Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (5) - Abramovich plus Mourinho equals a new age

Right then, who in the UK had ever heard of Roman Abramovich before he bought Chelsea in June 2003? Probably about as many folk as there are Russians who had heard of Ken Bates, the man who he bought the London club from. Yet the Russian Oligarch, he of the bajillion dollar fortune (one bajillion is the same as a thousand gazillions, honest) has left a lasting imprint on English football, and ultimately on club football as a whole, with his financial outlay on the club. And, of course, with his decision to appoint a Portuguese manager who was the ultimate rent-a-quote - calling himself "the special one" sounded like the most arrogant thing ever, until Jose Mourinho went on to prove that he could live up to that claim. Chelsea broke the Man Utd-Arsenal hegemony at the top of the Premier League, and the extra entertainment brought to these shores has helped contribute to the emergence of the English Premier League as, by some distance, the outstanding domestic league in the world at the end of the noughties.

Mourinho was to arrive at Stamford Bridge a year after Abramovich; instead the zillionaire chose to give Claudio Ranieri, the incumbent coach, the chance to prove himself. To be fair on the Tinkerman, as he was known for his fondness for squad rotation, he did take Chelsea to second in the league (behind Arsenal), an improvement on fourth the previous campaign, and, having knocked the Gunners out of the Champions League, they really should have been in the final against Mourinho's Porto, only to completely bugger up the semi against Monaco; at 1-1 in the first leg away from home, Monaco had a player sent off, and Ranieri uncharacteristically gambled by throwing on another forward, only to watch in horror as the French side nicked two late goals. In the second leg, Chelsea led 2-0 (and so on away goals) only to end up drawing 2-2.

Monaco went on to be humped in the final, and Ranieri was done for, having failed to deliver either of the big prizes despite enough funding to bring in Glen Johnson, Geremi, Wayne Bridge, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Adrian Mutu, Alexey Smertin, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele and Scott Parker - a cool 122.3 million pounds. No, really. Though I suppose that it would only buy two Kakas, or one and a half Cristiano Ronaldos. And Mr. Special One, fresh from winning the Champions League (a season after beating Celtic in the UEFA Cup final), was the man to replace him. Of course, he was given a blank cheque book as well, though he spent "only" 91 million, which included such Chelsea luminaries as Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho, along with useful players such as Paulo Ferreira and Arjen Robben, and, er, less useful players such as Tiago and Mateja Kezman. But, with both Arsenal and Man Utd going through a transitional period, they were the favourites for the title and duly delivered.

Much has been made of the season that Arsenal's "invincibles" won the title without losing a match; yet 2004-05, the following season, saw Chelsea lose only one match, in October at Manchester City, as they won the title by a country mile, scoring three more points than Arsene Wenger's side had done before. Mourinho's side were certainly solid at the back, with Cech, Carvalho, Makelele and John Terry, but a front three of Duff, Robben and Drogba effectively established the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation as a tactic which went on to be frequently copied by most other teams in the country. The only let down was another European failure; after a sensational win over Barcelona, they were knocked out by Luis Garcia's so-called "ghost goal" for Liverpool, who went on to the final at Istanbul. More of that later...

Chelsea lost a whole five matches in the league the following year...not that it stopped them winning the title again. But this time Barca got revenge and knocked them out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. The cracks were beginning to appear in the manager-owner relationship, and in 2006-07, Mourinho's side were pipped by a revitalized Manchester United in the league, though they did win the FA Cup and the League Cup. But The Special One just wasn't special enough to win the biggest trophy of them all - Liverpool won another European semi, this time on penalties. There was a strange inevitability about Mourinho's departure in September 2007.

A fat lot of good it's done Abramovich. Avram Grant couldn't win the league or the Champions League, whilst Luis Felipe Scolari was a disaster. But Chelsea remain a major force in English and European football even as the Russian has reined in his spending. Even though the rest have caught up with Chelsea, they changed the football landscape beyond recognition.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (4) - Rangers win the SPL by one goal

In several alternate universes, Albert Kidd would have been remembered by no-one but a few die-hard, geeky Dundee fans. But in this universe, Kidd is the man who, with two goals in the final ten minutes of the last game of the season, denied Hearts the 1985-86 title, handing it to Celtic on goal difference. Those were the only two goals the striker scored all season.

Therefore, it seems quite apt that when, in May 2003, the SPL was once more decided by subtracting goals conceded from goals scored, it was ultimately Dundee and Hearts, in combination, who denied Celtic the title.

2002-03 was the pinnacle of the Old Firms’ dominance of the Scottish football, although signs of belt-tightening were beginning to emerge. Neither team made much in the way of big name summer signings beforehand; Celtic, after two seasons of big-money buys such as Chris Sutton, John Hartson, Neil Lennon and Alan Thompson, were well equipped anyway. Rangers, financially drained by the excesses of Dick Advocaat (£1m for Marcus Gayle, anyone?) completed the signing of Spaniard Mikel Arteta, brought in on loan six months previously and balanced the books by deceiving Peter Reid into giving £7m of Sunderland’s cash to them in exchange for Tore Andre Flo. But both teams had strength in depth that seems almost unbelievable six years on. Celtic still had the likes of Henrik Larsson and Stiliyan Petrov at their peak, whilst Rangers could boast Amoruso, Moore and Ricksen at the back, Barry Ferguson (who has never surpassed the level his performances reached that season) and Arteta and midfield, and Ronald De Boer providing the spark. The gap between second and third at the end of the season was a whopping 34 points. Between them, the Old Firm scored 199 league goals.

Champions in 2001-02, Celtic appeared stronger initially, especially after Rangers suffered one of the traditional Scottish-team-in-Europe catastrophies that inevitably occurs every season or two, crashing to obscure Czechs Viktoria Zizkov in their first UEFA Cup tie. But, like Rangers six seasons later, Celtic (who had also been dumped out of the Champions League early, by Basle of Switzerland), found themselves on an epic UEFA Cup run, forcing themselves past some rather illustrious opponents - Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista - to earn their place against Porto in the final in Seville, where, despite a truly heroic performance from Larsson, Celtic succumbed 3-2 to the might of Jose Mourinho.

The European campaign, comprising a total of 15 matches, took its toll, not least in the cups. Three days after battling to a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park in the first leg of the quarter-final with Liverpool, a tie best remembered for the incredible joint-rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by the two sets of fans, Celtic faced their deadly rivals in the League Cup final. Rangers had lost an Old Firm game only a week before, but prevailed 2-1 at Hampden, with John Hartson missing a late penalty that would have taken the match to extra time. To cap it all, Chris Sutton broke his wrist, but even in his absence Martin O’Neill’s side produced a sensational upset at Anfield, winning 2-0 as Hartson made amends for his cup final miss with a stunning solo goal. But with several players exhausted, a second-string team was sent to Inverness for the Scottish Cup quarter-final at the weekend, only to meet the same fate as John Barnes’ misfits three years earlier (though of course, considering the strides made over that period, the result was hardly going to wound O’Neill). Rangers would go on to win that competition too.

But by the Spring, there was no guarantee that the title race would go to the wire, as on April 19th at Tynecastle, it appeared to take a decisive twist. Larsson struck to give Celtic the lead, but Phil Stamp equalized before, with the seconds running out, full-back Austin McCann smashed in a screamer to give Hearts all three points. Rangers were now eight points clear, although they had played a game extra, and had only five matches to play. A draw or better at Ibrox the next weekend, in the last Old Firm meeting of the season, would surely clinch the title. But the Hoops, galvanised by the late winner from their talismanic Swede in Portugal against Boavista three days earlier which had clinched their UEFA Cup final place, produced a effort so superhuman that my father, laid low with the flu, had been miraculously cured by half-time simply through sheer adrenaline. And he wasn’t even a Celtic fan. The last of Rangers’ points advantage went down the tubes when they blew a two goanl lead at Dens Park and were held to a draw by Dundee.

But Dundee were just as up for trying to cripple Celtic’s challenge, when the sides met at Celtic Park on a Wednesday evening televised by the BBC. With goal difference becoming increasingly relevant, Rangers had thwacked Kilmarnock 4-0 a few days earlier. Celtic were not to be outdone – after Dundee had equalized an early goal, Shaun Maloney and Alan Thompson turned on the style as Celtic ran up six goals. But in injury time, with the home side throwing caution to the wind in the search of a seventh, defender Lee Mair foraged forward as part of a counter-attack and struck a late consolation goal. It would prove critical. Four days after losing in Seville, Celtic faced a travel to Kilmarnock on the final day. Rangers were up against Dunfermline at home. Goal difference was level, but Rangers had scored one more goal, giving them a tiny advantage.

Initially the cheers came for the green side of Glasgow, when Dunfermline equalized an early Rangers opener, but by half-time Rangers were 3-1 up while Celtic were ahead 2-0. An Alan Thompson penalty for Celtic extended their lead and temporarily put them in the driving seat, but Ronald De Boer and Stephen Thompson scored in quick succession; at the exact moment as the latter player struck, his Celtic namesake hit the post with his second spotkick. Right to the end, nails were being bitten away, as Celtic led 4-0 and Rangers 5-1, but a last gasp penalty from Arteta made sure the title was wrapped in blue ribbons.

Celtic won nothing. Rangers collected the treble. 17 years after Albert Kidd, a Hearts full-back produced a goal which severely dented Celtic’s hopes, and a late consolation goal from another defender, this time in the same dark blue as worn by Kidd back in 1986, ended up, retrospectively, to be the critical nail in the coffin. With the Old Firm drastically weakened since, along with the rest of Scottish football, it remains to be seen whether we will witness this sort of excitement again.


Friday, December 11, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (3) - THAT ZIDANE VOLLEY

In the summer of 2001, the Galactico era at Real Madrid entered a new phase. Twelve months earlier, Real had pulled off an incredible coup by purchasing Luis Figo from hated rivals Barcelona, to join great players (and great egos) such as Roberto Carlos and Raul. But nothing compared to the capture of Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchman who had been undeniably the top footballer in the world since he led his country to 1998 World Cup glory. Zidane cost 46 million squids, a world record fee by a distance, but he fitted the bill; he was the best there was, so Real Madrid had to have him.

When he signed for Real, Zidane was 29 years old, and at the peak of his powers. In truth, he had already achieved about as much as he could with Juventus - two Serie A championships, plus a run of close-but-no-cigar moments in the Champions League, including two final defeats. Italian football was beginning to fall behind England and Spain at club level (a trend that continues even now) and if Zidane was to win the one trophy eluding him - he was, of course, a World Cup and European Championship winner at international level - he would have to leave Turin. In a team with the current World Player of the Year, Luis Figo, a lethal striker in Raul, and one of the best young keepers around, Iker Casillas, Zizou would not get a better chance.

Not all went to plan for Real and their ambitious (to say the least) chairman Florentino Perez. They had been La Liga champions in 2000-01, but even with Zidane in harness, they slipped back to third in the table the following campaign - its incredible to think that Valencia, under Rafa Benitez, pipped Deportivo La Coruna to the title, whilst Barcelona came in a miserable fourth. But Real Madrid's mandate was the Champions League. Historically, its previous incarnation, the European Cup, had been won so often by the legendary side of the 1950s, with Di Stefano and Puskas leading the charge, that there seemed little point in moving the trophy out of Spain. After a thirty year barren period, the Madridistas won it once more in 1998 (defeating a Juve side containing Zidane) and again in 2000. If the galacticos were to go galactic, they needed to win it again.

And in May 2002, they were back in the final, to be played at Hampden Park. Hampden was a location special to the hearts of Real; it was the place of their greatest triumph, the almost mythical 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the final of 1960. Puskas scored four, Di Stefano a mere hat-trick, in front of 135,000 fans. And forty-two years on, Real Madrid once more faced German opposition, in the fairly unheralded Bayer Leverkusen. Leverkusen were a solid side, but their stars, German international midfielder Michael Ballack and Brazilian defender Lucio, were nothing on what their opponents had. But they had been good enough to knock Manchester United out in the semi-finals, and they were good enough to level things up through a Lucio goal after Raul had pounced to give Real an early lead.

But in the dying seconds of the first half, the Spanish side launched one more attack before the half-time whistle. Roberto Carlos, always more interested in attacking than defending from his left back role, sped down the left wing to try and reach a long ball. He arrived just before the full back, but succeeded only in launching the ball high into the night sky. Raul and his strike partner, Fernando Morientes, had moved into the penalty area anticipating a cross, taking the defence with them. The ball instead began to return to earth towards the "D". Zidane had arrived there, with no defenders tracking him.

The ball took such an age to drop that it almost appeared like slow motion. Zidane watched the ball all the way down, and wrenched his left leg to the height of his shoulder, where his instep met the ball, turning the play from slow motion to fast forward as his shot rocketed past the goalkeeper into the top corner. What a technique. What a goal. What an occasion to score on.

And it was his weaker foot.

Any team would have been stunned by that strike. Leverkusen showed considerable spirit in fighting back in the second half, only to be denied by desperate defending and a string of saves. The immaculate volley proved to be the winning goal. Zidane had his Champions' League medal. It would prove his pinnacle, and that of Real's - while the signing of Ronaldo the next summer brought another league title, neither he nor later arrival David Beckham could take them back to another final. Zidane, meanwhile, had that summer's World Cup wrecked by injury, and never quite looked the same player again, at least apart from his indian summer at Germany 2006. More of that later...


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (2) - Les Bleus storm Euro 2000

Barthez, Thuram, Desailly, Blanc, Lizarazu, Vieira, Deschamps, Djorkaeff, Zidane, Dugarry, Henry.

Might this be the greatest international XI ever? Older generations talk about the 1970 Brazilians, or the Total Football Dutch who followed them. But each of these eleven players were part of the French side that won the 1998 World Cup on home soil. Considered outsiders initially, Aime Jacquet's side made great use of home advantage and the emerging talents of Zinedine Zidane, along with a fortunate draw (only Italy stand out amongst their pre-final adversaries, with South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Denmark, Paraguay and Croatia hardly behemoths of the tournament) and the bizarre pre-final seizure suffered by Ronaldo that utterly destroyed the preparations of Brazil.

So Jacquet's successor, Roger Lemerre, took France to the 2000 European Championships, just across the border in Belgium and Holland, with his side as one of the obvious favourites, but also question marks over just how appropriate the moniker of World Champions was. But Lemerre's side were two years older, and two years better. The likes of captain Didier Deschamps, defensive rock Laurent Blanc and attacker Youri Djorkaeff were in their thirties, but had lost none of their pace or skills, whilst the younger stars of the World Cup win, players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, had improved from promising youngsters into world-class players. Add in the likes of Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram and, of course, the talismanic Zidane, who were all at the peak of their powers, and this was a team that oozed quality and had remarkable depth. And they had something to prove.

Euro 2000 was, frankly, damn good. Every group had incident. Kevin Keegan's England were at the centre of affairs - first blowing a two goal lead in a 3-2 defeat to a thrilling but volatile (as would become apparent later on), Portuguese side, but looked set to qualify after seeing off an uncharacteristically weak Germany with a single Alan Shearer goal. Though England appeared strong on paper, with Shearer and Michael Owen up front and David Beckham and Paul Scholes in midfield, Keegan's tactics ("he thinks they're a sort of mint", claimed David Mellor) were naive at best and they were hardly as good as the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, they appeared destined for the knockout stages after taking a 2-1 halftime lead against Romania in their final group match, with a draw sufficient for progression. However, a blunder by backup goalkeeper Nigel Martyn, in for the injured David Seaman, gifted an equalizer, and then as time ticked away Phil Neville guaranteed himself a free lager on any subsequent trip North of the border by giving away a daft penalty that condemned England to a 3-2 defeat and elimination. Portugal, meanwhile, stormed the group with maximum points, finishing off by stuffing Germany with their reserves. Ouch.

Considering France's easy group two years earlier, it seemed fitting that they be dumped into the group of death (there's always one) with the Dutch co-hosts, plus the up-and-coming Czechs and Denmark; the latter proved unable to cope in their first tournament after the retirement of the great Laudrup brothers, and managed to lose all three matches without scoring a goal. France and Holland both won their first two games, clinching qualification before playing each other. Lemerre rested several players whilst the hosts did not; regardless, it was a close, thrilling match which saw the Dutch come from behind to win 3-2 and take top spot.

The other host nation, Belgium, did not do nearly as well, despite beating Sweden in their first game, as a nightmare performance in their final match by goalkeeper Filip De Wilde, against Turkey, resulted in defeat and an early exit at the expense of the victors. In between, the Belgians lost to Italy, who romped the group despite pre-tournament doubters. Dino Zoff, the coach, had lost his goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and star striker Christian Vieri to injury, whilst Alessandro Del Piero was half fit and Roberto Baggio retired. So Zoff dared to build his side around the Roman Francesco Totti, a player who flattered to deceive at several international tournaments to come but who repaid his coaches faith with a series of staggering performances as the second striker. Add a typically solid defence containing living legends such as Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and the evergreen Paolo Maldini, and the Nerazzuri stormed through a fairly weak section.

They would then see off Romania in the quarter finals, and then knocked out the Dutch in a penalty shoot out in the semis, in a match where the Netherlands missed two penalties in normal time and three more in the shootout, against opponents who played much of the game with only ten man, setting up a final against France, who had knocked out Spain and Portugal to get to Rotterdam.

Spain, of course, had qualified in circumstances now renowned; having lost to the robust, long-ball Norwegians in their opening game before beating Slovenia, they had to defeat Yugoslavia to go through in what is now recognized as one of the most incredible matches ever. Twice the Serbs went in front, but twice Spain equalized. Hopes were raised when Yugoslavia had a man sent off, but they nicked a goal from a set play, and led 3-2 entering injury time. In the 91st minute, Spain pulled level with a penalty, but it was not enough; in the fifth minute of injury time, the ball was launched forward one last time, and bounced to the feet of Alfonso, who simply closed his eyes and put his foot through it. Cue raucous celebration, cue Motty nearly having a coronary in the commentary box. Spain were through, but so to were Yugoslavia, as Norway paid for their safety first policy by going out after a 0-0 draw in their last game. The Spanish lost a thrilling quarter-final 2-1 to the French; Yugoslavia lost a not-so-thrilling game 6-1 to the Dutch.

If the games so far were incident-packed enough, that was nothing on the France-Portugal semi. Zidane's golden goal penalty, three minutes away from a penalty shoot out, won it, after Abel Xavier was sent off for handball on the line; He, and two other Portugal players, were banned for several months for shoving and abusing the ref. Somehow, Zidane kept his nerve in all the chaos and put France through to a showdown to Italy. The final itself would need a golden goal to win it, but it hardly went to the script; Zoff's previously pragmatic, safety first side took the initiative and led through Marco Delvecchio, and spurned several chances to increase their lead - Del Piero was especially guilty. France toiled for long periods and lacked their usual creative juices, but in the 94th minute substitute Sylvain Wiltord stole in to equalize and take it to extra time, then another sub, Trezeguet, wellied in a golden goal. France won the title their team (if not their performance in the final) deserved.

It would be their peak Blanc and Deschamps retired, and preparations for the 2002 World Cup were ruined by injury to Zidane. They crashed out of that tournament without scoring a goal, and then fell to Greece at Euro 2004's quarter final stage. The side that reached the final of the World Cup in Germany were, in truth, a far inferior team. But then, so was every other international side of the decade. The 2000 Bleus were truly a class above.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (1) - Super Caley Go Ballistic

I'm on annual leave for the next fortnight, so I intend to use the time in between studying to look back at the events that had the most impact on the (not so) beautiful game during the noughties. I like the idea of coming up with ten, though only time will tell if I can. Some will be focused on Scotland, while some will be in English or European club football, and some will be international.

None, you'll be reassured to hear, will be focused on my own endeavours on Inverness' all weather pitch on a Monday night...though if anyone would like to hear more about my magnificent hat-trick yesterday evening, feel free to ask.

The first of the great moments of the decade is, shall we say, rather close to my heart. Not least because, when I was in New Zealand in 2006 and I mentioned I was from Inverness, all the kiwis (none of whom had any interest at all in football) immediately brought up one thing.

Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious.

Yes, I'm an Inverness fan, so obviously I am massively biased over this. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that this match, and it's aftermath, shaped the future of Scottish football for years to come. On February 8th 2000, Inverness, spending their first season in the first division, travelled to play Celtic at Celtic Park on a Wednesday night in the third round of the Scottish Cup. The match was originally to be played ten days earlier, but was postponed after a piece of guttering on the roof of one of the stands came loose, becoming a potential hazard.

Caley Thistle had only existed for six years. Initially a squad made up mostly of former Inverness Caledonian players, the club had been dragged forward by Steve Paterson, an Elgin-born social worker and former Manchester United prodigy who had been appointed as manager in 1995. Paterson is now often remembered less for his achievements at Inverness and, prior to that, in the Highland League, and more for his subsequent failures at Aberdeen and well documented drink and gambling problems. But under the direction of "Pele" (his nickname tells you just how well regarded he was as a player before injuries befell him), Inverness won two promotions in three years, with a squad containing the best of the Highland League and a few other players lured up from the central belt. Barely any of the playing staff from the club's formation remained.

One of the survivors was the goalkeeper Jim Calder, a bricklayer by trade who had past experience of a cup-tie with Celtic, for Calder was the only Inverness Thistle player to join the merged club in 1994. Thistle had played the Bhoys in the cup in 1987, and Calder had sat on the an outfield player. Only later on he had been converted into a keeper, after damaging a knee ligament. He was loved in the Highlands mostly for his willingness to swing on the crossbar and dribble round opposing forwards, rather than for his ability. In February 2000, Calder was five months shy of his fortieth birthday.

Another player from the pre-Caley Thistle days was Charlie Christie, and he had even stronger links with Celtic, having played for them in his younger days. As a striker, Christie had spent two years scoring goals for Celtic reserves, but had chosen to return to his native Inverness in 1989 after failing to break into the first team, instead choosing to combine part-time football with a role in Inverness Caledonian's commercial department (he went on to take a similar role with ICT). Christie was a month short of 33, and over the years had converted from a forward into an intelligent holding midfielder critical to Paterson's attack-minded, short passing strategy. Both Calder and Christie would start this match, part of a side which, after a slow start to the season, were now comfortably in mid-table with little fear of relegation.

It could not have been a greater contrast to Celtic. Looking back, it's astonishing to think of the hype surrounding the club in the summer of 1999. Just 12 months before, they had broken Rangers' ten-in-a-row dreams by nicking the title, only to immediately dismiss their eccentric Dutch manager, Wim Jansen. His replacement, the cerebral Czech Jozef Venglos, was likeable
but inadequate, and Celtic once more finished a distant second in the table, with all the progress made under Jansen flushed down the toilet. So, that summer, Celtic brought back their prodigal son, Kenny Dalglish, to become Director of Football, and on his recommendation they appointed John Barnes, Liverpool and England legend, as Head Coach.

In hindsight, Barnes might actually be the worst football manager ever. Certainly, his spell at Celtic destroyed his reputation to the point where he returned to club management only in the summer of 2009, when appointed by Tranmere Rovers. He lasted only a few months before being dismissed again. But in 1999, Barnes was sold to the fans and the media as the Bright Young Thing, a man with revolutionary tactical ideas who would lead Celtic back to the glory days of the 1960s. Sadly, Barnes' ideas were revolutionary simply because they were so daft that no other manager had ever thought of them. Effectively a 2-2-2-2-2 formation, with two wing-backs instead of full backs and four players pretty much with no defensive responsibility, Celtic were easily exposed when they didn't have the ball, and were so vulnerable defensively that, following defeat at Motherwell, he eventually agreed to use a more orthodox 3-5-2 after being criticized by his team.

Nor did he help himself with his signing policy. After years of prudence (not least because they nearly went bust in 1994), Celtic finally freed up some transfer money - which Barnes spent on Eyal Berkovic, the talented but mercurial, and ultimately lazy, Israeli, and on an obscure Brazilian defender who was part-wonderfully, part-unfortunately, called Rafael Felipe Scheidt. Rafael (as the club called him) cost 5 million pounds. He went on to play only three games for Celtic. To cap it all, Barnes had simply no luck; two months into the season, Henrik Larsson suffered an awful leg break that ended his season and left the club without their most talented (and least egotistical) star.

By February, pressure was beginning to grow. A god run of form pre-xmas ended with an Old Firm draw at Celtic Park, and defeat the previous Saturday at Celtic Park to Hearts left Rangers ten points clear at the top of the table. Celtic badly needed the confidence boost of a comfortable, high-scoring win against Inverness. The next 90 minutes were to be defining moments in the history of both clubs.

Caley showed none of the nervousness expected of underdogs. They came out fighting and flying, clearly taking Celtic aback. The opening goal should have been considered a shock, but Caley had been so bright in the first 15 minutes it felt like they deserved it; Barry Wilson stole in front of his marker to glance a header past Jonathan Gould in the Celtic goal. Wilson was a winger by trade, playing as a forward because of injuries. Certainly he was not in the slightest bit renowned for his heading ability.

Order appeared to be quickly restored, however, as the scores were level within 90 seconds. It was the one quality move Celtic would produce all night, a flowing attack which ended with Mark Burchill lashing a left foot shot past Calder. It's hard to believe now, but back then, of course, Burchill was supposed to be "Scotland's Michael Owen". In the decade since he has wandered round England's lower leagues, had a spell with Dunfermline and is now a backup at Kilmarnock.

Celtic had their chances to go in front, with Mark Viduka, the burly Ozzie forward who went on to greater things at Leeds and Middlesbrough, denied by a goal-line clearance. But so did Caley, with Gould producing an outstanding stop to block a header from Mike Teasdale, another Highland League journeyman. And the wee team from the Highlands were back in front after 25 minutes,albeit in fortuitous circumstances. Big centre-back Bobby Mann got his bonce to a corner kick, and Lubomir Moravcik stuck out a boot and deflected the ball past his own keeper. And, frankly, it was a deserved lead which the visitors held on to with fair ease till halftime.

It was, by all accounts, the events in the Celtic dressing room at halftime which did for Barnes, when he got into a shouting match with Viduka which led to the striker's substitution for the veteran (translation for old and past-it) England forward Ian Wright. Instead of coming out all guns blazing, the home side still looked a mess at the start of the second half, and ICT took quick advantage. A glorious passing move ended with Wilson racing into the box, and he was shoved over by Regi Blinker for a stonewall penalty. Up stepped midfielder Paul Sheerin, who did his best to replicate the frosty temperature of a certain vegetable, stroking the ball into the net and promptly running to the away support like a rabid maniac.

And that, as they say, was that, as Celtic simply gave in. The aforementioned Charlie Christie was man of the match, commanding the centre of the pitch against four international midfielders in green-and-white. Radio Scotland, who had instead chosen Aberdeen-St. Mirren as their main game, finally realized with 20 minutes to go that history was on the cards, and some random journalist was pressganged into providing commentary on the last quarter of the match. But there was never any doubt about the result, further immortalized by THAT headline in The Sun.

Ironically, the result might have been the best thing that ever happened to Celtic. Barnes was sacked within 24 hours. Dalglish took over coaching duties to the end of the season, when he was replaced by Martin O'Neill. O'Neill ultimately turned out to be the man to take Celtic back to success, making them, at least for a period, the superior half of the Old Firm. If Barnes hadn't lost that match, then who knows how long he might have lasted, and whether Celtic might have ended up with a less impressive replacement. Hard to say. But Celtic 1 Inverness 3 was a scoreline which occurred only six weeks into the noughties, yet it shaped Scottish football for a decade to come.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

World Cup fiasco starts here

So over the last couple of weeks we've had The Hand of Gaul, another rejection of video technology and extra officials, a controversy over seedings, an attempt to fit a 33rd team in, and Diego Maradona attempting to gatecrash the draw despite a ban for waving his private parts at journalists.

And that's before we get into the difficulties constructing the stadiums, the dodgy pitches, the appalling infrastructure, the lack of hotel accomodation for fans, and the general threat of violence and carjacking throughout the country. Oh, and the damn vuvuzuela horns that made last summer's confederations cup watchable only with the sound off.

Ladies and gentleman, I welcome you to the start of the buildup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It already stinks of farce, and it doesn't even start till June.

FIFA badly need this to go well, as the 2014 tournament has been given to Brazil, a country with a set of problems remarkably similar to South Africa. In hindsight, the last two World Cups were disappointments on the pitch - 2002 was wrecked by injuries to top players, a difficult climate and refereeing which was either corrupt or crap (and curiously in favour of South Korea throughout). whilst 2006 started like a rocket, peaked with Argentina's masterful 6-0 destruction of Serbia & Montenegro, and then died a horrible death with a succession of dull, cagey knockout games. But what both tournaments had in common was a set of majestic, full stadiums, efficient transport and unrivalled experiences for the fans. And since Euro two-thousand-and-great proved that attacking football is back with a bang, there seemed reason to be optimistic that the coming World Cup would be a footballing carnival once more.

Some hope. And FIFA only have themselves to blame.

I could go on all day about the ridiculousness of giving South Africa, a country with, shall we say, rather a lot of problems, an event of this size and prestige - but you really, really don't want me to, because before long you would be attempting to commit hara-kiri with a dinner fork. So lets instead delve deeper into the more recent past. I've already posted after the Henry scandal, but for crying out loud, what the hell is an "official inquiry" into it going to achieve? It doesn't take a committee to work out what happened. The pretext seems to be "an official inquiry resulting in a suspension for a game or two" but I'd love to see that stand up in court. If Arsenal successfully managed to challenge a ban for Eduardo's diving, surely France can overturn an attempt to ban Henry for what, if spotted at the time, was a bookable offence.

Sadly, there is no sign that lessons will be learnt from Thierry Henry's antics. They proved, once and for all that, however capable the officials are, they can't see everything and need help. Therefore, the important thing is to make sure it never happens again. And the best way to do that is by introducing video technology or goalline officials. Yet Sepp Blatter continues to reject help-by-TV for what appear to be similar reasons to which the Plymouth Brethren use to reject it - we didn't need it in the good old days. And refusing to bring in the extra eyes of goalline assistants just sounds like making a rod for your own back. If Blatter tries one more time to use the argument of "if it can't be used in all matches, it can't be used in any", I might actually spontaneously combust - for goodness sake, think jumpers-for-goalposts, or all those amateur games which cope without linesmen. Think of it this way; is there any other sport in which wrong decisions by referees make such a huge impact on the outcome?

It's got to the point where I almost want the World Cup Final to be decided by, say, a goal that was clearly offside (or conversely a wrongly disallowed goal), or a penalty given erroneously for a clear dive, or another Henry-esque moment, so at last Blatter can be run out of town and football can join the twenty-first century.

Hmm, that rant went on for longer than I expected. Therefore I shall leave moaning about everything else for another time. Except for the vuvuzuela, as I have to mention them again. They truly, truly, suck.