April is the cruellest month…
I don’t know whether TS Eliot was a football fan – I somehow doubt it – but the opening line from “The Wasteland” perfectly sums up the agonies of April. What Sir Alex Ferguson memorably called “squeaky bum” time a few years ago, the business end of the season, as everyone seems to call it these days.
This Easter weekend has been very squeaky indeed, in the football, the rugby – and the golf. The first Major of the season, the Masters at Augusta. A real favourite, probably because it’s on the same course every year. You you get to know it: the beauty, the cruelty, the azaleas, the water. The legendary performances, the collapses (McIlroy last year rivalling Greg Norman against Nick Faldo in 1996). This year was a real slugfest. No-one carved out an unassailable lead and on the turn on the fourth day, six, seven, eight golfers could have fancied their chances. At the end, two in particular could say to themeselves, I blew it. Should have won that. One was the Englishman, Lee Westwood. The best from tee to green, but just not good enough with the putts, not at this level. And then there was the mighty Phil Mickelson, three times Masters winner. One behind the leader, Peter Hanson, going into the last day. Had to be the favourite. No bum squeaking there…
Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. At the par three fourth hole he imploded. Hacked around in the bushes, sliced it onto a path, went into a bunker. The sort of experience with which I am very familiar! Triple bogey.
He played pretty well for the rest of the round – that’s where his experience told – and was only two off at the end. That one hole did for him. Two golfers tied on ten under: the South African Luis Oosthuizen and American Bubba Watson. Bubba – now there’s a name.
Oosthuizen had hit an amazing second shot at the par five second, which went in the hole – an albatross. Watson really clicked into gear in the back nine, with a succession of birdies. He had the momentum, but Oosthuizen hung on – already a British Open winner, so he knew what it took. On the second playoff hole Watson got himself out of trouble in the trees with an amazing hooked shot. The technique under that kind of pressure being what distinguishes great sportsmen from the rest of us. That shot won him the Masters. The American crowd, all in their regulation beige knee-length shorts and polo shirts, were ecstatic. He’s a popular lad, Bubba. One of the young guns. Very emotional at the end. If no British tabloid has described him as “Blubber” Watson, I’d be surprised. (I’m too lazy to check).
The main event in the football was the confirmation of the inevitable. The Man City collapse, the Man Utd surge towards another Premier League title. Arsene Wenger, happy at Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over City (should have been four or five) said, apropos United, “In France we say that when a horse smells its stable, it’s difficult to stop him… they can smell that stable”. Hmmm, new one to me, but I can see what he means. The whiff of a familiar prize in those red nostrils. You have to admire them. I heard on the radio that since Paul Scholes returned from retirement, they have only dropped two points. I guess you have to call that another Fergie masterstroke.
It’s all a bit of an anti-climax, but the City demise has been creeping up on us. That sense of a team of gifted individuals whose mettle had not been truly tested has become stronger, until in cruel April, it has been fully exposed. Arsenal have been on a roll ever since they beat Spurs 5-2, but the ease with which they took City apart was an eye opener. No David Silva, Yaya Toure off injured early on, they looked rudderless. Only the centre backs, Kompany and Lescott, really seemed to have the fight, the passion. And up the other end of the field Balotelli, all petulance and dangerous tackles, entertained us and unravelled his team at the same time. The red card was only a matter of time – it should have been a straight one in the first half for an outrageous tackle on Song (see photo). In the end it was a second yellow late on. With six games to go, that might be the last we see of Balotelli this season – and probably the last time we see him in a City shirt.
Recently Balotelli was interviewed by Noel Gallagher – he of Oasis and the High Flying Birds – for BBC’s Football Focus. This was pure hubris, looking back. Balotelli as folk hero, entertainer, goal scorer, symbol of the new, brash City. Pop star. And he has been very funny at times this season, always a talking point. But the joke is on City now. And United are all laughs.
My son, an Arsenal supporter, now thinks that the Gunners might be able to catch City in second place. How football fans’ expectations change! Ten points behind, eighteen points left to play for. Possible, but unlikely.
A team with a whiff of the stable – Champions League place? – is Newcastle United. Quietly, they have been winning games, playing impressive football. A huge turn around from the joke they had become, especially off the field. They have bought well, especially from France, and now have two electric strikers in Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse. Alan Pardew is a good manager. He did a decent job at West Ham a few years ago, until internal strife drove him out. His reputation dipped, but he is rebuilding it at Newcastle, and don’t be surprised to hear more “Pardew for England” cries in the future. I suspect top four is just beyond them this season, but they will keep Spurs and Chelsea on their toes, bums-a-squeaking.
I enjoyed West Ham’s easy 4-0 stroll at Barnsley on Good Friday (when did we start having football matches on Good Friday?). Nice to see Big Sam smiling again. Even better when Southampton dropped two points against Portsmouth on Saturday. Southampton and Reading are both four points ahead, but have to play each other. There is hope. But we have a tough game at home against Birmingham later today. A must-win, at the one venue where we can’t win at the moment. The Boleyn. This must change!
The rugby is really at the business end too. The Heineken Cup quarter finals were sadly bereft of Quins, who blew that last game against Connacht. We would have been away to Edinburgh – definitely winnable. Instead it was Toulouse, who lost! So Edinburgh now meet Ulster in the semis, the latter having beat Munster. Not so much of a surprise this season, as Ulster are a very powerful and super-fast team. Leinster crushed Cardiff and Clermont Auvergne likewise against Saracens. So it’s Irish and French power that looks likely to prevail. Leinster may have that sniff of the stables, having twice been winners recently, that proves decisive.
Quins were in the Amlin Cup, which they won last season. On Friday night – Good Friday again – they got duffed up by Toulon’s scrum and the precision kicking of Jonny Wilkinson. I suspect Quins were just fractionally not up for it. It doesn’t take much at that level for a team’s frailties to be exposed – see Man City. Evans and Robshaw, the two leaders, were missing. Others were rested. I think this shows that the priority for Quins this season is the Premiership and the play-offs. That has to be right – as long as such a heavy defeat, 37-8, hasn’t shaken the self confidence.
For Quins, the stables they are sniffing aren’t that familiar. It’s a bit of a journey into the unknown. So now is the time to hold that nerve, maintain the belief in that running game, and show in the next two Premiership games – at home to Wasps and Leicester – what they are made of. The fans’ bums will be squeaking, mine included!