That was the weekend that was

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Cautionary tale for Gascoigne

The Hogmanay spirit was certainly conspicuous by its absence at Ibrox on Saturday, or at least in as much as is displayed towards Englishmen. Paul Gascoigne has only had himself to blame for getting into trouble with the authorities since his arrival north of the border, but his latest booking, in Rangers' 7-0 thrashing of Hibernian, smacked of unseasonal mean spiritedness on the part of Troon referee Dougie Smith.

Sadly, Smith failed to see the joke when, after dropping his yellow card, Gazza, with a typical impish sense of fun, brandished it at the official before returning it to him. Whereupon the fastidious Smith promptly booked the England midfielder, presumably for bringing a little light relief to the day, for Hibs supporters if no one else.

After the game, Rangers officials approached Smith, who booked seven players in all, to ask him whether he had mislaid his sense of humour as well as, temporarily, his yellow card. But Smith refused to change his mind and the booking stands.

Dissent has been an ongoing problem for Gascoigne since signing from Lazio in the summer, but it seems that even when he keeps his mouth shut he cannot win. But he had the last laugh on Saturday, scoring with a superb solo effort.

Luckless Buckley is on to a winner

Of all Saturday's postponements, none was probably more welcomed than stricken West Bromwich Albion's trip to Barnsley, which at least spared the Baggies a 12th consecutive defeat as the curtain fell on 1995.

Manager Alan Buckley confesses to having had "sleepless nights" over Albion's extraordinary 10-week tumble down the First Division table, which has seen them slip from second place on 21 October to 21st this morning. Having begun his Hawthorns tenure by steering Albion to safety last year, Buckley now faces a repeat assignment.

However, whatever factors he curses while pacing the bedroom carpet in the small hours, his own luck presumably is not one of them.

Summoned to the boardroom just before Christmas, he must have feared the worst. Instead, he was greeted by a smiling chairman offering a 12- month extension to his contract, the directors having flown in the face of normal practice by deciding the crisis demanded stability rather than upheaval.

Not a bad reward for presiding over the worst losing sequence in Albion's history... but then Buckley has picked up more than one prize lately - he even won a colour television in the club's Christmas raffle.



'He delivers the kind of crosses he'd like to get on the end of himself. That'll probably be his next trick, after he's got to 200 goals' - Ray Harford on his "Roy of the Rovers" striker.

'These guys make their decisions and then go to their jobs on a Monday morning. Some football managers don't have jobs to go to because of their decisions' - Manager Gerry Francis on referee Peter Jones's refusal to give Spurs a penalty when Jeff Kenna appeared to bring down Chris Armstrong.

'People say we are just a team of battlers, but we are used to not getting any credit. I can't see how anyone can say we did not play well today' - Wimbledon's Joe Kinnear, appraising Highbury derby day success.

'We could sit in the dressing-room until doomsday and still never understand why he did that' - Bolton's joint manger Roy McFarland on goalkeeper Keith Branagan's ill-fated decision to attempt to dribble around Coventry's Noel Whelan in injury time.

'Even the computer doesn't love us' - Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson becoming paranoid over the intensity of their recent fixtures against Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. 'They earn good money, but they don't want to go in where it hurts and that makes my blood boil' - Reading's joint manager Jimmy Quinn pulling no punches in explaining why defenders James Lambert and Keith McPherson were taken off.


Fact and fiction from the Sunday papers

While there is a general consensus that Alex Ferguson is about to open Manchester United's chequebook in a determined bid to regain the title, opinion is divided as to who will be his targets.

According to the Sunday Express, the QPR striker Trevor Sinclair remains at the head of Fergie's wanted list, although Rangers manager Ray Wilkins insists his pounds 10m-rated striker is not for sale. Newcastle are also on the trail.

The Sunday Mirror, however, names Zvonimir Boban, of Milan, as United's New Year quarry, along with Brazilian striker Ronaldo, currently with PSV Eindhoven.

Also in the Express, Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle is said to have infuriated Mark Stein by trying to sell the striker to Sheffield United for pounds 1m while he awaits a hernia operation. The same report suggests new Bramall Lane chief Howard Kendall has his sights on Ian Marshall of Ipswich and Everton's Gary Ablett, although the News of the World and the People reckon he is chasing Manchester City striker Niall Quinn.

Arsenal have renewed their interest in Bolton's Alan Stubbs (Express) while John Hartson may be leaving Highbury for Sheffield Wednesday (Mirror).

Missing person


Among the mysteries shrouding George Graham's final days at Arsenal, the signing of Kiwomya (right) from Ipswich figures prominently. The 26- year-old Huddersfield-born striker cost Arsenal pounds 1.5m after a tribunal valuation. Although he scored the goal that beat Nottingham Forest on the day Graham was sacked, he rarely progressed beyond the substitutes' bench thereafter and has not been selected once by Bruce Rioch.

Red card


Turn back

the clock

With the season only just past half-way, it is reasonable to suppose that there is still everything to play for... or is there?

In fact, recent history suggests a fair proportion of the issues may already be decided.

Take, for example, the divisional titles. Last season, all four eventual champions - Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Carlisle - were in front on 1 January, while of the New Year's Day leaders in 1994, only Crewe in the Third Division failed to stay the distance.

In the last five seasons, 12 of the 20 champions held pole position at the turn of the year. Indeed, the 1 January barometer has not been totally off beam since 1990-91, when Liverpool (Div 1), West Ham (Div 2) and Southend (Div 3) all had to settle for second place and Doncaster Rovers (Div 4) tumbled to 11th.

However, a place in the relegation zone as the old year bows out is not necessarily a harbinger of doom. Since 1991, nine of the 15 top-flight teams facing the drop on 1 January scrambled to safety, the most notable escapologists - until their luck ran out in 1994 - being Sheffield United, who entered '91, '92 and '93 in peril, but each time comfortably stayed up.

Take a bow


Watch out for...


Sometimes hampered by injuries, at other times overshadowed by highly- priced imports, the 22-year-old Sturridge has been slow to make an impact but is making up for lost time. Six of his 11 goals this season have come in the last nine matches, helping Derby climb the First Division and attracting Premiership scouts. Sadly, Saturday's postponement at Watford means he will miss next weekend's FA Cup tie against Leeds through suspension.

reasons why...

There should not be a winter break

1 The country would be denied the annual pleasure of seeing John Barnes playing in gloves (where were the tights on Saturday?).

2 How could we survive Saturday nights in mid-winter without Des, Alan, Gary and Trevor?

3 Winter breaks are for namby-pamby Continentals.

4 After consoling yourself with the thought that at least it would give your team's players a chance to rest for the relegation struggle ahead, you would only discover that they had instead gone on a tour of Japan - during which your best defender would tear a hamstring and your leading scorer would sign a 10-year contract with some club called Shimizu S-Pulse.

5 Bovril tastes better when served at temperatures below minus 10.

6 A fan's season isn't complete without having a story to tell about arriving half an hour late for a match because British Rail has never seen snow before, only to discover that the game had been called off anyway.

7 No more orange balls.

8 No more excuses for the BBC to show that footage of John Motson in a snowstorm.

9 The unbearable thought of living through the first Saturday in January without the third round of the FA Cup.

10 The sports editor wouldn't know what to put on his pages.

Programme notes

No 4: Nottm Forest

Price: pounds 1.50. Pages: 40. Good in parts, with six pages of up-to- date information on opponents Middlesbrough in Saturday's edition. Strong coverage of reserve and youth team progress, but thin elsewhere with too many advertisements.