Going awry and amiss

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy insisted that he had done exactly the right thing to rest his first choice men against Manchester United in the Premiership match at Old Trafford.

Double, double, toil and trouble! To quote the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. So much seems to be going awry and amiss in English football at the moment that it is difficult to know where to start. But let us begin with Wolverhampton Wanderers and their apparently suicidal decision to play Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Premiership with 10 outfield changes from the team which, just a few days earlier, had astonished Spurs by beating them 1-0 at White Har t Lane. Needless to say, United simply strolled over Wolves reserves, winning 3-0 at their leisure. But Wolves’ manager, Mick McCarthy, Yorkshire-born former Eire international and manager of the World Cup Irish team in 2002 (when you’ll remember he had that ferocious row with Roy Keane) refused to plead guilty.

He had, he insisted, done exactly the right thing to rest his first choice men, given that a vital home match with Burnley loomed on the horizon the following Saturday. He even insisted that all those 10 players at Old Trafford were members of his first team squad and should be counted as such. For good or bad measure, he cited times when such as Manchester United themselves had done the same thing, though in United’s salient case, it was when a vastly significant European Cup game was in imminent prospect.

But there was surely and cogently another aspect to Wolves’ stratagem; it seriously affected those teams, such as Chelsea and Arsenal (Wenger was furious), who were pursuing United or even leading them at the top of the Premiership. They surely had every right to object to Wolves’ virtual surrender at Old Trafford. All very well for McCarthy to protest, somewhat unconvincingly, that the Burnley game involved potential relegation and he could not be sure that had his first choice men been in action at Old Trafford, some of them at last might have developed injuries. The blunt fact is that teams fielded below strength in the Premiership expose their club to a heavy fine. McCarthy must have known this full well; but however large the fine, the Old Trafford result stands and it wouldn’t help Arsenal or Chelsea.

At least Wolves at the moment seem financially secure. Elsewhere, there is so much gloom and doom. Especially at Portsmouth who, under the previous aegis of Harry Redknapp, now in charge at Tottenham, and the chairmanship of Sacha Gaydamak spent colossal sums of money on new, expensive players and actually, last May, won the FA Cup for the first time since 1939. Gaydamak always insisted that the money didn’t come from his controversial father, Arkadi, whom French courts have convicted for gun running and who cannot leave Israel for fear of arrest. Last September, in Israel, Gaydamak senior lost a court case to the Hong Kong domiciled tycoon, Balram Chainrai, which cost him £7 million and the ownership of a leading Israeli football club. But Chainrai it recently was who lent the latest Pompey owner Ali Al-Faraj millions of pounds to pay tax bills. Which still leaves the embattled club with colossal debts. Amounting, it’s reported, to some £60 million!

Al-Faraj, a Saudi, stepped in with £1.8 million, just enough to pay the players in September, replacing one Sulaiman Al-Fahim who, in the event, couldn’t remotely put his money where his mouth was. Meanwhile, Pompey, inexplicably and quite illogically, suddenly decided to sack their manager, Paul Hart, who was promptly installed at Queens Park Rangers, as we shall see. Yet Hart, once the Nottingham Forest centre-half and coach to Pompey’s juniors, had surely done a remarkable bricks-without-straw job, having been obliged to sell almost all his senior players, bar ’keeper David James, in the summer. Yet somehow managing to build a team which played excellent football — I saw them several times with admiration — but had scant luck with its results.

In Hart’s place came Avram Grant, former manager of Chelsea after the exit of Jose Mourinho and once the coach to his native Israeli side. Chelsea’s players certainly liked Grant, who got them to within a whisker of winning in Moscow the 2008 European Cup Final, as shown when Chelsea’s Frank Lampard warmly embraced him before the teams recently met at Stamford Bridge. But the word was that — though he strongly denied it — under his Chelsea aegis, player power ruled. In his sudden appointment at Fratton Park one described ‘The Fine Israeli Hand’ of the “super agent” Pini Zuhavi who, in fact, had tried with others to buy the club before the fragile regime of Al-Fahim. Yes, my head is spinning, too.

At least Hart has quickly found a new billet at QPR in West London, and the so-called championship, though how long would he and any other manager be safe there? It will all depend on what happens to the flamboyant chief director, main force and millionaire, Flavio Briatore; still facing suspension from Formula One racing, having deliberately instigated that gratuitous racing crash. Briatore promptly resigned before F1 could officially punish him and insists that this means he cannot now be sentenced. But if he loses his current case against F1, he would automatically become, under Premier League rules, no longer a “fit and proper person” to be a club director.

What then? Briatore has fellow directors in two hugely rich men, Lakshmi Mittal and another motor racing mogul in Bernie Ecclestone. Yet they don’t seem to put any money into the club, which has relied on loans and cheap imports. Best player of all, who was there when the three took over, is surely that clever Hungarian playmaker, Akos Buzsaky who was physically assaulted at Watford (themselves now in desperate prospect of going into administration and thus losing 10 points, unable to repay a £4.88 million loan to ex-Chairman Russo) by manager Jim Magilton; consequently dismissed. The seventh manager sacked by Briatore, who’s made some odd choices. The first being Iain Dowie, who’d walked out of Crystal Palace (who sued him and won) been sacked by nearby Charlton and sacked again by Coventry City. You might also call Briatore politely a hands-on director. Predecessor as Chairman, Gianni Paladini, claimed to have been threatened with a gun in his office by a former director and others, made to sign away his Chairmanship. But when it came to court, all six defendants were mysteriously acquitted. Oh, for the days as Chairman of tough little Jim Gregory when QPR so nearly won the Championship! As it is, if Briatore goes, then so will the other tycoons, and what will happen then?

Hart is a far better choice than Dowie or for that matter Magilton, no more than mediocre when in charge at Ipswich Town. But it is all too possible that, just as at Pompey, he will find the ground cut away from under his feet.