Friday, August 24, 2007

Let the game begin – Richard O'Hagan

Imagine this. It is a couple of weeks before the start of a new Premiership season and David Beckham has been arrested, charged with animal cruelty. He says he didn't do it, but the four guys charged with him have confessed and implicated him. He faces a five year prison sentence and a huge fine.

Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand has been arrested so often in the past few months, he has been banned from playing for a whole season, John Terry is suspended until October after serving a jail term for having an unlicensed firearm and the brightest young star in British football, the one everyone wanted to sign at the end of last season, is refusing to sign a deal until he is offered better terms by the club that thought they'd got him back in April.

It couldn't happen here, could it? You'd like to think not - even if I am writing this in the week that Lee Hughes got out of jail after serving half his sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Now substitute the names of Michael Vick, Adam 'Pacman' Jones and Terry 'Tank' Johnson and you are just scratching the surface of the fun and games that has been the off-season in America's National Football League.

Of course, having an off season of 6 months does help when it comes to finding time to generate scandal, but in all of the above cases the player concerned managed to do the damage during the season itself and has spent his time fighting afterwards. Indeed Johnson, at the time a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, had to get permission from a judge to even play in the Superbowl in February - before nipping inside for two months, a consequence of the firearms offence and a parole violation. Jones, many think, has been harshly dealt with, as the Tennessee Titan's cornerback hasn't actually been convicted of any serious offence - he's just been arrested for a heck of a lot of minor ones.

But it is Vick who is in the biggest trouble. One of the finest quarterbacks of his generation, he has - again as I have been writing this - concluded a plea bargain in which he will admit breeding and training dogs for dogfighting, and allowing them to fight on his land. He faces 5 years in jail and a very big fine. Which is actually a lot better than the federal racketeering charges - basically, a charge that he funded the dogfighting operation and the betting on it - he would've faced without the plea bargain.

Moreover, having served his time, Vick is very unlikely to play football again. This is partly due to the stringent code of conduct brought in by the NFL and their new Commissioner Roger Goodall. Step out of line with Uncle Roger and you are looking at a 10 game suspension, minimum. Moderation has never been a big element of American sport, but I doubt anyone would have anticipated the Goodall revolution. No offence too trivial, no suspension too long, seems to be his motto. And that is for things which happen off the field.

Of course, if you take 1800 young men and pay them upwards of £1m each per year [on average] then you are bound to get one or two bits of misbehaviour. Goodall can never have expected someone to do something as grim as he did. At the same time, the other 1799 can hardly have anticipated a man so puritanical, they are expected to make Snow White look like a slut. Imagine the outcry here if a Premiership player got a 10 match ban if they were convicted of a motoring offence? Jermaine Pennant would just be an expensive footnote in football history, that's for sure.

All of which leaves the Atlanta Falcons without a quarterback, the Titans without their number one kick returner and the Bears without the cornerstone of their defensive line. Out in Cincinatti, no fewer than 9 players have been arrested in the last 12 months and the entire team must be on tenterhooks. The only team cheering will be the Oakland Raiders, who finally got number one draft pick JaMarcus Russell to sign his contract less than 48 hours before the pre-season games began.

With all of this buildup, this has to be one of the most exciting NFL seasons ever. I've not even considered the chances of the Indianapolis Colts retaining their title, of the Bears recovering from their SuperBowl humiliation, and the damage that may have been wrought upon perennial favourites Tampa Bay by their signing of the mercurial Randy Moss, but I can't wait for it all to start.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Losing the plot - premcorrespondent

The problem with this year's league is you never know which bugger is going to lose next.

Spurs flatter to deceive with a no-show against Everton. Then they go and blow it with a 4-0 win. Newcastle have been busy blowing it for years - but Big Sam's side and the Villains somehow managed not to lose despite both sides deserving to.

Everton make a bold move to reclaim their loser tag, then Middleborough carelessly throw their's away.

Cleaners are still scrubbing the blood from the walls of the visitor’s dressing room at the JJB, limbs torn asunder as Sunderland - the side taking on Udae's Iraq's tag of team most afraid of defeat – somehow blow it against Wigan. They might have been able to claim referee persecution, but, I mean, letting Heskey score against you however offside he is while being unable to breech a defence marshalled by Titus Bramble - that's plain embarrassing.

Thank heaven for Bolton and Birmingham. Little Sam's side seems to be performing about as well as Pele in the bedroom and Brucie's bonus for promotion seems to be going back down again with the rapidity of a star of one of his chairman's quite excellent DVDs.

Lehman's punch lost Arsenal two points, and Tevez proved that spending £50 million on midfielders and strikers and part of football’s soul him still can't buy you a goal against a mediocre Sven side. Even one that persists in taking on General Melched's advice of walking slowly (with a football) towards the enemy’s lines.

As for the Super Sunday Title-Deciding Most Important Game since our 2pm kick off - I think we all know the loser there. Despite a strong challenge from Jose's tie knot and Rafa's beard - the ref lost it. Booking the Blues' entire odious back-four seems fair enough. But then failing to send any of them off? Was he listening to the Kop or not?

It seems the only loser we can properly rely on is me, at the nags, with a fist full of crisp £20 notes.

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