Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Death Threats And Arrests: A Non-League Footballer's Tale From The Dark Knight

LEON KNIGHT has lifted the lid on his nightmare at Conference side Rushden and Diamonds, accusing them of making death threats in the on-going row over his registration.

The 28-year-old from Hackney sent out a stream of Twitters to his 3,500 followers on Monday, informing them: “I haven’t been paid since 2008. I have kept quiet for two years but now I am going to tell all.

“They gave me money, then said if I don’t give them back the 30k I’ll end up in a box.

“You say I’m throwing away my career on Twitter – but you can’t get punished for telling the truth. I’m not telling no lies here.”

Knight also accuses the club of taking back the two Mercedes they had given him – and reporting the vehicles stolen, which resulted in the arrests of his father and a friend.

The former Chelsea trainee, who has also played for Brighton, Swansea, MK Dons, Wycombe Wanderers, QPR and Sheffield Wednesday, said: “They gave me two SLK Mercs.

“When they knew we wasn’t good enough to go up, they ask for the cars back then reported them stolen. and got my old man and my mate knicked.

“They still have my 3k Cartier watch in the car and my 350 quid Marc Jacob glasses. I might call the police on them!

“For two years, I held my mouth but no more, I’m telling all.”

Knight insists he has the bank statements to back up his claims against the club, who spent three years in the Football League before returning to the Blue Square Conference, where they are currently 16th in the table.

He said: “I can prove all I have said. I have bank statements, arrest forms, the full Monty.

“If Rushden give me my registration back, I’ll stop, if not I’ll go to the end and beyond. I have kids to feed, I had to cancel my contract at Darlington cos of the stunt they pulled - so now I'm fighting back which I think is only right.”

Controversy has dogged Knight’s career. During a brief spell at Hamilton Academicals in Scotland last season, he was sent off for his role in a tunnel brawl after a win over Hearts, despite being an unused sub.

So far, in 10 years as a professional, Knight has played nearly 300 games for 14 different clubs, including three for Thrasivoulos Filis in Greece last year whilst in dispute with Rushden.

He returned to England and was all set to sign for Darlington at the start of this season but his transfer was blocked by Rushden, who had held onto his registration after making 12 appearances for them in 2008. Rushden demanded £30,000 to release him.

Knight has produced an on-line petition http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/leonknight/ demanding the right to be released by Rushden. Knight claims he was sacked by the club after signing a two-year contract. He claims the club have since extended his contract to keep his registration – but are not paying him.

Knight was transfer-listed by the club on 29 October, 2008 along with Lee Tomlin, Curtis Woodhouse, Andy Burgess, Phil Gulliver, Sagi Burton, Lee Phillips and Dean McDonald.

He recalls: “You will not be getting paid this month - we got told this in the middle of the training ground car park.

“And they said, if anyone has anything to say come see me in my office. Lee Phillips then pipes up and the chairman walks towards Phillips and shoves him so Phillips pushed him back.

“Hahahahahaha so funny, just one of the many things I’ll be exposing.”

Friday, 17 September 2010

Wenger, get back in your little pit: Steve Bull exclusive

WOLVES legend Steve Bull has told Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to “get back in your little pit and let us play football.”

Bull is furious over suggestions that his old club are guilty of being over-physical, along with Bolton, Stoke and Blackburn. We chatted about the state of the game at lunch-time today and Bully growled: “There’s got to be a scapegoat, and Wolves are exactly that at the moment.

“I’ve seen one tackle all season that was a bit late. Karl Henry on Joey Barton two weeks ago. That one deserved a booking. Apart from that, refs have been giving silly little fouls, handing out cards for shirt-pullling and all that. It’s ridiculous.”

Bully, 45, who has a stand named after him at the club, couldn’t resist responding to this morning’s comments from boss Mick McCarthy whose side face a £70,000 FA levy for their recent flurry of cards – they picked up 13 bookings and a sending-off in their last two games.

McCarthy insisted: “We are not dirty. I haven’t got a problem with the way we played in those two games.”

The first of those, a 1-1 draw with Newcastle, saw Barton suffer eight no-nonsense challenges, most of them from Henry. And during last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Fulham, Henry was involved in a tackle which saw Bobby Zamora’s leg broken and Christophe Berra was sent off.

But Bull insists: “Karl is a very, very good steady player. The Gareth Barry of our side. He gets on with the job, plays it safe. He hasn’t got a dirty tackle in him – if anything he’s just clumsy.

“How can Wenger have a go about being protected from bad challenges? You should see my ankles and my knees! He’s got to be back in his little dug-out, stop making excuses, let them play football, calm down again.

“And referees have to let them get on with, let the game flow. I wouldn’t say football’s got too soft. But if you ask any player from the 80s and 90s what it’s all about, it’s a good, hard game but fair. Physical. Like the game against Newcastle.”

Bull played 474 games for the Molineux club, scoring 250 goals and made 13 appearances for England in his time there. He was awarded the MBE for services to football in 1999. And with typical humour he grinned: “It’s a game of chess isn’t it? The big clubs says “watch out for this or that dirty player” and the referees fall for it.

“I don’t think the Premier League is split between rich and poor, teams that can play and teams that have to clump the opposition. Last year we didn’t do that. This year we are playing well again, with a bit of physical presence at well.”

Wolves are at Tottenham tomorrow, and Bull was more than happy to hear even Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has sympathy for the boys from the Black Country.

Redknapp said: "Wolves are competitive, they’ll get amongst us – that’s not unfair. Mick McCarthy's team always are always hard and aggressive, but I haven't got a problem with the way Wolves play.

"They did the 'double' over us last season, they beat us fair and square. They work hard, but that's what they are paid to do, and we will need to pass the ball quickly, with plenty of movement, to open them up.

"They are entitled to play the way they do. Having said that, after tomorrow, I might feel a bit differently about them!"

And boss McCarthy won’t be telling his players any different. Today he added a defence of Henry to yesterday’s tirade. Henry, 27, is under fire for the challenge which broke Zamora’s leg last week but McCarthy said: "It was a fantastic tackle and there should be no blame or any fingers pointed at Karl.

" Bobby knows it wasn't intentional, which is the main thing.

"So it's a case of 'carry on Karl.' He's trained this week and been his usual self. He's fantastic.

"Those that have supported him - great, thanks. And those that tried to whip up a storm should be ashamed of themselves, because Karl really is a very honest player and he didn't deserve that."

Sportingbet, official sponsor of Wolverhampton Wanderers, has brought back its free Wolves Accumulator betting game. Play now at www.sportingbet.com/wolvesaccumulator and pit your wits against Steve Bull. Players must be 18 years or over.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Cesc Fabregas: Arsenal's magnificent maestro... but for how long?

CESC FABREGAS you are magnificent. The way the 23-year-old tore Braga apart at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night was little short of Messi... or Maradona.

He scored two and made two in a near-record 6-0 win, thrilling the 59,000 crowd and millions around the world as the Champions League whirred back in to action this week.

But how gullible do you think Arsenal fans are, Francesc Fàbregas i Sole? After the game, sweat dripping from that talented brow, he said: “I have always felt I belong here. I am happy at Arsenal.”

Tell that to the shirt sellers in Barcelona, where the letters F-A-B are already in great demand at the Nou Camp souvenir shop.

Every Gooner knows what happens at the end of the season. The star goes home. Cesc, born in Villasar-de-Mar, watched his first game at the Nou Camp aged six months. He was barely out of nappies when the Barcelona Academy snapped him up.

Incredibly, like Nicolas Anelka and Mathieu Flamini, Emmanuel Frimpong and so many others, he was lured away on a cheap flight to London as a 16-year-old by the ever-persuasive Arsene Wenger in 2004. And Cesc appeared to love it.

For six years he has thrilled Gooners and made Catalunians envious. His talents have lifted north London and though Arsenal have gone trophy-less since he broke through to the first team, he is already a modern master, right up there with Charlie George, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.

Wenger himself admitted after his stunning display against Braga: “You don’t get many players like him. He is one of the biggest in the game.”

But he knows as well as any of us that Fabregas, pictured “accidentally” in the stripey strip of Barca after Spain’s World Cup win on July 11, will be off to pastures Nou next summer.

Joan Laport and his not-so-well-off board might have snatched him last summer if they’d had the money. But they know his blood runs the blue-and-red of Barca rather than the red-and-white of Arsenal.

On May 5, when the transfer row was at its peak, he said: “When you see that things are going so well, I think I would like to go to Barcelona. Then if they want me or not is another thing. It’s what I want and what I would like.”

And then there was this from Barcelona’s sporting director, Txiki Begiristain on May 18: “It’s great news that he wants to come here and I think that one day Cesc will have to come to Barca.”

And on July 30, after new president Sandro Rossell had failed with a £30m bid, Barcelona’s World Cup winning centre-back Carles Puyol announced: “Cesc is having to stay at a club where he no longer wants to be for another year. I wonder how intelligent it is keeping a player who doesn’t want to be there.”

Says it all really. Having spent six weeks with Fabregas in South Africa, Puyol would know a little bit about how he thinks.

A long meeting with Wenger followed when Barca’s interest switched to David Villa and there was Cesc on Wednesday night insisting: “I am happy at Arsenal.”

The unbeaten Gunners travel to Sunderland on Saturday. Steve Bruce will have watched his performance on Wednesday and will have worked out a few tactics to cope with the Catalunian’s prodigious talents.

Let’s see, when the boots are flying, how the Arsenal captain copes at the Stadium of Light. And then let’s hear what he has to say.

Oh, How England Needs a Big Night In The Champions League Tonight

IF ever there was a time English clubs could do with a Champions League boost, it’s right here, right now. How grim was all that last night?

Arsenal and Chelsea go in to their opening games this evening knowing there has rarely been a worse first night for the English Premier League, usually so dominant in Europe.

There were signs last season that the EPL’s grip was loosening and with United held 0-0 by Scottish champions Rangers at Old Trafford and Spurs relinquishing a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 at Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion, it was not a night to remember.

United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps mindful of his roots in Glasgow, pronounced himself merely “disappointed” with a truly dreadful deadlock while Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was “frustrated” after what he called “a perfect opening 43 minutes”.

Though FC Twente, the Dutch champions managed by Englishman Steve McClaren last season, held holders Inter Milan 2-2, the Spanish big guns fired with some gusto – Lionel Messi scored a cracker in Barcelona’s 5-1 win over Greeks Panathinaikos while Valencia crushed Turkey’s Bursasport 4-0.

Further Anglo gloom was added by the awful ankle injury suffered by Antonio Valencia. Oh, and the much-hyped return to action of Wayne Rooney was hardly worth staying up for either. He appeared to hurt his own left ankle and did little on the field – other than pull his shirt over his head when he saw the extent of Valencia’s injury.

The £16m Ecuadorian has a fractured and dislocated ankle – much like those suffered by Arsenal’s Eduardo and Wasps rugby player Danny Cipriani in recent years – which left his boot at right angles to his shin. He’ll be out for the rest of the season. At least.

In the light of Valencia’s injury, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who welcomes Portugal’s unfancied Braga to the Emirates Stadium tonight, chose an apt time to talk about Abou Diaby’s injury. He suffered a heavy challenge from Bolton’s Paul Robinson on Saturday.

Robinson wasn’t booked – in fact Arsenal didn’t even get a free kick. Diaby must wait for the swelling to subside before a diagnosis can be made but Wenger raged: "It's the ankle on which he had surgery. We don't know how long he will be out. The tackle was very bad. I cannot protect the players; only the FA can do that.

"I love the English game but people are more interested in controversy than protecting the players. Why should I create another story? You asked me how the tackle was and it was bad.

“But I don't know if my views are taken seriously. Diaby has been injured from an unfair tackle. I've watched it 10 times and it is an unfair tackle.”

Yes, we get it Arsene. It can get nasty out there. Now get on with winning a trophy. It’s overdue.

Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti took a more typical approach to his side’s trip to Slovakian Double winners MSK Zilina. He made the now traditional Blues prediction: "This club deserves to win the Champions League. But to win, you have to deserve it not for the past, but we have to do it for the present.”

With Didier Drogba suspended as he always is at the start of a new European dawn, 21-year-old Daniel Sturridge, 21, will start up front.

Ancelotti named his side early, saying: "I've never seen a player as quick as Sturridge. He has improved a lot in the past year. He has improved his character, his professional behaviour. He has matured.

"We want to involve more young players compared to last season. Gael Kakuta played on Saturday, and on Wednesday we will play Daniel Sturridge from the beginning."

The English champions certainly have the talent and depth to do better than their three English rivals. But whether they can match Barcelona, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid – who face Ajax tonight – or Bayern Munich – who host Roma – is another matter completely.

Tonight’s schedule in full:

AC Milan v Auxerre, GpG, 19:45

Arsenal v Braga, GpH, 19:45

Bayern Munich v Roma, GpE, 19:45

CFR 1907 Cluj-Napoca v Basle, GpE, 19:45

Marseille v Spartak Moscow, GpF, 19:45

MSK Zilina v Chelsea, GpF, 19:45

Real Madrid v Ajax, GpG, 19:45

Shakhtar Donetsk v Partizan Belgrade, GpH, 19:45

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Battle Of Britain: Rangers Eager To Damage Rooney and Manchester United

LAST time Rangers fans travelled from Glasgow to Manchester in significant numbers was for the 2008 UEFA Cup final. They tore the city apart.

Then, there were 120,000 of them to see their side lose to Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg. They caused, according to one judge “the worst damage to this city since the blitz”.

Tonight there will be 3,500 “Blue Noses” at Old Trafford to witness an altogether less frightening “Battle of Britain”.

Every coach filled with Scottish supporters will be held at nearby Wigan before being escorted into the gritty suburb of Trafford by police. Assistant Chief Constable Ian Hopkins, of Greater Manchester Police tells us: "It's a measured plan worked out with both clubs. It is about reassuring people that we mean business and we've got confidence that this plan will work."

In 2008, two policemen were attacked after a big screen showing the game broke down. Nine Rangers fans ended up in jail as Manchester awoke to scenes of devastation. Remember, the Scottish divide between giants Rangers and Celtic is not just about football. It's religious. It's tribal. Much like Real Madrid v Barcelona. Losing face is unacceptable.

Though Rangers will lose face at Old Trafford, expect no such problems tonight, where 250 extra police have been drafted in and pubs have been told to close early. That savage May night will not be repeated – but one particular Englishman will be savaged (verbally) by the travelling Scots.

His name, lest we forget, is Wayne Rooney.

He’s 24, brought up in nearby Liverpool (where, incidentally, Mancunians are tribally reviled) and is considered England’s greatest current footballer. He is also currently our greatest villain.

Revealed just nine days ago as having paid a prostitute for sex five times (once with her pal in a grubby threesome) while his highly attractive wife Colleen was pregnant with their first child Kai, Rooney is struggling to lead a normal life. Colleen, now a successful business woman, is struggling to cope with marital infidelity, a 12-year-old sister in hospital and a young tot.

This morning we are told the pair will try to make their marriage work (Rooney has "one last chance" according to the Mirror), but Rangers fans will do all they can to ensure all are reminded of his misdeeds tonight.

Though he played (and scored) for England against Switzerland last Tuesday (yes, that really was only a week ago, but a week is a long, long time in football), Rooney found himself dropped when Manchester United were held 3-3 by his old club Everton on Saturday.

His Scottish manager Sir Alex Ferguson – who, ironically, used to play for Rangers and hails from the Strathclyde area of Glasgow – chose to leave him out of the side to protect him from the barracking of his former fans.

But we all know Rangers followers will be doing their level best to be even more abusive than bitter Evertonians tonight. The entire footballing world stopped what they were doing over the weekend to debate whether Fergie was being compassionate or judgemental in dropping Rooney.

Now we know. He was being nice. Rooney was back training happily with the squad yesterday. Fergie was asked if he had any regrets. He replied gruffly: “No – none at all. I said I would not subject him to that nonsense at Everton and it was a benefit to our team.

“No regrets. I did the right thing. I am expecting a good performance from him against Rangers. He is a terrific player and his performance as we saw against Switzerland [for England].

“He will be looking forward to this game, like all of our players. European games are fantastic occasions and we have had some wonderful nights at this club.”

A decade ago, Rangers v Leeds in the Champions League was considered a fairly even clash. Football has moved on since then, with the Premier League continuing to import international stars in an orgy of over-spending while the Scottish game has been hamstrung by grinding poverty north of Hadrians Wall. Celtic and Rangers are often linked with an English Premier League merger, but nothing ever comes of it. They continue to be large fish in a tiny pond.

Walter Smith, the near-legendary Ibrox boss, worked as Fergie’s assistant at United back in 2004. He even managed Rooney’s old club Everton for a while. Like all uncivil wars between British clubs, there are connections all over the place, connections made to be broken.

Smith says: “It’s nice to be back, no team in the world will come here filled with attacking intent” and will offer captain Davie Weir, Rooney’s former Everton team-mate, the chance to shackle United’s talisman, aged 40. Weir accepts: “You couldn’t ask for a harder match than this in Europe... or the world.”

With Turks Bursapor and Spain’s Valencia also in Group C, Rangers aren’t expected to qualify. But tonight, goaded by Rooney and all things English, Scotland’s champions will be doing everything in their power to prove they can do some damage on the field, just as their fans did off it a couple of years ago.

Forget the Blitz. This is the Battle of Britain. No prisoners. What’s that song they’re singing? “No woman, no Kai.”

Who the hell is Neal Collins? See www.nealcollins.co.uk.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Rooney Debate: You Call That Punishment? He Was Given a Day Off!

Those great mind-readers, the tabloid football writers, claim Wayne Rooney's withdrawal from the Manchester Untied squad held 3-3 at Everton on Saturday was a cruel punishment at the hands of the old headmaster, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Andy Dunn, my Evertonian mate on the News of the World, led the way. He assured us Rooney hadn't been dropped to avoid having his ears-bashed by Goodison fans. It was Fergie cracking down after those "£1,200-a-night prostitute" allegations in his own Sunday newspaper a week before.

I'm not so sure. The only evidence we have is Sir Alex telling us Rooney had been axed because of the response he generally gets at his former club. And that was followed by a slightly-contradictory No2 Mike Phelan telling us: "Wayne wasn't ready to play."

Now that was a bit strange, given Rooney played and scored for England in Switzerland last Tuesday after the lurid revelations.

I had to come off at half-time in the vital Goldhill Common Vets v St Peter's Iver South Bucks Church League Division One clash to tell Sky News the opposite. I could stay on to inspire victory, their van was parked outside the house demanding some kind of explantion for the Rooney situation.

I reckoned on air Rooney had been dropped to give him breathing space. With his wife Colleen having to travel daily to Alder Hey hospital to visit her sick sister Rosie, 12, the Rooney family are having a tough time. With reconciliation in the air after the initial shock of the revelations, forgiveness was on the cards. The last thing a notoriously temperamental Rooney needed was 90 minutes of being abused by his former supporters. Punishment? No, kid-gloves.

I stand by that. Rooney would have had a tough time at Goodison, where he made his name. The man who still dresses his son Kai in Everton kit gets little in the way of fond nostalgia from Toffees supporters. They were planning, apparently, to sing a corruption of the old Bob Marley hit: "No woman no Kai" amongst other things.

And with Colleen widely reported to be insisting "I am still Mrs Rooney", a five-hour afternoon meeting at the family home is reported to have followed United's dramatic six-goal draw.

Later on Saturday night, as a guest on BBC Radio 5 live, we were at it again. A fellow panel member called Ellis Cashmore from Staffordshire University appeared to have the same mind-reading capability as Dunnie. It wasn't a withdrawal, it was the ruthless axe from Fergie, he assured us, despite my protestations.

Monday dawns. I'm convinced Rooney was rested because of the crowd and the need to get back to the missus as soon as possible. No sports writer likes dwelling on these things, but it's been the talking point of the weekend, and they're still debating it all over the place today, some even suggesting it's the end of the Rood at Old Trafford, to coin a phrase.

The proof is in the pudding of course. Rooney was back at training this morning, happy as could be. He will play in the Champions League "Battle of Britain" showdown against Rangers this week.

Rooney was not punished. Though many would argue he should have been. He is not going down the Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dwight Yorke, David Beckham, Norman Whiteside route... out of Old Trafford.

He'll be back tomorrow night, as if nothing had happened. Hopefully, with his private life a little less fraught. And, knowing the bloke, with a couple of goals under his belt.

A WOMAN'S response: Allison McDonald writes from South Africa:

It's easier, I think, for men to be tramplike than to be be virtuous. Lots of them. Not all of them. And when you marry one, you need to accept that this is the just-under-the-surface nature of the beast and the gender. I offer you Joost vd Westhuizen. Tiger Woods. Jimmy Swaggart. And those are just the famous ones I can think of off the top of my head. I could type out reams and reams of names of ordinary blokes who would make your Rooney seem positively angelic by comparisson. Thing is, these fellows can't help themselves. And the sooner we get over it, and reasses this whole marriage thing, the better.
Seriously, I have very little sympathy for the Mrs Rooneys of this world. She's a big girl. He's a big boy. This is how the wheel rolls. How on earth did she imagine that the terror and bad boy Ronney was would magically disappear on the day she married him? That's the toruble with women. Naive as the day is long. Silly twit.
And there's a terrible double standard in reporting on these stories. Journalists can be terribly holier than thou. Women get f*ucked over by men because they allow men to f*ck them over. The prostitute gets rubbished. The man gets rubbished. The wife gets sprinkled with holy water. It's all a big, hypocritical scam. That's what it is.
Prostitutes thrive because of marriage. The porn industry thrives because of married men. Strip clubs make a killing out of married men. It's a small step from www.lesbianswithbigtits.com to outraged, injured and heartbroken pregnant wife. We really need to get real about this. And believe me baby, lesbianswithbigtits.com and hookers are going nowhere. They're here to stay because the market's so damn good!
If there's a debate on this, that's my point of view.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Sporting scandals and whitewash: how the Superstars are killing our games

The sporting scandals are coming fast and furious. No game is immune. And the whitewash is flowing. At 10.30am on Sky News this Saturday, the list of shame below will be my major point of discussion.

Three-time world snooker champion John Higgins was caught by the News of the World admitting he paid off his mortgage by fixing matches. The video of Higgins and his agent in Kiev is damning and conclusive. On Wednesday, he was banned for six months and fined £75,000. He’ll be back on November 2 and ready to add to the £5m the 35-year-old Scotsman has earned so far in his career.

Another former World Champion, Formula One’s Fernando Alonso, won the German Grand Prix in July after his team-mate Felipe Massa received clear team orders from Ferrari to let him pass. The FIA World Motor Sport Council saw fit to fine him £65,000 with no points deduction.

Dr Wendy Chapman, who cut the cheek of Harlequins winker Tom Williams during rugby’s Bloodgate scandal last year, was let off with a “formal warning” by the British Medical Council a fortnight ago. She will be allowed to practice again.

Since the World Cup, two England football stars, Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney, have been exposed – despite a plethora of super-injunctions – as having paid prostitutes for sex. Both are in long term relationships and earn over £100,000 a week. Neither received any punishment, playing on with no sanction from club or FA.

And the current Pakistan touring cricket stand accused of “spot fixing” by the News of the World 10 days ago. They bowled no-balls at prescribed times and, according to one player, have been fixing matches “for years”. Three players have been dropped, a fourth is being questioned, but the rest are continuing their half-hearted tour of shame.

Tiger Woods, golf’s greatest star, stands accused of a dozen affairs and though his wife has left him, US Ryder Cup captain saw fit to call him up for the Ryder Cup as a more-than-wild card.

No sport is safe, it appears. And none of the governing bodies appear brave enough to eradicate the cancer eating away at our superstars.

Time and again, the over-paid sporting heroes are laid low by scandal. Each time, they are either hit by a minor fine, a meaningless suspension – or nothing at all.

Match-fixing has afflicted cricket for a decade, there are question marks over the deaths of Hansie Cronje and Bob Woolmer. But nobody acts.

Team orders have spoiled Formula One for years, but Ferrari can blatantly tell a driver to let his team-mate pass, without fear of a points deduction.

Millionaire footballers are not censured for their off-field behaviour, Tiger has never been sanctioned by any golfing authority for his marriage-shattering behaviour.

And so it goes on. We can talk athletics or cycling, where the drug culture refuses to disappear. Rumours of “tanking” dominate the tennis locker rooms. And we won’t even begin to discuss the problems of horse racing.

The point is this: true sport is in danger.

At the grass roots level, game playing is a simple occupation. You play your heart out and hope to win. Nobody can predict the score, referees are honest if incompetent, it’s all above board.

But at the top level, where people are expected to pay huge sums to spectate, sponsor or broadcast, sport is shooting itself in the foot time and again.

You can’t watch cricket now without wondering if that catch was put down on purpose. You can’t watch football without wondering what they were all up to in the Rio Ferdinand’s restaurant last Friday night. You can’t bet on snooker, cricket, Formula One, horse racing or tennis without wondering if you’ve got the inside track. In short: You can’t be sure exactly what’s going on, on or off the field.

And if things go on this way, with the governing bodies handing out little more than the odd slap on the wrist in the face of indisputable evidence, surely the fans, sponsors and television companies will begin to lose interest, in that order?

And fans are the lifeblood of every sport. Without their passionate and lucrative following, no game can survive at the top level.

They see their heroes regularly breaking the rules (of both their sport and society) yet they are rarely prevented long-term from earning millions for kicking, hitting or catching a ball.

Like politicians and bankers, sportsmen are in danger of being seen as money makers rather than entertainers. They are beginning to look like immoral, greedy, seedy villains rather than the courageous, shining examples of yesteryear.

Money – particularly in the case of the Pakistan cricketers – appears to be all that matters to the modern sportsmen with their agents and advisors. The trappings of success appear to mean more than the honour of wearing the national shirt to footballers.

And if the whitewash-laden governing bodies won’t pull the super stars into line, the fans will have to do it for them. By voting with their feet. By realising this isn’t what they signed up for when they shelled out their hard-earned cash for a ticket, a replica shirt, a pair of Rooney-signed boots.

The last few weeks have thrown up too many examples of corrupt sportsmen going relatively unpunished. The fans aren’t stupid. They’ve seen what we’ve all seen.

Superstars can behave as they want, without fear of being thrown out. Higgins will be back in few weeks, bloodied Williams is already playing again, Rooney and Crouch never stopped, Alonso will be on the grid, Pakistan’s endless tour goes on.

And the fans, surely, must wonder what the hell is going on. Would you pay to watch any of the above? I know I wouldn’t.

Who the hell is Neal Collins: see www.nealcollins.co.uk and Sky News this Saturday at 10.30am.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Breaking News: Fabio Capello Confirms He'll Quit After Euro 2012

MIDNIGHT in England and Sky News have just rung. They're sending a camera crew to the wilderness of Buckinghamshire to gauge my response to the breaking news: Fabio Capello has just announced he will DEFINITELY step down after the 2012 European Championship in Poland and the Ukraine.

It's no surprise. He was always scheduled to leave after four years. But there were those, before the World Cup, who thought he may stay on longer. Having being roundly blamed for England's failure in South Africa, he's made up his mind.

Would you stick with a nation which, as he said last week before the opening Euro 2012 qualifiers, "has turned me from a god into a monster"?

The Generalissimo, a vastly successful club manager in Italy and Spain, revived England on his arrival after the departure of the shockingly poor Steve McClaren.

Though he has yet to pick up the niceties of the language, he has revived England once more after the World Cup debacle with those rousing Group H wins over Bulgaria and Switzerland.

And he managed the Friday night 4-0 thrashing of the Bulgars at Wembley plus Tuesday's 3-1 triumph in Basel without skipper Rio Ferdinand and the once-popular Chelsea duo of John Terry and Frank Lampard.

Victory over tiny Montenegro at Wembley next month would just about seal qualification with two years to go before the finals, given the minnows' shock wins over Wales and Bulgaria.

Strange that. If you'd gone with the popular opinion, Capello would have been forced out after the 4-1 defeat against Germany in Bloemfontein barely two months ago.

But, as I've said all along, Capello is the best in the business. Our World Cup qualifying was little short of miraculous. It's not his fault half the England team were suffering domestic turmoil during the finals.

John Terry was stripped of the captaincy before the tournament even began for his affair with the partner of former team-mate Wayne Bridge's child. Frank Lampard and Elen Rives split acrimoniously and he was starting out in a relationship with television host Christine Bleakley.

And amid rumours and rifts in Rustenburg, Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney have been exposed for seeing prostitutes over the past three weeks. Both scandals happened before the World Cup and were hanging over the squad.

Two further injunctions remain. Two more juicy scandals for the tabloids. I know who they involve but cannot p;rint it here, though I have hinted at it in the past. The Bafokeng Royal Sports Campus was not a happy camp in June and July. They even had their underwear stolen when they went off to bore us to death against Algeria in Cape Town.

But, knowing the players were in turmoil on tour and incapable of performing, the experts decided to blame Capello. Heavily. As they do.

So it's little wonder that the 64-year-old Italian, when asked if he would quit after 2012, confirmed: "Absolutely. Yes."

He added: "We have to qualify first of course but after that I will be too old - I want to enjoy my life as a pensioner."

He need hardly worry about qualification. Wales, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Spanish conquerors Switzerland are incapable of stopping the Capello band wagon, which rolled along so smoothly without the big guns, Rio, Terry and Lamps.

I say good on you Fabio. Win Euro 2012 and get out. You know you can do it. I believe you can do it, with the fresh squad you used over the past week. But do the rest of them? And how many more stars will be shot down in flames by the tabloids?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Frank Lampard and John Terry: The End Of an Error For England?

SO farewell then Frank Lampard and John Terry. England’s unnecessary stars have finally fallen, perhaps never to rise again internationally. And they can blame nobody but themselves.

Lampard is 32 and has 83 caps. Terry is 29 and has 65 caps. They’d have two more each after the first Euro 2012 qualifiers over the past five days, but Lamps went off for his hernia operation over the weekend and Terry pulled out with a hamstring problem.

And unless I’ve read the signs wrong, that could be it for the pair of them. Together they have lifted Chelsea to great heights, including last year’s Premier League title. We loved seeing two Englishmen at the heart of the expensively assembled Blue Machine.

But when the pair of them decided they weren’t fit enough to play against Bulgaria and Switzerland – though Carlo Ancelotti reckons they might be ready for West Ham on Saturday - did they really know they were effectively registering their international retirements?

Before the World Cup this would have been unthinkable. Lampard regularly scores 20 goals a season from the midfield at Stamford Bridge, where Terry is the leader and immovable rock.

But for England, there have always been question marks. Lamps never learned to sit comfortably alongside Stevie Gerrard in midfield, Terry never quite managed to look imperious at international level, despite the captain’s armband.

Then, when boss Fabio Capello stripped Terry of the captaincy over the Wayne Bridge scandal in February, international relations began to sour. For both of Chelsea’s superstars. With Lampard and Terry both suffering on the domestic front (along with any number of their team-mates, including Peter Crouch, Ashley Cole and, it turns out, Wayne Rooney), the World Cup was (in case you missed it) an unmitigated disaster for all.

Capello, unfairly, was the man who took the blame for players unfocussed and troubled at the Royal Bafokeng Complex. The press corps turned on the Italian,accusing him of a lack of tactical acumen – and a lack of English.

But how can you have a go at Capello now, after a 4-0 drubbing over Bulgaria at Wembley on Friday night was followed by an emphatic 3-1 win in Switzerland, their toughest opponents in a modest qualifying group?

Now, rightly, Terry and Lampard can be safely cast as the scapegoats. Could it be a coincidence they both pulled out of the opening qualifiers? I guess so. But maybe they saw this coming.

At centre-half, where one goal was conceded in 180 minutes of Euro 2012 qualifying, a combination of the now-injured Michael Dawson, Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and, emphatically, Phil Jagielka, impressed us all.

Would Capello really take a backward step and stick Terry and Rio Ferdinand back in there?

And in the midfield, captain Gerrard appeared to thrive without Lamps. With Gareth Barry next to him in the middle, he expressed his satisfaction afterwards in no uncertain terms. And everybody with a lap-top took that to mean: Nobody missed Frankie boy.

So it’s done. England can win without Chelsea’s Blues Brothers. No need to mend something that isn’t broken. End of.

And from what I hear, the England camp will be a more peaceful place without them.

Rooney: a working class hero or has he cheated the lot of us?

SOMETIMES being a football writer requires moral judgement. Tuesday night was one of those rare occasions.

When Wayne Rooney, the current subject of intense media scrutiny, waltzed in to score England’s opening goal in Basel during England’s rousing 3-1 win over Switzerland, we were confronted with a real condundrum.

Here’s a rich young bloke who paid for sex while his wife Colleen was pregnant producing the vital goal in the biggest qualifying game of England’s 2012 European Championship campaign.

Read that again. It’s a long sentence but it’s fact. Does scoring on the field make him a national hero when he paid £1,000-a-night to score off it? Is the man we cruelly call Shrek a brave, unattractive working class lad triumphing in the face of adversity or an overpaid, nasty piece of work waving two fingers at civilised society?

Remember, this is the £120,000-a-week Manchester United star who previously found himself paying a grandmother for sex when he was engaged to the delightful Colleen in 2004. And, apparently beset by fears over the latest revelation, he was a real let down at the World Cup. Oh, he smokes too. And drinks. And urinates in public.

But like it or not, he’d gone out there and done the business with born-again boss Fabio Capello admitting: “The pressure was on Rooney, but he played very well. The players want to play without other things on their minds. They can focus on the game alone. He did that. He and the others were happy at the end."

Of course, there are other less philosophically taxing subjects to dwell on. The emergence of young Manchester City winger Adam Johnson, who scored his second goal in as many games, and has yet to be revealed doing anything immoral. And he’s more handsome than Rooney.

Or Sunderland’s rugged top scorer Darren Bent, slotting calmly the third goal against the only side to beat Spain during the World Cup, despite being over-looked for South Africa. Now there’s a courageous substitute.

But no, God declared we must make a moral judgement on Rooney, proudly beating his drum while Theo Walcott and Jermain Defoe were carted off on stretchers.

Ultimately, the verdict has to be the truth. Rooney’s a talented footballer, but – like John Terry and Peter Crouch – that can never overcome our disgust at his off-field antics. Well played Rooney, now sort yourself out. End of. For your son Kai’s sake.

And then there’s Scotland. Five hundred years of border skirmishes and imperialist guilt leave our northern neighbours with a curious place in our hearts. But when they produced the 97th minute winner against minnows Liechtenstein at Hampden Park, there was another dilemma.

Do we celebrate their expected 2-1 triumph over a bunch of part-timers who kicked them off the park? Or do we lament the visitors’ inability to complete one of the greatest shocks in modern football?

No dilemma here for me. Well done Scotland, bring on Spain and the Czech Republic. Liechtenstein put the boot in and got nowt for it.

Elsewhere, two sets of minnows did pull it off. Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic with a population of just 600,000, beat neighbourhood giants Bulgaria 1-0 to join England at the top of Group G. Lithuania went to the Czech Republic and won 1-0. Wonderful stuff.

France began their Laurent Blanc-led rehabilitation from internal troubles in South Africa with a 2-0 win over Bosnia, leaving banned-for-eternity villain Nicolas Anelka the only unhappy Frenchman in the world.

Germany continued the form which saw them finish third in the World Cup, crushing Azerbaijan (admittedly, hardly a world force) 6-1 with their ironic blend of Aryans, immigrant sons and foreign born citizens. Love that one.

Fallen giants Italy finally discovered how to score again, crushing the not-so-mighty Faroe Island fishermen 5-0 while Sweden went one better against the principality of San Marino. The Republic of Ireland duly annihilated tiny Andorra to go top of Group B.

And there’s the moral question again. How can we write about huge European Championship performances when your brain is telling you these are just a bunch of big bullies crushing the footballing life out of the poorly-resourced underdogs?

So let’s turn to the world champions. Spain, fresh from their World Cup success at Soccer City, found themselves trumped 4-1 by Argentina. At last, a result without the need for a moral philosophy. Spain scored a record low of seven goals to conquer the world in June and July. Glad to see them beaten.

Mind you, those Dutch cloggers from the final, Holland, saw off Finland 2-1. Hmmm.

Okay let’s finish with Norway. Unfashionable, chilly, beset by dodgy fjords, woeful winters and ice bergs. But they were one goal better than Portugal’s sun-tanned millionaires.

Another great night of European qualifiers. And being fickle sports lovers, all England will rejoice at Rooney’s success. It’s a man’s game, football. We know that much now. But somehow, I can’t help feeling he’s cheated on all of us.

A bit like those Pakistan cricketers really.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Bongani Khumalo: With Dawson Injured, Will Redknapp Regret His Decision?

AND suddenly, Tottenham Hotspur boss Harry Redknapp is left ruing his decision not to sign South Africa’s finest defender Bongani Khumalo before the transfer window slammed shut last week.

When his England defender Michael Dawson lurched over on the Wembley turf during the second half of last Friday’s 4-0 win over Bulgaria, Redknapp and his Spurs followers had their hearts in their mouths.

With Ledley King already reduced to training on the massage table and Jonathan Woodgate so injury prone he’s not even in the current 25-man squad, Spurs are, as our ‘Arry likes to say: “Down to the bare bones” at centre-back.

And Khumalo, who spent a “highly successful” trial period at White Hart Lane last month, is back home, waiting to captain South African champions SuperSports United against Mamelodi Sundowns at the HM Pitje Stadium on the 18th after South Africa’s 2-0 win over Niger.

If the big move comes, it won’t be until the window creaks open again on January 1.

Dawson will be out for “at least eight weeks” after spraining his ankle and knee on England duty, leaving Spurs with veteran French defender William Gallas, Younes Kaboul and Cameroon’s Sebastian Bassong to cope at West Brom on Saturday.

All they had to do, according to SuperSports United chairman Khulu Sibiya, was offer a little more money and they would have had Khumalo, the 23-year-old sensation who scored against France and was a World Cup ever-present in South Africa.

Sure, north London has not always been a slick route for South African footballing émigrés, just ask Mbulelo OJ Mabizela, who came over from Orlando Pirates and sank without trace after scoring a cracker on his debut in 2003. Mabizela is now back home with the Platinum Stars. Not because he couldn’t play, but because he was all at sea in London.

But Khumalo, articulate, contained, ever-so-serious, clearly believes he is ready to follow in the footsteps of former South Africa captains Lucas Radebe, still a hero in Leeds where they named a pop group after his beloved Kaizer Chiefs, and Aaron Mokoena, who taught Portsmouth fans exactly what an Mbazo can do in football boots.

In this strange Premier League versus Media Madness world, Khumalo just has to glimpse Benni McCarthy’s plight at West Ham or this week’s Wayne Rooney headlines to know what to expect.

The response is all it could be: “I enjoyed my trial with Spurs and all I can say is that, at this stage, the deal is pending and an announcement will be made later.

“As a professional you need to carry yourself very well. It’s vital you train well and set a good example on and off the field. I live in that lifestyle.

“When you play, and you watch the stands, it adds more energy to your play. You know what it means to the fans.

“You have to stay motivated, stay strong mentally. The next step would be to move overseas, to play in the European leagues.”

"It would be a dream come true if the transfer materialises. I have always wanted to play in England and obviously in the Premier League, and it would be a dream to move to Tottenham. If it happens, it would be up to me to make sure it works.

"Playing in the Champions League would be another dream. I think the Champions League is the closest level to the World Cup in terms of quality and the play, so it would be great to make the move."

And for linguists reading this, relax. He really does talk that way. Khumalo explains: “My mum was an English teacher at a high school, so English was always the main focus. I speak English the way I was taught.”

Oh, and his late father was a lecturer in African languages at Unisa. If only Fabio Capello’s parents had been something similar, the England camp might be a lot happier right now.

But I digress.

Radebe, who changed the way South Africans are seen in England, insists: "Bongani is destined for great heights in his football career,” while Glyn Binkin, who represents both players, is not going to let wheeler-dealer ‘Arry have his man on the cheap. Before the expected move in January, Binkin warns: "At this stage, absolutely nothing has been finalised and discussions are ongoing between representatives of the various parties.”

Khumalo, born when his parents were working in Swaziland in 1987, is 23. Resident in Mamelodi near Pretoria from the age of two, he started out at Arcadia Shepherds, the once-famous capital club responsible for grooming such luminaries as Aston Villa’s European Cup winner Peter Withe and former Blackburn, QPR and Coventry star Roy Wegerle.

Then he moved on to the University of Pretoria before signing for SuperSports United, who have dominated the South African Premier League for three years despite their marked lack of support.

There, he is under the watchful eye of South Africa’s own Alex Ferguson, Gavin Hunt. A no-nonsense coach who told me England were rubbish before the World Cup even started, Hunt says: "People should realise that Bongani is a player who has the quality to play in one of the top leagues in Europe.

"He has matured so well in the last few years and I am so pleased that he has been given the chance to experience this World Cup in South Africa."

Hunt, who has himself been linked with jobs in England, is aware of interest in Khumalo from Rangers in Scotland, and from elsewhere in Europe.

But for Bongani happily remains with the Matsatsantse, and lists his favourite Premier League player as Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic.

He drives Seat Leon Cupra (“the beast”), smiles too infrequently and concludes: “We all want to play for big teams overseas and if the opportunity comes I’ll jump at it.”

FOOTNOTE: Bongani, if you do come over in January and you need a sympathetic bloke to show you London, I’m here pal. Despite the fact I grew up playing for Arcadia Shepherds’ arch-rivals Berea Park, you’re welcome to share my house with my four crazy kids any time. All I ask in return is that you turn out, just once, for my team Goldhill Baptists on the common in Chalfont St Giles, recently voted Buckinghamshire’s Best Kept Village. It’s about half-an-hour from London. We’re the current national over-35 FA Cup holders. I’m the other centre-back. You won’t regret it.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Rooney Exposed As England Head For The Swiss Hills... Who's Next?

ONLY one thing shocks me after the marriage-wrecking Wayne Rooney revelations over the weekend. It’s this: How come everyone's acting so surprised?

Before England’s squad departed for the World Cup in South Africa in June, the news was out and about. Three rumours were doing the rounds. One of them (and not the biggest one): Wayne Rooney had been seeing a prostitute while his wife Colleen was pregnant. The Mirror finally overcame the lawyers and published the details on Sunday, leaving Rooney’s place in tomorrow night’s Euro 2012 clash with Switzerland in Basel in jeopardy.

Truth is, Rooney wasn’t the only one who spent the World Cup sweating, awaiting the call from home. You an imagine them sitting in the middle of nowhere, waiting to hear the news that their nefarious activities had been exposed at last. England’s Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus near Rustenburg was awash with nervous footballers.

John Terry, of course, had already been stripped of the captaincy by then after the News of the World revelaed he had been having an affair with Vanessa Perroncel, the mother of former Chelsea team-mate Wayne Bridge’s son.

Three weeks ago, England striker Peter Crouch was exposed by the same Sunday tabloid over his relationship with a prostitute despite being engaged to Abbey Clancy.

Ashley Cole’s “quickie” divorce from celebrity wife Cheryl Cole went through last week after months of revelations from various women who knew he wears y-fronts (and had pictures to prove it).

Two further “super-injunctions” remain in place, preventing the voracious British tabloids from exposing the full, sad story surrounding the current England squad.

As I said before and during the World Cup, having seven or eight players hovering over their mobile phones fearing devastation in their private lives is no way to win the greatest footballing event on earth. Taken away from their comfortable, cosseted lives at home, they were isolated from their minders and advisors in Africa, and it got to them.

That’s what Fabio Capello had to deal with in South Africa. A nightmare epitomised by Rooney’s behaviour after the appalling 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town, when he played like a has-been and mouthed off at the booing fans.

Yet the English press have turned on Capello since an appalling World Cup which culminated in a 4-1 defeat against Germany in the first knock-out round. They were lucky to get that far.

As Capello moaned last week: “You have turned me from a god into a monster.”

What I can’t understand is this: the entire press corps in South Africa knew all about the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of several England stars. They must have realised Rooney’s moodiness, Terry’s rebellious Sunday press conference, Cole’s lack of spark, not to mention that infamous training ground scrap between captain Gerrard and former captain Terry was sparked by events Capello couldn’t hope to control.

The poor bloke has just landed in Switzerland where he is trying to cope with the Rooney revelations. No football manager should have to deal with this kind of thing.

But Capello, after the glorious World Cup qualifying campaign, found himself at the long-awaited finals in South Africa surrounded by players living on the edge.

He has returned determined to do his job once more. To get England to the tournament in Poland and the Ukraine in two years’ time. He started the campaign in style with a 4-0 win over Bulgaria at Wembley on Friday night, with Rooney playing a starring role as the architect of Jermain Defoe’s hat-trick.

Now Capello must decide if Rooney is psychologically fit to play Switzerland tomorrow night. And hope neither of the other two super-injunctions fails before then. No names, but blimey, if the other stuff comes out, Capello will be struggling to name a team.

And here’s the point. Knowing now what Capello was trying to cope with in South Africa, will the media apologise to the proud Italian? Will they accept it wasn’t Capello’s fault half his side played like dunderheads at the World Cup?

And if he inspires a second successive qualifying win in Basel, will they agree (as they did before the World Cup) the Italian is the best man for the job despite his lack of fluency at press conferences?

I hope so. Fabio, forget the broken English, you’re fab. Not your fault you are in charge of a bunch of over-paid philanderers.

There is another view. If the press weren’t allowed to publish these stories, England could be world-beaters. Luckily, we live in a nation where the press is relatively free.

To see exclusive revelations about England’s off-field problems before and during the World Cup, simply scroll through early entries at www.neal-collins.blogspot.com.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Bob Woolmer remembered: Pakistan Fixes Things Good: The Two Men Who May Have Stopped Them Both Died

Since writing this blog, this has appeared, from Clive Rice, the former South Africa captain: http://www.sport24.co.za/Cricket/Mafia-murdered-Hansie-Rice-20100908

BOB WOOLMER died on March 18, 2007 in Kingston, Jamaica, hours after Pakistan’s shock World Cup defeat against Ireland.

Initial reports suggested the India-born Pakistan coach was strangled, with bruising on the neck. And poisoned, according to toxicology reports. Fit for his age and still considered one of the best coaches in the world at 58, we are now expected to believe the former England Test batsman died of a heart attack, though the Jamaican jury at his inquest bravely left us with an “open verdict” on his sudden death.

At the time, I was told Woolmer was killed because he hadn’t “informed the correct authorities” that Pakistan were going to lose to the minnows and crash out of the World Cup. Apparently people in very high places would have made a killing on the Asian betting markets if only the coach had warned them a major upset was imminent.

Of course, Woolmer – coach of South Africa when that other infamous match-fixer Hansie Cronje was their crooked captain – could not have known. It was a game of cricket. You don’t know the result until the last ball is bowled, the final wicket falls. That’s sport.

But, as we now know only too well thanks to last Sunday’s News of the World revelations, Pakistan may be a slightly more predictable sporting team than the average. They know when they’re going to bowl no-balls. Three times it happened in the fourth and final Test against England at Lord’s last week. And cricketing agent and Carshalton Athletic FC owner Mazhar Majeed knew exactly when each no ball was going to happen. Allegedly.

And, because he knew they were going to lose the second Test in Australia over Christmas, “fixer” Majeed told the News of the World he earned around £830,000 having a Merry Christmas in Sydney. Allegedly.

Quite a Test that one. At the start of the final day, Australia led by 49 runs with two second innings wickets remaining. Somehow, amid a plethora of dropped catches, those two wickets added 124 runs. Pakistan, chasing 176, were skittled for 139. Fact.

So yes, Bob, apparently you should have known you were going to lose that crucial World Cup clash against Ireland at Sabina Park in 2007. But you said nothing. Either that, or the rant in the bus afterwards (he was reported to be “very, very angry” by the two Jaimaican policemen on board) came from a coach so angered by Cronje’s betrayal of his cricketing beliefs that he couldn’t believe he was being turned over again. New team, same old story.

I know that one of the Pakistani players in 2007 (I daren’t name him, big bloke) booked out his room on the 12th floor of the team hotel after the defeat against Ireland. He booked back in later as “Mr Newman” and took a room on the fifth floor of the same Pegasus Hotel, adjacent to Woolmer.

This isn’t supposition. It’s fact. See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-444416/Cricket-murder-Woolmer-case-police-dramatic-swoop-Pakistan-team-hotel.html. Two Pakistan players were questioned by police. One had “facial cuts”.

Woolmer was rumoured to be writing a book at the time. Some say it was a biography, others suggest he was about to blow the lid off match fixing. It had been started some weeks before the 2007 World Cup.

Obviously, it was never published. Shouting was heard from his room. The next morning he was found dead. After a brief examination the Jamaican police launched a murder investigation. Then Scotland Yard and others became involved. Strangulation was no longer mentioned. The substance in his blood was just “weed killer from the pitch”.

Despite the fact the post mortem still says he was strangled (Jamiaican pathologist Ere Seshaiah defiantly stuck to his guns, despite “advice” from various quarters), we are supposed to believe he died of natural courses.

Even his wife Gill, at her home in South Africa, insisted this morning: “We were given all the evidence, shown the photographs, and based on what we were told by the police in Jamaica, it was not murder.”

Strange that. Hansie Cronje died on a mountainside on June 1, 2002 when the unscheduled private jet he was travelling in from Johannesburg to George went down. And that wasn’t murder either. Pilot error apparently. Though I heard once his body was found a long way from the crash site. An inquest four years later blamed the two pilots, who also died. Investigation closed.

Two people who could have blown Pakistani match-fixing apart. Both fighting fit one minute, dead the next. Neither of them murdered. Incredible luck, these match fixers are having. What a movie that script would make. If only it was quite so unbelievable.

Given how high this goes in Pakistani government circles, I’ve got this picture of a CIA operative in shades growling: “Cricket? What the hell’s cricket? We can’t bring the Pakistan government down over cricket. We’ve got Osama Bin Laden to worry about.”

Or maybe I’m just a conspiracy theorist.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Swaziland, then Sunderland for Ghana hero Asamoah Gyan

NEITHER South Africa nor Sunderland need much reminding about the merits of one Asamoah Gyan. He was the World Cup’s proudest player, the man who so nearly propelled his side to the semi-finals of the World Cup as Africa took its place on the global stage.

Now the 24-year-old striker who featured in most World Cup XI selections gets the chance to show off his wares to the English Premier League – after a quick diversion with Ghana to give Swaziland a Nations Cup footballing lesson.

Asamoah captured the hearts of disappointed South Africans everywhere – not to mention the odd Englishman – as he scored three goals to inspire his side beyond their five African rivals at the World Cup.

While South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Algeria fell by the wayside, Asamoah helped the Black Stars – without injured Chelsea superstar Michael Essien – through their qualifying group and into the quarter-finals.

But with the whole of Africa backing Ghana, we hit that chilly July night against Uruguay in front of 80,000 at Soccer City. With a mouth-watering semi-final – Africa’s first crack at the last four – beckoning, Uruguay’s Luis “Hand of God” Suarez got an arm on what should have been a last-minute winner on the line.

Gyan, the continental colossus, stepped up... and saw his penalty rattle the bar. Half-an-hour later, he bravely stepped up again to score in the penalty shoot-out... but Uruguay squeaked past 4-2 on spot kicks. Agony.

A couple of months later, the pain is still apparent as Gyan mulls over his transfer deadline day £13.1m move from French club Rennes to Sunderland.

Gyan smiles ruefully: “It was a major, major disappointment. For me and for my nation. But that’s in the past. You have to be strong and move on.

“I have to concentrate on the positives, I had a good tournament, I’ve kept mentally strong and I’m looking forward to the future challenge with Sunderland.”

Gyan finds himself partnered with another people’s champion at the Stadium of Light – Darren Bent. The former Spurs striker didn’t even get a ticket to the World Cup, despite his goal glut for unfashionable Sunderland last season.

Gyan, whose move broke the £10m transfer record on Tyneside set by Bent, is 24 has experienced life in Italy with Udinese. He scored 11 goals in 39 games for them, 14 in 47 with Rennes in France. His international record of 22 goals in 44 games will have the Swazis quaking in their boots this weekend in Lombamba.

Gyan flew out on Thursday to join the Black Stars, losing finalist in Angola, to lead the crusade for a place in the finals of the competition to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Their group also features Congo and Sudan.

Former Manchester United stalwart Steve Bruce, who has turned Sunderland into a force to be reckoned with – they shocked mega-bucks Manchester City last week – said: “Gyan works extremely hard for the team and will complement Darren up front. He is a traditional No 9 and we will benefit from that. Yes, we have managed to bring in another top-class striker.

“It is a great piece of business, amazing that the club record signing is done on the last day of the transfer window.”

Bruce can expect more than just football from his new signing whose brother, Baffour Gyan, currently plays in Ghana for Asante Kotoko.

Earlier this year, Gyan produced a popular single in his homeland called African Girls with a Ghanaian Hiplife singer called Castro The Destroyer. On the label of this No1 hit, Gyan calls himself Baby Jet. Hopefully he’ll rocket up the scoring charts too.