x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Nani's trick was a treat

Nani's goal against Tottenham was questionable but mischief made a comeback on Halloween.

The spooky scheduling of the Aston Villa versus Birmingham City match in yesterday's English Premier League card proffered a treasure trove of cliches for those seeking to whet fans' appetites.

It was Halloween, you see, which apparently meant the second city derby was likely to offer some horror tackles and gruesome action to send a chill down the spine. Brummies were warned to brace themselves for a hair-raising, blood-curdling, nerve-shredding scream-fest. Cue maniacal laughter: Mwah-ha-ha-ha!

Predictably enough, it was nothing of the kind. The match finished goalless, with the teams mustering a combined nine shots on target, most of them tame.

As bleary-eye fans dragged themselves out of bed to watch yet another midday kick-off - the atmosphere-sapping hour due to overblown fears of crowd trouble - a more accurate spooky reference might have been the zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead. (For a spicier taste of the true venom between these two clubs, try the Carling Cup quarter-final at a cold and floodlit St Andrews in four weeks' time.)

What many pundits do not realise, however, is that in certain parts of northern England, the day before Halloween is also celebrated.

Around Manchester, October 30th is known as Mischief Night, enabling young scamps to terrorise their unsuspecting elders with impish behaviour for two nights running, the main difference being that on the first one they need not bother wearing a costume.

Nani, the Manchester United winger, may be Cape Verde-born and Lisbon-raised but he clearly understands Lancashire customs. His controversial goal against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday was pure mischief.

First, he petulantly handled the ball in frustration at being brought down in the area but denied a penalty. Then, as Heurelho Gomez, the hapless Spurs goalkeeper, ambled around his area to take the free kick that he (and every other player) assumed had been awarded for the handball, Nani snuck up behind him and slotted the ball into the empty net, after receiving a nod from Mark Clattenburg, the referee, that play was still live.

Even the celebration was mischievous: he sprinted across the pitch with his tongue sticking out. "Ner-ner-na-ner-ner!" as the playground taunt goes. Or should that be "Ner-ner-Nani-ner!"

Spurs fans did not see the funny side, claiming that Nani's behaviour was unsporting.

Funnily enough, those same Spur fans did not seem to mind Robbie Keane pulling a similar trick at White Hart Lane in 2003, when he humiliated Andy Marriott, Birmingham's debutante keeper, with similar peek-a-boo tactics.

They were also furious with Clattenburg, who was already off their festive greetings card list after he failed to spot a Pedro Mendes goal at the same fixture five years ago. Any more anti-Tottenham gaffes, and we will have to start calling him Mark FlattenSpurs.

Technically speaking, Nani's action was legitimate.

Morally speaking, it was questionable.

He knew he had committed a blatant foul by handling the ball, then sought to take advantage of the fact that the only man who failed to spot it was the referee.

But, from a pure entertainment perspective, I salute him. Football lacks mischief it once had.

The stadiums have been sanitised, the terraces tamed. Officials have lost their humour and the players are too overly scrutinised to get away with much. Under such conditions, as Nani did, you take your mischief where you can.

In Halloween terms, it was both a trick and a treat.

 

Rovers on chicken run

I am giddy with excitement at the prospect of Blackburn Rovers, the English Premier League side, being bought by an Indian poultry firm.

Big wigs from Venkateshwara Hatcheries were in the VIP box at Ewood Park for the match against Chelsea on Saturday, so let us hope the Rovers flunkeys swapped the usual prawn sandwiches for something more suitable. Like a KFC party bucket.

If I was a Blackburn fan, I may be disheartened by Venky’s plans to run the club on a shoestring budget. “We won’t need to buy expensive players,” Anuradha Desai, the company boss, said last week. “We can always lease them.” Oh dear.

Fortunately, I am not a Blackburn fan, but a man with a wearisome love of wordplay. And, take it from me, pun pickings do not get much richer than a football club owned by chicken farmers.

Will there be a pecking order? Will they choose players with pluck? Will they want to change hens at half time? After another dour draw, will Sam Allardyce, the manager, insist: “The lads laid well today.”

If the crowd cry “Foul!” do the owners shout back: “Roasted or fried?”

If they shout “Corner!”, do the owners reply: “Not until feeding time.”

For that matter, how do the players like their chicken cooked?

I reckon Mark Bunn, the back-up goalkeeper, likes his on bread, Herold Goulon, their French midfielder, plumps for goujons, while fellow midfielder Vince Grella, is a griller, and El-Hadji Diouf, the striker, prefers a spit.

My only disappointment is that Brad Friedel, their former goalkeeper, is no longer at the club. Or we could have called him Brad “Crispy Southern” Friedel.

And what about formations? “Wingless wonders” may win cups but they don’t fetch a great price at market.

Sadly, I cannot think of many egg-related puns. Maybe they should buy West Bromwich Albumen instead.

sports@thenational.ae