The sports columnist is a professional hostage to fortune. Predict great things from team A, and see them eclipsed by team B. Exult in the promise of player C, and watch him slide into obscurity, overtaken by player D.
I learnt this lesson the hard way, robustly writing in August 2007 that, such was the dreary dominance of football's Big Four, as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool then were, I would conduct a naked conga through Soho Square if none of them reached the last four of that season's FA Cup. Portsmouth, West Bromwich Albion, Cardiff City and Barnsley duly contested the 2007-08 FA Cup semi-finals, a quartet that absolutely nobody could have predicted, although no one else put their dignity on the line quite as I did. I can tell you that it's cold in Soho Square, without any clothes on, at 4am.
The one enduring certainty is that sport has a way of confounding the expectations of even the best-informed observers, which I suppose is why we all love it so, and why bookmakers prosper. Conversely, when sport does obligingly meet our expectations, sports columnists in particular like to remind folk of their prescience. After all, credibility, in our game, is almost as important as readability.
So, while it might be a little early to sound the death knell for Gérard Houllier's career as Aston Villa manager, and while I might yet be embarrassed to have said I told you so, I look back now to what I wrote on this page on 11 September last year, and reckon that I got it right. "It could be," I asserted, "that [Villa owner, Randy] Lerner and his splendidly named sidekick, General Charles C Krulak, will prove to have pulled a masterstroke by bringing Houllier back into top-flight management. But I doubt it, somehow. And it seems to me both a tremendous shame and, less forgivably, a mistake, not to have appointed a young, upwardly mobile British manager, full of ideas and zeal and promise. That strategy can backfire, of course, as it did with Paul Ince at Blackburn Rovers. But it can also reap the kind of dividends that I just don't see Houllier delivering."
Maybe he still will. However, there are already rumours that Rafa Benitez will succeed him. Someone should probably remind Lerner, a sophisticated fellow by all accounts, of the words Oscar Wilde gave to Lady Bracknell, that to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. So it might just be with appointing foreign managers whose finest days are behind them, and overlooking the claims of the best and brightest of British.
And speaking of the best of British, let me switch sports and make myself a hostage to fortune again. Tonight, at York Hall in Bethnal Green, 26-year-old Mancunian boxer John Murray defends his European lightweight title against a tough, ambitious little Spaniard, Karim El Ouzaghari. Murray has just switched to Frank Warren's camp, where they are touting him as the best British boxer we've never heard of, and to be sure there are no others who can match his formidable record of 30-0.
I haven't seen Murray fight, but I'm told that he's an all-action operator, not unlike Ricky Hatton in his pomp. I'm also told that Warren intends to get him a crack at a world title this year, possibly against one of the top-drawer Mexicans in the division. Whatever, I predict that Murray's relative anonymity will soon be a thing of the past. Remember, you read it here. Unless it doesn't happen, in which case you read it somewhere else.
When we deny fans' right to scream and shout, game will die
At north Liverpool Community Justice Centre last week, a 57-year-old Everton fan called David Sibson pleaded guilty to "racially aggravated threatening behaviour" during Everton's match against Stoke City earlier this season.
A season ticket-holder at Goodison Park for 30 years, with no previous convictions, he was fined £300 and banned from attending football matches until 2014. His crime, according to the Liverpool Echo, was to call Louis Saha, presumably rather loudly, "a fucking useless lazy French bastard". This was uncomfortably close to something Ron Atkinson more famously said in another context about Marcel Desailly, with the significant difference that there was no reference in Mr Sibson's harangue to Saha being black.
Now, even as an Evertonian who holds Saha in the highest esteem as a footballer, it's not for me to sit in judgment, either over Mr Sibson, or the judge who imposed the punishment. I happen not to think that the word "French" amounts to racial aggravation, but more than anything, and without knowing Mr Sibson's circumstances, this case reminds of a story the comedian and diehard West Brom fan Frank Skinner once told me. Close to Skinner in the crowd at The Hawthorns some years ago, was a man who relentlessly through the match abused the Albion players, swearing prolifically and at great volume. Eventually, another man nearby could stand it no longer. "Pipe down, mate, will you?" he said. "There are kids in this crowd."
At this, the abusive fan wheeled round, and loudly pointed out, effing every second word, that he worked all week in a factory, taking home very little pay, most of which went to his ungrateful wife and ungracious children, and that his 90 minutes every Saturday watching the Albion was the only chance he got all week to let off steam, so he would continue to do so, thanks very much. "And I thought, 'actually, that's fair enough,'" said Frank Skinner.
Similarly, I'm all for cracking down on anti-social behaviour at football matches, but when we curb the freedom of paying spectators to air or even bellow their opinions, we hack at the roots of the game.