Sunday, January 21, 2007

Gamblers Anonymous

How typical it is that, on the weekend that the FA schedule the big four to be playing against each other, that the most interesting story of the weekend should come at The Madejski Stadium, during Reading's 3-1 defeat of Sheffield United, where Neil Warnock and the Reading assistant manager Wally Downes were sent off for nearly having a fight with each other. As you might expect, I'm not going to join what will doubtlessly be a chorus of moral outrage over this sort of incident. I think it's great, and should be encouraged more. Actually, I'd like it to be taken to its logical conclusion, with Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson dressed as gladiators, fighting to the death in a boxing ring that has been lowered in on top of the centre circle. We can but hope.

The Big Four managed to surprise us all, with defeats for Chelsea and Manchester United leaving things very much as you were. Chelsea were particularly appalling at Liverpool yesterday lunchtime, but this is turning into a particularly frustrating season for Liverpool supporters. Dumped out of the FA Cup and League Cup a couple of weeks ago, their season is still effectively over (bar the Champions League match against Barcelona) - even more so, now that defeats for Bolton and Portsmouth both lost at the weekend, allowing Arsenal to open up a five point gap between the CL boys and the rest. Boring, boring Premiership. There's no doubt in my mind who will make up the top four and, to be honest, I couldn't give two shits who wins the damned thing.

So, we have to turn our attention to the foot of the table if we want to see anything interesting happen before the end of the season. Watford may as well give up now. There are ten points between them and safety now, and that's simply too big a number for them to be able to make up. I'd be delighted if they turned it around, but with just one win from their opening twenty-two matches, it doesn't exactly seem likely, does it? Charlton's sporadic renaissance continued at Fratton Park against Portsmouth on Saturday, but the more interesting battle comes just above them, between West Ham United and Wigan Athletic. There are just two points between the two clubs at the moment, but Wigan are in free-fall at the moment, and I remain convinced that West Ham are too good to go down. Will the Premiership miss Wigan if they do slip back through the trap door? Probably not too much.

At the top of The Championship, Birmingham City are paying a heavy price for having to relay the pitch at St Andrews in the middle of the season. Not only did it cost them a quarter of a millions pounds, but they've had to call off two successive home matches, allowing Derby County to pull three points clear at the top of the table. Derby's win came at Southend, who have a tricky FA Cup match at Spurs next weekend. One small concern to them will be that they've only scored thirty-eight league goals this season, but I think that this potential issue will be put on the back burner as they enjoy a degree of success after several lean years and belt-tightening required after the ITV Digital collapse.

The bottom two divisions continue to confound expectations. Just when it looked as if League One was set to become a two horse race between Oldham Athletic and Nottingham Forest, both clubs' form has collapsed, and Scunthorpe United and Bristol City have leapfrogged over them to claim the top two places. With Yeovil Town, Blackpool, Tranmere Rovers, Doncaster Rovers and Swansea City also within eight points of second place, it should be an interesting end to the season there. In League 2, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Macclesfield Town's revival continues apace. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Paul Ince, but there is something refreshing about seeing a former Premiership millionaire rolling up his sleeves in the basement, getting on with it, and making a go of it. The bad news is that it's starting to look as if Franchise are going to be good enough to go up. Supporters of all lower division football clubs: you know what to do. Pelt them with rotten eggs. It's the only language they understand.


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