Midsummer madness

Sven-Goran Eriksson has announced that he was taking his new role not for the money but for the so-called challenge.-PICS: AP

What could one make of the appointment of the endless travelled, hugely remunerated, Sven-Goran Eriksson as the overall director of Notts County, marooned in the lowest division of the English League, asks Brian Glanville.

Something strange seemed to happen to soccer at large this summer, one bizarre story followed another. What, for example, could you make of the appointment of the endless travelled, hugely remunerated, Sven-Goran Eriksson as the overall director of Notts County, marooned in the lowest division of the English League? This, only months after Eriksson, so hugely and controversially rewarded when manager of England, had been sacked as manager of the Mexican international team. Eriksson announced that he was taking his new role not for the money but for the so-called challenge.

But why? What was he going to do? No one seemed to know least of all the players who were perfectly happy under their manager, McParland. Yes, there was reportedly great new wealth in the club from Dubai, but what players of any consequence would want to gamble their careers by plunging down to the depths occupied by Notts County, even if the club could still proudly claim to be the oldest in English League soccer? We know that billionaires from Abu Dhabi have been buying one star after another for Manchester City, even if John Terry of Chelsea eluded them at the last; but at least City, who now have such a plethora of strikers, are in the Premier League.

Funnily enough there is some kind of a precedent for the Notts County-Eriksson surprise. Way back in 1947, Tommy Lawton, the prolific England centre-forward, so deadly in the air, announced that he was going to leave Chelsea for Notts County then as now a club marooned in the obscure reaches of the Football League; the Third Division South. And for £20,000 (quite a lot of money then) go he did, staying with County for five years.

In more recent times, namely the 1980s, County did have a few seasons of splendour when under the managership of the idiosyncratic little Scot, Jimmy Sirrel, and briefly, under Howard Wilkinson — more briefly still a disastrous manager of England — they tasted the delights of the top division. But they would be utterly eclipsed by the feats of their next door neighbours, Nottingham Forest, who twice under Brian Clough won the European Cup. By an odd irony, however, scarcely had Eriksson joined them than, in a friendly, they beat Forest for the first time for decades. Might it mean something? But Eriksson plainly had nothing to do with it.

Concurrently, a half-baked, ill-conceived anticlimax of a pseudo-tournament, the so-called Wembley Cup, was staged on a Friday and Sunday. Not, you will note, on the intervening Saturday which still despite the depredations of television remains the crucial day for English football. The misguided sponsors of this tournament, alas, hadn’t bothered to persuade mighty Barcelona to sign a deal, promising to bring their full first team to Wembley Stadium. So they brought instead an odd lot of players and in both their games, first against Spurs who were humiliated in a lucky draw, then, against feeble Egyptians Al Ahli, they fielded scratch sides, actually making 11 changes at half-time in both matches.

Yes, they did make the grand concession of allowing the scintillating little Argentine, Messi, to play the second-half against the Egyptians, who once crudely and cynically flattened him, but they played him, small as he is, in a central role, where he did little or nothing.

The Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp, tried to put the best face on his team’s wretched display against a Barcelona team which fielded a clutch of teenagers in the second-half, and gave away an equaliser only in the last throes of the game. He praised Barca superabundantly for the way they passed and pressed, saying how difficult they had made things for Spurs — admittedly without all their main centre-backs. But perhaps he was doing this, rather than admitting the poverty of his own team. One kept thinking that even the full Barcelona team, a few months back, had been absurdly lucky to survive in their European Cup semifinal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge thanks to the utter ineptitude of the Finnish referee.

Steven Gerrard... found not guilty.-

In another crass context,

A word one is tempted to apply to the Steven Gerrard affair with its somewhat perplexing confusion. You may remember that back in December the Liverpool and England skipper was accused of an attack in the small hours at a Southport (near Liverpool) night club on a disc jockey, who reportedly wouldn’t let Gerrard take over the controls. Most of the posse would plead guilty to affray but Gerrard sturdily denied it, and would prevail.

This, though there was camera footage to show him punching the hapless disc jockey several times, with no retaliation. Gerrard insisted he was afraid the man would attack him. It all looked done and dusted in the Liverpool Crown Court, but the jury backed Gerrard and the judge sent him away without a stain on his character.

One was irresistibly reminded of the case in Leeds a few years ago when several Leeds United footballers and their friends were accused of beating up a hapless, innocent foreign student. The friends were not as fortunate as the footballers, none of whom went to gaol, though one was convicted of some kind of assault. All of which prompted the Sun newspaper to run a gloriously ironic headline: ‘What do you call 12 Leeds United supporters in a court? A jury.’

Gerrard himself, though his record is clean and clear, comes from a somewhat intimidating background. His own wife was once the girlfriend of a notorious local criminal, a fact of which supporters of the rival local club, Everton, are wont to remind him, in chorus, when the two teams meet. A few years ago, his own father testified in court, on behalf of another thug, guilty of tying up a night watchman and committing robbery. This, because the man, who in fact absconded from court, fled abroad, and wasn’t extradited for some years, had once protected Steven from a lesser local brute, who had been trying to extort money from the Liverepool star.

Recently, signing a new contract, Gerrard announced that he would never play for any club but his beloved Liverpool. Yet, four years ago, it was widely believed he was to sign a super-lucrative contract with Chelsea. But suddenly it fell through; he was staying with Liverpool. The hard men of that tumultuous city, it seemed, had spoken and had their way.