Last on MOTD: Smoked out

THE smoking footballer never really left us. He just went underground for a while. Only the incurably naïve would suggest that nicotine left the game’s bloodstream altogether between the era of Duncan McKenzie allegedly nipping to the touchline for a quick fag and Wayne Rooney allegedly blowing the cost of a decent DVD recorder on a 20-pack of Marlboro.

It was a surprise to learn that Rooney was a smoker during his 2010 summer to forget. Yet it probably shouldn’t have been. Fans of long lens photography will be aware that Ashley Cole and Dimitar Berbatov, among others, have enjoyed a cigarette in their time, as has Zinedine Zidane.

Fabien Barthez was another (but then smoking seems to be more culturally acceptable in France). When he wasn’t faffing about in the left-back position losing the ball to a tigerish striker, all short sleeves and recklessness, the former Manchester United goalkeeper enjoyed a quick drag.

There’s a story of Barthez being forced off during a United game against Southampton in 2003, then going for a smoke in Gordon Strachan’s office. Saints boss Strachan, a clean-living non-smoker, was not best pleased to discover a used ashtray on his desk after the match. He later suggested that Barthez “must have been taken off for smoker’s cough”.

It’s not that smoking in football has made a recent comeback, though. It’s always been there, sneaking out to the lean-to round the back of the office. Back in the 1990s, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham were spotted at least once puffing away (not perhaps the greatest shock to discover that Gazza indulged, but Sheringham is another matter, given that he played on until he was about 58).

Further back than that, Ossie Ardiles apparently managed to stroll around Tottenham’s midfield in the 80s even though he was getting through 40 fags a day.

Most surprising of all, though, was David James’ revelation in 2008 that he had a 20-a-day smoking habit for 15 years. Chuck that in with his attempts to destroy his Liverpool career in the mid-to-late 90s by playing Nintendo games until his brain turned to jelly, and it’s hard not to marvel at the fact that he still talks about playing for England at the age of 40. Just think how good he could have been if he’d looked after himself properly from the start of his career.

While there are a few modern-day footballers around who earn enough money to be unconcerned about shortening their careers by developing a nicotine addiction, there aren’t quite so many managers who publicly admit to smoking.

Perhaps the most high profile is Roberto di Matteo, the West Brom boss. Di Matteo never smoked as a player, and has only taken it up since becoming a manager.

“I would not recommend smoking to anyone,” Di Matteo said just before Christmas. “It’s bad for your health and I’m trying to do it less and less.

“But it gives me five minutes to collect my thoughts after a match and my press officer can debrief me!”

There is a certain amusement in the fact that the manager of West Brom should be such an open smoker. This is a club, after all, who sported a ‘no smoking’ logo on their shirts around 1985 as part of a sponsorship deal with the West Midlands Health Authority (complete with slogan “be like Albion – kick the smoking habit”).

If Di Matteo is that serious about cutting down his smoking, perhaps he should be made to wear that shirt during matches. He would be wise to give up anyway, and not just for health reasons. For if he is using cigarettes as a way of alleviating stress, current results would suggest it’s not working.

MOTD’s final match: West Brom 2 Wigan 2
Commentator: Dan O’Hagan

The beginning of February brings about the first tentative signs of spring. The days get a little longer, the weather a little warmer, and football-related conversations around the country start including the phrase “there’s always one team that goes into freefall”.

(Studies have shown that, with climate change confusing nature to buggery, daffodils now rely on the utterance of the ‘freefall’ phrase as an indication that winter is coming to an end and it’s time to start growing.)

In the Premier League, this theory is confused by the fact that roughly half of the division seems to have been in freefall since late August. (Blackburn, in ninth place, are only seven points above the relegation zone.) Even so, the form of West Brom since late October is worth remarking on.

In October 23, Albion beat Fulham 2-1 to climb to fourth in the Premier League. Their 15 league games since have brought just 11 points, a run that has resulted in them joining the log jam of teams at the bottom beginning with the letter W.

Albion’s problem, judging by Tuesday night’s draw against welegation wivals Wigan, is that they can’t defend. More to the point, they can’t defend set pieces. Wigan scored twice from free kicks – one a deflected Charles N’Zogbia effort, the other a whipped cross from Ben Watson that eluded everyone on its way in.

Whatever Di Matteo is telling his players on the training ground about dealing with free kicks, it’s not going in. That would be enough to make anyone take up cigarettes.

Albion, having gone ahead through Peter Odemwingie’s early goal, rescued a draw thanks to Marc-Antoine Fortune’s equaliser. But they now have the Premier League’s worst defensive record, having not kept a clean sheet in any competition since August.

The last time Albion were in the Premier League, under Tony Mowbray’s management, a combination of an open approach and hopeless defending ended with them being relegated. It seemed as if di Matteo had found the right path to top-flight success earlier this season. But the longer the campaign goes on, the more likely it looks like going up in smoke.

Gubbometer

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

2L=On second last (Sunderland 2 Chelsea 4)
3L=On third last (Arsenal 2 Everton 1)

(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 in Cairo, hosted by Sepp Blatter, Hosni Mubarak, Kate Adie and Tony Gubba, with music from iTunes.)

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