February 18, 2010

Paying the penalty

Posted by Jon Champion on 18/02/2010

Executives in television land love nothing more than to boast that "the action comes thick and fast – and it's live on...(insert relevant channel)". This weekend, they may just be right.

Tom Huddlestone's failure to convert a penalty in Tottenham's FA Cup 5th round tie at the Reebok condemned Bolton and Spurs to a replay and led to Monday night's Lancashire derby at Blackburn becoming an h'or d'oeuvre to Sunday lunch.

Even at World Cups – where the group stages are relentless – I don't think I can recall commentating on two games quite as close together as ESPN's upcoming live offerings from the Barclays Premier League.

That's close, by the way, in terms of time not distance. A quick glance at the RAC routefinder uncovered the joyless statistic that Fratton Park to Ewood Park by road is a trip of 281 miles. The predicted journey time of 5 hours and 11 minutes doesn't allow for the fact that a section of the M6 is being closed on Saturday night. As for average speed cameras, don't get me started on them!

Not that I am moaning. The logistics are a challenge not a chore, and as we approach the business end of the League season, there is plenty to recommend both games.

By way of preparation, I motored down to Portsmouth last week to watch Pompey play Sunderland. I wasn't expecting a classic, but after 3 red cards – one of them initially delivered to the wrong player, the dismissal of an angry Avram Grant, plus a series of other contentious incidents, I was clearly wrong.

There was enough spirit in the Pompey team to suggest they'll be awkward opponents for Stoke, albeit the Potters are still unbeaten in 2010. There is a siege mentality at Fratton, in the midst of which Grant has become an unlikely folk-hero. I have never seen him as animated as during that Sunderland game. Portsmouth fans must feel the whole world is against them right now with March 1st the next D-day at the High Court, so a defiant manager has become a rallying symbol.

The men in the dugouts will also hog the attention at Ewood on Sunday. Sam Allardyce was the man who established Bolton as a Premier League force yet now guides local rivals Blackburn. His successors at the Reebok have struggled to emulate him, yet Owen Coyle clearly feels Bolton are a better vehicle for his managerial ambitions than Burnley.

The road that links the two towns, winding its way across the West Pennine Moors and on through Darwen, wouldn't have been called the A666 when these founder members of the Football League first met in an FA Cup tie in 1881, but it'll be just as busy on Sunday morning as supporters make their way to the 156th engagement between the teams.

And seeing as that penalty save by Jussi Jasskelainen from Huddlestone is the reason for the strange kick-off time, it's worth pointing out that in Bolton's last three visits to Blackburn they've conceded five penalties of which Jaaskelainen has saved a superb three of them.

This Lancashire dust-up is one that rarely passes without incident. It's recent history is littered with late goals, red cards and an infamous dive by El-Hadji Diouf that earned a penalty when he was playing for Bolton at Ewood in this fixture five years ago. The Senegalese took the kick, saw it saved, but scored the winner from the rebound. The fact he's now playing for Blackburn merely adds spice to a lunchtime Lancashire hot-pot.


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