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Saturday, May 10, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Everything on line for Bolton, West Ham in season finales


LONDON -- As much as both managers are saying they will treat it as "just another game" nobody is convinced by the attempts of West Ham's Trevor Brooking and Sam Allardyce of Bolton to take the pressure off their players as the Premier League season draws to an end on Sunday.

Christopher Davies

When £20 million and your Premiership status are at stake it is the mother of all games, not just another one.

West Ham, which visits Birmingham City and Bolton, which hosts Middlesbrough, will be fighting for their Premiership lives. Manchester United has won the title but West Ham and Bolton just want to ensure they play two games against the champion in the Premiership next season.

Bolton has the advantage. If both Bolton and West Ham win on Sunday then Bolton will survive on goal-difference with the Hammers tumbling into the first division having amassed 44 points -- the highest ever total for a club relegated from the Premiership. Some consolation.

It is estimated that a relegated club can lose £20 million in television revenue, lower attendances and less lucrative sponsorship.

The inevitable sale of some of the best players, often at knock-down prices because buyers know the sellers are desperate to offload, also creates its own problem by weakening the side trying to win a speedy promotion.

Just another game on Sunday . . .?

The biggest problem can be paying players Premiership wages on first division income and that has contributed to relegated clubs such as Leicester, Ipswich and Bradford going into administration.

The last published figures showed that West Ham had the sixth biggest wage bill in the Premiership and there is no way all these salaries could be taken into Division One.

Though they have the same aim, the relegation contestants could hardly be more different in many respects. West Ham, the self-styled academy of football, has some of the most promising of the current crop of young English players -- Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermaine Defoe seem destined for stardom while in David James and Trevor Sinclair, West Ham has two current full England internationals.

Trevor Brooking, a West Ham legend who won 47 England caps, has taken over as temporary manager while Glenn Roeder recovers from a minor stroke.

Sam Allardyce is as English as warm beer yet Bolton has been fielding a completely overseas XI in its quest to remain among English football's elite. In 4-4-2 formation, Bolton's country lineup in its last match at Southampton was: Finland; France, Iceland, France, Jamaica; France, Denmark, Nigeria, Spain; France, Denmark.

Not than anyone in Bolton is complaining. Youri Djorkaeff, who helped France win the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, has been a sensation, Jay-Jay Okocha has added Premiership organization to his Nigerian skills and on-loan French defender Florent Laville has made the back-line more solid.

Few are surprised Bolton is fighting the drop for a second successive season, but after finishing seventh last year West Ham was expected to be more mid-table than near the foot of it.

Too many players have underachieved this season and 21 points from a last possible 30 merely adds to the frustration of its current plight -- why couldn't the team play like this earlier?

"It's in our hands," said Allardyce of Bolton's Premiership fate. "Every match recently has been like a cup final and you can be sure Sunday's match against Middlesbrough will be even bigger."

West Ham will have to make history to survive -- no Premiership team has been in last place at Christmas and stayed up.

Unlike the Championship, the drama at the "wrong" end of the table will go to the wire, which is exciting unless you happen to be a Bolton or West Ham fan.

MANCHESTER UNITED'S latest Premiership success was hailed as "our greatest achievement" by Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was certainly a great individual triumph for the manager whose team trailed Arsenal by eight points on March 3 and was eight points ahead when it clinched the title as Leeds beat the Gunners 3-2 last Sunday.

United didn't only win the Championship. Ferguson also won the mind games with Arsenal's Arsene Wenger as the Premiership's two heavyweights slugged it out in what is becoming a two-horse race.

When the Scot ran on to the Highbury pitch to applaud the traveling supporters and shake the hand of all his players and officials after the 2-2 draw on April 16 it was a statement rather than a mere gesture.

The United manager was saying "we haven't won it yet but we will." He knew it and deep down Wenger probably did too.

Ferguson and his players became stronger as the finishing line was in sight -- unbeaten in the league this year they have won 17 and drawn the other two games since losing to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day.

In the same period Arsenal has drawn five matches in which it led, the most significant being the 2-2 draw at Bolton on April 26 after taking a 2-0 lead. The fat lady had started gargling after that game.

Ferguson has papered over the cracks when United had injuries. Arsenal's strength in depth was brutally exposed against Leeds when it fielded a back-four of Kolo Toure, Martin Keown, Oleg Luzhny and Ashley Cole which is not a match-winning defense let alone one to influence the Championship.

However, while United deserves praise and credit for its come-from-behind success, the feeling remains that this is probably the weakest of its sides that has dominated the Premier League since its inception 11 years ago.

Ruud van Nistelrooy with 43 goals was mysteriously pipped by Thierry Henry for the Footballer of the Year awards by both the writers and players but the Dutchman has been Mr. Reliable in attack.

John O'Shea has been a revelation, the Irish youngster excelling in a variety of defensive roles. Paul Scholes had his best ever season in terms of goals, while on the wings Ryan Giggs scored 16 times with David Beckham unaffected by rumors of a move to Real Madrid as he scored 14.

However, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez has been so erratic he was dropped for the final games. Injuries to Gary Neville have affected his form. Roy Keane has not been the force of old following hip surgery. Rio Ferdinand has not convinced that he was worth a £30 million investment (ditto Seba Veron at £27 million). Wes Brown did not progress as was hoped.

United's best side in the 11 years of the Premiership was probably the 1994-95 team -- Peter Schmeichel; Neville, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin; Andrei Kanchelskis, Keane, Paul Ince, Giggs; Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona.

Yet once again it has been the two usual suspects going head-to-head, though with eight titles in 11 years United has pushed the Premiership closer to a monopoly than a duopoly.

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


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