Weekender: Karaoke, cheeks and Zorro
1. The Tangerine dream: Party like it's 2002
Should Blackpool stay up this season, it will be only the second time in 22 years that none of the three newly-promoted teams have been relegated at the first time of asking (the other being 2002, when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton survived). While West Brom and Newcastle sit comfortably in mid-table, BlackpoolÃ¢ÂÂs bright start has faded considerably Ã¢ÂÂ but they're still hopeful of emulating Hull's last-day 2009 escape, coincidentally against a similarly depleted Manchester United side. Just pray that Ian Holloway doesn't find a pitchside microphone...
2. Survival Sunday? Pah! How about Supervivencia SÃÂ¡bado?
If you thought the Premier League relegation battle was tight, try France and Spain. With two games left in Ligue 1, three points separate 12th and 18th. AS Monaco occupy the final unclaimed relegation place, seven years after gracing the Champions League final; they're only six points behind 10th-placed Montepellier, whom they face this weekend. With one game left, La Liga's even tighter: 13th-placed Mallorca are just two points ahead of 18th-placed Zaragoza, meaning a five-way fight for the final drop-spot. Now, what's French and Spanish for squeaky bum?
LA LIGA LOCA Read Tim Stannard's guide to the weekend in Spain
3. European Tour 2011/12 Ã¢ÂÂ calling at Doncaster, CoventryÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Of the five Premier League teams still bracing against relegation, two Championship contenders could be consoled by continental competition next season. Birmingham's League Cup win guarantees them Europa League football, while Blackpool could also have a crack at the Champions LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs uglier sister via the Fair Play League, should Fulham rack up a red card or four against Arsenal. Crystal Palace and Ipswich managed the relegation/qualification combo in 1998 and 2002 respectively, while Dunfermline followed suit in 2007 having lost the Scottish FA Cup final to Champions League-bound Celtic.
4. Paolo Di Canio could've been Zorro
The new man at the County Ground could've been more swords than Swindon. He told us in his exclusive One-on-One that as a boy he successfully auditioned for a Zorro TV programme but his family couldn't afford the necessary photoshoot. Perhaps it's for the best: "Managers had to be patient with me because they knew I had talent even though I could break their balls. As an actor, with my personality, who would have stood by me?"
ARCHIVE Read hundreds of interviews from FFT's 17 years
5. Get your mitts on the Champions League final programme
Next Saturday night you'll doubtless be settling down to enjoy the Champions League final coverage live on FourFourTwo.com (of course). You can further immerse yourself in the occasion with the official programme, made by our friends and yours over at Champions magazine. As you'd expect it's crammed with interviews and analysis Ã¢ÂÂ and if you order it today (Friday), it's guaranteed to be on your doormat by next Saturday.
ORDER IT "Programmes! Get yer programmes!"
The two Manchester clubs winning trophies on Saturday sent SundayrÃ¢ÂÂs papers into a predictable spin. Very predictable: bar the News of the World, which went for a not at all dated "Mad For It", most chose the same headline: "City, United". Yes, we get the Ã¢ÂÂpunÃ¢ÂÂ, but Manchester is more divided than ever. Manchester CityÃ¢ÂÂs first trophy win since Liam Gallagher and Curly Watts were in short trousers is widely expected to be just the start: with Roberto ManciniÃ¢ÂÂs side now favourites to seal third place in the Premier League and thus be parachuted into next seasonÃ¢ÂÂs Champions League groups, the gap is certainly closing.
Still, theyÃ¢ÂÂve got a hell of a long way to go to match their neighbours' trophy cabinet. Manchester United sealed league title No.19 with a 1-1 draw at Blackburn; on the same day their fans were forced to remove the "ticker banner" mocking their neighbours' trophy drought, they were finally given the right to point out their numerical superiority over their even fiercer rivals Liverpool.
Far below the waves, West Ham succumbed spectacularly if unsurprisingly to relegation with a topsy-turvy 3-2 defeat at Wigan. Charming Karren Brady requested use of the DW Stadium boardroom to dismiss Avram Grant before the post-match tears had dried on emotional young scrapper Mark NobleÃ¢ÂÂs cheek. The Latics will look to avoid their own doom on a five-way Ã¢ÂÂSurvival SundayÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ as will Birmingham, Blackpool, Wolves and Blackburn.
Coming the other way will be Swansea or Reading, who reached the Championship play-off final in style. The Swans saw off spirited Nottingham Forest 3-1 Ã¢ÂÂ a result sealed by Darren PratleyÃ¢ÂÂs spectacular last-gasp 60-yarder, while the Royals inflicted a second successive 3-0 home humbling on Cardiff. There was also play-off success for Huddersfield Ã¢ÂÂ who eventually beat Bournemouth on penalties after a 4-4 aggregate draw, and Peterborough Ã¢ÂÂ who overcame a 3-2 first leg deficit to beat MK Dons 4-3 on aggregate. There's goals in them thar thrills.
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Football clubs need to excite and entice Ã¢ÂÂ or die
For once, the Skyperbole may be justified: an unusually interesting top-flight season has kept the table pleasingly unstratified, with 18 teams still unsure where they'll finish. Clubs will hope the excitement lasts long enough to tempt the punters back next term: A Football Supporters' Federation survey out this week warns that 15% of EPL season ticket holders won't renew this summer. Times are hard, the recession is biting and the all-in matchday cost is rocketing: the FSF cites an 18% inflation rate on last year Ã¢ÂÂ astonishing considering the country-wide cutbacks, public and private.
Meanwhile the clubs are making no such cutbacks. As David Conn revealed in The Guardian this week, they're making record incomes Ã¢ÂÂ and yet still lost close to half a billion pounds last year. Although broadcast rights are still the main revenue stream for most, they need to hear the turnstiles clicking and the club-shop tills ringing.
But an increasing number of fans aren't prepared to put up with low-quality entertainment. They need to have faith in the club's future, belief that they will get bang for their buck. The FSF found that 28% of Manchester United season ticket holders and 22% at Arsenal say they won't renew, but that's mainly in protest at (further) price hikes; Aston Villa's 27% refusal rate is surely more to do with a perceived lack of value for money.
It's not inconceivable that managers, while always "result-oriented", will bear this in mind. Sam Allardyce lost his Blackburn job apparently because the owners wanted sexier football; five months later the home fans watched their visitors play keep-ball while the hosts settled for a draw. Meanwhile 30 miles up the road Blackpool and Bolton fans watched their teams share a seven-goal thriller. The Seasiders have won praise this season for their commitment to attacking and it would surely benefit football if it works Ã¢ÂÂ and more teams adopt it next term.
Maybe then next season would be even more unpredictable than this. No bad thing.
Ã¢ÂÂ Gary Parkinson, FourFourTwo.com editor. Read the full feature here
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