Tuesday 20 March 2018

Nugget of wisdom could teach Terry to hold his nerve

Tommy Conlon

One-all at Old Trafford and a quick flick across the channels to see if 'The Nugget' is still on course to pull off one of the greatest coups in Crucible history. But Steve Davis is sitting in his chair while John Higgins is working on a break that will leave him just one behind at 11-10 with four frames to play.

Naturally, when we flick back a minute later, Old Trafford is in a state of eruption and Manchester United's Nani is a study in euphoria. They've lost their lead and they've taken it again with just 10 minutes to play. Cut to Alex Ferguson: he's down on the touchline now, sweeping both arms into the air, demanding even more noise from the crowd. Spurs, inevitably, have shrivelled.

We could imagine John Terry, back in his London mansion, putting his foot through his surround-sound cinema screen and cursing Tottenham's perennial lack of bottle. Then getting a text on his mobile from Frank Lampard: "we were worse fools to even hope they'd do us a favour, the same team that had looked like world beaters when beating us at the Lane only six days earlier".

And after that match the Spurs captain talked a good game when looking ahead to the Old Trafford showdown. "We will go there and we have got no fear whatsoever," said Michael Dawson.

But they were second best all day long yesterday. Both sides in fact were in second gear during a first half that bore all the signs of the familiar Saturday morning lethargy that seems to afflict so many of these lunchtime games. United though were sharper to the ball and flashed a few amber-light warnings at their opponents without really threatening a breakthrough.

"Another sign of Tottenham's growing maturity," said Richard Keys on Sky Sports at half-time, like a trained chihuahua, always anxious to please. Dwight Yorke nodded in agreement. Dwight was sporting one of his champagne numbers, a suit of shimmering silver, having obviously rocked up to the Sky box straight from whatever night club that had the pleasure of his custom earlier that morning. He clearly hadn't had time to go home and change.

Quick flick to the BBC: Davis is down on a red and compiling a useful-looking break. But he jaws the red, looking for position on the blue. All his old buddies in the BBC commentary team are doing their best to conceal the fact that they're cheering him to the rafters. Willie Thorne groans as the red stays out of the pocket. Davis had played "a power shot for the blue" when all he had to do was play a screw-shot for the black. Blue, black, red; screw, spin, stun; the eternal agonies of the green baize.

While Dwight Yorke looks like he's auditioning for a role in Saturday Night Fever, Glenn Hoddle is dressed like a man about to sing a few psalms on Songs of Praise. The suit is sober, and the analysis is biblically prophetic. Hoddle is concerned about the Spurs defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

"Ekotto worries me a little bit," says Hoddle at half-time, "playing at right back he doesn't look comfortable and you feel as if there's a mistake gonna happen there that might hold the key to the game, unfortunately for Spurs."

Sure enough, 12 minutes into the second half Assou-Ekotto is turned inside out by an improbably determined run from Dimitar Berbatov. The languid Bulgarian drives into the penalty area, sucks in a couple of defenders and executes a backheel to the overlapping Patrice Evra. Tragically for Benoit, he has got back in time but his nerve is frayed -- he ploughs into Evra, Giggs converts the penalty. Wayne Rooney is injured and in his civvies, watching from behind the glass of a box high in the stand. He is on his feet, fists pumping when the ball hits the net.

United are buzzing now and even Berbatov, says commentator Ian Darke, "will be feeling better about life". But who knows if a mere backheel is enough to still the Berb's existential demons.

Then Tottenham equalise. Cut to Ferguson in his customary seat: grey summer suit (but not quite in

Yorkie's class), purple face, mouth pulverising a wad of gum. His expression is impassive. There are 20 minutes still to play and he knows that a United onslaught is coming.

They turn up the heat: Fletcher, Macheda, Nani -- a delightful chip and Old Trafford is in raptures. Five minutes later it's Nani driving into the penalty area again: Palacios is clumsy, Nani goes down, Giggs steps up again -- it's his 836th game in United red.

Davis won the last of his six world titles in 1989. He is 52 now; Higgins is the defending world champion. Davis has managed to keep him at bay for the entire game and is leading 12-11 when Higgins breaks down on a break of 42. Davis pulls off an audacious double on the brown and takes blue and pink to win the match. 'The Nugget' always had a granite nerve.

Terry and Lampard would've been better off watching Davis rather than United. But Ferguson had a reminder for them anyway, in his post-match comments. "The most important thing is we kept our nerve," he said, "[there was] no sign of nerves whatsoever." United are on top this morning, Chelsea play Stoke today: hint hint, nudge nudge.


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