Last on MOTD: The new Roque Santa Cruz

ASK any tabloid newspaper headline writer for their favourite footballer, and I reckon they would go for Roque Santa Cruz, because his name provides vast potential for any number of terrible puns.

If he’s playing well, then he’s in Cruz Control. If he’s going through a bad time, then he’s on a Roque Road. If he scores a hat-trick and then gets sent off for punching Mr T, then it’s Roque III. And if he gets a winning goal in a game around Christmas time while wearing a red suit and sporting a large white beard, then it’s Roque Nets Vital Goal Despite Handicap Of Cumbersome Fancy Dress Costume.

Puns are the currency of tabloid sports headlines. There’s barely a week gone by in the last decade when Peter Crouch hasn’t woken up to some newspaper or website juxtaposing his surname and his height. And if the name doesn’t quite fit a pun, you can always shorten it. Didier Drogba’s attacking threat has led to approximately 47,235 uses of the headline Beware Of The Drog during his six years at Chelsea.

In a similar fashion, Wayne Rooney became Roo, Frank Lampard became Lamps and Shaun Wright-Phillips became SWP, causing a hell of a lot of confusion among revolutionary socialists in the process. When you’ve got to fit a headline into four rows of six letters, shortened names are your saviour. Sadly, no one has yet come up with a shortened nickname for Wojciech Szczesny, which was a right pain in the neck when I was trying to sub-edit a story about him last week.

Sports headline writers get excited when a new star arrives on the scene with a name ripe for punning. So imagine how happy those tabloid sports desks will be now that Ruud Boffin has made his debut for West Ham.

MOTD’s final match: Blackburn 1 West Ham 1
Commentator: Steve Bower

Belgian goalkeeper Boffin, who joined the Hammers from Dutch club MVV Maastricht in September, played at Ewood Park yesterday because Robert Green had failed to recover from a hand injury. With Marek Stech also injured, the keeper on the bench for West Ham was 16-year-old Jake Larkins, who surely used to be a character in The Darling Buds Of May.

Boffin didn’t really do anything during the game against Blackburn to live up to either of his names. On the one hand, he didn’t bawl out a shop assistant or tell any offensive jokes. On the other, he didn’t clone a sheep or discover a new chemical element. So in that sense, it was a pretty average debut.

Blackburn’s goal, though, did almost defy the laws of physics, so perhaps Boffin can take some credit for that. The keeper did brilliantly to block Ryan Nelsen’s close-range shot, only for the New Zealander to knee the rebound roughly in the direction of the goal – and see it somehow squirm over the line.

Boffin wasn’t the only debutant yesterday. Steve Kean (another name with a degree of pun potential) took charge of Blackburn for the first time after Indian owners Venky’s decided that although they loved Sam Allardyce, they weren’t in love with him any more. Since then the owners have shown all the judgement skills of Kerry Katona, allowing themselves to be linked with Kean and Diego Maradona for the full-time job in the same week. At this rate, it’s anyone’s guess who will be Blackburn’s next permanent manager, but I’ve got a fiver on Shaun Ryder.

Allardyce may yet pitch up at West Ham if Avram Grant gets the sack, which still looks likely despite Junior Stanislas’ late equaliser. For it’s the Hammers who will now have to spend every week between now and the end of the season being reminded that the team who sits bottom of the Premier League on Christmas Day generally gets relegated.

This statistic gets wheeled out every year as if it’s some kind of curse. But a more likely explanation is that a team who are relentlessly crap over the first half of a season will probably be relentlessly crap over the second unless they sign lots of better players.

The introduction of the transfer window and the cost of signing players has, it’s true, probably exacerbated those problems for struggling clubs. But in the last 40 years, only eight teams have stayed in the top flight after being bottom at Christmas – West Brom in 1971/72, West Ham in 1973/74, Birmingham in 1982/83, Chelsea in 1986/87, Norwich in 1987/88, Manchester City in 1989/90, Sheffield United in 1990/91 and West Brom again in 2004/05.

Of those eight, four went down the following season anyway (both West Brom sides, Birmingham and Chelsea). And perhaps it is significant that of the other four, three survived either during or around the time when English clubs were banned from Europe (Sheffield United’s escape came during the first season after that ban was lifted), and the top division was arguably weaker as a result.

That leaves West Ham’s survival in 1974 as the one true anomaly of the last four decades, as they genuinely went on to prosper, winning the FA Cup the following season and reaching the European Cup Winners’ Cup final the year after that. Not that the current West Ham side look likely to match those kind of achievements. Hammer Horror will probably do as a regular headline over the second half of the season.

Gubbometer

1. Fulham: 5 (2L: 4, 3L: 0)
2. Wigan: 5 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
3. Stoke: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
4. Birmingham: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 2)
5. Blackburn: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 5)
6. Bolton: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
7. Wolves: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
8. Everton: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
9. West Brom: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
10. Sunderland: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 0)
11. West Ham: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
12. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
13. Blackpool: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
14. Aston Villa: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 2)
15. Tottenham: 0 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
16. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
17. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
18=. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
18=. Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
18=. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)

2L=On second last (Sunderland 1 Bolton 0)
3L=On third last (A big blizzard of nothing)

(Teams are awarded one point every time they appear last on Match of the Day. Teams level on points are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. Teams still level at the end of the season will be separated by the drawing of lots at a glittering ceremony at Heathrow Airport, hosted by Sepp Blatter, Father Christmas, Tony Gubba and a grumpy reindeer, with music from the The Waitresses.)

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