Football: Blondeau ambition sours atmosphere at Hillsborough

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The Independent Online
David Pleat received an ill-timed and damning broadside from one of his summer signings to increase the pressure on his regime at Sheffield Wednesday.

Phil Shaw considers Pleat's chances for redemption against Everton today and looks forward to another decisive weekend in the Premiership, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

French football makes different physical demands from the game across the Channel, but kicking a man when he is down is usually a faux pas in any language. By going public with criticism of David Pleat's regime on the eve of a match that could decide his future as manager of Sheffield Wednesday, Patrick Blondeau showed that he thought otherwise.

Wednesday today receive Everton, historically their bogey team, with Pleat's job looking none too secure following a 5-2 defeat by Derby in their last Premiership home game and the Coca-Cola Cup exit against Grimsby. Remarks attributed to Blondeau, a full-back who arrived from Monaco for pounds 1.8m during the summer, deepened the crisis surrounding Hillsborough.

In an interview with L'Equipe, the French international was quoted as expressing "regret" at choosing a club in a "dark, industrial city" and a team whose style he could not fathom. Professing ignorance about Sheffield and the English game, he explained that he thought he was joining the new Arsenal or Chelsea.

"I wondered if suddenly I'd become a bad player," said Blondeau. "Tactically, nothing made sense. If it continues, I'll lose all my football skills."

Perhaps more damningly, he bemoaned a lack of discipline at Hillsborough. "We work a lot less in training than in France, which is not very professional. Under [Jean] Tigana at Monaco, if we were told to arrive at 8am, we didn't come in at 8.05. Here you can arrive at 8.30 and no one says anything."

Last night, however, Wednesday issued a statement claiming Blondeau was misquoted and the article "turned on his head to discredit Wednesday and its staff".

In mitigation of Pleat, he has been without the spine of his side and can point to the success of Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio. Carbone has spoken of how highly he rates Pleat and his coach, Peter Shreeves, as strategists, yet the bottom line could be reached if Wednesday fail again.

Blondeau is suspended today, but several compatriots continue to thrive in the British bearpit, notably another ex-Monaco man, Arsene Wenger, though even his progress is not without pitfalls.

Like a Faustian pact in reverse, Arsenal have liberated themselves from the darker forces that drove the George Graham era, only to find there is a price to pay for regaining their soul. "One-nil to Arsenal" became an ironic anthem; now, giving hope to Barnsley today, even 2-0 is often insufficient to finish off inferior opposition.

PAOK Saonika and Everton are the latest sides to benefit from this lack of ruthlessness. The trait was evident when they let a lead slip to a Leeds team bereft of goals under Graham. And it resurfaced in the 3-3 draw at Leicester after Arsenal led 2-0 with six minutes left.

One problem, acknowledged by Wenger, is that the creative onus falls almost exclusively on Dennis Bergkamp. So "all" that opponents need do is stifle the Dutchman or ensure the game is staged somewhere that necessitates flying. Unfortunately for Barnsley, contesting points with the Gunners for the first time in 82 years, this one is at Highbury.

Just as the Yorkshire side may feel the backlash from Arsenal's Greek travesty, Crystal Palace would be ill-advised to place too much faith in Manchester United's being drained by the triumph over Juventus. United at last appear to be learning how to handle the pressures of the Champions' League, one of which is the anticlimactic return to domestic fare. In fact, Palace had to endure extra time in midweek, not to mention a confidence- sapping failure to overcome a Hull side lying second from the foot of the Third Division.

The last time they met United, Eric Cantona went over the top, in every sense. After the blow of losing his successor as captain, Roy Keane, to another act of folly, Alex Ferguson might settle for an injury-free, controversy- less afternoon - as long as it produces three points.

Two more of the successful European combatants tangle tomorrow, when Chelsea will be striving to avenge a 5-1 defeat at Liverpool a year ago and the home team to atone for the 4-2 FA Cup capitulation which signalled the beginning of the end for John Barnes.

Newcastle, with whom Barnes is enjoying an Indian summer, may suffer more from the after-effects of Continental action. Having slogged back from Ukraine they tackle Spurs, who lost 7-1 on their last visit.

Gerry Francis can approach the match with less trepidation now that Kenny Dalglish is the one with hardly a fit striker to his name. Meanwhile, those ghouls who placed bets on the first Premiership manager to part company with his club will have noted that Francis and Pleat are scheduled to do battle in the next round of games.

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