THAT WAS THE WEEKEND THAT WAS

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The Independent Online
Time to ration

Saturdays off

With all respect to the worthy players of the Nationwide League, the First Division of which is not a bad contest at all this season, a weekend without a Premiership programme is like a crumpet without butter. That applies at any stage of the season, but especially just one week into a new campaign.

Given that a bleat from Alex Ferguson about fixture congestion is now as reliable an indicator of the arrival of spring as new-born lambs and the first cuckoo, serious doubts over the wisdom of last Saturday's cancellation must be expressed.

For the sake of Glenn Hoddle, blank Saturdays before critical England matches have to be regarded as a necessary evil. But for the action to grind to a halt without an England game in sight - and with the season barely out of first gear - seems suspiciously like complete madness.

Admittedly, there are 88 non-English players from Premiership clubs currently on duty with their respective national squads. But not all of those are regular first-team players. Take Arsenal, whose one absentee, which is remarkable given the 12-strong foreign legion at Highbury, is the fringe Portuguese under-21 player Luis Boa Morte.

And is there not an argument that the bigger clubs should be prepared to accept the consequences when they decide to invest heavily in overseas stars?

That might be harsh on Ferguson, missing six of his first-team squad, and Newcastle, deprived of five, whose foreign policy has done much to raise the standard in the Premiership, after all.

But surely there is scope for a compromise in fixture planning, so that some Premiership matches at least could have taken place this weekend and the inevitable end-of-season pile-up eased.

Allow clubs with five or more (or possibly four or more) players absent, for example, to take the day off, but insist that the others carry on as normal. Had such a rule applied on Saturday, 12 (or even 14) Premiership teams could have played.

Promotion? Forest

put their shirts on it

Undaunted by the unfortunate events of last May - to be more specific, relegation from the Premiership - the new regime at Nottingham Forest are clearly determined to make their spring take-over at the City Ground work to profitable advantage.

Having increased season ticket prices despite the inferior product being offered, Forest have welcomed the new season by unveiling not one but three new strips for supporters to sport in the stands and for children to badger their parents for.

The first-choice red strip remains fundamentally unchanged, except that the new sponsor's name on the front - Pinnacle having replaced Labatts - renders the old version obsolete.

However, there are two new away outfits. And while binning - in favour of white - the hideous yellow affair that so embarrassed travelling fans is to be applauded, was it really necessary to introduce an all-blue strip as well?

"There will be four or five times this season when the opposition will be wearing predominately red and white," a club spokesman said this week, defensively.

Fair enough. It just happens, however, that the blue version is by far the most stylish of the three. Indeed, scores of fans rang the City Ground last week after the strip made its debut in the 8-0 thrashing of Doncaster Rovers in the Coca-Cola Cup.

Replica versions will be on sale and - surprise, surprise - there are limited supplies, for which orders will be taken next month. "It looks like being very popular," the spokesman added happily.

Rumours...

The News of the World will have had Nottingham Forest fans spluttering over their cornflakes with the suggestion that England's Steve Stone as well as disaffected Welsh striker Dean Saunders could leave the City Ground, with Arsenal planning to swoop for Stone and Everton poised to offer out- of-favour Saunders a lifeline... the People, meanwhile, say Arsenal have received inquiries from Leeds and Middlesbrough about Ian Wright, with Boro ready to reduce the pounds 7.5m price tag on Fabrizio Ravanelli in the hope of rekindling Liverpool's interest in the Italian striker... Newcastle's interest in old and new talent from Merseyside now extends to Steve McManaman, with the News of the World predicting that Kenny Dalglish will be in touch with Roy Evans before this week's Champions' League transfer deadline, at the same time attempting to land Roma's Abel Balbo... Crystal Palace, put off Gianluca Vialli by Chelsea's pounds 1m price, according to the Sunday Mirror, have switched attention instead to Celtic's Jorge Cadete (News of the World) and are poised with a pounds 3m bid. The same paper reckons Celtic are keen on taking Karel Poborsky from Manchester United... The Mirror reckons Spain's Real Madrid have offered pounds 4m for Tottenham's England defender Sol Campbell.

Missing person

Andrea Silenzi

(Nottingham Forest)

Having spent much of last season on loan to Serie B side Venezia, Frank Clark's pounds 1.8m Italian misfit striker was told bluntly not to come back by new Forest boss Dave Bassett when the deal expired in the summer. Forest still hold Silenzi's registration but he will ply his trade this season, initially at least, for Graeme Souness's Torino. In two seasons he has played just 12 games for Forest.

Watch out for...

Wayne Corden (Port Vale)

After selling one wide player, Steve Guppy, for

pounds 850,000 to Leicester City and turning down pounds 1.5m from Birmingham for another, Vale manager John Rudge has unveiled another in this left-side 21-year-old from Leek, who is already attracting Premiership scouts.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

Having added a stubbly goatee to his fuzzy ginger hair, Harry Redknapp's animated ex-Manchester City midfielder seems to be planning an alternative career opposite children's favourite, Shaggy from Scooby Doo, should life in the Premiership lose its allure.

NOISES OFF...

Paul was brilliant. Youngsters coming here are going to get their chance. If they're good enough, they can go all the way to the first team.

Alan Curbishley, Charlton manager, after 16-year-old Paul Konchesky became the club's youngest-ever player, in the 3-2 win over Oxford.

I have lived all my life for a day like this.

Lee Hughes, West Bromwich's second-half substitute who scored two goals in the last five minutes in the 3-2 win at Crewe Alexandra.

They gave us a lot of support but they've got to be patient.

Mark Hateley, Hull City player-manager, on his side's fans following the 3-0 home defeat to Notts County.

The performance was not a let-down and if some people see it that way then I can't believe it. We played in 90 degrees heat, played well, and passed the ball around well. I consider that a major result.

Mark McGhee, Wolverhampton manager, after his side's goalless draw at home to Sheffield United.

I have only just started the job at Chelsea. Nothing else interests me at this time.

Ruud Gullit, Chelsea manager, on reports that the Netherlands are grooming him to take over as national coach.

Julian will have to change the way he trains. The knee has got to be carefully managed. He has virtually no cartilage left.

John Green, West Ham physiotherapist, on Julian Dicks.

I don't mind the record going and neither would Cliff. But I wish it was to someone else because I don't really have a high opinion of Ian Wright.

Joan Bastin, widow of Cliff Bastin, whose Arsenal goalscoring record is set to fall to Wright.

THE ELEVEN

The First Division's 11 costliest summer signings

Paul Merson (Middlesbro) pounds 4.5m

Lee Bradbury (Man City) pounds 3m

Mike Sheron (QPR) pounds 2.75m

Lee Clark (Sunderland) pounds 2.5m

Andy Johnson (N Forest) pounds 2.2m

Alan Rogers (Nottm Forest) pounds 2m

Brian Deane (Sheff Utd) pounds 1.5m

Tony Vaughan (Man City) pounds 1.3m

Kevin Kilbane (WBA) pounds 1.25m

Iwan Roberts (Norwich) pounds 1m

Vassilis Borbokis (Sheff Utd) pounds 0.9m

Baggio has the snip

The most famous ponytail in world football has been given the chop.

Roberto Baggio turned up for training this weekend with his hair cropped short, his trademark style a thing of the past.

The ponytail, which made its debut seven years ago, lies quietly in a drawer in Baggio's house in Caldogno, northern Italy.

"I was tired of having long hair," the former Italian international striker told reporters after training with his new club Bologna. "My family agreed and my wife Andreina gave it the final snip."

"Roberto Baggio brings an era to a close," said Gazzetta dello Sport in a front page headline yesterday. "We are talking about a new epoch," La Repubblica said.

"This is something much bigger than when Ruud Gullit thinned out his dreadlocks... the ponytail became a part of literature," the paper gushed. Baggio, who grew it after converting to Buddhism in the late 1980s, vowed to remain crop-headed for the rest of his career.

Good boys

THE FIRST DIVISION'S

LEADING SCORERS

David Kelly (Sunderland)

2 League 1 Coca-Cola Cup

Geoff Thomas

(Nottm Forest)

2 League 1 Coca-Cola Cup

Pierre van Hooijdonk

(Nottm Forest)

1 League 2 Coca-Cola Cup

and bad boys

THE SEASON'S RED AND YELLOW CARDS

1 Oxford

Phil Whelan and Joey Beau- champ booked on Saturday

2 Port Vale

Three yellows for last season's best behaved side

3 Charlton

Cautions on Saturday for Steves, Jones and Brown

4 Reading

Second yellow of the season for James Lambert

NATIONWIDE TEAM OF THE WEEK

Mike Stowell

WOLVES

Robbie Pethick

PORTSMOUTH

David Holdsworth

SHEFFIELD UTD

Paul McGrath

SHEFFIELD UTD

Dean West

BURY

Sean Flynn

WBA

Stuart Balmer

CHARLTON

Scott Leitch

SWINDON

Paul Hall

PORTSMOUTH

Lee Hughes

WBA

Matthias Svensson

PORTSMOUTH

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