Football: Irwin in line for FA Cup return to fray

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The Independent Online
Denis Irwin could strengthen the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson's hand even further after the Irish international full-back revealed yesterday that he is ready to make his comeback early in the new year.

United, already six points clear at the top of the Premiership going into today's matches, could welcome back Irwin, who suffered knee ligament damage against Feyenoord in the Champions' League last month, for the FA Cup third-round tie against Chelsea on Sunday in place of Philip Neville, who begins a two-match suspension.

Irwin said yesterday: "I am nearly there now. I am training with the first team and I just need to get back in the swing of things. The Christmas games came a bit too quick for me but we'll have to wait and see how it is. Phil's suspension could help. The way the side has been playing you always wonder whether you will get back in or not."

United travel to Highfield Road today, but the Coventry manager Gordon Strachan has hit out at the need for the Christmas crush of fixtures. Strachan said: "Let's see how hard we can work the players when they're really tired. When it's muddy, let's play as many games as possible. It's easier for the bigger clubs. There's no doubt about that; they've got the squads."

Against West Ham on Boxing Day, Coventry were missing Gary Breen and Paul Williams through suspension, and Gary McAllister, David Burrows and John Salako with injuries. The teenager Sam Shilton was called on for only his second start of the season, while Michael O'Neill made only his third appearance.

Howard Kendall, the Everton manager, is unsure as to whether he will be able to secure the services of the French striker Mickael Madar. The forward returned to the Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna at the start of the week after talks at Goodison and Kendall said yesterday: "I haven't seen my secretary yet - he's been trying to contact the authorities over there."

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has prescribed a trip to the South of France and a course of "water therapy" to repair the club captain Tony Adams' battered body - and rescue his club and international career. Adams, 31, who confessed 18 months ago that he had been fighting alcoholism, will seek a final cure for all his problems by spending a week swimming and exercising in a remedial water tank.

After suffering two years playing through the pain of a damaged knee, ankle and ribs, Adams has been ordered to the Mediterranean coast for a complete rest after his back seized up in training last week.

The Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson said yesterday he was not surprised to see his side's opponents today, Stockport County, pushing for promotion to the Premiership. Robson warned that his Division One leaders that they could expect a difficult match against the side they beat in last season's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final. "Stockport proved last season they have some good players," said Robson. "They have turned over some good teams."

Nottingham Forest, who are second to Boro on goal difference, travel to Manchester City, who lost against Crewe on Boxing Day. Dave Bassett, the Forest manager, warned: "It won't be easy against City. They've got a great record this season against teams from the top of the table."