Bill Bridge: Interesting few days for the 'beautiful game' was never going to last forever

WHAT a remarkable week for the football lark. Such has been the flow of good news the senses have hardly been able to keep pace.

Never in his lifetime has Sir Alex Ferguson in the space of a few hours, admitted he was wrong – in the case of his tirade against referee Alan Wiley – then agreed that one of his players, the deeply unlovable Gary Neville, had deserved to be sent off in the Carling Cup match at Oakwell.

Then there was a wonderful come-uppance for Real Madrid, whose season so far has hardly justified the investment and their latest, almost laughable, disappointment came when they suffered the most humiliating evening in the club's history.

Their 4-0 Cup defeat at the hands of Alcorcon, a club with just 300 season-ticket holders who would normally be hard pressed to give York City a game, came shortly after a stunning home defeat by AC Milan, who enjoy a slightly higher ranking than Alcorcon. The Bernabeu will not be home for long to manager Manuel Pellegrini.

While that was going on, we had the rare promise of something being done to halt the horrible habit which mars the game at every level – that of players spitting throughout the 90 minutes.

Sam Allardyce played the Swine Flu card when he complained that his Blackburn Rovers lads should not have been forced by the Premier League to play at Chelsea, where they surrendered 5-0, because they had several of their staff suffering from the virus.

His pleas fell on stony ground but did encourage one football-watching medic to come up with the suggestion that players should be punished for spitting – sending off being the obvious option – because the habit represents one way in which viruses like Swine Flu can be spread.

Then there were raised eye-brows on the banks of the Humber and Hull as Phil Brown, the soon-to-be former manager of the city's football club, told us how much his players were behind him. "One million per cent," he said, with that quixotic air which has made him such a favourite for scholars of football-speak.

The lads might be behind him, but the only thing in front of him is the door, held open by the returned Adam Pearson.

Finally came the refreshing news that at least one football club is not prepared to retain a player found guilty of serious crime. Wigan Athletic's chairman Dave Whelan did not hold back after striker Marlon King was jailed for 18 months.

"As far as we are concerned he is finished with football," said Whelan, who has obviously seen the light. Otherwise questions would have been asked as to why he had bought King, who had appeared before the beak over a dozen times previously, in the first place.

The worry now is that some club, somewhere, desperate for a goalscorer, will close their eyes to King's record and put him back on the pitch, regardless of the fact that football can do without such role models.

All in all, it was a week which encouraged the thought that all may not yet be lost for footy. Then normal service was resumed with Alan Shearer, the acknowledged master of stating the blindingly obvious, came out with a pearl after watching Liverpool lose at Fulham. He suggested that with five defeats already this season, the Reds' title hopes were over.

Such insight: why do the BBC pay him our money?

OCTOBER went out with a game of rugby which warmed the soul as in days of old yet deepened the trepidation as England's three autumn internationals beckon with the arrival of November.

To watch two teams attack each other with all the virtues of sidesteps, swerve and miss passes, a willing to take risks, a desire to move the ball at every opportunity and above all a determination to enjoy themselves on a glorious afternoon was to wallow in rugby as it should be played.

No matter that this match was at a level far removed from the Premiership, that no player on either side received so much as a penny for breaking sweat or that one side triumphed by just two points; the memory will stand us in good stead when what Simon Shaw so rightly called the "gym monkeys" get down to business at Twickenham on Saturday.

We will watch in the hope of seeing some adventure from England, a willingness perhaps to put the ball in the hands of the outside centre and let him try to beat his opponent.

We will hope for quick ball from scrum and ruck, clean possession from the lineout and an expression of intent from Jonny Wilkinson that England, despite the brooding presence of their manager Martin Johnson, are going to run the ball.

But we are resigned to an endless succession of tedious, ugly "phases" of hulk against bulk; to seeing the ball ping-pong from one side to the other in pointless kicking duels; to sympathy as the yeoman Steve Borthwick plays his heart out but still fails to impress as an England captain; yet we might, just, see England win simply because Australia are still far from being the force they will be come 2011.

The only positive thought as November dawned damp and the international roundabout was cranking up was that England, thankfully, do not have to face South Africa.

and another thing...

SAY what you like about Bernie Ecclestone – and a lot of people do – there is no doubting that the man is true to his word.

When those who aspired to make Donington the home of the British Grand Prix, starting next summer, failed to get the money together, Uncle Bernie pulled the plug, just as he said he would.

Now Silverstone is back in the debate, purists and petrol-heads alike muttering that the suggestion of a season without a race in this country is a treasonable offence. Bernie is sticking to his demand for a fee of around 11m, rising by the year while Damon Hill, the leader of the organisation which owns Silverstone, says they simply cannot afford it.

Silverstone's only source of income is the money charged to those who adore their annual weekend of whining engines, soggy campsites and rip-off burgers – and happily fork out over 100 apiece for the privilege. So the only way the 2010 British Grand prix will go ahead is for those who attend to pay even more. Bernie won't mind.

Sporting bygones:

Yorkshire players head west to establish Sale's credentials

FEW if any sports have undergone a change as dramatic as that which has transformed the landscape of English rugby in the past 15 years and nowhere has that redefinition had a bigger impact than in the North.

In the early Nineties the union game in the region was thriving, county rugby was still an ambition for many players and the dream of playing for the North against the touring New Zealanders and South Africans was the target. Play for the North, it was often argued, and the next stop was an England cap.

That did not always work out but reality did not stop players moving clubs if they thought they could make progress. In Yorkshire, young players would leave the club where they had started the game and join Wakefield, Headingley, Roundhay, Rotherham, Morley, Sheffield, Otley or Harrogate. Over the Pennines the magnets were Sale, Waterloo and Orrell with Broughton Park, Fylde, Liverpool-St Helens and Wilmslow offering alternatives.

Today the North has just three clubs in the Guinness Premiership and of those only Sale Sharks are competing in the Heineken Cup, the tournament regarded as the pinnacle of European rugby. What, many involved in Yorkshire rugby still ask themselves as they down a pint or so after their club's game on a Saturday, went wrong?

Wakefield went out of business while Headingley and Roundhay merged to become Leeds Tykes, now Leeds Carnegie and favourites everywhere bar their own dressing room and among their loyal supporters to continue their yo-yo existence between the top two tiers.

The remainder of Yorkshire's leading clubs tried valiantly to come to terms with the professionalisation of the game in 1995 and continue, at varying levels, to enjoy their rugby.

Of all the clubs in Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria, only Sale survive to compete at top level and the question to be asked is why Sale?

Seven of the Sale team which beat Morley 13-12 in a Courage Clubs' Championship Division Two match at Scatcherd Lane in November 1991 – four years before players could be paid – travelled from Yorkshire to train and play in Sale's blue-and-white.

They recognised that their chances of recognition were enhanced by playing for a club which was years ahead of its time. One of them, future Sale captain Martin Whitcombe, explains: "I went to Sale because Fran Cotton was there; he was an inspiration to all players, especially forwards.

"The club was ambitious and, through Fran, had developed a 'bible' of what players should be doing.

"Fran had contacted people in South Africa and New Zealand and asked them what they did in terms of diet, sleep, training, recovery periods and alcohol intake. He also had access to the methods used by Dougie Laughton, then coaching Widnes rugby league club.

"There was never any money flying round but Sale provided an immense amount of rugby knowledge in a highly-professional way.

"Their approach to the game appealed to players like Dave Baldwin and Steve Burnhill and others would follow – David Pears and Andy MacFarlane came down from Cumbria for example, Paul Turner joined us from Wales.

"There was an ambition to make Sale a centre of rugby excellence and they were helped by the fact that they were the pre-eminent club in their region, none of the junior clubs had ambitions to progress and their better players inevitably moved to Sale.

"Only Orrell of the Cheshire and Lancashire clubs could give us a game and when rugby union became professional they went down the wrong road.

"It really is unbelievable that that fixture does not exist any more."

It might well be that the vision of Fran Cotton, his England colleague Steve Smith and their colleagues at Heywood Road – Sale had not yet become the Sharks or moved to Edgeley Park – was the catalyst for the club's rise through the ranks of the English game.

The Yorkshire contingent of 1991 were succeeded by stars like Jason Robinson from Leeds and Charlie Hodgson from Halifax while the influence of Frenchmen like Philippe Saint-Andre and Sebastien Chabal shone through in recent seasons as Sale Sharks have, like the rest of the Premiership, scoured the world for talent.

They now field international stars like Anitelea Tuilagi, Dwayne Peel, Oriel Ripol and Andrew Sheridan to name just a few.

What began as an exciting experiment almost 20 years ago – an irritating experiment to those clubs who saw their best players take to the M62 – has perhaps answered the question which still rankles in Yorkshire rugby.

Then and now: What Sale's Yorkshire contingent did next

Richard Booth: His talent was apparent when he played scrum-half for Ampleforth and his move to Sale established him at the top level. He later moved to London and played for Rosslyn Park and England Under-21s.

Kevin Young: A hard-running centre or wing, Young later played for Keighley and is now a member of the club's coaching team.

Steve Burnhill: An England tourist of South Africa as a centre while at Loughborough, Burnhill joined Sale to play alongside fellow Cleckheaton-product John Bentley and was unlucky not to earn full international recognition. He is now helping behind the scenes at Cleckheaton.

Jim Mallender: After learning his rugby at Halifax, Mallender went to Roundhay then crossed the Pennines to Sale where his talent as a full-back earned him a place in the North side and on an England tour of Argentina. He is now head coach at Northampton.

Dave Baldwin: Came to the fore as a second-row forward with Bramley before joining Wakefield. He switched to Sale to further his ambitions to play for the North. After retiring, he coached Manchester and is now involved in French rugby.

Martin Whitcombe: Captained Sale for two seasons and later played for Leeds Tykes. Gained England B honours as a prop and also enjoyed his days with Leicester and the RAF. Now head coach at Skipton.

Adam Machell: First noticed as a hooker with Yorkshire Colts he became established as a prop at Headingley and Yorkshire. His gym in Leeds was once a focal point for rugby players of both codes and he is now a regular spectator at Wharfedale's home matches.