I’VE a confession to make; one that would make Kenny Dalglish view me as the lowest of the low, one whose opinions are as worthless as a Greek tax return, a Lib Dem election manifesto or a Luis Suarez handshake promise (yes, yes, I know he’s said sorry for that now). My confession is this: I’ve never played the game.
Oh sure, I’ve played the game at amateur level. I was a hopeless goalkeeper in various hopeless junior football teams up until the age of 16, at which point I discovered Tunnock’s tea cakes and depression. (Shouldn’t that be alcohol and girls? Blog Ed.)
But I’ve never played the game professionally. I haven’t done the hard yards, I haven’t slogged away on wet Tuesday nights at Hartlepool, I haven’t had a boot deal or a hernia operation, I haven’t got a million people following my every opinion on Twitter. So although I can say, “The Championship’s a tough league to get out of,” or, “Stoke’s always a difficult place to go,” it doesn’t carry the slightest shred of authority.
It’s worse that that, though. Not only have I never played the game, I have never even touched the ball.
I went to my first football match on November 8, 1986, when a family friend took me to Maine Road to see Manchester City beat Aston Villa 3-1. In the 25-and-a-bit years since, City have had 14 permanent managers, Maine Road has been demolished and the First Division has become the Premier League, the Premiership and then the Premier League again.
I have probably averaged around 20 to 30 games a season in that time (some years I went to a lot more, some years I went to hardly any). I have appeared on TV – either in the crowd or the press box – at least half-a-dozen times, including a memorable Autoglass Trophy semi-final second leg between Stockport and Wigan shown on Sky in April 1993, when I was perched on the touchline opposite the cameras, and came into view almost every time there was a throw-in.
But in all those years, I have not touched the ball at a professional game once. Not even during the warm-up or the half-time break.
The closest I have ever come was probably during a night match I was covering at Wrexham in 2007, at the end of a truly nightmarish day. (I won’t go into all the details, but if you want to know the full story, it’s still on Wrexham’s official website, all these years later.) Anyway, as the players headed off at the interval, Rex the Dragon – the club mascot – booted a football into the crowd, which whizzed past my head by about six inches. I was very relieved he missed.
It’s not nice to be smacked by a football when you’re not expecting it, so I actually had a fair bit of sympathy for ESPN pundit Martin Keown when he got struck in the build-up to Arsenal’s FA Cup tie against Leeds last month. In a different way, it’s also why I’ve got a bit of sympathy for Stoke keeper Thomas Sorensen.
Last on MOTD: Fulham 2 Stoke 1
Commentator: Nigel Adderley
I’ve got one of those Goals Galore videos from the early 1990s mouldering away on a shelf somewhere. If you’ve never seen one, they consisted of 100-odd of the best First Division goals scored during a particular season. As there have very rarely been 100 memorable goals scored during any English top-flight season, there’s a fair amount of padding in each one. But one goal that stands out on the tape was scored by the late David Rocastle for Arsenal against Manchester United in October 1991.
There are a couple of versions of the goal on YouTube, but neither are of particularly good quality, so I’ll try to describe it. Rocastle collects the ball on the halfway line, shrugs off Paul Ince and Bryan Robson, then chips the ball towards goal from 25 yards. It bounces off the bar and then rebounds into the net off the head of Peter Schmeichel.
What is extraordinary about that goal now is that there seems to be absolutely no doubt that it is Rocastle’s goal. The Rothmans Football Yearbook of the time credits it to Rocastle, as do Arsenal’s records – despite the fact that the ball wouldn’t have gone in had it not hit the goalkeeper.
In 1991, it was much easier for an attacking player to claim such goals than it is now. Just ask Fulham’s Clint Dempsey.
Against Stoke yesterday, Dempsey hit a long-range shot that struck the bar and then went in off the back of Sorensen. Last weekend, it was Everton’s Phil Neville who was debited with an own goal that wasn’t his fault in Match of the Day’s final game. This weekend, it was Stoke’s keeper who was the unlucky man. It turned out to be the winner, too.
Debutant striker Pavel Pogrebnyak had earlier scored Fulham’s first, before incurring the wrath of Stoke manager Tony Pulis for a reckless challenge on Wilson Palacios that didn’t even bring a booking.
Afterwards, Pulis talked about Robert Huth’s harsh sending off for a far less dangerous challenge against Sunderland last weekend, and complained about refereeing consistency, as managers do when borderline decisions go against them. He also talked about sending a DVD of tackles into the FA to ask for clarification on the rules.
If he does that, then I’d suggest he might want to include the tackle made by Jonathan Woodgate on Liverpool’s Stewart Downing during Stoke’s 0-0 draw at Anfield a month ago. In my view, that was a tackle every bit as dangerous as the one made by Pogrebnyak yesterday, and that didn’t get a booking either. And in my view, the reason that referees aren’t consistent in their decision-making is that the game is so fast now, that judging the severity of a tackle has almost become a matter of guesswork.
But then what do I know? I’ve never played the game.
1. Fulham: 6 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
2. Swansea: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
2. West Brom: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
4. Aston Villa: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 3)
5. Norwich: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
6. Stoke: 4 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
7. QPR: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
8. Wigan: 3 (2L: 8, 3L: 4)
9. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 5, 3L: 0)
10: Wolves: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 5)
11: Liverpool: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 4)
12. Blackburn: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
13. Tottenham: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
14. Chelsea: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 3)
15. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
16. Everton: 1 (2L: 5, 3L: 4)
17. Bolton: 1 (2L: 4, 3L: 5)
18. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
19. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
2L = On second last (Bolton 1 Wigan 2)
3L = On third last (Blackburn 3 QPR 2)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on Match of the Day. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)