Bill Bridge: Hatton should be told that return to the ring is probably not a good idea

ONE of the great problems of being a star (or so it appears from this distance) is that you inevitably find yourself surrounded by people who accept every word you utter as gospel, who support everything you do as though the world depended on it and who would defend you to the last drop of your blood.

Boxers and bullfighters are particularly prone to attracting this kind of hanger-on – we need look no further than Muhammad Ali, the greatest of them all, for evidence of that – and it seems Ricky Hatton has more than his share.

They will have nodded and unanimously agreed with their man when he wrestled with the same question which proved beyond the reason of Ali and so many others: should I take just one more fight, one more bull?

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In some ways Hatton is in a better position that Ali in that he still has most of the estimated 30m he made from fighting. He still has his senses – not least his sense of humour – and is young enough to enjoy whatever career beckons in the last two thirds of his life.

But he could not resist – and obviously was not persuaded to resist – the temptation of a comeback, just one more fight, to try and end his career on a high.

He and his advisers have chosen to ignore the brutal finality of his last appearance in the ring for real, when he was left prone and oblivious on the Las Vegas canvas by Manny Pacquiao. There were many at ringside that night who feared for Hatton's life in those sickening moments before he was revived.

Now, at 32, somewhere in the region of 35lbs over his fighting weight, with a string of gruelling encounters behind him and not having done any physical work for nine months, he has announced he wants to "finish at the top".

If there was any compassion in his cruel business the British Boxing Board of Control would strip him of his licence for his own good but, provided he passes the necessary medical, they can't.

And the worst thing about the whole business is that we will be unable to look away, we will be hypnotised by the sight of a brave but foolhardy man doing something which could end in tragedy, all for a little thing called ego.

We, like Hatton and his hangers-on, will, if only for a few minutes, forget the words of men like Barry McGuigan, Joe Calzaghe and Frank Warren, who have all pleaded with Hatton not to go back into the ring.

It will be wrong but it will be utterly compelling.

AS Chelsea and Manchester United hasten to put their financial affairs in order, in the hope of pre-empting action by Michel Platini and UEFA to bar from the Champions League clubs whose accounts carry ludicrous mountains of debt, a deadening reality landed on the doormats of the Old Trafford faithful.

The Reds have not had the best of seasons, what with Carlos Tevez showing them what they have missed by turning in stellar performances for Manchester City and their own side falling well below the standards they have come to expect over recent seasons.

True they have been able to gloat over the fall from grace of their greatest rivals, lamentable Liverpool, and they may shortly have the chance to celebrate the arrival of Steven Gerrard among the Old Trafford ranks should the decline at Anfield lead to disillusion among the clubs few remaining stars.

Just think what Gerrard and – while they are dreaming – Fernando Torres would add to Sir Alex's armoury.

But that possibility underlines the reality of United's financial mire. They still have in the bank the money they raised from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo and you would expect the few million on top of that to buy Anfield's finest would not be an issue for a club like United.

But you would be wrong. The dossier published by the Glazier family last week, aimed at persuading financial institutions to take up United's 500m bond issue which itself is meant to reduce the staggering debts threatening to put the club in Platini's firing line, provided a clear signal of just how much trouble United are in.

In laying out the prospectus for potential investors in a business which makes millions but falls ever deeper into debt as it does so, the Glaziers admitted that it might be necessary for the club to sell their training ground at Carrington and – blasphemy itself – even Old Trafford might have to go to raise money.

They would ensure that they had the right to lease back their facilities but their forfeiture of the freehold would leave them open to frequent rent rises and deprive them of the option of further developing the capacity of the stadium. They would be lodgers.

Such is the state of what should be the richest club in the English game, given that they can sell-out a 75,797-seater stadium for every home game.

The Glaziers will, doubtless, raise their money and Platini will be placated as the club's debut mountain is reduced but that will do nothing to change the way United are gambling, not just on their land and their future, but on their traditions and the emotions of those 75,000 or so who go to every home game... not forgetting the millions of arm-chair fans, for whom Manchester United is much more than a commodity to be sold like a side of pork.

and another thing...

WHETHER or not his mistake in not turning up the sound to judge on England's crucial appeal against Graeme Smith during the final Test in South Africa brings an end to Daryl Harper's umpiring career is neither here nor there.

There are many who argue that the ICC's first mistake was having Harper anywhere near a white coat – at least in a cricketing sense – in the first place but his blunder was the stuff of nightmares.

Yet he should not be the only one suffering. The real fault lies with the ICC themselves who have forced on the game a system which is fatally flawed. It has been argued here before that only when the full range of technology is available at every Test will the referral system have the slightest chance of working.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation cannot afford the 5m cost of having the heat technology kit so the series was left open to the very thing the ICC are so keen to avoid – the possibility of human error by officials.

Far better for the ICC to buy the equipment or, why not ask Uncle Rupert?

Recalling heady days when the World Cup finalists made a trip down the Avenue

FOR the first time in years, the long-suffering faithful on the "wrong" side of Bradford are smiling and will happily tell anyone interested that there are once again two football clubs in the city.

For evidence we should not look at the Coca-Cola League tables, not at the Blue Square League, not even at the latter's North section but just one more step down the ladder – at the Unibond Premier League rankings – and there, well in among the promotion challengers, are Bradford Park Avenue.

A brilliant sequence of results in the run-up to Christmas lifted Avenue, who play their home fixtures at Horsfall Stadium, from nowhere into contention for elevation to the Blue Square League with its access to the Football League itself and underlined the ambition of chief executive Robert Blackburn to see them regain what half of Bradford regard as their rightful place in the English game.

Blackburn and manager John Deacey accept that the dream is still exactly that but these are heady days for those who have stuck with Park Avenue since the dark days of 1970 when they were voted out of the League and replaced by Cambridge United.

That was ignominy indeed for a club which included Len Shackleton, perhaps the best footballer Yorkshire has produced, among its alumni.

Even those brought up in Bradford City country could accept certain aspects of Avenue's superiority over the years before their fateful decline. The ground, for a start, was much better than Valley Parade and the pitch was as good as any – better than most – in the lower reaches of the League.

They had played at Second Division level much more recently than City – that until their neighbours' brief flourish which eventually took them into the Premier League before they swiftly returned to more familiar surrounds – and they had a sense of adventure which, for those who plodded to Valley Parade without much hope week after week (and still do), was from a different world.

City, for example, would never have gone ahead with an apparently mad-cap idea which eventually gripped Bradford in the winter of 1961-62. Avenue, forward-thinking as ever, had decided to follow the trend for floodlights and searched for out-of-the-ordinary opponents who would play a midweek match which would bring in a decent crowd to help offset the cost of the lights.

By coincidence, Czechoslovakia's national team had qualified for the 1962 World Cup finals in far-away Chile but their national association did not have the funds to make the journey and their government, restricted by the iron fist of the Soviet Union, dare not venture into the foreign currency market to help.

So the Czechs, with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous, decided to leave Prague six months early and head for Chile, paying their way as they went by playing against anyone who would give them a fixture – with the necessary appearance fee and share of the gate.

They played through Europe, sailed to Canada and worked their way – literally – through the United States, into Mexico and thence South America before arriving in Chile.

There they were so well settled as a team and had such a wonderful spirit, borne of their travels and travails, that they amazed everyone bar themselves by reaching the final, in which they were beaten 3-1 by Brazil after being level 1-1 at the break.

To watch on TV the same players who had entertained us on a freezing night at Bradford Park Avenue was a thrill which has never been repeated. Even now, the names come back: Schroiff, Pluskal, Popluhar, Masopust, Pospichal and the aptly-named Jelinek. To think that they went from Bradford to face Gilmar, Garrincha, Didi, Vava, Amarildo and Zagalo was – and is – remarkable.

Sadly for Park Avenue and their supporters, the club's angle of decline became vertiginous as the Sixties unfolded. The arrival as player-manager of Jimmy Scoular, a legend with Portsmouth and Newcastle United, in 1960 had prompted a brief flurry of excitement and brought promotion to the Third Division in 1961 but Avenue were back in the bottom tier at the end of the 1962-63 season and decline appeared terminal when they lost their place in the traditional 92-club elite.

They dropped into the Northern Premier League and had to sell their ground which was already, like the adjacent cricket arena, under siege from vandals. Thanks largely to a group of volunteers headed by the redoubtable Bob Appleyard, there is still cricket being played on the old ground just off Horton Park Avenue but football has gone forever.

Avenue went into liquidation in 1974 and, on being reformed by zealots who refused to bow to the inevitable, began their new existence as a Sunday league club; the road back appeared permanently blocked.

The club which had given the game players like Ron Greenwood, Chick Farr, Derek Hawksworth and Jack Crayston in father's time and, of more recent memory, Ian Gibson and the brilliant Kevin Hector who, ironically, made his two England appearances in the year Avenue went into liquidation, was gone.

After Scoular's departure in 1964, managers came and went with the seasons. Frank Tomlinson, who figures in our picture from 1970, apparently did not stay long enough to earn a place in the list of managers shown on the club's website.

Others, including Jack Rowley, Laurie Brown, Tony Leighton, Gordon Rayner, Trevor Storton, Carl Shutt and Lee Sinnott, all men of fine football pedigree, tried in vain to rebuild the dream but now there is a new gleam in the eye of those who follow "the Avenue".

It is too soon to say the wilderness days are over, but at last the signs are pointing the right way.