, with pro golfer Julian Dicks in defence, reach the FA Cup third round for the first time, beating Northampton 1-0. Burnley’s 3-2 win at Preston takes them four points clear in the First.

Monday 10 Arsenal receive planning permission for a 60,000 capacity stadium half a mile from Highbury. “This will allow us to compete with the big boys of Europe,” says chairman Peter Hill-Wood, swinging his conkers. Roy Hodgson is sacked by Udinese two days after an interview in the Daily Mail in which he described them as “an extremely strange club”.

Tuesday 11 Arsenal put out the reserves against Blackburn in the Worthington and duly lose 4-0 . Arsène’s not bothered: “I don’t believe this competition should provide a European place.” Surprisingly, Bolton do the same at Spurs and go down 6-0. “I apologise to the fans and it might be a bit unfair on the sponsors,” says Sam Allardyce. Man City move into second place in the First with a 1-0 win over Wolves. Birmingham beat Palace by the same score on Trevor Francis’s return to St Andrews. Alex McLeish leaves Hibernian to take over at Rangers, with Dick Advocaat set to become director of football.

Wednesday 12 Premier League chairmen vote almost unanimously against the idea of creating a Premier League II and inviting Rangers and Celtic to play in England. “It’s typical that we would get the backlash,” sighs Colin Todd as Derby crash 5-0 at Old Trafford. Liverpool extend their lead to four points after a goalless draw at home to Fulham. Chelsea reach the last four of the Worthington with a 1-0 win over Newcastle. “Emotionally and professionally this is the right step for Steve Bruce,” says Birmingham’s new manager after being released from his gardening leave by Crystal Palace. John Hollins takes over at Rochdale. Robbie Fowler is freed without charge after being stopped by police in Leeds city centre after the team’s Christmas fancy dress party while wearing combat gear.

Friday 14 Jonathan Woodgate is sentenced to 100 hours’ community service after being found guilty of affray in relation to the attack on Sarfraz Najeib in Leeds last year. Lee Bowyer is found not guilty but like Woodgate will have to pay legal bills of around £1 million. Peter Ridsdale says: “All our players have to work harder at restoring Leeds United’s reputation.”

Saturday 15 Manchester United win 1-0 at Middlesbrough to make ground on the leaders as Arsenal can only draw at West Ham after suffering what Arsène calls “an emotionally empty week”. Tottenham and Newcastle are the big movers, Spurs thrashing Fulham 4-0 (“We had our clinical head on,” says Glenn Hoddle) and Newcastle edging past Blackburn 2-1. Les Ferdinand gets the 10,000th goal since football began in 1992. Southampton win again, 2-0 at home to Sunderland, and have recruited a “mental strength developer” known only as Amanda to help them think positively. Burnley go seven points clear in the First with a 3-2 win over Stockport, now nine points adrift. Stoke are the new Second Division leaders after thrashing Wycombe 5-1, while in the Third Plymouth still haven’t let in a home League goal since September, the latest shut-out a 1-0 win over Darlington.

Sunday 16 Chelsea get out of bed on the right side and thrash Liverpool 4-0, their sixth defeat in a row at Stamford Bridge. Leeds throw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at home with Leicester, despite David O’Leary’s disparaging summary of their threat as “a couple of big lads up front”. Wolves close the gap at the top of the First by beating Birmingham 2-1 as some mischievous home fans chant “He’s walking out in the morning” in the direction of Steve Bruce.

Monday 17 Michael Owen is voted European footballer of the year, although confusingly David Beckham, only fourth best in Europe, comes in second behind Luis Figo in the world player of the year award. Ipswich are bereft at the bottom of the Premiership after Villa come from behind to beat them 2-1 thanks to a deflected winner from Juan Pablo Angel. The family of Sarfraz Najeib say they are launching a private prosecution against Woodgate, Bowyer and Leeds United.

Tuesday 18 Newcastle go top after breaking their four-year London hoodoo with a 3-1 win at Highbury. At the end, Thierry Henry has to be restrained from attacking referee Graham Poll who had awarded a contentious penalty for Newcastle’s second goal. Arsène didn’t see it: “It is not my job to judge what people do. I am not a policeman.” Lee Bowyer is transfer-listed by Leeds for refusing to pay a fine of four weeks’ wages.

Wednesday 19 “Four-nil is a result that does not reflect what happened,” says Gianluca Vialli after seeing Watford crash out of the Worthington Cup at Sheffield Wed. Leeds players wave to a watching Lee Bowyer after the first goal in a 3-2 win over Everton that takes them up to third. Dagenham set up an FA Cup tie with Ipswich after beating Exeter 3-0 in their second round replay.

Thursday 20 Lee Bowyer is staying with Leeds after agreeing to pay his fine. Crystal Palace draw 1-1 with Forest, leaving Trevor Francis to complain about the weather: “It was well below freezing and it was sapping our players’ confidence.” Roy Evans resigns as Swindon manager after the new board headed by Willie Carson refuses to guarantee him funds to strengthen the team. Former boss Andy King is expected to return.

Saturday 22 Mayhem of a more conventional variety at Leeds, where Lee Bowyer scores but Newcastle come from 3-1 down to win 4-3 and stay top. Plenty of work in store for Amanda after Southampton lose 6-1 at Old Trafford, while Ipswich finally record their second League win of the season, 2-1 at Spurs. Draws abound in the First Division, but Norwich improve their position with a 2-1 win over Wimbledon thanks to a goal from David Nielsen, on loan from, er, Wimbledon. Curmudgeonly Plymouth concede two at Scunthorpe to go down to their first away defeat of the season. Trouble for Celtic, who are now a mere ten points clear after losing their first league game of the season, 2-0 at Aberdeen. However, the home side may have to explain why their fans were allowed to throw snowballs at the visitors. Nicolas Anelka joins Liverpool on loan from Paris St Germain, where he’s been out of favour. “He has had a difficult time but everyone knows what he can do,” says Phil Thompson.

Sunday 23 Liverpool miss a chance to go top, losing 2-1 at home to ten-man Arsenal, Giovanni van Bronckhorst being their 40th dismissal under Arsène Wenger. Chelsea go one down to Bolton (“The first 35 minutes was very shit,” says the increasingly fluent Claudio Ranieri), but recover to win 5-1. Jim Jefferies’ hold on his job at Bradford grows even more tenuous after they lose 4-0 at Coventry.

Monday 24 Jim Jefferies is sacked and former Bantam Stan Collymore will be applying for the job. “Stan feels he has the ability to reach the heights he did as a player,” says his agent.

Wednesday 26 “We’ll keep chipping away,” says Bobby Robson after Newcastle stay top with a fifth successive victory, 3-0 against Middlesbrough. The next four clubs win too, with Arsenal coming from behind to beat Chelsea 2-1 (surprisingly both finish with 11 men) and Robbie Fowler getting all three Leeds goals at Bolton, now in freefall. Leicester replace Ipswich on the bottom after losing to them, 2-0. Man City fail to take advantage of Burnley’s match being frozen off, treating Maine Road to a rare goal goalless draw, against West Brom.Brentford stay top of the Second despite a 2-1 defeat at Cambridge with challengers Stoke and Brighton both drawing. In the Third, Bristol Rovers, managerless after Gerry Francis’s resignation, get their first win in 15 games, 5-3 against Leyton Orient.

Friday 28 Lennie Lawrence is sacked by Grimsby, who have won only one of their last 20 matches. Swansea City owner Tony Petty says that he has been unable to pay players’ wages this month due to the cost of fighting a legal action aimed at removing him.

Saturday 29 “I couldn’t see a weakness in that Chelsea team,” sighs Bobby Robson as Newcastle drop off the top after losing 2-1 at St James’. New leaders Arsenal sneak a controversial 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, with referee Andy D’Urso failing to spot Martin Keown’s headbutt on Hamilton Ricard and a foul in the build up to the home side’s equaliser. Boro’s Noel Whelan has a view: “The referee must have been pissed.” Mayhem too at Bolton, who have two players dismissed in the first half then recover from two down to draw 2-2 with Leicester. “I couldn’t calm myself enough to speak to the officials,” says Sam Allardyce. It’s a mixed day for Blackburn, who spend £7.5 million Andy Cole (“I need to play, that’s why I’m here”) then become the first club this season to lose at home to Derby. The odds on wacky Walter Smith becoming the first manager to be sacked in 2002 shorten further with Everton’s fourth successive defeat, 3-0 at home to Charlton. Man City are a point behind First Division leaders Burnley after beating them 5-1 at Maine Road. Stockport’s eighth successive defeat, 3-0 at home to Birmingham, is a club record and leaves them 12 points adrift at the bottom. Bristol City’s 3-1 win at Cardiff allows them to jump over three clubs to take up the Second Division leadership. Plymouth stay three points clear of Luton in the Third, where Halifax remain on course for a second relegation to the Conference after a 6-1 hammering at Oxford.

Sunday 30 Man Utd are fifth and only three points behind Arsenal after a 3-2 win at Fulham, possibly fired up by reports that Sir Alex is reconsidering his decision to retire: “The club are looking for my successor but, nearer the time, who knows what might happen?” Of course, there may be new owners by then…

From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month