By Dermot Clarke
In horse racing, the words "blinkers on" are not a good sign if they are placed beside your particular fancy. Blinkers are placed over the heads of horses that have concentration difficulties, horses that are usually described as ungenuine. As far as Glasgow Celtic is concerned, however, blinker’s on is a good sign, for when Reggie Blinker enters the fray nowadays for the Hoops, the game is usually over as a contest, the Celts having wrapped it up. It is a confidence-building exercise, I suppose, for the out-of-sorts former Sheffield Wednesday star, but who can really tell what is going on in Josef Venglos’s head at any given moment?
Celtic had this game against Dunfermline in the bag at halftime, thanks to yet another hat trick from Henrik Larsson. Harald Brattbakk added another in that first period, and although the home side failed to add to the tally in the second half, the football was attractive and it might have been 9 or 10. Brattbakk missed a penalty in the last minute, but Celtic are through to the quarterfinals with a 4-0 victory. They are joined there, by among others, arch rivals Rangers, who crushed Hamilton 6-0. The giants are kept apart in the draw, thankfully, Celtic traveling to Greenock Morton and Rangers at home to Falkirk. The prospect of another "Old Firm" final looms.
There’s a slim chance of there being an interesting F.A. Cup final also. Blackburn and Manchester United were kept apart at the Round of Eight stage and what an interesting final that would be, Ferguson against Kidd, the teacher and the student, maybe, who knows? There’s a long way to go yet, but United are through, even though Kevin Keegan’s Fulham proved a stubborn hurdle, going down 1-0 in the end at Old Trafford, to an Andy Cole goal. United have been drawn at home again in the "Quarters" to another London club, Chelsea. Blackburn have two home games to win if they are to make the neutral ground stage. They bring Newcastle back to Ewood Park, having battled to a 0-0 draw with them on Sunday at St. James’ Park and should they overcome the geordies, a home tie against Everton is the reward.
Arsenal’s fifth round tie against Sheffield United has to be replayed because Arsenal scored a second goal at Highbury and they’re not supposed to do that. No really, the game is to be replayed because the unwritten sportsmanship law was breached again. The ball was put to touch so that the injured Sheffield player Lee Morris could be tended to. However, when Ray Parlour aimed his throw at Sheffield keeper Alan Kelly — as is the norm in such circumstances — it never reached him. Debutant Nwankwo Kanu, seemingly unaware of the situation, took control and crossed to the also seemingly unaware Marc Overmars, who knocked it home. Little the referee could do but award the goal. Steve Bruce attempted to take his team from the field, but the game resumed after a spell and Arsenal held on to win 2-1. After the game, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger requested that the game be replayed and the F.A. didn’t take long to grant him his wishes, so the right thing was done in the end.
Liverpool’s dismal away form continued when lowly Charlton beat them, 1-0. The game had been shrouded in controversy when a betting-ring scheme involving the switching off of the floodlights was uncovered. Difficult to explain the plot, but really, when Liverpool are playing away with a bags-packed, couldn’t-care-less midfielder in Steve McManaman, David James in goal and Mike Reed refereeing, there can only be one result — home win, no need for complex schemes. Reed sent Jamie Carragher to the line for little or nothing on Saturday, he sent Jason McAteer off earlier in the season for less, Gerard Houllier may have been on the money when he suggested that the Birmingham man didn’t like Liverpool. Reed’s yellow card average stands at an amazing 5.29 per game. He uses the disciplinary weapon rather like a woman would use a can of mace. He has difficulty in keeping control. The man needs to be looked at.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The Republic of Ireland overcame Paraguay, 2-0, in the friendly at Lansdowne Road, and all we heard was that the goals were sloppy and that Paraguay weren’t at full strength. Ireland comprehensively beat the team that held the soon-to-be World Champs France for 90 minutes only to lose to a golden goal, and if they were under strength, so were we. It was a good performance and a notable victory.
England, on the other hand, were torn apart by those same World Champs France. Zenedine Zidane showed us why he was voted World Footballer of the Year a couple of weeks back, with a masterly display of skill and sleight of foot. Stand-in boss Howard Wilkinson didn’t show us anything that might suggest that the position will be anything other than extremely temporary. His team selection and the inclusion of Darren Anderton and Paul Ince was enough in itself, to tell us that he wasn’t the man for the job. The frequency with which Anderton is selected for his country leads me to believe that he has something on the F.A. and the ransom is a regular spot on the team. Paul Ince can’t play in the upcoming European championship fixture anyway, so he shouldn’t really have been selected even if he was still up to International standard which he’s not. When his side needed a goal he took off the only man that looked likely to score it, Michael Owen, because he probably would have got a telling-off if he called in the wonderful Alan Shearer. Nikolas Anelka’s two second-half goals won it for the dominant French. Earlier, the Arsenal man had a goal a-la Geoff Hurst disallowed when the ball clearly crossed the line having crashed down off of the crossbar.
England’s prospects of qualification are not looking too good. If they perform as they did last Wednesday, they certainly won’t be traveling to Holland or Belgium next year. They need a new coach post haste, a man who can command respect, a man who is bigger than the team. He needs to revive the lacking self-belief within the team. He has a tough job ahead. It’s difficult to build confidence, but it might be a start to stop organizing friendly games against the world champions.