LONDON — If the matter was not so serious it would almost be funny.

Christopher Davies

Richard Caborn, U.K. Minister for Sport, suggested that 5:30 p.m. kickoffs may have to be re-thought in the wake of the trouble at last Saturday’s Everton vs. Manchester United F.A. Cup fifth-round game when 33 people were arrested in what one senior policeman described as “the worst football-related violence ever seen in Liverpool.”

Caborn believes that the timing of the kickoff allowed supporters too much time to take on board “fighting beer.” The weakness, not to mention hypocrisy, in Caborn’s argument is that the government has been pushing through legislation to allow licensed premises to stay open for 24 hours.

Then, of course, would-be football hooligans could “prepare” for a game in the way they prefer whatever time it starts. However unappealing seven pints of beer for breakfast may be for most of us, the mindless morons who scar the national sport disregard such matters.

The same weekend as the trouble at Everton, the game between Burnley and Blackburn saw similar nasty scenes with 20 arrests yet this match kicked off at lunchtime.

The good news is that a hooligan with a history of football-related offenses was jailed for five months after running on to the pitch at Burnley and confronting Blackburn’s Robbie Savage.

Out-of-work Michael Lewis was already serving a three-year ban from every football stadium in England and Wales before last Sunday’s game between the Lancashire rivals. The 42-year-old Burnley fan invaded the pitch and headed straight for Savage, offering to fight the Welsh international.

There are some who believe that people who invade pitches are generally harmless — they are certainly often clothes-less — yet the message must go out to anyone who believes such actions are little more than a bit of fun.

What if a supporter has a knife or starts to hit a player?

Anyone who crosses the white lines should be punished severely, including streakers.

LIVERPOOL WALTON MP Peter Kilfoyle accused the Football Association and the BBC, which televised the game live, of contributing to the violence by pushing for a ratings-winning time slot for the eagerly awaited return of Wayne Rooney to his former club.

Kilfoyle, an Everton fan whose constituency includes Goodison Park and who supported the government’s plans for extended drinking hours, raised the issue in the House of Commons earlier this week and the row rumbled on, with Merseyside Police’s chief constable Bernard Hogan-Howe defending their position.

Hogan-Howe said: “The broadcaster, on this occasion the BBC, proposed a time that fits in with their schedule. That was put to the F.A. who then talked to the club (Everton), who sought advice from the police whether or not that is the right time to have the match.

“What advice was given was that there was serious concerns about this particular game. And as a result of that the agreement was that we would double the amount of police resources.

“But no broadcaster, or frankly anyone in this country, would want a situation where the police turn round and say you cannot have that game when you want it.”

The sad fact is that whatever time the kickoff is, while we have drink-fueled gorillas in our midst hell bent on causing trouble, then they will follow their hooligan instincts.

This was illustrated at Burnley, where there was a lunchtime start, but we must beware the knee-jerk reaction that England seems to thrive on.

The fact that clubs and the national association, Premier League and Football League have been paid millions of pounds in sponsorship over the years by beer companies seems to have been overlooked.

It is an indisputable fact that the drug — and alcohol is a drug — from which football has benefited financially is also responsible for so much of the hooliganism that has shamed the beautiful game.

REAL MADRID’S decision to pay Newcastle United £16 million for Jonathan Woodgate last summer must rank alongside the one made by a guy from a record company who told the Beatles they would never make it and allowed them to sign with a rival.

We all have bad days at the office but to cough up 16 big ones for a player who was so obviously a huge injury risk is beyond belief. Money may not be able to buy you love but it can buy you a crocked defender.

For Newcastle, selling Woodgate was a shrewd bit of business. It paid Leeds United £8 million for the defender and 18 months later sold him for double that sum. In that period Woodgate played 28 games, so you would think an alarm bell or two would have sounded in Madrid.

Word is that Woodgate, yet to play for Real, is likely to be sidelined for the rest of the season following the latest tests on his injured left thigh.

Woodgate, who sustained the injury last April, appeared ready to make his Madrid debut last October but suffered a recurrence, leading him to undergo arthroscopic surgery in the United States.

So how did Woodgate sign with Real?

Or more specifically, how did Real sign Woodgate?

And how did the player manage to pass a medical?

My deep throat in the Spanish capital tells me that Real, desperately in need of strengthening its defense, had Gabriel Milito of Independiente lined up, but one of the Madrid power brokers decided that, as no one had ever heard of the Argentine, he was not the type of player they wanted.

Real prefers galacticos to meteorites and Milito mysteriously failed the medical, signing instead with Real Zaragoza.

Milito, who has barely missed a game over the last six months, has been outstanding for the other Real, producing a string of steady, consistent performances in the heart of its defense.

The Madrid power broker saw Woodgate, an England international, and, in fairness, one of the best defenders in the Premiership when fit, as the “name” player Real wanted to slot in alongside Michel Salgado, Ivan Helguera and Roberto Carlos.

Under such circumstances medicals can be passed with the greatest of ease and Woodgate joined Team Galactico. Newcastle could have hardly believed its good fortune.

Woodgate’s contract with Real runs until 2008, so whatever happens the player is protected financially for a further three years. As his wages are probably in the region of £3 million a year, the Woodgate package effectively cost Real close to £30 million.

Whether he will ever actually plays for Madrid remains to be seen, but the best case scenario seems to be that Woodgate will be out for around 18 months, which is a long time for a professional athlete, whatever the sport.

Real has made noises about Newcastle not giving Woodgate the correct treatment when he initially sustained the injury, but Madrid knows the emphasis is on it to ensure any player is in good working order when it completes a transfer.

Unsurprisingly, Real is keeping mum about Woodgate, but as it seems the person who gave the green light to sign the player does the firing, and cannot be fired himself, there will probably be no sacrificial lamb for what is turning out to be one of the worst transfers the most successful club in Europe has ever made.

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