Football: Happiness amid the humbug

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The Independent Online
BOXING DAY afternoon at Highfield Road struck a festive note with its elements of pantomime but, for much of the time, it was as cheerless as the weather. Coventry, a side low on self-belief, met Tottenham, who are slowly rebuilding theirs. The consequence was a 1-1 draw which even George Graham described as "unattractive", and he should know.

Much of the football illustrated the great confidence trick which the Premiership has become. The stands were full, the players drawn from across the globe, national and international media filled the press box. But the Best League in the World? Bah, humbug. The most competitive, maybe, but the mutual commitment was unable to disguise the poor passing and touch, the lack of imagination and poise that characterises so many Premiership games.

Watching this after reading, in this paper's Saturday edition, an article about the subjugation of modern sport to commercial interests, and another about goal-laden Boxing Days of yore, it was not hard to view the ghosts of football past more fondly than those of present or future. But, an hour after the match, the spirit was lifted by conversations with two of Saturday's protagonists, Ian Walker and John Aloisi.

Neither players are immune to the head-turning temptations of the modern game. Walker's suit, a thick canary-yellow pinstripe on charcoal black, was the sort that gives contemporary footballers a reputation for having more money than sense. Aloisi, meanwhile, priced himself dearly enough when leaving Portsmouth to dissuade Charlton from even meeting him to discuss a possible transfer.

Yet both drew pleasure beyond Saturday's obvious rewards of a useful point and associated bonus monies. For Walker his impressive performance, highlighted by a wondrous save from Steve Froggatt, suggested there was light at the end of a dark tunnel which has seen him suffer family bereavement, illness and unemployment, a loss of his England squad and Tottenham first- team place, and worrying injury.

For Aloisi, who scored an excellent first Premiership goal just 17 minutes after coming on as a substitute, the afternoon was one of unbridled joy at such a promising start to his Coventry career.

The Australian was "stolen" from financially stricken Portsmouth for pounds 650,000, a ridiculous fee for a 22-year-old with experience in Belgium and Italy but one, said Gordon Strachan, which counterbalanced the club's loss on Dion Dublin's sale. As if to emphasise the modern dog-eat-dog ethos, Strachan spoke of being "a vulture", adding: "That's the football business."

Aloisi spoke sympathetically of Pompey's plight but, like his new manager, had to deal in realities, which meant Coventry's own struggles after six matches without a win and Aloisi's step up in class.

He said: "Goals are goals at any level and if you get a chance you put it away, but there won't be so many chances at this level and no striker takes them all. It's not going to be easy and I'll need time to settle, but it is important I continue to believe in my ability."

Walker also dwelt on the subject of confidence. "It has been a depressing time and I'll be glad to see the back of 1998," he said. As well as being dropped and injured Walker's mother died, his wife had a difficult childbirth and his father was sacked by Norwich.

He added: "You try not to let things affect you but it is difficult for anyone to live through it all and keep their mind on work. Maybe having a break from the team did me good. You can't go through all that and not come out a stronger person. I'm pleased with the way things are going now and it's up to me to keep working hard. There's always someone after your place and I've still got a lot to learn but I should be coming into my prime now."

The 27 year old's save from Froggatt shortly before the hour looked to be enough to ensure Sol Campbell's goal, poked in from Darren Anderton's corner, would be a winner. This had followed the panto opening in which Magnus Hedman, Coventry's goalkeeper, was hurt in the warm-up, a linesmen was carried off injured after 12 minutes and team-mates Gary McAllister and Darren Huckerby laid each other out in a mid-pitch collision after 15.

Spurs' industry, epitomised by Anderton (who clearly does not want to be banished to the wing when Steffen Freund arrives), looked to be enough. Then Aloisi was introduced and soon took a pass from George Boateng, turned two defenders and sent a fierce drive past Walker.

Spurs' response was to bring on Stephen Clemence, the son of the former England goalkeeper Ray. This provided a historical footnote. Four minutes earlier Coventry had summoned Sam Shilton, son of Peter, from the bench. Clemence senior, who attended on England scouting duty and would have noted Walker's form, confirmed it was the first time his son and that of his great rival had been in opposition. "Who would have believed back then that they would do so as midfielders," he said.

After the rejuvenation felt by Walker, and a dream realised for Aloisi, this tale of the unexpected showed there was substance and interest to Saturday's game. Like the silver in the Christmas pudding, you just had to look hard to find it.

Goals: Campbell (19) 0-1; Aloisi (82) 1-1.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Ogrizovic; Nilsson, Williams (Breen, 61), Shaw, Edworthy (Aloisi, 65); Boateng, Soltvedt, McAllister, Froggatt; Huckerby (Shilton, 78), Whelan. Substitutes not used: Telfer, Kirkland (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Young, Campbell, Sinton; Fox, Anderton, Nielsen, Ginola (Clemence, 82); Armstrong, Ferdinand (Iversen, 88). Substitutes not used: Calderwood, Edinburgh, Baardsen (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy). Bookings: Coventry: Boateng, Froggatt; Tottenham: Sinton.

Man of the match: Anderton.

Attendance: 23,098.