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Friday, March 7, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Play of smaller clubs may prevent marquee F.A. Cup final


LONDON -- While the English Football Association would never utter a public word on such a matter, the power brokers at Soho Square are praying that the climax to the domestic season is not an F.A. Cup final between Burnley and Sheffield United.

Christopher Davies

It would be a lively build-up between managers Stan Ternent and Neil Earnock, as will be explained later, but an all-First Division clash of northern clubs at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on May 17 is not what the F.A. Cup final is all about, wherever it is played.

However, the Nationwide League is guaranteed at least one semifinalist because Watford plays Burnley -- the other ties are the heavyweight clash of Arsenal and Chelsea, Southampton vs. Wolves and the Yorkshire derby between Sheffield United and Leeds United. The F.A., sponsors and television companies are desperate for Arsenal or Chelsea to go all the way and meet Leeds (preferably) or Southampton. Size matters in the Cup and the big boys are needed in Cardiff.

The smaller clubs who provide the magic of the F.A. Cup should disappear before the climax -- with the eyes of the world on the final, uninvited guests should not be present.

Arsenal or Chelsea against Leeds would be a north vs. south battle with United manager Terry Venables possibly in charge of the team for the last time after his recent much-publicized row with chairman Peter Ridsdale over the £9 million sale of Jonathan Woodgate to Newcastle United.

However, Watford, Burnley, Sheffield United and Wolves are keen to fly the Nationwide flag and if they had their way, three of the four semifinalists would be non-Premiership teams. You can almost hear the collective shudder down at the F.A.'s headquarters.

Burnley was last in the English top flight in 1976 and has found it difficult to compete with the bigger clubs in Manchester and Liverpool though this season it is Lancashire's sole representative in the last eight of the F.A. Cup.

Manager Stan Ternent, appointed in June 1998, has put together a useful side that is on the fringe of the First Division playoff zone and he would certainly bring a touch of humor to the buildup to the final (more F.A. shudders).

Burnley supporters choose the Stanism of the Week and the latest was: "I try not to analyze our performances too deeply -- if I did I would have no hair left."

Other Stanisms are: "I'm a manager so I didn't see the sending off," and "if the players are good, I'm good. If they're indifferent, I'm indifferent. If they're rubbish I'm out of a job."

Ternent was a journeyman player while as a manager he has done well with smaller clubs and one senses he has a chip on his shoulder because he has never been given a chance at the highest level.

A man of contradictions, Ternant once sprinkled holy water on the pitch at Turf Moor when Burnley was going through a bad spell, he has an obsession with curfews, has endured sleepless nights counting his players back in and once asked lineswoman Wendy Toms less than tactfully: "Who's at home cooking your old man's dinner?"

Ray Lewington, the Watford manager, is rather different, more laid back with "pass the ball as you would like to receive it" the most quoted Rayism.

Lewington was handed the job last summer when Gianluca Vialli was sacked. The then assistant manager thought he, too, was being shown the door when called in by the chief executive only to be made manager.

Wolves manager Dave Jones knows a thing or two about being discarded, too. Three years ago Jones was effectively dismissed -- "gardening leave" was the phrase -- by Southampton even before the manager was cleared of child abuse charges.

Jones is bitter that the charges were brought against him in the first place and at the way Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe handled the situation.

"He said he was giving me 12 months to fight the case and Glenn Hoddle would be coming in," said Jones. "He told me he didn't think I could run the football club. He probably thought he was doing me a favor but football was my sanity."

Jones returns to Southampton on Sunday where he can expect a warm reception and his presence gives a fascinating tie an extra edge.

Sheffield United, like Wolves and Burnley, is pressing for promotion and reached the semifinals of the Worthington Cup where it lost to eventual winner Liverpool.

Manager Neil Warnock knows he would win few popularity polls among his fellow managers and last year even said "you would think I'm guilty of committing more crimes than Bin Laden."

Warnock had a run-in with Ternent a couple of years ago when the Burnley manager accused his counterpart of sending someone to listen to his halftime team meeting.

Ternent said: "Neil sent someone into the corridor and behind my dressing room door to listen. In my book that is the lowest of the low and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If I was chairman of a football club he wouldn't be working for me."

Warnock denied Ternent's accusations. "Stan says a lot when he's not in a very good mood," said Warnock.

"I don't have to do things like that to win a game."

Maybe Burnley vs. Sheffield United wouldn't be such a bad final after all and the pre-match quotes would undoubtedly make a few headlines.

But the F.A. will hope the winner of the Arsenal vs. Chelsea tie goes on to reach the final, ideally against Southampton or Leeds. Expect many sweaty palms from the big wigs at the F.A. when the semifinal draw is made on Monday.

The manager with the finest monicker in world football is sadly leaving his club at the end of the season. Wolfgang Wolff of Wolfsburg will be no more.

Has there even been a more appropriately named manager for his club (whose commercial manager is named Peter Pander)?

There can be only one place for Wolfgang Wolff to go next season.

Wolves, of course.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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