The FA Cup would be nothing without its traditions. Every third-round weekend the regular old rituals are trotted through: the grainy shots of finals past, the semi-knowing talk of the romance of it all, the hand-wringing about how the luster can best be restored to "the oldest cup competition in the world." The FA Cup is a peculiarly English event, not just because it stretches back to 1871-72 and the prehistory of the game, but because it is something that is never as good as it used to be.
The international break is a time for contemplation and reflection in the domestic leagues. It's a chance for the owners of football clubs to pause and take stock of their season so far. Frankly, that's the last thing that three beleaguered managers at the wrong end of the Premier League need right now. Owen Coyle, Steve Kean and Steve Bruce are all just a couple of bad results away from spending considerably more time with their families.
Harry Redknapp's jibe this week -- pouring scorn on Chelsea's £22 million ($35M) offer for Luka Modric, he noted that "there are people being sold for £20 million who are not fit to lace Luka's boots" -- wasn't exactly thinly veiled. In the preceding week 19-year-old Blackburn defender Phil Jones had been signed by Manchester United for £16.5 million ($26.6M) plus add-ons, with 21-year-old Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson heading to Liverpool for the same figure.
In May 1998, Sunderland lost on penalties to Charlton Athletic in the Championship playoff final. Peter Reid's side had ended the season on 90 points, the highest total not to be promoted automatically, and had three times held the lead in the final only to draw 4-4. It could have been a devastating defeat, the sort that sends a team spinning into gloom, cursing its luck and wondering whether destiny will always be against it. A few minutes after the final whistle, though, the center forward Niall Quinn was interviewed on the pitch. He was magnificently uplifting, acknowledging the setback and calling on everybody connected with the club to use the disappointment as a spur to promotion the following season. Sunderland could have sulked; instead it came out that August bristling with purpose and racked up a record 105 points, beating every other team in the division at least once to win the title by 17 clear points.
Since Sunderland sold Darren Bent to Aston Villa, it has lost three of the four games it has played. The conclusion many have drawn is that Sunderland is "missing" him. This is the sad truth of punditry about sides outside the top five or six in the league; that it looks only at the surface, never beneath. What is particularly worrying is that that shallowness of analysis seems to extend even to the England manager.
This is an age in which nobody is allowed to make a mistake. Nobody learns on the job any more. A manager loses a handful of games, and he's out. There's no sense that he might learn from his errors, put things right and come back stronger in the future, or at least not at the same club. Everything must be instant.
So Carlo Ancelotti is staying at Chelsea, for now at least, and with the club sitting top of the Premier League talk of crisis at Stamford Bridge feels slightly hysterical. Even if there was no substance to the reports -- strongly denied -- that Ancelotti was ready to quit on Sunday evening, though, something is going on behind the scenes, a lead that stood at five points three weeks ago has disappeared and the weakness of the squad's structure has been exposed.
There are times when football makes no sense. Two weeks ago, the initial reports that Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton was under pressure sounded absurd. Even more so when they were accompanied by rumors that owner Mike Ashley might be considering turning back to Joe Kinnear, an abrasive and unpopular relic of the 1990s who had been forced to leave the job in February 2009 after heart problems.
Under normal circumstances in the Premier League, you'd look at a side that was five points clear with a quarter of the season played and assume it was strolling toward the title. These, though, are not normal circumstances.
The timing couldn't have been worse. On Saturday morning, the newspapers were full of the story that Arsenal had posted a record profit of 56 million pounds ($89 million) for the year ending May 31. By Saturday evening, everybody was wondering why the club hadn't spent any of it on a goalkeeper. Even worse, the same afternoon as Manuel Almunia was enduring his nightmare against West Bromwich Albion, 10 miles to the southwest, Mark Schwarzer was producing a string of fine saves to help Fulham to a 0-0 draw against Everton.
Ahsan Ali Syed's recent announcement that he planned to buy Blackburn Rovers was notable for two reasons. First, as he promised a transfer kitty of $150 million, he sounded a little like Dr. Evil holding the world to ransom for $1 million. It was a sum so disproportionately small for a club that, in his own words, wants to become a new Real Madrid, that it was hard to suppress a giggle.
The Premier League is effectively a series of mini-leagues, and for many sides, seeking promotion or avoiding relegation is the main goal of the season. There is a clutch of sides for whom relegation should be no more than a distant threat, but for whom European qualification is an impossibly distant prospect. Here we look at three of the mid-table sides that may be moving up or down a notch this season:
With a week left on the Premier League clock, thoughts are starting to turn to the wheeling and dealing that the coming months will bring. Fernando Torres' scowl from the stands at Anfield on Sunday, as he watched his teammates surrender to Chelsea's endeavor, suggested his agent's phone would be buzzing before the weekend was up. The order in which the top six or seven teams finish -- not to mention the World Cup -- will help shape this summer's wish lists, so for now let's consider how the last year's signings have made an impact -- or not.
With just a few matches remaining of this Premiership season, the time has come for a spot of deliberation, cogitation and digestion. What's happened since last August to confound the surest of expectations and put paid to the sincerest of hopes? Quite a bit, is the simple answer; this season has provided a lasting ride for more than half of a league that has spent several years fending off accusations of soul-crushing predictability. Things we didn't expect:
Gather round the fire and nestle close, dear readers, for here in the great hall of Castle Limey, amidst faded portraits and moth-eaten antlers, wise Team Limey has salutary holiday messages for you to contemplate. And some banter, too.