Premiership Update: How long is a piece of string?

Last updated : 06 February 2006 By Aidan O'Byrne
...with particular reference to how the phenomenon of looking up the current scoreline in an important football match elsewhere on a WAP phone might actually affect the outcome, a la Schrödinger's Cat (cf update dated 20 November 2005, spookily enough the weekend of England's last rugby match at Twickenham before this one). At the time I received a couple of emails back protesting (with varying degrees of credibility) that this theory either wasn't sophisticated enough, or was flawed because the Fates determined everything in life up front anyway. Well, this week the Sol Campbell affair enables us to move on to consider string theory.

Simply put, string theory was a new attempt at a unified field theory, replacing the standard view of fundamental physics as the interrelated effects of different types of particles which make up the universe, and suggesting instead a single building block – strings – which can adopt different states as they move through time. Vibrating at one frequency, they could appear as an electron, at another as a photon and so on (thus providing a bridge between the particulate and waveform characteristics of light, for example). Another consequence of string theory is to extend the possible number of physical dimensions, perhaps to as many as 26 rather than the "standard" 4.

Two US universities, in conjunction with NASA, have developed a neutrino detector called "Amanda" sited at the South Pole to seek evidence in support of string theory, and which has produced some initially supportive conclusions. They now plan to build a larger follow-up device called "Ice Cube", which will be a kilometre-long device buried 1.4km below the Antarctic permafrost.

In my view, they needn't have bothered drawing up the plans – they could merely have tuned into Sky Sports 2 for the first half of the Arsenal-West Ham game in midweek for fundamental proof that weird cosmic frequencies can fundamentally alter physical realities, in this case rather than transmuting a proton to a neutron, instead turning the Premiership's one-time best central defender (certainly in the 2002 and 2004 title seasons) into a shambling parks player to be subbed at half time, a change which handed the Hammers two goals and a deserved victory despite the enduring class of Arsenal's attack. Further evidence was to be found in the fact that Sol himself, previously regarded as a somewhat two-dimensional character, turns out like most human beings to have greater depths, even if the Great British Press ironically outdid its normal ability to reduce complicated issues to one-dimensional accounts – hence the "Where's Wally?"-style coverage of Sol keeping his head down in order to get some confidence back (this is a children's book, by the way, for those without little-uns of their own).

Is it that simple, though? Should the press be entitled to invent any number of "secret" reasons and personal problems to explain Sol's loss of form and supposed disappearance, seeking out the hidden strings behind the scenes rather than taking the reality at face value? I don't think they should be, myself, because unlike certain of his fellow professionals, Sol has always been a man with a private side and absolutely no desire to indulge a celebrity lifestyle of fawning adulation. Of course, the fact that his depths are normally hidden makes them all the more interesting, but just because there might be strings hiding there doesn't entitle anyone, let alone a ham-fisted fourth estate, to fetch them out and use them to pull his chain.

Anyhow, back to observable events on the pitch, and Arsenal's defeat of course meant that they had failed to capitalise on the slip-ups made by the others in the top part of the table, notably Spurs last gasp crash to defeat at Fulham, Man U's demolition by newly-signed ex-Gooner David Bentley at Ewood Park, and the home and away draws achieved by Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.

The 3-0 slaughter of Newcastle at Eastlands the same evening meant that the Geordie chairman finally got Graeme Souness's P45 filled out, and if only the press had followed up the initial promise of headlines like "Toon Chop Suey" in reporting the major football story of the week, they'd have escaped my disdain for all the Sol-searching that ensued instead. I've actually been predicting that Newcastle would be better off without Souness in charge since ... errr ... the weekend of his appointment (check your prior inboxes if you care), and so there was an inevitability of sorts about the Toon's win over Portsmouth at St James Park on Saturday which included Alan Shearer's record-setting 201st goal for the club. Almost as inevitable, in fact, as the fawning adulation afforded to his future co-presenter by Gary Lineker on Match of the Day.

Despite Sulzeer's continuing low profile, there were a couple of Arsenal-related Campbells to be seen on Saturday's pitches – 36-year-old birthday boy Souper Kev being one of them, giving West Brom a very helpful 3 points over Blackburn to keep them clear of the relegation zone, and very promising former Brentford frontman DJ being the other, unable to help his new club Birmingham City improve on their current drop spot position despite a lively debut showing in the Premiership (and in not scoring on his first appearance, failing to infringe the trademark of the nearest previous non-league to top flight example, one Ian W-W-Wright). It would however be most unfair to blame Birmingham's loss on DJ alone – you'd have to question the one time England claims of Steve Bruce's strike partnership of Heskey and Sutton instead, since their major contribution to the cause was to accumulate three yellow cards between the two of them! There was also the certain matter of the visitors to St Andrews for the day's inclusion of their own Premiership debutant, the certainly striking looking Manu Adebayor, who did have the handy knack of scoring on his debut, as well as their own two-ton talisman, the occasionally disinterested-looking but continually deadly Monsieur Henry. Not a bad clean sheet for a back four all under 20, either, I thought.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Man United laboured to a 4-2 win over Fulham of which the scoreline was not really a great reflection, not least due to the fact that a crucially-timed goal for 3-1 just after McBride had brought Fulham back into the match followed a rebound from a van Nistelrooy shot from about five-yards offside (Coleman being banished to the stands for pointing out the officials' gaffe). On the other hand, there was nothing at all laboured about Villa's putting to the sword of a very sorry Middlesbrough, a very well taken Luke Moore hat trick contributing to the 4-0 final score, topped off style-wise by the cheekiest of Kevin Phillips finishes for the second away goal. Boro chairman Steve Gibson may well be tempted on this showing to make Steve McLaren available to the FA on a sooner rather than later basis to cover Sven's departure, but the main observation for me in this game was how much that Philips goal would have been worth for his former club Sunderland. Mick McCarthy has previously said, without particularly looking to use it as an excuse, that he was being hampered by injury. But if you can't score a goal, then the return to fitness and selection of defenders like the amphora-eared Steven Wright, who can only last 20 minutes before putting you at a numerical disadvantage with their dismissal, is not in itself helpful. Actually, the Black Cats held out for quite a while, but given West Ham's current confidence off the back of that win at Highbury, there was only ever going to be one result, and Konchesky's debut goal for his life-long club fittingly followed Dean Ashton's goal on his debut to deliver it. A goal for David Weir which he knew less about that I did until I saw it on Match of the Day gave Everton all the points hosting Man City, while Bolton and Wigan cancelled each other out in a 1-1 draw.

As a stalemate, however, that match had nothing on the African Nations Cup quarter final between Cameroon and the C'ote d'Ivoire, which had finished at the same 1-1 scoreline after extra time, because the ensuing penalty shootout saw the teams go right the way through their squads without a single miss - ie all eleven players, including both keepers, had scored, even if Didier Zakora needed a retake – and have to start over again. At the risk of sounding like David Coleman on Spitting Image, it really was quite remarkable, and if you'd have asked me who to back out of Samuel Eto'o and Didier Drogba to miss and who to score the 23rd and 24th spot kicks, well, let's just say that I'd have got it wrong.

On Sunday, I thought it unlikely that Charlton would prosper much at White Hart Lane, so I was pleased to skip watching that match on TV and accept a late invitation to Stamford Bridge to see Liverpool's visit there in person instead. By the time I got to Fulham Broadway, Spurs were already ahead with a lead they wouldn't relinquish, but I was all the same cheered up by the experience. For one thing, while perusing the selection of black skull embossed Headhunters scarves on a Fulham Road stall, I was amused to see someone walk past me towards the ground while holding up a big, fully Samsung logo'd up "True Blue" sign. This alternative view on tribal Chelsea following was all the more entertaining for me because the sign was being followed by a snaking line of small oriental people (maybe, though not irrefutably, Korean) heading – as I knew, but doubted they did – in the direction of the ground. All were immaculately turned out in a variety of CFC official leisurewear, and about half were filming everything in sight, including at one point the slightly nervous Headhunter scarf vendor.

Further along the road, a man in a sheepskin coat was being selective in giving out free fanzines – "not for scousers or tourists" – on inspection these contained a plea for the establishment of a singing section within the ground to boost atmosphere and avoid "a lights are on but no-one's home image". I had lingered overlong and thus missed whether he stuck to this line when confronted by the True Blue parade, but I could see where he was coming from inside the ground as far as the songs were concerned.

Initially, the Matthew Harding stand sang "Champions, Champions" only for the away fans in what was once the Shed to wave back with an impressive number of inflatable European Cups and one particularly striking golden number 5, while singing exactly the same song, only perhaps a bit louder. On the frankly rather shabby looking pitch, despite a numerical advantage in terms of formation, Chelsea's midfield was being bossed by the visitor's, Del Horno down the left seemed unable to pass to anyone other than Gerrard, and although Sami Hyypia kept getting too tight on Joe Cole, nothing much came of it, mostly due to Crespo's continual inability to stay onside for the ensuing flicks. After free headers for Crouch at a couple of early Liverpool corners were put over or wide, it looked like an interesting game might unexpectedly break out to engage the home fans' wits. A scrappy Chelsea goal – in this case a two yard tap-in for Gallas – was therefore inevitable, and the possibility floundered somewhat. "You are shit, you are shit" sang Stamford Bridge, presumably opting for one of the simpler possible set of lyrics in case something more adventurous might have prompted the True Blue element to pipe up "Herrow there. What are wight words, please?"

Liverpool rallied with some determination, Gerrard in particular spraying 60 yard passes with abandon, Riise and Kewell looking lively on the wings, and Crouch continuing to miss each and every chance that fell to him. Bonkers, I thought, of Benitez not to have even brought new signing Fowler along to warm the bench when all that was missing was a finisher of class. Gerrard stung Cech's hand with a rocket of a shot, Crespo scored but was given offside yet again to chalk the goal off (this would have been a great spread market to have bought), and then in the second half he made amends with a cracker to beat Reina in a narrow angle at his far post. After this, Gerrard's spirit remained willing, though his legs – forgivably enough - seemed less so (this was his 41st competitive fixture this season, ie one more than you may have heard some teams will have managed come May). Crespo scored again, was given offside again (on this occasion wrongly), and then it all kicked off as the outrushing Reina fouled Gudjohnsen by the touchline. It was a tackle from behind that took the man as well as the ball, though what you needed a later replay to discern was that the Icelander had used a hand to keep the ball from bouncing free to Reina in the first place. Maybe a yellow card there? We never found out, because on the way to see the ref, Reina was barged by Robben and turned back to slap him away, the Dutchman collapsing immediately as if shot and staying down longer than Gudjohnsen to ensure a red card got awarded. I counted three sets of Chelsea hands being raised to shove Reina in the ensuing melee before he got his marching orders, but presumably because he stayed on his feet, they didn't count.

Muchos kudos from me for Benitez in the post-match interview for enquiring after Arjen Robben's health and asking which hospital he was in so he could visit him. Let's see if he's got over his concussion by the time of Wednesday's FA Cup replay, shall we?