Archive for March, 2012

After two consecutive losses in League Two and a tough game at Crawley Town in the pipeline, Torquay United fans are hopeful that Martin Ling’s latest signing can prove to be the Gulls’ missing link.

Jarvis has joined on loan from League One club Walsall, but spent five years at Norwich City at the start of his career. There, he became both the Canaries youngest ever player and youngest goalscorer, netting his first goal in professional football in a 2-1 loss to Watford on 15 November 2003. Further success followed after Norwich’s promotion to the Premiership in 2004 allowed Jarvis the chance to play, and  score against Liverpool in January 2005. It was his first Premiership goal but it would also be his last, suffering the fate of a perennial loanee soon after. Less than three months after playing in Norwich’s 3-0 defeat at Villa Park on 15 January, Jarvis had joined Colchester United on loan and was competing against Doncaster in League One.

Norwich vs Liverpool

Jarvis' 20-yard strike against Liverpool has proved to be the high point of his career

That goal against the Reds would prove to be the high point of a career that has since seen Jarvis loaned to six clubs, only having permanent deals at Leyton Orient and Walsall since leaving Norwich. Although his career has seen him gradually drift down the leagues, success with Torquay in his brief spell could reignite a career that had such promise. His journeyman career is best illustrated by the fact that he has never scored more than ten league goals for any of the clubs he has played for.

Jarvis arrives at Torquay as an alternative to first-choice strikers Rene Howe and Taiwo Atieno. Although the Gulls have overachieved so far this season, even reaching the summit of the table for a brief period during the match against Bradford, their season is in danger of tailing off due to the lack of a proven and regular goalscorer. While Jarvis has not been prolific at any of his previous clubs, at Torquay he could be benefited by build-up play that has been praised for its intelligence and creativity, but has often lacked the finish.

Neither Howe nor Atieno has managed to reach double figures in the league this season, the Gulls instead relying on midfielders such as captain Lee Mansell and winger Danny Stevens to chip in with decisive goals. The fact that defenders Kevin Nicholson and Mark Ellis are respectively Torquay’s fourth and sixth top scorers this season highlights the need for more firepower.

Even during the seven-game winning streak that catapulted the Gulls to a secure play-off spot in February, many games were won 1-0. Victories by this margin were assured thanks to a strong defence, but since the departure of first-choice centre-back Chris Robertson to Preston, scoring one goal no longer appears to be enough to win games. This point was proved against Bradford. Torquay scored first, as usual, but were hampered by both a weakened defence and an inability to score more than one in a game, a feat which the Gulls last achieved on 21 January against Morecambe.

Manager Martin Ling may decide to use Jarvis as an impact sub to turn to when a game is getting away from them. Ling himself has admitted “when I’ve looked behind me to the bench in the last couple of games I’ve felt we needed another attacking option” and the increased competition for places in the attacking third may also bring the best out of the club’s other strikers. With young forwards Ashley Yeoman and Ray Spear loaned out early in the season, Atieno and Howe’s competition was almost non-existent, but the arrival of Jarvis will keep them on their toes.

Jarvis may face his first test away at Crawley today and could well prove himself up to the task of being Torquay’s much-needed goalscorer. Torquay fans certainly hope so.

The promotion of Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker to the prestigious position of England captain for the friendly against Holland provoked some debate amongst football fans.

Although some supported stand-in manager Stuart Pearce’s decision, many were angered to see that the captaincy had not been given to more illustrious, experienced players such as Steven Gerrard. Some questioned Pearce’s thinking behind the move – Parker only has 11 caps to his name, and in 2010-11 suffered the indignity of relegation from the top flight with West Ham United. Surely England, traditionally one of the world’s top international sides, were sending out a message of weakness by handing the captaincy to an apparently inferior player?

Actually, no. The move could prove to be a masterstroke for a number of reasons. While some use West Ham’s relegation, and Parker’s responsibility in their plight as their star player, as something to hold against him, it could actually improve his captaincy credentials.

How many of England’s recent captains (Beckham, Terry, Gerrard) have experienced the gritty, arguably more mentally demanding relegation battles that Parker has been through?

Parker also captained the Hammers in 2010-11, with team-mate Carlton Cole citing Parker’s “inspirational” team-talk as the main reason for United’s incredible comeback from 3-0 down at half-time to draw 3-3 with West Bromwich Albion in February 2011.

The fact that Parker has spent a lot of his career playing for less fashionable clubs such as Charlton, Norwich and West Ham (as opposed to the Man Utds and Arsenals) may also help to endear him to England fans, as will his never-say-die, in-their-faces approach to tackling and harrying the opposition.

When, against Holland, his England team-mates hesitated to risk committing to tackles early on in fear of being humiliated, Parker lead by example, throwing himself into two consecutive slide-tackles that generated a warm round of applause from the otherwise flat Wembley crowd.

Parker has also managed to remain free from scandal, more than can be said for some of England’s previous skippers. He appears quiet and dignified, but has the leadership skills to inspire those around him without needing to bawl abuse at them.

Some have written off Parker’s chances of retaining the role on the basis that, at the age of 31, he “cannot be expected to be a regular for much longer”.

However, his age could also work as an advantage. Parker’s experience at club level is vastly more than most of his team-mates in the Holland game and his international experience dates back to 2003 with the senior team, 1996 with the various youth sides.

Surely it makes more sense to hand Parker the armband than burden the young, inexperienced Welbeck, Smalling, Jones, Johnson, Richards or Gary Cahill with the responsibility of having to lead a team out when most of them are battling to impress on a personal level in the early stages of their respective international careers.

Why England as a country places so much emphasis on the identity of a captain is debatable. Other countries often give the armband to the most talented, famous or experienced player in the side, which is corroborated by Beckham’s receivership of the role in the early part of the 20th century. However, times have changed and Parker is a role model who’s faults, although present, do not include attitude.

Against Holland, Parker was twice crudely fouled by Dutch destroyer Nigel de Jong and twice got to his feet without complaint, refusing to be drawn into the silly handbags that ruin many matches. That is why Parker makes a good role model for aspiring footballers and why he should be given another chance at leading his country.

A dramatic West Country derby in the sunshine at Plainmoor ended in an entertaining draw thanks to Torquay’s late leveller. Bristol Rovers raced into a two goal lead before managing to squander their advantage to a determined Torquay late on.

This game had even more meaning than previous derbies. Manager Paul Buckle had left Torquay in the summer to join Rovers, raiding his old team for Chris Zebroski and Scott Bevan, and also signing former Gulls Mustapha Carayol and Craig Stanley. Buckle’s sacking in January took some of the sting out of the game, but Rovers were still keen to avenge a 2-1 loss to Torquay at the Memorial Stadium earlier in the season. Torquay, meanwhile, had a chance to gain ground on the likes of Southend and Cheltenham at the top of League 2.

The teams walk out at a buzzing Plainmoor

A great atmosphere set the scene for an entertaining match, with an impressive crowd of over 3,900 (Torquay’s third-highest this season) considering Plainmoor currently only has three stands in action. The hosts began in good fashion, and almost took the lead when a long ball from Kevin Nicholson picked out Howe, the matchwinner against Aldershot in Torquay’s previous game. Howe held off the Rovers defence and rounded Scott Bevan, but in doing so he had taken the ball too far wide and the chance was gone.

Damon Lathrope forced Bevan into a good save soon after, being teed up on the edge of the area by Danny Stevens. This shocked the Pirates into action, with Zebroski looking dangerous and Carayol warming Bobby Olejnik’s hands with a low drive just past the twenty-minute mark. Torquay were losing their stranglehold on the game and it soon got worse. Danny Stevens’ under-hit pass put Kevin Nicholson in danger, and a poor challenge by Carayol left the full-back writhing in pain. Despite his best attempts to carry on, Nicholson was clearly injured and had to be replaced by Lathaniel Rowe-Turner. The new man’s first action was almost to watch Rovers celebrate as Carayol again went close with a powerful effort.

The teams remained deadlocked until the very end of the half. Many fans had joined the half-time queues or turned away from the action when Matt Harrold ran from midfield and, unchallenged, let fly from range. The shot already looked to be troubling Olejnik when it took a fatal deflection of Lathrope, looping the ball over the Austrian. It was a cruel blow for United, who barely had time to kick-off before the interval, but they had failed to heed the warnings of Rovers’ increasingly dangerous attacks. The away fans were rightly elated and it looked as if Mark McGhee’s good start to the job was set to continue.

Rovers continued to dominate after the break, Carayol again threatening before a poor finish found the side-netting. Torquay failed to create chances, often resorting to hoofing the ball long to target-man Howe. Against weaker opposition this may have been effective but in centre-back Cian Bolger, Rovers had a behemoth of their own who dealt with most of the aerial threat. United’s failure to break their visitors down forced manager Martin Ling to replace Danny Stevens with loan signing Ryan Jarvis. Stevens had been rushed back from injury and may have not have fully recovered from an injury sustained in Torquay’s 1-0 win at Crawley a week prior to this game.

The change either inspired or coincided with a brief upturn in Yellow fortunes. Eunan O’Kane picked out Howe, who forced Bevan into a crucial save with a deflected cross that would otherwise have found Ian Morris.

But as is so often the case in football, United had not taken their chances and were about to punished. A Rovers clearance found Chris Zebroski who, on the counter-attack and isolated, seemed to pose little threat. However, Zebroski benefited from lenient defending from the hosts, being allowed to run half the length of the pitch unchallenged before rounding Mark Ellis and firing past Olejnik. It was an impressive run and finish from the former Torquay striker, but it showed that the Gulls had overcommitted in their desperation to draw level, leaving themselves open at the back. It was a poor goal to concede and the three points now looked to be in the bag for the Pirates.

Ling again turned to his bench, introducing Kenyan forward Taiwo Atieno in place of holding midfielder Damon Lathrope. It was a positive move and encouraged more attacking emphasis. Almost immediately afterwards, Howe’s scrambled shot was parried by Bevan. Home fans howled at the agony of another missed chance, but skipper Lee Mansell was on hand to fire in a rebound, while the giant Bevan again saved this effort Mansell managed to force the ball home at the second attempt. It was scrappy, but United didn’t care – they were back in the game.

The goal gave the hosts a new-found belief and they continued to pour men forward, again leaving themselves open to the inevitable counter-attack. When Rovers did manage to break away, on 81 minutes, Craig Stanley missed a golden opportunity to restore the two-goal lead, firing wide from a central position. McGhee may have been ruing his decision to withdraw Harrold, who would have almost certainly done better. Bizarrely, Harrold’s replacement, Joe Anyinsah, lasted just fifteen minutes before being replaced himself by Elliot Richards amid rumours of a rift between player and boss.

As United continued to press with no reward, Stanley could have been forgiven for thinking that his miss would be meaningless as Rovers looked to be holding on. Joe Oastler forced Bevan into his finest save yet with a powerful volley that looked destined for the top corner, but with just seconds remaining United were level.

Torquay players celebrate at the end of the game - their late comeback made the draw seem like a win

Eunan O’Kane picked the ball up on the half-way line and, in apparent desperation, launched a long ball into the box. Torquay fans groaned as O’Kane slipped in the process, but his hopeful punt found Howe and Mansell, who combined to lift the ball over Bevan and into the net. Torquay were ecstatic – two late goals had seen them come back from the dead, and despite a poor performance Plainmoor was rocking. There was some confusion over who had got the goal – the announcer proclaimed Howe to be the match-saviour, but Mansell was claiming it as his after the match. It was too late for Rovers to respond and the final whistle blew on a gripping but exhausting derby that saw plenty of drama.

Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson (Rowe-Turner 34), Mansell, Lathrope (Atieno 70), O’Kane, Morris, Stevens (Jarvis 59), Howe. Unused subs: Rice, MacDonald.

Bristol Rovers: Bevan, Woodards, Bolger, Parkes, Paterson, Stanley, Gill, Dorman, Carayol (Lund 70), Harrold (Anyinsah 76 (Richards  90), Zebroski. Unused subs: Macey, Hunter.

Attendance: 3,920.

It may have been scrappy, it may have been ugly, but Torquay fans will be delighted to have another three points in the bag after a tense encounter at Plainmoor.

Torquay came off the back of a surprise 1-0 win at Crawley Town but had lost their previous home match against Bradford, while Aldershot were the form team coming into this fixture on the back of a club record six consecutive wins in League Two.

However, it was the Gulls that began the brighter of the two teams, looking determined to end Aldershot’s winning streak. Within five minutes Damon Lathrope’s looping cross had picked out Rene Howe to score with a header, but his effort was disallowed for offside.

Aldershot failed to heed this warning and just seven minutes in Torquay took the lead with a legitimate goal. Winger Ryan Jarvis, making his full Torquay debut due to Danny Stevens’ injury, picked out Eunan O’Kane in space on the left hand side. With a chance to shoot but with Aldershot defenders bearing down on him, the former Everton midfielder showed great composure by risking the wrath of the crowd and playing a perfect slide pass to the onrushing Howe at the back post. This time the striker timed his run to perfection, and Torquay had something to defend.

The goal saw a shift in momentum as Torquay dropped deeper and allowed Aldershot to attack, missing the opportunity to grab a second goal that would have effectively killed the game off before the break. Aldershot inevitably began to test Bobby Olejnik in the Torquay goal, with Josh Payne coming closest to an equaliser with a swerving free-kick that forced Olejnik into a great flying save. However, Torquay held on relatively comfortably until half-time.

Aldershot began the second half the better of the two sides, winning 50-50 battles and penning Torquay into their own half, leaving Rene Howe an isolated figure up front. As the half wore on, play deteriorated into what resembled a game of one-bounce: an Aldershot attack would be repelled by a Mark Ellis header or a Brian Saah hoof, but the visitors would quickly return the ball into Torquay’s half, starting the whole process again. It was not football for the purists.

The poor standard of the football, particularly from Torquay, was brightened by the honest eagerness of Shots forward Guy Madjo to get back in to the game. Throughout the half Madjo insisted on grabbing the ball from behind the goal and returning it to Olejnik as soon as possible, making the Torquay ballboy redundant and predictably receiving abuse from the home support.

The substitutions made by each manager reflected their respective aims. Torquay boss Martin Ling replaced Howe, the lone striker for most of the evening, with defender Lathaniel Rowe-Turner, while Aldershot made the more offensive switch of Peter Vincenti for Adam Mekki.

Despite Madjo’s best efforts, Aldershot eventually ran out of time despite showing glimpses of quality that would have been enough to salvage a point in other matches. Olejnik had to make a couple of important catches from corners but was otherwise troubled, with centre-back pairing Ellis and Saah defending resolutely.

The full-time whistle was greeted with cheers by relieved Gulls fans, and despite the sometimes ugly football, Torquay had got the result they needed. Aldershot could still manage a late surge to the play-off places, but will undoubtedly be disappointed not to have gotten at least the point they probably deserved.

Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson, Jarvis (Atieno 71), Mansell, Lathrope, Morris (McPhee 90), O’Kane, Howe (Rowe-Turner 78). Subs not used: Rice, MacDonald.

Aldershot: Young, Herd, Jones, Morris, Bradley, Payne, Mekki (Vincenti 58), Murphy (Doughty 58), Straker, Hylton, Madjo (Risser 83). Subs not used: Smith, Clement.

Attendance: 2,277.

Followers of League Two football this season may have seen this result as something of a surprise – Torquay’s fans certainly did. The Gulls had embarked on an impressive winning streak that was expected to continue against a struggling Bradford side. Torquay fans had begun to get used to winning ways – a rarity at a small club. Although Bradford will always be seen as a club too big for League Two’s relegation battles, they have consistently underachieved in recent years.

Bradford had edged the sides’ previous encounter 1-0 in the sunshine at the Valley Parade, despite playing with ten men for a considerable chunk of the game. Dreadful weather preceded this game, provoking fears that the match would be postponed at short notice. Heavy rain pounded the Plainmoor turf just minutes before kick-off but thankfully the teams were able to emerge in slightly more welcoming conditions when they did run out.

Looking to avenge their loss at Valley Parade, Torquay began brightly, but failed to create any real chances in the first ten minutes. Bradford looked threatening, especially through ex-Premiership forward Craig Fagan, but it was the home side who opened the scoring in the 12th minute through diminutive winger Danny Stevens. The former Tottenham youth player began a move on the left hand side before drifting into a central position to carry the attack to Bradford. Eunan O’Kane’s cross from the right was not dealt with and Stevens produced a sublime early volley to catch Bradford’s Jon McLaughlin by surprise. News came through that other League 2 high-flyers had fallen behind, propelling Torquay to the top of the table for the first time in 2011-12. However, jubilation and apparent confidence of promotion in the Yellow ranks were soon gone.


Rather than allowing their heads to drop, in poor conditions away from home, Bradford took the game to Torquay, Andrew Davies’ free-kick narrowly topping Bobby Olejnik’s crossbar. Soon after the scores were level. Craig Fagan misfired but was on hand to fire past Olejnik after the ex-West Ham and England youth winger Kyel Reid launched the ball back into the box.

Torquay fans, lulled into a false sense of security by some strong home performances in recent months, saw Bradford’s equaliser as a momentary pause in Yellow dominance. How wrong they were. Far from parking the proverbial bus and defending a well-earned point, Bradford continued to attack. Their positivity was rewarded within three minutes of drawing level, Fagan turning provider after 20 minutes to tee up Reid for a thunderbolt, United were shell-shocked. They poured men forward in search of an equaliser before half-time but Bradford defended resolutely and remained a threat on the counter.

Torquay celebrate – but their joy didn’t last long

For all their efforts, Torquay could not penetrate the determined City defence on enough occasions in the second half. In a rare moment of excitement in what was a relatively uneventful second half, a Kevin Nicholson free-klck was thundered against the post by centre-back Mark Ellis. It was as close as Torquay came to an equaliser and Bradford heeded the warning, holding out well to clinch a vital three points.

Torquay can seek some consolation in the brief but positive cameo of young forward Ashley Yeoman, who replaced the tireless Chris McPhee late on. However, with both first-choice strikers Rene Howe and Taiwo Atieno failing to impress, some fans fear a loan signing is needed to keep the wheels on United’s promotion bandwagon turning. As for Bradford, a well-deserved win that hoists them out of relegation trouble – for now.

Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson, Mansell, McPhee (Yeoman 78), O’Kane, Morris, Stevens, Atieno (Howe 59). Subs not used: Rice, Rowe-Turner, MacDonald.

Bradford: McLaughlin, Ramsden, Oliver, Davies, Seip, Smalley (Syers 76), Flynn, Jones, Ravenhill, Reid (Atkinson 90), Craig Fagan (Wells 85). Subs not used: Duke, Kozluk.

Attendance: 2,556.

Clint Hill’s recent “goal that never was” against Bolton Wanderers has reignited debate on one of football’s biggest talking points – goal-line technology. The twenty-first century has already seen a number of incidents that advocate the introduction of such technology in as much as it would have allowed the incidents to be avoided.

Cast your minds back to 2005. It is January 4 at Old Trafford and Pedro Mendes’ speculative effort from 50 yards – with the game goalless and in its penultimate minute – clearly crosses the line. United’s Roy Carroll claws the ball out of the net and play continues, to the disbelief of Tottenham’s players and almost everyone watching. Everyone except the officials, that is. Referee Mark Clattenburg and assistant Rob Lewis are too far behind the play to be sure the ball crossed the line – understandable considering Mendes had shot from just past the half-way line.

Carroll spills the ball well over the line - but the officials were unable to award the goal

Spurs were robbed of two points and Mendes of what he later described as “a superb goal”. Ex-referees chief Keith Hackett was at Old Trafford that night and claimed he “felt sick about what happened”. Hackett was then inspired to advocate the introduction of goal-line technology, but he has still not achieved this aim.

This, although a freak incident, is not the only example of the human eye failing to detect a goal. 15 August 2009 saw another phantom goal, but in very different circumstances. Neil Warnock’s CrystalPalace are playing Bristol City when Freddie Sears’ close-range effort hits the back of the net andflies out again. City goalkeeper Dean Gerken kneels on the ground in dismay, while Sears wheels away in delight. However, the shot was in and out of the net so quickly, referee Rob Shoebridge is unable to detect a goal and to add to Palace’s outrage, City snatch a late winner and run out 1-0 victors.

Predictably, emotions ran high, with the controversial Warnock saying “We can put a man on the moon, time serves of 100 miles per hour at  Wimbledon, yet we cannot place a couple of sensors in a net to show when a goal has been scored”. Although his actions immediately after the incident – including making goggles with his hands in front of one of Shoebridge’s assistants – were over-the-top, he had a point. Many other sports use similar technology to great effect.

An irate Neil Warnock berates match officials after Freddie Sears' goal was disallowed

Showing their reluctance to answer fans, FIFA attempted to diffuse the situation by giving them an alternative solution, responding with the introduction of two extra officials in the 2009-10 Europa League to aid with deciding goals and penalties. While this helped to some extent, the problem was not fully solved – no matter how many assistants are watching play, there are always going to be incidents that evade them. That is why FIFA is behind the times and that is why goal-line technology is needed.

It should also be noted that not all incidents are unavoidable mistakes by referees. Take Paddy Connolly’s thumping effort from a corner for Dundee United against Partick Thistle in 1993. Dundee celebrate, a Thistle defender picks the ball up and hands it to his goalkeeper – but the ref waves play on. An honest mistake, but a ridiculous one.

Clint Hill’s disallowed goal for QPR on Saturday follows Frank Lampard’s lob against Germany at the 2010 World Cup. With England 2-1 down, Lampard’s shot clearly crossed the line, but as with Pedro Mendes, he suffered the agony of having a legitimate goal disallowed by unsure officials. England went on to lose 4-1, but had Lampard’s goal been allowed, the game could have had a different outcome.

Hill himself highlighted the agony of having a fair goal taken away when he lamented “That would have been my first Premier League goal, and I feel robbed. You try all your career for a moment like that, and I knew straight away it was in”. At 33, and with QPR battling relegation, Hill may never score in the top flight again. Although the officials are unable to avoid such incidents as they have to be sure to award a goal, it is scenarios such as these – and there are many more I could have mentioned – that make the decision to introduce goal-line technology a no-brainer.

Rohan Ricketts’ career may have taken a path away from the spotlight since the winger left Tottenham Hotspur in 2005 – but it has certainly been interesting. In the space of four years, Ricketts has played for six clubs in a staggering five countries.

Born in Clapham, south London, in 1982, Ricketts joined capital-based Arsenal in 1999, making his debut in a League Cup tie against Manchester United  in November 2001. This would be his only appearance for the club and a year later Ricketts became just the fourth footballer to leave the Gunners for Spurs, their fierce city rivals.

Although Ricketts enjoyed more playing time at Tottenham, making 30 league appearances in three years at White Hart Lane, he again failed to hold down a regular starting place, which is understandable for a young player at a big club. Loan spells at Coventry and Wolves followed, and in 2005 Spurs allowed Ricketts to move to the Molineux on a permanent basis.

The deal initially appeared to be a success, with Rickets playing regularly early on in his Wolves career, but once more he found himself out of favour and being shipped out on loan, this time to Queens Park Rangers. Released by Wolves in May 2007, Ricketts joined Championship side Barnsley, but a recurring theme was emerging. An unhappy spell yielded just 10 appearances before the winger was again released in April 2008.

Ricketts' career has seen him play in the Premiership as well as the German fourth division and in Moldova

Deciding his future lay abroad, Ricketts immediately signed for Toronto FC of the Major League Soccer in the US. Again, the spell began brightly – Ricketts scored four times in 27 games in his first season. However, the arrival of Dwayne DeRosario pushed Ricketts down the pecking order and his fate was sealed in June 2009 when Toronto released him to free up wages to allow for the signing of Ali Gerba. Toronto may well have been ruing their loss – Gerba would play just 11 times for the Reds, scoring one goal.

Ricketts could easily have called time on his world tour then, and he almost did. A return to the UK looked likely but at the last minute Aberdeen pulled out of a deal to sign him, citing budget constraints. Having been denied the chance to play in the SPL, Ricketts did what any sensible footballer would do – sign for catchily-named Hungarian side Diósgyőri Vasgyárak Testgyakorló Köre (or DTVK for short).

It was a move no-one, including Ricketts himself, would have predicted a few months before, and unsurprisingly the player seemed unable to settle in his new surroundings. Just one outing for DTVK’s first team was supplemented with a handful of reserve appearances before Ricketts wrote the next chapter in an interesting life story by joining Moldovan giants Dacia Chişinău in August 2010.

Predictably, his stay was again short – Ricketts played just four games in a three month spell. He announced his departure from the club on Talksport, expressing anger at Dacia’s reluctance to pay wages. Ricketts then travelled to Germany to take part in trials and in January 2011 joined SV Wilhelmshaven of the Regionalliga Nord, the German fourth division. A period of relative calm followed, but four months and 12 games later Ricketts announced a return to England was on the cards.

Trials at Southend and Stevenage showed the effects of Ricketts’ travels had impacted the standard of his footballing ability. He admitted his time at Stevenage was a “shock to his body” after spells at lower-league clubs and lower-rated leagues. However, with no concrete offers provided at either club, Ricketts set off for Irish champions Shamrock Rovers. The decision looked to be justified by the carrot of Europa League football which allowed him to play against former club Spurs in the group stage. However, Ricketts didn’t have time to reflect on his return to one of football’s biggest competitions – in January 2012 he was released by Shamrock and once more found himself without a club.

The midfielder is glad to be back in England with League One's Exeter City

A unique path back to English football was completed on 22nd March when Ricketts signed for League One strugglers Exeter City. A lot has changed since his last spell in England – when he left Barnsley in April 2008, Exeter were busy finishing fourth in the Conference. The Grecians even briefly threatened to grab promotion to the Championship but now they face a relegation dogfight in their attempts to avoid a return to League Two.

Ricketts was clearly pleased to be back in his home country, saying: “I’m just grateful for the opportunity because I’ve been playing away from England for four years so I’m relishing the chance to get back in.”

His career has been eventful and varied and Ricketts should have plenty to write and talk about should he choose to continue a burgeoning media career after retirement. Saving Exeter from relegation, however, is his primary aim, and he knows it won’t be easy: “I’ve won FA Youth Cups back-to-back, I’ve won a league in Ireland, I’ve been involved in FA Cup ties, but for me this would be major because it’s all against us in terms of points”.

No matter who you support, you have to hope he manages it.

Who? Exactly. Palau are one of a number of tiny islands whose football teams have been out of action for over a decade. Located in the Pacific Ocean with a population of just 20,000, Palau is never going to be a football superpower, even in FIFA’s weaker confederations.

Football on the island began in March of 1987 when a Palau side competed in the Oceania Club Championship. Unsurprisingly, Palau were knocked out by Vanuatu in the competition’s first round, losing 6-2, but this should have been an important stepping stone in making Palau’s team competitive against their equally minute rivals.

However, the country’s football fanatics (all 3 of them) had to wait until July 1998 for Palau’s next match. The delay between games may have been disappointing but the result certainly wasn’t – Palau registered their first ever win with a 7-1 thumping of Pohnpei, a side that has been coached by Englishman Paul Watson in recent years. The success continued in the next match with another 7-1 victory, against another Micronesian state. Both of these wins came at the 1998 Micronesian Games held in Palau, but even home advantage wasn’t enough to help the side claim the comparatively large scalps of Guam and Northern Marianas Islands in August 1998.

Palau were thrashed 15-2 by Guam and 12-1 by Northern Marianas Islands. Considering Guam themselves were annihilated 21-0 by North Korea in 2005, Palau still had a long way to go, but the future looked bright as long as regular, competitive matches against similar opposition were set up.

Unfortunately, this never happened. That miserable 12-1 loss to Northern Marianas Islands on 2 August 1998 remains Palau’s most recent international fixture. As the 20th century drew to a close progress appeared to have stagnated and football seemed to be in decline on the island.


The "Competition Calendar" section of the Palau FA's website is comically free of dates

However, hope was offered by the formation of the Palau Soccer League in 2004. The first edition was won by Daewoo Ngatpang who defeated Mount Everest Nepal in the final. Other countries had showed that creating a national league could be a vital step in forming a competitive national side; Paul Watson formed his Pohnpeian team from the National League’s best players, and this is something that could have been copied in Palau.

Again, however, this failed to materialize. While the league continued to provide hope for the standard of football on the island, with annual tournaments starting to be set up, the most recent championship was in 2007 and the league now appears to have been disbanded. The fact that the most recent winners were Team Bangladesh suggests that foreigners were more enthusiastic than the locals, and now that Palau no longer has any evidence of football being played places huge doubt on the chances of the island ever playing an international match again.

Incredibly, 2009 saw the East Asian Football Federation announce that they had received a request from Palau to become a “quasi-member” of the association, once more providing hope for a seemingly lost cause. But without a league and having last played over a decade ago, you could be forgiven for thinking Palau’s application may not be immediately accepted. That seems to be the case – with no further developments on the request, Palau will continue to drift further and further away from their next international game until something changes.

One bright spot is the Palau Football Association’s work to give youngsters the chance to play the game. Although the PFA website invites mockery by boasting that it reaches the rather modest sum of “approximately 200 youth per year through school and after school activities” any attempt to improve matters can only be seen as positive. Woefully short of funds, the PFA relies on “a handful of parents/coaches” to keep football going. It appears that an unlikely invitation to join the EAFF is Palau’s only hope – and although youth coaching is promising, an adult league and team is needed for this to happen.

With the right structure and leadership, Palau could have been on a par with countries such as Guam and Northern Marianas Islands, but no-one has taken control of football on the island, allowing facilities and enthusiasm to gradually rot away. It could have all been so different.

Since its formation in 2006, the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League has been hugely dominated by one team – PRK Hekari United. The side has won all five previous championships, and look to be on course for number six. Try as they might, the rest of the league simply cannot stop the Port Moresby-based club from strolling to victory.

This dominance is party due to Hekari’s superior squad, which boasts multiple internationals from Fiji and the Solomon Islands as well as PNG. Midfielder Pita Baleitoga has captained Fiji, experienced defender Taniela Waqa has been capped 32 times by the same country and Andrew Lepani, another midfielder, has a record of almost a goal every other game for Papua New Guinea. In short, Hekari have the best of both worlds, employing top players from at home and abroad.


Hekari United remain the country's team to beat

Chief among the clubs challenging Hekari for the NSL crown is Eastern Stars FC. Only joining the league in 2008, the side has quickly emerged as Hekari’s main threat, finishing as runners-up in 2010-11. Stars are also able to boast several Papua New Guinea internationals, such as club captain Cyril Muta and midfielder Michael Foster, as well as Solomon Islanders Timothy Joe and Karol Kakate. Despite what has been an impressive start to life for the club, the gap between Hekari and the rest of the league is best highlighted by the fact that despite currently lying in second place, Eastern Stars trail Hekari by 8 points – and Hekari have a game in hand.

Similarly, Hekari’s points total alone is more than that of league strugglers Petro Souths, Tukoko University and Bulolo United combined.   Thankfully, results when the also-rans meet have been more varied: Petro Souths were annihilated 7-0 by Eastern Stars on the opening day, but won two of their next three games and have since claimed the scalp of third-placed PNG United. Bottom club Bulolo United were comfortably beaten by mid-table outfit Gigira Laitepo and even lost 3-0 to Tukoko, a side just one point better off. The fact that they then not only held but fully matched Eastern Stars away from home in a 0-0 draw shows just how open and unpredictable the rest of the league is.

The NSL's success has increased the standard of football in Papua New Guinea

It may be several years before other clubs reach a position where they are able to challenge Hekari for silverware, but it is clear that the quality of the National Soccer League is improving each year. Five years ago it would have been unlikely that players from abroad would even consider moving to a Papuan club. The Fijian and Solomon leagues have traditionally held up better against teams from New Zealand in the OFC Champions League, but the tide may be turning.

The league is also managing to tempt Papua New Guinean players back to their homeland. Nathaniel Lepani left the country in 2002 to join college side Menlo Oaks in the USA, before joining Brisbane City in Australia. Lepani returned to PNG in 2009 and has re-made a name for himself with Eastern Stars and Gigiria Laitepo.

While the National Soccer League may look unappealingly one-sided from the outside, the truth is that football in Papua New Guinea is on the up. It may not be long before Brazilian and African imports begin to further improve the quality of the league, and although Hekari’s dominance is clear to see, the open nature and unpredictability of the majority of fixtures makes this championship one worth keeping an eye on.

Published in 2004, GTA San Andreas quickly became a huge favourite with fans of the Grand Theft Auto series. It has since been succeeded, firstly on the Playstation 2 by Liberty City Stories, and more recently on the Playstation 3 by GTA IV. With the superior graphics and many enhancements of these next-gen games, surely GTA San Andreas has been surpassed for quality and entertainment?

Actually, no. San Andreas was the first GTA I played and despite having played numerous other installments in the series, I still believe it has not yet been beaten by its younger brothers. The game boasted an expansive map – too big, in fact, to allow a PSP remake to be made – that spanned covers of three cities: Los Santos (L.A.), San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). 

Like most GTA games, the storyline was compelling, the characters fascinating and varied, and the game life huge. But what sets San Andreas apart is its ability to stand the test of time. So many other games, be it GTA or not, have little replay value or look and feel dreadful after the rich graphics and gameplay we have become accustomed to on the PS3 or Xbox. 

Playing it again now, the graphics are admittedly a poor relative of their fourth-gen cousins, but for content, quality, variety and entertainment, I believe San Andreas equals or even surpasses GTA 4. San Andreas has the ability to cater for both casual and hardcore gamer – it has masses of missions and sub-plots to complete for the serious players, but those simply seeking enjoyment can do as they wish, driving,walking, swimming, flying or cycling in a bigger variety of surroundings than GTA 4 can offer. 


San Andreas' desert seemed to be never-ending

One of my favourite aspects of San Andreas was the inclusion of remote, tiny towns and settlements on the long roads connecting the three main cities. The area around Las Venturas contained numerous small villages with little going on and seemingly little purpose, but this is where the adventurous gamer thrived. For a long time after buying the game, I could drive through the countryside or desert and have no idea where I was going or where the roads ended up. That is a quality that GTA 4 seems to lack. 

Another inclusion that was overlooked in 2008 was the main character’s “homies”. San Andreas had Carl Johnson, the protagonist, surrounded by fellow Grove Street gang members. Furthermore, other areas of Los Santos were owned by rival gangs, who would shoot on sight at unwelcome visitors. This added an extra element of unpredictability as you never knew what to expect upon entering another gang’s territory. Admittedly, this element would have been harder to apply in the modern setting of New York for GTA 4, but a similar idea could have been implemented to make missions more interesting or add something else to do after completing the game.

Of course, GTA 4 has its advantages over San Andreas: hugely improved graphics and online play spring to mind. However, San Andreas had that pick-up-and-play feel that I don’t think has been replicated. The controls were simpler, the storyline more accessible and interesting, the missions more varied and the setting more engrossing. That is why GTA San Andreas is the best GTA yet and why GTA V, set only in Los Santos as opposed to all three cities – will also struggle to better this classic videogame.