THE BELLS of a Birmingham church will toll throughout tomorrow morning's game at Villa Park and if the home team end up losing this crucial championship match to Chelsea, John Gregory could be excused for thinking that they were tolling for him and his one-time title aspirants. In some ways they will be, because the bells are being rung in protest at the club's decision to play the match on the Sabbath.
Villa have found themselves at the centre of an unholy row because not only has this game been moved, from today until tomorrow (kick-off 11.30am) but also their match against West Ham United, originally planned for Saturday, 3 April, which has been rescheduled for Good Friday. For a club that was formed by worshippers of Aston's Methodist Wesley Chapel, back in 1874, it does show a complete disregard for origins.
The real culprit, though, is that other supreme being, Sky Television and its programme controllers, who were responsible for both matches being switched. The decision has incensed local churches and residents and as a result the bells of Aston Parish church will ring out in protest from 10am to 1pm tomorrow. Keith Sinclair, of Aston Churches Together, branded the move as grossly insensitive and said it represented a "loss of roots" by Villa. "Sky's decision to reschedule the match on a Sunday morning cut across the main worship services of eight local churches in the Aston area as well as many further afield," he said.
"Over a thousand people will be hindered from attending their church and some will not be able to make it at all. There are members of our congregations who support the Villa and Chelsea. They're prevented from attending a key fixture in the season because they want to worship God first.
"We are also very concerned about the proposed match on Good Friday, especially as we were told last year that no games would be held on Fridays. Sky's concern is only for ratings, not the community and the fans. Christians are being encouraged to put soccer before the worship of God."
Steve Stride, the Villa secretary, said that the club was bound by the FA Premiership agreement with Sky over televised games. "Choice and date of matches is entirely within the control of Sky and as such Aston Villa has no direct influence on the choice of fixtures or kick-off times."
A Sky spokesperson said: "All our live games are shown only in conjunction with with the Premiership and the clubs involved. I would also point that this isn't the first time we've shown live football on Good Friday. Nor is it the only sporting event on this particular day."
When it comes to realising their hopes for this season, it would appear that Villa can forget all about divine intervention.
DEPRESSING THOUGH it must have been for him to have to pick the ball out of the net three more times last Saturday at Pride Park, David James may be relieved to hear that there is another Liverpool goalkeeper, still playing in the Premiership today, who was once on the wrong end of a much heavier defeat at Derby. When Ray Clemence was forced to pull out of the corresponding fixture 21 years ago this month because of a damaged tendon in his right shoulder (after clocking up 333 consecutive appearances - 17 short of the British record), his place was taken by a 20-year-old debutant by the name of Steve Ogrizovic, who was promptly beaten four times. After that he made only three more league appearances for the Merseysiders. But "Oggy", who has gone on to play some five hundred league games for Coventry, was not held responsible by the then Liverpool manager, Bob Paisley, who said: "I felt sorry for the lad. None of it was his fault and long before the end things had got so bad that he hardly had any cover." And we thought lax defending was a new Liverpool phenomena.
GARETH FARRELLY, the man who kept Everton in the Premiership last season with his goal on the final day against Coventry, may not have much to say for himself on the pitch these days, but off it he is worth listening to. "Oh, I've fallen off my chair, Brian," are words that you will never hear from the lips of the articulate Irishman, who in lamenting that he had appeared in the first team for a total of only 13 minutes this season, said the other day: "I feel I have been cryogenically frozen for a year. Once I am defrosted I will be alright again!"
CURTAINS IT may have been for Howard Wilkinson's career as England coach with that comprehensive defeat to France, but the next time the drapes are drawn to on a Wilkinson venture it could be with rather greater success. In choosing curtains for their Sheffield home, Wilkinson's wife, Sam, struck up a friendship with interior designer Caroline Roberts which led to the FA technical director becoming one of 27 investors - at pounds 25,000 a time - in a venture capital company called Extramini which is financing the new Manchester United hotel at Old Trafford.
WHILE JOHN TOSHACK has spoken of the uniqueness of Real Madrid, where he has returned for a second spell as coach at the Bernabeu, an old adversary of his who was briefly coach of Real's rivals, Atletico, Colin Addison, somehow sees similarities between the Vicente Calderon club and Scarborough, where he now manages. "The systems, the tactics, the attitude, the application... they're all the same whether you're at Atletico or Scarborough," he said. And the difference? "About 48,000 spectators," he added.
Mascot on the mat
Club: Port Vale.
Appearance: A 6ft black and white Staffordshire Terrier.
Crime sheet: Most of Boomer's misdemeanours fall within the normal range you'd expect of an overgrown mutt - relieving himself on the corner flag, digging divots from the pitch as he pretends to bury bones, and stealing the cheerleaders' pom-poms. The horny hound, however, has also been known to make amorous advances on the cheerleaders and has been sent off for questioning the parentage of a steward. Perhaps most worrying of all is Boomer's insistence on dining on hippo meat before a match and telling everyone how delicious the delicacy is. Vale's near neighbours and arch rivals, Stoke, have a mascot, which happens to be a hippo, and such behaviour is surely not PC.
In mitigation, Your Honour: Firstly, Boomer is not Mr Blobby (the ex- mascot, dropped "because he had a cheap outfit and it didn't look good," according to a club spokesman). Anything is better than Mr Blobby. Secondly, Boomer is a favourite with the fans, not just at home, but on his travels too. "Sunderland especially seem to love Boomer," the spokesman said. "He grows in stature all the time."
Writer and broadcaster
"I go to the Arsenal because they're the nearest to my home. I take my son and we go to all the League games. I discovered the club when Dennis Compton played for them back in the 40s. One of the big moments for me was the Cup-Winners' Cup win against Parma in 1994 - a fantastic night. I was brought up in Carlisle but I've always had an appreciation for the Arsenal because they bring on and develop players. Seeing Tony Adams develop into one of the great captains has given me lots of enjoyment. Bergkamp is like a surgeon and Vieira and Petit have just blossomed. But following a team regularly is different from watching them occasionally. You get to see their moods and temperament."
As you were
OH WHAT a fickle mistress football can be. Just a peek at the picture above, of Nottingham Forest's favourite ex-Barry Manilow-a-like Trevor Francis, kissing the European Cup after the 1979 win against Malmo, is enough to bring tears to any football fan's eyes. First of all, it is hardly credible today - in these money-grabbing millionaire days of the game - that in 1979 Francis became the first man in Britain to have commanded a transfer fee of pounds 1m and people were shocked. Second, it is equally hard to credit that Forest should have plummetted from those heady Kings-of-Europe days to being whipping boys of England. And last, it is sad to reflect that once twice since 1979 have English sides had their hands on the Cup (Forest again the following year and Aston Villa in 1982).
The price is right
LAST SATURDAY: "The Sweeper has amnesia. He's forgotten how to lose." Judging by last week's grief, said memory lapse was only temporary. That's what you get for showing off. Never mind, our Euro quintet - Parma, Marseilles, Manchester United, Dynamo Kiev and Lazio - are through to the semi-finals and we've got Tottenham and Arsenal to look forward to in the FA Cup. We're lowering our sights in the staking department this weekend when: Arsenal can gun down Coventry; Southampton can draw with Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn can draw with Wimbledon and Manchester United should bury Everton. Tomorrow, Aston Villa should hold Chelsea to a draw, Leicester can hold Tottenham to a draw in 90 minutes in the Worthington Cup final while Juventus should slay Roma in Turin.
n LIBERO WAGER
(Four pounds 2 trebles with Stanley): Arsenal to beat Coventry (30-100); Southampton to draw with Sheffield Wednesday (12-5); Blackburn to draw with Wimbledon (12-5); Manchester United to beat Everton (2-7).
n SUNDAY SKY GAME
Aston Villa v Chelsea
Draw (pounds 2, 9-4, generally).
n WORTHINGTON CUP FINAL
Leicester v Tottenham
Draw (pounds 2, 9-4, William Hill).
n SUNDAY C4 ITALIAN JOB
Juventus v Roma
Juventus (pounds 2, 8-11, Ladbrokes).
ORIGINAL BANK: pounds 100.
CURRENT KITTY: pounds 177.06!
TODAY'S BETS: pounds 15.26 (inc. tax).
THE SWEEPER'S CHASTENED CHOICES
Found on the Web: The official Juventus page
IF MANCHESTER UNITED want to find out more about their European Cup semi- final opponents, they should probably avoid going to this site. Looking at the news page after yesterday morning's Euro draw, there was only one item, which read, in its entirety: "Thursday, February 25th. Today, after the usual training, Zinedine Zidane has said that he will sing a song for UNICEF." We all know the Italians give little away, but this a verging on the surreal. One assumes that the site will carry more material of direct relevance to the Man Utd game nearer to the first leg on 7 April. On the rest of the site (which is bilingual, and more extensive in the Italian section) you can find all the usual player details, archive information, photos, merchandise, as well as details about how to get your own Juve credit card.
Seen but not bought
LEICESTER CITY'S merchandise department has done a sterling job in churning out a staggering 32 types of souvenir (scarves, hats, flags, shirts, foam hands et al) for tomorrow's Worthington Cup final against Spurs. It's a tough choice, but who could resist a LCFC pom-pom for pounds 2.99 (or pounds 5.98 the pair)?
They're not all Dennis Bergkamp
legionnaires No 31
CYRILLE L'HELGOUALCH: The 27-year-old French midfielder has brought nothing but luck to Third Division Mansfield since he was first given a game against Shrewsbury in December, a match The Stags won 1-0. Before that he was on trial at Walsall (who found no permanent place for him) and after that he tried his luck in Germany (ditto). Thus Cyrille accepted the invitation to return to Nottinghamshire, where he made a substitute appearance in the 0-0 draw with Hull on 2 March, and made his full league debut against Rochdale last week, when he scored an early goal in the 3-1 victory. On a non-contract basis until the end of the season, the Frenchman used to excel at beach football and represented his country in tournaments on the sandy stuff a few years. "He's talented and technically gifted," a Mansfield spokesman said. "And a lucky mascot."Reuse content