December 2003

Tuesday 2 An exciting night for several teenagers at Highbury, where 16-year-old Francesc Fabregas is among the scorers in Arsenal reserves’ 5-1 Carling Cup thrashing of Wolves. Two James Beattie goals, one a last-minute penalty, settle the first Hampshire derby for eight years. Joe Cole is banned for two games for his spat when West Ham played at Bolton last April. Ken Bates is steaming: “Those responsible for keeping him waiting seven months should have their wages withdrawn for three months, or be sacked.”

Wednesday 3 “I’m very, very angry,” says Gérard, as Carling Cup holders Liverpool are beaten 3-2 at home by Bolton, Youri Djorkaeff converting a last-minute penalty. West Brom beat a Man Utd second string 2-0. Middlesbrough beat Everton on penalties after the season’s least surprising goalless draw. Chelsea win 1-0 at Reading, Villa and Spurs have comfortable home wins over Palace and Man City respectively. A consortium backed by the Notts County Supporters’ Trust takes control of a club that had been in administration for 18 months.

XThursday 4 Leeds avoid administration; their creditors give them until January 19 to find a new owner or investor. Sepp Blatter’s call for national divisions to be cut to 16 clubs to reduce fixture congestion is rejected by David Dein, wearing both his Arsenal and FA hats: “The Premier League will simply not stand for it. It is a non-starter.” Sir Alex has treatment for a heart condition.

Friday 5 Wales and Northern Ireland are in England’s 2006 World Cup qualifying group, together with perennials Poland plus Austria and Azerbaijan. Italy are the top seeds in Scotland’s group, which also includes Slovenia and Norway, while the Republic of Ireland get France and, again, the Swiss. A 0-0 draw with Colombia is England’s only point in three Under-20 World Cup matches, though the squad is missing 20 Premiership players not called up. Ireland win their group.

Saturday 6 Chelsea and Arsenal both draw 1-1, at Leeds and Leicester respectively. Craig Hignett’s injury-time equaliser at the Walkers is over-shadowed by Ashley Cole’s red card for a wild tackle on Ben Thatcher: “He’s done it a few times. It’s a coward’s challenge,” says Thatcher’s mate Steve Howey. Man Utd are two points off the top after a  4-0 thrashing of Villa that leaves David O’Leary admitting: “My players are a wonderful bunch who try their best but against United we weren’t good enough.” Fulham’s 2-1 win over Bolton takes them fourth, a point ahead of Liverpool who draw 1-1 at Newcastle. Alan Shearer equalises from the spot then shrugs off talk of an England comeback: “I’m available to play golf and sit by the pool next summer.” Birmingham’s miserly defence has an off-day, conceding four to Blackburn. Telford cause the big surprise in the FA Cup second round, beating Brentford 3-0. Ipswich are three points off the lead in Division One after beating Derby 2-1 while West Brom and Norwich both draw. In Scottish Division Two, leaders Morton’s 6-4 win over Arbroath means the teams have shared 21 goals in three encounters this season. Despairing at the FA’s creaking disciplinary process, Sven says Rio should have been suspended. “The situation has been going on for ten weeks, it is far too long. It is the system that is wrong.”

Sunday 7 After 14 league matches with just 19 goals scored and conceded, Southampton suddenly let their hair down, squandering a two-goal lead to Charlton before finally winning 3-2. Everton v Man City, however, is the 21st goalless draw in the Premiership this season. In the FA Cup, Port Vale lose 1-0 at home to Scarborough.

Tuesday 9 Ruud van Nistelrooy equals Denis Law’s European scoring record for Man Utd, with the first goal in a 2-0 win over Stuttgart. Chelsea win their Champions League group, too, beating Besiktas 2-0 in Germany, due to security fears after terrorist attacks in Istanbul. Chelsea players come under sustained fire from objects thrown from the crowd – UEFA inquiry ahoy. Rangers miss out on a UEFA Cup place, thanks to a  3-1 home defeat by Panathinaikos. In Division One, West Brom’s 1-0 win at Bradford takes them four points clear while Stoke’s win at wobbling West Ham lifts them out of the bottom three at the expense of Palace, beaten 3-1 at home by Crewe. Ireland Under-20s lose 3-2 to Colombia.

10 A 2-0 win over Lokomotiv Moscow completes Arsenal’s rise from bottom to top of their Champions League group. Arsène thinks they can go much further: “There is a lot of reluctance to give us any credit in Europe but we are fifth in the rankings.” Celtic, though, have to settle for a UEFA Cup spot after losing 3-2 in Lyon to a controversial late penalty. “The referee will have to examine his own game all night,” says Martin O’Neill. Liverpool chairman David Moores denies that Gérard’s job is under threat, after telling club shareholders that Champions League qualification was the “minimum acceptable target”.

Saturday 13
Paul Scholes scores twice as Man Utd go top by beating City 3-1 in a low-key derby game. “My players don’t have to go out to dinner with each other,” observes Kevin Keegan, correctly. A last-minute John Terry own goal seals Chelsea’s first home league defeat, as Bolton come from behind to win 2-1, their first victory at the Bridge for 28 years. Middlesbrough set a club record with a seventh successive clean sheet in a 0-0 home draw with Charlton. Laurent Robert scores twice from distance as Newcastle beat Spurs 4-0 at St James’ to close to within a point of Fulham in the race for fourth. Wayne Rooney scores his first club goals since August in Everton’s 2-1 win at Fratton Park and also leaves the field after pushing Steve Stone, only to be called back by Uriah Rennie, who only books him. Liverpool sink further into mid-winter gloom with a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Southampton. “I know the fans are suffering but we are  too,” broods Gérard. Norwich close the gap on First Division leaders West Brom to two points, Darren Huckerby scoring in a 4-1 defeat of Cardiff, his last loan appearance before returning to Man City. A half-time punch-up between Tomas Repka and Christian Dailly helps West Ham recover from 2-0 down to beat Sunderland 3-2. In the Second, QPR remain top after a 4-1 home win over Hartlepool, while Wycombe stay bottom after a 1-1 draw at Notts County. “You can’t take one coat off when you come through the door at this club and then put on another coat when you go out,” says Tony Adams, still looking for his first league win as Wycombe boss. In the Third Southend win 3-2 at Swansea despite having three players and assistant manager Paul Brush sent off, Mark Warren scoring a late winner with only seven team-mates on the pitch. In all a record 19 players are sent off.

Sunday 14 Arsenal go top after a 1-0 home win over Blackburn. Dennis Bergkamp scores, then joins Arsène in telling Chelsea to stop making eyes at Thierry Henry, for whose services the Blues are reported to have offered £40 million. Leeds beat Fulham 3-2 to move to within a point of escaping the bottom three. Two Juan Pablo Angel goals in a 3-2 home defeat of Wolves help Villa out of the drop zone . “You can’t defend space, space doesn’t hurt you,” muses Dave Jones, whose Wolves team are now four points adrift at the bottom. Rangers’ 2-0 defeat at Dunfermline, where they hadn’t lost since 1970, leaves them eight points adrift of Celtic.

Monday 15 Accrington Stanley reach the third round of the FA Cup after beating Bournemouth on penalties following a 0-0 draw. This week’s prospective saviour of Leeds is the 15th richest man in China, Xu Ming, the owner of his country’s most successful club, Dalian Shide.

Tuesday 16 An Arsenal one-and-a-half string reach the League Cup last four with a 2-0 win at West Brom. “I pick the side I think will win but in England it never ends,” says Arsène, not thought a fan of domestic cups. Bolton are through thanks to a Henrik Pedersen extra-time goal at home to Southampton. But Sam Allardyce is dismayed that Jay-Jay Okocha will miss the semi because of preparations for the African Nations Cup: “If I could get a court order, I’d slap it on Nigeria.” Meanwhile, tremors of excitement nationwide greet news that the League Cup winners in England and Scotland may meet in an end-of-season British Cup at Hampden. Eight live Premiership matches will be on terrestrial TV next season after the Premier League accept a European Commission ruling that Sky’s monopoly is illegal.

Wednesday 17 “All teams go through a bad spell – this is ours,” says Claudio Ranieri as Chelsea go out of the League Cup 2-1 at Villa. Middlesbrough are in the semis, after a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Spurs then a 4-3 win on penalties. Scunthorpe also win on spot-kicks, against Sheffield Wed in the second round of the FA Cup. Celtic suffer their first defeat of the season, 2-1 at Hibs in the last eight of the CIS Cup. Ben Thatcher is charged with violent conduct after the FA view footage of an apparent stamp on Freddie Ljungberg. Jody Morris is bailed after being charged with rape and will appear in court again in March.

Friday 19
Rio Ferdinand is banned for eight months for failing to take a drug test. The decision is “savage and unprecedented” according to Man Utd director Maurice Watkins. Sir Alex says the club will contest the decision in the courts if an appeal fails, though Sepp Blatter warns legal action by United could see them banned from football. Doncaster top the Third after an 11th win in 12, 3-1 against Swansea.

Saturday 20 On the wettest Saturday of the year – seven matches off – Arsenal go top, on alphabetical order, after a 1-1 draw at a resurgent Bolton: “We will not have much harder matches this season,” says Arsène. A Hernán Crespo goal at Fulham puts Chelsea dead level on points and goal difference. Graeme Souness bemoans “the worst performance since I have been here” after Villa overcome their away phobia with a 2-0 win at Blackburn. In the First, Ricardo Fuller now has 14 goals after a hat-trick in Preston’s 5-3 win over Burnley. Iain Dowie is named Crystal Palace’s eighth manager in three years before a 2-0 win at Reading that lifts them five points clear of the relegation area. Dowie’s former club Oldham knock QPR off the top of the Second with a 2-1 win. Plymouth, 3-0 victors over Notts County, take over. Peterborough, the only team not to have won at home this season, finally break their duck, beating Rushden 3-1. And there’s delirium in Cumbria as Carlisle end a run of 12 defeats with Andy Preece, sacked as Bury manager in midweek, scoring the first in a 2-0 tonking of Torquay.

Sunday 21
Man Utd lead by a point after a 2-1 win at Spurs. Sir Alex is delighted with Rio’s form: “Since this happened he has got better and better.” Meanwhile Sven scotches rumours that Ferdinand may refuse to play for England again: “I’m sure he won’t do this. He’s certainly in my plans for the future.” Southampton are fourth after winning the first Hampshire league derby for 15 years  3-0. Harry Redknapp plans extra training sessions: “I’m going to be the most miserable person you’ve ever seen. My wife’s Christmas ain’t even worth bothering about.”

Monday 22
Leeds are unbeaten in four after a 1-1 draw at Man City, winless in six. Kev still believes: “If anyone doubts the players are fighting for the cause I’d be very disappointed.” Darlington are set for administration; chairman George Reynolds blames the council’s refusal to allow car boot sales at the new stadium.

Friday 26
Man Utd stay top with a 15th win in 17 matches, this one 3-2 against Everton at Old Trafford. Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Wolves keeps them a point behind but three ahead of Chelsea, who crash 4-2 at Charlton. As is traditional for managers in his position, Alan Curbishley refuses to even mention Europe: “You can be fourth now but with a bad run you could finish fourth from bottom.” Portsmouth halt their slide with two Patrik Berger goals beating Spurs, who slip to fourth bottom with David Pleat blaming injuries: “This is the first time I’ve mentioned the number of players I’m missing but it is having an effect.” Leicester stay in the relegation zone due to a 90th-minute Newcastle equaliser but Micky Adams remain calm and not a little sarky: “We’re not expected to win games of football at this club anyway.” In the First, Norwich open up a three-point lead over West Brom, debutant Matt Svensson scoring the only goal against Forest. “I’m in shock,” says Stuart Murdoch after Wimbledon draw level at the bottom with Bradford City having inflicted Reading’s third successive 3-0 defeat.

Sunday 28
“I always said this is a tough task,” sighs Eddie Gray as the Leeds revival judders to a halt with a 3-1 loss at Wolves. The latter are only three points adrift with a game in hand. Leicester move out of the bottom three after a Les Ferdinand injury-time equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Bolton, to be replaced by Spurs following their fifth home defeat of the season, 1-0 to Charlton. “We can see the red light, we can see the danger,” says David Pleat. The rotund Robbie Fowler gets a last-minute equaliser in Man City’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool. “One-nils win you championships,” says Steve McClaren as Man Utd beat Middlesbrough by a Danny Mills own goal. Norwich are six clear in the First after thrashing Derby, now firmly on course for the drop, 4-0. In the Second, Plymouth’s sixth straight win, 2-0 over Brentford, keeps them four points clear while Wycombe, addicted to losing, are five points adrift at the bottom after a 2-0 home defeat to Rushden. Oxford win at Scunthorpe to lead the Third, replacing Doncaster, whose 3-1 defeat at Hull is watched by over 23,000.

Monday 29
Arsenal reach mid-season unbeaten after a  1-0 win at Southampton, though Gordon Strachan feels it was made easy for them: “You could smell the fear in my players in the first 45.” Jens Lehmann may be charged for throwing the ball at Kevin Phillips after the final whistle. Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld denies being approached as a replacement for Sven after Euro 2004.

Tuesday 30 “We’ve lots of young nervous players out there,” says Gary Megson as West Brom only cut Norwich’s First Division lead to five points with a goalless draw at Wimbledon. Rochdale, 20th in the Third,
reappoint former manager Steve Parkin to replace the sacked Alan Buckley. Port Vale avoid going back into administration after a fans consortium take over, defeating a bid from Italian agent Gianni Paladini who had promised to bring Fabrizio Ravanelli with him.X

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month