Following the death of one of football’s most enduring characters last Friday, the most refreshing aspect of the weekend’s fixtures was how football found its own voice and identity in the way that it celebrated the on-pitch life of one of the game’s greats. Aside of the games at the New Den and the City of Manchester Stadium where the planned silent tribute had to be cut short after the fairly shameful (if not entirely unpredictable) actions of a few Leeds and Liverpool fans, it was testament to how the football-going public felt about George Best; many shunned the maudlin minute’s silence that has become common place in the post-Diana era for a minute of applause — most notably at Fratton Park where Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric, a close friend of Best was visibly moved by the tribute.
For those who didn’t witness George Best in his prime it is harder to judge his impact on football from a series of edited highlights and oft-repeated anecdotes, but one thing is clear to anyone who watched him play or the media coverage that surrounded his passing; nothing about him was ever silent, staid or traditional, least of all the grounds in which he dazzled and inspired a generation. Football stadia are often quiet enough thanks to the sometimes over-zealous policing of the fluorescent yellow-jacketed militia; would it be too much to hope that having broken with tradition in the way that they paid tribute to Best, football fans (and those in charge of the game) realised that like him the sport is also unique and the way in which it is celebrated should reflect this? There is surely room for a little more spontaneity and individual flair in the stands (the rather heavy-handed “Sit Down If You Love Football” campaign is coming to a ground near you), despite what the increasingly over-zealous Health & Safety rulebook currently suggests? We live in hope, but in the meantime RIP George Best.
After a weekend of tributes, with this morning’s papers came the back pages and the inevitable post-Best money shot that the media had been waiting for; Wayne Rooney paying his own tribute at Upton Park with a ghostly video-apparition of George looking over his shoulder — 24 carat tabloid gold. Rooney is undoubtedly an excellent player and to his credit he has sheepishly suggested that the media comparisons between him and the departed Fifth Beatle are somewhat premature and a little over-the-top. If nothing else, Best’s legendary and in recent days rather over-analysed and moralised off-pitch antics involved some of the world’s most beautiful women; other than Rooney’s long-term shopaholic partner who is hardly Miss World material, some of his extra-curricular conquests have looked as though they could easily give a decent account of themselves in the average Royal Marines initiation ceremony. But joking aside, comparing footballers to their predecessors makes life easy for the media but the public do have a nasty habit of following like sheep; much amusement was had by all that heard the Arsenal fan who recently called TalkSport to protest with much seriousness that “Robin van Persie can be the new Denis Bergkamp if people just stopped comparing him to Denis Bergkamp”. Well quite.
Whilst Wayne Rooney is probably best left being Wayne Rooney in all his kicking, snarling and Granny-bothering glory, Pompey’s loyal but rather blinkered fans were wrongly convinced that the ever-improving Joe Cole was the new Greg Louganis down at Fratton Park on Saturday evening; they spent much of the game booing and wailing at his every twist and turn, completely failing to note that almost every free kick he won was perfectly legitimate and justified. His trickery and guile in the face of a static and rather ‘uncompromising’ defence was one of our best individual performances of the season thus far; Jose’s careful handling and tutelage of our number 10 surely bodes well for the development of Shaun Wright-Phillips after his somewhat indifferent start to life down at the Bridge.
With the recent departure of Alain Perrin and age-old “managerless teams are more dangerous” myth clearly in their minds, Pompey’s early endeavours suggested that we had a game on our hands; the unpredictable LuaLua produced a twenty yard swerving drive which tested both the reflexes and fingertips of Petr Cech, although more often than not the Congolese striker’s footwork looked more inspired by Courage Best than George and for long periods the home side were as toothless as caretaker manager Joe Jordan in his 70’s heyday. Once our midfield had gradually taken control of the game, Crespo’s beautifully poached opener from Ferreira’s speculative long range effort on twenty-seven minutes was further proof that Hernan rarely does ‘ordinary’ goals; his departure before the end of the first half with Drogba still absent is something of a worry with only the patient yet inexperienced Carlton Cole and the currently more midfield-minded Gudjohnsen as cover for the front line.
Joe Cole’s trickery finally paid off midway through the second half; the bamboozled Stefanovic mistimed his tackle in the box and Lampard tucked away the resultant penalty in his record-breaking 160th consecutive Premiership game. 2-0 Chelsea with Portsmouth looking less likely to be the first team to put a second half goal past Cech in the league this season than any other opposition we have faced so far; whoever becomes their ninth manager since Milan Mandaric took over in 1999 will do well to keep them out of the relegation places come next May. Our overall performance was nothing more than effective, but three wins in a row and clean sheets throughout with seven goals scored is a good way to bounce back from a ‘blip’; the Blue machine may not be purring just yet but it is ticking over nicely as the traditionally tricky month of December approaches. Mourinho has stated that those who believe Chelsea can be bullied and kicked off the pitch need to revise their game plans and James Beattie’s proclamation that these West London playboys “don’t like it up ‘em” looks as full of holes as the back of the net that he hits so infrequently.
Elsewhere, the redtops got themselves into a lather over the revelations in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s autobiography (revelations with an added journalistic twist, of course) that the club made illegal payments to the team after reaching the semi-finals of the 2003/4 Champions League at Arsenal’s expense. The article below says it all; the club has denied any wrongdoing, going as far as to suggest that Jimmy has potentially bought both the game and Chelsea into disrepute by making such a statement.
Fame or publicity by association is an inevitable by-product of success; the culture has blighted football for many years and it is one that we are only now becoming accustomed to ourselves; George Best himself summed it up perfectly, once remarking that “You could sell stair-rods to bungalow owners if you put my name on them.” Much the same applies to the name of anything or anyone either successful or even just vaguely newsworthy; at the moment it happens to be Chelsea. Under normal circumstances the recent release of Charlton’s annual report and accounts with its modern-day spin-speak about core values, development and a creditable 11th place finish last season would have barely made a ripple on the news wires; add mention of Chelsea’s financial power (what would the books look like minus £10m for Scott Parker, we wonder?) and a diatribe about the death of competition it has supposedly caused and Sky Sports News had something to chew upon for the rest of the day. Had Jimmy released his book when Leeds looked to be going the way of the dodo, any half-scandalous anecdotes from his time at Elland Road relating to Peter Ridsdale’s financial profligacy would have been plastered across the back pages; if Peter Kenyon really does want to boost revenues, he should start charging for use of our name as a promotional tool — Roman would recoup his investment in no time. He’d better start doing so quickly; apparently we’ve been fined £30,000 for letting West Ham fans throw objects at Mateja Kezman last October — the Bank of Abramovich is clearly open for business in the rather blinkered eyes of the football authorities.
Next Saturday sees the start of a run of three home games in eight days; the bread and butter of fixtures against a Middlesboro side who look as unpredictable after their European exertions as the old Chelsea did (ah, the heady days of heroics home and away against AC Milan followed by defeats at Watford and Derby…) and the now slightly shaky looking Wigan either side of the juicy filling of a not-too meaningless who-tops-the-group Champions League game with the Red Scousers for the umpteenth time this year. I wonder what revolutionary ‘system’ Rafa “I know how to play Chelsea” Benitez has worked out this time?