Wednesday, February 10, 2016

10 February 2002 - The Gunners Launch Their Title Assault

On 10 February 2002, Arsenal won away at Everton, 0-1, in Arsène Wenger's 300th match in charge. The match kick-started an English record 14 straight league wins that lifted the Gunners to that season's title and carried over into the following season.

Arsenal began the day in fourth, behind Liverpool, Newcastle, and Manchester United, but with games in hand on all of them. The Toffees, meanwhile, were 20 points back in 15th. But the match, played before a crowd of almost 31,000 at Goodison Park, was much closer than the table would have suggested.

It was a scrappy affair that would end with five yellow cards, all to Arsenal players. The visitors could not find their form in the first half, appearing sluggish and heavy-footed. It finally took a lucky break for them to take the lead, with striker Sylvain Wiltord (pictured) somehow volleying a Patrick Vieira cross off his shin and into the goal in the 62nd minute.

To the irritation of Everton manager Walter Smith, the referee denied two late penalty shouts from the Toffees and the match ended 0-1. Arsenal proceeded to win all of their remaining 12 league matches en route to the title and did not drop another point until their second match of the 2002-03 season, when they were held to 2-2 at West Ham.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

9 February 2010 - Gray And Keys Just Hadn't Been Paying Attention

On 9 February 2010, Amy Fearn became the first woman to referee an English Football League match when she took charge of the last 20 minutes of Coventry City's contest against Nottingham Forest.

Despite the recent controversy that saw Sky Sports analysts Andy Gray and Richard Keys lose their jobs after making sexist remarks against Premier League assistant referee Sian Massey, England's Football League has used female officials since 1991, when Wendy Toms served as a reserve official for a Third Division match. Toms later worked as an assistant referee in both the Football League and the Premier League, and also refereed matches in the non-League Football Conference starting in 1996.

But no woman had ever been the primary official in England's top four divisions until Fearn. A financial analyst for Rolls Royce who has worked as an official since she was 14, Fearn had worked League matches as a referee's assistant since 2006. And she was again filling that role for the Coventry-Forest match when, with 20 minutes left, the match's originally-assigned referee, Tony Bates, left the pitch with a leg injury. Fearn then took the whistle and her place in history.

The match ended as a 1-0 win for Coventry. Although Fearn heard a few taunts, she shrugged them off, saying afterward "I just laugh and take it with a pinch of salt." Coventry striker Clinton Morrison praised Fearn, saying "There was no dissent when she was in charge and no bad language. It would have been interesting if there had been any controversy but there wasn’t because she did a very good job. There is only one thing that matters about the person in charge and that is how good a referee they are."

Monday, February 8, 2016

8 February 1966 - He Should've Limited The Striking To The Ball

On 8 February 1966, European Footballer of the Year and World Cup Golden Boot winner Hristo Stoichkov was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

A winger/forward, he first rose to international prominence with CSKA Sofia, where his 38 goals in the 1989-90 season made him Europe's highest goalscorer. But he also created a reputation as a loose cannon, receiving a brief suspension from football for his involvement in a fight during the 1985 Bulgarian Cup.

In 1990, he moved to Barcelona. He soon became a fan favorite as Barça enjoyed one of their most successful periods, winning five La Liga titles (including four straight from 1991-94) and the 1992 European Cup. Guiding Bulgaria to the third-place playoff match at the 1994 World Cup, he contributed six goals to finish as the tournament's joint top scorer. He won the Ballon d'Or that year as Europe's greatest player.

But his hot temper followed him to Barcelona and, in his first season there, he received another brief suspension for stamping on a referee's foot. He eventually left Barça in 1995 and started a wandering journey that included stays with Parma (1995-96), Barcelona again (1996-98), CSKA Sofia again (1998), Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr (1998), and J-League side Kashiwa Reysol (1998-99).

In 2000, he moved to the United States to play two season with the Chicago Fire and one, his last, with DC United. During that last season, he again stirred up controversy by breaking the leg of a player from American University during a scrimmage with DC United, receiving a suspension and $2,000 fine.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

7 February 1891 - The Wins Were Few And Far Between

On 7 February 1891, Ireland beat Wales 7-2 to record only their second-ever victory--almost four years after the first one.

The Irish FA was founded in 1880 and fielded their first side in 1882, making them the fourth country to produce a national team (after England, Scotland, and Wales). That first match did not augur good things, however, as Ireland were on the wrong end of a 13-0 pounding by England. They finally got their very first victory in March 1887, beating Wales 4-1.

By 1891, Ireland had returned to form, losing 11 consecutive matches (including a crushing 11-0 defeat to Wales in 1888). The last two defeats in that run of futility came in the 1891 British Home Championship, where the Irish lost a close 2-1 decision to Scotland, then fell to England 6-1. So there was little reason for optimism other than the fact that Wales had performed almost as poorly, suffering their own losses to Scotland (4-3) and England (6-1).

On the day, however, Ireland overwhelmed the visiting Welsh team with a four goals from forward Olphie Stanfield en route to a dominant 7-2 victory. The Irish team that day included Ulster half-back Jack Reynolds (pictured), whose play attracted the attention of West Brom. After moving to the Hawthorns later that year, Reynolds revealed that he had been born in England. He subsequently switched to the English national team and remains the only person to play for both nations.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

6 February 1965 - He Brought A Lot Of Experience To The Team

On 6 February 1965, Sir Stanley Matthews made the last of his 704 English league appearances. He was 50 years old.

A talented outside right forward known equally for his sportsmanship and dedication to fitness, Matthews played in England for an incredible 30 seasons. He spent the first 11 of them with Stoke City, joining the Potters in 1931 when they were in the Second Division and helping lead them to promotion in 1933. In 1947, at the age of 32, he moved to Blackpool for a fee of £11,500.

There, partnered with center forward Stan Mortensen, he advanced to the 1948 FA Cup Final, but lost. After finishing as runners-up again in 1951, they finally claimed the Cup in 1953 with a dramatic 4-3 win over Bolton in a match that has been dubbed "the Matthews Final" (even though Mortensen scored three of Blackpool's goals).

In 1961, the then-46 year old Matthews returned to Stoke, who had fallen back into the Second Division in his absence. He again helped them earn promotion in 1963, making 31 appearances that year. But age began to take its toll at last and he was reduced to 9 appearances in 1963-64 and had not played at all in the 1964-65 season until called upon for the match against Fulham on 6 February.

He took the field at 50 years old--the oldest player to appear in the English top flight--and lifted Stoke to a 3-1 victory. It was his only appearance of the season, after which he became the manager of Maltese side Hibernians.

Friday, February 5, 2016

5 February 1985 - Silver Polish Makes A Good Present

On 5 February 1985, three-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was born in Funchal, Portugal. 

A right winger, Ronaldo started his professional career in 2002 with Lisbon's Sporting CP. Only 16, he broke into the first team that year, making a total of 31 appearances and scoring 5 goals. In a friendly against Manchester United in the summer of 2003, he so impressed the opposing player that they urged manager Alex Ferguson to sign him. Ferguson complied, bringing Ronaldo to Manchester for £12.24 million.

Although frequently criticized by opposing fans and the media for simulation, Ronaldo blossomed at United, making 40 appearances in his first season as United lifted the FA Cup. More silverware followed, including three straight league titles (2007, 2008, 2009) and the UEFA Champions League trophy (2008). In the double-winning 2007-08 season, he scored a career-best 41 goals in all competitions and won both the Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year Award.

In the summer of 2009, he consummated a year-long courtship with Spanish giants Real Madrid, who paid a world-record £80 million to pull him away from United. Since then, he's made 328 appearances for them and scored 343 goals, while winning La Liga in 2012 and the Champions League in 2014. He also won the FIFA Ballon d'Or in 2013 and 2014.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

4 February 1917 - Torralba Reaps An Early Reward

On 4 February 1917, Barcelona hosted their first-ever testimonial match in honor of midfielder Ramón Torralba.

Torralba, nicknamed "la Vella" (the Old One), joined the club in 1913 and became a regular starter by his second season. A holding midfielder, he was partnered with Agustín Sancho and Josep Samitier in what many consider to be Barça's best-ever midfield. Together, they the Copa del Rey five times (1920, 1922, 1925, 1926, 1928), with Torralba retiring after the last one.

Testimonial matches are ways for clubs to raise money to reward highly-regarded players. Torralba was still an active player for his 1917 testimonial match, played against fellow Barcelona side Terrassa. Barça won, 6-2.

Torralba received a second testimonial upon his retirement in 1928, having played 475 matches for the team.