BY PAUL BREEN
By now, Santa has already returned to the darkest depths of Lapland, so it’s a bit late for last-minute requests, but there are a few stocking fillers that would have been very much appreciated in the world of football.
Chelsea – at the top of the table – appear to need nothing more than they have already. A couple of alarm clocks wouldn’t go amiss though in Manchester, in time for next season, because both City and United woke up late this season. City at least hold some chance of catching up. United, who probably have more than enough in their cabinet already, will just have to run down the clock, comfortably in the Champions League positions, and wait for next time around. Mind you, United fans wouldn’t say no to a couple of new defenders if they’d fit into the stockings hanging alongside the banners taunting Liverpool in the Stretford End!
If only bloody Santa had given Stevie Gerrard those NON-SLIP boots that he requested last winter, then history might have turned out so differently, and they’d have won the title they deserved, if there was any romance left in football. Santa though sadly does Xmas and not Valentine gifts, and the rest is the way history turned out in reality, and not in romance in 2014.
Further to the west, and taking in Liverpool, there are three or four clubs in need of a lot. We’ll start with Blackpool since their demands are the biggest. Right now they need a miracle to escape from relegation to League One. A couple more players would probably help as well, and a social media ban for the chairman. Next there’s Wigan who desperately need a new PR manager and a grammar book (because Paddy and Jock are not abbreviations for Irish and Scottish). After that there’s Fleetwood who are on a diet of one goal per game and Tranmere whose recent slide has been as spectacular as that of Fernando Torres!
Then there’s Everton, who seem to yo-yo between good and bad seasons, top four challengers one year and mid-table the next. First David Moyes and now Roberto Martinez has struggled to get this balancing act right so a special gift is required this year down Goodison way. It’s a gift voucher for lessons in the local circus from a trapeze artist so they can finally learn the art of balancing their act from one season to the next.
Or they could just take lessons from Southampton and pawn off a third of their first team to Anfield. Right now if the Liverpool team was a Christmas stocking there’d be more holes down the edges than your average sewing kit could fix. Though his team are on the mend, Brendan Rodgers is in need of a darned good needle to stitch the spine of his first choice eleven back together and save a wasted season. Some feel that the fantastic opportunity to maintain Liverpool’s trajectory towards former glories has been lost and much of the Suarez money wasted. A couple of strikers should have been the main priority but alas Santa doesn’t reverse the past. However, if all else fails though they could attempt the audacious act of bringing Fernando Torres back to Merseyside. He’s been crying out for so long for Santa to find him the perfect club to match his talents that the elves are getting him confused with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
A pack of Xmas cards wouldn’t go amiss either for Brendan. He needs one for Luis Suarez as thanks for the season before. Then there has to be one sent down to Southampton – or up, if you’re looking at it from a league table rather than a geographical perspective. And finally one to White Hart Lane where Tottenham must feel slightly peeved at the plagiarism of their blueprint for selling a world class player, buying sparkling wine at champagne prices, and then suffering an almighty hangover the season after. In Tottenham’s case, make that a double hangover with no cure in sight, so the Christmas list down at Spurs is going to require a good rummage by the elves through Santa’s medicine cabinet.
Meanwhile, further down the road, Arsenal is a special case. Whatever everybody else can see that they require, supporters and players alike, Arsene Wenger will get the opposite for reasons best known to himself. However, despite growing demands from supporters for the manager to depart, Santa won’t be answering requests for a taxi out of the Emirates for Arsene Wenger just yet. Besides, as everybody knows from his favoured choice of colours (since he shifted from his original green), Santa has a soft spot for Arsenal! Mind you, most Arsenal fans would prefer these sentiments to come from the likes of Mike Dean and Howard Webb especially in games against Manchester United.
Across the way in London, West Ham can’t decide on one of two gifts. Should they stay suspended forever in the bubble of the season as it is, or fast forward to the completion of their new home in the Olympic Stadium? Perhaps, as a fitting tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce in World War One, we could stop the season now and send the Hammers to the Champions League, as they sit in a 4th spot they’re unlikely to sustain all season through.
Neighbours Leyton Orient might see a cruel irony in that though, since so many of their players fought and died at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War, as members of the Middlesex Regiment, (the Footballers’ Battalion). Getting the Olympic Stadium seems, to them, reward enough for the noisy neighbours! Mind you, Orient might gift-share with Leeds United in their requests for more stability on and off the field, as they face issues of ownership and sitting at the wrong end of their respective tables. Things have changed rapidly for Orient especially in between two letters to Santa. Last year, under Russell Slade, they were on the verge of the Championship. This year, they’ll be asking for some serious help in avoiding a slip into the basement division of league football.
Hopefully though they’ll stay up because it’s a really friendly club to visit, in a good location, with a rich history and pride in its local area. If football awarded medals for heritage, they’d deserve to be far higher than they are now.
Meanwhile Bournemouth and Brentford, flying high in the Championship just want more of the same having spent so much of the recent past in the lower divisions. This season both of them are picking off points like mince pies from the Christmas platter and for Brentford especially that’s probably very far from what they expected this season. Maybe it’s the way they wrote their last Christmas letter and they’ll be employing the same scribe to write it again!
On the other side of the Thames, Charlton Athletic have a request more for what they don’t want in the New Year than what they do. Recently the players announced that they are sick of drawing, having had an incredible 12 stalemates already this season. That’s more than half of all games they have played.
Therefore, the elves can remove the Etch-A-Sketch toys, the colouring books and crayons from the stockings bound for the Valley. However, I reckon that Charlton manager Bob Peeters might prefer draws to defeats, if he wants to keep his job, and continue to inspire the heightened demand for Bob the Builder merchandise in the shops of South London this festive season. Supporters too remain divided about whether or not they want to wake up to the sight of Belgian chocolates in their stockings! Most though will be happy so long as the chocolate comes with a promisory note for a new striker in the January window.
Charlton fans might also like the promise of a double relegation for Millwall and Crystal Palace, or at least the consolation prize of beating their foes from South Bermondsey for the first time in what is literally a lifetime of support for some of those expecting gifts from Santa. Neil Warnock though will be hoping that Palace shake off the ghosts of Christmas past and stop changing managers mid-season, as happened with Ian Holloway and Tony Pulis. There are rumours of course that the latter wanted to sign new players and thought the owner was a Scrooge!
Stoke City too might be keen to shake off the ghost of Christmasses past in the form of Tony Pulis. Every time they play it gives commentators the chance to use as many adjectives and similaes as possible that are associated with boxing, wrestling, fighting, scrapping, kicking, thumping, battling and fighting. Though Phil Bardsley is sometimes on a mission to prove them right, there seems more to Stoke these days under Mark Hughes than just long throws and Saturday re- enactments of the slog in the trenches of the Somme a hundred years ago.
Meanwhile, across the country in Hull, I’m not sure I’d want to be under Steve Bruce, but I do hope Santa takes some of the weight off his mind by steering the Tigers clear of relegation. They play some good football, and would be a loss to the Premier League in both sporting and geographical terms.
Elsewhere, in the Midlands, there are plenty of clubs hoping for better fortunes so Santa’s sack is too full for coverage here but Villa, Birmingham, West Brom, Coventry, Northampton and even Forest and Wolves of late are all hoping for better things in 2015. It seems these days it is only Derby County flying the regional flag as high as Santa’s sleigh. Mind you, Notts County aren’t doing bad, thanks in large part to the work of Roy Carroll who must have seemed like an early gift from Father Christmas when they snapped him up in the summertime.
Meanwhile, in Sheffield, United are hoping to replicate their Cup form in the league and Wednesday would love nothing more than to make Sunday headlines by getting Saturday revenge in the FA Cup against Man City for their earlier hammering this season in the League Cup!
Heading north, I’m not sure Santa’s going to touch the whole Newcastle and Sunderland divide now that there’s a truce between the fans. Maybe he’ll just give them copies of The Farm’s re-released single ‘All Together Now’, which has been re- recorded by a collective of musicians to mark the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Day truce in the trenches.
That way, he can end his trip to England by heading across to the very edge of the North Sea and answering all those frantic requests from Sky Sports presenter Jeff Spelling who has been writing letters as prolifically as Fernando Torres! Though the female elves might not be so happy about their recent efforts to sign Ched Evans (and the male elves should be equally unhappy), hopefully Santa can spare them a few points or a couple of players on loan. Again the league would be poorer, geographically and atmospherically, for the loss of Hartlepool and their legions of away supporters with a great taste in fancy dress.
The description of them turning up in London, in their thousands, at the end of the 2012 season features in my book The Charlton Men, and was one of the funniest things to come out of football that season, and probably the seasons since then. Mind you there are rumours that it was all just a covert operation by the Belgians who would later come and take over our football club!
Finally, in a year when Scotland almost left the rest of Britain out on a limb, it’s only appropriate that its clubs should have the last word although I’m not sure Santa has a direct Finnish translation for Stenhousemuir, Cowdenbeath, Heart of Midlothian and even Keith, the one man who seems to play all on his own up there. We should start with Celtic, since their current manager hails from neighbouring Norway.
However, the undisputed Scottish champions are badly in need of competition or they face the prospect of Europa League Thursdays, in coming seasons, rather than Champions League matchdays.
Mind you, Santa won’t complain. It’s a long way to Barcelona or Milan from Lapland, so he’s quite grateful for the chance to see the men in hoops facing HJK Helsinki or one of the Scandinavian leading lights. Rangers meanwhile have a very simple request – money, money, and more money – as well as a good accountant, and a board who can actually run their affairs properly. And if they return to the Scottish Premier Division I imagine there will be a lot of letters to Santa from other clubs to ensure they stay as much in the limelight as they have been in the past couple of years in the absence of one half of ‘The Old Firm.’
Teams like Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St. Mirren and St. Johnstone have all captured the attention they deserve at different stages and will be hoping for more of the same even after the likely return of Rangers. Hearts as well will be hoping to build on the momentum of their great season so far. On the other hand, there must be a few of Scotland’s lower divison sides hoping Santa can keep the likes of Hearts, Hibs, and Rangers where they are. Many of these clubs have benefitted greatly from the exposure, and probably the economics, of having a few of Scotland’s big boys grace places such as Alloa, Elgin, Arbroath, Stirling and Brechin in recent times.
So that’s it for Santa’s last minute list. For myself I’ll take a few book sales for my book THE CHARLTON MEN, and a play-off place for Charlton Athletic.
It would also be nice if he could get broadcasters a book to teach them how to pronounce Ballinamallard properly in the classified football results – since they are the closest team to where I am from in Ireland.
And maybe when he’s also in Northern Ireland I’ll take another Irish League title win for Cliftonville since they are my God daughter’s team and she’s turned eleven this year.
That would mean that her team had won the League title a quarter of her whole lifetime!
Have a happy Christmas one and all, and here’s to a fantastic 2015 whoever we happen to support.
PAUL BREEN – My book is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X