Thursday, 21 April 2011

Bombed out! The thrill of surprise omissions

There's something terribly dramatic about a key player getting unexpectedly dropped by his manager. The more shocking it is, the closer the bond between manager and player, the louder the audible gasp in the stadium when the teams are read out – the longer they live in the memory. This article looks at the men whose dreams were unexpectedly crushed when their manager jettisoned them at the last minute, and the men chosen to replace them...

Perhaps the daddy of all droppings, this. Everyone remembers the moment Sir Alex Ferguson bombed out the goalkeeper he'd kept faith with nearly all season, to bring in Luton Town loanee Les Sealey. United had played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the first game against opponents Crystal Palace, and while Leighton had his wobbly moments – as he had been having for quite some time – few really expected Ferguson to ditch him. And yet in the build-up to kick-off in the match (played, incongruously, on a Thursday) rumours started to spread. Somebody must have leaked the team news because, if memory serves, people were speculating wildly that Sealey would be thrown in at the deep end well before the teamsheets were out. And once it was confirmed, Wembley (particularly the United end) was in shock. Perhaps sensing that Sealey would be knee-knockingly nervous, many fans chanted his name prior to kick-off. It did the trick. Sealey made several excellent saves as United nicked the game 1-0 thanks to a rare goal from full-back Lee Martin. It was the first trophy Ferguson won with United. How different things might have turned out. Sealey tragically died after a heart attack in 2001, aged just 43. As for Leighton, he never played for Manchester United again.

Another famous example came when England manager Glenn Hoddle had to whittle his provisional World Cup squad down to a final selection. Eight players had to go and it was extremely tough for Hoddle to settle on exactly which eight. Normally Gascoigne would be a shoo-in for the squad even if he wasn't going to be first-choice starter, due to his central midfield conjuring ability. But he had been beset by personal problems (as so often in his career), which added an element of doubt. Was he in the right mental state for the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a World Cup? Hoddle, who as we know places considerable import on mental wellness, decided Gascoigne was not. Cue floods of tears and (allegedly) a considerable tantrum as poor Gascoigne struggled to come to terms with the fact that his World Cup dream was over; he would not get chance to shine again like he had in Italy in 1990. Among the other seven to be omitted were Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Jamie Redknapp and Dion Dublin. Hoddle, so the story goes, was asked in a press conference about why he'd not selected his talismanic midfielder. He got the journalists to turn their dictaphones off and asked: "Would you take him?" None of them said they would.

It's a depressing indicator of the rampant commercialism in world football today that you know a World Cup is just around the corner because Nike will put out a epic commercial, usually featuring some of Brazil's most skillful players. Ronaldinho was the focus of their affections this time, performing step-overs by a corner flag as a ticker showed Youtube views and Facebook 'likes' whizzing into the millions. Cue Dunga's squad announcement: no Ronaldinho. Never mind Nike, it only cost many millions of pounds to make the ad and broadcast it thousands of times over in expensive prime-time slots on television networks across the globe. Better luck next time.

Another hugely memorable moment, as the massively under pressure Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit grew fed up of the dressing room factions conspiring against him. A small group of players, led by Alan Shearer and Rob Lee, were (it was alleged) trying to turn the rest of the squad against the Dutchman. Gullit, perhaps underestimating the seismic reaction dropping Shearer would have with the Geordie faithful, left him on the bench (along with Duncan Ferguson) in favour of such luminaries as Silvio Maric, Paul Robinson and Jamie McClen. It appears the clash of enormous egos was too much for Gullit in the end; dropping Shearer would be the final nail in his coffin. Newcastle lost 2-1 to their newly-promoted arch rivals. The Toon Army had seen enough and so had chairman Freddy Shepherd. However, apropos of nothing, Newcastle were drawing 1-1 when Shearer came on as a 72nd-minute substitute.

What a proud day for Wolves fans, getting through to an FA Cup semi against Wenger's Arsenal at Villa Park. But it wasn't to be a happy day for the club's hugely popular strikeforce of Steve Bull and Robbie Keane. Wolves manager Mark McGhee opted for the languid, socks-round-the-ankles charms of Steve Claridge instead, before introducing his prized pair during the second half. However, by that point Arsenal had been in the lead for a long time, having scored what proved to be the only goal of the game in the 12th minute through Christopher Wreh.

Dariusz Kubicki was something of a jobbing pro, mostly unspectacular, so you may be wondering why on earth he's in included in this list. Well, it's because Kubicki had been a dependable and consistent servant for Sunderland and was just one game shy of equalling the club's post-war record of 125 consecutive appearances (held by George Mulhall). This fact had been given the big build-up by the local press and fans were looking forward to giving Kubicki the round of applause he richly deserved for such an impressive feat in an era of three substitutes and squad rotation. The big day arrived and Sunderland headed to the Baseball Ground to play Derby County. The tannoy announcer read out the Sunderland team: "Tony Coton, Gareth Hall, Martin Scott, Andy Melville, Richard Ord, Michael Gray...". Hang on a minute, the Mackems fans thought. No Dariusz? Maybe he's in midfield? "...Kevin Ball, Steve Agnew, Paul Bracewell...". Nope, not in midfield either. Peter Reid had dropped Kubicki just as he was poised to enter club legend. Every Sunderland supporter was utterly bemused, not least because playing in Kubicki's place was Gareth Hall, one of the worst footballers of the Premier League era (as Chelsea fans will testify). Presumably Kubicki had a word with the gods, because Hall went on to concede a needless late penalty that cost Sunderland the match. Actually, scrub that, he'd probably have done that anyway. 

The finest right foot Manchester United has ever known, Beckham was shocked to discover that – upon returning from injury – he could not dislodge plucky Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from the right-midfield berth in Manchester United starting line-up. Ferguson appeared to feel that Beckham had become too much of a celebrity, too big for his boots, not focused enough – plus Solskjaer was doing the business. Some would argue that Ferguson has been annoyed with Beckham for a long time. In February 2000 Beckham skipped trained just 48 hours before a key game with Leeds, apparently because son Brooklyn was unwell. "It wasn't so much a clear-the-air meeting between the pair, more a case of Ferguson reminding Beckham what is expected of him," wrote Paul Hetherington in the Sunday Mirror at the time. The relationship deteriorated further on 15 February 2003 when, in the wake of an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal, a livid Sir Alex Ferguson threw or kicked a football boot in Beckham's general direction, striking him just above the eye and causing a cut that required stitches. Speculation was rife about Beckham's future, and so it was that he left for Real Madrid in a £25m move that summer. The finest of Fergie's Fledglings had flown the nest. Beckham had grown too big for even Sir Alex to handle. 

Beckham shows off his stitches in February 2003
Many thanks to all who suggested entries for this article. There were many good ones that didn't quite make the cut: Matt Le Tissier missing out on an England squad after an England B hat-trick; Sander Westerveld going from Liverpool's first choice to third choice when Liverpool signed Dudek and Kirkland on the same day; Alan Hansen's World Cup '86 omission by stand-in manager Sir Alex Ferguson; Daniel Passarella's refusal to pick Fernando Redondo for Argentina unless he cut his hair, and many more besides


Lanterne Rouge said...

This has jogged some memories. Leighton had bene arguably the best keeper in the 1986 World Cup and a quiet colossus for Man United but his career didn't really recover from this - I saw him on loan at Reading in the early 90s and he was superb but that was a comedown for sure.

I'm pretty sure Hoddle played some Kenny G records to Gazza to calm him down which says it all.

Funny how Claridge never mentions how McGhee's decision to prefer his prosaic talents cost Wolves a place in an FA Cup Final.

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