Last on MOTD: Area 51, Ball 25 and Chelsea again

YOU can’t keep football fans away from a good conspiracy theory. I realised that much one Saturday evening around four years ago when I listened to Adrian Chiles presenting 6-0-6 on Radio Five Live.

In an attempt to bring a bit of intelligence to the programme, Chiles suggested a revolutionary new topic for callers. How about, he said, ringing in if your team had benefited from a really dodgy refereeing decision that afternoon?

Surprise, surprise, he had no takers. Until one fan called to take him up on it. I can’t remember which team he supported; it doesn’t really matter for the sake of the anecdote.

“Hi Adrian,” said the fan. “I’m calling about your appeal for fans whose team have benefited from a really bad ref? Erm, well, it wasn’t a decision that went for us, it was one that went against us…”

Even though it was radio, I could still see Chiles putting his head in his hands.

You can’t keep football fans away from a good conspiracy theory. This week, it was the FA Cup draw. Those who believe in extra-terrestrial life have the Roswell incident and Area 51; those who believe in football’s conspiracy theories have Sammy Nelson and Ball 25.

To cut a long story short, a trick of the light made it look as though ball 25 (Middlesbrough) and ball 24 (Manchester United) were mixed up in last Sunday’s draw for the third round of the FA Cup. United were drawn against Aston Villa for the fourth time in seven seasons (all of them in the third round), Middlesbrough were paired with Bristol City for the second year running.

There was no mix-up, but the conspiracy theorists were still out in force. My favourite was the suggestion that the draw is somehow fixed to ensure that Chelsea always get a home draw against lower-league opposition in round three. (QPR this year, Macclesfield last year, Huddersfield in 2006, Scunthorpe in 2005.)

Among the frankly unhinged responses to the BBC sport blog entry on the latest cup draw controversy, my favourite was the person who wrote: “What’s more boring than a story that wasn’t?” Well, erm, commenting on it, perhaps?

You can’t keep football fans away from a good conspiracy theory. And the best of them all is the one that goes: Why is my team always last on Match Of The Day? In the pub the other week, a friend of mine told me about someone he knows who is convinced that Liverpool are always on last. Even after showing this blog to said person (solid proof that Liverpool have not been on last once this season), they refused to believe that Derby are the team that have been on last the most times this season.

Well Liverpool were on first this weekend, but perhaps we should gloss over that. Instead, one of the other big four filled the graveyard slot just before the late-night film. (Although given that the late-night film was ‘Platoon’, perhaps ‘graveyard slot’ is an unwise choice of phrase.

Last night’s final match: Chelsea 2 Sunderland 0. Commentator: Simon Brotherton.

After a quick search on Soccerbase, I was astonished to find that Sunderland goalkeeper Darren Ward has played more than 500 professional games since making his debut for Mansfield in 1992. Of those 500-plus games, precisely two have been in the Premier League; one last week, one this week.

I thought about that statistic as Ward flapped hopelessly at a Juliano Belletti cross in the first half at Stamford Bridge, landing about five yards outside his penalty area as Andriy Shevchenko hooked the loose ball more in hope than expectation in the vague direction of the goal. (He missed.)

Ward has been given his chance after Roy Keane dropped Craig Gordon (that’s £9m Scotland international Craig Gordon) in the wake of Sunderland’s 7-1 humiliation at Everton two weeks ago. While he’s not really done anything wrong in his two games so far, he just doesn’t look like a Premier League player (not surprising, really, given that he has spent most of his career playing second and third-grade football with Notts County and Nottingham Forest).

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how many Darren Wards there are in the Premier League; players who have spent most of their careers in the lower divisions suddenly thrust into the top flight when a team wins promotion.

Take Danny Collins, who didn’t even play in the Football League until he was 24, having played most of his football up to that point in the Conference for Chester.

Take Greg Halford, who played more than 150 games for Colchester, but has played just 10 in the Premier League, even though he is on his second top-flight club already.

Take Dean Whitehead, who spent five years at Oxford, the majority of those in what is now League Two, before making the step up.

Sunderland’s squad seems to be full of these players. It’s great that they’re all getting a chance to play Premier League football, having risen through the divisions. But are they good enough?

Perhaps, in the circumstances, it’s a miracle that Sunderland made life as hard as they did for Chelsea’s all-stars; a Shevchenko nod-in and a Frank Lampard penalty the difference between the teams.

Was the placing of this match at the end of the MOTD running order a selection to silence the conspiracy theorists? After all, it was the second time in three weeks that a big-four club has been last on MOTD. Mind you, it was Chelsea both times. Cue Chelsea fans ringing 6-0-6 to ask: Why are we always on last? At least it keeps everyone’s minds off your easy FA Cup draw, boys…

Gubbometer

1. Derby: 5
2=. Wigan: 4 (Gubba difference: +1)
2=. Fulham: 4 (GD: +1)
4. Aston Villa: 3
5. Gubba: 2
6=. Bolton: 2 (GD: +1)
6=. Reading: 2 (GD: +1)
8=. West Ham: 2 (GD: 0)
8=. Chelsea: 2 (GD: 0)
8=. Sunderland: 2 (GD: 0)
9=. Birmingham: 1
9=. Everton: 1
9=. Middlesbrough: 1
9=. Newcastle: 1
9=. Bury: 1
9=. Workington: 1
9=. Huddersfield: 1
9=. Grimsby: 1

(NB. Where teams are level, positions are decided by Gubba Difference; the number of times a team is on Match of the Day last with Tony Gubba commentating.)

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