The Daily Shift’s Ian Colgan looks at the goings on with the Lancashire clubs, the happenings in the FA Cup, and the highs and lows of Chelsea…
About three games into the vortex of the ‘Christmas Football’ period, just after Henning Berg was sacked as Blackburn Manager, a panicked word began to spread among Rovers’ fans that his replacement could, and just might, be none other than Judan Ali. The news provoked half of them into a resentful rage while the rest, after finding out who he was, went insane with disgust and hate.
There have been many brutal twists in the Blackburn saga lately, so there wasn’t must reason, at the time, to immediately dismiss the rumour that Berg’s successor could be a man whose only coaching credentials included success with an under 12s team in the UK Police Tournament, an under 15s team in an obscure Indian youth tournament, and having an advisory and starring role in the 2007 Bollywood football film Dhan Dhan Dhan Goal.
It would be a strange new chapter in their lives and the club’s history, and entirely conceivable given the slide they’ve been on for the last year or so. Ali was a 12/1 shot – only slightly better odds than Mark Hughes being reappointed, and then the story – sparked by Ali’s suggestive presence at Blackburn’s training base – quickly evaporated. He was forced to deny that he had any intentions of seizing what, by then, people believed would only amount to a position on the coaching staff. He had only been there to observe the training session for personal reasons, he said.
And that was that. It died on the vine, and now they are trying to procure Michael Appleton from Blackpool, their Lancashire peers – tempting him with the prospect of managing a team that currently reside just one place and one point above Blackpool, who are fourteenth.
The Ali story had been worth following for the simple reason that there was not much else happening at the time, especially in Lancashire. All eyes had turned to Manchester over Christmas, where the only ‘interesting’ story didn’t come until a week later with the alleged training ground bust-up between Mancini and Balotelli that’s rekindled the belief that ‘Super Mario’s’ days in Manchester are numbered. The pictures looked damning, though Mancini swiftly buried the whole thing by insisting that the papers had grossly exaggerated an incident that was “nothing special”.
And it wasn’t, but there’s a long-standing unwritten rule among sports journalists that dictates that when the only potential headline-grabber from a chock-full ten days of football, in terms of the table, is that United were able to stretch their lead at the top from six points to seven, then you go with the training ground bust up. Every time.
The numbing madness of playing four games in ten days that the inhumane Christmas schedule inflicted, is over now. They will pick themselves up from where it left them this weekend, and in the meantime many of them have been getting full bore into the FA Cup. QPR v West Brom…West Ham v Manchester United…Southampton v Chelsea…Swansea v Arsenal…Some vaguely stirring match-ups, but not much to get cranked up about in the arena of a competition proposed by FA Honorary Secretary Charles W. Alcock in 1871.
Alcock himself captained Wanderers F.C. to glory in the first FA Cup final a year later when they beat the Royal Engineers 1-0, and they went on to win it again in 1873, ’76, ’77 and ’78. It was a fantastic streak, and although Manchester United have won it the most times in its overall history, only two teams have been able to touch Wanderers in terms of a prevailing era. Blackburn Rovers did it, winning it five times between 1884 and 1891, and now Chelsea are on their way to ‘pulling a Wanderers’ – taking it home in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Traditionally, though, the central appeal of the FA Cup is the opportunity it creates for ‘giant killing’ – when guppy teams from the lower divisions stun minds by pulling off unexpected freak victories against the Bull sharks of the Top Flight. It even happens, often enough, but generally the cream rises to the top. Only eight teams outside the top tier have ever won the thing, and the final has never been played out between two teams from outside it.
Both of these trends were evidenced in last weekend’s round of clashes which, if nothing else, were an opportunity for teams to blood some new players recruited in the opening days of the transfer window. On the same day Demba Ba popped his Chelsea cherry by scoring two in a 1-5 win over Southampton, Newcastle went crashing out after suffering a 2-0 loss to Brighton for a second year in a row – a very symbolic contrast. In London, meanwhile, Joe Cole made his second debut for West Ham, setting up both of their goals in a 2-2 draw with Manchester United, and Daniel Sturridge was on the score sheet in his Liverpool debut against Mansfield on Sunday.
Chelsea had come from 1-0 down against Southampton, and for a while they didn’t know what to make of Ba. The opening half an hour or so was a feeling out process – The Blues getting accustomed to his style by hitting all manner of balls in his direction to get a sense of which kind suited him the best. And in the end, his goals didn’t come from any keen or deep psychic link with his new teammates, but from simply following his own natural striker’s instincts, while Torres, who took over 900 minutes to break his duck, looked on from the bench.
Ba’s transfer has been arguably the most ‘high-profile’ move of the window so far, rendering Newcastle’s ability to sign a replacement before January 31 a matter of urgent necessity, and his performance on Saturday, and even coming on from the bench on Wednesday, are enough to suggest that anything could happen once he ‘clicks’ with his new squad.
Last weekend’s victory in St. Mary’s means far less now in light of Wednesday night’s loss at home to Swansea in the Capital One Cup. Before it, the only game in their previous four that they didn’t win – a weird 0-1 home defeat to QPR – was the only one they anyone would have put money on them to. This is the reason why they’re currently sitting fourth and not third.
So the moral boost from the Southampton game will have shrivelled to almost nothing when they play Stoke in the Britannia Stadium on Saturday. They still have the all-important game in hand that, if taken advantage of, could lift them above Tottenham, but from a title perspective it looks like the shock loss to QPR will prove fatal. Another three points would have put them in a position to be just eight points behind the league leaders, but now the best they can hope for is a daunting eleven-point gap.
It’s worth saying these things now, because not much attention or coverage will be given to Chelsea this weekend. Their game against Stoke will be dwarfed by United’s home game against Liverpool and City’s away game to Arsenal on Sunday. And rightly so. But they still have the FA Cup.