Best two in final but shame about Fletcher

Fittingly the Champions League will see Manchester United and Barcelona, the best two teams in Europe, contesting the final.

Man Utd overcame Arsenal in the first semi-final with surprising ease, the only negative on a night of triumph the red card for Darren Fletcher, which means he misses the showpiece in Rome.

Chelsea, meanwhile, will be kicking themselves. Having lost the 2008 final on penalties, and then allowing Barcelona a crucial away goal in extra time this time round, thereby missing out yet another year despite Roman Abramovich’s lucrative input, must be hard to take for players, management and supporters alike.

In the case of Fletcher, sent off for what seemed a legitimate tackle, the situation is ridiculous. If the incident had happened in British football his club could have lodged an appeal, which would surely have been upheld. Even the referee, on seeing it again, would surely concede that he had made an error. But in Europe there is no such adjuration, and Fletcher and Man Utd will just have to grin and bear it.

It is tough for a player who has become a regular starter this season and would likely have started the final, manager Alex Ferguson now appearing to prefer the youthful midfield of Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Carrick for vital matches and using the experienced Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in an increasingly limited capacity.

In local football circles a look at the league table after the first four matches tells a familiar story. Delting lead the way with 12 points while Whitedale have also taken the maximum from their first quartet of fixtures.

Whalsay began with two resounding victories but a defeat against the champions and more dropped points to Spurs means the Bonnie Isle side are already losing valuable ground early in the campaign.

Elsewhere it was very heartening to see Yell win their first game in some time, while Ness United have also shown some promise so far. Scalloway have begun disastrously, but with several key players missing due to injury the villagers are perhaps in a false position propping up the league.

It was good to see John Higgins winning the World Snooker Championship for the third time, becoming in the process only the third man after Steven Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan to complete a hat trick of titles at the Crucible.

For a while in the competition it looked as though Hendry might be able to roll back the years and even record an eighth championship, but a defeat in the quarter-finals to Sean Murphy ended his hopes. But the mammoth effort in overcoming Hendry appeared to take its toll on Murphy, however, and in the final against Higgins he looked well beaten almost from the start.

As for O’Sullivan, he may still be the most exciting and highly-rated player in the world, but off the table he has the charisma of a slug. Before the tournament he suggested that there was really no-one who could realistically take the title off him. A defeat in the second round to Mark Allen of Northern Ireland thankfully put paid to O’Sullivan’s boasting.

Away from the action, however, surely the best thing about televised snooker nowadays is referee Michaela Tabb, who can brighten up the most boring of matches.

A few weeks ago I selected my own squad for the forthcoming British Lions tour of South Africa. Not surprisingly it was some way off the actual touring party chosen, with only 27 of the 37-strong squad named correctly.

Somewhat sadly, of the 10 players I picked but coach Ian McGeechan decided were not up to the mark, five of them were Scots. I say sadly because it is a great pity that McGeechan, a former Scottish international player and manager, did not consider more of his countrymen worthy of the honour.

Interestingly the breakdown in my squad was 13 from Wales, 10 from Ireland, eight from England and six from Scotland, compared to McGeechan’s choice of 13 Welshmen, 14 Irishmen, eight Englishmen and only two Scots. The difference, therefore is the Irish-Scottish ratio, 10-6 in my case and 14 in that of reality.

There is no doubting that Ireland possess some players of great stature, and to win the Grand Slam in the recent Six Nations Championship takes some doing. But a closer look will reveal that most of the matches were extremely close: 14-13 against England; 17-15 against Wales; 22-15 against Scotland and 30-21 against France. Only in the 38-9 win over Italy did Ireland prevail by more than nine points.

I have no idea why McGeechan saw fit to lean so much towards the Irish in his selection. Maybe he was influenced by the other members of his coaching team. But history tells us that the most successful Lions tours usually happen when the team comprises a fascinating mix of players from all four home nations. The 1971 win in New Zealand and 1974 and 1997 triumphs in South Africa are obvious examples.

On the occasions when the management falls too heavily in favour of one team, the trip is more likely to be doomed to failure. Graham Henry’s dismal tour of Australia in 2001 and Clive Wood­ward’s disastrous foray four years ago to New Zealand bear that up.


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