10 March 2008



That, apparently, was the odds you could have got by betting on Saturday's FA Cup double upset - Portsmouth defeating Manchester United at Old Trafford, followed by Barnsley beating Chelsea at Oakwell.

If Portsmouth's victory owed something to good fortune - a nailed-on penalty for the home side denied early on, two clearances off the line, a world-class save (with the assistance of a post) by David James and Man U finishing with Rio Ferdinand in goal - there was nothing undeserved about Barnsley's upset win. This was no snatch-and-grab raid: adventurous from the start, Barnsley made the FA Cup holders distinctly uncomfortable throughout the game, and the only real surprise was that it took them 66 minutes before Kayode Odejayi's header finally broke the deadlock. (Not bad for a striker who had failed to score in his previous 28 games.) It was a thoroughly deserved win, and there can be no argument that the side which sits in 19th place in the Football League Championship, a precarious four points above the relegation places, has not earned its trip to Wembley for a semi-final against Cardiff City in four weeks' time, having beaten both Liverpool (at Anfield) and the Cup holders in successive rounds.

Meanwhile, Harry Redknapp will be taking a team into the final four for the first time in his long managerial career. And yet Saturday's win at Old Trafford should not have come entirely as a surprise, despite Pompey's recent slide in form, for Harry has a habit of beating Man U in the Cup, having previously guided both Bournemouth and West Ham to Cup victories over United.

So, for the first time in exactly one hundred years, there is only one top division team in the semi-finals. And for the first time since 1995, a team outside the so-called 'Big Four' (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man U) will have their name inscribed as winners on the FA Cup.

Who says the FA Cup can no longer provide us with the big shocks and a dash of magic? Fantastic.

One small footnote. At the end of a week where FIFA president Sepp Blatter called, rightly, for referees to take a harder line on dangerous tackles and suggested lifetime bans for players who intentionally commit such fouls, we saw two more high profile examples of the kind of challenge which needs to be eradicated from the beautiful game. David Bardsley's assault - I can think of no more accurate way to describe it - on Everton's Steven Pienaar appeared far worse than Martin Taylor's leg-breaker on Eduardo. And Wayne Rooney's full-blooded, two-footed lunge on Niko Kranjcar, although it thankfully missed Kranjcar, was every bit as bad.

It shouldn't matter whether a dangerous tackle makes contact with an opponent, or even whether it results in an injury. The crime is all about the illegality of the challenge itself, not its outcome, and should be punished as such. As it was, both Bardsley and Rooney escaped with a booking. Similarly, Pienaar and Kranjcar escaped without serious injury. All four can consider theselves fortunate.

This sort of tackle has to be punished with a suitably serious sanction - at the very least the powers that be should have the ability to retrospectively apply the current three-match ban with the aid of video evidence in those cases where the perpetrator has escaped a red card on the pitch. Or else a day will come when one of football's sparkling talents - a Cristiano Ronaldo, or a Cesc Fabregas, or a Fernando Torres, or a Lionel Messi, or a Kaka - will be lost to the game prematurely.

3 March 2008

Villa fans don't have a leg to stand on

I have a lot of respect for Aston Villa’s Martin O’Neill, both in terms of his ability as a football manager, and also as an honest, intelligent and decent man.

So when he says he was ‘desperately disappointed’ about the behaviour of some of his own fans at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, the football world should sit up and take notice.

O’Neill was referring to chants which emanated from Villa’s travelling support during the game comparing Eduardo da Silva to Heather Mills which, not surprisingly, enraged many of the home fans.

There is a fine line between the great tradition of witty terrace banter and plain and simple bad taste. In my opinion, Villa fans crossed that line on Saturday. And then some.

I did a quick Google search yesterday, and it’s easy enough to trace the gestation of the chant during the preceding week. What’s more worrying is some of the attempts by message board posters to justify it, ranging from ‘it’s just in fun’ to ‘it’s only a broken ankle; it’s not as if someone died’.

Is it just me, or is that pathetic?

I guess it’s important to lift the red mist and keep a sense of perspective on all this. Eduardo’s injury is serious but it is not a unique occurrence, nor is it necessarily career-ending. It’s obviously not as bad as an Antonio Puerta or a Phil O’Donnell or a Marc-Vivien Foe, all of which resulted in tragic fatalities.

But I’m sorry, no amount of sober reflection will ever make me think ‘it’s not as serious as X, so it must be OK’ is a valid justification for what was sung on Saturday.

It’s not exactly something for Villa fans – for anyone – to be proud of.

Here’s a hypothetical situation. A football fan – let’s say he supports Aston Villa, for sake of argument – suffers a serious work-related injury which means he cannot walk for several months. Entering his local pub on crutches, he meets a group of strangers from a rival firm who start singing songs in reference to his disability, justifying their abuse with the excuse ‘well, it’s not like anyone died’. How do you think our hypothetical fan should feel about that?

Sadly, Saturday was not the first time football supporters have collectively overstepped the mark. On several occasions – most recently at last month’s England game friendly Wembley – we have seen a small minority of idiots spoil a minute’s silence and bring it to a premature end. Fans of Manchester City and certain other teams have in the past taunted Man U supporters with ‘witty’ Munich-related chants. And my own club, Arsenal, is not immune from this sort of nonsense, with a number of well-known chants directed at fans and managers of local rivals Tottenham which many would find distasteful (and which I personally have always chosen to not participate in).

It then suggests a stunning lack of self-awareness for we fans to protest about why so many people outside football are so quick to brand us all as hooligans and yobs.

I wonder why.

Even more so than Martin O’Neill, perhaps Arsene Wenger summed it up best when he said: ‘It looks like stupidity has no limits.’

Even as an Arsenal fan, I will be the first to admit Wenger isn’t right about everything he says. He’s bang-on about this, though.