Monday, November 28, 2005

Rubbish, Better, Best

I watched Saturday's Manchester City v Liverpool fixture in a pub in Liverpool city centre, which was showing the game pirated from Qatari television. The contrast between the bitter cold of a Manchester November during the game, and the exotic Qatari advertisements underlined again the enduring international appeal of the Premiership. The half-time analysis was impenetrable except for repeated references to "Crouch", proving that despite the distance from the subject the discussion topics (in this case the current travails of that unfortunate figure) remain the same.

One wonders, however, how long the league's global appeal can hold in the face of repeated doses of footballing dirge like that on display on Saturday at Eastlands. The Qatari broadcaster's production values were as glossy and shimmering as anything Sky can manage, but, as the British broadcaster is learning, the product is now more often than not a dull letdown when contrasted with its shiny wrapping.

In some ways I was grateful for the continuing struggles of Liverpool's towering striker, for at least it provided some distraction, a mildly diverting sub-plot if you will, from the stultifying inadequacy of the play. Even the City fans grumbled, though their team were losing, at the three minutes the referee added. Both Rafael Benitez and Stuart Pearce are building dogged, defensively stout teams. While City's contribution to the lack of excitement is due to their creatively bereft midfield, Liverpool's was explained both by the absence of the string-pulling Xabi Alonso (which left the overwhelming burden for creativity on Steven Gerrard) and the cluenessness of their strike force. Crouch receives the bulk of the scorn for this, but he deserves sympathy for having to try to cope with his brainless partner Djibril Cisse.

A glance through the match reports from the weekend illustrates that most of the games were afflicted by this wretchedness, so thank goodness, in the weekend that the game paid tribute to George Best, that West Ham and Manchester United provided at least a small fraction of the joy which Best delivered in spades. The Hammers have been praised in these parts before for their commitment to attacking football and Upton Park remains a ground I would choose to watch football in above of most others in the league.

But yesterday was all about Manchester United and, whether liberated from the glowering spectre of Roy Keane, or possessed by the spirit of Best, they played their best football in some time and resembled a more familiar United than the one which has struggled so often recently.

The parallels between the two players mean that Wayne Rooney would always receive some of the reflected attention from the wave of Best tributes. It has, however, become a hallmark of the young Scouser's career that he tends to seize the moment on such occasions, and once again yesterday, he displayed that (movingly familiar) trajectory to greatness.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Afford Best the Respect He Deserves

George Best died today at the age of 59.

Elsewhere today you will see tributes, old footage and anecdotes from former team-mates and opponents, all testament to the standing of one of the greatest footballers of all time.

None of these, however, will be unaccompanied by references to his lifestyle- his flamboyant extra-curricular activities and the alcoholism that killed him. While, as a major part of the story of his life, this side of George Best must be documented, TSA dearly hopes that in death the man can be spared the cynicism that seems to colour the thoughts of many with regard to him.

Mainly because of the fact that Best received a liver transplant yet continued to drink, many have claimed that he should be denied sympathy in his demise. It was even claimed, preposterously, that Best's wasting of a donated liver would discourage others from becoming donors.

This negative view of Best's life can be explained by many people's attitude to alcoholism and mental illness in general. Even in this day and age when therapy and counselling are universally accepted as key parts in the medical process, there remains a "pull yourself together" attitude to mental illness. Because the symptoms are not physically manifest, those who suffer are often deemed to be self-indulgent, displaying weakness or simply attention seeking. As much as we accept the reality of diseases of the mind, we still fail to award them the same pathological status as phyical illness.

Alcoholism is such a disease. It is a sad, crippling and lethal one, which affects our society heavily due to the drink culture which endures in these islands. For example, despite the public awareness of Best's condition, he claimed that people were still happy to buy him a drink. Best has been denied sympathy in some quarters with the reasoning that "he did it to himself". That is precisely the point. That the man killed himself knowingly with alcohol verifies the sickness of his state of mind.

Like many who dazzled in the public eye, Best seems not to be afforded the appropriate gratitude for the joy that he brought, or perhaps more pertinently, the understanding from the public of their role in his troubles. We hope that the public appreciation of the man which will now ensue is not coloured by cynicism about the tragedy his life became.

More fitting to close, then, with an anecdote which appeared in the Guardian this week from Bill Elliot, a football journalist with the Daily Express who worked in Manchester in the 1960s:

"In 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the World Cup. Back then the reporters stayed at the same hotel as the team and travelled with them on the coach to the game. As it happened I sat beside George on the way to the stadium that evening.

Holland - midway between successive World Cup final appearances - and Johan Cruyff were at their peak at the time. George wasn't. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world number one and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. 'Better than you?' I asked. George looked at me and laughed. 'You're kidding aren't you? I tell you what I'll do tonight... I'll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.' And we both laughed at the thought.

A couple of hours later the Irish players were announced one by one on to the pitch. Pat Jennings, as goalkeeper, was first out of the tunnel to appreciative applause. Best, as No 11, was last. 'And now,' revved up the PA guy, 'Number 11, Georgie [long pause] Best.' And out trotted George. Above him, a beautiful blonde reached over with a single, long-stemmed red rose.
Given his nature, his training and his peripheral vision there was no way he was going to miss her or the rose, so he stopped, trotted back, reached up to take the flower, kissed her hand and ran out on to the pitch waving his rose at the punters as the applause grew even louder.

Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff's feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.
Only a few of us in the press box knew what this bravado act really meant. Johan Cruyff the best in the world? Are you kidding? Only an idiot would have thought that on this evening."

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Roy and Alex- A Heartbreaking Tale

A few days ago I was engaged in a conversation with a member of the fairer sex (a noteworthy event in itself) the subject of which was men's devotion to football, and her complete bafflement at that phenomenon. In the course of that discussion, in explanation of the massive popularity of The Premiership, I defined it in terms the poor lamb would understand: The Premiership is soap opera for men.

Even the name kind of sounds like a soap opera, like "The Clinic", or "The Practice, or "The Abattoir" or whatever. "A tale of everyday vulgar millionaire folk..."

Anyway, if the Premiership is a soap opera, then Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson must occupy a similar position in the credits scroll as Ken and Deirdre, Biddy and Miley, Angie and Den - characters we've followed through ups and downs, tears and laughter, success, failure and, ultimately, divorce. Not that anyone is suggesting that Roy Keane will end up dead in a canal, shot by a bunch of flowers. Unless....

Of course Roy's most dramatic storyline until last Friday's episode, the one that had the nation talking and the ratings soaring, was Saipan (ok, it was shot on location, and had some different cast members, but you get the drift. Think it was meant to be a Christmas special). The interesting thing about that plot line was how the story progressed. Initially Roy was the bad guy, letting the nation down, and that nice Mick too, what had he ever done to deserve that? The rat!

Then, as time progressed, the script seemed to rehabilitate Roy. People thought "hey, maybe Roy was right about that Mick guy and those no-good FAI fellas". Mick was killed off, the Genesis report followed, Brian Kerr (previously seen only in children's TV productions) arrived on set and old Roy was a family favourite again. Sure, plenty of people would never forgive him for what he did, but you just couldn't keep such a good character like that down for long.

Hadn't seen the like of it since Bobby Ewing came out of the shower.

So I wonder how this story is going to play out? As Roy and Alex pick up the pieces of their broken marriage, what will happen next? Will Alex plead "come back Roy, I'm nothing without you!". Will Roy grow bitter and twisted, take up with a another team on the rebound and find his part is getting smaller all the time?

Or will the fans make the decision? Will the ratings slump without the dramatic intrugue of football's most famous marriage? Will popular demand dictate that the writers get rid of Alex and bring back Roy? Or is everyone too distracted by that new Russian family down the road?

Tune in next week to find out....

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Easy Rides, Not Raging Bulls the Problem for Ireland

TSA GUEST OPINION- Paul Dunne on how the lack of competition within the Irish rugby squad is undermining the national team's chances of competing with the top nations

In August, as the season was beginning, at least 13 of the 15 that started against New Zealand in a green jersey knew that all they had to do was just be alive and they would be picked.

What that does to your performance levels is now obvious. It's harder to get put out of the Irish squad than it is to get into it. That's the wrong way around.

Gordon D'Arcy has not played that well for nearly a year, but will always be picked. Stringer and O'Gara quite simply have no competition. Malcolm O'Kelly, great guy and player as he is, is now not up to it anymore. People are still complaining about leaving Anthony Foley (a near 35 year old warhorse) out of the squad.

Shane Byrne is 34. His front row partner John Hayes has amassed caps despite long being dominated by every opponent at international level.

You can't develop the kind of tenacity in players to hang onto their international jerseys that is now necessary to get wins at the very top level if you run what amounts to a highly paid 'holiday camp' for a close knit bunch of regulars. It's like having regulars in a pub, everything is so familiar that contempt is inevitable. Witness the early warning signs of this, in the relationship between the Irish team and the media, evidenced in the Irish Sunday papers.

To give some perspective witness the greatest machine in modern rugby, Jonny Wilkinson, who raised the bar at out half but has since been passed out by Charlie Hodgson. Wilkinson is fit and playing for Newcastle but not considered for international duty as he is not yet ready in terms of fitness and form. Hodgson has been forced to work really hard to maintain his spot, and he has done.

Now, imagine a similar situation in Ireland. O'Driscoll will go straight back into the side when his shoulder is fixed, he won't do any decent warm up games, he won't play Celtic league week in week out for Leinster. Nobody but nobody will question that. He knows his worth and feels no pressure.D'Arcy despite his injuries has been recalled every time, no questions asked. Not even Daniel Carter enjoys that level of security within an international set-up.

The Ireland set up is great if you are a part of it. Loads of money for not a lot of work, but our results will continue to reflect our insular and narrow minded focus.

One final note. Eddie O'Sullivan has had four years working with the same players. He enjoys unrivalled access to his players year round. No other international coach has this privilege. Yet the ball against Australia never went from 9 to 15 once without a forward pass or drop.

Can it be fixed? Yes it can, but it requires a value being put back on the Irish jersey. The performances we have witnessed in the last two games to me simply suggest that the players expect to get picked, can deliver a sub-par performace and chalk it up to a bad day at the office, get the coach back to citywest and forget about it.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

We Didn't Start the Fire.....

We were hoping to bring you, dear reader, one of our legendary TSA reports from Lansdowne Road this Saturday where Ireland will attempt to regain respectability against the current lesser of the Antipodean rugby powers. Notebook in pocket and with pencil sharpened, the essence of a big rugby day in Dublin 4 was to be distilled for your enthusiastic perusal. The smell of camelskin coats and cashmere scarves, the swigs of whisky from sterling silver hipflasks, the exhortations to Dorce and Rog, all would be documented for posterity.

Unfortunately, all you'll get now is the opinion of a bloke in a pub. You see TSA, along with 7,500 other wretched souls, was the unfortunate possessor of a ticket for the accursed North Terrace, and won't be going to the game now.

It seems slightly cruel to poke fun at Lansdowne Road, rather like kicking a cripple's crutch out, but the old place looked like it was really feeling its age last Saturday. Like an ageing showgirl without her make-up on, the absence of punters on North Terrace served to show up the ground's decrepitude. The solemn atmosphere on Saturday was of course due to the disemboweling the home team was enduring on the field, but in some ways it felt the old ground was begging to be put out of its misery - was the fire an act of self immolation?

Back to the team though. This Saturday would, over the last couple of seasons, have provided Ireland with a fine opportunity to claim a southern hemisphere scalp, our recent rugby haleness would surely have done for an Aussie team crippled by injury and bereft of a front row. But the nature of Ireland's hammering last Saturday, allied to our own dreadful injury list (dreadful more in the quality of player missing than the quantity), appears to have drained all optimism from the national side - the level of which was in decline since our mixed Six Nations showing.

Eddie O'Sullivan bizarrely chose the All Blacks as the game to abandon Ireland's more traditional kicking game in an effort to develop into a more expansive team. This resulted in the lame spectacle of the Irish chucking the pill around like a hot potato until an inevitable error. The contrast with the All Blacks' footballing virtuosity could only be cruel.

O'Sullivan may feel burned by Saturday and could use the example of England - whose prop Andrew Sheridan destroyed the Aussie scrum last Saturday - as reason to return to traditional values. At the moment this could be well-advised. The fragile confidence of the Irish team is surely not correctly positioned for the adoption of adventurous philosophies right now, and a back to basics approach may just bring a sense of relief to proceedings.

**Look out for new cap Andrew Trimble of Ulster on Saturday, one excited rugby sage compared him to Mike Gibson last week, thereby no doubt condemning his career to ruin, however the boy can play should be an exciting alternative until the return of that other no.13....

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Are You "Hot" or "Not"?

They're everywhere these days. You can't open a magazine without seeing them. No, not Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson, I mean those "What's hot/what's not" features. You know, where a tatty supplement tries to elevate itself to the status of a hip style magazine by telling you that those trousers you are wearing are an abomination and that horrific haircut you sported in school photos from the 1980s is now the must-have tonsorial styling for the happening urban sophisticate. Or how you can't go on living without visiting a cafe in Ranelagh where you can have wheatgrass intravenously injected into your eyeball. Or some catty jibe at poor ole Britney Spears.

People love them because people like to be told what to think, especially in these times when people are so frightened to admit to their real musical tastes that they instead call them "guilty pleasures", while sneering ironically.

Anyway, it seems to me that the world of football is far from immune this sort of thing, and indeed now that the game is vying with the beloved weather for shelf space in our conversational larders the need to have the latest hot opinion is paramount. Like, is Darren Fletcher good this week? What about Jermaine Jenas? A few weeks ago he was the biggest waste of space since the pundits couch on Football Focus... a few goals later and he's one of England's most exciting young midfielders again. 4-4-2 is the only way isn't- attack, attack, attack and all that? But Chelsea play a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid and look at them. And sure look at Bolton, who practically invented the 4-5-1, look how they're doing!

Dearly departed Brian Kerr went from "hot" (meticulous, straight talking, real football man) to "not" (out of his depth, conservative, can't motivate players) with a single John O'Shea lurch against Israel at home, and a dink from Thierry Henry sealed his terminal uncoolness within Merrion Square.

Of course, the greatest embodiment of this idea of the vagaries of football fashion is the man whose celebrity reach ensconces him as comfortably in the frippery and flippancy of the glossies as in the sweat and grime of the back pages- David Beckham. Beckham, as one of the most talked about people of our times (to deploy the laziest gimmick of modern feature writing, his name elicits 4,400,000 hits on Google. Whoopdy-doo!) demands you to have an opinion about him.

In his (arguably more important) role as a celebrity, he has been "in"- cutesy teen mag dish, model father, style icon, bulwark for a new, more feminine, male identity (which apparently was seen as " a good thing") - but just as often "out"- attention seeking, publicity hungry bore (N.B. - always mentioned in conjunction with missus at this stage), deplorable womaniser, pretty boy woofter responsible for a generation of moisturising, sarong wearing sub-males.

Thing is, the same fashion mag ethos is seen with regard to his football. He's either "up": devastating crosser and striker of a dead ball, crucial part of Manchester United's legendary midfield, inspirational captain of his adoring nation, string-pulling galactico with the world's greatest club side- or "down": can't tackle, head or defend, delusions of being able to play central midfield completely unfounded on reality, headless chicken whose belief in his own importance affects superior players around him, typical of the showbiz, devoid of substance culture at Real which values merchandising over marking, demographics over defence. His time at Real has exacerbated all of this because he is that little bit out of sight. Is he doing well or is he struggling? Do the Spanish love him or hate him? Was Fergie right or wrong to get rid? What is my opinion supposed to be?!

It's all about perspective, you see. Like when Arsenal reached the latter stages of their 49 match unbeaten run, the nickname "The Invincibles" was coined, they were, apparently, the greatest club side in English football history and could go another season unbeaten. They were soooo "hot". One bruising clobbering by Manchester United later and they're in crisis. "Not!!!". Of course none of this was true. They were always an excellent, and at times mesmerising, football side playing at a time when the English Premiership contained probably it's poorest quality collection of teams. They always had a shallow squad which would inevitably creak at some stage. David Beckham has always been a very good footballer, never a great one. Brian Kerr was always an honest, diligent manager who believed in how he thought things should be done, but would always struggle to motivate senior players out of his frame of professional reference. Jermaine Jenas and Darren Fletcher are promising young players who may, or may not, go on to achieve at the highest level, but both clearly have a lot to learn. Formations come and go, and perhaps 4-4-2 will go the way of the old W-M formation, but in general successful teams and players thrive in fluid systems which are constantly in flux depending on the state of the play. But that's just my opinion....

Apparently, however, pointy toed boots are totally out this year.....

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Strachan's Celtic Take a Firm Hand

It was an evening of greater significance than a mere quarter final of Scotland's secondary cup competition. The headlines are bold:

Strachan's first 'big' win as Celtic manager

Strachan's redemption:the full circle from Bratislava

The death knell for Alex McLeish's Rangers career

From lumpen to effervescent- Celtic's journey in five months

The Old Firm fixture has little need of context, of course, and on Wednesday night Parkhead shook with the ferocity of any league title decider or cup final. It was always going to mean more than the modest spoil of a League Cup semi-final place. Celtic had powered to the top of the league since the spectacularly difficult beginning to Gordon Strachan's tenure as manager, but for all their progress required the seal which only an Old Firm victory would provide. Rangers domestic abjectness heretofore presented Alex McLeish with a last chance saloon scenario.

It now looks as if he has indeed quaffed his last...

At the outset of the season we discussed how Strachan's fitness training regime was key to his ambitions for his team. Wednesday's victory was hallmarked by a sharpness throughout the Celtic team which cast their opponents in the image of leaden footed toilers. Time and again hooped jerseys snapped up possession, and upon losing it, demonstrated palpable impatience in demanding it back.

Fitness aside, the joy which poured forth from the Celtic faithful was largely in response to football being played, as they would see it, in 'the Glasgow Celtic way'. The movement, pace and one-touch passing so evident on Wednesday was not solely the preserve of the ball players like Shaun Maloney, Shunsuke Nakamura, Stilian Petrov and Aiden McGeady, but permeated the whole team- from Artur Boruc in goal to Neil Lennon, through to the surprisingly delicate contributions of John Hartson. All a seismic shift from the stultification of the last days of Martin O'Neill's stewardship.

What we saw was the embodiment of a footballing philosophy.

However, Celtic's elation must have been tempered by the shock of the realisation of their traditional foes' desperate state. Never, even through the recent years when the green half of Glasgow has enjoyed most of the bragging rights, has a Rangers team been so bedraggled, and so incapable of offering anything but token resistance. It was indicative of their ineptitude that their two best openings in the second half came from mistakes by Boruc and McGeady respectively.

McLeish will, more than likely, pay for this decline with his job, but the mayday signals from Ibrox will surely not be allayed by a mere change of navigator. The club's profligate spending policy under chairman David Murray through their 1990s salad days bought them short term glory, but aside from contaminating Scottish football at large with the cancer of super-debt, has left the club facing an immediate future far from those days of unchallenged dominance. Any new manager would seem condemned to trawl through similar bargain bins to those in which McLeish has been forced to dwell.

While this Scottish season's peculiar narrative may indeed have some more unpredictable chapters ahead, it would seem to require some extremely fanciful plot twists to produce a happy ending for Rangers. For Celtic and Gordon Strachan, the fairytale could be just beginning.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

John Maughan- Is He Mad?

As John Maughan surveys the challenges ahead of him as the new manager of Roscommon's senior footballers, he would be forgiven for seeing an obstacle course as daunting as any he would have faced in his army training days.

Roscommon has become a case study of all that can go wrong in the ever more heady world of inter-county football. The Great Naked Pool fiasco, the passion of Frankie Dolan, holes in the county board's balance sheet the size of Seamus O'Neill's bloomers; the fact that the last outing for the Rossies was the less than rousing Tommy Murphy Cup exit to the mighty Tipperary. One would be forgiven for thinking that Maughan had added masochism to his list of hobbies.

The Mayoman has a track record for making silk purses out of sow's ears. His reveille to the world of inter-county management was a resounding one. In winning a Munster title with Clare in 1992 he was a key part in what became a movement across both Gaelic codes for the redistribution of glory to those traditionally less fortunate.

He is, of course, best known for his involvement with his native county in bringing them to three, albeit unsuccessful, All-Ireland Finals. Indeed, it is a shame that for many the enduring image of Maughan would seem to be the very fact of those failures, rather than the achievement of actually building two separate teams that almost brought the ultimate success to that famished county.

Such are the laws of sporting posterity, but let us hope that that Maughan receives due credit for the sheer enthusiasm he brings to the generally thankless task of county management. As he said on his accession to the Roscommon throne: "I love the thing, the fear of being stuck in watching Coronation Street on a Tuesday and Thursday night was a huge problem for me. I enjoy it and I'm at an age where I still have a huge enthusiasm for the game". I heard one commentator, in expressing surprise at Maughan's interest in the Roscommon job, suggest that they thought he would be looking to go out to pasture as a media pundit- the insinuation being: Why would he be bothered? Why wouldn't he, as one of the more intelligent and articulate figures in Gaelic games, simply take the easy money for zero-pressure opinions that become tomorrow's chip-wrapper?

It's a testament to him that, after all these years, even the seemingly hopeless task of managing Roscommon has not dimmed his enthusiasm.

A good thing too, because he'll need plenty of it.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Alas, Poor Roy, I Knew Him Well

It is a testament to the magnitude of the footballing empire created by Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford that the current crumbling of the edifice is generating such a tremendous cacophony.

The latest pillar to tumble was the result of Roy Keane's censored 'rant' on MUTV following United's capitulation and focused on a common recipient of the captain's ire- the failures and seeming indifference of his floundering colleagues.

Roy Keane is the single most 'challenging' footballer of our times. No one club player can be said to have so driven an era of success, in the modern era at least, and few can have been so completely the embodiment of their manager's will on the field.

But Roy Keane's time in football will come to be seen as the closest sporting embodiment of Shakespearean tragedy. The vaulting ambition is obvious, so too the glorious spoils of battle, with his numerous Premiership and other domestic baubles the fitting reward for his ability.

The fascination with his career rests just as centrally, however, with the dark days- and how his very strengths became his weaknesses. The aggression that got him that booking in the European Cup semi-final in 1999, which in turn drove his greatest performance, but subsequently then resulted the hollowness he experienced as he missed the final and resulted in his last years being an increasingly forlorn pursuit of a Champions League medal by right.

Then there is the unsurpassed perfectionism which helped generate the debacle in Saipan in 2002 and denied him potentially his greatest stage, and which lies beneath the current thrashing against the mediocrity at Old Trafford; indeed, which is coming to appear like the violent death throes of his career.

The controversy engendered by his latest outburst centres on his explicitness in naming the players whose failures are evident, but who tend to be saved from proper criticism due to the cosy cartel of ex-professionals and sycophants within the English football media.

I have generally been of the opinion that the woes of a football club can be traced from the top, due to either boardroom or managerial incompetence. It has been rightly documented recently as to how Alex Ferguson has allowed slip the eminence he once enjoyed, and how the club itself has fallen into its current state as a ginormous item of collateral. However, when a player who earns £120,000 per week, in excess of even the sums earned by blue chip executives, is subject at last to genuine accountabilty from within his organisation, any outrage at such remarks is pointless.

The moral reprehensiblity of footballers wages is a familiar subject, but there is a special relevance when it comes to Rio Ferdinand. The obscenity of the delay in signing his current contract, as he bartered for an extra £10,000 a week is thrown now into sharp relief by his recent performances, which have made his customary loucheness on the field appear more like he simply cannot be arsed.

Fair cop, Roy. No tears will be shed outside of those of a red hue for their demise, and Keane is obviously cognisant of the end.

All credit to him for taking a few out on the way down.

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