Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Bull Will Rage No More: Phil Vickery Leaves a Huge Hole to Fill

THE Bull will rage no more. Phil Vickery, and England World Cup winner in 2003, finally bowed out of rugby today, aged 34, with one of the most emotional farewell speeches of modern times.

The Wasps prop and former England captain said from the Wasps training ground in west London: “I’ve had a difficult few weeks. It became apparent I had a neck problem and I was told it was best to hang up my boots.

“I came through shingles and a few other problems but it became apparent there was a little bit more there.”

The tears weren’t far away as the Raging Bull ended his 15-year career with a mumbled: “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I’m disappointed. But looking forward to the future and proud of what I’ve achieved.

“I’ve been talking about things. I’ve got a mixed bag of everything. People are proud but that makes it worse. But I look back on good memories. I’m churned up inside, lying in bed at night thinking about all the people.

“But I think I’ve made the right decision. I’ve got to move on.”

A veteran of four career-threatening neck operations, Vickery groans: “They’ve said enough’s enough. And that’s defeat. I don’t like losing. But nobody can question my desire, I still do dearly want to play the game, sat here right now.

“It’s a decision we’ve made. I can’t really do any more than that.”

Vickery revealed he was desperate to play in a fourth World Cup in New Zealand next year after six months of working his way back to fitness. He said: “I spent the whole pre-season as strong as I’ve been for a long time. To come back in to the season and for this to happen is a bit of a tough one.

“But I can look back and say I’ve done my very best. All I can do. I can put hand on hear, look myself in the mirror and say that. I can live with that.”

Wasps boss Tony Hanks said: “Everyone’s really disappointed. Phil’s a big part of our squad. He’s one of the best tightheads around. It’s the right decision for Phil, it’s a good time to celebrate what he’s done.”

Vickery earned 73 England caps and made five Test appearances for the Lions – his last international appearance was for the British and Irish outfit in their third Test victory over South Africa at Ellis Park in the summer of 2009. That came a fortnight after he had been muscled out of the scrum repeatedly by South African prop Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira, leading to premature reports of the Bull's demise.

Vickery's final club outing was on September 25 against Gloucester, where he spent 11 years after moving from his home in Cornwall.

Vickery featured in every game of the 2003 World Cup triumph in Australia, scoring his first Test try against Samoa and starting the final against the hosts in Sydney.

His career looked over in 2006 when he left Gloucester after being told he could not play on after neck problems. But the Wasps medical team disagreed and Vickery was able to eke out another four years of rugby at the top level, including a Heineken Cup win in 2007 followed by his epic captaining of England to the World Cup final in France, where they lost to South Africa.

Vickery is now likely to play an ambassadorial role for Wasps, though his experience in the dark arts of the scrum will surely lead to offers of coaching roles around the world.a

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tottenham's new African signing Bongani Khumalo insists: I'm not one of 14 kids and I'm not poor!

TOTTENHAM’S new signing Bongani Khumalo is determined to put right rumours that he is an impoverished African “with 14 siblings”.

The articulate 23-year-old, captain of South African Premier League champions Supersports United, was apparently referring to Spurs boss Harry Redknapp’s comments that he was “a good kid from a poor background.”

And Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue is one of 13 children, a fact which is often mentioned when referring to the Ivory Coast international.

But Khumalo, who will move to White Hart Lane in the January transfer window for £1.5m (R17m), said: "What? To say I'm from a poor background would be slightly unfair because I grew up in a middle-class family.

"I'm an only child. To say I have 14 siblings is a load of rubbish so I don't know where they got all that from.

"It's always been only me and I'll be coming to London on my own.

"My parents were academics. They've both passed away now but my dad was a lecturer who started the Swati African language department at the University of South Africa and my mother was a teacher.”

Khumalo, who confirmed he will be making two visits to London before his big move in January, added: "I was studying for a degree at Pretoria University, It's been on hold. I should be going back now actually.

"If I can take a couple of modules to keep it going then I'll be happy but it has been on hold for way too long and I need to get back to it."

Khumalo’s agent Glyn Binkin insisted Khumalo will not be farmed out on loan like so many foreign signings at Premier League clubs in the modern era. With fellow centre-backs Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King both suffering from long-term knee problems, Binkin said: "He's going to Tottenham to get into the first team. He is not going there with a view of going out on loan.

“Bongani's first priority is to try and win a place in the Spurs side and I think he is good enough to do that. For Harry Redknapp, he is a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment and we're talking about top-class European football here. He realises there are challenges ahead but Bongani has never been one to duck out of challenges."

And on the thorny subject of a work permit, Binkin added: “Since the Confederations Cup in 2009, he has played in every single competitive match apart from one (against Niger earlier this year) where he was injured so I think it will be fine. Spurs will look after the work permit when the time is right but we are very confident he will attain it. He's fulfilled the criteria over recent times so both parties expect no hitches."

Binkin added: "That should make it easier because obviously the weather is very cold that time of the year and it will only help him get used to the new surroundings. But Bongani's mentality is very good and I'm sure he will be able to cope."

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

It's official: Bongani Khumalo signs for Spurs, and it could be crucial for Harry's hopes

South Africa’s hottest prospect Bongani Khumalo has signed a pre-contract agreement to join Tottenham for £1.5million (R18 million) in the January transfer window.

Spurs boss Harry Redknapp admits: "Bongani is not expensive. We had him over on trial and we like him. He's got potential and we've got a tie-up with his club SuperSports United so we've taken him on.

The move, predicted here two months ago, opens up the prospect of Khumalo being joined by fellow Bafana Bafana international Steve Pienaar at Spurs. Redknapp has expressed an interest in the Everton midfielder, who is out of contract in the summer.

Redknapp said: "It will be a great chance for Bongani. He's a great lad. He comes from a poor background and he's desperate for a chance and we're going to give him a chance."

We’ll discuss the “poor background” bit later, but Tottenham's official statement yesterday read: "We are delighted to announce that we have reached a pre-contract agreement with SuperSport United for the transfer of Bongani Khumalo to the club in January 2011 subject to a work permit being granted.

"The club has enjoyed a successful association with Supersport United having formed a long-term partnership with the South African champions back in 2007."

With Ledley King’s knees ever-troublesome, Michael Dawson still recovering from injury and Jonathan Woodgate unavailable for months, towering defender Khumalo – whose Christian name means “happiness” - could yet be the key to Tottenham staying in the Premier League’s top four this season.

Redknapp’s creaking centre-back pairing of William Gallas and Sebastien Bassong were anything but watertight as they leaked four early goals against Inter Milan last Tuesday.

The 23-year-old, 6ft 2in Khumalo, who scored in South Africa’s World Cup win over France in June, barely put a foot wrong during the tournament and enjoyed a successful two-week trial at White Hart Lane in August.

Khumalo, born in Swaziland but a regular in the South Africa side with 19 caps, should have no trouble gaining a work permit before the big move which should happen pretty darn quick after the New Year dawns. Spurs fans will be hoping they are still in contention for the title at that point – and have survived the Champions League cut after that epic 4-3 defeat against holders Inter in Group A.

Redknapp would have signed Khumalo during the summer but he gambled on the old war-horse Gallas (a 33-year-old on a free transfer from arch-rivals Arsenal) and lost Dawson when he sprained his ankle playing in England’s 4-0 win over Bulgaria early in the season.

At the time, SuperSports United chairman Khulu Sibiya made it known he would have let Khumalo go “for just a little more money”.

Today the club released a statement saying: “Supersport United are pleased to announce that a pre-contract agreement with Tottenham Hotspur for the transfer of Bongani Khumalo with effect from January 2011 has been concluded, subject to a work permit being granted.

“In paying tribute to the player, Supersport United Chairman, Khulu Sibiya, expressed his delight with the opportunity granted to Khumalo who joined the club at the beginning of the 2007/2008 PSL season.

“Bongani has been an exceptional player for Supersport United. His three and a half years at the club has seen him develop into one of the best footballers in the country and his contribution was a major factor in the club winning three consecutive ABSA Premiership League titles. Everyone at the club wishes him well in his future career at Tottenham Hotspur.

“ We are equally proud of the fact that Bongani is joining our partners, Tottenham Hotspur, with whom we have enjoyed a fantastic and fruitful relationship since 2007 and we are convinced that this relationship will continue to grow from strength to strength in the years to come.”

But there is always the lingering memory of one Mbulelo OJ Mabizela and his time in North London.

Mabizela scored a cracker on his debut for Spurs in 2003 but never settled. Khumalo should have no such problems and is widely expected to rival everything achieved by Lucas Radebe in a glorious decade with Leeds United which came to a close in 2005.

Despite Redknapp’s insistence that he is form “a poor background”, Khumalo’s mum is an English teacher and his late father was a lecturer in African languages at UNISA. He is articulate and well-balanced and will have all the support he needs in London. He says: “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.

“You have to stay motivated, stay strong mentally. I have always wanted to play in England and obviously in the Premier League, and it is my dream to move to Tottenham. It is 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."

Yes, that’s the way the lad talks. With conviction. 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.”

The great chief himself, Radebe, adds this: "Bongani is destined for great heights in his football career,” while Gavin Hunt, the coach who has seen Supersport United win three consecutive South Africa Premier League titles despite their tiny fan base, 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."

KHUMALO: the story so far:

1987: Born in Manzini, Swaziland, when his parents were working there.

1989: Moved to the township of Mamelodi near Pretoria aged two.

2001: Played junior football for Arcadia Shepherds, the once-famous Pretoria club responsible for grooming such luminaries as Aston Villa’s European Cup winner Peter Withe and former Blackburn, QPR and Coventry star Roy Wegerle.

2005: Moved to the University of Pretoria, who operate a second division side in South Africa.

2007: Signed for SuperSports United.

2010: He drives a Seat Leon Cupra (“the beast”) and told me during the World Cup: “We all want to play for big teams overseas and if the opportunity comes I’ll jump at it.”

VERDICT: Bongani, there’s no way you’ll “do an OJ” when you come over in January. But if 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 23 miles from London. We’re the current national over-35 FA Cup holders and are currently unbeaten atop the South Bucks Church League Division One. I’m the other centre-back. You won’t regret it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Sky News: From the horse's mouth

For full story see below...

Sir Alex Ferguson is being seen as the hero of the hour as Wayne Rooney is persuaded to stay on at Manchester United - but pundits say it will cost their relationship.

Sports writer Neal Collins told Sky News: "Suddenly Sir Alex is a hero again. He needs to come out and take very deep bow on the steps of Old Trafford.

"From where I'm standing, Sir Alex Ferguson has backed the Glazers (Man Utd owners) right into a corner and said to them 'we've got to pay top dollar and finally reassure Rooney and the rest of the players and fans that we've really got the money and the clout to be one of the top clubs in the world'.

"That's what they've done in one fell swoop."

The News of the World's Paul McCarthy said: "I don't think they'll have gone anywhere close to what Manchester City would have offered - I think it will be between £160,000 and £170,000 a week.

"I think there'll still be a huge bonus scheme built into the deal - and he deserves it - he is the outstanding English player, despite some dreadful form recently.

"This is fantastic news for Manchester United, though I have to say I'm not sure the relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney will ever be the same again."

Mick Dennis, of the Daily Express, said: "This is a master stroke by Fergie, and also, I guess, by Wayne's agent, because there must have been a monetary readjustment.

Rooney stays. Sir Alex Ferguson, take a bow.

SO Wayne Rooney stays at Manchester United. After an eventful week, Sir Alex Ferguson can happily walk out on to the steps outside Old Trafford and take a deep bow.
In the single sweep of a pen, the 67-year-old has managed to come out of one of the toughest periods of his 25-year reign smelling of bright red roses. And a red-faced Rooney gets rid of the for sale signs less than 48 hours after saying he was off.
Not only has Sir Alex persuaded Rooney and his agent Paul Stretford to settle for something a long way short of their hoped-for £250,000-a-week, he has also backed the owners into a corner.
The Yankee-doodle Glazers, who have reduced United to bit-part players in the big picture with their huge interest repayments, had no choice other than to agree to Rooney's demands for a pay rise nearly two years before the end of his contract.
And the unspoken reassurance is this: United are still a world class club, despite those Glazer debts.
Rooney will probably be on around £170,000-a-week, though we may never learn the full details of this shiny new four-year deal.
But we can be sure it's some way short of Yaya Toure's Manchester City pay packet. Sheikh Mansour has promised him what amounts to £220,000-a-week if City finish in the top four this season and earn a place in the Champions League for the first time.

Ultimately, Rooney has had to compromise. With FIFA and UEFA promising a salary cap, Stretford was hoping for that dreamt-of best-in-the-world million pounds a month.

Instread, Rooney will be tied to United long after Sir Alex has finally reached for the pipe a slippers. And if he attempts to leave before June 2015, the transfer fee will be exorbitant. Somewhere in the £60m bracket.

Sir Alex said: "I told the boy that the door is always open and I'm delighted Wayne has agreed to stay.

"Sometimes, when you're in a club, it can be hard to realise just how big it is and it takes something like the events of the last few days to make you understand.

"It's been a difficult week, but the intensity of the coverage is what we expect at Manchester United.

"I think Wayne now understands what a great club Manchester United is.

"I'm pleased he has accepted the challenge to guide the younger players and establish himself as one of United's great players. It shows character and belief in what we stand for.

"I'm sure everyone involved with the club will now get behind Wayne and show him the support he needs to produce the performances we know he is capable of."

With Stoke to come on Sunday, Rooney is now required to produce the kind of performances United fans enjoyed last season rather than the routine fare we have been subjected to during and since the World Cup.

Rooney himself released a statement saying: Rooney, 24, added: "I said on Wednesday the manager's a genius and it's his belief and support that have convinced me to stay. I'm delighted to sign another deal at United.

"I'm signing a new deal in the absolute belief that the management, coaching staff, board and owners are totally committed to making sure United maintains its proud winning history — which is the reason I joined the club in the first place.

"I'm sure the fans over the last week have felt let down by what they've read and seen, but my position was from concern over the future.

"The fans have been brilliant with me since I arrived and it's up to me through my performances to win them over again."

Given that mobs were forming outside his house last night and death threats had been made against him, Rooney really had no choice.

The winner here, without question, is Sir Alex Ferguson. Whether Rooney can respond with goals and peformances is another question.

One small query I didn't have time to raise on Sky News this morning: Just how will Rooney's team-mates respond to this undeserved pay-rise, which will make him the best-paid player in the history of a club which has fielded such luminaries as George Best, Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona?

We shall find out on Sunday...

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Wayne Rooney proves football still has the power to shock... and Sir Alex Ferguson feels the heat

SO British football has not lost the ability to confound. To shock. To discombobulate. One look at Sir Alex Ferguson’s face during Tuesday’s monumental Wayne Rooney press conference proved that much.

The greatest manager on earth has seen it all in 53 years as a rugged centre-forward and no-nonsense boss. But he’s never seen a 24-year-old turn his back on the best-known club on earth.

And just to prove how shocking all this is, the 68-year-old Scot growled: “The door is not closed. We are still prepared to offer Wayne a contract that can’t be bettered elsewhere.”

Incredible. Hardened Fleet Street football writers chewed on their lap-tops. This was a whole new ball game. Sir Alex does the discarding. Nobody puts Fergie in a corner, least of all a lad who is a long way from the finished article, who struggles to keep his nose clean.

Rooney was born just a year after Sir Alex took over at Manchester United in 1986. But he has left the Premier League's most successful manager “dumbfounded” and “bemused”. Those aren’t just words. Fergie meant every unfamiliar syllable yesterday as he attempted to provide some kind of lucid explanation for his striker’s bizarre course of behaviour.

Sure, Arsenal were crushing Shakhtar Donestsk 5-1 to break Real Madrid’s record of scoring 12 goals in their first three Champions League games of the season. Chelsea dismantled Spartak Moscow 2-0 on the plastic in Russia, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid shrugged off AC Milan by the same score. Great Champions League tales.

But all anyone can talk about is Pain Loony. Forget United's clash with Turks Bursaspor. Rooney won't be playing because of his mysteriously injured ankle - but he’s on the front of every British tabloid today. Did he really tell his England team-mates during the World Cup that he was sick of "carrying" Manchester United? Is it true his agent Paul Stretford told United chief executive David Gill he wanted away back in August? Did this dastardly plot really stay hushed up for two months?

Surely it must have something to do with Rooney’s appalling World Cup display, when he was playing under the shadow of prostitute allegations? Did his angry wife Colleen have something to do with his need to get away? Did he resent the sale of his mate Cristiano Ronaldo or the arrival of his old rival Michael Owen?

Does he honestly want to cross the divide and play for Sheikh Mansoor’s Manchester City? Or jump ship to Chelsea or Barcelona now Real Madrid have said they don’t want him?

Of course he does. This is all about money. Rooney is on less than Rio Ferdinand’s £140,000-a-week at United. His agent Stretford, one of the sharpest in the game, knows FIFA and UEFA want to crack down on wages like that. This may be Rooney’s last chance to escape on the cheap and demand a world-record £250,000-a-week, dwarfing the reputed £180,000 supposedly swilling around for his old pal Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid and the little genius Lionel Messi at Barcelona.

On current form, Rooney is a long way behind those two right now. He's managed a single goal all season so far. But under the so-called Webster ruling, FIFA’s article 17, Rooney can leave next summer for around £5million. Because he’s under 28 and has served three years of his contract, any club can come along, pay off his final year’s salary and a small compensation fee, and claim the ugly little fellow who goes under the tag of England’s finest. Andy Webster of Hearts in Scotland was the first to choose this route, hence the name.

The more likely option? Chelsea could offer £25m during the January transfer window and end this madness. Word is Colleen Rooney doesn’t want Wayne to leave England as her adopted sister Rosy has life-threatening Red Syndrome and she doesn’t want to leave.

Turmoil. Utter confusion. But wait, here’s Sir Alex, with one of several incredible passages from Tuesday’s searing, from-the-heart revelations. He says: "We have done nothing but help Wayne since he came to this club. That's another mystery for us. I don't know how many times we have helped him in terms of his private life and other matters.

"It's part of your job here to look after your players and that creates a tremendous loyalty.

"We're as bemused as anyone can be because we can't quite understand why he would want to leave.

"We've won 40 major trophies, been in countless cup finals, have a fantastic history, a great stadium and great training arrangements.

"It's a platform for anyone to take up a challenge here. There's incredible romance and we don't understand it.

"I can't answer the question of why he's doing it."

Then the revelation that this whole sorry saga had been going on behind the scenes for weeks: "I was in my office on August 14 and David (Gill, the United chief exec) phoned and said, 'I'm coming over, I have some bad news for you'. Wayne's agent had intimated he wouldn't be signing a new contract and wanted away.

"I couldn't believe it. I was just dumbfounded. I couldn't understand it at all - because only months before he was saying he was at the greatest club in the world and how he wanted to stay for life.

"So we just don't know what's changed the boy's mind. I asked to have a meeting with Wayne and he reiterated what his agent had said - he wanted to go.

"I did say to him, and David also intimated, there was an offer there if he wanted to accept it.

"It's an offer that never got into discussions, money wise. But David was prepared to offer him a contract that couldn't be bettered elsewhere. That's what you do with top players. There's no big problem with that."

And what about the ankle injury Rooney said he never had? Here's Fergie's take: "The area which created a lot of mystery as far as we are concerned, is the issue about his injury.

"He got an ankle injury and confirmed it himself in an interview. My planning, based on the fact he wasn't playing that well, was to leave him out of the Sunderland game and make sure his ankle was properly repaired for the next game.

"We would give him 10 days' rest and recovery, so he could play for England. My hope was that by playing for England at Wembley, he could recapture his form and kick on. But that created the next stage we've had to deal with, in terms of Wayne saying he wasn't injured.

"That was disappointing because we knew fine well he was carrying an injury.

"We sent him for a scan and the scan showed a minor defect in terms of the ankle injury. Nothing serious - but it needed treatment and he had treatment.

"There has been no argument. But we've got to a stage now where I feel we still have to keep the door open for him because he is such a good player."

So he could stay? Apparently not: "You can speculate and have opinions but it won't matter a dickiebird because the player is adamant in saying he wants to leave.

"We will deal with the next part of that as best we can in terms of that request.

"But we can do no more than we have done or said at the moment because in my mind we still have the door open - and who knows?

"When I had the meeting with Wayne I said to him, 'just remember one thing - respect this club. I don't want any nonsense from you, just respect the club'.

"I don't know if he's done that. I have my doubts about that because, what with reading all these things about him falling out with me and all that nonsense, it's disappointing.

"We've done everything we possibly can to help Wayne Rooney. We were honouring that request from Wayne to stay at the club he loved.

"He said the best thing he'd ever done was sign for us, so David was prepared through all the discussions and negotiations to offer Wayne the best contract any player could have in the country.

"Since the minute he's come to the club, we've always been a harbour for him. Any time he's been in trouble we've done nothing but help him.

"This is a club which bases all its history, loyalty and foundation on the trust between player, manager and club and has done for many years, well before me. Since the days of Sir Matt Busby, that's what it's founded on.

"So I'm disappointed, very disappointed."

And so say all of us.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Champions League preview: It's Rooney tunes

ONE name will dominate this week’s Champions League return around Europe. Here’s a clue. It rhymes, some would say aptly, with Pained Loony.
Wayne Rooney’s representatives have spent the last 24 hours letting it be known their money making machine will not sign an extension to his current contract, due to expire in the summer of 2012.
So all the talk before Wednesday’s Group C clash against Turkey’s Bursaspor at Old Trafford will be of the man affectionately known as Shrek.
Will he play? Will he cross Manchester to City in January – or perhaps Barcelona or Chelsea will snap him up for a world record £80 million? Look, this isn’t just supposition any more. The 24-year-old has scored a single goal for United this season after last winter’s 34-goal spree.
Since allegations surrounding his private life emerged – it was claimed with some relish that he had slept with a prostitute while his wife Colleen was pregnant with their son Kai – Rooney has been a peripheral figure at United. Sir Alex Ferguson has insisted his striker has had an ankle injury ever since - but after his mediocre performance in England’s 0-0 draw with Montenegro a week ago, Rooney insisted he has been fit throughout the turmoil following the News of the World’s revelations.
Rooney said: “I have been fit all season. No ankle injury. I haven’t missed a training session.”
Which of course set him on an instant collision course with his manager, with Rooney playing the crash test dummy. Nobody makes rock-hard Glaswegian Fergie, the son of a dockyard worker, look stupid.
And under the Webster ruling (Article 17 of Fifa's transfer regulations, named after the former Hearts player Andy Webster), Rooney could pay off the final year of his current annual salary and buy out his contract for a small compensation fee. That means he could go for £5.5m at the end of the season.
With United denying they will sell him (“nonsense” is how they describe the current reports) and Real Madrid insisting they had no plans to fork out another £80m for Cristiano Ronaldo’s ugly step-brother, it’s tempting to think this will all blow over, like it did for John Terry and Peter Crouch after allegations over their private lives.
Both are happily back playing for club and country. Surely Rooney, who went into the World Cup as “the best striker in the world” will patch it up with his boss (like he appears to have done with his wife, he even took the mum-in-law shopping over the weekend) and they’ll all live happily ever after? But no, this one won’t go away. Sleeping with a prostitute is one thing. Contradicting Sir Alex Ferguson in public is another.
Fergie has made his decision, Rooney is standing firm. Like so many before him – David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Bryan Robson, Paul McGrath, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Nicky Butt and Ruud van Nistelrooy among them – Rooney is about to find out that no player is bigger than Manchester United. And no star shines brighter than Sir Alex Ferguson in the red half of Manchester. Fergie is the master of knowing when a player should go.
No matter how talented, no matter how many replica shirts he may shift, the sell-by date is set by the gaffer. On the sidelines you’ve got former United boss Tommy “Rent-a-gob” Docherty insisting: “Ferguson must go, not Rooney”.
Clearly the man is deluded.
There can be only one winner here and it isn’t Shrek. United survived the departure of all those stars listed above – some apparently at the peak of their powers - and have managed quite nicely, thank you.
While we wait to find out whether Rooney will start against the Turks on Wednesday, some may stwitch their to Rafa Benitez. Since leaving Liverpool four months ago (and what a perfectly timed move that was!) Benitez has been under scrutiny at Internazionale.
Signed to replace Real-bound Jose Mourinho by the European champions, Benitez has struggled to convince at the San Siro.
Wednesday night’s visit of Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham, handily placed in both Group A and the Premier League, could be decisive for Benitez if he is to convince the Italians he is a worthy successor to Mourinho. After a squeaky 1-0 win over Cagliari over the weekend, Benitez said he was considering buying reinforcements in January and he said of the Spurs clash: "It will be a difficult encounter, they’re strong. And fast."
But first, on Tuesday night, Chelsea go to Spartak Moscow in Group F while Arsenal have got Ukraine’s not-to-be-sneezed-at Shakhtar Donetzk at the Emirates Stadium in Group H.
Chelsea remain clear front-runners in the Premier League despite Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Aston Villa, but they won’t relish a return to Moscow, where John Terry famously allowed Manchester United to lift the European Cup in the 2008 penalty shoot-out on that notoriously plastic pitch. This week Terry must deal with Brazilian Ari on the Astroturf.
He’s a strapping six-footer who has scored seven goals in 17 starts for Spartak, currently fourth in the Russian league. And I’m being told to back Ari.
Bayern Munich, trailing a massive 1-0 points behind surprise Bundesliga leaders Mainz and Borrusia Dortmund, have got Cluj Napoca at home while Roma are waiting to snatch top spot in Group E by beating Basel. Bayern need Miroslav Klose, internationally sublime, to score a couple of goals for his Bayern paymasters.
Otherwise terms like crisis may be needed for the side currently ”doing a Liverpool” in Germany, where they are languishing in 10th spot.
Real Madrid take on AC Milan at the Bernebeu in what could be the game of the week in Group G where Ajax and Auxerre appear to be battling it out for third spot and a play in the Europa League.
Barcelona should be far too good for Copenhagen at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night which should open up Group D nicely for Panathinaikos or Russians Rubin Kazan, who meet in Greece.
Werder Bremen’s trip to Dutch champions FC Twente could have significant impact in Group A, where both teams currently trail joint-leaders Spurs and Inter by three points.
In Group B, clear leaders Lyon entertain Portguese giants Benfica while Schalke 04 should be too much for Israel’s Hapoel Tel Aviv. Rangers, currently second in Group C behind United, will do well to take a point off Spain’s Valencia at Ibrox and cling on to second place.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Chaos at Liverpool... and it's coming soon to a club near you

The latest Liverpool score? "Poppycock" and "an abuse of process". Oh, time-wasting. That sounds vaguely like we might be talking football.
Sadly, we're not. We're talking off-the-field crisis. And it's coming soon to a Premier League club near you.
Thing is, Liverpool thought they'd won yeesterday. Just like the Reds lately isn't it? Think they've won, then they haven't. Celebrating victory only to find they've actually achieved nothing.
So wrong all this. Gloom at Anfield matched only by the confusion outside Court 16 at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Yesterday's High Court victory appeared to suggest Hicks and Gillett had lost once and for all, that they were unlikely to appeal.
Then the Americans get some court in Texas to slap an injunction on things and poor old John Henry, having flown out to celebrate his coup in buying the great Reds brand, leaves confused and baffled by English sporting politics.
Mind you, will Henry be any better?
Which raises the point... how about a word from Prime Minister David Cameron on all this. In a time of cuts and recession, wouldn't it enhance his coalition's popularity if he came out and told these profit-seeking Americans to get knotted and let Liverpool live?
But it won't happen. I'm on Sky News tomorrow morning at 6.45am talking Liverpool and to be frank, I'm tired of the intricate legal arguments. I just want victory for the fans, a chance for my old coach Roy Hodgson to get things done in a relatively peaceful environment.
I was on South Africa's MetroFM yesterday, telling host Robert Morawa as much as I know about what's going on. I put it to him that if some foreigner stepped in and bought Kaizer Chiefs, sent them plunging in to debt and then demanded millions in profit, there would be real trouble.
Sport, you see, is not a business. It's a passion. Liverpool are not selling apples and pears or even sophisticated machinery. They are selling football. They rely on a fanatical following, the result of years of supreme football and cunning transfer moves.
Sure, season tickets and replica shirts will be sold. But profit is the last thing the footballers or the fans care about. The bottom line in sport is success. At just about any cost.
For Tom Hicks and George Gillett, it appears to be all about getting a return for an investment that put the Reds to deeply in the red.
Soon, it will be Manchester United's turn, when the Glazers want their money back. And the debt at Old Trafford is twice as high. Last week United's record £100m nett profit was actually turned into a record loss by interest repayments on what is effectively a mortgage taken out by the Glazers.
Chelsea and Manchester City fans can rest easy for now. Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansoor appear unfussed by profit, they want the kudos that comes from lavishing millions on a Premier League football club.
But if either of those billionaires grow bored and seek to invest in Formula One or Powerboating, then where would they be?
Of all the major clubs, only Arsenal seem capable right now of running that line between economics and sport.
If FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter and UEFA's Michel Platini got their way and forced all clubs to run at a profit, to live within their means, Arsenal would be the last club standing.
Sure, Wolves, Birmingham and even West Ham might make it following the pragmatic arrival of David Gold and David Sullivan. Spurs? The mystery of their investment refuses to go away, Harry Redknapp just keeps on spending Daniel Levy's money and he doesn't appear to have a lot of it.
Aston Villa? Randy Lerner seems a sensible soul, but what's he in it for? And how about the new Thailand entry into the market at Leicester? Even Croydon Athletic have been caught up in intrigue and deceit. And they're not even in the Football League!
It's all a mess. Mr Justice Floyd must today make sense of all this. Weigh up the needs of a football club with those of big business. The Royal Bank of Scotland and the Anfield Board want New England Sports Ventures (run by Boston Red Sox boss Henry) to step in by Friday or there is talk of administration and a nine-point deduction for a Liverpool side already languishing in the relegation zone.
This once great club have got the RBS calling in their loan of £237m tomorrow. They've got Hicks and Gillett trying to kick Martin Broughton and his pragmatic pals off the board.
And if Hicks and Gillett win, they'll be looking to this Asian billionaire Peter Lim to step in and buy them out, rather than Henry, who appears to have Liverpool at heart.
But how can anybody from Asia or the States understand exactly what Liverpool means to the fans? Families, communities, schools are split along the red and blue divide.
And on Sunday, it's the Merseyside derby.
Even as I write this, Hicks and Gillett are in Dallas arguing that proceedings in London are in contempt of their court's decision. Broughton and his side are arguing they have no jurisdiction. They're using words like "grotesque parody..preposterous, unfair, unjust". Oh, and "poppycock" and "incorrigible".
And throughout it all, Roy Hodgson is trying to pick a side for a game which means so much, with Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres injured.
Those who smugly sit thinking "Glad I'm not a Liverpool fan" beware. It's coming your way. Soon.