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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

For Whom The Bells Toll

'For Whom The Bells Toll' is an old Ernest Hemingway novel that was turned into two film versions. The title came from a poem by John Dunne, 'Meditation XVII' within his 17th century publication 'Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions':

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

In Hemingway's novel, a group of rebels during the late 1930s' Spanish Civil War are given a task of blowing up a bridge to hit back at the government forces. The rebels sense they will not survive the mission, nonetheless they pursue their objective in the name of honour.

On Sunday, 13th May 2007, that mission was survival in the English Premiership. Two of those facing the prospect met at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. A third team was scheduled to combat at Old Trafford, Manchester. Wigan Athletic HAD to win, there was no alternative. Sheffield United had home advantage and needed to avoid defeat to guarantee their position. Most dauntingly West Ham United faced the champions and FA Cup finalists Manchester United. Nothing was sure or certain or clear. West Ham was expected to lose, but that result could be irrelevant, for the outcome in Sheffield was debatable though the senses went for a home win.

Manchester United 0 West Ham United 1

Sir Alex Ferguson said he would field a strong side today. It was not as strong as it could have been with Christiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic not starting but it's attacking prowess was not dulled by the selection. Wayne Rooney started with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Alan Smith, Edwin van der Sar in goal than Tomasz Kuszczak. Man Utd looked the most likely to score after a slow start gave the visitors some impetus to come at them, Wes Brown called on on two occasions to diver the ball away from goal. Alan Smith worked a deft touch from a corner for the ball to go goal-bound with Robert Green beaten but for a Yossi Benayoun headed clearance off the line and then an ensuing block from Kieran Richardson. Richardson had an excellent chance to score after he dazzled his way into the box only to hit the ball right-footed over the bar. John O'Shea met a Richardson cross with a firm header only for Green to tip it over for a corner.

For West Ham it was cometh the hour, cometh the man, in Carlos Tevez. Hardly in the game, along with Bobby Zamora and Luis Boa Morte, The Argentinian challenged with Gabriel Heinze to a high Green ball, and after exchanging with Zamora and the ball coming off him from Brown's weak touch, Tevez ran on to slot the ball in from an angle under van der Sar. The half was the proverbial 'best-team-attacking-but-then-conceding' scenario and the visitors had secured as much as a draw, if not a lead come the second half. sir Alex made a triple change on the hour with Giggs, Scholes and Ronaldo on for Patrice Evra, Carrick and Smith respectively, making again a 3-4-3. But Man Utd could not break West Ham, and as the home crowd chanted "Champions! Champions!", the visitors celebrated equally at the final whistle.

Did Utd conspire to send either Wigan or Sheff Utd down by fielding a weaker side? And what of the chances for either team with this unexpected victory?

Sheff Utd 1 Wigan 2

Wigan went into overdrive during their mission, Kevin Kilbane crossed from the left hand side that entered into the box for Paul Scharner was on hand in the 14th min to strike left-footed past Paddy Kenny. What was looked on as a home victory turned difficult for Sheff Utd. Wigan then lost captain Arjan DeZeeuw on the half hour, Emile Heskey took over the armband. A spell of possession for the home side found an equaliser through John Stead's header as Mike Pollitt came out to meet Phil Jagielka's cross. There was a collision between Pollitt, Stead and Ryan Taylor which required treatment for all three, Taylor going off through a leg injury. More drama followed as Jagielka then inexplicably stuck out his hand to give away a penalty. Why he did it is bewildering in such a tense match. Former Blades defender David Unsworth, on for Taylor, was handed the spot kick challenge. Remember Unsworth missing from the spot for the Blades during September at Ewood Park? He made no mistake this time as he stroke the ball to Kenny's left.

Utd provided their depiction of 'The Alamo', forcing Wigan onto the back foot for most of the second half, and their quest was further aided by Lee McCullouch's foolish tackles that earned him two bookings, the second of which came with 15mins remaining of normal time. Add that to the 5mins of injury time and Danny Webber missing with only Pollitt to beat gave cause for a potential cardiac arrest amongst both benches. Heskey was instrumental in keeping out Utd with defensive blocks and headers, Stead fizzed a low cross across goal that no one was on hand to meet, while Webber's effort found him with just the keeper to beat and he dinked the ball over him only for it to come off the post and away from danger. Then there came the final whistle in the 95th minute.

Wigan Athletic secured their Premiership tenure. The bridge has been exploded, the bells tolled for Sheff Utd into relegation.

The final teams relegated are Watford, Charlton and Sheff Utd after one season. Of course the positive thinker says there are 38 games in the season to ensure you are safe in the top league but sometimes that does not happen as beautifully as it sounds. Sunday was about who wanted to stay the most and who wanted to defend that stay the most. And some fortune, there is little that can survive in football without some luck. West Ham could be considered lucky after their Premier League punishment, even after a record £5.5m fine which looks to compensate for not issuing docked points. Sheff Utd could be considered unlucky, because of the Premier League punishment, because they came at Wigan with all they had albeit they faced 10 men that can either be an advantage or disadvantage depending of the spirit and determination of those 10-men, because Webber missed that chance.

Wigan were lucky. Ten defeats and four draws both home and away meant the writing was on the wall against an expected stern Sheff Utd at home but the writing was wiped off and replaced with an extraordinary backs-to-the-wall display to remain in the Premiership. There was simply no stopping Wigan from celebrating after the game, though that which they were celebrating was exactly that the Sheff Utd players were mourning. But there didn't seem to be that anxiety and loathing on Neil Warnock's face. I sense the Blades boss, obviously wanting to win or draw, actually enjoyed the moment as it went on.

It seemed to me he was watching another Premiership game than one which hinged on just one goal for survival. Then to hear that Warnock may leave Sheff Utd puts two and two together. He would enjoy the moment because he contemplated it would be his last for the club he loves, where he has been since 1999. Not a long time in football but then again if a manager manages to stay more than three years in the game he is doing something right. A fan in charge of his club or just a manager? The former, someone who is prepared to go down with his ship as well as steering it up to high waters. It may have been one voyage too many for Neil Warnock, and it is said he may step down from management.

Paul Jewell has resigned from Wigan. The pressures of maintaining the club in the Premiership had taken its toll on him and after seeing his players fight virtually to the death and emerge triumphant, it was enough. Having joined in 2001, Jewell raised Wigan from Division Two into Division One in his second season and in his second season in Division One gained promotion via the play-offs. Was the writing actually on the wall for Wigan to secure their place in their second season under Jewell in the Premiership?

Jewell was asked by chairman Dave Whelan, after handing in his resignation, whether he was going to another club. Jewell's reaction was to swear he had not been approached at all and he added:

"I have given everything I have as a person to bringing success here over the past six years. It is not an easy thing to walk away from somewhere and something which has been such a part of your life for so long.

"The intensity of football at the highest level, although completely addictive, is also draining. I feel I would be kidding the chairman, my players and the supporters if I was to carry on without being able to put in the energy and dedication I know is required to be successful at this level."

The end of the 2006/07 Premiership season has brought it's champion in Manchester United, the first time for four years, and its relegated teams. The season has brought along one resignation and potentially another from two men who have given heart and soul to their respective clubs over the years. It has been said football is a funny old game. That it is more important than life and death itself. For two men, it could very well be either.



Blogger T said...

Redsman, that is a phenomenal commentary. Really liked the intro- and its inspired me to read the Hemmingway book in the summer... nice one!

Your impression of Warnock is fascinating. To me he looked stunned by it all - and I couldn't help but recall his words before the match that it has been his long-time ambition to get his boyhood club into the Prmiership AND to stay there and that he was one match from achieving it.... it of course was not meant to be.

It was a thrilling match - both clubs giving their ultimate all to stay up. Paul Jewell must have watched that performance and questioned why he hadn't seen that intensity in the last two months? Perhaps this somewhat explains why despite their great result on Sunday he had decided that he had exhausted his potential at Wigan. Chris Huthcings is not someone I know well- I recognise him from his partnership with Jewell on the Wigan bench but that's it. I hope he can take Wigan on to better things next season- always good to see an Englishman being given an opportunity to manage in the top league.

By the way, currently watching the play-off match between Soton and Derby and just gone into extra time with a thrilling last minute goal to make it 4-4 on aggregate. The playoffs again prove the folly of the away-goals rule- but thats an argument for another day...

5/15/2007 9:53 pm

Blogger RedsMan said...

You know, its a point. I felt Southampton would have it all to play against as they were edged out at home Saturday but t0 their credit Southampton came within a minute of going out before Grzegorz Rasiak's goal. Good play-off semi, and it looks as if West Brom will meet them there unless Wolves pull off the performance fo the season, the Baggies are looking hungry.


5/16/2007 8:16 am

Anonymous Nturtle said...

Class summary of the final day theatrics Redsman - well done! Like T, loved the artistry in introducing Hemingway to us uncouth footy fans..."Rugby is a game watched by hooligans, but played by gentlemen...and vice versa for footballers huh?" HA!

Anyway...really interesting end to things...and hopefully more teams can challenge the top 4-6 teams next season. I reckon...Sunderland might stick around if Keane has his way...and hopefully they can avoid the drop for the 4th time in a row after promotion...whoops...getting onto next season pridictions!!

Good reading all season Redsman - thanks again.


5/18/2007 1:26 pm

Blogger RedsMan said...

Thanks, Nturtle. Since then Warnock has stepped down from Sheffield United and his assistant Stuart McCall has not gained the promotion to coach, leaving Sheff Utd managerless at the moment. Wigan has hastened to appoint Chris Hutchings as manager from assistant.


5/19/2007 1:00 am

Blogger T said...

And on behalf of everyone at EFT thanks Nturtle for your incisive comments throughout the season... your support is valued!

5/20/2007 9:17 pm


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