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Saturday, March 25, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Birmingham players face scathing attack after blowout loss


LONDON -- A few years ago a Premiership player inquired how much he would be fined if he missed training. He was told it would cost him £5,000, which seemed like a good deal.

Christopher Davies

The player had been offered considerably more to take part in a fashion shoot in London, and after the fine, would still leave him £15,000 better off.

So he skipped training, took the fine and pocketed 15 grand.

Another player, when arrested after an incident in a nightclub, told the policeman: "I earn more in a week than you do in a year."

Then there was the striker who loved to go to a cash machine for a printout of his current account when his wages had been paid in, which he gleefully showed to teammates earning less.

Instances of such financial arrogance are few and far between, but there is still the feeling that too many Premiership players, particularly, are as sick as the proverbial parrot only until they climb into their new Ferrari or whatever their new status symbol may be.

As they drive off they leave behind the stigma of defeat and disappointment, which supporters will carry with them until the next game.

Fans will accept defeat (albeit grudgingly) if they believe their team has given 100 percent. If the players have done their best . . . given their all . . . and the opposition were simply better . . . well, that's football.

The were times during Birmingham's 7-0 home defeat by Liverpool in Tuesday's F.A. Cup quarterfinal humiliation when their players seemed to be looking for a sponsored towel to throw in.

A magnificent seven for Liverpool, perhaps, but it forced Birmingham co-owner David Sullivan to launch an astonishing attack on the players.

"I've got to a point now where I don't like footballers," said Sullivan, a comment that should make any talks involving a player who is negotiating a new contract interesting.

"I don't like football agents and I don't like footballers, because it's so one-sided with them and it does hurt."

The 7-0 ignominy pushed Sullivan over the edge as his team battles for Premiership survival. A multimillionaire, Sullivan grew up in a council flat in Cardiff, so he can sympathize with supporters who are frustrated that players are not really earning what many see as disproportionate wages.

His anger has been partly fueled not just by what he considers a string of hapless performances, but also the mercenary attitude among some of Birmingham's top earners toward the club.

Sullivan said: "We've had occasions where players can't be bothered to turn up for club events. They're on £20,000 to £30,000 a week, and it does make you incredibly resentful.

"The players need to look at themselves and stand up and be counted. Some people aren't playing to their maximum potential. Unfortunately, some of them don't see it like that. Some of them aren't earning their money."

That is the most damning criticism that can be leveled against a footballer -- that he is not trying hard enough, happy to pick up his 20 grand per week while not giving 100 percent.

Sullivan did not name names, but the St. Andrews faithful will have their ideas about those who give everything in the cause and those who just take everything.

We may have a better idea of those who Sullivan was referring to this summer when, he said, Birmingham will "bomb a few out."

***

WANTED: New fall guy (also known as the head coach) at Hearts of Midlothian.

Candidates must be prepared to be told which players to buy (taking the blame for any failures chosen by others) and which team to select by a Lithuanian with no professional coaching experience.

They must also expect to be fired even if Hearts are top of the Scottish Premier League.

Ridiculous?

Fact can be stranger than fiction, and the circus that is the Edinburgh club continued to press its self-destruct button this week with the dismissal of Graham Rix after just over four months as head coach, even though Hearts are in second place in the league and in the Scottish Cup semifinals.

Mind you, his predecessor George Burley was sacked last November after just 19 matches, with Hearts unbeaten in 2005-06 and top of the league when the Scot was shown the red card by the owner.

Hearts chairman and acting chief executive Roman Romanov claimed Rix, a surprise choice to succeed Burley after having unsuccessfully applied for 30 jobs, was only appointed in the first place because there was nobody else available.

The possibility that no manager worth his salt would go near a club run by such hands-on control freaks never occurred to Romanov, the son of majority shareholder Vladimir.

Rix was not the only casualty in the midweek blood-letting.

Director of Football Jim Duffy was also shown the door after seven weeks at Tynecastle.

"They obviously thought we came as part of a team," said Duffy. "If they are going to remove one part of it then they must remove all parts."

Romanov Jr. said the reasons for sacking Rix were threefold: poor results, inappropriate January signings and the leaking of allegations that Vladimir picked the team.

Under Rix second-place Hearts won six, drew six and lost four games, maybe not outstanding, but they are six points ahead of champion Rangers and within sight of the Scottish Cup final.

Of the 11 players brought in during the winter transfer window, only two were genuine Rix signings, the remaining nine identified by Romanov Sr.'s scouting network and have made little or, in three cases, no impact on the first team.

It was common knowledge that Rix had been told to pick certain players for the side, but the autocratic Romanovs were unhappy that the former head coach had apparently spoken about such interference.

Romanov Jr. even suggested Rix's experience at Hearts would make him a better manager, which is rather like saying being involved in a serious accident would make you a better driver.

It says much for the resolve and professionalism of the Hearts players that the team is set to win a place in the Champions League despite the sackings of two successful and popular head coaches.

Valdas Ivanauskas, the Lithuanian assistant coach, has been placed in charge of the team until the end of the season.

Or rather, until Romanov decides it's time to get the gun out again.

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


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