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Even if you beat them, minnows can be embarrassing, and as England face Andorra on Wednesday night in Barcelona, their manager Steve McClaren must be fearing his San Marino moment, writes Jonathan Wilson.
The last tournament for which England failed to qualify was the World Cup of 1994 in the US, and amid all the ignominy of Graham Taylor’s declining days as manager, one incident stands out. It is the moment of humiliation that prompted the legendary radio commentary from Jonathan Pearce: “Welcome to Bologna on Capital Gold for England versus San Marino with Tennent’s Pilsner, brewed with Czechoslovakian yeast for that extra Pilsner taste and England are one down.” Seven seconds in, an underhit back-pass by Stuart Pearce allowed Davide Gualtieri to score, and the mother of football trailed to the world’s fifth-least populous sovereign country. No matter that England went on to win 7-1; what mattered was the abjection of the 22 minutes in which they trailed.
Wednesday’s European Championship qualifier should, realistically, be an opportunity for England to turn a record of one goal in five games into something marginally respectable. The problem, though, is that in such circumstances, England have nothing to win. Score 20 against Andorra, and it will barely matter after Saturday’s disappointing goalless draw in Israel. Score two and it will simply stoke the frustration. Go behind, and the dancers will be queueing to jig on McClaren’s grave.
There are also worrying signs of a lack of discipline and morale for England. There are reports of a rift between McClaren and his assistant Terry Venables over tactics. Even more worrying is the suggestion that McClaren’s attempts to chastise his team on Saturday – slamming the dressing-room door before berating Wayne Rooney – are the subject of jokes among the squad. His charisma was always in question, but if his authority has also gone then England really are in trouble.
Pandora at least had hope left in her box; McClaren may contemplate Andorra’s box and find that even that has gone.
■FOOTBALL Arsenal and Chelsea were each fined £100,000 and reprimanded by the Football Association for their part in the Carling Cup final melee that involved players and officials from both sides. Both clubs admitted a charge of failing to ensure that their players and/or officials conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and/or refrained from provocative and/or violent behaviour.
Confirmation that the FA Cup final will return to Wembley on May 19 came when the new stadium was granted a safety certificate by Brent Council.
Luton Town named Kevin Blackwell as their new manager. Blackwell, 48, who was sacked by Leeds in September, replaces Mike Newell at the Championship club following his dismissal this month.
■RUGBY UNION The crisis in Scottish professional rugby claimed a significant victim with the axing of Border Reivers, third and most recently created of its regional franchises, writes Huw Richards. It is a financial rather than a rugby decision, a reflection of the Scottish Rugby Union’s need to reduce its £23m debt.
SRU chief executive Allan Munro said it was not possible to go on funding both the Reivers and Glasgow Warriors – the Edinburgh franchise is privately owned. It means Scotland will revert next season to having only two professional teams, which is generally reckoned to be too narrow a base to maintain an effective national team.
The creation of the Reivers in 2002 was seen as a vital step forward, restoring top-class rugby to the district with the strongest rugby culture. They have, however, struggled for results and support, currently lying bottom of the Magner’s Celtic League. The axe fell only five days after their best result of the season, a 10-3 victory over Edinburgh, but a crowd of only 1,444 helps explain the decision.
Some players will transfer to Glasgow, but the SRU may have a battle to hang on to the more marketable among them – notably the all-international front row of Bruce Douglas, Ross Ford and Gavin Kerr, flanker Kelly Brown, Scotland and Lions scrum-half Chris Cusiter and veteran back Gregor Townsend.
Former England full-back and British Lion Matt Perry has retired from rugby because of a back injury. Perry, 30, has not played for Bath since facing Harlequins in the Guinness Premiership last December.
■SWIMMING Michael Phelps of the US broke Ian Thorpe’s 200m freestyle world record during an extraordinary evening on Tuesday at the world championships in Melbourne. Four world records tumbled within 90 minutes with Americans Aaron Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin, and Federica Pellegrini of Italy setting new marks in one of the most remarkable days in the event’s history. Peirsol and Coughlin shattered their own 100m backstroke records to win gold and Pellegrini claimed the women’s 200m freestyle record in the semi-finals.
Britain gained a first medal in the pool when Liam Tancock, 21, finished third in the 100m backstroke in a Commonwealth record time of 53.61sec. Scotland’s Kirsty Balfour, however, missed out on a medal after finishing fifth in the 100m breaststroke final.
Phelps, 21, raced to a stunning victory in 1min 43.86sec, wiping 0.20sec off the time set by Australian Thorpe at the 2001 world championships in Japan. Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, who was second behind Thorpe in Fukuoka, had to settle for the silver medal again while South Korea’s Park Tae-hwan was third to add a bronze to the gold he won in the 400m freestyle on Sunday. Phelps also won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay and remains on course to eclipse Thorpe’s record of six gold medals at a single world championships.
■TENNIS Britain’s Andy Murray survived two match points to reach the quarter-finals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. He beat Paul-Henri Mathieu of France 2-6 7-5 6-3.
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