Making sense of absurdities

"Funny game, football!" is an ANCIENT clich� of the English game. Recent results show that it still has certain relevance.

"Funny game, football!" is an ancient clich� of the English game. Yet given what has lately been happening at home and abroad, it still has certain relevance. Some years ago, when I sat on the appeals panel for the Department of Employment, deciding on whether foreign players should be admitted to the English League game, then owner and Chairman of the little Darlington club, George Reyolds, came before us. A man with quite an unusual background, a former safe cracker who had spent some years in gaol, educated himself, got out, went into business, manufacturing kitchens, became a millionaire and bought up Darlington.

"I've been in football five years," he said, "and I know everything!" to which I answered, "I've been in it fifty years, and I know nothing!" George, I assume, is still a millionaire, though he has gone back to gaol for fraudulent offences. And I still, though not in gaol, marvel at the endless twists, turns and surprises of soccer, which confound analysis and expectation.

Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Blackburn, Fulham. Make sense of recent events if you can. For first example; Middlesbrough 3 Chelsea 0. Anyone, even a devoted Boro fan, who remotely anticipated such a result and put money on it must surely have made a fortune. Boro, in their last home game, had crashed 4-0 to modest Aston Villa. Chelsea by contrast were striding away to their second Premiership title, far ahead of their faint pursuers, beaten only once in the League. They were bubbling over with international talent. And was so solid in defence, so incisive in attack.

And what happened? Boro, who might have been expected to begin with anxious caution, took the game to Chelsea from the first minute, quickly scored a goal, and never lost their grip on the game. Defenders who had previously seemed impregnable suddenly wilted and blundered. Peter Cech, the Czech international goalkeeper, previously seen as one of the safest pair of hands in Europe, was badly at fault with the opening goal. His two centre backs, John Terry of England and Portugal's Carvalho, were all at once shaky, slow and unreliable, powerless to contain the darts and thrusts of the dashing young Nigerian striker, Yakubu. And the expensive attack, deprived of Frank Lampard's usual potent report from midfield as he too laboured, was firing only blanks.

Schadenfreude is a German word signifying pleasure in others' distress; there was plenty of that around after Chelsea had crashed at Boro. One was reminded, too, of the slave who sat by Roman emperors parading through the city of success in battle, whispering in their ear, "Remember thou art mortal." Unless you be a Chelsea fan, you're bound to believe that the billions of the Chelsea owner, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, have seriously and depressingly unbalanced English football.

Worse awaited Chelsea soon afterwards when they faced Barcelona in the first leg of the initial knockout stage of the European Cup. They lost again, at Stamford Bridge, 2-1, though the first half expulsion of their Spanish left-back Del Horno clearly had much to do with it.

Guilty of two appalling fouls on the brilliant little 18-year-old Argentine right-winger Lionel Messi, Del Horno richly deserved to be sent off, despite the predictable protests of his manager, Jose `The Mouth' Mourinho. If the second foul may perhaps not have been worthy of a straight red card, the first, felt by many to be even worse, deserved at least a yellow.

Add another yellow, the very least Del Horno deserved for the second foul, and two yellows automatically mean a red.

While we are on the subject, Messi was perfectly entitled to reply acidly to Mourinho's accusations that he had exaggerated the second contact. True he did look up from the floor to see what was going on, and might have been somewhat histrionic when he fell but there was no excuse for the foul, nor for Del Horno's subsequent, self justifying attack on Messi, who had simply been running him ragged. Chelsea's subsequent 2-1 defeat, when reduced to ten men, may have become predictable with the expulsion, but once again it demonstrated they were by no means invincible.

What though of Arsenal's remarkable 1-0 defeat of Real Madrid in Madrid's own Bernabeu stadium the day before Chelsea were beaten by Barca? The first English team ever to beat Real on their own ground. It was not so much the margin but the manner of it that was so unexpected.

Yes, we knew that Real were on the wane, recently thrashed 6-1 at unfashionable Zaragoza in the Spanish Cup, even if Real did unavailingly win the return in Madrid 4-0.

They were toiling in the Liga far behind Barcelona, had parted with yet another manager, Wanderley Luxemburgo, appointing the obscure second team coach, Juan Lopez Caro, but there had of late, even if Ronaldo was openly unhappy, been a seeming return to form of France's Zinedine Zidane.

As for Arsenal, they had for weeks been struggling pitifully, oppressed by a series of injuries to key players, out of contention in the League, knocked out of the FA Cup and even out of that ersatz survival, the League Cup — Manchester United's meagre consolation in Cardiff.

Yet the Gunners were dominant from the first, could have had two or three goals in the opening minutes, ultimately prevailed after a marvellous solo by Thierry Henry past three statuesque defenders. Four days later, at Blackburn, Henry hardly raised a gallop and Arsenal went down 1-0. To a team which, only a few weeks earlier, I'd seen brushed aside by a West Bromwich side which, soon after that, I saw swept aside 6-1 at Fulham! Make what sense you can, please, out of all that.