Football: That was the weekend that was

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Rudderless Stevenage in search of new guide

A YEAR ago this week, Stevenage Borough were preparing for an FA Cup third-round tie against Swindon that would thrust them into the national spotlight thanks to the fourth-round draw pairing them with Kenny Dalglish's Newcastle.

As 1999 approaches, however, the mood at the Conference club is somewhat different. Without a manager following the sacking of last year's hero, Paul Fairclough, Borough are clinging to the tails of the leading clubs despite a chronic inability to score goals - they have only 26 in 21 games so far - and various storms raging behind the scenes.

The efforts of caretaker manager Noel Blackwell to bring in players - reportedly being hampered by Fairclough's refusal to speak to him - have been dealt a blow by the resignation of the club's four-man scouting staff.

And now the youth coach Malcolm Allen, the former Wales and Newcastle striker, has threatened to quit, unless he gets the manager's job.

The chairman, Victor Green, has said he was in no rush to make an appointment. However, Allen's is only one of a host of names linked to the job, including the former Tottenham men Gary Mabbutt, Graham Roberts and Chris Waddle.

In the circumstances, Saturday's goalless draw at home to Rushden and Diamonds was a creditable result, keeping Borough in fourth place in the table, 12 points behind the leaders Kettering but with three games in hand.

Stafford make most stunning comeback

IF THERE has been a better comeback this season than the one Stafford Rangers pulled off against Bilston in the Dr Martens League on Saturday, this column would like to hear about it.

Midland Division Rangers made a nightmare start, going 3-0 down in the first 15 minutes, conceding a bizarre own goal after their keeper slipped on the muddy pitch and fell over.

After Rangers had missed a penalty of their own, that remained the score at half-time and even when Stafford pulled a goal back four minutes into the second period, Bilston still appeared well in control.

Indeed, when Stafford grabbed another through Love with 15 minutes left, it seemed a mere consolation. However Rangers not only equalised with seven minutes to go but took the lead 60 seconds later, Eccleston firing in after Barlow had forced the ball over the line moments earlier.

And it was not over even with that flurry of scoring. In the last four minutes, Mitchell and Eccleston added two more goals to turn the 3-0 deficit into a 6-3 win.

Having recovered from 3-0 and 4-3 down to defeat Dover 5-4 in the Conference the week before, Doncaster Rovers must have believed their comeback could not be topped. But Rovers were level with 14 minutes to go, whereas Rangers still trailed with just seven remaining.

KEY NUMBERS

7

The club-record run of consecutive clean sheets Sunderland failed to equal at Tranmere. The corresponding fixture last season deprived them of a record-equalling 18-match unbeaten streak.

400

The number of career appearances clocked up by Aston Villa wing-back Alan Wright with Saturday's appearance against his former club Blackburn.

I TOLD YOU SO

"We'll give it our best shot and hopefully we can finally win a match."

Nottingham Forest's captain Steve Chettle, before their 3-0 loss at Old Trafford made 16 games without a win for his side.

Premiership Team Of The Week

KEITH GILLESPIE

Blackburn Rovers

GIANFRANCO ZOLA

Chelsea

JONATHAN WOODGATE

Leeds United

JASON EUELL

Wimbledon

JOHN ALOISI

Coventry City

GUSTAVO POYET

Chelsea

HORATIO CARBONARI

Derby County

MICHAEL OAKES

Aston villa

KEVIN GALLACHER

Blackburn Rovers

LEE BOWYER

Leeds United

STEVE BOULD

Arsenal

Manager of the weekend: David O'Leary - not only organised the stifling of Alan Shearer and Duncan Ferguson but gave Leeds licence to attack, too.

Performance of the weekend: Liverpool - the first visitors to win at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium for 14 months.

Missing... making it... and mistaken

John Oster

Everton

The 20-year-old midfielder, a pounds 1.5m signing from Grimsby in July 1997, made more first-team starts than any Everton player with 35 appearances last season, yet has been restricted to four this year, and only two of those in the Premiership. He clearly does not have a place in Walter Smith's plans and can expect to be shipped out as the Goodison wage bill in cut.

James Beattie

Southampton

Some doubted Dave Jones' wisdom in paying pounds 1m for a 20 year old with a handful of senior games but after moving from Blackburn in the summer the young striker has rapidly settled in at The Dell and has impressed the Southampton manager enough to now command a regular first-team spot.

Lennie Bennett

For such a respected figure as the Scotland and Coventry captain to be likened to an English comedian might be considered the worst insult of all. Unfortunately for Gary, however, there is an unmistakable similarity...

Gary McAllister

RUMOURS

Schmeichel offered pounds 1m-a-year by Danes

PETER SCHMEICHEL'S Old Trafford career could end ahead of his proposed end-of-season retirement date. According to The People, the Danish goalkeeper's form is worrying Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson as he plans his campaign to win the European Cup. He is anxious to land a replacement as soon as possible. Meanwhile, The People says Brondby are ready to offer Schmeichel a pounds 1m-a-year player-director package to tempt him home before the Danish season starts in March.

The News of the World reports that West Ham manager Harry Redknapp has resigned himself to losing defender Rio Ferdinand but wants to maximise his value by auctioning him to the highest bidder. Offers above pounds 15m are invited. Meanwhile, Leicester City plan to put another potential strain on Redknapp's relationship with West Ham chief executive Peter Storrie by offering pounds 5m for striker John Hartson, according to The People. Storrie sparked a row when he sold Andrew Impey to Leicester behind Redknapp's back.

The News of the World believes Internazionale want to bring back Paul Ince and sign Jamie Redknapp, too, in a package worth pounds 10m to Liverpool.

The Mail on Sunday says Kenny Dalglish will offer Newcastle at least pounds 15m for Alan Shearer if he succeeds in his attempt to take over at Celtic.

The Express says Paul Warhurst will move back north in an pounds 800,000 deal after impressing Colin Todd during a loan spell from Crystal Palace at Bolton.

Roy Keane's decision to take his time over signing a lucrative contract with Manchester United stems from fresh rumours linking United with the Frenchman Zinedine Zidane, reports the News of the World.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Today: The English game's peculiar taste for festive self-torture means another full programme of Premiership and Nationwide matches, accompanied by the usual seasonal assortment of kick-off times. Thankfully, all bar Leicester against Blackburn (7.45) in the top flight begin at 3pm. Division One leaders Sunderland are at home to bottom-placed Crewe, while Wolves will face a new crisis if they fail against Ipswich. Manchester City against Stoke in Division Two will recall better times for both clubs.

Tomorrow: More Premiership action, featuring Leeds against Wimbledon and the second episode in the Chelsea-Manchester United festive mini-series, with the action switching to Stamford Bridge. Elsewhere, Watford attempt to maintain their push for the Premiership at Norwich.

Wednesday: Scottish Premier League action: Rangers visit Dundee United.

Friday: Will second-placed Kilmarnock protest to the Scottish Premier League about being forced to travel to Motherwell on New Year's Day?

Saturday: The FA Cup starts for real, with a third round programme featuring Aston Villa against bottom-of-the-Nationwide Hull City, Conference leaders Rushden & Diamonds against Leeds, Chelsea at Oldham and Watford at Tottenham. Upset potential at Bristol City, who face Everton.

Sunday: Three more Cup ties, in which Middlesbrough go to Old Trafford, Liverpool to seasoned giant-killers Port Vale, while Sheffield Wednesday take on Norwich.

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