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Georgios Samaras

Craig Thomson's running style? <em>Picture: Teenytoon</em>

Craig Thomson's running style? Picture: Teenytoon

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
One thing about American sport is its ability to throw up the unexpected, which more often than not revolves around unbelievable amounts of money.

Currently the 32 NFL teams are involved in a dispute between team-owners and players over a new pay deal.

NFL players negotiate collectively via their union. But having failed to reach agreement, they were “locked out” by the owners, although that would be overturned by a federal judge later in the week.

The problem is a simple one. Over $9 billion comes in to the NFL in revenue, of which the owners take just a billion and players split about 60 per cent under the current agreement. Not surprisingly, the players want more.

Put into perspective, the English Premier League has an income in excess of £2 billion. So you can see why people are willing to hold out for what they believe they are worth.

That also applies in baseball, where the Major League is taking over the day-to-day running of the Los Angeles Dodgers because of “deep concerns” over the famous club’s finances.

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Owner Frank McCourt is another locked in a bitter legal battle. In October 2009, the Dodgers fired their CEO, who didn’t like it one bit.

But unlike others who might have gone for unfair dismissal, Jamie McCourt – Frank’s wife – mounted an alternative challenge, and filed for divorce.

Well, it is America…

Sunday
Old Firm day in Glasgow. Ready to roll with Nuremberg Trial VT, NATO forces at the ready, the UN building in New York booked in advance. Nine arrests, none for sectarianism.

I can only assume therefore that the punter huckled into Ibrox before the game, held by two cops wearing “anti-sectarian unit” fluorescent vests, was arrested by fashion polis in disguise.

The game to was event-free, discounting the shove on David Weir by Georgios Samaras, the Greek escaping with a yellow card having been mistaken for Jesus by referee, Craig Thomson – a man whose running style has been shaped by someone into schooling dressage horses.

What was evident is that Allan McGregor is the best Scottish goalkeeper around by a mile, typified by his stops from Daniel Majstorović and Samaras from the spot.

But just when you think the day has passed, out pops Celtic manager Neil Lennon to pay homage to the supporters who have supported him, and then have a bit of a jape with the Gers fans, pretending he couldn’t hear them by cupping his hands behind his ears.

Oh how everyone laughed, or was at least supposed to.

“Don’t ask me about that,” said Lennon. “It’s called humour, all right?

“Don’t distract away from my team’s performance,” he said after becoming the distraction. “Don’t even write about it. You have the photographs I’m sure, but it is just a bit of fun.”

And I’m sure he saw it that way. But, given this is the man who earlier in the week was being sent letter bombs, it was at best a slightly misconceived gesture in the eyes of most neutrals.

Of course, neutrals don’t cause mayhem and grief. In some people’s opinion, Lennon’s actions would have fringed on incitement, while others would happily use it as another excuse to buy a stamp.

Remember, in all of this, there are those who would find a humorous angle in death. And they are not all playful jokers or comedians.

Monday
There wasn’t a Sheffield stonemason employed to knock out “Entered 22 April 1986, exited 18 April 2011″ into a suitably sizeable piece of Scottish granite, because no one was quite sure whether he had gone or not.

Stephen Hendry lost his second-round tie against Mark Selby 13–4, the kind of scoreline he once inflicted on others. That performance, or the result in itself, would not have sparked the great Scot into a decision on his future. Selby would have beaten just about anyone in that form.

It wasn’t until later in the day, when Ding Junhui managed to squeeze past Stuart Bingham, that the seven-times world champion had an idea of what next season would hold, as a player.

Ding’s win meant Hendry kept his top-16 berth, although he isn’t exactly enamoured by the constraints of qualifying in the modern era.

Having spoken to him at length recently, it’s obvious he has a very clear plan of what his future will hold, and how he will hold it.

Commercially, Hendry’s name alone is an earner – and, being more astute than some gave him credit for, he’ll do just fine taking and making his own decisions, although he will still have one or two trusted advisors to turn to.

Of course, the unknown and the unknowing led to many writing obituary-like epitaphs and tributes to his time on the table, some reading as if he’d been potted beneath the green stuff rather than played his last shot on the green baize. Much of this the man himself would have found rather embarrassing – and definitely amusing given that, by Thursday, he had announced he’d be coming back for some more.

One box that does await Hendry is the BBC commentary booth, where he can impart his knowledge to those who can find the once-prominent wallpaper with balls live behind the red button.

Something he would have said after his Selby beating (because he’s said it before) was that the trophy doesn’t get handed out on the first or second Monday. As Selby found, when he lost to Ding.

Moving on to the other table, and it is apparent that some of the players are peeved to say the least that there is no maximum break prize on offer in Sheffield.

When Cliff Thorburn made the first maximum in 1983, he pocketed a £10,000 bonus. More recently, in keeping with the numerical configuration of the achievement, £147,000 has been the norm – more often than not swollen by another top-up from the high-break prize on offer.

So when Ronnie O’Sullivan made £165,000 from his max in 1997 – in just five minutes 20 secs – he basically made more profit per minute than BT.

Not so now. Mark Williams was the most vocal in bemoaning the lack of a prize, while Graeme Dott, having sunk nine blacks, apologised to the audience when he went for a blue to win a frame rather than what should have been another black to win a fortune.

Times are hard in every sport. Earlier this season, we had O’Sullivan having a running conversation with referee Jan Verhaas when on a maximum at the SECC, and only potted the black under protest when he found out just four grand was on offer for the perfect frame.

A few years ago, O’Sullivan shared his Crucible cash with Ali Carter who made his own maximum. I doubt if anyone has been remotely interested in playing the perfect frame in the last fortnight – other than O’Sullivan, who would have wanted (until his demise) to go one better than Hendry on that score – although we’ll need to wait another three or four years at least, or even longer, to see if anyone comes close to Hendry’s benchmark of world titles.

Tuesday
Word is out that more than a dozen MPs are to sign a Commons motion calling for Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish to be knighted.

The motion was tabled by Liverpool Walton MP Steve Rotheram because of what he said was Dalglish’s “outstanding contribution” to British football, and because it would be a “fitting tribute” to the families of the 96 fans who were killed at Hillsborough in 1989.

Dalglish was manager then, and earned gratitude and respect for the way he represented the city and club in the aftermath of the tragedy when he made sure the club was represented at all of the fans’ funerals and attended many of them in person.

I have no problem with Dalglish being put forward for such an award. Many of his achievements as a player and manager are unsurpassed. And in bringing solace and comfort to dozens of berieved families, he is also deserving of a suitable tribute.

But, as I’ve said before, where I have problems with the honours system in this country is how these things are decided. More often than not, it’s by canvassing more support, albeit from well-minded individuals, than someone else who might be more deserving.

Why did Matt Busby become ‘Sir’ and Jock Stein didn’t?

Why did Jackie Stewart, a three-times world champion, collect his knighthood after four-times runner-up Stirling Moss?

Or why is Stephen Hendry – seven-times champion of the world – able only to put MBE after his name while six-times winner Steve Davis is an OBE?

And what, if anything, did Rangers management or players receive in terms of commendation for carrying out the same painful duties as Dalglish when 66 died at Ibrox 40 years ago?

Or were there fewer political points to score then?

Wednesday
Horse racing mourns the passing of Sadler’s Wells, who died at the age of 30 at his home in Coolmore, where he had lived since being retired in 1984.

So what had he done since giving up his race days?

Well, as son of Northern Dancer, his offspring included champion racehorses Galileo, Montjeu, High Chaparral and Yeats, with grandsons Hurricane Run and Rip Van Winkle maintaining the great legacy.

That earned him the title champion sire 14 times in Britain, champion sire in France three times plus once in North America, producing over 293 stakes winners and 74 individual Group One winners before retiring from breeding in 2008.

A spokesman said he died of natural causes. Boredom, I’d say…

Thursday
Organisers of London 2012 have revealed that they received applications for more than 20 million tickets from 1.8 million people for the Olympic Games.

Organisers have also said more than 50 per cent of the 645 sessions will go to a random ballot and that 95 per cent of the applications are from the UK.

There has been strict and stringent policing of the entire ticketing process to prevent touts and corporate organisations getting their hands on the cherished briefs.

I am sure they have checked and counter-checked every application rigorously. Which means no doubt that three months after the games, we’ll find someone had a few more than should have – probably 300,000 more.

Friday
Bad enough that Craig Whyte’s intended takeover of Rangers is delayed by yet another shifting of the goalposts, but the Ibrox club find themselves €40,000 poorer and with their fans banned from their next away tie in Europe after sanctions placed by UEFA for sectarian singing in a match at PSV Eindhoven.

No one can condone such behaviour, and it is not as if Rangers’ travelling support haven’t had sufficient warnings over their behaviour.

Fined £13,300 for chants and £9,000 for attacking the Villarreal team bus in 2006, then £8,280 for their behaviour during a match against Osasuna in May 2007, a year before the notorious away-day to Manchester which was followed a year later by a fine of £18,000 being imposed for violence when the club played Unirea Urziceni in Romania.

Or do they think these fines and penalties are like parking tickets?

UEFA also gave Rangers a suspended ban on its fans for a second away game for a probationary period of three years. However, they steered shy of closing Ibrox to supporters, which would seem the next logical step if this illogical flouting of public decency continues.

But – and there will always be a but when it comes to UEFA – I for one am always sceptical about the governing body when it comes to even-handedness in punishing clubs.

Just how observant are these UEFA delegates who observe from the stands? Obviously, not observant enough to ask why PSV supporters saw fit to wave Irish tricolours at Ibrox. Of course, they might have been Indian flags and they were joining in a chorus of Delhi’s Walls.

Going back to 1998, were the monkey chants aimed at Henrik Larsson and Regi Blinker not audible enough for the UEFA delegate ahead of the tie with Croatia Zagreb?

I await with interest to see the wrist-slapping Real Madrid get for the racist behaviour of their fans – which most observers have said is persistent – against Barcelona, and how Europe’s football judges see the fracas between both sets of players after this ill-tempered encounter.

We don’t get much European football compared to some nations. But when you tot up how many times our clubs have fallen foul of UEFA wigs over the years – Rangers more times than they care to remember, Hearts over breaching broadcasting rights and Celtic’s infamous replayed game with Rapid Vienna – we seem to come under the spotlight more than some repeat offenders across the rest of Europe.

Still, things might be brighter around Ibrox should Mr Whyte’s takeover take place next Tuesday. Or not, as will probably be the case, again…

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Neil Lennon’s response was scathing, but then he has never allowed meekness a foothold in his life. In the wake of Celtic’s 2-0 defeat to Ross County in the Scottish Cup at Hampden last Saturday, he delivered a verdict on some of his players that struck at the very heart of the despondency that has so blemished the club’s season.

As caretaker manager, Lennon must accept some of the blame for a performance that lacked the kind of competitive vigour expected in even the most mundane of fixtures. That Celtic were listless in the semi-final of the only competition they had a reasonable chance of winning this season was symptomatic of a campaign in which some fundamental standards have been discarded. But then Lennon chose his strongest possible side and he was, ultimately, let down by the same players whose indifference proved ruinous to Tony Mowbray.

Lennon acted swiftly and conspicuously in removing Landry N’Guemo four minutes before half-time, although the replacement, Marc Crosas, is another deep-lying midfielder whose distribution lacks tempo or ambition. Since Lennon’s reactions tended to the furious, and occasionally violent (he hurled a water bottle to the ground with venom at one stage, and later kicked another fiercely) whenever Georgios Samaras and Marc-Antoine Fortune surrendered possession with a languid ambivalence, we can be certain how he considered their displays.

All four players have been indifferent all season, although Celtic were further undermined by some hapless defending, further emphasising the misjudgment of not making a centre-back the priority of the January transfer window, rather than the high-profile loan signing of Robbie Keane. Lennon’s agitation on the touchline was evident, and he knew that his claims for the job receded with every failure to counter a First Division side playing confidently, and determinedly, to a clever game-plan.

“I am sick of seeing our players fall over,” Lennon said afterwards. “I am sick of seeing strikers not wanting to go in where it hurts to score a goal for the team. We can’t keep clean sheets either, we’re too soft. We have gone out of every competition this season with a whimper. I’m way past angry with them. I didn’t let them leave after the game. I spoke to them for 15 minutes and basically told them what I thought of them. Whether I am here or not next season I told them that I am pretty sure some of them won’t be.”

Lennon felt cheated by some of his players, and it is unlikely that either Samaras or Fortune will feature against Motherwell on Tuesday night in a Premier League game that Celtic need to win to at least delay Rangers’ progress to retaining the title. Edson Braafheid, the Dutch defender on loan from Bayern Munich, has been fined for leaving Hampden after learning that he had been left out of the match squad.

The sense is of a team in turmoil and Lennon, an inexperienced manager, is attempting to apply some order. His ambition was to impress enough to be offered the job full-time come the end of the season, but beyond his own disappointment last weekend, his deepest regret was for the way Celtic have performed this season.

“It has been shambolic, let’s not mince our words,” he said. “They are nowhere near good enough. We are 13 points off Rangers, we have gone out of the League Cup in the quarter-finals, we have gone out of the Scottish Cup in the semi-final and we couldn’t make it out of the group in the Uefa Cup. You tell me, is that good enough for Celtic? It reinforces the fact that I want it more, but you have to take the bad with the good and take the humiliation that comes with it, the criticism.

“People talk about Tony [Mowbray] not instilling passion in the team and this, that and the other, but those are things you can’t give to players. You can get them motivated and they pull the wool over your eyes telling you that they’re up for it.”

It has been a wretched season for Celtic, and Lennon can only hope to restore some pride in the closing weeks.